Tag: Intellectual Honesty

Moving Beyond Atheist Adolescence

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When New Atheism was born, it served a real and noble purpose.  Though open criticism of religion wasn’t unheard of, it was still uncommon enough to be shocking to many people to see anyone publicly calling attention to the dark underbelly of religion – to the privileged status it holds as considered off the table for criticism or the unfounded conflation of piety with morality.  In the aftermath of 9/11, however, we could no longer afford to deny the connection between religious fundamentalism and deadly extremism.  We could not have an honest conversation about our national security or shared values without acknowledging the damage religion can cause or the risks it poses.  Back then, breaking the taboos that protected institutional religious privilege wasn’t just an edgy claim to notoriety; it was a moral imperative.

Another meaningful contribution of New Atheism was to show doubters and non-believers on an unprecedented scale that we weren’t alone.  While many of us had remained closeted for years, either from societal or familial pressure or for want of the means to articulate our doubts, the onset of movement atheism all at once gave us the words to express our ideas and the comfort of knowing there were millions of others out there just like us.  Books like Hitchens’ God is Not Great, Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation, and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell resonated not only because they made such compelling arguments against the existence of god and the toxicity of organized religion, but because they expressed to the world the observations and objections so many of the rest of us had been seeing and thinking but could not articulate (at least not as succinctly or powerfully.  I will never forget the first time I read The God Delusion, the first so-called “atheist” book I had ever read; I must have leapt up and shouted “Yes! That’s it!  That’s EXACTLY IT!” a hundred times). We sought out like-minded thinkers in online spaces and formed virtual communities, and some were even emboldened to reclaim their identities within their own communities.  We were, if not free of the stigma of atheism, at least no longer solitary in it, and perhaps for the first time we had the numbers and resources to fight it.

That was a long time ago now.  For many of us who have been involved in any meaningful way with this movement (such as it is) since more or less the beginning of New Atheism, the bloom is off the rose.  Just as certain films and novels that struck us as revolutionary in high school look trite and shallow in the cold light of adulthood, the scriptural counter-apologetics, witticisms about gullible theists, and preening pronouncements about our preference for difficult truths over comforting lies that seemed so clever and cutting-edge 15 years ago are now hackneyed and tired. The problem, as I see it, is that too many New Atheists never matured beyond that initial rebellious phase.  They conflate seeing through the god hypothesis with following evidence.  They confuse gratuitous insensitivity with being iconoclasts.  Besotted with their own perceived wit and what they see as their command of rhetoric, they mistake their atheism for intellectualism.

For my part I was never really interested in the “does god exist or not” discussion, for as David A. Sptiz said, “it is scarcely necessary to disprove what has never been proved.”  For a long time my primary focus was on pointing out the disparity between what religion claims – about the rewards of faith, for example – and the reality of the world we live in, not as a means to debunk the existence of god but to expose the ways in which those disparities lead to the rationalization of and indifference to human suffering.  I still think exposing this failure of compassion is worthwhile and necessary, but I am no longer naive enough to think that anti-theist activism is a sufficient remedy for what ails humanity, nor that religion is the cause of all that ails us.

Growing up involves self-reflection and discovery.  As each person takes a separate path, we arrive at certain destinations at different times, and bypass others altogether.  People who are just now questioning or abandoning their religious faith have different questions and needs than people who left years ago or never had it to begin with, which are different still based on whether someone was a casual believer or a fundamentalist, Christian or Muslim, how religious her community is, and so on.  It makes sense that much of what made New Atheism appealing to people who were already atheist (more or less) 15 years ago is appealing today to people who are only just now coming into their atheism.  In this context the counter-apologetics, self-affirmations, and taboo-smashing still have great value at an individual level.  Still, it is a phase that one would expect most to outgrow as they move along their journey, not a place to remain stuck forever, like an aging football captain still repeating the story of his state championship-winning touchdown 30 years later.

I hitched my own wagon to this movement in hopes of creating a world in which ancient superstitions hold no sway over civil laws; where people think critically and make decisions based on objective truths; where minds are changed based on evidence; and where “because my religion says so” is no longer an acceptable justification for hatred or for depriving anyone of their dignity or basic human rights.  It has been a sad, disillusioning journey to discover that these are not universal values amongst atheists, many of whom have no more regard for evidence or morality than the theists they hold in such contempt and who seem all too happy to replace religious justifications for hate and bigotry with other, non-divine but equally flawed reasons. If the atheist “movement” cannot live up to its own professed ideals of applying the lens of reason and evidence to the world around us – and most especially to our own selves – it will rightly be discarded, and those of us who still wish to fight for change will do so under another mantle.

