Saturday, December 8, 2012

Questions from an LH Reader

A little while back we received a message from a reader named Mark on the Left Hemispheres facebook page asking us some questions about how we go about this whole atheist/skeptic blog thing without being overwhelmed. It’s a great question considering the burnout factor of many bloggers and the fact that the ones that “burn out” are the minority that actually lasted longer than a few months. Without further adieu...

Questions edited for brevity:

How do you (the writers) not turn crazy amidst all this lunacy that goes on (since researching and writing seems to be a daily task), and turn away from a "know-it-all" arrogant attitude.

STEVE: Hmm. Well, I do get frustrated and many times (as the other guys can attest to) I claim I’m not doing this anymore (I think I am on a quarterly schedule of wanting to quit). What brings me back and keeps me going is partially a fear of the consequences of shutting up and—to be honest—someone has to do it. What keeps me going is the thought that if I were to shut up, a) I may go crazy without the outlet for my ideas, and b) as small of a voice as I might have, then there would be one less voice. Not that someone else couldn’t do this, mind you. There is nothing special about us other than the willingness to say what we say. Nick used a Jello Biafra quote in his last essay and it resonates with me: “Don’t hate the media, become the media!” Blogging, for all the smart ass remarks about it, is a fantastic medium for those of us without the resources in the “mainstream” media.

What keeps me from not having the “’know-at-all’ arrogant attitude?” Well first off thanks for thinking that we don’t sound like that. Second, I clearly don’t know it all. Not even close. I don’t even “know” that god doesn’t exist (though this is not a 50/50 proposition). I am very confident that whatever gods people claim to know are false and the religions constructed around them are therefore simply false if not dangerously so. Additionally, while many of my religious family and friends may see my outspoken atheism as arrogant and condescending, I think it is because no one likes their deeply held beliefs challenged (cognitive dissonance is a motherfucker). However, I remind myself that they are my friends and family and that I love them. If we atheists are quick to point out that religion is unnecessary to be a good person, then I think we need to recognize that religion does not automatically make someone a bad person. It is their actions and behaviors that truly matter, and for the most part, people don’t follow all the bullshit they are “supposed” to.

ADAM: Avoiding the know-it-all attitude is something I take very seriously. Few things annoy me more than arrogance. My ZEN quote about this is “Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.” Our goal is to challenge ideas and make people think about the positions they hold. The scientific/skeptic outlook demands that we place more emphasis on asking the correct questions than on providing satisfactory (and potentially incorrect) answers. I have said before that my former spiritual quest was a search for Truth, not God.

As for my technique for maintaining my sanity while pouring through literally thousands of articles about abuse, misogyny, hatred and bigotry from the various religious practitioners: well, I don’t. It IS maddening that so many people devote their lives to, or condemn others in the name of a deity that either does not exist or does not care to reveal itself. That anger and frustration is what fuels and inspires me to call attention to the horrors committed by those people. I use blogging as an outlet for that frustration. [Insert gratuitous RATM lyric: “Your anger is a GIFT]. When it comes to people violating the constitution (and offending reason) by teaching creationism in science class in Tennessee, or throwing battery acid in the faces of children branded as witches in Africa someone needs to talk about it. Right now. we’re a thorn in the paw of religion. We aspire to be the spear between the ribs.

On a lighter note, when religion is not horrific it’s a wellspring of absurdity and a great source of morbid entertainment. See Christian Rock” or Deepak Chopra.

I find it hard sometimes to keep an open mind on a topic when I have thoroughly, (to the best of my ability) thought it out rationally.

STEVE: I try and keep the following two quotes in mind when I think about this:

“It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

“If you open your mind too much your brain will fall out.” —Tim Minchin

I’m not sure what else to say about that. Just strike a balance between those two concepts.

ADAM: My educational background is in psychology (Developmental psychology in practice) so I tend to look at religious thought as a cultural construct. Sometimes that gives me the distance needed to objectively evaluate things. I really just try to be aware of my own bias and stay skeptical of myself. There is nothing wrong with settling on an opinion about something as long as you can reasonably defend it. A good rule of thumb is that if you find yourself so emotionally attached to a belief that you become upset or defensive when it is questioned: you’ve got dogma. You may want to reevaluate your position.

Steve again: I should add that my education is an anthropology (though my specialty is archaeology) so I also see a lot of this through the prism of culture. I can't compartmentalize all of it as I reject relativism in my personal life and I myself am human so I do get “righteously” pissed off and use that in some of my writing and the podcast. As my language can attest to.

How do you remain tolerant of the intolerant, without feeling you have somehow sacrificed your own moral convictions?

STEVE: I generally don’t. This has been hard for me as I do not actually like being confrontational. There are times when I am confronted with something I find objectionable in a situation where I feel I cannot freely speak up (i.e. at work), but for the most part I will voice my opposition. If it is in a situation that is delicate (i.e. at work) I try to state my disagreement as calmly and rationally as possible. I think using as little words as possible and avoiding the use of “zingers” and clich├ęd one-liners helps in these situations.

Example regarding religious opposition to same-sex marriage:

Don’t: “It must be nice to have an imaginary friend that agrees with everything you think and has the same opinion of others as you do.”

While this mocking statement may be true it doesn’t advance anything and really only leaves you open for problems since you are likely in the minority.

Do: “I strongly disagree since I don’t accept that belief and more importantly I don’t have to. I am not forced to share or adhere to your beliefs.”

It’s not sexy, but it tends to shut people up. It may even allow that person to think about what you said. Mockery most certainly has its place, but should be used intelligently.

Finally, I try and live by an ideal put forth by Thomas Paine. For all my “piss and vinegar” about religion and the religious (and conservatism) I think it is important to keep the following sentiment in mind in order to avoid dehumanizing people:

“He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.” —Thomas Paine

This has become my mantra, and when I begin lose perspective, I come back to this ideal.

ADAM: I think this is just a matter of tact and timing. I am resolved that I will not be able to change the minds of most people. Religious thoughts/ideologies are deeply rooted and intertwined with a person’s identity. It’s so intrinsic to some people’s perceptions that they often don’t notice it until it is called into question. This is the reason the existence of non-believers is so upsetting to them. There are emotional ties, and loyalties to overcome as well.

This is what I try to think of when I find myself in a social situation with an intolerant person. I think we can and should challenge these people but you need to evaluate the goal before you plan the attack. If your goal is to change the mind of the individual then respectfully state your case in private. If your goal is to make your dissent public then you need to be careful to keep the conversation light. If the other person is fighting against their own embarrassment, then you’re not going to get anywhere. I find that the people who ask questions are open to hearing the answers. If the other person just wants to bark gospel at you then you’re wasting your time.

As for my moral convictions, I try to live by them and lead by example. I am the sole example of atheism for many people I know. I don’t need to argue every religious affirmation I hear.

Thanks Mark!


krissthesexyatheist said...

When I grapple with "the burnout" I try and remind myself how important THIS is.


ps. sometimes it even works...