Now maybe I’m being too nicey-nice, but I think both Smalley and Myers made valid points. I used to be all “If you disagree with me, I want nothing to do with you,” but the more involved get with the atheist movement, the more I realize we’re a pretty complex group of people. We all have our blind spots, so it’s not unusual for two skeptics to look at the same piece of empirical data and come up with two completely different interpretations. For example, Smalley once said he thought Black Lives Matter protesters blocking the road was “going too far,” but Alix Jules explained to him why that wasn’t the case. At least they had that conversation so that Smalley could understand where Jules was coming from.
He’s quite right that there’s a lot of bickering and misunderstanding going on within atheism. He’s also right that a lot of it can be smoothed over with calm, rational discussion between the two who are in disagreement. I have no problem with any of that. But there are a number of things where I do disagree strongly, and I’m not going to paper those over to be popular and friendly. Here’s where I still think Smalley is dead wrong.
Petty disagreements are not killing atheism. This is the human condition. We squabble over everything. Gather a small group of people together to discuss anything, from how to share out chores in the apartment to running the country, and you’ll find arguments and jockeying for advantage and people getting snubbed and others storming out in a huff. It’s routine and to be expected. If you aren’t prepared to focus on the larger goal, and get distracted by the small stuff, you won’t be effective.
I won’t deny that people get pissed off and do horrible things like “unfriend” each other on Facebook, but to make that the big crisis in atheism when it is only the common small drama of social networking is a mistake, especially not when there are huge, substantial problems that are generating deep divides.
What is petty to you might loom large in the mind of someone else. There is a kind of arrogance to seeing two other people fight on social media and deciding that their disagreements are trivial and you, the wise social arbiter, will explain to them that they agree on 98% of everything else, so their dispute is unimportant. We all have ideas that we regard as central to our identity, and no one else gets to deny that. The fact that all human beings breathe the same air 24 hours a day, and that we all have this common requirement, does not negate the fact that I might like peas and broccoli, while you don’t, and doesn’t give me the right to declare that your preferences are unimportant and you had better just set aside your distaste and clear your plate. We share a love of oxygen, how can you not share all of my tastes with me?
Making it personal rather than public buries the disagreement. I’ve been around this rodeo too many times, and have heard this as a panacea far too often. “Don’t argue publicly, pick up the phone and call them!” No. There is a small number of people I might enjoy having a phone conversation with on a disagreement, but not many. I would especially not appreciate a phone call with the intent to forestall public expression of disagreement.
It’s also an overt attempt to convert disagreement over an idea into a personal disagreement with a person. Telling me I can resolve a disagreement by just having a quiet conversation with one person ignores the fact that maybe my concern isn’t with who said it, but that I find the whole expressed concept repugnant.
No one does what Smalley suggests! This really irritates the pragmatist in me. I am the target of a lot of hate — in fact, the comments on Smalley’s podcast are largely expressions of frustration and irritation with me — and would you be surprised to learn that none of them have called me up or even emailed me to ask what I was thinking, or to chat one-on-one about our shared humanity? Not one! They just go ahead and publicly express their disagreement without consulting me!
This is a good thing. I’m trying to imagine the nightmare world that would occur if every Youtube commenter felt a moral obligation to ring me up and have a heartfelt conversation with me before they posted their declaration that I was a cuck fag.
Sometimes, reconciliation is not a desirable goal. I do not really want to sit down over a beer with a racist or a homophobe. Nope, sometimes you just have to say “Your values are opposed to my values, and I do not want to associate with you.” I am also uninterested in accomplishing minor concessions. I’ve gone ’round and ’round with creationists, for instance, and you can sometimes get them to admit one argument is bad. Here for instance, is Creationist Ministries International’s page on creationist arguments that creationists should not use. Don’t use the “Darwin recanted on his deathbed” claim, for example; even Answers in Genesis says to avoid the “why are there still monkeys?” argument. These are tactical retreats, nothing more. They have not changed their core values at all, but are merely conceding that these few arguments are not effective in advancing their position.
So when Smalley triumphantly points out that he got a homophobe to admit that one piece of “evidence” was incorrect, I am unimpressed. Maybe if you could get one person to do that a thousand times, it would lead them to question their underlying assumptions, but I’ve yet to see it happen. I have many times gotten creationists to grudgingly give up on specific lies, but still insist that the Earth is only 6,000 years old.
One weird minor issue: a lot of the comments focus on just one thing. Myers said that that photo of Ellen riding Usain Bolt was racist! How dare he?
This is also something I’ve seen way too much of. We white people are really good at getting indignant over being called racist, but racism itself? Meh, not as important a problem. Get over it, people! We’re all racist, we all profit from racist policies and our racist history, so the least you can do is be a tiny bit conscious of the implicit (and often overt) racism we’re swimming in.
Here’s the deal. If you’re going to talk about what’s killing atheism, you better be prepared to give substantial reasons, and not fall back on a lot of decade-old debunked nonsense (the only thing he was missing is “you’re doing it for the clicks!”), and the core of your argument better not be something as superficial as “we’re not polite enough to each other”, a claim that could be made for every movement and organization in the history of humankind.
I myself have argued that atheism has serious structural problems. It’s even a highlighted quote on Conservapædia!
The atheist PZ Myers declared on September 27, 2014, “I will make a prediction, right here and now…. The number of people identifying as atheists will stagnate or even shrink…“[
So gord knows, it’s not as if I’m upset that someone has pointed out a problem in the movement. What bugs me is that the concern is so irrelevant and displaces activism to correct the real problems.
If you’re wondering about the context of that quote on Conservapædia, here’s the original full post. What I find interesting is that it’s another example of the Strategic Ellipsis, that habit of creationists of snipping out the bits of a quote that directly oppose their views.
I will make a prediction, right here and now. The number of people identifying as “nones” will grow in this country in coming years, because we’re on the right side of history, and because organized religion is happily in the process of destroying itself with regressive social attitudes, scandals, and their bizarre focus on other-worldly issues that don’t help people. The number of people identifying as atheists will stagnate or even shrink, because organized atheism is happily in the process of destroying itself with regressive social attitudes, scandals, and their bizarre focus on irrelevant metaphysical differences that don’t help people.
I can’t say that’s a bad thing. The name of atheism has been burdened with unfair and inaccurate stigma for a great many years, and we’re now drifting into an era in which atheism will be burdened with a totally fair and accurate stigma.
But don’t worry! David Smalley will make sure we’re polite and sociable about our problems, as we sink into irrelevancy.