Nobody Expects The Atheist Tone Police!

image of a man and woman arguing

A tendency with organized atheists that burns me up sometimes is the need to tone police other atheists. Basically someone will have a problem with how someone says something – especially if it’s provocative or might be offensive to believers or even other atheists. So it might seem ironic that I will tone police an essay, written by Ed Brayton, I read yesterday. I’ve been told for years that we need to tell people what we are for and not what we are against but that doesn’t seem to apply when speech is policed by other atheists. I just see far more ‘don’t do this’ and not enough ‘this is better’ essays. These police actions sap energy from organized atheism and actually doesn’t fix anything.

I want to state, out of the gate, that Ed Brayton can say and write anything he wants. I don’t have a problem with Ed or his viewpoints in general. I like his blog and he’s a credit to organized atheists** every where. I happen to disagree with a post:

A few minutes after I said that, one of the professors, who was quite an irritating git, declared that he doesn’t think that anyone really believes in the God of the Bible. A man in the back of the auditorium said, “I do,” and the professor immediately and very loudly said, “Really? You do? You actually believe that God told Abraham to cut off part of his son’s penis?” At that point I jumped in and reminded the other panelist that this was completely out of line (we weren’t there to debate the audience) and that him telling a Christian what they really believe is every bit as offensive and patronizing as Christians telling us that we really do believe in God deep down. He piped down for a bit after that.

But it inspired me to write a post about things I really wish some of my fellow atheists would stop saying and doing. This is hardly an exhaustive list, just the first few that come to mind.

Atheists, Please Stop Saying These Things

I started to gird my loins because when an atheist writes ‘I wish atheists would stop doing….’ it doesn’t make me happy. He starts off with:

1. Please stop saying that “we’re all born atheist.” Babies are atheists in the same sense that an office chair is an atheist. The statement is trivially true and completely irrelevant to any discussion I can imagine.

Stop saying “we’re all born atheist” even though it’s true? Really? Why? And why does Brayton think it’s “completely irrelevant to any discussion”? That is a bold claim and one I doubt he could back up.

We are all atheists, by default, when born and many of us are TAUGHT religion like we learn how to read, or ride a bike. Personally I consider indoctrination of children into religion to be child abuse, but that is another argument for another day.

I won’t go point by point on the rest of the essay but I did want to highlight one other cringe moment:

8. Tax the churches! Churches are tax-exempt under the same section of the IRS code as the FFRF, ACLU, Americans United and American Atheists. There is no coherent reason why churches should be taxed but not all the non-religious non-profits…

Saying “Tax the churches!” isn’t being used to just want to see churches taxed but to point out how some churches skirt the non-profit laws by doing electioneering. As Brayton points out the churches get special treatment. While there is a danger that FFRF or the ACLU might be taxed as punishment, that still isn’t enough to demand atheists stop saying “Tax the churches”. That phrase is a call for fairness but it seems Ed has created a false assumption since not all atheists are using the phrase as he thinks it is being used.

After reading the post I shared it on Facebook with the blurb:

Doug: I guess it is because I don’t read much Bible focused postings but what I would like to see is atheists spending less time policing other atheists speech and spend more time telling Christians to stop being dicks – like taking away women’s rights for example. I guess it is because some people would rather hit the low hanging fruit rather than addressing real conflicts.

One atheist friend took me to task and assumed I was saying that atheists shouldn’t call out other atheists false assumptions. She also brought up the tired argument that only a small subset of believers hate us and if we don’t tone down our rhetoric we will hurt their feelings and they won’t be our friends. She even made the point that some atheists are assholes.

I agree that people who make false statements should be called out. I agree that some atheists are assholes. I just get tired of the serial “tisk-tisk” blog posts where atheists demand other atheists act a certain way or complain that we need to stop being offensive to believers or they won’t be our friends.

(I will stop here and note if an atheist says something like “There are secular arguments against abortion” that would be a false assumption since the “secular” arguments are really reheated arguments used by religious anti-choice advocates. Calling out false assumptions like this is appropriate.)

We need to face the fact that no matter what we say or how we act, believers won’t like us. If offending them hurts their feelings then I would question their fragile beliefs. Atheists and religious people do have differences. It seems from my point of view, the atheist is always the one asked to hide their beliefs as if a believer hearing it will hole up in their church depressed and will never work with us on common issues. I say they need to get over themselves. I’ve been called names by believers and other liberal Christians so by now it doesn’t bother me. I worry more about the message than how it’s said.

I’ve been part of organized atheism for almost 20 years and these “tisk-tisk” debates continue and nothing changes. I was involved in a similar debate in my Humanist group back in 1995 when I was told I was just a white guy with a computer when another member of my group disliked my point in one of our group discussions.

I see far more “don’t do this” and not enough “this is better” from atheists to other atheists. What is missing from posts like Ed Brayton’s is showing how to be better. Instead of being a nag and saying “don’t do this…” be a teacher and say something like:

“Although saying that “we’re all born atheist” is factually true, it rarely wins a debate with a true believer…”

Writing it this way isn’t being a nag and doesn’t undercut the truth of the statement “we’re all born atheist”.

A minor side issue I had with Ed’s essay was his complaint about atheists using Biblical literalism against Christians. He doesn’t want us to have a theological debate with believers. Why? Shining the light of hypocrisy on a stupid religion and the people too brainwashed to give it up is our bread and butter. They have no problem telling us we hate our fathers or as mentioned in the beginning of the essay the Christian pointed out we really do believe in God even if we claim not to. The difference that Brayton failed to note is that our arguments against Biblical literalism are true and the Christian’s argument is a false assumption based only on subjective personal bias.

I don’t personally hammer Christians on theological issues because I don’t care what color the unicorn is anymore. But remembering where, on the road in my atheism, I was when it was new to me, I use to debate theological issues and the existence of god with believers. I stopped when I found such debates weren’t relevant to how I lived my life and was more an opportunity for the believer I was debating to give me their testimony. They wouldn’t drop their irrational beliefs and I wouldn’t change either so it was a mutual waste of time. However I am open to it if it would mean making sure dissent was included in a public event like a staged debate covered by the media.

If I had been exposed then to the amount of “tisk-tisking” blog posts, like Ed’s, I see today, I imagine I would have been pretty discouraged. I’m not sure if I would have joined the groups I’m in now or had the level of participation I do now.

As long as you have the facts and evidence for your position and are able to defend it without using logical fallacies, atheists should be able to say anything they want and how they want. 

I don’t want the atheists who write the “tisk-tisk” posts to stop what they write but to come at the problem from a different angle. Don’t tell people who already have issues with authority, not to do something. Don’t blame other atheists for not being your kind of atheist or acting the way you do. 

Teach them how to do better either with concrete examples or personal experience that doesn’t give an out for ridiculous beliefs like Christianity. It isn’t our job to humor the believer. 

Let’s have less ‘don’t do this’ posts and more ‘this is better’ posts.

**I use the word “organized atheism” to describe the atheist movement, in general, because I was tone policed recently and told that there is no formal movement since not all atheists join groups.

One Reply to “Nobody Expects The Atheist Tone Police!”

  1. I think all of your objections are based on mis-readings of both Ed’s article and my responses on FB to your criticisms.

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