We should lift people up, not knock them down. We’re better than that. Accordingly, the following blog offers two perspectives on cyber bullying: the first is from an atheist and the second is from a Christian. The intention is to draw attention to on-line bullying via social media platforms and to offer ways to mitigate this serious and growing epidemic.
I’m an atheist, and so, naturally, one might ask why I would seek an opportunity to be heard here.
The answer is simple: there’s a problem with atheists bullying theists. And just as it must be said that Muslims themselves must lead the charge against Islamists, so too must atheists lead the charge against bullies within their ranks.
Bullying cuts both ways, to be sure. Theists have their fair share of bullies (16% of teens dying by suicide are homosexual, and I think there’s a reason for that). But on social media, at least, I am profoundly saddened to note that atheists’ bullying tends to be worse both in both quantity, and ferocity. It ranges from mocking theists’ personal pleas for prayers, to suggesting that theists prove to him- or herself the existence of God by committing suicide.
These actions are immoral and disgusting, and they must be opposed. Further, in the case of atheists, they strike me as deeply hypocritical.
Whenever possible, I politely (and with genuine interest) ask atheist bullies about their motivation. And while most conceal their motives behind a façade of rational thought, I’ve yet to see a case where reason plays any significant part.
The most common defense I get is, “I only treat people with respect if they treat me with respect.” This sounds fair, until you realize that it’s essentially the “but they started it!” argument most of us overcome by the age of seven. If you’re treated disrespectfully, you can walk away. If you continue to engage, it’s not about respect: it’s about avenging your sense of self, showing them who’s boss, or making them look the fool. No, this is not a reasonable defense.
Other atheist bullies argue that insults, sarcasm, and condescension are all elements of satire – an ‘elevated’ level of discourse – wielded to educate theists. Hitchens, among others, taught us that satire and sarcasm are indeed excellent tools for battling authoritarians and tyrants, but I’ve yet to see any theists on Twitter who fall into those categories. I’ve spent 30 years teaching, and if there’s a theory of education that promotes name-calling and humiliation as effective means of encouraging learning, I’ve yet to hear of it. “I bully them for their own good” is another argument best abandoned at adolescence.
If one truly wants to be rational about the subject of bullying online, let us be rational. When bullying is both severe enough and long enough, it inevitably leads to suicide; one of these days, an atheist will taunt, “go kill yourself,” and a theist is going to do it. This is not a guess; on a long enough timescale, it’s a mortal lock.
Who would want to be the one who triggered this? Isn’t this a risk you take every time you bully someone? Certainly, you’d be more cautious after such an incident; isn’t the rational choice therefore to stop the bullying now, before there’s a tragedy?
The truth is, and I can’t stress this enough, most atheists are appalled by this sort of behavior. But the ones who do it are vicious, feel completely justified, and they’re out front for everyone to see. And their vaunted sense of self superiority aside, they, theist bullies, chauvinists, and racists, all do it for the same reasons:
They do it because hatred is fun.
Hatred is cathartic; it thrives on a sense of superiority over that which is hated. No doubt, it’s deeply satisfying to imagine one’s race to be superior to the rest, or one’s point-of-view to be correct to the exclusion of all others. We all do it, every day, in seemingly trivial ways: we imagine that the guy who cuts us off in traffic is a rude, arrogant jerk, instead of considering the more probable explanation that he or she may simply be in a legitimate rush, or momentarily distracted (as indeed we’ve all been). There’s a primal rush in assuming the worst of people, in spoiling for a fight.
I know this because I feel it, I enjoy it, as much as anyone.
The problem, of course, is that this is hardly a good foundation for a stable or pleasant society, or for moral behavior. Indeed, we’ve hit on some of the core objections that most atheists have to theism: the undermining of reason by (a) a failure to account for one’s own biases, and (b) the inherent authoritarian and bullying nature of it, where those who believe try to impose their beliefs (often through the use of intimidation) on others. This lands atheists who bully in the position of exemplifying that which they claim most to oppose.
