Sunday, September 16, 2007

My passionate secularism

If you've got your finger on the pulse of the atheist community (like I do!) you're probably aware that there's a lot of discussion these days about following the gay community's example of increasing visibility (and consequently positive impressions) by being "out and proud" about one's unbelief. I think this is a great idea, and I'm all in favor of it!

To learn from their example, though, we need to do a bit of analysis of the differences between the atheist community and the gay community. I think the real biggie (in strategic terms) is that homosexuality is not contagious. In fact, that's one of the messages the newly-more-visible gay community has stressed: meeting gay people, befriending them, hanging out with them, touching them, etc., will not make you gay. It won't make your kids gay either. Not that there's anything wrong with being gay, but if for some reason you've decided that you don't want to be gay, inviting your gay neighbor to your backyard barbecue is not going to have any effect on your orientation either way.

Not so with atheism: indeed, quite the opposite. It's very common for someone to spend half a lifetime as a sincere and devout believer, then one day become an atheist and stay that way. And preliminary evidence seems to indicate that this is strongly linked with talking to pre-existing atheists.

And so we atheists are faced with a strategic dilemma: Should our "out and proud" campaign focus on demonstrating that we're ordinary, nice people, and (like gay people) we're your friends, neighbors, and family members? Or should we go straight for conversions, and skip this half-assed "we're here!" step? After all, they'll figure out that we're here and we're cool once they've become atheists themselves...

If you've been following this blog, you probably know that I favor the "friendly visibility" model for myself. I've talked about it a little here. In a nutshell, my reasons are the following:

1. It's easier to form alliances on critical political issues if we're willing to work with people who believe differently. Sure it's nice to agree on the ground rules of reasoning and what constitutes evidence, but I don't favor a strategy of saying "We can't discuss politics until after I've talked you out of your irrational faith." Some issues just can't wait that long.

2. As long as people agree on the importance of separation of church and state, it ultimately doesn't matter much what their beliefs are. Many believers are as passionate as we are about the separation of church and state because it protects their own freedom from having other beliefs imposed on them as well as preserving their church hierarchy from the corrupting influence of (secular) power. And it's that much easier to get believers on board with us if we make it clear that having a shared, secular public sphere is not a stealth tactic to destroy religion. (Many atheists disagree with this position -- see the Exterminator's recent article -- so there's definitely room for further discussion and analysis.)

3. A big problem with having a "zero tolerance" policy for taking religious belief seriously is the following: When you only discuss ideas with people who agree with you, there's a danger of starting with a good argument and then sending it through a group-think feedback loop until it turns into "I can't understand how anyone would be so stupid as to disagree with me on this point!!!" Really you're not doing yourself a favor when you work yourself into a state where you have no comprehension of another's viewpoint.

On the other hand, it appears that it's possible to go too far in the other direction. Via Friendly Atheist I saw the following quote by/about Harvard's Humanist chaplain:

"I have a religious personality, without a scintilla of religious belief," he says. "If it's an oxymoron to believe that people who have ceased to believe in God still need caring and community, then I'm proud to be a walking oxymoron."

Friendly Atheist (Hemant Mehta) indicates that the author of the article deliberately plays up the conflict in the atheist community, so I'll give Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein the benefit of the doubt here. But for his sake, I hope his quote was taken out of context and his very next line was: "But of course it's not an oxymoron, because -- as everyone knows -- atheists are just ordinary people who believe in a few fewer supernatural beings than average..." Otherwise his statement looks dangerously like he's granting the horrible stereotype that atheists are some sort of heartless monsters, and he's claiming to be some sort of exception because of his "religious personality." Holy expletive, talk about counterproductive!!! Just because you want a seat at the table, do you have to buy it for yourself by throwing your fellow atheists to the wolves??? Hopefully, though, the quote is not quite so bad in context, and I won't have to turn in my Humanist badge. ;^)

So while I would like to see atheists and believers getting along, you can see that it would be wrong to imagine that I'm the arch enemy of the "new atheists." In reality I'm thrilled about the new visibility of atheists. I'm thrilled to see atheism finally hitting the mainstream of American public discourse and recognized as a serious, legitimate viewpoint, as I discussed in the comments of my infamous nice vs. mean atheist joke post.

What I don't like is when atheists on either side make it look like the only two possibilities are that either you despise religious people and can't talk to them without trying to deconvert them or you're practically a church-goer yourself, and you're telling unapologetic atheists to shut up.

There's a third possibility, which is the following: to be out-and-proud with your atheism -- and be willing and happy to explain the reasons for your unbelief to anyone who asks -- yet also be willing to befriend believers and deal with them as reasonable people on a "let's agree to disagree" basis. In practical terms, I think that most atheists I know fall into this third category.

