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Jan 24 2012

Fighting Like With Like: The Homeopathic Approach To Debating Theists

 

Zinnia Jones, a very intelligent, very eloquent and very badass fellow internet atheist and advocate for LGBT rights, has a new video up, “Let’s Stop Appropriating Jesus”, in which she argues against the common tactic, when debating or addressing Christians, to point out that their behaviour (bigotry, cruelty, greed, whatever) is allegedly in contradiction with the actual example of Christ.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3CUjI5L3_eQ

The video seems to be inspired by a fantastic post on The Distant Panic, a blog run by Washington D.C. trans-rights activist Sadie Vashti, in which she writes a Holiday letter to her biological mother, calling her out on the immense cruelty and negligence with which she treated her daughter. In the letter, Vashti mentions that her own lifestyle isn’t unlike that of Christ… she lives in a collective home, works hard for the poor and vulnerable, and most of her friends are homeless, exiled, involved in sex work, and so on: the proverbial meek. It’s a beautiful and moving work of writing.

But the problem Zinnia illustrates is that when we make these comparisons or analogies, the Christ we’re imagining (the charitable, compassionate, humble, forgiving Christ. The Christ who was a friend of the poor and the meek… and of sex workers) is not the same figure that is worshiped, admired and beloved by the people we’re addressing. They may effectively worship a different man entirely… one defined by purity, chastity, resistance to temptation, righteous anger towards sin and immorality and the devil, the divine vengeance He will bring in the second coming, moral perfection, standing high above the detestable sins of mankind.

When we reference our image of Christ, hoping that those we address will perhaps do a better job of emulating him, are we in danger of encouraging exactly the religious mentalities (or bigotry, hatred, moral judgment, etc.) we sough to mitigate? Is there perhaps an implicit danger in any sort of worship or idolization of a religious figure or leader, regardless of the degree to which that figure may sometimes be exemplary of an ethical standard we aspire towards? After all, no one, not even Christ, is truly perfect or consistent, and when we engage in worship we come to regard the imperfections as perfections. We turn off our capacity to question, or understand human complexities.

I’m sure most of us have all, at some point in our lives, had the experience of being so in love with someone, or so admired them, we failed to realize how horribly they were treating us.

There’s a lefty activist saying I’ve always loved: “You can’t tear down the master’s house with the master’s tools.” It implies that in order to create a better society, we can’t simply adopt the same practices, rhetoric, tactics or concepts of the old society in order to do so, and we need to be wary that the ends do not justify the means. The means themselves require a great deal of consideration. For instance, if you wish to end fascism and collective mob mentalities, forming a new collective party with a new mass identity is not going to work. You’ll simply swap out the thing you were fighting with a replacement that is only superficially distinct. How many dictatorships have been The People’s Republic Of X? Instead, the path may best lie with creating new forms, new language, new concepts, new ideas, new ways of doing and being and acting.

This was a very important concept to me for a very long time. I went to an extremely left-wing college where I mainly studied poetry and linguistics. Along with being neck-deep in bumper stickers, sloganeering posters, Che Guevara t-shirts and protest-of-the-week, I was also routinely subjected to some of the worst “damn the man” poetry you could possibly imagine. In response, I developed a personal philosophy of wanting to distance myself from the forms and style and rhetoric of propaganda as much as I possibly could, to forcefully reject all didactic art or media, anything that stopped you from thinking, told you what to think, or tried to appeal to your emotions or intuitions to convert you to the cause (rather than, say, presenting the actual substance of their ideas).

I gave up on political agit-prop poetry, I tore down the “Not My President” posters, and I threw out my Dead Kennedys albums (though I maintained an “it’s complicated” relationship with The Clash). I chose to abandon the “master’s tools” and assume a wholly different praxis and poetics. My aim was to be non-didactic, non-sloganeering… to go as far from bumper sticker as I possibly could. Instead of wanting to change people’s minds to my side through whatever means were available, I instead chose to focus on practicing the change in mind I envisioned, encouraging others to consider the questions and complications, and paying constant attention to the means I chose. To me, the means and the ends became one and the same. Distinctions between “content” and “form” seemed secondary, strange, missing-the-point.

