Wednesday, May 12, 2010

When has “atheistic evangelism” gone too far?

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Atheist/Godless ambigram

Doug Stewart, the self-proclaimed Godless Evangelist, has often gone out of his way to proclaim his atheism far and wide to all those who are willing to hear it, such as by brandishing numerous pro-atheism signs during Mardi Gras, driving a car with an iconic atheist bus ad on the top (and you thought atheist bumper stickers were invitations for vandals?) and even sporting a “GODLESS” license plate with his home phone number on it. Personally, I don’t particularly care for “evangelical atheism”, either the act or the phrase itself, as I don’t believe that atheism is some sort of gospel you can (or should) preach to others. I believe in letting others come to their own conclusions about the nature of gods and religion when exposed to evidence and reason. But, that’s another matter in and of itself.

Now, Doug has recently taken his godless-botting (if I can call it that) to a new level: to try and stir up some conversations (and possibly other, less enticing reactions), he parked his car in the vicinity of churches on a recent Sunday (I can’t find an exact date), complete with flamboyantly atheist advert on the roof, in plain view of parishoners as they left service. The reactions he received from church-goers was generally mild, ranging from some shocked faces to friendly waves. Interestingly, it was only when the priests arrived that any sort of confrontation started. In short, they asked Doug to leave; Doug refused; the priests then called the cops. (And here I was, half-expecting a fight to break out. I must watch too much TV.)

It ended benignly enough: the cop was surprisingly understanding and upheld Doug’s Freedom of Speech, telling the priests they had no right to chase him away as long as he wasn’t breaking any laws or regulations. He had to move his car, though, as he was apparently blocking an emergency shoulder lane or something, but that was it. Everyone went home happy (or, at least, without going to jail).

Now, Hemant Mehta at Friendly Atheist notes that this sort of behavior does raise some important and interesting questions, and he asks thus:

  • Is he at all comparable to Westboro Baptist Church, exercising his First Amendment rights by showing up precisely where he is not wanted?

  • Is this sort of activism good, bad, or neutral for atheism?

  • Should he do this again? If so, near other churches or denominations?

1) No, I don’t believe what Doug did, however blatant and “in-their-face” it might have been, can be considered comparable to the general horrible acts of the WBC. Doug did not preach hatred, death and eternal damnation, or claim that [X] calamity is due to [X] people’s actions, or especially, have the heartless gall to preach at such places as funerals and the likes. What Westboro does is the utmost level of contemptuousness, and even bold and daring demonstrations like Doug’s simply aren’t anywhere near as reprehensible.

2) I would have to say that his actions may tend to lean a little towards the negative side of the “effect for the cause of atheism” scale. While there are undoubtedly some who will be happy to engage him in conversation and may “see the light” (so to speak), it’s rather evident that the large majority of people who either already hold atheism and godless folks in bad light, or who are undecided one way or the other, will be left feeling affronted by his preaching. For them, this would simply reaffirm the already far-too-common sentiments that atheism is a religion and that atheists are as preachy in their godlessness as any other believers (however false these ideas may be). While he definitely isn’t on the same level of instigators such as PZ Myers or Richard Dawkins, the fact remains that many will see this negatively and will react thusly. It’s simple human nature: regardless of the innocuousness of the message, even stating that atheists exist will offend some people, so to practically shove it in their face like that is really just causing trouble.

3) While whether he can do things like this is an absolute “yes”, as the cop made clear (and that’s practically a miracle in itself, har har), whether he should continue in this vein … I would argue that it isn’t the best course of action to take. His message is, of course, a good one, but he ought to think about presenting it differently to accommodate current social tides and sentiments. (Note that the fact that I said “accommodate” does not make me an accommodationist and I shall smite anyone who says otherwise!)