The two species problem of New Atheism

The dove's Tarzan impression went down a treat at parties.

One claims to be friendly. There’s an asshole around somewhere. A number are accused of being militant. There is a multitude who are silent out of either fear or choice. A whole bunch like to distinguish themselves from the old variety. They can be polemical, loud, reasonable, bigoted, intellectual, philosophical, pragmatic…in fact, the only trait they all share is a lack of belief in a supernatural, personal creator of the universe.

And yet, if you were to stumble across a community of godless ones, you could be forgiven for naively thinking there were just two distinct species – Accommodationis warminfuzziness, and Newatheist confrontationist. The former are fratricidal backstabbers who are sleeping with the enemy, while the latter are brash bigots who risk making a mess of things by frightening off the customers.

Every week a blogger somewhere will point out how dangerous New Atheism is for Old Atheism. This will quickly be followed by another blogger using accommodationist as a pejorative, listing how their criticisms against fellow atheists is simply not cricket, and how they coddle those nasty Bible bashers. Each article will proceed to spawn a fetid tail of comments that gradually decay into barely coherent sentences that might be illogical if they weren’t initially illegible.

And so the conversation goes. On. And on. And on.

To what end does this occur? There’s a question worthy of a sociological PhD. What initially seems to be quite obvious quickly becomes something of a mystery.

On the surface, this maelstrom appears to ultimately be about science. Religion is antagonistic to science, you see, so to make science better, you need to do something about the religion problem. Atheism – the absence of a belief in supernatural personalities who govern nature – is the pill to cure the ill. Simple.

Science is about specific terms. About precision. A reasonable evaluation of the evidence and criticisms of beliefs and methodology. It’s a brutal ecosystem of predators where only the fittest ideas survive. Yet when one looks at the New Atheist discussion, science is the last thing that you’ll find.

So while it might well be under the guise of defending science literacy, there is the unmistakable smell of bigotry tainting much of the discussion. People aren’t just mistaken, they’re stupid or evil. Hyperbole is common place, where all religion is always bad. While individual opinions vary, a culture persists which has turned the discussion into a bloody, muddy battlefield of traded insults, fabricated facts and barely contained hostility.

Criticism is a dirty word. Evidence is dismissed for spurious reasoning, assumptions, wishful thinking and faithful claims. Definitions are vague and quickly dissolve into strawman and ‘no true Scottsman’ fallacies. In short, what we understand to be ‘New Atheism’ has all the heat and anger of science but little of the rigor or mutual respect. And it claims to be defending it.

There are frequent olive branches thrown down in request of a ceasefire. Perhaps the most common is the plea for diversity. This call seems democratic, inclusive and reasonable. After all, if there are many different problems and many different audiences, there must be a need for many different methods. Let’s all live and let live, right? If one approach doesn’t work, another will.

The mediators are somewhat like a ring species for Accommodationis warminfuzziness and Newatheist confrontationist.

Yet there is an element of intellectual laziness in this view. Of course, no one approach in communication will reach all demographics, or solve all problems. Diverse approaches are indeed necessary. Yet this is not the same as saying all approaches are necessary. Some will conflict. Some will be resource hungry and have no hope of success for one reason or another. Identifying solutions to the problem of how best to communicate science in the face of religion will take more than guessing, hoping and shouting into echo chambers. Like anything in science, it demands research, critical thinking and evaluation. No act of communication should be above criticism or beyond the need for evidence, clarity and precision.

Science communication suffers from a lot of confounding factors in the community, of which religious faith is but one. To atheists, it’s an important one. Making ground on these problems will take good information and calm, rational thinking. If atheists feel that there is a specific problem attacking science, what better tool to solve it than the tools of science itself?

The placebo protest: under the microscope

Placebo pills

Protesting makes me feel good.

At the end of April last year, I wrote an essay on the rise of protest-based demonstrations as a means of engaging with the public on certain irrational beliefs. While the 10:23 homeopathy campaign and the so-called Boobquake protest were the two references I provided, other examples such as the atheist billboards in the US can be arguably included in the category of what I termed the ‘placebo protest’.

