December 19, 2011

Atheist Tactics: Dave Silverman and Hemant Mehta

Dave Silverman (American Atheists) recently wrote the following in a Facebook post:
Never give up a right without a fight. I will defame Islam if I want to. It doesn't mean I hate Muslims. It means Islam is a shitty religion that worships a pedophile as morally perfect.
He was then criticized by Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist), not for the accuracy of his statement but the tone and likely impact. After explaining that he was not suggesting Dave keep his opinions to himself, Hemant wrote:
But I have a hard time understanding what good comes from posts like this. If I hadn’t heard of American Atheists, then this post doesn’t make me want to become a member. If the post makes people want to join, then I need to rethink my own membership. (I’m sure some atheists just said “Good riddance.”)
I like where Hemant is headed with this because he's looking at things pragmatically. He's not questioning Dave's right to say what he said but the likely impact. In other words, he's asking about whether statements like this accomplish anything positive. This is a valid question.

Hemant writes:
I’ll say this carefully because I’m sure a bunch of you will take issue with it: I don’t care if your statement is true. If you come off as a jerk when you say it — and Dave’s message reads like a bully’s taunt on the playground — you’re not winning anyone worthwhile over to your side.
Again, he's placing the focus squarely on the likely impact of the statement. He concludes that Dave's statement "does more harm than good." While I respect his analysis and really like the fact that he's asking precisely the sort of questions that should be asked, I came to a somewhat different conclusion.

To my mind, Dave's statement must be considered with two different audiences in mind: atheists and religious believers. When it comes to the likely impact of his statement on religious believers, Hemant is probably right in that most will likely have a negative reaction to the statement. When someone feels attacked, it is only natural for them to become defensive, making them less open to the message. At the same time, I do believe that mockery can be an effective tactic in reaching some believers. So for this audience, I'd suggest that Hemant is correct about most religious believers but certainly not all.

But what about the atheists in Dave's audience? Honestly, I think many atheists reading Dave's words are going to experience a reaction along the lines of, "Hell yeah! Nice to see someone standing up to religious idiocy!" As members of a hated minority, I think it is natural for us to have this sort of reaction. We are tired of being demonized, and many of us are ready to push back. We like the fact that Dave can be not just coldly rational but also show some appropriate anger. We respond to his passion. For us, I think that messages like this have their place and can actually help to energize and empower us.

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