New Atheism Versus Accomodationalism (Jude x Pointless Disgression)

Started by Jude, May 23, 2011, 06:57:16 PM

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I think before you can have a substantive debate on anything you need to establish what the basic terminology involved means so that subsequent arguments don't dissolve into semantics.  For this particular discussion the concept of "Atheism," or more specifically what we mean by it, needs to be defined.  Atheism is a pretty broad term that describes a multitude of stances on religion (note:  I was careful to call them stances on religion and not religious stances, since the two are not the same thing, just as various forms of atheism may or may not qualify as religious).

Take for example, weak atheism.  It's also called negative atheism, and it differs from other philosophical bents in that it doesn't assert anything.  Weak atheism is a mere lack of belief.  To adopt another religion from a position of weak atheism doesn't require rejection of weak atheism necessarily -- yes you are no longer a weak atheist if you adopt Hinduism for example, but there's no entrenched belief to overwrite.  Weak atheism is a state of non-belief, not a state of disbelief.  A state of disbelief is strong atheism.

A strong atheist, or positive atheist, asserts that there is no god or gods.  The conversion of a strong atheist to Hinduism requires more rejection of the previous mindset, there's some overwriting to be done, it's not merely a void being filled as is the case of weak atheism.

Agnosticism is very similar to weak atheism, but carries a bit more emphasis with it on the doubt portion of the equation.  Of course, there are weak and strong variations here, where some agnostics believe it isn't possible to know and other people merely recognize that they do not know.  Weak Agnosticism, if you define it as not knowing whether god exists or not, is quite similar to Weak Atheism, which is a lack of belief in god.

The definitions all blur together, and I think privately most atheists and agnostics recognize that these terms really only label the poles.  Real people aren't embodiments of philosophies, they tend to fall somewhere on the spectrum between weak and strong related to their confidence, and sometimes entrenchment, in their ideas.

I personally contend that as you approach "strong" on either scale, faith becomes required, and you're no longer holding a philosophical position, but a religious one.  A strong atheist has no proof that god cannot exist and a strong agnostic has no way of knowing whether or not god's existence can be known; to me, strong belief in unconfirmed, complicated matters is the very definition of faith.  That doesn't mean that someone who has a hunch that god doesn't exist is particularly "faithful" though; a hunch is one thing, but if you feel certain about it and you evangelize?  To me, that's a religious position.

New Atheism isn't settled on a weak or a strong position.  Some of the New Atheists consider god to be a hypothesis which can be tested and corroborated or disconfirmed, however this is a scientific view based on a statistical degree of acceptance which does not deal in faith-based positions, thus it is actually different from a true strong atheist perspective which asserts with both confidence and certitude (the latter of which isn't particular scientific in this instance) that god does not exist.

I think for the sake of this discussion it'd be best to consider the New Atheists to be somewhere on that spectrum, neither weak nor strong, and realize that the crux of their belief is scientific analysis of evidence, not faith.  When the New Atheists criticize religion they do so in instances where religion doesn't jive with scientific observations of reality, and I agree with them on fact.

A lot of religious ideas are patently false and absolutely absurd.  Every Sunday Christians gather together at their place of worship and either pretend to or literally believe that they are imbibing the flesh of a 2000 year old dead god-guy.  I don't disagree that this belief is ludicrous -- my problem is one of tactics.  I just don't think that mockery and aggression encourage the religious to think of us as human beings; it gives them a reason to view us in antagonistic terms.

I believe that sympathy is how minorities advance their causes, and in order to be sympathized with, you must first be humanized.  This requires a personal connection with other people before the revelation of your atheism which can survive that tumult.  I agree with the "coming out atheist" campaign (though maybe not the language -- I don't care for that part), but it only works if the people who reveal themselves to be atheistic are in fact good, decent people that are held in high regard by their religious counterparts.  I contend that if you encourage atheists around the world to be nasty, aggressive, and confrontational about their beliefs, it will result in even more distaste for the non-religious as they marginalize and dehumanize us in their own minds.

I think that Atheists need to argue with believers less and get out there in their communities and do charitable works if they really want progress.

Pointless Digression

Hey Jude (I promise that’s the last time I’ll do that),

I made a numbered list of the salient points in your post. I find that an organized summary of what another person has said aids me tremendously in crafting my reply to it, as well as giving both parties a good frame of reference to address, reinforce, and evaluate the various points of multi-topic posts such as this. I have done my best to be neutral and fair in summarizing what you have said, and if I am not representing any or all of these points accurately, please let me know and I will be happy to adjust this list as necessary.

