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How Not to be a Bad Atheist

In this great skeptical movement of ours we have had the opportunity to grow complacent. Of course, being the enlightened intellectuals that we are, we have not squandered this opportunity. Here are some problems I have with public skeptics I’ve watched.

1. Regarding Logical Fallacies

So you took a Logic class and you are now entitled to win arguments, I understand. But the point of those informal fallacies you learned was not to be able to relate them in the middle of a conversation and expect your opponent to understand your jargon. Explain to them in the midst of your argument with a counterexample, do not simply accuse them. The ultimate fallacy is strange idea that the first one to mention fallacy wins the argument. For example, if someone calls you an asshole, which if you’re like me is not at all a rare occurrence, do not say “Hah! That, my mere plebeian opponent, is an Ad Hominem informal fallacy. Had you been considerate enough to memorize that section of our textbook, you would be qualified to continue this conversation, but seeing as you are unfit, I will have to claim this verbal challenge for myself!” Instead, agree with them as you are, in fact, an asshole! But then go on to say “but I don’t know what that has to do with the efficacy of duct tape in improving survival rates of patients with gunshot wounds in the neck!” In doing so you explain to the commoner what an Ad Hominem is, without risking associating yourself with those amateurish logicians who apply their informal fallacy education as if it was a weapon.

2. Regarding Gender

So you’ve come out of the metaphorical closet of atheism and stepped into the literal light of day. Suddenly a new creature appears, a female who dares speak her mind in public! Worse yet, you’re attracted to her! Now, before you criticise feminism with your newfound skeptic methods in order to impress her, consider the facts for yourself, on your own time. Otherwise you risk making unintentionally controversial statements. How can you explain your problems with the theory of Patriarchy if your audience is busy criticizing your use of pronouns?! But there is another audience I’d like to address on this matter. Atheist feminists. Take it easy on us. Many of us are trying not to be sexist, and agree with many of the sentiments of feminism. Being a part of a disenfranchised group does not put you above criticism. The most common manifestation of this silly glorification of disenfranchisement occurs with the phrase “as a…”. For example: “as a woman, I think I better understand the irreparable damage an immature atheist can cause to my gender, and thus conclude that anyone who makes such blunders must be burned on a suitably phallic stake.” Though I would applaud your sense of irony, I would remind you that your argument from authority is everyone’s least favorite valid form. Because I said so.

3. Regarding Defining Atheism

Atheists are people who do not believe in God. That’s it. Don’t try to ascribe additional progressive goals to them. It is possible to be a sexist atheist. Don’t go around arguing what atheists should or shouldn’t do, by arrogantly titling your blog posts things like “How to be a Good Atheist” or presumptuously assuming your atheist audience will be interested in your advice about relating to the minority of public atheists. Even though atheism can and should serve as a platform for additional progressive discussion, we should not try to insist anything but disbelief should be a part of “real atheism.” Thanks for your time.

-Luke Smithems

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The different flavors of atheism

Despite what The Oatmeal may think, this isn't every atheist's idea of a good time.

For better or for worse, some people like to categorize.  I can be one of those people at times.

PZ Myers recently posted a list of taxa that he believes describe different personalities within the atheist movement; I did something similar on my personal blog last fall, though with a slightly different focus.  PZ focused on patterns of thought, while I looked at patterns of behavior (I also marked each of mine with a card suit for symbolism).  Here’s an executive summary of both of our lists:

PZ’s Taxa:

  • Scientific AtheistKnows that there is no god due to total lack of empirical evidence for one.  Sometimes a little too arrogant.
  • Philosophical Atheist: Doesn’t believe in god because believing in one requires making unfounded assumptions.  Sometimes overly long-winded.
  • Political Atheist: Motivated to fight the political and legal battles to make the world a better place for atheists.  Sometimes makes compromises that other atheists don’t like.
  • Humanist: Altruistic do-gooder who wants to help people in the name of godlessness.  Sometimes “pragmatically fickle” and may join up with liberal churches instead of expressly atheist organizations.

My Taxa:

  • Agitating Anti-theist (spade): Sees religion as an enemy to be vanquished, and fights its advances tooth and claw.
  • Incredulous Inquirer (club): Skeptical toward religion, but wants to discuss rather than fight.
  • Mainstream Materialist (diamond): Doesn’t believe in god, stops worrying, and enjoys life.
  • Diplomatic Disbeliever (heart): Strives to form friendly alliances with open-minded religious people.

Many people who read either or both of these posts may find themselves identifying with more than one category.  They’re archetypes, and very few people strictly belong to any one of them.  Each one of us has a different story behind how we realized we were atheists, how we came to join up with other atheists in this ever-evolving movement, and where we’d like to see the movement go.

And yet I unfortunately continually see bickering among these different “kinds” of atheists, the most vitriolic of which occurs on the internet.  Atheists call one another “bullies” and “accommodationists” and accuse one another of dogmatism and “Tinkerbellism” over different approaches toward the movement.  We see nasty exchanges of ad-hominems and passive-aggressive head shaking on Twitter because one party is either too critical or not critical enough of religion for the other party’s tastes.

Don’t get me wrong; I think that atheists who speak out in the name of atheism should be willing to defend why they say, and if an atheist says or does something reprehensible then others can and should call him or her out on it.  But let’s try to keep it civil.

A diversity of perspectives and approaches toward living without religion is, in my opinion, healthy for the movement.  We need people who uncompromisingly fight for the truth, we need people who make nice with theists, and we need average citizens who aren’t full-time activists to show the general public that we do walk among them.  This movement isn’t one-size-fits-all.