Being an atheist doesn’t excuse you from doing your homework

Over on Camels With Hammers, Daniel has reminded us of several temptations that atheists should watch out for. It’s excellent advice, starting with this.

We atheists need to remind ourselves that figuring out that the interventionist gods of the major religions are false is a fairly easy intellectual discovery. We are not geniuses or especially smarter than the average religious believer simply on account of our ability to figure this out. We have just, for whatever combination of reasons, either assiduously avoided or managed to escape the emotional, social, and identity entanglements that cloud the minds of otherwise smart religious people. We need to recognize it is just stupid to call religious people stupid just because their ideas are ridiculous.

In general, I like to promote what I refer to as “atheist evangelism” as much as I can. But there are traps that atheists can fall into, when we get overconfident and lazy in the belief that atheism makes us smarter and less prone to errors. Recently I’ve made a similar point in a number of replies to the show’s email which I would like to share.
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Evangelists panic when they’re losing ground

Hark, for I’m going to tell you a tale of olden times. Back in the days of yore, when our lives were little better than those of the cavemen, there were no podcasts. In those days, all we had for entertainment on long drives was an archaic device known as “The Radio.” On this radio, I used to listen to a lot of Christian shows, with my favorite being “The Bible Answer Man” with Hank Hanegraaff.

In these more enlightened times, I have so much regular entertainment to choose from that I can easily fill all my driving time and more with shows which confirm my own personal beliefs and prejudices, and much of the time I do. But when Beth asked her Facebook friends what fundie podcasts she could listen to last week, it reminded me. How is Hank doing? I really should start listening again.

And I’m so glad I did. Because if I hadn’t listened to the August 1 episode, I never would have run into this great article by Jerry Coyne. It’s titled: “As atheists know, you can be good without God.”

To put it mildly, Hank did not like this article.

Here are a few excerpts.

…[I]t’s clear that even for the faithful, God cannot be the source of morality but at best a transmitter of some human-generated morality.

This isn’t just philosophical rumination, because God — at least the God of Christians and Jews — repeatedly sanctioned or ordered immoral acts in the Old Testament. These include slavery (Leviticus 25:44-46), genocide (Deuteronomy 7:1-2; 20:16-18), the slaying of adulterers and homosexuals, and the stoning of non-virgin brides (Leviticus 20:10, 20:13, Deuteronomy 22:20-21).

Was God being moral when, after some children made fun of the prophet Elisha’s bald head, he made bears rip 42 of them to pieces (2 Kings 2:23-24)? Even in the New Testament, Jesus preaches principles of questionable morality, barring heaven to the wealthy (Matthew 19:24), approving the beating of slaves (Luke 12:47-48), and damning sinners to the torments of hell (Mark 9:47-48). Similar sentiments appear in the Quran.

Should we be afraid that a morality based on our genes and our brains is somehow inferior to one handed down from above? Not at all. In fact, it’s far better, because secular morality has a flexibility and responsiveness to social change that no God-given morality could ever have.

Sentiments I think most of us can get behind, but that’s no big surprise, right? Most of you readers are on Jerry Coyne’s side, as I am.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever heard Hank Hanegraaff, but he’s got this very calm, very soothing voice, with what I would describe as almost a Jim Henson-like quality. He sounds reassuring, authoritative, certain of his facts. Most of the time.

On this particular occasion, as he talked about the terrible injustice of Coyne’s article, he just kept getting more and more agitated. He didn’t actually refute these claims about the Bible, mind you — he threw them out there, dismissed them by saying they were “out of context,” and then said he’d go over them in depth on another day. Which I loved, because there’s no more effective way to stoke an opposing argument than to repeat it without refuting it properly.

By the time he was done with the subject, Hank was doing a passable impression of Yosemite Sam, bringing up the usual red herrings like Mao Zedong and Pol Pot (even implying that Pol Pot was just a humanist trying earnestly to set up an “egalitarian society,” which made me say “WTF?”)

The best line of the show, however, was when Hank said in a voice of grave and sorrowful concern: “The thing that I find particularly troubling about this article… is that when you read it without discernment skills, you can end up believing it.”

