Right and wrong

Trav Mamone listened to that debate with David Smalley, and thinks we both made good points. Of course we did! I agree with Smalley on a lot of things, even a majority of things.

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.


  1. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    First !!!
    oops, sorry, didn’t mean that, and I never do that honest, won;t happen again.
    I’m still confused about this controversy:

    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?

    maybe I’m blinded by my white privilege but the fact that she ‘shopped herself onto Usain with the cation “my ride to store” was a nod at his speed not his race. and those who say she is implying he’s a mule are the racist people, not ellen. I will support DeGenerat[oops]DeGeneris to the end, she deserves “benefit of the doubt”, donchano?
    bah humbug. get off the lawn you kids.

  2. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    double oops
    This is how I’m running errands from now on

  3. chris61 says

    Actually PZ it seems to me that you sort of proved Smalley’s point. In your first post about his post you stated he was dead wrong about everything. The two of you got together and tossed it around a bit and now you state that you and he are actually in agreement about a lot of things.

  4. says

    I don’t find the thing with DeGeneris confusing at all.

    A fair few Black people are familiar with a history of White people using Black people as beasts of burden, even taking photos of it, even after slavery. So the perception to them has a lot of awful connotation. And so some of them made comments about it on social media.

    It became a huge controversy because of DeGeneris’ defensive reaction and all the White people on social media getting in to a tizzy of the “How dare you call Ellen racist?! Bolt liked it! It’s no big deal! Stop making such a fuss!!!” Like many such controversies, it’s the massive pushback to criticism that turns it in to controversy.

  5. says

    Wrong about the stuff in his post. I assume he’s correct in his use of a fork and his ability to wipe his own ass.

    Slithey tove: really? You’ve now made the first four comments about defending Ellen Degeneres from a charge of implicit racism, and you’ve used the “she didn’t intend it that way” defense?

  6. Merlin says

    One thing I have never understood is how, “These are not important subjects.” leads to, “Therefor you should just shut up.” I mean, if you think the subject that you and another person disagree on is small and unimportant, stop defending it. This is not your hill to die on. Own that position. It clearly matters a lot to the other person, and clearly you can live with either position, so get out of the way. Unless, of course, it is merely a tactic to denigrate the other person and their ideas, while simultaneously making you appear to be above-it-all and super-cool. That couldn’t be, right? After all, we are all friends and allies in the atheist community, and friends and allies wouldn’t do that…

  7. slithey tove (twas brillig (stevem)) says

    yes, I understand. why it was wrong for her to do that. That’s why I prefaced with “blinded by my white privilege”. sharing my error is a way to reinforce that it was indeed an error. sorry.

  8. themadtapper says

    All this “if only everyone would sit down and talk” stuff sounds a little to “exalted middle” for my tastes, treating the alt-right and SJW-left as though they’re equivalent. The old “both sides are wrong, they should meet in the middle” routine. Only in this case the middle is just a place where we’re expected to ignore the actual contentious differences and revel in the oneness that comes from us all not believing in God. Yeah, no. Fuck that noise.

    As for the Ellen thing, it’s kinda hard to imagine that, in the year 2016, someone could do a mockup of a white person riding a black person and using them as a “ride to the store” and not realize that more than a few people might just think that’s racist. But even if you give the benefit of the doubt, that she was just trying to humorously compliment his speed and did not mean to give the impression of treating Bolt like an animal, the response to criticism has been all wrong. You can offend even when you don’t mean to, and the correct response is to apologize and learn from it. Reminds me of how a lot of people do not know the actual origins of the phrase “eenie meenie miney moe” (I have no idea if I even spelled those right), and all too often the response when someone is told about it’s racist origins is to plead ignorance and condemn the critic for daring to suggest they were racist. No, no, no. The correct response is “I did not know that. I apologize for the offense I cause and will endeavor to not repeat it.” Ignorance is only an excuse if you show a willingness to eliminate it. Ignorance is a gap that needs to be filled, not a shield to deflect unwanted negative attention.

