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No Apologies: Why Strident Atheism is Good Atheism

Anyone remotely familiar with the atheist movement knows we get a lot of criticism, not merely for our ideas, but sometimes overwhelmingly more often for our rhetoric and tactics. The following quote from Greta Christina sums it up nicely:

As a blogger, I’ve received a lot of advice from believers about how atheists should run our movement. I get comments all the time. It’s very difficult to avoid the observation that this advice is almost always in the direction of telling us to tone it down. Telling us to be less confrontational, less visible.

I have almost never seen a believer advise the atheist movement to speak up more loudly and more passionately. To not be afraid of offending people if we think we are right. To be willing to get in people’s faces about things they might not want to think about. I have gotten a lot of advice from believers, and it is almost always in the direction of politely suggesting that we shut up.

For many bloggers and outspoken atheists, this rings especially true. And the variety of forms it takes is almost unbelievable. Just within the last week and a half, I have had people tell me to stop “ridiculing” religion and to “stop offending people”. People on Facebook have called me a “jerk” and say that I’m too “mean”. These criticisms range from outright confrontation (e.g., “Stop it now!”) to concern trolling (e.g., “What’s the point? You’re just going to alienate a lot of people.”). And people like Dan Savage have been fiercely criticized by concern trolls for pointing out that the Bible is “bullshit” when he was addressing gay bullying.

These kinds of messages often flood the channels of public discourse, and they crowd out real discussion about serious problems in religion. In other  words, atheists are often criticized for being confrontational, angry, offensive, etc. simply for being part of the public dialogue, but are rarely criticized for their ideas. Believers criticize atheists for the act of criticizing religion, but don’t give arguments for why the atheist criticism is wrong.

The first thing people “offended” by atheist rhetoric should understand is that religion is indeed a sensitive topic, but it shouldn’t be. Claims about the universe like “God exists” and “God cares about me” are hypotheses about the world, and are therefore subject to criticism in the free marketplace of ideas. As we see every single day, there are people who go batshit crazy at the idea that their religious assumptions can be ridiculed or criticized, and they confuse criticism with personal attack. And it surprises me to see “concern trolls” act as if this is a problem with atheists/atheism, and not a problem with religion.

The other thing to know is that since religion often seeks protections from criticism (and demand intellectual “respect”), if we are going to be concerned about truth and reality, we ought to be more skeptical, not less. Criticism of religion is a basis and a model for all criticism. Christopher Hitchens says it succinctly:

Mockery of religion is one of the most essential things because we need to demystify supposedly “holy texts” dictated by god and show that they are man-made. What we have to show is that there are internal inconsistencies and absurdities. One of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority.

Open, unfiltered criticism of religion isn’t just something we think is a good idea; it is essential to a free and liberal society.

The second major point is that the “concern trolls” have very little idea of what the modern atheist/secular movement is, mostly because they aren’t in it. This is not surprising. Even in progressive circles and events (like 2012 NetRoots Nation conference for activists, which didn’t feature a single event about atheism), the atheist movement is largely being ignored as a legitimate social change movement. And this lack of understanding is fueling much of the well-meaning, but deeply mistaken beliefs about how atheists should act.

The fact is that the movement has been incredibly successful in the last ten years. We went from nearly nothing to holding a major presence in the consciousness of the American public; we’ve infiltrated popular social thought, as well as colleges and high schools in all fifty states, and we have sparked a large public conversation in the mainstream media. In religious demographics, there has been an explosion of secularism, especially amongst young people. In every single one of the fifty states, the fastest growing religious identification is “none”. Activist secularism–whether in the form of Damon Fowler and Jessica Ahlquist, in the lobbying work performed by the Secular Coalition for America, or in spirit of tens of thousands of people who descended upon the National Mall in Washington for the Reason Rally–is a force that is shaping America, and the entire world.

We are successful not because we have been quiet and nice to religion. We are successful because we are loud and critical, as well as legitimately angry. We are angry at injustice. We are angry at the the idea that people are being unnecessarily harmed. We are angry that there are serious metaphysical claims about the universe that are considered “too personal” to be criticized. We are angry at ignorance, at the lack of skepticism and critical thinking in this world. And we want things to change.

