Disjointed musings from the sidelines of atheism’s internal culture wars

“The starting-point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is and is ‘knowing thyself’ as a product of the historical processes to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory. [T]herefore, it is imperative at the outset to compile such an inventory.

– Antonio Gramsci

I can’t decide if my presence on this network makes me part of any kind of movement. I liked reading things on FTB. I asked if I could blog here. They said yes. I’ve written only a bit about religion/atheism and, when doing so, it has mostly been about the lulz involved with Christianity, which is ever a rich vein to mine.

For most of my life, I can’t say that I’ve ever felt like I’ve belonged to any group or movement. I view this as a consequence of my inherent discomfort of being around large amounts of people. For atheism in particular, I’ve never been to a convention, never been part of a group, and have never been one to seek debate or argue publicly about it on social media. At most, I’ve surrounded myself with friends who happen to be irreligious, none of whom are in any way part of a larger movement.

I wouldn’t even say I ever had a “new atheist phase,” at least in the pejorative sense. In the mid 2000’s I read Dawkins and Harris. They were fine – at least most of The God Delusion and the first and last parts of The End of Faith. I had already been agnostic since the late 90’s, and I was receptive to their critiques of religion. Nevertheless, I had long known about much of what they wrote, though their abilities to provide cogent critiques far surpassed my own. But it was nothing earth shattering to me – by the time I read them I had long considered religion to be a metaphorical house of cards which is easily dispersed with the merest breeze.

It was nice and interesting that atheism became more prominent during that time-period. But, again, at no point did I ever consider myself to be a New Atheist, a term I associated with a particularly arrogant and in-your-face brand of atheism. That was never my thing – I’ve always skewed more towards self-loathing than arrogance, which I think made me a bit less susceptible to becoming an anti-religious evangelist. To me religion was always personal, and I had no interest in persuading others to adopt my point of view. However, I’ve never really had a problem outing myself as an atheist.

***

Backing up a bit – before the rise of the New Atheists, I rejected the religion in which I was brought up. In rejecting Catholicism and their God, a process commenced where I questioned other powerful things – after all, if the most powerful entity imaginable was little more than a boring fairytale in a boring book, what else was utter bullshit?

To me, it followed that other powerful ideas and entities were worthy of skepticism. Culture, nation-states, capitalism, civilization – all were deserving of scrutiny. And all have in common the fact that, like all the gods ever hypothesized, they are socially constructed and therefore eminently fallible, both in theory and practice. These considerations led to my belief that our world is one of unequal access to opportunities to both meet basic needs and flourish. With every person confined to one life – and no paradisiacal afterlife waiting for us upon death – it is unconscionable that so many, through little to no fault of their own, have numoerous odds stacked against them to merely exist, much less flourish. I think this best describes the base of my worldview from which the rest of my beliefs/opinions flow. I credit atheism with playing a foundational role in this.

Of course, many object to this line of thinking. To them, how “good” one’s life is is a result of the consequences of their actions – success or failure is relatively independent of social and environmental circumstances. This provides justification for systemic disadvantages (if they are even recognized at all) while at the same time allowing for self-congratulation for whatever success one achieves. For such people that are nonbelievers, their non-belief is grafted onto their pre-existing, or developing biases. Here, atheism is weaponized to war against and belittle opponents, to reinforce existing hierarchies, and to blame the unfortunate for their struggles – all under the guise of their superior reasoning and logic which spreads from their disavowal of non-natural phenomena.

I guess I just don’t fully get atheists who prostrate themselves to the powerful. They have cast aside deities who would be content to torture them for eternity, but exhibit little interest in scrutinizing earthly authorities and hierarchies. The broad reason is easy to see. Many of them have, or desperately want power and privilege. It is then in their self-interest not to dig too deep into how various distinct and overlapping power structures might reify, systemize and reproduce oppression – it’s much easier to place responsibility squarely on the shoulder of those that struggle within these power structures.

