Third-party insults

proof-is-in-the-poseidonSo, you’re at a dinner party or something, and someone pipes up with some nasty comment about atheists — or perhaps a comment that’s not nasty, just ignorant of atheism and atheists, and of the fact that there’s an atheist right there in the room.

What’s the polite way to respond (or is not responding the polite thing to do)?

Before we look at what response is polite — that is, helping to maintain an atmosphere of civility and good manners — we have to ask whether such an atmosphere has already been destroyed by the unthinking anti-atheist comment. If it has, then putting the idiot in their place isn’t dragging the conversation down any further than it’s already been dragged.

But the truth is, as much as I hate to admit it, that’s probably not the case. Unless the atheists are thick on the ground, and the idiot just doesn’t realize it, chances are most people won’t even take much note of the comment, let alone take offense. So what’s the polite thing to do? It probably depends on a lot of variables.

For one thing, how “polite” is the company? Is it a group where you’re mostly friends and/or family, where talking about how a comment makes you feel is appropriate? Or is it a gathering of strangers or bare acquaintances, where talking about your feelings (or the religion-oriented parts of your worldview) is less appropriate?

If you’re with people you like, care about and want to spend lots of time with, it’s probably best to clear the air, and explain to the idiot why they’re being an idiot. That’s easier if it’s a relatively innocuous remark, like wondering how atheists find the strength to deal with life’s challenges, etc. Probably not so easy with a really offensive question or comment, like something about atheists having no morality.

One suggestion: Try to make sure that your response, whatever it may be, is less offensive (to an objective observer) than the comment that prompted it. And if you can, try to be matter-of-fact about the discussion, unless you’re among friends and you really need to make clear that you were bothered by the remark. If the conversation is already headed into less-than-polite territory, you want to de-escalate things, not escalate them.

If someone asks where atheists get their moral compass from (or suggests that maybe they don’t have one), you can genially reply, “I suspect most of us atheists get our moral compass from the same place everyone else does — from stuff we were raised with as kids, and stuff we figured out later on. That’s where I got mine from.”

If someone tries to be funny and ask, “What do atheists cry out during sex? ‘Oh, Darwin!’ or something?” you can reply, “No, we say ‘Oh God’ too, we just say it ironically.” And smile.

If someone asks why (or whether) atheists say “bless you” when someone sneezes, you can say, “Yeah, some of us say it, and we don’t mean it any more than Christians do when they say it — I mean, it’s not like a head cold really requires a plea for divine intervention, even if there was a God.”

On the other hand, if you’re having dinner at your boss’s house, and your boss’s spouse makes the obnoxious remark, you might just want to bite your tongue and smile.

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