Dead on, Hank. Of course, with proper analysis, it’s even more plausible. But I think Jerry Coyne should graciously accept the compliment that his rhetoric is so good that people without discernment skills are more likely to accept his reasoning than the Bible stories that they usually take as a given.

That’s what bugs evangelists about the internet in general. They’re used to stating their case in a vacuum. When someone like Hank Hanegraaff says, as he did to a caller later in the show, “God loves you so much that He sent His son to die for you,” he’s counting on the assumption that some rude and dickish atheist isn’t going to pop up and ask something like “How do you know that?” And when they solemnly proclaim that only God makes you moral, they hate it when you point to passages where Jesus endorses beating your slaves.

Similar sentiments abound these days; just a few weeks ago, Josh McDowell was saying that “The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have… whether you like it or not.”

Equal access? That’s what we’re gaining that’s so terrifying? Apparently religion can only thrive if they can muzzle the atheists, shut them up, shame them into not making a peep while we’re being slandered.

Keep on scaring them, folks.

On public arguments

Today’s email comes from Mark in Colorado.

I work in a Defense firm where everybody is either a fundamentalist Christian or Mormon. I got into a discussion with a mormon guy who is always spouting some stupid shit. Anyway, I confronted him about his ideas and after a few minutes of discussion he realized I wasn’t a pushover, so he switched tactics and started bringing up quantum physics (he feels that proves everything), psuedo science, non sequiturs, real science mixed with nonsense — usually in the same sentence. Just for an example, he said he believed in evolution but described a cartoonish if not naive version. I tried to correct him and tell him he had it wrong, but he switched scripts and said loudly, “You don’t believe in evolution”! It went on with a lot of stuff like that to muddy the waters and it seemed to have impressed people in my group.

My question is, have you ever run across anyone like that and how did you handle it?

In a situation like that, my first rule is that it’s important to keep your cool. I understand that it’s difficult in this situation, but you should calmly step back and assess what you are getting out of the argument. There are, in my mind, three reasons that you would want to argue with somebody:

  1. You think you can change that person’s mind in some way.
  2. You think you can influence the opinion of people who are observing the discussion.
  3. You are genuinely interested in the other person’s arguments, or would like practice responding to them for your own education. Or it’s fun.

These three points boil down to a question of “Who’s your audience?” The answers are, respectively, 1. the Mormon; 2. somebody else; 3. Yourself. How you answer the audience question will have a lot of influence on how you should approach the discussion.

If the Mormon is your audience, you’ve already decided that he is kind of an idiot, so obviously you’re not going to make major gains with him. Your best bet is to find the areas where he’s most badly misunderstanding mainstream science, point out what is wrong in a straightforward way, and steer him toward credible literature on how it actually works. In order to do this, you’ll have to understand the real science well enough to break it down that way, so maybe some extra reading is in order.

If a third party is your audience, you can start out winning big just by keeping your cool. If the other guy is visibly upset, and you are not, then it’s hard to side with him. You said that his rant seemed to impress people in your group, so it’s possible that they were swayed by it. Maybe you’re having your discussion with the wrong person. If you think there is somebody a bit more reasonable who is on the fence and simply doesn’t understand the issues involved, I’d look for an opportunity to talk privately with that person (or people). By expanding your influence to other people and getting them on your side, you’re less likely to find yourself alone in future discussions.

If you are your own audience, then go ahead and argue to a frustrating standstill, then evaluate the specifics of the conversation later. Toss out the points which sounded like a stupid waste of time to you, but remember the points that left you struggling. Maybe the claims about quantum physics sounded like bunk to you, but you couldn’t express why they’re bunk. In that case, it’s time to educate yourself. Go find some real information about science, preferably from a good, well-spoken popular science writer. It won’t help in the current discussion, but it will improve your broad base of knowledge the next time the discussion comes up.

If none of the above are a good audience in this situation, maybe you should check your motives again and see if it’s really worth your time to be talking to this lunkhead. I wouldn’t pick an argument with a homeless guy in the street shouting at people, and you shouldn’t waste time in a situation where nobody has anything to learn.

