5 Ways Atheists Argue Their Cause (That Aren't Helping)
Like many writers, I measure success by the amount of hate mail I receive. I was wondering how I could get more when I realized I've never written about religion. Unfortunately, Cracked rejected my premise of "5 Funny Drawings I Did Of The Prophet Muhammad's Butt, And Then Also A Bunch Of Reasons Jews Should Suck It Up Already," so I put some actual thought into the subject.
My mind went to atheism, and the fact that it's developed a bit of a bad rap. "Life is ultimately meaningless; make your peace with oblivion!" is a hard sell. But we're getting flak not for our beliefs but for the way we present them. And that's no good if we want to convert more people to the joys of masking existential dread with smug superiority. I don't want to oversell myself, but I think that over the next two pages we're going to solve this problem forever.
The Closest Atheism Has To Leaders Are Terrible People
Once upon a time, Richard Dawkins was the closest thing the world had to a pope of atheism. We didn't get together and elect him in a shadowy meeting; the media just happened to latch onto him because he talked about it a lot. No one had any objections, because we should have a representative and he seemed like as good a choice as any. But then, slowly but surely, he revealed himself to be an asshole.
He sneers down on anyone who disagrees with him with such disdain that Professor Snape would be put off, he's repeatedly gone out of his way to insult and trivialize sexual harassment, and he went off on that weird tangent about watching dogs have oral sex. Dawkins is the J.D. to atheism's Veronica -- at first we thought he was the cool, rebellious outsider, but once we got to know him we realized he was legitimately crazy.
Here are a couple of dogs making out just for you, Mr. Dawkins.
Who does that leave? Christopher Hitchens was a prominent critic of religion. He was also a bombastic bully better at delivering witty zingers than compelling arguments. Stephen Hawking? He's too busy inventing black holes. James L. Grant? Nope, because I just made that name up.
Now that we have this newfangled Internet thing, everyday people are emerging as voices in atheism. YouTube keeps suggesting I watch videos by the Amazing Atheist, possibly because it's worried by how many hours I've wasted watching other people watch other people play video games.
If you have literally anything better to do than watch that video, he "answers 22 creationists" with all the smug condescension of a teenager who just discovered what communism is and won't shut up about how it's perfect in theory. In another video, he uses the same haughty tone to defend himself from accusations of having toxic attitudes toward women while doing impressions of them that sound like he plugged his nose and took a hit of helium.
Yes, I get that being a jerk is his shtick. But his videos have hundreds of thousands of views. Dawkins' The God Delusion has sold over 2 million copies. And this attitude is infectious. Reddit's atheism board and its 2 million members became such an infamous cesspool that Reddit removed it from its list of default subscriptions. Do you know what it takes to get censured by Reddit? That's like having the local rapist call you a pervert.
"You creeps make me sick."
I'm sure many of you can name atheists who express their arguments rationally and politely, but as a casual fan of intense religious discussions I can only recall the prominent people. I'm like the basketball fan who only knows LeBron. That means arrogant condescension has become the default tone. We're attracted to people, not because they make compelling arguments but because they're loud and abrasive. That's what we think someone who espouses our beliefs should sound like, but that's like letting PETA represent all vegetarians, or Die Antwoord represent all music.
It's Become Tied To Awful Ideas
I don't mean to pick on the Amazing Atheist, but the need to defend himself from feminist critiques didn't come out of nowhere like the knife-wielding clown that snuck up behind you as you read this. Here he is arguing that sexual objectification doesn't exist, and here he is again making fun of feminist cartoons while the point of them flies so far over his head it strikes a passing 747.
"Heads up, we've got incoming comments on a video about sharia law."
"But wait," you say. "Why is someone called the Amazing Atheist talking about feminism? That's like a columnist on a comedy site writing about religion. What kind of idiot does that?"
