Nice Guise

atheist_catNote: This is awfully close to a “Sunday Sermon” (where I stop being nice and just rant), but it does touch on the subject of being (or seeming) nice, so I guess it fits. And surely it’s more etiquette-oriented than doing something for Blasphemy Day.

When I saw Five things that would make atheists seem nicer, I thought it might have some good advice, with a Christian’s point of view on how atheists might present themselves to make a more favorable impression. What better topic for a blog on atheist etiquette?

Turns out, it’s not quite as good (or as “nice”) as one might hope. PZ Myers has offered his take, but I thought it might be worth having a look at it from the POV of someone who actually does have an interest in being nice, rather than someone (like PZ) who bristles at the very concept (that’s not a criticism, just an observation). So, here goes:

“1. Stop being so smug.”

PZ smirks that if Christians want him not to be smug, they’d better give him a reason why he shouldn’t. I’ll just point out that if someone thinks all atheists — or most atheists — are smug about it, they’re drastically underestimating the number of atheists they know. I’d venture to guess that most atheists tend to keep a low profile about their worldview (as do most Christians).

“2. Don’t assume every piece of Christian evangelism is directed at you – we want the undecideds, not the decided-uns.”

I’m not aware of any atheist ever claiming that every piece of Christian evangelism is directed at atheists. But (or, perhaps, therefore) I’ll happily admit that lots of Christian evangelism/apologetics/etc. is aimed at fence-sitters, not committed atheists or even agnostics. And, of course, honest Christians will admit that lots and lots and lots and lots of Christian evangelism is in fact directed at — or rather, aimed at — atheists. We hear about how there’s no such thing as an atheist, or atheists consider themselves asGod, or atheists have no foundation for morality, or atheists are slaves of Satan. Even if those remarks are intended to sway the “undecideds” toward Christianity, only an idiot or a liar would claim they’re not directed at atheists.

“3. Admit that the debate about God’s existence is complex – and that it can, depending on your presuppositions, be quite possible for intelligent and rational people to intelligently believe in an intervening deity who communicates through a book.”

Well, now, it would be a bit more intelligent and rational if that belief didn’t involve an infallible deity who communicates through a book filled with falsehoods and internal contradictions, but let’s be charitable and say that we’re talking about a God who communicates not directly through the book, but indirectly by inspiring the authors of the book. I do indeed think (and think others should think) that believing in the mainstream Christian version of God does not preclude intelligence or rationality. In fact, even people who believe in wacky offshoots of Christianity — fundamentalism, Mormonism, etc. — can be highly intelligent, and can think quite rationally (especially about topics other than their religious views). It would be not only mistaken but nearly malicious to deny that religious views (however wacky) can be held by intelligent and rational people.

“4. Admit that the scientific method – which by its nature relies on induction rather than deduction (starting with a hypothesis and testing it rather than observing facts and forming a hypothesis) – is as open to abuse as any religious belief, and is neither objective nor infallible.”

No. Just no. First, as PZ also notes, science uses both induction and deduction. But more importantly, there’s a huge difference between saying “let’s take this hypothesis and test it, and try to prove it wrong, and if we still think it holds up let’s invite everyone else to try to prove it wrong” and saying “let’s take this hypothesis and refuse to test it, and accuse anyone who does test it of committing heresy.”

“5. Try to deal with the actual notions of God seriously believed in by millions of people rather than inventing strawmen (or spaghetti monsters) to dismiss the concepts of God – and deal with the Bible paying attention to context and the broader Christological narrative rather than quoting obscure Old Testament laws. By all means quote the laws when they are applied incorrectly by “Christians” – but understand how they’re meant to work before dealing with the Christians described in point 3.”

Sorry, but there really are “millions of people” who believe dinosaurs and humans co-existed, and as for quoting obscure Old Testament laws, how about you go first? When you stop quoting Leviticus to brand homosexuality an “abomination” (while conveniently omitting to mention that it brands eating lobster as an “abomination” as well), then we’ll stop hoisting you on your own petard.

3 responses to this post.

  1. This doesn’t feel like a rant. Well, not compared to all the other responses.

    1. My point with all of these points was to address a specific incident where a couple of atheists are doing their best to hijack both an Australian marketing campaign (I think this is slightly ironic given the outcry over the way atheist advertising has been received) and some comments made specifically about that campaign on a blog I linked to in my post.

    I also, in my intro, made it pretty clear that I don’t like generalising about atheists because I realise you’re all different. There are some atheists, like the 200 who commented on my post, and PZ, who don’t seem very nice.

    2. See my point above – I’m referring to a specific piece of advertising and I said “not every” which does not exclude the possibility that some are.

    3. I have no problem with what you’ve said here. I just think atheists (generally) need to realise that some people will not be convinced by their arguments and their rebuttals of things like the watchmaker principle and Pascal’s wager.

    4. I was trying, and I agree this point was poorly written, to point out that there are flaws within the scientific method which allow presupposition and bias to operate undetected for long periods of time. The fact that atheists are doing much of the work in the biological sphere makes me slightly suspicious of their findings, though I don’t have a great problem with evolution. I have a problem with the idea that because we understand how something works it means that God isn’t there directing the traffic.

    5. The problem with the homosexuality debate – and the difference between it and stuff like the lobster law – is that the Old Testament is the law for God’s people (the Jews) prior to Jesus. It was never designed to be met either – it was designed to develop a dependence on God for salvation. It was a perfect standard that imperfect people couldn’t meet. These laws are not done away with in the NT – they are changed slightly. God’s standards are still perfect (as set by him and his character). But things that were binding for the Jews as a nation chosen by God to be different are not binding for Christians (like circumcision, eating lobster etc). But the NT has a fair bit to say about homosexuality being wrong for Christians. It’s only really when you’re a Christian that the Bible makes any judgment on you for homosexuality.

    I’m not trying to preach here, more trying to explain the theological side of things – otherwise you’re arguing with a fallacy. A fallacy many Christians adhere to, but we’re trying to educate them…


  2. Well, you seem like a nice atheist. I shall watch your future career with interest.


  3. Posted by Joe on October 15, 2009 at 7:33 pm

    I like it. I feel that to repress anyones beliefs (or lack there of) is wrong. I do feel it is not my place nor anyone elses place to try and change the way someone else believes unless open to it. Atheism is a choice as Christianity is a choice. The arguments are there for and against but I would never try to change the way a catholic feels about his or her faith as I would never try to change the way an athiest feels about his or her beliefs. Religion or not is an intensely personal subject for individuals to sort out and are not open to scrutiny unless they are being forced upon others.


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