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Dec 10 2012

Atheism is not enough (pt. 2)

(Continued from part 1)

Irreconcilable differences

Tectonic rift at Thingvellir, Iceland. (CC, click for source)

If atheism WAS enough to bind us, if it was a sufficient foundation for our communities, there would be no great rift. There would be no polarization, no in-fighting. There would be no great sorting. People wouldn’t be so willing to throw down the gauntlet over simple advice like “guys, don’t do that”, taking a commonplace anecdote as a personal insult and escalating beyond all reason. There would be no screeds about “feminazis”, there would be no recriminations and accusations leveled without evidence about who’s responsible for downturns in conference attendance. There would be no need to hold people’s feet to the fire over breaches of moral precepts if mere atheism was enough to sustain and build a movement.

But atheism itself implies, as the angrier atheists so vehemently insist, absolutely nothing else about a person outside of their lack of belief in a deity. Nothing, that is, except the consequences of that belief with regard to morality.

And what’s more, there’s absolutely no guarantee that any particular atheist has come to their epistemology by way of logic, reason, or any sort of cognition. They might be atheist by default. They might be atheist out of retribution for having been mistreated by religious folks. They might be atheist for any number of reasons. One cannot assume that any given atheist is rational or swayed by evidence or even skeptical of things outside of the religious sphere.

I don’t know how any of those three star atheists that I mentioned in part 1 came to atheism, though I believe Dawkins wrote something in The God Delusion (I don’t have a copy handy to check right now). But, the idea that we all come to atheism through pure rationality is surely mistaken. Some of us came to it through skepticism, some of us through moral outrage at the horrors religion has enabled, some of us through being taught that religion is bunk as children, some of us through self-deconversion by logic, some of us through sheer anger and frustration at our prayers going unanswered, and some of us simply chose to believe in a totally different and yet still completely unevidenced worldview involving some form of magical thinking or another.

So knowing that a person is an atheist does not tell you if they’re rational. Their presence in our movement only tells us that they know there’s no god, and thus morals don’t come from an infallible being. This tells us that morals come from somewhere else. This leaves it up for debate amongst ourselves.

If we were all willing to let one another’s philosophies outside of atheism go unchallenged, Jerry Coyne might never have written this open letter to the NCSE asking that they stop attacking Gnu atheists. Those anti-Gnu folks at NCSE might not have spent so much time attacking Gnus. Youtube would not be full of atheists hellbent on dissecting and dissenting with everything any of us over in the blogosphere ever says about social justice; and vice-versa. We wouldn’t have attracted so prolific a core group of miscreants and ne’er-do-wells into a sort of rogues’ gallery. And this rogues’ gallery — with whom we share our core (ir)religious beliefs — disagree with almost everything else we say, sometimes almost out of pure reflex. Sometimes to the point of tying themselves into knots to “disagree” with us by arguing the same points we’re making, for the same side even. Every one of them has decided that we have crossed their lines, whatever those lines might be.

You might say “oh, but reasonable folks can come to different conclusions.” And I’d agree wholeheartedly — the evidence is all around you, even at this very blog. But in the same way that rational actors cannot both presume the existence of a god and call themselves atheist (as these are contradictory — you cannot be both A and Not-A), rational actors cannot both call themselves humanists and believers in evidence, and hold the contradictory positions that sexism and racism are over despite all the evidence to the contrary. These inconsistencies, which are fundamental philosophical differences, are certainly enough to drive animosity over. Reasonable folks can come to different conclusions based on the evidence, but reasonable folks seldom come to differing conclusions with the same evidence without some amount of motivated reasoning to undercut the “reasonable” nomenclature.

It is for this reason that I’m more than happy to declare, forthrightly, without any mincing of words, that atheism is not the sole criterion by which I test my associations. It has never been, and it never shall be. It cannot be the sole litmus test one employs for determining whether someone else is a good person or not.

I will not pretend to balk at the so-called great rift that’s supposedly just magically appeared ex nihilo, between people who fight for any of the various social justice causes and who still identify primarily as atheists, and those who identify as atheists while also proudly displaying selfish, racist, sexist, loutish, boorish behaviours. I will not moan and faint and fan myself and clutch my pearls over how divisive it all is for us to have standards, for us to expect certain antisocial behaviours to be curtailed, heavens forefend! I will not feign horror. I will CELEBRATE that people have differences, and that these differences matter to them.

A great rift — or more accurately, a spiderweb of rifts, some of them great — has always existed, from the very inception of movement atheism. Atheism alone has never been a sufficient criterion around which to build an entire movement. Atheism is merely, as the trolls are so keen to point out, the absence of belief. The group of people comprising movement atheism — the atheists willing to get up and do something about religious hegemony, be it by writing or podcasts or conventions or rallies or billboard campaigns — are incredibly diverse. By virtue of that diversity, we will have core and fundamental differences that make certain alliances impossible; certain spats irreconcilable. That’s reality. You learn to deal.

So the real questions are, how many people are on each side of any particular rift, and how many rifts are there really? What drives divisiveness — is it people intentionally stoking controversy? Or is it people’s fundamental differences chafing, because we all innately know that atheism is not enough? And how do we even have any sort of shot at achieving any of our goals?

Part 3 will be posted tomorrow.

21 comments

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  1. 1
    Raging Bee

    What drives the divisiveness? In this case, I think a large part of it isn’t comong from atheists at all, but from right-wingers trying to turn atheist forums into slimepits, keep progressives in general divided against each other whenever possible, and keep negative stereotypes of atheists in play. I know that sounds paranoid, but given the behavior of Republicans under Karl Rove’s guidance, and given the documented history of similar tactics being used in COINTELPRO, I think there’s planty of evidence to support my paranoia.

    The takeover of the SCA by a Bush Republican, who immediately said secularists have to suck up to their worst enemies, is just one of the more glaring examples of deliberate right-wing infiltration and shit-stirring within the secular, atheist, and other progressive movements.

  2. 2
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    @Raging Bee #1:
    That’s just what THEY want you to think!

  3. 3
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    I think your framing of it as a matter of achieving “our goals” is problematic, because I don’t think there are shared goals between the social justice atheists and their most vehement critics. It turns out that atheism IS enough, if your main goal is “feeling intellectually superior to theists.” For those folks, things like racism and misogyny from religious sources are wrong because the source is religious, not because racism and misogyny are inherently wrong. Pointing out the negatives of religion is simply a weapon to club them with in order to show that atheism is better, not to actually improve the lives of people hurt by religion OR bigotry.

  4. 4
    smrnda

    I’ve always identified more as a progressive than an atheist since I wasn’t raised in any religious tradition and got only the smallest exposure to religion growing up. I see religion as just another type of social institution that deserves criticism for its abuses of power and false claims. Religion should be criticized for the same reason that we should criticize the messages in advertizing. If you’re going to call out nonsense that religious agencies spout, one is obliged to be consistent and call out all dangerous nonsense that you can find.

    Perhaps the biggest conflict seems to come from people who are skeptical of religion, and see progressive causes or thought as another form of ‘orthodoxy’ that’s being forced on them which they aren’t allowed to criticize. I’m not always sure people in this camp hold logical or consistent opinions; it may just be privilege talking. This might have something to do with the non-religious segment of the Right, the side of the kind of ‘I’m a bad boy and I’ll do what I feel like and that’s freedom so piss off everyone else” mentality.

    The problem with these people is that nobody has ever said you can’t claim that racism, sexism or homophobia aren’t over. No, you can totally claim these things but you’ll be called out for lack of evidence every time. If you aren’t willing to look at issues seriously, you’ll be denounced as a know-nothing. What these people want is for their uninformed opinions to be respected on the basis that everybody is entitled to an opinion, but only informed opinions are worthy of respect.

  5. 5
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    @Improbable Joe #3:

    For those folks, things like racism and misogyny from religious sources are wrong because the source is religious, not because racism and misogyny are inherently wrong. Pointing out the negatives of religion is simply a weapon to club them with in order to show that atheism is better.

    So the ‘intellectually superior’ clubbing amounts to:
    Religion is wrong because racism and misogyny religion is wrong?
     
    Racism and misogyny don’t contribute anything but noise to their argument if they don’t imply personal suffering, or societal dysfunction, or something that’d make them inherently harmful.

  6. 6
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    @Raging Bee #1:

    I don’t buy it for a second. Further, I think that “it can’t REALLY be us (and don’t you dare suggest otherwise!)” attitude is a large part of what’s driving all the negativity and rifts and what-not.

    When Jessica Ahlquist says she gets death and/or rape threats from Christians, people give her support up to and including cash donations. When a big-name Muslim cleric says something stupid or evil, atheists come out with guns blazing to condemn it. When Rebecca Watson says she gets death and/or rape threats from atheists, people call her a liar and/or say she deserves it for whatever reason.When a big-name atheist says something stupid or evil, atheists come out with guns blazing to make excuses for it.

    It doesn’t require a conspiracy of outsiders to make the atheist community look bad, because atheists are as prone to bad behavior and shitty attitudes as any other group of disparate people linked by a single issue. And possibly twice as hard to talk out of those shitty attitudes, because atheists of the “skeptic” variety are convinced that they came to their attitudes through reason, and can apply cargo-cult skepticism to any situation to protect their unsupported beliefs and terrible behavior.

  7. 7
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    @CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain #5:

    In the sort of cases I’m discussing, there’s not really an argument being made other than “theists are garbage, atheists are awesome!” Bringing up misogyny and violent bigotry isn’t making the argument “religion is bad because it leads to misogyny and bigotry” as much as it is saying “see, I TOLD YOU those people suck!”

    Or, to talk about it from a different perspective: do you read Dispatches from the Culture Wars, or are you otherwise familiar with Bryan Fischer and American Family Association Radio? It is pretty much 24-7 right-wing fundamentalist Christian hate from Fischer and Co. but it is interesting to this discussion to look at how they talk about Muslims. They condemn Islam and Muslims for much of the same things that liberal atheists mention: treatment of women, lack of basic freedoms, totalitarian attitudes from the government down to the households. Islamic theocracy and violent Muslim extremists are BAD! Down with Sharia!

    But.

    After the commercial break, they come back and talk about American political issues… and they advocate a barely watered-down version of what they condemn Islamic fundamentalists for supporting. Fischer thinks homosexuals should be thrown out of their jobs and possibly jailed,although he might not want to see them executed, maybe. The AFA opposes civil liberties when they conflict with a narrow viewing of the Bible, including opposing “blasphemy” and porn, free speech be damned. They are all for subjugating women based on Biblical interpretation. And they want to use the power of government to make the entire world to live by their rules, even if it takes police and military force to do so. So basically replace every mention of Islam/Muslim/Sharia with Christianity/Christian/Biblical and add a light dusting of civility, and you’ve got a program they can get behind.

    I’m not saying that atheists go to those extremes, but the “wrong for you, justifiable for me” attitude is damned similar in a lot of cases. What can be easily seen as wrong for a theist to engage in can suddenly be defended when it is an atheist doing it… and as far as I’m concerned, if your opinion depends on who is doing the thing rather than what they are doing, you don’t hold that thing to be wrong on principle.

  8. 8
    CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain

    @Improbable Joe #7:
    Ah. Well said.

  9. 9
    Raging Bee

    When Jessica Ahlquist says she gets death and/or rape threats from Christians, people give her support up to and including cash donations. When a big-name Muslim cleric says something stupid or evil, atheists come out with guns blazing to condemn it. When Rebecca Watson says she gets death and/or rape threats from atheists, people call her a liar and/or say she deserves it for whatever reason.When a big-name atheist says something stupid or evil, atheists come out with guns blazing to make excuses for it.

    Are you sure it’s the same “people”/”atheists” in all of the instances you describe?

    The people bashing “Twatson” seem to sound a lot like the people bashing “evil little thing” Jessica Ahlquist and “slut” Sandra Fluke. They also sound like they don’t really care about anything positive being done by any particular atheists — only in bashing atheists they don’t like and calling them “distractions” from other (unspecified) important things being done by other (unspecified) atheists. That’s just two of the reasons I stand by my suspicion that a large number of the assholes are, in fact, either religious bigots or just hateful immature unconnected trolls, not atheists truly participating in any movement. On the Internet at least, it’s very easy for someone who doesn’t otherwise get out much to assume a fake identity and say pretty much anything he wants, without much fear of anyone either finding out who he really is or holding him to account for it.

  10. 10
    Raging Bee

    Bringing up misogyny and violent bigotry isn’t making the argument “religion is bad because it leads to misogyny and bigotry” as much as it is saying “see, I TOLD YOU those people suck!”

    Actually, in my experience at least, they ARE making the argument that “religion is bad because it leads to misogyny and bigotry”. Not sure which arguments you’re listening to, but it’s not the same as what I’been hearing.

  11. 11
    Raging Bee

    I’m not saying that atheists go to those extremes, but the “wrong for you, justifiable for me” attitude is damned similar in a lot of cases.

    Examples, please? The only one you’ve given so far comes from theists, not atheists.

  12. 12
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Raging Bee:

    You DO know that the entire “Twatson/Slymepit” thing is ATHEISTS, right?

  13. 13
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Oh, and let’s not forget the harassment Surly Amy got at TAM this year… or do you think those were random unrelated trolls who paid a bunch of money to make the movement look bad, and included an impersonator pretending to be one of the speakers.

  14. 14
    Raging Bee

    You DO know that the entire “Twatson/Slymepit” thing is ATHEISTS, right?

    Actually, no, I don’t know that. I have no idea who most of the MRAs there are, and no evidence that any of them are atheists, or have actually been to any atheist events, let alone made any positive contribution to the movement. I certainly don’t remember any of them talking about positive accomplishments, which is something I’d expect them to do, if they actually gave a shit about things they’re trying to accomplish. All they did was bash RW, women, feminists, “manginas,” etc., without saying one fucking word about what we “should” be talking about instead — and without making any attempt to even make themselves look like anything other than obscenity-spewing unsocialized junior-high-mouth-breathers.

    As for TAM, I’m not saying ALL of the MRAs and other scum we’re talking about are infiltrators; I’m saying we need to consider the possibility that the scum contingent within the skeptic/atheist community is not as big as they would have us believe, and a lot of the energy behind it is coming from outside. (And yes, it is at least possible for hostile outsiders to get into an event like TAM, for whatever reason.)

  15. 15
    Nick Gotts

    Raging Bee,

    Come off it. We know the identity of many of the people who’ve spent the last year and a half attacking Rebecca Watson and anyone who supports her, and all those we know of, AFAIK, were known as atheists before EG. Conversely, there is zero evidence for your conspiracy-mongering. When you have some, I’ll take the notion seriously.

  16. 16
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    Raging Bee,

    If you’re entirely ignorant of the subject, maybe you should stop making up bullshit conspiracy theories based entirely on said ignorance, and do a little bit of background reading first? You don’t have any “evidence” because you haven’t been bothering to keep up, which is entirely your problem and your responsibility to deal with.

    I mean, FFS several of the people on the wrong side of the rift we’re talking about USED TO BLOG ON FREETHOUGHT BLOGS! How the hell did you miss that?

  17. 17
    Setár, Elvenkitty

    …because atheists of the “skeptic” variety are convinced that they came to their attitudes through reason, and can apply cargo-cult skepticism to any situation to protect their unsupported beliefs and terrible behavior.

    which is really what we see happen when we get atheists trying to say that pro-SJ measures are somehow unreasonable. and yes, it applies to any SJ discussion. I’ve had ‘skeptics’ try to tell me that what Naomi Klein and Matt Taibbi write about aren’t true because “oh, that sounds like Trutherism or Zeitgeist” when it’s talked about in the abstract — never mind that if these sophisticated economists were to open up The Shock Doctrine they’d find a wealth of fully sourced facts, as befits proper journalism. When I talk about the rampant corruption in central banks (ie the revolving doors linking Fed, Treasury and Wall Street), my posts get treated as if they’re comprised entirely of “RON PAUL END THE FED”, as if having problems with the workings of central banks in practice means we have to get rid of central banks.

    This is not skepticism, but it is most certainly treated as such. Because, well, they’re skeptics, which must mean that they came to their conclusions about existing economic systems through reason and if they don’t think the systems are inherently oppressive and meant to reinforce said impression then by FSM they’re not and anyone who disagrees is not worth listening to because they’re an irresponsible communist who wants everyone to have free everything.

