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Austin Cline

Weekly Poll: Are so-called "New Atheists" Too Assertive or Not Assertive Enough?

By July 22, 2010

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Just how aggressive and "in your face" should atheists be? Even the relatively moderate amount of assertiveness shown thus far has led to accusations of militancy, violence, and fundamentalism. This is despite the fact that atheists are far less aggressive than either religious groups have traditionally been or most issue-advocacy groups tend to be. More "in your face" tactics could bring more negative press, but less will probably result in the same, wouldn't it?

The sad fact is, atheists were not getting positive press and love from the general public before the so-called "new atheists" and their more assertive tactics appeared. Being less assertive and more submissive is no way to promote change and there's absolutely no reason to think that it would make the situation for atheists in America any better.

This is surely why all those who insist that atheists need to be less assertive never even try to offer any empirical evidence that a change in tactics would have positive benefits. It's not a reality-based position or suggestion -- it's ideological, i.e. it stems from their ideological goals and furthers their ideological goals. Since their ideology doesn't involve strengthening secularism or improving the situation for atheists, we have to conclude that their suggestions are aimed at undermining what atheists are trying to do, not help atheists.

So if being less "in your face" isn't an option, does this mean that being more assertive or even aggressive is a good idea? Perhaps. We certainly need something to combat the constant presumption of religion and theism in popular culture. At what point does more legitimate assertiveness cross a line into being inappropriate, though?

July 22, 2010 at 3:45 pm
(1) The Barefoot Bum says:

“Just how aggressive and ‘in your face’ should atheists be?”

That’s not really an interesting question. It’s like asking, “How tall should buildings be?”

By and large, each atheist should be as aggressive and “in your face” as they choose to be, based on what they want to accomplish and based on general and particular circumstances. You know I pull no punches on my blog, but I’m the soul of amity and let-it-be towards my Catholic roommate.

As long as we’re not murdering people, burning people at the stake, or even vandalizing billboards, or keying cars, it’s an individual decision.

July 22, 2010 at 6:07 pm
(2) Eric O says:

At what point does more legitimate assertiveness cross a line into being inappropriate, though?

I think the motive matters in this case. It’s usually okay to be assertive – even provocative – if one has a clear goal in mind, such as getting people to question religious dogma or to simply acknowledge the presence of atheists in the community. On the other hand, being provocative for the sake of being provocative (ie. trolling) is bad form.

I also think we should consider when it’s appropriate for religious people to assert their religious identity. Jesus fish decals and WWJD bracelets are considered socially acceptable, so fairness would dictate that atheists should not be considered to be overly aggressive when they assert their identities in similar ways.

July 22, 2010 at 9:59 pm
(3) Austin Cline says:

That’s not really an interesting question. It’s like asking, “How tall should buildings be?”

I’m not so sure. I don’t for a moment disagree that how assertive you are in your life about anything will be an individual decision based on who you are, what you want, and what your context at any given time is.

However, I think it is true that there are more atheists being more assertive than, say, 20 years ago. The assertiveness isn’t new because it existed and no one is achieving any unheard-of-levels of assertiveness; however, there is more of it. There is a difference.

This is what I think is so upsetting to so many religious theists — there are too many atheists who aren’t being as meek, submissive, and deferential as theists had become accustomed to. So, I think it’s also a fair question to raise and that’s the question I was aiming at here: should atheists try to tone it down, keep it up, or perhaps push a bit harder?

As long as we’re not murdering people, burning people at the stake, or even vandalizing billboards, or keying cars, it’s an individual decision.

If we take that reasoning much further, we would conclude that it’s just an “individual decision” to take it to the extremes of bigotry. Frankly, if I saw a group of atheists emulating the Phelps clan, I wouldn’t hesitate to say “atheists shouldn’t go that far.” Sure they’d have a right to do it, but they shouldn’t do it.

So yes, I think we can be justified in saying “should” or “should not” with aggressive tactics, attitudes, ideas, etc. It’s just a matter of where we draw the line between “acceptable (even if I might not do it)” and “too far.”

