Cults of Personality

I’ve really become convinced that the “atheist community” is no better than the religious community.  Let’s face it, with all the idiotic drama that we see, the “atheist bigwigs” are really no different than priests and ministers.  They’re preaching to their individual choirs.  They have their own individual agendas and their own individual playbooks and they expect their adherents to follow their teachings to the letter.  If they don’t, they get excommunicated.

Now I’m not picking specifically on PZ, although I think he’s the worst of the bunch at the moment, nor am I saying that most of the high priesthood of atheism is using their positions and influence for ill.  Certainly, most of the big names on the atheism circuit, from Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris to Matt Dillahunty and Michael Shermer, they all have their group of followers, who hang on their every word.  Certainly, Christopher Hitchens had a massive following before his death.  I’m not saying that it’s bad that these people are popular or that people shouldn’t find what they have to say interesting and valuable, but when it starts being about the people and not about the message, there’s a problem.

And there’s a problem.

No, the problem isn’t necessarily that people get popular, it’s that people start to believe their own press.  They start basking in the glow of adulation and after a while, they crave the attention.  Worse, they start thinking they can do no wrong because their mindless groupies are telling them exactly that.  Every word that comes out of their mouths is gold.  Every concept that crosses their keyboards is perfect.  However, in reality, these people are the Ron Paul of the skeptical world.  They have a very few highly fanatical followers who, in the scheme of things, really don’t mean anything.  They stand up before, at best, a couple of thousand atheists at these conferences and deliver talks and get standing ovations and they think that makes them leaders.

In fact, isn’t that exactly what priests and ministers do every Sunday?  Deliver their sermon before the flock?  They stand in front of a group of people who believe what they’re saying because they’re seen as authority figures, then because people like and respect them, they think they’re qualified to make policy and tell people how to live their lives.

They’re wrong.  A priest doesn’t necessarily know how to counsel someone on their finances or love life, any more than an atheist speaker necessarily knows how to lead people in political matters.  But because, hey, they seem to know what they’re doing in one area, people follow them blindly in another.  If you want my opinion, we ought to question everything that everyone says, no matter who says it.  Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist.  I’ll probably trust what he says with regards to his field of expertise, although, to be honest, I’d expect his peers to review his work and turn up anything that he says that is bogus.  However, I wouldn’t turn to Richard Dawkins for advice on electronics or child rearing or anything else because I don’t think that he’s an expert in any of those fields.  That doesn’t mean that I dislike Dawkins, I happen to greatly admire him, but I’m a skeptic, something every single one of us is supposed to be, and I treat anything he says, outside of his specialty, with a grain of salt.  The same goes for Daniel Dennett and Vic Stenger and Eugenie Scott and everyone else.

Let’s stop blindly following people just because they put on a good show on stage, or just because they agree with your views on one particular position.  Question everything and every one.  Doubt all claims until sufficient evidence is provided.  Stop being a groupie.  Stop bowing before the altar.  Be an actual skeptic!

Otherwise, you’re no better than the mindless drones that fill the pews on Sunday morning.

30 thoughts on “Cults of Personality

  1. There does seem to be a price to be paid for hero worship. Love him or hate him, this really isn't even about PZ. It is about us and our need to put people on pedestals. Like you said, skepticism isn't supposed to be about blindly following people. I'd hope that atheism wouldn't be about it either.

  2. I see this as a tendency of human nature. However, I don't see any examples here of where it has been a problem. There is no bigger Hitch fan than me, but I disagreed with him on several points. Sure, meet the new boss same as the old boss, is a possibility, but I think most atheists are a little more independent than most church goers.

  3. As an avid reader but not a commenter of PZ's blog for many years I've found his writing entertaining and thought provoking including the topics outside biology and atheism even if they are not expertly comprehensive or in accord with my understanding of things.

    In recent times I've struggled to sustain any interest in the Thunderfoot controversy and the related issues because I find it to be a distraction from the secular and scientific excellence of his blog.

    But PZ would disagree with me on the importance of these unscientific/social issues and argue that the broader topics he covers are integral to confronting idiocy, bigotry and sexism inside and outside the atheist movement. And he would be right and it's his blog and his positions on any issue are there for the reader to consider or not.

    I would think the majority of his readers are not the "mindless groupies" that you describe, but like me, entertained and informed in areas of PZ's expertise and provoked to consider broader issues beyond or within the atheist community that are important to PZ.

