An Open Letter to Concerned Believers

Dear Believer:

Thank you for your concern about the well-being of the atheist movement, and for your advice on how to run it. I appreciate your concern for the image of the atheist movement, and I appreciate you taking the time to give us advice on how to get our message across more effectively.

In particular, I have received your observation that attempts to persuade people out of their religious beliefs are often seen as rude or offensive — along with your suggestion that we therefore should stop making our case altogether. I have also received your suggestion that, if we do feel it necessary to point out the flaws in religion, we do so gently and diplomatically, making the avoidance of any possible offense or hurt feelings our absolute top priority. I have received your observation that attempts to persuade people out of religious beliefs can be divisive, possibly alienating the progressive ecumenical religious community — and I have received your suggestion that we should therefore concentrate entirely on anti-discrimination and separation of church and state issues that we have in common with progressive believers, and abandon any focus on pointing out the flaws in religion or the harm done by it. And I have received your suggestion that we avoid any use of anger, humor, mockery, passion, and other traditional methods of drawing attention to controversial ideas, and that in the future we make our case soberly, moderately, and with little fanfare. These suggestions are certainly interesting, and I will give them all due consideration.

However, while your concern for the well-being of the atheist movement is certainly appreciated, I can assure you that it is unwarranted.

God Delusion
The atheist movement is doing extraordinarily well — especially for a movement that has only become seriously mobilized in the last few years. Atheists have gone from being on virtually nobody’s radar, to being a major topic of conversation at water- coolers and in op-ed pieces, in a matter of a few years. We have made astonishing strides in visibility, for our issues and for our very existence, in an extremely short period of time. Many of our books are best-sellers. Our lobbyists have met with White House officials, and we have even been openly acknowledged in positive ways by the President of the United States — something that, to my knowledge, has never before happened in the history of this country.

And rates of religious non-belief are going up at a substantial rate — a rate that even surprises many of us — all over the United States and all over the world. This trend is especially true among young people… arguably the most important demographic for any social change movement. What’s more, I personally have been told by several people that they left their religion and became atheists, in part, because of things I’ve written. And I know that I left my own religious beliefs, in large part, because of things that were written by people in the atheist movement.

Clearly, we are doing something right.

Hand over mouth silence means security
It is difficult to avoid the observation that, whenever believers give advice to atheists on how to run our movement, it is always in the direction of telling us to be more quiet, to tone it down, to be less confrontational and less visible. I have yet to see a believer advise the atheist movement to speak up more loudly and more passionately; to make our arguments more compelling and more unanswerable; to get in people’s faces more about delicate and thorny issues that they don’t want to think about; to not be afraid of offending people if we think we’re right. I have received a great deal of advice from believers on how atheists should run our movement… and it is always, always, always in the direction of politely suggesting that we shut up.

You’ll have to forgive me if I question the motivation behind this advice, and take it with a grain of salt.

You’ll have to forgive me if I think your suggestions on making our movement more effective would, in fact, have the exact opposite effect. What’s more, you’ll have to forgive me for suspecting that this, however unconsciously, is the true intention behind your very kind and no doubt sincerely- meant advice.

And you’ll have to forgive me if I am less than enthusiastic about taking advice on how to run the atheist movement from the very people our movement is trying to change.

Your concern is duly noted. Thank you for sharing.

An Open Letter to Concerned Believers
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49 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Concerned Believers

  1. 8

    This sort of “advice” sometimes seems suspiciously close to concern trolling.
    Furthermore, it’s accompanied by a lack of a quid pro quo, like a willingness to challenge fundies and theocrats.

  2. 9

    Yes, the advice you cite is all very repellent when it comes from believers – but it actually pisses me off a helluvalot more when it’s parroted and promulgated by (a certain subset of) atheists: For particularly egregious examples, see formerly respectable journalist and now Templeton Foundation Fellow Chris Mooney, and Executive Director for the NYC branch of the Center for Inquiry (of all places!) Michael de Dora.

