Why Friendly Atheist? October 10, 2008

Why Friendly Atheist?

When I came up with the name for this site — in a time crunch, right before I had a chance to plug it in an interview — I wanted to have something positive. “Friendly Atheist” came to mind and it stuck. I’ve tried explaining in interviews and talks I give that the name isn’t about me. Yes, I’m a friendly atheist, but I’m not The Friendly Atheist.

I felt that most atheists I have met in my life have been kind, caring, generous — completely against the nasty stereotype religious people have created for us.

We’re all “friendly” atheists, and I hoped the site’s name would link those words together.

In retrospect, I probably would’ve chosen something different, but I’m not unhappy with the name I chose.

All that said, I don’t know if this commentary was directed at me personally, but I figured I ought to respond about the motive behind the name.

With greater frequency you see blogs springing up titled, in essence, “The Friendly Atheist”. Often a synonym for friendly is used.

Look, your heart is in the right place, but you’re not doing anyone any favors with a name like that. What do you think that says about the other atheists?

Let’s compare. What are your reactions to the following fictional sites?

The Honest Republican
The Masculine Democrat
The Harmless African American
The Tolerant White Man
The Open-Minded Christian

All you’re doing is taking a stereotype and reinforcing it by saying, “I’m the exception.” Stop it. Most atheists are friendly. We’re normal people.

That’s exactly my point.

But just for the record, I’m not The Friendly Atheist. I’m just a friendly atheist.

Hopefully, so are you.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • You don’t think there is a problem with atheist groups tending to be just a little bit contemptuous of those who don’t share their views? I think atheist groups and mainsteam atheist personalities really do tend to be … well, I can’t think of a euphamism … just a little bit mean and condescending.

    I don’t view you as acting this way, and that is why I enjoy your site.

  • I know I am not the only Jewish atheist out there!

  • Ubi Dubium

    I think that the more times we can link “atheist” with a positive adjective, the better. People tend to remember things as linked if they read or hear them together enough. There are so many cases of xians liking atheism to negatives, we need all of the positive associations we can get.

  • Richard Wade

    When I first started commenting on blogs about atheism and theism, it was on the Washington Post’s site “On Faith.” That was like a pool crowded with sharks all eating each other, and after a while I got sick of it. The viscious, negative, hateful invective flying in all directions from all sides was too much. I almost abandoned communicating on the web all together.

    But instead, I started looking around for some place to learn more and to have dialogues with people in a positive, respectful and productive way. At first it was discouraging because many atheists were vilifying theists for vilifying them in a futile, endless tit-for-tat. It became clear to me that we were stuck with a big, ugly, scary, UNfriendly stereotype that was not going to just go away, and it was not going to be removed by atheists reacting to it by being angry and vindictive.

    Then I stumbled across Friendly Atheist, and I’ve been coming here every day for about two years.

    I don’t agree with Eyebrow Ascendant’s idea that calling ourselves friendly atheists reinforces the unfriendly stereotype. I think it calls attention to it so that it can be challenged. We have to face the reality that the stereotype is out there, it’s strongly held and it’s plastered on us, but most of the theists who support it are not very conscious of it; it’s a background assumption that prevents them from attempting any dialogue with us altogether. “Friendly Atheist” attracted me because it was an honest and courageous challenge to the stereotype that many but not all theists hold, and that too many atheists inadvertantly, in their frustration, reinforce. It attracted me, and it has attracted many theists with whom I have enjoyed positive, constructive dialogue and have even gained some lasting friendships.

    The term does not say “we’re the exception,” it says “we are the reality behind the false stereotype.”

  • Larry Huffman

    I think the primary reason atheists come off mean is because they disagree about a subject that is very personal and has been instilled in a person from a very young age. Talking bad about someone’s friend might stir someone, speaking bad about their mom might make them angry…speaking bad about their savior floors them.

    There is no way around this, however. We will always come across mean if we are disagreeing with and pointing out flaws about their their beloved virgin god-mom, among other ‘sacred cows’ (pardon the pun). But, whether we do so in all seriousness or just poke a jab at it…the result is the same. “Mean atheists attacked my religion.” No matter how kindly someone phrases it…telling someone their savior is not a savior, his mother was not a virgin and he did not come back to life is going to give them a bad taste in their mouths about us.

    As for the name of the forum…I like it. There is nothing wrong with capitalizing on the opposition’s stereotype. If christians think all atheists are mean, then it WOULD be wise to use this name.

