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.

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  • Preston Horn

    Very well said!!!

    • Kim Rippere

      Agreed. This is what I wrote on my fb wall:

      I have to agree. Being fairly new to being OUT as an atheist, it never occurred to me that others atheists would try and tell me HOW to be an ATHEIST. Honestly, that seems absurd!

      Yes, I have a view point in how *I* am an atheist. I have a viewpoint about what sorts of things the National Atheist Party should be doing and how they should be engaging with people – I am a member!

      I have received personal messages about how I am not doing atheism in the RIGHT way. HUH?

      My standard response is that there is plenty of room in atheism and secularism for a variety of approaches. People need to do what works for them.

      • Randy

        How were they telling you to change? I’ve never gotten that reaction.

  • Empirically Inclined (@EIAtheism)

    My first blog post, ever. Thanks to @AtheismResource for the amazing opportunity! The Atheist Civil War:

  • Sarah Hardin

    Well written and wonderfully said. Thank you for being the voice of reason among the rationalists.

  • skepticalscoop (@skepticalscoop)

    Atheism Resource – The Atheist Civil War

  • Louis Mahern

    I don’t quite understand the need to proselytize. I firmly believe that there is no afterlife and no deity. I also have a sneaking suspicion that there are a lot more of us out there. I tell anyone who asks what my beliefs are. but only if they inquire. I may make the odd wry comment about religion but that’s about it.

  • Mike Müller

    As a Gaytheist with several Facebook pages dedicated to both Gay Rights and atheism, I run into this argument all the time. My retort is simple: Tolerance is something which I am neither interested in or prepared to give. Back in the day when non-believer’s spoke up at their own peril, KKKri$tians were not the least bit interested in the tolerance they now demand. They burned us at the stake, cut our throats and/or imprisoned us. The gay Right’s struggle see’s this today as KKKri$tians cry that we are no longer allowing them to use their phony faith to murder us. I feel no guilt whatsoever in fighting back against faith-based homophobia and ignorance.
    At the very least, those who demand tolerance must be prepared to act accordingly – something the history of KKKri$t-insanity has shown itself completely incapable of. These institutionalized hypocrites have only themselves to blame for the rise of militant atheism. I like Wendall Willkie’s quote best: “No man has the right in America to treat any other man tolerantly, for tolerance is the assumption of superiority.” Wendall Willkie, politician (1892-1944). KKKri$tian$ need to keep their religion and fake tolerance to themselves.

    • Julia Larson

      Mike, I wasn’t talking about tolerance of theists, theism or any bad behavior, I was talking about tolerance of all the different ways that atheists choose to practice atheism (that don’t harm others). I believe in universal tolerance for all people to believe whatever they want – NOT the bad behavior you mentioned (burning at the stake, imprisonment, etc). Even though it’s been done to us, we must not succumb to “eye for an eye” mentality, or “do as I say, not as I do.” You are perfectly justified in fighting back, but not, IMHO, in doing to them the unspeakable things they have done to us. Be angry, hate them, fight against them in non-violent ways. But you must tolerate their right to exist and to believe whatever they want. You don’t have to respect it or like it, but you do have to tolerate it. It may have been unclear, but I didn’t not intend to imply that respect and tolerance were the same thing.

      But, again, I wasn’t talking about tolerance of theists – I was talking about atheists tolerating other atheists’ differing methods of practice.

      • Mike Müller

        I got the gist of your post. My issue remains that as KKKri$tian$ it is incumbent upon them to cease and desist with the century’s of hate and ignorance they have perpetrated against anyone and every one who does not share their mania. I refuse to devote my life to deflecting THEIR issues. Likewise, it is not my problem if they feel that some atheists are less tolerant than others. I cannot water down my reality with a cozy elixir of almost harmony. Religion is garbage. Who tolerates garbage in their lives? Get in my face about my homosexuality or lack of belief in god(s) and tolerance will be the last thing you walk away with. We have all arrived where we are via different experiences. Calling for a one-size-fits-all detente among atheists/KKKri$tian$ – whomever, ignores the reality of our life experience as individuals. If a fellow atheist friend chooses to embrace those KKKri$tian$ of a more humanistic nature – so be it. I choose to avoid half measures. We have century’s of dogma, slavery and ignorance to overcome – for ourselves and our society. Finding some amorphous middle-ground is only a waste of time. When religion has finally bowed before reason, then and only then can we work on degrees of tolerance.

