This week, I tossed off a casual, flippant comment that launched a thousand ineffectual bastinados. I described a map that purported to show the frequency of religious adherents in the US this way:
It shows the concentration of ignorant, deluded, wicked, foolish, or oppressed victims of obsolete mythologies in the United States, with the lighter colors being the most enlightened and the dark reds being the most repressed and misinformed
Fury, outrage, and massive snits ensued. Blogs were riven to their very foundations by anger — “How dare Myers insult me…I am offended!” — and the sun was darkened in the sky, while badgers gave birth to raccoons and other abominations occurred with alarmingly elevated frequency. Mostly, though, people wrote more blog posts pro and con, commenters were roused to furious typing, fora were inundated with tirades, and my in-box was overflowing.
I was much amused — man, wait until I really cut loose — but basically thought the to-do was far too much noise about nothing. Please try to get used to it, O Pious Ones: atheists think your beliefs are wacky. Just as wacky as you find idols to monkey gods or cargo cults or Mormonism or Seventh Day Adventists or Bratz dolls. But now that the bonfire is cooling to a few scattered glowing embers, I thought I’d offer a few general responses to the most common complaints.
So here they are, the three most common protestations, distilled down and paraphrased.
Why do you say that? Don’t you know that will alienate our allies/I will hate science with a passion because of you?
There was an immense amount of speculation about my motives. People were arguing about whether this helps the cause of atheism, whether it hurts the cause of science education, whether it’s all part of my plan to rally the godless to my uncompromising, invigorating banner, yadda yadda yadda. I hate to tell you all this, but in all the guesswork, no one, not even those sympathetic to me, got the right answer, except for Revere. The explanation is very, very simple, and you’re going to kick yourself when I say it.
I said it because it was true.
There is no god, or to say it in the most optimistic and sensitive way possible for a rational person, there is absolutely no evidence for a god. In particular, there is no sensible support for the multitude of peculiar doctrinal, dogmatic, and delusional weirdnesses documented in this (much better) map. You’ve got crazy-ass megalomaniacal evangelical kooks telling people to hate their gay/muslim/hindu/godless/female/evolutionist neighbors, you’ve got mobs believing them, you’ve got people electing presidents on the basis of how fanatically they will wage a crusade, and you’ve got even more swooning with the vapors at anyone who criticizes religious belief. Religion makes you nuts. It makes ordinary people identify with invisible spirits, it turns them into caterwauling flibbertigibbet idiots at any slight to a magic man who has never done a thing for them, and it makes them center their lives around head-dunkings and cracker-eating and gibbering chants to an unheeding phantasm.
I’m not saying you’re a bad person or even stupid if you’re a believer. I’m saying that you are possibly wicked if you’re promoting it, probably ignorant if you accept its contradictions with reality, almost certainly foolish if you think rituals will get you into heaven, definitely deluded by centuries’ worth of lies, and most definitely oppressed by your deference to baseless superstition.
As for my cause, ultimately it’s not anti-religion or pro-science education, although those are subsidiary goals. My cause is simply the truth — the truth stated plainly and openly.
So all those people squawking that they were offended were wasting their efforts. I don’t care if you were offended. There is no god (or no evidence of one), and you aren’t rebutting my claims by telling me how deeply your feelings are hurt. If you walked into a doctor’s office and were told that, to improve your health, you need to lose weight and stop smoking and exercise more, would you start shouting that you were insulted? (Yeah, I know, some of you would.) Do you think the depth of your indignation would change the diagnosis?
You’ve been given your prescription, people of faith: you believe in a lot of goofy, stupid, ridiculous ideas. You can resign yourself to them if you aren’t strong enough to part from them — I’m not going to follow you to church and drag you out with a choke-chain — or you can wake up. It’s all up to you. One thing you don’t get to do is silence the people who point and laugh.
As for those other causes, truth is always going to be anti-religion, and science is a process that aspires to uncover the truth, so I’m entirely self-consistent. It’s those who think they can reconcile a mythology of lies with honest attempts to learn the nature of reality who have muddled objectives.
Here’s the second most common complaint I got.
You’re an asshole. All you do is insult people.
