Recently, a large number of atheist groups got together and released an open letter to the online secular community, in general, trying to address the continuing debacle caused, in general, by the radical feminists, Atheism+ and other far left liberal groups who think they get to take over atheism to push their agendas. I’ve spoken about this many times in the past and I try to avoid repeating myself, but when something like this happens, I feel that I have to.
The very idea that there is an actual community of atheists is absurd. It’s hard to have a connected group of people that share nothing positive in common. Atheism is a non-belief, it is something that none of us do. There is nothing to atheism, atheism is inherently not a thing. It’s like the classic example of non-stamp-collecting. Not collecting stamps is not a thing either. That characteristic doesn’t tell you anything positive about the individuals who share it. The second you start talking about some positive characteristic, you’re no longer talking about atheism or non-stamp-collecting, you’re talking about something else.
The problem is, lots of atheists out there want to come together under the banner of atheism, yet insist that it has positive characteristics. That is simply false. If you want to be concerned with social justice or feminism or the environment or left-wing politics, that’s fine, just stop pretending that it’s atheism! All you’re doing is confusing the language and making other people who may not share your views look bad.
I’m fine with social justice, I support many, but not all, of the issues that are being bandied about, but social justice is not atheism. It fits better under the secular humanism label. We already have a term for what they’re trying to do, they simply don’t want to use it because then they won’t be in charge. For these people, control and power are all-important.
There are several points that are made in the letter and those are the things I want to directly address.
Moderate blogs and forums.
Any organization or individual engaged in blogging or administering a forum has an obligation to moderate comments. Slurs, threats, and so forth beget more of the same. Keeping our online spaces free of these elements creates a civil climate that makes it much easier for people to engage issues productively.
So, in other words, censor. Let’s be honest, that’s really what they’re talking about. Yes, I do moderate this blog but I only do so for spam. I virtually never do for content, and then, only for those that blatantly violate my comment policy. I have never and will never deleted a comment because I thought it might make someone sad. Further, I think that heavily moderation sets a very bad precedent. After all, look at what happened over at the Atheism+ forums. In their mad search for a “safe zone”, away from the mean words and pesky facts of those that don’t follow their beliefs, they turned the place, not into a safe zone, but into an echo chamber. You get to hear one and only one point of view there because anyone with a different opinion, especially an opinion that goes against the party line, gets deleted with extreme prejudice. This, I think, gives the impression to forum participants and true believers that they’ve somehow won the debate because they never get to see dissenting views, something that is not remotely true. There’s a difference between civil debate and no debate at all and for so many groups with delicate constitutions, their definition of “civil” is “nothing even remotely objectionable is allowed”. That is not a good idea.
Go offline before going online: pick up the phone.
When you hear that an organization or member of our community is doing something that you think is wrong or bad for the community, call and talk with them, find out what they are actually doing and why they are doing it. If you don’t have a phone number, send a private email and arrange a time to talk. So much of the time there’s more to the story, and talking to another person on the other side of the issue can help us more fully understand the situation. Plus, a phone call makes it easier for people who are making mistakes to change course, because they aren’t on the defensive as they would be after being called out publicly.
That’s largely not possible online because people’s direct contact information is virtually never made available publically. Yes, I invite people to address others directly, via e-mail, via Skype, via Twitter, etc. as it tends to be more effective than doing things publically, but I’ll also be honest, if someone I didn’t know asked me for my phone number, I’d tell them no. I might agree to get on Skype with them, only because it’s easy with Skype to block people, but you can’t do that easily with a regular telephone number. I’ve made the mistake in the past of giving my number to someone I shouldn’t have and had to endure weeks of them calling and screaming over the phone at all hours of the day and night. For an example, listen to any of the Atheist Experience shows when Matt from Oslo called. And for the record, no, the phone company will do nothing about it. It’s not an altogether horrible idea, just an unrealistic one.
But the more that I think about it, the Atheism+ side has a tendency, especially on Twitter, to block anyone who disagrees with them, therefore it’s a bit difficult to think that picking up the phone is an option at all. As I’ve said before, they don’t want to talk about the issues, they don’t want to have to defend their views, they just want everyone to accept them as unwaveringly true and anyone who won’t do so must be a misogynist.
We miss the nuances and differences within “the other side” once an issue becomes polarized, while continuing to see our side as filled with nuance and distinctions. There is a tendency to stop listening and treat everyone associated with an opposing position as a monolithic group. People can be painted with views that aren’t their own just because they may disagree with some aspects of your own position. We should listen more so we can see distinctions among those with opposing views and start to move toward a more accurate understanding of the issues rather than being deadlocked into two entrenched camps.
That’s all well and good, but these issues start out polarized and only go downhill from there. Mostly, these are problems with people who are entirely unable to compartmentalize their lives, they interject their pet bugaboos into every aspect of their day and can’t understand why others take exception. Since I just got back from Wondercon, I’ll use a geeky example. Suppose there was a person out there, and I assure you that there are plenty of them, who was so into Star Trek that they couldn’t talk about anything without including Star Trek in the discussion. They couldn’t talk about politics without bringing up the prime directive, they couldn’t discuss philosophy without pondering what Spock would do, etc. Most people, even those who like Star Trek, would find such a person to be obnoxious. That’s the same thing that happens with a lot of people in the atheist “community” today. They are so fixated on feminism or social justice or liberal causes that they cannot discuss any subject, even if it has nothing to do with their fixation, without bringing up that topic. We have a word for people like that: fanatics. I’m sure we’re all run into the religious that do the exact same thing, who can’t open their mouths without a bunch of religious drivel tumbling out. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t have political or social views or that they shouldn’t talk about them in the appropriate time and place, I’m saying that the appropriate time is not all the time and the appropriate place is not everyplace. I find the above statement funny because it says we shouldn’t pretend people are a monolithic group, when it’s the radical feminists and the social justice advocates who are insisting exactly that, that all atheists must act as a monolithic group on their particular issue.