Whatever the case, remember that a casual debate is a skirmish, not the war. You can lose a battle and it doesn’t ruin you as a human being. Just try to bear in mind your long term goals: becoming a knowledgeable and well-rounded individual; and helping good and correct memes to spread through the general population.

Following the script

We got an excellent question from a fan in Perth, Australia, enough that I wanted to share my answer online.

A friend of mine regaled me with a tale a while back, about a theist spouting a well worn apologetic to a prominent atheist. Rather than shoot it down with a just as well worn counter, he simply replied with “did you really think that would work?” Now, I don’t know the whole story, but apparently said atheist went on to berate said theist about stupid they were for thinking that of all the things that this atheist had heard and read, it was this one guy spouting this one thing that he probably got of some website that would change his mind. While I’m not a fan of berating people, It does strike me as a valid idea, the whole “do you really think that’ll stump me” response.

However, following a lively debate with some fellow atheist friends a while back, I was on the receiving end of a sudden rush of perspective. You see, they were just saying the same old stuff as well. The usual cookies about the christian god being immoral, how many different religions there are all over the world, the nonsense of disregarding science just because it can’t explain EVERYTHING… same old crap you hear from people with an education. It got me thinking, what if the shoe was on the other foot? My girlfriend’s mother is an Anglican priest and I know for a fact that if I just spouted one of the usual chestnuts to her, she’d have an answer pretty quickly, probably one that’d get me off the script, if there is such a thing as an atheist script.

I suppose my question is, shouldn’t a skeptic be trying to come up with new responses all the time, forever? I hate to go us vs them, but the idea of stock responses to stock questions and insular self congratulation seems very, very, well… dumb. In Perth, we don’t have many fundies at all, but a lot of people are so vaguely middle class white spiritual, anti-science. The usual crap, “can’t prove everything” what the bleep do we know pseudo-spiritual nonsense, and when I try to have honest discourse with them, it just descends into stock responses and I give up. It’s very disheartening.

To condense it, my question is: As people who reject claims on the basis of logic and reason, is it enough just to have stock responses? Shouldn’t we be trying to come up with new, better and always unexpected ways to exercise our skepticism? Hope you can shed some light on my ramblings.

And my answer is: Yes and no.

It is a mistake to completely dismiss the value of having an arsenal of sound bites. The thing is, you use your stock responses exactly as long as they work well. At the point where they stop working, you either enhance them or abandon them for something that works better.

For example. My stock response to “God must have created the universe because it couldn’t have created itself” is probably always going to be some variant of asking, or leading into, the question “What created God?”

Theists don’t like this. They ridicule it. They say it’s like a question that a little child would ask. They come up with variants like the Kalam argument, in which instead of saying “Everything that exists has a cause” they say instead, “Everything that begins to exist has a cause” — thereby creating a special pleading loophole. If you’re attentive enough, then you can see where the sleight of hand occurs, much as you can look at a “proof” that your high school buddy used to produce showing that 1=2, and identify the fallacious step where he divided by zero or something.

The thing is, the fact that someone will ridicule and dismiss an argument is not, in itself, a demonstration that the argument is not working. I could enter a history class and loudly scoff: “What’s that?! You expect me to believe that Henry VIII became the King of England in 1509??? You’re so ignorant!” I don’t doubt that if I tried this against a bunch of teachers, at least a few of them would be so insecure that they wouldn’t argue with you, lapsing into embarrassed silence or changing the subject. This seems to be the disposition of many biology teachers today who would otherwise be teaching evolution.

Your atheist friend who says “Did you really think THAT would work?” is using a tactic. It is neither inherently good nor bad; it’s just potentially effective or not effective in a particular situation. The tactic is a combination of poisoning the well and psychological intimidation. He wants to give the opponent and/or the audience the emotional feeling that the opponent is ignorant and the atheist knows more. That feeling may or may not be justified, and the intimidation may or may not work.

Like any tactic, this one has its strengths and weaknesses. If you pull this trick, and your opponent stammers out some apologies and tries to talk about something else, you’ve just gained a point of data saying that it is a good tactic for you. You pulled it off. On the other hand, do this in an inappropriate way, and you look like an arrogant prick. For an example where this approach bombed, check out the historical Bush/Gore debate, where voters came away with a lasting impression of Gore loudly sighing, rolling his eyes, and getting in Bush’s personal space — which was perceived as needlessly condescending, irrespective of whether Gore’s impatience was warranted or not.

