Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Motherfucker May I

Baer: After covering the “eight rival religions,” you give atheism a tenuous position within that pantheon by adding a ninth chapter dedicated to the topic. You write that “atheism is a religion of sorts, or can be.” Isn’t this a contradiction in terms?

Prothero: One argument of my coda on the New Atheism is that many atheists are religious against their own intentions. But not all New Atheists are religious. It depends on the person. But atheism as a whole would be less religious if it were less emotional and less evangelistic.

Baer: Proselytizing atheists like Dawkins have carved out a niche within a largely religious public sphere. Would a less emotional, less evangelistic atheism be capable of maintaining even this degree of influence?

Prothero: I feel quite certain that a less emotional and less evangelistic atheism would garner far more influence. Atheism has a brand problem. Lots of the people who do not believe in God refuse to call themselves atheists. Why? Because they don’t want to be associated with proselytizers.

- KTB

Oh, come on. Atheism as a type of religion? Wow, never heard that one before. Rule of thumb: when you start using false equivalencies that my brother has used on me, it's time to stop, back up, and rethink some things before you disappear down a rabbit hole.

This is a shame, as I like Prothero's writing. I've been favorably quoting him recently, and I certainly am looking forward to reading this new book. But really, what bullshit. Call me jaded, call me overly suspicious, but I can't help but suspect that some people would prefer it if atheists spent so much time soft-pedaling their statements, massaging egos and apologizing in advance for any hurt feelings that may result that they never got around to making their actual arguments in favor of atheism.

Just once, I wish one of these concern trolls would actually point out specifically what it is that the "New Atheists" have said that is so gratuitously offensive and off-putting as to hurt their cause. (I mean, it's only been about six years since Harris's The End of Faith was published, so comparing recent public opinions of atheism to the largely unfavorable ones that existed previously -- you know, when atheists were less emotional and evangelistic -- should be easy enough to do.) Unlike a lot of their critics, I actually have read what Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and Dennett have written, and even Hitchens and Harris, the two more controversial members of the Four Horsemen, have gone out of their way to stress their respect for individual believers and make clear their stance on differentiating people from dogma. In fact, most of the controversy surrounding those two is based in a dishonest attempt to smear their atheism by associating it with other positions they've taken that have nothing to do with it. Harris has been hysterically accused around the web of being a fascist eugenicist for his recent attempts to argue that morality can be given a scientific grounding, and Hitchens has been on every liberal's shit-list for the last decade due to his support for the Iraq war and exhortations to invade Iran (both of which, I would argue, are rooted in his former Trotskyism rather than in any newfound neoconservatism, but that's neither here nor there). Once again, it seems pretty obvious that the real problem everyone has with this assertive atheism is the fact that its spokespeople have the effrontery to not act ashamed of themselves in public. But people are going to be offended upon being told, in any tone, that the beliefs they claim as the bedrock of their existence are false and even detrimental. There's no way around that. And like I said, the motives to make the debate all about our tender feelings rather than the issues themselves should be transparent. You can only make so much of an effort to be conciliatory before you just have to conclude that your opponent is not operating in good faith, at which point, you just gotta say "Fuck 'em".

Civility, then. I've had a variant of this discussion myself, given my status as an openly aspiritualist, atheist blogger (and a foul-mouthed one at that), with teeming multitudes of readers who hang on my every word. Shouldn't I aim to be more persuasive than abrasive? Don't I risk closing someone's mind to my viewpoint by not making a Herculean effort to reassure them that I mean no offense? Wouldn't I catch more flies with honey than vinegar, and who the fuck wants to catch flies to begin with? What am I aiming for anyway?

Here's the thing: in debate class in seventh grade, we were taught how to make calm, dispassionate arguments on topics near and dear to our hearts, and how to separate the argument from the person making it. If twelve year-old kids could handle that with a little coaching, I'm going to start from the assumption that we are all adults and can easily do the same. Plus, I simply don't have the time to preface every potentially offensive statement I make with apologies and pleas for patience and understanding. I'm trusting that you, dear reader, are willing and able to do some of the work yourself.

As for my intentions, well, I don't really have any other than to speak the truth as I see it, mostly for my own amusement. I go after targets that I have no possible hope of taking down, where I have no expectation of being able to convince anyone to agree with me, and I'm grateful to them for giving me something to test my strength against. My concept of intellectual honesty requires me to go after expressions of self-serving bullshit and bad faith, but I'm always very aware of the difference between official doctrine and the way individual believers and practitioners apply those principles to their lives, and I adjust accordingly. The context matters. I would never be rude in person to someone sharing their honest thoughts and feelings about religion because that's just needlessly crushing to put someone in a position where they can't save face.

