COTW: Why Atheists Need Radicals

It’s Friday! That means it’s time once again to award the Comment o’ the Week to one lucky gal or fella who gets to choose next Wednesday’s Afternoon Inquisition. Without further ado, I give you wet_bread (the commenter, not the soggy carbohydrate):

wet_breadNo Gravatar // Dec 8, 2009 at 12:48 pm

A friend of mine told me a few years ago that he thought that real social change only occurs through a combination of radicals and moderates. Radicals grab the attention and get people thinking about the topic, even if in hostility. Moderates continue the conversation in a more congenial tone and make people realize that there are lots of “us” out there and that they are almost certainly friends with a few.

He used the example of his own experience, the gay rights movement. In the 80s, Act Up and other “radical” organizations put gay rights on the cultural radar. Then moderates (and moderate media representations in film and TV) broadened the debate. And when you look at polls today of how young heterosexual people feel about homosexuality, it’s amazing to see how much progress there’s been in only two decades.

The debate that led to that change started because radicals had the guts to say they were mad as hell and weren’t going to take it anymore. In the process, they seemed to alienate people to their own cause. But they succeeded in making people aware of the issue. If moderates hadn’t taken up the banner, the cause would have died, but they did, and so it expanded.

In the meantime, there were heated arguments between the two. For instance, radicals publicly despised the film Philadelphia because of its sanitized and stereotypical representations, but in hindsight, even though their complaints were completely correct, it seems like casting Tom Hanks as a likable and sympathetic gay man and Denzel Washington as the macho straight guy who comes to respect him was itself pretty radical, and probably did a lot to get middle America thinking differently.

So I assume if you’re still reading this you’re getting where I’m going with it. Dawkins, Hitch, et al. do indeed piss people off. They may indeed be alienating some. But they’ve also been incredibly successful on getting atheism into the public discourse, where more moderate folk can feel more comfortable coming out and politely stating their case. To suggest that one approach is right and the other is wrong is a false choice. Both are necessary and productive in their own ways.


Congrats to wet_bread! Send your suggestion for Wednesday’s AI using the contact form. Happy Friday, everyone!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor.

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  1. I love this and I think that it’s true, and very well-articulated.

    Not to imply that wet_bread is “late to the party” or anything silly like that, but this has also been proposed before. Greta Christina had a whole post on this, but I can’t find the link. Drat! Hopefully someone has it bookmarked.

  2. It’s an excellent point (and although I personally wouldn’t characterise Dawkins and Hitchens as radicals, that is certainly how they are perceived by many).

  3. I don’t really see it as radical vs. moderate. I see it as thoughtful vs. apathetic or less thoughtful. I really have trouble seeing people like Dawkins as “radicals.” It’s not like they’re going out leading parades advocating the Italian government take over Vatican City or something. (That would be pretty cool, though.)

  4. I don’t comment too often, so I’m pretty stoked about my first COTW. For the record, I don’t think Dawkins or Hitchens are particularly radical either, but they’re certainly portrayed that way in the MSM.

  5. This thread is a good example of why radicals may be needed to catalyze social change. There are only 5 comments so far in this thread (mine will make 6). The lead post was thoughtful and balanced. If, OTOH, the lead off had been an inflammatory suggestion that atheists are a bunch of apathetic pussys who need to get off their asses, mobilize, and start burning churches or shooting evangelists, then I suspect the comment count would be off the charts.

    If it bleeds, it leads.


  6. BTC, there may be some of that, but I didn’t comment because it seems like we just went through this topic a couple weeks ago with the “civility” post, which hit a lot of the same ground.

  7. Radicals do foster social change, sure. But radical atheists have already come and gone, sorry to say. Ahem, Bolsheviks.

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