The Future of the Atheist “Movement”

After writing my previous piece, I ran across some interesting ideas from research from PRRI.

In their discussion of the religiously unaffiliated, they identify three sub-groups from the unaffiliated.  They have labeled them Rejectionists, Apatheists (clever that!) and Unattached Believers.  Here is the breakdown of the proportions as identified by PRRI.

In my own experience, I think these categories are probably pretty sound.  Unfortunately, although they broke out the groups by education, the did not break it out by age groups.  My guess is that there is a significant generational difference in non-believers.

People of my generation (born in 1960) came into a country where the vast majority of people claimed one religion or another.  So, even if our parents were not serious observers of religion, there was at least some.  Therefore, most people of my generation, when becoming unaffiliated, had to escape from one religion or another.  This was an active process and often left families divided, with some believing and some not.

As the country takes religion less seriously, it is easy to see where the apatheists might be coming from.  If they come from a family where religion is not very important, maybe going to church a few times a year “with grandma.” making the final break is no big deal.  Church, religion and god are just not important enough to think about.

Rejectionists, such as myself, are the kind of people who are going to self identify as “atheist.”  We had a religious identity and changed it to another identity.  Even after escaping, religion still has a pull on our lives.  We like to commiserate with fellow escapees and like to read and hear about how awful religion is.  Even for most “critical thinkers” confirmation bias is a comfortable place to hang our hats.  These are the people going to conferences and meetings and who think of atheism as a “movement.”

I think the apatheists are much less likely to identify as “atheist.”  “Atheist” seems like it is against religion, but they are not really against it.   They think of religion like most Americans think about kimchee.  It is not that they are avoiding eating it, there is just no occasion where they would.  My presumption is that these folks do not go to meetings or read atheist books.  I would think to them, our meetings would actually seem like preaching.  Preaching about something they don’t really care about or think about.

The last group, “Jesus is my friend, but I don’t like church” is obviously not going to join in our atheist meetings.  However, we should keep an eye on this group as they are obviously most likely to drift back into churches as they get older.

It seems to me that the latter two groups, apatheists and unaffiliated believers probably represent the younger generations.  So, those groups will continue to grow.

As for us “rejectionists,” we have choices ahead.  I am guessing that our percentage of the unaffiliated will begin to fall as more apatheists come of age, and we ourselves send forth a generation of apatheists.  Our kids and grandkids probably won’t care about religion one way or the other.  For now, our actual numbers will probably be steady — there is still plenty of religion to escape from.  But we may become a minority of the unaffiliated — and it may happen pretty soon.

We can certainly continue our anti-religion outlook and take our place as the vocal sub-group of the unaffiliated.  Or we can try and find common ground with the other unaffiliateds, probably through some form of secularism.  This would possibly increase our political footprint, but it might not be as fun.

Let me know what you think in the comments!


Critical Thinking and Atheism

A commenter on my previous mentioned that someone holds that view that critical thinking leads to atheism and then to a “progressive” (that is to say, what we would call a politically liberal) world view.  I don’t know if the person they mentioned actually holds that view, but that is not important here, there are more than a prominent atheists who seem to hold it.

I have to say that I disagree entirely, and find this view very problematic.

First of all, thanks to confirmation bias, we all like to think that the critical thinking WE is, in fact, critical.  But the thinking THEY do, is not.  Adopting the idea that we atheists are the critical thinkers amounts to an ad hominem attack on theists.  This is problematic for several reasons.  The first, most obvious one is that by doing so we are committing one of the most obvious relevance fallacies.  So much for critical thinking.

But more importantly, the idea is not really true and is most likely counterproductive for our cause.  There are plenty of highly educated, thoughtful and yes, critically thinking theists out there.  There are lots of Biblical scholars who take a critical approach and still keep their faith.  To accuse such scholars of “letting their faith dictate” their results is counterproductive.

It seems pretty psychologically true that if you attack the person, rather than their beliefs, they are much less likely to consider your reasoning.  Any discussion that starts with “You are a big, fat dope and here is why you are wrong,” is definitely not going to end well.

So, equating critical thinking to atheism is counterproductive and off-putting.  Critical thinking is (I hope!) content neutral and can be applied by anyone to anything.  Rational people can and often do reach different conclusions from the same general set of facts.  Plenty of atheists believe stupid things and plenty of theists can wield Occam’s razor like a rapier.

In the same way, I don’t feel that critical thinking and/or atheism leads to any kind of progressive, liberal or similar view of the world.

