Monday, December 16, 2013

My Answers to Atheist Revolution's Big Questions, Part 3

My last two posts dealt with the first three of six Big Questions that divide atheists as identified at Atheist Revolution.  

Before moving on, I need to clarify my answer to Big Question #3 a bit. 
I was looking at big, broad political issues that I think are sufficiently covered by secularist activism, and I managed to forget something.  I forgot that there are a whole lot of people in the world, some in my own country, that can't openly be an atheist or even publicly question the religion of their family or community without risking some pretty shitty consequences.  Consequences that I have never really had to face.  Secularism may not currently adequately address all the issues that atheists face, or at least not fast enough to help people now, instead of in a generation or two.  And, given the necessary interfaith nature of secular activism, it may always be tempting for secular orgs to downplay vocal atheists, to pretend that such atheists are just the cranky, immature secularists...young rebels and such.  As far as promoting awareness that there are atheists in every society all over the world, promoting social acceptance of atheists, and making atheism something other than a dirty word to religious believers, then yes, there is an Atheist Movement distinct from the Secular Movement.  If you are an atheist who openly admits your lack of belief, if you debate believers, if you give money to put up pro-atheist billboards, if you write a blog from an openly atheistic perspective, then you are, by default, an Atheist Activist in an Atheist Movement, as small and narrow a role as it may be.     

But that's about as far as it goes for a big, publicly noticeable "Atheist Movement" or "Atheist activism", as far as I can tell.  There is a difference between who people are, what they believe, and what they might fight for. There can still be "AN atheist movement" for whatever other cause, but it won't really represent anything about atheism or atheists.  "Atheists for Feminism", "Atheists for Lower Taxes", whatever.  They might revolve around or be united by their identity as atheists while doing whatever "good thing" they do, but it will not be "THE" atheist movement outlined above.  These will be subsets of a subset, like "Jews for Jesus" or "Vegan Atheists", or "Jimmy Carter Fans Who Like Billy Beer and Are Not Ashamed", or whatever else.  And some of them may accomplish great things in the world...who knows?  But they will still be "other" movements, simply composed of atheists, not a movement to promote atheism or protect rights specifically for atheists, and having no kind of "ownership" of atheism as a whole.  


Moving on once again....questions #4 and #5.....

4.  How tolerant should atheists be of diverse ideas within our own community and those who hold them? Some atheists are interested in purging the community of ideas they find unacceptable (e.g., conservative political views); others believe that there is strength in diversity and that our community is big enough for those holding what may be unpopular views to be included (i.e., "big tent" atheism). I'm inclined to include much of the Atheism+ (and Freethought Blogs/Skepchick) debate here because much of it seems to boil down to whether we must chose a single ideology (i.e., liberal politics married to third wave feminism) and banish those who do not agree with it from our community or accept others who might have some different opinions.

What is the role of skepticism in atheism? Is it sufficiently important that we should seek to be skeptical of our own ideas, or is it enough just to be skeptical of others' ideas? Some atheists believe that certain ideas (e.g., components of their preferred ideology) are beyond questioning; other atheists perceive this as hypocritical and argue that we ought to question all ideas to evaluate their merit.

Looking at these two questions, I think it is necessary to answer #5 before #4.  If I haven't decided what the role of skepticism in atheism is, then on what grounds will I base a decision about what ideas, ideologies or philosophies the Atheist Movement or community should welcome or discourage(if any)?  Maybe #5 should have been the first question of all of them....oh well, too late for that now.

Skepticism is a questioning and incredulous habit of thinking that one can use to winnow down the infinite number of ideas and possibilities we come across in daily life and in our intellectual musings and debates, and see what the available evidence has to say about their basis in fact.  I see skepticism as a kind of approximation, a quick layman's version, of the scientific method(though mostly without the experimental aspect of science).  It is sieve that we use to separate facts from fiction, useful imagination and creativity from wishful thinking.  A habit of critical thought to cut through unjustified claims, superstitions and unnecessary assumptions, and hopefully make visible something approximating reality.  (If this explanation seems inadequate, read The Demon-Haunted World, or just about anything else, by Carl Sagan.  He was a much better writer than I am.)

