I felt I should weigh in on the ongoing debate within the atheist community over whether or not rationalists and skeptics should refrain from “being dicks,” as Phil Plait so eloquently put it.
A good number of atheist bloggers have already given their opinions (or lack thereof) on this matter, including Friendly Atheist, Woo Fighters and Non Prophet Status, so I think I might be a little late.
Regardless, this is a pretty big issue that isn’t so cut-and-dried, and I think my own personal story can offer a bit of a different perspective to the dialog.
In short, I would not be an atheist right now if it weren’t for an asshole.
Let me explain.
I grew up a devout Christian. But I was always very inquisitive and analytic. And like a lot of Christians, it wasn’t enough for me to believe; I felt a need to intellectually justify my beliefs. And I wanted any “outsiders” to be convinced by my reasons. Or at least, to acknowledge them as somewhat rational, even if they were not convinced by them.
Oh, and I have always been a bit of a smart-ass and a trivia geek.
Anyway, my father (an evangelical minister) was quick to answer any theological or philosophical questions I had regarding faith or the bible, and there were plenty of other resources that gave me scientific “arguments” to defend my religion from any attacks. But for most of my life, the attacks never really came.
I knew several non-believers, growing up. Most of them were the kind that I and other atheists would now call “accommodationists.” If the topic of religion came up, I defended my position, they defended theirs (politely), and we always “agreed to disagree.” I never truly felt challenged. I always figured that I was right, and it was a waste of time and energy to assertively try to prove this to them, especially since they were nice enough to be respectful of my beliefs.
Then there was Alan. (I’m disguising his name here to protect his privacy)
Alan was a guy I worked with at my last job. He wasn’t content with just being an atheist. He wasn’t the kind of person that just let religious discussions slide. If he overheard me talking to someone about god or religion, he’d either call out the things I said as irrational, or he’d demand that we not bombard his ears with god-talk. He seemed to have a response to everything, and would refuse to “respectfully disagree.”
His attitude, quite frankly, offended me. It offended me so much, that I became determined to get back at him. The next time he tried to attack my religious beliefs as irrational, I wanted to come back with counter arguments that would leave him standing in the dust.
That’s when I began to study. But not like before. I mean, really study. Slowly and gradually, I began to examine the tenets of my faith and my reasons for believing in them.
The rest, as they say, is history. I eventually found that there wasn’t a single reason for religious belief that isn’t hopelessly flawed.
What’s my point? Simply, that I would not have seriously examined my religion if I had not been challenged to do so out of an intense desire to shut Alan the hell up.
If he had been the same kind of atheist that I’d dealt with before then, I might never have been inspired to try to establish a reasonable case for Christianity. And I never would have discovered that there isn’t one. If Alan had just let me keep sharing my religious beliefs without getting in my face, or if he had merely “respectfully disagreed,” I might still be a Christian. I would have left those discussions paying lip service to the “to each his own” philosophy, but secretly believing that I was right and he, regrettably, was going to hell (regardless of how nice he is).
But the fact that he wasn’t nice made all the difference. At least, to me.
And that’s precisely what I’m saying. It may be true that “you can catch more flies with honey than you could with vinegar,” but I know from experience that some flies respond better when they’re given shit. I was (and still am) one of these flies.
A lot of Christians and religious people are precisely the kind of Christian I used to be: obsessed with being right, but unwilling to take more than a superficial look into the matter unless it’s to shove the truth into some jerk’s face.
I’m not at all saying that we need people to act like jerks. Alan, looking back on the whole experience, wasn’t a jerk. He was just right. When you’re right (especially when being wrong is so potentially harmful), being assertive is merely one approach to challenging untrue statements and beliefs.
I don’t think I’d consider myself a “dick” about religion, but I’m certain that many of the Christians who read my blog would disagree. I could honestly care less. Whatever works. I’m certain there are those who are turned off by my approach and would respond better to a calmer discussion, or a blog with a nicer tone. But believers, as people, are just as diverse as non-believers, and it’s silly to expect the same passive, accommodating approach to work for everyone.
When it comes to truly harmless beliefs, I’m all in favor of the “live and let live” approach and politely disagreeing. Most of the time, in my everyday interactions with devoutly religious people, that’s exactly what I do.
What I don’t do is turn a blind eye toward untrue statements that would mislead people. If someone posts a verse from Psalms as their facebook status, 99 times out of 100 I’ll just leave them be. But if someone says “true Darwinists should be racists” or “evolution is an atheist lie” (both are actual examples), I get in their faces and I really don’t care if it’s interpreted as rude or not. “You are wrong. Here is the information proving it. Stop lying to people.”
So no, I do not think that the atheist movement would benefit from an overall calming of our tone. I do not think that distancing ourselves from so-called “angry atheists” would be wise. I do not think it’s good advice to “not be such a dick.”
I think a better piece of advice is, above all else, to be honest. I’m living proof that an honest asshole can be just as effective as an honest diplomat.
Because, ultimately, everyone cares more about the truth than their beliefs. Some just won’t go looking for it unless they’re poked, prodded or pushed.