May 7, 2019

Atheists Behaving More Reasonably Online

writing on a laptop

Just because we can do something does not necessarily mean that we should do it. I'm glad that those of us living in Western democracies have the freedom to go online and use our social media accounts to criticize religion. I recognize that this particular freedom is not limited to expressing ourselves civilly in the manner we would expect from adults. We are also free to say things we might never say to someone's face offline. We can go well beyond providing reasoned criticism of religious belief and insult religious believers, share ridiculous memes, engage in trolling, and make asses of ourselves in countless ways. I am glad that we are free to do all of this, but that should not be taken to mean I necessarily think we should do all of it.

There have been many calls for more civility among atheists over the years. Many of them have been driven by the recognition that a few atheists behaving badly on social media can strengthen the negative stereotypes many religious believers have of us. Some have undoubtedly been prompted by the sense that at least some of what many atheists are doing online is beneath anyone who claims to value reason and/or humanism. Most of these calls for increased civility have been gentle reminders that attacking others is often counterproductive if the goal is to change minds.

Jim's (Conservative Skeptic) recent post, Let's Be Better, Atheists, is an example of the sort of reminder to which I am referring. Admittedly, the post is not so much a call for civility as it is a call for "meaningful dialogue." I think that meaningful dialogue probably requires a certain measure of civility, but I am well aware that one can be civil without contributing anything meaningful. And so, I see the post as recommending that atheists make an effort to be more civil, reasonable, and thoughtful when interacting with others online.

While I do believe that the mockery of religious belief has its place, I think we need to go far beyond it if we expect to accomplish anything. And so, I think Jim is right when he says he's disappointed by how rarely many atheists seem to get to anything that could be considered meaningful dialogue. I also agree with his suggestion that "...taking the high road is the best tactic." Being treated poorly by religious believers does not justify our treating them poorly, at least not if we care about holding any sort of moral high ground.

For me, I suppose it all comes down to a desire to make sure that my behavior reflects the values I claim. If I value reason, skepticism, critical thinking, freethought, and/or humanism, my behavior should reflect it. There is no reason to give myself a pass when it comes to how I conduct myself online. In fact, I should probably strive to do even better online than I might offline because those I interact with online do not have the same context they would have for my behavior offline. When I'm online, I should work to be the best atheist ambassador I can be.