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Jan 04 2013

No True Scotsman, Atheists, & Apathy

Okay. So, atheists. You might have seen some arguing in the blogosphere lately. You might have heard people with pleasant accents saying unpleasant things about feminists. Or you’ve been ensnarled in a Twitter spat. Or three.

It’s exhausting, and I get it. You want us to all get along and stop writing blog posts at each other, stop arguing amongst ourselves and all that nonsense. It’s hard to wait–to even have to anticipate–the next back-and-forth. There’s YouTube videos and forums and vlogs focused internally. Comments on blogs and blogs about comments.

So, for a second we’re going to talk about ‘pure’ atheism, the non-intersectional vanilla kind.

You know, you’re upset about the last thing the Christian right said. So you say something on r/atheism, Facebook, in public, and the next thing you know, there’s a liberal Christian type saying….

“But True Christians ™ don’t do that!”
“But if you read the Bible correctly, Jesus just preaches love!”
“The Westboro Baptist Church isn’t REAL Christianity”
“The Ugandan kill-the-gays bill wasn’t supported by Real Christians!”

It’s obnoxious. And we, understandably, grouch about it.

Police your own, we say. You don’t get to say ‘I’m Catholic! But I support contraception and choice–I just won’t speak against the Pope’s harmful policies!” You can’t just pretend that people in a religion you choose to be a part of aren’t doing awful things. When you decide to join a group–hell, when you are part of any category–that’s how it works. Shrugging off bigotry and injustice as a ‘different interpretation’ of equally devoted believers and nothing more is intellectually dishonest.

I’m mad. Greta Christina is angry–it’s numbers 94 and 95 out of 99 Things That Piss off the Godless. JT, Ed, PZ, Cuttlefish are frustrated. I think we can agree that the progressive Christians aren’t exempted entirely from critique just by pretending that the rest of Christianity doesn’t sometimes do horrid things.

You know what I’m saying? Right? Right.

Okay, easy vanilla part’s over.

We’re hypocrites if we don’t take this to heart in our own community. 

If we’re going to try to act ‘better’–actually, I think that’s arbitrary measure–if we’re going to be intellectually honest, we DO need to be arguing, critiquing, and otherwise speaking up about intolerable behavior. We need to–to cherrypick from the Bible myself–cast the beams from our own eyes.

Stepping out and saying that you don’t want to be involved in all that drama is equivalent to what we object to of the religious. I’m sorry it’s stressful, exhausting, and disheartening. But we’re worth it. The people of this movement, and the people who will be part of this movement are worth it.

 

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  1. 1
    hjhornbeck

    [Nodding in agreement.]

    Think of it this way: the people you object to are themselves stepping out and getting their voices heard. They are pushing and arguing for their own agenda, and if no-one opposes them they will be presumed to speak for the entire community they belong to.

    There really is no choice; if they won’t shut up about it, then neither should you.

  2. 2
    BritPirate

    Whilst I agree with the feminist side of the fight that is going on, the “No True Scotsman” argument doesn’t quite work for atheism. When the religious say “Hitler, Stalin and Mao were atheists” I don’t say “Well they weren’t the right kind of atheist / true atheists” (even though they weren’t) I argue that what they did had nothing to do with their atheism (even though they weren’t atheists). Atheism doesn’t necessarily have tenants, doesn’t have dogma, doesn’t even have belief system. It is the statement “I do not accept your god claim”. You (technically) COULD be a sexist atheist and it not be a contradiction, (should is another thing all together). For those who use terms humanist or rationalists, this argument is more useful, and maybe policing our own there may be useful, sex equality is key to humanism and rationalism.

  3. 3
    mythbri

    @BritPirate #2

    While I agree with you completely (that one can be an atheist and also do/say sexist things – the one does not definitionally exclude the other) I have seen that exact argument pop up here and there in the various discussions that have been had about sexism within the atheist community. I can’t remember which ones, or else I would link to them, but there were a few comments that questioned whether or not the individuals harassing and sending disgusting threats to vocal feminist voices were really atheists. They wondered if it was instead the work of religious people attempting to destroy the atheist community through in-fighting.

