23 February 2011

Oh, those nasty atheists!

There’s a civil war raging in the atheist realm. Supposed comrades in godlessness are caught up in what’s come to be known as the DBAD (‘don’t be a dick’) issue. This in-house bickering has probably been going on ever since the first godless heathen bluntly dissed religion and its followers, then got scolded by the less confrontational heathens for being ‘uncivil’. But a turning point of sorts occurred when Phil Plait gave his controversial ‘Don’t Be A Dick’ speech at The Amazing Meeting 8 last July. Aside from giving the phenomena its name, Plait’s speech brought to light the essential divisive point among atheists: should incivility and snark be accepted as tools (weapons?) in the culture wars between religion and faithlessness?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. ‘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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.



  1. A good post that seems* to summarize this intramural spat pretty well. I especially love your ending.

    Thanks. (Found this via Ophelia Benson tweet.)

    *(I haven't been following every little item on the topic, so my judgment isn't the most well informed).

  2. Didn't Wil Wheaton start the whole "don't be a dick" thing at PAX a few years ago? I'm not intentionally trying to derail here, but every time I read DBAD instead of Wheaton's Law in the post, I got sidetracked thinking about it. Sorry, I'm a little more ADD today than usual.

  3. Part of this "debate" is certainly cultural. Analytic philosophers and scientists come from a culture that values criticism, even snarky criticism. Analytic philosophers in particular can be brutal to each other in the colloquium or seminar room. But when it's over they go get a beer, because being brutally critical is what you do if you want to find the truth. For theologians, people in the general humanities, and much of the public at large, it seems uncivil, but to analytic philosophers much of the "civility" seems like backslapping, hand-holding and lack of critical examination.

  4. Welcome to the Dick Side of the Force, Darrick. (Everyone will know which side you are on because you used "imaginary friend" without quotation marks.)

  5. Hey, you have less comments than me ! Wanna swap blogroll links ?
    I think you have it about right in your post, although you trivialise the accomodationist position a bit IMO. They are worse, and more detrimental to the cause, then you make them out to be.

  6. Goodness, when it rains it pours!

    Steplor, thank you. Did you mean that the esteemed Ms Benson tweeted this post? Cos if she did, that's one delightful shout-out. Now if only PZ Myers comments on this blog, I'd die a happy man.

    Ivy, my first encounter with the inter-atheist quarrel was via this post by Daniel Loxton on Skepticblog. Will read up on Wheaton's Law though. Thanks for the info. And I forgive you your sidetracking. But just this once. ;)

    Anonymous, that may be the case, but in the Stangroom-vs-New-Atheists melodrama, the kind of muckraking we're seeing from Stangroom seems petty, irrelevant (he's got to go back years to find stuff to smear the Gnus with), unfair and, to use a Stangroom term, not classy at all. I don't think I'm the only one who feels that Stangroom comes out of this looking rather ignoble, what with the cheap shots and denying responses to his posts attacking Blackford.

    Hamilton, as a determinist, I couldn't choose not to join the Dick Side. I blame my progenitors.

    Rorschach, I'm as anti-accommodationist as Jerry Coyne, Sam Harris and co. The only excuse I have for appearing to go easy on the accommos is that I haven't fully turned to the Dick Side. There is still 'nice' in me.

  7. Part of the problem with "we must be polite" claim is also that "being polite" is also taken (sometimes) to include don't say or do anything that might offend anybody anywhere. This is ridiculous; *anything* can in principle cause offense - look, I've just done it again by calling the position ridiculous! It is debatable whether snark and such is useful in whatever goals, but it certainly can't useful to have people simply keep quiet. So what does one do?

  8. I’m working on a “Falsification Diagnosis of Meaning”. If that sounds like an over ambitious and ultimately foolish attempt to reconcile Popper’s Criterion of Demarcation with the Verification Criterion of Meaning it may well turn out that way.

