Toxic Communities

Trigger warning for emotional abuse

This post over at Amusing Nonsense left a bitter taste in my mouth, but not because of anything he said. Word by word, everything he said seemed pretty accurate and made sense. It’s just that it was a defense of New Atheists, and my sister’s two abusive exes were the first New Atheists I ever met, and that association, for me, will probably always be there.

The comments over there are consistently excellent discussions. On that particular post, a recurring topic was whether or not atheists are in danger of falling into the same traps of groupthink and extremist, mindless passion as most other groups. I don’t think it’s a danger; it’s an inevitability, because I have never met a political subculture where some factions didn’t fall into this trap. Feminists, liberals, queer communities, social justice advocates… every one of these groups that I (proudly) belong to has also contained rather sizable groups of people who I just have to avoid because of horrible petty bullshit.

In all of these cases, I have heard defenses that a person’s feminism/atheism/Christianity/-ism of choice had nothing to do with their overall shittiness, and thus shouldn’t reflect on the group they are a part of. For the most part, I agree with this. Any sufficiently large group will contain some awful people, and the group as a whole shouldn’t necessarily be blamed for this. However, I want to go a little deeper.

When you have someone clever, mean spirited and engaged in some sort of movement, they can often find ways to twist an ideology to serve their own purpose. For example, a New Atheist behavior I frequently saw was using religion as an excuse to separate a newly-deconverted atheist from their former friends. Religious people often come from circles where nearly everyone they know is religious. Often some former friends will cut a friend who lost their faith off, but usually some people will be interested in maintaining a respectful friendship. New Atheists can shame a lowercase new atheist for still having religious ties, or belittle their remaining religious friends to their faces and take said friend’s offense as proof that they are intolerant of atheists and bad, bad people. This is a classic predator tactic; cut the victim from their former support network, so they have no one to help them and may even be completely dependent on the abuser. In certain politically idealistic communities, it is common to have a reflexively derisive attitude towards those unenlightened outsiders, so this kind of behavior may not even be noticed as unusual, while some shy newcomer is being harassed or even beaten up behind closed doors.

Again, this is not a problem of ALL NEW ATHEISTS ARE EVIL!!! It’s an example of how even a good idea can be twisted. (Good ideas like “atheists should be as free to be open about their lack of belief as Christians are about their having-of-belief, and also religion should either get out of the public sector or be willing to share the space with everybody. And that’s actually everybody, not ‘epic Nativity scene plus a menorah in a corner somewhere’ everybody.”) And the trouble is that while communities are great at recognizing abusive tactics when they are shrouded in an ideology that isn’t theirs, they are terrible at recognizing the exact same tactics when the language used is their own.

So what’s the solution to this? I don’t think there’s a perfect one that will eliminate this happening ever. That would be like expecting weeds to not show up in your garden. You can spread down some mulch to minimize it, but sooner or later something will pop up. The only solution is to be aware that it happens, even in your garden. If you’re somebody who has the power to weed, then make sure you check for weeds.

And for those who don’t have that power, let me tell you what I wish somebody had told me and my sister. If you like the ideals that get passed around in a group, but often find yourself feeling belittled, bullied and ignored, or if you’re not but you feel like you constantly have to live up to high standards of behavior in order to not be treated that way, that means you’re in one of those weedy subgroups. Leave. It’s okay. If these ideas are as awesome as you think they are, somewhere out there is a group where people live those ideals without being total assholes.

My Original Sin

As a young Christian, I had a problem. I was too good.

I know, what an arrogant thing to say. I’m rolling my eyes at this moment, so let me take a moment to clarify. There were times I did bad things. I would promise to do something and then forget. I would leave my chores undone even though I knew mess really bothered my father. I, um… sometimes even though I knew God wanted me to give up something meaningful for Lent, the only thing I could think of that I loved enough to give up was Doctor Who, and I really didn’t want to give up Doctor Who. It made me happy when everything else felt empty.

