Firebrand Atheists vs. Diplomatic Atheists – Who Is More Effective?

Today upon my visit to Aron Ra’s channel to check out what he is up to, I came across this panel discussion (of sorts). It revolved around what is considered a better methodology of atheist activism, firebrand or diplomatic.

First off, previous to this, I didn’t even know that atheists also asigned a term to their less provocative alies. Ive heard the term firebrand atheist before, as have most of us. But diplomatic atheist is a new one for me. But it does not stop there. Sometimes a 3ed group (known as the accomadation atheists) are also considered. 

Though this is the first that im hearing these terms, I can’t say that it surprises me. The volcal atheist cohort tends to already label all secular people under their brand. Thus it’s not really surprising to me that this schism would also spread internally. 

But before I go into THAT  again, I’ll explore some of the terms, starting with definitions. Keep in mind that even THIS can be difficult, since the definitions can differ with the source (as illustrated by the panel discussion). 

Firebrand Atheist

American Atheists president David Silverman defines this (his) variety of atheism as (to paraphrase) “telling the truth about religion, with emphasis on the telling. Do not attack the humans, attack their silly beliefs”. I borrowed the definition from this patheos blogger , of whom uses a slightly different definition (unapologetically arguing that religion is false and harmful, including elements of polemic and ridicule, even if it causes some believers to take offense)

I think it’s safe to say that a good explanation\definition is an atheist that is willing to be vocally abrasive to all aspects of religion, no matter how it is taken.

Diplomatic Atheist

This one is even more of a mess in its usage among various individuals than the previous. Some seem to characterize this type of atheist as thinking it a bad idea to challenge religion. Others characterize them as simply being less caustic than their firebrand peers in their approach. And there may be even more definitions. 

I prefer the latter definition myself. It comes with less implications attached to it. 

This patheos article  serves as a commentary on the panel discussion link at the opening of this piece. 

Accommodation Atheist

This type of atheist seems to be characterized as being willing to respect religion as a means of earning the respect of the religous. I say seems to be characterized due to the liquid nature of the definition as acknowledged by diffrent people. 

The last 2 atheist types also seem to be lumped in as one by some people. I would argue, falsly. And I have even heard so called atheists in denial (anyone vocally calling themselves any secular adjective besides atheist) included in the accomadationist catagory. Again, falsely. How a person responds to theistic belief is irrelevant to their outward adjective. 

Though the panel discussion above ended up being very biased in favor of the firebrand viewpoint, I think that all (or at least, most) panelists eventually conseeded that they were not all that different from one another. I can agree. Even from my outsider perspective, I can see a little of each in myself. There is a time to get out the claws. There is a time to take a more thought out and tactful approach. And there are times when the best recourse is to let sleeping dogs lie. 

This panel illistrated a quite aparent lack of nuance of many atheists, even in terms of their own community. This particularly involved one member of the panel, but it persists in others to a big extent as well. Mainly (it seems) due to ones geographic location. 

First off, is the role of localized culture. In terms of religiosity, in the US, there exists a big diffrence in cultual penetration between the northern and southern states. This disparity often even exists between cities and rurel areas, anywhere. Those that are well traveled are familier with the variations, but others may not be. 

These differences also make for a big variation in how open one can be with their atheism. Someone in Las Angeles, New York, Boston, and possibly even southern  urban centres may be able to be an open atheist and anti-theist without issue. But that sort of thing can get you socially exiled from smaller environments. One would think an obvious point. But none the less, it had to be mentioned. 

Now to explore the diffrent methodologies. 

I will be honest by saying that being openly anti-theist does feel good. I often do it when refering to the idea of religion, be it here or elsewhere on social media. But when directly speaking to the faithful, I now tend to avoid such incendiary tacts. I USED to love lighting things up in the faces of Christians (online ones, of course). I was a young rebel with a just cause. But I didn’t understand the power of delusion. Or more, how directly critically engaging a persons personal beliefs and conclusions often only emboldens them. This is with ANY topic or subject, not just religion. 

To refer to the panel again,  early on, one panalist I will paraphrase said “someone has to tell these people that they are stupid for having these beliefs!”. Also in line with this more firebrand methodology, are the atheist billboards in southern states.

 First off, I should note that not all of those chosen by me were  aimed at a southern US audience. The last is obviously more at home in Utah or areas of Idaho. But none the less, the purpose is the same, as are the results. 

