Friday, July 10, 2009

In Defense of not Being Hospitable

Reading PZ Myers’ latest response to attacks against those horrible, hateful, petty New Atheists has gotten me thinking. Especially since this comes the day after I learned that PZ regularly reads Slacktivist. Yes, that Slacktivist. The one written by Fred Clark, a not-at-all-stereotypical Baptist. I’ve recently said that I’m starting to see what the “New Atheists” do in an increasingly positive light. That doesn’t mean I fully agree with them. For instance, although I read and appreciated god is not Great, I tend to argue that Hitchens cherry-picked his way to his thesis that “religion poisons everything.” I don’t think that religion poisons everything by any stretch of the imagination. Religion isn’t necessarily a force for good at all (or even a majority of the) time and by the time it gets tangled with politics and social mores and control it does more harm than good, but it doesn’t poison everything. Still, as a rhetorical device Hitchens’ book is spot on. Too often we’re subjected to the idea that religion is this benevolent force for good in the world and that the religious can’t be questioned. What god is not Great does is define the arena. On the other side we have those who say that without god everyone is a horrible, depraved person who would rape babies six times before breakfast. The next step is to say, “Okay, who has proof?” Hitchens can point to Catholic collaboration with Nazi Germany, any number of horrid Biblical laws, intra-religious violence like in Bosnia and Rwanda, and any number of other things. Those on the opposite side of the debate usually resort to Bible passages about how the flesh is weak or arguments like, “Well, Hitler and Stalin were atheists, so there!” Then there’s the favored canard about how Darwinism = Social Darwinism = all evolutionists call for the killing of the weaker races. This argument then gets repeated ad nauseum. But an interesting thing happens. Every time it comes up those who agree with Hitchens can provide actual examples to back up the argument. Those who disagree can only offer the same tired rants that are then proven false time and again. For not only are the arguments about Social Darwinism and Hitler and Stalin substantively wrong, we have plenty of examples of people who are not religious and also not immoral. This, unfortunately, is an evolutionary argument instead of a revolutionary one. It takes time to build up the critical mass of the arguments in to a larger social movement that should, hopefully, one day stand up and say, “You know what? We’re going to stop listening to these idiots who claim that only religion offers morality.” That’s a generational thing, though. The child of a religious parent casts off the familial religion and then teaches his or her child to not think of religion as the final arbiter of right and wrong. But certain things need to happen first. The main thing is that we need to get rid of the attitude of a large number of soon-to-be parents. Specifically the attitude that says, “I haven’t been to church in ten years, but now I’m about to have a kid and I don’t know how to raise him without the morals of the church.” That’s been a more-or-less default position. But if that parent has also recently read Hitchens they might think, “Y’know…never mind.” This is why those arguments must be allowed in the public sphere and cannot be suppressed. Similarly, the harshest critics of creation “science” are generally the ones leading the charge when jackasses like Rick Perry try to appoint horribly incompetent and politically dangerous people like Cynthia Dunbar to head the Texas School Board. This is an issue where we cannot afford to be moderate or accomodationist in our stances. Dominionist nut jobs cannot be allowed to decide on the policies of our public school system. Not only is it bad for the country, it’s bad for the poor children who will be poorly served. Yes, Ken Miller was one of the key voices at Dover v. Kitzmiller when real science won out of religious superstition. In the future courts are probably far more likely to call Ken Miller to testify than PZ Myers. And that’s fine. You don’t need to be a “New Atheist” to want creationism as far from the classroom as possible. In fact there are any number of religious people out there who see why only evolution should be taught in the classroom. I was once one of them. I went to church on Sunday and took honors biology, chemistry, and physics Monday through Friday in high school. If someone had come in even then and said my high school needed to start teaching creationism I would have laughed them out of the room. But even if Ken Miller can hold the line in the courtroom we still need PZ Myers, Daniel Dennett, and Richard Dawkins to do what they do and hold the line in the court of public opinion. Anybody who says that they’re doing more harm than good doesn’t understand the nature of the religious opposition. At the very least (and believe me, I would argue that they do far more than this), they distract the creationists. Most people in the evangelical and fundamentalist circles don’t have a clue what Myers or Dawkins actually say or believe. Their lack of belief in god and desire for actual scientific exploration are turned in to some weird notion that they have absolutely claimed there is no god and science can prove it. This is then turned in to some sort of weird atheist-scientific conspiracy to destroy religion and enact