Aggressive versus Gentle Atheism: Which Approach Works Best?
Atheist Alliance of America President Mark Gura and Blog Director Sarah Mills debate trends within the atheist community and constructive approaches.
by Sarah Mills and Mark Gura
Like many people who were once involved in religion, and for whom the experience was less than positive, I became eager to distance myself as much as possible from it. Religion, for me, was synonymous with conformity, mind control, repression, stunted creativity, guilt, and a community that was only as good as your unwavering, unquestioning commitment to abide by its stringent rules. In hindsight, I can appreciate that I might have leapt a bit too far to the ‘other’ side–a reaction, one could argue, that was understandable circumstances considered. Leaving religion meant I could more fully embrace humanity. Where I once excluded people from my life on the basis of faith, I now included them, forming relationships and friendships that were grounded in mutual compatibility and genuine love, rather than perfunctory duty as members of a shared belief system. Where I once formed ties conditional on uniformity of thought, I could now love unconditionally. I could become politically involved, I could stand up for the rights of those I had previously thought sinners simply because of whom they loved, I could occupy myself with the here and now, living fully in the present without self-flagellating in penance for arbitrary sins and in anticipation of an afterlife.
I was enamored with the eloquence of the quartet of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett, whose work had been so influential in bringing me to leave the faith of my childhood. So when I began to see people in my left-leaning circles criticize atheism, I was perplexed, to say the least. I was relatively new to the world of politics, however, and the nuances of its rhetoric and labyrinth of alliances. My definition of atheism was one that took it at face value, and I saw nothing wrong with that. Indeed, atheism is the absence of belief in a deity. Full stop. But did the dictionary definition paint an accurate picture of its accompanying Anglo-American movement, one that accounted for those trends that were incurring criticism? I dismissed any attempts to pigeonhole a concept like atheism into a movement at all–how could a culture spring from a lack of ideology? I defended atheism in light of criticisms that portrayed it or its ‘members’ as bigoted. The term militant atheist never sat well with me. Militant was a word better reserved for religious fundamentalists, whose blind devotion to implausible uncertainties was responsible for some of the worst crimes humanity has ever known. The Left seemed more ready to defend, in an ironic and absurd twist, ideologies that were at odds with minority rights, in the name of minority rights! So what exactly was happening?
I dismissed any attempts to pigeonhole a concept like atheism into a movement at all–how could a culture spring from a lack of ideology?
I took a harder look at what I was defending and, in the process, came to notice tendencies within atheist circles that were concerning. Atheism and skepticism shifted from the dissection table of philosophers with their instruments of logic and epistemology to the keyboards of less equipped, more irascible, lay persons. The accessibility of the philosophy of atheism to the wider public itself was not the problem here, necessarily; the more people capable of critically examining their beliefs, the better. But what resulted was a net degradation of intellectual exchange on religion. It seemed as though many were reducing complex matters of philosophy, theology, and history to a matter of pointing fingers at the religious and laughing, using gratuitously disparaging language in an attempt to be irreverent, but without the wit of George Carlin or Monty Python or the legacy of Charlie Hebdo. Depending on who is holding the pen, satire can be pungent and timely, revealing great, universal truths, or it can fall entirely flat and become the butt of its own joke. And not only were the naïve falling into this trap. The figureheads of New Atheism I held in esteem seemed to be doing the same, failing to acknowledge the myriad of factors that contribute to extremism, for example, while pinning it all–or the great bulk of it–on religion. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and this too was situated within a wider context of rapid change, deep divides, and cultural anxiety, much of it justified in the face of religious extremism. This revealed, however, another unsettling identifying aspect of the cultural movement that was coming together around atheism.
The enemy of my enemy is my friend. This proverb has resulted in a strange, if unsurprising, parasitic ‘alliance’ between ex-religious persons, especially ex-Muslims, and elements of the reactionary right. The latter have exploited the legitimate grievances of the former, who, in addition to the powerful logical imperative for examining their faiths, also have strong emotions associated therewith, as they often face threat of persecution or shunning from their family and communities. The reactionary right’s dislike of Islam is rooted in entirely different reasons, however, and they have used minorities, including women, ex-Muslims, and LGBT persons as props in their fight against the monolithic enemy they have created out of this religion–an enemy that is, as they see it, fighting for hegemony in what ought to be a world dominated by values originating, so they believe, in Christianity and the Christian world instead. Aside from the obvious flaws inherent in such reductionist arguments is the very real, troubling use of atheism as a banner they hide behind to engage in rhetoric that would otherwise be unacceptable. Likewise troubling is the flock of right-leaning, reactionary audiences to the figureheads of ex-religious and atheist movements. While we must be able to criticize religion, even satirize it in the right context, we must also be able to ask ourselves the difficult question, Am I truly accomplishing good, changing minds, bringing people to confront their beliefs, or am I indulging myself, venting my frustrations, and potentially causing people to retreat even further into their beliefs out of sheer defensiveness?
While we must be able to criticize religion, even satirize it in the right context, we must also be able to ask ourselves the difficult question, Am I truly accomplishing good, changing minds, bringing people to confront their beliefs, or am I indulging myself, venting my frustrations, and potentially causing people to retreat even further into their beliefs out of sheer defensiveness?
