Does the Atheist Movement have a “Dickishness” Problem?

So, as promised last time, I’m going to talk about the great accomodationist debate … or, rather, the great accomodationist debate that was the “Don’t be a dick” debate as opposed to the “Science and religion are not compatible” debate. On the one side, you had atheists who preferred a more confrontational and aggressive approach, and on the other side you had those who said that that approach was too confrontational, and was causing problems for the movement.

So, just as in the discussion of sexism, there are two questions to answer here: the descriptive and the normative. For the descriptive question, we have to ask if even the more aggressive atheists are, in fact, more “dickish” than anyone else. So, if you read around the Internet, are even the more aggressive and downright insulting blogs and blog comments of these atheists any worse than the comments you’d see on any other blogs or on any other topics? Well, even speaking as someone who is at least in the general group that the comments are aimed at, I have to say that the answer to the descriptive question is unfortunately “No”. The Internet and society in general is full of people who take strong views on things and treat those who disagree as enemies, who they then insult and bash and then chortle over having “beaten” their opponents. Even the worse cases — like what you’d see in the comments sections of Pharyngula — are pretty much just standard these days.

So, again, it doesn’t look like the atheist movement is any worse than any other group when it comes to being jerks. But this debate has always been about the normative question: should tbe atheist movement be more or less aggressive and “dickish”? The accomodationists have argued that being more aggressive alienates potential allies, causes the people you are arguing with to close their minds to your arguments, and generally makes atheists look shrill and angry. The counter is that there is room in the atheist movement for both approaches and that for any movement that wants to change things the very civil and polite approach doesn’t work; you don’t ask politely for your rights, but have to fight for them.

The counter that there is room for both approaches doesn’t quite work, because people will see the movement as at least a semi-unified whole. So if you have atheists who take a very strong approach and offend people, then those who don’t like that approach will always end up having to answer questions about whether they agree with what those more aggressive atheists say, usually instead of being able to promote their own ideas. Thus, the aggressive atheist approach is liekly to have an impact on the approach of the “accomodationists”, one that isn’t likely to be vice versa. So accomodationists have more reason to complain that what the aggressive atheists are doing is hurting them rather than the inverse.

But, the counter that all movements need confrontation and anger is not a bad one. The reason is that in order to change things, you have to convince the peolpe who don’t feel strongly about either side that they should, in fact, feel strongly about the side you want them to support. So that does require passion, making it clear that you do, in fact, care about the issue and that the issue is critically important to you. And it is definitely the case that getting angry over things, particularly perceived injustices, does express passion.

Martin Luther King Jr., and his famous Letter From a Birmingham Jail, is often cited in these discussions. The accomodationists claim that King is a perfect example of someone who achieved his goals without being a jerk, while the non-accomodationists point to the letter and say that he could be confrontational and aggressive at times. And I think that this does reflect the truth about this issue: anger can express passion and expressing passion is good, but it isn’t always a good thing to do that. In fact, there are some cases where it is generally bad:

1) If it comes across as someone more interested in being insulting than in actually making the argument. Take Myers’ Crackergate: it could easily be seen as Myers wanting to tick off people and using the incident as an excuse to do so. This is because what he did works better to insult people than it does to make the point that he was trying to make; there were certainly other ways to demonstrate that people were overreacting without deliberately insulting even those who weren’t overreacting. So while, as the non-accomodationists argue, some people will be insulted or offended by any criticism of their views, that doesn’t mean that one should therefore strive to cause as much offense as possible. All that does is make everyone angry. So, one should choose the methods that are likely to cause the least offense as possible while still getting your point across.

2) If it is constant. If you express that level of passion over every little offense, no matter how trivial it might seem to everyone else. For example, if you look at cases where there’s a small prayer that’s been in a school for years for other reasons, or where a council has just always started with a prayer, if the reaction is that this is an incredibly egregious offense to atheists, and the reaction is therefore with strong anger and passion, people will start to think that atheists get angry and complain over every little thing, and so ignore them when they express passion over more serious things. The reason, for example, that few really take the protests of university students all that seriously is that they tend to protest over everything, making it that much harder for them and requiring them to take far more extreme measures to express their passion. So, passion must be measured: it must be appropriate to the severity of the issue.

3) If it’s seen as being a strategy. If people think that you aren’t really angry, but are merely using confrontational tactics as a strategy, then they won’t believe that you are really passionate about the issue … and so your passion won’t come across and so they won’t take it seriously, and so your strateg will fail. And a number of non-accomodationists have defended it as being a strategy, which thus hurts their own cause.