For example, I just read about Christian group organizing a Quran burning. That… leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I don’t have a problem with people desecrating things they own, but book burning comes with too many associations that are just too, too wrong. As a one-time German scholar, I take seriously the line from one of Heinrich Heine’s plays “…where they burn books they will eventually burn people.”

So if atheists held a “desecrate some scripture” event, I wouldn’t personally join but I wouldn’t say that it necessarily goes too far. If they held a “burn some scriptures” event, I’d call that too far. The Heine line was spoken by a character referencing the burning of a Quran by Christians, by the way.

July 23, 2010 at 4:41 pm
(4) Patricia says:

Given the choices in the poll, I cannot answer this one because there is a very big difference in being aggressive and being assertive. If the choices had been limited to what the question actually asks, “Are so-called ‘New Atheists’ Too Assertive or Not Assertive Enough?,” I would have answered that they are assertive enough, and rightfully so.
But including “aggressive” in the choices changes the meaning of the question. If aggressiveness is at question, I would answer that I have come across many very aggressive atheists who seem to take pride in their aggression or at least enjoy attacking others for the sake of the attack. Does this make sense?
So if the question had been, “Are so-called ‘New Atheists’ Too Aggressive or Not Aggressive Enough?,” I would have answered that they are too aggressive. It is quite possible to be assertive without being aggressive, without needlessly attacking another person’s beliefs. My response to this poll has much more to do with common psychology than religious beliefs, though.

July 26, 2010 at 3:00 pm
(5) MaryL says:

I have been accused of being agressive AND disrespectful for refusing to bow my head while others prayed before a meal. I was quiet and just waited for them to finish their spell-casting. Didn’t say a word. But I was the pariah. At times, it seems that just as I feel a little more tolerant toward god worshippers, they find new ways to be immature.

July 26, 2010 at 10:16 pm
(6) Ariel says:

Well, I spent almost 30 years in the church as a frightened, angry god zombie and have now spent more than 20 as a free, militant atheist. My personal opinion is that religions, in general, are dangerous. Sometimes even deadly. I try to follow Austin’s intellectual example in a couple of other online groups that I belong to. I don’t have to make up the brutality or cruelty that is in the bible (which I read through from cover to cover 3 times because I couldn’t believe the horror I saw the first time!). And I am often accused of persecuting christians when I point these stories and verses out to them. Like little parrots they spout, “Taken out of context” or “That’s not what god meant there (I also love the telepathic connection they seem to have to their deity’s mouth since they seem so sure that his intention was the exact same as theirs is)”, or “That’s the old law. We don’t need to obey that because Jesus died for us”. I feel that the sanity of children threatened with the horror of hell and given nightmares from the stories they hear from the so-called “holy” book is at stake. The lives of women who allow themselves to be made into slaves because the buy- bull says it are at stake. You can decide how much tolerance you choose to show towards the g-zombies. I have no choice but to be militant. I’ve seen the other side and it’s terrifying!!

July 27, 2010 at 1:30 am
(7) robbie says:

Atheists need to be assertive. At least match the assertiveness of the deluded minions who spew their rubbish ad-hoc. They come to my door, they stand on corners handing out stuff, they’re on TV (at 4:00am, thankfully), on radio, on outdoor signs, they’re all over the place polluting minds. As an Athiest, I feel that my mission is to perhaps offer the deluded a reason for doubting their gawd and or lawd when I’m in a position to do so. Because they have a huge infrastructure to work from and the misguided blessing of governments, the belief systems are in a position that makes it easy for people to be exposed to their nonsense, usually from an early age. Many athiests don’t give a sh*t, but many do. People who think about it, can see the damage to society as a whole and to individuals brought about by religious belief and there’s only one way to stop it. Athiests are nowhere as ‘out there’ as the anti-abortion rat bags. I say tell the world, tell the world that religious belief is silly and those that subscribe to it are even sillier.

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