In its simplest terms, protests can be described as any collective’s attempt to coerce others into changing behaviour or taking action, making it a fairly broad category that can include many different forms of public engagement. However, the term also suggests the active opposing of an existing social condition, so is commonly negative or antagonistic in nature. A campaign that promotes the message ‘don’t eat pizza from Joe’s” is a protest, while ‘eat at Joe’s Pizzeria’  is less likely to fall into that category.

While academic literature varies somewhat in the precise boundaries of what constitutes a protest, there is a consensus amongst outreach researchers that any attempt to impact on public behaviour relies on specific environmental conditions (termed ‘opportunities’) to succeed. Identifying these conditions can make the difference between winning people over and wasting resources trying.

A good example of identifying opportunities involves understanding how a target demographic interprets a particular message. Using communication tools that convey subtle variations in meaning between sub-cultures risks losing key messages in translation; using stunts, demonstrations or slogans that mean one thing to the protester (or extend from a culture within that group rather than one understood externally) and another to an audience could make any effort to change behaviour somewhat impotent, or even counter productive.

A significant impediment to identifying opportunities in a demographic is a lack of  – or wide variation in – explicit goals. Terms such as ‘promoting education in…’ and ‘raising awareness of…’ are commonly bandied about without objective qualifiers or even a hint of an observable indicator. Often, the qualities of the target audience might be too broad or be presumed without good evidence. Without clear aims or targets there is an added risk of ad hoc justifications of success, typically relying on output (audience scope and reach) to represent impact (change of behaviour).

For a form of outreach to be a placebo protest, however, there is one last important feature – those engaged have to demonstrate little interest in evaluating the circumstances or effectiveness of their actions. Like placebo medicine, placebo activism is practiced not with a true desire to blind oneself to bias, but simply to feel better on having acted, regardless of the true impact of their efforts.

While I can’t accuse all individuals who are engaged in any single protest campaign of doing so for merely placebo reasons, there is some irony in that a number of people will happily offer explanations for their participation that aren’t unlike the same explanations many users of homeopathy or natural medicine offer; ‘soft science like sociology or psychology is too ineffective to study the effects of what I intuitively already suspect to be true’, ‘it takes all types of action to make a difference’, ‘doing something is better than doing nothing’, and ‘it might not work for all people, but what’s the harm in trying?’

Central to the placebo protest is the apparent assumption that sharing feelings is synonymous with sharing knowledge. An emotional reaction to a wrongdoing leads to encouraging others to see it as silly, immoral or dangerous. That’s not to say this is always ineffective (history is full of examples of fear campaigns that are immensely successful in changing behaviours), however when it comes to rational outreach, should it be the desired approach?

Boobquake was proposed as a scientific study, for example, however was presented more as a satirical exercise poking fun at an Iranian prayer leader’s claim that the exposed skin of females is positively correlated with earthquakes. Either way, it’s unclear as to what – precisely – the point of the exercise was, if not an outlet for indignation. Many people have their own view of the agenda, whether it was to promote scientific values, encourage people to understand more about tectonics, or to simply ridicule a specific view (thereby encouraging an emotional reaction in the population to an emotional claim).

The actual impact, regardless of the intentions, is unknown. Was it antagonistic towards the goals of many feminists? Did it polarise views or change them? Were a significant number of people more aware of the science of earthquakes, or of the importance of statistics in science? It’s not clear. Yet there was still a sense of ‘success’ given it had a large output.

When the sense of success carries more importance than a true understanding, however, science loses out. This is the placebo protest. For a community of people protesting in the name of science, it is a rather bitter hypocrisy.

Likewise, when the association of American Atheists launched a billboard campaign in time for Christmas, 2010, telling people ‘You know it’s a myth!’, it’s hard to know what the real aim was. At face value, it might serve as encouragement for members of the driving public who hold some theistic beliefs to abandon them. How successful was it? Are billboards an effective means for spending such funds, or could they have achieved the same (or better) results by spending it elsewhere? If they’re successful, how did it compete against the reciprocal billboard funded by Catholics stating ‘You know it’s real’?

What of the 10:23 campaign, now in its second year? Interestingly, one individual decided to take a closer look at the 2010 homeopathic ‘suicide’ stunt and seek some evidence of its impact.