See, that’s my problem. I’m trying to think of things that were bad, and that I would have considered bad at the time. There are things that I thought were right, but now regret. All the times I was arrogant and judgmental, all the times I proselytized at people who just wanted to get on with the theater rehearsal, all the misinformation I spread, all the gay-bashing I participated in. I also had shitty social skills and said hurtful things sometimes. Also, if you’re looking at, say, my childhood before I was seven or eight, there were plenty of times I lied or broke things or even stole. But I really wanted to be good. I was very motivated to live according to the rules that were taught to me. Recently I discovered a British comedy called “Would I Lie To You?” where contestants share weird anecdotes and their opponents have to figure out which are true and which are lies. While I was watching, I realized that from ages 7 to 17, I have no memory of lying. My sister can’t remember me lying either. I remember telling truths when I was terrified, when I felt certain that honesty would get me punished. I even remember telling the truth when I thought honesty would get me punished unfairly. The idea of lying was so terrifying to me I feel like I would have remembered it if I had. It’s hard to say for certain, but I’m fairly sure I went for about a decade without telling a lie.

My point is, once I was neurologically developed enough to have a reasonable amount of self-control, I followed the rules really, really well.

This was a problem because I was supposed to be a sinner. I was supposed to be overwhelmed with gratitude at the great love my redeemer had shown me in dying for my sin. I was supposed to understand that all had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that if I thought I was perfect, that just meant I was full of pride. All week, I would struggle to do good, and then on Sunday, at confession time, I would wrack my brains to think of something to confess, and the fact that I couldn’t think of anything filled me with guilt and terror.

This post reminded me of that. As a Christian I thought I was alone. I thought everyone else was easily caught up in this beautiful cycle of sin/forgive, and I was left out, because either I was too good to be forgiven, or too sinful to see my own sin. I wanted to confess my pride, and sometimes I did. It never felt adequate, because it was not a genuine confession that came from understanding that I had sinned, just a desperate prayer to cover my ass. Now, coming out of religion, I see my experience reflected so often. So many decent people, told again and again that they were bad.

On absolute truth and those disrespectful accomodationists

I could not have looked for a better way to sum up the difference between Gnu Atheists and fundamentalist theists on the one hand, and liberal ideologues of all stripes on the other, than this quote from Alain de Botton:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

De Botton is an atheist, but he thinks there’s a lot of useful and interesting stuff in religion, which he goes on to discuss. All well and good, and I agree with him that there is much about religion that’s “useful, interesting, and consoling,” — in fact I myself am still looking for ways to fill some of the holes that leaving religion has left in my life (no, none of them are god-shaped.) But through all the changes I’ve been through, there’s never been a point where I wouldn’t have been deeply offended by the claim that the question of religion’s truth or falsehood is “boring.”

De Botton’s position is very familiar to me. A lot of people, both religious and non-religious, have moved into a space of being fairly indifferent to the actual nature of the universe, and instead seeing religion as purely a social institution or personal mythology. Whatever works for you… all paths lead to God… I believe this, but you don’t have to… they’re all ways of saying the same thing: it doesn’t matter what’s actually true. This is compatible with a lot of religions, as well as with atheism or agnosticism, but it is absolutely incompatible with the monotheistic Abrahamic religions (and perhaps others that I’m less well familiar with.)

In a lot of ways the “I don’t care what’s true” stance is a big improvement, particularly in its social effects. But a key tenet of people who embrace it is not offending anybody, and what they fail to see is that that statement is profoundly offensive to those who do think truth matters. It’s worse than dissent, worse than disagreement: it’s invalidation. It’s saying “I reject the entire foundational concept of your belief. I think the things that are most important to you about your religion are irrelevant.”

A few days ago the story about Mormons baptizing deceased Jews got around, and my take on it was somewhat unusual. If I truly believed that a posthumous baptism was going to gain somebody an (optional) admittance to the eternal kingdom of God, I’d probably do it too! Being the compassionate literalist I am, I’d probably devote a major portion of my life to doing it — if I truly believed. That’s the gift of eternal life, people! Am I going to refrain from giving it just because somebody gets offended? To the extent that these baptisms are being done out of a sincere belief in their efficacy, and not for one of a host of other reasons religious rituals are practiced (I know nothing about the church politics around posthumous baptisms), I can’t fault them for doing these; from their viewpoint, it’s the absolute right and loving thing to do.

