The Great Chain

The Great Chain

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Can We Please Stop Talking About Atheists' Tone?

Our tone does not matter.

Our tone is not the issue.

Our tone is irrelevant.

Our tone is nothing but a meaningless distraction, a red herring, a means of dodging the simple fact that when theists engage in substantive discussions they lose.

Theists lose on the facts.  And they know it.

When we talk about cosmology, they dither and quibble and retreat to furious hand wringing and meaningless talking points about vague unknown and unknowable first causes.  When we talk about biology, they pull the same trick, repeatedly returning to the God of the Gaps.  When we talk about morality, they mumble about Hitler, Stalin and Mao, completely ignoring the fact that their alleged atheism had about as much to do with their megalomania as the presence of a Y Chromosome while denying all responsibility for the countless horrors perpetrated in the name of religion and glossing over the fact that incredibly secular countries are deeply stable and are actually living the moral life theists like to preach about.

When presented with facts and evidence, theists retreat to faith.  And they're losing.

This is why rather than dealing with the substantive arguments against theism, theists spend so much time whimpering about our tone and whining about how mean and militant and aggressive and harsh atheists are when dealing with theists.  Pot, meet kettle.

They complain about our tone because they are losing.

When theists attack atheists because of their tone it is nothing more than a petulant demand that we cease offering evidence that their worldview is based on shoddy reasoning and poor logic.

Because the reality is that our tone is NOT the problem.  Our tone doesn't matter.  Because it doesn't matter how polite we are, how eloquent we are, how articulate or respectful we are.  It is not our tone that theists reject - it is our existence.

What is truly ironic is that it is theists who complain about the aggressiveness, combativeness and militancy of atheists.  Atheists regularly receive death threats.  We are regularly told that we are damned, that we are going to hell, that we are a plague, a disease, an abomination.  And yet somehow it is atheists who are aggressive and militant...  We need to stop lending credence to this meme.

Are some atheists arrogant?  Absolutely.  Can some atheists be condescending?  Oh my yes.  Can some atheists be overbearing and rude?  Hell yeah.  Do some atheists denigrate the intelligence of believers?  They sure do.

But does anything we do compare in any way to the hateful, bigotry theists direct towards us?  Do atheists send believers death threats?  Do we pound on the doors of believers demanding that they deconvert?  Do we threaten believers with damnation or eternal torture?  Nope.

The simple truth is that there is nothing that atheists can do or say that will prevent theists from attacking us about our tone.  They attack our tone because it is the only issue where theists can still win.  Moreover, it plays into the overwhelming sense of Christian entitlement and privilege and allows them to feel persecuted and victimized without the unpleasantness of actually being persecuted and victimized.

Our tone is NOT the problem.

Which is why I wish we would stop talking about it.  Which is why I wish we as a community would stop bashing each other simply because others express themselves differently than we would.  Which is why I propose that for the first two weeks of 2011, that atheists refrain from complaining about other atheists' tone.  It does us no good and it legitimizes and perpetuates the only real argument theists have left.

Because no matter how much you may disagree with an individual atheists' tone, it is nowhere near as despicably arrogant, condescending and insulting as the tone theists routinely hurl our way.  When the Vicar of Christ declares that atheists are Nazis, there can be nothing more arrogant and condescending than the theistic insistence that they KNOW the truth despite voluminous evidence to the contrary.  Their absolute and utterly unjustified certainty perfectly illustrates the truth - that it is not the tenor of our words but the content of our minds that theists truly fear.

The endless whimpering and whining about our tone is nothing but a distraction from the fact that theists are losing the debate.  On every substantive issue and by every conceivable metric, theists are losing.

So let's stop bitching about one another's tone - just for a little while - and focus on the fact that it ISN'T our words that infuriates and enrages theists, it's our ideas.  And let's celebrate the fact that regardless of how we express those ideas, we are winning.


  1. It's funny to me how the Christians who complain about our lack of sensitivity tend to fuss when the Muslims complain to them about their lack of sensitivity. Seems to me that everybody wants to be treated with kid gloves and that's just not how the atheist world works. We don't even use the kid gloves on each other!

    Reality is harsh and the truth does always offend somebody. I'm not out to hurt people but I absolutely cannot help it if the truth I tell about something clashes violently with their worldview and makes them cry. I refuse to be responsible for any hurt feelings they have simply because they do not wish to accept reality.

  2. Well, and they insist that we treat them respectfully while at the same tiem they unabashedly reiterate that we are hellbound abominations who are just as bad as the Nazis.