For passion and anger to work, it has to be seen as a genuine reaction to issues. If it is, then generally it will be measured and a reflection of the perception of the person getting angry. If one is getting angry and being confrontational constantly, then that might reflect something about them … and hurt their own cause.


7 Responses to “Does the Atheist Movement have a “Dickishness” Problem?”

  1. Crude Says:

    So, again, it doesn’t look like the atheist movement is any worse than any other group when it comes to being jerks.

    I’m not sure about this. I can name at least a few areas that set the New Atheists apart.

    1) Blasphemy Day. The explanation is that the intention is not to offend, but I think all evidence points to the contrary. On top of that, it wasn’t just some fringe idea thought up by a few people, but something done by as close to a major atheist group as you can get.

    2) Dawkins’ talk about fence sitters and the strategy of mocking and belittling religious believers, specifically with the goal of converting people who are afraid of being laughed at – and the general endorsement of this by New Atheists. What really sets apart the New Atheists from atheists who aren’t part of that group is the willingness and eagerness to mock and belittle people at the drop of a hat. That’s where a good share of the tension with the accommodationists comes with to begin with.

    3) The very existence of the ‘accommodationist’ controversy. Again, that heavily hinges on accommodationists being willing to treat people they disagree with with some amount of respect from the outset (even if only for strategic reasons at times). Not exclusively – there’s also the rejection of the ‘science and religion are compatible’ aspect – but that’s certainly a large part of it. Either way, I think it’s not as easy to find this kind of split with other groups. Keep in mind, this split almost entirely comes down to rhetoric, rather than palpable differences. It’s one thing if, say, NRA supporters dislike politician X because politician X sacrifices 2nd amendment rights. It’s another thing if the NRA supporters dislike politician X because, despite agreeing with them on 2nd amendment rights, he doesn’t treat gun control advocates as idiots and lunatics.

    4) The attitudes of most of their most visible representatives. The problem isn’t just Myers’ comments section – it’s Myers himself. It’s Jerry Coyne who, last I checked, couldn’t have a Christianity-related post without talking about ‘Jeebus’, or coming up with derisive names for who he’s dealing with. (Polkinghorne became ‘Polkie’ when he was talking about him.) The list goes on, and really, it’s not just crazy gnus at the fringes doing these things.

    I suppose one good way to communicate this is just to ask the following: if tomorrow, New Atheists had all their same core beliefs (rejecting of religion, rejection of God, belief government should be secular, belief more people should be atheists, etc), but did not act like jerks – if they didn’t mock or belittle theists without provocation, if they thought that theists were often well-meaning or even intelligent people but ultimately mistaken, etc – would they be at all recognizable as a distinct group of atheists? I don’t think they would. That would have to mean that either that behavior is somehow core to New Atheists, or there’s something about their core beliefs that demands they act like that – which adds up to the same thing.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I’m not so sure. Remember that this is about the movement as a whole, not just the “New Atheists” portion. So you don’t ask if there are dicks in the atheist movement, just as in the previous post you didn’t ask if there were sexists in the atheist movement, but asked if it was, overall, worse than it is in most comparable groups. Blasphemy Day seems like a specific example of trying to protest something and going for the dramatic and aggressive way instead of the least offensive way possible, but I really do think that most groups make that error as well. The accomodationist debate, you must remember, at least in part was started by the accomodationists calling out the “Gnus” on being aggressive and dickish, and the response given is precisely what I’ve seen on other boards and in other movements, and the scrap is the same kind of scrap. And that the very visible representatives are the jerks also seems to apply to movements as well, like feminism and other rights groups, at least in today’s society.

      If there’s any difference, it might be that in the atheist movement there tends to be more and stronger attempts to justify the actions than in the other movements, but you’d expect that for any group as academic as the atheist movement is.

      • Crude Says:

        Remember that this is about the movement as a whole, not just the “New Atheists” portion.

        But I’m not sure there is an ‘atheist movement’ in general. There are atheists who aren’t New Atheists, sure. But do they have anything resembling a movement? The closest you can get is the American Atheists, and Murray-O’Hare was in many ways a New Atheist predecessor.

        Blasphemy Day seems like a specific example of trying to protest something

        But what were they protesting? ‘Blasphemy laws’? Where? Superficially you’d think ‘in muslim countries’, yet the overwhelming contributions to those videos was anti-Christian.

        And that the very visible representatives are the jerks also seems to apply to movements as well, like feminism and other rights groups, at least in today’s society.

        Here’s the problem. The WBC is very visible – and I can see someone describing them as ‘representatives of Christianity’. But the WBC is also a fringe little group that most other Christians, even ones who are very orthodox and traditional and conservative, utterly deplore. The issue isn’t just visibility, but leadership – and most of what can reasonably be called ‘leadership’ in the New Atheist movement are just obnoxious jerks. Consciously jerks at that – again, see the Dawkins quote I’m talking about.