The bumper stickers themselves I saw as a problem, no matter whether I agreed with their message or not. I found it disturbing to simplify like that, to reduce complex social issues to catchy little one-liners, to purchase and trade political ideologies as a badge of identity, and most of all I was disturbed by how people’s beliefs were being determined by the catchiness of the concepts, by how superficially appealing a statement was, often a simple matter of whether or not it fit into the image of self they were constructing and presenting. I saw that as far more emblematic of the problems with our culture and society than whatsoever the bumper stickers happened to be addressing (“coexist”, “my karma ran over your dogma”, “Kerry/Edwards 2004″, “free Tibet”).

Case in point: why free Tibet? Why do I want to support a deposed religious theocrat’s desire to reclaim his former country, which under his rule was little to no better off in terms of human rights than under the rule of China? Why should I trust that Tibet would be better off under a return to religious rule? Maybe it would, sure. I’m certainly open to considering the case. But the point is that no one is really asking. They just see the bumper sticker, and: “Tibet is cool. I read some of that Dalai Llama guy’s quotes before. He seems alright. Sure, sign me up, dude!”

My studies of linguistics of course played into all this, and through them I further began to believe in the importance of the form a message takes. That how you say something carries at least as much weight as what you happen to be saying. Between the various aspects of the interdisciplinary education I was pursuing, my whole being was poured, during those years, into never, ever taking the form for granted. To never believe that there’s only one way of saying something, or only one right way. To not accept the existence of “simple” or “basic” language, to never allow myself to ignore the implications. To never assume that there is a content or message that’s inextricable from it’s presentation and form, or that the means through which one conveys a message are ever secondary.

I observed over and over again the “left” and “right” engaging in precisely the same tactics of emotional manipulation. Go ahead and compare the average e-mail sent to potential supporters from moveon.org or Human Rights Watch to one sent by the GOP or Christian pro-life organizations. Compare the average posters or billboards or bumper stickers of any two points on a given political spectrum.

This became a huge touchstone in my budding skepticism. I knew that in every facet of our culture and media there were people engaging in the same strategies of manipulation and deliberately trying to keep people from actively thinking about a given issue, prioritizing instead only that that person agrees with them, one way or the other. I knew that in order to intellectually survive, and maintain any semblance of my own free thinking, I had to be constantly on guard and aware of those tactics. And for a long while I maintained my resolve to dedicate myself to removing myself from that system and not engaging in those didactic strategies.

Yet somehow, here I find myself an activist, an advocate, and writing in prose, of all things. Didactic, non-fiction prose. Life is a funny thing.

*sigh*

But Zinnia’s video has me thinking about all of this again, our tactics and rhetoric and what they mean, what they imply… though also thinking about in a new light. Whereas before this was something I considered in terms of political engagement and poetics, I hadn’t yet considered them in terms of the atheist movement, or individual and collective efforts to guide our cultural in a more secular (or at least religiously tolerant) direction. This is largely because back then my atheism and skepticism weren’t terribly high on my personal priorities. But this is something I now feel is very much worth discussing…. the degree to which we may be adopting some of the structures, linguistic or conceptual, that have allowed theism to exist, thrive and propagate. And that in so adopting these tactics we’re not only giving them a tacit approval, but also perhaps encouraging and perpetuating them.

We’ve all heard the “atheism is just another religion” trope, and I disregard it for the same reasons that most do (chiefly that it’s false… atheism is emphatically NOT just another religion), but perhaps there’s something there worth bearing in mind, a cautionary suggestion; perhaps certain particular atheist tactics or rhetoric do in fact replicate some of the mentalities that allow religion to exist or be entrenched. And perhaps we need to be very careful about that.

I recall a recent suggestion floating around that a statue or memorial should be built in honour of Christopher Hitchens. That set my hairs on end. When Hitchens passed away, I was well and truly happy to see  how the atheist community, as a whole, were perfectly willing to offer genuine respect to his memory and honour his brilliance and achievements while also bearing in mind his flaws, vices and mistakes. We could do both. He was a hero to many of us, but we also knew he was very human, and as we should with any human being, we recognized both greatness and weakness in him. Those weren’t mutually incompatible memories. We atheists don’t regard our leaders as infallible supermen who are above critique and whose every word is law. We hold them to the same standards of criticism and doubt we hold anyone. We can revere and question. I was deeply impressed by that.

