A Call to (Open) Arms

August 23, 2010

goodcopbadcopThe first in our series of guest posts by some other NonProphets comes from secular student superstar Lucy Gubbins. Lucy, a personal hero of mine and co-founder of the University of Oregon’s Alliance of Happy Atheists (which was recently given the “Best Community” Award by the Secular Student Alliance), tackles the question of whether religion-tolerant atheists are truly welcome in the secular movement. Take it away, Lucy!

Firebrands and diplomats. “Accommodationists” and “New Atheists.” When the question of religious tolerance comes up in a group of nonbelievers, whether it’s a keynote address or a conversation among friends, nothing gets tempers rising quite like the question: In interactions with religious people, do we need the Good Cop, or the Bad?

As often as I hear this dialogue, the answer seems to be, surprisingly, the same: we need both.

If you take a look at any American secular organization, any of the best-selling atheist authors, or any popular atheist blog, it’s easy to see that the “Bad Cop” side is pretty well represented. Go to any atheist-centered conference and it’s a matter of course to have your eyes and ears filled with snarky remarks from the MCs and speakers, and presentations entirely built on forced religious mockeries. Scour the shelves in the Religion section of any bookstore and find the imperious titles of all the trendy atheist books: The God Delusion, The End of Faith, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Fighters of delusion and drawers of Mohammed, rejoice! — we’ve got you covered.

What happens, though, when the “Good Cops” start showing up? What happens when a nonbeliever appears who doesn’t loathe religion, and doesn’t find religious mockeries all that funny? And what happens when this nonbeliever is a vocal opponent of what the “Bad Cops” are doing?

Everyone is always eager to say that in the secular community, both “firebrands” and “diplomats” are needed. But the truth is that the “diplomats,” the “accommodationists” — the atheists who don’t view religious people as delusional imbeciles, and who are willing to be respectful of faith — aren’t so sexy. Drop the names “Heidi Anderson” or “Chris Stedman” in a room full of atheists, and you’re guaranteed at least 3 simultaneous diatribes that could each go on for hours (much to my deep chagrin, I know this via personal experience). Even when I try to talk about the philosophy of the student group I co-founded and led for two years, the Alliance of Happy Atheists, listeners’ eyes seem to glaze over until they have a chance to say: “Well, what you do is cute. But we need the angry atheists, too.”

To be frank, I’m undecided on this point — I continually find myself disconnected and disheartened by the way members of what I once thought to be “my” movement approach the topic of religious tolerance. However, I’m willing to take a leap of faith and concede that yes, if we want a strong, diverse community, we need both sides. But to make this happen, folks: we need to start practicing what we preach.

That means that if we want to continue touting the idea that the secular movement is one with diversity of opinion, and that the “Good Cops” and “Bad Cops” are equally welcomed, we need to act like it. We need to stop decrying the “accommodationists” and start supporting them, especially because they’re so underrepresented. When they’re the sole individuals encouraging polite, snark-less conversation with the faithful, let’s try to not storm out of the room in a huff. Like it or not, atheism desperately needs an image change, and this will only occur through the works of people willing to put anger aside and learn how to interact with religious people in a positive manner. Yes, we need the angry atheists too — but in my opinion, at a time of surplus in one area, let’s look to what we’re lacking in another.

So let’s make this movement the best it can possibly be. Let’s make sure all secular people — the lovers of confrontation, accommodation, and everyone in between — are welcomed with open arms into our community. And let’s make sure we’re empowering and supporting each other to do whatever we can to create a world where a secular humanist philosophy is seen as viable, moral, and maybe even normal.

And if you happen to be a firebrand who isn’t such a big fan of the diplomats? I humbly ask you to reconsider. You might be able to rally the secular troops, but you won’t have much chance reaching out to the vast majority of the world: the believers. And without the ability to reach out, you lose a conversation, a dialogue, a chance to make the world a more secular-friendly place. And when that chance is gone, we lose everything.

LucyGubbinsLucy Gubbins was born in east Tennessee and is a junior at the University of Oregon, where she co-founded the Alliance of Happy Atheists. AHA! is one of the largest and most active clubs on the UO campus, with a mission to humanize the image of nonbelief, create fellowship among secular students, and bridge the divide between faith and skepticism. Lucy studies linguistics, Japanese, and anthropology, and greatly hopes to find more support for interfaith work within the secular movement in the future.


35 Responses to “A Call to (Open) Arms”

  1. Point One: I seriously doubt atheists know who I am, but thanks 🙂

    Point Two: There is no one on this planet sexier than Chris Stedman and I!! NO ONE!!!

