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Dec 29 2008

How Can Atheists Be Good Allies?

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a piece about how progressive, non- atheist groups can be good allies with the atheist movement.

Today, I want to follow that piece up with the flip side:

Handshake
How can atheists be good allies?

I think it behooves the atheist movement to make alliances with other groups that we have affinities with: groups that aren’t atheist- specific and that are made up of both believers and non-believers, but that have goals we support… and in some cases, progressive ecumenical religious groups who recognize the validity of atheism.

I think it behooves us for a number of reasons. Partly because our movement is too small and too stigmatized right now to accomplish what we want on our own: we’ll get more visibility and more work done if we have other people speaking for us and working with us. Partly because it shows the world that we don’t just care about how we want to be treated and what we think we deserve: we care about what we have to offer and how we want to participate in the world.

And partly because it’s, you know, the right thing to do. Because we’re not just atheists, but people, citizens of our communities and our countries and our world. Because we do care about what we have to offer and how we want to participate in the world.

So how can we be good allies? I’ve already written about what atheists are asking for from people who want to support us. What should we be doing to be good allies with people we want to support?

Goldenrule
1: Treat other groups the way you want to be treated.

All the stuff I talked about in How to Be an Ally With Atheists? All that stuff about how atheists want to be treated? It applies to how we treat other marginalized groups as well.

Learn about that group’s experience in the world. Learn what the common myths and misconceptions are about that group, and don’t perpetuate them. Learn what kind of language they prefer… and what kind of language insults them and pisses them off. Speak out against bigotry. Be inclusive — not fake, lip-service inclusive, but real inclusive. Don’t trivialize their anger, and don’t divide the group into “good” ones and “bad” ones based on who’s being angry and confrontational and who’s being polite and diplomatic. If you’re going to be critical, be very, very careful that you have both your facts and your context right. Find common ground. Be aware of your own privilege.

You know. Inclusive multiculturalism 101. Easy in principle. A lot of work in practice. Essential.

Im_with_stupid
2: Don’t assume that religious believers are stupid — and don’t talk to them or treat them as if they’re stupid.

Yes, I agree that religious believers are mistaken about their religious beliefs. But being mistaken does not make someone stupid. I guarantee you right now that every single person reading this — and the person writing this — is mistaken about something. Probably about more than one thing. Probably about more than one big, important thing.

Mistakes_were_made
It is human nature to hang onto mistaken ideas once we’ve committed to them: to come up with elaborate rationalizations for our mistaken ideas, to hang onto them more stubbornly the more they’re attacked or the more we’ve committed to them… all in ways that are obvious to people around us and completely invisible to ourselves. I agree that religious believers are doing that about religion. But atheists need to not act like we’re intellectually superior because we don’t do it about that one particular type of belief. We do it about plenty of other things. What with us being human and all.

And it is entirely possible to hang onto a mistaken belief with a less- than- entirely- rational stubbornness… and still be a smart, rational, reality-based person most of the time. It is human nature to compartmentalize: and while compartmentalization sometimes makes people want to smack us across the head, it does enable us to cordon off our mistakes and function as rational people in other areas of our lives.

Slack
3: Don’t be quick to assume malice or willful ignorance.

If someone says something ignorant or wrong about atheists and atheism, of course you should correct them. Firmly, and unapologetically.

But don’t assume right off the bat that they’re being jerks on purpose. You may have heard “How can you have any meaning or morality without God?” a hundred thousand times until you want to scream and throw pies. But the person you’re talking to may honestly have never thought about that question before, or heard any of the thousands of answers to it. They may have thought of morality and meaning in religious terms for their whole lives, and it may take a lot of conversation and soul- searching for them to understand that this isn’t true for everybody.

I agree that it’s irritating. It’s totally messed up that we have to keep repeating the same talking points and demolishing the same myths over and over and over and over and over again. But the fact remains that much of the world is ignorant about who we are. If we want them to learn, it’s up to us to do the teaching. It’s not going to happen any other way.

And “You may not be aware of this, but…” is a lot more likely to get our message across than, “You bigoted ignoramus — how dare you!”

End of faith
Remember: Our community hasn’t been raising a ruckus for very long. It’s taken the modern LGBT movement 40 years of being out and visible and vocal to get even the limited degree of understanding and de-stigmatization that we have now. The atheist movement, in its current ruckus- raising incarnation, has been out and visible and vocal for roughly five years. Education — especially in the face of not only ignorance but hostility and fear — takes time. I know it sucks. Suck it up.

Now, if you’ve corrected someone’s mistaken ideas about atheism a dozen times or more, and they’re still parroting them… then you can assume malice or willful ignorance. And then you have my permission to smack them around. Metaphorically, that is.

Tiptoe
4: If you’re going to talk about religion, tread carefully.

At the risk of getting into the framing wars: Of course I’m not saying we should never be critical about religion. Hey, I’m the one who wrote the 4,500 word screed about why atheists are pissed off.

I’m saying that we should talk differently depending on who we’re talking to, and what we’re trying to accomplish.

Are we talking about believers… or to believers? Are we trying to convince non-believers that atheism is an important issue and that they should come out and take a stand… or are we trying to persuade believers to listen to our arguments and our issues? Are we talking in a public forum to create visibility and get our ideas out into the open… or are we talking one- on- one or in a small group, with people we’re trying to work with? Are we trying to convince people that we’re right… or are we trying to temporarily set aside our differences and work together on issues where we already agree? Are we trying to stir up the troops… or are we trying to form alliances?

Scream
Strong, angry, passionate language is called for in some of these situations. Polite, measured, diplomatic language is called for in others. Example: I love PZ Myers to pieces, and I think his Pharyngula blog provides an incredibly valuable service: it provides a place for atheists to just relax and say what we think about religion without walking on eggshells… and it’s screaming, “The emperor has no clothes!” at top volume, which somebody sure as hell needs to be doing. But with all due respect, if I were forming a committee to form strategic alliances with other movements, PZ would not be my go-to guy.

If you feel compelled to criticize religion to someone you’re trying to make alliances with, choose your words carefully. When I’m trying to be diplomatic, I generally don’t say that religion is boneheaded or ignorant or useless. I generally say that it’s mistaken. (I generally say that anyway, since I think it’s more accurate. See “Don’t assume that religious believers are stupid ” above.) And unless I’m talking about a public figure who’s exceptionally and consistently heinous, I try to remember to criticize ideas and actions rather than people. People won’t always hear the difference… but I think it’s important to make it.

