I do think Plait's (in)famous introductory sentence was indeed a totally ridiculous way of framing it. My first reaction was similar to what Dawkins said, much more eloquently than I ever could, on Jerry Coyne's blog:
...Plait naively presumed, throughout his lecture, that the person we are ridiculing is the one we are trying to convert. Speaking for myself, it is often a third party (or a large number of third parties) who are listening in, or reading along.
Indeed. A close friend of mine was finally jostled out of a sort of nominal allegiance to Catholicism by seeing Bill Maher going up to religious people and "[i]nsulting them, yelling at them, calling them brain damaged or morons or baby rapers" for 90 minutes in the movie Religulous. She was already there intellectually, so all she needed was an unapologetic reminder that, hey, that stuff is really kinda stupid.
However, ignoring that, is he right that there are elements within the atheist community who are taking things in a counter-productive direction? I am beginning to think there might, but of course it's not the usual suspects, at least not for the most part. It's just a bunch of dumb assholes on the Internet, but... their number may be growing, and some of us may be picking up their habits. If so, it's probably at least worth reflecting on the parameters of how we want to criticize. Two recent examples have called my attention to what may be counter-productive dickishness.
The first is probably not something we can do anything about -- there are "preachy twits" in every group, nothing to be done about it. I am referring to Mark Chu-Carroll's recent rant about how, every time he off-handedly mentions that he is a religious Jew, he gets boatloads of e-mail from evangelical Christians (no surprise)...and from atheists who are shocked he can be a skeptic and be religious, and want to present him with arguments against theism.
I understand the impulse. I also find MarkCC's religiosity somewhat puzzling. On the other hand, he's made it clear that it is quite personal, and he seems to be aware of the subjectivity inherent in it (i.e. he would not confuse it with objective facts about the world). Moreover, he has not shown an inclination to talk about it, so e-mailing him, as a complete stranger, to make a big deal out of it... kinda lame. And you know these people must have been really pushy, because on this very same post I stridently stated that I thought Mark was objectively wrong on the topic of religion, and Mark didn't seem to mind. He's not some wilting flower who can't handle criticism of religion, and yet still these folks managed to piss him off.
What can one do about internet cranks, though? They are present in every group. The second problem has me more worried. Anyone reading my blog recently may be able to guess what it is: It is the atheist community's mixed reaction to the Not-at-Ground Zero Not-a-Mosque. In some ways it demonstrates a strength of diversity of our community, and refutes silly accusations that there is some kind of "gnu atheist orthodoxy". But diversity aside, I am alarmed and troubled at how many people within the atheist blogosphere -- and even a number of the extraordinarily famous gnu atheists, like Harris and Hitchens -- have lent supporting voices to the forces of bigotry, intolerance, and theocratic oppression. This is most definitely "being a dick", and not in a good way. This is not forthrightness in truth-telling; this is falling into an us vs. them mentality that clouds the truth.
So I've been thinking a lot about this, about when "being a dick" is just fine, and when "being a dick" becomes counter-productive. With that in mind, I present my Five Rules For Not Being A Dick (Too Much). These should be taken in the proper spirit -- it is okay to be a dick sometimes. It's even okay to break these rules sometimes. There are no absolutes in life, especially not in pushing for social change. I should also be clear that I am not trying to build a strawman here -- most of these rules are obeyed most of the time by the vast majority of the online atheist community. This is not a critique of the Gnu Atheism, of course not! I just hope that we can continue to stay within these guidelines (most of the time), and encourage the more trollish members of our community to keep these things in mind.
Five Rules For Not Being A Dick (Too Much)
Rule 1: You can be a theist and a skeptic at the same time, and as long as theistic skeptics keep their personal beliefs personal, we should mostly leave them alone about it.
To be clear -- I am not making an argument for philosophical faith/science compatibility. Someone who is a theist and a skeptic is engaging in at least a little bit of cognitive dissonance, or at least some careful compartmentalization. Faith can never be a skeptical position.
But no skeptic is perfectly skeptical about everything. Or at least, if someone claimed she was, I would be very "skeptical" of her claim. We are, after all, human beings, right? We jump to conclusions without sufficient evidence, we engage in confirmation bias, and we are loathe to let go of committed beliefs even when shown they are implausible.
A skeptic who keeps her theism mostly to herself is just fine with me. If she was a good friend, I would certainly ask questions about it. But if the theistic skeptic is a stranger to you... maybe lay off, unless she brings it up, y'know? I mean, if you met a fellow skeptic who had a bit of a halitosis problem, you probably wouldn't say anything unless you knew them well enough, right? Just look at it that way.
This does not apply to those who are very public and forthright with their theism, such as Francis Collins. If you choose to make your delusions a public issue, then they get denounced. To continue with the bad breath analogy, if this same fellow skeptic with the halitosis problem then wrote a book about how minty fresh his breath was, and how those who accept his dental salvation plan can achieve the same wonderful breath... okay, now it's okay to tell him why everyone stands six feet away during conversation, whether you know him or not.