As a part of a research project, David Waldock sampled reports from the mainstream and social media and analysed them in relation to the event. Focusing on a single objective of the campaign – ‘To educate the public about the full story of homeopathy, to cause them to question and become opinionated about homeopathy’ – he found that the context of the various forms of media discussion changed from being more scientific and clinical to being more political, tending towards language that reflected regulation rather than the specific mechanics of the practice.

Of course, this lays the foundation for a rather interesting discussion. Given evidence of a discourse that is leaning towards regulation, should this be the goal of future protests? Is it better to influence politics and act top-down, or should activists continue to focus on changing attitudes from the bottom-up? Are resources being well used if this is the response, or should they change?

The important thing is, useful discussion can now progress further on the back of potential evidence than on blind assertions. David’s work is by no means the final word on the matter, but it has at least provided grist for the mill and is a clear attempt at marrying observed consequences with actions.

For activism to be successful, it needs to be done with evidence, experience and expertise. Currently, protests and stunts seem to be performed more as a means of expressing frustration, anger or bigotry than a measured way of encouraging a change of culture. As such, success is measured by how many people know you’re upset.

Yet if we truly wish to combat the poor consequences of irrational thinking, we need to identify what makes outreach effective, and distinguish this from occasions when it is merely a way to placate the irate.

A Ridiculous Essay on Rational Outreach

“I don’t think we should go out of our way to insult Islam because it doesn’t do any good to get your head cut off. But we should always say that I may refrain from publishing a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed, but it’s because I fear you. Don’t for one moment think it’s because I respect you.”

-Richard Dawkins, 2010 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne.

Fear can be quite an effective motivator when it comes to silencing your critics. Make people ask if the consequences of speaking out are worth the trouble and you’ll find the voices of your opposition will fade from the public stage. But as Dawkins noted, the quiet fear of retribution is not the same as respectful silence.

Perhaps the more aggressive of the Islamic fundamentalists care little for having their position respected by anybody, let alone a kafir like Dawkins; fear-induced submission, regardless of the cost, could be their goal. If it is, they can claim a resounding success.

Those within the ‘rationalist surge’ communities of atheism, feminism and skepticism are currently debating a parallel situation. Phil Plait presented a speech at TAM 8 that spoke against the use of mockery and ridicule when it comes to conversing with believers.

When it comes to communicating on topics relevant to the group’s interests, should we endeavour to curtail our passion-fuelled frustration, or is ridicule and mockery an appropriate response to some ideas? The answer, of course, is complicated and contextual, depending entirely on one’s intentions.

Why are we talking?

Why do we talk? I’d suggest it was to be heard, and possibly understood and even have our view appreciated.

Let’s clump all possible intentions behind a person’s desire to communicate into a blunt dichotomy – self-gratification and non self-gratification. In other words, you’re either engaging with somebody because it makes you feel good or you’re doing it in an effort to change somebody’s mind (including the possibility of changing your own position). For current purposes we can completely ignore the first category on the grounds of being self-evident in its results – if mocking others makes you feel good, then mission accomplished. We can say it’s effective. Of course, it raises questions on whether ridiculing somebody for selfish reasons is morally reprehensible, but as to whether it can be considered contextually appropriate, the answer is a clear ‘yes’.

That leaves us with communication for non-selfish reasons; there is a desire to influence the behaviour of other people. Again, there is a dichotomy we can invoke here – there are those who are product-driven and those who are process-driven.

‘Product’ in this case describes a practical change. That might involve anything from making certain acts illegal or encouraging the removal of disagreeable products from shelves. The way this is achieved could involve the extreme of lying to people so they’ll believe you, to a more mundane gentle social coercion. In short, product-driven communicators are less concerned about the ‘how’ than they are about the ‘what’, whether it is for people to not to believe in God, not to have alternative medicine available to the community or to make it illegal for businesses not to have a certain number of women on their board.

Process-driven communication is about changing the way people arrive at their conclusions, hopefully leading them to make decisions more compatible with a shared set of values. It’s the difference embodied by the idiom ‘teach a person to fish’, as opposed to simply giving them a poached halibut for their supper.