I have identified as an atheist for a couple of decades now, at least personally if not always publicly.  But I was a skeptical person long before that.  If I was not a skeptic, if I had never used skepticism in evaluating claims, I would most likely not be an atheist in the first place.  My beliefs would probably more closely reflect the society in which I was raised than they currently do.  There were several influences that led me to a skeptical state of mind fairly early in life.  I had a big interest in both science and science fiction, and I think the tension and conflict between the two generate an appreciation of both imagination and skepticism.  My parents and family, while not cynical, quietly promoted the idea that thinking for one's self was a virtue- not a vice, as some more insular societies seem to hold.  My earliest skeptical influences, in all seriousness, were probably Scooby-Doo, Encyclopedia Brown, and The Three Investigators mystery novels.  So I was introduced to the virtues and benefits of skepticism early, and found that it was a habit of thinking that could be beneficial in every aspect of life.  Due to social pressures and politeness, I rarely saw skepticism applied to faith, religion, or god as a child.  But the habit was such a part of me that I think it was inevitable that I would tackle those issues myself sooner or later.    

My adherence to critical thinking goes way beyond just the God question or bizarre religious claims.  If the evidence showed me a god, I would no longer be an atheist.  Skepticism is how I became an atheist in the first place.  It is foundational to my beliefs and my way of thinking about the world.  While I think there is cultural validity in "movement" atheism, and I am glad to be a small part of such a community, the promotion of clear and skeptical thinking is much more important to me.  While a person's religious beliefs may tell us something about that person, overall rationality is much more important than the answer to any single question.  Skepticism is part of the foundation of any intellectual enterprise.  I would not willingly be part of any group, community, movement, or political party that was knowingly hostile to skepticism.  

Atheists often hear people say things like "atheism is just like a religion", or "those militant atheists are just as narrow-minded as fundamentalists", or similar comparisons.  Those statements imply that not believing in god is just as irrational, or just as arbitrary, as the most fervent belief in the unknowable.  For many of us non-believers, who grew up at least influenced by superstition, who had to learn our way out of the bullshit, these statements sound irrational or even bigoted, and applied in such a way, they are.  

But consider a society where atheism is a given, and everyone is raised an atheist, and few have ever bothered to think it out for themselves, those statements could be quite accurate.  There have been officially non-religious, atheistic societies that swallowed other state-approved myths that rival the fantasies of religious mythology.  Being right about one issue, even one so culturally laden as the existence of god, is no guarantee against all kinds of other rank bullshittery being accepted at the same time.  

For those who arrive at the conclusion of atheism on completely non-rational grounds, without having used skepticism, atheism still isn't a religion....

....but it might as well be.

Back to Big Question #4 in the next post!            


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

My Answers to Atheist Revolution's Big Questions, Part 2

My previous post dealt with the first two of six Big Questions that divide the atheist community, as put forth by vjack at Atheist Revolution.  Moving on....

3.  Is there an atheist movement that exists independently of the secular movement, and if not, should there be one? Some atheists insist that there can be no such thing as an atheist movement because atheism is not the sort of thing that can bring people together; others believe that it is meaningful to think of an atheist movement that is distinct from the secular movement even though the two have much overlap.

