It seems that right now the question of how aggressively atheist we should be is floating around in many media outlets. The Guardian published this interview with Martin Rees (which incidentally ticked me off bad enough to start this blog, but that is a topic for another day). Perhaps it has something to do with the recent failed predictions of Harold Camping. That is the suggestion over at Skepticblog. Indeed, I myself have been pretty hard on Mr. Camping and his followers. They were pretty easy targets, and I still believe that they behaved in a foolhardy manner, but it is important to remember that they are people and that this whole experience has probably been a difficult and painful one for them. At the same time, how do you react to people who behave or believe so irrationally.
I tend to fall somewhere in the middle on the confrontation scale. I don't think it is necessary to go out of our way to poke fun at people with strange or unsubstantiated beliefs. People are allowed to think whatever they want. However, if someone challenges me on my non-belief or tries proselytizing to me, they should be prepared to defend their beliefs, because they voluntarily crossed that line. In cases like that I think that it is important for us to be quite vocal about why we are non-believers, and show that we are also normal human beings. Basically, we shouldn't hide who we are because we are afraid of a) being socially outcast or b) offending the overtly religious. I think that that is pretty straight forward. We are who we are, and we believe what we believe (or don't believe) and we shouldn't be ashamed of it.
It becomes a more difficult question, however, when we are dealing with someone who is not directly challenging us or trying to convert us, but is still speaking with an air of religious authority. It is like when someone at a party says something that is just blatantly wrong like "cockroaches are smarter than dogs" or "potato chips are really healthy" or "I think I am a little psychic" or "the Secret is such an awesome book". You feel bad correcting them, because you don't want to be that person, but you also feel the need to correct an obvious factual error. One that I encountered recently when talking about the economy was "Christ said, 'there will be poor always'." Do you let that go? Incidentally, rather than challenge the religious aspects of it, I challenged the statement on its own. Of course this conversation was with a family member whom I have a great deal of respect for. Would I have reacted differently if it had been someone whom I did not respect so much? I don't know. I can say though that I believe that we should pick our battles. Sometimes the offense is too great to let slide and we should challenge it, even at the risk of appearing rude. Other times, we should just let it slide.
How about mockery? I quite liked the attitude of Daniel Loxton's blog entry from Skepticblog (linked above). Really, how effective is mockery? Even if it works, it is kind of going over to the dark side, in that it is coercive and doesn't make people think critically. One exception that I could possibly see is when we are actually publicly debating someone or dealing with a powerful organization. In a debate if you can make your opponent look obviously foolish, without making yourself look like a bully or a jerk, it could help you win the debate. When dealing with powerful organizations that promote wrong ideas I am not really concerned about their feelings, and would like to be a part of decreasing the quality of their public images. Some examples include: Answers in Genesis (people living with dinosaurs), The Discovery Institute (intelligent design), the Thomas More Law Center (have a look), and many others. Still, I think belittling a person you are having a friendly conversation with, in almost all cases is a lose-lose idea.