  2. Lucy said

    Heidi it took me SO LONG to understand your comment, LOL.

  3. Laura Ross said

    Great piece! Greetings from a fellow East Tennessee person! Being non-threatening to people who don’t agree with you, but not bowing down to their wills, is the way to go. We have to all live together–might as well be peaceful!

  4. Hitch said

    I don’t like how some try to stylize me into the contrarian. But let me articulate my reading of you post anyway.

    Here is how Chris frames it in the introduction:

    “the question of whether religion-tolerant atheists are truly welcome in the secular movement”

    Here’s my short take on it. I welcome religion-tolerant atheists. I am a religion-tolerant atheist. In fact many people who are characterized as religion-intolerant are actually not that.

    I welcome moderate or moderating voices, in fact I very much welcome religious voices. What I do NOT welcome is people who try to turn tolerant but outspoken atheists into the out-group.

    To me that is the flaw of Greta’s analogy of the “bad cop”. Just because someone is honest does not mean that they are bad.

    Just to draw a smiling stick figure with a common male name next to it to express exactly the fact that religious prescriptions cannot be universalizing, is not hateful. But we constantly try to otherize those that try. Supposedly that is well covered. I’m not sure. In fact critique of DMD is well covered too. How many supposed bridge-builders have come out denouncing it or siding with MSA in newspaper articles and how many have articulated the nuance of the event and properly described what SSA really did? If I count I’m hard pressed to think that the pro-DMD was well covered and that the anti-DMD people were underrepresented. Not at all. What was underrepresented was a fair description of what actually went down.

    I spend quite a bit of time in the Religion section, and it does a mockery to the shelf to even claim that new atheist books dominante the religious book sections. We get maybe one shelf, compared to multiple shelfs for metaphysical mysticism, christianity, buddhism, judaism, Islam and general spiritual literature. And even on that one shelf, there is much more to be found than just those new atheist books. We find books by Taner Edis, Phil Zuckerman, S.T. Joshi. with such “offensive” titles as “Science and Nonbelief”, “Society without God”, and “The Agnostic Reader”.

    But the backlash against atheism is exactly this. Try to give the impression that new atheism somehow obliterates everything, even atheism. When that isn’t true. We want people to be scared and consider people who are outspoken to be the “bad cops”. Every curse-word by PZ Myers is seen as speaking for all atheists, and we can wholesale dismiss him even if he actually had a valid point.

    The good cops have been around for as long as I can remember. In fact it’s fair to say that the secular humanist community was dominated by good cops for most of the last 30-40 years! We don’t hear complaints about Paul Kurtz, and most of the other names most people don’t even know. Because atheism was comfortably invisible except for perhaps Madalyn Murray O’Hair.

    Now what did we get for being nice and quiet? Lots of nobel prices in science, and many other contributions to society. And the worst distrust level of any studied social group! Yes, that group that supposedly is well covered, even before anyone spoke out was stigmatized, vilified and distrusted in society.

    What society are we when the only “religion-positive” atheism is the one that never criticizes religion? What do we stand for? And with blasphemy day, which figures are we going to commemorate? Those that dared to speak truth to power and bigotry or those that told people to be quiet to not upset any feelings?

    I don’t think we need angry atheists. We need honest atheists. And people are brilliant at framing honesty as anger. I do not want to be outraged when yet another atheist gets expelled from work or school simply for being. And I do not advocate that we should get angry. But I do advocate that we should not, in fact cannot be silent, even if people try to characterize that speaking out as being angry.

    Religious tolerance is a very important topic. Tolerance is a two-way street. Religious tolerance includes the tolerance of the religious to tolerate the outspoken irreligious. We are unfortunately far from this. It is a real social risk to come out and say you do not belief. That is the extend of the intolerance.

    Yet we constantly chide atheist for saying just that. And if they on top realize some political ill that is exasperated by religion and dare to speak about that, well then that’s even worse.

    DMD is the perfect example. Where were the calls for the MSA to be more tolerant? In fact many secular people who opposed DMD day did so out of intolerance. It was not tolerated to have a certain expression. Instead we are asked to accept the shaming narrative that somehow drawing a smiling stick-figure “collectively punishes Muslims”. Sadly a narrative that did not and does not help. But rather than explain what tolerant expression means, we piled on those who needed tolerance.

    I have a strong distaste for confrontation. I want a friendly, peaceful, cooperative world. I do not care what you belief as long as you do not belief in things that go counter to this. But I will not side with silence if unfriendly, hostile, oppressive, uncooperative things happen. I will not tell others to do the same, but do not expect me to stand by. I have seen what happens in societies where we stand by while a minority gets stigmatized.