But only a couple short weeks later, and I began to notice the antithesis… the possibility that some people did indeed revere him as something of a God or Saint, and wished to erect some kind of permanent idol or monument to him. Something to grant him an immortality, in the dodgiest way I could imagine. A big hunk of rock defaced by an individual identity. Here were the same religious impulses, so much a part of us, showing themselves again, amongst atheists. I don’t mean to sound judgmental. I’m sure the person who suggested it was only doing so out of genuine respect for Hitchens. And those religious impulses are, as I said, a part of us, a part of being human. But in atheism, I feel we owe it to ourselves to embody a different manner of thinking, a different means of reverence. To offer, as always, alternatives to religiosity, such as a reverence aware of impermanence, aware of human fallibility, aware that no one ever gets it quite right… aware that we make mistakes, aware that no individual deserves a statue or needs one, aware that our human achievements are collective, and that individual human beings die.

Perhaps we need to take our focus primarily in the direction of offering alternative models of thought and socio-cultural praxis. Doing our best to demonstrate those alternatives to be as kickass as we know them to be. There are many sort of obvious, community-based ones… hosting social events, doing charity work, producing art, doing our best to make our community and movement diverse and welcoming, all the many things necessary to demonstrate that conversion to atheism does not require any kind of sacrifice, and that atheism is not just a bunch of angry, bitter, heartless white guys arguing on the internet. But beyond that we can demonstrate ourselves as an alternative through our actual modes of debate and engagement.

For instance, instead of trying to convince people to be more like the image of Christ we hold in esteem, or reprimand them for their failure to live up to that, we can point to the actual contradictions and inconsistencies in the figure of Christ. How no matter which version of Him you hold to be ideal, there will be moments where He fell short of that. Instead of citing mythology, or appealing to traditions and constitutions, instead of pithy slogans and quotables from Great People™, emotionally manipulative billboards and rhetoric, ad hominen and argument from authority, instead of all that we can do what we do best: think, discuss, question, and encourage others to do the same. We can abandon the forms of that have allowed theism to stay on top of the heap for so long, and instead adopt new ones. Create, through our actions, the world that we’d prefer. A world built on genuine, sincere, free, critical thought. Actual discussion and dialogue. Evidence and questions.

Perhaps we can adopt new structures of language entirely. Imagine an atheist or skeptic movement based not on didactic lectures or win/lose debates, but instead on a poetics of uncertainty, of fluid questions and possibilities, doubts and theories… a logopoesis suggesting the beauty and infinite possibility of human thought, science and curiosity, rather than the dusty, stubborn, rigid certainties of  faith. Something as far from a sermon as we could make it.

I can think of no circumstance where the end goal of creating a more secular world justify the means of abandoning thought, inquiry, discourse, doubt and the rest of the values that led me here. Atheism achieved through the same modes of thought as religion is hardly better to me than the religion was. Unless we are creating a society where people aren’t devoting themselves to emulating their worshiped divinities (and other structures of religious belief), we aren’t effecting any meaningful change. Let’s stop trying to use the tools of theism to take apart theism. Even if does produce a more successful atheist movement, it will nonetheless be a movement I want nothing to do with.

Ours needs to be a revolution of process and revolution of thought. Not simply doing whatever it takes to change how many people tick our little box on the “religion” section of a census form. Ours needs to be a movement that is about more than superficial change. I honestly don’t care how many people identify as atheist. What I care about is how many people take the time to truly and sincerely consider the questions, and what they imply.

15 comments

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  1. 1
    Stevarious

    I’ve been subscribed to ZJ for a very long time. ZJ has a very unusual perspective on a lot of subjects that I may not always completely agree with but has always made me think.

    Anyway, more to the point: I totally agree this time. It’s not about whether or not the fundies are actually living up to the example of their jesus. It’s about whether or not jesus is worth living up to. (The answer is of course no – we can do way better than jesus.)

  2. 2
    Xanthë, Amy of my threads

    Natalie, I think you need to space your posts out a little more: the previous thread is taking all the love from this one! There are some great points in here.