  3. Ben

    Yes. Exactly this.
    @Loren Petrich: The most amazing part to me is that most believers who feel compelled to give this advice do so in complete sincerity. Is there a term for concern trolling without being aware of it?

  4. 12

    Sounds like an altogether different type of concern trolling: “Tell my enemy how to do her job because I’m ‘concerned’ for her wellbeing.” The open letter is eloquent, interesting, and pointed. Bravo.

  5. Ben

    @cag: Maybe. I feel like it’s more complicated than pure stupidity. Maybe it has something to do with them buying into certain stereotypes about atheists (you know, angry, shrill, disrespectful) and treating any points we make as an extension of this caricature. Or maybe the cultural dominance of belief in this country tends to surreptitiously cause them to give counterproductive advice. I don’t know. There’s something I can’t quite put my finger on, here.

  6. 15

    Well, I suspect it could be sincere. What they are actually giving advice on is “how to make me dislike you less”, and it is not surprising that the answer to that question is often “hide and make sure I never see or hear from you again”. Absolutely sincere, if completely abhorrent to us.

  7. 16

    “And I have received your suggestion that we avoid any use of anger, humor, mockery, passion, and other traditional methods of drawing attention to controversial ideas, and that in the future we make our case soberly, moderately, and with little fanfare.”
    Actually, looking at the history of Christianity, the actual “traditional methods” seem to be ostracising people, intimidation, coercion, torture, pogroms and crusades. Christians should be thankful that naturalists prefer actual *discourse* rather than the violence Christians have used to prop up their religion all these centuries.
    Now that Christianity has been largely de-fanged in the west, it doesn’t hold up so well, does it?

  8. 17

    First… thanks, Greta, for sharing your thoughts with us. I’m really glad I found this blog.
    What they’re really saying is they don’t like “uppity” atheists. Probably not real crazy about you dating their son or daughter either.
    Thing is… I’ve never noticed any particular reticence on their part to get in my face, pushing their beliefs.

  9. 18

    Masterful as usual, Greta.
    Re this:

    [W]e have even been openly acknowledged in positive ways by the President of the United States — something that, to my knowledge, has never before happened in the history of this country.

    Actually, both Clinton and (surprisingly) Dubya referenced nonbelievers in lukewarm-positive ways, generally in passing. Before that, of course, there was the infamous line from George H. W. Bush during his 1988 Presidential campaign.
    Still, Obama’s dealings with atheists have been both more substantial and more productive than any previous President’s. That may have something to do with the fact that both of his parents were atheists. (As was he, prior to a religious conversion that came at an–ahem–extremely convenient moment in his political career….)

  10. 19

    Very well said, thanks – & esp love comments by Valhar & Randomthots! Great start to my morning. Now if only I could figure how to address non-theist-but-woo-believing friends; got a letter for astrology lovers? 🙂

  11. 21

    I love this piece. You’ve made the point very clear. Do believers really think we’re going to be so foolish as to just believe that the very people whose minds we want to change will give us the best advice about how to decrease the number of people who agree with them.
    Your blog is great and always makes me think. Thanks for writing.

  12. 22

    I love this post. 🙂 I’m definitely going to keep this bookmarked so that the next time I hear this kind of tedious concern trolling (which seems to be all too often, lately), I can just point the author here.

  13. 23

    Wonderfully written, Greta. Thank you for another strong and eloquent piece, as are so very many of your posts. I’m honored to be associated in the same movement with you. I’ll keep this as a handy reference for the next time I get the same kind of “concerned advice.”