Analogies
5: Be careful about making analogies.

I have a whole piece brewing about this, actually, as it’s a large and complicated topic. So for now, I’ll just say this:

Analogies are loaded, and you have to be really, really careful about using them.

If you’re trying to educate and persuade by saying, “The such- and such experience of atheists is like the so- and- so experience of (blacks, women, queers, Jews, immigrants, etc.),” you can easily make people feel like their experience is being trivialized. For instance: When white atheists compare our experience of discrimination to separate drinking fountains or sitting in the back of the bus, we aren’t helping African- Americans — or anyone else, for that matter — understand our experience. We’re making ourselves look like entitled, over-privileged white people with no sense of history and no perspective.

Thinking
Yes, analogies are a crucial tool for education and understanding. If we don’t understand what someone is going through, it’s often easier if we can compare it to something we’ve gone through ourselves, or something that someone we know has gone through. Analogies and comparisons are an essential part of how the human mind works, and how we understand the world.

But when we’re making analogies to help illuminate our experience, we need to be careful. We need to be sure that the analogy is appropriate — not just in terms of content, but in terms of scope. We need to not be getting people to understand our broken legs by comparing them to other people’s amputations.

(It’s helpful sometimes to make multiple analogies at once. That way, no one group feels singled out, and the focus is on the actual content of the analogy rather than on who the analogy is being made with. If that makes sense.)

Not about you
6: Remember that it’s not always about us.

Don’t always insist on atheist issues taking top priority. If we want allies to work with us on our issues, we have to work with them on theirs.

Atheist bloggers are pretty good about this, actually. They blog about LGBT issues if they’re straight, racial issues if they’re white, sexism if they’re male, poverty if they’re comfortably off, the war and imperialism and such if they’re American. Let’s keep it up.

And maybe we could do it in a more organized manner. A lot of us aren’t joiners — I’m sure not — but maybe the organizations we do have could do more formal, organized outreach to other groups, and to the world at large. (The Seattle Atheists, for instance, have been doing blood drives and stuff. Good for them.) Also, I keep reading reports that believers are better than non-believers at making charitable donations and doing charity work. If we really think that we don’t need God to do good in the world, we need to put our money where our mouths are. We should support organizations like SHARE — the Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Effort — and our organizations need to be doing more to advance general humanist ideals instead of just promoting atheism.

And finally, but very importantly:

Two way traffic
7: Support other atheists whose methods are different from yours.

If you can’t do this alliance stuff, or you aren’t willing to… then by all means, don’t. Every movement needs firebrands as well as diplomats. (And some of us do both at different times, and in different situations.) We should all do what we’re good at and what we feel inspired to do.

But don’t get in the way of people who do want to do this, and don’t call them names for doing it. The firebrands and diplomats in our movement need to stop giving each other shit for being too deferential or too abrasive. If we have a real difference about tactics over any given issue or situation, by all means we should air them. But the general ideological battle over whether firebreathing or diplomacy is always and forevermore the better tactic is ridiculous. We need both. Every movement for social change that I can think of throughout history has needed both, and both work better together then either one alone.

*

I’m sure there’s more, but that’s all I can come up with for now. What do y’all think? Are there any ideas that I’m missing? Do you think this is even worthwhile?

41 comments

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  1. 1
    vel

    Good post, Greta. Sometimes I need to be reminded that all Christians aren’t willfully ignorant and simply stupid. Many are though, in my experience. I’ve a degree in geology and the number of times I’ve had to explain “No, there was no magical Flood” has shown me that many Christians simply aren’t interested to know anything that dares to counter their beliefs. Unfortunately, there can be valid reasons for stereotypes. How many Christians demonize science when it dares attack their myths when that exact same science gives them their modern comforts? They simply do not want to think. I will have to also say that I do my absolute best to not compartmentalize or ignore facts that may counter any of my dearly held beliefs. It’s a matter of honor to do so on my part. Though not a Christian, I do agree with the get the beam out of your own eye before going after others sentiment.
    I will have to take issue with this “I keep reading reports that believers are better than non-believers at making charitable donations and doing charity work.” These reports seem to not distinguish what “charity” a theist is contributing to. Any church is a non-profit, and I have yet to see those separated out from charities that actually do things to help people rather than building prettier and prettier buildings for their god. Also, any actual help they are giving is always subsidizing these things for themselves. It also seems to be forgotten that atheists, myself for example, do contribute to theist programs. Does this mean I am not “doing anything”? I also contribute to Oxfam, FINCA, etc, groups not caring about how they are seen secular or religious, they just go about doing their work.

  2. 2
    Kagehi

    Hmm. So.. #2 (stupid) is not the logical conclusion of #3 (malignant of willfully ignorant) being false? Damn.. Going to have to rethink this… lol
    Seriously though. All too often its either one, or the other, or both. The ones that are not in those categories, generally tend not to be the ones screwing things up in the first place, nor defending them, and thus **also** tend to be lumped, by the ones that are screwing things up, in with us, and ignored, anyway.
    What is the point of finding allies among people that, whether they recognize the fact or not, are in the same jail cell, **especially** if they completely fail to notice all the bars and the locked door?
    But, still, decent advice.

  3. 3
    Mara

    I think #7 might be the most important right now. If we tear each other to pieces before the movement’s gotten a fair shot, we’re never going to get anywhere.
    We *need* all different kinds of activists!

  4. 4
    Dale McGowan

    One of the most on-target, important, and well-conceived posts I’ve seen in ages. This is a conversation I’m all about in 2009. Thank you.

  5. 5
    Robin Z

    I agree – and I think #2 in particular is really, really important. It doesn’t make sense a priori that beliefs which are drastically inaccurate should be so weakly correlated with stupidity, but it’s a proven, empirical fact – we do no-one any good by ignoring facts in favor of theories, least of all ourselves.