  • Alicia

    Beautifully spoken!

  • Larry Carter Center

    Thank you Julia & Mike for your Atheist passions. I’m 60. A lifelong Atheist. Never baptized. Never believing in Santa or Jeebus or my intolerant racist parents who hid my Atheist cousins, uncle & heroic Atheist scientists from me. Mike is posting about the depth of religious hatred directed at Gays and Atheists. As an American Atheist leader in my 5th decade, what Julia is struggling with is : “siege mentality” or how Atheists come out and stay out of the closet. How we become acquainted and relate to each other as Atheists. That is only part of “being.” I choose to call what Julia is illuminating is our need for compassion and understanding between Atheists and all our emerging freethought peers, primitive Atheists or liberal religious folk who still fear Atheist identity. And we must respect our Secular Believer neighbors who would never force their faiths upon us & defend our Constitution from theocrats. Secular people who would not confront Jews as Christians or Buddhists as Muslims. Live & let live people. All I ask my fellow humans is to call me an Atheist noun, not a lower case xian adjective. I have a name and it is Atheist. They have their gods & it is bigotry to pretend their one god is GOD above all others. If a motto or prayer to the flag is imminent, In god We Trust is a lie I shall not repeat. We are ONE NATION UNDER THE CONSTITUTION. E Pluribus Unum… happy to become acquainted with you all… Professor Dawkins set the tone for our prospects, challenge believers beliefs, not your fellow Atheists. 843-926-1750 Dial this Atheist anytime

  • Hammer the Gods (@HammerTheGods)

    I agree with much of this article, but I think the title is a bit much, as I don’t see a “civil war”.

    I think it…

  • Troy Boyle

    Bravo, Julia. This is exactly what I have been saying for the past year in the National Atheist Party. Bickering over whether one is a “strong” or “weak” atheist, and aganostic or gnostic atheist, is the silliest and most self-damaging phenomena in the “New Atheism” movement. Prior to the Reagan era, Christians bickered among themselves over minor differences of dogma and practice, but post-Reagan, they have come together politically and increasingly vote as a bloc that must be countered. Atheists and other freethinkers and humanists MUST come together to oppose the naked assertion of Christian political activism. The National Atheist Party is convened to do just that.

  • Question Everything (@Skeptical_Lady)

    The Atheist Civil War via @ThinkDevGrow

  • Eterriss

    I just turned a certain ripe old age, tho I’m not old in look or spirit… but I must tell you unequivocably that I will no longer defend to the death people who denigrate my antitheism.   Eli Weisel says he no longer believes in “toleramce”.  I c/not agree more.  I w/not tolerate those who speak badly of my beliefs.  They are being disrespectful and intolerant and this I w/not abide.  The best I can be towards such people is “civil”.  I w/not get into a physical altercation (nor w/I have done at an earlier age).  May I suggest you rethink your own use of the word “tolerance”.  That and “compassion” (for example) need to be more thoroughly quantified.  Not everyone is worthy of compassion.  E. Terriss

  • ikonografer

    bravo. i’m glad someone is finally looking at the evidence

  • Rocky Morrison

    I love it when atheists quote Nietzsche…a vicious syphillitic who died insane.

    Yeah, a real role model.  Bahahahaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!

  • LouisDoench

    You just got moved to a better position on the google homepage, well said. 

  • Slmhglyph

     I was born a victim of christian fundamentalist brainwash.  I found my freedom at the cost of my wife, my children, my parents and all the rest of my family and friends.  Don’t ignore that I lost my god drug too, which for a brainwash victim is a painful withdrawal.  But, I found my center.  But, my center is not atheism, which from my point of view atheism is just another religion.

