Is There Such Thing as Friendly Atheism?

I’ve been wondering lately. I don’t consider myself an atheist, based on the deist to atheist spectrum where deists believe in some sort of god, agnostics aren’t sure, and atheists believe there is not a god. As a Christian, I saw atheism as willful ignorance, much as many atheists think of Christians. I’ve discovered that the updated definition of atheism is construed more broadly, including a range of beliefs from the militant anti-religionist to the mild-mannered secularist. I’m still not comfortable with the label because it seems to set up its identity in reaction to deism, and most often, Christianity. I have heard the argument before that atheism is more original than deism, but for all practical purposes, those who don’t profess religious affiliation are in the minority and thus bear a greater burden of crafting an identity than the majority, which can rest upon the status quo. For example, Richard Dawkins has claimed that the President is probably not Christian, but plays a Christian on TV because one still can’t be President without some sort of Christian belief. (I, for the record, think that he probably is a Christian in the same way that most Americans are: with little personal cost. It is not that faith has to be challenged, it is that when it is not, one doesn’t have to think through its cultural implications.)

When New Atheism began to arrive on the public scene in force after 9/11, the figures that gained the greatest press were those who said the harshest things about religion. Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and others have become known for their strident arguments against religion. (I should confess that I have only read the works of Harris in any detail, and his arguments in The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation left something to be desired, a point to which I’ll return in the future. Part of this is because of my lack of interest in the dichotomization of religion and science upon which the debate often plays out.) As a student of religion, the idea that religion should just go away leaves me incredulous, for its impracticality if nothing else. Yet I agree with many of their assessments of what religion, in its “purest” forms, can do to motivate violence and—I shudder to say the word—intolerance.

The public perception of atheism, particularly the perception of atheism by religious people, has been of interest to me because of the Patheos site, The Friendly Atheist. The blog ranks in the top ten of religious blogs, so it gets a significant bit of internet traffic. I found the site a couple months ago and was thrilled. While one can find Christian blogs absolutely everywhere, there are comparatively few blogs about secularism and atheism. Site creator Hemant Mehta and his crew put up several posts a day, and it’s a great source of information on the latest happenings on religion in public education and religion and politics in particular. It focuses primarily on the US, and thus primarily on Christianity.

What I’m disappointed by is the relative lack of, well, friendliness on the blog. While the news information speaks for itself as to the excesses of fundamentalist religion and the problems it creates, the context in which it is delivered is not usually respectful to the people in question, nor to people of religious faith as a whole. All this is unproblematic if Mehta wants to be the strident atheist or the vitriolic atheist, but the friendly atheist? I would like to have a friend who corrects me when I’m clearly wrong on something, or challenges my views if they are insufficiently thought out. However, if my “friend“ consistently berates me, he or she probably won’t stay a friend for very long.

Last month, Mehta put up a clip of his reasoning for calling his blog the Friendly Atheist. First, it was to counter Christian ideas of atheist as all hateful people. Okay, I like that. (Watch how many times he rolls his eyes in the first thirty seconds though. How would he stereotype the religious?) The second reason, he says, is that when you meet atheists in person, they are actually pretty nice, not the evil people they’re made out to be. He suggests that they may act like they’re angry in their writing, but they’re really nice people. This may be the problem, the paradigm that suggests we can get away with whatever language we want online, because we’re not face to face. Although I probably wouldn’t want to talk to them at all, I’d prefer someone that was just as insensitive in person as they are online.

The point that I’ve made before is that there’s no reason to think online discourse somehow escapes the ethical boundaries you impose on your own face-to-face communication. That is not to say that the blog has committed some egregious slander. Mehta just doesn’t articulate the connection between physical and online presence. (On this topic, Dan over at Camels with Hammers has put up a civility pledge to address this very topic. I’ve only skimmed it, but it looks good. He suggests his disappointment in a subsequent post that most atheists don’t agree with his position.)

I’ll continue to use the Friendly Atheist for the near future, because they have an excellent network of sources to aggregate religious content, but I will filter out the commentary that accompanies it. I haven’t done an extensive search for atheist approaches that are actually friendly, aside from the ones I’ve already mentioned, but I’ll let you know when I find them. There are several others to choose from on the Patheos Atheist Channel. The Friendly Atheist site, like so many of its Christian counterparts, is designed to preach to the choir. Again, that’s fine if that’s where the market is, but I’d rather see some truth-in-advertising. If Mehta and crew put in a little extra effort in to show that they respect their interlocutors (if they do), or just pull some punches on the “it’s all bulls$%t” commentary, the blog might reach some more of the presumed target audience.

(In the interest of full disclosure, when I first came across the site, I emailed and asked to be a contributor. I was put off nicely. As shown above, I’ve changed my opinion of the site a bit, although I still enjoy it and employ it here as a popular example of a type of discourse. Just didn’t want that to come back and bite me!)

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