Today, I want to point something out I would have thought was obvious:
This is a blog.
And every single blog post in it is… well, a single blog post.
Here’s what I’m talking about. Among many theistic commenters, there seems to be an odd expectation that every single post I write about religion should address every single aspect of religion that exists, or has ever existed. When I write about X, it’s pointed out that I didn’t write about Y; when I write about Y, I’m scolded for not writing about Z. (Or about X, for that matter.)
It’s not just me, either. Almost every atheist blogger I’ve known has been called to task for this shockingly lax behavior.
In the past, I’ve pointed out a contradiction in this sort of thinking — namely, the fact that religious believers do not hold themselves to the same standards of rigorous study they hold atheists to. They don’t read every word of Aleister Crowley and Robert Anton Wilson before rejecting occultism; they don’t read every word of Scientological thought before deciding that L. Ron Hubbard was either a charlatan or a wackadoodle. And they certainly don’t read every word of Richard Dawkins and Julia Sweeney, Bertrand Russell and David Hume, Ebonmuse and Hemant Mehta and PZ Myers and my own bad self, before deciding to reject atheism.
So having said that, today I am going to point out what I thought should have been obvious:
This is a blog.
And among other things, a blog is a literary form in which brevity is key.
I already write far longer pieces than the blogosphere standard. Too long, in some people’s opinion. If, in every single blog post, I were to try to rhetorically dismantle the entire institution of religion and every single one of its variations, I’d never get anything written or posted. And even if I did, none of it would ever get read.
In fact, if every single post were even to include spelled-out disclaimers — like, “This critique only applies to this one particular form or aspect of religion,” and, “I haven’t studied every variety of religious thought that exists, so I can’t be positive that there isn’t one out there that I’d be convinced by” — again I’d never get anything written, and none of it would get read. I do usually include a shorthand version of this — I say things like, “I think religion often acts as a form of ethical misdirection,” “There’s a common trope among many progressive Christians,” “the way so many religious believers…” But I will have to beg forgiveness for the sin of not always letting my argument get bogged down in disclaimers.
And I must beg forgiveness for this as well: This blog is not an encyclopedic compendium of atheist thought. It is not the Single Work Of Writing That Discredits Religion Once And For All. And it’s not intended to be. I am one person, criticizing religion as I see it in the real world around me. I am trying to critique religion as a whole… but I’m doing it in small pieces, critiquing one form or aspect of religion today, another form or aspect of it tomorrow. I am not trying to set thousands of tons of explosives under the foundation of religion. I am trying to chip away at it with an icepick.
And I’m doing it in tandem with hundreds of other atheist bloggers.
But apparently, in order to be acceptable atheist writers, we are expected to devote every spare moment of our lives to studying theology, and familiarizing ourselves with every branch of current theological thought. We are not to spend any time reading, say, the new Oliver Sacks book on the neuropsychology of music, or the short history of Sonic Youth’s “Daydream Nation.” We are not to go on nature walks, or go for drives in the wine country. We are not to go to folk art museums. We are not to write porn reviews. We are not to go contra dancing, or watch “Project Runway,” or see “Hamlet 2.” In order to be taken seriously as atheist writers, we are apparently expected — in what strikes me as a rather head-scratching paradox — to sacrifice all the hours and days of our lives to the study of religious thought.
And we are to address every single one of those religious thoughts in every single piece of atheist writing that we do.
Just to be 100% sure that we didn’t miss anything.
Okay. To be fair, nobody to my knowledge has actually said that. Nobody has accused me, or any other atheist writer, of being bad people and bad atheist writers simply for having a life. But I’m really and truly not sure what it is these critics expect of us. Do they think it’s okay for us to reject other religious ideas and experiences… as long as we give long, careful consideration to their own? Or is it simply, as OMGF recently wrote, that we are not to stop considering religious ideas until we have accepted them? That once we’ve accepted them, then that’s the point at which it’s okay to stop considering?