I pointed this out on facebook, and somebody responded, “But the people being baptized didn’t believe in the Mormon afterlife!” Which is colossally missing the point. The Mormons doing the baptisms do believe it (I assume, giving them all possible credit.) And under that belief, it doesn’t matter whether what afterlife the other person believed in: your belief is true, and you are helping them to eternal life despite their erroneous beliefs.

The happy, harmonious, multicultural view of religion whereby it’s all just social institution and personal mythology and nobody’s beliefs have a real impact on their life, death, and afterlife is completely ineffective in dealing with people who sincerely belief in the objective truth of their religion. I know; I used to be one. People who stood in that viewpoint appeared hopelessly naive and logically impaired to me. The statement “My religion is objectively true and has real-life consequences” cannot be effectively countered with “To each their own, whatever works for you.” The literalist believer will, at best, dismiss the religious pluralist with an annoyed shrug, and go on literally believing. As long as there are people who say “My religion is objectively true,” there will and should be non-believers who say, “No, it is objectively false,” and I think — have always thought — that those non-believers are giving the believers a hell of a lot more respect than any accomodationist.

Orientation vs. identity: some thoughts on belief

When sexologists talk about sexual orientation, we often use some variation of the Orientation-Behavior-Identity model (OBI). The idea is that sexual orientation can be understood and discussed in three distinct aspects: a person’s identity, what they define themselves as, both publicly and privately; a person’s behavior, their actual sexual acts with different genders; and a person’s orientation, the natural bent of their attractions (which may or may not be innate or changeable, but which is much less subject to power of choice than the other two aspects.) It’s a helpful distinction, and clears up a lot of miscommunications about what it means to be “really” gay, het, or bi.

I wonder if a similar model would be useful for discussing religious belief. Is belief or unbelief in a deity (pick your favorite!) a choice? I would argue that at any given moment, a person does or does not believe in a particular deity. Analogous to the “orientation” piece of the OBI model, this is just a program that is running in your brain: you cannot choose to switch it on or off, although various paths you take in life may contribute to its running or shut it down. But it’s not subject to conscious, volitional will.

Then there is the “identity” component: whether you think of yourself as a theist, and usually a member of a particular religion, or not. This may or may not have anything to do with your belief orientation. There was a time in my life where I identified as a Christian although I no longer had the belief in God that I had in my earlier years. Similarly, anyone who identifies as an “atheist” because they are mad at God is not an atheist in the orientational sense: people who genuinely lack belief in a deity have nothing to be angry at.

Finally, there is the behavior component, which is independent of both orientation and identity. Attending church does not make you a Christian believer, nor do you have to call yourself a Christian to attend. And many people identify as members of a religion without engaging in any of the behaviors prescribed by that religion. Whether there are any behaviors that could be categorized as “atheistic” is an interesting question… I can’t think of any off the top of my head, although I can think of many that could be described as humanistic or skeptical.

What do you think? Useful categories for discussions of belief and unbelief?

The scandal of atheism

This excellent post by Greta Christina on why atheism is inherently confrontational did a good job of summing up why I felt acutely uncomfortable at times in my recent class environment. It was a class on sexuality, not religion, but the teacher was a Christian minister, and Christianity or theism in general did come up a number of times. While I enjoyed both the class and the professor very much, I had several moments of squirming in my seat thinking, “I wish I could say something to this… but I have no idea how to say what I am thinking without making this an intense, defensive discussion of theism and atheism.” So I kept my mouth shut.

I am not a particularly confrontational brand of atheist (although I am marrying one, in case you hadn’t noticed.) I pretty much never start discussions of theism, although I am happy to engage in them if somebody else does. With most people I encounter, I am more interested in maintaining harmonious connections than I am in expressing my thoughts and beliefs fully. Maybe that’s a weakness — I don’t know.

