Lately there’s been an issue rising to the surface of atheist thought, and that issue is tone. Are Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett actually being militant in their assertions? Should they be toning down their messages?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, and will continue to do so, but my answer right now is no. No. I completely reject and deplore the accusation of militancy leveled at “the new atheists.” Sure, Harris et al. are making points that are provocative. That’s just it: there is no “kinder, gentler way” to say, “You guys are confused by millennia of indoctrination and your thinking is wrong-headed, which is bound to lead to disastrous results for our society and our world. Please stop deifying and demonizing, worshipping and praying, because we urgently need you to snap out of it and help us evolve our species and take care of our planet.”
Religionists don’t think they’re indoctrinated, don’t believe they’re confused. They don’t get it. Why? Because up to now our social handbook has encouraged everyone to tiptoe around the obvious and try to not let on that many of us hold an alternative viewpoint that isn’t very flattering to believers. Our handbook is going through a revision, this social etiquette is changing, and I say good riddance to past standards. I hope the enabling of irrationalism goes the way of allowing smoking in the office, ignoring evidence of child abuse and taking picnics to slave auctions.
While our society is going through this revision, I think it’s important to avoid the trap of fulfilling the expectations of religionists. They are taught to proselytize to others, by whom they mean anyone who doesn’t belong to their religious group. Any nonbeliever who has the nerve to assert that religion is bunk will be received as an ungrateful, blasphemous, dangerous enemy. Many religionists view opposition to their creed as militant and, therefore, deadly. Atheists are on notice, as we have been for ages. The cause of rationality needs us to defy historical expectations and shed old burdens handed down to us by centuries of religious deference. Atheists should no longer tuck tail in the presence of true believers in case they take aim at us. That was buying safety at the high price of invisibility and silence. We need to stop holding our tongues in order to help religionists save face or in case their tender feelings will be hurt. Probably, though not because of concern for civility, atheists should avoid fulfilling religionists’ expectation that we’re “agents of evil.” By this I mean we probably shouldn’t humorously portray ourselves to them in biblical costume; no “Satan” impersonations, please. Literalist religionists wouldn’t get the hilarious irony anyway.
Bullies and manipulative people, predictably, howl that the slightest resistance to them constitutes aggression against them. In fact, that’s a distinguishing characteristic of a bully. They are aggravated, sometimes enraged, by having to put effort into defending their hegemony. That is just to be expected. Still, we don’t need to go out of our way to be rude or even any scores. Rudeness for its own sake is rudeness; there’s no call for it. Don’t overshoot, don’t undershoot. Just assert your right to see things differently. State your disbelief as a logical alternative to religious theories. Use humor, if that comes naturally to you. Otherwise, keep it cut and dried. Religionists will just have to learn to deal with the fact that this is a free country and the world isn’t their oyster.
Take it from a woman: there is no gentle way to reject an unwanted – and dense – suitor whose feelings will be bruised no matter how diplomatic you try to be. When your declaration of independence is received as an act of war, when merely asserting your right to publicly object to a point of personal philosophy makes you a “militant” villain, you know you are living in screwed up times.