I understand selfishness. I understand an inability or unwillingness to cultivate empathy for the less fortunate. But I scorn both – especially when they’re used in the service of upholding the status quo under which they benefit.

***

Of course, I don’t expect everyone to come to the same conclusions as I. The intellectual path one takes using atheism as a starting point can lead to many ends. And much of the time, one’s starting point isn’t necessarily even atheism-adjacent. But it’s pretty depressing that the popularity of reactionary atheism appears to be so ascendant.

I often wonder what the neutral observer thinks of when they think of atheism. With my family and coworkers in mind, I would bet a lot of money that precisely none of them have ever heard of Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or Mythcon (funny, since the latter occurs in the state in which I reside). And I think that generally holds true among the general populace. At a shopping mall, sporting event, or fast food restaurant, most know nothing of the battle for the soul of atheism.

Perhaps they know Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye, though I’m not sure how much nonbelief is associated with them. Who they might know, though, are outspoken, shitty atheists like Bill Maher and Ricky Gervais. The thought of those two coming to the front of the average person’s mind when the term atheist is brought up makes me cringe.

***

I see religion as one of the “traces” described by Gramsci that is deposited into the recesses of our psyches. Its size and intensity necessarily varies from person to person, family to family, and culture to culture, but it is only one of the infinity. While atheists of all stripes excise religion’s metaphysical components, there are varying amounts of its framework left behind. These shards can all too easily be reorganized into a toxic brew of human supremacy, bigotry of all flavors, slavish obedience to authority, and magical thinking (not that religion is necessarily the origin of any of these).

Again, it’s not that I think everyone should think like me or arrive to the same conclusions as I, but I don’t think the SQW/Alt-right atheists really put in the work to adequately examine their inventory. Or, if I’m being more charitable than I should be, I suppose they do and I guess I just don’t agree with the conclusions that justify their beliefs.

I only have so much time in this world. With an ocean of information that is continuously increasing exponentially, it would be impossible to examine each and every point of view on atheism or any topic for that matter – even those that touch on issues I care about. I recoil at adding Fox News, or Info Wars, or Breitbart to my daily information consumption. The thought of slogging through Enlightenment Now makes me ill. I look at Twitter wars and am unable to comprehend how arguing on it is in any way worthy of time – and marvel at how extraordinarily complicated topics can be argued 280 characters at a time.

Or, restricting this solely to the Atheism Wars. Am I going to spend hours watching the various garbage YouTubers? Or listening to Sam Harris’s podcast? The answer is no, but it is a conclusion I’ve reached because of desire. I think about the ills of residing in my own echo chamber, but am too selfish to really venture too far outside it. For justification, I rationalize that most of the media I consume contains written or unwritten ideas that I object to – but the specific items listed in this and the prior paragraph are too much.

Life’s too fucking short and I don’t wish to waste large chunks of it on the Sisyphean task of confronting ideas I’ve long since decided are misguided, wrong or abhorrent (at least in terms of religion and the reactionary wing of atheism – there are, of course, other things I’m more interested in thinking and writing about ad nauseum). But such is the world we live in where it is apparently still necessary to have discussions about things like race science, Confederate monuments, and whether or not trans people should be able to live how they wish (the answers are, respectively: it’s bad and wrong, tear them down, and of course).

All of which brings me back to my presence here. I’m glad the fine folks at FtB put in so much time and effort combating the rot in atheism. It is a large reason I’ve been a longtime reader. But I’m admittedly too selfish to join in and will most likely continue to leave the heavy lifting to others. I don’t know to what extent it matters, but I think atheism is a good enough thing (due to the omnipresence of religion and its ill effects) that the task of constantly flushing the turds down the toilet is eminently admirable and worthwhile.

