How We Talk About Atheist Activism January 5, 2012

How We Talk About Atheist Activism

Ed Clint of the Illini Secular Student Alliance offers this helpful image:

Now for someone to make the XKCD version

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  • Most excellent – I agree – the idea that you are either an angry atheist or an accomodationist is a false dichotomy.

  • Anonymous

    I love it. Of course, that won’t prevent us from arguing over which side of the vertical axis each action/campaign/individual represents, but it’s a great first step to recognize and reject the false dichotomy.

  • Brian Macker

    Ed is just being a theistic apologist. See how that works? 🙂
    It all depends on your definitions of the words involved, including good and bad. Good and bad with regards to what goal?

  • Anonymous

    The idea is okay, but the left side of the “corrected” diagram is still wrong.

    “Personal attacks” are sometimes warranted. Two off the top of my head: Richard Dawkins’ article explaining why he refused to share the stage with WLC was, in part, an attack on the guy’s character (i.e. his lack of ethical standards for supporting genocide). Christopher Hitchens’ take down of “Mother” Teresa.  Sometimes our enemies are not just those who are deluded and mistaken, but those who are vile or fraudulent and there’s nothing wrong with attacking those people personally.

    What exactly qualifies as “irrational” anti-theism? I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by an “irrational” anti-theist*. Most anti-theists are passionate, yes, but they have rational reasons for their anti-theism.  We need such people to call religionists out.

    *Qua anti-theist. Admittedly some can be irrational libertarians or irrational misogynists, or irrational racists, or irrational anti-vaxxers.

  • Anonymous

    I’m not sure where I’d fit on that chart, but it’s a huge improvement over a lot of the discussions we get into from time to time.

  • Edward Clint

    Hey folks! @Ibis3:disqus  I agree with you. I posted/tweeted this with the text “One problem with how we usually talk about atheist activism” by which I meant how atheists talk about other atheists. I fully support, for example, Christopher Hitchens’ remarks about Mother Teresa. Nothing in the world wrong with that.

    What’s irrational antitheism? well that’s for you to decide. If you like, it can mean the caricature which is produced by people who disagree with new atheists, such as those who say Dawkins et al are oversimplifying (which I don’t agree with).

    I don’t know where you live where atheist rights are not an issue, but terrific. I wish I did as well! Please consider none of these are exhaustive. In the interest of keeping the graph simple I limited it to two terms. You could easily add lots of good goals to both sides. 

  • Anonymous

    Okay, so the top left isn’t supposed to be an exhaustive list of how to be a “good firebrand”. But I still have an issue with labelling personal attacks as bad and anti-theism both bad and irrational. It sets up a new false dichotomy.

    The more I analyze, the more  problems I see. Can a humanist not be a firebrand? Maybe some outreach isn’t in the best interests of atheists’ rights activism. Sometimes, though rarely,  accommodation is valuable and necessary to achieve certain goals.

    How about:

    Good = Working to ensure that the rights of people are upheld; Working to ensure secularism/multiculturalism with respect to separation of church and state; Working to diminish the power that religion has over people; Advancing science and rationalism as the best method for understanding the world; Using a variety of adaptive approaches to achieve these goals

    Bad = Telling other people how to do these things without having robust and solid evidence about what works and what doesn’t.  Just saying “no one will listen if you’re too xxxxx” is not sufficient.

  • Tom

    I like it!  Thanks for providing a nice reference.  Not sure what irrational antitheism is either, but I’m glad it didn’t stop him from making this diagram

  • Anonymous

    Fail.  The
    bottom diagram is incorrect as well.


    Consider, for example, the two items in the lower
    left “bad firebrand” quadrant:


    1)            “Irrational
    antitheism” is rare to non-existent. 
    Most complaints about such are from cherry-picking theists who attempt
    to reject or dismiss selected portions of their holy text and teachings of
    their all-perfect deity, and to pretend that they don’t exist, or don’t mean
    what they clearly state.   Many religious
    tenets are so barbarically absurd or ethically repulsive, even to theists, that
    theists are offended to be reminded of what their omniscient, omnibenevolent
    master really says.  Many purported
    misrepresentations aren’t.  Of course, in
    the big wide world, there are sure to be some exceptions. I’d be curious to
    learn more regarding what are legitimate, serious examples of “irrational


    2)            “Personal
    attacks”. Ad-hominem arguments do indeed have some limitations.  But there is no reason that character flaws
    should be immune from all criticism, particularly when they reveal hypocrisy
    and contradictions that debunk the purported merits of theism and theistic
    claims.  Pointing out the implications of
    a theist’s teachings to his/her own life is quite appropriate.  Why should theists be so ashamed of what they
    claim to believe?


    As additional,
    but still partial, examples, the implications that “service work”
    belongs to diplomats but not firebrands, and “professional debate”
    belongs to firebrands but not diplomats, are also untenable. 

  • Xeon2000

    It seems rather arbitrary to me…. and what’s the point of this?

  • While I agree that the specific terminology is problematic, I think the larger point, that it takes many voices to further a cause, is a good one.  

  • Trace

    So humanists are blueberries?

  • Josh

    I quite attending a local skeptical group because it was filled with irrational atheists.  They would accept anything as long as it was bashing christians.  They would spout some of the most ridiculous ideas simply because it sounded good to them.  There was no rigor.  They were disciples of “truthiness.”  Some in attendance were fans of “new age” thinking.  They were hard-core atheists, but anything about crystals they were golden on.

