I’ve read at least one report that a recurrent theme at The Amaz!ng Meeting 8 (hosted by famous debunker The Amazing Randi) has been R-E-S-P-E-C-T — that is, of skeptics for believers. What I read doesn’t sound like accommodationism, the argument that skeptics (particularly scientists) need to “accommodate” the incorrect beliefs of the religious by acknowledging that they may have some value in truth-seeking. Instead, it sounds like a push to consider how skeptics communicate their skepticism to the wider world. Considering that one of the sources is Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy, and that Phil pulls no punches in the fight against irrationality, I have no doubt he wasn’t advocating squishiness of ideas.
How we communicate disbelief is a complicated question, and one without a single answer. There are times when irrational thinking becomes so dangerous, or so galling, that a fire-breathing response of the type frequently served up by PZ Myers at Pharyngula is wholly appropriate. On the other hand, we Everyday Atheists who have neither a famous blog nor book on which to rely, and who must live cheek-to-jowl with believers (often in our own families), typically don’t have the luxury of verbally burning down the churches if we want to maintain any semblance of cordial relations (or un-slashed tires, in my neighborhood).
When considering how to communicate my nonbelief in a given situation, I find two considerations compelling. First, from a purely humanistic ethical perspective, how would I want or expect to be treated by somehow who vehemently disagreed with me? Despite how shoddily believers often treat atheists, I don’t think it’s appropriate to argue that “they started it” when loading the guns. We can be better than that, and when we are, I do believe it gets noticed by those who are undecided on the matter.
Second, I consider what I’m trying to accomplish with the exchange. If my goal is persuasion or education (the two most common), a calm, friendly demeanor helps prevent my audience’s defenses from instantly going on red alert. It’s far too easy to dismiss someone out of hand when he or she starts off with name calling or dismissive statements (the one thing I’d fault the great Christopher Hitchens for – an overuse of the word “nonsense”). That’s not to suggest tempering one’s views or holding back in destroying bad arguments. I’d simply observe that you can prove someone is a dissembling asshole without saying it. Smile whilst smiting. After all, reality is on our side.