First it was Chris Stedman, now it’s Massimo Pigliucci. Everyone loves to sit back and carp about the New Atheists, because they’re the most prominent subset of the atheist movement, the ones getting the most press, and the ones getting the most criticism from theists…so of course the armchair philosophers have to take a whack, too. I’m not entirely sure why; Stedman should have his kinder, gentler, gooey-er faitheism to promote, and Pigliucci ought to have his philosophy-er, hoity-toity-er, rational-er atheism to peddle. I assume that some people just like to meddle — they just can’t bear the thought that someone else’s strategy, even if it is working towards a similar goal, is actually working and making progress, so they’ve got to announce their dissatisfaction and tinker. It’s only natural, I suppose, that a growing movement would find itself surrounded by not only opponents, but also obnoxious kibitzers.
Massimo Pigliucci was inspired by two recent posts, one from Greta Christina and another by Chris Stedman, to write an article on the goals of atheist activism, and unfortunately he seems to have understood neither. He seems to think they’re largely in agreement, which is a rather shocking misread; Greta wrote about two kinds of goals, but wasn’t trying to limit it at all to just those two, while Stedman was mainly oblivious to her message and was trying to argue about how bad the New Atheists are. Pigliucci similarly fails to comprehend the message, and instead, like Stedman, ignores the different goals of different subsets of the movement to, again, complain about the goddamned New Atheists.
You know, if I had assigned readings to students and they came back with such egregious failures of comprehension, I’d flunk them.
Let me make it simpler, with little words. Different groups have different goals, and that’s fine. The problems come when members of Group A with Goal A’ criticize Group B with Goal B’ for not achieving A’. A should work for A’, and B should work for B’, and A is not going to impress when they tell B to abandon their goals. Because B will tell A to go fuck off for being clueless meddling twits.
Greta was very clear about that. She even ended the article that way, with the importance of asking a simple question: “Which cause, exactly, are you talking about? Because we may not be talking about the same one.” Pigliucci did not bother to ask that question. He just assumes that his goals are everyone else’s goals, and therefore he’s justified in complaining about how we’re doing everything wrong.
Sorry, Massimo. You fail. Go back and re-read Greta’s post until you actually comprehend it.
Failing to understand that different atheists have different goals, Pigliucci then deploys a series of familiar complaints that we’ve heard many times before from the most mealy-mouthed accommodationists. He sounds just like Chris Mooney from three years ago or so.
First off, Christina makes an argument at the beginning of her post for in-your-face atheism coupled with a nicer and gentler approach, claiming that this good cop / bad cop strategy “works.” How does she know? To quote: “hey, there’s a reason cops use it!” Interestingly, no source is provided as to the extent to which said technique is in fact used by the police, whether it works (outside of movies), and why it would be appropriate to social discourse, as opposed to dealing with criminals.
How do we know it works? Because atheism is booming — new groups popping up all over the place, meetings with record attendance, lots of press, lots of new activists. The “good cop/bad cop” story is actually us being nice, and making room for other strategies — it was a chance for other views to save face, if they were smart enough to take it.
Also, while we know events are going in the right direction for us now, we make no pretense that we are following the optimal path. We’re quite serious when we say other activists — even Stedman — should be out there pushing their own way.
That would be that the dual nice/in-your-face approach worked in the past, for instance with the civil rights movement, or concerning gay rights. There are two things I think we should be clear about in this context. First, atheists really ought not to compare themselves to blacks or gays, as it is an insult to people who have experienced real discrimination. Yes, it may not be politically correct to tell your co-workers or family that you are an atheist, and I’m sure some people suffer psychological consequences as a result. But atheists are not being made to sit at the back of buses, hanged from trees, put in prison, or denied voting rights qua atheist. So let’s not make unseemly comparisons.
Smooth move, guy. First, complain that we have no evidence that what we’re doing works; second, tell us that we aren’t allowed to model our activism after known successful movements. That’s the kind of underhanded maneuver that might make a fellow doubt your sincerity.
No one argues that atheists suffer anywhere near the magnitude of the discrimination blacks and gays have confronted. But the tactic of decrying the struggle against smaller offenses because there are greater problems elsewhere is a standard suppressive effort to maintain the status quo. If the status of atheists is so much less extreme than that of blacks or gays, it ought to be easier to soften the lesser problem while making a simultaneous effort elsewhere. This is not a serial world, but a parallel one.
Pigliucci is making a particular contemptible argument: it’s the idea that no injustice should be opposed if there is a greater injustice elsewhere. Would you tell a black man that the prejudice he faces is unimportant, because if you want to see real oppression, you need to look at Native Americans? For that matter, as long as disabled Native American lesbian atheists exist, no one else should be fighting for equality for any other cause.
Moreover, the “bad cops” of the civil and gay rights movements rarely went around insulting the other side, they were simply vocal about their own rights. There is a huge difference between being in-your-face in the sense of taking to the streets and loudly complaining about rights you are unjustly denied and being in-your-face in the more basic sense of hurling insults at other people.
Right. So in the last 50 years or so of history, everyone’s approach has been to say nothing but kind words to, say, Lester Maddox, George Wallace, David Duke, the KKK, or George Lincoln Rockwell. No one objected to the overt racism of the policemen who turned fire hoses on black crowds; no one had rude names for the bigots who abused the students who led the way in desegregation; no one ever insulted the members of a lynch mob.
That’s total nonsense. An important part of making racism and sexism and homophobia socially unacceptable has always been labeling and mocking and denigrating the perpetrators of such evils. You don’t make progress by pretending that Fred Phelps is a nice guy, and not making him pay the price of public stigma for being a hateful scumbag, by calling him a hateful scumbag.
Which reminds me. Many of my fellow atheists are nice and smart people, but there is also a tendency within the community to think that one is automatically smart just for being an atheist, as opposed to all those deluded idiots who believe in things for which there is no evidence. I don’t know about your personal experience, but I can point to a lot of religious people who are a lot smarter — by any reasonable definition of “smart” — than several atheists I have encountered. And the same goes for being ethical (or not). So, let’s tone the self-righteousness down a few notches, it is unbecoming and smells too much of religious bigotry.
I think I smell…sanctimony.
You can find scattered idiots within atheism who say that, but not one of the big name leaders or organizations within atheism make any such claim. And further, many atheists were once religious, sometimes recently, and all of them have numerous friends and family who are religious (we’re a minority, remember?) Pigliucci is simply making a ludicrous claim to make himself look like the wise and sensitive guy.
Once he’s finished sniping at the New Atheists, Pigliucci then lists four reasonable goals for atheists: separation of church and state, acceptance of atheism, combating dogma, and elimination of irrationalism. They’re fine; I can support them, and encourage Pigliucci to continue his efforts to promote them further. They’re part of my goals, too, and I imagine other New Atheists will have no objection, either.
But it’s not enough for me. I have other goals as well, and what I do is work towards my objectives, not Massimo Pigliucci’s. If only he could understand that…
Later, I’ll aim to post something on my goals that I trust will be different from other people’s…and why I don’t complain if Pigliucci and other people don’t serve my will.