You said:
1. Definition of terms
A)   Weak atheism – simple lack of belief
B)   Strong atheism – assertion that there is no god or gods
C)   Agnosticism – similar to weak atheism, but more emphasis on the doubt portion
2. Proposition p: As one approaches the strong end of the atheism/agnosticism scale, faith becomes required to maintain one’s position on either or both of these scales.
A) Subproposition p1: A strong atheist has no proof that god cannot exist.
B) Subproposition p2: A strong agnostic has no way of knowing whether or not god’s existence can be known.
3.  Proposition r: New Atheists vary in their placement along the strong/weak atheism/agnostic spectrum, and their beliefs (worldviews) are based in science and evidence, not faith.
A) Subproposition r1: When New Atheists criticize religious claims, they do so when the religious make scientific claims of reality.
4. Discussion of tactics
   A) Mockery and aggression encourage the religious to view atheists in antagonistic terms.
   B) Minorities advance their causes by soliciting sympathy.
      i) Humanization is a necessary prerequisite for sympathy.
5. Conclusion c: Therefore, if you encourage atheists to be nasty, aggressive, and confrontational, it would result in even in even more distaste for atheists.
A) Subconclusion c1: Pick fights with the religious less, and do more work charitable works. You’ll change more minds.

I’ll address these points in order. I have no major disagreement with anything you said in statement 1, even if I could quibble over the fine points, I will refrain from doing so. This topic is “New Atheist vs. Accomodation,” after all, not “Two Guys Debating Pedantically Over Miniscule Differences in Definitions of Atheism.”

I do, however, have a slight disagreement to raise with you over proposition p, which I’ve summarized in number two above. You are correct in your identification of a person’s degree of belief or disbelief in god as a spectrum, from strong belief and knowledge of god’s existence on one end and equally strong disbelief and knowledge of god’s non-existence on the other. For the sake of argument, let’s say that it’s a seven point scale from one to the other, with absolute certainty having a corresponding value of one, and its opposite as having a value of seven. At seven, we might say, “I know for certain that god does not exist.” Seven is your “strong atheist” from 1B, above.

But the intermediate stage just prior to seven is of interest as well. Let us say that six is someone who would agree with the following: “I think there is a very low but nonzero probability of god’s existence. It is very improbable that he/she/it does exist, and I live my life on the assumption that he/she/it does not.”

I myself am a six on this scale, but a “hard six,” leaning very strongly towards seven. This is because I am entertaining several proofs that demonstrate to my apparent satisfaction god’s nonexistence, for a given definition of god. It is useful to remember that proof is a very slippery word, and has different definitions in formal logic than it does in the sciences. In short, the past two hundred fifty words have been building to this: if it was shown that the existence of god was logically impossible, the same way that square circles and married bachelors, then it does not require faith to go from category six to category seven on the scale of belief.

I am wary about coming to conclusions on the basis of logic alone, however, so that’s why at present I only say that I am leaning towards seven. Nevertheless, I offer this as a way that someone could claim certainty in regards to god’s nonexistence without turning the matter into a faith-based-proposition, unless you count logic as a belief, in which case we should just close up shop and head home. [/wry amusement]

One last thing about 2A: Michael Jordan (not the basketball player) has a book, The Encyclopedia of Gods. In it, it contains more than 2,500 of the world’s deities. Every monotheist in the world would happily admit to being a seven on the scale I described above in regards to at least 2,499 of these gods. Thus, I contend that strong atheism in the absence of evidence is an accepted and valid position.

Now then, on to proposition r. I have no disagreement with you on this point.

With regards to subproposition r1, I also agree with that. However, I would put a question to you: Almost anything that a believer could say about god seems to me to be inherently a scientific claim. “Jesus was born of a virgin. God created the world seven thousand years ago. God guides evolution. God chose the prophet Mohammad to deliver his message. God (through the angel Morai) revealed golden plates to Joseph Smith. God wants you to send me money.” Can you conceive of a statement about god a believer could make that isn’t scientific in some way? Even the most personal of experiences ultimately reveal themselves to be scientific in some way. “I hear god’s voice/I know what god wants/I have a personal relationship with Jesus.” These are all scientific claims. Think about it: God comes bursting in from whatever otherworldly or outside of space/time domain the believer says is god’s own, sending messages and information that can be deciphered by human brains. And this has nothing to do with science?

