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American Atheists are an embarrassment to atheism

No surprise here: American Atheists are once again engaging in reckless and unproductively antagonistic behavior. This time, though, they’ve really gone beyond the pale. In a recent post on their “No God Blog”, “Taking The Gloves Off…“, American Atheists’ Georgia State Director Al Stefanelli uses lazy and shockingly vitriolic rhetoric, unsupported assumptions, and sweeping generalizations in a futile attempt to defend an indefensible thesis.

Throughout his rant, Stefanelli fails to provide any actual evidence in support of his assertions, instead relying on generalizations, stereotypes, assumptions, anger, and arguments from personal experiences. He wants his audience to believe that his rant is a legitimate argument that should be taken seriously, yet the combination of its extreme nature and his refusal to engage in civil, rational, and evidence-based argument results in a thesis that is ultimately indefensible. Stefanelli is not deterred by this fact, though. He is determined to defend his thesis no matter what, and the result is a completely ineffective, vitriolic, and potentially dangerous rant dressed up as a legitimate argument.

The vitriol and ridiculousness is apparent from the start:

Intolerance toward beliefs and doctrines that serve only to promote hatred, bigotry and discrimination should be lauded, as should extremist points of view toward the eradication of these beliefs and doctrines.

I’ll give him this: at the very least, he sticks to “beliefs and doctrines” here (specifically, as he later explains, “fundamentalist Christian and radical Islamic doctrines”) instead of believers.

There are some major issues, though:

1) Intolerance and “extremist points of view” should never be “lauded” or encouraged. Yes, we should praise and encourage those who speak out against the unquestioned societal privileging of religious beliefs. That’s vastly different from promoting intolerance, though. This argument is untenable, uncivil, counterproductive, and irresponsible.

2) In this context, “eradication” is a horrible, thoughtless, and confusing (how could any form of religious belief or doctrine ever be eradicated?) word. “Eradication” brings to mind acts of violence and cruelty, and carries the connotation of eliminating one’s enemy by any means necessary. This is important to keep in mind, primarily because Stefanelli soon begins to blur the distinction between “beliefs” and “believers”, and it is this blurring that makes his rhetoric truly irresponsible and dangerous. Such rhetoric may create an atmosphere in which violent acts against religious individuals are tolerated and even encouraged, something that any civilized society and any compassionate individual should find completely unacceptable.

Stefanelli continues:

Most of these people [followers of “fundamentalist Christian and radical Islamic doctrines”] lack the maturity and intelligence to act in a socially acceptable manner.  Many of them are sociopaths and quite a good number of them are psychopaths.  All of them are clearly delusional.

Huh? He can get away with “delusional”, if we (as I do) interpret it as a comment on the fact that belief in a theistic God requires one to hold on to the false (read: delusional) notion that God directly intervenes in one’s life. Stefanelli’s other allegations, though, are completely unsupported assumptions. Mature adults who care about responsible, ethical, and evidence-based argument do not make such allegations without supporting their claims with legitimate concrete statistical evidence. It’s here that Stefanelli begins to blur the distinction between “beliefs” and “believers”, an act that is particularly dangerous in the context of an article that throws around words like “eradication” and makes baseless allegations about the people who hold the beliefs that Stefanelli wants to “eradicate”. I imagine that most of us would acknowledge that both words and rhetoric can have serious consequences and thus must be used responsibly, yet Stefanelli either doesn’t understand this or doesn’t care (as much as I’d like to grant him the benefit of the doubt, it’s pretty clear that the second option applies here).

More Stefanelli:

The fact is that fundamentalist Christians and radical Muslims are not interested in coexisting or getting along. They have no desire for peace. They do not want to sit down with us in diplomatic efforts to iron out our differences and come to an agreement on developing an integrated society.

They want us to die.

Yet more assumptions and sweeping generalizations. For example: fundamentalist Christians and radical Muslims are not the same. Their differences outnumber their similarities. But, as Stefanelli’s failure to properly distinguish between “beliefs” and “believers” makes clear, he isn’t interested in factual and responsible rhetoric, so his attempt to morph these two religious groups into one comes as no surprise.

And does each and every Christian fundamentalist and radical Muslim “want [atheists] to die”. No, of course not.  When an author makes such an extreme claim, they must, at the very least, support it with multiple examples from quality and trustworthy sources. But Stefanelli doesn’t do that. He knows that this claim is patently false and cannot be supported by actual evidence, so he instead chooses to rely on the hope that his audience’s confirmation bias will provide all the “evidence” that he needs.