Again, pretty much the same critique applies.  Plenty of conservatives are thoughtful and highly intelligent.  William Buckley was certainly a critical thinker.  To the extent that we can agree that both conservatives and liberals are sincerely trying to create a better society, it is just that we disagree on methods, I think we would be better off.

I might want to qualify that last sentence by adding, “thoughtful liberals” and “thoughtful conservatives.”

And with that, I want to swing things back to my issue with MythCon.

Our favorite critical thinking school marm, Richard Carrier, decided to school both sides over this incident.  I’ll say one thing, he must be the fastest typist on the planet for the number of words he is able to squeeze into a blog post.

Here is how Carrier starts his defense (essentially) of inviting  “Sargon of Akkad” to MythCon:

Sargon of Akkad indeedis a shitperson. But that’s precisely the issue. He is massively popular in the atheist movement. We need to explore that. We need to confirm if he’s a lost cause. And more people need to know about his crap and his influence. He needs to be challenged. From a platform he doesn’t control. That’s what Mythicist Milwaukee is doing.

So far, so reasonable.  Then he says this:

He is someone we need to confront and study. And whose influence and reasoning and beliefs we need to understand. So we can better combat the stupidity and ignorance he is spreading to millions of viewers. Millions of fellow atheists.

Which is where my critical thinking kicks in.  How does inviting someone to speak at a conference do this?  The first thing we should “critically” do is verify Carrier’s statement here.  Millions of atheists are fans of this guy?  Millions?

Seems like what we need is not having this guy speak at a convention, but rather hire PRRI to surveying atheists and see what we think.  Are we progressive, regressive or all over the map?  Are the fans of Sargon the kind of people who go to freethinking conventions or Richard Spencer speeches?  Or maybe both?

We can study his reasoning probably much better from his YouTube channel than from a convention speech.  In fact, even though he didn’t “control the platform” there was certainly nothing keeping him from tailoring his speech to the audience, leaving us to learn nothing.  If we want to know why he is so popular on YouTube, we need to look at his videos.

If we want to then somehow inoculate his viewers so we can “So we can better combat the stupidity and ignorance he is spreading to millions of viewers. (quote from Carrier)”  We need to somehow get his viewers watching such corrective videos on YouTube.  Having him at a conference is not going to accomplish that.

Later in his post, Carrier continues to pile on Sargon and finally gets around to giving the best reason for NOT inviting him to a conference.  “Sargon’s argument isn’t even clever. It’s devoid of logic.” and a bit later (told it  was a looong post) he drives the final nail in the coffin.

Comparing Sargon to Carlin, Carrier says this: “[I]s the difference between the arguments made by the likes of Carlin, which are reasonable, nuanced, contextual, and respectful of the goal of human happiness, and the arguments made by the likes of Sargon, which are irrational, devoid of nuance or respect for the role of context…”

Or to put it more bluntly, Sargon is an empty sock in the wind, ranting about things he doesn’t fully understand.  And he doesn’t even do it well.  It is not so much that we disagree with him, he just says outrageous things off the top of his head to get views on YouTube.  I don’t avoid O’Reilly because I disagree with him so much, but mostly because he just makes up shit when it suits him.   Rush Limbaugh, same way, boring as hell.

It is still an open question for me as to whether there is a large group of people who primarily identify as “atheist” who are, say, regressive and Trumpian.  Richard Spencer identifies as an atheist, but I don’t think that is why his followers are with him.  Same may be true of Sargon, they may not be watching because he occasionally talks smack about religion.

On the same page we also have to ask how many who identify as atheist use that to inform progressive politics.  Perhaps atheists only want to hear about why Jesus probably was mythological at atheist conventions and will get their politics somewhere else.

Or not.  You can let me know in the comments!



The “Atheism Movement:” Dead or Alive?

There is still quite a bit of fallout, on Twitter at least, from the Milwaukee Mythicists MythCon this year.  Full disclosure, I was invited to a couple of events to act as the event photographer.  Which was great because I got to see Richard Carrier, Robert Price and Bart Ehrman up close and personal.  I was not invited to this year’s MythCon and probably wouldn’t have noticed were it not for the controversy.

If you are not all up on that, you can check out Seth Andrew’s take on what happened.  There are many others as well.  My own personal opinion is that I was disappointed in the conference, not because of the regressive opinions of some of the speakers, but rather the quality of those speakers.  They went from literal world class religious/Biblical scholars to people who shout ill-formed opinions on YouTube.  The content of their speech did not particularly bother me in and of themselves, but their lack of chops and credentials did.

It seems to me it was a bit like a concert series that featured Dylan and Springsteen one year, turned around and offered Luke Bryan the next.  Politics is not even where you start with bailing on that.

There were many, many others who did take exception to the expected content of the speech and this, apparently, has people lined up on both sides.  Some people, again on many sides, are declaring the death of the “Atheism Movement.”

To be honest, I never saw “atheism” as much of a “movement” as an uneasy coalition, which may, in fact, now be unraveling.

As an example of the “uneasy coalition” part, I can use my Significant Other and I.  She was the youngest child of a large Catholic family and although her parents were devout, perhaps when she came along, they were tired and did not strictly enforce Catholic observances on her.  Religion just did not “take” with her and when she left home, she pretty much never thought about going to church.  Somewhat ironically, she served as treasurer for the cemetery run my her parents parish for many, many years.  When it came to religion, though she was personally completely indifferent.  Never thought about it much.

I was also raised Catholic, went Catholic schools and even a Catholic university.   Though certainly not a scholar, I did my readings and my studies and had a pretty good understanding of what was on offer.  I was quite active in the church into young adulthood, well after college.  Eventually, though the hypocrisy of the church (among other things) started to gnaw at me and I went from dropping out of the church to dropping out of religion to dropping the idea of god over several years (more like a decade, really).  So, for me, evidence and reason had something to do with my decision.

Emotion had something to do with my decision as well, and I remain opposed to the Catholic Church and would love to see it close down.  I would also not mind at all seeing a bunch of other regressive churches that want to tell other people what to do (especially with their tallywhackers) closing down as well.

I started talking and writing about this stuff  mostly to unchurch people. Frankly, if they want to believe in Santa, unicorns and heaven, I don’t care.  As long as stop telling other people what to do.  Secularism is much more important to me than atheism.

It has seemed to me for quite some time that as an organizing banner, “atheism” makes about as much sense as “interested in math.”

“Intrested in math” ranges from people who think they can balance a check book to Kurt Goedel.  I think “atheism” comes out about the same.

Richard Spencer identifies as an atheist.  I find it hard to believe that Donald Trump can conceive of a being greater than himself, but says he he is theist.  Martin Luther King, of course, was totally a theist.  The Clergy Project shows us that many in the pulpit don’t, in fact, believe.  You just can’t tell much about a person from their belief status.

I have always been uncomfortable with the idea that many atheist speakers seem to have that somehow “atheist” equals “great critical thinker.”  They will often express astonishment that someone can be an atheist, but still believe in ghosts.  Or Bigfoot.  That there is no god does not, by definition, rule out everything we now consider supernatural.

Other atheist speakers assume that since many religionists are regressive in their thinking and politics (an already dubious assumption) that atheists must, of course, be the opposite — progressive.  A dubious conclusion.

Atheist, in and of itself is not enough of a “thing” to act as an umbrella for a “movement.”

When we look at the 25% or so of Americans who are “religiously unaffiliated” we find atheists, but also many believers in some kind of supernatural.  Should we be separate from them?  Among theists we find many highly educated capable people who champion progressive causes, women’s rights and secular governance.  Should we be separate from them as well?

It seems to me that as freethinkers our belief or non-belief in god is not relevant, but rather our attitudes towards our fellow travelers and our desire to keep superstitious religion — or government — from dictating what is ultimately right or wrong, but rather to determine these things together.  As human beings.  During our short time on earth.


Let’s Retire the Term “Populist”

When it started to become clear that Donald Trump was actually being taken seriously as a candidate for president, the press seemed to be at a loss as to what to label him as his positions seemed all over the map.  They finally settled on the word “populist.”

A definition for “populist” is tough to nail down, but generally it is thought of as someone who is speaking for the “common person” against the establishment or elites.  Those words are often used, especially by Steve Bannon to describe the Trump “movement.”

Now, after nine months in the White House we can see Trump (and Bannon) what what he really is, an extension of the Republican scam.

It was Richard Nixon that created the modern Republican scam with his “Southern Strategy.”  This was simply the flipping of white southern Democrats (who opposed the party that lead the “War of Northern Aggression”) back to Republicans by appearing to oppose the Civil Rights movement that Democrats were backing.

It is not all racism, of course, the Republicans expanded their offerings to now include what we call the “Culture War” type issues, abortion, guns, gay rights, etc.  Basic game plan being, get old white folks riled up about guns or gays, get their votes and when in office back the corporate donors entirely.

Trump ran this same scam, but because he is probably personality disordered, ran his mouth in directions that blew the scam apart.

First, on the culture war side, he went beyond the implied racism of Republicans to actual overt racism.  The “dog whistle” became a fog horn.  But he also couldn’t resist throwing out economic promises that he had no intention (and no mechanism for achieving) of keeping such as “terrific” low price, full coverage health insurance for everyone.

Bannon was quick to label these incoherent ideas “Economic Nationalism” mostly because the first iteration “America First” had strong fascist implications.

Whatever, because when they tried to govern from this swampy morass, the whole thing blew apart anyway.

The racist policy proposals haven’t got to far as they made about as much sense as Trump’s Twitter feed.  We have to ban travel from Venezuela?  Because they gave oil money to government programs?  WTF?  The No-Cost Wall has pretty much been a none-starter.  There have been some shots at gay rights and marijuana, but the number of people willing to get riled about those things are already a minority and shrinking fast.

And economically?  Pure Koch Brothers.  The Obamacare “repeal”, tax “reform” and the budget proposal are all ALEC wet dreams.  They totally contradict Trump’s campaign rhetoric.  Proposals to cut Medicare, millions proposed to lose health coverage, monsterous tax cuts for billionaires.  None of which are popular.  A “populist” with no popularity?

After leaving the White House, Bannon declared “war” on the Republican party vowing to drive out “establishment” Republicans.  You would think in a war, you could tell which side is which, but in this case, I know I can’t.  I cannot for the life of me figure out what kind of country Bannon wants, other than a white one.

So far, there has only been one skirmish in Bannon’s war.  Weirdly, even though the war is supposed to bring Trumpism to the entire Republican party, Trump himself didn’t support Bannon’s preferred candidate.  But there wasn’t much difference between the candidates anyway.

Roy Moore would almost certainly for the whole Koch Brother backed, ALEC authored basket of awfulness: tax cuts for billionaires, millions thrown off Medicaid, huge cuts to Medicare, sinking the EPA (ironically signed into existence by Nixon) and so on.  Pure establishment Republican.  Trump backed Strange, would presumably vote exactly the same way.  Strange would also vote against abortion rights, gay rights, immigrants rights and for gun rights.  And so would Moore.

So what is this war about?

As far as I can see the only difference between the two is that Moore is certifiably insane and wants to trash the First Amendment by establishing his brand of Christianity as the national religion and get rid of the free press.  Notably, Trump is no great defender of the First as well.

So, is the war about who is going to get rid of the First Amendment?  Perhaps followed by the 12th, 13th and 14th?

This is not populism.  This is not demogoguery. This is apparently about removing the pillars of American freedom, our very reason for existence.

That’s not populism — that’s treason.

And we should call it that.

Revising Columbus

Here I am at work writing about Columbus Day on Columbus Day, which is appropriate because if ever a “holiday” ever deserved to be downgraded it is this one.

Among the older “traditionalist” white crowd, Columbus and his day have defenders such as this essay by Bill O’Reilly (aka “Uncle Bill had a few drinks and is yelling about random shit again”).  In the essay, which has all the depth and accuracy of an average middle school English paper (no offense intended to middle schoolers, of course), Uncle Rant decries political correctness (Wow??? Really?) and revisionist history.  O’Reilly’s conception of Columbus is so revisionist it swerves into fairy tale territory.  Bulbous Bill seems to believe that Washington Irving is a reliable primary source.

But even if we set aside his racist world view and probable murderous ways, was Columbus any kind of hero?  Are you kidding me??  Let’s look at a few historical facts.

After several failed screenplays and TV pilot that was never picked up, Columbus was looking for an easy score that would put him on the map. Using a Powerpoint that he copped from an obscure TEDx talk and a little of his own razzle dazzle, Columbus was able to grab a reverse Fullbright (an “Isabella”) to fund his travels.

His pitch to NASA (North Atlantic Sea Association) said that he would find the elusive Northwest Passage or Panama Canal, whichever came first, providing a direct route to India.  This would open a pipeline for tea and peppercorns benefiting committee members Lipton and McCormack respectively, which won the day for Columbus’s application.

It only takes one look at a globe (or a map if you are a flat earther) to realize that there is no way in hell to sail west from Europe and NOT “discover the New World.”  Columbus’s “discovery” is about as impressive as you “discovering” your own front yard.  Point yourself in the right direction and you can’t miss it!

A large part of the reason that almost nobody (other than the Vikings and the Irish, which are pretty much the same thing) sailed west from Europe before Columbus set off in his Fiat, was the mind crushing lack of curiosity of over 1000 years of Church rule.  The church avowed that they had all the answers, but nobody had any questions as pretty much everyone was busy either oppressing or being peasants.