  9. peggin says

    One of the main reasons I disagree with Smalley on this issue is that, for me, atheism for the sake of atheism is not that important an issue. I mean, yeah, you have to pick your issues — if some person thinks the highest tax bracket shouldn’t be more than 30% and I’m fine with it being 40%, we should probably be able to put our disagreement on that issue aside and work together. But if that same person doesn’t understand why he/she shouldn’t be allowed to have sex with someone who’s so drunk he/she can’t even remember his/her own name, I don’t care if they checked the “atheist” box on the census, I don’t want anything to do with them.

    If I have a choice of friends or fellow-activists between a pro-choice, pro-equality, pro-secularism, socially liberal Christian or an MRA atheist, I’ll pick the Christian every time.

  10. says

    I was in a relationship for several years with a guy. We disagreed on a great many issues but we stuck together because, surely, maintaining our relationship was more important than reconciling our politics? We had many, many… many polite conversations exploring each other’s views. It didn’t help. While he (or I) often managed to agree on certain positions (facts usually that one or the other had wrong), fundamentally our core beliefs were irreconcilable. Ultimately, it was tiring constantly having these conversations. It took over our relationship. It dominated it to the point that there was little else.

    I broke up with him last year after he said Syrian refugees should be left to drown in the Mediterranean. I decided there was no use arguing. If, after us being together for years, he could still say something like that, and think that was a position any decent person could ever argue for, after all our discussions, I felt there was no hope in actually reaching him and, I didn’t even care to try anymore.

    It wasn’t worth it.

  11. unclefrogy says

    It has been only in the last few years that I have upon being asked to simply state that I do not believe in god without any qualifications or obfuscation. It is not what I am it is one of the things I think I wanted to avoid the being connected with what the reputation of being an atheist is thought of as.
    I am not looking for some great leader or great teacher to be a follower of.
    It might be true probably that the organized atheism movement and the identification it may decline I doubt going forward from here that the disbelief on gods and any religion will go away. In fact if our understanding of the nature of our existence and that of the cosmos continues to grow through the advancement of science superstitious religious will hopefully fade from it’s place of center stage. I doubt that it will be replaced with an organized atheist movement however. At least that is what I hope that the principles of (liberty, equality, fraternity) become the over arching principles that are shared by all peoples on earth. and not which or if any god.
    If you can not agree to that then I judge you too be advocating the same old game of power, privilege and exploitation, domination and tyranny in other words the dark past
    uncle frogy

  12. leerudolph says

    (liberty, equality, fraternity)

    I favor changing the third of those words to “solidarity”. (Works in French too!)

    That quibble aside, I agree with your statement wholeheartedly.

  13. A. Noyd says

    themadtapper (#11)

    Ignorance is a gap that needs to be filled, not a shield to deflect unwanted negative attention.

    Most definitely. This push to be forgiving so long as someone claims to “mean well” just absolves the privileged of ever having to do the work of avoiding harm and undoing injustice. Or as MLK Jr put it:

    Whites, it must frankly be said, are not putting in a similar mass effort to reeducate themselves out of their racial ignorance. It is an aspect of their sense of superiority that the white people of America believe they have so little to learn. […] Loose and easy language about equality, resonant resolutions about brotherhood fall pleasantly on the ear, but for the Negro there is a credibility gap he cannot overlook.

    So many privileged people don’t want to have to build the credibility that shows they’re against racism or sexism or whatever by learning not to perpetuate it. Ignorance is easy and reeducation is hard work, so of course many would rather stay ignorant and put it on everyone else to give them the benefit of the doubt. And because privileged folk are in a better place to get what they want, “meaning well” starts mattering more than anything, even in the face of blatant contradictions that, in any other context, would destroy their credibility.

    No matter how many days are saved by “meaning well” in Saturday morning cartoons, it only becomes a hindrance to meaningful change in reality.