Argumentative, Aggressive, and Generally Dickish


What to remember when you’ve said that confrontational atheists have made it harder for you to make progress on your shared goals, and some atheist has gotten (eek, gasp, shock, horror, blah, blah, blah) rude with you. This is particularly true for the endless argument over promoting science.

It’s worth remembering where this debate came from. Atheists, only recently starting to stand up and be counted in any number, are seeing the people who have been saying the same things that atheists have been saying for centuries (as noted in comment 5, then largely ignored) being told to hush up because they’re being noticed for once and that’s making trouble. These are frequently also the people who gave your rank-and-file atheist the courage to come out and who provide sympathy when coming out results in the crap it always results in. But hush, because what these other people are doing is really important.

Of course, it is important. But so is being supported and encouraged as an out atheist. So is being able to tell people how religion hurt you or those you love without having to put bows on it. So is being able to tell other people that they have a real choice to get out of abusive religions. So is being able to run for public office. So is being able to keep your job. So is being able to keep your kids.

But hush. And be really nice to the people who are telling you to hush. Be nice to the people who are telling you that you matter less than what they’re doing. Be nice to the people who are doing good work but only talk about why people like you are bad. Be nice to the people who might, someday let you eat at the grown-up table if you stay quiet enough at the children’s table first (and when there are no more grown-up problems you might interfere with). Hush and trust them, despite the fact that they’re calling you the problem.

Yeah, no. Atheists are being aggressive, in part, because they’re being told to go back to being passive. They’re being argumentative because there’s a constant onslaught of messages leveled at them and everyone they have to deal with that becomes the unquestioned social background if they don’t. They’re being rude because everybody is rude sometimes, and they’re not going to be left out if you’re not. They’re being condescending because you’ve been told this before in some form, but you can’t seem to move past the fact that someone insulted you in order to hear it. [from my comment here]

If you happen to be an atheist whose life is arranged so that it never causes you any problems, rejoice. If you’re religious and don’t see why atheists should behave that way in our “Christian nation” or a country with a state church, take a deep breath and two steps back from the argument (particularly if you happen to be a middle-class or better white male to boot). If you don’t know what all the fuss is about, shut up and listen for a bit. Either way, understand what you’re demanding of atheists and figure out why you’re placing the burden for good behavior on them.

Further Reading
The Support of New Atheism
Whither Allies

Comments

  1. says

    Just so you know, Stephanie, your comment is receiving much appreciation on Ophelia Benson's blog, "Butterflies and Wheels," here.Thanks for posting, and great stuff. – Rieux, fellow Minnesotan

  2. says

    Rieux, this just isn't that big a state, and our atheists tend to be pretty organized. How do we not all know who each other are?Also, nice to meet you, and are you sure you don't want just one more before you go? ;)

  3. says

    I love argumentative atheists. I could listen to a compilation of Hitchlsaps on loop for hours on end. I am so grateful for their outspoken fearlessness, you have no idea. As with anything, there's such a thing as taking it too far. Last week I was called a coward and berated at some length just for admitting that I cringed when telling an associate that I was an atheist. And while I interact with many aggressive atheists online, I am choosy about what I share especially when they get into the sweeping generalizations about religion's evil. I do this because I have theist friends with whom I share a mutual respect of each other's choices and the freedom to make them. Enthusiastic atheism is a wonderful thing, and it's the only reason I ever came out. What I hope, though, is that people who exist at differing levels of outspokenness can find ways to coexist, since we are, after all, on the same side. I don't ever tell anyone to hush, but I am often guilty of stepping in to heated discussions to advocate for balance, and yes, sometimes for a little restraint.

  4. says

    Oh, I'm perfectly capable of arguing for smart behavior. In fact, I got into a rather protracted argument with a substantial fraction of Pharyngula's Order of the Molly on the topic at one time. I simply don't think it's very bright to tell your allies to put aside their fight so you don't have to work as hard at yours, then expect them to ask you how you take your tea.

  5. says

    How do we not all know who each other are?Well, I basically only go to Minnesota Atheists meetings when P.Z. is there. I always intend on increasing my participation level, but somehow I never get around to it.I even missed Greta Christina's speech at the U of M, dammit. (Had a band rehearsal. In hindsight, I should have skipped it.)

  6. says

    "understand what you're demanding of atheists"Okay. I "demand" that atheists' depictions of their opponents actually be correct. Most of the dickishness of the Gnu Atheists involves exaggeration, distortion, misleading analogies, half-truths, and so on."figure out why you're placing the burden for good behavior on them."A few reasons:1) It comes off as hypocritical when those protesting the irrationality of others fail to be rational themselves. (Of course, perfect irrationality is practically impossible, but there should at least be a good faith attempt to get things right.)2) I've been on the receiving end of unfair mockery since I was a kid, and so I'm not casual about dishing it out. Giving bullies a taste of their own medicine is one thing, but doing it to the well-meaning is quite another.3) The behavior of other atheists threatens to color others' perception of me as an atheist. No, that isn't the least bit fair, but if it were that easy for the average theist on the street to avoid overgeneralizing about atheists, we probably wouldn't have the problem of prejudice against atheists.