My first comment is that none of these (to me at least) seem all that controversial (well, aside from the last, which did make me laugh out loud). But I have become fairly desensitized to the whole sacred cow aspect of dealing with all things religion. For example, I recently said “Fuck the holy ghost!” to a (very hypocritical) Christian friend of mine, which was met with shock that I didn’t expect.

I don’t take it with any seriousness, obviously. And I guess I assumed that the person would not take it with much seriousness either, being a big fan of premarital sex and AT LEAST a three time home wrecker of 2 engagements and a marriage. But I guess I forgot just how well some can blissfully ignore such lackings in ethics, despite being hyper aware (and bigoted) against others (like homosexuality). 

First off, l am not against premarital sex in any way. As long as it’s legal, safe and consensual, have some primally driven fun. But breaking up relationships or marriages is frowned upon by almost any standard of ethics or morality. Not to mention the whole “he without sin cast the first stone” thing. 

The firebrand approach I took with that person is uncharacteristic of what my normal recourse would be. I would not go barging into my local church uttering blasphemous statements. Don’t get me wrong, it would be hilarious to me (and any other closet or budding non believers in attendance). But despite it seeming not all that bad in this case, it’s not my normal approach. 

To go back to where I left off before that tangent, I have some difficulty in appreciating just how controversial many of the  anti-theistic billboard’s can be. Though where I live is far from any measure of progressive (and arguably almost the worst in Canada for backwards ideals), here, having an overt anti-theistic stance is not exactly a death sentence (figuratively OR literally). 

Being caustic to religion and condemning racial bias is not always popular, but it won’t wreck your social standing. Granted, this is anecdotal to my life. And I live within an urban environment (things may be drastically different in any of the many smaller communities surrounding my city of residence). But I would not really fear being an openly atheist (or secular) activist, if I was so inclined. 

I suspect that the same can be said for many fans of the firebrand form of atheist activism. Working within organizations likely based in large metropolitan areas, and continually surrounded by like minded individuals (the secular convention circuit in a nutshell), I can understand how the reality of many areas outside of that bubble may not be considered (aside from those that came from the thick of it, of course). 

But even if that observation is unfair (or wrong), the open hostility of the firebrand Atheist towards religion can still do more harm than good. To reference the panel discussion again, I would never call a believer stupid anymore (or otherwise go to ad hominem). Yes, I have fairly regularly in the past. And I have even recently when the person seemed more malicious than good. But its no longer an initial reaction.

The insult could in fact be true (even though that is the nature of such conversations. EVERYONE thinks the opposition is stupid!). But it also ensures that the conversation ends, and the person shuts down. And not only that, it could tarnish any future chance of such discussion. As such, I do not think it is really all that helpful for organizations to be putting up caustic (at least to the religious community) billboard’s in very religous areas. If the goal is to normalize and destigmatize Atheism, slapping the face of those misinformed of the benign concept seems extremely antithetical. 

I should first make something clear. Not all firebrand atheists resort automatically to insults. Indeed, some do. However, its more about being honest about religion. Whether they feel that religion is dangerous, or that it just offers nothing of value to society (often both), this is more what the term entails.

While being in your face and brutally honest is good in some circumstances, this is not always the best course of action. First off, I get why people would do it. I get why people would enjoy doing it to. Be it  downplaying and condemning religion to devot believers, or paying for secular oriented billboards in the heart of fundamentalist Christian or Mormon country, it can be fun to poke the snakes nest. When I am filling a bottom shelf at work (thus, on my knees) and some moron comes up to me and says “say a word for me, won’t you!”, I would love to say a prayer to Satan. Maybe one of these days I will. 

Directly confronting some problems is the best course of action. But not so much with internal beliefs (particularly if they are life long, not to mention potentially proped up by misguided education systems). In terms of macro situations (like billboard’s), the act could instill hostility instead of inspire thought. If a segment of the population already has a negative perception of atheists and\or Atheism, this will only play into and confirm that bias. Rather than make it easier for atheists and secular individuals to come out, you make it more difficult. 

As for the micro level (face to face or online conversation), taking on religious beliefs directly is not always best idea since (contrary to what we often tell ourselves) this often makes people just dig in deeper. This goes for any topic really (a notable 2ed to religion being politics). But this is particularly so, when the belief is reality (at least to the person).

