On effective atheist activism and responding to PZ Myers' critique of Massimo Pigliucci

Quite an uproar of sorts has stirred in the previous week or so. Chris Stedman published an article titled "The Problem with Atheist Activism," Greta Christina published a blog post titled "What are the Goals of the Atheist Movement?" and Massimo Pilgiucci, responding to the two mentioned articles/posts, authored a blog post titled "The goals of atheist activism." PZ Myers, writing about all three pieces authored a blog post titled "We're Meddlesome" mainly responding to Pigliucci's blog post.

PZ Myers claims that Pigliucci fails in reading comprehension and makes various assumptions about Pigliucci's blog post that misrepresent what Pigliucci is saying and commits several errors. I'll comment on both PZ Myers' and Pigliucci's posts and end talking about what seems to be the false dichotomy in the minds of the 'in-your-face-no-holds-barred-be-offensive-as-possible-with-no-regard-for-the-individual' style that some atheist activists hold; some of these people seem to believe that if this is not the method, all other methods are failures and people are bending over backwards to accommodate religious persons. It is quite possible to "be respectful and still tell it straight" while being effective, uncompromising, critical of ideas, professional, rational, etc.

In his "The goals of atheist activism" post, Pigliucci notes that Greta Christina says a "good cop/bad cop strategy" works, but Christina provides no evidence for why this is the case. Pigliucci also notes that atheists are doing a disservice to themselves and others when they compare themselves to "blacks or gays, as it is an insult to people who have experienced real discrimination. [...] atheists are not being made to sit at the back of buses, hanged from trees, put in prison, or denied voting rights qua atheist." He also adds that the "bad cops" "rarely went around insulting the other side, they were simply vocal about their rights."

Massimo notes four goals that he believes the atheist movement and community should have and pursue: separation of church and state, acceptance of atheism, combating dogmatism, and elimination (or at least reduction) of irrationalism. Pigliucci notes that "none of the above goals is defined in terms of abolition of religion per se. The real targets are irrationalism and dogmatism, of which various religious beliefs are only examples, and only to a variety of degrees."

PZ writes, in his post, "Everyone loves to sit back and carp about the New Atheists, because they're the most prominent subset of the atheist movement, the ones getting the most press, and the ones getting the most criticism from theists...so of course the armchair philosophers have to take a whack, too. [...] Pigliucci ought to have his philosophy-er, hoity-toity-er, rational-er atheism to peddle." Right from the gate, PZ makes various unwarranted assumptions. He assumes that Pigliucci is 'carping' because New Atheists are in the limelight. What is the reason for this?

PZ writes, "I assume that some people just like to meddle - they just can't bear the thought that someone else's strategy, even if it is working toward a similar goal, is actually working and making progress, so they've got to announce their dissatisfaction and tinker. It's only natural, I suppose, that a growing movement would find itself surrounded by not only opponents, but also obnoxious kibitzers." Pigliucci's tone, style, goals, etc. are, of course, different than others' tone, style, goals, etc. and he's merely noting some disagreements he has with others. So what?

PZ writes, "Pigliucci [...] just assumes that his goals are everyone else's goals, and therefore he's justified in complaining about how we're doing everything wrong." When is one ever unjustified in 'complaining' is one disagrees with the methods of someone else?

PZ then responds to Pigliucci's question as to how Greta Christina knows that the "good cop/bad cop" strategy works and PZ says that we can know this strategy works because atheism is booming. This, though, is a huge non-sequitur. How can one particular strategy account for the boom in atheism? While this strategy has certainly 'drawn some people in,' it does not account for several other factors that account for the rise in atheism such as more internet communities popping up, the rise of the religious right (!), atheists simply making groups because they want a social network and/or want to share their ideas with others, various authors (some of which can be called 'New Atheists') publishing books, etc. In short, there is much going on that accounts for the rise in atheism, but the "good cop/bad cop strategy" isn't the only strategy that works or otherwise has contributed to the rise in atheism [and perhaps is not even a major factor]. It is also important to note that some are 'drawn away' because of a "good cop/bad cop strategy."

PZ believes that Massimo wrote that atheists aren't allowed to model activism after known successful movements, but this simply isn't the case. Massimo wrote that atheists "really ought not compare themselves to blacks or gays." "Really ought not" is much different than saying "you're not allowed." Additionally, PZ writes, "...the tactic of decrying the struggle against smaller offenses because there are greater problems is a standard suppressive effort to maintain the status quo [...] Pigliucci is making a particular contemptible argument: it's the idea that no injustice should be opposed if there is a greater injustice elsewhere." Pigliucci doesn't argue this.