    But it’s by no means a common belief, as far as I know.

  4. 4
    Nathair

    You want us to all get along and stop writing blog posts at each other, stop arguing amongst ourselves and all that nonsense.

    Actually I want you too keep up the good work until you finally manage to drive a few (entirely metaphorical) stakes through some nasty little hearts.

    @hjhornbeck and OT:
    Not ignoring you, I just don’t seem able to comment over at Aron Ra’s any more.

  5. 5
    Not My Name

    The thing that bothers me about all the fighting that has been ongoing in the community for the last few years is the seemingly distinct lack of minds being changed. That’s what we’re supposed to be good at, and yet it seems to be the same people with the same arguments over and over again. I also recognize that this isn’t completely accurate – the arguments have shifted somewhat, but for the most part .

    I see a lot of talking past each other. I see a lot of people attempting to shame other people (another area where we might learn from the church where we see just how well this works). It’s led me to disengage quite a bit from the community. All I really wanted was a community where I could be wrong without feeling like I was a horrible person before, and I thought the skeptical community was that for a while, but I’ve not been seeing much of that lately.

  6. 6
    Nathair

    the seemingly distinct lack of minds being changed.

    I think, as usual, it’s the lurkers and bystanders who are most affected. They listen, think and sometimes change their minds. Very occasionally they send someone a quick email saying thanks.

    Makes the whole exercise worth it, imho.

  7. 7
    Johnny Au Gratin

    The thing that bothers me about all the fighting that has been ongoing in the community for the last few years is the seemingly distinct lack of minds being changed.

    I was raised in a Catholic family and sent to Catholic school for 12 years, where I was told many things that appalled me. I could see that many of the things I was taught were obviously wrong, and I rejected religion at a young age. But there was more to it than that. Atheism came easy, but there were also insidious underlying attitudes that were so ubiquitous and taken for granted that they could more easily escape notice. Think of it as a sort of background radiation exposure, that if not confronted and examined could lead to poisoning.

    Just because the protagonists in this drama don’t seem to be changing their minds doesn’t mean many of us aren’t learning and growing from the light thrown on these issues. There are castles in the air being torn down brick by brick.

  8. 8
    Shripathi Kamath

    Stepping out and saying that you don’t want to be involved in all that drama is equivalent to what we object to of the religious. I’m sorry it’s stressful, exhausting, and disheartening. But we’re worth it. The people of this movement, and the people who will be part of this movement are worth it.

    Bravo!

  9. 9
    aspidoscelis

    My $.02:

    You’re making a muddled argument here by linking the “real Christians” argument with self-policing. Those two issues are only connected -if- you agree with the “real Christians” argument in that there should be some single, universally valid norm for Christian belief and action across the board, but then diverge with the “real Christians” about whether that norm is actually in place and enforced.

    However, why would we agree with the first part of that? A Christian is just someone who believes that Jesus was the son of God and died for our sins. That leaves a hell of a lot of room open for disagreement on everything else. So they disagree; Christianity is highly heterogeneous. Why is that a bad thing? And what could Christians possibly do about it anyways? Are they supposed to force every last person who acts like a jerk in one way or another to renounce Jesus?

    The “real Christians” are trying to pretend that Christianity is an absolute ideological hegemony–there’s only one right way to do it and anyone who doesn’t toe the line can’t be a “real Christian”. That’s absurd, obviously. However, if your response to that is to tell Christians to self-police… well, you are, in effect, saying that there -should be- that kind of hegemony, but it just doesn’t happen to exist as yet and Christians should do their best to create and thoroughly enforce it. That, in my opinion, is equally absurd. There are lots of ways to be a Christian and, so long as they all involve that one unifying belief in Jesus, every last one of them is equally Christian; beyond that, neither are they a uniform bloc nor should they be.