What I do know is that expressing my thoughts and beliefs openly, with many people, stands in direct opposition to maintaining harmonious connections. When I was a Christian theist, and engaged weekly in debates with two friends (one was an atheist, one a weirdly self-defined agnostic), I was explaining to them why I couldn’t date an atheist. I said, “Because he thinks I’m delusional.” I didn’t say this in a defensive or injured way; it was a simple statement of fact. I thought that I had a personal relationship with a being that he did not believe existed. That’s pretty delusional. To claim otherwise, for either of us, would be to deny the reality of my faith; to lessen the import of what I believed. Because my belief was in a real, absolutely existing God, not a God that could be “true for me” but not for someone else. For someone to say, “If that’s true for you, that’s great” was to mentally diminish my concept of God and then hand it back to me as a peace offering. To which I could only say, “No thanks.” I can coexist peacefully with people who I think are glaringly wrong on any number of important topics, but to diminish the importance of this topic was then, and is now, insulting to me. Anyone who didn’t believe that my God existed was in fundamental disagreement with me, and had to account in some way for the cognitive errors that gave rise to my belief. Anyone who pretended otherwise, I felt, did not fully respect my beliefs.

Now on the other side of the table, I can at least say that I give believers the same respect I wanted from atheists when I was a believer. I won’t mentally diminish their beliefs just to spare myself the discomfort of thinking, “but I think that’s wrong.” Depending on someone’s perception of God, of course, I may have very different assessments of the cognitive errors that lead them to believe something I think is untrue, but the socially uncomfortable fact is that I do think they’re wrong. I don’t go around telling them so: I realize most people don’t share my love of debate, and many of them, unlike Christian Ginny, might prefer a “If that’s true for you, great!” than an earnest confrontation. (If you recognize that I am a person who’s passionate about truth and loves philosophical argument, but has an almost pathological aversion to making people uncomfortable or unhappy, you will perhaps understand why most of my intimate relationships are with people who enjoy confrontation and debate.)

So what am I supposed to do? I hold an unpopular belief: a belief that some human beings, excellent and wise and moral and educated in many respects, are wrong about something important. I can’t talk about my perspective on religion without saying “That God/Goddess entity you believe in? The one that provides comfort and meaning and a sense of love and belonging to your life? I don’t think it exists.” That’s what it means to be an atheist, and I don’t know how I can talk for more than fifteen seconds about being an atheist without exposing that.

There are times and places where I feel doing that is worthwhile; specifically when I’m in a forum where intellectual debate is part of the goal, or where I am on the receiving end of a challenge. But in most social gatherings I prefer to hold my tongue, or to say quickly, “Well, I”m an atheist” and change the subject. And in this class, where we already had to cover too much information in too little time, I didn’t feel it was right to derail the conversation with a discussion of theism and atheism. (Also, of course, there’s the fact that the Christian minister was the person giving my grades. I really don’t think he would have been unfair or discriminatory, but people can surprise you in that way.)

So I kept silent, and I still didn’t know whether I did the right thing or the wrong thing.

Born this way: where the political meets the scientific

So grad school has really taken a toll on my blogging frequency, huh? The good news is, as I’m studying human sexuality, my posts, while rarer, will hopefully become meatier with evidence and informed opinion and suchlike.

So right now I’m doing preliminary research for a paper which is going to have something to do with the relation between sexual orientation and gender nonconformity in childhood. I still have three days before I need to come up with a coherent thesis, so it’s all terrain-exploration right now. I’ve been reading a sequence of books and articles, from the mid 70s to 2008, discussing the correlation between gender nonconformity in children and homosexual orientation in adults. There’s a correlation, did you know? A pretty darn strong one, apparently.