I’m deeply saddened when I see it… and feel, too, no small sense of awe over the breathtaking hypocrisy of it.
Having once been a theist myself, I understand that many people cannot imagine morality without God. It was unfathomable to me for half my life, where I assumed atheists were either angry at God, looking for attention, spoiling for a fight, or in the best of all possible cases, simply deluded. On the other side now, I can assure you that none of these are true for the vast majority of atheists, but atheist bullies hurt us all by reinforcing these prejudices, by entrenching people in the notion that it is impossible for one to be moral and an atheist. This is demonstrably false; there are now, and always have been, many admirably moral atheists, from individuals like Warren Buffett, Charles Branson, and Bill Gates, to secular organizations like Amnesty International, UNICEF, and Doctors Without Borders (whose members regularly put their lives on the line without the consolation of a reward in heaven). Sam Harris, an American author and prominent ‘New Atheist,’ wrote that objective morality can be expressed on a simple scale. On the left is the worst possible suffering for the greatest number of people; on the right, the greatest possible happiness for the greatest number. A moral action is any one that that moves us along the scale from left to right. It is an elegant solution to the problem of moral relativism.
And so I ask these questions of my atheist brothers and sisters who would treat others with disrespect:
When you condescend and insult (even if provoked), in which direction are you sliding that scale?
You ask theists to evaluate themselves and their motivations honestly. Can you ask yourself, with the same brutal honesty, what benefit there is to inflicting this pain on others? Can you answer without delusion?
Would your language and behavior be the same if you were speaking face-to-face with this person, with your friends and family watching? If not, do you have any defense for the difference other than an ad populum argument that “well, everyone does it?”
None of this changes my commitment to atheism, nor my belief that theism is a danger that must be challenged. I truly believe that the atheist position is both correct, and ultimately necessary for our species to survive.
But it is precisely because I believe I am right that I can argue without taking opposition personally, and without trying to draw blood or hurt the ‘other side.’ Indeed, because I am right, such actions serve only to undermine my credibility, and my ability to make the points which I think are so important.
In the end, engaging every theist one can, simply because one can, is more the action of a man in a blind rage than of a person with a legitimate complaint. It causes more damage than it could possibly correct, entrenches the opposition, and legitimizes retaliation. In short, it is a lose/lose proposition.
But none of these, not a one, comes close to the best reason to oppose bullying.
The most important reason to oppose bullying? The reason I oppose it? I oppose bullying most because, like most people, I’ve been bullied. I oppose it because I want to be the man that my wife thinks I am, the father my kids think I am, and the person I want to see when I look in the mirror. None of those goals are guaranteed or easy; if they were, we’d all do them. But that’s what makes doing the right thing so important.
When I die, I will be judged. Not by a higher power, I suspect, but most certainly by the people who knew me, and by the legacy I leave. If people can say, “he moved that scale to the right,” if they can say “the world was a better place for having him in it”, then my life will have had meaning.
That is why I oppose atheist bullying. That is why I am thankful that Christian Apologist, despite our differences, didn’t hesitate to let me speak on this matter. It is why I’m glad she has a forum for the victims of bullying, and why I felt so compelled to contribute to it.
What I have noticed about atheist bullies on social media is that bullying is usually perpetuated by a person hiding behind a profile photo of an ape, an atheist sign, an Einstein photo, or the something similar. Since joining Twitter in 2014, I have been bullied and doxed by a number of atheists, which is likely because I’m a very vocal Christian and that fact alone annoys some atheists. Fortunately, some other atheists are not internet bullies and they often call out their peers. Atheist Codex is not alone.
Most of the bullying I have witnessed is from atheists who target theists (mostly Christians), yet I have also seen some Christians acting out of character (i.e., Jesus’ character) by bullying atheists. For the present blog, I will concentrate on mitigating bullying by both atheists and Christians.
When faced with bullies on Twitter, we have several options: (1) block; (2) mute; (3) ignore; (4) bully back; or (5) respond with kindness. The latter approach is the most difficult, yet potentially the most rewarding when one discovers that the person who initiated the tweet is just another human struggling to make sense of his/her challenges on the third rock from the sun. Oftentimes, these people are going through major crises, whether it be with life-threatening health issues, personal losses, and other tragic circumstances. They need our help, not our wit or our taunting.
When Christians receive bullying messages from atheists, we can think of it as an opportunity to minister. As Habermas and Licona (2004, p. 218) note, “Be patient and develop your skills. There are no substitutes for study and experience. Be careful not to go off onto other subjects. Stay on Jesus’ resurrection. Don’t get discouraged when someone seems unmoved by your presentation. When someone maintains their radical views after you have shared the evidence with them, this is not necessarily the result of any shortcomings of your efforts or weakness in the evidence… In time, sharing your faith will become a lot of fun and you will be amazed at how God will use you to spread His word.”
As 1 Peter 3:15 states: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.”
(Please note that I have not always responded with gentleness and respect, yet fortunately I have Christian and atheist friends who have called me out on those less than ideal responses, which I’ve worked to correct).
Next I will offer a few tips for Christians interested in interacting with atheists.
- Don’t threaten atheists with hell.
When I first started attracting the attention of atheists on Twitter, I was unsure of how to respond. I don’t know any atheists in “real life” very well, so I resorted to the usual warnings about hell and fire and the impending doom they would face if they didn’t convert to Christianity. The approach failed miserably and at first, I could not understand why. Then I witnessed interactions between atheists and Muslims, which enlightened me and helped me to see how atheists view God and religion. I changed my approach and now rarely mention impending doom. That does not mean that I am not concerned for the fate of atheists. I’m extremely concerned, but I have discovered that threats of hell are ineffective.
- Kill them with kindness.
When Christians open their Twitter notifications and discover unpleasant jabs and insults, the best response (if one chooses to respond) includes a bit of humor, some kindness, or a cheerful “Good day” or “Good morning to you too” or “Great to hear from you.” Some atheists are in fighting mode when they send you a tweet, so diffusing the fight with a nicety can be helpful.
- Once you have solidified your position and have a good grasp on Christian apologetics, get to know them.
I have cultivated relationships with a handful of atheists and have discovered that many of them are humanists, focused intensely on their personal relationships, families, and friends. Though I have had many conversations with these atheists, I cannot say that I fully understand their positions. As someone who has always been a believer in the divine, it is difficult to understand the position of someone who believes the opposite. Yet there is value in developing an understanding and cultivating the relationship if one ever hopes to effect a positive change by planting seeds of faith, hope, and love. Our purpose is to plant the seeds, which God will water and grow.
“And now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” – 1 Corinthians 13:13
William Lane Craig (2008, p. 406-407) offers, “Why is love the great commandment? Simply because all of the other commandments are the outworking of love…According to Jesus, our love is a sign to all people that we are His disciples (John 13:35); but even more than that, our love and unity are living proof to the world that God the Father has sent His Son Jesus Christ and that the Father loves people even as He loves Jesus. When people see this – our love for one another and our unity through love – then they will in turn be drawn to Christ and will respond to the Gospel’s offer of salvation. More often than not, it is who you are rather than what you say that will bring an unbeliever to Christ. This, then, is the ultimate apologetic. For the ultimate apologetic is – your life.”
Thank you for your time.
An excellent resource for anti-bullying is here: https://www.stopbullying.gov/image-gallery/you-should-lift-people-up.html
If you wish to reach the Atheist Codex or the Christian Apologist, our Twitter handles are @TheAtheistCodex and @Lead1225, respectively. You can also reach the Atheist Codex at TheAtheistCodex.com.
Craig, W.L. (2008) Reasonable Faith. Wheaton, IL: Crossway.
Habermas, G.R. & Licona, M.R. (2004) The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.