Image courtesy of Stockvault.

Image courtesy of Stockvault.

This post by Neil Carter over at “Godless in Dixie” had gotten me thinking about one of those extra labels that gets kicked around in the atheist community: anti-theist. Depending upon who is using it, it means a whole lot of different things, but it’s probably more closely related to the term “militant atheist.” Both really are terms I don’t like anymore, because they don’t even really have to do with atheism.

They usually are used when talking about the ethics of persuasion.
In any given population, there are going to be people who think being a jackass is the equivalent of being persuasive. Additionally, there are going to be people who think being agreeable on everything is going to persuade people. Everyone else falls in between those extremes. Since opinions are like assholes, everyone is also going to question the wisdom of other people on the spectrum.

Thus, these terms start spreading around to informally question where people are on the spectrum. People who use “anti-theist” pejoratively are saying that they don’t think aggressive behavior is okay, while people who use it as a badge of honor think more highly of it. It’s a matter of taste.

So what’s right and what’s wrong?
Where I personally draw the line is abuse. Critiquing ideas is one thing, but emotionally manipulating people until they submit is something else entirely. The problem is that these things aren’t always obvious, and people who do it don’t always think of themselves as being abusive. Nobody needs a particular point of view to be a jerk; what they need is determination and a lack of empathy.

None of this negates that it’s a gut call. Sadly, too many conversations regarding religion devolve into swearing contests or at least one side becoming petulant. Some conversations really never were conversations, and they’re just a chance for people to harass each other. Other people who travel the Internet see this, and they steer clear.

This leads me to my point: remember what a reader a year from now might think of what you wrote. Stuff on the Internet can last a long time, and people can come in on posts and conversations long after they’re done. In these circumstances, they’re like a time capsule. The great thing about it is that being so removed in time from the discussion, people can look more objectively at it.

What do I want them to see?
That’s what I ask myself. Do I want them to see a snarky atheist who’s just there to troll people, or do I want them to see someone who tried and failed to have a conversation with unreasonable people? The latter is actually excessively more persuasive than the former. Nothing shows the hollow nature of religion more than when someone preaches about having a better divine morality while being a jackass to strangers.

It is much more difficult to show this rather than tell it. The rewards are not immediate, and it takes an obsessive amount of control and self-restraint. However, such high costs yield high rewards. At the very least, I’ll convince some Christians that they and their friends can be really awful people when it comes to disagreeing with people. At best, I’ll show people how little some of these principles hold water.

Ultimately, my views express my concerns.
I don’t have the luxury of walking up to a church full of people and tell them that nobody’s listening to their prayers. Well, unless I want a large mob to kick my ass. Then I’ll be fine.

Likewise, I try to be a little more responsible for my behavior than when I was a Christian. The Internet makes everyone believe they’re champions of whatever cause they believe in. Personally, I don’t want to be an anonymous atheist forever, and I never want to be embarrassed by something I write. If anyone comes up to me pissed off because of a post here, I want it to be their problem and not mine.

What this doesn’t mean is that I have some kind of authority to dictate how people treat each other. But I can share my point of view.