My message to angry atheists is clear. Being insulting or demeaning with believers wins nothing for atheism, is ineffective, and is actually counter-productive. I can't tell you what to do, but I hope you will give these points some consideration.
The most respected and notable atheists avoid insults and scorn. Even Christopher Hitchens used vigorous eloquence; he didn't insult. Nothing could be more maddening than debating Deepak Chopra, but Sam Harris was respectful, and not demeaning. (I think that actually made Sam's case even stronger.)
Phil Plait at Discover Magazine published a series of articles on this subject. Angry atheists came out of the woodwork to argue(!) with him. So many of his points resonate with me that I have heavily quoted him below.
His position matches mine. Plait says, "Don’t be a dick. Keep your goal in mind, and try to be as polite as you can about it." He says that some atheists "seems to think I am calling for everyone to not be passionate. I’m not. I’m calling for them not to be dicks."
What is wrong with being a dick? Here are the practical problems:
1: Being a jerk doesn't work. Plait says, "Being a dick not only usually doesn’t work, it almost always works against the bigger goal of swaying the most people we can."
Almost nobody gives up their belief in god by being scorned or ridiculed. Far more often, people become even more entrenched in their beliefs. Therefore, mocking a believer will make them dig in their heels--the opposite of what you want.
2: Every other successful social movement won public opinion with respectful language. When you think of social movements which were successful in winning public support and opinion, you do not think of angry, insulting speech. Martin Luther King, Jr. won the hearts and minds of whites by speaking forcefully but respectfully. The corrosive words of Malcolm X made things worse, and he later admitted that. Women won the vote with civil discourse. Gays gained more supporters with peaceful words than with insults and scorn.
3. Rage and hatred are the opposite of reason and logic. People only resort to insults when they have no evidence or proof. Phil Plait said, "Instead of relying on the merits of the arguments, which is what critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning is about, it seems that vitriol and venom are on the rise."
4. Insults give the rest of atheism a bad name. As a bystander, are you ever swayed when two people trade insults? I'm not. I figure, if a person has to resort to being a jerk, they must not have much evidence or reason on their side. Others who observe your tirade might be less likely to support our movement in general.
5. We need allies. What *other* people think is extremely important, because we need other people to vote with us. We need allies to change laws, government and public policy. Plait says, "We must keep in mind our goal. If it’s to change the hearts and minds of people across the world, then at least as important as what we say is how we say it. "
Several people have asked for examples. I opened Facebook just now, and almost instantly saw, "Fuck Jesus, that dirty ass jew." It is impossible to imagine Hitchens, Dawkins or Harris talking like this.
Bottom line: Insulting caustic language will entrench believers, convince no one, and push away potential allies.
Those Who Agree:
- Atlanta Skeptics
- Woo Fighters
- Thoughts from Kansas
- Preliator pro Causa
- Everyday Atheist
- YouTube video with a Winnipeg skeptic
- Geo-geek again
- Bad Engineering
- Atheist Ethicist
- Rather Friendly Skeptic
- Dang Blog
- Almost Diamonds (again)
- Music, Medicine and the Mind