While both categories might ultimately desire the same outcomes – such as a community where people opt for chemotherapy over homeopathy or where God isn’t thanked for life-saving operations – each faction desires this to be achieved in subtly different ways. And although it is a dichotomy for the purposes of this discussion, few can place themselves solidly in either category for all situations. Being process-driven does not make one a hardcore anarchist where government laws are anathema. Likewise, being product-driven doesn’t mean a complete disregard for the need for promoting good thinking skills.

Yet variation in opinion holds enough within any group that individuals will go about achieving their outcomes in subtly different ways, depending on whether the process or the product is considered to be more important. For example, product-driven communicators might target a shop owner and petition them to remove a product from their shelves. A process-driven communicator might explain to the public through a campaign or a media outlet how that product is defective, offensive or ineffective. Each will employ different communication strategies depending on their ultimate goal.

This is ridiculous!

Before we look at the impact of ridicule in achieving either process-driven or product-driven objectives, it is important to define the behaviour in question.

Essentially, any communication that is intended to cause an audience to associate the holding of a particular opinion with a sense of shame, embarrassment, fear, subservience or any other oppressive sentiment can (for the intentions of this essay) be described as mockery or ridicule. It’s obvious that some people will feel offended by any form of non-complimentary feedback, lending people to conflate ridicule with any criticism; ridicule, however, can be considered to be defined by the communicator’s intentions rather than the audience’s reaction.

Ridicule can be spontaneous or it can be carefully crafted. It can take the form of clever sarcasm or witless insults. It might attack a person directly or be implied indirectly. It might be easy to spot or worded in a way that somebody might weasel out of it later if they come under fire. However it is presented, ridicule is a form of aggressive behaviour that aims to reduce a person’s confidence in an idea using emotional manipulation.

The target need not always be the person who presents the idea, either. For any act of communication, there can often be the hidden audience – lurkers, fence-sitters and the non-committed. While many forms of communication might for all purposes appear to be localised between two parties, it’s typically understood that there are additional audiences who are passively involved. Ridiculing an idea can just as easily be intended to emotionally challenge those on the sidelines into changing or reinforcing their behaviour, siding with your views over theirs.

So, does it work? Will ridicule influence your audience? Yes…and no. It primarily depends on who your audience is.

Poles apart

Unfortunately research on aggressive language as an effective means of outreach in rationalist grassroots communities is rather thin. No specific study provides us with an insight into how ridicule might effectively address irrational beliefs. The best we can manage is to extrapolate from the small amount of research done in relative fields on similar topics.

Arguably a good place to start might be a concept in sociology referred to as ‘impression management’ (IM) – the theoretical processes we use when we try to influence how others see things. This can cover everything from how supermarkets will display their stock to whether a politician wears a red or a blue tie to a debate.

According to contemporary IM theories, this behaviour comes in three varieties, depending on the method of communication –

  • Ingratiation: Encouraging compliance in others through attempting to inspire good feelings
  • Supplication: Encouraging cooperation, empathy or dominance in another through appearing weaker or submissive
  • Intimidation: Encouraging submission in others through appearing stronger[1]

The American sociologist Erving Goffman theorised in his text ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’ that goals are best met when there is congruence between our choice of method and the perception we wish people to have[2]. Wanting people to like you by intimidating them won’t work very well, in other words.

More specifically, the sociologist Richard Felson has applied IM theory to aggressive communication[3], concluding that intimidating behaviour might be an effort to reinstate one’s identity in a situation following a perceived threat or ‘attack’. Hence when we encounter something we feel is not just wrong but detrimental or incomprehensible (or just plain silly), our response is to meet the threat aggressively to re-establish a sense of perspective that we’ve felt has been lost.

While it isn’t the only theory addressing the role of aggression in communication, IM has some strong evidence supporting its propositions. It goes some way towards explaining why people might employ the use of ridicule even if it is found to be otherwise completely ineffective in achieving their communication goal.