  4. I think PZ is taking a page from the playbook not from the religious, but from rappers. Rappers typically understand that they are in a business to make money and the music is secondary to building their brand. With the advent of FtB there can be a strong argument to be made that PZ has made the transition from being primarily an atheist blogger to someone more concerned about his and the FtB brand.

  5. Theists claim that atheism is a religion. Thank you for giving them some ammunition to prove their point. Their claim is much stronger now that we have atheists agreeing with them.

  6. Quite the skeptic you are. You assert, without providing any evidence whatsoever, that people who agree with certain bloggers do so "blindly" and you imply that the consensus on many issues is due to some sort of group think.

    I'll propose an alternate hypothesis to your insulting and condescending suggestion that the followers of these blogs are sycophantic fanaticals accepting the dogma of the bloggers from on high. I assume you are familiar with the concept of selection bias? Couldn't it be that people who agree with view X would self-select the blogs they read, resulting in them ending up at blogs promoting view X?

  7. Furthermore, even if your unevidenced assertion were accurate, and followers of these blogs dogmatically agreed with everything the writers say, that doesn't at all validate your claim, "I’ve really become convinced that the “atheist community” is no better than the religious community".

    You really need a caveat in that statement to clear up specifically what you mean by "no better". Atheist groups are not systematically discriminating against GLBT people and women. They are not funding legislation taking away the rights of minorities. They are frightening their children with concepts of eternal torture.

    You really need to provide more evidence for your assertions. What is your proof for the claim that the "atheist community" is no better than the religious?

  8. "We ought to go after anyone who makes logical, rational or evidential errors in their claims and arguments and frankly, I think that the whole FtB crew is guilty of such errors."

    Overgeneralizing much? "The whole of FtB"? Are you not aware of the number and diversity of bloggers at Free Thought Blogs, or are you just a lazy writer?

    "They don’t have a rational leg to stand on in the extend of their claims and desires."

    This is extremely vague. It would be more intellectually honest to specifically state which claims FtB (*snort*, as if it was a single monolith) makes which are not rational. Not being specific with your criticisms is an easy (and dishonest) way to shield yourself from criticism.

    "If I say something stupid, I expect people to correct me. How can I improve my statements if people are not willing to challenge me and demonstrate where I’m wrong on intellectual grounds?"

    How can I show you that your criticism is flawed if you won't specifically state it. Make specific claims, and provide evidence for them, then people may challenge them.

  9. Please define "hyper-feminist ideals". Examples? And how does treating women as equals harm the atheist movement?

  10. "No, the problem isn’t necessarily that people get popular, it’s that people start to believe their own press. They start basking in the glow of adulation and after a while, they crave the attention. Worse, they start thinking they can do no wrong because their mindless groupies are telling them exactly that. Every word that comes out of their mouths is gold. Every concept that crosses their keyboards is perfect."

    Evidence please. Lots of opinionated claims and not one shred of evidence. I can't be sure but this sounds more to me like envy. It is much more likely, I think, that atheists who pay attention to these individuals do so because their views happen to coincide with the views of Myers, Dawkins, Harris and the others whom you describe as atheist priests.

    "They stand up before, at best, a couple of thousand atheists at these conferences and deliver talks and get standing ovations and they think that makes them leaders."

    Again, provide evidence that they think this. How the hell do you even know they think this? When have any of them actually said this of themselves? What statements have they made that lead you to this claim? If you are the skeptic you claim to be then stop making unsubstantiated claims.

    "That doesn’t mean that I dislike Dawkins, I happen to greatly admire him, but I’m a skeptic, something every single one of us is supposed to be, and I treat anything he says, outside of his specialty, with a grain of salt. The same goes for Daniel Dennett and Vic Stenger and Eugenie Scott and everyone else."

    And you've provided no evidence that we other atheists don't do exactly the same. I listen to these individuals on other topics and weigh their comments the same as I would the comments of any others, you included. I find that the overwhelming majority of the time, their viewpoints coincide with or parallel mine and that often they have articulated the view better, more eloquently, more deeply than I have or could have. I don't worship any of these individuals. I personally know well over a thousand atheists and not one of them worships any of these individuals.

    "Let’s stop blindly following people just because they put on a good show on stage, or just because they agree with your views on one particular position. Question everything and every one. Doubt all claims until sufficient evidence is provided. Stop being a groupie. Stop bowing before the altar. Be an actual skeptic!"