If every claim the religious make about god ultimately comes down to a scientific claim, as I contend, then r1 makes a distinction without a difference. Anything to do with religion is fair game for atheistic critique, because everything to do with the actual content of what is believed is ultimately a scientific claim about the universe.

Now, eleven hundred words later, we can come to the meat of what this conversation is supposed to be about in the first place. I realize that I’m being long-winded, but I felt that the points I raised above were worth at least some comment so that you have a better sense about where I’m coming from with the particulars of my atheism.

4A has a bit to do with Phil Plait’s speech at TAM 8, in what has been called the “Don’t Be a Dick” school of atheism. If you have the half-hour to watch Phil’s speech, all I will say is that you could find worse ways to spend your time, but the website I linked to summarizes the content.

However, even in the “Don’t Be a Dick” school of atheism, Phil does not advocate that atheists and skeptics refrain from attacking religion. In fact, “Again, to be clear, I did not say we should back down when confronted. I did not say we should be weak against ignorance. I did not say we shouldn’t be angry. I did not say we should be passionless.”

The problem, I think, comes from the privileged place religion enjoys. All a person has to do is say that such-and-such is their faith, and it is the social norm to exempt such-and-such from criticism. If a person were a libertarian, a conservative, a liberal, a communist or an anarchist, no one at all would think it amiss to ask him or her to justify or explain why he or she held these political beliefs, and the hostile reaction you describe in 4A does not come up when talking about a person’s position on the tax code nearly as often or as instantly.

But religion is a kind of conversation stopper. And because people don’t have “thick skins” about their religious beliefs, they perceive even the most milquetoast criticism of the belief as an attack on them, and react defensively.

This is not the fault of the atheist who criticizes religion or the actions of the religious. Perhaps it is more tactful to keep the “special sensitivity” in mind, but I think it far better that religious belief looses this “get out of criticism free” card. The reasons why I think this is the preferable outcome has to do with my response to points you make later on, so I will refrain from mentioning them here.

When we come to your conclusion, you mention that atheists would serve their cause better by focusing on charitable works, thereby promoting a positive message of atheism and spreading their message that way. This brings us to, I suppose, another meta-question about what atheism is all about.

Now, as I suggested above, there are those atheists who object to the privileged status of religion in public life. I have no problem with atheists trying to reduce the impact of religion in ostensibly secular countries. There is a reason that Christopher Hitchens uses “How Religion Poisons Everything” as the subtitle to one of his books. There is a reason that Sam Harris takes issue even with progressive, liberal, and moderately religious people. A full debate of the harm religion does it outside the scope of this discussion, but I mention it here because acknowledging that Hitchens and Harris and Michael Newdow believe that religion does harm, and that mankind would benefit if the entire enterprise was just set aside like lead plumbing. In this sense, atheist activism is a form of charity, if charity is about improving the human condition.

There are also those atheists who view the question of god as a scientific or philosophical position and do not see their charitable activities as a logical extension of their atheism.  Even here, the atheist is on solid grounds in opposing religion, for there are scientific and philosophical arguments that can be made about the problem in believing falsehoods. In other words, even if a person's faith did no harm to anybody, there is still a case to be made that the belief itself, against logic or without sufficient evidence, is a negative.

I call myself a “Gnu Atheist” with a touch of irony, since there really isn’t anything new about atheism, what we’re saying, and the like. Granted, there are reasons to believe that nonreligious people, people of no religion, or flat-out atheists are growing in numbers, but I digress.

I think it’s about time to wrap this up, and I might as well make a point or two more. Extremely radical, militant Christians kill abortion doctors. Extremely radical, militant Muslims suicide bomb public places. Extremely radical, militant atheists write snarky books and post on the Internet.

Even at our most antagonistic and vitriolic, we’re still just speaking very frankly and bluntly, and religious people don’t like it. But we’re not burning them at the stake. When they could get away with that sort of thing, that’s what they did, so I think we should keep the relative perspective of the “attack” on religion in context here.

I will end this with a link to one of my favorite fairy tales.

The Emperor's New Clothes

Would you suggest that the child refrain from pointing out that the Emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, because it would be perceived as an attack on the swindlers, and that the little child would win more support for his or her position if he focused on charitable work for his aclotheism? [/light snark]


QuoteIf it was shown that the existence of god was logically impossible, the same way that square circles and married bachelors, then it does not require faith to go from category six to category seven on the scale of belief.
Also, if it was shown that the existence of god was a logic impossibility, then anyone who was anything on that scale but a seven would be concretely wrong.  The problem is, I don't think anyone has shown that the existence of god is logically impossible -- or even come close -- and it doesn't even seem possible to do so.  Proving a negative is rarely possible (I can't think of many instances in which it is aside from Mathematical endeavors).  Can we fairly strongly invalidate a lot of specific religions however?  I think so.

Any system of truths must be internally consistent for the truths contained therein to have validity.  If you set up all of Christianity as an axiomatic, propositional system based on the text of the bible through literal interpretation, a number of contradictions arise that make it evident that literal Christianity is not possible.  As such, I am comfortable taking a "strong atheist" stance towards particular formulations of religion, but I am not comfortable extrapolating my debunking of many enumerated theories to the entire field of religious possibilities.

However it is rational, scientific, and Bayesian to take these "disproofs" (which on the basis of internal contradictions, scientific evaluations, and historical fact) and conclude that the existence of a god like the deity human beings have imagined for centuries now is unlikely.  I'd even take that a step further and say that the existence of a god in general is unlikely -- science has shown that there is no need for such an entity in the grand scheme of things through advancements in the field of evolution, abiogenesis, and universal cosmology.

I object to "7s" because that degree of certainty requires a leap beyond the logical and scientific; it isn't irrational and unscientific to say "god probably doesn't exist" but saying "god does not exist" is not an airtight claim (the fallacy there is passing off an inductive conclusion as a deductive one).
QuoteOne last thing about 2A: Michael Jordan (not the basketball player) has a book, The Encyclopedia of Gods. In it, it contains more than 2,500 of the world’s deities. Every monotheist in the world would happily admit to being a seven on the scale I described above in regards to at least 2,499 of these gods. Thus, I contend that strong atheism in the absence of evidence is an accepted and valid position.
Strong atheism in the absence of evidence may be a position that these believers gladly hold, but they also believe strongly in their personal choice of religion in the absence of real evidence for it.  Their identification as a "7" for 2.499 of humanity's deities is no more rational as their identification as a "1" for the odd god out.  I think the argument "believers do this so Atheists should be able to as well" rings false:  I strongly believe that we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard of intellectual honesty.  Part of this is being precise in the language that we choose to express our positions and never be quoted as saying, "God does not exist."
QuoteAlmost anything that a believer could say about god seems to me to be inherently a scientific claim.
It's true that as our technology and scientific prowess expands more religious claims become scientific (through being rendered testable), but that does not mean all claims are testable at current.  Take the soul for instance:  there's no reason that it necessarily must exist, but there's a lot we don't understand about how human beings function on a mental/cognitive level.  As neuroscience continues to develop, we're going to root out more and more of the claims about the soul, but we're not there yet.

As far as whether or not we have a right to criticize things that are solidly within the realm of science, I think it's pretty evident that we do.  I'm not advocating a stance of silence on religious issues -- that would a horrible idea -- my objection to the new Atheists is more about tone and tactics than anything else.  I agree with the goals of the New Atheist movement:  marginalization of religious influence in society and social acceptance/equality for the non-religious, but I think that what the New Atheists are doing in order to attain those goals is not helping.

The biggest with the way that the New Atheists are going about it is this:  most people are not rational.  Human beings are certainly capable of higher reasoning, but take a glance at the subjects taught in school:  areas that require rigorous applications of logic are where the average person struggles most.  The deductive certainty of Mathematics represents an academic roadblock for most high school students and our scientific literacy as a country is absolutely abysmal.  For example, a significant portion of our adult population rejects the Heliocentric model.

Human beings have quite a disposition for intellectual laziness.  Confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, the Dunning-Kruger Effect:  we're not built to seek out and accept truths as much as use our mind as a tool to search for whatever it is we're looking for, which is typically confirming evidence.  Knowing what I know about human imperfect, I think it's extremely unlikely that well-reasoned critique against religion will dent it in any way, and advanced neurological research supports me here (George Lakoff's work on framing and Neurological Pathways for example).

I think if Atheists are going to be accepted into society it's going to have to happen on an emotional level, not an intellectual one.  We need to follow the blueprint set by the Civil Rights Movement, because intellectual discourse isn't an effective tool for convincing people to abandon what are essentially intellectually dishonest theories about the nature of the universe.  These people hold these theories to begin with because of their lack of prowess with reasoning.  I sincerely doubt that there is anything that you can say to the average believer in Zombie Jesus to make them question his status as undead:  I certainly haven't had any luck when I've tried over the years.

