“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.