PZ writes, commenting on Massimo's statement of "the "bad cops" of the civil and gay rights movements rarely went around insulting the other side, they were simply vocal about their own rights," noting "Right. So in the last 50 years or so of history, everyone's approach has been to say nothing but kind words... [...] No one objected to the overt racism of the policeman who turned fire hoses on black crowds... [...] An important part of making racism and sexism and homophobia socially unacceptable has always been labeling and mocking and denigrating the perpetrators of such evils. You don't make progress by pretending that Fred Phelps is a nice guy, and not making him pay the price of public stigma..."

PZ seems to miss Massimo's point here (or the point I at least believe he is making). An articulate and effective case for rights can be made without resorting to being in-your-face and hurling insults. It is all too often, it seems, that atheists use some language filled with personal attacks that are mocking and denigrating toward religious persons...and I don't find this constructive in many cases.

Make some arguments and attack ideas, I believe, but attacking persons doesn't seem to be an effective route. Perhaps, though, insults can be had for very public individuals who are exploiting persons, doing a great deal of harm, or involved with politics such as Pat Robertson, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, Peter Poppoff, etc., but I don't find this constructive when talking about 'religion in general' or addressing 'lay persons' (i.e. the 'common people in the pews).

I take great care to be as charitable as possible on my blog, on the NEPA Freethought Society Podcast, in my Examiner.com articles, in debates I have, and elsewhere. I want people who disagree with me to read what I have to say and I'm simply not interested in attacking individuals or repulsing people. While it's going to be the case that some people may be repulsed no matter how charitable, kind, and free of insults I can be, this simply doesn't justify going all out, being uncharitable, unreasonable, or insulting every religious person I see.

While my goal is not to deconvert religious people (although, of course, that may happen in the progress), I want to put the arguments out there and be effective. I want to get people to think, empower fellow atheists, engage religious believers, share my ideas, and be professional. Of course, there are certainly times when I will joke around, poke fun, and even mock, but those are paired with some legitimate concern and a visible goal.

Of course not all will 'take my approach' and want to be more in-your-face. Some will also believe that hurling insults at religious people is an effective strategy for whatever goals they may have. I have heard, several times, that "religious people can't be reasoned with and are not logical" (which is ridiculous in many cases and certainly isn't a warrant for 'bad behavior'). [And here's my response to this.] So be it. If someone disagrees with someone else's strategy, goals, or methods, it shouldn't be a problem if those concerns are voiced.

Some atheists also believe that "beliefs should be respected" and it is bad form or somehow rude to even question or challenge, no matter how professionally, persons' beliefs. I don't think these positions are tenable and have commented on them in the past at great length. If these people want to voice why they think this way and have different methods or goals than I do, so be it...but I will voice why I think their assumptions are flawed and why people should speak up and be 'out of the closet.'

Like it or not, if the 'atheist movement' is going to be successful (or continue to be successful), individual atheists ought to realize that they are dealing with people and no matter how silly, outlandish, or fallacious the beliefs of some religious people are, these people cherish these ideas and take them very seriously. This, of course, if you know me, doesn't mean that ideas should not be challenged, but rather means that there is a person 'behind' those ideas. Ideas can be attacked, but persons don't have to be. Additionally, disagreement should not be construed as disrespect and individual atheists would do well in communicating this to people whom they disagree with and/or otherwise object to discussions even taking place.

Might 'my method' or style of presentation be 'the best method?' Probably not...but I don't think there is a 'best method' or 'one method' that works. I mainly tackle arguments, make arguments, and tend to come from a more philosophical perspective. Others do other things. So be it. If some have different methods (and especially if some believe that certain methods are problematic), it is okay to voice the criticism and be receptive of it. After all, aren't we supposed to be a skeptical community?

There are many faces and goals in the atheist movement. Many people are talented in some areas while others are not. Individuals can utilize their abilities and be effective in what they do. It is important, though, to discuss, as a community, what our goals should be and how we can work to achieve them. It's also important to offer criticism of those in the movement whom we happen to disagree with on some issues whether we disagree with their methods, tone, manner of presentation, or something else. Voicing criticism, though, should not be considered "meddlesome," but rather should be viewed as offering some advice whether it is considered or not.