No surprise here: American Atheists are once again engaging in reckless and unproductively antagonistic behavior. This time, though, they’ve really gone beyond the pale. In a recent post on their “No God Blog”, “Taking The Gloves Off…“, American Atheists’ Georgia State Director Al Stefanelli uses lazy and shockingly vitriolic rhetoric, unsupported assumptions, and sweeping generalizations in a futile attempt to defend an indefensible thesis.

Throughout his rant, Stefanelli fails to provide any actual evidence in support of his assertions, instead relying on generalizations, stereotypes, assumptions, anger, and arguments from personal experiences. He wants his audience to believe that his rant is a legitimate argument that should be taken seriously, yet the combination of its extreme nature and his refusal to engage in civil, rational, and evidence-based argument results in a thesis that is ultimately indefensible. Stefanelli is not deterred by this fact, though. He is determined to defend his thesis no matter what, and the result is a completely ineffective, vitriolic, and potentially dangerous rant dressed up as a legitimate argument.

The vitriol and ridiculousness is apparent from the start:

Intolerance toward beliefs and doctrines that serve only to promote hatred, bigotry and discrimination should be lauded, as should extremist points of view toward the eradication of these beliefs and doctrines.

I’ll give him this: at the very least, he sticks to “beliefs and doctrines” here (specifically, as he later explains, “fundamentalist Christian and radical Islamic doctrines”) instead of believers.

There are some major issues, though:

1) Intolerance and “extremist points of view” should never be “lauded” or encouraged. Yes, we should praise and encourage those who speak out against the unquestioned societal privileging of religious beliefs. That’s vastly different from promoting intolerance, though. This argument is untenable, uncivil, counterproductive, and irresponsible.

2) In this context, “eradication” is a horrible, thoughtless, and confusing (how could any form of religious belief or doctrine ever be eradicated?) word. “Eradication” brings to mind acts of violence and cruelty, and carries the connotation of eliminating one’s enemy by any means necessary. This is important to keep in mind, primarily because Stefanelli soon begins to blur the distinction between “beliefs” and “believers”, and it is this blurring that makes his rhetoric truly irresponsible and dangerous. Such rhetoric may create an atmosphere in which violent acts against religious individuals are tolerated and even encouraged, something that any civilized society and any compassionate individual should find completely unacceptable.

Stefanelli continues:

Most of these people [followers of “fundamentalist Christian and radical Islamic doctrines”] lack the maturity and intelligence to act in a socially acceptable manner.  Many of them are sociopaths and quite a good number of them are psychopaths.  All of them are clearly delusional.

Huh? He can get away with “delusional”, if we (as I do) interpret it as a comment on the fact that belief in a theistic God requires one to hold on to the false (read: delusional) notion that God directly intervenes in one’s life. Stefanelli’s other allegations, though, are completely unsupported assumptions. Mature adults who care about responsible, ethical, and evidence-based argument do not make such allegations without supporting their claims with legitimate concrete statistical evidence. It’s here that Stefanelli begins to blur the distinction between “beliefs” and “believers”, an act that is particularly dangerous in the context of an article that throws around words like “eradication” and makes baseless allegations about the people who hold the beliefs that Stefanelli wants to “eradicate”. I imagine that most of us would acknowledge that both words and rhetoric can have serious consequences and thus must be used responsibly, yet Stefanelli either doesn’t understand this or doesn’t care (as much as I’d like to grant him the benefit of the doubt, it’s pretty clear that the second option applies here).

More Stefanelli:

The fact is that fundamentalist Christians and radical Muslims are not interested in coexisting or getting along. They have no desire for peace. They do not want to sit down with us in diplomatic efforts to iron out our differences and come to an agreement on developing an integrated society.

They want us to die.

Yet more assumptions and sweeping generalizations. For example: fundamentalist Christians and radical Muslims are not the same. Their differences outnumber their similarities. But, as Stefanelli’s failure to properly distinguish between “beliefs” and “believers” makes clear, he isn’t interested in factual and responsible rhetoric, so his attempt to morph these two religious groups into one comes as no surprise.

And does each and every Christian fundamentalist and radical Muslim “want [atheists] to die”. No, of course not.  When an author makes such an extreme claim, they must, at the very least, support it with multiple examples from quality and trustworthy sources. But Stefanelli doesn’t do that. He knows that this claim is patently false and cannot be supported by actual evidence, so he instead chooses to rely on the hope that his audience’s confirmation bias will provide all the “evidence” that he needs.

Stefanelli continues to blur the line between “beliefs” and “believers”:

Again, bigotry, discrimination, hatred, coercion, terrorism, slavery, misogyny and everything else that is part and parcel of fundamental Christianity and radical Islam should not be tolerated and anyone who agrees with this needs to adopt extremist points of view that includes the intolerance of their very existence. The only reason these groups exist is because they are allowed to, and we, as a society, are allowing them to.

This ambiguity is dangerous. The prime example: “intolerance of their very existence”. What is “their” referring to here? He later claimed (in the article’s comment section) that, throughout his article, he was obviously referring to “beliefs”, not believers. But, despite what Stefanelli claims, a dangerous ambiguity pervades his arguments. Further evidence of this ambiguity can be found in his assertion that “these groups” exist only because “they are allowed to”. Consider this: what is a “group”? A collection of people or things. Thus, there is no way that Stefanelli can claim that he was referring to “beliefs” here, not “believers”. And rhetoric that calls for “the intolerance of [the] very existence” of any group of people is extremely unethical, callous, and, above all, dangerous.

And there’s more:

But the underbelly of fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam does not operate in the legal system. They don’t respond to lawsuits, letters, amicus briefs or other grass-roots campaigns and they must, must, must be eradicated.

Again, Stefanelli’s use of “they” in this context is disturbingly ambiguous. It’s quite arguably a reference to “believers”, not “beliefs”. For example, a belief can’t “respond to a lawsuit”; only an individual or a group can do that. Thus, when Stefanelli proceeds to say that “they must, must, must be eradicated”, I’m honestly baffled as to how anyone could possibly interpret that “they” as anything but a reference to “believers”.

At the end of his article, he tries to backpedal a bit:

If we don’t take a stand and, as a society, insist that these doctrines and beliefs are treated just the same as they would be if religion were not part of the equation, we will become extinct not due to natural selection, but at the hands of those who believe that the supernatural has made the selection.

This passage has nothing to do with the article itself, though. It’s tacked on at the end, perhaps in an attempt to make the article seem less vitriolic and ridiculous than it is. In his article, he isn’t encouraging his readers to speak out against the unquestioned societal privileging of religious beliefs. No: he’s arguing for the eradication of believers.

Stefanelli can backpedal all he wants (he continues to do so in the comments section of the article), but this article must be taken as it was written. Perhaps Stefanelli is guilty only of lazy rhetoric and unclear writing, not of encouraging violence towards individuals and groups. I don’t know for certain. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but that’s very difficult to do here. What I do know is that Stefanelli’s arguments are callous, unsupported, ridiculous, and potentially quite dangerous.

And the worst thing is that American Atheists, as an organization, are happy to promote and endorse articles like Stefanelli’s. This is just one of the many reasons that they are an embarrassment to atheism, and, I’d argue, a major impediment to both the progression of the atheist movement and to acceptance of atheism in general. American Atheists are reactionary, counterproductive, and completely embarrassing. My only hope is that other atheist groups will recognize American Atheists’ tactics for what they are and will distance themselves accordingly.

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136 Responses to American Atheists are an embarrassment to atheism

  1. Good post. I dont know what is going through their heads allowing this kind of post.

  2. Our version of Westboro Baptist?

  3. eric says:

    after reading your above blog, it seems to me that you are as guilty of sloppy rhetoric as the subject of your article.

    “American Atheists are an embarrassment to atheism” the title of this article is unsupported, ridiculous and potentially quite dangerous.

    i am one atheist living in the U.S. and i don’t support your article OR the one you are condemning.