Scorning your opponent this way is like throwing a lot of money into the pot in poker. It may be that you are putting all that money in because you genuinely have a good hand — i.e., you are armed with better facts, your opponent really is ignorant, and you can prove it handily when it’s time to show your cards. On the other hand, it may be a bluff, and you’re secretly hoping that your opponent will fold under your withering gaze so that you can collect the money without a prolonged fight that you stand to lose.

And yes, religious people apply this tactic all the time. Let me throw a few book titles at you:

  • You Can Lead an Atheist to Evidence, But You Can’t Make Him Think (Ray Comfort)
  • I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist (Norman Geisler)
  • Evolution, A Fairy Tale for Grownups! (Ray again — sorry, but that guy is a walking textbook on this technique)

So as you noticed, it happens on both sides. What, then, do you do when somebody attacks you with that “I’ve already heard that argument” line while showing obvious contempt?

I think the most important rule here is to keep your cool, don’t flinch, and find a way to do a quick end-run around the brush off. The best way to do this, I think, is to highlight the person’s arrogance as their weakness rather than their strength.

This is a place where the “reductio ad absurdum” technique often comes in handy. Ask yourself: “Okay, so this guy is acting as if my argument isn’t even worthy of consideration. What implications also follow from his dismissal?” Highlighting obvious contradictions is useful, and so is the question “How do you know…?”

Here’s a sample dialogue.

Theist: “Everything has a cause. Since the chain can’t go back infinitely, there must be a God.” (Note: oversimplified, in some cases.)
Atheist: “What created God?”
Theist: “That’s a ridiculous question. It’s something a child would ask.”
Atheist: “Oh, so you don’t think everything had a cause.”

(Reversal. Instead of demanding that the theist acknowledge your point, you accept his dismissal and calmly look for
a contradiction.)

Theist: “Well I don’t mean that everything has a cause. Everything which begins to exist has a cause. But God is eternal.”
Atheist: “How do you know that?”

(The theist just tried to inject an assertion, again counting on the assumption that it’s so obvious that only a fool would challenge it. Don’t be intimidated by this.)

The conversation may go in any number of directions at this point — my money’s on “science vs. faith as a means for knowing things.” The important thing, though, is that you find a way around the theist baldly asserting a certainty that he has not earned.

As with any argument, it’s a game. If you fold, then it doesn’t matter how unsupported your opponent was in reality; you still lose. On the flip side, if your opponent calls you on your claim and you can’t back it up, you may well lose worse, because then your opponent has condescended to you and then proven that the condescension was justified. That’s the gamble you take when you are arrogant.

As you probably noticed, you very much should have an arsenal of “opening moves” that, by and large, don’t have to vary much. If you trot out a move and you see your opponent driven before you (and, of course, hear the lamentation of the women!) then you keep doing that. To someone who doesn’t argue on a regular basis, this can look easy, even lazy, and perhaps very risky.

The critical point here is that the opening is not the whole game. Good for you if you can occasionally checkmate your opponent in three moves and that’s all it takes. (Fear Edward Current!) But if your opponent doesn’t cave right away, then what is going to determine your success is your ability to defend the sound bite, to think on the fly and justify your reasoning, not just to quote it.

Developing opening moves does not necessarily have to be a solo, creative process. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you talk to a new person. You should by all means watch other people’s debates, see what works and what doesn’t, and shamelessly steal the stuff you like. That doesn’t make you a mindless parrot, it makes you a smart shopper. But if you use these arguments and then you lose, you should always be willing to take a step back. Ask yourself: Did his response win because it really is actually logically superior? Has he actually made a point? Has he uncovered a genuine flaw in my thought process?

If that turns out to be true, it may well be that you have to dump that argument from your arsenal. The unfit do not survive, it’s evolution in action. (And please note that this is intellectual Darwinism, not social Darwinism. I’m advocating the death and abandonment of ideas, not people.)

But that’s not the only outcome. You can look for other cases where people have had to deal with that same argument, and find a response that will get you a step further in your next conversation. And in that case, you will become more confident and your response will be stronger each time you face that argument.