I'm also not sure it applies to Catholics, Mormons, and Scientologists. I have a very specific reason for choosing those three groups: They all have a centralized hierarchy. Ignoring minor splinter sects, there is only one Catholic church, only one LDS church, and only one church of Scientology. And they are all doing Very Bad Things. So if you adhere to one of these faiths, even if you keep the matter personal, you are lending your support to some very nasty causes.
I am undecided as to whether this constitutes an exception to Rule One. I guess I could go either way. (And don't get me started on the mystery of how Isis can be both a devoted Catholic and a devoted feminist... I just don't get it!!!)
Rule #2: Unless somebody is saying something abhorrent, try to return good faith with good faith.
I don't think this is a big problem, because frankly it's not super often you see a theist drop in on a bunch of atheists and ask questions/argue in good faith, and when it does happen, I do think the community usually does obey this rule. I've seen it occasionally fall by the wayside on Pharyngula, but what can you expect.
It's easiest to describe what I mean by saying where I don't think this applies: It is not good faith to express concern for our mortal souls or to say you will pray for us. It is not good faith to express sadness that we are atheists. It is not good faith to make the old First Cause Switcheroo argument, where you argue for the necessity of an uncaused cause, and then say "Ergo Jesus". Pascal's Wager is not good faith (unless you are under 14, maybe). On the flip side, it is not bad faith to tell someone you think they are completely wrong, and to argue stridently for it.
So what do I mean? Well, sometimes a theist or two will show up on my blog, not trying to present me with some nonsense "proof" of God, but making points about potential benefits of religious beliefs, alternate ways to interpret statements by other theists, etc. That's fine, and we should conduct those sorts of conversations with dignity and respect. Not the I-won't-say-you're-wrong faux-respect advocated by some accomodationists, of course, but without unnecessary derision or excessive mockery.
This of course does not apply if the position being argued is abhorrent. A polite "good faith" argument in favor of executing people for homosexuality deserves nothing but the shrillest, most derisive, most strident condemnation.
Rule #3: Unless there's a good reason not to, take what people say at face value.
The example I'm thinking of here was a post at Pharyngula about an educational game on cellular biology that PZ criticized for it's ID-ish overtones. One of the developers showed up in the comments, declared that he was an atheist, that the ID-ish overtones were not intentional, and defended the decision to omit any mention of evolution as a compromise in order to reach a wider audience. What ensued was (mostly) a lively discussion of whether that was ever an acceptable compromise, how the game could have avoided the ID-esque stuff, etcetera, and the developer was very open and receptive to the criticism.
I said that's "mostly" what ensued. One or two commenters insisted that the developer was being disingenuous, that he actually was some sort of stealth creationist. Come on, people... this guy's story was totally plausible, he was really open about it, and he seemed to even be open to changing his opinion a bit on the wisdom of having left out all mention of evolution from the game. This is "overactive agency detection" if I ever heard of it. There is no conspiracy here. Just take the guy at his word.
The flip side of this, of course, is the infamous Tom Johnson. But that story was prima facie implausible, so that's different...
Rule #4: Don't automatically support every seemingly anti-religious cause.
If you do, you will eventually get suckered in by one flavor of theists trying to oppress a different flavor of theists -- just like what is happening with the Not-at-Ground-Zero Not-a-Mosque. Christians are attacking Muslims -- that is not a cause we want to be allied with! But it seems like so many atheists are just so used to criticizing Islam at every turn (and often rightly so!) that they just see an attack on Islam and are wanting to go along with it.
Not every anti-religious cause is just. Sometimes we must defend the rights of those we disagree with to have their opinion. More than that, sometimes we may find that our disagreements with a particular brand of theists is so minor compared to the other issues at play that it's not even worth mentioning. Or there might be a right time and place to talk about our disagreements.
Strident and consistent opposition to religion does not mean throwing all nuance out the window. Unless you're Pat Condell, but he mostly gets a pass because he's a frackin' comedian. Don't let your real life opinions look like a comedy routine.
Rule #5: Be a dick anyway. Sometimes.
Overton window, man. If there aren't at least a few people being real assholes, going too far, being unacceptably rude, then the reasonable among us will be labeled as the assholes. For the most part I'm not worried about a bit of dickishness -- even unproductive, unhelpful dickishness -- having a big negative impact on our goals here. History does not yield a whole lot of social causes that were sabotaged because its advocates were too dickish, eh? In fact, most social causes seem to really get off the ground when its advocates initially go too far.
I guess it's really just all about being aware of when one is being a dick, and doing so judiciously. Being a dick can be counterproductive, even though the extent of the damage is questionable. Let's all just remember our goals, remember our principles, and remember that virtually all strategies have their place.