How polite do atheists need to be? There’s always a current of this particular conversation going on in the atheist blogosphere, but Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s attack on PZ Myers’ actions in Crackergate seems to have thrown it into high relief. A bunch of people are popping up in various places to suggest that PZ’s actions “just didn’t help.”
Even this blog isn’t immune. Philip H. from DC Dispatches started it by praising Jeff Wagg’s tactics.
I would also add that the dialogue you posted was, at least in print, civil, even cordial. I detected no hint of explative throwing, no threats to dessicrate a Denny’s Apply Strudel, and thus no reason that Denny’s shouldn’t tkae the threat seriously. I know many atheists will disagree, but tactics matter. And in this case, the tactics, as reported, were probably very effective.
He got a response from me that I don’t think he was expecting.
Phil, define desecrate. Do you mean like two guys kissing on the front steps? There are good reasons to be very leery of that word, not the least of which is the fact that my continued existence and happiness is desecration by some people’s definition.
With some later elaboration.
The thing is, Jeff’s is a very reasonable response to a meal costing a dollar more for a non-churchgoer. Complaining to the manager is not a reasonable response to death threats.
In fact, what PZ did in Crackergate was pretty merciful. It had no real-world repercussions. He could have turned over all the threats of violence to the FBI. They have jurisdiction for terroristic threats made electronically. Instead he hurt their feelings. Badly, maybe. Still feelings.
I know you appreciate that I’m fairly polite and reasonable about these things. You may not notice it, but I never forget that it’s the people who take a stronger, more “outrageous” stand who give me the space to do this. Without them, it wouldn’t matter how nice I am on the subject. I’d be in the same position as the Jews PZ talked about in his cracker-piercing post: different, therefore suspect, therefore game, therefore dead.
I may reach out more than they do, but I can only do that as long as I’m alive and free to speak.
There are a few things that Phil and I don’t agree on, but one of the things I like about him is that he argues fairly. He tries to understand what’s going on on “the other side.” In fact, the first time I really became aware of him was in the middle of an argument, and he ended up by reading my blog. (He’s not the only one that happened with. Is that weird? Anyway.) So, when Phil asks for more information, I’m more than happy to give it, and he’s asked for more on this.
Wow. Perhaps I’ve been in too many academic communities in my life, where this sort of freedom is taken for granted. Perhaps its my forgiving nature, where I labor against all evidence to look for good intent. But reading my words my first reaction was that you had personnally been threatened due to your atheism. As in threatened with death. If that’s so, I am sorry to have touched a nerve. If not, perhaps you can elaborate, so the simple verbal literalist in me can get where you are going.
No, Phil, I haven’t been directly threatened personally. I have seen others threatened for doing something I might do.
Webster Cook was threatened and assaulted and removed from office for mistaking the conventions of one Catholic service for another. I’ve spent time in Catholic churches to admire the art and architecture. They’re open to the public for that purpose as well as for worship, but they don’t come with guides. Even being respectful by my definition, I’m in an alien culture there. If a kid walking back to his seat without swallowing is worthy of assault and death threats, how difficult would it be for me to cross someone unknown line and become subject to the same?
PZ received death threats for mocking people’s sense of proportion. I don’t think I need to explain how this one is directly relevant to my life. Do I get to die now?
There are things that are said directly in conversations I’m a part of that tell me there are religious people who think that because I’m an atheist, I’m less than human.
- I can’t love.
- I have no morals.
- I can’t find any meaning or joy in life.
How big a step is it from that last one to “it doesn’t matter if I live”? How big a step from the first two to deciding that it’s better for the world if I’m not here?
Me being visibly atheist, polite or no, offends people, even when I’m talking to other atheists. See the bus ads that were just pulled in Iowa. They literally tell atheists they’re not alone, but they were pulled because of complaints. “DART claims it received numerous phone calls from people who were offended by the ads”.
This is something I do have direct experience with. I’m involved in a number of activities designed to raise the profile of atheists, precisely so people feel less alone. I’m not as active as I could be, but I don’t keep silent either. Someone I know posted this in a discussion at Greg’s.
I’m a Christian who chooses not to preach to others. I have an incredibly devout Catholic friend who doesn’t preach to me. However, I’m finding some of my other friends are very irritating with all their atheist proselytizing.
Let’s live and let live, already.
Now, that looks pretty simple on the face of it, but as I said, I know this person. I know what kind of “proselytizing” they’re exposed to. My response:
I post about atheism on Facebook and on my blog because I find the topic interesting, because I want people to know they do know an atheist, and because a large number of the people who read my stuff in both places are atheists. I don’t do it because I’m trying to change anyone else’s mind about their religion. Maybe their assumptions about mine, but that’s somewhat different.
If you mention a sermon you found interesting, are you trying to convert me? If you mention a TSA agent you found annoying, are you trying to get me to rebel against the government? If you wax enthusiastic about knitting, are you suggesting I need to take up needles? No, you’re just talking about your life.
That’s exactly the problem that an atheist faces in a situation like this. As far as society in general (in the U.S.) is concerned, mentioning religion is just talking about your life. Mentioning atheism is somehow encroaching on someone else’s. Do you do it anyway, or do you hang out in the closet?
My behaviors are interpreted differently, even by people who know me, because they involve atheism. Being nonreligious is seen as a direct challenge to religion. I’m annoying because I address other atheists, publicly, on the topic of atheism.
So, I’m annoying, offensive, subhuman. Other people in situations similar to mine have been threatened and assaulted. They’ve been silenced. People not that much further away have been killed.
Do I expect PZ’s actions to reach moderates and make them feel warm and fuzzy about atheists? No, of course not. I expect his actions in Crackergate did two things. I saw that it gave Catholic extremists someone to focus their hate on in a very public, educational way. I suspect that, for a number of people, it deflated some of the drama of desecration. After all the buil
d-up, the reality was downright prosaic. Secular even. And, well, look at that, that blog post had some interesting points.
What PZ has done is make it harder for people to look at me, minding my own business with a bunch of my atheist buddies and a few people who don’t hold anything sacred, even if they think its sacred, chatting about what we’ve got in common, and think I’m doing something wrong. What PZ did? Well, you know, that wasn’t very nice, but that well-spoken little atheist chick over there is much more reasonable. People will–and do–reserve their arguing for him and talk to me. Or to plenty of other people who sound much more moderate.
We get to be good cops, but we couldn’t do it without the “bad” ones. That is why we need atheists who are less than polite.
Update: And the very first comment….
Update 2: Quite a ways down in the comments, Steve apologizes and blames the whole thing on a prank by a friend. The apology has been accepted.