We may see as spreading Atheism as charity, just as the religious think that spreading the good news is charitable as well, but outsiders do not look upon it so kindly.  I say that we need to do charitable works because we need to improve our public image and because it takes away from those who denounce us as nihilistic secularists.  Atheism needs a happier face, because the message that it carries isn't particular tenable:  try telling a 4 year old that their imaginary friend isn't real if you don't believe me.

Our goal shouldn't be to convert people -- because who really cares what they believe as long as it doesn't affect us -- our goal should simply be to improve our standing in society and encourage others to be intellectually honest with themselves no matter where that leads.  Part of that is being less confrontational and preventing information that is critical of religion when it actually has a chance to do good.  Telling moderates the things that we discover is a useful exercise if it's done in a contemplative manner with respect, but only on a person to person level.

Blacks did not win legal equality by marching up and down the capital or spreading word that the races are equal -- I suspect many people who eventually supported equality didn't even believe that at the time -- they won it by slowly convincing the rest of society that they were human beings with real emotions, dreams, and aspirations that just happened to be black.  We need to show the religious that atheists are every bit as human as believers, we have morals, convictions, and help our communities -- we just can't find it in ourselves to follow a religion.  Religion doesn't ring true to us -- that's the best way to put it without invalidating their feelings.

That doesn't mean we shouldn't criticize religion, just that we should be more careful with when we offer those criticisms and how.  We need to pick our battles very carefully and realize that the goal isn't winning so much as being recognized as both human and valid.

Pointless Digression

Quote from: Jude on May 25, 2011, 05:09:14 PM
Also, if it was shown that the existence of god was a logic impossibility, then anyone who was anything on that scale but a seven would be concretely wrong. 

That is not exactly a proposition I shy away from.

Quote from: Jude on May 25, 2011, 05:09:14 PM
The problem is, I don't think anyone has shown that the existence of god is logically impossible -- or even come close -- and it doesn't even seem possible to do so. 

This is more of a digression than I want to get into at this time. If you’re interested in “the logic of god, I’ll recommend this book. It’ll give you more Ps and Qs and formal operational logic than you can shake a stick at.

Quote from: Jude on May 25, 2011, 05:09:14 PM
I'm not advocating a stance of silence on religious issues -- that would a horrible idea -- my objection to the new Atheists is more about tone and tactics than anything else.  I agree with the goals of the New Atheist movement:  marginalization of religious influence in society and social acceptance/equality for the non-religious, but I think that what the New Atheists are doing in order to attain those goals is not helping.

That was the impression I had from your first post. I just wanted to participate in the discussion on the framing of the issue so that we both knew that we were speaking the same language, as it were. We seem to be in agreement that most religious claims are testable, scientific claims in principle if not in practice. You don’t seem to be advocating Non-overlapping magisteria, otherwise I wouldn’t be able to put this side of the conversation down so easily.

The problem with the conversation about tone has to do with the privileged status of religion I talked about in my last post. People can’t hear any talk of religion that doesn’t pay it deference without perceiving it as an attack on them personally, even when an atheist is criticizing religious belief, not religious believers. Subtle distinction there, but a key one.

Hell, there are some religious believers who can’t even acknowledge the existence of atheists without seeing it as an attack on them.

Example. The image below is a billboard that went up recently in California courtesy of the Orange County Coalition of Reason.

“Don’t believe in god? You are not alone.” This is the most inoffensive message imaginable. We’re atheists. We exist. And yet this billboard is enough to draw Christians out in protest.

A group of Christians who have been gathering to conduct Bible studies under a “Godless billboard” erected by a national atheist organization say they will do so until the sign comes down.

“There is no question that this billboard is unhealthy for our community,” he said. “They’re spreading the wrong message. We’re doing this Bible study right under the sign because we want to show our support and love for our God.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I take the same attitude towards people who want to protest billboards such as this as Edwords in the article: it’s fine with me. More free speech, yeah, great. But my point is that even that statement, from atheists to atheists, simply acknowledging the existence of atheists, is enough to get the dander up of the Christians so that they protest it.

Nor is the objection to atheists speaking their minds in public limited to civic, free speech protest. In Moscow, Idaho, a similarly inoffensive billboard was vandalized, as seen below.

The billboard originally read “Millions are good without God”. Someone painted over “out” in “without”. This was the second time that billboard had been vandalized in two weeks.