    I think ZJ has nailed one less-than-wholly-successful strategy that atheists employ when criticising religion: it is all too easy for the theist (a Christian in this case) to not recognise their own religious practice embodying the general features that are being pointed out. My own close family members would reflexively say “My religion isn’t like that”, simply because wishy-washy “God is love” Anglicanism bears no relationship to the fire and brimstone “God hates fags” Westboro cult: yet both cherry-pick the Old and New Testaments, one to find the pacific sayings of Jesus, the other to find the apocalyptic, and turn them to their own ends. Critics of religion may cut off one of the heads of Cerberus, but the believer will happily think that the particular aspect they prefer to worship has been left untouched and thus the criticism missed its mark. What is pernicious in this case is that religion allows the believer to rest in an intolerant cocoon of what is supposedly moral, and where cutting off all ties to their biological daughter becomes ethically right because of the sayings of a 2,000-year-old book.

    The statue for Hitchens doesn’t worry me: we memorialise people because we want to have something more permanent than the frail human frame, and Hitchens was luckier than most of the people in recorded history for having 20th and 21st century technologies to capture and disseminate his thoughts and words. If someone wants to put up a bronze somewhere, that’s fine too, but I think the writing (and videos) will be the greater legacy. I very much doubt such a statue would become the target of veneration – depressingly, vandalism by people offended by his views seems more likely – and an honest depiction of the man must take note of his flaws as well as his strengths. Make it a statue of cranky-looking, acerbic Hitchens clutching a pen in one hand and a glass of Black Label in the other.

    I am tantalised by your idea of discussions in atheism or skepticism fluidly embracing the poetry and ambiguity of language: and then I look elsewhere to see the uphill battles to get some fellow human beings to use their brains rationally in the first place, and sadly conclude such rarefied climes where debaters mercurially weave ideas without rancor and ego are unlikely to ever become the norm. Orthogonally to that idea, I also think the previous thread also demonstrates that some discussions are too innately tied to the lives of people to be discussed without invoking passions and emotions; on some subjects this rises to the level of offensiveness when reasonable ideas are held to quite unreasonable levels of skepticism.

    1. 2.1
      Natalie Reed

      Well this week is going to be a bit post-heavy, on account of trying to catch up with my own brain… :p

      But next week I’ll probably down-shift. Usual schedule will likely be three full-length essays a week, on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, with shorter posts on Tuesday and Thursday, and occasionally in the afternoons, which are likely to be a bit more topical, associated with particular news items and links, occasionally kind of meta (like “here’s my comment policy”), and occasionally a bit silly or just-for-fun. After a little while, I plan to start incorporating comics, drawings, stories and poems for Sundays.

      I think there’s an interesting sort of duality to skepticism that I feel isn’t quite discussed enough…there’s the veneration of the rational, and of reason, but there’s also the aspect that focuses on accepting and understanding human irrationality. The latter is far more interesting to me. That’s sort of what motivates my ideas of adopting a radical form of language, rhetoric, tactics or poetics… to abandon the pretense of Knowing (and of faith) entirely, in favour of foregrounding the Questioning, Thinking, the pursuit of knowing. To encourage free and critical thought, and provide the path to the answers (and good questions!), rather than simply stating or presenting the position we’d like people to adopt. Do you know what I mean?

      I have no idea how we’d get there, towards establishing that as a model for our movement (or model or a particular practice / approach within the movement)… but it’s something I’d love to work towards and think about.

  3. 3
    Ace of Sevens

    I feel your pain. I have friends of Facebook who keep passing stuff like this around:

    http://www.thepetitionsite.com/7/new-hampshire-dont-free-men-to-hit-women/

    It says that a bill makes it easier to violate restraining orders for domestic violence. Apparently,we are supposed to think domestic violence is bad, so the bill is bad, then sign the petition and feel like we did something.

    I had to poke around Google for a while to find out what it does is amend the law to require either an arrest warrant to arrest people accused of violating restraining orders (or the general probable cause reasons like police witnessing the violation). What I haven’t found is anything along the lines “This is why the law is allegedly necessary and here is what is wrong with that reasoning or how the harm outweighs the good.”