Meh. Everyone is free to think that. It was bizarre, though, that the single most common epithet people were flinging around was “asshole”. Even people who were defending me would often say things like, “You’re an asshole, but…”. The weird internal contradiction in my example above was fairly common, too — I saw so many arguments that I’d never be able to persuade people to my side with insults that culminated in furious descriptions of the deep inner assholishness of my character, and oh, I’m ugly, too, that the only reasonable conclusion I can come to is that logic and self-awareness are dead. Or that a lot of assholes were writing to me.
Anyway, there’s not much to say about that one.
This last one may be true for individuals, but it’s missing the point.
You’re boring. I never read your garbage about religion, and it’s gotten so boring that I never read Pharyngula anymore.
I think these are patent attempts to make my brain meltdown and explode, ala the super-intelligent computers in Star Trek that could be destroyed by telling them a paradox. How is it that my science posts get only a small (but usually appreciative and intelligent) response, while my incendiary godless atheism posts drag all these strangers out of the woodwork to complain, if they are so boring? Is inciting a riot boring? Maybe you aren’t interested (even if the fact that it’s driven you to write to me or about me contradicts that claim), but so what? I am not writing for you. I am writing for me, and I find it interesting.
Allow me to make a constructive suggestion. I seem to be a fairly successful blogger, at least in terms of traffic and linkage and all those other artificial metrics. Now there are good reasons to ignore those metrics — there are excellent blogs with low traffic, obviously, and I do not pick my readings by how many other bloggers read them — but if you’re complaining that I’m boring or that your avoidance of my blog is some kind of chastisement, you’re clearly thinking that entertaining a readership is something of value. Now think about how a blog could attract a large following.
One strategy is to pick a topic with a wide base, and pursue it well and deeply. Politics comes to mind; it’s a subject of broad interest, with lots of built-in contentiousness. Some of the biggest and most popular blogs around are built on that foundation. But you should also look at sports blogs: they’re completely alien to me and of absolutely no interest (“boring”), but they’ve got huge readerships. There are blogs dedicated to particular makes of car that are thriving!
Science, alas, does not have quite so much general support. There’s solid interest among a small and healthy percentage of the population, but if you’re a pure science blogger you’re drawing on a small slice of the pie. Maybe it’s the most marvelously tasty slice and your presentation is superb, and it’s an entirely respectable and worthy focus, but if you want the big traffic numbers, face it, science won’t do it. Maybe after Seed and scienceblogs grow the audience, though…
Anyway, by chance (no, by the contingent details of my personal interests) and definitely not by design, this particular blog has multiple foci that work together to draw in an audience.
Science, of course. It’s why I started the thing, and why I invest much more effort in the individual science posts than anything else here.
Godlessness. This is the most contentious subject and also the one with the broadest appeal — like politics, it draws in the arguments.
Anti-creationism. Another good source of battles that draws in a crowd.
Liberal politics. A subject of varying interest here, and I think better handled by the numerous specialist blogs, but I care about it.
Cephalopods. This one attracts the weirdos. You gotta have a few freaks to liven up the place.
There are people who read Pharyngula just for one of those topics, and I get email all the time telling me that one or the other of those is “boring” (except the cephalopods, everyone loves those). I’m not surprised that many people are utterly uninterested in some part of what I write — probably the only person on the planet with exactly my constellation of interests is me, and that’s who I write for. So telling me that some aspect of this blog is “boring” will never have any impact at all, especially not when it is apparently exciting enough to stimulate you to write.
And if you’re a blogger and want a hint on how to increase traffic, there it is: tap into multiple audiences. If you’re a scienceblogger, go ahead and pick some other subject that excites you and invest some effort into expressing your enthusiasm for it. Why not make a third of your posts about your favorite sport, for instance? You’ll enjoy it, if that’s your thing, and you’ll build a following among football fans, and occasionally enlighten them with an article about chemistry. I’ll find the football intensely boring and will skip those posts, but I promise I won’t ever complain to you about how tedious they are — somebody else will find them fascinating. Open up and write about anything you love, and trust me, readers will love you back (some will hate you, too, but that’s all good for traffic.)
This is obvious advice, that the key to successful blogging is to follow your passions and follow them well, but from all the people who complain that my passions aren’t the same as theirs, I clearly need to explain the obvious.