I think this question goes back to the first question.....what are the goals and concerns of atheists?  If you want to eradicate all religion, I think you will find yourself in a somewhat different camp than most people who make up the secular movement.  The secular movement is broad and diverse in makeup, and is concerned with keeping religious beliefs from overpowering public debate and reason and becoming laws of the land that affect people who are not part of the religion themselves.  From the wikipedia entry on secularism, discussing the views of the one who coined the term:

Holyoake invented the term "secularism" to describe his views of promoting a social order separate from religion, without actively dismissing or criticizing religious belief. An agnostic himself, Holyoake argued that "Secularism is not an argument against Christianity, it is one independent of it. It does not question the pretensions of Christianity; it advances others. Secularism does not say there is no light or guidance elsewhere, but maintains that there is light and guidance in secular truth, whose conditions and sanctions exist independently, and act forever. Secular knowledge is manifestly that kind of knowledge which is founded in this life, which relates to the conduct of this life, conduces to the welfare of this life, and is capable of being tested by the experience of this life." 

The basic thrust of the secular movement can be summed up by the common American expression "separation of church and state".   It's not a new idea, really.  One could even interpret the words of Jesus as having invented an early form of secularism:  "Render unto Caesar the thing's that are Caesar's, and unto God the things which are God's."  

I think that most of the important political goals of any realistic "Atheist Movement" are dealt with pretty well in the Secular movement.  I think that most of the pressing issues facing atheists (at least in America and most of the West) can be dealt with through promoting secularism.  Laws on the books saying atheists can't be elected, atheists being forced to pray before public events, open discrimination against non-believers in government or the military or in schools...I think "secularism" covers these quite nicely.  Only the more zealous anti-theist atheists will want to go too much further as an organized political movement.  And while I admitted in my answer to question #1 that I personally would like to go further, I don't see any reason why others will necessarily agree with me. I think religion is oppressive and promotes a lot of bad ideas....but many people, including some atheists, seem to think that many people need the comfort that such beliefs and social structures offer, and that as long as we can achieve secularism as a broad public policy, the rest can be safely left alone with the individual.  For the most part, I think that view is correct, if a little...unambitious, and maybe too willing to take the bad with the good.  But society will never be aligned completely without force, and there can even be strength in a diversity of the very least, with a diversity of views, dissent will always be tolerated to some degree, even if it's not popular.  Secularism could still exist without atheists.  But where would atheists be without secularism?  In hiding, most likely.   

However, there is still a further distinction to be made.  While I think that the secular movement is a worthy home for the atheism-related political goals of most atheists, it is NOT quite enough for every atheist and every purpose atheists might have. Atheists may be tolerated or even valued by the secular movement at large. It may adequately protect us from the ills and biases of a religious society.  It may be enough of a movement for most of our political needs, but it is not a community.  

I think a vibrant and diverse atheist community is far more important, useful, and valid than any kind of directed atheist movement.  Because of the narrowness of the goals and the diversity of beliefs of those who comprise it, the secular movement will never be for atheists what other causes sometimes are for other groups...a place, an interaction, a zeitgeist, where atheists can truly let our hair down and say what they really think as atheists.  

While most of my political needs are met by secularism, I still very much value the company, the talking, the sharing of ideas and perspectives that comes from other atheists who also speak out...who comprise the community. Other than a very few friends, I get most of this interaction from the online atheist community, such as it is. Debates, discussions, new ideas and perspectives, or sharing jokes about religion, or just complaining about all the dumbass shit I deal with at times from believers- you should see my fucking facebook feed sometimes, God Galore- without having to worry about offending the believers or making waves or experiencing too much in the way of social consequences.  All of those human interactions that don't fit comfortably within the "secular movement"....that's what the more loose-knit Atheist Community is for.  It may act as a "movement' here and there, for one activist or charitable reason or another from time to time, but I think atheists are simply too intellectually diverse to pick a full political platform of any kind outside secularism.  

Where to find this community?  Start with the blogrolls of atheist blogs you read, or search for facebook pages, or do some searching in your own local community...we're everywhere these days, in all shapes, sizes, races, and political views, and there's always room for more!                         

Friday, December 6, 2013

My Answers to Atheist Revolution's Big Questions, Part 1

Recently, vJack at Atheist Revolution wrote a post on what he sees as the Big Questions dividing the atheist community.  I thought he pretty much nailed the main issues, so I have no reason to not give my answers. Here goes.