Random Thoughts at

I’ve mentioned before that I try to spend time at’s Agnostic/Atheist section hosted by Austin Cline. The site offers a lot of good things, not the least of which is a good atheist community forum and an often-updated blog. Recently I posted a few comments to some of the blog posts there, and thought I’d share. The site, in case anyone is interested is at the following location:

In response to the post: “Myth: You’re Not Really an Atheist, You Just Want to be Contrary”

In response to another comment in the comments section:

They are projecting. You’re correct. I had a talk last night about this very thing. Religion is implanted into infants/children. Later, when they “feel god” they don’t understand that it’s an idea that has been artificially implanted. It was drilled in so early on that they think it’s as inherent as “not liking peas” or some such.

Even when they’re confronted with a realization that their “arguments” for god’s existence don’t make sense, they can’t shake that “feeling” that god is “there.” So, even if you can reason them out of all sorts of things, that last bit, the existence of god, still holds tenaciously. This is where we get statements like “I just know there is a god.” Or “I just feel it.” Or the disturbing “I know that I know that I know.” These are people who were used as children as meme depositories–used by a viral idea, spread by other infected adult minds/people.

When you say you don’t “feel” their god or acknowledge it, it’s impossible for them to believe it. (1) They “feel” it. (2) Everyone they grew up with likely told them they “feel” it–all the adults they trusted, mom/dad/sunday school teacher/preacher, perhaps even friends. And (3) they’ve been taught that feeling is implanted by god in every human heart. And that’s the explanation they hold to for how they “feel” it–and why they reject it when you say you don’t share that.

One of the most eye-opening things to me when I began to get outside the religious box was understanding atheists who were secularly raised did not have the things I’d been taught are inherent such as “feelings” a god exists or “supreme fear of death.” Many churches teach you’re born with an innate sense of “god” and later, as an evil/flawed adult you “sear” your conscience–and drive it out. But if that’s true, why work so hard to instill it into children? And why do secular kids not express this “feeling” even in their youth?

It’s a lie, but one that children are immersed in to the point it really does become the only reality they know. Breaking that spell is a task, for sure.

In response to the post: “Passive vs. Aggressive Atheism – Should Atheists Be Passive or Aggressive?”

I think a lot depends on where a person lives (how much influence religion exercises over his/her life in his/her region) as to whether a person is motivated to “engage” or be critical.

I’ve been asked a lot: “Why do you care what theists think?” Beyond 9-11, I can list a slew of crap religion is doing to impact the state in which I live, Texas. It’s not “benign” in my state. And if we didn’t constantly slap down the tentacles of religious invasion into state law, state education, and state politics, it would creep along invading every aspect of our lives here. What would stop it if not people standing up in opposition?

But I have learned as well that no small number of people refuse to reason and aren’t interested in dialoging rationally about ideas. These people won’t be reasoned with, and whether I adopt a kind or harsh approach seems to result in the same thing–that they won’t reason and they maintain their stance regardless of evidence in opposition to their beliefs.

This person, whether they’re “abused” (verbally, not physically) or treated kindly, I don’t care. Neither method will impact them any better. BUT, people listening and watching the exchange ARE impacted, and what I’ve seen is that if stupid ideas are taken to task in a harsh way, many people who are “reachable,” but who share similar views will contact us and say, “I saw the episode where you lambasted that creationist. I was raised creationist, and never questioned it until I saw how foolish that caller looked during that exchange.”

Even though this viewer shared the same ideology–he was able to watch safely from the sidelines as his perspective was criticized, and objectively consider whether it sounded reasonable. And when he saw fair mockery of the irrational nature of the idea, he felt no sting of personal attack, and assessed the content of the statements without being offput by the “meanness” of the responses.

For every person publicly attacked, I’ve begun to find (because I hear from them daily) there are MANY others who benefit from such attacks–by having the benefit of being able to view them and consider their own positions from the sidelines. One such person “made example of” can be publicly “strung up” metaphorically–as a lesson to others to be more critical of their own beliefs.

