Archive for June, 2009

Are you a “New Atheist”?

dawkinscartoonAtheists 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)

“What religion are you?”

non-prophetWhat should you say when someone asks “What religion are you?” or “What church do you attend?”

Someone named “Laptop Jesus” on Yahoo! Answers has a good suggestion: “One easy thing to do is to smile and laugh and say ‘Oh no! My mom taught me to never talk about religion, sex or politics! And I always listen to my mom!’ Only a really rude person would pursue it after that.”

That’s especially good if you’re into the passive-aggressive style of politeness, where you make a big show of being polite while subtly implying that the other person is being rude. I don’t like to do that myself (I like to think it’s because I’m honest, but I suspect it’s because I’m a wimp with no social skills), but it seems to work for some people.

Of course, you can always just say, “I’m an atheist,” but there may be some situations where you don’t want to call that much attention to yourself. A less “in your face” answer is something like, “I’m not really religious,” but that can still lead to a discussion you and the other person might both wish you’d skipped.

Personally, I’ve been known to deflect the question by saying, “I’m a Methodist.” That’s not entirely false (I was baptized and confirmed as a Methodist, so I can claim it as my background), but not entirely true, either — but then, isn’t that kind of the point of etiquette? To gloss over uncomfortable truths in order to get along with people?

Atheism is not a religion (any more than “bald” is a hair color), but it’s a belief about religious-type stuff, just like Christianity or Buddhism or whatever. And like any religious belief or belief about religion, it implies a belief about what other people believe.

No matter how tolerant your belief is, it implies that there are other people whose beliefs are wrong — and the person you’re talking to might very well be one of those people. Everyone has beliefs about that stuff (even if it’s just the belief that you haven’t seen a belief worth adopting), and your average person is sensible enough to refrain from pointing out to acquaintances, or even friends and family, that he thinks they’re going to hell, even when he does actually believe that.

Likewise, if you believe that acquaintances or friends or family members are deluding themselves into believing in some sort of ludicrous voodoo magic, you’re not required to inform them of your opinion, any more than they’re required to remind you that they think you’re going to spend eternity in hell or be reincarnated as a bug.

Everyone has flaws. And everyone has to deal with other people. People with acquaintances can deal with their acquaintances’ flaws, and people with friends and family can accept and love (or at least deal with) those people without mentioning those flaws.

That’s what lets people get along with each other despite their flaws (and despite even disagreeing on which traits are flaws, and which are virtues).