    This pitting of muslims against atheists is regrettable and in fact I think both sides do it wrong. Many faith initiatives are formed around a rejoinder to counter “secularization”. The faithful agree that we, all seculars, are the enemy. And yes there is islamophobia, but the term is also used to silence legitimate criticism. But before we can talk about what ought, we should be honest about what is.

    This lack of honesty about what is, is my problem. No talk about just how much cooperation the SSA really sought. No talk about how they were reacted to. Only one view is worth protecting and discussing.

    Let’s have a look how welcome “good cops” are. Take Phil Platt. I felt his message did get a fair reception on the Friendly Atheist. Yes people had critique or dissenting views, but the canon is positive and respectful. Take the reception of Rev. Weyer, not even an atheist? His reception was friendly and respectful too!

    See what is really going on is that we do not properly analyze why people have certain reactions. People do not have reactions to Chris because he is pro-religion (good for him!). People have reactions because he says rather negative stereotypical things about atheists and paints an undeserving image. Burkagate, white suppremacists, emotional robots, intellectual snobs, etc etc. Chris is disliked not for being a good cop. He is disliked for being a bad cop from within. He is firebranding atheists under the guise of bridge-building and cooperation. That is the grievance here.

    There are other similar cases. Take Chris Mooney. He too had to firebrand from within. Calling Richard Dawkins a bully and in general exaggerating the impact of new atheism while downplaying the impact of things like the wedge strategy. Here too people do not really have a problem with a good cop (the cop that is supposed to work “with” the bad cop) but with a cop that basically goes after his own peers.

    I am for fair internal criticism, but some people make a career out of going after their own publically. Trying to be the “good one” by otherizing people who are branded “bad”.

    See that is the problem. “Accommodationists” are not underrepresented at all. You will find many blogs that go after new atheists, whether it’s Orac over the Hitler Zombie thing, or D.S. Wilson, or Terry Eagleton, or Discover/Intersections, or Jon Haidt. The problem with these is not that they play the good cop, in cooperation with the “bad” ones. It is that their mission is to actually outcase the “bad” ones and they say almost nothing to the religious side, but things that comfort.

    “Look I just beat done those for you, great isn’t it.”

    That is the real issue as I see it. There are some good cops. Phil Platt, for example. Or Neil deGrasse Tyson. But we also have cops that mascerade as “good” but really do not work with the rest of us. And then there is complaints that they are not accepted. Unfortunately it just makes sense.

    I’m a huge fan of cooperation, positive dialogue and outreach. Let’s do that. Branding others, shaming them, and telling them off, is not it. And a true diplomat would not do that anyway.

    I am no fan of firebranding at all. I am at heart a diplomat. But I also like reality and speaking to it.

    Here are two options:
    1) Point the religious to the reality of what atheists do (large philanthropic organizations, some of the most wonderful artists, events of cooperations)
    2) Point the religious to how awful some atheists are (quote-mine PZ Myers, pick the worst out of a convention, exaggerate how much atheists dislike diplomacy).

    Which one is helping? I think it is quite simple. But we are told that the problem is… us. And as long as the narrative is kept alive, indeed atheists will be the problem. That’s what we are all told. Just be silence, quiet and nice to religion. And perhaps we can indeed stay at the 40% distrust level that we do not deserve.

    Any other stigmatized group had to muster the guts to speak even when chastized. Women were branded too loud and aggressive. African Americans were branded uppity and the more extreme wings vilified beyond what they deserved. Gay rights movements feared too flamboyant displays, because it might “upset” the cause.

    This is what Greta articulated and tried to convey. Greta’s message was largely inclusive. She did not call for outcasting diplomats at all. Yet we do not get to hear that part of the message. Just the divisiveness between ‘good cops’ and ‘bad cops’ is kept alive. Sadly that was the opposite of what her message was to begin with.

    That if we are smart, we can learn from previous cases of overcoming stigma. And it is not done by constantly pointing fingers at “firebranders” or “accommodationists” but by recognizing that we are a spectrum of people and that we have to work against the stereotype others put on us, and not wittingly or inadvertently reinforce that very image, and blame ourselves if the stereotype is still working or worse claim that “we deserve our image” as Chris has done.

    So I don’t disagree at all. Just disagree with the description of what is going on and what people’s intentions and perceptions are. We need diplomacy. But for real.