    “American Atheists are reactionary, counterproductive, and completely embarrassing.” to my mind, these descriptors can/could be applied to 99%(approximately) of humanity … so what is your point? (if you actually have one). are you trying to backhandedly point out that atheists are also human?

    it won’t be simple or effective for you (or anyone) to attempt to paint all atheists living in the U.S. with a wide brush. being honest about that might lift your own rhetoric to a level worth general distribution. i guess we will see.

    • “American Atheists are an embarrassment to atheism” the title of this article is unsupported, ridiculous and potentially quite dangerous.

      Nope. I, as an individual, find them to be an embarrassment to atheism. That’s my opinion, not a factual claim. Throughout his article, Stefanelli makes factual claims that he does not support with evidence. Worse, these unsupported claims are indeed potentially quite dangerous, as they can be interpreted as encouraging violence. The same cannot be said for the title of my post.

      i am one atheist living in the U.S. and i don’t support your article OR the one you are condemning.

      Okay. What’s your point here?

      “American Atheists are reactionary, counterproductive, and completely embarrassing.” to my mind, these descriptors can/could be applied to 99%(approximately) of humanity … so what is your point? (if you actually have one). are you trying to backhandedly point out that atheists are also human?

      No, “99%” of people (and groups) are not reactionary, counterproductive, and/or embarrassing. And even if they were, how would that make Stefanelli’s blog post excusable?

      it won’t be simple or effective for you (or anyone) to attempt to paint all atheists living in the U.S. with a wide brush. being honest about that might lift your own rhetoric to a level worth general distribution. i guess we will see.

      Where did I “attempt to paint all atheists living in the U.S. with a wide brush”? I’m discussing the group American Atheists here, not atheists who live in America.

      • baileyshoe says:

        I think the problem is that the title of the post makes it look like “American atheists” as a general group of all atheists in America, not the specifically named group “American Atheists” – I had the same initial reaction when I came to this post and it took me a second to realize that you meant the group “American Atheists” and not all atheists who are American. It’s a problem with the name of the group, not your writing, IMO.

      • pete says:

        I think there was some confusion because “American Atheists” is the name of this specific group and the commenter thought you were speaking of all American atheists.

        • Leta says:

          You speak of “sweeping generalizations”? I am an active American atheist and I never heard of either American Atheists or Al Stefanelli. How does one American idiot make all the rest of us idiots?
          …Okay, that’s what I get for trying to do things at once. I apologize and after READING this blog – rather than skimming it I understand what you’re saying.
          Yes, Pete, I have to agree with you.

        • Dean says:

          Pete has a good point and one that should have been picked up by reader through the authors use of CAPITALS! Use of such a kind indicates a noun and in this context would refer to a specific group or organisation. Perhaps it is also a failing of proper grammar that is leading to the bigotry…

  4. I used to have a lot of respect the organization and Silverman – I saw them as the dark knight in the secular movement, saying the things we were all thinking but had too much tact to say out loud. They attracted all of the flak, and then the “friendly” atheists came in and showed people that we’re not all meanies.

    Now AA is starting to act like the very same religious pundits they deride. Hopefully the backlash they’ve been receiving from their fellow atheists will encourage them to get off of this intellectually lazy track.

  5. Kawfeee says:

    Gross generalization. Shouldn’t your article read ‘An American atheist is…’?

  6. RHDefense says:

    I have to agree with Eric. As I read your post, I just wanted to say, “Pot, meet Kettle.” It wasn’t just sloppy logic, but sloppy and redundant writing.

    P.S. I am an atheist.

    • Fair enough. I can’t argue with your opinion of my writing. But are you asserting that my post is vitriolic and dangerous (as your pot/kettle analogy implies)? If so, I don’t understand that.

    • Uhh, not sloppy at all. Sam Harris is another Gnu who has used words like “eradicate.” PZ Myers has never done that, but he consistently uses “Christian” as a shorthand for “fundamentalist” and then denies that he does it.

  7. Joey H. says:

    This is bang on. Great post. I ended all association with AA a while ago. Them and their self-fulfilling prophecies of persecution.

  8. simone says:

    wow!! Nothing sloppy about this writing! I found the word “eradicate” highly disturbing..and I believe this is a really well written blog.
    Plus…our blogger answer criticism of her work very well… Love all the opinons though, democracy in action! Thanks to all (peace)

  9. Steve Zara says:

    My goodness, what a load of dangerous nonsense from AA. I’m glad you have written this. It is very worrying when people like this try and link dislike or even hatred for beliefs with hatred for people. I see it too often.

    I can predict you could get some flak for this, as supposedly being, by comparison, a “compromiser”, but I stand with you, for what that’s worth.

    • Thank you, Steve. I really appreciate that. & Yes, I was really shocked by how he wavered so carelessly between discussing “believers” and “beliefs”, particularly in the context of an article that presents such an extreme argument and uses such loaded words. It’s quite disturbing.

  10. pete says:

    I often have difficulty separating my ire for passed transgressions in my personal life from my despisal of religious institutions generally. So when intolerance that very much relies on the general climate of tolerance to voice itself happens I wonder at the commentator’s sincerity and downright self-destructive tendencies. I’d recognize it in a catholic as surely as I do here. So in a way the point he’s making is verified by his argument, but by making it suggests that atheism could provide no better than the same fundamentalism. A twisted form of articulation you describe well.

  11. David Norris says:

    I couldn’t agree more.

  12. I find the idea that we can polite people into treating us better to be embarrassing… but you keep doing what you’re doing, as long as its what you think is right.

    • Steve Zara says:

      There is all the difference between being polite and being nice. One can be direct and assertive while being polite. One can be polite while making it clear that you disagree profoundly with someone else’s politics or belief system.

      Sometimes it may be productive to be rude, or mocking. But it is never right to talk about eradicating believers. Even if it doesn’t actually mean ‘eradicating’ believers, it’s very dumb language indeed, so dumb it could have been written by a theist to make political atheism look very bad indeed.

      • There is nothing in the article calling for “eradicating believers.”

        But the underbelly of fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam does not operate in the legal system. They don’t respond to lawsuits, letters, amicus briefs or other grass-roots campaigns and they must, must, must be eradicated.

        The author of this post, and apparently you as well, lack the basic reading comprehension to understand that “fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam” are beliefs, not believers. It’s not an easy mistake to make, and you have to choose to stretch what was written in order to conform to such a ridiculous accusation.

        • Brett, I pointed out many times, in great detail, the exact places where the ambiguity regarding “eradication” of beliefs vs “eradication” of believers can be found.

          • There is no ambiguity. The author said what they meant, and you’re writing hate speech inbetween the lines and attributing it to them. You are increibly dishonest in your assessment of what the author wrote.

        • Steve Zara says:

          If it was a mistake, it was certainly easy. I am a lazy reader, and have a tendency to skim. The word ‘eradicate’ stuck out like a great festering boil on what was the otherwise somewhat grubby complexion of the piece.

          But it doesn’t matter, really. Even if it was a hard mistake to make there are plenty of people out there who are prepared to put the effort into making that mistake to tarnish political atheism.

          So it’s a bit dumb really to give them such an easy opportunity.

          • Your argument seems to be, “I’m stupid, and I misinterpretted what they said, but they should have been psychic and known how dumb I am to prevent such an ignorant mistake.”

            Am I far off?

    • Bret: do you think that Stefanelli’s approach (as illustrated in his article) is an effective one?

      • I don’t believe in the idea of “effective” in the sense that an approach can be one-size-fits-all. There are people who will be energized by that sort of rhetoric, and believe it or not, there are even people persuaded by it.

        I hate to be the one to point this out, but if religious people listened to evidence based, logical arguments… they wouldn’t be religious. Many people, religious or otherwise, respond to strong leaders and people with a backbone, not timid appeasers.

        I’m glad there are atheists who are angry and organized. Over 10% of the population is atheist, but we have less clout than Jews, who make up less than 2%. They have some small cut of the power, not because of some Zionist conspiracy, but because they organize and put their money where their mouth is.

        Some are inspired by the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., and others are inspired by people like Malcolm X, but both work hand-in-hand towards the same goals.

        • pete says:

          When the atheists have their own country with a “right to exist” I’ll find your 2%/10% pseudofactoids more plausible than other theories, unless you have some vaunted evidence. You have to have money to put it wherever your orifices are.

