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Dec 14 2013

On leaving the “online atheism” community

My friend from “down under”, Martin Pribble, wrote a short post – that has been reworked for Slate – on why he’s “quitting the online atheism community”. Quoting from the Slate piece:

For the last five years I have considered myself an “activist atheist.” I trolled Facebook and Twitter for theists and told them why they are wrong. I made fun of them for their unreasonable beliefs. I would analyze and nitpick their statements, show examples of just where they went wrong and why, and even at times ridicule them when there seemed to be no option left, all in the vain hope that I might be able to sway them to a more rational way of viewing the world and the universe. This could be extremely satisfying, and sometimes I found I could even come to a level of agreement with a believer about the realities of life. I even have friends among my Twitter following who are priests and strong Christians.

But I’m through with it, and I no longer want to be part of the online atheist “community.” What I was once a proud member of, a group who fought against the evils of deliberate misinformation coming from religious groups and people, has become, at least on the surface, a parade of contradiction and caterwauling against theists who have no clue that there could be an alternate viewpoint or understanding of the universe than their own. The times of satisfaction are outweighed by feelings of frustration and hopelessness.

Through the piece, Martin details his frustrations with “debates with theists who make a ludicrous claim, then base their evidence on the very book from which their ludicrous claim originates.” This is because, says Martin, “Faith overrides knowledge and truth in any situation, so arguing with a theist is akin to banging your head against a brick wall: You will injure yourself and achieve little.”

I don’t dispute that and it’s one reason I stopped doing “it” some time ago, at least on this level. I don’t consider what I do entirely comprised of “atheist activism” or “online atheism” – I am part of a blog network comprised of nonbelievers but almost no one here is devoted solely to Bible criticism or undermining religious claims wherever they may sprout. Indeed, for my part, most of what I write on isn’t premised on whether it’s religious madness but just general immoral actions or thoughts.

Martin seems to take this course, too:

“This will not change an awful lot in what I do online. But I think I’ve come to a point where I am only injuring myself if I were to continue engaging in theistic debating about things like the efficacy of the Noah’s Ark story. If someone is espousing beliefs that are actively harmful—i.e., promoting intolerance based on belief systems—expect me to be the first to stand up and say something. I can’t allow this kind of thinking, and if I can help it, I will move to sway the believer into rethinking their position. But this will be done with reason and rational discourse, not with contradicting the finer points of the religious texts.”

However, I’m struggling to understand Martin’s point: Who says online atheism is about debating or “contradicting finer points of religious texts”? Who says it has to be about knowing religious doctrine and theology and focusing on inconsistencies that even most believers wouldn’t know or care about? As I say, I don’t consider what I do atheist activism, but it makes no sense to say that the whole enterprise is not worth engaging because of what appears to be a small – and frustrating – part of it.

Martin also equates atheist activism with online atheism, which is probably unhelpful, since activism exists in multiple formats including online blogging and “real life” protests. Indeed, speaking only of “online atheism”, it can be comprised of engaging in science, morality, politics, history; about argument and evidence. To shrink it down to the worst elements and claim you’re abandoning the whole project is not only fallacious but untrue: Martin himself is not giving up writing about harmful beliefs and articulating bad ideas. He’s just reasonably giving up the part that appears most pointless. And who would disagree?

Martin is an excellent writer and a generally thoughtful blogger. However, I don’t quite understand the point of this piece, who it is aimed at, or what he was trying to achieve by writing it. No one would dispute the frustrations he’s experienced and that his continued efforts are more important in those areas actually harmful (not boring Bible studies and theology); his declaration itself highlights even the importance of the parts he finds frustrating, despite himself giving them up; and it seems unnecessary and fallacious to dismiss the entire enterprise, when online atheism or atheist activism is compromised of a variety of enterprises and disciplines – each of different levels of interest, successes, frustration, etc.

 

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    You’re missing the important part of the picture:

    I trolled Facebook and Twitter for theists and told them why they are wrong.

    That’s not activism. That’s assholism.

    When some theist comes to FtB to tell us we’re going to hell, I make no bones about articulating why that person is both wrong and rude. I may even mock their beliefs, which can be almost as as ridiculous int heir gospel forms as libertarianism is in its.

    But the value of engaging the public statements of people who make their living (or some significant part of their living) telling other people to believe unbelievable things (and, worse, to act as if there was no possibility that those unsubstantiated-and-frequently-contradicted beliefs are ever wrong or unwise) is creating a discourse where such statements – statements – are routinely challenged. This allows -allows- people access to information that may benefit them.

    Despite the unfamiliarity of millions with the privacy settings of Facebook and Twitter, and despite the temptation to leave such things public in the hope that some of your best statements ever will garner you hundreds of thousands of followers and “friends,” random person saying random things in a place where words are recorded in such a way that you can see it later is not the same thing as William Lane Craig marketing a business based on telling people that their unjustified beliefs make them really smart people.

    If someone already in your online circle is going off on something obviously wrong, by all means, call it out. That’s your friendship to risk.

    But when you just *know* statistically that at any given moment some number of persons must be saying something stupid online just now, and you decide the best thing in the world is to go over to their online-house and tell them how stupid they are,

    you are not an activist. You are a jerk.

  2. 2
    John Morales

    However, I’m struggling to understand Martin’s point: Who says online atheism is about debating or “contradicting finer points of religious texts”? Who says it has to be about knowing religious doctrine and theology and focusing on inconsistencies that even most believers wouldn’t know or care about? As I say, I don’t consider what I do atheist activism, but it makes no sense to say that the whole enterprise is not worth engaging because of what appears to be a small – and frustrating – part of it.

    I think I understand Martin’s point: “What I was once a proud member of, a group who fought against the evils of deliberate misinformation coming from religious groups and people, has become, at least on the surface, a parade of contradiction and caterwauling against theists who have no clue that there could be an alternate viewpoint or understanding of the universe than their own. The times of satisfaction are outweighed by feelings of frustration and hopelessness.”

    (It’s rather like PZ’s quitting of the skeptic movement)

  3. 3
    kacyray

    That’s why I’ve always said, it should not a an issue of theism vs atheism.

    The battle is between faith and reason.

  4. 4
    thewhollynone

    Forget about trying to convert the faith believers to reason; that is hopeless. But answering their foolishness with rational discourse may lead the undecided, the young, and the uneducated to think a bit more skeptically about religion; now that’s not such a hopeless cause. I admit that it’s frustrating perhaps not to ever know if your time and words have been spent well in trying to encourage freethinkers, but don’t be in this game for a reward and you won’t be disappointed.

  5. 5
    Tauriq Moosa

    Thanks, John. That is an important part to highlight.

  6. 6
    davidjanes

    That’s not activism. That’s assholism.

    I am stealing that. It is 100% dead on accurate.

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