    Being an atheist doesn’t mean being a skeptic.  It doesn’t mean being an empiricist.  It doesn’t mean you believe in evolution.  It only means you don’t believe in god.  I’ve found out the hard way that you can’t make assumptions about those who call themselves “atheists.”

  • Momma J

    I’m not sure if I get some of the points made by the graph and would like to respond to some of of what has been said from my POV.

    First off- I agree that in my experience most anti-theists are quite rational. I have known a few that are not however. They simply claim that a deity does not exist, but have no points to back up their thinking. They haven’t thought about it. If there is a possibility of God existing or not existing time spent thinking on the subject, regardless of which side you are on is worth doing. Or better yet they simply refer me to a link, lecture, debate of book by someone else. I try to listen or read those as time allows, but I can easily tell that this person is not thinking for themselves. I believe blind atheism exists as does blind religion. My gut however tells me the % of blind atheists is much smaller than the those that claim they are religious and follow it blindly. I’m not trying to accuse anyone or hit a nerve, I’m just saying it does exist. Anti-theist does not automatically = rational. There is a correlation, but there are also outliers.

    Second, I disagree with the view that several others have written on personal attacks. What purpose does it have? If I came to this blog and tried to blast someone and attack them what good comes out of that? 

    Christians and Atheists both agree that the Westboro Baptist “Church” attacks quite well. It’s simply what they do. And to what end? What good can possibly be served from that? It’s fine to have different beliefs than someone else, but to come out and make fun of that simply isn’t right. Remember, we are all coming out of different backgrounds and see things from different points of view. We are all looking through life and its events through slightly different shaded glasses painted by our experiences are we not? This is why debate exists in the first place. Discussion and debate can both be fruitful. To spread blame and hate simply does not help any situation that I can think of. There’s enough hate and attacks in the world. Civil people, striving for excellence in whatever circumstance they find themselves in  however, is rare.

  • *Groan* Being a firebrand, I don’t really like it, but the diagram has a point…unfortunately.

  • Brian Macker

    Plus Hemant himself would be classified in the lower right quadrant by many.

  • Brian Macker

    I’ve avoided groups because of the Marxists.

  • Brian Macker

    Personal attacks are perfectly valid if the claim is made that their religion results in better behavior.    If some thrice divorced religious nut tries to argue with me that his morality is superior I will make it personal given I’m on my first marriage and 24 years going.   Also valid if I’m being asked to submit allegence to a Pope who allows child buggering.

    Irrational anything is wrong so by defintion “irrational antitheism” would be.   Pretty slim category though I’ve seen a lot of jerks doing it.

  • Anonymous

    You missed the footnote:

    *Qua anti-theist. Admittedly some can be irrational libertarians or
    irrational misogynists, or irrational racists, or irrational

    I said I’ve never read or seen someone who was irrational as an anti-theist, though there are many who are irrational in other respects.

  • Pseudonym

    I’d put many of the “Jesus didn’t exist” mythicists in that category.

  • Pseudonym

    The point that it’s not a single-dimensional continuum is well-made. In that sense, it has a valid point. But there’s plenty to disagree about:

    1. It’s not clear that two dimensions is sufficient.

    2. It’s not clear that some of the items on the graph are significant enough to warrant a mention.

    3. It’s not clear that some of the items on the graph are correctly placed.

  • Pseudonym

    What you’re talking about sounds like a slightly more general version of the Barney Frank Rule to me. I wouldn’t necessarily call that “personal attack”.

  • Josh

    You’ve never seen irrational anti-theists?  Have you heard of the movie “Zeitgeist?”  It was the paragon of irrational anti-theism.  But perhaps you’ll saying that it was the work of conspiracy theorists?  If you keep moving the target, we’ll never get anywhere.

    The simple fact is that for whatever reason, whether it’s anti-vax, or racism, or otherwise, there are those who call themselves atheists who are very irrational.

  • Sven B

    Not all things that can be interpreted as personal attacks are necessarily bad.Recently the pope called for wealth redistribution. Some people called him a hypocrite for that, since the pope wears gold-embroidered garments, wears Prada shoes and lives in a palace.
    While this is a personal attack, I also think it’s a valid remark.

  • Momma J

    I wouldn’t call that a personal attack at all. To call someone hypocritical does not have to be an attack. It depends on how they go about doing it I suppose. To point out inconsistencies isn’t a bad thing if done well. I’ve been called a hypocrite on several occasions and I would say yes I was. Not intentionally, but sometimes I say one thing with the best of intentions of following through and then I fail and don’t come through. It happens. That’s why I try not to make promises. Ever. I say that I’ll try, but promises just aren’t fair to either party.

    LOL! I have no idea what the pope wears. I’m sure there’s a lot of old treasury hidden around though. Whether or not his garments are actually gold I don’t want to think about too much. I bet the chafe! 

  • Sven B

    If you don’t consider that attack on the pope’s person a personal attack I really wonder what you would consider a personal attack.

  • I’m with Sven on this one. If not that example of the pope, how about if someone consistently lies? Deliberately? Would calling them a liar be a personal attack in your view? If it is a personal attack, is it a bad thing to call them a liar?

  • I really, really hate this because I can imagine others now having a better way to peg me.  Why can’t I just be a friendly atheist?  This is another way to codify divisions.

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