April 22, 2011

The Support of New Atheism

Chris Mooney has a new post up about a study showing positive anti-prejudicial effects of the message that atheists exist, in number, in society. He sees this as a plus for New Atheists, but still adds cautions:

The tactic finding support here is not necessarily being confrontational–that would tend to prompt negative emotional reactions, and thus defensiveness and inflexibility towards New Atheist arguments–but rather, making it more widely known that you’re actually there–as “out” atheists try to do:

Josh Roseneau expands on that point:

But New Atheism is hardly the only way for atheists - or nontheists more generally - to get the word out that they're here and want to be taken seriously. It's a myth that there's no such thing as bad publicity: if no one knows who you are, it's all the more crucial to present yourself well. And for the reasons Chris alludes to above, and for reasons I've laid out ad nauseam, I don't think New Atheism is the best way to present atheism.

All right. Here's the thing. Actually, no, let me tell you a little story first.

I work in an office where people around me routinely talk about their weekend plans with their church groups. I can walk into the kitchenette for water for tea, hear someone talk about the bad influences their kids are hanging with, and know that by the time I'm done (our hot water is glacially slow) I'll hear that the reason is that these kids just don't go to church!

It's the only place I've ever worked where someone visibly prayed before meals. Sexual minorities are underrepresented and pretty well closeted. Despite the fact that I hosted an atheist radio show for six months, two people in the office know I'm an atheist.

Then, yesterday. We have a whiteboard outside the kitchenette that can be used for announcements. Usually it's used for silly questions like, "Have you filed your taxes yet?" or "Who's your pick to win the NCAA tournament." Yesterday, the question was, "What are your Easter/Passover traditions?"

It hadn't been answered. The hallway was quiet, but people would be grabbing and heating lunches soon. Quickly, I wrote, "None. No religion."

Shortly, I needed more water. Someone had written underneath, "Eating ham." Someone else had drawn an arrow to my comment from theirs. "That's okay. Diversity is for all."

Yes, I know. Even for me. When I'm willing to go to the work to make that happen. Glad it's "okay," though.

When I washed my lunch dishes, someone else had answered. "Celebrating our lord and savior. Christ is risen!!!" The first sentence is a paraphrase. The last, including all three exclamation points, is not.

By about 2 p.m., the board had been erased and the content replaced with information about texting while driving. There was an article in yesterday's paper about enforcement, but the law isn't new.

Did I increase someone's awareness? Probably. Did I leave a mark on someone's prejudices? Maybe. Did I deal with stupid crap, from patronage to a defensive Christian to erasure, in doing it? Yeah.

It happens, but that's my point. As part of the least trusted demographic in a country where the populace is being continually fed a line about how we are attacking them, this stuff always happens. It's annoying. It's nervous-making. It's tiring. And it's really damned hard to find people who think the responses aren't just something I should expect if I answer a question about religion--even at work--with an answer that questions the assumption of religion.

Enter the New Atheists. Enter the loud-mouthed confrontationalists who aren't going to see people behave that way without doing their best to make it quite clear that this behavior in unacceptable. Enter the support team, the cheering squad, the clearers of obstacles. Enter the people who, as PZ Myers' described his role last year at CONvergence, get angry for those of who aren't allowed to. Enter the people who make others angry so I don't have to. Enter the people who put all these topics into the mainstream in ways that can't be ignored so I don't have to explain myself endlessly every time I identify myself.

Without them, you would hear less from me. Without me, you would hear less from a rather large number of my friends. Far too many of them had no support for the idea that being nonreligious doesn't have to mean being invisible when the subject is discussed.

Do the New Atheists do the kind of work that the study says is effective in dismantling prejudices? Well, that largely comes down to how you define New Atheists. But even at the most restrictive, strident, obnoxious definitions, the New Atheists support that work.

If they don't do it themselves, it still wouldn't happen without them.


Glendon Mellow said...

Yes. Yes yes and yes.

By speaking plainly, someone is always bound to be offended. But it clears the intellectual space and helps make a new normal where diversity is actually unspokenly okay.

Becca said...

Hey, you don't need religion to gorge on cadbury eggs thrown into a blender with peeps and ice cream (HT: @SUEtheTrex)

Stephanie Zvan said...

Oof. For that, I might need religion.

daedalus2u said...

This story reminds me of the New Yorker cartoon that had the Easter Bunny being crucified on a tax form.


Mr.Cope said...

Nicely put and explained. We need all types to make it livable and easier for those who normally couldn't voice their opinions. We are outnumbered and in many areas persecuted.

Dan J said...

It's odd. The more clearly I make my position known, the more support I'm getting from people in our local community who are religious, but aren't "evangelists." It's a good feeling.

Mike Haubrich, FCD said...

No, there is nothing new in the "New Atheism," other than they (we) are not willing to condescend and patronize religious people just to make feel okay about accepting evolution.

I like the way that Sam Harris put it. I have a quote on it at my blog:


The accomodationists and the "concerned" attacked without provocation. Perhaps they felt "privileged" and are defending their turf which I see Josh Rosenau doing.

Stephanie Zvan said...

You know, I get that outspoken atheism violates etiquette imperatives and can make life harder for people doing political jobs. However, every movement that resulted (or is resulting) in something more closely approaching equal rights for all happened while something else was going on. We never have the luxury of solving just one problem at a time.

Josh Rosenau said...

I'd say that nothing in particular about your response strikes me as New Atheist. I imagine they'd object to your saying "no religion" rather than "atheist," not least because they criticize agnostics for not calling ourselves atheist.

Also, I'd say that the "no religion" response is different from NAism because its only about your practices, not about others practices. I'd expect an NA response to have gone further: perhaps criticizing celebrations of "fairy tales" like the resurrection or Exodus.

Your response seems perfect to me, and some more confrontational approach would likely have a negative effect on your relationship with your co-workers. And quite possibly on their perception of atheists, too. Minds don't change in an instant, but because of long-term engagement, and this seems like a good step in that process.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I imagine they'd object to your saying "no religion" rather than "atheist," not least because they criticize agnostics for not calling ourselves atheist.

Well, given how many people have read this, and the fact that none of them have objected, I think that stays firmly in the realm of imagination.

Josh, you seem to have stopped reading or stopped absorbing the post sometime before I said, "Enter the New Atheists." That part is important. In fact, it's the point of the post.

Glendon Mellow said...

Josh, what part of Stephanie's response to her co-workers is "perfect"? She felt the need look around and write quickly before anyone else came in - the religious supremacy at work is already in place.

Stephanie's response was a calculated and measured one in a workplace she's familiar with. But calling it "perfect" when she's compelled to tiptoe around the swaggering religious messages on the board is a bit much.