The people in ICE are scum

A month ago, White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said that children of parents illegally entering the US would be “put into foster care or whatever.” It’s almost certain he neither knows nor cares what foster care even entails for children who are actual citizens, and the trauma involved. To me, out of all the horrible things said by members of the Trump White House, this is one of the more reprehensible. That someone could be so cavalier in the face of unimaginable suffering is the sign of someone who should be cast out of whatever society he happens to reside in. But ours is one that rewards such inhumanity.

Just what “whatever” referred to remained uninvestigated at the time. But now we know that one of the forms it can take is separating families and putting children in cages.

So Kelly is scum. And so is everyone that does any kind of work for this multifaceted, grotesque leviathan, from administrators in cubicles to the jailers – or to put another way, from those giving orders to those following them:

The desperate sobbing of 10 Central American children, separated from their parents one day last week by immigration authorities at the border, makes for excruciating listening. Many of them sound like they’re crying so hard, they can barely breathe. They scream “Mami” and “Papá” over and over again, as if those are the only words they know.

The baritone voice of a Border Patrol agent booms above the crying. “Well, we have an orchestra here,” he jokes. “What’s missing is a conductor.”

A few weeks ago, Trump correctly pointed out that a viral photo of children in cages was actually taken during the Obama administration. So it’s not like this is exactly new:

The U.S. government operates hundreds of immigration detention centers — generally, extensions to or repurposed prisons — to hold non-citizens in the deportation proceedings. But a policy decision by the Obama administration to put newly arrived Central American refugees on the fast-track for deportation rather than on a path for asylum protection has filled these centers to the brim, creating pressure to deport individuals as quickly as possible and to build even more of these human warehouses. But as more and more refugees arrived with young children in tow, the administration realized that detaining kids in prisons would put them in violation of established legal standards.

So in the summer of 2014 the Obama administration began its program of “family detention” in Artesia, New Mexico. The Department of Homeland Security’s detention and deportation apparatus, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), converted a federal agent training facility into a secured unit to hold, process and deport hundreds of Central American mothers and their children. “Family,” as defined by DHS, did not include fathers, husbands or adult brothers who were forcibly separated from their children, spouses, and sisters and detained in “regular” detention facilities elsewhere. The administration argued that the “camp” was not a “prison,” and, therefore, could be used to confine the otherwise un-confineable children. The government had managed to figure out how to account for their human spillover now that they had run out of detention cells.

They had successfully built “baby jail.

The facility was constructed and operated with no public oversight for several weeks (a black hole period during which an unknown number of families were deported) before a few public-interest immigration lawyers got word of what was going on. The advocates described arriving to a scene of utter despair: refugees caged in trailers, their movement restricted, denied adequate food, and pressured by immigration officials to sign deportation orders even though they had the legal right to seek asylum protection. In a November 2014 statement, DHS maintained that, “ICE ensures that these residential centers operate in an open environment, which includes medical care, play rooms, social workers, educational services, and access to legal counsel.”

The subtext of the DHS statement was that in constructing a facility hours away from the nearest large city, let alone major media market, it was not very feasible for anyone to investigate the validity of their claims or suggest otherwise.

Trump held up a mirror to mainstream liberals – what their reactions were I do not know. This very obviously transcends centrist Republican/Democrat ideologies, and points to something far deeper.

As Crip Dyke noted, this is exactly who we are, and this is who we’ve always been.

RIP Anthony Bourdain

Content Warning: suicide.

I was dicking around on my phone before showering last Friday when a news pop up alerted me to Anthony Bourdain’s passing. At that point I knew roughly two things about him: he was some kind of bad-boy chef on cooking/traveling reality shows, and he said the following about Henry Kissinger:

Once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. You will never again be able to open a newspaper and read about that treacherous, prevaricating, murderous scumbag sitting down for a nice chat with Charlie Rose or attending some black-tie affair for a new glossy magazine without choking. Witness what Henry did in Cambodia – the fruits of his genius for statesmanship – and you will never understand why he’s not sitting in the dock at The Hague next to Milošević.