        • That is a hoot—“evidence based logical arguments” like; Nothing made everything? you fools are something else

        • Jim Lippard says:

          “Over 10% of the population is atheist” — not according to either Pew Research or the American Religious Identification Survey. ARIS (2008) puts self-identified atheists at 0.7% of the population and agnostics at 0.9%. 2.3% of those surveyed completed “Regarding the existence of God, do you think …” with “there is no such thing”; 4.3% with “there is no way to know”, 5.7% with “I’m not sure”, and 12.1% with “there is a higher power but no personal God.” Pew’s U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (2008) puts atheists at 1.6% of the population and agnostics at 2.4%.

          I’m not aware of any surveys that show U.S. atheists at anywhere near 10% of the population. There are occasional claims by atheists that conflate what ARIS calls the “nones” and what Pew calls the “unaffiliated” with atheists, but that’s misrepresentation since a sizable number of the unaffiliated are believers in God or a higher power (many are “spiritual but not religious”; some are Christians who characterize their religious belief as “relationship not religion”).

  13. Qu Quine says:

    I support being an atheist, but I have a hard time getting behind organized Atheism. I find it a distraction from simply urging people to seek the truth. Seeking the truth does not bind people in organizational structures or require toeing the party line. It is true that organization helps with things like working against the kind of discrimination non-believers face from the religious, but that does not mean we need to be stuck with the actions of non-representative representatives.

  14. This is the first blog post I’ve received since subscribing to your blog. It made me glad I did :)
    I agree completely. Spitting out a bunch of hatred does no one any good.

  15. Oh, and the hidden smiley made me laugh. Did you put that there?

  16. Gary Hunter says:

    Okay, so I am going to foolishly just say that I get sick of people picking on crazy idiots sometimes, like Christians and Muslims, even if I think that believing in stories about serpents trying to get ignorant people to eat fruit that doesn’t make them ignorant so that they can only then see that they did wrong, is f’ing crazy. You know at the same time, I really shy away from talk of natural selection and anything that indicates a belief in superior genetics, because biology thrives on diversity for one and 2. I’d rather believe life has more meaning than having the best damn genes and getting laid a ton. So, I distance myself from rhetorical atheists, but not because I don’t agree with their criticism of religion being mythological bullshiat, but because I just really can’t get behind the emotional vibe of hate and personal value of intellectual superiority. However though, how often do I come across critical thinkers who don’t take their own criticisms seriously either? Not to often. Usually it is in academic circles or ironically in comedic circles. I agree with you about American Atheists is what I am getting at, but it’s really a catch 22 to get intellectual with them for being intellectual superiority complex people. The better response is indeed in a funny picture for that sort of criticism, but I grant you that you had a clever response to the clever response to foolishness.

  17. Stefanelli is among the worst at conflating “irreligious” as defined in sociological surveys with “atheist” to claim an “atheist surge” in the U.S. Realty? Many “irreligious” still believe in a divinity, or at least in other metaphysical ideas. Plus, “atheist” on surveys includes Theravada Buddhists who are atheists yet quite metaphysical and quite religious. (Sidebar: Already in “The End of Faith,” I knew Sam Harris wasn’t all that Gnus were cracking him up to be when he claimed Buddhism was “just psychology.”)

    More thoughts here:

    http://wordsofsocraticgadfly.blogspot.com/2011/08/gnu-athests-are-also-guilty-of.html

  18. I’m an atheist and I go with what Sam Harris said “calling ourselves atheist gets us no where” like call your self a “non-stamp collector” Oh and you’re hot Miranda. Very hot.

  19. Ryan Colson says:

    If you replace “fundamental Christianity and radical Islam” with “most of humankind”, the original article seems to make more sense to me, sadly.

  20. Attacking someone who i have never heard of doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. In deed, part of being atheist is avoiding group think, or groups period. I am an atheist, but I belong to no particular group. I sympathize with his bent toward elimination of those who often choose to eliminate those who are unwilling to accept their beliefs. As both christians and muslims are particularly guilty of the believe or die actions. However, I don’t think that they should be attacked violently unless in self defense. They have their belief system, although not absolute, I have my belief system, it just doesn’t include gods or goddesses, or divine beings of any sort. I don’t wish them ill, but I don’t think they should be writing legislation that reflects negatively on my life style or threatens to harm me. And should either religion gain control over our government, I guarantee that when they come for my sorry atheist ass, i will definetly resist arrest. I will not stand trial for my lack of belief. Nor will I be torchured till i confess my heresy. But I will use every weapon available to defend myself, and in that case, killing a few of them whichever brand of religios zealotry, seems justified.

  21. John Browne says:

    It seems that Al S. has a case of Goldwateritis (eg “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!”). So perhaps he ‘deserves’ your derision. However I also think that Eric has a point.
    “American Atheists are reactionary, counterproductive, and completely embarrassing…” is pretty sweeping… and, even as a superlatively logical & (at times) almost saintly human, I see myself in that description; and I assume that, really, I’m just another person capable at times of being so. A more particular argument would be a more satisfying response… and (in other places) you do offer some. (And, I assume that, in this case, you mean “the membership of..”… so, should it be an “is”?)

    I’ll grant you that “..most of us would acknowledge that both words and rhetoric can have serious consequences and thus must be used responsibly, yet Stefanelli either doesn’t understand this or doesn’t care (as much as I’d like to grant him the benefit of the doubt, it’s pretty clear that the second option applies here).”

    However I’ll take exception to “..(t)heir differences outnumber their similarities..” It might be fun to play a game of “Lists” with this… where you write down differences & I’ll write down similarities.

    I guess I’d have been happier with Your screed if you had pointed out the humorlessness in his… which might have heaped greater coals of fire upon his brow while putting yourself in a more pleasing light. ^..^

  22. We’re not gonna defeat theism by stooping to their levels, we’ll win by rising above them and educating people on the facts. I am by no means a fan of theism or religion, and have been called “militant” in my atheism by many, but I have always stressed the importance of facts. The article by Al Stefanelli is sad example of stooping to the theist level, throwing out the facts and making us all look like douche bags.

  23. Miranda,

    I believe the problem you are having is basic reading comprehension. I wonder if you even read the article, or just took the misquotes from websites like The Blaze. Where, exactly, is the ambiguity? The article was clearly on doctrines that are used by the radical fundamentalist extremists for the justification of acts of terrorism like flying planes into buildings, blowing up medical clinics and shooting physicians in the head as they are entering their church on Sunday mornings.

    By perpetrating the complete, utter and unequivocal misquoting and misunderstanding of the article in question, you are only serving to further damage interfaith relations and you are adding to the hatred. I hate no one, but I do hate doctrinal ideologies that are used for violence, and it is those radical fundamentalist extremist ideologies that I want to see eradicated. Not people. I have always advocated for activism within the confines of the law and through the legal system and have always condemned any sort of violence that would thwart the free expression of ideas. I am a Patriot and I love my country and absolutely despise when our Constitution is trampled on, or when our precious freedoms are abrogated.

    There is no ambiguity, only your obvious belief that pronouns are only used in reference to people. When I used the word “They,” it is reference to the context of the article, ergo “doctrines,” which obviously do not respond to letters or lawsuits. We use the word “they” in the vernacular many times in context of inanimate objects or ideas, such as “Hey, those chairs you advertised in the paper, are “they” still available?”

    Dangerous doctrines have been eradicated in the past, unless you know Christians who still stone disobedient children to death, and likewise for adulterers and those who practice witchcraft.

    Get it right. Your lack of reading comprehension is astounding..

    Al Stefanelli
    Georgia State Director
    American Atheists, Inc.

    • pete says:

      Are you asserting that beliefs exist independent of people? I don’t see as how that’s a pronoun problem. Could you cite a misquote? If something was seemingly taken out of context is it possible you simply didn’t articulate clearly rather than repeating others’ concern that she skewed your writing?
      Frankly, any lack of comprehension isn’t compatible with her education and what I’ve personally experienced as a truly astounding grasp of language. Getting it right was your responsibility in the first place.