    It kind of blows my mind. In fact the ONLY thing I find more galling is when theists, who LITERALLY claim to KNOW that the Universe was created FOR US and that they have a direct telepathic connection to the Creator of a Billion Billion Galaxies, call US arrogant for believing that maybe their story is kind of far fetched. Sure. We're the arrogant ones...

  3. I used to post to the Washington post's "On Faith" blog when it had atheist topics. Talk about tone! Total vitriol. They really can't take any suggestion that people other than themselves exist let alone have rights.

    The ad hom is all they really have. Even "educated" theists like Randal Rauser resort to the many variants of the ad hom to deflect from our arguments, which they know deep down have more merit than their "faith."

    You can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar, but sometimes it's really hard to be nice about something that causes a lot of human suffering.

  4. As I've said before elsewhere, I think a large part of the problem is that people can't separate their beliefs from their identity.

    If I say, "I don't believe in Yahweh or the Bible," then some people get offended as if I had said something about them. They just can't seem to understand that they are not their religion.

    I've attributed this to immaturity but it seems to be so pervasive that I wonder if it has some other cause.

  5. Identity is a big part of human psychology- it's not a trivial thing that people incorporate their faith into their identity.

    It's also part of how churches gain and retain a roll call to keep those collection plates full. Belonging, membership, /identity/ in the group, gets and keeps people involved and invested- attending and donating. It's a simple survival strategy that has resulted in all kinds of aggravation for anyone who dare speak heresy. lol

  6. Maximilian, I had a feeling that something larger was at play and your explanation makes sense. That said, how do we combat this idea? Or should we? What is the proper response to those who equate their beliefs with themselves?

  7. @ Max and Skepti

    This is actually one of the reasons I'm not opposed to the idea of community. Granted, this is easier for me because in addition to being an atheist I am also a secular humanist and humanists tend to desire community while atheists generally do not.

    Looking at Christianity I am struck by how few of them really seem to believe their own theology. I think for most, it is the community and social bonds that keep them in the Church far more than anything else. Just like D&D is really not about killing mythological creatures with dice, it's about hanging out and having fun with your friends. The mythological trappings are just window dressing. Hell, a lot of churches are far more about politics than theology.

    I think if people understood that we really are not bad people and if we had some kind of community people would feel less intimidated and terrified of admitting that the mythological flights of fancy they have with their friends are no more real than the Satyr my friends and I killed playing D&D.

  8. First, I just want to say I like your blog. You're a smart and funny guy.

    Second, I repspectfully disagree with parts of this particular post. It is true that many religious people will not be swayed by any of our arguments. However, there is a good percentage of people out there who are not hardcore on God. These are the folks who can be more easily reached. In those cases tone does matter. How our arguments are packaged are just as important as their logical validity.

    I don't bash other atheists, but I will point out rude and disrespectful behavior whether it's from a Christian, Muslim, or one of the Godless. It's important to point out that critiquing each other's methods is a good way of preventing group think. Open dialogue within our community is not the enemy.

    Did I mention I like this blog?

  9. @ Andy

    No need to temper disagreement or criticism. I don't mind that at all.

    I think my biggest problem with atheists' discussion of tone is that it often takes what I believe is largely a straw man argument proffered by theists who can't win an argument on the merits and elevates into a much larger problem than it actually is. I am actually glad that there are a wealth of voices and methods and tactics for dealing with believers ranging from humor to incredulity to outright anti-theism. I think all have certain value.

    I completely agree that disrespectful and crazed behavior should be called out for what it is. I do that when I hear the occasional recent (and often PISSED) deconvertee rail about how believers should be sterilized to keep the god meme from spreading and what not. I find THAT irresponsible and frankly insane and will always call that out, but such sentiment is incredibly rare.

    But from what I can see, most of the carping about tone is completely unfounded. Especially when the veil of anonymity provided by the internet is stripped away and people are actually interacting face to face. Dawkins is not rude or disrespectful or assholish in his debates and interviews, yet he is villified for supposedly being militant and angry and rude. Hitchens gets the same treatment. Even PZ Myers who is as close to a gnostic atheist as you can get is not nearly as much of a prick as theists argue.

    My issue is that theists have a tendency to equate any and all criticism of faith with disrespect and rudeness and mean-spirited dickishness. I just can't agree with that.

    I agree that our tone matters which is why I try to moderate it as much as possible, but I recognize that not everyone is like me (thankfully) and think that our various voices and tactics are a valuable asset.

    I like your blog too. :)