Archive for May, 2009

Etiquette Rule #4. They gotta do what they gotta do

bizarro_atheistsIt’s not just atheists who need to accommodate themselves to the world, and who sometimes need to figure out when to stop trying to accommodate.

Try to remember that atheists actually have more in common with devoutly religious people than with casually religious folk. We’ve asked Big Questions, taken them seriously, and taken the answers seriously enough to dramatically affect the way we look at reality. And the devoutly religious have the same problems atheists have in dealing with a world that assumes everyone is not like they are.

Sure, people routinely say “God bless you” when you sneeze, or offer to keep you in their prayers if you’re in trouble, or say “God willing” and “God only knows” as routine conversational staples, but most people don’t radically change their lives, or their worldview, just because they think there’s a deity or two watching over them. And people who do often find themselves just as much on the outside looking in as atheists.

(Bizarro cartoon via The Dogless Atheist)

Etiquette Rule #3: You gotta do what you gotta do

The subject here is etiquette, not morality or principle. That doesn’t mean morality and principles aren’t important — they are. In some cases, they may be more important than etiquette.  If that’s the case, you should probably do the right thing instead of the polite thing.

etiquette_for_atheistsStanding up for rights and freedoms is often impolite, but often a moral imperative. Gandhi’s and MLK’s disobedience was civil, but it wasn’t polite. Throwing tea into Boston Harbor wasn’t polite, and ridiculing the latter-day wannabes as “teabaggers” isn’t polite (but it sure is fun!).

Even so, when you’re doing something impolite — even if you’re completely in the right, even if not doing it would be immoral — it’s good to be aware that you’re being impolite. Knowing something is better than not knowing it, and knowing you’re being impolite can help you try to deal with the fallout from your action (or non-action).

But lots of times, it’s not a moral issue at all, merely an issue of getting along with people, and maintaining good relations with them. Just as religious people have to get along with people who they believe are going to hell. That doesn’t mean they have a moral imperative to bash them over the head with it every chance they get.

And for atheists, just as for gays in times past (and unfortunately, in many cases, times still present), being “out” can carry heavy consequences. People may disagree about whether being “in the closet” is always an act of cowardice or sometimes a sensible way to get along in life without setting oneself up for unnecessary headaches and problems. But hopefully we can all agree that people who choose to keep their atheism under wraps may well be going through something that we have no right to judge if we haven’t walked a mile in their shoes.

(pic of nasty letter via Not A Potted Plant)

Etiquette Rule #2: Don’t Be a Wimp

atheist_mannersBeing polite doesn’t mean you have to be a doormat. It’s just as appropriate for you to talk about your atheism as it is for a devout Muslim or Buddhist to talk about their religion. Which is to say, not very appropriate in most circumstances, but entirely appropriate in some.

If you don’t particularly want to hear about someone’s personal relationship with their lord and savior Jesus Christ, they (or any other onlookers) probably don’t want to hear about how you came to realize that your religious beliefs were bogus (or how you were brought up without any such beliefs). Hence Rule #1, “Don’t Be a Dick.” Letting Bible-thumpers keep that role to themselves can be a very effective form of gentle self-defense.

But if a conversation turns to religious matters (perhaps because some oversharing evangelist ignores the advice in the previous sentence), there’s no reason why people who believe in magic should dominate the conversation. Unless you’re “in the closet”* for professional, personal or other reasons, there’s no need to be any more shy and reticent about your beliefs than other people in the conversation are about theirs.

But, of course, there is a social need for you to explain and express your beliefs in a way that shows respect for those who believe otherwise, just as there’s a social need for the others to do the same. And keep in mind that someone else’s decision to ignore etiquette and be downright rude does not necessarily give you a license to do the same (and also keep in mind that being polite to someone who’s being rude is often the most effective way to shut them down).

Indeed, one of the most effective (and satisfying) ways to deal with an obnoxious Christian is by being a better Christian — meek, humble, non-judgmental, turning the other cheek, etc. This is especially effective (and fun) in a forum where there are other Christians who can see for themselves which of you is actually coming closest to behaving the way the Bible says Jesus told his followers to behave.

