I had the privilege of a front row seat in a recent online spat between two atheists, writer Jeremy Stangroom and philosopher Russell Blackford. Naturally, it was over a DBAD matter, with Stangroom throwing the first punch by accusing Blackford of hypocrisy in a blog post. Stangroom thought it rather rich for Blackford to proudly declare that he plays nice with those he disagrees with, when evidently Blackford was not quite so averse to the odd snarky comment or three. In response to Stangroom’s post, Blackford writes:
Apparently [Stangroom] was unable to construe my post in its entirety and get the little joke I made about how I'd deliberately give people like him something to complain about near the end in an otherwise-civil post.
At first I thought Blackford was being evasive here, since he didn’t address the fact that he did write those things that Stangroom said he did, and I let him know this in a comment on his post. Blackford replied by clarifying his position on the use of snark:
Yes, of course we all indulge in the occasional bit of snark on our respective blogs (where we're mainly talking to our respective friends and allies). Of course we all sound off at times. We all express annoyance or stronger emotions. I'm never going to claim to be whiter than white in that regard.
But the fact remains that Gnu Atheists as a group are no snarkier than any other group of people, even when they're talking to each other on the internet, and they are often less so.
This is a fair statement. Stangroom’s accusation unfairly presumes a holier-than-thou attitude on Blackford’s part. Does the occasional biting word or impolite outburst make Blackford less than a saint? Sure. A hypocrite? Hardly.
Stangroom gets in another blow in this fight, but his refusal to allow comments on his Blackford posts tarnishes his image as someone with intellectual integrity. By denying people, especially the target of his attacks, the chance to argue their case on his blog, Stangroom comes across as a coward who’s afraid of letting others challenge his views lest they make valid criticisms or cogent points. And this guy has the temerity to question Blackford’s ethics!
Fellow atheists Jerry Coyne and Ophelia Benson jump into the fray with their own takes on DBAD. Both are known for taking off the gloves in anti-religion arguments when they deem it appropriate. As an evolutionary biologist, Coyne in particular has little patience for accommodationist views – the belief that science and religion can be reconciled and need not necessarily be at odds with each other. Along with another passionate – some may say ‘cantankerous’ – atheist, the biology professor and blogger PZ Myers (who runs the popular science blog ‘Pharyngula’), Coyne, Benson and other ‘Gnu Atheists’ are considered to be at the ‘meaner’ end of the attitude spectrum.
I think that accusations of atheist nastiness tend to be overblown. What people get all hot and bothered about is the mere fact that some atheists don’t mince their words when it comes to denouncing religion and unreason in general. In my experience, atheists don’t go out of their way to rhetorically bludgeon religionists, then spit on their twitching bodies for good measure. What does happen a lot is that believers get upset and cry foul simply because nonbelievers are so mean as to point out the falsehoods, inconsistencies, errors in reasoning and pernicious ideas common to religion. Atheists are called ‘uncivil’ and ‘mean’ when all they’re really being is intellectually honest. And blunt.
The common refrain of ‘nice’ atheists goes like this: being uncivil has a deleterious effect on one's attempts to persuade people of the validity of atheist arguments. If you’re rude, people aren’t going to like you. And if they don’t like you, they’re not going to listen to – much less consider – what you have to say, no matter how correct you are. But there are three problems with this line of reasoning:
- There is no conclusive evidence suggesting that ‘nice’ methods are more effective than ‘nasty’ ones in persuading people to accept reason and facts. If someone is committed to believing in sky fairies, imaginary friends and New Age woo (often because their self-identity is bound up with such beliefs), odds are no amount of rational discourse, with or without snark, will make them change their mind.
- ‘Nice’ atheists assume that ‘nasty’ atheists are exclusively trying to convert the people they are directing their criticism and/or mockery at. This isn’t always the case. As Richard Dawkins put it, quite often the purpose of atheist criticism, snark and ridicule isn’t to convince their (usually stubborn) targets that they’re wrong, but to influence third party bystanders and fence-sitters listening in on the discussion. Irrational people may remain irrational, but there are a lot of undecided folks out there just waiting for a brutal yet cogent argument to win them over to rationality.
- Another assumption underlying the DBAD premise is that snark, mockery and ridicule are never justified. Iris Vander Pluym disagrees. In the context of American ultra-partisan politics (but applicable to the atheism-vs-religion debate), Vander Pluym’s essay spells out why it’s not just ok, but actually necessary, to mock those who say, write and believe patently ridiculous things. It’s not just sensitive egos at stake here. Mockery matters.
It seems a waste of time and energy for ostensibly fellow travelers on the road of reason to police each other’s level of civility in anti-religion arguments. Those like Coyne, Benson and Blackford who have been called ‘uncivil’ by their fellow atheists believe that they’re being told to just shut up. It’s easy to see why they think that when their critics, like Jean Kazez, write stuff like this:
[T]he point is that there’s nothing remotely scandalous about saying that the public square is the wrong place to promote atheism/objective morality incompatibility. Likewise, I don’t see much point in discussing religion/science incompatibility in the public square.
Kazez may not be explicitly calling for atheist self-censorship, but the fact that she questions the benefit of public debate over religion, science and unbelief suggests a certain amount of pessimism on her part (what’s the point of public argument, people aren’t gonna change their minds anyway). Perhaps Kazez thinks it’s a Sisyphean endeavour. But that doesn’t mean she gets to self-righteously wag her finger at those who choose to engage in public advocacy and discussion. Even if some toes will be stepped on.
In any case, the hysteria over atheist activism is a little puzzling. Considering that religious extremism is far more prevalent and destructive than ‘aggressive’ atheism, the level of acrimony aimed at outspoken atheists is disproportionate to the threat they pose. The cartoon below illustrates this absurdity.
Personally, I think the image of a militant atheist should show him at a podium giving a speech, or at an anti-religion book signing, but the point of the cartoon still stands: so-called militant atheists are nowhere near as violent and oppressive as militant religionists. Prominent atheists like Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris are called ‘strident’ and ‘aggressive’ for simply stating the obvious (“Religion contains lies and poor reasoning”, “Religion is divisive and regressive”, “Religion is essentially anti-liberal and anti-progress”) in straightforward ‘call-a-spade-a-spade’ terms. And if they occasionally get a little testy and (gasp!) use strong language, rather than this being something to hold against them, one would think that it demonstrates their humanity. Let’s face it, there’s only so much anti-intellectual, anti-scientific, anti-liberal nonsense a person can take before he feels compelled to call those spouting the stuff ‘idiots’.
I guess the take-home from all of this is that if you don’t want your beliefs to be criticized, mocked or ridiculed, you have two (non-violent) options:
- Remove yourself from society. That way you won’t have to put up with all those nasty people who not only disagree with your views, but are so mean as to tell it to your face sans sugercoating.
- Consider abandoning your beliefs if upon serious reflection you realize how absurd they are, and why they’re being legitimately criticized, mocked and ridiculed in the first place.