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!