Curing cynical skepticism 4 – The wrong spin

[This post is part of a week-long series from July 24-30 about issues within the secular community. Also see parts 1, 2, and 3.]

I’ve hopefully introduced my main concern in the discussion of the non-active atheists and cynical skeptics and how I think we as a community need to find ways to make them feel more welcome in our groups. Today I want to try to discuss one of the major roadblocks for the non-active atheists for them getting involved in existing groups.

I think the issue is not our overall message. There is a documented, large support base for secular groups in Canada, and especially in BC. The idea of limiting religious influence on government and society is generally popular here, and science still commands a reasonable amount of respect.

The issue that I think is keeping many from joining communities is a matter of communication and appearance.

To put it bluntly, the atheist community (science departments as well) suffers from a bloat of members with varying social deficiencies. We have a number of charismatic speakers (James Randi, Phil Plait) but at the local level, a number of people either forget or do not realize that many people are not won over by a mere resuscitation of facts and logical arguments.

What separates Phil Plait from an IRL internet troll is not an ability to create and use logical arguments, but the skill at which they are applied to discussions with other human beings. Being a douche bag may be very self-satisfying, but when a group is fighting for a broader social change, lacking the ability to actually interact with people is something that just needs to be accepted.

Hell, it’s even scientifically wrong to think that throwing facts at someone will change their mind. People get entrenched in their position and will defend it, no matter how irrational.

Tone matters

Don’t get my message wrong. I support the New Atheist approach to demonstrating that it’s okay to challenge the taboo of belief, but there is definitely a time and place for everything.

An organization that wants to be taken seriously as a community beyond belief needs to conduct itself differently than the members within it. If I want to make fun of religion and be a dick, that’s just fine, but I think larger groups need to be aware of what their audience is.

If we only want to appeal to hardcore, angry, stereotypical atheists, then attacking religion is just fine. But I think if our goal is to attract a larger audience, we need to tread lightly.

Perhaps it means that angry atheist groups and compassionate humanists groups would be more successful apart, but I think until our (active) numbers are much larger, fragmentation represents a reduction in the resources available to any one group.