Responding To Anti-Atheist Bigotry: Go on Offense or Play Defense?

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When I encounter bigotry, I often feel obliged to speak out. This reaction isn't limited to anti-atheist bigotry. I also experience it in cases of racism, gay bashing, sexism, and the like. I find myself thinking that by remaining silent, I am condoning the behavior. My silence communicates that it is okay with me, and that pushes me to speak out. Still, I'm not always sure how best to respond in these situations. This started me thinking about how atheists should respond to the bigotry directed at us.

When confronted with anti-atheist bigotry, what is the atheist to do? Silence doesn't seem to be our best option, so what is? What sort of response is optimal?

I realize that what I am about to say is a gross oversimplification. The choice of how to respond will depend on the specifics of the situation. My hope is that this may provide a starting point for discussion.

Responses can be primarily offensive, in the sense of going on the attack, or defensive in nature. An offensive response could involve moving past the insult to criticize religion. A defensive response would involve an attempt to correct the misconceptions inherent in the bigotry, educating the bigot about atheism. As an example, consider the following conversation between two Christians (after all, many Christians are not known for their tolerance):

Christian #1: "There go those stupid atheists again, whining about Christmas. Can't they understand that America is a Christian nation? If they don't like it, they should just leave."

Christian #2: "Yeah, I think they are just depressed this time of year. Think about it - without god's love, they must be miserable. I'm surprised they aren't all suicidal this time of year!"

An offensive response would go beyond clearing up the misconceptions evident here. It would go on the attack by aiming at the idiocy of the speakers' belief system.

"Stupid atheists, huh? It sounds like you are the ones ignorant of American history here. This country was founded as a secular democracy. In fact, the founders explicitly rejected the whole Christian nation garbage! And if you really want to talk about being miserable, let's look at this god you actually worship for a minute..."

The tone of the response is not what I'm trying to highlight as much as the focus. This atheist not defending a position as much as they are attacking that of the speakers. A defensive response might look something more like this:

"This just shows how little you know about atheists. We don't believe in any sort of gods, so why would we be depressed over them? You probably don't spend much time being sad that unicorns might not like you, right? Many of us are just as happy as you are this time of year. We get some time off work and get to spend it with our families."

This response is more concerned with setting the record straight with regard to atheism than with criticizing what the Christians believe.

In the United States, Christians have come to expect the defensive response from atheists. It is often the one they receive. Many of us feel more comfortable with this sort of response. It may strike us as being more polite, socially acceptable, or even more rational. We might justify it by telling ourselves that we are refraining from sinking to their level. But defensive responding, especially when it becomes our habitual method of responding, comes at a cost. By falling into this cycle (i.e., Christian attacks, atheist defends), we become complicit in the taboo against criticizing religious belief. Atheism but not theism is fair to criticize.

I wouldn't suggest we abandon defensive responding for offensive responding. I do wonder whether a better balance might be warranted. I don't want to foster the common view that religious belief is somehow exempt from criticism. Atheism, once one understands what it is, needs no defense. In contrast, religious belief often seems indefensible.

This is a revised and expanded version of a post that originally appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007.

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