So, no, I don't think Dawkins and Harris and Hitchens should shut up. I certainly don't think PZ should shut up -- his blog is one of my favorite daily reads. Religion should absolutely be fair game for criticism. (Hey, if we respect our religious friends, we can't imagine they're too fragile to be challenged at all...) Naturally the critique of religion should itself be fair game to be criticized, as should be the critique of the critique of the critique... ;^)

And all of it in the spirit of productive discussion and friendly exchange of ideas.


Unknown said...

Very well put, C.L. I tend to consider myself to be a "middle" atheist as well.

I don't like the idea that we must eschew religious tolerance in order to be "real atheists," and I equally dislike the idea that we can't criticize religion.

I think that your comments about religion being a critical fair game topic hits the nail right on the head. I have people that I like and need to work with on a daily basis who are believers, but I think that I should be allowed to criticize belief without being labeled as a hate-monger. It's not as if I'm unprepared to accept the same criticism and respond to it.

I made a post recently about how I think both approaches should be employed, but it's clear why you're a writer and I'm not. :-)

Unknown said...

Oh, one more thing, the Friendly Atheist states his name as Hemant (which is also the name on his book), not Heman.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks John!!!

And thanks for catching that typo.

Eric said...

This is my preferred approach to religion as well. In order to avoid from becoming too critical, I try to stand back from it a little bit (sometimes difficult to do!) and view it like an anthropologist would. After all, if we can respect some Amazon tribe's poison-dart-blowing, cannibalistic rituals as a relic of our evolutionary past, then we should be at least as respectful towards Western religious traditions. For all their imperfections, they are only partly rooted in the Bronze Age.

Life is too short to spend it being mad at the vast majority of humanity, anyway.

I consider myself to be a happy, out-of-the-closet atheist. Well, almost! The only thing holding me back from telling the world about my atheism is that I still haven't told my family. Baby steps...

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Eric -- exactly!!!

And I hope the rest of your coming out as an unbeliever goes well!!! :D

Texas said...

Why can't we all just get along? lol.

I wonder if having public, and friendly, debates by the most intelligent of either camp would help on both fronts. It could help "get the word out" and it could also engender respect on both sides. What do you think CL?

King Aardvark said...

Haha, He-man. I wonder what Hemant will think about that typo. We don't want to encourage him running around in furry undies swinging a sword. Or maybe we do.

Getting back to the topic at hand, I think the most important thing is for atheists/humanists to be more visible no matter what. Each person's outspoken belief, each person's friendly discussion, each rant, each argument, each vitriolic attack, and each well-lived life accompanied by the casual statement "by the way, I'm an atheist" helps, one way or another.

I don't claim to understand the idea of a humanist chaplain, nor his religiousity, and I wouldn't be like him, but I'm sure he's getting some theistic people to see humanists/atheists in a better way, and I'm sure he's getting some religious seekers to forget the whole damn thing and become atheists. Of course it won't work for everybody, but that's what Dawkins, Hutchins, or Sagan are for. As long as we're not blowing people up or being absolute jerks, it helps.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Johnny!!!

That's one of the strategies He-Man ;^) Hemant Mehta talks about in his book I Sold My Soul on eBay: getting churches to sponsor/schedule debates public discussions with atheists. On a related note, I think that sort of thing is happening right now all over blogspace, with varying degrees of frendliness...

Hey King Aardvark!!!

Exactly, that's an excellent way of putting it: 'Each person's outspoken belief, each person's friendly discussion, each rant, each argument, each vitriolic attack, and each well-lived life accompanied by the casual statement "by the way, I'm an atheist" helps, one way or another.'

Frankly that highlights the one point that really bugs me about PZ's latest posts on the subject: He makes some excellent points, yet he seems to be claiming that any atheist whose approach is different from his lacks integrity or something. Not only is that unnecessarily divisive, but it's a crappy division of labor. Different approaches will have different effects on different people. So I'd rather tell everybody to be out about your atheism, and be yourself -- play to your particular strengths.

Anonymous said...

Coming from a background where almost everyone I knew was either agnostic or atheist, I find it hard to understand why some people feel thay have to come out. To me, atheism has always been normal. Which of course, it is!

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Nicholas!!!

That's cool -- it's true there are a lot of places where atheism is basically the default assumption. It's like that here in France, and in the Science or Math faculty of a typical university. But there are still quite a lot of people in the world who have never met an atheist (as far as they know), so there's room for more visibility.

JulieAnn said...

CL you totally stun me with your posts sometimes. Damn, woman! I know many atheists and I have never had a problem with being 'converted' to their way of thinking because no one has ever had the agenda to deconvert me from anything. Hell, I am on the cusp right now of not believing in god, but then I hear a Still Small Voice...THEN I take my medications, and I'm on the cusp again...LOL!

Seriously, I wish I could sit down with you and talk with you about it face to face. I would love to pick your brain and hear your theories on it. You are amazing and I appreciate the way in which you are bridging the gap of understanding for all of us.


C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks JulieAnn!!!

I'm probably overestimating the the proportion of atheists who want to "deconvert the world" because I keep hanging out on the "militant atheist" blogs... ;^)

Paul Sunstone said...