    The same goes for atheism, of course.

  10. 10
    aspidoscelis

    The approach suggested in this article is, in effect, like responding to a “no true Scotsman” fallacy by suggesting that the Scotsman making the argument should go forth and make sure that -every- Scotsman become a “true Scotsman”. It’s not going to happen and it’s a silly idea to start with.

    The “no true Scotsman” fallacy is not fallacious because of insufficient enforcement!

  11. 11
    Kate Donovan

    To be fair, I’m not as good at taking my own advice as I’d like to be :p

  12. 12
    N. Nescio

    I’m one of those who’s had their mind changed by bloggers here at FTB and elsewhere. I for one appreciate the work people are doing to fight for equality for EVERYBODY.

  13. 13
    hjhornbeck

    I think, as usual, it’s the lurkers and bystanders who are most affected. They listen, think and sometimes change their minds. Very occasionally they send someone a quick email saying thanks.

    This is the primary metric I use when deciding whether or not to engage in an argument. If I think a third party would benefit from what I said, I then size up the time and effort required and move forward. It really changes your outlook; when one of my comments is ignored, I shrug it off. When I feel we’re re-treading ground, I shut things down. Winning or losing no longer matters, the focus is on the strength of your ideas.

    OT @Nathair: Gotcha. Aronra may simply be a bit slow on the moderation queue. If things persist, or that isn’t the case, we can always shift the argument to a different venue; Pharyngula’s Thunderdome comes to mind, as one candidate.

  14. 14
    hjhornbeck

    The “real Christians” are trying to pretend that Christianity is an absolute ideological hegemony–there’s only one right way to do it and anyone who doesn’t toe the line can’t be a “real Christian”. That’s absurd, obviously. However, if your response to that is to tell Christians to self-police… well, you are, in effect, saying that there -should be- that kind of hegemony, but it just doesn’t happen to exist as yet and Christians should do their best to create and thoroughly enforce it. That, in my opinion, is equally absurd.

    You’re confusing two separate things: Christianity as a set of core beliefs, and Christianity as a community of people. The latter adds extra core beliefs onto the former, simply by doing what they do. Take the Prosperity Gospel, for instance; those Christians are arguing that material benefits will come to you here and now if you follow their word. Many Christians disagree with that, and yet at the same time both fly under the banner of “Christianity.” You can imagine the confusion of an outsider if they thought the Prosperity Gospel Christians represented all Christians. You can also imagine the damage that could be done if the Prosperity Gospel represented itself as the one-true Gospel, then did things the majority of Christians found abhorrent.

    The atheist/skeptic community faces the same problem. Some of us value social justice issues highly, some of us don’t. A subset of those who don’t feel threatened by those that do, and are actively trying to silence them in response. If they win, their extra core beliefs will come to dominate the atheist/skeptic community, and that’s what an outsider will see if they happen across us. They don’t represent all of us, yet they could easily stereotype all of us. Hence, why many people in the pro-social-justice camp are pushing back; we have no choice, if we want to remain a part of the community.

  15. 15
    Jay

    This is a good post Kate.

    On of the problems with modern feminism for instance is that it stands for everything, and it stands for nothing. I can find feminists that are transphobic, and feminists that are trans friendly. Support prostitution / oppose prostitution. Oppose equal custody / Support equal custody. Enjoy blow jobs / Hate blow jobs. Support brazilians / Hate waxing. For any X, it is trivial to find a feminist blog that is empowered by X and a feminist blog that is oppressed by X.

    It makes it impossible to have an intellectual discussion about feminism or have any conversation with any feminist critique.

    NOT ALL FEMINISTS ARE LIKE THAT.

    But of course, all men are like that (see Taslima Nareem for the latest example). All MRAs are like that. All Slymepitters are like that.

    But NOT ALL FEMINISTS ARE LIKE THAT

    Any skeptical movement needs to be skeptical about itself. Needs to be self-aware and able to take critique.

