Should Atheists Be Expected to Repudiate Stupid Statements from Prominent Atheists?

Pat Robertson
Paparazzo presents a photo of televangelist Pat Robertson taken during his February 12, 2006 Operation Blessing visit to Victory Fellowship Church in Metairie, Louisiana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When a prominent Christian figure, such as Pat Robertson or Bill Donohue, says something incredibly stupid, what are you certain to hear from atheists? You will hear us call on the liberal to moderate Christians to repudiate their comments. We know the liberal and moderate Christians do not agree with them, and their silence drives us crazy because we see it as enabling the extremism to continue. I think we are correct here. If faith can serve as acceptable justification for their beliefs, it can justify the extremists' beliefs. And so, we repeatedly call on the liberal and moderate Christians to disown their extremist brethren. If they really want us to believe that the extremists do not represent them, we insist, they need to stand up and publicly say so.

Suppose a moderate Christian responded to us by explaining that the reason he or she is not doing this is that to do so might lend credibility or attention to the extremist. Would we accept this as a reasonable excuse? I don't think we would. I think we would point out that the extremist already has an audience and that letting him or her continue to make outrageous statements without expressing disagreement makes it look like there is minimal disagreement. I do not think we would let the moderate Christian off the hook here; I think we'd still want him or her to repudiate what the extremist said.

Now suppose that the moderate Christian responded instead by explaining that he or she does not repudiate the extremist has to do with his or her concern that making waves in the Christian community would make them all look bad. Wouldn't our retort be that the extremist is already making them look bad and that they are contributing to it through their silence? I do not think we would view this as a valid reason for not speaking out.

And what if our moderate Christian were to respond by saying that he or she fears the extremist and does not want to incur his or her wrath, preferring to remain silent so as not to make an enemy of the prominent extremist? Would not we accuse the moderate of cowardice? Would not we retort that this is an incredibly poor reason to hold one's tongue and that this sort of appeasement merely empowers the extremist?

What About the Muslims?

When a prominent Muslim figure says something stupid (e.g., calls for the death of an individual for having the guts to express himself or herself), atheists and Christians alike demand that the moderate Muslims speak out. We point out how remaining silent enables the extremists, and we quickly lose patience with those who quietly say that Islam is being misrepresented but will not dare to speak out publicly.

When the moderate Muslim claims that he or she keeps quiet so as not to give the extremist extra attention, provide the extremist with a larger platform, or lend credibility to the extremist, we point out that the extremist already has a platform from which to speak and an audience to address which already views him or her as credible. When the moderate Muslim expresses concern about creating unwanted conflict in the Muslim community because it might make them all look bad, we note that the extremist is already making them look bad and that their silence is making it even worse. And yes, when the moderate Muslim says that he or she fears reprisal, we remind him or her that this sort of appeasement strengthens the extremist.

And How About the Atheists?

If you agree with me so far, I'd like to ask you to consider why we atheists often make the same excuses as the moderate Christians and moderate Muslims when it comes to how we deal with prominent atheists who say stupid things. When a prominent atheist says something incredibly stupid, why do we hesitate to repudiate, rebut, or otherwise distance ourselves from them?

We sometimes claim that we avoid doing so because we do not want to give the prominent atheist added publicity (e.g., we do not want to talk about Freethought Blogs because we think that doing so may drive traffic to their network). But like we tell the Christian moderates and the Muslim moderates, the prominent atheists in our community already have a large platform. We sometimes insist that we wish to avoid conflict in the atheist community and that continued infighting makes us look bad (e.g., civility pledges). But like we tell the religious moderates, some of these prominent atheists are already making us all look bad. And we sometimes say that we are afraid to speak out because we do not want to the the prominent atheist's next target (e.g., the next "witch of the week"). We'd rather keep our heads down and avoid the fray. But like we tell the religious moderates, our silence implies agreement and empowers the extremist (I am reluctant to use the phrase "atheist extremist" because I do not think that atheism is what our extremist types tend to be extreme about).

Again and again, we make the same excuses we reject from the Christian moderates and Muslim moderates. Is this a true blind spot, hypocrisy, apathy, or what? Do we really think that we can make a real difference in the publicity or traffic of some of our prominent atheists? I think we might be fooling ourselves. Are we really worried that expressing our disagreement with some of our fellow atheists will harm our community? I don't buy it. Are we really that afraid that we will be their next target? I doubt it. We don't accept these excuses from moderate Christians or moderate Muslims.

Where does this lead us? If it is realistic for us to expect liberal to moderate Christians or Muslims to publicly repudiate statements from prominent Christians or Muslims which make Christianity or the Christian community (or Islam or the Muslim community) look bad, then it seems that we should expect atheists to publicly repudiate statements from prominent atheists which make atheism or the atheist community look bad.

If my reference to "stupid statements" bothers you because you are hung up on "ableist language," please feel free to replace it with "statements with which we disagree." It does not change the essential question: if we expect moderate Christians or Muslims to repudiate statements from prominent Christians or Muslims with which they disagree, shouldn't we also expect atheists to repudiate statements from prominent atheists with which we disagree?