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.