A few pedagogical investigations have addressed the role of ridicule and mockery as a form of classroom management. Perhaps surprisingly, there is evidence supporting the use of insults and sarcasm as an educational corrective, encouraging commitment to a particular activity (such as reading a text)[4], but mostly for children over the age of six[5] but before mid-adolescence[6]. The fear of humiliation appears to be enough to motivate children into applying themselves to simple tasks. There is a counter to this approach as a recommended classroom management tool, where ridicule and social isolation can have a detrimental impact on student confidence and self-esteem, however it is indeed evidence demonstrating that if the goal is purely to motivate young students to engage, it is effective.

On the other hand, as students develop, aggressive language seems to lose its motivational quality. For instance, there is a negative correlation between the amount of aggressive language (including swearing, ridicule and teasing) used by a college instructor and the young adult student’s affect towards course content[7]. It appears that as the social dynamics change with the onset of adolescence the threat of ridicule diminishes and it becomes associated with incompetence rather than authority.

Perhaps the most relevant study in this regard is one that coins the term ‘jeer pressure’ in examining the effects ridicule on third parties has on conformity[8]. Put simply, the act of seeing others being ridiculed is enough to encourage conformity. Not only is the humiliation itself effective – retaliation is seen as a sign of weakness, making it difficult to respond to. Given that most forms of criticism are typically enough for people to withdraw from contributing to a group discussion, this is hardly surprising at all[9].

So, ridicule appears to be an effective way of discouraging free thought and maintaining beliefs held by a social group, especially amongst groups of children. Other research on this topic only goes further in supporting how adult groups use isolation or humiliation to encourage conformity[10], where ‘reactions to ingroup deviants are … based on an individual-protection motive, namely the desire to distance oneself from unfavorable others in order to reduce the likelihood that one will be associatively miscast.’ (Pinto et al, 2010). In the context of discouraging individual thoughts, encouraging group-think and conformity, ridicule is extremely effective. Threat of humiliation within a group makes it difficult for ‘black sheep’ thinking to persist, thereby maintaining an illusion of being an effective way of promoting a particular set of values.

Yet what of those external to a particular social group? What of those who couldn’t care less about whether they’re accepted as part of the fold? Unfortunately the evidence for using aggressive language, ridicule and mockery as a means of communicating with people outside of your own clique (whether this is a student in a classroom or a visitor on an internet forum) isn’t very supportive.

A 1992 communications study by a leading researcher in the field of aggression and communication – Dominic Infante – looked into situations where argumentativeness and verbal aggression occurred together, and found that the more aggressive the speaker, the less credible they were deemed to be and less able to appear to present a valid argument[11]. Other studies have found that third party observers of arguments perceive greater levels of aggression and less credibility of parties who engage in even ‘light’ aggressive tactics[12]. Another study investigating argument progression within paired speakers found verbal aggression was inversely associated with the proportion of arguments[13]. Far from being conducive to discussions on controversial issues, aggressive language reduces desire for verbal interaction and impedes the depth of what is being discussed.

None of this is perhaps surprising when seen in the light of a sociological phenomenon called ‘group polarisation’. The theory states that social groups of contrasting beliefs or ideals will tend to reinforce their differences when engaging in discussion. A feature of confirmation bias, it essentially means we have a tendency to find reasons to reinforce our beliefs when we come together in groups to make decisions[14]. This occurs to such a great extent we’ll re-negotiate risks, taking bigger gambles than we would alone (referred to as ‘risky shifts’). Aggressive behaviour only further polarises the situation, exacerbating the existing phenomenon.

Be rid of ridicule?

What can we conclude from this sample of research? Several things.

Grassroots rationalist groups who engage in any form of communication with the public might want to seek, contribute to and encourage research into the results of their outreach efforts. Given we know relatively little about the impacts of various forms of public communication, knowing which efforts are useful, which are useless and which are damaging is invaluable for groups who don’t have the resources to waste on getting it wrong or the luxury of losing potential audience members.

Secondly, there is evidence supporting the use of aggressive language such as ridicule only under limited contexts. Those contexts seem to conflict with what one might presume to be ‘rationalist’ values – endeavours that arguably promote freedom of thought over indulging in group-think and critical thinking over conformity. However, if those goals are product-driven, where success is measured not by how people think but by the pressure a group can exhibit on a key demographic, ridicule and mockery just might work. Humiliating the right targets could well create conformity and result in laws being changed, products being removed from shelves, people being fired or hired from influential positions…and so on. For product-driven rationalists, there is some wiggle-room in arguing for the use of ridicule.