What is amazing to me, having read mostly political and philosophical writings on gender and orientation, is how dispassionately these researchers present their theories, findings, and analyses. In fact the difference between an article written in 1974 and one in 2008 is much smaller than I would have expected, given the profound social changes we’ve seen since then. It makes me appreciate science, even a “soft” science, for its commitment to evidence and impartial analysis — which is not to say that researchers are unbiased, but there is a world of difference between the language of people who are trying to understand something, and people who are trying to advocate for a particular outcome.

So, quick self-poll for all of you: is sexual orientation primarily determined before or after birth? Is a newborn baby’s future orientation already fixed, or will it be formed later in response to life circumstances? Social liberals are more likely to say that it’s innate; social conservatives more likely to say that it’s caused by post-birth events. I suspect this is more because people perceive “born this way” as an argument for tolerance: we tend to think it’s less acceptable to discriminate against people for inborn traits than for features developed later in life (which, presumably, they had more control over.)

This creates a somewhat sticky situation, though, as we have an unanswered scientific question (how is sexual orientation determined) with a strong political charge. And bad things happen when politics meet science. On the one side, political influence can inhibit or skew scientific research, and on the other, political movements can appropriate scientific findings and use them to appalling ends.

But I think the political interest in this scientific question is kind of stupid anyway. At first, “I was born this way” seems like a strong defense, but it’s really not. A sociopathic killer might have been born that way, but we don’t urge tolerance and advocate their freedom to carry out their homicidal urges just because they were born that way. (Someone could quotemine the shit out of me there, I realize.) “They can’t help it” is really rather a poor and patronizing defense for somebody’s behavior. The appropriate defense for gay rights is “Being gay does not harm society, nor is it wrong by any other moral standard I recognize.” Period, end of story. How someone got to be gay is irrelevant: their right to be gay stands on the fact that there’s nothing wrong with being gay. Arguments with those who disagree need to be fought on that ground.

The second anxiety people like me have toward the possibility that sexual orientation might be formed later in life is vulnerability to “reparative” therapy. Reparative therapy as it is currently practiced is abusive and ineffective, and the argument “you can’t change them, they were born that way” should be an effective argument against practicing it. But again, while belief that sexual orientation is malleable is a necessary condition for reparative therapy to be practiced and recommended, I don’t think that strong scientific evidence for the innateness of sexual orientation would stop the practice of reparative therapy entirely. Religion overrides science for lots of people; need I say more?

Ultimately, if orientation is primarily genetic, it opens the same kinds of fears about people trying to control their child’s orientation: by selective abortion or genetic manipulation, for example. As before, the root problem is not where orientation comes from, it’s people’s attitude toward it. No matter where orientation comes from, the question is not so much “could you change it?” but “why would you want to?”

Then we get into questions of social stigma and ease of life and possible reasons why a parent who didn’t have a moral problem with homosexuality would still want a child not to be gay, a question which has its own complicated factors, many of which are addressed in disability activism as well. If one of my commenters wants to jump on that, feel free, otherwise I might get to it another time. For now, I have a paper to research.


I have been a humanist longer than I have been anything else, philosophy-wise. When I was a Christian, I was drawn to the work of Christian humanists like C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald. I was unable to leave religion until I found a reflection of those core values of mine in secular humanism. The core value of humanism, to me, is simply this: The ultimate good, whatever that may consist of, includes the happiness and fulfillment of all human beings. It is not limited to that, but to construct an ideal “ultimate state of good for the universe” that does not include the happiness and fulfillment of all human beings is nonsensical to me.

So I reject a philosophy which holds that humans are fundamentally unworthy of happiness, freedom, or existence — a philosophy held by “Original Sin” fundamentalists as well as “humans are a blight on the earth” environmentalists. Undoubtedly we have our problems, our often-fatal flaws, but there’s not something about us that makes us less worthy than any other species or entity (plants, animals, gods, demons, aliens, angels, etc.)

Of course there are lots of definitions and ramifications. For example, under the category “happiness and fulfillment” I include not only wellbeing — comfort, security, pleasure — but freedom to grow, to expand our capacities. One of our needs as humans seems to be to become better, stronger, smarter, to be able to do and think things tomorrow that we are not able to do and think today. A comfortable prison is not enough; we need room to grow.

