We see this argument a lot among atheists. And my usual response is to say, “Does not!” I usually point to history, and point out how effective it’s been to have both confrontationalism and diplomacy in a social change movement. I point out the effectiveness of the “good bad/ bad cop” dynamic (hey, there’s a reason cops use it!). I point to the Overton window — the idea of moving the center, and of extremists making centrists look more reasonable by comparison — and I argue that confrontationalists are actually making diplomats’ job easier, not harder. I point out that firebrands are very good at getting visibility… and that visibility is crucial to community building as well as to countering myths. I point out that different people have different temperaments, and are more likely to be moved by different methods of activism: some people are better able to hear a calm, sympathetic voice, while others are better able to hear a passionate cry for justice, and still others are more likely to hear a mocking, satirical jeer about how the Emperor has no clothes. And I point out that activists also have different temperaments, and that even if polite diplomacy were, on average, more effective than fiery confrontation, that’s not very helpful to activists who excel at confrontation and suck at diplomacy. (And vice versa.)
Today, I want to respond somewhat differently.
Today, I want to ask: “What goals are we talking about, exactly?”
I don’t think all atheists — even all atheist activists — have the same goals. And I think this may be the source of some of this conflict and debate that we’re having.
For many atheists, the primary goal of atheist activism is to reduce anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, and to work towards more complete separation of church and state. Their main goal is to get people to see atheists as happy, ethical, productive members of society, with full and equal rights and responsibilities. They want to see atheists be fully accepted into society, and to have our atheism recognized as legitimate. They want to counter myths and misconceptions about atheists. And they see angry, confrontational, firebrand atheists as feeding into those myths, and alienating religious believers, and thus making everyone’s job harder.
But not all atheists see this as their main goal.
For many atheists, our main goal is persuading the world out of religion.
I mean, yes, of course, most atheist activists would love to see anti-atheist bigotry disappear, and are working towards that. But many of us — I’m one of them — see that as only one of our goals. Many of us don’t just want a world where believers and atheists get along and let each other practice their religion or lack thereof in peace. Many of us want a world where there’s no religion. We don’t want to see this happen by law or violence or any kind of force, of course. But we think religion isn’t just mistaken. We think it’s harmful. Some of think it’s appallingly harmful. Some of us think it’s inherently harmful: that the very qualities that make religion unique are exactly what make it capable of doing terrible harm. What’s more, we see religion as not just hurting atheists. We see it as hurting billions of believers. So we’re working towards a world where it no longer exists.
And some of us — I’m one of them — actually think persuading people out of religion is a more achievable goal than persuading believers to tolerate and accept atheists. We think that the very nature of religion makes it difficult for believers to accept people with different beliefs… and damn near impossible for them to accept people with no beliefs. (Daniel Dennett argued this very eloquently in “Breaking the Spell”: the very fact that religion is unsupported by any good evidence, paradoxically, makes people cling to it more tightly, and defend it more passionately.) We see ecumenicalism and tolerance among believers as the exception, not the rule. And we think that, if atheists want a world in which atheism is more widely accepted, we’re way more likely to get that by creating a world in which atheism is a whole lot more common.
Now. Even if I accepted that anti-atheist bigotry and church-state separation were our primary goals, I’d still argue for confrontationalism being a valuable part of our strategy. For visibility and the Overton window, if for no other reason. I will say, though, that if those really were our sole goals, or our primary goals, I might well be advocating that we prioritize diplomacy more than we do, and dial back on the confrontationalism a bit. If our main goal is convincing the world that atheists are nice, then getting in people’s faces might not be our most effective tactic.
But convincing the world that atheists are nice is not our main goal. Not for everyone. For many of us, getting legal rights for atheists and making sure they’re enforced — such as the right to organize high school groups, or the right to keep custody of our kids, or the right to not have religious ideas taught to our kids in public schools, or the right to be soldiers in the U.S. military and not have religion shoved down our throats — is our top priority… regardless of whether people think we’re nice along the way. And for many of us, persuading more people out of religion and into atheism is our top priority. We think that’s the best strategy for achieving our other goals. And we think it’s a hugely worthwhile goal just for its own sake.
Now. If you disagree — either about the best tactics for reaching any of our goals, or about whether persuading people out of religion is a worthwhile goal in the first place — then by all means, let’s have that conversation.
But if you’re arguing that confrontationalism — arguing with believers about religion, or making fun of it, or insulting it — is hurting our cause, then before you pursue that argument, I think it’s worth asking: Which cause, exactly, are you talking about?
Because we may not be talking about the same one.