  6. 6
    freelark

    I found this entry through the “atheismandrace” community on Live Journal. It’s a great post. I’d been thinking about writing something like this myself, but you’ve said what I wanted to say better than I would have and threw in some things I would have forgotten.
    While I see a need for atheist activism, I’m loath to work with a lot of atheist groups, because they don’t seem to have given much thought to the difficulties that people in other oppressed groups have to deal with. If there were more atheists like you, I wouldn’t have this problem.
    I’ve bookmarked your blog. I like what I see here; I’ll definitely be back.

  7. 7
    adamh

    What you are saying is that you still want religion eliminated, you just feel you will be more successful if you go about it more “diplomatically.”.
    Frankly, I like PX and Dawkins and other bigots much better.
    I want to see them get their hate out in the open.
    I want to know who they are.
    That is why I …chuckle…diplomatically ENOURAGE atheists to come out!
    And I have had some success.
    By the time they realize they have been had, they are out in the open!
    Keep up the good work!

  8. 8
    Seth Manapio

    Frankly, I like PX and Dawkins and other bigots much better.
    ————
    I’m not sure you understand the word “bigot”. What is it about Greta that makes you think that she is intolerant of ANY opinions other than her own, or prejudiced against an ethnic group? I mean, what has she said that brings you to that conclusion?

  9. 9
    Ebonmuse

    For instance: When white atheists compare our experience of discrimination to separate drinking fountains or sitting in the back of the bus, we aren’t helping African- Americans — or anyone else, for that matter — understand our experience. We’re making ourselves look like entitled, over-privileged white people with no sense of history and no perspective.

    While analogies should be used judiciously, I think they can be a powerful tool. Even if the discrimination that we experience is not comparable in degree to the discrimination that other groups have experienced in the past, the essential point of the comparison often still holds. Part of the angry reactions like the ones you describe may be due to people realizing that and not liking it.
    For instance, although it’s not specifically an atheist issue: If we compare the prejudice against gay marriage to the prejudice against interracial marriage a generation ago, it’s bound to evoke some angry responses from people who realize the aptness of the analogy, realize what position that analogy puts them in, and don’t like feeling that way. “How dare you compare your experience to X!” is a common refrain of people who are uncomfortable having their prejudices challenged. But that’s no reason for us to refrain from saying so. On the contrary, it’s a reason to make that comparison all the more forcefully, as a way of showing that modern prejudices wear a mask of respectability in our time, just as older prejudices did in theirs.

  10. 10
    nylong

    Religion & Atheism are both inconclusive. Both ultimately rest on Faith, of God or of Science?
    Borrow the good practices of all faith and avoid the pitfalls, that’s the best.
    Trying so hard to justify Atheism, also elevate it to a form of religious belief??
    Love, Compassion, Charity, Sincerity, the list goes on for all the positive actions.
    No one dispute the goodness of the positive, it’s only when we start to pin the negative on others, that problems starts.
    Being an Atheist does not make a person morally superior, and vice versa.
    We don’t need alliances? What we need are people to go out there to do the good things.
    When good things are done, it does not matter whether it is done in the name of religion or atheism.
    As long as people make a conscious & educated choice, we must respect it even if we don’t agree with it.
    So, spread Goodness. It is irrelevant who spread it.
    Nobody can really know what happens after Death.

  11. 11
    bernarda

    Your point on diplomats and firebrands is well-taken. I use one or the other at different times, as well as mockery.
    For the diplomats, Dawkins and Hitchens(surprisingly enough) are particularly good. They go on Fox and are treated with respect-well as much respect as you can expect from O’Reilly or Hannity.
    At least they aren’t shouted at and talked over. You might like this clip of Hitchens talking about religions hating the birth canal and thinking of it as a one-way street. “Christopher Hitchens talks Jesus”.

  12. 12
    bernarda

    Your point on diplomats and firebrands is well-taken. I use one or the other at different times, as well as mockery.
    For the diplomats, Dawkins and Hitchens(surprisingly enough) are particularly good. They go on Fox and are treated with respect-well as much respect as you can expect from O’Reilly or Hannity.
    At least they aren’t shouted at and talked over. You might like this clip of Hitchens talking about religions hating the birth canal and thinking of it as a one-way street. “Christopher Hitchens talks Jesus”.

  13. 13
    bernarda

    Sorry for the double, my browser wasn’t reacting at first.
    I would like to add a clip of Dawkins not being so nice to a jesus freak.

    “Oh Mr Dawkins…That’s Cold”.

  14. 14
    Robin Edgar

    Right. . .
    That’s my boy Dickie*.
    So perhaps a subset of 2: Don’t assume that religious believers are stupid — and don’t talk to them or treat them as if they’re stupid.
    should be – don’t assume that religious believers are mentally ill — and don’t talk to them or treat them as if they’re delusional.
    Or perhaps it needs to be a stand-alone category. . .
    * Being reasonably polite here

  15. 15
    Allienne Goddard

    Hm, well I think you are writing advice to humanists, not atheists.

  16. 16
    skepticscott

    Good points, well made, but to really hit the target this discussion needs to make very clear the distinction between atheism, anti-theism and secular humanism, not only for believers, but for many atheists as well. It’s the confused conflation of these that leads to the “fundamentalist atheist” meme, as well as to the idiotic notion that “atheists believe in nothing”, among other misconceptions. Of the three, atheism is the simplest and least in need of justification, but even atheists fall into the trap of apologizing for it not being a fully realized philosophy of life.

  17. 17
    Robin Edgar

    Good points Scott. In fact I sometimes use the term “anti-theists” to refer to what I otherwise call “fundamentalist atheists” or “Atheist Supremacists”. The fact remains however that such intolerant ÃŒber-atheists are a subset of atheists just as fundamentalist Christians are a subset of more moderate Christians etc.