This one book reliance by Europeans for over a 1000 years also lead the mapmakers of the day to overestimate the shortcutness of the western route.  Even though Eratosthenes had pretty much nailed the actual circumference of the earth some 2000 years earlier mapmakers never seemed to ask what could possibly be missing, even though it was pretty much a third of the actual globe.  When you can be burned at the stake for asking questions, you stick with what you know.

In summary then, Columbus was a grant grifter who stumbled over something that he literally could not miss and so is credited with “discovering” a place where 30 million people already lived.

Of course Uncle O’Rantly already knows all that and thinks that Columbus is really a hero for bringing “white, European, Christian values” to our continent.   By which he means the idea that if a peoples skin is darker than a Norwegian’s they are obviously potential slaves or exterminees — or both.

But that is more non-revisionist history for another time.  Or you could hear Randy Newman tell it.

Guns and Racism

It is unfortunately all too predictable in the USA.  We know we are going to have another mass shooting and we can predict what the reactions will be to the event.  I am not going to go on about the uselessness of “thoughts and prayers” but rather the other predictable aspect of the reactions.

When I first read the news of the shooting very early Monday morning, I was pretty sure it was carried out by a white guy.  How did I predict this given that the identity of the shooter had not been released yet?  Simple.  The police were already saying it was “not an act of terrorism” and that the shooter was probably a “lone wolf.”

These kinds of statements generally rule out a perpetrator with a foreign sounding name and dark skin.

Indeed through out the day the statements that politicians were issuing lead the conclusion of a white guy doing the shooting.

Member after Republican member of Congress expressed their “sadness” and offered “hopes and prayers” for the families.  Trump, after offering “warmest condolences” (what the hell are those?  Is he even a native speaker of English?) on Twitter, gave a speech full of bible verses of comfort for the victims.

If the shooter had been a dark skinned person with a foreign sounding name, you can bet your bottom dollar that the Republican Congress members and Trump would have been expressing anger much more than sadness.  Much more.

And instead of all this, “we shouldn’t politicize this moment with discussion of gun control” it would have been wall to wall, “See!  We need to clamp down the border!  Round those people up!”  Trump screamed this after every European attack, even when it turned out that the attacker was second or third generation European.

All of this is even more ironic given Trump’s campaign promise to “stop the carnage.”  His followers knew exactly what he meant, throwing even more inner city blacks into prison, while at the same time making it even easier for white guys to acquire huge arsenals, because, of course, they would “prevent crime.”

The NRA, the political third rail for Republicans, functions on the same sort of logic.  If for even a moment, the NRA were seen as a factor in allowing THEM to get guns, they would fall in shattered ruins.  But as long as they are able to portray themselves as allowing “law abiding citizens” (white people) to arm themselves for “self defense” (to shoot Black people) they can go merrily along.  Even mentioning gun control would shatter the Trump base, according to Steve Bannon.

Trump has shown he can screw over his base any number of ways, take away their healthcare, raise their taxes, continue filling the swamp and so on, but by god, you’ll be able to keep your guns!

In any kind of rational world, we would realize that people take up arms for all kinds of reasons ideological, religious, personal and even insanity.  Knowing that we can’t control the information people have access to or what kinds of beliefs they might hold (whether rational or not) that the answer is not trying to limit what people believe, but rather limiting their access to weaponry.

This is not to say that we should not try and prevent violence by those who announce their intentions, especially groups that do so, but how many times (like this one) have we heard the refrain after a shooting, “We had no idea he was thinking of such a thing.”  In the case of Las Vegas, the shooter had no criminal record and was actually seen as quite the high roller and business man.

Another interesting angle was added by Ann Telnaes, editorial cartoonist for the Washington Post: sexism.  To wit:  When was the last time you heard of a mass shooting committed by a woman?  We run around trying to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, the mentally ill, etc., but no one (except her, so far) seems to notice that we really should keep guns out of the hands of men.  Whether homicide or suicide, men are just damned dangerous when it comes to guns.

The only expressions of anger I saw yesterday were from Democratic representatives and others who think we need a more sensible gun control strategy.  I agree with them.  Why in the world should a guy be able to accumulate an armory’s worth of firearms which can rain down death on hundreds of strangers from half a block away?

Keeps gun companies rolling in money, Republicans in office and the rest of us in mourning.

Time for a change.


ps I am behind a school system firewall, so my sourcing is weak today.