The nice antitheist strategy

Alex Gabriel has an important essay, “My atheism will not be politically correct“, which discusses antitheism, and discusses the discussion surrounding antitheism. It’s common for many atheists to say that they are no longer antitheists, saying they now realize religion is not the most important problem in the world, and religion sometimes even helps people in times of tragedy. Furthermore, a lot of atheists are jerks and they find more allies among religious people.

Alex’s critique is that all these points, while they may have some merit, are unrelated to the issue of antitheism.  The only question is, would the world be a better place without religion in it?

At the surface, this might just seem to be a disagreement over how we define “antitheism”. But it’s more than that, it’s about how we choose that definition in the first place, and for what purpose. Many atheists choose to define “antitheism” as an extremist position, one that they contrast with their own position. This rhetorical strategy renders oneself more palatable to religious people, basically by throwing other atheists under the bus. Alex prefers a different strategy, where he doesn’t hold his tongue just to make religious people comfortable.

I also unhesitatingly identify as an antitheist, although for not quite the same reasons. I strive for a particular image: a radical queer atheist who is nonetheless very nice. In other words, I aim to break stereotypes. I do not think that this is something everyone needs to do; rather, I myself am well-positioned to do it, so why shouldn’t I do it? And an important part of breaking atheist stereotypes is making it clear that I am in fact an atheist, and why yes I even oppose the “nice” religions and do not think they are very nice at all.

What makes me well-positioned to break atheist stereotypes is that I am already nice to begin with. And I can’t really help it. To illustrate this, I will describe the last serious interaction I had with religious people specifically about religion.

It was a year or two ago, and yes it really is that infrequent. The atheist student group got together with a Christian group for lunch so that we might have some friendly dialogue/argument. I asked them about their majors and tried to determine where they positioned themselves among the various denominations. I got sidetracked asking them about the organizational structure of their student group (a personal interest). Then I recall being interrupted by another atheist student who I had never met before, who started explaining why he decided that religion was ultimately harmful, a spiel that went on for the rest of lunch, with no opportunity for response. So, uh, that was that.

The moral of the story is that I’m not nearly interested in arguing directly with religious people as are other atheists I’ve met. Also, I hardly have any opportunity to argue with strongly religious people, so why would I bother trying to get good at it?

I have a lot more interactions with people who I will refer to as “non-religious”. Either they’re nominally part of a religion but don’t put much effort into it, or they identify as non-religious but not atheists, or they’re atheists but dislike confronting religion. Well, I have an atheist blog that makes no effort to persuade or dialogue with religious people. I also interact heavily with ace communities, which are predominantly non-religious. And most of my friends are highly educated queer people.

For non-religious people, I don’t win by winning arguments. The barriers are primarily social and psychological. Many of them are simply uncomfortable talking about religion. They are uncomfortable forming and expressing opinions about any but the most extremist of religious beliefs. They are uncomfortable doing anything to upset the status quo, and also uncomfortable to see me doing it.

My goal isn’t to persuade people to prioritize atheism or become atheist activists. I myself don’t prioritize atheism and am not much of an atheist activist. But I want to show people that atheist activism is reasonable. I want to show that it is possible to move past that anxiety, to treat religion just like any other topic. I’m tired of people acting like it’s a faux pas merely to disagree with people’s religions. I’m tired of radical queers rebutting tone arguments, and then nodding along when the exact same arguments are applied to atheism.

Let’s return to those atheists who say they have stopped being antitheists. I am fine with people calling themselves whatever they want to call themselves. But I have a couple issues with the things that former antitheists say.

First of all, in my personal experience, I am nice about religion because that’s all I’m really temperamentally suited for. I imagine that this is also true for most other atheists–their approach to religion is primarily determined by temperament and personal experiences. Perhaps for some atheists, their experiences and temperament cause them to shift from a more confrontational to less confrontational approach. But so what? That doesn’t mean that they “grew up” and left behind other atheists in a less mature stage of development. It’s just their personal trajectory, and they should own it.

