Rationality Now Rotating Header Image

Herding Cats and Situational Etiquette

In the atheist community, there are two sure things. The first is, of course, that atheists don’t believe in any gods. The other thing is that a lack of belief in any gods is pretty much the only universally common attribute of atheists. Atheist groups sometimes have trouble gaining or keeping members because, as the president of my local group, the Pennsylvania Nonbelievers, says, organizing atheists is like herding cats.

Because of this incredible variety in attitudes, outlooks, worldviews, political leanings, and philosophies, it’s no wonder that atheists don’t always agree on everything.

One point of disagreement is commonly at the forefront of atheist discussions… how to grow our community. How do we let other people know it’s okay to be an atheist? How do we get rid of the stigma associated with the term “atheist” and turn it into a positive? How do we go about criticizing religion, superstition, and pseudo-science without shooting ourselves in the foot?

In one case, there are outspoken, in-your-face atheists. They’ll wear “There is no god” t-shirts or accessories that proudly proclaim their atheism. They’ll bring up the topic constantly (sometimes in what some people consider inappropriate circumstances) and argue about it. They almost seem to be looking for a fight.

In other cases, there are proponents of science and critical thinking. They tend to focus more on education, whether it be astronomy, biology, or skepticism. They’re sometimes bold, but usually polite (but not always), and though they don’t shy away from outspoken criticism of archaic religious dogma, they tend to see atheism as the result of clear, rational, scientific thinking… not vice versa.

Other atheists tend to be quietly comfortable with their beliefs, and though they don’t go out of their way to bring them up, if questioned (or if the subject presents itself), they’ll happily (and amicably) discuss the matter, offering criticism where it’s due, but keeping a friendly tone and listening to the opposing views.

Of course, none of these are absolutes. People are combinations (or eclectic hodgepodges!) of these basic types and it’s probably rare to find someone who always fits in one single category.

I tend to be a combination of the science category and the friendly category. Why? I’m not an “in your face” kind of person. I’m friendly by nature and I like making people smile. I’m generally very good at gauging a situation to know what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate, so the idea of wearing a t-shirt that proclaims “ATHEIST” to work or to a 4-H meeting or to anything other than an atheist gathering seems incredibly rude to me… in much the same way I would find it rude for someone to wear a t-shirt saying “CHRISTIAN” or “MUSLIM” or “Abortion is murder!” on it in those same situations. For me, it’s far more appropriate to wear a pro-science t-shirt… and I think that’s a much better starting point for a discussion.

However, if someone brings up the topic of religion or asks me about it, I have no qualms about discussing it, but I’m not out “looking for a fight” in order to tell someone they’re wrong and start “preaching the gospel” of atheism. To me, that seems silly and counterproductive. Many (most?) atheists dislike fundamentalist evangelism, especially the “in your face” kind, and if someone is just out looking to start a fight in order to “preach” about atheism, it strikes me as the same thing.

If someone says that the Earth is 6,000 years old, I’ll question them. If someone tells me that vaccinations cause autism, I’ll question them. If someone claims that religion is the only source of morality, I’ll question them. If someone tells me that this country is a Christian nation or that Obama is a fascist or that evolution isn’t true or that the moon landing was faked… I’ll question them. I’ll do what I can to educate people or at least provide them with pointers to get the information they need to make rational decisions.

What I’m not going to do is walk up to people and, out of the blue, say “I’m an atheist and if you believe in Christianity, you’re wrong.” To me, that’s sort of what a t-shirt proclaiming “ATHEIST” says. It’s a chip-on-the-shoulder dare to Christians or Muslims or Hindus. It won’t win friends. It won’t win converts. It won’t educate. It only aggravates.

…and I think that’s rude.


  1. anti_supernaturalist says:

    ** I’m free to wear only if I dare

    Nonsense: we’ve been brainwashed to be “nice” to idiot religionists who wear crosses and stars of David as fashion statements. God bling.

    I’m sure if I bought and wore any in-your-face T-shirt proclaiming garbage like “Jesus is Lord” in bold nobody would criticize it and I’d get others who would praise me with a friendly Amen. What I won’t get will be criticism from anyone in the US telling me to stop being a pushy Jesus propagandist, threatening me, or trying to harm me.

    However, I guarantee that publicly wearing “Bored with Jesus” or “Atheists have more Sex” or “God is dead” on a Tee with get stares, yells, threats, and physical intimidation. I’m free to wear only if I dare.

    That’s not being polite; it’s being careful. After all we atheists are the most hated minority in Ameristan, xian Taliban dominated America. [Visit the Pew Memorial Foundation web site for solid evidence from well run surveys.]

    There should be equal time for disbelief in a secular society — insist on it, but only anonymously in print. Because we don’t live in a land which permits “freedom of conscience” to non-believing minorities.

    which is why I protect myself from the great American thug:

    the anti_supernaturalist

    1. Dan says:

      While I take your point about being brainwashed to be nice to idiot religionists and have to admit that there are probably many who are that way, I’m not just nice to idiot religionists. I’m nice to everyone. I don’t care what their beliefs are, so I will be polite as long as it’s warranted.

      As for wearing the “Jesus is Lord” t-shirts (and whatnot), you’re probably right in some regions of the country. In others, the wearer would get the silent treatment (or at least passive avoidance). I’ve seen this and heard quite a few stories about it. I’ve also seen many stories of people wearing atheist t-shirts (or whatnot) that garner nothing but positive comments.

      That aside, my point in this post was to say that wearing the “Jesus is Lord” t-shirts is just as rude as wearing a “There is no god” t-shirt. Being “in your face” about beliefs (religious, political, or otherwise) is obnoxious, from whichever side of the fence.

      Many atheists don’t like evangelists, so turning into one seems a bit hypocritical.

      Side note: I do make a distinction between personal social behavior (what I’m talking about in this post) and organizational actions such as those undertaken by the FFRF, the Secular Coalition, and other activist groups. It comes down to there being a time and a place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.