I’ve been wading around in the online atheist community via Twitter for a little while now and it’s been fascinating. There are times when I feel like an outsider, even an interloper, but it’s a social venue that allows me opportunities to interact with people from the U.S. and around the world like an amateur sociologist. As such, I’ve found that the atheist “community” is comprised of factions which don’t seem to agree on anything much but the most basic definition of atheism.
While I may be a new arrival to this burgeoning movement, I’ve been an atheist since before some members of this seemingly fractious group were even born. I’ve always been a self-supporting atheist and never felt the need to seek out other atheists — fortunately for me since back then social media consisted of telephones and letters, bulletin board notices and newsletters. When the first chat rooms came along they seemed to exist for the sole purpose of entertaining computer geeks and people who didn’t want to pay exorbitant charges for the sex hotlines. Today, I have access to a new world filled to overflowing with a plethora of opinions and ideas, questions and debates, and shades of atheism I didn’t know existed. I’m learning about atheists and agnostics, secular humanists, activists and dabblers, represented by multiple groups and organizations, books, podcasts, blogs and magazines — each trying to further the understanding and acceptance of secular interests, but each with a more narrow focus.
Within our vast social organism, various cultures, subcultures, and countercultures flourish and often clash — particularly online. Everything from the most innocuous and absurd skirmishes between Xbox One and PS4 devotees, to vegetarians and vegans lashing out at meat-eaters wearing leather shoes, to New Atheist and AtheistPlus zealots verbally eviscerating one another. Which brings me to a frustrating issue: non-theists sniping at one another.
Martin Pribble, an atheist blogger based in Australia, recently made a post titled Leaving the Tribe: Why I’m no longer part of the online atheism community, in which he explained that he now considers himself a “methodological humanist” rather than an atheist. He wants to focus his attention on ways we can improve the world, irrespective of religion or atheism.
He also points out that many of the current methods of debating theism are likely to be counterproductive. (I have to agree. I’ve seen fundamentalist Christians (and others) and “vocal” atheists often interact on the childish level of, “Oh yeah? If evolution is real why are there still monkeys?” vs “Oh yeah? Talking snakes are stupid!” The response to both being, “You’re an ignorant bigot.”) In his brief article Pribble says, “An argument can be much more convincing if it gives context and information instead of just derision.” This simple observation of fact, based on common sense and basic debating skills, has disconcerted some atheists in the online community in which “the best defense is a good offense” appears to be a popular game plan.
I only read two rebuttals of Pribble’s article and both were openly derisive. The first from Hemant Mehta, Friendly Atheist, who tempered his commentary with some civility even if he couldn’t completely stifle his inner snark:
Were any of those people convinced to give up their faith because atheists relentlessly called them “stupid” for clinging to beliefs they’d probably had since childhood? Probably not. In my experience, people are more likely to adjust their world views when they’re treated as intelligent — albeit misinformed — human beings. Of course there are fundamentalists who can’t be reached by any amount of factual evidence, regardless of the calm, rational manner by which the facts are presented, but does that mean we shouldn’t bother to try?
…I have considered myself an “activist atheist” — [someone fighting] against the evils of deliberate misinformation [by trolling online for theists, telling] them why they are wrong and ridiculing their unreasonable beliefs. [It] could be extremely satisfying [when I could] come to a level of agreement with a believer [but] the times of satisfaction are outweighed by feelings of frustration and hopelessness.Tony:
Are you serious? [Did you come to be] a vocal atheist…out of some egotistical sense of satisfaction, or…to make a real difference in the way people…understand their existence? [Did you think] that there was going to be some kind of self-serving, self-satisfying payoff…?
[Either Tony misread or willfully misinterpreted what Martin was conveying. Martin said that he experienced “times of satisfaction” when he felt that he’d made a positive impact. Tony is taking the effect and twisting it into the cause. Feelings of frustration and “hopelessness” are a normal when you are unable to broaden someone’s worldview.]
Martin: I will no longer be dragged into debates with theists [who make ludicrous claims]. There is no point in it.
Tony: Why would you get into endless loop debates with theists…at all? Why do some atheists let themselves get sucked into self-defeating, life-sucking debate[s] where one side is of it is completely founded on FANTASY! MYTH! BULLSHIT!
Did you never learn that in your five years of being an “online atheist”? I’d be embarrassed to admit that if I were you.
[Tony just agreed with Martin that those types of “debates” are self-defeating and best avoided, while his unnecessarily patronizing tone is a good example of why the atheist “community” is currently so fractious.]