Stefanelli continues to blur the line between “beliefs” and “believers”:

Again, bigotry, discrimination, hatred, coercion, terrorism, slavery, misogyny and everything else that is part and parcel of fundamental Christianity and radical Islam should not be tolerated and anyone who agrees with this needs to adopt extremist points of view that includes the intolerance of their very existence. The only reason these groups exist is because they are allowed to, and we, as a society, are allowing them to.

This ambiguity is dangerous. The prime example: “intolerance of their very existence”. What is “their” referring to here? He later claimed (in the article’s comment section) that, throughout his article, he was obviously referring to “beliefs”, not believers. But, despite what Stefanelli claims, a dangerous ambiguity pervades his arguments. Further evidence of this ambiguity can be found in his assertion that “these groups” exist only because “they are allowed to”. Consider this: what is a “group”? A collection of people or things. Thus, there is no way that Stefanelli can claim that he was referring to “beliefs” here, not “believers”. And rhetoric that calls for “the intolerance of [the] very existence” of any group of people is extremely unethical, callous, and, above all, dangerous.

And there’s more:

But the underbelly of fundamentalist Christianity and radical Islam does not operate in the legal system. They don’t respond to lawsuits, letters, amicus briefs or other grass-roots campaigns and they must, must, must be eradicated.

Again, Stefanelli’s use of “they” in this context is disturbingly ambiguous. It’s quite arguably a reference to “believers”, not “beliefs”. For example, a belief can’t “respond to a lawsuit”; only an individual or a group can do that. Thus, when Stefanelli proceeds to say that “they must, must, must be eradicated”, I’m honestly baffled as to how anyone could possibly interpret that “they” as anything but a reference to “believers”.

At the end of his article, he tries to backpedal a bit:

If we don’t take a stand and, as a society, insist that these doctrines and beliefs are treated just the same as they would be if religion were not part of the equation, we will become extinct not due to natural selection, but at the hands of those who believe that the supernatural has made the selection.

This passage has nothing to do with the article itself, though. It’s tacked on at the end, perhaps in an attempt to make the article seem less vitriolic and ridiculous than it is. In his article, he isn’t encouraging his readers to speak out against the unquestioned societal privileging of religious beliefs. No: he’s arguing for the eradication of believers.

Stefanelli can backpedal all he wants (he continues to do so in the comments section of the article), but this article must be taken as it was written. Perhaps Stefanelli is guilty only of lazy rhetoric and unclear writing, not of encouraging violence towards individuals and groups. I don’t know for certain. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt, but that’s very difficult to do here. What I do know is that Stefanelli’s arguments are callous, unsupported, ridiculous, and potentially quite dangerous.

And the worst thing is that American Atheists, as an organization, are happy to promote and endorse articles like Stefanelli’s. This is just one of the many reasons that they are an embarrassment to atheism, and, I’d argue, a major impediment to both the progression of the atheist movement and to acceptance of atheism in general. American Atheists are reactionary, counterproductive, and completely embarrassing. My only hope is that other atheist groups will recognize American Atheists’ tactics for what they are and will distance themselves accordingly.

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136 Comments
  1. CAZ #

    Stefanelli’s arguments are callous, unsupported, ridiculous, and potentially quite dangerous. On this I totally agree with you Miranda. The other good point you have made is we are not sure if Stefanelli critiques are towards beliefs or believers. I would also add that he’s an expert on propaganda too.

    As much as anti-theism is an anathema to me, it would not take me a Herculean effort to respect Al’s militant atheism if it really was motivated by compassion and empathy towards the victims of religion. But I feel that he’s serving more his self interest. He loves the attention he gets from thousands that read his articles, and I also believe he makes a lot of noise to promote marketing for his book. Honestly I don’t feel like wasting hard earned money on a book that I will question if it’s scientifically accurate or more like science fiction.

    I’m not siding with Christians nor atheists here, but I respect when both groups are able to debate peacefully instead of the belittlement and the mud slinging we find often on the Internet. Contrary to what Stefanelli wants us to believe, there are many Christians and atheists that are friends in the world. But instead , I believe he wants to keep a subdivision between the two groups. He wants them to keep fighting, because I believe that is his real intention.

    December 2, 2011

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