“I have always found that mercy bears
richer fruits than strict justice”
I spent a great deal of time on social media, and I have to say that very little troubles me more than the behavior of a number of my comrade atheists.
I engage theists for a very simple reason… I believe there is a real possibility the world could end within a generation. I believe that the principal threat facing us today is dogmatic theism, both in the form of religious zealots eagerly anticipating the end of the world, but also by way of the denial of science (the unofficial mission of most theistic ideologies with which science regularly clashes) and the denial of global warming as a man made issue within our control. I also believe that examined belief is the root cause of a terrible amount of suffering.
It goes without saying that any moral agent must oppose this.
But a disturbingly large amount of the opposition I see from fellow atheists does not seem to me to be out of genuine concern or engagement, but rather out of a sense of self-superiority, a search for catharsis by belittling others.
I’ve seen every defense to this–the most common one being that mocking or humiliating the other side is the only way to get some people to listen. This fatuous defense is as unseasoned and illogical as any defense of theism: first, it’s patently false. When mocked, people tend to strengths their beliefs, not abandon them. Even the slightest skills in self reflection (of which some atheists seem so proud) should reveal that the atheist himself, when mocked, shuts down rational thought and retaliates in anger. Secondly, the people making this defense often go straight to mocking, they don’t open with honest dialogue, so even if mocking is occasionally useful, many atheists I see use it as the primary, indeed often as the only, tool in any engagement. Lastly, while there is a case to be made that mockery is, in some cased, an excellent weapon, this is usually only true in the case of dictators. I’ve met many an atheist who counters that Christianity is a dictatorship over the atheist, and that may well be true, but the common believers are not themselves the dictator. It’s wish thinking to argue that their participation in the system forces one to mock them.
For many atheists, Christopher Hitchens was a roll model. He has earned that respect, and he’s certainly a roll model to me. Sam Harris, too, is an incomparable debtor and atheist. But it behooves one to understand how they differ and why.
Hitchens gets atheists off the bench. He gets them to engage, to want to actively oppose atheism. He preaches, not to theists, but to other atheists. He throws red meat out there, and must be credited with doing more for energizing atheists than any other person in history.
But energizing the base is only half the battle. The goal is to end theism, and that is done by engaging theists and getting them to genuinely question their beliefs. And while Hitchens had some efficacy there, he was hobbled by his combative approach. Sam Harris, on the other hand, is far, far more effective at this. His ingratiating manor invites theists to listen, even without their consciously being aware of it. He’s smooth, even keeled, and warm. He doesn’t motivate atheists like Hitch, he’s not as fun or cathartic, but he does the actual work of deconversion.
Further, Hitchens’ bullying tactics were not nearly as blunt as they appeared to the untrained eye. He actively engaged obvious bullies, was precised and practiced, knew exactly how to hit and where, and even did it with considerable charm. I’ve seen no atheist troll on twitter come close to any of these (and if they did, their probably wouldn’t be on twitter).
Another common defense to atheist aggression is, and I kid you not, “they did it first”. This is the defense of a seven year old, and hardly worthy of someone who considers themselves rational. “I treat others how they treat me” is the sister defense, which doesn’t take into account the bias of the atheist against the theist: the atheist wants to be offended. He’s looking for an excuse to engage (again, for the catharsis of it).
In a fight, the blame of the fight is on the smarter person. If the atheist position is that non-belief is somehow superior, the kind of engagement one sees online certainly doesn’t support their position. Indeed, it makes the atheists who engage in online bullying more hypocritical than the theist. The theist enjoys their belief, the sense that they’ve chosen the right god over others, the sense of self superiority over others, the right to judge those who don’t agree with them. The bully atheist both understands these faults, and none-the-less echoes them in his own position. He charges the theist with an inability to reason logically, and yet is just as incapable.
It’s nerve cringing to watch, and it undermines any genuine attempt to overthrow theism.
Rev. Dr. Martian Luther King Jr. epitomized the approach of the truly enlightened individual. He recognized even in those who would humiliate, imprison, beat, or even murder him, a common brotherhood, and with that recognition became one of the most influential men of a generation. To the atheist who would hand me all of these excuses which he says justify the belittling of those with faith, who say that it’s the best way to educate theists, I would remind them of how many times Dr. King was told that. It was wrong then. It’s wrong now.
Theism is rapidly becoming a threat to our survival on this planet. The only moral position of the atheist is to challenge this threat. But that is done through education, engagement, and understanding. The atheist whose toolkit regularly includes mockery, derision, or outright bullying, not only is impotent in the face of theism, but making the problem worse.