(Don Addis cartoon via Friendly Atheist)

* I don’t think being closeted is the same as being a wimp, although I suppose it’s debatable. But there are, unfortunately, lots of good sensible reasons for keeping quiet about being an atheist, and I hope to explore in future threads the etiquette (and other) ramifications for people who might lose their job or alienate their family or in-laws by being open about their worldview.

Etiquette Rule #1: Don’t Be a Dick


While Emily Post or Miss Manners might not phrase it that way, “Don’t be a dick” is pretty much the first rule of etiquette. That is to say, the first rule of dealing with other people in a world that’s populated by animals that have evolved to become intelligent, conscious social beings. For an atheist, this means not treating people as inferior to yourself, even if you think their worldview is distinctly so.

If you’re an atheist, there’s a good chance you’ve encountered some smug Christian tossing out the Bible verse about how “the fool says in his heart, ‘there is no God.'” It’s possible for atheists to be just as smug and condescending and obnoxious toward non-atheists.

Does that mean that activist types like Richard Dawkins are violating this rule? I have no idea — I’ve never met Dawkins, let alone seen him in a social situation. Writing a book — or a blog post — isn’t a social interaction. You write what you want to write, people read it or don’t read it, and think whatever they want to think. It has nothing to do with etiquette, or manners, or social behavior.

One could argue that strident atheism affects the social climate (as does strident religion, or strident anything, or refraining from stridency)I’ll let PZ Myers and Greg Epstein discuss the finer points of the big picture. But etiquette isn’t about the overall social climate, it’s about specific interactions between individual people.

Think of it this way: In most situations, hitting someone in the face is considered rude (to say the least). In a boxing ring, hitting someone in the face is pretty much the goal. If you’re in an arena (metaphorical or literal) where the purpose is to demonstrate that your opponent is wrong, it’s not necessarily rude to make that demonstration in such a strong manner that not only is it clear that your opponent is wrong, but that he’s an idiot.

But in social situations, we try to be nicer to people, no matter what we may privately think. It’s not polite for a Catholic to tell a Protestant that he’s going to hell because he never ate a cookie and washed it down with some wine, even if the Catholic (like many, but not all, Catholics) truly believes that to be true. Likewise, it’s not polite in a social situation for an atheist to tell a non-atheist that he’s got a nonsensical, self-contradictory and ultimately absurd view of reality, even if that’s what the atheist truly believes.

( comic via Atheist Comics)

What this blog is for

Here’s what prompted me to start this blog. I recently found out via Facebook that a friend and former colleage of mine just had a baby. It came out a little early — not exactly a preemie, but early enough that it needed some extra care.

Lots of people, of course, sent messages of support with some variation of “our thoughts and prayers are with you.” And I started wondering, if I only say “my thoughts are with you,” does that seem like I’m being stingy with my good wishes? Or, if I explain that the reason my prayers aren’t with her is because I don’t pray, because I’m an atheist, isn’t that kind of hijacking the thread with an irrelevant discussion of my beliefs and worldview?

This isn’t, of course, the first time I’ve encountered a situation where being an atheist was awkward, or created a situation where I had to think about what would be the appropriate thing to say or do as an atheist in a world where it’s generally assumed that you believe in some deity or other(s).

So I thought starting this blog would be a good way (or at least an interesting way) to explore these situations, even if all I end up doing is talking to myself by typing instead of muttering half-aloud (also something I have a tendency to do).

In future posts, I’ll try to deal with questions like what an atheist should do in  a gathering where someone calls for a group prayer, how to behave at church (or other religious) weddings and similar ceremonies, how to talk socially with people who mistakenly assume you’re a non-atheist, and the like. I’ll probably also wade into the debate over whether outspoken atheists like Richard Dawkins are helping or hurting the cause of fostering greater understanding and acceptance of atheism, and maybe offer some “self-defense” tips for atheists who find themselves in a situation where etiquette has gone out the window already, and the only thing left to do is to fight — and win.

It should be interesting.

Hello world!

Welcome to Atheist Etiquette! I hope to be able to shed some light (and maybe generate some heat) with this exploration of how atheists can conduct themselves in a society where they’re a small — but growing — minority.

And I’d also like to explore how non-atheists can make an effort to accommodate atheists without feeling like they have to compromise their beliefs either. It’s a big world. There’s room for everybody.