You found my old blog. Thanks for visiting! For my new writing, visit mikesententia.com.
Jason on Strategic Sorcery recently had an atheism kerfuffle. Particularly his first post is fairly interesting and entertaining, you should check it out. The comments are worth a skim.
While I’m not particularly interested in aggressive atheism, I am interested in how communities come to be dominated by their loudest members, and how more sensible members can reclaim the discussion. So, a few somewhat-disconnected thoughts:
I agree with Jason’s core point: If your goal is to change peoples’ minds, you can’t do it by being abrasive. That just raises everyone’s temperature, which makes it even harder to communicate sensibly.
Often, a community’s loudest members are its angriest. For one, they’re most willing to fight for the microphone. For another, they are often the closest to the caricature your enemies want to paint, so they wind up being cited by outsiders more often. And, of course, they’re often the most polarizing and entertaining, which is always good when a news report is looking for ratings.
When a community doesn’t call out its angriest, loudest members, they come to define that community, at least to outsiders. This ultimately kills much of the good a community could do. I think that was the point of Jason’s post. I tried making a similar point about calling BS on fake wisdom, and let me tell you, it’s hard to walk the line of calling out a portion of the community without turning it into a flame war.
As a concrete example of where atheism becomes aggressive: When a religious person tries to turn their beliefs into laws, I fully support you beating them with “Science is right, you are wrong.” But when a religious person says “This is what I believe, it makes me happy, if you are unhappy, maybe I can help you,” just leave them alone. Bothering people with private religious beliefs are where atheism becomes aggressive atheism.
If you read that paragraph and said, “But wait, I don’t bother people living their religious lives privately,” then you’re not an aggressive atheist. You’re not the kind of person Jason is talking about. But realize that, by standing with aggressive atheists and not calling them out, you give outsiders the impression that you also want to attack privately-religious people.
None of these items are particularly focused on atheists. I first encountered most of them in discussions of fundamentalist Islam, but they could just as easily apply to any group who feels they have access to the ultimate truth of the world. And, while I agree that atheists using science come closer to the truth than fundamentalist theists using a holy book, surely we can all agree that no one yet has the ultimate truth of the universe, and probably no one ever will.
I also saw this with gay pride parades: Folks in the gay community are saying, “We are pressing for marriage. We need to showcase how we’re just like everyone else. Showcasing and embracing these stereotypes will damage our cause.” Really, this kind of discussion happens in most communities.
Remember, if your goal is to persuade people and improve public discourse, that’s the metric of success. It doesn’t matter if the facts you’re saying are objectively correct. If you’re presenting them in a way that doesn’t persuade people or improve public discourse, you’re doing it wrong.
In particular, community-members who say that their goal isn’t to be liked need to be called out, unless your community as a whole really doesn’t have a goal of being liked or changing public discourse. And yes, those two goals really are linked.
There are two ways to approach a discussion like Jason had. One is to absorb the writer’s experiences and try to become better at connecting to people. The other is to argue that everything you’ve been doing is right and doesn’t need any improvement. There are times for each approach, but in any one conversation, you can only do one. In each conversation, each of us has to decide whether we’d rather become better, or argue that we were always right.
When I read Jason’s comment about his friends who are “tired they are of having to qualify their atheist stance by saying ‘but we are not those rabid obnoxious pricks,'” I got what he was going for much better than I did from just reading his post. I think grounding these discussions in personal experience is important, and I’ll try to do it myself more, too.
Comments are open but moderated. My blog, my rules. I try to let people have their say, but need to keep the comments readable and interesting for others. Respectful disagreement is always welcome, flames and off-topic comments probably won’t get posted.
For anyone following the manifesting series: I’m writing the rest of that series today, and will resume it Monday or Tuesday.
If you liked this post, consider visiting my current blog at mikesententia.com.