Coming out of that is a principle of absolute intellectual freedom. Any question may be asked, any line of inquiry may be pursued. We must be afraid of understanding too little, never of knowing too much.

Moral freedom is more limited, because our actions have an impact on the lives of others. Questions of what is right and wrong usually involve a careful assessment of an action’s impact, both positive and negative, and the various factors to be taken into account are dizzyingly numerous. But an action which has negligible negative impact, on oneself or others, is always permissible. Nothing is disallowed without an account of who it harms, and how.

I am inclined to believe that humanism is the native value of humanity, at our current stage of development. I think it’s a natural outgrowth of our sense of kin identification. While selfishness is natural to humans, absolute selfishness is actually rather difficult for us (more on that in a moment.) We tend to have a wider circle of being whose wellbeing is also profoundly important to us. Over human history, I imagine this circle has expanded from the immediate family, to the tribe, to the nation, to the entire race. It is still expanding, and I imagine that in the future it will encompass all beings with awareness, and maybe eventually all life. (Things will get fun if and when we encounter other species with our level of consciousness.)

My anti-value, the thing I most abhor philosophically, is the dehumanizing of others. To me this comes from narrowing the circle of tribal identification, saying “these people I care about, those I don’t.” Most militant ideologies have a way of dehumanizing their opponents, demoting them from the circle of “worthwhile, important, people we care about.” It happens in religious and secular movements alike, and it is one of the most evil tendencies I know of.

I am writing all this out because I am trying to place myself in the ideosphere. It is the first and fundamental part of my expression of what I believe, what I value, and what I’d like to do in the world. There will be more.

Teaching children morals

My work as a teacher, my imminent role as a caregiver, and this article have me thinking about the nuances of teaching religion and morality to children. Where does an adult’s right to freedom of speech and freedom of belief meet a child’s right to make up their own minds about the world? Should wacko fundamentalist cultists be able to raise children on compounds, isolated from the rest of the world? Should neo-Nazis be able to foster or adopt children? Should atheist or Muslim teachers be able to express their beliefs in the classroom without fear of losing their jobs?

The legal implications of nearly any position on this subject frankly have my head spinning. I am not close to having an opinion about how much the government should intervene to protect children from indoctrination. But I do have a pretty settled opinion about how adults should behave toward children in their care, so I’m going to start with that.

I think adults have a strong responsibility to make it clear, when talking to children about moral or religious beliefs, that they are talking about their beliefs, and that other decent, intelligent people have different views. This is essential because children take their understanding of “how the world is” from adults close to them. They have a certain amount of implicit trust — highest for their parents, but also quite high for other adults close to them or in authority over them. When I say to an adult, “God is a myth,” they are able to understand that as my belief, not necessarily true, but a child might not have that same ability. So we need to be very clear, when talking to children, about whether we’re saying something we know or something we believe.

But, one might ask, how then do you teach a child right from wrong? In my work as a teacher, I basically use two principles behind all the “shoulds” and “nos” I direct at the children: “don’t hurt people” and “don’t hurt yourself.” When I’m scolding a child or forbidding an action, it’s because what they’re doing is not safe, or because it hurt somebody else.

Children have a certain native degree of empathy — babies will often cry if another baby nearby starts crying — and I think it’s good to encourage that. So if Adam hits Alex, I take Adam by the arm and say, “Look at her face! Do you see how she’s crying? That really hurt her! How do you think you would feel if someone did that to you?” (Well, I try to do that.) The goal is not to teach them some moral absolute, but to train them to recognize how their actions affect others, and to care about each others’ pain.

Similarly, children have a native degree of self-preservation. If a child is doing something that might get them hurt, I try to remind them of another time when they or someone else did the same thing, and got hurt. “Do you remember when Abby pinched her finger in the door? It really hurt, didn’t it? Do you think that might happen to you if you play with the door?” Children are very responsive to this kind of talk, and it’s much more effective than “Don’t do that!” (NB: I work with four-year-olds. Obviously the exact tone and style of the questioning should be adapted for age.)

