Sunday, 1 September 2013

New to Atheism Part 2 - Being a vocal atheist

In this post I'd like to give some advice to those not just new to atheism (whether that's after theism, or new to being an 'out' lifelong atheist)  but who also want to be vocal about it. Perhaps there's something there for those who've been out and vocal for some time too. I hope so. 

I'm not an expert on the atheism/theism debate, but I've been involved for a little while now and I like to think I've learnt a few things on how to get the message to people in an interesting and engaging way. 

I would also like to say that I'm not telling anyone what kind of atheist they should be and I'm not demanding anyone follow any of the advice I give below. I'm just making some suggestions from what I've learnt over the past two and a bit years being active on twitter. This is my advice on how to to be heard, how to be listened to, how to be taken seriously, and how to make a difference. The advice below largely relates to twitter as that's where I'm most vocal about atheism but I hope I've written in a way that can be easily translated into other formats - particularly when it's a debating style of communication.

First of all listen to others - on both sides of the debate. And I mean listen - without joining in. Take the time to learn what each side is saying - even the side you're not on. Don't make the mistake of being someone who has never read, studied, or considered the alternate position. A person best argues against a position when they have a very good understanding of it. Time and time again I've discussed atheism or evolution with people who oppose them but don't know what they are. It's a rookie error and makes them look amateur. Know your opposition.

It's a mistake to think atheists = smart, theists = stupid. This is simply not the case. There are some very smart theists out there - yes, really. Some of the most influential and intelligent atheists I know used to be theists. None of these people got 'smarter' the day they became atheists. They have become more informed or have learned to think and assess information in a manner different to how they had previously. Conversely, not all atheists are smart. There have been more times than I care for that atheists, particularly on twitter, have shown themselves to be ridiculous to the point of embarrassing. It doesn't make them look good and can sometimes be detrimental to atheism as a whole (if such thing can be said to exist). 

Insults don't help. At all. I'm at fault here too. I know I've called someone a moron or a fucking idiot or something similar -  but it doesn't help. All it does is get their back up and the cries of 'ad hominem' soon follow*. I know it can be quite frustrating to keep a level head and to keep the insults at bay when discussing something with someone who can't seem to grasp even the most basic of the points, but once you start calling them names you're not going to get anywhere. I will often quote theists making a stupid comment and make my own comment. I do this because I want to share with my followers something I think is either funny or thoughtful (though I suspect too often it's neither). This approach opens up my tweets to receiving replies from the people who follow me - and this is fine. It's all about communication and getting our thoughts and ideas across and the more people get involved in that, the better. However I too often get copied on replies that are just insults - even one word like moron or idiot. There's no thought there, there's no humour. I can't stop this from happening, but I really wish it wouldn't. I'm not a patient person and I think patience can be a flaw as often as it is a virtue - but remember, I'm talking here about getting the message across, about being heard. Flat out insults are not going to get either of these things to happen. 

Be funny. People love a laugh. I know, as I'm sure you do too, that religion can have very serious consequences for people. It's a genuine problem and can and does ruin people's lives. But we don't have to take the whole thing seriously ALL the time. There is opportunity to make people laugh. So if you see something ridiculous and you think of something funny to say, say it. 

If you want to engage with theists, be kind, be understanding. Don't yell at them immediately don't rip into them after a single tweet if that tweet is a genuine question or a simple misunderstanding. Theists, like anyone, are much more likely to respond in kind. If you're rude and aggressive, they'll be rude and aggressive too. If you're patient and understanding, they are more likely to talk to you in a similar manner. They are, after all, people themselves, not just words on a screen. 

Having said that, there is a difference between an ignorant but genuine person and an arsehole. If someone is being mean or rude, kindness and patience are wasted. If you feel the need to tweet to these kinds of people - go for it. Some of the funniest and most entertaining tweets on my timeline are from people getting stuck into theists who are being beyond ridiculous. We don't have to tolerate intolerance and we don't have to be courteous to rudeness. Try to learn to spot the difference. Being rude to someone just wanting to learn will reflect poorly on you.

If twitter is your avenue for being vocal consider your 'stand alone' tweets too. These are tweets where you're just giving your opinions, your thoughts, or asking questions. They don't involve replying to anyone - whether that's a theist or an atheist. My advice here is be thoughtful and/or be funny. I'm sometimes being philosophical (Socractic method almost), sometimes being funny ( least striving to be) and sometimes just letting loose - speaking without reservation and telling 'religion' exactly what I think of it. These are what I call my rants. I love replies that I see to theists, but I also love reading what people have to say on their own and I don't think twitter has enough of it. 

There are other avenues for getting your voice heard in the atheist community online apart from twitter, of course. In part three of this series I highlight some of the blogs, podcasts, books, and YouTube accounts that I find most informative and entertaining. Even though the format is different I think the message is the same and obvious - capture your audience, entertain them, be thoughtful, be funny. Whatever media you choose, read/watch/listen to plenty of it. Try to find a voice that makes you unique, find an angle that you've not seen yet. If you're too similar to others you may not get noticed. If you're writing, give people something they can relate to - such as your 'why I'm an atheist' story. I know plenty of atheists who love reading these stories. 

There's no point wanting to be vocal in the atheist community and doing it in a way that doesn't reach an audience. If you don't reach an audience, you may as well just write on a notepad. If you want to have a voice, you need to think about how to get that voice heard. Bring something to the table, provide something that people want to hear. Look at what's being done in the format you're interested in and see if you can find something missing. 

Getting yourself heard will be helped by engaging with people. Talk to other atheists and listen to them. Ask about their experiences, and, if they're interested, share yours. People are far more likely to listen to what you have to say if they know you're prepared to listen to what they have to say too. If you're blogging, read other blogs and let people know you've done it. If YouTube is your thing same applies - watch the work of others. Apply this to whichever format you want to be heard in.

I have found the atheist community online is very welcoming. I have retweeted many people who are new to atheism or new to being able to say they're an atheist and it is always a case of being welcomed with open arms (as much as that can be done online, in text). I've not ever seen a new atheist shunned by the people I follow. 

Myself - I have met some wonderful people through my MrOzAtheist account, people I would now call genuine friends. If you find people who are 'speaking your language' then don't be shy, engage. You're not going to have a connection with everyone of course, but you won't know until you try. Don't be shy, say hello.

I encourage all people willing and able to add their voice to the atheist community - in whatever way you want that voice to be added. The more voices added, the more people will feel comfortable in being able to say, "I too am an atheist". Once we have enough people doing that saying won't even matter any more. And that's where we should all be hoping to get.


*an insult is not an ad hominem. An ad hominem fallacy is when you claim someone is wrong because of a flaw in their character EG "you're wrong because you're a moron" There's a difference between this and "you're wrong, AND you're a moron" you may go on to logically defeat their argument but the insult is still not a good look - avoid.


  1. Thanks again, Donovan. I was a bit angry and misdirected when I first started speaking out, but I have now found my way back to a more rational stance and reasonable attitude. Well, that's on most days I confess. But I agree wholeheartedly with what you've said here. :-) ~Rachel

  2. Great article Donovan, as a very reserved person, but extremely opinionated (in a good way I think) I'm going to try to put these points into action.


  3. I'm new to the whole vocal atheist scene and have just started a twitter account and a blog. Thanks for the advice hope it can help me get talking to some like minded peoople!