Good Cop, Bad Cop: Atheist Activism

This piece is about the current atheist movement – but I think it applies to almost any movement for social change.

There’s a lively debate in the godless movement about how we should be going about the business of atheist, agnostic, skeptical, humanist, and other godless activism. Some, like Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers, favor a more passionate, confrontational approach, speaking directly and without mincing words about the absurdities and contradictions and troubling manifestations of religion and religious institutions. Others, like Michael Shermer, prefer a more respectful, more sympathetic, less confrontational approach towards religion and religious beliefs.

Here’s what I want to know:

Why is this an either/or question?

Let me give you an analogy. In the queer activist movement of the ’80s and ’90s, pretty much this exact same question was a subject of hot debate. Loud, angry, in-your-face street activist groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation accused the more mild-mannered lobbying and electoral-politics groups like the Human Rights Campaign Fund of assimilationism, excessive compromise, and generally selling out. And the mild-mannered lobbying groups accused the street activists of being overly idealistic, alienating potential allies, and making their own job harder. (Obviously, this kind of division isn’t limited to the queer movement of the ’80s and ’90s — Malcolm X and Martin Luther King leap to mind, as do Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. The queer movement is just the one I was around for.)

But in retrospect, it seems clear that both methods were effective. Still are, for that matter. Far more effective than either method alone.

Part of this is simply that different methods of activism speak to different people. Some folks are better able to hear a quiet, sympathetic voice that wants to find a workable compromise for everybody. Others are better able to hear a passionate cry for justice that demands to be heard and honored. So when both kinds of voices are heard (or rather, all kinds of voices, since this difference is much more of a spectrum than a simple either/or dichotomy), then more people will be reached.

But the effectiveness of the two-pronged, “good cop/bad cop” strategy goes far beyond a simple numbers game. The two methods together combine to make a symbiotic whole that’s far more effective than the sum of its parts.

Again, let’s look at the queer movement of the ’80s and ’90s. The street activists got attention, got on the news, raised visibility and awareness of the issues. The lobbyists and other negotiator-types could then go to the politicians and corporations and institutions and raise a more polite, nuanced form of hell, knowing that the politicians etc. they were working with had at least a baseline awareness of the questions at hand. (One of the things you notice when you look at ACT UP’s early years is that, when they took on an issue — speeding up the approval process for drugs, getting treatment for women with HIV, etc. — that issue would commonly be on the agenda of the medical and political establishment within six months to a year.)

In addition, the street activists presented a more extreme, hard-line set of demands… which made the lobbyists and other negotiators seem more reasonable in comparison. The line for what constituted an extremist position versus a moderate one kept getting moved, and lobbyists could go further and ask for more while still seeming moderate. (We see this dynamic now, alas, being used very effectively today by the far right. And we see it more happily with the way that supporting civil unions instead of same-sex marriage has become the moderate political position — something that was not even close to being true ten years ago.)

And, of course, you had the very straightforward “good cop/bad cop” dynamic. The nice polite compromisers could get a lot more accomplished with the political/ medical/ corporate establishment when they knew the street activists were there to create unholy hell if they didn’t get what they were asking for. The “I don’t know if I can keep my partner in line much longer” gambit works just as well for an activist movement working over a pharmaceutical company as it does for a cop working over a suspect.

But perhaps most importantly:

We do what we’re called to do.

Or, if you don’t like the religious implications of that phrase: We do what we’re inspired to do. We do what we’re good at. Some of us are good at passionate, confrontational idealism; while some of us are good at sympathy with our opponents, and at compromise. (And some of us are good at balancing these approaches, or at using different ones at different times.)

And since the multi-pronged approach to activism is so much more effective than any one prong alone, it seems patently absurd to insist that everyone else in the movement should be working the exact same prong that we’re working.

I’m not saying we should all just hold hands in a circle and sing “Kumbaya.” There are real differences within the atheist/ non-believer community, differences not only about our methods but about our actual agendas. What’s more, the difference between compromise and confrontation isn’t merely one of tactics — it often has serious practical implications, having to do with what is and is not an acceptable compromise. And those differences are worth arguing about.

But when it comes to the basic question of “sympathetic compromiser versus passionate idealist” tactics, I think we’d all be better off if we stopped spending our time and energy squabbling with each other, and left each other the hell alone to do what we’re good at and what we’re inspired to do.

P.S. I’m home at last. The trip was great, but exhausting. Pictures are coming. I have a couple of deadlines to attend to in the next day or two, but I should be back to my regular blogging schedule after that.

Good Cop, Bad Cop: Atheist Activism

15 thoughts on “Good Cop, Bad Cop: Atheist Activism

  1. 1

    So funny — I guess great minds think alike? I just wrote a post the other day making the same comparison between gay visibility and atheist visibility:
    I think one reason this idea is on the wind is because some of the new atheists not only want to be confrontational themselves, but go beyond that to suggest that less-confrontational atheists are wishy-washy and/or lack integrity. The natural response is what I wrote in the comments of my post:
    Not only is that unnecessarily divisive, but it’s a crappy division of labor. Different approaches will have different effects on different people. So I’d rather tell everybody to be out about your atheism, and be yourself — play to your particular strengths.

  2. 3

    The same “good cop/bad cop” activist dynamic was illustrated in the movie “Iron Jawed Angels.”
    “Iron Jawed Angels” tells the story of political activists Alice Paul and Lucy Burns and their work in the American feminist movements to grant women the right to vote.
    Alice Paul and Lucy Burns were the radicals in this story. Carrie Chapman Catt represents the accomodating viewpoint which was very dismissive of Alice and Lucy.
    However, Alice Paul, Lucy Burns, and others who were willing to be arrested, imprisoned, and undergo hunger strikes created the political climate where it seemed reasonable for President Wilson to meet with Carrie Chapman Catt and support women’s suffrage.
    The non-confrontational approach alone had been tried for years without success. But the confrontational combined with non-confrontational resulted in women’s suffrage.