Lastly, if the goal is to encourage those from diverse communities to think critically and to cooperate in order find ways of limiting the impact of poor thinking on individuals and the community, then ridicule is a poor choice of communication. At best it further polarises the issues, prompting those you’re trying to communicate with to reinforce their poor thinking skills while doing little to help them think logically. At worst, it prompts third parties to view your argument as comparatively uninformed, potentially isolating individuals who might otherwise be reached by a less aggressive approach.

Of course many people are far beyond changing their epistemology and can be expected to indulge in spreading irrational beliefs regardless of any attempts to ‘educate’ them or change their views. Some might argue there is no harm in ridicule in those cases. Yet there are two responses to that – certainty is for politicians and priests (not those of rational minds). How certain can a person ever be that they ‘know’ their audience is permanently beyond reach? There is less harm in simply ignoring a person out of the possibility that one day they might be more inclined to change their values by somebody who is better skilled at communication; and there are always more reasonable third parties who, out of sympathy for your target, might find it difficult to distinguish the reason from your ridicule.

Unfortunately the playing field isn’t a simple one necessarily capable of supporting many different methods. One rationalist’s actions can make another’s attempts at communication more difficult at achieving success. One person’s insults under the banner of ‘rational thought’ can paint others in a dark light. Promoting scientific and rational values in the wider community is by no means a simple affair, and will take time and effort. The last thing we can afford to do is make it harder purely out of an emotional desire to mock and belittle those who don’t agree. We might be able to aggressively manipulate some into accepting we’re right. But to borrow from Dawkins, using emotional manipulation to elicit submission is not the same as encouraging people to submit to the discussion respectfully. I, personally, would much rather focus on encouraging others to identify irrational beliefs for themselves than waste time and energy on ridiculing the ridiculous.


[1] Schlenker, B., (1980), Impression Management: The Self-Concept, Social Identity, and Interpersonal Relations, Krieger Pub Co

[2] Goffman, E (1959), The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Doubleday: Garden City

[3] Felson , RB, (1978), Aggression as Impression Management, Social Psychology, 41:3, pp. 205-213

[4] Bryants, J., Brown D., Parks S.L., (1981), Ridicule as an educational corrective, Journal of Educational Psychology, 73(5): 722-727

[5] Jennings, B., (1981), The Effect of Ridiculing a Model on Children’s Imitation of Televised Instruction, presented at the Annual Meeting of the Speech Communication Association

[6] Myers S.A., Knox R.L., (1999) Verbal aggression in the college classroom: Perceived instructor use and student affective learning, Communication Studies, 47(1): pp 33

[7] Myers S.A., Knox R.L., (1999) Verbal aggression in the college classroom: Perceived instructor use and student affective learning, Communication Studies, 47(1): pp 33

[8] Janes, L.M., Olsen, J.M., (2000), Jeer Pressure: The Behavioral Effects of Observing Ridicule of Others, Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2000; 26; 474

[9] Taylor, M., (1974), Criticism, Witnesses and the Maintenance of Interaction, Social Forces, Uni Sth Caroline Press

[10] Pinto, I.R., Marques, J.M., Levine, J.M., (2010) Membership Status and Subjective Group Dynamics: Who Triggers the Black Sheep Effect?, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology,Vol. 99, No. 1, 107–119

[11] Infante, D.A., et al, (1992), Initiating and reciprocating verbal aggression: effects on credibility and credited valid arguments, Communication Studies, 43:3, pp 182-190

[12] Infante, D., Wigley, C.J., (1986), Verbal aggressiveness: An interpersonal model and measure, Communication Quarterly, 39, pp 35-47

[13] Semic B.A., Canary D.J., (1997) Trait argumentativeness, verbal aggressiveness, and minimally rational argument, Communication Quarterly 45(4) pg. 355

[14] Moscovici, S., Zavalloni, M. (1969), The group as a polarizer of attitudes, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 12, pp.125-135

Published in: on July 15, 2010 at 10:23 am  Comments (63)  
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