That hurt, hypothetical reader. But you know what else hurts? The fact that this isn't an isolated problem. As AlterNet points out, atheism has become as bad at talking to girls as the boys at a junior high dance. A movement that's supposed to be about rational thinking has fallen into the same "vagina emotions make chicks a bunch of crazy broads" trap as your friend who got into the pick-up community and reeks like an Axe factory. You can't claim to be a proponent of science and reasonable thinking, only to regress to hacky sitcom stereotypes about women being humorless harpies who bring sexual assault upon themselves. That's like complaining that no one will take your obvious soccer skills seriously just because you occasionally punch opposing players and pick up the ball.
"I'm the next Pele!"
"Spreading your beliefs" and "insulting half the Earth's population" are contradictory goals. One of the reasons Christianity took off is that Jesus rarely gave sermons about how it's important to love thy neighbor unless they're some crazy ho, in which case you just have to put up with them until they're off the rag, am I right, Biblical men? If you want to attract people to your worldview, you have to make it look attractive.
BuzzFeed, as a reminder that they occasionally engage in journalism that goes beyond telling you what Game Of Thrones character your toaster would be, did an excellent piece on how women who want to engage in the community of skeptics find themselves targets of sexual harassment. When one woman politely pointed out that it wasn't the greatest idea to hit on her at 4 a.m. in a hotel elevator in a foreign country, Richard Dawkins ripped into her and someone sent her a drawing of her being raped. These people call themselves "freethinkers." You couldn't find a better example of irony if you dedicated your life to it.
"Wait, what if a fire truck caught fire?"
Then there are other issues, like Islamophobia and unfair criticisms of people who still wear white after Labor Day. Blatant attacks and insults disguised as expressions of free thought aren't accomplishing anything beyond scaring people away from organized atheism. But there's a reason this has become a problem ...
There's An Arrogance To It
Let me tell you an old joke. How do you tell if someone's an atheist? Don't worry, they'll let you know. It's funnier if I say it in my patented wacky German accent, but whatever. You've probably heard a variation of it featuring another vocal minority, like vegans or people who think The Following isn't terrible. Whether it's fair or not, atheists and people who insist on drinking cruelty-free soy milk (the soy died of natural causes) have developed a reputation for being ... passionate about their beliefs.
I concluded I was an atheist in junior high, and like every other junior high student in history, I was insufferable. I wasn't vocal about it, because I was the "listen to moody music and brood about how people don't understand me" kind of insufferable, but I definitely thought that religious people were all ignorant. How could people not see that institutions that have existed for millennia, have become firmly entrenched in our cultural consciousness, and have offered them spiritual comfort, a strong social outlet, and charitable assistance in their darkest hours are based on a myth? More like sheeple, am I right?
Sorry, I didn't mean to get Dawkins all riled up again.
I grew out of that, as evidenced by the fact that I had to take a long, cold shower after using the word "sheeple," even after dowsing it in enough irony to power a British sitcom. But some atheists still think they know everything and that people who disagree with them are idiots. They're a minority, sure. But they're a minority that controls the conversation, because they're more invested in proving themselves right. Someone who's more open to other beliefs isn't going to seek out debates and make provocative statements. They'd rather shrug their shoulders and get back to watching Adventure Time.
One of my favorite guilty pleasures is looking at bombastic quotes from dating profiles paired with less than flattering profile pictures. I can get away with it because I look like a meth-head and girls get confused when I go on three-paragraph tangents about Blade Runner. But when you say things like, "I use religion as a litmus test for morons," or, "Only the unintelligent and weak-minded need an imaginary friend in their lives," you're not coming across as a suave, free-thinking individual. You're exactly as close-minded as the gay-hating, Bible-thumping, fundamentalist stereotype you've set up to knock down.
"Honestly, I just want to get home and watch Adventure Time too."
The idea of casually and insultingly dismissing other beliefs goes against the very nature of skeptical thinking, because you need to be open to other ideas and skeptical of your own. Unfortunately, it's becoming the basis of atheism, because the loudest voices don't want to have real discussions. They want to score zingers and "win" arguments. At the risk of sounding like an after-school special, there are no winners in that environment.