1. Should atheists work toward the total eradication of religious belief, or is it sufficient to stop those who would impose their religiously-based morality on the rest of us? Some anti-theistic atheists argue that we should stop at nothing short of ending religion and that it is a mistake to seek religious allies who may share our goal of secularism; other atheists believe that secularism should be our primary goal and are perfectly content to work alongside religious secularists when it may be beneficial to do so.

Already, there is a division in my answer.  I argue against ideas that I think are factually wrong, particularly if I think they are harmful to people.  Everyone does this, from their own point of view of what is true or false, beneficial or harmful, some more vocally than others.  In my world, that means I often find myself arguing against some form of religious belief, or specific claim within a set of religious beliefs.  If such beliefs did not affect me at all, I would have little motivation to argue.  But in America, there are plenty of instances when another person's belief, or widespread beliefs in society, conflict with my freedom.  My own personal opinion is that society would be better off with fewer widespread false and damaging beliefs, and that religion is a big source of them,or at least heavily involved in spreading them.  But I see no evidence that all false beliefs, particularly where deep emotions and connections to one's identity are involved, can be eradicated by a political movement, at least not on the timescale of a human generation or two.  History has shown that using direct force or even the ballot box to enforce belief can end up a bloody mess.  I have no desire to force anyone to believe anything, we can only argue with equals and hope to convince them.  So even though I do sometimes wish, when I focus on all the bullshit and damage done by religious belief, that I could take a hammer to every fucking crucifix, church, temple and mosque in the world, I can not and will not.  As an individual, I have my axes to grind, but as any kind of movement, we should focus on secularism, on removing the unwanted political force of other peoples' religious beliefs from ourselves and others who do not agree with the religious beliefs being put into political power.  I am perfectly happy to work alongside Christians, Muslims, Satanists, Buddhists, or anyone else for the cause of secularism, though some of them may not like to work with me.      

2. Do ridicule and mockery have any place in how atheists respond to religious belief? Some atheists say we should avoid such tactics (e.g., "don't be a dick") because they are counterproductive or make us look bad; others say they have their place in our repertoire.

Do ridicule and mockery have a place in how atheists respond to religious belief?

Hells fucking yeah they do.  I'm not saying it's for everybody.  I've nearly lost friends over it....shit, maybe I have lost friends and just didn't notice.  You don't even have to be an atheist to do it and enjoy it.  I cannot, as a normal human being, be expected to hear obvious bullshit put forth as deep wisdom(or political policy) and have to just pretend to respect it.  
In the workplace?  At a friend's social gathering?  At family functions?   Maybe, if the situation warrants the "manners", but not always even then.  But to fully abstain from mocking religious bullshit?  On my time?  On the internet?  In public discourse?   When confronted face to face with willful insanity?

Not a fucking chance.  If reincarnation turns out to be true, maybe I'll give that a shot next time.

Now, as far as "organized atheism" acts of "the movement" done by public organizations instead of individuals....perhaps they should exercise a bit more restraint, but I think ridicule is still a very effective tool for legitimate activism.  To wholly abandon it, even for serious public orgs, is to collectively lose both our sense of humor and a vital connection with humanity.  As far as Phil Plait(or Wil Wheaton, or any of the random bloggers who've run with it) telling me and all other skeptics or atheists or nerds "don't be a dick", that's good general advice for daily life and cosplay conventions....but incredibly shitty advice for effecting change, busting open the public consciousness, expressing frustration, getting attention to your cause, or claiming one's independence from groupthink and irrational belief- as well as stuffy, prissy, petty moralist high-minded bullshit.  Phil may look like a new-age white Buddhist monk, but he ain't the fucking Pope of Skepticism.  Frankly, telling other adults how to behave and respond to a society full of bullshit is about the most dickish thing I've ever heard from a skeptic.          

More answers in the next post!