Progressive-identifying individuals are not immune from engaging in some of the more troubling behaviors that have come to be associated with the New Atheist movement. Sam Harris has repeatedly fallen into the easy trap of reducing religion and the religious to their most nefarious products, ignoring the vast and complex scholarship on geopolitics and jihad. Christopher Hitchens made comments that revealed a hawkish strain in his otherwise liberal person, especially as evidenced by his support for harsh interventionist approaches.
There is a vast middle ground between cowardly deferring to the bullying tactics religions, and the religious, often employ, and launching caustic attacks that wound the dignity of those for whom religion still holds an important place–whether for cultural, familial, or spiritual reasons. Religion, whether we atheists stomach it or not, serves, and has served throughout history, an important anthropological function. It is complex, dynamic, and rooted in the human psyche. It is a part of our legacy as humans, and stating this is not apologetics. It is fact. We must always confront its authoritarian tendencies, and if we do not anticipate them by actively engaging in preventive discussion and informed criticism, we risk allowing religion too much leeway. But an ethical atheist movement will seek to find a balance that ignites the curiosity that is also ingrained into the human psyche, the drive for freedom and knowledge that is every bit a part of us as well. An ethical atheist movement will seek to address the darker undercurrents of misogyny and racism that crop up in its circles. An ethical atheist movement will provide support to those seeking a way out of religion, a refuge where topics can be discussed without degenerating into hostility and bashing. An ethical atheist movement will eschew arrogance in favor of building bridges with communities it hopes to win over to more evidence-based thinking. An ethical atheist movement will be empathetic, rational, levelheaded, and accepting of divergences in opinion, in honor of its historical legacy.
Religion rests on a false premise. It convinces people that supernatural concepts are the “truth,” rather than admitting that these so-called truths are merely opinions. By definition, an opinion is any concept that is not corroborated by evidence. For something to be truthful, there must be incontrovertible evidence that substantiates it as true. Religion indoctrinates young people to believe that religious opinions are truths, and people are convinced by religion from a young age, every day, and all over the world. Since religious people control most social-cultural and economic systems, everywhere, atheist activists seek to un-indoctrinate people.
Atheist activists use both aggressive and gentle methods to help people realize that religion is lying. These methods work, and the numbers show that religion is on the decline wherever a free exchange of ideas is present. Our disadvantage is that birthrate multiplies the religious virus too quickly. I do not think it is unethical to point out, aggressively, that religion is not telling the truth. Even if we intend to be nice, it is likely unethical not to say something. It is unethical to allow religion to lie.
Is it possible that our compassion and empathy might play against us at times, hurt our resolve as a movement, and divide us atheists? I’ve noticed that when I use aggressive anti-indoctrination techniques, religious people do get defensive. This is normal and expected. I don’t see this as a defeat. It’s a necessary step in anti-indoctrination work. If we persist long and strong enough, often, some people will eventually realize that religion has been telling them untruths. Finally, they’ll come to doubt religion. However, a more compassionate and empathetic approach tends to reinforce the indoctrination. When we stop, wince, or draw-back, then defense mechanisms have done their work. This leaves the religious brain to continue to be dominated by religious programming.
I’ve noticed that when I use aggressive anti-indoctrination techniques, religious people do get defensive. This is normal and expected. I don’t see this as a defeat. It’s a necessary step in anti-indoctrination work.
I do not think that atheists should personally or gratuitously insult religious people, or be hostile for the sake of being hostile. However, aggressive methods of destroying indoctrination, do work. We should not remove these tools from our toolbox. If we do, we risk limiting our effectiveness at combating indoctrination. Religious concepts that are ridiculous should be ridiculed because ridicule is an effective means of tackling indoctrination. Billboards do bring attention to our cause and should continue to be used. Recycled memes have their purposes. Our community does need to be rallied, at times. When we attack concepts, we are not attacking the person. We are showing that a concept is not productive. Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett’s work has been influential because it works. As Dennett said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘There is no kind way to tell someone that they have dedicated their lives to a delusion.’
Atheist activism is no longer the realm of intellectuals and philosophers. The world belongs to everyday people, many of whom never even finished High School. They are now speaking up about their disbelief. They have a right to do so. They have a right to express their frustration, and to communicate the way they usually communicate. Social media has taken away the podium from the intellectuals, the elites, and the priest-kings.
When aggressive methods of anti-indoctrination are branded as “bullying,” our community is divested of anti-indoctrination tools. As long as we are passive and friendly, religion continues to grow through birth rate, social-cultural and economic control. When activists stop being active, stop criticizing religion to be nice to religious people, and when we justify the good things that religion has done, this gives religion even more ammunition. It feels like now, the mantra is “Be nice to religious people and criticize atheists,” and this mantra is being foisted on the atheist community, from within. This reminds me of when the Conquistadors divided Native Americans from within before they subjugated the Americas.
When aggressive methods of anti-indoctrination are branded as “bullying,” our community is divested of anti-indoctrination tools.
Think about what’s happening right now. Atheists are asking other atheists to stop using the very tools that have won us our most significant victories. We are now asked to use only one, undocumented methodology, which is called ‘compassion.’ In other words, don’t use chemo to fight cancer, just use essential oils. This tool has not been proven to be capable of replacing all other methodologies. Our job as atheist activists is to continuously remind everyone that religion lies and that these lies are controlling our world, whether activists do so aggressively or gently, this is our prerogative.