    • Sigmund says:

      Al, could you explain your statement:
      “There are even atheists who state that everyone should be tolerant of all individuals right to believe or disbelieve as they see fit.”
      Why do you have a problem with that point?
      There is a difference between tolerating someones right to believe something and tolerating actions that affect others. In many parts of the world the two things do coexist without conflict – for instance Catholics in Europe exist in societies where family planning, abortion and divorce are commonplace.
      I also fail to see the connection you are trying to make with your follow-up point:
      “Along with these statements come the accusation that many within the Atheist movement are “just as bad” as the fundamentalist Christians and radical Muslims.”
      Tolerating people’s right to believe what they want doesn’t make you automatically part of the “extremist atheists are just as bad as fundamentalist religious people” club. The only atheists who could be said to be just as bad were not members of the atheist movement but, rather, members of the communist movement.

    • Steve Zara says:

      Al – your piece was a mess of writing. It started off with a reasonably clear message, but then wandered all over leaving at least this reader struggling to keep up with who and what you were referring to. Throwing in hyperbole about fundamentalists wanting is dead, and the world being doomed didn’t help, and neither did use of words like ‘eradicate’ which were left somewhat dangling so as to who and what it referred to.

      If you are writing as an individual, such a mess is just what happens. If you are writing as a member of a group that is supposed to represent others, such as mess is not just sloppy but damaging. It means that it will now be the target of ‘yes, but I’m not like THAT’ statements from atheists who don’t want to seem like ranting extremists.

      It’s perfectly possible to write a piece that makes clear that it should be our aim to remove irrational religious beliefs from the world while also making it clear that we intend to act in a civilized and rational way ourselves. This isn’t that piece, not by a long way.

    • Al,

      Yes, I read your article quite carefully. And I have no idea what “The Blaze” is.

      You ask me:

      Where, exactly, is the ambiguity?

      …yet I pointed out multiple examples of the exact places where the ambiguity lies. Most of my post is dedicated to doing just that.

      Your article was completely unclear and ambiguous. And that’s a major problem when you’re making an argument that throws around words like “eradication”. At the very least, you needed to make absolutely certain that no one could possibly think you were referring to “believers”, not “beliefs”. But you didn’t do that. You can accuse me of lacking reading comprehension until you’re blue in the face, but the fact is that you wrote an article that can quite easily be interpreted as calling for the eradication of individuals and groups. And if I were the only one who interpreted in that way, then, yes, perhaps I would be guilty of some sort of misreading (although I don’t think so). But when many people have interpreted it in the same way I have, then it behooves you to consider that your article’s argument is indeed quite ambiguous and unclear. In any persuasive piece, the onus is on the writer to ensure that their argument cannot possibly be legitimately misinterpreted. I teach my students this fairly early in the semester (I teach rhetoric/composition classes): if you want to persuade your audience, you need to make sure that they know exactly what you’re arguing for.

      For my students, the stakes aren’t high. That’s not true in your case, though. Your article was approved, endorsed, and publicized by American Atheists. That’s a big problem. If you had written this on your personal blog, and had made it clear that you were speaking solely on your behalf, this wouldn’t be a big issue. The fact that it was published on American Atheists’ blog and the fact that you are speaking as a leader of American Atheists is what turns this whole thing into a serious problem that may have (and, in my opinion, should have) some major consequences for your organization.

  24. Surprised Stefanelli didn’t come up with a ‘final solution’. Idiot.

  25. Joe Zamecki says:

    Miranda,

    Your anger is distressing, but nothing new. So who IS Miranda Celeste? What have you done for the Atheist movement? I mean apart from this infighting.

    The opposition is out there.

    Joe Zamecki
    Austin

    • Joe,

      What part of this post made you think she was angry?

      What is your purpose in stating “The opposition is out there.”

      Glenn
      Jacksonville

      • I didn’t find this post to be angry, either. I found it to be whining.

        And while I didn’t write it, I’m sure he means the opposition is “out there,” meaning not from within the atheist community.

    • Steve Zara says:

      Considering the mess that is the piece Miranda refers to, Miranda would be been taking positive action to promote atheism by comparison if she hid in a cave for 10 years.

  26. pete says:

    Bret, which part of freedom of speech do you not get? If you get to make up statistics I don’t get to form words? Sheesh, especially from the king of cliche`…

    • How many atheists are there in America, then?

      • pete says:

        Good question. Glad I already pointed out I’d like to know.

        • You don’t know, but you’re sure my ballpark estimates are wrong? That’s intellectually honest.

          • pete says:

            I’m unsure of anything as relates to your figures. That lack of surety threatens you not because it’s intellectually dishonest but because you are being so.

          • I know that 1.7% of the population is Jewish, and I was rounding for simplicity’s sake. I have seen figures on what % is atheist ranging from under 1% to over 17%, so I chose what I thought was a fair estimate. If I’m way off, I’m more than happy to adjust the statement to match cited statistics.

            The biggest problem is defining what constitutes an atheist.

        • I’ll tell you what. You piqued my curiosity, so do me one favor and I will do all the research necessary. Define for me what an atheist is, because that will have an effect on the whole matter. To me, an atheist is someone who lacks a belief in any gods, but if you have another definition, let me know.

          • pete says:

            I doubt if the semantic argument is as important as what motivates one to chose one statistic over the other. Though one affects in part the other there are other causes that perhaps could be questioned. I’m willing to take your word that you’d alter your argument and bow out rather than drag out with the chance of trying to insult you. .

          • You can insult me, you won’t hurt my feelings. I bet it will be cathartic.

  27. Ed says:

    Well Al, it apparently wasn’t just Miranda suffering from “basic reading comprehension.” Like quite a few others, I found your piece near-impossible to comprehend, as the whole thing is cobbled together as though a toddler crayoned it out mid-tantrum.

    A little practice at the pen might do you well, Al, although reading any book on the social sciences would do you better—history, too.

    Honestly, a quick stroll through any book written either by or about human beings should be more than enough to temper a screed as disjointed, haphazard, and frankly laughable as this.

    You’re not doing AA any favors, not at all.

  28. pete says:

    Miranda, with understanding (and I love) that it’s your prerogative to set the rules, I wonder that Brett wasn’t the one to call us all foolish.

    • pete says:

      Brett, I’m not so sure his “fool” was you specifically, even if it was in your thread and quoted you.

    • Pete, she’s obviously only here to criticize fellow atheists in this post.

      • pete says:

        Arguably we could all stand a little criticism. One of my first problems with religion was the assertion that divinity is perfect. If I ever fall into the trap of believing myself so, having it straightened out seems like a gift to me. I’m trying to reconcile that with others attempting to seem infallible.

        • I have spent most of my comments here criticizing atheists. Obviously I don’t mind that, and think atheists are free to be criticized. If I came here saying, “Hey Miranda, you shouldn’t say this stuff, it’s horrible and bad for atheism!” then I would be doing what I don’t like, which is telling someone they can’t express their views.

          I explicitly pointed out in my first comment that if this is what she thinks is right, she should go on doing what she’s doing. That is what freedom of speech is all about. But it’s also my freedom to point out I think she’s incorrect, I just won’t tell her to stop saying what she’s saying.

          That doesn’t make me better than Miranda, it just means I value different things. I value freedom, and I don’t know Miranda enough to say what she values. I’m sure she values freedom to some extent to, maybe just not as much as, say, civility. Sometimes freedom isn’t civil, I have just grown to tolerate that.

  29. Steve Zara says:

    I leave others to judge how stupid I am. But I do know that whatever they say about that, there are many far more stupid than I, and not just stupid but malicious too. And with a far worse taste in hats.

  30. An atheist would be best described as someone who is skeptical of the claims of god(s). That is if we leave Paul Tillich out of the conversation.

    • Not to dismiss your definition (I think it’s certainly valid, in that any personal definition ought to be), but then you could include Mother Theresa, since she was “skeptical” of God. I like the idea of doubt being the defining line, since it certainly makes for a lot of atheists.

    • Also, like the name… study of the god of death, or the study of the death of god?

