Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Question of Tone

One issue of continual discussion and debate in atheist circles is how atheists should make their case without causing unnecessary offense (being condescending, belittling people, etc) while simultaneously being assertive about our views and refusing to give deference to religion. Atheists have to walk the fine line of being honest and being civil.

It's made even more problematic by many believers' hypocrisies regarding civil discourse. Everyone says that they believe in freedom of thought and speech and that all ideas should be critically examined, but when it comes down to it, religion is still very much a untouchable issue in America and talking about these things in even the most forthright and civil manner possible is still makes many believers nervous, defensive, and invariably conjures feelings of offense and resentment. Some believers actively exploit this reaction, and employ it as a weapon to short-circuit debate, sometimes even to censor the "offending" party. They take extreme and unreasonable offense to the slightest irreverence, insisting that their views are entitled to respect and equating any criticism of their dogma to an outright attack on the person.

In my own view, such people will never be happy. Atheists should simply speak their minds and if some people can't handle that, that's their problem. But the question remains: how "militant" should atheists be? Should we be like more like Carl Sagan or George Carlin? Ebonmuse or PZ? Certainly, we shouldn't self-censor and should express our views honestly and firmly, but what about civility?

Here's a microcosm of that debate: The Amazing Atheist (TJ) and GoGreen18 (Laci). They're both atheists, but with very different approaches on communicating atheism.

TJ is a bit of a firebrand who isn't afraid at all to be perfectly blunt about what he thinks. He's crass, extremely vulgar, funny, and certainly offensive to many of his Christian viewers. He's great because he gives voice to exactly what people are thinking, but are too polite or too afraid to say.

Laci really tries to take the high road and debunk misconceptions and get her point across without being mean about it. She's great because she's informative and passionate, but also extremely amiable, even in the face of the most contemptible wingnuttery.

Well, last month, there was a bit of e-drama about that between the two of them. TJ commonly makes ownage videos, where he thoroughly refutes some theist's rant and frequently lets loose with personal attacks, condemning the video's stupidity and the videomaker's stupidity in equal measure. Well, the personal attacks must have really ticked off Laci because her response condemned TJ's video for being too rude, too uncivil, and going to far with the personal attacks.

And this sort of wrangling over the right tone is common among atheists. Some of us have very different ideas about what's appropriate and what's inappropriate and where the line is between them. That's fine.

Personally, I think we need all the voices we can get - we need the firebrands and the friendly atheists. We need the militant" atheists and courteous atheists. We need the Sagans and the Carlins of the world. We need atheists to make their points with a whisper and we need people to make their points with a megaphone. We need to shock people's sacred cows, but we also need to reason with people. Neither technique works well in isolation - an overabundance of politeness is simply boring and fails to excite people's passions, while an overabundance of militancy simply alienates people. By working in tandem, atheists will put out their messages more effectively than working alone.

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