    But there’s enough in it to help with this “tone” debate, hopefully be getting rid of it.
    We can tell a lot about a statement by what would make it false. “Everton beat Sunderland 2:0 yesterday” would be false if
    1. “Everton didn’t play Sunderland yesterday” or
    2. “Everton didn’t score any goals yesterday” or
    3. “Sunderland scored as many goals as Everton”
    were true. However
    1* “Beer is made from grapes”,
    2*“Plank’s constant is 3” or
    3* “God exists”
    would not render “Everton beat Sunderland 2:0 yesterday” false.
    1, 2 and 3 are statements about football, 1*, 2* and 3* are not. As “Everton beat Sunderland 2:0 yesterday” can be rendered false by statements about football we can tell that “Everton beat Sunderland 2:0 yesterday” is a statement about football. Conversely as “Everton beat Sunderland 2:0 yesterday” is not about beer, cosmology or metaphysics the truth value of 1*, 2* or 3* cannot render ““Everton beat Sunderland 2:0 yesterday” false.
    We can diagnose the x-meaning of a statement by means x-type statements that would render it false.
    The falsity is important. I can always list non-football statements that are entirely compatible with “Everton beat Sunderland 2:0 yesterday” in answer to any enquiry about meaning. “What does “Everton beat Sunderland 2:0 yesterday” mean?”, “well it means, amongst other things that beer is made from grapes, Plank’s constant is 3 and God exists”. But “beer is made from grapes” is equally consistent with “Everton lost to Sunderland yesterday”, “Everton did not play Sunderland yesterday” and any number of other statements, including “flibble”. “Everton beat Sunderland 2:0 yesterday” is also compatible with “beer is not made from grapes”, “Plank’s constant is not 3” and “God does not exist”. All these are, clearly, not what “Everton beat Sunderland 2:0 yesterday” means. It means that there was a football match yesterday, that the match was between Everton and Sunderland, that the ball entered the Sunderland goal twice and a whole lot of statements that if they were different may render the statement false
    Now I’m going to take a deep breath and say:
    - the meaning of a statement is the negation of that which would contradict it.
    - the nature of a statement is the nature of the negation of that which would contradict it
    This would mean that if “the gnus shouldn’t say that ” was about “tone” then there would be a tone that would render “the gnus shouldn’t say that” false. Do you know of one? I don’t. I know of statements that would render “the gnus shouldn’t say that” false, but none of them are statements about tone, they can all be characterised as statements about criticism and tradition. The religious seem able to accept pretty much anything so long as it derives from a tradition and does not criticise what they themselves believe.
    “The guns shouldn’t say that” is false if it is not a criticism and stems from a tradition. “The gnus shoudn’t say that” is not falsified if said in tone-a, tone-b, tone-c or any other tone. “The gnus shoudn’t say that” is not a criticism of tone, says nothing about tone and use of the word “tone” simply misrepresents the religious’ position. The debate is not about “tone” and discussion of “tone” is just a distraction.

  9. The myth of the rude atheist orginates in the fact that the 'evidence' for belief rests largely in variations of the ad populum fallacy, "a lot of people believe this", or ad authoritatum, "a lot of smart people believe this". The practice of 'witnessing' is intended to add weight to this ad populum appeal. I came across an article a while ago that quotes a Jesuit priest (sorry, can't find the link) who advocated witnessing as a means of relying on other people's politeness to avoid confrontation and encourage conformity--and apparently, it works. The very existence of atheists is a problem for these people. This is why death bed and late life conversions are so important to them. Just admitting you are an atheist is considered rude, and everything you say after that will be considered mean. Since the very profession of atheism is considered rude, all atheists are dicks by default, and the constant repetition of this charge is the reason that Plait felt it necessary to make his speech, yet could not cite a single case. Repeat something often enough, and though it may not be the truth, it appears true.

    Of course, it never occurred to Plait that he was being a dick when he said it. This is the way scientists and rationalists speak to each other. Believers are just astounded to discover that someone may care more about the truth than other people's feelings.

  10. This is a very nice post, so I'll pick a tiny nit and blast you for it:

    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....

    No no no no no no. How dare you. (Etc.)

    Richard Dawkins, Ophelia Benson, and P.Z. Myers have indeed given speeches and written books.* But many thousands, if not millions, of the rest of us only think certain things that render us, in the vernacular being criticized in Bill Mutranowski's cartoon, "militant atheists." Speeches and books are, in fact, the most "militant" things that modern outspoken atheists perpetrate; the vastly more common crime that earns us the M-word is holding certain inconvenient ideas about religion. Mutranowski's choice of "militant atheist" makes for a starker and more broadly accurate contrast with the kinds of things that Muslims and Christians have to do in order for their believing brethren to declare them "militant."

    Anyway, this post is very good stuff. Nice job.

    * Actually, PZ's book has been hotly anticipated for years now, but it hasn't been published, and several of us are growing impatient. Grrrr.