    “OK, Mr. Christian, you think we are all mean. Well this is the friendly atheist, so come in here and join the discussion. No excuses”

    The guy who took exception had a point but he failed to see that what we name ourselves does not overcome the fact that the religious will see us as mean or some other such thing. the play on stereotypes is for the religious though…and we as atheists should not get alarmed by it. It makes perfect sense to me.

    Also…often a group regognizing a stereotype and so using a name to overcome that is wise, not wrong. It is all about perspective. Some people just want to complain though.

  • Michael

    I can see what he means though. It is singular, Friendly Atheist. One can only assume that you are referring to yourself, since it is your blog. Maybe if the title was Friendly Atheists, then it might feel that many atheists are friendly and included.

    In the end, I’m just saying I see his point. And from an advertising stand point, if you have to keep explaining it to people, something is wrong.

  • Kyelesa

    The Hefty Vegan
    The Poor Jew
    The Hip Midwesterner

    We can do this all day, it still doesn’t make a lick of difference as to the content and tone of the blog itself.

    Book = cover, right?

  • I think if we are going to be refuting stereotypes on a case by case in blog titles, we should have a “Baby-lite Atheist” somewhere. I would volunteer, but I don’t like to lie about my eating habits…

  • I never took the name “Friendly Atheist” as to just referring to Hemant. I came to the site originally because of clothing I found online marked with the name that to my knowledge had/has nothing to do with Hemant specifically.

    That said, I’ve only met a few other out-of-the-closet Atheists in person, and a couple have struck me as non-holier than thou jerks. Reminded me of an experience I had in Oaxaca several years ago with a group of other Americans. One in our group was particularly loud and fit every stereotype of the American tourist. There was a part of me that felt the need to apologize and say something along the lines of, “No, really, we’re not ALL like that, honest.”

    I long for the time I can simply say that I’m an Atheist without feeling the need to be on the defense due to negative stereotypes. To a degree I understand the point of Eyebrow Ascendant, yeah, most of us are friendly as is and perhaps “friendly” implies that there are therefore a good number who are not-so-nice. Ideally, simply leading by example, just being who we are should be sufficient. However, the negative stereotype combined with lack of public voice to reinforce a positive image of Atheism leads me to think adding “friendly”- for now- doesn’t hurt one bit.

    Okay, I’m tired of typing. Off to eat a baby, kick a puppy and stop a Christian child from praying in school.

  • Larry Huffman

    Actually, I long for the day when the term atheist has no relevance.

  • I like “Friendly Atheist” as a title precisely because it counterpoints our most outspoken ideological cousins, who tend to be so loudly mean and derogatory. Which gets boring.


    The Hip Midwesterner

    Hey! I’m in Oklahoma and we Midwesterners are so hip we can’t fit through a garage door! We got DVDs and cellular phones and even some of those internets people talk about.

    Ok. Actually, I live in Tulsa, which is 3% hip, 97% something below the back of the knee, I think. OK is so unhip the biggest liberal activists here don’t know who Amy Goodman or Dennis Kucinich are.

    Sigh. So much work to be done.

  • I have to say I agree with Paul, I find many atheists contemptuous and condescending and I come here precisely because I find you more friendly than most. And to be honest, I wish I could say that for all your visitors but I can’t. When I have argued for mutual respect some have point blank stated that religious people are not worthy of respect. I encourages me that some atheists are friendly and value respect but I still find you’re in the minority amongst the more vocal ones.

  • It’s weird how everyone wants to be part of a group–even people that insist they’re not part of a mainstream group–and want that group to be viewed at least fairly, but probably positively.

    In college, I was a GDI. You know, a God damn independent. Not a sorority “bitch”, right?

    Now why, oh why, did I so vociferously give a shit?

    I sure don’t now.

    I long for a world where religion/non-religion is as passe as Greek vs. GDI.

    I bet you do too…..

  • “Friendly Atheist” makes your blog stick out in a blogroll.

  • SarahH

    @Kyelesa: Oy! I’m hip too 🙁

    I have sort of contradictory views… in a way, I do think we’re an exception to most atheist blogs. I’m not saying atheists are more snarky or condescending or mean online than other groups can be, but there are definitely hordes of snarky atheists online. They tend to make an impression. So the title makes it clear that we’re at least an exception to the stereotype and that we’re making a conscious decision to keep the discussion courteous here.

    The other thought I have is that “friendly” definitely doesn’t have to refer to us as an exception. It’s just putting an emphasis on what we value. Some site called the “Peaceful Christian” doesn’t imply that most Christians are violent – it just emphasizes the priority of the blogger.