  18. 18
    Pseudonym

    I posted this at friendlyatheist (where I came across this list), but I’m reposting it here in case anyone has comments.
    OK, probably the best way to say this is just to say what Liberal Christians really think, but may not be willing to admit. Once we know what the problems are, we can talk about what to do about them.
    (Note: In that follows, I will refer to Liberal Christians as “I” or “us”, and Atheists as “you”, to save some typing.)
    As a Christian, I’m far more free to reject the likes of Pat Robertson than you are to reject Christopher Hitchens, even though they exhibit a similar level of arseholery, obliviousness to evidence and stupid statements. And I’m far more free to give a nuanced response to someone like Marcus Borg than you are to Richard Dawkins.
    I have the luxury of not having to present a united front. Perversely, even though I am in the least “exclusive” streams of Christianity (in the sense that we don’t waste any time divining who’s “in” and who’s “out”), the more I distinguish myself from “them”, the better it is for me.
    So this is the main sticking point that we need dialogue to overcome. Liberal Christians are used to distinguishing themselves from whackos, and so get annoyed when Atheists don’t. We don’t, as a rule, understand it that this is a luxury that you can’t afford.
    Greta quite rightly instructs potential allies to not “divide” Atheists, but that’s actually not the frame in which Liberal Christians see it. We can pick and choose whom we work with, and it’s intended as a compliment to you that we think you can too. It means we see you as a wronged group of people in need of real justice.
    We’ve also spent a hell of a lot of time on cleaning out our own house, and working on how others see us. We don’t attack fundies in public because it distracts from what we see as our central missions. The charities that we run, for example, need donations. If anyone thought for a moment that any of those donations would be spent on attacking Pat Robertson, donations would plummet, and our charities would suffer. We can’t afford that.
    So that’s another aspect to the problem: How can we support you, without us being seen as supporting anti-theism?
    All of this will be moot when Atheism becomes mainstream. Deep down, we all know that when that happens, anti-theism will be dropped like a bad smell. Just look at the current irrelevance of Germaine Greer in the feminist movement: that’s Christopher Hitchens in a couple of decades.
    Until then, we have some serious thinking and talking to do.

  19. 19
    skepticscott

    You’re not alone Robin Edgar, in sometimes thinking “fundamentalist atheist” when you’re really talking about vocal and unapologetic anti-theists. But I have to disagree with you that anti-theists are merely a subset of atheists, although you often see both points of view in the same people. It is entirely possible for a theist of some stripe to be firmly convinced that organized religion (or at least certain manifestations of it) is corrupt, foolish and harmful, and it is also possible to be an atheist and still harbor no hostile or critical feelings towards religion and even to think that religion has, on balance, been more beneficial than detrimental to society. In other words, not all atheists are anti-theists and not all anti-religionists are atheists. Given that the two often overlap, but are not the same, I would argue that they always have to be considered separately.

  20. 20
    Robin Edgar

    Regardless of whether or not they are outright “anti-theists” the people that I and others quite justifiably refer to as “fundamentalist atheists” or “Atheist Supremacists” are a subset of atheists. Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Myers are but two shining examples of such not so Bright “fundie” atheists. There are plenty of others. I of course agree that not all atheists are anti-theists, in fact I would be the first to say that atheists who are outright “anti-theists” are a small minority, just as “fundamentalist atheists” or “Atheist Supremacists” are a small but vocal minority of atheists. I only refer to “fundamentalist atheists” as “anti-theists” when the overlap is obvious. Anti-theists and atheists need not be “considered separately” if and when these two descriptions do overlap.

  21. 21
    skepticscott

    So what exactly makes them “fundamentalist” or “Supremacist”? Is there something about their lack of belief in gods that makes it immune to evidence that would change their point of view? And if you’re claiming that people like this are adamantly hostile to all religious believers the way that White Supremacists are adamantly hostile to all non-whites, then you haven’t read their writings very well.

  22. 22
    Greta Christina

    Greta stepping in here, to let you know: This thread is not — repeat, NOT — going to turn into a revived zombie version of the toxic “atheist fundamentalists” thread I killed back in the original “How To Be An Ally with Atheists” post.
    I am not going to shut this conversation down — yet — as it is (marginally) relevant to the topic at hand. But I am still ticked off about what happened in “How To Be An Ally with Atheists,” and if you insist on discussing the “fundamentalist atheists” topic here, I advise you to tread very, very carefully. Thank you.

  23. 23
    Pseudonym

    The more I think about it, the more it seems clear to me that Atheism (though Humanism might be an easier sell at first) needs to get its foot in the door in interfaith dialogue.
    The religious ecumenical movement movement is very strong, partly due to the anti-fundamentalist backlash. The TED Prize-winning Charter for Compassion, for example grew out of this movement.
    It’s got to the point that many people from mainstream religions are willing to call themselves “Omnist”, or be ordained into multiple religions. So it’s not just for Unitarian Universalists any more.
    It seems to me that this is a bandwagon that many Atheists could comfortably get on. At the very least, we could start talking, if only to come up with a more appropriate word than “inter-faith”.

  24. 24
    Robin Edgar

    I have pretty much said my piece here Greta but if people challenge me or ask me questions I will answer to them. Perhaps you can explain here just how the term “fundamentalist atheist” is any more “toxic” than “fundamentalist Christian”, “fundamentalist Muslim”, or “fundamentalist Hindu” etc. etc. It seems to me that you are being rather quick to assume malice by asserting that “fundamentalist atheist” is a “toxic” term. AFAIAC I am just calling a spade a spade and doing the vast majority of moderate atheists the favor of distinguishing them from the vocal minority more dogmatic, militant and extreme atheists. May I remind you that some moderate atheists use the term “fundamentalist atheists” for the very same reason? Are these atheists being “toxic”? Are these atheists “Uncle Toms” as our friend Rieux alleges?
    :So what exactly makes them “fundamentalist” or “Supremacist”?
    Strict adherence to a set of basic ideas (aka beliefs) or principles makes them “fundamentalist“.
    The belief that atheists are or should be supreme (or at least superior) makes some atheists “Supremacists“. Atheist Supremacist Spokesperson Richard Dawkins’ deep-seated and repeatedly vocalized conceit that “faith-heads” are less intelligent than atheists fits that bill quite nicely I think.
    :Is there something about their lack of belief in gods that makes it immune to evidence that would change their point of view?
    In short – yes.
    :And if you’re claiming that people like this are adamantly hostile to all religious believers the way that White Supremacists are adamantly hostile to all non-whites, then you haven’t read their writings very well.
    I have read their writings and seen/heard/read their interviews etc. well enough to determine that Atheist Supremacist(s) is a legitimate term to describe those devout atheists who fervently believe that atheists are altogether superior beings to religious believers. It certainly applies to those atheists who actively seek to suppress and even eradicate religious belief.