The scathing approach has a great benefit. And until I got more involved in the atheist community, I probably wouldn’t have seen or acknowledged that. I am, naturally, a fairly kind person. I am often harsh in response to abstract concepts, but far more friendly when I engage an actually human being–again, generally.

But many atheists I work with are less kind, and I have seen the responses to them, and outside of the individual who is being assaulted (again metaphorically), they _do_ have demonstrated beneficial results that I can’t deny. I can’t argue with success. And seeing people write in to say “that lashing you put on that caller really made me think harder about what _I_ believe.” That’s priceless. That helped someone.

On keeping your cool

An email friend, whom I’ll call “Carl,” (he can identify himself in the comments if he feels like it) sent me a message with the subject “Could you help?” It contained a few letters exchanged with a pastor named Jesse. It seems that some of Carl’s well-meaning friends don’t care for his atheism, and therefore sent Jesse after him to change his mind.

I won’t quote the entire exchange. Carl started off well but then after a couple of rounds said this:

Jesse, anyone that believes in any “Man Made” religion is not only superstitious, but harmful to society and has a serious moral dilemma to deal with. All religions are hurtful to the progress of all science and mankind in general, the sooner people learn this and think for themselves the better off everyone will be.

It’s a shame what you do for a living really. Taking advantage of innocent people with lies and false promises of eternal punishment and damnation if they fail to believe as you do.

Are you truly happy in your chosen line of work? I don’t know how you sleep at night knowing that you preying on people’s insecurities and lack of knowledge.

Jesse got extremely huffy and basically accused Carl of being an intellectual lightweight, concluding:

Unfortunately, further discussions will take viable witnessing time away from those who are seeking our Savior rather than those who have clearly rejected Him after 25 years of holding the title “Christian”.

Again, that the burden of proof that God does not exist falls solely on you.

Carl came away from this exchange feeling annoyed and wondering how he could have gotten across to the Christian about how burden of proof works. I have a lot more thoughts about the way this conversation went though, so here’s what I wrote back.

I hate to say it, but in a small way I agree with Jesse. It was kind of rude of you come at him with a personal attack, accusing him of taking advantage of people and deliberately lying. It may have been cathartic for you to be able to tell him what you really feel, but it’s no way to start a mutually respectful debate where he might be willing to listen to your opinions.

It sounds to me as if he contacted you unsolicited, but I imagine that you WANT something from this guy. If all you wanted was to be left alone, then hey — mission accomplished. He just essentially told you that he’s moving on to fresher targets, and shan’t pester you again. Great! But the fact that you wrote to me indicates that you are bothered by this response and wish the exchange had gone differently.

What do you want out of the discussion? I can’t answer that. Do you want to justify yourself to the pastor? Do you want to beat him soundly and then show whichever friend sicced him on you that he has no leg to stand on? Or do you just want to have a practice discussion so that you can hone your own arguments?

Whichever one it is, keep this in mind: People are more inclined to give you what you want if you’re not mean to them. On the internet, conversations only happen between two consenting parties. You have the right not to talk to him, and he has the right not to talk to you. Be honest: if somebody tried to open a dialogue with you by saying “You’re an atheist? I despise you and everything you stand for, and think you are luring innocent people to hell every day.” Would you want to continue a discussion with this person, or would you tell them to take a hike?

I’m in that situation all the time, receiving email directed at the TV show, and I’ll tell you what I do with those kinds of messages. Either I ignore them intentionally, or I keep them on the line for a few rounds just to return their scorn and abuse with even higher levels of sarcasm and mockery. Just for fun. Eventually I drop it.

So I don’t blame Jesse for answering an attack with an attack. If I were you, I think at this point I’d either apologize if I wanted to keep talking, or drop the subject and learn a lesson for the next conversation.

When I say “apologize” I of course don’t mean you have any need to apologize for not believing in God. As atheists, we already come into this dialogue at a disadvantage, because (1) Christianity is popular, so we’re defending a minority position, and (2) Christians are told that atheists are immoral, so they already assume that they are descending into a pit of vipers by even talking to you. So basically, they are looking for any hint of bad behavior as an excuse to dismiss you entirely. If you don’t want them to have that excuse, then don’t give them an opportunity by deliberately insulting them.