 

Signs You Might Be A Hypocrite

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I can think of little else that I despise more than hypocrisy: The application of different standards (of evidence, morality, or anything else) to those things of which we approve or which benefit us vs. those things we dislike or which benefit others.  Of course we are all human and subject to cognitive biases in varying degrees, an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of our hard wiring.  Excessive hypocrisy, however, is a mark of both intellectual laziness and intellectual dishonesty, and especially for those of us who claim the mantle of skeptic / critical thinker / champion of evidence, we should be perpetually vigilant for signs of it in ourselves and take decisive corrective action when we find it.  Here are a few clues that may help you determine whether your hypocrisy self-awareness meter requires calibration.

  • You spend a lot of time defending Milo Yiannopolous and Richard Spencer under the banner of “we have to protect even the most offensive speech,” but did not defend Kathy Griffin’s mock ISIS photo under the banner of “we have to protect even the most offensive speech.”
  • You chastise others for their echo chambers and admonish them to engage with to their opponents, but block people who disagree with you on Facebook and Twitter.
  • You have ever said “fuck your feelings” with regard to perceived political correctness, but lamented the lack of respect shown to Mike Pence when he was booed at a Broadway show.
  • You were horrified by the evangelical Christian trend of “purity balls” but laud hijab as a feminist symbol.
  • You supported the Benghazi investigations but oppose the Trump-Russia investigation.
  • It bothered you that Richard Spencer lost his gym membership, but you think LGBT couples should just find another bakery.
  • You criticize western feminists who talk about sexist imagery in comics for overly frivolous concerns, but complain about women-only screenings of the film Wonder Woman.
  • You called the people who were outraged when Trump bragged about grabbing women’s genitals without their permission “snowflakes,” but not the people who were outraged when Colin Kaepernick didn’t stand for the national anthem.
  • You were more bothered by Michelle Obama’s bare arms than by Melania Trump’s nudity.
  • You characterize Milo Yiannopolous as “just a troll” but an anti-Trump D-list comedian as “a Leftist celebrated public figure.”
  • You dismiss non-binary concepts of gender as not based in science, but defended the “Penis as Social Construct” hoax by saying even if this hoax didn’t debunk the field of gender studies, it doesn’t matter because everyone knows a better hoax would have.
  • You oppose legal abortion but support the death penalty.
  • You said jokes about the death of Roger Ailes were disrespectful of Ailes’s family, but you promote Sandy Hook truther Alex Jones or call criticism of Sean Hannity’s treatment of the Rich family “regressive.”
  • You claim to oppose Islam on behalf of the women it oppresses, but promote personalities who deny the existence of date rape or who call for white women to be publicly flogged for sexual impropriety.
  • You deny that Western colonialism turns Muslims into Islamists, but claim that too much political correctness turns white people into racists.
  • You spent weeks or months condemning the Richard Spencer punch and holding it up as evidence of pervasive violence on the Left, but justified, laughed at, or remained silent when a conservative politician assaulted a journalist and deny it is indicative of a violence problem on the Right.
  • You spend more time worrying about the threat to free speech posed by Ann Coulter being dis-invited from speaking at a college campus than you do about a citizen being convicted and imprisoned for laughing at a government official (or a bill that would send teenagers to federal prison for sexting, or a journalist being arrested for asking a government official a question, or state legislatures passing laws criminalizing peaceful protests).
  • You declare the importance of seeing people as individuals rather than as collectives while making hasty generalizations about feminists, Muslims, Democrats, Leftists, etc.
  • You speak out against anti-LGBT attitudes embraced by conservative Christians, but file anti-LGBT attitudes among Muslims under “cultural differences.”
  • You denigrate the boycott of Sean Hannity’s advertisers in response to his treatment of the Rich family as a regressive leftist attack for “wrong think,” but were supportive or silent when conservatives boycotted Beauty and the Beast for having a gay character (or Hamilton because the cast addressed Mike Pence; or Budweiser, 84 Lumber, CocaCola, Airbnb, Kia, and Tiffany for airing SuperBowl ads with pro-diversity messages; or Nordstrom for dropping Ivanka Trump’s clothing line; or Netflix for having a show called Dear White People; or Starbucks for having insufficiently Christian holiday coffee cups; or Hawaii because a federal judge there ruled against Trump’s travel ban; or Target for encouraging trans people to use their restroom of choice; or Target again for banning loaded guns in its stores; or ABC for cancelling Last Man Standing; or . . .  )