And things are changing. Not only are social attitudes (i.e., incredible distrust) towards atheists changing for the better, not only are more and more atheists coming out, but more and more people are becoming atheists. If you hang out for a while on /r/Atheism, for example, you’ll read hundreds of stories about how intense, uncensored debate has changed people’s mind on religion. If you watch videos dedicated to Christopher Hitchens (one of the most vehemently and outspoken anti-theists in history), you’ll see many people describe how his strident writings have turned them into atheists. It is not an accident that the most influential atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett) aren’t known for being nice to religion. Even I have personally have changed people’s minds about creationism, about sexual ethics, about end-of-life issues, and of course, about the existence of God by talking honestly and openly about my beliefs. Sharp, harsh criticism of religion is making a difference, and it shows.

And this loud criticism is what gives us our power, socially and politically. It’s what’s driving more and more people towards the movement.

The fallacy of concern trolls is therefore the following. They think that just because they are personally offended (or because they perceive others will be offended), they then automatically think our tactics don’t work or should be squashed. In other words, they ask us to give up one of the most essential aspects of our movement (our angry, critical attitude) just because they hold personal dislike–all without any evidence, and without any sound argument.

Following the orders of the concern trolls is one of the most dangerous things we can do. We are being asked to give up our power and our voice at a time when we are beginning to gain it.

Don’t let this happen. Speak out. Speak loudly. Be skeptical. Be critical. And don’t keep the faith.

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In Defense of Atheism

Greta Christina recently published her book, Why Are You Atheists So Angry? 99 Things That Piss Off the Godless. Although I have not read it yet, I think I have a good idea of what it is about because I have read her blog posts on these topics, as well as those of her atheist inferiors like Chris Stedman. She has been an inspiration not just to me but to atheist activists around the world, and her clear critique of religion is a sharp, nuanced, and on-the-money argument for why we need more direct criticism of religion, not less.

As open atheists, we’ve all heard the usual “Sh*t Religious People Say”. Especially for those involved in the wave of secular activism that is exploding in influence and numbers in this country and society, we’ve all heard complaints about supposed atheist anger, confrontation, activism, passion, etc. All the time we are told to “tone down our voices” and to “win over people in nonoffensive ways”.

Part of why Greta Christina’s message is so powerful is that she outrightly declares that our movement, which has been enormously successful so far, will be most impactful when we don’t censor ourselves, when we don’t “catch more flies with honey” (Who the hell wants flies anyways?), and when we channel real legitimate anger into a force that will change the world.

Atheists are not angry for the sake of it. We’re angry because we care deeply about this world, and all the inhabitants in it. “We aren’t angry because there’s something wrong with us. We’re angry because there’s something right with us.”

We’re angry because the untestability, unverifiability of religion is what makes it uniquely capable of grotesque immorality and unbelievable disconnect from reality. It’s what makes religion unlikely to promote open, liberal societies. It’s been 2000+ years, for heavens sake. We are sick of watching this world go by like this. We don’t want to see people suffer and wallow in delusion anymore. We want to see this end. 

And yes, we want to be respected, too. Rather than being criticized all the time for being angry or confrontational, we want society to actually listen to our arguments and criticisms about why religion is wrong. We want people to consider that maybe, just maybe, atheists have things to be legitimately angry about. We want people to consider that maybe, just maybe, the problem isn’t with atheism or atheists, but with religion.

Of course, we want the same rights and treatment as religious people in this society. Whether that means opposing faith-based initiatives or taxing churches, standing up for people like Jessica Ahlquist or fighting to improve our status as the most distrusted minority in America, we will work hard to be respectful members of society. We will condemn hate and bigotry, but we will never ever compromise the truth.

We will walk hand-in-hand with our brothers and sisters to make this world a better place. We want to continue to fully and unconditionally support the goals of the LGBTQ and feminist community. Atheists want to organize in ways never done before, whether that means supporting closeted atheist clergy members, volunteering as a group at a homeless shelter, or raising millions of dollars for Doctors Without Border or for the fight against cancer. Instead of being bullied, threatened, or discriminated against, we want to be integral parts of YOUR community.

And yes, we want to be able to spread our values. We want to organize events like Reason Rally as a celebration of what we’ve accomplished so far. We want politicians to come to these events to acknowledge that we are citizens too, that the separation of church and state actually means something, and that we don’t just have a voice, but a vote. We want to feel and be empowered to navigate this world in loving and supportive communities, to know that we belong and that there are a lot more of us than the religious would like to acknowledge.

My defense of atheism is not about epistemology or science. That argument has gone and passed. It’s over. And it’s been over for a long time. My defense of atheism is about our collective humanist values. We love this world too.  And sometimes, just sometimes, and maybe, just maybe, we do a better job than most people give us credit for.