As for the burden of proof: What we generally say is that the person who is making a positive claim is the one who has a burden of proof. Or to put it another way, if you want to convince somebody of something then you should be prepared to prove it.

This means that if the other guy is making the claim “There is definitely a God” and you are simply saying “I don’t believe you have enough evidence for that” then yeah, he has to bring his proof or scram. But if you come at HIM and say “There is absolutely no God, and you are LYING to people!” then you’ve actively managed to transfer that burden to yourself.

My final point would be that even if he says things that are not true, he is probably not lying. “Lying” implies that he has an awareness of a truth that negates his claims. It implies that not only is he wrong, but he knows he’s wrong. I don’t see how you can assume that that’s the case. If you had simply accused him of being incorrect, it might defuse a lot of that messy interpersonal stuff.

I wanted to share this because I think it’s important that atheists learn how to communicate effectively. When I discuss evangelical atheism, I try to emphasize that every exchange you get into should have a clear goal. If at any time you do not know how to answer the question “Why am I still writing to this guy?” then you should stop writing. Goals can include:

  1. Convincing the other person.
  2. Convincing an audience.
  3. Entertaining an audience (if the opponent is too big a crackpot to be taken seriously).
  4. Practice.

That’s part of the reason why if a theist who is a stranger writes to the TV list, my first instinct is to redirect it to a blog post or other venue where more people are listening. If there’s little chance that either of us will be persuaded, there’s not much point to arguing unless there’s someone else paying attention. If it’s a friend whose opinions I care about, I might have the discussion just out of a desire to be social or maybe try to soften their position.

The FFRF Christmas sign, and why it’s a bad atheist message

When you have an unpopular message, however confident you are that it is factual, it is important to know how best to deliver that message so that your audience, however predisposed they may be to agree or disagree with you, is receptive, willing to give you a fair hearing at the very least.

Some atheists make the argument that Christians will never give us a fair hearing at all, so there’s no reason not to be as rude and abrasive as possible. But this simply isn’t true. The God Delusion sat pretty on the New York Times bestseller list for a solid year. And while Dawkins is certainly vilified out of all proportion to what he says and does by indignant believers, the point is, the book has sold over a million and a half copies. They didn’t all go to atheists, obviously. Otherwise, every book about atheism would be as monstrous a seller. Whether they like it or not, believers are getting the message — via books like TGD and blogs and what have you — that there are a lot of atheists out there, and that we’re prepared to defend our views with a great deal of intellectual rigor.

And yet there are effective and appropriate means to deliver those views. I’m not a Malcolm X, “by any means necessary” atheist, because not all means work. And while it’s a good thing many times to be provocative, provocative isn’t necessarily the way to go at all times. Which leads us to the Christmas sign.

To recap events of the last week: the Freedom from Religion Foundation had a sign placed next to a nativity scene in front of the Washington State Capitol building in Olympia. (Let us, for the moment, blow off any tangential arguments about the church/state separation issues that may be involved there.) At some point on Friday it was ripped from the ground and found some miles away tossed in a ditch. “Ah ha,” sayeth the atheist blogosphere, “does this not prove how petty and small-minded and censorious those Christian thugs are? How thin skinned they are about allowing any belief contrary to their own in the public sphere?” Well, maybe, but then, let’s look at what the sign — which has been used by FFRF before — actually said, and remember that it was placed next to a traditional Christmas decoration.

At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail. There are no gods, no angels, no devils, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.

That last sentence is an example of what is commonly called “overplaying your hand.”

Look, you won’t get any arguments from me about the truth content of the sign as a whole. But, mindful of the whole “time and place” concept, as well as the general mindset of the people (Christians) whom you intend to reach with the message…well, what they read when they read the last sentence is not necessarily what might have been intended by the FFRF. You see, they aren’t going to read that last sentence and think, “By golly, they’re right. How gullible and foolish I’ve been to shackle my mind to these ancient superstitions.” No, what the last sentence of the sign says to them is this.

