Play nice

PlayNiceI have been visited by Jehovah’s Witnesses five times in the past ten months. It is my practice to greet them at the door with a smile and invite them in. During our mutual introductions, I hold up my book Religion Refuted and tell them that I am an atheist and that my book explains why belief in god makes no sense whatsoever. I then smile again, much as a wolf smiles at a cornered rabbit.

Our discussions turned out to be fruitless. The Jehovah’s Witnesses simply were not prepared for the level of scrutiny I offered. That’s not braggadocio on my part. They, themselves, admitted as much, suggesting that one of their more senior adherents, who was better at delving into the details, could pay me a visit.

Although we did not make headway on theological or philosophical matters, our discussion was pleasant. All participants were courteous and even friendly. So maybe the discussion was not fruitless after all. As the Jehovah’s Witnesses departed, one of them commented that it was surprising that an outspoken atheist could be so nice.

Some atheists, and certainly some believers, are rude to Jehovah’s Witnesses. Some people even take pride in being rude. That distresses me. We should try to be friendly to our fellow humans, even if their beliefs are silly or pernicious.

We atheists ought to respect those believers who are earnest and who express genuine concern over the spiritual wellbeing of others. If I believed that other members of my society were destined for eternal torment (or loss of divine favor), I hope I would be selfless enough to give up my time to help spread the message of salvation.

I think I would be. After all, I am actively trying to spread information about atheism. I am investing my time and jeopardizing my reputation by speaking out against superstition. In that sense, I am the counterpart to the Jehovah’s Witnesses who knock at my door. Granted, I don’t go around knocking on doors to spread my atheism. Instead, I write books and post information on the Internet. But the principle is the same. I and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are dispersing information that we deem true and beneficial for society.

During World War II, the Nazis tried to exterminate both atheists and Jehovah’s Witnesses because both refused to go along with the Nazi program. Karen Silverstrim of the University of Central Arkansas points out that, while we remember the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, we tend to forget that there were perhaps sixteen million non-Jews who were also killed by the Nazis. These figures do not include battle deaths, only targeted persecutions.

In the spring of 1933, Hitler outlawed the German Freethinkers League and all other atheistic groups in Germany. Hitler despised atheists and promoted violence against them, as he boasted in October 24, 1933 during a speech he delivered in Berlin:

“We were convinced that the people need and require this faith. We have therefore undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”

Ironically, the Catholic League, as reported by Dr. Jerry A. Coyne, has pronounced that atheists owe the world an apology for the 20th century atrocities committed by atheistic regimes. This smokescreen by the Catholic League is a mendacious propagandistic strategy to distance their cult from Hitler, who was a self-proclaimed Catholic.

No institution throughout human history has persecuted more people than has the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church in the 21st century can no longer hang, crush, or torture atheists, so it settles for mislabeling “new atheists” as militant. A new atheist, as P. Z. Myers points out, is just an ordinary atheist whom the Catholic Church is not permitted to burn. The stench of the Catholic Church’s hypocrisy could not get any thicker.

The standup comic Doug Stanhope ranted:

“There are so many comics doing bits about this new pope: ‘Oh, isn’t it scary that this new pope used to be a Nazi?’ Not when you look at their track records side by side, the Nazis versus the Catholic Church. The Nazis only lasted a dozen years and got their ass handed to them in a high hat. The Catholic Church has a far more prosperous and prestigious record of murder and torture and tyranny and oppression and nonsense, not to mention the kid-fucking, and they’re still around and more popular than ever. I’d be far more afraid to hear someone go, ‘You know that new Nazi? He used to be a pope!’”

The Catholic League loves to conflate attacks against Catholicism with personal attacks on Catholics. Nothing in this blog post constitutes a personal attack on Catholics.

Catholics, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, atheists, Jews, and others, deserve to be treated with respect. We cannot blame any person alive today for any atrocities committed by his or her political or religious forebears. The fact that Hitler was a believer does not mean that every believer alive today owes the world an apology. Modern Catholics owe the world an apology for lying about the fact that Hitler was a Catholic, but they need not apologize for the fact that Hitler was a Catholic. If we were to blame modern-day Catholics for the Nazi and Fascist atrocities of the 20th century, that would be just as absurd as saying that every baby born today is guilty of original sin because some fictional naked guy ate a piece of forbidden fruit several thousand years ago.

Just as Catholics need to own up to Hitler’s Catholicism, so we atheists must own up to the fact that Joseph Stalin was an atheist. But that does not oblige us to apologize for his misdeeds. It seems unlikely that Stalin’s misdeeds arose from his atheism, but even if they did, modern atheists are not accountable for that.

There is no excuse for any believer or nonbeliever to murder, persecute, or even behave rudely toward anyone else. We need to be tolerant of one another, and that means that we must stop being tolerant of bad behavior. If you are a Muslim, you probably have more sway over the conduct of other Muslims, and you ought to use your personal influence to improve your fellow Muslims. Likewise, as an atheist, I may be able to persuade other atheists to be more respectful of believers.

I would never ask any atheist to tone down his or her criticism of belief. Religious doctrines do not deserve any respect. All forms of superstition should be attacked relentlessly. But religious practitioners do deserve respect, simply because they are human beings with feelings. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

We skeptics are more effective when we keep the discussion on a high intellectual plane and don’t let our passions get in the way. A degree of passion is helpful and appropriate, but our passions must be channeled and governed so that they fortify rather than distract from our arguments.

During a debate between Lawrence Krauss and William Lane Craig, Craig offered several horribly flimsy arguments. Unfortunately, time restraints will always prevent atheists from refuting every false statement made by religious apologists. After all, it takes more time to explain why a statement is wrong than it does to make a wrong statement.

But it bothers me that Craig and is ilk are constantly given public platforms to espouse their poor arguments and that their arguments are too rarely refuted. This can be partially remedied by having a higher number of free-flowing discussions, as opposed to rigidly-timed debates, which tend to become min-speeches in which the participants speak past one another.

William Lane Craig, broadly esteemed as the most formidable spokesperson on behalf of Christianity, routinely engages in rapid-fire distortions that often go unchallenged. As one small step in addressing this problem, I offer the following video. The video counters Craig’s false definitions of atheism. In this example, you will see that Craig exploits a false definition of atheism as the basis for his defense of Leibniz’s contingency argument.

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