Aggressive vs. Friendly Atheism: Misleading Labels Get Us Nowhere

On the subject of "aggressive" vs. "friendly" atheism, Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) argues that there are more similarities than differences. For example, he notes that both types of atheists "want to both increase the respectability of the atheist viewpoint while at the same time persuading others that it’s the most rational point of view." That sounds reasonable to me. But I have to part ways with Mehta in his description of "aggressive" atheists:

The difference is that the “aggressive” types don’t care who they offend. They’ll go after religion in all its forms — it doesn’t matter if they criticize the Vatican or the local church down the street or your sweet neighbor who happens to be religious.

As someone who has frequently been accused of aggressive atheism, I don't think it is about not caring who I offend as much as it is recognizing that someone who believes ridiculous things has no reasonable expectation of people pretending otherwise.


I certainly do care who I offend, and I go out of my way many times each and every day to conduct myself in a less offensive manner. I am frequently polite when I don't want to be, particularly around matters of religious delusion. I don't point and laugh when someone prays in public at a restaurant. I don't reply, "Now why the hell would I want to do that?" when a co-worker invites me to a Christmas party even though that is precisely the thought that goes through my head. I do not mock the religious beliefs of my friends unless I feel that they have opened the door to such mockery by proselytizing.

Does any of this make me friendly? No. I am probably one of the least friendly people I've encountered, and I'm content with that. When it comes to atheism, I am perfectly willing to place myself on the aggressive side of the spectrum. At least, I would be if I thought it was meaningful to talk about "aggressive atheism."

It sounds to me like what Hemant is really claiming is that "friendly" atheists choose their battles while "aggressive" atheists do not. But I don't think that is an accurate claim. Nobody has the time, money, and energy to fight every battle. We all choose our battles.

I would much rather keep as allies those religious people who do things like support sound science, fight for equal rights for the GLBT community, and believe in separation of church and state.

I don't disagree with any of this. What Hemant seems to mistake as a trait of the "friendly" atheist sounds a lot like pragmatism. I have no more interest than he does in wanting to drive away potential allies. What I am not going to do is pretend to accept their religious delusion. I don't think Hemant would do so either.

Hemant spends more time musing over atheist tactics on his blog than any other atheist blogger I've encountered. I think this is a good thing because tactics are important. My only criticism is that his analysis often seems overly focused on attempting to justify the place of "friendly" atheists. I don't think "friendly" atheists require any justification; they are an important part of a functioning whole. But then, I suppose I've always preferred a "big tent" atheism over internal division.