Aggressive Atheism vs. Friendly Atheism

A weekly commentary by Hemant Mehta, adapted from his blog "The Friendly Atheist."

Dec. 9, 2009

Stephen Prothero, the author of Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know–And Doesn't, wrote an article for USA Today about how atheists could benefit from some new voices.

Specifically, friendlier, female voices–as opposed to the "angry white male atheist" voices, from which we already hear plenty. (There's been plenty of discussion on how that stereotype isn't very fair or accurate–Richard Dawkins, for example, isn't an "angry" guy; he's just perceived as such because he's passionate when discussing the harms that religion causes. But I won't dwell on that right now.)

Prothero also mentions William Lobdell and me as examples of "male types who also qualify as kinder, gentler atheists." It was nice of him to include me in that list, and I could easily mention several other men and women (several of whom contribute to and comment on this site) who belong there, too.

What I did want to talk about was the following excerpt from Prothero's USA Today article, which describes his reaction after attending an event for the Boston Coalition of Reason and hearing speeches from several old school (angry, white male) atheists and one friendly, female atheist:

I heard two very different arguments at this event. The first was the old line of the New Atheists: religious people are stupid and religion is poison, so the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison. The second was less controversial and less utopian: from this perspective, atheism is just another point of view, deserving of constitutional protection and a fair hearing. Its goal is not a world without religion but a world in which believers and nonbelievers coexist peaceably, and atheists are respected, or at least tolerated.

These competing approaches could not be further apart. One is an invitation to a duel. The other is a fair-minded appeal for recognition and respect. Or, to put it in terms of the gay rights movement, one is like trying to turn everyone gay and the other is like trying to secure equal rights for gay men and lesbians.

I think there's a lot more overlap in the atheist community than Prothero is giving us credit for.

The "aggressive" types want to both increase the respectability of the atheist viewpoint, while at the same time persuading others that it's the most rational point of view.

The "friendly" types want to both increase the respectability of the atheist viewpoint, while at the same time persuading others that it's the most rational point of view.

The difference is that the aggressive types don't care who they offend. They'll go after religion in all its forms–it doesn't matter if they criticize the Vatican or the local church down the street or your sweet neighbor who happens to be religious.

The friendly types are willing to do some triage here. They're not going to spend the same amount of energy going after a local pastor or national politician who happens to espouse a personal belief in a god. There are more important battles to fight.

I would much rather keep as allies those religious people who do things like support sound science, fight for equal rights for the GLBT community and believe in separation of church and state.

I know others prefer a no-holds-barred approach, but I think that's counterproductive when dealing with the people we want to reach out to the most–those who are on the fence, somewhere between "I'm going to call myself an agnostic" and "I go to church on Christmas and Easter."

There are a lot of people in that mix, and I think we turn them off by not acknowledging that we can't offer everything that religion can at the present time. When we say that atheism is "obviously" right, we're not addressing their real concerns about losing all faith, and so they stop listening.

That's not to say the aggressive types aren't important.

They get the attention.

As openly-anti-theist Brian Sapient once said to me, the aggressive atheists provide a bitter pill for the religious to swallow; the friendly atheists are like the water that helps them get it down.


 About Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist


Hemant Mehta is the Chair of the Secular Student Alliance (SSA) Board of Directors. He has worked with the Center for Inquiry and is also an SSA representative to the Secular Coalition for America. Hemant received national attention, including being featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, for his work as the "eBay Atheist." Hemant's blog can be read at and his book "I Sold My Soul on eBay" (WaterBrook Press) is now in bookstores everywhere. He currently works as a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago.