We Aim to Misbehave

Larry Moran raised an interesting comparison over at Laden’s place. In response to this constant whining that loud-and-proud atheism ‘hurts the cause’, he brought up a historical parallel:

Here’s just one example. Do you realize that women used to march in the streets with placards demanding that they be allowed to vote? At the time the suffragettes were criticized for hurting the cause. Their radical stance was driving off the men who might have been sympathetic to women’s right to vote if only those women had stayed in their proper place.

This prompted the usual cry of the accommodationists: but feminists weren’t as rude as those atheists.

Were the women saying that men were stupid? Were they portraying them as rubes and simpletons? Were they falling into the trap of making themselves resemble the negative stereotypes of women at the time? IIRC, the answers are No, No, and No. Substitute “atheists” for “women” and “theists” for “men,” and the answers are emphatically Yes, Yes, and Yes. It is one thing to be assertive. It is another thing to be gratuitously rude.

This is so blind and ahistorical, I’m embarrassed for the guy. The suffragettes were ferocious firebreathers of a most admirable sort who did not mince words and went far further than atheists have gone – yet. As one example:

To attain the goal of universal suffrage, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU, known colloquially as the suffragettes) engaged in acts of protest such as the breaking of windows, arson, and the “technical assault” (without causing harm) of police officers. Many WSPU members were jailed for these offenses.

Try reading the literature of the feminist pioneers. They weren’t just rude, they were howling at injustice, they were breaking deep social mores, and they were abused, despised, and imprisoned for it — and they still are. Jebus. You think all women had to do to get recognition of their basic rights was to be polite? You think they got the right to vote by asking nicely? That soft voices and meekness are the answers?

I take it back. I should be embarrassed for us atheists. When I look at the history of feminism, I see a ferocity and a record of sacrifice that puts us tame godless people to shame. Maybe we need to get more outraged and outrageous.

If you read some of the great writers of the feminist movement, what you’ll find is an eloquence that people like Richard Dawkins echo today. Their speeches were rousing calls to action, not paeans to passivity. These are words that people found “rude” then, and that we still see deplored by chauvinists today (have you ever heard the word “feminazi”?)

Elizabeth Cady Stanton
“The moment we begin to fear the opinions of others and hesitate to tell the truth that is in us, and from motives of policy are silent when we should speak, the divine floods of light and life no longer flow into our souls.”

“The whole tone of Church teaching in regard to women is, to the last degree, contemptuous and degrading.”

Lucretia Mott

“The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation because in the degradation of woman the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source.”

“I have no idea of submitting tamely to injustice inflicted either on me or on the slave. I will oppose it with all the moral powers with which I am endowed. I am no advocate of passivity.”

Mother Jones

“I’m not a humanitarian, I’m a hell-raiser.”

“Whatever your fight, don’t be ladylike. “

Susan B. Anthony

“Men their rights and nothing more; women their rights and nothing less.”

“The fact is, women are in chains, and their servitude is all the more debasing because they do not realize it.”

“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation, and publicly and privately, in season and out, avow their sympathy with despised and persecuted ideas and their advocates, and bear the consequences.”

These women were treated as if they were bomb-throwing anarchists by the press, by politicians, by the wealthy elite, by every institution that had an interest in conserving the inequities of society. Even today we’ve got people like Phyllis Schlafly who decry “intolerant, uncivil feminists whose sport is to humiliate men” — I think everyone can see the similarity to the accusations against those intolerant, uncivil atheists.

Every social movement – and I’d add the labor movement and the struggle for civil rights as equally strong examples – that tries to break the bonds of mindless convention and tradition and that defies established privilege gets accused of being rude and worse, much worse, and there are always weak apologists for the status quo who use that pathetic etiquette excuse to try and silence the revolutionaries. Successful revolutionaries ignore the admonitions about which fork to use for their salad because they care only to grab the steak knife as they launch themselves over the table.

Atheists are calm and mild-mannered, even leaders of the New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris and Dennett — no doubt because our oppression is minor compared to that of women, racial minorities, and labor – but we’re still getting these ridiculous claims that we’re too “rude”. They won’t stop until we’re completely silent, and there’s no point in compromise, so these faint-hearted enablers of superstition are going to have to excuse us if we ever so politely request that they go fuck themselves, beg pardon, and please, use a rolled-up copy of the Republican party platform to do it, if you don’t mind, thank you in advance.

This article first appeared at Pharyngula and is republished here by permission.

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