Atheists have been in the news quite a bit over the last year or two, especially in discussions of what people are calling “the New Atheism,” which apparently means being nearly as outspoken about one’s atheism as Christians and other religious types have been for centuries.
The conventional wisdom on the New Atheists is that they might be good for helping atheists feel less alone, but their strident tone is alienating potential followers or converts. People like PZ Myers and Matt Nisbet have lots of discussions about “framing,” and whether atheists should follow the old advice about catching more flies with honey than vinegar and all that.
Now, none of this has much to do with etiquette, since it’s a debate being carried out on blogs and opinion pages, rather than in person. But any discussion that’s out there in public can end up being brought up in a social type situation, especially if atheism is already on the table. If you tell someone you’re an atheist, there’s a better-than-average chance they’re going to ask you about the latest crop of unapologetic, in-your-face atheists and the things they’ve been saying.
Here’s one idea for handling the situation: If someone tries to pin you down by asking you to either disavow or support Richard Dawkins, and/or Sam Harris and/or Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, etc., you can point out that lots of groups, lots of worldviews, have some prominent spokespeople who rub some folks the wrong way.
And that’s a great time to bring up some prominent Christian spokespeople — not wingnuts like Fred Phelps or Ray Comfort, but people like Billy Graham and the Pope. You can say something like, “Well, it’s important to note that not all atheists agree with Richard Dawkins, just as not all Christians agree with Billy Graham or someone like that.”
Why name relatively moderate religious leaders? Because it sends the message that one person’s wingnut is another person’s reasonable spokesman. And it sort of sends a shot across the bow, signaling that if they start talking about what they see as wrong about Dawkins or Hitchens, you’re prepared to do the same for religious people whom they may not feel comfortable disavowing.
And, of course, you might have to do so. The person you’re talking to might throw caution to the winds and ask you what it is about their views that you find wacky. You can point out that the Pope thinks it’s a sin for a married couple with 8 kids to start using birth control, and that Billy Graham said he thought AIDS was God’s judgment (though he later retracted the statement), and had a conversation with Nixon where Graham said some pretty hinky things about Jews (also later apologized for).
Or, if you’re just looking for a humorous way to deflect the whole issue, you could say, “I’m not a ‘New Atheist,’ I’m ‘Atheist Classic’!”
(wacky Dawkins cartoon via Oklahoma Daily)