Atheists and the politics of productive engagement

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

As I noted in last week’s column, prominent spokespersons for divisive views can make their arguments in more or less divisive ways. And while we shouldn’t confuse whatever offence is caused by antagonistic expressions of a viewpoint with the legitimacy of that viewpoint, I also don’t think we should ignore the fact that persuasion becomes more difficult when your audience is pissed off.

We don’t live in a world of pure reason, even if some of us might like to. But some proponents of a secular worldview can be accused of forgetting this in their enthusiasm to banish certain myths from our lives. More crucially, they can forget that the worldviews of those they challenge are sometimes so entrenched – and preciously held – that alternatives which appear negative and hostile have little chance of gaining any traction.

This is a political rather than an epistemological point. And it is one of the reasons why we find atheists occupying different points of the landscape in this particular battle. From the mostly polite (yet no less intellectually forceful) interventions of a Daniel Dennett to the highly pugnacious PZ Myers, there’s little disagreement on the facts, yet plenty on the strategy.

Different approaches are persuasive to different audiences, and there’s no question that representatives of both extremes of the spectrum have had success in showing people that they don’t need religious metaphysics to lead a meaningful life. But when all sympathy for the importance those beliefs hold to others vanishes, charges of dogmatism and unwillingness to engage in argument are easy to level, and the interventions of a ‘militant atheist’ become that much easier to dismiss.

In short, those who think themselves on the side of reason sometimes forget that it’s not enough to be right. They also need to persuade people that they are right, and this sometimes requires more subtlety, more finesse, and more strategy than is allowed for. Beating someone about the head with your logic-stick is unlikely to have them leaving the exchange as a sympathiser, rather than as someone who has had their existing prejudices against atheists reinforced.

A case in point is the recent statement by the President of American Atheists, Dave Silverman, regarding his group’s lawsuit to prevent a piece of cross-shaped rubble from the Twin Towers being installed at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum. Silverman said that this cross would serve as a reminder to Christians “that their God, who couldn’t be bothered to stop the Muslim terrorists or prevent 3,000 people from being killed in his name, cared only enough to bestow upon us some rubble that resembles a cross.”

As Jon Stewart observed on The Daily Show, this seems a sure-fire way to get everybody – even those who were previously indifferent – to dismiss an important lobby-group as a bunch of mindless zealots. Doing so becomes even easier when you look at the content of the suit that American Atheists are filing. Alongside some reasonable-sounding words regarding the separation of church and state, and the potential bias inherent in not having all religions (as well as the non-religious) represented in the memorial, they also say some things that make them sound, well, rather irrational.

The presence of this cross at the 9/11 memorial has caused the plaintiffs to suffer from “dyspepsia, symptoms of depression, headaches, anxiety, and mental pain and anguish from the knowledge that they are made to feel officially excluded from the ranks of citizens who were directly injured by the 9/11 attack and the lack of acknowledgement of the more than 1,000 non-Christian individuals who were killed at the World Trade Center.”

This is just silly. One can’t consistently claim that religious iconography refers to mythical entities, and that you are committed to reason, while simultaneously claiming that those symbols are powerful enough to make you physically ill. Yes, the presence of deistic symbols and phrases like “In God we trust” are a problem in a legally secular state, but the battle to eliminate those isn’t aided by implausible claims such as these – never mind the needless offence that a statement like Silverman’s would undoubtedly have caused.

After all, it isn’t even true that atheists won’t be represented at the 9/11 memorial – the mere existence of it is testament to the power and harm of some irrational beliefs. Neither is it true that this is a Federal museum, making the church and state separation argument that much weaker. A frivolous lawsuit, accompanied by hysterical language, seems a poor advertisement for the secular worldview.

As Dennett points out, the “strident” atheists like Silverman act as lightning rods, laying plain the terms of the debate and the consequences of ignoring the real dangers that religious beliefs can sometimes present. But the successes of a more aggressive strategy do not mean that there isn’t room for other sorts of engagement, and other types of strategy, and I think we sometimes forget this.

Calling people misguided, or stupid, or irrational is no way to get them to engage in debate with you. And as much as secular activists might despise the current situation, where religion is accorded respect as if it were a sensible way to inform policy or morality, we should be aware that short-term gains may come at a long-term cost.

In the domain of logic only, it’s easy to win an argument with a religious believer. And atheists can win these arguments till the end of our days, and perhaps feel noble or virtuous in that we are contributing to the project of reason. But we should remember to ask ourselves whether we are effecting any significant social change by doing so, and whether there is perhaps a more effective way to bring about such changes.

Because the people we’re talking to – as well as the people doing the talking – don’t live exclusively in the domain of logic. Persuasion is only possible if people are listening, and there’s little incentive to listen when you’re being shouted at.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.