  14. 24

    @Ben: “Is there a term for concern trolling without being aware of it?”
    I thought it’s well-known that religious people often practice doublethink. This may be limited to certain scientific facts (i.e. trusting medical science while saying the very same scientific method is horribly flawed when it’s something that can safely be contested without adverse effects to themselves, such as evolution), but it may just as well manifest itself in a hypocrisy that thinks it’s perfectly acceptable for annoying Christian X to be vocal while annoying atheist Y should shut up.
    An example of this is that I was once told, when I criticized this girl’s opinion, that she has the right to her opinion and that if I didn’t like it, I should shut up. I replied that if she had the right to voice her opinion, then certainly so did I. I continued by saying that I fully support everybody’s right to their opinion, but that this doesn’t make the opinion any less abhorrent or invalid. The matter in question was a former addict who got clean a few years ago and now died from something completely unrelated – she said it was the guy’s own fault and that she had no sympathy for anyone who uses drugs.
    She left all offended.
    I have no idea whether she was religious or not, by the way, but she certainly practiced doublethink.

  15. 26

    Dear Greta:
    Thank you for your letter!
    For fundamentalists, it is very much that they want y’all to 1) convert or 2) go away. Preferably to hell or some small town in a very Red State. Six of one, half dozen of the other.
    For progressive people of faith, it’s not that at all. It’s more, hey, you know, there’s real commonality here between us. Not on the faith thing, of course.
    But there’s more to us than that. We’re interested in social justice. We want to see real progress, gender equity, openness to LBGT folk’s rights to be true to their identities in our culture, and the like. There’s a great deal we share.
    But if you start every conversation by telling us what ignorant deluded unenlightened a**holes we are, and end by telling us how we’re just enablers of every bad thing in the world, we’re goin’ noplace.
    We want to talk. To share. To work together in those areas where real change needs to be made. To do that, though, forgive us for pointing out that being a monomanaical tool never helps with the whole “hearts and minds” thing.
    It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to suggest.
    Again, thank you for writing!
    Yours Sincerely,

  16. 27

    Dear David/ Beloved Spear:
    Thank you for your response. However, please note that at no point in my writings have I ever referred to religious believers as ignorant deluded unenlightened a**holes, or said that they are just enablers of every bad thing in the world. Rather, I have said that I think religion is a mistaken idea about the world, and that, due to its very nature, it does significantly more harm than good. Those are not the same thing.
    Yes, a handful of atheists are jerks on the Internet. A handful of every group imaginable are jerks on the Internet. And it is valid to criticize them. I do it myself. However, that is not what my letter was referring to.
    I was referring to believers who criticize and offer helpful advice, not to a handful of atheists who are jerks on the Internet, but to the atheist movement as a whole, and to its most prominent and most effective leaders. And I was referring to the phenomenon in which this criticism and helpful advice always ends up as suggestions that we become quieter and less visible. I was referring to the phenomenon of believers helpfully suggesting that atheists tailor our movement, not to be more effective, but to avoid at all costs upsetting anyone with religious beliefs.
    If you disagree with me — with us — about religion being mistaken, or about it doing more harm than good, by all means say so. I will happily engage in that conversation with you. But if you object to the mere fact of us making that case, you will have to forgive me if I’m rather less interested in that conversation. Religion is a hypothesis about the world, a hypothesis about how the world works and why it is the way it is, and I see no reason to avoid criticizing it, any more than I would avoid criticizing any other hypothesis that I think is flawed and harmful.
    I’m afraid that I see no way to make these points without offending or upsetting people. But they are valid points, and I am not going to stop making them. To quote Daniel Dennett: “I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.”

  17. 28

    It’s very reminiscent of the males who used to tell females that they’d listen to feminist arguments if only the feminists would stay ladylike whilst arguing.

  18. 29

    Oh, and P.S.: Why is it not okay for atheists to say that believers are “ignorant deluded unenlightened a**holes” (which I didn’t do, btw)… but it is okay for you to call atheists “monomanaical tools”? Why is name-calling acceptable for you but not for us?

  19. 30

    @Monado: or all the people who’d have no problems with gays if only they weren’t so in your face with all the holding hands and kissing in public and such. It’s the exact same thing.

  20. 31

    MLK, Jr. has a great quote on the subject:
    “The great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the outright bigot, but the moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises us to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
    Whenever religious liberals ask why we are “so mean” to them, my answer is something along those lines. It’s because we like you and agree on so much that your willingness to shield religion from criticism is so frustrating!