    • Anthony reading Hitch's "blog" said


      Ive been following your comments & bit my tongut for a while but I decided i need to say something. While your responses contain some interesting & maybe even helpful things, your frequent diatribes at Chris seem like you have a personal issue. My biggest problem is that you keep quoting Chris out of context & selecting little chunks of what he says & making a big stink out of them. That isn’t fair. For example you quote Chris when you say:
      ‘And it is not done by constantly pointing fingers at “firebranders” or “accommodationists” but by recognizing that we are a spectrum of people and that we have to work against the stereotype others put on us, and not wittingly or inadvertently reinforce that very image, and blame ourselves if the stereotype is still working or worse claim that “we deserve our image” as Chris has done.’

      Here is the full part from which you quoted out of context:
      ‘She’s right: we have a lot of work to do. So often, we engage in mean-spirited criticism when we encounter those with different opinions. In many ways, we’ve earned our bad reputation.
      On the other hand, we’re a young movement and we are already doing amazing things. There are secular folks doing important work all over the place, and it needs to be heard about. This is why we need more public, positive secular stories.’

      Most of that is a bunch of hyperlinks that add a lot, but either way you took half of Chris’s sentence & ignored the other. Thats misleading. The difference between what you suggest Chris meant & what he reaally said are astronomical.

      Ive seen other comments on here that agree with me that you’re distorting what Chris is saying to try to prove a point that just isn’t there. Stop being inflammatory while you also claim that youre a “bridgebuilder” & Chris isnt. That’s hypocritical & wrong and undermines the interesting points you make..


      • Hitch said

        Anthony, I appreciate your concern regarding my paraphrasing. Let me juxtapose the phrases to show just how tricky it is for me to respond to this:

        “we deserve our image” vs “we’ve earned our bad reputation”

        I actually think this is about as accurate a paraphrase as one can muster. But your point about context is well taken, so let me clarify that of course I mean Chris’s wording and that I mean it in Chris’s context.

        Unfortunately I don’t really see how that changes the points I’m trying to carve out.

        But your critique of distortion explains nicely why I’m this verbose. If I’m shorter it’s even easier to claim that I don’t take care in what I say. I don’t want to mischaracterize Chris. I have issued corrections when requested and I agreed. That’s just fair.

        And no, I won’t make another blog. I think blogging about each other to critique each other is counterproductive. And frankly there are indeed very few bloggers out there criticizing Chris, which I think is a really good idea! The whole point is that this internal sniping is bad. But while it is going on I do feel it needs to be articulated, so that is why I am here.

        You take exception with the whole bridge-building thing. Well I am very explicit in saying what I feel does not build bridges to atheists. I have yet to see an actual argument why what I say doesn’t fit. So I’m not sure how I am to respond to that.

        I honestly think that Chris wants to be a bridge builder. But then he has to consider if people feel alienated and not bridged to. I cannot do much more than articulate the grievance and hope that there is an interest to listen.

        But yes, people try really hard to frame me as divisive, when all I want is actual dialogue and actually stopping of all this fracturing and alienation and divisiveness I see. Look, I comment here because I care. It’s quite a bit of time I spend on this. If it’s not welcome it is indeed quite easy. Chris just has to tell me. I will take a graceful leave. I want to improve the situation but that will take all sides to want it or see what I am saying as helpful. If that is not the case I’ll be happy to spend my energy elsewhere, perhaps somewhere where people actually appreciate honest efforts and feedback, and welcome dialogue.

        Rob did a really nice job in summarizing the core concern. I really think it’s important to consider. How do you feel about it? How can we do better? How can we actually pull the same string rather than pull each others strings? What are the constructive proposals and get out of the “oh X doesn’t welcome me”.

  5. @Hitch said

    Another rambling diatribe from Hitch about how much it feels hurt by mainstream America! Maybe if you did a day’s worth of interfaith work yourself you’d have an idea of what respectful dialogue sounds like. You just can’t help bring up old arguments with Chris in every single forum. I bet you’re still wringing out tear soaked hankies at the friendly atheist.

    • Hitch said

      I think you have a valid point about me repeating old arguments. I agree, my apologize for that. The point I’m trying to make really does not need to go there.

    • @@Hitch said

      For someone who preaches “respectful dialogue,” that was a pretty unnecessarily douchey comment. Personal attacks, in response to a well-thought-out comment from Hitch, are really not helpful.

      • SkepticalSeeker said

        I quite appreciated Hitch’s comments myself. He could have his own blog and just link back to this one 🙂

  6. marissa said

    i saw this comment on the secular students group Facebook and thought you might like to see it:

    Derrick Strobl
    My thinking about religious issues evolved as a result of discussions that involved religious people and atheists. Having people like Chris who have the patience to help others sort through the issues could help. Reasonable, consistent, confident minorities give people something to think about.


