Having just published my original venture into public atheistic discourse, I was reflecting a lot this weekend on how I first started writing about these issues. As I wrote in the Preface earlier today, the biggest challenge is finding ways to make points and share ideas so that people care to listen. Over at Pharyngula, PZ highlighted “Five Things That Would Make Atheists Seem Nicer.” The tips are the normal drivel from self-victimizing believers, and PZ dispatches with them quite aggressively.
I loved PZ’s response. He didn’t hold back. But then I thought about it, and that’s the way I reacted that people struggled to appreciate. Even though I agree with everything he wrote, I thought I would take my own shot at responding in a slightly… nicer way, if it’s possible.
So let’s take a look at what Nathan at “St. Eutychus” has to say about atheists.
Here are five tips for my atheist friends to help them seem nicer and more reasonable.
As PZ pointed out, these tips are not presented in the most respectful way. Look at all the assumptions in the introductory sentence. These tips aren’t actually going to make us nice, because atheists aren’t nice. These are just tips to make us SEEM nice. We’re also not reasonable, but we’ll SEEM reasonable if we follow his tips.
It’s easy to go on the defensive quick, because this begs so many questions. Are there no atheists who are nice? Do you think atheism automatically makes a person a curmudgeon? Are only Christians nice (and therefore you have a clear bias in your thinking)? What does “reasonable” mean? Since we’d argue that our entire worldview is based on reason, how is it that we seem unreasonable?
Well, maybe he’s just had some bad experiences. Let’s forgive him and see what his tips are.
1. Stop being so smug.
Okay, so this is more of the same prejudice. I don’t think all atheists are smug, but I know some are. It’s hard not to be when you think about it. Or at least, it’s hard not to be perceived as “smug” simply for opening your mouth about atheism.
What does smug mean? Let’s just go with what Dictionary.com has to offer: “contentedly confident of one’s ability, superiority, or correctness; complacent.” Okay, so why would atheists be perceived as confident in their correctness?
Because atheists offer the only worldview that can be supported in any way. We offer essentially the only perspective that has any legitimacy. You might think me smug for saying that, but why? Do you have proof for what you believe? We have a lot of evidence on our side. We’ve got a good case. We have a lot of reason to be confident. Because we live in a religious society, we likely didn’t become atheists without learning a lot of the evidence against religion. That’s really what defines us.
So, we’re not smug. We’re just confident, and we know we have reason to be confident no matter what a believer brings to the table.
If you don’t like that you don’t have the same evidence to articulate an argument for your belief system, that doesn’t make us smug. It does sort of make our point of view intellectually superior. There’s not much we can do about that!
2. Don’t assume every piece of Christian evangelism is directed at you – we want the undecideds, not the decided-uns.
As PZ pointed out, atheists want to educate (as opposed to “recruit”) the undecideds as well. But, a lot of us also want to interrupt religion. It doesn’t matter if evangelism is directed at us or not, we see it as dangerous and detrimental to the intellectual fabric of society. (Remember, we can defend our point of view objectively and rationally and Christians can’t. I’m not saying that to be smug, it’s just the truth!)
Not only do we not want our fellow citizens to be swallowed by an ignorant worldview, we also want to preserve our own place in society. Most Christians believe that Christianity is the only right belief system (“I am the way….” and all that jazz). The more Christians there are, the more people there are opposing rationality (same-sex marriage, evolution, etc.) and also trying to ostracize us out of the mainstream. They already dominate society (Europeans call us “the most religious nation” in the West). We need to hold all the ground we have and continue to resist the spread of hollow belief systems.
Any evangelism hurts us, whether we’re the target “convert” or not.
3. Admit that the debate about God’s existence is complex – and that it can, depending on your presuppositions, be quite possible for intelligent and rational people to intelligently believe in an intervening deity who communicates through a book.
I would admit that, if it were true! But it’s simply not for two reasons.
First, the debate about God’s existence is quite simple. Either he does or he doesn’t exist. There is no proof that he does, so there’s no reason to assume that he does. The same is true of any of the other supernatural entities believed in throughout the world and throughout history.