  21. 32

    themann1086, that is perfect. And all the better because it comes from MLK… who moderates and progressives always love to cite as an example of nicey-nice, non- confrontational, non- upsetting political action. I am totally going to remember this one. Thank you.

  22. 33

    Is it evil of me to want to gender neutralize that quote before I use it? It’s so sad that such a big human rights supporter uses such exclusionary language. Speaking of paternalistic, the best example of that, has been in the treatment has been in the treatment of *women’s* freedom.
    “…who paternalistically believes in setting the timetable for another’s freedom…”
    That was so damn easy. For shame, MLK.

  23. D A

    All due respect, use a quote or don’t, but don’t edit it. People said what they said, and it’s dishonest and disrespectful to tailor it to your own needs without making it explicitly clear that this is what you’re doing. You might also do well not to say “for shame” in reference to people who spent their entire adult lives fighting (and dying) for equality because their 1960s speeches weren’t as exactingly PC as your 2010 sensibilities would like.
    Yes. This is it. Definitely. Not trying to hump your leg here, but I think you may be the most eloquent and thoughtful atheist blogger of the bunch. I still got love for FA, PZ, EM, et al, but I don’t know anyone else who could deliver a letter like this one.

  24. 35

    “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will”

  25. 36

    As a committed Christian, I say speak up! shout it from the roof tops! Most Christians in this country are luke-warm and fuzzy-headed about the beliefs (can’t call it faith) at best. By forcing them to consider your opinions, you either make them question their beliefs or defend them. Either way, we are all better off for it.

  26. 37

    How silly of me not to have thought of this myself – thank you for pointing it out for me.
    The advice boils down to this: “Please make it easier for us to ignore you.”

  27. 38

    You might also ask My fellow Christians why they leave it to atheists to protest the mamonizing of religious symbols by commercial interests, most flagrantly around Christmas, to sell unwholesome toys and too much food.
    And then continue on to us Christians’ allowing corrupt politicians to pretend a divine endorsement to their excesses by placing religious symbols and mottos on public buildings and coins.
    Undergod? Hey, Undergod is the best god evah! He’s been there. He knows how it is!

  28. 39

    Fantastic letter, many congratulations!
    What I wish you had also said is that it’s all very well blaming individual priests, but actually, yes, the organisation IS also responsible. The organisation was involved in a massive cover-up. Those who knew what was going on and made everything easier for the perpetrators are also responsible.
    It’s a typical Christian attitude I’ve noticed – “everything that goes wrong is the fault of a very few perpetrators whilst God is good”. In other words, everything is someone else’s fault. It doesn’t address the victims and it doesn’t address anyone’s own responsibility for propping up a hideous system.

  29. 40

    Somethings drive me nuts…:
    “…who paternalistically believes in setting the timetable for another’s freedom…”
    That was so damn easy. For shame, MLK.
    Posted by: jemand | March 26, 2010 at 02:44 PM

    Are you serious? For shame, MLK?
    Dude, a woman could not get birth control without the consent of her husband when MLK made that comment! [Check out Griswold v Connecticut (381 US 479) and comprehend.] So, please, don’t take quotes nearly 50-years old and expect them to meet your definition of PC because the world changed.
    That a woman has the right to not be turned into a baby factory by being spousally-raped and impregnated by her husband at will is something that women in the generation prior to mine didn’t have until the early-to-mid 1960’s in “Father Knows Best” America. And while it’s true that most men didn’t behave in that fashion; a woman, as the property of her husband, didn’t have a lot to say about it if it did happen…
    We also see this paternalistic attitude in the anti-abortion movement. A large cadre of (predominantly) old white men making laws about young women, as if those women are too stupid to figure it out on their own and/or with the help of their doctor.