  7. Michael De Dora said

    Well stated as usual, Lucy.

  8. Rob said

    Despite the verbosity and typos, I think Hitch is making a decent point. He is right that the “good cop” role does not include bashing on the bad cop. And that point goes both ways, the bad cops shouldn’t be publicly roasting the “good cop” either. So yes, there are groans when you bring up this blog in a room full of atheists, because some of us think Chris is too soft, and the rest are annoyed with him bashing the movement. But I hope, that few if any of us are rushing back to our blogs and publicly attacking Chris. To be fair, I only read about 1 in 10 of the posts here, most of them just annoy me, but just flipping back through a few, it seems like a lot of condemnation of atheist for someone who both considers himself to be one and supports tolerance of all views. So how about this for a deal; we’ll stop groaning when we hear about Chris, if he will stop ranting against us and start working with us towards our common goals.

  9. Angela said

    This issue is a tough one to address, because everyone is inevitably influenced by the tendencies of their personality. I’ll be the first to admit that I kind of enjoy being a dick to religious people, and am firmly in the extremist camp. But even though it’s really fun, I know that mindlessly insulting religious people is not the way to go. Although it’s difficult for me, I do think there’s value in listening to religious people, being patient with them, and having a productive dialogue. While I think religion is complete bullshit, I am one of the lucky ones whose parents didn’t try to brainwash me into their cult. So I can’t really judge the people who aren’t so lucky.

    But there’s a difference between respecting religious people, and respecting religion itself. And there’s a fine line between being nice and pussying out. Why do people in the secular movement seem to hate the “tolerant” atheists? Because we know that religion is wrong and damaging; we think the world is ready to face reality. And we’re here to spread that message. What movement are you in? No, seriously, I’m curious. If you’re not fighting for a secular world, then I’m not sure what you’re doing. And speaking out against those of us who ARE trying to do something is really not helpful. If you just want religious people to think you’re a good person, that’s nice. But don’t pretend like you’re an activist.

    The reason you’re in the minority in the movement is because you’re not really part of the movement. That productive dialogue you have with religious people needs to include actually encouraging people to become more secular, or it’s not actually productive. Atheism is not the same as religion. Everyone’s beliefs don’t just all coexist together in perfect harmony. Each religion explicitly contradicts every other religion, and the people in interfaith act like your beliefs are no more consequential than your favorite color. If we support that, then we’re just perpetuating the denial that most religious people are in. Religion is a lie, and a dangerous one. And we’re the only ones who can speak out against it.

  10. Lucy said

    You’ll have to excuse me: I rarely get into online debates like this, and hesitate at replying in any way to what you said. But as the author, I guess I should say something.

    Um…I actually don’t have much to say. I have no interest–absolutely, emphatically none–in (de)converting anyone into atheism. If you think this is the end goal of all atheist/secular activists, I really want to persuade you to reevaluate that line of thinking, because it’s untrue. Whether you like it or not, or don’t think it’s what secular activists should do, the fact remains that there are manymanymany secular people who don’t view religion like you do. High-five for diversity!

    But thanks so much for your comment. Your attitude is very common, and it highlights the need for this discussion to continue in the greater secular community.

    And for real, comments like yours make me want to throw my hands up in praise of the God I don’t believe in for not making me a rhetoric-lovin’ groupthink-spoutin’ angry atheist like you 🙂 Praise be, girly!

  11. Josh said

    I’m all for the angry and friendly atheists to understand their place together, as atheists. You’re right about the need for an image change.

    As for angry or friendly… I think it depends on who my conversation partner is. Most people get the friendly atheist, but throw a particularly cruel evangelical my way, and sometimes the less accommodating side makes an appearance.

    We do need both, in the community and in our day-to-day lives. Circumstances dictate which road is the wiser.

  12. Anthony reading Hitch's "blog" said


    To respond to your response. My issue wasnt just your paraphrasing, it was the fact that you only took one part of Chris’s point – ‘In many ways, we’ve earned our bad reputation.’ – & ignored the rest which talked about the positive things going on in our atheist community. Its like you look for the bad & shrug off the good in what Chris says. Wheres the bridge in that?

    But really, some unsolicited advice, take it or leave it: if you’re trying n-o-t to be divisive as you claim, then actually follow your own lead and dont just highlight what you disagree with in what Chris says but try to find agreements. Otherwise you just come off as someone looking to pick a fight.

