The Atheist Civil War
Being somewhat of a newcomer in the active atheist community, I have fresh in my mind the warm welcome I received from those I’ve reached out to in my quest to become more connected and involved. And while I’m eager to relate those experiences – the near-instant making of new friends, the heartwarming celebration that was the Reason Rally – there’s one thing weighing heavily on my mind that I feel must first be addressed.
There is a division among atheists, one we’re all guilty of perpetuating though few of us would ever admit it. And in the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit now I have a huge interest in this subject because I’m guilty of it more often than I’m comfortable with – much more often. It’s a simple thing, one our greatest enemies are well-known for, one we fight against every day and yet can’t seem to recognize in ourselves. It’s time to take a long look in the mirror and address that enemy within – intolerance.
I don’t mean any intolerance – to be sure, intolerance of that which harms others is perfectly reasonable. And I don’t mean the minor arguments over semantics or technicalities. As Nietzsche said, “The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.” I’m proud we atheists just as readily debate each other as we debate non-atheists. But one type of disagreement holds more power to divide us than any other, one I feel is utterly pointless – the argument on how best to be an atheist.
One would imagine, being a group all too familiar with prejudice and intolerance, that we would be more accepting of our own kind. But when it comes to how or whether to display our beliefs, debate non-atheists and especially how or whether to debunk false claims, we each have an opinion- and that opinion too often includes the notion that any other opinions on the subject are wrong.
I’ve often found our “friendly types” upset over our “angry types” being supposedly too ruthless or mean. They say we’re having the opposite of our intended effect, “You’re doing more harm than good,” or “You’re making us look bad.” Just recently, the founder of one of my favorite humanist groups had to defend himself against accusations of “not being humanist enough.” Having been a member of the group for a long time I knew the accusations were overblown – a jab at one of the very few times outright anger was indulged upon out of hundreds of other calm and measured posts. And as he pointed out to them, he had very good reason to be angry.
But I also see some of the opposite – the restless among us complaining that debate is pointless, chastising a fellow atheist for a so-called waste of time. “We’re not changing anyone’s minds,” I’ve been told. “We’re past the point of conversation.” And then there’s the classic, “Don’t feed the trolls.” Unfortunately, I see that rebuke misused frequently against theists who have genuine questions or concerns, by atheists too short-tempered or overloaded with other debates to respond reasonably.
I myself am usually quick to form an opinion and am immediately ready to defend it in an epic battle of wits and semantics to the proverbial death, until my or my opponent’s mind has been changed. I’ll be the first to admit that, though I’ve studied Skeptical Science’s outstanding Debunking Handbook for weeks, I’m still better at forcing retreat than changing minds. But I’m going to attempt here to play a role I hardly get to play – that of hopeful mediator- with a message I’m rarely known to champion: we are ALL right. Sound crazy? Hear me out.
We know the statistics on the distrust of atheists. We know from personal experience how hard it is out there for us – with our families or old friends, our co-workers and our bosses. We deal with everything from concerned looks to guilt trips, outrage and ultimatums to surprise debates and obvious trolls – and we each have our own method of dealing with them.
We need them all.
Forgive me for comparing us with Christians, but to be effective they know “it takes one of every kind” – encompassing everything from the WBC to the apologists to the Amish. Atheists, too, need their angry warriors and their patient diplomats, caregivers in triage and lone wolf assassins. We need those with the deft subtlety to clandestinely plant the seeds of doubt in those on the fence, and we need the soldiers with sharp wit on the front lines protecting us from invading armies’ outright attacks of falsehoods and ignorance. We need levity and seriousness, anger and calm, ruthlessness and understanding, gentleness and strength.
What we have on our side – that, coincidentally, religion sorely lacks- is the ability to recognize and accept all available methods fellow atheists might choose to employ, even if we don’t practice it ourselves. Meanwhile, to this day theists continue to be divided by a refusal to include each other for thinking even slightly differently. Let us not be like them – countless different denominations all calling themselves “Christian,” and yet many ready to kill each other over minor variations of the same fairy tale. Let us not stoop to that level, categorizing each other flippantly, labeling each other so-called “neo atheists” or “closet agnostics.” Let us embrace ALL of our supporters. Let us not mistake ruthlessness for meanness. Let us not mistake intolerant with unreasonable. It is, indeed, reasonable to be intolerant of that which harms people. But let us not be intolerant of that which is trying to make things better. Let us not, as religion does, let our differences divide us. We freethinkers fight so hard to protect freedom of speech, and yet squabble with each other over how we speak. We’re quick to quote Voltaire (“I do not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”) and yet still proceed to tear each other down for simply being ineffective. Let us not mistake a “different way” for the “wrong way.” Let us not fall into the trap of mistaking a “different method” for a “wrong method.”
It won’t be easy to break these habits, but we must try. We must all, as best we can, choose the best method for us, and remember that not all of us can be good at every one. As Adam Savage said at the Reason Rally, “I believe that while not all people are essentially good, most are trying.” A similar benefit of the doubt should be given to fellow atheists. You may not want to pick a fight on your cousin’s Facebook wall because they posted a bible quote, for example – but the atheist who does is at least trying. We need not berate him for pushing Cousin Sue farther away. And though an atheist may foolishly attempt to logically debate a frothing, nonsensical theist who wouldn’t know empirical evidence if it bit him in the ass, we need not berate her for wasting her time, quoting Thomas Paine at her, accusing her of giving medicine to the dead. She’s trying. And like I will discuss in the future, no debate is ever pointless. Even poor debate is good practice, and every failure is a lesson learned. Help your fellow atheist, yes. Point out shortcomings, okay. Educate, sure. Share your opinion, certainly. But let us not tear each other down for trying. Let us not pretend there is only one way. Let us not deprive anyone of the right to play their own role in the war we’re all fighting. Let not the diplomats speak ill of the infantry, and let not the general flippantly dismiss the efforts of the peace envoy. Let us not silence any voice trying to do good, bring light to the darkness or help the suffering. If you feel he may fail, do not ridicule his attempt – HELP HIM, and recognize the good he is doing. We will all be better off for it, and it is the only way to win the war.