        I don’t think you can say that Dawkins, Coyne, Myers, etc are just fringe parts of New Atheism the way WBC is fringe in Christianity. They are the figureheads and leaders. Remove them and their supporters, and it’s not clear there is an ‘atheist movement’ anymore. There’s just atheists.

      • verbosestoic Says:

        Well, to what degree you can say that the atheist movement is itself a movement is another question entirely, although I think that you focus too much on organizations and not enough on small, informal groups. We had a feminist movement, but what organizations or specific groupings can you point to? NOW, maybe, but surely there was more to it than that. And the same thing would apply to the gay rights movement; you’d want to talk about GLAD, but would you make, say, NAMBLA representative of any portion of that movement, as opposed to one group that had certain ideas?

        So, if you look at religious groups, you have to note that the leaders of the religions themselves are generally very official and very organized. They have PR people who make sure that the message is clear and on target, and that they don’t use any methods that might tick people off. Which means that they tend to be less insulting or jerkish than others, because PR would calculate the precise time to be passionate and only act then, which is why they use political power more to achieve their goals than appeals to the masses. But if you look at individuals, there are a lot of religious and/or right-wing individuals that are jerks and quite popular, or at least were (Limbaugh, and the head of that one Catholic organization that I ignore because, well, he ain’t the Pope or my local priest so why should I care, etc, etc).

        Yes, the WBC is a fringe organization, but only in being an organization that seems to follow those aggressive principles. While you can call Dawkins et al leaders, they aren’t really the leaders of influential organizations — they may lead organizations, but those organizations are not yet influential as such — and so are grassroots leaders, and a lot of grassroots leaders are aggressive and, yes, even jerks … across all movements.

  2. Crude Says:

    I think part of the problem I’m having here is that you’re making reference to an ‘atheist movement’ apart from the New Atheists – but again, I see no evidence that there really exists an ‘atheist movement’ beyond the New Atheists themselves. The humanist and atheist groups that exist explicitly embrace and boost Dawkins, Myers, Coyne, even Maher.

    The GLAAD/NAMBLA example actually seems to support this somewhat. Part of the reason I can say that NAMBLA is not representative of ‘the LGBT movement’ is because of the other groups and leaders who exist in contrast, and who really are leading a movement. If NAMBLA was basically the only organization in town talking about things related (however loosely) to LGBT issues, then I’d question whether an LGBT movement existed in a meaningful way beyond NAMBLA. Likewise with atheism, the New Atheists are not only comprised of very visible leaders who behave a certain way, but the actual atheist groups which exist embrace them wholeheartedly.

    So if you tell me that you’re dealing with the Atheist Movement, but the one that exists above and beyond the New Atheists, I’m going to end up asking what this movement is. It’s apparently a movement with no leaders, no organizations, and which is only bound together by, perhaps, having some belief in common – and this belief happens to be one that demands zero action (in principle, an atheist could be completely apathetic about prayer in school, or even secularization.) To me that’s a little like talking about America’s anti-monarchy-movement. Okay, I get that monarchy isn’t exactly a popular choice in America. Plenty of people would probably reflexively share that sentiment. But I don’t think there’s an anti-monarchy-movement.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      I think the accomodationist debates and how prominent they were belies your claimes here. Surely the accomodationists were or could be considered atheist leaders, and they certainly aren’t New Atheists. The New Atheists get a lot of popular attention because of their works and that they sort of kicked the new movement off, and so are generally represented at conferences and organizations, but even the recent Atheism+ debate is sidelining a lot of the more prominent ones and yet still promoting what the peopel, at least, consider a movement in and of itself. The atheist movement is a massively disorganized one, but it’s hard to say that there’s no movement, and to say that it is just the New Atheists is to ignore the organizations that disagree with them on a number of issues, even if they agree with a lot of other ones.

      • Crude Says:

        Surely the accomodationists were or could be considered atheist leaders, and they certainly aren’t New Atheists.

        They’re atheist leaders in the sense that they are atheists who tend to be advancing a particular point of view. But where are the accomodationists who can reasonably be called activists for atheism?

        There’s Michael Ruse (not a fan of him) who tends to argue against the New Atheists. But what atheist activism does he engage in otherwise, aside from disliking intelligent design – which isn’t supposed to be an atheist/theist thing anyway? I think a similar pattern follows for most accomodationists: they express their disagreements with the New Atheists, they mention they’re atheists… and then they go back to their interests, which usually has little to do with atheism.

        Maybe I’m missing some. Can you give me some examples?

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