  3. 4

    “some of the new atheists not only want to be confrontational themselves, but go beyond that to suggest that less-confrontational atheists are wishy-washy and/or lack integrity.”
    And vice versa. Less-confrontational atheists not only want to be less-confrontational themselves, but want the more confrontational ones to knock it off and stop making people mad.

  4. 5

    The catch I see is that this isn’t *just* about confrontation. It is one thing to say, and to say loud and proudly, that religious beliefs are wrong. That is just speaking the truth loudly. It is a whole other matter to misrepresent what theists are like. Implying vaguely that theists have some mental defect–which is what calling them delusional does–is dishonest. To exaggerate the degree to which religion leads to conflict, e.g. claiming that it was an explicit cause of violence in Northern Ireland (, is at best ill-informed. To make broad generalizations about faith without taking how believers actually use the term is intellectually lazy, and offers a gimme to the opposition (
    IMHO, much of the meanness of the New Atheists comes from distorting the other side to make it appear worse than it is, but if the cause is really worthy, shouldn’t we be able to do without it?

  5. 6

    “IMHO, much of the meanness of the New Atheists comes from distorting the other side to make it appear worse than it is, but if the cause is really worthy, shouldn’t we be able to do without it?”
    “It” here is the distortion.
    Also, the automatic hot-linking left an extra right parenthesis on the URL. 🙁

  6. 8

    Great post, Greta.
    It strikes me that the Religious Wrong in America is focussed, amongst its other perfidies, on undoing the gains made by gay rights activists. I agree with you that various styles of atheistic activism are necessary to break the stranglehold that religion has on logic and moralistics.
    JJ Ramsey “Implying vaguely that theists have some mental defect–which is what calling them delusional does–is dishonest.”
    I take it that you are referring to Dawkins’ comments. I have just bought the book, so I don’t know exactly what he said yet.
    I took him to be saying that the concept that a supernatural being exists is itself a delusional concept, and for an individual to hold such a belief would be a sign of a mental-disorder delusion if the belief differed from mainstream beliefs.
    When such unsubstantiated, credulity-straining beliefs are inculcated into children and society, then those mainstream delusional beliefs do not necessarily indicate mental disorders in their adherents. They *do* indicate varying degrees of divorce from reality and logic, though.
    I agree with the vocal atheists that it is time to stop being polite about tax-exempt stupidity.

  7. 10

    Excellent post, Greta. Those either/or arguments are often misleading.
    It’s odd that we forget that we don’t necessarily have to choose a side. As you point out – the confrontational and the diplomatic need each other. Each camp is relatively ineffective on their own. The confrontational raise the awareness and the diplomatic get policies/legislation implemented.
    Thanks for such a rational and thoughtful blog, Greta.

  8. 11

    J. J. Ramsey:
    I think that Andy, on the forum you linked, is missing something important.
    I have a friend who lived in Ireland for some time, and he was quite clear that the folks there divide themselves by religion. Regardless of what YOU may think the cause is, to them, it is a religious divide.
    How can you claim that their opinions of the cause are less important than your own?

  9. 12

    This is not about confrontation versus compromise. You missed what is going on.
    This is about people like Chris Mooney who say the “New Atheists” are doing damage and causing the problem of Americans being unscientific or anti-science. There is no evidence of this at all and to the contrary, there is evidence that confrontational atheists ARE making a lot of headway.
    I think nearly everything that J.J. Ramsey said is wrong. Norther Ireland was about religion. Religion DOES lead to conflict – just look at the 9/11 terrorists. There is no ‘meanness’ in what the New Atheists say, it is usually critical thought that is logical and reasonable.
    It is incredibly ignorant and arrogant of salient to say:
    “I have just bought the book, so I don’t know exactly what he said yet.
    I took him to be saying that…”
    Go read the book first, then make a comment.
    The accommodationists tremble in the shadow of the majority of theists and their fear causes them think illogically. What they have proposed (see “Unscientific America”) is not even close to a solution because they do not even come close to seeing the real problem.

  10. 13

    Absolutely agree with this – you have to have a multi-prongd approach not only to reach the segmented “ally” market
    but also the outrageous get the media coverage to raise awareness and public discussion and the moderates work from within and on the sidelines
    as the gay movement has learned, people who know that they know a gay person does a lot to reduce homophobia – but the lesson now has been that the other person also needs to know that rights, marriage are important to us
    It’s not enough to be tolerated, we have to be seen as people – with the same emotions, dreams and goals as anyone else.
    Atheists have been quiet for too long – although, the approach there in the US and Canada is the opposite of the queer community
    gays and lesbians need to ensure that they are included in existing law
    whereas atheists are trying to enforce existing law vis a vis separation of church and state – it’s religion that’s crept into the public square where it had no legal place to be.

  11. 14

    I have read/seen a lot of Dawkins material. I honestly do not think he is particularly confrontational. He speaks out, he is honest but he is not particularly rude or sarcastic.
    The way most Western politicians talk about one another is much more controntational than Dawkins’ words about religion. Dawkins religious opponents on the other hand says that it is just if he suffers forever and that will totally happen because our invisible super-daddy will totally make it happen. (That was a very mocking choice of words, certainly not something Dawkins would use.) Well, that is about as disrespectful as you could possibly be…

  12. 15

    1. There’s a significant difference between allowing some group equality and restricting the freedoms of another. The first really doesn’t cost anyone anything.
    2. You cannot seriously think that you can insult an ideology in isolation from those you may wish to educate. That is why both strategies are not practically compatible.

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