Martin: All this back-and-forth sniping serves to do is to make us feel a sense of superiority [and confirms the preconceived idea that] “atheists are all mean.” Faith overrides knowledge and truth in any situation.
Tony: Again… are you kidding me? You are just figuring this out now? Took you long enough. [Again…sheer disdain rarely strengthens an argument.]
1. Basing your opinions on tangible facts, logic, and science DOES make your opinion superior to someone’s [sic] whose opinion is based on fiction… [Your opinions may be rationally and factually superior, but expressing them doesn’t mean YOU are superior.]
2. When I engage in a debate based on facts (which is always)…I don’t feel smug afterwards. I don’t need to come away…with some strange buzz of victory or satisfaction. That’s not why I debate. [Nor do most of us. We question beliefs out of an honest desire to educate and possibly inspire others to rethink their beliefs.]
3. Faith does NOT override knowledge or truth in any situation… If what you were saying was true, people would not pay their bills on the basis of their “faith”. The reason they are so [sic] clinging to their “faith” even against the most damning evidence debunking it is cognitive dissonance, and denial. Believe it or not, that’s really your only job as a vocal atheist.
[If Tony had read Pribble’s post, without that chip on his shoulder, he would have understood that in a believer’s mind faith does supersede known facts. Believers have often been indoctrinated to reject challenges to their belief system. They may actually be afraid to entertain doubt and need reassurance, not ridicule.
Once again Tony just repeated what Martin said about faith overriding facts. Contrary to Tony’s proclamation, as atheists it is not our job is to “point out [the] obvious hypocrisy and silliness” of someone’s faith with the self-righteous condescension of a preacher.]
And how do you do [debunk their beliefs]? Simple [show them] that what they believe…is completely… LUDICROUS. It’s the 21st century for fuck’s sake. There is simply no room [for] archaic, bronze age, divisive, silly, and nonsensical beliefs. And dare I say that those beliefs are inherently and directly DANGEROUS.
[Many long held beliefs are indeed “inherently and directly dangerous” and need to be firmly addressed. However, venting your impotent rage may not be the best way to do it.]
Martin: …I’ve come to a point where I am only injuring myself [by] engaging in theistic debating about things like…the Noah’s Ark story.
Tony: Then DON’T debate Noah’s Ark…LAUGH AT THEM… Mock and dismiss it to the point of shame.
[Tony doesn’t seem to understand the power of the lifelong indoctrination implemented by many religions. Having come from a Christian background, I guarantee that dismissive, mocking, and shaming “debate” methods will only put believers on the defensive and entrench their unfortunate beliefs even more firmly.]
Martin: If someone is espousing beliefs that are actively harmful—i.e., promoting intolerance based on belief systems—expect me to be the first to stand up and say something.
I can’t allow this kind of thinking, and if I can help it, I will move to sway the believer into rethinking their position. But this will be done with reason and rational discourse, not with contradicting the finer points of the religious texts.
Tony: Um… Martin, I have a little newflash [sic] for you. ALL “beliefs” based on faith or fantasy, particularly when it comes to religion, are…inherently harmful…All of them.
The reality is that these “harmless believers” are STILL supporting a MULTI-BILLION [sic] DOLLAR ENTERPRISE…subsidizing and financing an institution that has systematically [harmed millions].
[This isn’t a “news flash” for ANYONE. We are ALL quite aware of the evils perpetrated by many organized religions. However, berating some poor bastard who is himself mired in dogmatic superstition, ignorance and fear will have no effect on the religious leaders who are truly to blame.
But here IS a news flash: there is such a thing as benign faith. If prayer brings comfort to those who are suffering, that is a benign faith. A faith which incites violence, cruelty, bigotry and blind hatred, discourages education, refuses medical care, etc., is a malignant faith and the institutions that propagate it deserve severe approbation.]
Martin: It all comes down to a simple fact [that] people will be more easily swayed if you don’t attack them personally.
Others in the atheist community might say that an attack on religion is not a personal attack, but to many believers it is, because that is what they base their lives upon.
Tony: [W]hat’s wrong with telling someone whose beliefs are silly, archaic, and destructive the TRUTH…? I’ll tell you. Nothing. [It’s] incumbent on the truth-teller to render the pain as directly, if not as humanely as possible. My purpose in standing for truth is not to “sway” people. It’s to get them to ultimately THINK about what they believe…[to get them] on that slow…path to enlightenment.
[Tony’s justification for inflicting “pain” on believers through sanctimonious derision is unacceptable. As I said before, mocking and shaming will only serve to make believers defensive and will cause them to cling that much harder to their religion. We can’t educate the misguided by insulting them. We will only be proving their negative opinions about atheists.]