It's Become Too Defensive
There's a kernel of truth to that joke I told you. We all have that one friend who refuses to eat at a restaurant because the napkins are only made of 95 percent recycled cardboard instead of 99 percent. Also, atheists have a tendency to insert themselves into conversations where they aren't invited or even relevant. Here's someone talking about how they were randomly accused of being the religious equivalent of a Nazi collaborator. So ... not Jewish?
Meanwhile, BuzzFeed pointed out that organized atheism has always been a boy's club because it tends to draw from geeky, traditionally male sub-cultures like sci-fi and gaming. If you spend a lot of your formative years getting into religious debates on the Internet, you might not have the most robust social life. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, as my MMO characters could tell you if I hadn't since locked them away behind the digital equivalent of a brick wall in the wine cellar. But from there it becomes easy to make your beliefs a large part of your identity, and once you do that you begin to see any challenges to your beliefs as a challenge to you personally. They're not criticizing a sprawling, abstract concept; they're criticizing you as a human being.
"How am I supposed to sleep if someone on the Internet is wrong about me?"
Again, there's an irony in calling yourself a freethinker yet being so insecure in your beliefs that you lash out at anyone who disagrees with you. If you're so confident that you're right, why the need to shove your beliefs into the faces of people you're never going to sway? It's like how I don't go out of my way to talk about my incredible sexual magnetism. I know it speaks for itself.
Did you know I used to be a stock-photo model?
There are some people who are perfectly secure in their beliefs and just enjoy arguing on the Internet, but being an argumentative asshole isn't really an improvement. If you want to propagate your views, let your calm and reasonable thinking do your work for you. Because if your go-to approach is to deliver petty insults and snide jokes, you're not going to have much luck convincing people you're on the side of rational thought.
It's Focused On The Wrong Goals
Add up all of the above and you have atheists with no goals beyond taking potshots at religion in the hopes that one day all organized belief will collapse and society will recognize them as the underappreciated forefathers of rational thinking. Now, I'm a professional writer, so I understand the desire to achieve maximum recognition for minimum work. But outside of a lot of vague talk of social and scientific progress, organized atheism doesn't seem to have any objectives beyond trying to make our religious friends skip church and unwind with a couple mimosas.
Although, if you want to improve church attendance ...
But drawing a line in the sand with "atheism and progress" on one side and "religion and reactionary thinking" on the other dumbs down history so much that Bill and Ted would object. Plenty of great minds have been religious. And while I haven't conducted a formal poll on the religious beliefs of people who are, say, fighting for gay marriage rights, I'm willing to bet you'd find a broad spectrum.
Now, someone has already run off to the comments to point out that opposition to gay marriage is primarily based on religious beliefs, and that's the problem. We're keeping score in terms of Believers vs. Non-Believers, when the marquee match-up should be Terrible People vs. Good People. If you're willing to fight for a good cause by expending money or time in a world where we're constantly strapped for both, you could worship Azathoth for all the fucks I'd give.
"Agh! Black Mass ran so long I could only catch the last 20 minutes of the Trans Rights Rally!"
Sooner or later, Good People win every battle. But the few leaders atheism has have become famous not for making scientific discoveries or fighting for social change but for arguing about the accomplishments of people of all beliefs who quietly made real advances. Atheism has become synonymous with pointless arguments, which prevents otherwise interested people from taking it seriously and prevents proponents from growing as human beings. So if you're ever tempted to engage in a religious argument you know will be pointless, stifle it and go do something great with your time. Once you're rich and famous you can casually mention your beliefs when Time magazine interviews you, and then you'll be making a difference.
You can read more from Mark, or join his new cult, at his website.
For more from Mark, check out 4 Ways Growing Up Changes The Way You See Video Games and 5 Things Vigilantes Do To Screw Themselves.
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