    Girl Writes What on NAFALT!!!!1!!1!

  16. 16
    hjhornbeck

    I’ll never get why some people love GirlWritesWhat. She has this amazing ability to sound reasoned and knowledgeable, I’ll grant you that, yet when you stop and think about what she is arguing you realize just how abhorrent her views are. Case in point: GirlWritesWhat thinks a small amount of domestic violence is acceptable.

    I view her as an intelligence test, to be honest.

  17. 17
    Mal Adapted

    I’m probably one of those, too. I’m a committed atheist, but haven’t attended any conferences or other community activities. I always sort of assumed that atheists would support equality by default. The misogyny that emerged after the elevator incident opened my eyes. Reading FtB since then has been “Intersectionality 201″ for me. Thanks, and keep it up!

  18. 18
    georgewiman

    Count me as another mind changed. I can hear myself in memory saying things like “feminists just don’t get the joke” (and variations thereof). Watching the outpouring of outright hatred for Rebecca Watson after her innocuous comment about the elevator made me step back and do some reading and thinking. We spend our whole lives soaking up culture until it seems like The Way Things Oughta Be. But really, they oughtn’t.

  19. 19
    B

    With respect to atheism…you cannot argue the “no true atheist”….it’s ridiculous!
    You cannot “cleanse” the atheist roll call!!!
    If one does not believe in a god or gods, they are an ATHEIST, whatever else they think or do is irrelavent.
    If you start playing the game of cleaning the house on the basis of atheism, well, then you have become a religion.
    Why do you think Christianity has so many sects? Because one group said to the other “your not a true Christian!” and they split!
    The beauty of atheism is that is has NO OTHER REQUIREMENTS than one simple statement – “I do not accept that any god or gods exist based on the evidence presented.”

    There is NO requirement of anything for someone to be called an atheist.

    As far as feminism…..there can be divergent “brands” of feminism, just like in Christianity.
    Some brands of feminism say that using a woman in a bikini to advertise a cruise is sexist and sexual objectification and that is bad.
    Other brands of feminism say that those feminist that think that way are not “true” feminists! And vice versa!
    There is also the idea that someone who doesn’t use the label feminist literally “hates” women!

    So, I am an atheist and I am not accepting the label feminist.
    However, I believe women are equal partners in society.

    So, have at me, call me a mysogynist…say that I am not a “true” atheist, or that I am not for the equality of women…..for those of you that would make this idea a religion…f’off!

  20. 20
    B

    hjhornbeck….
    I have watched a lot of what GirlWritesWhat puts out.
    Some of it is reasonable stuff.
    Some of it is MRA bullshit.
    So what?
    It is the arguments that matter, not who they come from, right?

  21. 21
    freemage

    Actually, this is only true if I have the time, patience and inclination to go back and fact-check the premises that they use as the basis of their argument. Certain flavors of bullshit (and essence of MRA is probably the most prominent of these seasonings) make it clear that some folks just ain’t worth it.

  22. 22
    freemage

    Part of the problem is the overlapping Venn diagrams of “atheist”, “skeptic” and “humanist”. In particular, many atheists automatically assume that, since they’re skeptical about the existence of God, they must be ‘skeptics’–meaning an individual who at least endeavors to apply skeptical analysis to all their beliefs. Sadly, it ain’t necessarily so. Most of the anti-feminist atheists, for instance, fail to use skeptical analysis of societal norms when it comes to gender issues, and thus parrot ‘common sense’ ideas about gender differences.

  23. 23
    freemage

    Ah, but they aren’t trying to claim that you can’t be an atheist without being a feminist. Rather, the argument’s more nuanced:

    1: There is, among the larger group of atheists, a smaller group we can call “atheist advocates”. These individuals usually seek to advance atheism as a cause in and of itself–either arguing that others should abandon faith-based thinking, or that at the very least, our societal structure should be fashioned in such a way that the religious adherents are not given a de facto position of privilege. This group consists both of actual activists (such as Weinstein, Shermer and Dawkins) and their supporters (those who follow and post on blogs like FtB, go to conventions, and otherwise form the group that the activists are attempting to speak for).