Martin: If you mock or criticize the believer’s convictions, it is as though you are attacking them personally, and they will shut down the conversation right there. Even worse, they’ll GO INTO ALL-CAPS MODE, as if that makes the defense of belief more substantial.
Tony: Who cares? If a believer takes your criticism personally, that’s not your problem, it’s theirs. [Who says atheists aren’t compassionate?]
Martin: An argument can be much more convincing if it gives context and information instead of just derision.
Tony: [Calling] someone who still believes…a “moron” is just a by-product of the debate. [No. Name-calling is not “a by-product” of debate, it is ad hominem and self-defeating.]
Martin: Atheists and nonbelievers make up such a small part of the world’s population that we can never hope to change the world by ourselves—certainly not, if our primary weapon is yelling at people we don’t agree with. [Cooperation between theists and atheists is the first step toward unified, secularly-led world governments.]
Martin: Most theists in the world are not completely delusional. Many see their faith as being primarily about an afterlife and dismiss the more ridiculous stories—about the apocalypse, for instance—as parables used to illustrate a point.
Tony: So…believing in an “afterlife” is a virtuous trait? [Martin said nothing about belief in an afterlife being “virtuous” — he said many hold beliefs which are, in reality, quite innocuous and harm no one.]
Martin: The problem is, the people we hear most from are not the rational ones. It’s the fanatics with the largest and loudest voices.
Tony: Well, as one of those “loud voices”, let me speak in my defense…[No need to get defensive, Martin was referring to fundamental theists…not necessarily fundamental ATHEISTS.]
I speak LOUDLY…[because in] other parts of the world, people who speak HALF as loudly…are being KILLED…TORTURED… ARRESTED AND EXECUTED. So then ask yourself: Do you not have a DUTY, no a RESPONSIBILITY to…speak, SCREAM and DEBATE on their behalf?
[There is no question that everyone should be outraged by any violation of human rights, atheist or otherwise! But all that energy and anger needs to be directed at world leaders who allow the persecution and oppression of ANY group. Screaming at some dumbfuck on Twitter or Facebook isn’t the answer.]
Martin: I have decided to define myself by what I stand for in life rather than what I don’t believe in. I call this “methodological humanism.” In essence, methodological humanism is a standpoint by which everyone, theist, agnostic, and atheist alike, can agree on as a platform from which we can all benefit: the need for food, water, and sanitation; the protection of our natural environment; and the preservation of the world as a whole. Without these things, we, as a species, cease to exist.
Tony: Well, good enough… except for one thing. How do you address the FACT that so much of our resources…are being WASTED, HOARDED, and MISUSED by religious institutions?
How do you discuss this…with theists under your new humanist platform without offending them or making them understand that they are part of the greater problem? Here’s a hint, you can’t. So…[w]hy put yourself into such a wishy-washy position…due to your reluctance to offend? That makes you a very special kind of apologist. Nothing to be proud of.
[Tony has once again misconstrued and twisted a simple statement of personal purpose. Martin said is that he is choosing to focus on the needs of humanity as a whole, rather than spending his energy in the narrow focus off disabusing theists of their damaging beliefs. Does it really matter WHO is wasting, hoarding, and misusing our resources? Any organization, corporation, or government needs to be held accountable. Theism is only part of the problems the world faces today. ]
Martin: So much of Internet discourse is based upon the disagreements we have with one another…[but] if we can first find a space where we agree, a bottom-line for the well-being of all people, then the arguments about belief begin to look like petty squabbling over childhood toys.
This is not to say that I think people should stop arguing — quite the opposite. Argument helps us suss out the finer points of what we believe to be our rights and needs, and what are simply comforts that we are so used to having that we can’t imagine life with out [sic] them.
I’m not calling for a cease-fire altogether between atheists and believers online.
In fact, I think that we still need those who will relentlessly chase down believers for their ludicrous ideas, especially when they cause harm in the world. But I will not be the one doing it — and those who are in the trenches should think harder about their own tactics.
Tony goes on to call Martin’s post a diatribe (I’m not sure he sees the irony in that), accusing him of being a disingenuous, self-serving, self-important/egotistical online atheist. Offering a petty “good riddance” to someone whom he feels belongs “on the sidelines” for having the audacity of sharing his “wishy-washy” opinions.
By that reasoning, calling out a believer for being inflexible and stupid is justified, but quietly suggesting that atheists — and those they hope to influence — might benefit from tempering their arguments is an affront? If I want that sort of fundamental bullshit, I’ll go back to church. Imagine what the world would be like today if Gandhi had behaved like a petulant, self-righteous prick rather than taking the high road.