  25. 25
    Greta Christina

    Perhaps you can explain here just how the term “fundamentalist atheist” is any more “toxic” than “fundamentalist Christian”, “fundamentalist Muslim”, or “fundamentalist Hindu” etc. etc.

    You misunderstand me, Robin. It is not the phrase “fundamentalist atheist” that I find inherently toxic. I do not like the phrase; I have explained already why I object to the phrase; and I do not intend to engage in any discussion of it with you. But that is neither what I said in my comment, nor what I meant.
    It was the discussion about the phrase that took place in the original “How To Be An Ally with Atheists” post that was toxic. You seem to be attempting to revive that comment thread. Any further attempts to do so, by you or anybody else, will result in being banned from this blog. Thank you.

  26. 26
    Robin Edgar

    “You seem to be attempting to revive that comment thread.”
    Actually all I am doing is responding directly to things that other people have said here Greta. In fact my initial comment was primarily about how atheists should not assume that religious believers are mentally ill or talk to them or treat them as if they’re delusional. Others made an issue of those phrases you don’t like to hear. I just responded to them. Your threat to ban people from this blog for any discussion about those phrases that you do not like seems rather Thought Police-ish to me. Is it only you who is allowed to think out loud here Greta?

  27. 27
    Bruce Gorton

    Robin Edgar
    No, you are not. What you are trying to do is reignite the argument in that thread, which though toxic I for one thought was constructive.
    You are also continuing a slur against atheists by trying to associate them with white supremists – mainly because you see that as a means of keeping your ideas from being critically examined.
    In real terms, it would be like calling people Dr Who Supremists for arguing in favour of the merits of that TV show.
    Or proclaiming scientists Gravity supremists for arguing against the Flying Spagetti Monster version of the theory, where his noodly appendages are what are holding us all down.
    Further, it is an attempt to avoid having to answer any criticisms of the actions inspired by your religion.
    It is essentially saying “You bigot” whenever someone points out that religion seems to have a negative impact, without actually trying to adress that impact.
    What atheism and anti-theism essentially address is the value of ideas, as opposed to people. You get very good people who hold onto all sorts of different ideas, and some of those ideas can be harmful, helpful or harmless.
    Discussing whether religion is good or bad, is a part of the discussion on religion as an idea.
    Now a lot of us have had very negative experiences with religion and the religious. Indeed you yourself, are an example of a very negative experience. Your statements, if you applied them to any other group on similar evidence, would have you branded a bigot.
    Indeed, if you found someone just like you, saying this just like what you are saying, about the religious, you would in fact call them atheist supremists.
    Now, what you miss when trying to paint Dawkins as a villain is that Dawkins doesn’t propose violence. He proposes open and honest discourse, maybe not civil discourse, but discourse.
    And discourse includes humour, it includes people disagreeing with you, it includes mockery. It includes flame wars and it includes a willingness to question.
    Dawkins’ central message, not to theists but atheists, was “Talk about it.” Not “Kill in the name of atheism,” not “atheists are automatically superior” but rather “We have a case, lets stop appologising for it.”
    Now most atheists have voted for theistic presidents and local representatives. Obama had overwhelming support from the atheist community, and the modern atheist movement is above all secular.
    Even the argument around whether churches should be taxed is not “Well they should be taxed just because they are religious,” but rather “If they qualify for tax exemption otherwise, there is no need to for religious exemption, and if they don’t, they shouldn’t get that exemption.”
    That isn’t “Our group should reign supreme” that is “Religious ideas should be treated just like all the other ideas out there.”
    You don’t get things being exempted from tax purely because they are based around an economic theory.
    The big thing both sides of the atheist v theist fight need to realise is that the argument over religion is not an argument over personalities.
    It really isn’t about what Religious person A says, or what non-religious person B says, it is over whether religion is right, good and true or not.
    And to hold religion sacred simply because it is what you believe, well you believe all sorts of nonsense. So do I when I get right down to it.
    That doesn’t mean that nonsense gets a free pass just because you or I believe it, it means that when these ideas get discussed people will disagree with you or me, and there is every chance that they will be right.
    When we hold our ideas as ultimately sacred, such that a criticism of them is insulting us, then we set aside any claim to humility and embrace hubris – it is embracing the idea that we really do know everything, that we know for certain XYZ is right or ZYX is wrong.
    That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put forward our ideas, or that we must drop them at the first sign of opposition, or that the truth is “Somewhere in the middle.”
    But it does mean that when people disagree with us, it doesn’t make them “Supremists” it makes them people who disagree with us.

  28. 28
    Maria

    @ Bruce Gorton.
    Great comment! *applause*

  29. 29
    Chalicechick

    Lots of really smart people have been wrong in the past. Aristotle set back physics quite a bit by popularizing the “all matter is made up of four elements: earth, air, fire, water” theory, which is the theory that stuck for a long time, when in 450 BC Democritus was positing that there was such a thing as an “atomus,” which he defined as the smallest indivisible particle of matter, though his ideas didn’t catch on until they turned out to be provably true.
    Thomas Jefferson? Right on a lot of things, but, to put it mildly, wrong on race relations.
    Examples abound, but you have the idea.
    I believe in atoms, I believe that people of all races can be intelligent and indeed, are intelligent on a similar bell curve. That doesn’t make me smarter than Aristotole or TJ, indeed, I’m certain I’m not. I’ve just seen more of the facts.
    To me, the thing to keep in mind is that no matter how you interpret the facts, and whether you consider the occurrence of an auspicious but unlikely thing a “pleasant coincidence” or a “miracle,” all the facts aren’t in and you might be wrong and even if you’re not, someone who is wrong could still be smarter than you.
    So be decent to each other. Even if you feel like people aren’t being decent to you.
    IMHO, it really is just that simple.
    CC

