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Steve Neumann, one of my colleagues on the Patheos atheist channel, has written an essay titled “The Case Against In-Your-Face Atheism” which argues that the firebrand style of atheist advocacy does more harm than good. Since he quotes me in it, I thought I’d offer a reply.

This is his definition of firebrand atheism:

The president of American Atheists, David Silverman, defines firebrand atheism as simply telling the truth about religion, with the emphasis on the telling. He says we should make clear that it’s religious beliefs we’re attacking, not the person. He says, “I’m not attacking humans; I’m attacking those humans’ silly beliefs.”

That word “silly” is the problem, as is Silverman’s whole take-no-prisoners assault on religion.

For purposes of this post, I define firebrand atheism as unapologetically arguing that religion is false and harmful, including elements of polemic and ridicule, even if it causes some believers to take offense. That seems to be close enough to the definition he’s using.

Think about what religion is — a total worldview that lets each believer feel like she’s found meaning and purpose in a bewildering universe. So, it’s not much of a stretch to argue that people are reluctant to give up their religious beliefs when they are intimately tied to their sense of self-worth.

It’s one thing to give up a belief about a political or scientific fact that doesn’t directly affect your life — like whether or not global warming is caused by humans. But it’s another thing to give up a belief that you think determines whether you’ll be strumming a harp with angels or stuck on the business end of the Devil’s pitchfork after you die.

With respect, I submit that this is naive. People’s political beliefs are tied into their sense of self and community every bit as much as their religious beliefs are, and in fact the two are often one and the same. We’ve seen this over and over in the last few years: climate change, gun control, health care reform, same-sex marriage and many other political issues have all been framed by religious conservatives as patriotic Americans who believe in the Bible and the Constitution defending our precious freedoms against those commie liberal queers who want to take them all away.

For example, many evangelical Christians have convinced themselves that climate change is a “spiritual deception” whose aim is “killing Jesus”. To buy into preventing it, in their minds, would be an act of heresy and apostasy. Do the people who say that sound like they’ll be amenable to persuasion?

In 2005, research was published by Tiziana Casciaro of Harvard Business School and Miguel Sousa Lobo of Duke University that studied 10,000 work relationships across five organizations… The authors also say that since people are more likely to listen to likeable colleagues, we should “have widely liked individuals serve as evangelists for important change initiatives.”

This may be true as far as it goes, but Neumann makes an assumption that he doesn’t support: namely, that we have a choice between criticizing religion while remaining likable and making a take-no-prisoners critique that alienates people. Most outspoken atheists, I find, soon arrive at the realization that religion has contrived to arrange matters so that you can’t criticize it without being seen as rude. After all, as Neumann himself says, religious beliefs “are intimately tied to [people’s] sense of self-worth”.

In a supplementary post on his Patheos blog he says that “we have to present our arguments in a way that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction” – but notably, he offers no concrete suggestions on how to do that. I suggest that’s because, other than in rare cases, it’s impossible. (Even a billboard merely saying “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone” drew hate mail and death threats.) And if the choice is between speaking out, knowing it will offend some people, versus keeping silent altogether, I know which one I pick.

Lastly, Neumann makes use of a metaphor I’ve often mentioned, the Overton window:

In a democracy, no one group is ever going to be able to act unilaterally, no matter how determined they are — compromise and cooperation are needed to move what’s called the “Overton Window,” the idea that there is only a narrow range of public policies considered acceptable. The window only shifts when you have enough determined and courageous people pulling on it after a working relationship has been established.

I agree that no one person or group can move the Overton window unilaterally. That’s precisely why any successful social movement ought to have a diversity of approaches. When it comes to organized atheism, there’s room for both diplomats and firebrands. We need both people who are uncompromising in their critique of religion as well as those who can serve as the friendly face of secularism.

You can see this dynamic in other successful social change movements. The American civil rights movement, for example, had both Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The abolitionists had people who felt slavery was wrong but would die out of its own accord, and radicals who wanted to see it banned immediately. The LGBT rights movement took off after the Stonewall riots, but has made its greatest progress thanks to those arguing for a fairly conventional, socially respectable role of marriage. The women’s suffrage movement had both its gentle, conciliatory activists and its radicals who went on hunger strikes, chained themselves to railings, committed arson and threw stones painted with messages through the windows of Buckingham Palace.

In all these cases, the radicals played a crucial role in moving the Overton window and opening up room for the diplomats to successfully negotiate. Likability is an important thing, but it’s not the only thing. At least as important, I’d argue, is offering a bold, passionate statement of our values without diffidence or apology. People do respond to confidence and forthrightness, sometimes in ways they don’t even realize immediately themselves (see this post and its discussion of the “sleeper effect”).

In some cases, it may be that sharp criticism and ridicule cause individual believers to dig in their heels. But this has to be balanced against the cumulative effect of the firebrand strategy on everyone who might witness it from the sidelines. A suitably strong critique undermines the legitimacy of beliefs whose holders view them as sacred and above criticism, and in the long run, brings about a society where it’s more normal and accepted to not hold those beliefs.

Image credit: poolski, released under CC BY-SA 2.0 license

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DAYLIGHT ATHEISM Adam Lee is an atheist author and speaker from New York City. His previously published books include "Daylight Atheism," "Meta: On God, the Big Questions, and the Just City," and most...