Dial down the drama.It’s tempting to overuse inflammatory and derogatory rhetoric. It gets attention. We should be cautious about using this tactic within our community because of the long-term damage it does to relationships and morale. When critiquing people within our community, everyone should remember that our goal is to persuade our allies to see our perspective and modify their opinions. Insults don’t change opinions; they harden them.
This is really the only point that ought to be made, although I’d put it a different way. Shut the hell up. See, I think these atheist groups understand the problem, I think they recognize who the troublemakers are, but they’re afraid to just open their mouths and be honest about it. They’re trying not to drive away potential donations. I, however, have no such restrictions, I have no money to drive away, therefore I can speak my mind. This is not an issue of two groups of rational scientists utilizing the scientific method to come to a valid, scientific conclusion. This is a group of hyper-emotional individuals with an extremely biased position which they cannot bring themselves to doubt no matter what is said by the other side. Let’s not forget that at least some people on that side have a vested interest in keeping the level of drama up, they make money from it. The more hits they get, the more page-views they can attract, the more ad revenue they make. They try to deny it, but come on, it’s painfully obvious by the way they act, the second the furor dies down, the level of inanity goes up to bring the crowds back to their door. Dialing down the drama only works so long as the drama benefits neither side, which isn’t the case here.
Be more charitable.
We should remember that the purpose of argument within our community is to come to shared and correct conclusions that move us forward, not to score points against the opposing side. To that end, we should apply the principle of charity, which tells us to aim our argument against the best interpretation of the opposing arguments rather than picking off weaker versions. By applying the principle of charity we will elevate the discussion so we’re actually talking about our real differences, not just engaging in a pointless exchange.
No, the purpose of any argument is to come to the truth. I don’t know where people get the idea that argument and discussion mean the same thing. They do not. Don’t fool yourself, this is not a bunch of people sitting around a table discussing their favorite coffee, this is more like scientific peer-review, where only the best ideas survive and nothing is sacred. There is a best-supported position here and the job of everyone involved is not only to discover which it is, but to reject lesser-supported positions as inferior. That’s not charity. You don’t have scientists looking at the case brought by creationists, if creationists ever bothered to actually bring a case, and say “awww, we’ll be nice to you and give you a pass because we don’t want to hurt your feelings.” No, it is the job of science to go for the jugular and ferret out the actual truth from the pseudo-scientific nonsense and that is exactly what rational, critical atheists need to do here with regard to the claims of Atheism+ and other similar groups. But the problem is, the views of these groups is not rational in nature, it’s not based on evidence, reason and critical evaluation. It’s based on emotion. Therefore, any attack on their views, any questioning of their beliefs, is going to trigger an emotional response, just like it does with theism. If you doubt the claims of a Christian, more often than not, they are going to lash out at you emotionally, their view of the world and of themselves is wrapped up in their religious beliefs and you cannot dismiss one without inherently making them feel like you’re dismissing the other. We have to recognize the problem and that’s something I don’t think that American Atheists and other groups have done.
Trust but verify.Before we believe and repost something we see, we should ask ourselves about the evidence provided and the context. It’s easy for multiple people saying the same thing to look like a lot of evidence, but if their statements are all based on the same original source, they do not constitute independent verification. We should look for the original data and corroboration from independent sources before believing and spreading claims.
Wow, the very idea of being skeptical and rational in the atheist “community”? Nah, it would never work. We have to remember that, as I’ve said before, these are people who are not operating skeptically, they are operating emotionally. The only evidence they care about is that it feels good. I’m sorry, but feeling good is not a measure of fact, it never has been and never will be. The people who are wildly requoting and retweeting anything that comes along that they agree with aren’t concerned whether it’s true or not, any more than theists online who do the same thing care if what they’re repeating is factually true. They believe it, it gives them an emotional boost to think it’s so, therefore they kick it down the line.
Help others along.
We should remember that we weren’t born knowing the things we know now. To get to the reasoned conclusions that we’ve reached, we learned by reading, thinking, and talking with others. When we encounter someone espousing a view we think is based on lack of knowledge or experience, we should remember that we have all held ill-informed views. We should cultivate patience and try to educate instead of condemn.
I find this one both a bit absurd and a bit painfully obvious. Yes, we should absolutely help anyone who wants our help, we should definitely extend a helping hand to anyone who is willing to take it, but that just doesn’t seem to be the case here. It’s not possible to educate people who think they already know it all. Yes, we have all held ill-informed views, but we ended up discovering that fact only because we were willing to examine our own heartfelt beliefs and reject them if they proved to be indefensible. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. You have one group who are completely and totally enamored with their beliefs and nothing anyone says will change that.
There’s something I’ve long recognized and it’s become even more clear to me on this issue. There are a lot of similarities between the social justice groups like Atheism+ and the religious. Both want to control the language. In the gay marriage debate, the religious want to take ownership of the word “marriage” and define what it means. In these social justice groups, they want to do the same and claim control over the word “atheism”. Only those people who follow “accepted” political beliefs can call themselves atheists, otherwise they have to crawl back into the sewers, to paraphrase Richard Carrier. It also strikes me that a lot of lefty-causes do the same thing. The liberal black power movement wants to claim control over the term “African-American” as a code word for being black and deny it to people who are non-black, but are both African and American. It’s really absurd.
Of course, once I started writing this post, I knew it was something I had to get on the podcast and so this is one of the few issues that I’m tackling both in print and via voice, I typically try not to cross-platform my views, but I think the two are different enough to warrant a different handling in each format. I’ll try not to let it happen too frequently.