  30. 30
    Robin Edgar

    Well since Greta apparently hasn’t banned Bruce Gorton for continuing the discussion of the phrases that must not be spoken I hope I will at least be allowed to rebut Bruce Gorton’s false assertions here -
    :Robin Edgar No, you are not. What you are trying to do is reignite the argument in that thread, which though toxic I for one thought was constructive.
    Wrong. It is not me who is reigniting the FA AS argument. Others are reigniting it and I am simply responding to their comments. You are doing it yourself here and now. . . So far no one has adequately justified calling that argument/debate “toxic” but thank you for acknowledging that, “toxic” or not, that argument is constructive.
    :You are also continuing a slur against atheists by trying to associate them with white supremists -
    Wrong again. For starters I am only describing a small subset of atheists as “supremacists” I am by no means associating all atheists with supremacists, White Supremacists or otherwise. AFAIAC there is virtually no slur involved in describing that subset of atheists as “supremacists” since their words, if not actions, justify using that term to describe them.
    :mainly because you see that as a means of keeping your ideas from being critically examined.
    Wrong again. I am more than open to having my ideas critically examined and i am very confident that my ideas will stand up to considerable examination. It seems that those who wish to censor and suppress this argument by banning any discussion of the FA and AS terms are more deserving of that accusation.
    :In real terms, it would be like calling people Dr Who Supremists for arguing in favour of the merits of that TV show.
    Wrong again. I am not so much calling atheists who argue in favour of the merits of atheism Atheist Supremacists. I am only calling those atheists who regularly assert that atheists are more intelligent or otherwise superior to religious believers Atheist Supremacists. Interestingly enough, it may well be an atheist who originated the term “Atheist Supremacist” although I am most certainly responsible for popularizing it. You might want to Google the term to learn more about its history. Likewise, regardless of who first coined the term “fundamentalist atheists”, some moderate atheists who want to distance themselves from intolerant and obnoxious militant atheists use that term themselves.
    :Or proclaiming scientists Gravity supremists for arguing against the Flying Spagetti Monster version of the theory, where his noodly appendages are what are holding us all down.
    Sorry Bruce but my use of the term “supremacists” to describe that subset of atheists who fervently believe that atheists are superior to what they call “Faith-heads” etc. fits the dictionary definition of the word “supremacist” as I have already pointed out.
    :Further, it is an attempt to avoid having to answer any criticisms of the actions inspired by your religion.
    And what religion might that be Bruce? In any case you are once again just plain wrong. I am more than open to warranted and reasonable criticism of any and all religions and do my fair share of that myself. It seems to me that Greta’s threatening to ban me and others for discussing the phrases that cannot be heard is more worthy of that accusation. . . It is clearly an attempt to avoid having to answer any criticisms of the words and actions of your intolerant militant atheists n’est-ce pas Bruce?
    :It is essentially saying “You bigot” whenever someone points out that religion seems to have a negative impact, without actually trying to adress that impact.
    Wrong again Bruce. I happily, and quite ironically. . . use the word “bigot” to describe bigotted atheists when it is justifiable to do so. I have no problem with people, atheists or otherwise, justifiably pointing out the negative impact of religion itself or religious believers.
    :What atheism and anti-theism essentially address is the value of ideas, as opposed to people. You get very good people who hold onto all sorts of different ideas, and some of those ideas can be harmful, helpful or harmless.
    Right. You also get not so good people who hold onto all sorts of different ideas, some harmful. . . When not so good atheists hold onto the harmful idea that God believing people are stupid, delusional, primitive, or otherwise inferior to atheists they earn those labels that I and others choose to apply to them.
    :Discussing whether religion is good or bad, is a part of the discussion on religion as an idea.
    Don’t you think that it is just a tad simplistic to discuss whether religion is “good or bad” Bruce?
    :Now a lot of us have had very negative experiences with religion and the religious. Indeed you yourself, are an example of a very negative experience.
    Really? I am a negative experience because I “talk out loud” about my well-documented negative experiences with certain intolerant and obnoxious atheists who meet the criteria of the verbotten phrases that I quite justifiably use to describe them?
    :Your statements, if you applied them to any other group on similar evidence, would have you branded a bigot.
    Wrong again Bruce. There is loads of evidence backing up my use of the terms “fundamentalist atheist(s)” “Atheist Supremacist(s)” and yes, even “fundamentalist atheist bigots” (just Google it. . .). I do not use these descriptive terms lightly. I only apply them when it is highly justifiable to do so. You will be hard pressed to find any evidence that shows me to be “intolerant of those who differ” except where they are glaringly intolerant themselves. . . I am intolerant of intolerant atheists. I have no problems with moderate and reasonable atheists, I even get along quite well with some atheists who rather outspoken and obnoxious atheists but some atheists take it a step or two too far and that is when I start using those verbotten phrases to very justifiably describe them.
    :Indeed, if you found someone just like you, saying this just like what you are saying, about the religious, you would in fact call them atheist supremists.
    Oh really? Where am I suggesting that all atheists are stupid and inferior to religious believers Bruce? You are talking through your hat here, just as you have been talking through your hat for most of your rant.
    :Now, what you miss when trying to paint Dawkins as a villain is that Dawkins doesn’t propose violence.
    I am not missing that at all. It is not necessary to propose violence to merit the description Atheist Supremacist. OTOH some Atheist Supremacists have not only proposed violence to further their atheist ideology but have used it in a way that rivals the worst offenses of religious violence.
    :He proposes open and honest discourse, maybe not civil discourse, but discourse.
    Apparently Greta can’t deal with open and honest discourse here can she? I am all for open and honest discourse with atheists, even “fundamentalist atheists” and “Atheist Supremacists”. And yes, I am sure that Richard Dawkins is being very honest when he repeatedly expresses his belief that religious believers are less intelligent than atheists to say nothing of “hallucinating” and “delusional” but that does not make him *right*. It does however make him an Atheist Supremacist in my opinion. . .
    :And discourse includes humour, it includes people disagreeing with you, it includes mockery. It includes flame wars and it includes a willingness to question.
    Hey I am all for humour Bruce, and will happily respond to the mockery of intolerant and abusive atheists with some mockery of my own. . .
    :Dawkins’ central message, not to theists but atheists, was “Talk about it.” Not “Kill in the name of atheism,” not “atheists are automatically superior” but rather “We have a case, lets stop appologising for it.”
    Did I say anything about Dawkins saying, “Kill in the name of atheism”? I think not. But. . . if you bother to read what Richard Dawkins says he does in fact say things that strongly suggest that he believes that atheists are superior to religious believers and that is what makes him an Atheist Supremacist Spokesperson aka an ASS. See? I just included some humour and mockery for you.
    :Now most atheists have voted for theistic presidents and local representatives.
    Do they have a choice in a country or indeed world where believers make up a vast majority of the population? Would it make you feel better if I told you that I and other theists have voted for politicians who are almost certainly atheists?
    :Obama had overwhelming support from the atheist community, and the modern atheist movement is above all secular.
    And?
    :Even the argument around whether churches should be taxed is not “Well they should be taxed just because they are religious,” but rather “If they qualify for tax exemption otherwise, there is no need to for religious exemption, and if they don’t, they shouldn’t get that exemption.”
    Whatever. That argument/debate is of little concern to me.
    :That isn’t “Our group should reign supreme” that is “Religious ideas should be treated just like all the other ideas out there.”
    That may be so, or not, but in any case when I use the term Atheist Supremacists I use it to describe that minority of atheists whose words suggest that they believe that atheists are in fact superior to religious believers if not that atheists should in fact “reign supreme” over believers.
    :You don’t get things being exempted from tax purely because they are based around an economic theory.
    Actually you do, but that is beside the point and irrelevant to this discussion AFAIC.
    :The big thing both sides of the atheist v theist fight need to realise is that the argument over religion is not an argument over personalities.
    Perhaps so but “personalities” on both sides of the atheist/theist divide certainly provide more heat than light to the argument over religion. Atheists should be every bit as wary of the “personalities” who represent them in that argument as religious believers. Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Myers are two obnoxious “personalities” that atheists might be better off not having as evangelical “high priests” of atheism.
    :It really isn’t about what Religious person A says, or what non-religious person B says, it is over whether religion is right, good and true or not.
    I disagree. When non-religious person B says something that is neither right, nor good, nor true they become open to legitimate criticism. Ditto for when religious person A says something that is neither right, nor good, nor true. You cannot completely separate religion or atheism from the “personalities” that represent each movement. If atheists don’t like hearing their public representatives being described as Atheist Supremacists etc. perhaps they should be more careful about who they allow to represent them. Greta is apparently a big fan of P.Z. Myers. That is fine by me but she had better get used to me and other people describing P.Z. Myers as a “fundamentalist atheist” or even an Atheist Supremacist bigot because his well-documented words and actions justify our use those less than flattering labels. . .
    :And to hold religion sacred simply because it is what you believe, well you believe all sorts of nonsense. So do I when I get right down to it.
    No kidding Bruce. You clearly believe the reams of nonsense that I just successfully rebutted point-by-point in this response to your nonsensical comments. Thanks for suggesting that most if not all religious beliefs are “nonsense” though you know what I think of atheists who make such blanket statements about religion and/or religious believers.
    :That doesn’t mean that nonsense gets a free pass just because you or I believe it, it means that when these ideas get discussed people will disagree with you or me, and there is every chance that they will be right.
    Agreed and I am confident that people reading this will see that you have spouted rather more nonsense here than I have. In fact I don’t think I have said anything here that can be dismissed as outright “nonsense”.
    :When we hold our ideas as ultimately sacred, such that a criticism of them is insulting us, then we set aside any claim to humility and embrace hubris – it is embracing the idea that we really do know everything, that we know for certain XYZ is right or ZYX is wrong.
    I and other theists are more than open to fair and reasonable criticism of our religious beliefs and practices, to say nothing of religion more generally, but an insult is an insult is an insult. And defamation is defamation is defamation. When an intolerant and obnoxious “fundamentalist atheist” has the gall to ridicule my monotheistic religious beliefs as nothing but “silliness and fantasy”, slander my inter-religious activities as a “cult”, and contemptuously dismiss my revelatory religious experience as “your psychotic experience” I have reasonable grounds to get my back up and consider him to be something of an anti-religious bigot. When other atheists behave similarly toward other believers they become open to similar criticism and similar labeling.
    :That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t put forward our ideas, or that we must drop them at the first sign of opposition, or that the truth is “Somewhere in the middle.”
    I would be the first to agree that the capital ‘T’ truth is never “in the middle”. The Truth is the Truth is the Truth and the truth is that *some* intolerant militant atheists have earned the labels that I and others, including some atheists. . . use to describe them.
    :But it does mean that when people disagree with us, it doesn’t make them “Supremists” it makes them people who disagree with us.
    Agreed. People only become “Supremacists” when their words and/or actions make it clear that they believe that the group they belong to is, or should be, superior to other groups. Those anti-religious atheists who consider religious believers to be less intelligent, or otherwise inferior to atheists, and even go so far as to advocate the repression, suppression, or outright abolition of theistic religions can be quite justifiably described as Atheist Supremacists AFAIAC.

