March 17, 2009
One of the longest-running discussions in the atheist community is one of tone. On the one hand, we have people like Hemant Mehta, the “Friendly Atheist.” That’s sort of the model I’ve tried to follow here. The other end of the spectrum is occupied by people like PZ Myers of Pharyngula, who is in what I would call the “take-no-prisoners” camp.
The principal arguments against “angry” atheism are that it reinforces negative stereotypes Christians already have about atheists, and that it inhibits dialogue and discussion and turns people away. As I’ve said, I find those arguments pretty persuasive, and it’s why I’ve taken the approach I have here. That isn’t to say that the take-no-prisoners folks are wrong; I love Pharyngula and visit it daily. I just think PZ’s goals are different from mine.
With that in mind, I think this video is an excellent counterexample; it’s from co-host Jeff Dee in last week’s episode of The Atheist Experience, a public access call-in show. Watch:
Obviously, Jeff is being aggressive with the Christian caller, and I don’t think he changed that person’s mind that day. But on reflection, I think this was exactly the right approach to take — even if it was not the one I would have taken. The caller (John) probably hung up a little bit miffed, and certainly no more positively inclined towards atheists. But John called in the first place to argue that atheists shouldn’t take offense at public Christian displays such as Ten Commandments monuments in courthouses; Jeff wasn’t going to change his mind in a single phone call, anyway.
But I think Jeff did succeed in placing a stone in John’s shoe (and perhaps other Christian viewers) by forcing John to confront the unpleasant nature of his beliefs. You can hear it in John’s voice and in the content of his answers; he doesn’t want to admit that Christianity says that unrepentant atheists get tortured for eternity. And good for him; that’s a horrible belief! So I think Jeff Dee shows us that atheists can engage in positive outreach by shocking Christians who would otherwise not have questioned their underlying beliefs.
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