      • The study of the death of god (ironically a label from John Warwick Montgomery). Also I think mother Theresa was an atheist by her own confession at one point.(she basically willed herself to believe again) It is is like Dawkins likes to say we are all atheists about most gods that ever existed some people go one god more. I also think it is an appropriate definition because no one can claim to have a camera video taping all of the universe.

    • pete says:

      Skepticism, in so far as requiring proof, is actually textbook definition agnosticism. Which makes all the talk of atheism kinda’ moot, but back-burner god might still be able to smite us, so why hedge our bets? ;o)

  31. Steve Zara says:

    “That doesn’t make me better than Miranda, it just means I value different things. I value freedom, and I don’t know Miranda enough to say what she values. I’m sure she values freedom to some extent to, maybe just not as much as, say, civility. Sometimes freedom isn’t civil, I have just grown to tolerate that.”

    So you don’t know Miranda enough to say what she values, but you are sure she values….

    Sometimes freedom isn’t civil, and I’m glad you have grown to tolerate it because I’m going to quote Tom Lehrer at you: “If someone has nothing to say, the least they can do is shut up”. If you don’t know what Miranda values, then don’t say what you are sure she values.

    The point here isn’t Miranda, or freedom, or even hats. It’s that what should have been a clear statement of beliefs from someone at AA has led to confusion and concern.

    Perhaps the best strategy is not to attack Miranda, because when it comes to reading blog posts, a general principle is that the customer or consumer of the blog is generally right. And it seems that many consumers of the blog entry want to take it back for a refund.

    So look at the production process and quality control, don’t rant at the customers.

  32. So you don’t know Miranda enough to say what she values, but you are sure she values….

    I’ll go out on a limb and assume that Miranda values freedom to some degree, otherwise she wouldn’t be expressing her freedom of speech.

    The point here isn’t Miranda, or freedom, or even hats. It’s that what should have been a clear statement of beliefs from someone at AA has led to confusion and concern.

    I don’t think the cluckings of all these Chickenlittles is justification for saying there is concern, and it’s obvious the confusion didn’t originate in the article, but in the readers.

  33. […] To be persuasive in religion or politics, for gods’ sake be temperate. […]

  34. TR says:

    This kind of rhetoric is particularly frustrating given the amount of effort required to convince people that atheists aren’t “just as fundamentalist” as religious wackos. I try to tell people that it doesn’t even make sense for atheism to have fundamentalists, but the AA seems intent on proving me wrong.

  35. XperDunn says:

    Perhaps It’d be best to create a new organization, the Unallied Atheists, which would be reserved for people who use critical thinking–and leave American Atheists to gather those who prefer their atheism with a side of Jingoism and Vengeance. The AA is important in that it connects people who’ve escaped a childhood (or a lifetime) of fundamentalist repression and mind-screw-ery. These folks have a lot of (justified) rage and need to bond with other outraged’s-of-a-feather. Those of us that dislike illogic as much in our lives as we dislike it in our beliefs can be the others, the ‘UA’. Then, as the angry young atheists begin to see the futility of feeding their resentments and the wisdom of moving on, they’ll have a place to turn to.

  36. John Yates says:

    American Atheists remind me of the Rational Response Squad. Remember them? That motely crew of illiterate reactionary blowhards who somehow managed to become semi-prominent in the atheist movement following the success of The God Delusion. Turned out that they had absolutely nothing of interest to say, yet they blabbered on ad infinitum, mindlessly regurgitating the arguments set forth by Dawkins et al, minus the eloquence. Except, unlike the Rational Response Squad, who were just stupid, American Atheists add to their needlessly inflammatory rhetoric a petty and narrow-minded malevolence that comes across as bordering on hate-speech. They really are a repugnant lot, and the more articles like this that we have denouncing their regressive, juvenile and counter-productive hyperbole the better.

    • Remember them? Goodness, I’ve done my best trying to forget the RRS.

    • Wonderist says:

      Speaking of sweeping generalizations, I am an active member of the RRS forums, and have been for over 5 years, and I unapologetically disagree with your unsupported assertions and stereotyping of an entire community of people simply because you happen to disagree with some of them. I’m one of the people you are throwing under the bus when you make a comment like that. (Hi! Nice to meet you by the way. ;-) )

      Ironically, John, you’re engaging in the same behaviour you’re upset with Stefanelli over. This kind of back-and-forth accusation/counter-accusation–based almost entirely on a failure to double-check one’s own assumptions–does nothing more than create counter-productive internet dramas like Elevator Gate, the gnu atheist/accommodationist kerfuffle, etc.

      I strongly agree with Miranda regarding the vagueness and potential explosiveness of Stefanelli’s rhetoric. On the other hand, I would respectfully disagree with her statement/opinion that the American Atheists are an ’embarrassment to atheism’. I’m somewhat familiar with her reasons, and I even agree with many of them, but I think that overall the American Atheists have been more of a boon to the ‘atheist movement’ than not. None of us are perfect, but that’s no reason to throw each other under the bus merely for disagreeing with one another. For complete context on my reasoning here, please see: http://www.rationalresponders.com/still_unapologetic

      • John Yates says:

        I had no idea that the Rational Response Squad were still going. My animosity towards them stems from the original three of four members of the “squad” who used to do poscasts and lectures about five or six years ago when the modern atheist movement was still in its infancy. You know, that chick who’s now a porn star and her bird-brained counterparts. They WERE an embarrassment, and the atheist movement is better off without them. But if the RRS is now vastly different since that time then fair enough- but the RRS that I remember were not doing anything to further the cause of freethought with their unsophisticated and unlettered drivel.

        • Wonderist says:

          Again, I simply disagree. I’ve known all the members since the beginning, and I simply disagree with your assessment of them.

          You’re free to your opinion, of course, and I appreciate your attempt to clarify, but I’m still a member of the RRS community, so saying in a general way that ‘the RRS’ were this or that (such as in your last sentence; as opposed to ‘the core RRS members’, or using specific names) is indirectly talking about me also, and hundreds of other people who remain, to this day, active in the free-thought movement.

          I linked previously to my reasoning on this, and it is relevant to this topic of the American Atheists, and also to so-called ‘New Atheists’, as well as Elevator Gate and the divisiveness of that episode. Disagreement is fine. Let’s just not throw each other under the bus over it.

    • John Yates says:

      Wonderist: I semi-remember listening to a few of their podcasts years ago, and my reaction was that they were simply parroting the ideas set forth in The God Delusion. Nothing wrong with that, although I also remember thinking that they were entirely uninteresting to listen to. If I want to hear a bunch of regular folk talking about the folly of religion I’ll go down the local pub. The attraction of Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris et al. is that they are able to argue about the non-existence of God and the nonsense that is religion in a way that is exciting and attractive to listen to. I never saw the point in listening to the RRS because they weren’t bringing anything new or interesting to the table. Why bother listening to some dude struggling to elucidate his thoughts on the holy trinity when I listen to Hitchens entertainingly and lucidly rip it to shreds?

      You know the founders of the organisation, and so I can understand your very human reaction in wishing to defend your friends. But for me their apparent lack of original material, or lack of new and interesting ways of presenting old ideas, made them rather redundant.

      btw, do you still keep in touch with Kelly O’ Conner? How’s her new career working out for her?

      • Wonderist says:

        The podcast show was a very minor part of the overall RRS core members’ efforts. The major action occurred, and still occurs, in the forums. The show was originally started in an effort to help contribute to Reginald Finley’s extension of his Infidel Guy Show, which was a 24 hour stream of various free-thought content.

        I should clarify, when I say I ‘know’ the original members, I don’t mean personally like face-to-face, only that I’ve interacted with them frequently online in the RRS forums, and before that in the Infidel Guy forums. I knew their personalities, forum-moderating styles, and debating styles from that interaction. You get a certain feel for what a person is like when you discuss or debate a topic (whether serious or fun) online with them, but it’s not quite the same as being ‘friends’. I would consider Brian Sapient a friend/ally though, having actually spoken with him on the phone in addition to typical online forum stuff.

        I don’t judge people based on their work/lifestyle unless it is actually unethical.

  37. Juno Walker says:

    Miranda –

    You’ve pretty much mirrored my sentiments, so all I can say is: I agree.

