The other day I attended a brunch between the Pike Peak Skeptics Society and a number of other local secular groups. Two outspoken atheists (by their own description) were talking about religion in line, one of them wearing the “together we can find a cure” [for religion] t-shirt and the other an atheist convention shirt. They were overheard by a young woman in front of them. The young woman, who seemed very modern and friendly, was also visibly upset and composed herself as she approached those individuals at our table. She asked the older woman in the atheist t-shirt if she could speak with her, who did not stand or oblige a private conversation.

This represented a true opportunity for dialogue, and I watched the conversation unfold from the center of the table in full view of our group and half the restaurant. The young woman’s complaint was that it wasn’t fair for them to talk so negatively about christians as a stereotype, that she was happy we had a group and that she wouldn’t attack us in that way, and how was it wrong for her and her husband to sit and read a bible together? It took her a lot of courage to ask this in front of twenty potentially hostile strangers.

I’m sorry to say the defensive response from the three individuals nearest the end of the table amounted to “religion is a lie” and it supports “slavery and the oppression of women.” She had asked for equal respect, and they didn’t hear what she was asking. They ganged up in conversation against her christianity, and she started to cry in frustration.

I was embarrassed and appalled at what I heard. I stood up to lend the young woman my support, and end the conversation. She acknowledged a lost cause, and left in tears.

(This Amazing Meeting talk by Phil Plait sums up all my barely contained frustration in that moment)

What are you trying to achieve?

Ten minutes later, I found the woman and her husband, and offered to buy them a coffee. The encounter had clearly shaken her, and I assured her that she was absolutely right to have asked for our respect. We had an excellent conversation after which her husband shook my hand and she seemed relieved to have been understood.

The discussion that ensued back at the secular brunch afterwords had an all-too-common theme. “Did you talk to them?” Yes, I did. “Did you apologize?” Yes, I did. “Well I don’t want you to apologize for me. I meant to be outspoken.” Well, you were representing this entire table. You were representing atheists everywhere, and you just confirmed the worst for everyone in earshot. What outcome do you hope to achieve, and how exactly do you think you can accomplish this by making one person cry at Panera?

I felt that this story is important enough to share here. You can make fun of an idea, you can attack an argument, but you have to respect the person. People engage in these difficult conversations because they care in one way or another. If you can’t separate who they are from what you’re arguing about, you need to walk away.

I try my best to maintain a high level of civility, especially here on my own website.

I wanted to reference Daniel Loxton’s excellent CFI Summit speech about why he is a skeptical activist. I, like him, am secular and the terms atheist and humanist both reflect my views. However, I am not a secular activist – I am a skeptical activist.

To quote Loxton:

The most important reasons to keep skepticism distinct from politics and metaphysics are simply honesty and clarity. When we position skepticism as “science-based,” when we position ourselves as science-based critics or science advocates, we take on an obligation to be honest about the sorts of questions science can answer—an obligation to work within, or at very least forthrightly describe, the empirical framework of science.

I recognize that skepticism shares a large demographic with all the other secular interest groups. However, skepticism and the promotion of science should at all times be apolitical. Yes, you will give offense. You will attack ideas. But you can do both calmly and respectfully.

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