  31. 31
    Chalicechick

    (((Would it make you feel better if I told you that I and other theists have voted for politicians who are almost certainly atheists? )))
    I do tend to forget that outside of America, atheist politicians can get elected.
    Here, it’s a very rare thing.
    At this point I don’t think we have any Senators who will admit to being atheists, and the first congressman to openly admit his atheism only did so two years ago, which was 26 years into his career as a congressman.
    CC

  32. 32
    Robin Edgar

    Greta, I am quite willing to let the FA/AS debate end on this thread but if other posters directly question or challenge me I believe that I should at least be allowed to rebut their comments. You allowed Bruce’s comment to stand so my rebuttal should be allowed to stand as well. If you want to remove my rebuttal you should also remove the Bruce Gorton comment that it directly responds to. If you decide to “memory hole” my comments I will reproduce them in a new thread on The Emerson Avenger blog.

  33. 33
    Robin Edgar

    CC I did say that I and other theists have voted for politicians who are *almost certainly* atheists. They did not wear their atheism on their sleeves but there was little reason to believe that they were religious. I do vote left of center so that sometimes means voting for socialist candidates such as NDP. Greta might be happy to hear that I have voted for openly gay candidates. Come to think of it, maybe it says something that American and Canadian politicians seem to be somewhat more comfortable being openly gay than openly atheist. . .

  34. 34
    Greta Christina

    Robin: I am not trying to shut down any and all discussion of the concept of “fundamentalist atheism.” (I reserve the right to do so, but I have not yet done so.) And I have neither banned you nor deleted any of your comments. I simply requested that the specific thread about it that I previously shut down — the one about Uncle Toms, Neville Chamberlains, Nazis, etc. — not be revived. Please respect this. Thank you.