  7. says

    Hi, J. J. Thanks for the comment. Sorry for the delay. My browser didn't want to let me comment on my own blog. (2) is quite understandable, but it's not an argument for treating atheists differently than you're treating others. (3) is an excellent argument against lumping the people who have given you problems and referring to them by an uncertain term with shifting meanings that emphasizes a characteristic you share with them. Doing so only encourages the "atheist essentialism" you want to avoid.I have a great deal of sympathy for (1). I'd love to see everyone behave more rationally. However (of course there's a "however"), one of the factors that makes people more likely to abandon methodical rationality is feeling threatened. This knowledge is, in fact, at the core of "accommodationism": Make religious people feel less threatened so that they have the space in which to learn and change their minds.What I don't understand about the endless discussion/argument/brouhaha is how people sympathetic to the principles of accommodation can abandon them when it comes to dealing with atheists. Where is the effort to make people who are actually under threat comfortable long enough to change their positions? Which brings us back to treating atheists differently and placing the extra burden on them.

  8. says

    Look – another parallel between the GLBT community and atheism!In 1969 it was the flamboyant cross-dressers and the in-your-face gays and lesbians who changed the GBLT civil rights movement forever. 40 years later (omg – 40 years???), we're seeing opinion letters from straight-laced gays and lesbians (pun not intended when it flew from my fingers, but now I'm totally keeping it) who complain about these same people being over the top in the Pride parades with their short leather shorts, glittery, colorful costumes and their loud, effervescent personas. In her talk at the U of MN Greta Christina touched on the mainstreaming of an identity like being gay or being an atheist. At first the leaders are courageous, spectacular, FABULOUS!, and willing to take fire from the haters. As time goes on more and more "regular joes" who just want to live their lives without making their identity the center of everything will rise up. When this happens, I think there is a feedback loop that starts to encourage the quieting of these original noisy upstarts by the community that they originally fostered. "Shhh…we don't need that anymore. They noticed, now be quiet."

  9. says

    "(2) is quite understandable, but it's not an argument for treating atheists differently than you're treating others."It took me a while to figure out what the heck you were talking about. I think I misunderstood you when you wrote, "figure out why you're placing the burden for good behavior on them."You seem to have meant, "Figure out why you are demanding atheists to be on good behavior while not demanding similar behavior from theists." I read that as "Figure out why you want atheists to have good rather than dickish behavior as they attempts to change theists' minds about atheism."Obviously, I do want theists to behave better, or better yet, stop being theists. The question, then, is what behavior on the part of atheists will help make that happen. One can argue that atheists aren't responsible for making that behavior change happen, but given that we already have movements of atheists who are already taking on that responsibility regardless, that argument is moot. It's not a matter of "placing the extra burden" on atheists. The atheists of whom we are speaking, namely activists such as Dawkins or Myers, have already chosen to take an extra burden, and the question is how to handle that burden once it's been taken on."(3) is an excellent argument against lumping the people who have given you problems"No, (3) is simply pointing out that if I self-identify as a member of an outgroup, the behavior of others in the outgroup will likely be seen as reflecting on me. Outgroups, unfortunately, tend to be perceived as more homogeneous than they really are."one of the factors that makes people more likely to abandon methodical rationality is feeling threatened. This knowledge is, in fact, at the core of 'accommodationism': Make religious people feel less threatened so that they have the space in which to learn and change their minds."No, the "core" of accommodationism, to the extent that there is one, is to point out false dichotomies such as "You must choose between evolution and belief in God" and to allow the religious to take a third option."What I don't understand about the endless discussion/argument/brouhaha is how people sympathetic to the principles of accommodation can abandon them when it comes to dealing with atheists. Where is the effort to make people who are actually under threat comfortable long enough to change their positions?"Sorry, but that looks like vague hand waving. Why are you talking about "dealing with atheists" in general, when the question is how to deal with atheists who engage in certain behaviors? How is one supposed to make these atheists more "comfortable"?

  10. says

    JJ, I suspect what Stephanie actually meant was that accomodationists don't take the same pains in treating "New Atheists" with the same kid gloves they treat religious folks.

  11. says

    But "accommodationists" don't even uniformly treat the religious with "kid gloves," as you put it. Toward the creationists, fundamentalists, and other denialists, they are quite willing to be aggressive. The NCSE has, for example, even mocked Expelled.

  12. says

    The accomodationists in question are those that spare their harshest words for the "New Atheists" who, as far as I can tell, merely want to be heard. The fact is, the same accomodationists that wish we would all just get along, are also simultaneously mistreating the "New Atheists" in the same way they claim these loudmouths are hurting their cause with the religious moderates.You can't have it both ways. You can't say "be nicer to the religious" while being mean to the people you're talking to.

  13. says

    "And saying 'hey, the accoms have mocked people too!' just makes them all the more hypocritical"It would be hypocritical if the so-called accommodationists insisted that mockery should never be aimed at anyone at all, but none of them have done such a thing."You can't say 'be nicer to the religious' while being mean to the people you're talking to."Sure you can. There's a huge difference between being mean to the average well-meaning religious believer and being mean to a bullshitter.