Social Darwinian programs to create the ideal atheistic state or some other such tomfoolery. I think I’ve mentioned it before, but I first learned of Dawkins and Dennett when I was still in church. As I was in my transitional period I found a copy of Jonathan Miller’s Brief History of Disbelief. In the program Miller talks to Dawkins. I was surprised to realize that, far from being a fire-breathing demagogue, he was a witty, urbane, and seemingly rather polite individual. I liked Dawkins. I similarly found that Christopher Hitchens was humorous and thoughtful and far more moderate in his views and willing to hear his opponents out than I’d been led to believe. Then, of course, there was yesterday’s revelation that PZ reads Slacktivist. The thing is, the hard-core religious don’t give a shit about any of this. They need an enemy. It’s directly analogous to the “global war on terror.” The Bush Administration needed a latter-day Soviet Union to fight against so it started finding terrorists under every rock and decrying anyone and everyone as somehow complicit in a plot to destroy the United States and capable of doing so. Of course, unlike Saddam Hussein science does have the ability to win the fight it finds itself in. That’s what has the Discovery Institute and Answers in Genesis and all their ilk running scared. That’s why those who are entrenched in conflict with science fight as hard as they do and use the tactics they use. That’s why if there were no PZ Myers, Richard Dawkins, or Daniel Dennett they’d be going after Ken Miller and the Templeton Institute. Those who espouse a fundamentalist and literalist religion are not trustworthy allies. They take the admonition in Matthew 12:30 seriously: “Who ever is not with me is against me; and he who does not gather with me scatters.” Right now it's convenient for the fundies to pretend they want to work with scientists as long as everyone is in an alliance of sorts against the New Atheists. As soon as they're out of the picture, though, enemy of my enemy stops being a friend. The truth is, too, that it’s not just scientists who are in danger. Those liberal religious types who think evolution is a pretty neat idea are in their crosshairs, too. Look at how much shit Obama and Clinton have gotten because they are Democrats who don’t follow the gospel of godandRepublicanParty. This is a zero-sum game for the literalist Christians. It’s one they’re losing and they know it. So they double-back and attempt to get Cynthia Dunbar on the Texas BOE or get children to go to the Creation Museum instead of the Field Museum of Natural History. They whine and bitch and moan that they’re given no voice, no quarter, when they really get way more airtime than they should and would not offer the same courtesy to their opponents. I may not be a famous internet atheist, but I have to deal with this too. I’m one of those formerly religious types who alternately scares and infuriates my former brethren (and sistren, I suppose). When one of them gets their claws in to me I instantly find myself in a no-win situation. Everything I say is taken as some sort of bitterness, anger, or hardening my heart against god, my decision to leave religion behind is automatically assumed to be based on some single, horrible moment that I need to find healing for, and if I don’t moderate my own position or make sure to include some positive, fluffy things about my religious days then I’m apparently doing it all wrong. To wit, from a heated discussion back in April:
“Geds”, I hope you don’t take insult to my oppositions; I am interested in dialog, and furthermore hope that you don’t silence my voice by deleting this. In addition to my regular thoughts of you, I also worry about the searching people who stumble upon your posts and don’t hear other sides to your stance.
You know what? He should worry that searching people stumble upon my blog and don’t hear the other side of the story. Because my stance is that my life has gotten better without religion, that there’s little out there to convince me to go back, and that the institution of religion is pretty much screwed up. (Also, he wasn't interested in discussion. Seeing as he was a long-time reader who only decided to start commenting after I wrote a post entitled "How to Talk to an Evangelical," wherein he immediately started telling me all the things I was doing wrong and didn't understand. And the prooftexting. Always with the prooftexting.) I have no real agenda. I only have my story. The fact that my story is about somebody who grew up religious then found the whole thing is untenable is terrifying and dangerous to some people. The other thing I do is actively encourage anyone else who has a story about religion to share it, too. A lot of those stories contain similar things to mine. Whether they do or not, I try to engage with the people who take the time to post here. Unless they’re just trying to proselytize (um, for religion. Anyone who wants to share the good news of an awesome band or delicious beer is welcome). I don’t have the time or patience for that. My stance on proselytizers on my blog is simple: Fuck ‘em. They’re not worth the time. So I have this to say to all the “New Atheists” out there (who probably aren’t listening, but…hey): Keep it up. You’re fighting a fight we can’t afford to lose as a society. And anyone who says you’re going to far should realize that you’re insulating them from the wrath of the fundamentalist by your very existence.