  30. 41

    Damn you idiots, you are making my point. There existed a women’s movement then, and there was a damn good reason for it. Coretta Scott King didn’t seem to have any problem integrating pushing for women’s freedom *along with* freedom for ALL, women, men, blacks, whites, etc, at about the same time as MLK lived! Pointing out that there was so damn much to speak out against for women’s freedom is proving *MY* point!
    Tell me, WHY do you think he decided to stress “another MAN’S freedom?” What do YOU think drove his choice of wording then? Well maybe, it was because he understood the social milieu that it was more acceptable to ignore women’s freedom, and he chose pragmatism over idealism. He was *stressing* the fact that there were MEN who were oppressed. He was plugging INTO linguistic assumptions of oppression to free the once class HE belonged to, FIRST, by shocking people into seeing that male blacks were *men.*
    You tell me another reason he decided to stress MAN’s freedom then. Sometimes our heroes have problems, sometimes those problems are integrated into the culture *but they should have known better.* It is the case that Thomas Jefferson KNEW better than to keep his slaves, KNEW better than to rape his underage slave girl, and yet he did that, and fought for democratic freedom.
    I *can* point out that while MLK did lots of good, he was NOT perfect. And seriously, the amount of paternalistic “wait your turn, uppity woman, IMAGINE the gall thinking someone in the civil rights movement, right around the beginning of the woman’s movement, might actually think of the rights of all, not just MEN! It’s UNTHINKABLE you could be disappointed he decided to marginalize half the human population just because I deem their time for freedom hadn’t come yet.”

  31. 42

    As one who became an atheist over 50 years ago, I very much appreciate the so-called “New Atheists” for being outspoken and helping to propel society away from dangerous religious domination. I now proudly count myself among their ranks.
    And I thank you for your essay, Greta. It expresses my own feelings better than I could have written.

  32. 43

    “Damn you idiots…”
    Just a reminder of my comment policy in this blog: Please keep comments civil. Criticism of ideas and behavior are fine; personal insults of other commenters are not.
    My personal preference — very strongly — would be for this particular comment tangent to cease, as it’s not really relevant to the original post, and is threatening to turn ugly. I’m not going to shut it down — yet — but please, everyone, keep the discussion focused on ideas, and keep it civil. Thanks.

  33. 44

    One thing that delayed my freedom from religion for years was that the mainstream media never acknowledged that it’s possible Jesus never existed. Just saying it, loudly and often, is a step forward and a great service to others who might be questioning the current mythology.
    I don’t think there’s a new atheism at all; I think there’s a new public honesty.

  34. 45

    Good evening:
    Ms. Christina, I have managed to somehow miss this topic which has proved to be one of your most spirited.
    Thank you again for keeping your site civil. It really does matter and is so very important.
    I’m actually surprised you haven’t axed me yet like several other atheist sites I’ve visited and ventured to blog.
    I hardly know where to start, so I’ll start with the most recent post if I may?
    “Monado” – Jesus never existed? You will have to show that this true – what evidence, by whom, where and how? It is, in fact, a minority view by those who have given up attempting to explain the Resurrection. Remove the subject, and the rest just magically goes away?
    “Halfmooner” – “dangerous religious domination?” You mean like the atheists of the twentieth century domination of Hitler, Stalin and Mao Zedong responsible for the murder of some conservative estimates of what – one-two hundred million?
    “Themann1026” Yes, but MLK Jr. is reported to have also spent three hours a day in prayer.
    I see many emotive arguments, but I see no – “proofs”
    “Public Honesty” once believed that the world was flat.
    I have not seen the “letter” that you are addressing Ms. Christina, but from what I’ve read, I don’t agree with it.
    Two thousand years of Christianity is still the same – its about a message. The concern is over whether you understand the message as delivered.
    What you do with it, each of you, is up to you. Beyond that, we are not responsible for what each of you decide – ultimately and it is wrong to attempt to coerce any of you.
    We are simply to deliver a message – that’s it and live our own lives in reference to that message.
    It grieves me that we have failed to the degree that we have.
    But, that, in itself, does not negate the message from the Messenger.
    Thank you

  35. 46

    You begin your post with distortion and possibly deception. Monado did not say jesus never existed; rather he said that the possibility that jesus did not exist was not acknowledged by the mainstream media.
    So my question to you, Maxx, is, are you unable to comprehend simple statements written by atheists, or are you driven to twist them to mischaracterize atheists?
    And what is this message you keep mentioning? Your imaginary father-figure must lack communication skills because I have no idea what his message is.