Second, former antitheists sometimes say that they don’t oppose religion in general, and only oppose religious fundamentalism. Well, you oppose what you want to oppose, but I find this perspective to be lacking in compassion. I didn’t come from fundamentalist background, I came from a nominally Catholic background. And let’s just say that I’m really happy I left. I agree with Alex Gabriel:

Most damage done by religious beliefs doesn’t involve clinic shootings or suicide bombings: it happens in small, unremarked-on ways, in people’s health and finances and schools and sex lives and relationships, but if you could collect all the tears cried over it, you could put out every burning building on earth.

When atheists say that they only have a problem with fundamentalism, it feels like a feminist saying they only have a problem with MRAS, or a queer activist saying they only have a problem with, well, fundamentalists. Really, that’s all you can think of? What about implicit bias, structural bias, disparate impact? What about intersectional issues? What about cultural norms, assumptions, stereotypes? What about the culture of silence? Or even fictional representation? It’s fine to focus on fundamentalism if that’s your true passion, but atheist activism is in a sorry state if that’s the only thing anyone ever talks about.


  1. polishsalami says

    Not a lot to disagree with here.

    If you consider Theism (or religion in general) to be a negative influence on the human race, then you are in some sense an antitheist, even if you don’t identify as such, and never engage the religious in debate. Antitheism is more a state of mind than an identity.

  2. DonDueed says

    In the US, at least, there’s also the almost total lack of atheist voices within government at all levels. I doubt whether softening our antitheism is going to provide much help in that area.

    Some have made the analogy to the LGBT+ rights movement. The oppression and lack of representation didn’t start to ease up until folks began to come out of the closet and make themselves heard.

  3. martha says

    I still would like a label that focuses more on anti-belief than anti-theo. I grew up much more than nominally Catholic and I quite agree with Alex’s description of the trouble this can cause people, but a lot of the trouble Alex described in their own life arose from their mother’s inclination to believe things. Don’t remember which writer or speaker I heard say, “I try not to believe things,” but that cut through quite a bit of crap for me, since I had been taught that believing was good, not just by religion, but by Peter Pan and Frosty the Snowman and so on, and as an adult I was always looking for the right things to believe. Seems like religions are bad for people when they encourage 1) belief and 2) reliance on authority rather than reason and humanist/utilitarian principles to answer ethical questions. I agree that religions do usually do this but I don’t think that this is their whole or only possible story. Sometimes religion is a creative act for the purpose of creating community and ties with other people.
    As an example, I give my cousin’s gay-Jewish-Catholic wedding. She and her wife rounded up a female rabbi who was willing to do a mixed-religion wedding and a female celebrant from Dignity (a sort queer Catholics in exile organization). They wrote a wedding service including elements from both Jewish and Catholic taditions. People from both their religious communities and all members of both families came, including members of my own who I thought might have been too broke, too busy or too pious, and everyone was happy. I have a hard time seeing any of this as a bad thing.
    The religious people I can get behind are people who, as I put it to myself, take responsibilty for their gods. In so far as they have power to do so, they seize the wheels of their traditions and communities and try to steer in a more rational, more humanist direction. I am not anti-that.

  4. Chancellor of the Exchequer says

    It seems common also that simply calling yourself an atheist automatically puts you in the stereotypical antitheist bracket anyway in the minds of more than a couple theists.

    I identify as both depending on whether or not the person/group I’m engaged with asks me why I don’t like religions in general.

  5. brucegee1962 says

    @martha, I think there’s a third problem with Christianity, that I think of whenever Christians talk about “Biblical morality.” That’s the idea, which is shot through both Testaments, of a “Chosen people.” When you grow up internalizing that idea, it encourages you to look at the world through “us and them” glasses. If some people are chosen and some aren’t — well, I must be one of the chosen ones, right? Because I’m a good person, and all these people around me are good people. But somewhere, there are some people who aren’t chosen. Who are they? How am I supposed to treat them differently than the “good” people? That kind of attitude goes very deep.

  6. martha says

    @brucegee, Agree. I’m not fond of the chosen people narrative, but I don’t think it’s confined to religion. Us inheritors and guardians of the European Enlightment are at least a little susceptible, and that’s before we even get to communists, or even plain old democrats and republicans.

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