Sniffnoy said...

But what reasonable person would say that Daniel Dennett is a problem? :-/

PersonalFailure said...

yeah, you can ignore "you're going too far!" when said by the person who condemns us all to eternal torment. (tu quoque blahblahblah)

big a said...

"my decision to leave religion behind is automatically assumed to be based on some single, horrible moment that I need to find healing for, and if I don’t moderate my own position or make sure to include some positive, fluffy things about my religious days then I’m apparently doing it all wrong."

This was precisely my experience. In early March of 2007, while en route to a job interview in my car, I was struck head-on by another vehicle with both us traveling about 50mph. I had three broken bones, spent 8 days in the hospital, and couldn't walk for three months. This, by any definition, would constitute a "horrible event" in my life.

It was almost a year later when I finally walked away from Christianity.

My former fellow Christians declared on numerous occaisons that my faith had been shaken/destroyed by the wreck, neglecting to notice or recognize that I was still trying to make my faith "work" well after the incident. One, in particular, lamented the event as the cause of her losing one of her "mentors" (which was in and of itself foolish because I had never tried to be her mentor, and the only regard in which she could perceive me so was in the realm of biblical knowledge).
At the time, I was staggered by the self-centrism of the remark. Not only did she project a role onto me that I never once attempted to play or accepted, and not only did she assign an insultingly simplistic reason to the cause of my theological evolution, but she immediately transformed it into something about HER.

The fatal flaw in the absolute moral and intellectual superiority that Christians derive from their precious Bible is that they subsequently define their own self-worth by how many people in their social circle "have come to know Jesus". When one departs for any reason, they automatically search for human (and often personal) explanations for why their circle has contracted. "If only I had done or not done this or that", they say to themselves, "he would still be a Christian" - if God is all powerful and all loving, then any failure between him and another must rest with people.

It is this unwaivering position that generates the greatest abuse of Christianity, the inflated sense of power, and the subsequent guilt and responsibility that accompanies it when something goes awry.

A Christian cannot concede that "shit happens", because that means something that exists outside of God's control. A Christian cannot concede that God's power is limited or non-existent, because that threatens the efficacy of prayer. A Christian cannot concede that God may be morally ambiguous (like man, supposedly created in God's image) because that would be threatening and depressing. And so a Christian cannot concede that they are powerless to control the faith of other people, and when someone leaves the faith, they deem it to be a direct reflection on them.

This makes Christians some of the most agenda-driven people of all, as their very existence and happiness is, to their perception, dependent on you and how in line you are with THEIR perspective.

jessa said...

Geds, you said at some point fairly recently that morality is harder as a nonChristian. Not that it is harder to act morally, but that it is harder to define morals. I think this may be part of why new parents think they need to raise their children within a religion in order to raise them to be reasonably moral people. Whether or not any particular religion is right, it is much easier to take morals from someone who tells you what your morals should be than it is to carefully consider things yourself and come to your own conclusions. Not only is it easier for an adult, but it is infinitely easier to teach a child morals that way. I can symapthize with the daunting task of responding to a child asking, "why can't I hit Susie?" by trying to get her to understand Susie's perspective (which is a developmental milestone, and one that not everyone even attains) rather than just saying, "because God said so." And in those moral gray areas, the ones that are still tricky as an adult? If I as a parent have a nuanced approach to this, what do I teach my child, who need a default approach or will end up with a chaotic approach?

I understand it, but that doesn't mean I find it excusable.

[Also, that whole "it must have been a traumatic event that led to your deconversion" thing? That abounds in mental health care, but as, "you must be ill because of some traumatic event." It is equally valid in both cases, which is to say, sometimes a traumatic event is largely to blame, sometimes that event is part of a larger group of contributing factors, and sometimes it is completely irrelevant and it becomes frustrating when everyone around you is blinded by trying to attribute cause to it.]