    Or, I keep getting invitations to join Occupy protests. I support them in theory, but generally, the facts in their explanation of what they are protesting are half wrong, at best.

    Snopes is a great resource, but I don’t have time to research everything I hear about and I’ve despaired about helping any kind of political group because all the local ones seem to go off half-informed as a general rule.

  4. 4
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Excellent. Very, very excellent piece you have written here.

    My one small possible quibble is that, in the spirit of the rest of your reasoning, you be careful about identifying “our revolution, our movement”.

    1. 4.1
      Natalie Reed

      Which would perhaps be an example of my using the exact same problematically manipulative rhetoric I was describing, eh? ;)

  5. 5
    starskeptic

    Excellent video.

  6. 6
    Movius

    During the course of my adult life, I slowly became more and more pissed off with many ‘activists’, with whom I generally agree, and their complete failure and often complete lack of interest in affecting actual change. Someone who supported good policy X also supported abominable policy y. Those that were in position to change laws/policies said they were trying to change minds, those who needed to change minds did the opposite. Everybody seemed to be taking their set of beliefs as a package offer that couldn’t be split up. and so on….

    Eventually I realised that I was wasting a lot of energy angrily ranting (usually internally) at people I generally agreed with instead of those who were actually causing the problem. I don’t think I’ve really toned down my anger since, just developed a healthier sense of apathy towards most debates. I don’t think that would be much help if practiced on a wide scale though ;).

    I think the one positive to come out of it was that I fet it proper to take an actual interest in forming my own opinions on all important matters, rather than just being seen to have the correct opinion. I think skepticism is important here to help make sure you aren’t just practicing confirmation bias and to know when you likely aren’t as informed as the experts in the area (or to spook those very rare occasions where you are.)

    On the subject of the homeopathic Jesus. To be fair, you could probably find a Jesus in the bible (or the apocrypha) that agrees with everything you believe in. Of course that would require ignoring the 99 other contradicting Jesus’s. and which Jesus do you want? Jesus the son of god? Jesus the man? Jesus the revolutionary? Jesus the king of the Jews? Jesus the anti-Jew? Marcion’s Judaism free Jesus? Jesus the gnostic redeemer? Jesus the good god in opposition to the bad god? “Jesus the son of the father” (ie Barabbas) who escaped crucifixion? Jesus who sells his twin into slavery? The trans-friendly but incredibly sexist Jesus who turns Mary into a man so that her opinions may count? and other Jesi so numerous that the entire world could not contain them.

    I say unto you, it is best to leave Jesus the fictional character out of real world affairs.

    I like Zinnea Jones’ videos, she reminds me of a Gender Switched version of Sir Millard Mulch.

    ps. It is good to see you’ve found a new place to write.

  7. 7
    Anders

    I’m a little troubled by the Leftist saying. “You can’t tear down the Master’s House with the Master’s Tools.” Sometimes the tools are constructed the way they are because that’s what’s most effective. Surely you wouldn’t advocate going on all fours because the Master prefers a bipedal stance? Humans just aren’t suited for four-feet walking…

    What we need to do, it seems to me, is to analyze and find out what tools are likely to lead to a new castle and what tools we necessary to create any kind of structure.

    1. 7.1
      Leo Buzalsky

      Good point. If you don’t use the master’s tools, what are you left with that is useful? Well, Natalie’s idea seems to be to create new tools, but would it be worth creating new tools if they are not very effective? Honestly, sometimes those tools that use emotional manipulation also get people to think. I hear there is a billboard going up in Colorado Springs that reads “God is an imaginary friend.” It sounds like that is already upsetting (emotion) people, and it’s not even up yet. But hopefully it gets people to think. Perhaps the thing with emotional manuipulation is trying to not manipulate the wrong emotions. For example, don’t guilt trip people into something (like, “Jesus died for YOU!”). Don’t use shock imagery (pro-lifers like to use pics of aborted fetuses; didn’t moveon.org have a commerical of an old lady in a wheelchair being pushed of a cliff?). ‘Cuz the thing is, if you don’t stir up people’s emotions, you won’t get a response out of them (nor will they think). If, for example, people aren’t passionate (an emotion) about civil rights issues, then they won’t work toward civil rights issues. So, you can’t just avoid emotions altogether. I think the challenge is finding balance — just enough to motivate people but not too much to make them dogmatic (definitely agree there are atheists who treat Hitchens as being more perfect than he was). It has to be “just right,” which is not committing the Goldielocks fallacy, because I believe there is some actual middle to acheive (and likely that “middle” differs from person to person, adding to the challenge).
      In short, I guess I’d like to ask Natalie how she expects people to think without sparking up some sort of emotional response.