    Just wanted to add my support.

    Juno

  38. Philofacts says:

    Theists like to talk about “Hate the sin, love the sinner”, although all too often they define as sin things that are just part of someone’s nature, like being gay, so it amounts to hating the person, too. But as thoughtful and compassionate atheists we hate things – unsupportable beliefs, the substitution of faith for critical thinking and curiosity, and the persecution of those who question faith – which are never part of anyone’s innate nature, but are the result of upbringing, indoctrination, etc. So we can do better than theists, by altering their self-righteous slogan to a better form, for our own use: “Hate the belief, love the believer.”

  39. Badlydrawngoy says:

    It seems understandable for all kinds of atheists to allow anger to cloud their judgement and make their claims a little less palatable/user friendly.
    I constantly am being reprimanded on Richard Dawkins behalf for his arrogance and unswerving views on these things…Yet, He seems very moderate and patient in light of some very confused thinking. It seems we still have to pussy foot around anyone who has a faith…This is a given. After all, beliefs have to be respected etc, etc…
    Not sure this is such an inalienable right.
    As a European who lived in America for some time, I have to say, I found the whole thing quite psychotic. Quite how flag, military, religion et al, bind themselves together in a puzzling national psyche, is beyond me.
    If religion makes serfs of us all (I can only see that it does) then to quote ‘Sweetback’ ;My Negro friends don’ go round with rabbit feet no mo’
    Any civil rights movement has it’s polarities, but history tells us, we need moderates and extremists both.

    • Philofacts says:

      “It seems we still have to pussy foot around anyone who has a faith…This is a given. After all, beliefs have to be respected etc, etc…
      Not sure this is such an inalienable right.”

      Beliefs have no rights. People do. Beliefs do not have to be respected. People do (in the sense that physical attacks on them are uncool. But such attacks are almost always if not always directed against atheists by theists, not the other way around.)

      I do find Dawkins quite mild-mannered in a typically English don sort of way.

      Anyway…

      The argument for or against anger in communications comes down to its effectiveness in persuasion (and: of what, exactly, is it that one is trying to persuade the other? To change or discard their belief? Or simply to stop attacking those with different ideas?) The sort of persuasion necessary for either goal is primarily a matter of emotion, not reason, and strong emotion at that, for religion has appeal precisely because it seems to fill an emotional need for many people (first and foremost, the fear of death, and the fear of insignificance: the fear of the fact that we are fragile, live lives finite in length, and do so precisely once), NOT because it really explains anything in any way that can withstand the slightest rational scrutiny. Reason is irrelevant in the face of really strong emotion.

      So sometimes anger may be the appropriate counter-emotion to the emotions which drive the religious, but sometimes other emotions may be needed: sympathy for the fear we all feel at some point in our lives, for instance. Telling people that they’re irrational and delusional, while strictly true, does nothing to reach them on an emotional level; all they hear is contempt, and so they harden their stances.

      I’m not saying that *feelings* need always be respected (like someone’s love of their church community or leaders – I’ll gladly diss Pope Joey da Rat and the rest of his Catholic pedophile-hiders to a Catholic’s face, especially if he or she is making particularly lame and offensive excuses about it), but that the underlying emotions that drive people to substitute faith for curiosity and critical thinking, the emotions that we’ve all felt, even if only when we were children, overwhelmed by the world, need to be acknowledged, and some sympathy indicated, if we are not to simply write huge numbers of people off. (Not a practical way to proceed, I think.)

      • Wonderist says:

        So sometimes anger may be the appropriate counter-emotion to the emotions which drive the religious, but sometimes other emotions may be needed: sympathy for the fear we all feel at some point in our lives, for instance.

        I agree with this. Though anger is not always appropriate, I believe that it is not only sometimes appropriate, but also *strategically* important in any movement for social change, such as ours, as evidenced by MLK and Gandhi, among others: http://www.rationalresponders.com/strategic_anger

        Telling people that they’re irrational and delusional, while strictly true, does nothing to reach them on an emotional level; all they hear is contempt, and so they harden their stances.

        This I don’t entirely agree with, however, and IMO it is important to highlight the fact that pointing out the irrationality and/or delusional nature of a belief (I try to limit my criticisms to behaviour and beliefs, rather than people per se) has often been reported in many deconversion stories as an important ‘wake up call’ for some ex-theists (though certainly not all) to start questioning beliefs they never considered even *questionable* before.

        Also, such unapologetic criticism of irrational belief has a secondary effect on any spectators/onlookers/lurkers to the debate. For example, if I were debating an entrenched apologist, I will often be rather scathing against their beliefs, not with the intent of convincing the apologist necessarily, but with the intent of pointing out to anyone else reading just *how* ridiculous the beliefs really are. Personally, I’ve found this very effective for swaying those on-the-fence, and I’ve read many deconversion/activist stories that refer to incidents like this which push them past a tipping point of taking dogmatic claims seriously anymore.

        • Philofacts says:

          It’s interesting that you focus on my passing remark on the occasional usefulness of anger when my emphasis was on the more frequent usefulness of sympathy. But the main point is that anger is something to be directed at actions and beliefs rather than the people who act and believe. Why is this a distinction worth bothering about? Read on…

          You’ll note that I wrote, “Telling *people* that they’re irrational & delusional…” not “telling people that their *beliefs* are irrational & delusional…” Again, I have no problem with attacking *beliefs*, and I’ll reiterate: beliefs don’t have rights or deserve respect; only people do.

          The distinction between people and their beliefs may seem trivial, but its significance in rhetoric’s effectiveness, in our ability to persuade both them directly and other witnesses indirectly, as you indicated, shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s the difference Miranda Celeste was talking about, that the AA writer was so careless with.

          Telling a person that *he or she* is delusional backs him or her into a corner; it implies to him or her *and* to other witnesses that every aspect of his or her thought is delusional, that he or she is not and never will be capable of clear, rational thought, of overcoming the emotional yearnings for certainty, victory over death, etc. sufficiently to see the world as it is.

          He or she will have a strong emotional response, and the trouble with emotions when they dominate one’s thinking (rather than, e.g., just assist in decisiveness, as the work of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio has shown) is that they tend to be binary, all or nothing, simplistic: think of all the heated arguments you’ve heard in which one person being accused of something by the other retorts something like, “You *always* say that!” or “So I’m not good at *anything*?!”, or similar sweeping statements. This is the defensiveness to which I’ve been referring.

          Again, it may actually be true of some people that they *are* incapable of (ever) being rational, but in such cases, will telling them so change that fact? Strictly from a pragmatic point of view, what’s the point? Yes, you might make someone else witnessing the exchange, someone who *is* amenable to reason, see just how irrational the person is, but you also run the risk of coming off as a hectoring jerk. (The subject of Phil Plait’s talk “Don’t be a Dick”.)

          And unless you’re a mind reader, you can’t know whether the person you’re addressing is someone persuadable or not. Allowing for the possibility that they could change their mind (and heart) is important, even if it really seems from all the evidence that this particular person at this moment is a hopeless case. It keeps you on the moral higher ground, as a champion of both rationality and compassion. The phrase, “winning hearts and minds” should be kept in mind, with emphasis on the “hearts” part: if you address only the rational aspect and forget about the crucial emotional component of cognition, you will not be effective. What we need as arguers for rationality is not just first-rate critical thinking, but also to avoid being emotionally tone-deaf. We need to be both wise *and* compassionate.

  40. Sean says:

    i see alot of people in here disagreeing with organized atheism, but thats the only way that we can spread our good word just like they do. Sure its bad to generalize the religious like they are all hateful people, but you can’t deny the fact that religion is a major cause of racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. Humans becoming atheist is just another step in evolution, just like caring for people you will never meet by being a liberal.

    • Philofacts says:

      I dunno about becoming atheist as an inevitable stage in evolution, if that’s what you mean by “just another step”; this presupposes that there is always a forward progression in human evolution (or to the events of history, for that matter.) Evolution is a slow, massively inefficient and wasteful, and blind process, as befits something that is NOT design (i.e., involving foresight), and produces the *fittest* adaptations to particular circumstances, not the best overall (as in “ready for anything”, however that might be defined, if that’s even possible) from what would be a designer’s perspective if there were a designer; plenty of species that were supremely well fitted to their niches have failed to survive due to sudden contingent changes in their environment, or other factors. We could easily be another case of that. Evolution leads to greater complexity and variety; it’s easy to mistake those qualities for “better” or “best”, or for “forward”. No, they’re just what they are: “complex” and “varied”.