Anonymous said...

big a- I learned a lot from that, thanks. It's never touched me personally, but I understand better now what deconversion is.

As for the main post... I'm iffy on it. Like, yes, evangelicals go too far because of the basis on which their self esteem is built. If they don't do what they do, then they don't go to heaven. But as non-believers, if we don't do all we can to further our cause, that might just make us non-assholes. Just my thought.

Geds said...


I dunno. I like Dennett. But he's one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, probably because he has made the horrible, sinful decision to appreciate "science" and "reason." And those are bad.


More or less. There are points when tu quoque arguments aren't actually logical fallacies. I think this is a good example.

big a:


I'd tend to get a bit more specific than "Christian," on the "shit happens" thing, since there are those out there who don't think god is directing their every breath, but yes, that's been my experience.


Isn't that the trouble, though? There's a wide gap between being able to understand a mindset and being able to appreciate it.

I just finished AJ Jacobs The Year of Living Biblically and that subject kept coming up. There were times when he would be writing about not knowing how to raise his son and I just wanted to strangle him. Overall it was a great book, but that subtopic annoyed me to no end.


But the problem isn't believers' self-esteem. The problem is that for certain types of believers everyone has to agree with them. That's one of the main reasons why I'm so frightening to some of the people I used to go to church with. Simply by once being a highly-regarded believer who is now happy and successful as a non-believer I put the lie to a lot of the stories that they tell themselves.

And the fundamental argument from the New Atheists is, "Keep your religion out of the classroom and the political sphere." That's the spirit upon which this country was founded. The people who want a religious litmus test for political office and the teaching of insular religious doctrine as fact are the ones that are going to far.

So what if they're offended? I'm offended by the attitudes of Ken Ham, Don McLeroy, and Cynthia Dunbar. But I'm not trying to take away their rights, since there is no right to tell anyone else what they're allowed to believe.

If holding the line is too offensive, well, too bad. So sad.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough- I don't find anything objectionable there. I just mean, if someone who was against religion but not especially fond of thinking, your original post sounded like license to make all the same mistakes the Evangelical side is making.

But hell, if it wasn't for those mistakes, neither side would have any reason to talk about the other. Which is the way I think it should be- I've been gifted with an apparently unique ability to ignore faith, and I wish more people had it.

Geds said...


That's a good gift...

One of the problems with the whole debate is that lots of people don't actually want to think through the issues. But, of course, that's largely how any debate works these days, at least in America. There's black and white and one side is wholly right and the other side wholly wrong and there's nothing in between.

That's why I constantly try to define the terms of what I'm talking about when I get in to religion. I personally know many religious people who are wonderful and believe their holy book(s) tell them to go out and make the world a better place. They're generally not the ones who are trying to get science curriculum replaced by creationist claptrap, either.

I don't have a problem with the so-called "accomodationists" like the New Atheists do, either. I think it's fine for people to try to believe in religion and believe that science is a good way of looking at the universe. The problem that I see is that the accomodationists expect the far-out religious to be as polite about the matter as they are. They're not and they have a lot of political power. That's not a good thing.

So that's the basis of my argument. Myers, Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. aren't necessarily wholly right in what they do, but they are necessary. They can be just as myopic as their opponents, but they are more willing to try to understand how the religious think than most of the fundagelicals I've met are to figure out what the atheists think. For the most part the people like those I used to go to church with are content to read somebody's else's opinion about what the opponents of religion say than to try to engage with the actual opponent.

Hitchens goes to religious trade shows and appears in panel discussions. Most atheists I've run in to have read the Bible and a lot of them know it a hell of a lot better than the people I used to go to church with. It's probably part survival instinct and part byproduct of the fact that we have such a religious society, but that's what I've noticed.

There's still plenty of misinformation and demonization on both sides. There's a lot of projection, too. But as long as one side needs everyone to believe their particular fairy tale and they're the ones that have the power and are trying to make sure everyone else is limited in what they can learn, then I'm going to stand against them. It's what I would be doing if I were still religious, too.

Freedom for all takes precedence over the comfortable ignorance of the few.

I'm probably going to put together another post to follow up on this, by the by...