What kind of atheist am I?

Are you there Universe? It’s me, Paul.

The kind that doesn’t believe in god(s).

Haha… Get it?

Actually, it’s a broader question about how I conduct myself as a non-believer and what does that mean for how I interact with others, from the deepest believer to the most radical anti-theist. Two incidents this week have me thinking about this topic. One was an interaction with a friend on Facebook (I know, I know, that’s probably the last place to get into a religious conversation) and one was a series of back and forth tweets with a complete stranger (the actual last place to have that kind of discussion…). I don’t think that either one got particularly nastyy but both made me think about how I come off when these things come up, and how my non-belief makes me come across.

I’m happy to report that in the Facebook exchange with my friend it remained pretty high-minded (for the most part and any time where it didn’t probably is on me). We go back a long way and neither of us have ever been afraid to question the other, push one another to defend a position or shy away from a topic. In fact, we had a long face to face conversation on this very topic back in the fall when I visited him. At the time he was preparing for a course he’s teaching on religion, and I shared with him some of the stuff I had read from the usual suspects; Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. One could probably slot Stephen Fry into that group as well.  My friend had posted a critique of a recent interview Stephen Fry had given to a television program in Ireland where Fry had some harsh words for god in hypothetical scenario where they met (it would have to be hypothetical for Fry, an atheist). My friend criticized Fry for being simplistic in his answer (the word stupid may have been used as well). I had seen the interview and had enjoyed Fry’s answer, thought it was the equivalent of batting away an annoying fly. Fry’s answer is actually pretty characteristic of a style of god-bashing from the “New Atheist” school and would be familiar to anyone who has read or seen Hitch, Dawkins, etc. in a similar forum. I responded to my friend’s critique and defended Fry, or at least, tried to deflect the criticism as misplaced.

But in the course of our back and forth it began to dawn on me that that the pugilistic style of the New Atheists isn’t exactly a productive way to conduct a conversation on religion and belief, and the belittling tone they take to belief and believers is a sort of preaching to the choir of non-believers rather than a way to evangelize for atheism (see what I did there?) This isn’t to dismiss them out of hand- indeed I think Dawkins in particular through his work on evolutionary biology has helped more than most to lay out the evidence for a world with no god(s). And Hitch and Harris, Fry and others have used their aggressive style to call out particular elements of fundamentalism and absurdity in belief (one need look no further than Hitchens’ defense of speech in the face of radical Islam first in defending Salman Rushdie and later the Danish cartoonists). It works in some venues, but those venues are of limited productivity in terms of advancing a dialogue between belief and unbelief. In that Facebook conversation I found myself, almost automatically, lining up to defend the New Atheists, but by the end of the conversation I’ll admit to having been moved off my position a bit.

The other incident was the Twitter exchange, which had actually started with a blog post and exchange in the comments section of Hessian With Teeth. The post is titled “I am an Atheist and No, I Don’t Think You’re Stupid.” It’s a pretty common criticism leveled at non-believers by believers, that we think they’re all stupid, and I can’t say I blame them. When we refer to the central stories of their faith as myths, it can come of as smug, like we’re looking down on them. If your faith is a central part of who you are having it called a fairy tale is insulting. I’ll be the first to admit guilt here, mocking beliefs has been something I’ve done that I’m not exactly proud of. In the comments I shared some thoughts on how some very intelligent people I know are also believers in god, in the resurrection of Jesus, etc. And I’m trying to reconcile how smart I know these folks are with what I’ll refer to as unsubstantiated events. I talked about cognitive dissonance, and how sometimes faith, even for believers, can conflict with what they know about how the world and the universe works. And since we’re all guilty of cognitive dissonance we all have developed ways to deal with these conflicting ideas of belief and rational thinking. And I was trying to explain this and walk this line in the comments, that believers aren’t stupid. In fact, we may even have evolved as prone to belief as an evolutionary adaptation (even Dawkins has raised this as a possibility). I thought (and still think) it’s an interesting topic, and so posted a link on Twitter, where I was then jumped on by someone who was insistent that believers are all stupid.

So I was on the side of defending believers against that accusation. I tried to explain that it’s not about being stupid. It made me take a hard look inside at how I have come off in the past. That I have been and can be a jerk when it comes to talking about faith and belief. And I don’t want to be.

Look, I’m not about to convert or renounce my non-belief (what a weird sentence). I’m an atheist. But there’s no need to be a dick about it.

(On a side note, as of this writing my friend and I are trying to coordinate our schedules to record a conversation on this topic for the podcast. It should be good!)


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