  • Some site called the “Peaceful Christian” doesn’t imply that most Christians are violent – it just emphasizes the priority of the blogger.

    Yeah, I think that’s a fair call. I call my site Glocal Christianity for similar reasons, to emphasize I’m speaking out of a context that’s more culturally diverse and religiously pluralistic than most, not to suggest every other Christian on the planet is living in isolation.

  • Axegrrl

    Matt Stone said:

    “some atheists are friendly and value respect but I still find you’re in the minority amongst the more vocal ones.”

    Fill in the blank below with the name of almost any socio-political-cultural group and it would be true as well.

    ‘some _____ are friendly and value respect but I still find you’re in the minority amongst the more vocal ones.’

    the ‘more vocal ones’ of any group always feature a higher-than-average percentage of confrontational types.

  • I like the name Friendly Atheist for the site. It sets a good tone and attracts a wider cross-section of people. I also think its important to challenge and confront the negative stereotypes of atheists. Its also good to have an attention-getting site name.

    Another good one might be “heaven-bound atheists”. 🙂 Since some theists claim that we must have more “faith” being atheists, and since many theists think that “belief or faith” is what gets you into heaven, then atheists must be a shoe-in for going to heaven. 😉

  • cipher

    Actually, I am not friendly. I’ve gone after Christians on this site a few times. I think the Christian belief system is more than simply misguided; it’s obscene. A Christian is someone who thinks I’m going to hell, and, unless he/she proves me wrong (which Mike Clawson was kind enough to do), I have a HUGE chip on my shoulder about it. So, although Hemant doesn’t get anywhere near the kind of fundie traffic that other sites get, when an obnoxious Christian does show up, I find I can’t contain myself. I have a hard time even when we get a liberal to moderate Christian who attempts, out of “fairness” to defend the egregious aspects of Christian history or doctrine.

    When I first started commenting on blogs about atheism and theism, it was on the Washington Post’s site “On Faith.” That was like a pool crowded with sharks all eating each other, and after a while I got sick of it. The viscious, negative, hateful invective flying in all directions from all sides was too much. I almost abandoned communicating on the web all together.

    Sally Quinn was up here at Harvard a couple of weeks ago. She gave an address and participated in a panel discussion with students from various faith organizations (no evangelicals, though). I’m sorry to hear this about her site, which I haven’t yet visited. She struck me as wanting sincerely to foster dialogue.

  • cipher

    I know I am not the only Jewish atheist out there!

    JA, you are not. Most non-Orthodox Jews are, I think, agnostic, and many would probably not be uncomfortable with the term “atheist”.

    I used to read your blog and occasionally post comments, but there were issues. You can email me if you’re interested in hearing about them. I use the same pseudonym on Blogger that I do here.

  • I know I am not the only Jewish atheist out there!

    Yeah, and I’m not the only broad writing letters from, y’know, abroad. However I may well be the only “friendly American exmormon atheist Mom living in France Switzerland.” If there’s another one, I’d be curious to meet her.

  • hmmm… I’m trying to remember how I came to Friendly Atheist. The name intrigued me and made me skim through a few of the posts. But what made me stay and comment was not the name but a touching post that anyone could relate to regardless of their religious beliefs. I think it was in November of last year – a post about being honest with your parents about your beliefs.

    That made me want to stay and get to know the people here as real people and not just “atheists.” I have and I’ve learned much from everyone, even the “mean” ones. Your tough challenges made me angry and defensive (and hurt) on more than one occasion (yeah, I admit it.) However, I no longer see those comments as mean but those people having their stronger opinions for whatever reason I am not privy to. That’s me. But if I see someone else being hurt by those remarks, I will try to call it to your attention (such as the recent events surrounding Lindsey).

    Now I drift in and out as time allows, but what brings me back every time is the realness and honesty of the people – sadly, much more real and honest than the Christians (I hate to admit). And, of course, the quality of the posts.

    Larry Huffman said,

    Actually, I long for the day when the term atheist has no relevance.

    Meeeee toooo! And all the other labels as well. But I have a feeling we’ll be waiting a long time. 🙁

  • Diane G.

    I think “Friendly Atheist” sounds…welcoming…nonthreatening…appealing…etc….

    Don’t change it!

    (Also brings to mind Dan Barker’s ditty, “Friendly Neighborhood Atheist,” excerpt here:


    From the eponymous, highly recommended CD.)