This post is longer and a lot looser than most of mine which tend to be long and loose anyway but I've just been thinking through a lot of stuff and so it's time to set some of it down.
In the wake of the deep sigh of relief all of us have taken over the long-overdue departure of Dan Marvin, I've gotten all introspective and have considered the charge that atheists often are faced with: that we're just plain mean sonsabitches who are all too quick to respond to believers with anger, invective and name calling.
Take the whole history with Dan over the past few months. I called him stupid, uneducated, hypocritical, dishonest, and a lying little turd. I probably called him a few less pleasant things too. Other people in the comments called him even worse. It cannot feel good to hear yourself being called these things. It can only being demeaning and hurtful. From the anonymity of the keyboard, it's easy to forget that the person you're attacking is a human being with feelings.
What kind of guy do I think Dan Marvin is in person? I imagine he's a devoted and loving husband and father, a hard-working man who devotes 100% of himself to providing for his family and being a good citizen in his community. I can also tell from his writings that he really believes what he says he believes, even if, as was shown here by such fine commenters as Stephen and Tracie, he doesn't fully understand, or think through all of the implications of, what he claims to believe. I think he came here because he's genuinely possessed of a belief that there's a place called hell where we're all going to go to be tortured forever because we don't believe as he does. I think his beliefs are so thoroughly branded into his map of the world that no matter how much we tried to explain, "Look, here's why we don't believe what you do, and here's what we need to see from you if you think we should," his responses went along the lines of "But...but...don't you understand, you're going to hell!" There's just a fundamental difference in the way people like him and people like us process information in our minds, and that leads, particularly in extreme cases like Dan's, to an insurmountable communication gap.
So, yeah. On the one hand, I'm willing to admit that that kind of communication gap can lead to atheists losing our temper with what we see as pure stupidity.
But as I said way back when, believers who find atheists brusque and insulting need however hard it may be for them to try walking in our shoes.
Truth to tell, when I called Dan a particular nasty name, it was because he'd done something to earn it. Dan's own comments speak to his behavior well enough. If he cut-and-pasted some moronic creationist canards, I called him an idiot, because that's the sort of thing only an idiot would do. When he projected his own behavior onto us, I'd call him a hypocrite. When he tried to refute us by making bizarre straw men out of our arguments, I'd hit him again. And again. Now, that's just me. Life is not always meant to be easy, and some lessons need to be learned the hard way. There's a time when the gloves have to come off. There's a place for the Simon Cowell approach to criticism. And I'm okay with giving it. Some commenters here got even angrier with Dan. Others like Tracie were nearly heroic, in the patient way she calmly knocked down everything Dan threw at her, without the slightest hint that even one of her feathers had been ruffled.
It helps to know when being a two-fisted atheist is the right approach, and when it's not. When I started my four-year run on the AE TV show, I was first cohost to the redoubtable Jeff Dee. Jeff is brilliant at arguing on his feet, and almost always went for the jugular. Oftimes this was needed. The flipside was that it could, on occasion, backfire. For years, we had a creationist troll named Steve (some of you remember him, I'm sure) who'd call every week with whatever bit of YEC bullshit he'd dredged up. From the fake Paluxy riverbed "man tracks" on down, there was no argument so lame and discredited he wouldn't call with it. He was also a deeply dishonest scumbag who wouldn't address our rebuttals. He engaged in the kind of drive-by, hit-and-run pseudo-arguing in which, every time we'd refute his latest claim, he'd just call the next week and, without even acknowledging that we'd addressed his points, simply go off on a new round of drivel as if the previous week's conversation had never occurred.
But one thing became clear to me very quickly. Not only was Steve stupid, disingenuous, and ill-educated; he wasn't even serious. At first, yes, it was evident he really thought he could take us on with his arguments. But soon it was obvious he'd changed his tack, and he was calling every week because he knew how easy it was to make Jeff lose his temper. Many Christians realize they can't actually take down an atheist on the facts, and so they resort to emotional manipulation. Get the atheist angry, and they can claim a phony moral "victory." The argument is, at this point, no longer about what is or isn't true. It's about a "humble" Christian trying to witness to a poor unsaved soul, and getting hate and anger in reply. Instant martyr; just add water.
After Jeff left the show and I shifted my plump cheeks into the host's chair, Steve kept calling...for a bit. Then he just quit. Because I'd pegged him. I knew his schtick. I would just reply to his claims, without getting pissed off. I guess I wasn't as much fun.
Still, "pissed off" is something I get at times, all on my own. And I know other atheists sympathize. There really is no understating the level of frustration that is felt when one lives without religion in a religion-addicted world. Atheists, generally speaking, are just normal folks trying to get by and do the best they can like anyone else. Our only difference is that we have dispensed with the need for irrational beliefs in the supernatural, which we think most people maintain simply because the culture in which they were raised requires it as a behavioral norm. This view, I think, is borne out by recent findings that while most Americans profess religious belief, few actually know anything about what they claim to believe.
Thus many Americans profess belief simply because everyone else does, and not to do so would mean you're weird. On the flip side of that extreme are the Dan Marvins of the faith, who denounce those people as "false converts" while at the same time offering nothing but smoke and mirrors and nonsense in defense of their own, presumably "truer" belief.
In the midst of all this swirling supernaturalist confusion is the atheist, attempting to live a rational, humanist existence among millions of people who literally seem to be living in another world. And because we don't buy into the God delusion, we're vilified by people who know nothing of us, of atheism, or even of their own theism, and who think of themselves as paragons of virtue.
So to anyone who thinks atheists are mean people, I say, have you listened to Michael Newdow's answering machine tapes? (He's made them available, and even recorded a funny song around some of them.) Have you read the death threats and hate mail that Sam Harris gets? Have you read the vile diatribes by the Baptist minister on Possummomma's blog? How is someone like her supposed to live a normal, peaceful life when some lunatic, self-anointed "man of God" takes to stalking her children to save their souls? Atheists are "angry," you say? What parent, atheist or not, wouldn't get angry about that?
So while I think it behooves atheists to always do our best to choose the high ground of reason over the low road of irrational emotionalism, we are only human after all. Anger is an entirely justified response to being on the receiving end of prejudice and stupidity, especially when it is perpetrated by ignorant hypocrites who are convinced they're on the side of righteousness. Before you tell me that atheists are mean people full of anger and hate, consider what brings it on, and that many believers are in need of some serious adjustments to their own moral compasses.