    2: So long as atheist advocacy is largely the provenance of (usually older) middle-class cis, straight white males, the effort will be severely hampered. This is from two reasons: First, numerous studies have shown that people respond best to arguments presented by like individuals (whether that “like” is along lines of race or gender or class), and thus, a lop-sided ‘face’ for the atheist advocacy movement limits its political appeal; second, many atheist advocates ignore the reasons why even people with severe doubts stay within their religious structures–particularly, women and people of color. So long as the movement ignores the ‘one-stop shopping’ appeal that religion often provides to the disadvantaged (social support network + source of hope for a better future + psychological appeal to persuade them that the current state is acceptable), the effort to expand will falter.

    3: Finally, the argument is that best method for the movement to undo the aforementioned bias in its public face and actual membership is to adopt the core principles of feminism and other branches of social justice theory within the community of atheists itself.

    Oh, as for your final paragraph:

    No one’s arguing that you’re not a ‘true atheist’ because you’re not a feminist. Rather, I would suggest that by rejecting the very idea of feminism, you’re a crappy advocate for atheism, much the same way that a racist (or even someone who insists she ‘doesn’t see race’ as if we were already in a color-blind society–a mistake made by many second-wave feminists) is a crappy advocate for feminism.

    ******

    Total aside: You seem to be confused about feminism–it’s core beliefs are almost as simple as atheism’s (it gets two lines, instead of one):

    1: Men and women are equal, and deserving of equal treatment in all aspects of society.
    2: There is a vast and often subtle array of historical and cultural artifacts which prevent this; because these have generally benefited men at the expense of women, this array is commonly referred to as the patriarchy.

    The ‘divergent brands’ you seem to think exist within feminism are disagreements (sometimes civilized and genteel, sometimes often quite vehement) over specific examples of the second premise. Neither pro-porn and anti-porn feminists, for instance, disagree with the baseline notion that women’s sexuality is judged differently from men’s in today’s society; they simply disagree about whether or not pornography as a whole supports that bias or undermines it (or, even, does both at the same time, depending on which specific aspect you’re talking about).

  24. 24
    hjhornbeck

    True true, but suppose an active creationist was making a sociological argument. Would you ignore their outlandish views, or raise some skeptical flags on the assumption that poor reasoning in one area is likely to lead to poor reasoning in another?

    The other reason I link to that article is that it’s the quickest takedown of her views that I’ve seen. I have personally gone through one of her videos (“Fempocalypse”, for the record), listened to her arguments, and found that she ranges from dishonest to deluded to outright liar. I have yet to find a single thing reasonable in her work.

    A quick example: she mentions that the London Riots were caused by fatherlessness in that video. That’s a known falsehood; when the rioters were interviewed, researchers found that the main reason they’d rioted was a combination of a fatal shooting mishandled by police, a feeling of alienation from British society, and a government that seemed indifferent to the common person. Out of 14 reasons given for the riots, “poor parenting” ranked 13th.

    I agree that the arguments do matter, which is why I view her as an intelligence test: if you have watched her videos, and find yourself mostly agreeing with what she said, you haven’t thought things through or done your homework.

  25. 25
    Twitter25

    Hi, just wanted to say i liked this article.

  26. 26
    Amy

    My husband is in love with GirlWritesWhat and I absolutely cannot stand her. My husband assumes I can’t possibly grasp the context of what she’s saying when she spews her word salad at the camera. She out and out lies and paints with too broad a brush.

  1. 27
    Not All Deep Rifts Are Worth Diving Into » Near-Earth Object

    [...] Donovan, who is a real blessing to the interwebs, makes a great point about the Deep Rifts in the skepto-atheosphere, which I will then pour a teaspoon of cold water [...]

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