January 2, 2008

Review of the Rational Response Squad

When I asked what you thought of the Rational Response Squad, I did so because I wanted to hear your thoughts without my influence. That is, I wanted to know what you thought about them and not simply whether you agreed or disagreed with my views. Now it is time to share my opinion.

The most common category of criticism I have seen directed at the Rational Response Squad (RRS) involves the question of whether their tactics produce more harm than good for atheists. This is by no means the only criticism, but it is common common enough that it provides a natural starting point.

RRS Tactics: More Harm or More Good?

Let me cut to the chase and say that I come down on the "more good" side of this debate. That is, I think their presence and even their aggressive tactics benefit us more than they cost us. But this is an indirect benefit, and understanding it requires us to realize what the RRS is and what it is not.

The RRS has been fairly clear that they have no interest in representing atheism or promoting any sort of atheist movement. They strike me as far more of an anti-theism group than an atheist one. They are here to attack religion, and they seek a world where there is no need for an atheist label at all. Thus, I do not believe it is fair to say that they make the atheist movement, a movement which they reject, look bad. We need to evaluate them based on what they are trying to accomplish instead of what we might wish they were seeking to do. And when it comes to attacking religion, I think they do a pretty good job.

I agree that they can seem immature at times, but I think this is a good thing. They are far better able to reach a younger target audience than I can. As a high-profile group of young people, they are in a unique position to show other young people what is wrong with religion. This is exactly what they are doing, and they are doing it with energy, passion, and attitude. Yes, their message is aggressive. But that works in this context.

What We Can Learn From the RRS

Personally, I love the aggressive, in-your-face manner in which they go after theists. They are strong, bold, and full of confidence. If they had been around when I was 16, they would have been my heroes! Even now, I think their obvious passion is inspiring. Even if they don't want to be a part of the atheist movement, I can't help feeling that they energize it. They are a breath of fresh air in a sometimes stale endeavor.

You can argue, as many have, that their aggressive approach only lends credence to the widespread persecution complex many Christians have. There may be some truth to this criticism, but I'd submit that this complex will persist regardless of external reality. Christians feel persecuted because that is part of their identity. A little thing like reality will not change that.

I also admire the relentless marketing and self-promotion of the RRS. They are all over the Internet, seem to have a hand in everything, and are doing more than I ever could have imagined to inform others about their efforts. Regardless of what you think of their tactics, you simply have to be impressed with their marketing success.

What the RRS Can Learn From the Rest of Us

Brian Sapient says that he and his group are interested in constructive criticism. I'll offer a few suggestions along these lines.

First and most important, it sometimes seems that RRS members have a chip on their collective shoulder that interferes with what might be productive relationships with other atheists. Again and again, I've seen them attack first and apologize later. I understand that they feel constantly attacked by both theists and atheists and that they have probably learned that it is wise to expect attacks. However, this ends up alienating many potential supporters and contributes to the impression many atheists have of the RRS as overly hostile to atheists. Even if they have little interest in being part of a larger atheist community, it seems that collaboration, cooperation, and some degree of mutual respect with other atheists would only enhance their goals.

Let me be clear that I am not saying the RRS cannot play nice with others. They have done wonderful things for their friends (e.g., Margaret Downey, Greydon Square, etc.). But I think they would enhance their own success by working with atheists outside of their immediate circle and increasing their tolerance for criticism from such sources. Attacking atheists who criticize them is counterproductive.

A second and admittedly minor suggestion - I wish they could move past Kelly's physical appearance. It seems to come up over and over again, sometimes even in the posts themselves. I haven't spent much time in their forums because I find them poorly organized and confusing to navigate, but even if readers regularly come to comment on Kelly's appearance, I see little reason for the RRS to keep making an issue of it. Just ignore the juvenile comments and get on with what they are doing. I am interested in what Kelly has to say about religion, atheism, and other relevant topics, and would like to hear more from her. However, I feel like I've heard plenty about her appearance.

Finally, the main RRS website is something of a mess. I feel like I spend more time looking for what I want to read than reading it. Since I know this is too vague to be helpful, let me point specifically to having several blog feeds on the main page, all of which open in windows that use the same background and graphics of the main page. It seems like a strange hybrid between a group blog and an individual blog that makes for awkward use. When I come looking for a post that Sapient wrote, I never know if it will be on the main page or if I'll have to hunt for the feeds to Sapient's blog (which looks exactly the same as every other page). I wish they'd do this sort of thing instead of trying to put all the member blogs on the main site.

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