      You believe the universe is an accident which exploded out of forces unimaginable or inexplicable,  like some god, then life spontaneously generated where conditions allowed.   Myself, I have no problem with any of that assumption, except the accident.  We don’t need to debate about whether christianity or islam is mythology invented by goatherders,  what we do need to debate is what you know as fact, and what you want to believe, and whether that makes atheism a religion.

      Are you ready?  The most reliable science humans have produced is chemisty.  It’s AMAZING.   It can predict the properties of composit alloys before it even exists.  But!!!!  Here’s a fundamental scientific fact of nature, according to chemistry.  ” you can never make something out of nothing”.

      Yet, the big bang made everything out of nothing.  Yet you believe.  Never stop believing in science, just stop making  theory a new religion.  Just be honest, that you cannot know, and freethought starts creeping in.


    • Goldstein Squad Member

      Only a fool would give up his wife, children and family over being an atheist.

    • johnontheleft

      Hi there. I’m only going to speak for myself here, but I feel, and I suspect many others do, that Atheism doesn’t hold the big bang as a ‘belief’ but rather ‘the best possible explanation we have so far’. It isn’t a matter of faith to us, but a scientific theory which goes some way to explaining observable phenomena. However, this isn’t central tenet of atheism – one can be an atheist and feel differently about how the universe came into existence.

      The basis of atheism – or at least my atheism – is the notion that there probably is no God. The reason I have reached that conclusion is because no testable/falsifiable evidence has been presented so far to prove that there is one. It is reasonable, in my view, to assume the negative in the absence of evidence supporting the positive.

      Science does not claim to have all the answers all the time, it claims to have some answers sometimes, and when those answers prove to be insufficient in explaining the world around us, they are reworked. This is difference. I hope I’ve helped.

  • Bruce Broadstreet

    Agree completely. I believe all  the varying methods are valid and necessary and can be used effectively depending on the person or group your dealing with and the situation. I was also going to comment on the various christian groups uniting under one banner but Troy Boyle already maid the point and did a better job than I would have. 
    Thanks for saying what we need to realize and understand.

  • Devout agnostic

    For the first time, I recently responded to a facebook posting by an atheist discussion community. The response I gave was flippant, dismissive and naive. I was given short shrift, perhaps deservedly so. My response was though, emotionally driven, as I felt their posting impinged on my natural sense of balance and justice….it appeared to me, the uninitiated, to imply that all theists were nasty people. I wondered whether I had been the victim of some kind of troll bait. A term they used (straw man) has since led me to realise that they are seasoned debaters and I was way out of my depth. Perhaps I should have read T. Edward Damer first. Maybe they were over-burdened by questions, but they presumably would assume some responsibility for that burden in that they posted the invitation in the first place. 

    I have licked my wounds, recovered the lost sleep. I am even able to feel grateful to them for expanding my thinking. Perhaps indeed, their ruthlessness wasn’t meanness.  For me, they did not help the atheist view. It would take a large leap of the imagination to believe that they would convert anyone, only force retreat. And forcing retreat so often re-inforces and embeds further, the challengers’ original standpoint, even if it is for fallacious, emotional reasons.  

    Thank you for your pleasant and reparative article

  • mperkel

    Actually the focus shouldn’t be on Atheism but rather on Reality.  If not for reality there would be no place for god not to be real in. If Atheism succeeds it becomes meaningless. But being pro-reality is far more powerful.

  • Randall

    Atheists need their “lone wolf assassins”? WTF?!
    You stupid bitch.

  • Geordie

    Today, after what seemed like hours of listening to inane crap from a Street “preacher” i said:I don`t respect your religious beliefs, I simply tolerate your limitations.

  • ch

    great article – was a very nice read.

  • Daniel Wall

    Interesting write-up. I am inclined to agree that we should respect a broad range of approaches to the issue. Of course it is in the particulars that this or that approach becomes untenable, but all of the general approaches mentioned above work fine in at least some instances.