This was in 2001. The quote was unearthed this year, went viral and, once it caught his attention, Bourdain refused to back off statements made so long ago:

As someone who thinks things like this about any number of US war criminals, I thought this pretty awesome.

In regards to the second thing I knew about him – his “bad-boy image – it seems he had recently done a little introspection and critiqued the macho culture he participated in:

To the extent which my work in Kitchen Confidential celebrated or prolonged a culture that allowed the kind of grotesque behaviors we’re hearing about all too frequently is something I think about daily, with real remorse.

(I should note I have no idea how his specific behaviors manifested within our toxic patriarchy and how much he contributed to it)

Up until this weekend, I had no grasp of the extent of his popularity. Friends and acquaintances of mine, writers, bloggers, journalists, athletes, comedians, and people from all across the political spectrum expressed their sadness at his passing. Even America’s beloved president was shockingly able to muster a semblance of humanity by not saying terrible things about Bourdain, which is hilarious because he had “utter and complete contempt” for the dear leader, and joked about wanting to serve him hemlock.

***

Had he not died by suicide, I’m not sure this would’ve affected me as much as it has, and I wouldn’t have written anything about it. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a morbid interest in suicide. That’s more or less because, at several points in my life but thankfully not in the recent past, I’ve wanted to die, or wanted to hurt myself. The former was a distinction I made between wanting to actually kill myself and merely not wanting to live or not caring if I died. This all feels really weird to actually write.

What had always kept me from walking further down that path was a combination of what I perceived as a lack of courage to go through with it and knowing what it would do to the people who loved and cared about me (apologies if anyone is offended by seeing suicide discussed in terms of courage – in my case it’s just a recounting of how I felt when I was younger). I don’t know if any of this necessarily counts as being suicidal, but it is suicide-adjacent.

For me, underlying everything it all was (and sometimes still is) a lack of self-esteem and outright self-hatred. This has been more difficult to banish. That sentiment is liable, at any time, to bubble to the surface and spew its noxious fumes all over my psyche. Even now, there’s a small voice in my head saying “why the fuck would anyone want to read anything you have to say?” (this is far from the first time; the answer is usually “I don’t know, fuck off.”)

It’s incredibly irresponsible for me to sit here and speculate about the specifics of why someone I’ve never met chose to end their life. But with the amount of Bourdain-related media I’ve recently consumed, I can’t help but highlight part of an episode of Parts Unknown from 2016. In it, he went to a psychotherapist, because he “need[ed] somebody to talk to”:

Bourdain admitted to his therapist that he felt like “a freak,” further explaining that he felt isolated. “I communicate for a living, but I’m terrible with communicating with people I care about,” he said. “I’m good with my daughter. An eight-year-old is about my level of communication skills, so that works out. But beyond, that I’m really terrible.”

[…]

Bourdain also revealed to his Argentinian therapist that he believed the likelihood of him having Narcissistic Personality Disorder was high. “I tell stories for a living. I write books. I make television,” he said. “A reasonable person does not believe that you are so interesting that people will watch you on television.

***

This past rainy weekend, my wife and I watched a lot of Parts Unknown. Normally I have a reflexive antipathy to all reality shows, but I found it pretty enjoyable. Though, in light of the circumstances of that led to us having an interest in watching, it was hard not to watch without a sense of melancholy.

His desire to show Western audiences places that they’ve never thought about, and in many cases couldn’t place on a map, was extremely admirable and, I would argue, important. He displayed a preternatural ability to both empathize with and humanize people featured on the show. It’s not surprising that so many with roots in the places he visited were affected by the news of his passing:

In our hyper-connected, late capitalist hellscape where so many have neither the desire nor the disposition to regard the Other as worthy of any modicum of compassion, the loss of a person who had ample amounts of it and went to the trouble of sharing it on such a massive scale is pretty fucking sad.

Not sure how else to end this except to say that The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours/day at 1-800-273-8255.