Now I’m not advocating some childish retaliatory game. “You vandalized my billboard so I’m going to call you a poo-poo head.” All I’m doing is pointing out that the mildest of messages, messages that simply acknowledge in a public way that atheists exist, draw protest and vandalism. People get angry and upset over these milquetoast messages for all the reasons that you point out when you said that people are not rational. They get angry and upset because religion enjoys that privilege, that “thou shall not criticize” attitude that surrounds it.

We might as well be hanged for the flock as hanged for a sheep. If they’re going to protest a statement that atheists exist as if we had suggested cannibalism as a solution to world hunger, then why even bother trying to be persuasive and convince people with honey and sunshine? Why not just point and laugh and say, “But the Emperor has no clothes!”

Plus, there is a utility to mockery and harsh criticism. To pull out good old H.L. Mencken:

"Of a piece with the absurd pedagogical demand for so-called constructive criticism is the doctrine that an iconoclast is a hollow and evil fellow unless he can prove his case. Why, indeed, should he prove it? Is he judge, jury, prosecuting officer, hangman? He proves enough, indeed, when he proves by his blasphemy that this or that idol is defectively convincing—that at least one visitor to the shrine is left full of doubts. The fact is enormously significant; it indicates that instinct has somehow risen superior to the shallowness of logic, the refuge of fools. The pedant and the priest have always been the most expert of logicians—and the most diligent disseminators of nonsense and worse. The liberation of the human mind has never been furthered by such learned dunderheads; it has been furthered by gay fellows who heaved dead cats into sanctuaries and then went roistering down the highways of the world, proving to all men that doubt, after all, was safe—that the god in the sanctuary was finite in his power, and hence a fraud. One horse-laugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms. It is not only more effective; it is also vastly more intelligent."

It also seems to me that suggesting that a less harsh tone would work better to accomplish our goals makes the mistake of the false dichotomy. There is no “one right approach” that works best to convince everyone. Some people take you seriously only if you shout, others only if you argue carefully and quietly, and other are completely beyond reason

I also think that framing the question as "how do you convince your opposite number in the religious/atheistic debate" is misleading way of putting things. Often the aim is really to shift the overton window of those watching the discussion. And that is where ridicule and contempt play an important or even indispensable role. It should be made clear that religious beliefs are ridiculously stupid. Any kind of respect for them (as opposed to religious believers themselves) is misplaced.


Irrationality surely has a lot to do with the vandalism and outrage that those signs suffered, but I think you're missing a key component of the picture here.  Examine how Christians treat other religions in the United States, and it kind of contextualizes things differently.  The only religious bents which are looked upon with special scorn in this country are Atheism and Islam, and I think this has more to do with how members of those religions are perceived than actual antipathy towards those religions.

Islam is seen as a quiet, menacing threat that motivates terrorists to brutal ends and wants to push the nations of the world towards a radical Islamic paradigm shift.  As a result, Islamic peoples throughout the United States are routinely harassed, are having trouble getting building permits and other documents to legally build their places of worship, and constructed Mosques are often the target of vandalism.  Islam isn't hated for philosophical differences -- if that was the case Jews certainly wouldn't be as accepted, protected, and celebrated as they are given that they reject Jesus' divinity -- they're hated because our country feels that they are a threat to our way of life.

I believe the same is true of atheists.  People see atheists in a negative light and assume that they are conniving, moralless, shady fellows.  Our message is difficult enough to communicate, we don't need a reputation as arrogant, negative, distasteful people to worsen things.  We need an image makeover if we're going to become more palatable, and even the New Atheists recognize that with their attempts at rebranding as "free-thinkers" or "brights."  Rebranding won't do anything though; if we continue the same pattern of behavior, the name will just jump from one noun to the next along with us.

You're right that there are some people who will be convinced by snarky commentary, ridicule, and/or rigorous debate, but these people are rare.  Skeptical people who employ critical thinking in determining what to accept or deny are the minority in this world.  To most people, personal experience and emotional reactions are the largest factors in determining their reactions, not solid, logical debate.  Partly, we need to go with the tactic that actually works and will improve our stature for the largest number of people, and partly it's a question of integrity.

My being an atheist/agnostic or whatever you want to call it does not supercede my being a human; I believe in a certain level of common decency and respect that I owe anyone and everyone who will engage me with that same level of civility.  This does not mean being uncritical, but it does mean saving my criticisms for the right time and place and otherwise just being a person who happens to be an atheist.

I'll attach my atheism to my personhood and let the latter of the two drive home the point that atheists aren't all bad, because the other way around just doesn't work on the whole.