    I welcome your dialogue & I think Chris does too though I dont blame how little hes replied to you because youve been so negative and also it seems like he doesnt often reply (Im sure running a blog is lots of work which is why i dont have one lol). But there are some basic rules of dialogue & the first is that you actually l-i-s-t-e-n to dissenting perspectives. It just seems to me ( & others here apparently ) that you arent listening closely & are actually really looking for any chance to jump down Chris’s throat. That isnt bridgebuilding, its bridge destroying.


    P.S. Whats wrong with bloggers calling each other out when they think something is a problem? Its called ‘discourse.” & If you think ‘internal sniping’ is so bad, why do you continue to furiously harp on Chris over points he made forever ago? The impression you give is less a sniper and more a barrage of artillery..

    • Hitch said

      “But there are some basic rules of dialogue & the first is that you actually l-i-s-t-e-n to dissenting perspectives.”

      Exactly. I offer a dissenting perspective, and so does Chris. I fully agree that we should apply your principle, however in all cases.

      To bring that back to the core concern, slightly rephrased:

      How can we do better? How can we actually pull the same string rather than pull each others strings? What are the constructive proposals and get out of the “oh X doesn’t listen to me”? How can we listen to each other?

  13. Hitch said

    Melissa Harris-Lacewell articulated what I’m trying to articulate beautifully. She articulates it for another group, but the point is virtually the same. What it means to divide out “good” group members from the rest, and what that implies for bridge-building. Just replace the groups she talks about with atheists.

    I hope this helps clarify what I’m trying to say, because I certainly cannot say it as well as she does:


  14. John M said

    “I don’t think we need angry atheists. We need honest atheists. And people are brilliant at framing honesty as anger. I do not want to be outraged when yet another atheist gets expelled from work or school simply for being. And I do not advocate that we should get angry. But I do advocate that we should not, in fact cannot be silent, even if people try to characterize that speaking out as being angry.”

    Talk about creating a straw man! Hitch (whoever you are), I’ve never seen Chris say anything like you’re suggesting here. He in fact himself has stood up against atheist discrimination on this blog. You’re implying that he would call standing up against atheist discrimination a bad thing, when all I’ve seen him do is challenge people who are needlessly trying to provoke and offend and discriminate against religious people. Your points fall flat, and I wonder if you’re not merely stirring the pot to feed the fire.

  15. Nat DeLuca said

    Nice work Lucy! (I try to stay out of the fray here on NPS, but I couldn’t resist!)

  16. […] given their opinions (or lack thereof) on this matter, including Friendly Atheist, Woo Fighters and Non Prophet Status, so I think I might be a little […]

  17. Good cops, bad cops, either way, hide the bag!

    Thanks for this: “Like it or not, atheism desperately needs an image change, and this will only occur through the works of people willing to put anger aside and learn how to interact with religious people in a positive manner.”

    This is not to say that some atheists don’t have good reasons to be angry.

    I’d like to see more specificity on what we mean by “accommodationist.” It has a meaning in constitutional law which is obviously bad, and a meaning in the “framing science” debate which is generally objectionable, but I see people are using it to mean other things as well. I’m confused. I’m definitely anti-accommodationist regarding the usages I’m familiar with, but I might not be in other senses.

  18. […] as well as facilitating interfaith activity as a representative of the secular community (I’m with Lucy Gubbins: there’s a worthwhile conversation there that we often risk neglecting). And the […]

  19. Curious Atheist said

    Lucy – thank you very much for expressing a point of view that is underrepresented in the vocal ‘secularist movement’ – IMO – by design. As a student group rep you have the complete independence to think freely, but I don’t see this on the national scene. You would not be welcomed with open arms into most, if not all, of the major national atheist/humanist organizations, IMO. You said:

    What happens, though, when the “Good Cops” start showing up? What happens when a nonbeliever appears who doesn’t loathe religion, and doesn’t find religious mockeries all that funny?

    These types of nonbelievers are simply not welcome by those who’ve made a name for themselves in ‘the secularist movement’. The ‘atheist stars’ who suck up all the media attention are a homogeneous group who demand conformity, pure and simple. Their rhetoric makes clear what unwelcome heresies can get you excommunicated:

    * If you don’t think your next door neighbor erecting a small cross along the public highway to mourn her dead son is a violation of the Civil Rights of Atheists[TM], then you not a ‘true’ atheist and should get out.

    * If you think ‘certified biologists’ would make a more persuasive public case for evolution and that using ‘certified atheists’ instead would be counterproductive, then you are not a true atheist and should sit down and shut up – even if you are a biologist nobly fighting for science education.

    * If you give greater weight to the job security and personal safety of your atheist friends than you give to ‘the Out Campaign’, then you are not a ‘true’ atheist and you are not welcome here.