I really think these are the only behavioral principles a child needs to be taught, and neither of them rely on authority or a set of moral absolutes derived from a belief about the world. For everything else, we should be encouraging children’s natural curiosity and developing critical thought. Expressing our own beliefs is not excluded from this, but transmitting them as if they are fact is.

Common pitfalls in discussions between atheists and believers

The discussion between atheists and believers is rife with personal attacks, defensiveness, accusations of rudeness, actual rudeness, and all manner of other debate-pollutants. Sometimes this is because one party or another is being boorish or disingenuous, but often two well-meaning people attempting to argue in good faith get entangled in the same mess. Both atheists and believers would do well to be conscious of a few exacerbating factors that can lead people to misinterpret the other’s intent.

1) Believers feel very personally attached to their beliefs, and therefore have a hard time seeing the difference between attacking their beliefs and attacking them.

If you say to an atheist, “I think it’s silly not to believe in God,” they’ll usually respond with something like, “I don’t see why… what’s your basis for saying that?” If you say to a believer, “I think it’s silly to believe in God,” the typical response is, “How dare you call me silly?” An atheist’s beliefs about the nature of reality are external to their core sense of identity. A believer’s beliefs about the nature of reality are usually part of their sense of identity, and challenging them feels acutely personal, like attacking someone’s ethnicity.

In addition, many believers believe in one or more personal, self-aware deities. They often believe they have a personal relationship with this deity, and/or that this deity has preferences about how, when, and by whom they are referred to. Hearing someone question their deity’s existence, or do something that for the believer is blasphemy, provokes a protective response, as if the atheist is speaking ill of a family member.

Believers need to remember that atheists don’t think their deity exists, and they feel no more need to respect said deity’s feelings than they do to respect the feelings of Harvey the 6-foot bunny. Also that, if you’re getting into a discussion about religion, it is going to be a discussion about ideas, with someone who rejects many of yours. Thicken your skin, and don’t take criticism of your beliefs personally. If hearing someone say, “I don’t believe your god is real,” is going to offend you, you probably shouldn’t be discussing religion.

Atheists need to remember that believers feel a personal, emotional connection to their deity and their faith, and that it is in the interests of a productive discussion to stay away from emotionally-laden words. For example, instead of “silly,” try “unfounded.” Strong, emotionally-laden language is good for galvanizing a crowd, but in interpersonal conversation with someone who is almost certainly going to be more sensitive than you, it’s only going to derail the discussion.

2) In a typical conversation between a believer and an atheist, the believer has had at most two or three similar conversations before, while the atheist has had dozens or hundreds. This is mostly just because there are so many more believers than atheists. Believers of the majority religion– in America, Christians — tend to live their life surrounded by people who share their religion, and only occasionally encounter atheists or people of other religions. Atheists, however, usually live their life surrounded by believers, and have no shortage of opportunities to talk about beliefs. So a believer may have an argument point that seems quite powerful to them, only to find that the atheist greets it with weariness and impatience.

Atheists are also generally much more informed about religion than believers are about atheism. Most vocal atheists have read a number of religious texts, as well as works of theology and apologetics. Very few believers have read the works of prominent atheists.

Atheists need to remember that the believer they’re talking to hasn’t had the same conversation fifty times before, and muster some of the same patience any teacher or customer-service worker has to employ in telling different people the same things over and over. If you’re going to engage in these conversations, you need to give each person the courtesy of a fresh answer, even if it sounds stale to you.

Believers need to educate themselves about atheism and atheist arguments. Read some Dawkins, Harris, or Dennett. (I don’t recommend Hitchens for a believer new to atheist writings; his polemic style is intended to provoke.) Even if the atheists you talk with don’t agree with those writers, you’ll have a frame of reference to start with, and you’ll be less likely to put forward an argument that they’ve heard and responded to fifty times already.

