Sales Strategy

The Case Against In-Your-Face Atheism

An atheist counsels his fellow non-believers on how not to talk to people of faith.

01.04.15 11:45 AM ET

When I began my blog on the Atheist Channel of Patheos, I thought I’d be able to show how someone can live a meaningful life without religious belief. Instead, I spend much of my time criticizing my fellow atheists. While I agree with the goal of making atheism a socially and politically acceptable movement, there is a type of “firebrand atheism” that I believe is hindering its progress.

The president of American Atheists, David Silverman, defines firebrand atheism as simply telling the truth about religion, with the emphasis on the telling. He says we should make clear that it’s religious beliefs we’re attacking, not the person. He says, “I’m not attacking humans; I’m attacking those humans’ silly beliefs.”

That word “silly” is the problem, as is Silverman’s whole take-no-prisoners assault on religion.

Think about what religion is—a total worldview that lets each believer feel like she’s found meaning and purpose in a bewildering universe. So, it’s not much of a stretch to argue that people are reluctant to give up their religious beliefs when they are intimately tied to their sense of self-worth.

It’s one thing to give up a belief about a political or scientific fact that doesn’t directly affect your life—like whether or not global warming is caused by humans. But it’s another thing to give up a belief that you think determines whether you’ll be strumming a harp with angels or stuck on the business end of the Devil’s pitchfork after you die.

So, if we’re going to change someone’s beliefs, but we’re going to have to resist the temptation to roast them while we’re doing it. But listen to what Silverman has said in his talks promoting firebrand atheism: “Religion is a lie—all of it—that’s the truth.”

“Respect is earned, and religion hasn’t earned any.”

Even if he’s right, the tone of these comments is just going to raise the emotional hackles of your average believer.

Like any sales campaign, movement atheism is selling a worldview, and so, we should not only point out the deficiencies of the competition, but we should also highlight the positive attributes of our “product.” And the old adage that people don’t buy from people they don’t like certainly applies to atheism as well. How we go about attacking what’s bad and wrong about religion as well as promoting what’s good and right about atheism matters.

Like any good marketer, Silverman says he has sales figures proving his approach is working. In a talk he gave about firebrand atheism, he claimed that his data, based on an analysis of Google searches for the word “atheist” performed over the past several years, shows that his in-your-face approach is working. He claims there have been “942,000 new self-described atheists and 1,250,000 agnostics” in the past several years.

However, those numbers are suspect; Silverman told me over Twitter that those new atheists and agnostics represent so-called “closeted atheists,” not those who have de-converted because of firebrand atheism.

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci concluded in a recent essay that Silverman’s kind of analysis “ought to be done by professional statisticians and social scientists in order to be convincing,” and that “the evidence adduced by [Silverman] to justify his firebrand atheism is shaky and inconclusive to say the least.” Pigliucci points out that one of Silverman’s own sources, sociologist Ryan Cragun, questions the validity of Silverman’s conclusions. Pigliucci quotes Cragun as saying, “causality cannot be statistically determined between whether searches for ‘American Atheists’ cause searches for ‘atheists’ or vice versa.”

So if we can’t trust the sales figures of Silverman’s firebrand atheism, what should a poor atheist do to make friends and influence people?

“As long as religious faith is the accepted and unquestioned default, atheism will never be socially acceptable,” writes my fellow atheist and Patheos blogger Adam Lee.

In a democracy, no one group is ever going to be able to act unilaterally, no matter how determined they are—compromise and cooperation are needed to move what’s called the “Overton Window,” the idea that there is only a narrow range of public policies considered acceptable. The window only shifts when you have enough determined and courageous people pulling on it after a working relationship has been established.

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In 2005, research was published by Tiziana Casciaro of Harvard Business School and Miguel Sousa Lobo of Duke University that studied 10,000 work relationships across five organizations. They ended up classifying work partners into categories that ranged from the “incompetent jerk” to “competent jerk” to “lovable fool.” What they found was that most people preferred to work with the lovable fool rather than the competent jerk.

As the authors wrote in the study: “Because they are liked by a disproportionate number of people, lovable fools can bridge gaps between diverse groups that might not otherwise interact.” That likeability factor is exactly what is needed in order to improve atheism’s image—and shift the Overton Window. The authors also say that since people are more likely to listen to likeable colleagues, we should “have widely liked individuals serve as evangelists for important change initiatives.”

I don’t think that only lovable fools should be the ones working for change, just that they should be the majority—they should be the voices that get the most media coverage. I realize that this is going to be a challenge, especially with the Bill O’Reillys of the world, but I think the case made here is reason enough to cut back on an approach that relies on ridicule and contempt for others’ sense of belief and identity. It undermines the kind of self-affirmation that is needed for sincere believers to be open to changing their beliefs—or at least be more accepting of atheism.

In other words, don’t be a jerk, competent or otherwise. Also realize that you don’t have to be a lovable fool—just focus on the lovable part.