    * If you admit that religion, though it has done a great deal of harm, has also done a good deal of good work, so that it is a mixed bag instead of inherently evil, then you are not one of us and should go away.

    * If you would throw your support behind real universal health care amended with insignificant platitudes to religion, rather than deny millions of desperate Americans absolutely essential health care coverage and cede those platitudes to achieve it, then you are not a true atheist, even though you would be supporting the far more important of the two issues that actually significantly affects real peoples’ lives.

    * If you don’t feel a compulsion to scratch off ‘God’ from the ‘In God We Trust’ motto on all of your currency, then you are not a ‘true’ atheist.

    I could go on and on, but you get the point. Express points of view like this, especially multiple of these heresies, and the conformists will try to shame you into agreement. They never seem to use arguments because they simply can’t make a reasoned case for their POV. Their goal is not to persuade you, but to get you to play along to their script.

    As someone who cares greatly about individual freedom of choice, these things deeply offend me on a moral level. Asking me to play along is like asking me to play along with a sleazy used car dealership to bilk people out of their money for the good of the dealership but at the expense of the people buying their lemons. I want no part of it. It’s high school clique tactics that adults should have outgrown a long time ago.

    When you think about it, the pretense of valuing a diversity of opinions probably couldn’t be sincere for these groups to survive. It would be incredibly counterproductive. I don’t know if this is a symptom of any type of organization, but these groups inherently want to ‘mobilize’ atheists for some unified, common purpose, as if we all follow in lock step with what Random Atheist Leader tells us to think or do. It’s that built-in requirement for conformity that makes me want to have nothing to do with organized atheism. I can think quite freely all by myself, thank you very much. I don’t need the ‘leaders’ to tell me what to think, to tell me what is important, or to tell me what I need to do. I’m quite capable of figuring that out by myself.

    So I too find myself ‘disconnected and disheartened’ by this movement. But thinking about it has led me to a simple conclusion: it was never ‘my’ movement to begin with.

    • Hitch said

      Sorry to say that I disagree with virtually the whole narrative that you set up there. But I understand that there is quite a bit of frustration to be had, frankly on way too many sides.

      I have never seen the whole “true atheist” narrative you set up in reality. In fact I see a lot of atheists who completely object to anything that smells like “true Scotsman” fallacies of any kind.

      To disagree is not to expel.

      Also you mix constitutionalism with atheism. Religious people can object to issues relating to the establishment clause. In fact members of the relevant foundations are mixes of folks from secular and religious backgrounds.

      And there is no litmus test that an atheist must advocate for any specific cause. But yes people may disagree with you on an issue. Again, disagreement is not rejection.

      There are plenty of atheists (including Dawkins) who have welcomed contributions of religious biologists in defense of evolution. And Dawkins himself has said that he would not be the best advocate at the Dover trial for the evolution side. I’m sorry but this story of a uniformizing elite enforcing what atheism is is just not true.

      No atheist I respect would ever out another. Ever. And I have not seen it done. Yet you tell this story that coming out is some sort of requirement when people understand full well that there is a serious risk for some and noone can take that risk for another.

      I routinely admit that religion has done good, and Hitchens has too! He just says that it comes at a price, that for him is too great. We are entitled to disagree, but again there is no mandate.

      I have never heard any atheist mix debate health care the way you claim. Heck we have libertarian republicans to anarcho-marxists who are atheists. That just makes no sense at all.

      But I’m sorry to say you feel this way, because I’m sure you have good grounds to come to this conclusion. Yes atheists will often not mince words in disagreement and express dismay when people do not support things that limit or stigmatize atheists in society (such as the pledge). But I would never expel anybody for disagreeing with me, in fact I object to allowing others to expel people. But yes, if someone spreads information on atheism that I deem to be untrue and hurtful, I will speak up and this is exactly why I respond here.

      We could invert the same narrative and say that atheists are not welcome within a certain segment of the interfaith community because we reserve the right to not praise religion, fight for protection of the first amendment, advocate for free expression, even if it is in the realm of religious doctrine and so forth. But (a) it’s not true, and (b) we should not want it to be true, in the sense that if it is true, we should seek to find commonalities rather than separate.

      • Curious Atheist said

        Hi Hitch,

        Thanks for your comments. Since I figure I’ve pretty much had my say already, I’ll be brief, but I’d like to address a few things you’ve said at least:

        To disagree is not to expel.

        If in a group of a few dozen or so ‘atheist leaders’ you expressed the ‘heresies’ I mentioned above, the universal reaction would be horror – even though those heresies are quite rational things for a realistic person to believe.