  36. 47

    Good evening;
    For Locutus7? Interesting name. I’m also a Star Trek fan. I like the ideas and the whole fantasy universe they create. Too bad humanity will never reach this level of nobility.
    As for your allegations of deceptions – Please show me the instance of mainstream media’s denial of the existence of Jesus is true – where, whom, when, and where exactly my argument breaks down – logically of course?
    Then, please prove to all of us the absolute unbiased, objective, unprejudiced nature of mainstream media and it’s absolution of objectivity.
    My statements concerning atheism are informed by that which the atheists are informing me of. Are you unable to comprehend my approach by accusing me of some sort of unethical representation of what I am being told?
    Further, if you do not understand what the message of what the whole Freudian/Marxist/Fuerbach projection theory is denying, why do you not just simply ask rather than appealing to a few dead European white guys to direct your thinking?
    Thank you

  37. 48

    (sorry to respond to a half-year old post, but I did not want to leave Maxx’s misreadings to stand as the last word)
    Maxx —
    You are still misreading the claim that is being made. Monado said: “the mainstream media never acknowledged that it’s possible Jesus never existed”. This is a claim about the presence of a statement in the mainstream media, not about what position the media took on the statement, or whether the statement itself is true or not.
    First, you acted as if Monado’s claim was: “Jesus never existed”. Next, you said: “show me the instance of mainstream media’s denial of the existence of Jesus is true”. I can’t even figure out the grammar here — it’s not clear what “is true” is supposed to modify — but it’s certainly not Monado’s claim.
    Now, to drag this conversation back to the actual topic of Greta’s post. It was an excellent essay (as usual). Like many others, I expect I’ll cite it at various times in the future.
    Reading over the comments, I was delighted to see (one) comment from a believer encouraging atheists to be more vocal. The logic was pretty much the only available one — if moderates are shaken up more, some of them will tip to the fundamentalist side, so wise fundamentalists are happy about vocal atheists. It’s the same logic that claims the May 21 Rapture folks were a benefit to atheism. But nevertheless, it’s good to see.
    Greta, you might modify the post to say that “nearly all” advice by believers to atheists is “shut up”, rather than “all” advice. 😉

  38. 49

    Dear Greta:

    A number of my friends on line do not believe in God. My best friend off line does not believe in God. Our friendship is based on respect for each others views.

    The problem appears to be that these encounters take place on the Internet. And as per your statement from your post about “Eleven Myths and Truths about Atheists”…
    (I think this myth [of aggressive atheists] also crops up because these conversations are often on the Internet… where, alas, many people are more disrespectful, intolerant, and mean than we are in person. The next time you think atheists are being unusually disrespectful, read the conversations on the political blogs. Or, for that matter, the celebrity gossip and sports blogs.)

    Perhaps I’m being a bit autistic here, but I have a hard time seeing that as an excuse. And no, I would not accept extreme rudeness being heaped on my political views. I live in the Netherlands and I vote Labour and/or Socialist. If someone began calling me names for that reason, I’d tell them to prove their point … or to shut up.

    My on-line encounters with atheistic anger were like being back in grade school. The persons responsible behaved exactly like taunting children, only with a display of pseudo-intellect. They assumed they know what I think, judged me in advance, and ended up using many of the same fallacies I used to encounter only from fundamentalist believers.

    I do not have any advice for you, personally. And yes, I have read your blog post where you give Dr. Dawkins his just desserts for that horrible “Dear Muslima” letter.
    I am only saying that, to the extent people feel entitled to attack anyone whom they think might be one of those horrible theists, they will indeed alienate people on the fence.

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