I want to draw a distinction between internal and external critics. An internal critic is someone who's had experience inside the movement, and thus criticizes it with an internal understanding. An external critic is someone who is not part of the movement they criticize.
I believe these thoughts are widely applicable to all sorts of movements, but I have a concrete example guiding my thoughts. Alain de Botton has a TED talk criticizing atheists, basically saying that secular society can learn a lot from religious practices (if not religious doctrine).
(TED talk below may not show up in rss feed)
I've been sympathetic to the general idea that atheists should feel free to do some things normally associated with religion, but I think de Botton's more specific ideas are quite ridiculous. He thinks art should be didactic, and we should do more rote learning? (For more on de Botton, I recommend this review of his book, Religion for Atheists.)
The talk also solidifies Alain de Botton's position as an external critic. He may be an atheist, but any veteran can plainly see that he has not had experience in the atheist movement. The first sign is right there in the talk's title. In the past, "new atheism" has also been dubbed atheism 2.0, and de Botton's views are more aligned with atheism 3.0. Calling for atheism 2.0 is a bit like calling for a "second wave" of feminism--it just shows ignorance of the existing discourse.
That may be a rather weak point (since I'm sure many atheist activists are also unaware of the term "atheism 3.0"), but it's corroborated by numerous other intangible markers throughout the talk. And of course, you can just go look up de Botton's background to be sure.
It is okay to be an external critic! We are all external critics at one point or another. Atheists are external critics of religion.
In fact, external critics are a great thing to have. Movements are made of many people who argue with each other, but there's nothing quite like an external perspective. The external critic has no interest in the movement being "right", and therefore avoids confirmation bias in favor of the movement.
But that does not mean that external critics are free of their own biases. In fact, there are some things external critics can just get wrong, rendering themselves unproductive. I hope to pinpoint a couple of those problems.
The "Here's What You Say" gambit
It is pretty hard to criticize atheists without saying, "Atheists say that..." or "Atheists believe..." But every time you say such a thing, you are making a rhetorical gambit. Every atheist who reads that sentence will compare what they say with what you say they say. And if you got it wrong, you just lost the argument and your credibility.
There's also a less risky form of the gambit, "Some atheists say..." or
"Most atheists say..." You can lose this gambit as well, if, in the
readers' impression, no significant segment of atheists says as you say
they do. People within a movement are likely to have more accurate
impressions of what people in their own movement say, believe, and do.
External critics, on the other hand, have all sorts of distorted impressions. I've experienced this first-hand multiple times, when
people started talking about those atheists, not knowing that I'm
a card-carrying atheist myself (figuratively speaking). Usually their comments are traceable to some atheist they knew in high school who just argued about it all the time. I observe that, despite being a hardcore atheist, I've somehow
managed to bring up atheism in front of them fewer times than they've
brought it up in front of me? Also, I think talking about atheism all the time is no different from someone who is interested in politics and talks about politics all the time; it doesn't have to mean anything.
Now, atheists can also have inaccurate impressions of their own movement, and it is possible to trump their impressions with harder evidence. You can cite people who in fact say what you said they say. And hopefully you're not just citing cranks, or fringes that have been internally criticized.
My (possibly idiosyncratic) definition of concern trolling is as follows: A concern troll is someone who advises a group on how to achieve their goals, but whose advice is compromised by their own differing goals. I do not think that a concern troll needs to be aware of what they are doing. They could simply fail to appreciate the difference in goals. I also do not think that a concern troll need be incorrect in their advice. All that matters is that the concern troll fails to establish the trustworthiness of their advice.
The classic example of a concern troll is an external critic who thinks a movement is just so loud. Surely, if they quieted down, more people would listen to them! (Concern trolls don't listen to their own advice.)
Also see: External critics who say we should stop talking about race, because bringing attention to the issue only causes racism. External critics who think feminists should hand out more cookies for seeing women as people. External critics who think who think asexuals need to stop acting like it's an issue because it's not.
Concern trolling is a perpetual problem for external critics. I think it is best to avoid criticizing the means that other groups use to achieve their goals. It is better to criticize the goals themselves as wrong, or to criticize specific claims as wrong. And if you really want to criticize tactics, don't pretend that you're doing it to lend a helping hand. You really aren't.
I challenge readers to apply these concepts to atheists who criticize religion as well.