In his Daylight Atheism blog, Ebonmuse recently wrote that, “when I first hear a religious apologetic or miracle claim that’s new to me, often my initial response is to feel a little tremor, as I wonder, ‘Could that really be true?'” I totally have that experience as well. When I see a believer in my blog start to make an argument, I almost always have a moment of wondering, “Will this be the one? Will this be the argument that convinces me?” (And like Ebon, I’m glad for this — it’s a sign that I still have an open mind.)
But it’s also the case that, while I do still get a brief moment of doubt in the face of religious arguments, this experience has diminished considerably over the months and years that I’ve been writing about this stuff. Because the arguments are never, ever any good. They’re always the same — it’s always some version of the argument from authority or the argument from personal experience — and they’re never even remotely convincing. So having considered approximately 876,362 religious arguments in my life, I find myself both aggravated and amused when a believer says, “But you haven’t considered Argument #876,363! How can you be so close-minded?” And I always want to ask these people, “At what point is it okay for me to stop? At what point is it okay for me to say, ‘I have considered the possibility of religion at great length, and I have rejected it, and until I see some seriously excellent arguments or evidence in its favor I am going to continue to reject it and to argue against it”?
Now, I have, in fact, read a fair amount of religious apologetics and religious thought. I was a religion major in college, and while that was 25 years ago, a fair amount of it stuck. And since becoming an atheist writer, I’ve read even more, and will continue to do so. But apparently, if I don’t know every single piece of religious apologetics, I am a failure as an atheist writer. (A standard that, once again, religious believers themselves do not adhere to.)
I find this especially aggravating — and at the same time, especially amusing — since when commenters say things like, “There are lots of good modern arguments in favor of God!”, they almost never say what those arguments are.
You know, if you have a religious belief that you think is not only true but rational and defensible, then by all means, tell me what it is. But don’t say, “You didn’t address my particular form of religious belief… therefore your critique of religion is invalid,” unless you’re prepared to say what that particular form is, and offer some arguments and evidence in support of it.
And for the sweet love of Loki, don’t say, “You didn’t address (X) form of religious belief… therefore your critique of (Y) is invalid.” That’s not only an aggravating argument — it’s a silly one.
Truth to tell, though? I honestly don’t care all that much about advanced modern theology. If you have an argument to make, I’ll certainly read it. But for the most part, I’m just not all that interested in religion as it’s believed and practiced by a handful of theological scholars. I am primarily interested in religion as it overwhelmingly plays out in the real world.
And when theists insist that modern religious thought and practice no longer includes magical thinking and a belief in a supernatural being whose interventions can be affected by human behavior, all I can do is suggest that they visit Lourdes. Or attend a prayer meeting being organized by the parents of a terminally sick child. Or visit a website where prayer accessories are being sold by the thousands. Or talk to the believers who are praying for gas prices to go down. Or else just read the “hilarious if it weren’t so appalling” story of the Pope’s Cologne.
Finally, I want to point out some — well, “hypocrisies” is probably not the right word, let’s say “serious contradictions” — in this sort of argument.
When atheist bloggers write about extreme, hard-core, fundamentalist- type religions, we get scolded for picking easy targets, and we almost inevitably have it pointed out to us (as if we didn’t know) that “not all religion is like that.”
But when we criticize progressive religions, we get scolded for being mean and divisive and going after people who should be our allies.
What’s more: When we criticize the overall concept of religion in general, we’re accused of over- generalizing, of not understanding the rich variety of religious belief and thought.
But when we criticize one particular form or aspect of religion, we somehow, once again, get accused of over- generalizing — of not seeing that the one form or aspect we’re talking about today doesn’t apply to every form or aspect of religion that exists or has ever existed.
So what on Earth are we supposed to do?
Well, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do:
I’m not going to give a damn.
I’m going to continue to critique both religion in general and specific religious beliefs and practices, as they cross my path and grab my attention.
I’m going to continue to try to be fair when I do so. I’m going to continue my practice of (usually) critiquing beliefs and practices rather than insulting people. But I am not going to stop critiquing any given aspect of religion whatsoever simply because I am not able to single-handedly dismantle the entire body of religious thought in a single thousand-word blog post.
And the next time someone responds to my critique of the Fundamentalist Wackadoodle of the Week by saying, “But what about the subtle shadings of modern progressive theological thought?” I am going to point them to this piece.