  35. 35
    Chalicechick

    At least on a Congressional/Senatorial level, it’s very difficult to be “almost certainly” atheist.
    When I worked in congressional fundraising, I had a directory on my desk that listed every member of congress, their birthday, the name of their spouse and any kids, where they had gone to school, what their profession had been before they were elected, etc, etc and soforth.
    It also listed their religion and everybody listed one. Now as far as I know, the only religions that accept atheists are Unitarians, Scientologists and certain kinds of Buddhists. I think we currently have two UU members of congress and no Buddhists or Scientologists.
    So yeah, atheists pretty much can’t get elected in America and being “almost certainly” an atheist isn’t an option.
    Unless you’re saying that there are atheists secretly pretending to be Baptists so they can get elected. That’s at least possible. But that’s a pretty nasty accusation and I don’t know how we would prove what someone truly believes to any degree of certianty at all.
    CC

  36. 36
    Greta Christina

    Oh, P.S. to all: I’ve finally written an official comment policy. If you’re going to comment in this thread — either again or for the first time — please take a few moments to read it. Thanks.

  37. 37
    Robin Edgar

    Hi Greta,
    I did see your comment policy thread earlier and only just saw your private email to me minutes ago. I now have a better idea where you are coming from, especially in light of your two recent comments here. I really did misunderstand what you meant when you referred to the “toxic” thread. I am not consciously or actively trying to revive that allegedly “toxic” thread you closed. It was not me who raised the allegedly “toxic” words and phrases you mention above in any case. As you can see, I am simply responding to other people’s comments here and rebutting unfounded assumptions about, and misrepresentations of, what I have previously said here. It seems that some people here think they have psychic abilities and can read my mind. . .
    I think that I have more than adequately said my piece here. At least in terms of the “fundamentalist atheist” issue. I am prepared to let that issue drop on this thread if others are. I am also prepared to move further discussion of it over to my blog as I indicated. If someone else challenges me or questions me about that issue in this thread I will start a new thread on my blog and answer to them there.
    I may yet have some other things to say about your ‘How Can Atheists Be Good Allies?’ points though.
    Regards,
    Robin Edgar

  38. 38
    skepticscott

    My, you do go on, Robin. But in your Wagnerian response to Bruce, you make my former point very well that what you’re really railing against is anti-theism. As you repeat almost without let, it is the intolerance/criticism/ridicule/insult/whatever of religion and religious believers beyond some boundary that you yourself have determined (how, we don’t know) that makes you label someone a “fundamentalist atheist”. If you want to call that fundamentalist anti-theism, be my guest (though perhaps that isn’t a snappy enough phrase for you). But simple lack of belief in gods neither makes nor implies any judgment about those who do believe any more than belief in gods implies a judgment about those who don’t.
    As far as the word “Supremacist” goes, it is fundamental, black letter doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church that it is the One, True Church and that all other churches and all other religions fall short of providing salvation. In addition, not only the RCC, but many Protestant denominations have been active for centuries in trying to convert others to their particular brand of Christianity (by force in many cases). Inherent in such an attempt (no matter how politely it is made) is the arrogant and unshakable belief that your religion is superior to that of the people you are trying to convert. Are you willing to slap the completely apt “Supremacist” label on all of them as well? If not, I suggest you leave that word where it belongs
in the gutter.
    And just to address one more point about the “fundamentalism” of atheism:

    In short – yes.
    You fail in specifics here, apparently going just on emotion, but here’s a bet for you. Put Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and Vic Stenger in a room with 25 Christian soldiers who have lost limbs in Iraq. Have the soldiers all pray to God to grow their limbs back they way they were before. If all of those limbs (or even one) started growing back before their eyes, I’ll wager that their atheism would be shaken and that they’d start thinking very seriously about a higher power. And that’s an easy one. Anyone could come up with a dozen more with a few moments thought.

  39. 39
    Greta Christina

    Skepticscott — and everyone else in this thread — Please read the Comment Policy I just posted. In particular, please read the section on maintaining a civil and respectful tone towards other commenters in the blog. This is not Pharyngula, and I expect commenters here to keep the snark and personal sniping to a minimum. Thank you.

  40. 40
    Bruce Gorton

    Greta
    My intent with what follows is not to reopen an old wound, it is sort of related to it.
    Robin Edgar
    First off, I wasn’t arguing that theists are all supremacists. I was arguing that the so-called “new” atheists aren’t, and who atheists tend to vote into power in the democratic countries they live in, puts the lie to the “Supremacist” label.
    Religion, is an idea we disagree with, but there are other ideas someone can hold. Nobody is ever just one thing.
    There are a million and one things which I support, or oppose, and atheism is just one thing in that long list.
    It is not actually the biggest issue in who I want in a president, I would like a secularist but otherwise I don’t much care about the religion of my president.
    And anyway, as scepticscott said, if we go on your use of the word, just about anyone is supremacist – and the word would lose its meaning.
    This isn’t so much an argument over atheism though, this is an argument over language (Which given my job, I actually care deeply about.)
    Certain words have power, which when abused become nothing more than swear words if negative, or babble when not.
    Take the word “Hero.” It used to mean something, it was someone who meritted significant praise. Well now it means someone who phoned 911 or is kind of good at their job. The word got devalued by overuse – now it is just babble. It is the equivelant of calling someone extra nice.
    Terrorist has gotten devalued too. It is no longer the word it once was, now it just means someone who happens to fight on the other side – one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. It is a swear word now, nothing more.
    And what you are trying to do is the same to the word supremacist.
    I don’t call the Catholic Church supremacist even though the Pope recently blamed all the world’s ills on “Godlessness” because beyond the dictionary meaning of the word, “supremacist” has power and should thus be used sparingly.
    There is nuance to language, that nuance that gives heat to one’s words. While you are trying to defend your use of the word “Supremacist” you miss that nuance in your defence.

  41. 41
    Dwight

    Just wanted to say as a liberal protestant, in the denomination called the Disciples of Christ, and as someone who supports the separation of church and state, evolution, religious pluralism, glbt equality, reproductive justice and the like, I really appreciated this post. A lot of the concerns many atheists have are shared in many religious communities and so there’s a lot of work to be done, but more allies than people often realize.

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