      There has been plenty of speculation in evolutionary psychology about a tendency towards religious belief being, in our past, an adaptive behaviour, albeit one that has become counter-adaptive as the pace of culture has outstripped the pace of evolution. Rationality, far from being “the point” of evolution, is just another contingent product (or even just a byproduct) of it. It’s not guaranteed to “win out” over other aspects of ourselves, such as the far older emotional components of our cognition with which it’s intimately entwined. Again: evolution doesn’t have a point, a goal, unless you want to consider complexity and variety as goals, rather than simply the results they are. But even to speak of goals is to imply intent, which implies design. There is no design to nature. (It “designs itself”, if you like – but there is no designer.)

      I’d like to believe that becoming atheist is inevitable in the long run for us, but then again, belief is what the problem is, isn’t it? The path is far more twisty than it is straight ahead, and it could easily run into a dead end. A teleological attitude is understandable from an emotional point of view, but imagining that there is a purpose, a goal to existence, is yet another form of wishful thinking. This is not to say that nihilism is the right stance (something of which theists are quick to accuse atheists), not at all, but that meaning and purpose are, as they have always been, our own human constructs. We really are on our own, responsible for ourselves; nature, the universe, is massively indifferent to our fate. Outside of random things like asteroid strikes, it’s up to us what happens to us. And even with asteroid strikes, we could do something about them provided we were rational enough. Being rational enough is up to us, too. Will rationality win out? Only if enough of us make the effort. There’s no guarantee.

  41. […] post “Taking the Gloves Off.” That post is, essentially, an expression of alarm. As Mary Celeste Hale points out in her response to it: Throughout his rant, Stefanelli fails to provide any actual evidence in support of his assertions, […]

  42. JS1685 says:

    I agree with much that you’ve written, but I also think we’d be wise to remember Karl Popper’s remarks about tolerance…

  43. Wonderist says:

    Philofacts,

    It’s interesting that you focus on my passing remark on the occasional usefulness of anger when my emphasis was on the more frequent usefulness of sympathy.

    I didn’t consider it a passing remark. I would have quoted the entire previous paragraph also, but I was trying to save space in these comment threads that tend to get narrower the more nested they are, and hence much longer. Sorry for the confusion.

    But the main point is that anger is something to be directed at actions and beliefs rather than the people who act and believe. Why is this a distinction worth bothering about? Read on…

    Actually, you and I are in quite strong agreement on the most important points. My first comment to you was only to highlight a fairly minor difference (minor in comparison to things like rights and basic respect). For reference, my basic stance on anger is in line with that advocated by MLK and Gandhi, a simple, ethical, non-violent expression of emotion. Not hate or violent rage, just anger.

    You’ll note that I wrote, “Telling *people* that they’re irrational & delusional…” not “telling people that their *beliefs* are irrational & delusional…” Again, I have no problem with attacking *beliefs*, and I’ll reiterate: beliefs don’t have rights or deserve respect; only people do.

    I strongly agree with your distinction between people and beliefs, and often make that distinction myself in debates.

    I originally thought you were *not* making that distinction, and so I was responding from the perspective of someone who focuses primarily on responding to beliefs and actions. In other words, I thought you were arguing against a Straw Man version of an ‘angry atheist’, e.g. by making it out that ‘angry atheists’ focus on criticizing people only, and not their beliefs. Apologies on mis-reading your comments.

    The reason I had that reaction to your comment is because I was reminded of my interaction with Peter Primavera in the post I linked to on strategic anger. He *was* taking the stance that ‘anger is okay to feel, but don’t use it in a debate’, which I thought was what you meant. My mistake.

    The distinction between people and their beliefs may seem trivial, but its significance in rhetoric’s effectiveness, in our ability to persuade both them directly and other witnesses indirectly, as you indicated, shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s the difference Miranda Celeste was talking about, that the AA writer was so careless with.

    Very much agree.

    Telling a person that *he or she* is delusional backs him or her into a corner; it implies to him or her *and* to other witnesses that every aspect of his or her thought is delusional, that he or she is not and never will be capable of clear, rational thought, of overcoming the emotional yearnings for certainty, victory over death, etc. sufficiently to see the world as it is.

    Well, it depends how you use it. If you just say, “You’re just delusional.” Then I agree with you there. But if you are responding to a specific point (e.g. by quoting it for context), and using a little rhetorical histrionics, you might say, “I can’t believe you’d be so delusional as to say that!” It can actually imply that you think the person *is* more capable of clear, rational thought, and overcoming their delusions. And also that you *hope* they will adopt more rational thinking.

    To translate the histrionics into plain English, “It seems to me that you really strongly believe what you just wrote, even though it’s been shown to be false (i.e. you appear to be holding on to a delusion). I’m hoping that by pointing out to you this fact, in a dramatic and sensationalized way, that it might spark in you some cognitive dissonance, which may lead you to question it, which may eventually lead you to breaking out of it.” I have seen this technique work many times in the past, which is why I tend to stick up for it in discussions like these.

    Now, I have often seen critics of ‘angry atheists’ take that second sentence, “I can’t believe you’d be so delusional as to say that!” as to be entirely identical to “You’re just delusional.” but it is not, IMO. They both criticize the person–which I don’t actually think is necessarily wrong to do–but one is closed to further discussion, and one is open.

    It is especially important, IMO, to always back up these kinds of jabs with a good argument and/or evidence. Without that, it’s just an empty ad hominem, which I’m against. But personal criticism backed up by specifics can be an effective rhetorical move (without sacrificing legitimacy).

    So, I wouldn’t just leave it at “I can’t believe you’d be so delusional as to say that!” I would go on to explain why.

    He or she will have a strong emotional response, and the trouble with emotions when they dominate one’s thinking (rather than, e.g., just assist in decisiveness, as the work of neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio has shown) is that they tend to be binary, all or nothing, simplistic: think of all the heated arguments you’ve heard in which one person being accused of something by the other retorts something like, “You *always* say that!” or “So I’m not good at *anything*?!”, or similar sweeping statements. This is the defensiveness to which I’ve been referring.

    In written debates (e.g. on a forum), this kind of defensiveness does not work, because the defensive person can’t intimidate or call on social status to ostracize the person who ‘offends’ them in this way. Instead, the critic has the opportunity to say, “No, I don’t always say that. In fact, I’ve said X, Y, and Z, on other occasions, as quoted here: ….” or “No, I did not say you’re ‘not good at anything,’ and I don’t believe that either. If you think I’ve said that, please quote me. What I *did* say was, “…”, and that’s important because of X, Y, and Z.”

    Perhaps you’re only referring to face-to-face discussions? I think the various techniques of debate work differently in different media.

    Again, it may actually be true of some people that they *are* incapable of (ever) being rational, but in such cases, will telling them so change that fact? Strictly from a pragmatic point of view, what’s the point? Yes, you might make someone else witnessing the exchange, someone who *is* amenable to reason, see just how irrational the person is, but you also run the risk of coming off as a hectoring jerk. (The subject of Phil Plait’s talk “Don’t be a Dick”.)

    I don’t advocate what you’re criticizing. I agree that it would be pointless. And I don’t do it.

    And I would also criticize anyone who does do it, because I know that it’s not true that people are incapable of becoming rational. If I did believe that, I wouldn’t spend so much of my time engaging with people to help educate about rationality, reason, science, philosophy, etc.

    But basically, Phil Plait was not talking about anyone I know, and some have said that he actually comes off as a bit of a dick for making it seem like there’s a wide-spread problem of atheist dicks, when there isn’t. I agree with him, “Don’t be a dick,” but at the same time I ask, “Who are you calling a dick?”

    And unless you’re a mind reader, you can’t know whether the person you’re addressing is someone persuadable or not.