I have not figured out how to really get around this hurdle and drawback of said conversations. As such, most of the time, I try to stand back. Some could call that being accommodationist. I view it as more, not making the problem any worse. 

Speaking of which, during the panel, Aron made a comment about smart minds like Neil Degrasse Tyson and other scientist’s being accommodationist for using labels like agnostic (instead of atheist). While unsurprising and annoying, I’ll get back to this later. 

First off, indeed, accommodationist Atheism can be destructive if left unchecked in the presence of religious zeal. Though this particular set of terms likley didn’t exist in her day, Madelyn Murray O’Hare had a lot to say about accommodationist atheists. Of course, she is using the same dicotamy that is common today (non-believer = Atheist). But none the less, the rest of the criticism is spot on.  I remember when I first heard this, how enlightening it was. It’s not a case of fighting for a secular state that never was. It’s more, a case of gaining back what was lost to inaction and self interest. It’s almost unbelievable that the US federal government was once hostile towards organized religion (namely Christianity). 

But as in other contexts, it is ridiculous to burden the sons with the sins of the forefathers. Original sin is stupid, no matter what the context. Even if past atheists\secularists mucked up a once secular nation to be proud of, todays generation is trying to help reverse the damage. That is what matters. 

One place one can start towards that long-term goal is cohesion.

First off, for those that like to categorize atheist activism by type (firebrand, diplomatic, accommodationist), stop. For one thing, the terms as defined and understood are often so variable that they only add unnecessary friction. And for another, to borrow from one of the panelists, all of these methods should be viewed more as tools. One is not likely going to get good results by hammering in a screw, or using a screw driver on a nail. Each job requires a different tool (or set of tools).

Another step towards the goal of cohesion is to lay off this dogmatic and ridiculous requirement that EVERY non-believer HAS to identify as an atheist. When I hear how some of these people speak (“I was lying to myself that I was *whatever* before I accepted that I was an atheist!”), they remind me of their opposing zealots! 

But that is just the way of a world that is unfamiliar to the nuances that even a light education in philosophy can bring. Definitions of ambiguous terms become the irronicly rigid rules of an area that is otherwise outside of the boundaries of scientifically proven reality. But even if that intellectual criticism will never be considered by most (however terribly it was proposed, being I am without any post secondary experience), a good argument for laying off this intolerance is the endgame itself. 

I have said it many times now. Other people have also said it many times before me. And it even came up in the panel discussion (to paraphrase, “maybe we need to acknowledge that we need more words than atheist to build a voting block”). A notion that Aron would of course quickly dispel. As is typical of his type.

Though I respect Aron for his many efforts in making his nation (and the world) a genuinely better place, like everyone else, he is not spot on with everything. Though many atheists do it by assertion, when confronted (by either an audience member or a panelist, not sure which), he flat out claimed to know better than anyone using an alternate secular term to atheist. Quite an intolerant statement for a member of a cohort that supposedly praises critical thought and free thinking. 

Should atheists be more inclusive in their work in building a voting block of secular values? Yes. 

Take a page from religion. 

Even though there are a huge number of factions in existence, this does not cause them much grief in holding onto the status quo.  It would seem that they learned to put those differences aside when a more important common goal necessitated it. Right from when the secular minded first let their guard down, to this day. They may not see eye to eye, but when priorities dictate, they cooperate.

Atheists should not be walking around and treating Atheism as though it is as proven as the sun’s existence. It is merely one of many possible solutions to a complex problem. Some of the other solutions may be temporary, silly, or otherwise disagreeable. But really, when compared to what is to be gained by swallowing pride and being just a LITTLE more accepting, the drawbacks become minor. 

Many of these preachers of dogmatic Atheism love to say that if everyone would just accept what they are (atheist!), then atheists could have damn near a third of the national population (more than Catholics! As said by Aron Ra many times). Indeed, that is a big number, and a big deal. 

But we could have that tommorow, with a slight change of tactic. Those of secular background are already similar to atheists. Though they do not agree on adjective, there is likley more agreement than disagreement. There is your voting block. 

Secular. Humanist. Secular Humanist. 

I don’t care what you call it. The potential is there. All that stands between that cohesion and our current lack of power, is ridiculousness and stupidity.

By many measures, the world is on fire. Were the Titanic, and the iceberg is in sight. So what are we waiting for?

A Nuclear winter?!

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