Hey, Christian fucknuts. You know this Christmas thing you’re all into right about now? You know, that time of year where you gather together with your family, decorate the tree, put lights up around the house, sing carols, stuff yourself silly with yummy turkey and cranberry sauce, wrap presents while eagerly imagining the looks on your childrens’ faces when they unwrap them, then snuggle with your loved one under a comfy blanket before a roaring fire while sipping eggnog and reminiscing about Christmases past and how big the kids are getting? Yeah, you know, all that insect-brain three-hanky horsepuckey? Well, the reason you like all that is because you’re a gullible, hard-hearted, uneducated, dimwit FUCKTARD! So come on over to our side, where we don’t have any of that sentimental shit we just listed, but we do have the thin and feeble pseudo-satisfaction of looking down our noses at everyone we pretend to be better than.

Pretty much something like that, anyway.

Given that’s what the message says to them, is it any wonder it was ripped from the ground? Is it any wonder they nurture their persecution complexes? Is it any wonder they never lack for ammunition in their bleating about a “War on Christmas”?

In short, the sign is provocative when an atheist message delivered this time of year ought to be nothing but fluffy bunnies. That doesn’t mean watering down your atheism. It means putting it in a positive, humanitarian and humanist context. You know, that thing we mean when we refer on the TV show to “promoting positive atheism.”

The irony here is that the FFRF has gotten it right before, with their billboards that simply read “Imagine No Religion.” That is a message that simply seeks, in Dawkins’ words, to raise the consciousness of the reader. All it asks is, imagine a world without religion. The believer may do so and see nothing but a bleak, nightmare void. But that’s where the discussion can start and the consciousness-raising can begin in earnest. You see, signs need only the pithy consciousness-raising message. They should not try to encapsulate a detailed atheist worldview — the whole “religion is superstition and, really, isn’t it kind of silly for grown adults to believe in invisible magic men in the sky” thing — in a nutshell. Especially not in a venue where the received message will be, “What, you like Christmas? What kind of shithead are you anyway?”

“But Martin,” you say, “the FFRF is suing because the city had their harmless, inoffensive, ‘consciousness-raising’ billboard pulled down after two days! So positive atheist messages are no better, obviously!”

Yes they are, my little sprogs. Because while few people will blame Christians for tearing down a provocative atheist sign next to a nativity scene — and I’m sure the FFRF has been dismissed in a number of media outlets for simply pulling a publicity stunt — when they try to suppress truly inoffensive messages such as that on the billboard (or the even-less-offensive one that simply read “Don’t believe in God? You’re not alone.”) then they do look like reactionary, thin-skinned bullies, and it’s easier for atheists to claim the moral high ground and come across, even to some in theistic camps, as more sinned against than sinning.

So while it’s all fine for us to throw punches at religion in most of the forums available to us — our blogs and books and TV shows — when atheists make the choice to take the atheist message out to the general public on their turf (and yes yes, you can say “the Capitol grounds is everybody’s turf,” but I’m dealing with the way things are in this country, not the way they should be), then that message needs to be 100%, undiluted, positive atheism.

If I were to place a sign next to a creche, I’d have it say something like this.

During this holiday season, and at all times of the year, let us remember our shared humanity and come together in love and mutual support, striving towards a better future for us all. A person’s goodness comes, not from what they believe or don’t believe, but from who they are inside and what they do to better the world around them.

And then, when people look at the small print and see it’s from an atheist organization, will they think the sign is attacking them in the way a sign telling them they have hardened hearts and enslaved minds seems to be? Would they still want to pull it out of the ground? Or would they be less inclined to think of atheists as petty, mean-spirited pricks who are just bitter because they don’t have Baby Jesus and eggnog and crackling fireplaces in their lives? Would they have their consciousness raised? Maybe only some. But I bet that’s more than the FFRF’s present sign has won over.

So happy holidays, bountif
ul Solstice, and merry Christmas. Everybody.

Addendum: Well, predictably enough, not only have a number of readers completely misunderstood my point in this post, but some of them seem to have gone out of their way to make a special effort to do so, with one idiot even accusing me of “Uncle Tom” atheism. Another commenter wrote, “What you are saying boils down to, ‘If you’re not saying what I want you to say in the manner that I want you to say it, then shut the fuck up.'” Which is, of course, not what this post boils down to at all, period, not even a little bit. I’ve responded in detail in the comments myself.