So apparently, what's wrong with the atheist movement is that it's too angry, too confrontational, not friendly enough. And the way to fix that is to get more women into positions of visibility in the movement -- since women are so much less angry and so much more friendly than men. Women are reluctant to get into debates over what is and isn't, you know, true. We're much more interested in everyone getting along. And that's what the atheist movement should be about.
That's what professor Stephen Prothero is saying over at USA Today, anyway.
There are so many directions I could go with this. I hardly know where to begin.
I could point out how patronizing and sexist this is. The idea that women are sweet and friendly and non-confrontational, that we want to promote understanding instead of fostering conflict... are you fucking kidding me? Before you decide to stick with that claim, you might want to read my 4,650-word raging tirade about why, exactly and in great detail, I'm angry about religion -- a tirade that to this day is by far the most widely-read piece on my blog. By women as well as men.
I don't disagree that -- as a very broad generalization, a "different peaks on two overlapping bell curves" sort of thing -- women tend on average to be less competitive and more co-operative than men. But that's a very broad generalization indeed, with almost as many exceptions to the rule as there are cases of it. Trust me on this -- plenty of female atheists are angry. If you think getting more women atheists into positions of visibility will make this a kinder and gentler movement, you are sorely mistaken. You underestimate us at your peril.
I could also point out how completely misleading it is to characterize the leading male voices of atheism as universally hostile -- and the leading female voices as universally gentle. Richard Dawkins, for instance -- listed by Prothero and so many others as "Mean Atheist, Exhibit A" -- is firm and clear about his views, but he's polite, civil, and well-spoken. And Daniel Dennett is a teddy bear. What's more, as Amanda Marcotte pointed out in her own excellent response to this drivel, the female atheists Prothero lauds for being gentle and non-confrontational are anything but. "(Susan) Jacoby can have snarling contempt for unreasonable people that makes Dawkins look like a pussycat, and (Julia) Sweeney gets plenty of laughs making fun of religious beliefs for being so damn incoherent." Damn straight.
And stepping away from gender for a moment -- since there was so much more wrong with this piece other than just patronizing sexism -- I could point out that the distinction between diplomacy and confrontation, between asking for civil rights and trying to de-convert believers, is a completely false dichotomy. Contrary to Prothero's assertion that "these competing approaches could not be further apart," it is entirely possible to see the value in both approaches, and to use different approaches in different situations, and to respect other people's approaches even when they aren't right for you.
For that matter: I could point out that Prothero is conflating two completely different false dichotomies -- the "diplomat/ firebrand" dichotomy, and the "asking for civil rights/ trying to de-convert believers" dichotomy. Those are not the same thing at all. It is entirely possible to be polite and diplomatic when trying to persuade believers out of their beliefs. It is entirely possible to be outraged and unyielding when demanding an end to anti-atheist bigotry. And in fact, the latter dichotomy isn't a dichotomy at all. It is entirely possible to work towards an end to bigotry, and to try to persuade people that religion is mistaken. To conflate the entirely reasonable treatment of religion as a flawed hypothesis with angry, spittle-spewing, take-no-prisoners confrontationalism is a very sneaky way of discrediting the critics of the religion hypothesis... without actually considering our arguments.
I could also talk about how very, very tired the "atheist schism between diplomats and firebrands" story is getting. So many commenters on the atheist movement have been harping on this -- and it's just not that interesting. As if every other movement for social change in history hasn't struggled with this tension. As if this tension weren't itself a source of strength and power. And as if these were two clearly distinct and warring camps -- as opposed to a continuum, where different people come down differently at different times on different issues.
And I could talk about how sick I am of believers telling atheists how to run our movement. The answer: So very, very sick indeed. These smug, head-patting pieces of advice (it'd be called "concern trolling" if it showed up as a blog comment) are supposedly meant to help atheists become more effective by making our message more palatable. But considering that the atheist movement is doing pretty darned well on its own -- we've become a highly visible cultural force in an astonishingly short time, and rates of non-belief are going up at an impressive clip, especially among young people -- it's hard to escape the conclusion that the complete opposite is what's intended. They don't want to help us become more effective. They want to help us shut the hell up before we get any further.
But ultimately, here is what I want to say to Prothero, and his assertion that female atheists will make the movement friendlier and less confrontational:
Suck my dick.
Or, to be more precise:
Suck my dick, you pompous windbag. You think getting more women into the atheist movement means you won't have to face a fight? Bring it on. You smug, patronizing, cowardly, sexist prick.
Is that friendly enough for you?