Monday, July 16, 2012

It's Just Atheism, Part I

Something that has been bothering me about the atheist “movement” recently is this tendency to homogenize various other qualities into “atheism.”

I understand the need to be seen as and operate as a larger group with some core identifier, but what is that core identifier? Many atheists speak on behalf of atheism and atheists everywhere as if there is some consensus on what it means to not believe in the existence of a supernatural deity outside of the fact that we do not believe in the existence of a supernatural deity. This inclination to paint with broad strokes is nothing new in human group interactions, but we must recognize that “atheism” is an awful adjective to define ourselves as a group or individually. Yes, yes this topic has been hashed over ad nauseam, but I’m trying to make a different point then the simple semantic one that has been floating out there on the internetz for a while now.

Self-labeling and the use of the term “atheist” is—for me—a strictly activist thing to do. I use it to gauge people’s reactions to the word (and therefore me). I use it to desensitize stigmas. I use it to piss people off. If someone gets uncomfortable, offended, or agitated at the mere mention of the word they deserve to be confronted with the reality that we exist and are standing right next to them.



While I generally dislike assigning philosophical meanings and morality systems to atheism, I understand the drive to do it. I catch myself doing it from time to time as well. The desire to conflate a lack of belief in god(s) to a scientific, progressive, libertarian, rationalist, naturalist, secularist, humanist, skeptical, feminist, antitheist or any philosophy or method is a potentially powerful force in the culture wars. All the various cats can be herded together under one big cat tent. It brings a sense of belonging, unity, and power. Together we are stronger. There is no denying this. Anyone that attended the Reason Rally in Washington D.C. or the Global Atheist Convention down in Oz can tell you that. I fear, however, that it is also fraught with a potentially critical and indefensible weakness. Atheism with adjectives as appendages is ultimately not inclusive and therefore inadequate.

Atheism’s inadequacy lies in its definition. Now, not all of us agree on these definitions to define ourselves or to even define the concept of atheism in general. I myself think some of these definitions are outright incorrect. Additionally, we actively challenge some of these definitions when they are used by theists to try and somehow define atheism into a religion. Which, by the way, is really stupid my theist friends.

I’m not suggesting that we allow others to define us, or to abandon what one is comfortable labeling themselves as. What I am suggesting is awareness of the limitations of atheism; both as a description and as a structure to append other descriptions to. I know when I first started thinking about atheism’s inadequacy and listening to other points on the subject up I could feel my cognitive dissonance kicking in. FIGHT IT! I said. Punch that cognitive dissonance square in the confirmation bias!

We are all atheists for different reasons. I’ve been tinkering with this post for several weeks now and in the meantime PZ Myers wrote “What kind of atheist are you?” Of course, many people immediately took it the wrong way given all the internal strife and drama (DRAMA!) at Freethought Blogs; however, I have to say I had no problem with this post. I don’t agree with him, but again I understand the drive to herd us all together. As PZ says, he is “more of a lumper than a splitter.” That’s fine. I get that, but whether it’s his four categories (Scientific, Philosophical, Political, and Humanist) or my tendency to be a “splitter” I think this is inadequate and misleading (unintentionally).

Where PZ and I agree is that people are atheists for a variety of reasons. Some atheists are skeptical and do not accept the unsubstantiated claims of others. Some atheists are rational and do not accept the logical possibility of a deity as described by every religion. Some atheists are Cynics. Some just don't feel like there is something out there. Some lost their previous faith for a variety of reasons. Some just don't care. Whatever it is there are a lot of reasons to not believe in god(s).

Given all this it needs to be mentioned that while one person may reject the god concept due to reasoned skepticism another may think the god concept is merely unjustified. Many atheists conflate atheism with science or rational thought; which on some level is also kind of stupid. There are plenty of atheists that are neither scientifically literate nor rational; which is fine by the way! By smashing all these things into one “atheistic philosophy” we will inevitably start to exclude some atheists. Not all atheists went to college. Higher education is not a prerequisite to atheism (nor scientific literacy or rationality) and the assumption is pretentious and counterproductive since it alienates those who simply do not believe in god. You don’t need to know how evolution works to think belief in god is unjustified. You really, really don’t. That knowledge is great to counter creationist claims, but it is actually completely unnecessary to be an atheist. Let’s realize this.

Not only do I reject the assertion of the supernatural and a deity; I reject the notion that it is even a serious question. The only reason I care about it at all is because this irrationality affects me, my life, my future, the future of my family, the future of our species, and probably the future of the planet and all other species. I care about all this…except Pandas. Fuck pandas. Lazy bastards.

The point being is that PZ’s four categories or my older opinion of the adjectives of Atheism, New Atheism, and Antitheism do not necessarily cover all the bases of the reasons for being an atheist. Atheists need not care about science, philosophy, politics or humanism. They don’t have to be scientists or rationalists. They may not care enough to be against religion at all. When we lump all these groups together and say “this is what we are” we are automatically excluding those that live quietly on our side of the fence. These are the people that need to be attracted to being, at a minimum, open about their irreligion and be comfortable with it. This is not a critique of the outspoken. Without them (us) we would get nowhere. My critique lies within the drawing of battle lines that need not be drawn.


Jack Carlson said...

To me atheism is a single point of disagreement (I do not share belief) with a single set of people (god believers). All else falls under the category of what I do believe. The fact that I value the contributions of science and humanism to mankind are positive beliefs I hold that are influenced to a small degree but not mandated by my atheistic stance.

Steve said...

I agree, Jack. Thanks for the comment.

I've previously argued my stance on the premise of atheism and based on that logic I think appending various philosophical and political agendas to it is incorrect. Having said that, I agree with most of these agendas, but it is under the wrong flag so to speak. Feminism, LGBT rights, equality, rational thought, etc. all fit under the umbrella of Secular Humanism more comfortably.

I also see a distinction between my atheism and my antitheism.

@blamer said...

I think the familiar "drawing of battle lines" is best explained another way: New Atheists have adopted the framing that's used by christian leaders.

If atheism has spawned a social movement, it's a religio-political one. The Religious Right insist a moral contest of ideas is "an epic battle of good vs evil". Well fine says Dawkins et al: EVERYONE PICK A SIDE. URGENTLY. FOR GOD'S SAKE.

Religion vs science. The bible vs the secular. Seminaries vs universities. Holymen vs academics. Monotheistic moralizers vs ethical infidels. Are heretics inferior to loyalists? Yes/No. Come with us or get out of our way.

Dawkins et al are quite aware that this "us vs them" framing commits a logical fallacy, however here it makes some sense: we've arrived too late in history to this dance-off to choose the music, so we can either step up to compete with politico-religionists or stay seated.

A note for those feeling the pull of liberal centerism...
Progressives historically tend to prefer nuanced wonk closer to the Dalai Lama who can be heard saying Buddhist teachings must yield to contemporary knowledge of this world. Note, if he was installed as the leader of Jesus fans tomorrow his kind of talk might knock the wind out of the Religious Right and thus New Atheism. History suggests that isn't what conservative institutions are doing when their members/hierarchy are given that choice. We're naive to think that given time "they" like "us" will prefer to break that pattern. Especially if they see "them" doing it.