      1. Natalie Reed

        The goal isn’t eliminating emotional responses. That would be crazy and hopeless. The goal is encouraging thought rather than simply aiming for the emotional response to trump someone’s thought and sway them to your side.

        1. Anders

          I think what we want to produce is a system of dialectics (in the Socratic sense – a discussion where we strive to come closer to what is actually true) and not a system of eristics, a debate where the only important thing is to win (see also political debates or most Internet debates). And we should use whatever tools favor dialectics over eristics. But what tools are those?

  8. 8
    Landon

    Just discovered your blog; I love it! Great post. I went through my own sloganeering phase and passed out of it, much as you did, but I never consciously examined or explicitly articulated my reasons for leaving behind that particular way of communicating. Thank you for crystallizing this whole issue quite eloquently! It’s been enlightening!

  9. 9
    Andrew T

    I’m curious about your relationship to The Clash; I can understand getting rid of Dead Kennedys/Pistols/etc., but The Clash were ALL ABOUT critical thinking and not getting caught up in the sloganeering, especially within lefty communities; songs like All The Young Punks and (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais, especially, espouse that. And they’re my favorite, so I’m slightly biased.

    Also, on the bumper sticker point, spot the hell on. I hate bumper stickers with a burning passion. Not only do they encourage uninformed discourse, as you discussed, but the primary place they’re seen is on the road, driving, where no one can respond to them, thus allowing the person with the bumper stickers to go merrily on their way without ever really worrying about being challenged. Ideas should be about challenge, not dogma.

  10. 10
    freemage

    I think it’s situational.

    If I’m trying to make a specifically skeptical or atheist point, then no, WWJD? isn’t going to be effective. And likewise, asking WWJD?, for someone who thinks Jesus would ride in with a flaming sword and toss his wavy locks over his pale shoulders before executing the heretics and sodomites, well, I’m not going to get very far.

    But if I’m addressing an issue in a public forum, I may not be trying to convert the person I’m replying to; I’m more likely trying to influence fence-sitters and casual observers. In that scenario, a WWJD?-style tactic can be useful. And sometimes I’m worried more about, say preventing some awful piece of legislation that would make it harder for women to get contraceptives than I am about whether or not I can get liberal Episcopalians to just call it a myth and be done with it, already.

  1. 11
    God Does Not Love Trans People | Sincerely, Natalie Reed

    [...] I’ve talked before about how adopting the language of religious dogma in order to challenge it, such as asking Christians to be more like Christ bears the risk of them following that towards a different interpretation of Christ than the one we had in mind (such as the infinitely tolerant and forgiving all-loving dude on a permanent ecstasy roll), and I’ve also talked before about how even moderate and level-headed versions of religious belief help insulate and normalize the more dangerous religious believers, and how while religion doesn’t always result in harm that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Religion doesn’t really make a good person any more good, nor does it really make a good person bad, but it can definitely make a bad person a lot more dangerous, by giving them conviction, certainty, and an excuse. [...]

  2. 12
    God Does Not Love Trans People | The Transadvocate

    [...] I’ve talked before about how adopting the language of religious dogma in order to challenge it, such as asking Christians to be more like Christ bears the risk of them following that towards a different interpretation of Christ than the one we had in mind (such as the infinitely tolerant and forgiving all-loving dude on a permanent ecstasy roll), and I’ve also talked before about how even moderate and level-headed versions of religious belief help insulate and normalize the more dangerous religious believers, and how while religion doesn’t always result in harm that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Religion doesn’t really make a good person any more good, nor does it really make a good person bad, but it can definitely make a bad person a lot more dangerous, by giving them conviction, certainty, and an excuse. [...]

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