        And of course there is no ‘litmus test’ to be part of ‘the cause.’ My point is that you would not be welcomed by those who are already a part of it if you were bold enough to express those heresies outloud. Disagreement is not rejection? Really? What if you disagree with 90% of what the ‘atheist leaders’ insist upon? Do you really think you would not be rejected under those circumstances? I’d think they would wonder why you were among them at all.

        On the biologists example – I’ve actually heard atheist leaders get their panties in a bundle over biologists saying to them, in effect, ‘leave this one to us, the biologists.’ The reaction was: how dare the biologists ask us to sit this one out – even if ‘certified atheists’ getting involved would do the cause of science education harm! I think Dawkins might have enough clout of his own that he can’t be pressured by the big fish in their small ponds. He is already recognized with or without the endorsement of organized atheism’s ‘atheist leaders’ – the ones who were around before ‘the New Atheism.’

        No atheist I respect would ever out another.

        I’m not talking about outing your atheist friends against their will. I’m talking about rejecting the idea that you should encourage them to out themselves. Suppose your atheist friend is naive about the consequences of coming out. Would it really be a good idea for you to go out of your way to push him in the direction of outing himself? If he is likely to lose his job, be disowned by his family, put himself in harm’s way, and so on – then no, that would be a terrible idea! But that’s heresy among those who think promoting atheism trumps everything else. (It doesn’t.)

        It’s not that you have to out people – it’s that you have to support that people outing themselves is a good idea. Much of the time it would have dire consequences for those foolish enough to out themselves. How can anyone get behind encouraging atheists to hurt their own interests? It’s frankly immoral to encourage the sacrifice of actual atheists’ lives for – what, exactly? Another notch in the Dawkins Foundation’s lipstick case?

        I’m sure there are Libertarians and Republicans among atheists. They are not to be found within organized atheism, though.

        You mention the Pledge of Allegiance, and I think that’s another good example of a heresy. I don’t give a damn about the inclusion of ‘under God’ in the Pledge. I object more to the notion that children should have to pledge allegiance to anything at all, with or without ‘under God.’ ‘Under God’ is insignificant compared to the ritual.

        And I see little real harm to giving to lip service to the Pledge anyway – no more harm than the myriad of other things we have to say that we don’t really mean (like when we are polite to people we don’t like out of professionalism).

      • Hitch said

        I really don’t want to be flippant but I don’t know any “atheist leaders”. But you may mean people who organize secular groups etc.

        I certainly do not consider Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett or anybody else to be an “atheist leader”. They are people who have opinions. Agree, disagree. That’s all fine. In fact I have agreement and disagreement with each of them. I wouldn’t accept any % agreement test from them, nor as they should from me. Frankly the way you talk about it I have never heard atheists talk about each other. The concept of leadership is really kind of alien to “us” given that we really have very few (no?) positive values to rally around, that one agree on without some extra assumptions.

        I cannot really comment that easily on some of the points you raise, simply because I lack context.

        Let me just respond to the out campaign. Let’s relate that to a similar movement among gays. Is/was that “good”?

        Well it’s very tricky. Even today there is violent hate crime to be had against the LGBT community worldwide. But for some being out has been a clear improvement. But with the LBGT community has it become better? I think the answer to this has to be absolutely yes.

        So is it immoral to even say that coming out helps remove stigma? I don’t think so. But let me be quite clear.

        The real answer to a culture of fear and violence is to oppose it. If there is retribution against atheists we should support them and oppose their retribution. Say someone came out not knowing the risk.

        It is our responsibility, and by our I mean everybody who is for a non-violent, non-oppressive world to stand by those who are harmed.

        I do see harm in saying god when you do not mean it. I don’t say it. I am blessed that people around me have always accepted it.

        But you have to decide what society you want. One were one has to be afraid as atheist, or one where one doesn’t. I don’t advocate that people take excessive risks for sure. But there are things we can do to improve the situation, and I personally like to do what I can. We will all be better for it.

        Finally on Dawkins, I think you take him way too seriously. He is neither a “leader” nor anything else. If you don’t like some of what he says or does fine. For example I felt that the whole “brights” thing was pretty stupid. But because I don’t see him as a leader anyway, I basically had a good laugh over it and did my thing instead. Just don’t worry about it. If you have a solid view, don’t be afraid to articulate it. If you have good arguments that is, among skeptics what matters. And if you find someone who cannot agree to disagree, move on. Those types exists in all corners.

        But I am for a world where we can speak freely and without fear. That’s for everybody. I think such a world is worth working towards. I don’t see leaders or followers in that idea. I see allies and friends.

        You are your own. You go make your own decisions and find friends that work for you.

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