3) Most of the words we use when we talk about religion — “God,” “faith,” “Christian,” and “religion” itself, to name a few — are exceedingly roomy concepts. It’s all too easy and all too common to be having a debate about the existence of God, or the relative merits and demerits of religion, where the precise meaning of “God” or “religion” slides all over the map according to the convenience of the debators. Then everybody gets all huffy at each other.

The cure is simple: define your terms. If you’re discussing the existence of a god, decide at the outset whether you’re talking about Jehovah, Krishna, Allah, a self-aware pan-universal spirit, a projection of human craving for meaning and justice*, or what. If you’re talking about whether Christianity is harmful or helpful overall, decide at the outset whether “a Christian” is anybody who claims alliance with any sect of Christianity, or someone whose life reflects your own personal values and interpretations of what Christianity means (hint to believers: you’ll never get the atheist to agree to the latter, for very good reasons, but it’s good to go ahead and make that explicit.)

*I’m not trying to be flip here: near as I can tell, this is what Karen Armstrong means when she talks about God, and while I find it irritating, it is a working definition, so let’s put it on the list.

These are the big pitfalls I’ve seen in operation. Anyone have any more to add? (Please refrain from sniping at the other side in your comments: I really am trying to promote good-faith discussion. Clever quips and snide mockery have their place, but this is not that place.)

Straw men, Scotsmen, and NALTs

Arguing on the internet is, at times, like being part of the biggest family reunion in the world. Inevitably, someone you’re related to is going to behave in a horribly embarrassing way, and just as inevitably, someone from another branch of the family is going to lump you in with them. The knee-jerk response to this is to do everything in your power to distance yourself from them.

In the world of internet debate, this comes in the form of three common objections: accusing your opponent of committing the strawman fallacy; committing, yourself, the No True Scotsman fallacy; or plaintively crying “We’re not all like that!” I’m not terribly interested in breaking down the difference between the three, especially since they can often be used interchangeably. I’m more interested in a collective call to sanity. We’ve all got our drunk uncles, and we will never succeed in silencing members of our group whose ideas or manners are embarrassing to us. I’d much rather we concentrate on voicing our own attitudes and viewpoints (which of course are entirely reasonable, entirely civil, and could never be seen as an embarrassment by another member of our family!)

If you’re interested in “winning” a debate in the eyes of some easily-dazzled onlookers, then citing the ugliest and stupidest examples of your opposition is a smart way to go. If you’re interested in increasing collective wisdom and insight, it’s a waste of everybody’s time. I don’t need you to tell me that some atheists are assholes. Nobody else does either. The only people that need to hear about the extreme idiocy or assholery on a given side of a debate are the people on the same side who carry a starry-eyed naïveté about how their own ideas infallibly produce virtue and wisdom. Those folks need a harsh awakening, which any visit to an appropriately-themed message board can provide. For the rest of us? Let’s grow up and move on, hmm?

But growing up and moving on means not only refusing to attack the worst versions of my opponent’s ideology, but refusing to engage with people who attack the worst version of my own. If someone writes a long blog post which amounts to saying, “Gee, some atheists sure are smug assholes aren’t they?” I think my best response is to ignore it. Because they’re right: some atheists sure are smug assholes. I’m not, so I’m not going to respond as if they’re talking about me. I will only respond if their attack hits nearer to home: for example if they say, “Gee, it sure is smug and assholeish to believe that your understanding of the universe is better than someone else’s.” No, it’s not; I do believe that my understanding of the universe is better than some people’s, I don’t think that makes me a smug asshole, and I will readily argue that point. And if my opponent, in the course of an argument, points to some smug asshole on a message board who happens to agree with me, I will say, “Yeah, but we’re not talking about them. Tell me what smugness or assholery I have been guilty of, or stop wasting both our time.”

Anyone from a big family knows, or has had ample opportunity to learn: there’s really nothing you can do about your drunk uncle. Can’t silence them, can’t control them, can’t stop other people from unfairly comparing you to them. The best you can do is resolutely maintain your own commitment to reason and civility. Anybody worth your time will appreciate it.