    That being said…I think Raging Bee’s main problem was simply overreach in saying “a large part”. That certainly isn’t true, but we can’t rule out the possibility that there are infiltrators looking to continually inject noise into the discussion. The Conservative Party of Canada is known to monitor online discussions and correct what it thinks is “misinformation”, and it was mentioned on the Pharyngula thread about the tar sands that both the Alberta Tories and Ezra Levant’s buddies at EthicalOil.com troll the internet looking to whine at people who are against our amazing clean and precious Alberta oil sands; their favourite tactic is seemingly to scream loudly at anyone who dares to call them “tar sands”. I would definitely not be surprised if the same thing happened in other areas, particularly those where Republicans have a stake.

  18. 18
    EllenBeth Wachs

    Raging Bee, we know the people in the slymepit are atheists because they have proclaimed so. Furthermore, some used to friends and acquaintances.

    ” All they did was bash RW, women, feminists, “manginas,” etc.,” Oh hell no!! That is NOT all they did. They have driven quite a few women off the internet with their vicious attacks and bullying. They are toxic, insecure, warped fucks who have nothing better to do with their lives but to attack people that actually do contribute positivity to this movement. Deep rifts? Bring ‘em on. I want nothing to do with people like that.

  19. 19
    ildi

    I don’t know how any of those three star atheists that I mentioned in part 1 came to atheism, though I believe Dawkins wrote something in The God Delusion (I don’t have a copy handy to check right now).

    That reminded me of one of his memories that had a powerful impact on me when I read the book. He told about hearing scary voices at night as a child and getting up to investigate and finding out it was the wind whistling though a keyhole. My first thought was, what the hell is it with those old British country homes? Second, I was so impressed that he already had the scientific mindset even as a boy; instead of cowering in bed and assuming ghosts, he went in search of data! So, I was googling around looking for the quote from the book, and I came across this review, and my jaw dropped at the opposite impact this story had on the blogger at
    http://pickingapplesofgold.blogspot.com/2011/11/we-all-need-little-mystery-dont-we.html

    But what I found in reading the book was that actually I feel sorry for him. Because he can’t seem to live with unanswered questions. He seems to have this insatiable desire to get to the bottom of every mystery. Perhaps that is what drives him. Near the beginning of the book he is talking about the power of the brain and how it can turn unknown noises and images into recogniseable pictures. He gives an example of himself as a young boy hearing what he thinks is a whispering voice, in which he can actually hear audible words. Now I suspect that most kids would either be freaked out by this or perhaps call for a parent. But the young Dawkins decides to go on a mission to find out the source of the sound and he follows it until he finds wind whistling through a key hole. It was not voices after all, just wind. I find that so sad. That even as a child he had such an inquisitive mind that he could not accept a little mystery.

    This isn’t just about faith, I’m not trying to score any points here, just that I think life is made far richer by a bit of mystery, the unknown. Is it really necessary to try and erradicate that unknown element of life?

    I don’t relate to this type of mindset. There’s always more mystery. “We are made of starstuff.” Also, I find it creepy that she finds it sad that he didn’t stay shivering in bed afraid of ghosts. That’s not mystery, that’s nightmares.

  20. 20
    Raging Bee

    Wow, ildi, that’s some weapons-grade anti-rationalism and know-nothingism you quoted there…

    I find that so sad. That even as a child he had such an inquisitive mind that he could not accept a little mystery.

    Oh, he accepted it all right…as a challenge. And he took up the challenge and prevailed. I’m not sure what the word “accept” means in this fool’s mind.

    …I think life is made far richer by a bit of mystery, the unknown.

    So Dawkins’ life would have been richer if he’d just kept on believing in ghosts and cowering in his bed for the rest of his life? I’m only speaking for myself here, but my parents made my life richer by assuring me that there were no ghosts or monsters who could hurt me whenever I got out of bed. That allowed me to grow up, learn, and “accept” even greater mysteries later on.

  21. 21
    mofa

    ” Deep rifts? Bring ‘em on”, says EllenBeth Wachs

    I agree, the sooner the better, this is getting tiresome, a battle between the ‘Slimepit’ and the ‘Baboon Enclosure.’
    Bring it on.

  1. 22
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    [...] « Atheism is not enough (pt 2) [...]

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