    That’s why I rely on the Socratic method to ask a whole bunch of questions first. You can get a read on people this way, and personally I tailor my approach to how they answer questions asked of them.

    Allowing for the possibility that they could change their mind (and heart) is important, even if it really seems from all the evidence that this particular person at this moment is a hopeless case. It keeps you on the moral higher ground, as a champion of both rationality and compassion. The phrase, “winning hearts and minds” should be kept in mind, with emphasis on the “hearts” part: if you address only the rational aspect and forget about the crucial emotional component of cognition, you will not be effective. What we need as arguers for rationality is not just first-rate critical thinking, but also to avoid being emotionally tone-deaf. We need to be both wise *and* compassionate.

    I totally agree. Except that I would also add: *And* angry. I explain why in the post I linked to. Anger can actually be quite capable of winning hearts, when used effectively. I know you gave some credit to anger, but it appeared to me that it was just enough credit to then dismiss it as ineffective overall, and that’s the point I think we might disagree on. I think it is both effective and important, strategically, for any social movement such as ours. Let me know if I’m mis-reading you again.

    Also, I would like to point out an exchange I had with another person recently. If you like, you can use it to see what my approach is like, and where specifically we might disagree (or not). I can be snarky and rude and angry and swearing and critical, but I don’t start out that way, and I use it in a controlled way, for specific purpose. At the end of the day, it’s just using emotional expression for dramatic flourishes to a rational argument. I think if you scanned this thread and see if there’s a specific example of me being a ‘dick’ for example, that might help illuminate our agreements and/or disagreements. Here it is: http://www.rationalresponders.com/forum/29614 (Note: I ran out of steam at the end and left it dangling, but overall I think it was a decent debate. May get back to it one day.)

    By the way, there’s no danger of me using such histrionics here. I understand Miranda Celeste’s rules and standards. I’m in favour of the ‘many approaches’ strategy, and my favoured approach is but one of many effective approaches.

  44. […] & On the “my friends write great blog posts” note, be sure to check out Brother Blackford’s wise and thoughtful commentary on the issues discussed in my recent post about American Atheists. […]

  45. Steve Zara says:

    Ah the RRS. I don’t know that much about them, other than that their leader calls himself Brian Sapient. That kind of false name for anonymity is such an original idea. I can’t help but try it out myself. From now on, when I want anonymity I shall be known as Lucien H. Cerebro

    • Wonderist says:

      The nick-name was actually given to him by Jake of the now defunct Atheist Network, after Brian deconverted. He had already been known as Brian at that point.

      I don’t think it’s such a bad name, actually. What species are we? Homo sapiens. Going from believing you’re God’s chosen to believing you’re a product of evolution. Seems a shift downwards towards humility, in comparison. He used to have an avatar of a rhesus monkey with glasses on to make the point.

      In any case, I’m not here to defend this or that perceived character flaw. At the end of the day, focusing on those things is equivalent to ad hominem, IMO. In fact, I think it’s symptomatic of the whole ‘throwing people under the bus whom you simply disagree with’ thing I talked about in the ‘Still Unapologetic’ post. Is it actually wrong to adopt a pseudonym such as Brian Sapient? No? So why go there? Would you think it is a relevant criticism if someone said they thought you were pretentious for wearing that hat in your photo? (I’m not saying that, I’m just pointing out the parallel.) Personally, I would think such a criticism would be worse than irrelevant.

  46. Steve Zara says:

    “What species are we? Homo sapiens”

    According to recent findings, as a European I’m part Neanderthal.

    “Is it actually wrong to adopt a pseudonym such as Brian Sapient? No? So why go there?”

    I make no moral judgements.

    “Would you think it is a relevant criticism if someone said they thought you were pretentious for wearing that hat in your photo?”

    No, but if they didn’t like my hat, I see no problem with them saying so. If the cap fits….

    “Personally, I would think such a criticism would be worse than irrelevant.”

    Not if I was wearing a hat with “I’m Cerebro” on it.

    Here’s a question though – if someone had given Brian the nickname “Brian Plonker”, what effect would that have had?

    • Wonderist says:

      Well if you’re just making a joke, I have no problem with that, obviously. I thought you were going somewhere with that. My mistake.

      “Not if I was wearing a hat with “I’m Cerebro” on it. ”

      Yes, even then. Ad hom is ad hom.

      “Here’s a question though – if someone had given Brian the nickname “Brian Plonker”, what effect would that have had?”

      It wasn’t just ‘someone’, was it? By the way, how is your question relevant?

      • Steve Zara says:

        “Well if you’re just making a joke, I have no problem with that, obviously. I thought you were going somewhere with that. My mistake.”

        Someone can be both making a joke and going somewhere.

        “Yes, even then. Ad hom is ad hom.”

        An ad hom is only an ad hom if it’s irrelevant to a point being made. If no point is being made, it’s not an ad hom.

        “It wasn’t just ‘someone’, was it? By the way, how is your question relevant?”

        Perhaps it isn’t. Just call me Lucien.

        • Wonderist says:

          “Someone can be both making a joke and going somewhere.”

          True. Are you saying that is the case regarding your comment about Sapient? I’m not following you.

          “An ad hom is only an ad hom if it’s irrelevant to a point being made. If no point is being made, it’s not an ad hom.”

          I agree. But how is that relevant to my comment? How would it be relevant to criticize you for wearing a hat saying, “I’m Cerebro”? What would that prove?

  47. Ryan Hayle says:

    You’re right. He is arguing for the eradication of believers. What you don’t seem to realize, is that “believers” can be eradicated in more than one way. By educating these people and convincing them of the error in their primitive belief systems, you have essentially eradicated a “Christian fundamentalist” because one no longer exists, though the person lives on. Of course I don’t actually think it is possible to successfully educate and convince every fundamentalist like that, and I accept that at that point one is left with few options to “eradicate” the fundamentalist short of killing them, but I really do not get the impression that that is what the author was proposing. The general point of the post is still valid, that we as a society need to stop hiding behind a shield of “religious tolerance” in order to allow hateful belief systems, wherever they exist. This does not require any generalizations about what people believe.

    • Yo Saxman says:

      I think there should be a bounty on believers’ heads, say $10 a piece. save for the women who have not known a man. Let them be divided amongst the bounty hunters. How fuckin biblical can we get? fair, just, loving, like their god. more so, even. I didnt include their livestock.
      wouldn’t this make a lot of great new episodes of, ‘Dog, the Bounty Hunter’, which is god spelled backward.
      And when we run out of believers, we can include the Spiritualists. More unscientific, irrational bullshit that needs exterminated.
      The only one that is a constant problem, though, are the Hindus. those fuckers keep coming back, again and again.

  48. Mrinalini says:

    Radical Islamists and Christian fundamentalists have more dissimilarities than similarities. In fact, the differences outnumber the similarities… can you provide a few examples?
    After reading this article, I felt you have a kind of radical Islamist attitude towards this issue … There is no God but one God. You are a believer and you have every right to believe , however you have a responsibility to let the people not to retain a belief , how far ridiculous and intimidating it may seem to you.

  49. CAZ says:

    Stefanelli’s arguments are callous, unsupported, ridiculous, and potentially quite dangerous. On this I totally agree with you Miranda. The other good point you have made is we are not sure if Stefanelli critiques are towards beliefs or believers. I would also add that he’s an expert on propaganda too.

    As much as anti-theism is an anathema to me, it would not take me a Herculean effort to respect Al’s militant atheism if it really was motivated by compassion and empathy towards the victims of religion. But I feel that he’s serving more his self interest. He loves the attention he gets from thousands that read his articles, and I also believe he makes a lot of noise to promote marketing for his book. Honestly I don’t feel like wasting hard earned money on a book that I will question if it’s scientifically accurate or more like science fiction.

    I’m not siding with Christians nor atheists here, but I respect when both groups are able to debate peacefully instead of the belittlement and the mud slinging we find often on the Internet. Contrary to what Stefanelli wants us to believe, there are many Christians and atheists that are friends in the world. But instead , I believe he wants to keep a subdivision between the two groups. He wants them to keep fighting, because I believe that is his real intention.

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