In the context of a pseudonymous blog, though? Assuming some unfortunate spiritually-inclined person stumbles across my blog and gets a nasty shock, they can easily dismiss me as some asshole on the Internet and go blithely on their way. But maybe, if I'm lucky, I planted some seeds of doubt or nagging suspicion by just speaking plainly and honestly, and they can delve into those on their own time in a way that's comfortable to them, if they want to. Plus, I'm also aware that some of my own intellectual awakenings have come by way of being rudely shocked out of my dogmatic slumber, to quote Kant, so I honestly don't feel that being offended is always such a bad thing. Someone being an asshole for the pure hell of it is one thing, but sometimes, feeling offended by something you read is a sign of insecurity or complacency on your end, and investigating that is obviously a good thing.

I aim for some perfect midpoint, to try to identify and criticize a theme that touches on a large number of people without totally encompassing any of them. To whatever extent that's not the case, that's just due to my own shortcomings as a writer. I try to generalize enough to allow wiggle room for someone to say, "That's not me! I'm not like that at all!", while perhaps carrying away that nagging doubt I mentioned.

2 comments:

Shanna said...

Wiggle room! Spiritually-minded! That, sir, lands like a gauntlet across my cheek. A duel!

I am one of the spiritually-minded superstitious masses. Even worse, I'm "New Agey" (though I believe the term itself is passe)

I was raised in a WASPy community where I even practiced scripture for first communion with my catholic classmates. In high school, "disillusioned" and seeking the cold harsh "truth" I declared myself an atheist.

Later on I became more of a humanist, and god forgive me, I lent this benevolent personification to the universe at large.

I have found, by and large, that the characteristics that people lend to the universe directly correspond to how they relate to the world. If you believe that the universe is cold and impersonal, inimical to human life, well, it tends to inform your interactions with people as well. If you believe that "all's for the best in the best of all possible worlds" (btw, I always got lost on the assumption that this WAS the best of all possible worlds)
then you put that little seed of faith to use in your interactions. Never attribute to malice what can be equally attributed to ignorance

Call it a self-fulfilling prophecy, or whatever other psychological bias you choose to attribute, but I have found (illogically and emotionally based as this correlation may be)that the more I place faith in the universe bringing me exactly what I need, be it money, aid, a sharp lesson in manners, whatever, the more I find that I see opportunity, benevolence, and a sense of interdependence that I never had when I believed myself tossed and battered by the waves of circumstance and atheist philosophy.

I may be looked down upon, seem emotional and weak-willed for refusing to acknowledge that there is no god and even if there was, why would he give a shit about you? I don't read scriptures, or attend church, and I don't even think of it as a "faith". I have no position on what happens after life, and no position on what moral code the people around me should be following.

But I do choose to believe that life is really just a really glorious educational curriculum, and not only is the playing field not even, it's even stacked a little in my favor in order to ensure that I learn as much as possible and share what i can with others.

The Vile Scribbler said...

I have found, by and large, that the characteristics that people lend to the universe directly correspond to how they relate to the world. If you believe that the universe is cold and impersonal, inimical to human life, well, it tends to inform your interactions with people as well.

I haven't found any correlation myself. I know both traditionally religious people and New Agers who are selfish and mean-spirited, and then you have people like me, who are practically secular saints and bring joy, sunshine and birdsong into the lives of every person we interact with.

Hopefully, it's needless to say, but I'll say it anyway: I have no problem with someone choosing to see life as a learning experience and a chance to spread happiness and understanding. Even if it's a fiction, it's a useful one, psychologically speaking. Now, if you were the type to yammer on endlessly about it in an annoying, chipper way, I'd probably feel forced to have to point out that you are "choosing" to see it that way, and other, gloomier viewpoints are no less valid just because they're harder to stomach.

I would call it a self-fulfilling prophecy; you do tend to see what you have your mind set upon seeing. But again, it doesn't necessarily follow that a materialist view of the universe and an afterlife means that one can't see and feel positive things in life.

There was a storyline in the HBO series Oz where a prisoner was in for murdering a guy who had introduced him to the concept of the heat death of the universe and other materialist ideas. It had totally ruined his ability to find meaning in life. Put that way, though, it was so self-evidently ludicrous -- who the hell cares what's going to happen in five billion years? We're alive now, and we create meaning within our relationships to each other. Why should that be meaningless just because it's not eternal?

(Once again, Plato ruins everything by teaching us to devalue what we actually have in favor of abstract concepts that don't exist.)