  11. Elentar, you remind me of a time when I was 'witnessed to' by a young Jehovah's Witness in the city (they tend to prowl outside the Melbourne State Library cos that's where the uni students congregate. Fresh meat!). I remember being polite but blunt in stating my lack of belief in God, and even gave my own spiel on theodicy, the historicity and fallibility of the Bible, the philosophical and scientific grounds for rejecting religion etc. We chatted amicably for about 15 minutes or so, until the poor sod probably realised that I wasn't going to accept Jesus as my personal lord and saviour and excused himself to leave first! Guess they no longer breed them to be as tenacious as they used to be.

    Believers are just astounded to discover that someone may care more about the truth than other people's feelings.

    And that's the rub. While it's possible to be considerate of other people's feelings and care about the truth, there are times when you have to choose one over the other. But the decision gets rigged against truth-lovers because to simply choose truth over lies is considered by certain people to be an automatic insult. You don't even have to be snarky!


    Rieux, I guess I had in mind an extreme atheist ideologue (and I don't mean that in a bad way. The New Atheists are ideologues, but of good, valuable and true ideas). But even if the label 'militant' is (wrongfully) applied to anyone who simply holds anti-religious ideas, it seems to me that for Mutranowski's cartoon to avoid accusations of misrepresentation or exaggeration (even if it's a cartoon), it's probably better to show the 'worst' sort of atheist comparable to the worst sort of religionist. That way critics can't cry "Oh, but atheists are much more aggressive than that!"

  12. A nice post. Just one comment. You say that "There is no conclusive evidence suggesting that ‘nice’ methods are more effective than ‘nasty’ ones in persuading people to accept reason and facts."

    This is actually false. There are plenty of studies which investigate which factors are important when attempting to persuade people of an idea (I helped teach a class on the subject of persuasion at the Harvard Kennedy School in January, and so am conversant with the literature).

    One message from the research is that likability is an important factor in being persuasive. Simply put, people will be more persuaded by people they like than people they don't. This is actually common sense when you think about it.

    Further, demonstrating that you understand the position of the other person, and speaking to them where they are (we call this "Knowing the Audience"), is THE MOST IMPORTANT aspect of persuasion. Generally the more abrasive atheists do not do this so well.

    If we want to follow the evidence - and as rationalists we should! - then we should make an attempt to be likable and to meet the audience where they are.

  13. James, thank you for the correction. In my defense, I had in mind the more stubborn sort of person who, even after a polite discussion exposing the errors of their views or arguments, simply shrugs and says "Well, let's agree to disagree."

    But of course, this doesn't mean being nice doesn't work.

    I read your post over at The New Humanism website, and also Sarah Hippolitus's article. I respect your courage and your conciliatory approach to engaging with religious people. Sarah's essay also provides food for thought.

    Personally, I'm inclined not to push religious believers on the negative aspects of their beliefs. I'll argue my case, but there are limits I won't transgress. That's just my temperament. But I wrote this post out of a sense of justice, because it seemed to me that the New Atheists (and their sympathisers) are being unfairly criticised for an 'incivility' that is often non-existent, or caricaturised.

    I accept that, as you mentioned, being nice is more likely to win people over to one's position than being abrasive. But what I don't accept is that being nice should always be the default stance, and that anyone who, for reasons of temperament, culture, context etc, is less than pleasant is deserving of censure.

    All sorts of approaches are required, IMO, to ensure not only that atheists and humanists are not demonised or marginalised, but also that religion and unreason in general are not let off lightly for the egregiously harmful outcomes they promote.

  14. I entirely agree with this response Darrick! This is particularly well-put:

    "the New Atheists (and their sympathisers) are being unfairly criticised for an 'incivility' that is often non-existent, or caricaturised." Absolutely. Little frustrates me more than the fake outrage manufactured by some to perfectly reasonable arguments put forward by atheists!

    I also agree that there is a time for being "less than pleasant". We need a variety of voices, as you say, and must not let the negative consequences of faith off the hook.

    Kudos for heading over to TheNewHumanism.org - way beyond the call of duty! Thank you so much for your visit and come back again sometime!

  15. A very large number of atheists almost always use personal attacks against those who disagree with their position.

    Ironically, a very large number of fundamentalist religious types do not do this. They will say things like "you are in danger of Hell" but I don't hear them saying "you are an idiot and punk go crawl into a hole and die!"