Should Unbelievers be Nice or Not?

Michael Shermer has an interesting article in the September issue of Scientific American.

The article is called, “Rational Atheism: An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens” and basically is a call for unbelievers to limit our “irrational exuberance” and not to make fun of those who believe in woo. In short, Shermer is advocating the following five rules (each is explained in the article):

1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail.
2. Positive assertions are necessary.
3. Rational is as rational does.
4. The golden rule is symmetrical.
5. Promote freedom of belief and disbelief.

(Hat tip to Hemant at The Friendly Atheist for the link and article summary.)

Shermer’s main point seems to be that people are and should be free to hold whatever beliefs they want. While I can’t disagree specifially with anything Shermer is saying here, and I want to feel the same way he does about this issue, I’m not completely sold.

A ex-fundamentalist friend of mine recently wrote this on her blog:

If you doubt [the fundies’] intentions, just look at where they’re putting their energies. Bitterly disappointed by the limits of government power, they are now focusing intently on accruing military power instead. Dave wrote about the OSU’s officially-sanctioned efforts to proselytize to our soldiers in Iraq. Other groups are targeting these soldiers after they come home, seeking to fill the hole left by the paucity of VA counseling and transition services. Mikey Weinstein has made the case that they’ve deeply infiltrated both the faculties and the cadet corps of our military academies. They’ve also made specific appeals to the military leadership: Jerry Boykin is far from the only general who puts his duty to God ahead of his duty to country, and being “born-again” is increasingly viewed as a requirement for promotion in certain areas of the service. And, through Ron Luce’s “Battle Cry” rallies, millions of teenagers are being schooled in the logic and aesthetics of spiritual (and real-life) warfare, priming the pipeline with another generation of Christian soldiers. Across the fundamentalist world, there’s a new militance. They’re mad as hell, and they’re not going to take it any more.

When I read things like this (and there are many sources for similar information online and in print, including Chris Hedges’s American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America), I think that Dawkins, Harris, etc., are not being strong enough in their rhetoric. After all, that’s all it is: talk. Atheists are not carrying weapons, bombing abortion clinics, beating up gays, or performing any other violent acts in the name of their (un)belief.

Is being nice and tolerating unfounded beliefs really the way to fight back against religious militants? I don’t think it will work, frankly.

What do you think?


Donna Druchunas is a freelance technical writer and editor and a knitwear designer. When she's not working, she blogs, studies Lithuanian, reads science and sci-fi books, mouths off on atheist forums, and checks her email every three minutes. (She does that when she's working, too.) Although she loves to chat, she can't keep an IM program open or she'd never get anything else done.

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  1. When I first read Shermer's article, I had much the same reaction you did (especially when I saw the m-word show up in the first sentence). But then I realized that Shermer isn't really coming down against Dawkins, et. al. He's more opposed to those who use Dawkins as a springboard for lashing out against the religious.

    Shermer's point is that people should be free to believe, but (and this isn't necessarily explicit in the article) not free from criticism. There's a difference between telling the religious they're wrong, and taking away their rights because they're wrong.

  2. Why not convinced? The people we should be fighting against are only those that are trying to suppress our freedoms, not the general populace. People of faith should be equally offended by the actions of these people, and probably are, but there is that unspoken rule that to criticize faith is to be unfaithful.

    It comes down to figuring out what your goal actually is. Is it a war that you expect to win? Or is the goal to create a more balanced, stable society? Which is more plausible? "Being nice and tolerating" is not the way to deal with domineering fanatics. Think of it as you would the criminal justice system. It's not black-and-white. There are many areas of concern which require different levels of attention.

    Someone needs to pull an Edward R. Murrow on these guys. Of course, when Murrow brought down McCarthy there were only three TV networks, and TV editorializing didn't exist…today it would take an organized effort from many prominent media figures. I sincerely think that this is the only way the problem will be brought under control.

  3. I agree with both of you. My reaction came, I think, from the fact that most people who criticize these authors are usually saying, in one form or another, "shut up and don't rock the boat."

    Not convinced because I have not seen historical evidence that nonviolent activism every precipits change without more militant action. I don't condone violence or militant action at all and I refuse to act that way myself. But I'm just not sure that peaceful protest/activism really works.

  4. Too often, atheists use the Ghandi approach. But that doesn't really help to fight the problem, it just helps to underscore your dislike of it.

    Of course, as soon as one atheist decides (s)he's had enough and can't take it any more, uses a few harsh words and doesn't hold back on the biting truth, everybody's offended or urging to tone it down.

    What for?

    So we try to stay friendly with everyone and allow them their insanities, but at the same time we have to bend over and take their nonsense. I'd say everyone is entitled to believe what they want, and speak their mind about it. And be ridiculed for it if someone should feel so inclined.

  5. Okay, between logging onto the blog and posting this response, it seems at least three other people have posted pretty much the exact same thing I did.

    So I think everyone who responded read/understood Shermer's article pretty much the way I think it's intended.

  6. Man, some beliefs are just ridiculous. When beliefs are ridiculous, failure to make fun of them just gives them more respectability.

    Shame is a very useful weapon, when wielded correctly.

  7. The thing about Shermer is… he hasn't been very sucessful in fighting woo. He hasn't moved the frontiers of ignorance and superstition back very far. He has been quietly preaching to the converted for quite some time, at little effect.

    Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris, to whom he addressed his open letter, can safely ignore his PR advice. We all can. We must have exuberance to be attractive, polemic to be memorable, hard judgements to avoid the milquetoast skepticism of the last decades.

    Skepticism should be FOR something, yes. Itself. A skeptic should, unlike Dr. Shermer, be skeptical above all things, beyond political allegiances, wishful thinking, and our belief that we know best.

  8. If it was only words vs words, then certainly, then calm words prevail. Unfortunately, it is more than that.

    In many ways it comes down to the "right to not be offended", by which there is no right (although if a majority of people are offended, it is deemed as wrong). People then take that offense as an excuse to do something. "I am offended, thus I will make sure X never happens again." (Supposed "minorities" seize upon this, "We few Christians are offended, and so we are simply trying for a more offense free world" – but this is in no way exclusive to Christianity.)

  9. Shermer is right in every way. Those above who object should re-read the article. I think you've misunderstood it. To be atheist is inherently a negative position. We have to be for something as well. I'm taking a copy of this article to the next meeting of my new local skeptics society. It will make a good guideline for the goals that we need to set as a group. Should we spread information where misinformation exists or should we ridicule the ignorant? The latter is the stance that is in fact preaching to the converted. Promoting understanding of science and reason while protecting the type of rights in the US Constitution is the only way forward. Ask yourself how you came to the world view that you have now. Was it by shame used as a weapon against you? I doubt it.

  10. Gary, I agree with what you're saying and with Shermer's points, but I don't think that has anything to do with the way Dawkins etc. are communicating in their published books. The article was addressed as an open letter to these authors, not addressed to individual unbelievers as suggestions for actions in their daily conversations. The books by the authors Shermer is addressing are in large part meant to be preaching to the converted (and that's not a bad thing), to encourage people with the knowledge that they're not alone, and that they should come out publicly about their unbelief, and in creating awareness. I think these books have been hugely successful in attaining these goals.

    How we act and treat people in our daily lives is a different matter. I treat individual people I know politely and will have discussions with them about religion, or whatever superstitions they have, without calling them idiots or making them feel stupid because they disagree with me. There's no point to be rude or condescending.

    Still, if the liberal unbelievers are not speaking out against the religious extremists, I guess it falls to us unbelievers to do so. And I don't think we should be timid about it.

    The hard part is, what does one do when one has relatives or friends or other acquaintances who are extremists? How do you talk to them? I don't think there's an easy answer. I know I haven't found a good solution in talking to my family and old fundy friends.

    Well, I hope one day my thoughts on this topic coalesce. As you can see, I still have mixed feelings about the whole thing.

  11. writerdd,

    I have to disagree that it was not meant as an open letter to all like minded individuals. If it were to the named writers only, he could have easily emailed them rather than publishing it in SA. I see it as a gentle warning to keep on track and on message rather than a condemnation of the writers.

    Otherwise I agree with you on how to treat people and about "the hard part." It's a delicate line to tread and will take our continued best effort to simply maintain the ground we have. You can't just destroy someones world view; there has to be something to replace it. Remember that you can't see the tiny cracks that may be working into a facade of supersition, made by a rational point here and there. That doesn't happen when we either keep it to ourselves or appear to be ridiculing a person.

  12. Yep, being quiet and respectful to the deluded has worked really, really well for the cause of rationality, hasn't it.

  13. I agree with Dr. Shermer,

    In fact, on one point in particular, he's dead on (for me).

    It truly is easy, and fun, for me to get into the mindset of making fun of people who "believe" one thing or another. In fact, I've often openly said that it's one of the great perks of being a skeptic!

    I LOVE reading the list of applicants for the Randi challenge. "Kooks" are funny to me.

    I have about 14 websites book marked of people that are so "out there" that I laugh openly at their foolishness and read their "reports" out loud to the laughter of all. (Richard C. Hoagland is one of them…)

    This is, perhaps, something I should change.

    Dr. Shermer's point is well taken. I should be promoting a positive idea instead of ridiculing others. (But damn it's fun!) Negativity will never win, in the end. We do want to win don't we?

    I'll work on it…one of these days…


  14. I think there is a place for ridicule and a place for positive pressure.

    If you're trying to convince someone that they're thinking about something incorrectly, then you need to lead them to the right way to think about it. when you strip people's beliefs away, and don't give them something to replace it, they will more than likely reject it, and quite possibly you as well.

    So… I see Shermer's point in relation to you and I, in relation to Authors of Books, however, I would question who those books are aimed at? is it aimed at the ridiculed? I hardly think so, but I think they're aimed at the fence-sitters, and a bit of ridicule when combined with facts, evidence, and reasoning, when dealing with fence-sitters is useful and helpful. The other audience are the currently-skeptical, who are ridiculing them anyway.

    I think that by and large, we need to be careful how and when we attack/ridicule woo especially in relation to religion. But at the same time, I think that it's important to stand your ground. I knew one woman who, when the JWs or the Mormons, or whoever, knowck on her door, she invites them in, and says, "I am more than happy to listen to what you have to say, but you have to be happy to listen to my views and beliefs as well, and I can accept that you can make comment on my beliefs, provided you can accept that I can make comments on yours."

    I think that she's got it on the head, and the fact that she was trying to convert them to a more traditional version of Christianity is beside the point. If we as skeptics/atheists were to use this approach, I wonder if we wouldn't have more interesting productive discussions, even with the true believers.

    I know, it's easier to talk about than actually implement.


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