The other problem with this tip is the assumption one can “intelligently believe.” Unfortunately, that is an oxymoron, completely self-contradicting. Intellectualism is about making informed conclusions based on evidence. Belief, I’m sorry to say, is the opposite. Belief is about making uninformed conclusions based on superstition.
Yes, there are a lot of very intelligent people out there who believe in God. That means nothing to us, except to disappoint us that those people aren’t intelligent to recognize how unintelligent their belief in God is.
Going out of our way to offer undeserved respect to other points of view might make us nicer, but it would be at the cost of our integrity.
4. Admit that the scientific method – which by its nature relies on induction rather than deduction (starting with a hypothesis and testing it rather than observing facts and forming a hypothesis) – is as open to abuse as any religious belief, and is neither objective nor infallible.
Okay, I’ll admit it. Science can be abused. It’s possible to look at a single scientific study and use it to generalize information well beyond the bounds of the intended conclusions. That is, of course, doing science wrong, and is usually what religious organizations do to promote their ignorant beliefs.
What is deeply flawed about this tip is a complete misunderstanding of science. Science is objective specifically because it is fallible! While some inductive reasoning (and even creativity!) is used to generate hypotheses, it is deductive reasoning that tests the hypotheses and produces new understandings. That’s the difference between hypotheses (guesses) and theories (understandings) that so many struggle to grasp.
Science is reliable because it admits when it’s wrong. It’s not a belief system we follow blindly. In fact, it’s not a belief system at all. It’s a method to thinking that limits “truth” to that which can be validly tested. It’s like what Tim Minchin says in his beat poem Storm: “Do you know what they call ‘alternative medicine’ that’s been proved to work? ‘Medicine.'”
If the scientific method ever became unreliable, it would no longer be science. Science is about only calling “reliable” that which can only be proven “reliably,” even when that changes. Science is never right or wrong; it is always the best that we understand things.
You might not like that our perspective will always reliably support our point of view, but that is the very reason we choose it over belief. You can call us smug, but again, we’re just confident. We have endorsed a (literally) intellectually superior approach to understanding the world.
5. Try to deal with the actual notions of God seriously believed in by millions of people rather than inventing strawmen (or spaghetti monsters) to dismiss the concepts of God – and deal with the Bible paying attention to context and the broader Christological narrative rather than quoting obscure Old Testament laws. By all means quote the laws when they are applied incorrectly by “Christians” – but understand how they’re meant to work before dealing with the Christians described in point 3.
This tip basically seems to be saying, “Respect the fact that people believe (if only because lots of people believe).” Well, I’m sorry, but just because lots of people agree doesn’t make it right. When I was little, I was taught to be wary of succumbing to peer pressure. No pressure is more oppressive than society’s expectation for either tolerance or assimilation for their beliefs. That doesn’t make it right or even respectable. I am reminded of two quotes:
“A cult is a religion with no political power.” –Thomas Wolfe
“The only difference between a cult and a religion is the amount of real estate they own.” –Frank Zappa
What distinction could be made between respecting some beliefs and not others? Just because some people’s beliefs are “harmless” or aren’t “misquoting” the Bible makes them no more legitimate. It doesn’t matter what testament they are from. I’m happy to remind you of the multiple New Testament verses that endorse slavery (scroll over them): Matthew 10:24, Matthew 24:45-46, 1 Timothy 6:1-5, Ephesians 6:5-6, Titus 2:9-10, and 1 Peter 2:18-29.
Let’s be honest, the very fact that so many people believe in God is what drives us to be so passionately open about atheism. We have our work cut out for us if we truly are going to promote critical thinking skills throughout this world. Just because you don’t like having to counter our arguments doesn’t mean that our arguments are rude, smug, or unreasonable, Nathan. It just means that you don’t like change; you don’t like being not right.
I hope I’ve done a fair job of responding to these tips. As suggested by the snarky title of this post, I don’t intend to follow any of them, but I hope you can understand why without getting all upset that I was mean. Blame PZ if you feel that way. If I still came off as rude, well then Heaven help you, because I sure can’t.
Yeah, that was a little snarky too.