    You've provided, to repeat myself, not one shred of evidence that we atheists are not doing this. You've provided not one iota of evidence that any atheist is "blindly" following Myers, Dawkins, Harris or any other of the well-know atheists. My conclusion is that this entire post is a strawman you've created so you can pontificate and whine. I hope you feel better, but you've said nothing of any substance or merit.

  11. Two additional criticisms I have, Mike, of Cephus' post.

    1) Cephus wrote the following:

    "They stand up before, at best, a couple of thousand atheists at these conferences and deliver talks and get standing ovations and they think that makes them leaders."

    How does she, or you, know that this is what they think? What comments have they made or behaviors have they exhibited that leads Cephus to this conclusion. I am unconvinced by Cephus that Myers and Dawkins think this of themselves simply because they are the ones at the speaker's podium and because she claims it to be true. I follow these individuals and I've heard no comments, nor seen any behavior on their part that they have self-appointed themselves as our exalted leaders. I think it more likely they are leaders because the skeptic's and atheist communites in general have elevated them to this position, largely because of the body of written work, both scholarly and non-scholarly, they have produced and their demonstrated ability to articulate their positions.

    2) Cephus also said, this time labeling it as opinion:

    "If you want my opinion, we ought to question everything that everyone says, no matter who says it."

    I absolutely agree. But Cephus, IMO, fais in the post to provide a sufficiently strong argument that this is not happening. I think the overwhelming majority of atheists and skeptics do question "everything that everyone says." I am highly skeptical of the implication in this comment that Cephus questions everything said by everyone but the majority or a substantial number of the rest of us don't.

  12. T-Shirt fun- http://freethoughtblogs.com/butterfliesandwheels/http://thunderf00tdotorg.wordpress.com/tag/rebecc

    This concerns FtB, not the other major atheist figures, as I have not experienced the same level of dogmatic vitriol from the "followers" of prominent atheists outside of FtB. However, if you've read the comments on the Free Thought blogs and come to the conclusion that polite disagreement with the majority opinion will not result in insults, accusations and censorship, nothing I can put forward will convince you otherwise. Trying to be clever and engage in distraction tactics of "I don't know what you mean by subjective.." Really? You think semantics and sophistry are going to advance the discussion? There is simply no way to scientifically quantify what are essentially opinion positions. You say "well-deserved accolades" and I say "group-think butt-kissing."

    As to the non-thinking religious qualities of the FtB, my experience is that no argument will sway PZ's followers. Take the Thunderf00t expulsion. If you feel that Thunderf00t may have a point, you're not just wrong, you're evil, stinking, rape-apologist misogynist scum. If you feel that Thunderf00t was wrong, but question censoring him, you are evil…blah blah blah. Not only do you have to agree with PZ's followers, you have to agree the RIGHT way. This seems dogmatic, almost religious to some people.

    I is also hard to show the real context, as PZ and other FtB cronies control the narrative. Many of the comments were sanitized, censored, removed…gone. No honest assessment can be made when pertinent comments were removed. Nor is there any point in putting in a large effort to convince people that are already dogmatic in their stance. Perhaps you are not one of them, and if so, I apologize.

    The funny thing is that I thought Thunderf00t was wrong about the whole harassment policy disagreement. I thought the policy was pretty harmless, perhaps beneficial and nothing to pick a fight over. I thought the way Thunderf00t's disagreement was handled, with censorship, insults and accusations of the most vile sort, was petty and immature. And if you mentioned this in the comments, you got insults, accusations of misogyny and worse. PZ made no attempt to be a moderating influence, indeed just the opposite.

    When insults take the place of reasoned discussion, when no dissent, even polite and considered is not tolerated, that begins to look an awful lot like Cephus' description of the situation above. It seems more a popularity contest than any skeptical inquiry. People defending PZ and the FtB crowd outside of FtBs only reinforce the notion that a religious-like dogmatism has prevailed over true skepticism. Some of the responses of FtB defenders on sites outside of FtBs are eerily similar to what happens when you question scientology.

  13. As an aside, Ron Paul actually does mean something in the grand scheme of things, if for the only reason that he's one of very few political figures in the public eye who is willing to consistently oppose military aggression, destruction of civil liberties and the war on drugs.

    Any debate you see Ron Paul in, regardless of his flaws, is most likely a debate where there would be no critical voice on the wars and the destruction of civil liberties if he was not there.

    When there is overwhelming bipartisan support for these issues, and these issues have a huge effect on millions of lives, the value of someone who stops these issues being ignored on a national stage should not be understated.

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