I agree with Eric on this one: The best way I've found for myself to approach religion is as much like an anthropologist as I can muster. Curiosity, rather than condemnation.

At least, that's the ideal. At times though, I confess I still find myself a bit flabbergasted that anyone could believe x or believe y. But I think I'm getting better at it as I get older.

Excellent post, Chanson!

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Paul!!!

Exactly -- even if particular beliefs seem absurd to the point of incomprehensibility, I think there's a real interest in trying to understand someone else's perspective instead of just dismissing it. This has been a recurring theme in my posts about strategies for moving towards a stable, sustainable global society:

Fertility, mortality
Steal this idea!
Is religion the problem?
Stand by your home-grown tyrant...?

Lynet said...

I agree entirely :) Very well put.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Lynet!!!

Steve Neumann said...

I also agree with your viewpoint. I try to do the same thing at my blog. I am also happy that Dawkins, Harris,, have provided the necessary opening salvo in bringing atheism to the table of public discourse. However, since I define atheism in its etymological sense, i.e., as a lack of belief in gods, I'm trying to promote a positive world-view, whether it's called naturalism or secular humanism or whatever. I don't think we can de-convert true believers - at least not with the 'hard sell' approach; but I think we can present a persuasive argument for a non-theistic approach to things like ethics, meaning and purpose, while at the same time bolstering the argument for a secular government to secure the right to any religious belief, INCLUDING non-belief.

I am also interested in understanding what it is about adults who come to traditional religious belief, as opposed to those who were born into it, like I was. I work with 3 people who have come to religious belief as adults: 2 born-again Christians, and 1 American from Iowa who 'converted' to Vaishnavism.

I also had many conversations with one of my students who was a Mormon, or should I say a Latter Day Saint? I have to admit that they hold some truly bizarre beliefs!

I enjoy your blog tremendously.


C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Juno!!!

True it's a challenge to understand why someone would take up a religion late in life. Typical religious beliefs look pretty strange to outsiders even if they seem reasonable to people raised with them...

Anonymous said...

As always, great post. I'm more of a middle of the road atheist as well. Live and let live. I've come to realize that everyone is different and has different needs. I don't have a psychological need for religion, but some people do.

I'm interested in absolute truth, no matter where that takes me and no matter what the "cost" is. But not everyone is the same as me. And that's ok.

I'm fine with people believing different than I do, as long as they don't try to force their beliefs onto me and onto society. If any religious group tries to force their beliefs onto all of society through laws, then I will stand up and fight against them. But as long as they can just quietly live their own beliefs and aren't hurting anyone else or breaking the law, then they don't bother me.

Though I have to admit that Bill Maher, militant atheist that he can be, can really make me ROFL.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks INTJ Mom!!!

Exactly -- religion fills a lot of roles, and not everyone has the same priorities. So sometimes it makes sense to just live and let live... :D

Anna said...

Juno Walker said "I work with 3 people who have come to religious belief as adults: 2 born-again Christians, and 1 American from Iowa who 'converted' to Vaishnavism."

Can such individuals truly be regarded as having come to religious belief as adults, though? I'd take their 'condition' to be more likely that of intensifying pre-planted beliefs or transplanting from one 'brand' of belief to another (unless there are more atheist families in Iowa than we ever knew there were!)

CL, I have been musing quite a bit on the reasons for the broad 'New Atheist' brush that seems to include all religious belief in the deluded/dangerous category.

I do see your point about forming alliances with moderate theists, and what you advocate covers my in person discussions with moderate theists. My internet position is more vocal, though.

I see abundent evidence across the internet of an insidious anti-logic campaign that originates in the emotional need to protect theistic beliefs. I think that institutionalized anti-logic has had far-reaching implications.

I have been agnostic/atheist since childhood, but 'intelligent design' creationism and anti-science polemics were the final straw for me.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Salient!!!

I completely sympathize. The "Intelligent Design"/"Creation Science" crowd -- with their anti-science, anti-logic campaign whose strategy consists of the most cynical, deliberate lying for the benefit of the willfully ignorant -- makes me want to breathe fire any time I come into any kind of contact with them.

My only point of depart from you is more a question of strategy. There are plenty of people who are attached to their faith/religion for various reasons but aren't invested in lying and anti-logic. If you come at them with "your conclusions are wrong, you must agree with my conclusions on God," they'll tune you out and stop listening. I'd rather say "Draw your own conclusions in the end, all that I ask is that you use critical thinking and understand how scientific reasoning works." And talk to them about how critical thinking works. (Here's a good recent article on critical thinking).

Then point at these "I.D. is a scientific theory" clowns and ask critical-thinking believers "Do you really want these people representing you? Are your beliefs so threatened by science that you need to resort to lying about how science works?"

My priority is to spread critical thinking as much as possible. If that promotes the spread of atheism, then fab. But if at least I can get people to understand the difference between science and religion, I'll be happy...