Why the “Atheist Positivity Challenge” is Wildly Misguided September 23, 2014

Why the “Atheist Positivity Challenge” is Wildly Misguided

In an article on Salon, Steve Neumann suggests that atheists spend too much time “gloating about the lunacy and misdeeds of specific Christians.” In an effort to halt this “unnecessary” and “counterproductive” behavior, and to “rehabilitate the reputation of atheism in America,” he has issued what he calls the Atheist Positivity Challenge (APC):

refrain from posting disparaging commentary about Christian newsmakers on Facebook and other social media sites — including blogs — for one month.

Such commentary, Neumann seems to think, is in line with Bill Maher‘s oft-quoted “religion is a neurological disorder” statement or Richard Dawkins‘ 2012 Reason Rally exhortation to “mock” and “ridicule” believers. Now there surely is some degree of irony in faulting atheists for suggesting that more extreme religious leaders are representative of believers in general, while citing two of the most outspoken atheists of our time as evidence of what is wrong with atheism in general. Still, Neumann provides an example of this “gloating” to illustrate what he has in mind. And it seems to fall significantly short of what he thinks he’s found.

The idea for the APC came to me when I read a post last week from atheist blogger Libby Anne, who wrote about the continued downhill slide of mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll [specifically, in reference to his 2001 message board comments that God designed women to basically be penis homes for men]… the problem with focusing on clowns like Driscoll is that it’s much too easy to single out for righteous indignation the most visibly disgraceful member of a group. And the unavoidable implication that others get from this is that the entire group must hold those beliefs as well.

Neumann suggests that this is “basically guilt by association,” but

The simple fact is that Driscoll is an outlier in the Christian world. Like atheism, Christianity is an incredibly heterogenous movement… And though Libby Anne incorporates an important caveat when she says that she’s not surprised that this is the viewpoint taken by at least some evangelical men and not all evangelical men — the implication is still there, and it will be taken that way by Christians nonetheless.

On the one hand, Neumann underscores an important point: it is unfair and incorrect to attribute this view to those who do not share it. It is unfair and incorrect to attempt generalizations of evangelicals based off of Driscoll, since he is undoubtedly more extreme than many. But, at the same time, let’s not pretend that he is just one “clown,” or simply the “most visibly disgraceful member of a group.” Driscoll was (and may once again be) a mega-church pastor, who boasted of 15,000 church members in Seattle alone. He’s not just a peculiar guy banging away at his keyboard, ignored by everyone else. He is someone who shares his misogyny and homophobia with his congregation — not as his own opinion, but as an opinion from on High. The pastor’s words are supposed to reflect the teachings of the Bible and the Bible is supposed to be the Word of God. His sentiments to the churchgoer’s mind, then, are not merely quirks, but divine direction.

But Driscoll is not even just a religious pariah with an unusually large congregation. He is the author of multiple successful books. He’s written articles that have been featured, among other places, on Fox News, FaithStreet and CNN’s religion blog. He’s made television appearances on Fox News Channel, CNN, etc. His work has been heralded by prominent anti-abortion sites. In 2010, Preaching magazine listed Driscoll among the top 25 influential pastors in the past 25 years — along with other Christian bigwigs such as Rick Warren and Billy Grahamdeclaring him a “model for thousands of young pastors” who “may well be an example of how preachers will influence other preachers in the 21st century.”

So, no, we cannot and should not falsely overstate Driscoll’s prominence. But no more should we pretend Driscoll is an insignificant outlier or a bad apple whose bizarre attitudes are unique only to himself. Driscoll is more radical than a lot of people. But he is a radical trying to mainstream his particular brand of radicalism. And, until his house of cards imploded, he was proving very successful at doing so.

But it’s also inaccurate to suggest that atheists illustrate the dangerous extremes of, for instance, Driscoll’s particular brand of theology in order to “gloat” at the wackiness of an outlier. Drawing attention to harmful belief systems, particularly as they are gaining ground, is a useful endeavor. Would the long, slow demise of Driscoll’s empire have come to pass if it was merely ignored? Almost certainly not; very few significant problems ever work themselves out by being ignored. And in this, atheists voices were probably outnumbered by the voices of believers — Christians who recognized the poisonous nature of Driscoll’s homophobia and misogyny and the need to shine a light on it. I doubt that “gloating about the lunacy… of specific Christians” is the motivation of Christians like Warren Throckmorton who has been chronicling the Mark Driscoll saga for several months, or The Christian Left on Facebook, in highlighting his poor behavior, or any of the other Christians who criticized him; and I fail to see justification for attributing these base motives to similar efforts on the part of atheists. (Speaking personally, having escaped misogynist fundamentalism myself, these revelations certainly bring no gloating joy. To me, and I think many atheists, how Driscoll represents Christianity to the world is of minimal concern — unlike how his Christianity impacts the lives of his flock.)

No matter how abrasive or off-putting Neumann finds particular statements from Dawkins or Maher, it’s not accurate to compare an exhortation to mock someone for believing that a wafer turns into human flesh with a legitimate effort to highlight harmful teachings. It might not be polite to laugh at someone for holding a demonstrably false belief, but deeply misogynistic teachings from a mega-church leader aren’t a laughing matter. They have a real impact on real people and should be addressed honestly, openly, and loudly. (That’s an opinion I share with the many Christians who have repeatedly condemned Driscoll for his malicious theology.) Neumann’s cautions about exaggerating impact are valid, and his points about rhetoric are worth considering, but he is absolutely wrong to conflate justified criticism of religious leaders with a Schadenfreude-fueled desire to take a swipe at the religious.

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