Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The transformative power of atheism

Greta Christina thinks the atheist movement is doomed (but in a good way), much like the queer movement (her phrase) was "doomed" to make it normal to be homosexual. I think her analysis, good as far as it goes, is too superficial, though.

She's right: atheists are no more inherently extraordinary or amazing than anyone else; at worst (cough Ayn Rand) an atheist has one fewer stupid belief than a theist. In just the same sense, gay people are not inherently extraordinary, nor are women, or black/brown/yellow/red people, or Protestants, or monotheists, or anyone else.

On the other hand, I think the queer movement had an amazingly transformative effect not just on society but on individuals of every kind of sexuality. Yes, it's true that it's no big deal to be queer, but the idea that "it's no big deal to be queer" is a very big deal. And not just for gay people, because if it's nothing special to be queer, then there's no objectively right way to express your sexuality, straight, queer or bi; vanilla or kinky; by yourself, with one partner or a roomful.

In just the same sense the idea that "it's no big deal to be a woman (or black)" is a big deal, and it entails that you don't have to construct, protect or defend your masculinity or your whiteness any more than you have to submit to slavery and oppression if you're female or black.

And, in just the same sense, the idea that "it's no big deal to be atheist" is equally a big deal, because it entails that our moral, ethical, political and economic beliefs are our own, that these beliefs are fully human, and not the result or commandments of God, whether you construe God as a old guy with a white beard living in the sky or any sort of new-age woo-woo about cosmic forces. If it's no big deal to be an atheist, then obedience is no longer a virtue; rationally apprehensible mutual benefit, not Hobbesean submission to absolute authority, becomes the sine qua non of morality.

All rebellion is initiated not by those who choose not to submit, but by those who cannot submit, to whom submission is death. Only the queers could lead us all, straights as well, out of the grip of sexual conformity. Only the black people (in the US) could lead us out of racial conformity. Only the women could lead us out of gender conformity.

And only the atheists — those who would rather die than mouth the lies and bend their knees to the supreme authority of God — can lead us all out of the worship of obedience itself.

22 comments:

  1. I'm not the martyr type, myself. I'd try subverting their religion, sure, but never blatant head-on defiance. I think you put them in the position where they HAVE to kill you, that way.

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  2. I think you put them in the position where they HAVE to kill you, that way.

    And people wonder why I want guns.

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  3. I'm not putting anyone into any position, much less a position where anyone has to kill me.

    Even if I did pretend, pretense wouldn't save me, any more than it saved the closeted and ghettoized gays or blacks.

    I'm tired of pretending, being conciliatory, being "respectful". I'm tired of stepping into the (metaphorical) gutter every time some idiot trots out his moronic, childish superstitions.

    I won't obey. I won't bend my knee. If that's provocation, well then, I'm proud to be provocative. And if someone kills me for that, I'll spit in their eye before they shoot.

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  4. "How much easier is self-sacrifice than self-realization."

    -Eric Hoffer

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  5. Samuel Skinner
    It is better to die for a good cause than to live serving a bad one. After all, you can only die once- why would you want to spend your life making the world a worse place, rather than a better one? Death sucks, but at least you can go, knowing that reality backs you up, not just voices in your head.

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  6. Keep in mind I don't want to die, or even be inconvenienced.

    I just don't want to be afraid.

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  7. I know James is packing heat!
    If he would be good enough to loan me one, I'd be happy to join him in an Atheist only foxhole :)

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  8. I know James is packing heat!

    Yeah, and he has a pistol as well.

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  9. Larry,

    How close are you too? ;)

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  10. Why ya'll gotta knock Ayn Rand?

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  11. CC: Very close
    Kelly: Because "Ayn Rand was a truculent, domineering cult-leader, whose Objectivist pseudo-philosophy attempts to ensnare adolescents with heroic fiction about righteous capitalists."

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  12. Yeah, and he has a pistol as well

    Um, dude. I'm an open guy, but...

    Why ya'll gotta knock Ayn Rand?

    Because if she wasn't already dead, we'd have to destroy her. "Evil hosebeast" is not too strong a description.

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  13. I'm willing to be offensive and antagonistic toward religion in the current US environment. What I would not be willing to do is openly oppose an organization that is willing to kill anyone who speaks out against its teachings. When you have insane religious extremists like certain Muslim groups or the Inquisition, direct defiance is simply foolish.

    In situations like that, I would not be among "those who would rather die than mouth the lies and bend their knees to the supreme authority of God"

    Once you're dead, you have no more influence in the world. While it's true that a few martyrs have had some effect on the course of history (jesus?) the vast majority are just so much dead meat.

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  14. The point is, slut, that you have to submt absolutely. It's not just not standing on a corner with a sandwich board and a megaphone. It's not just keeping your head down.

    People of every oppressed minority have tried to keep their heads down, to be non-confrontational, to avoid provocation, and it doesn't work. The cossacks still come, the lynchings still happen, the rapes and mutilations still happen.

    It's one thing for the blacks, the Jews and the women: They can't submit absolutely: They can't stop being blacks and Jews and women.

    It's another thing for atheists, and for gays to a certain extent: We can "pass", if we choose, but to pass we have to submit absolutely. To submit, we have to never speak our minds, even to our friends, spouses or children.

    You can't pretend to bend your knee. You have to bend it 100%. You can't just say the words, you have to throw the rocks... and teach your children to throw the rocks too.

    The gays of 1969 weren't walking down Market St. with pink tutus. They did everything they could to pass. And yet Stonewall still happened. Not because they were provocative, but because they just wouldn't stop being gay.

    I'm not advocating stupid and pointless acts of open defiance. I'm staying only that no matter how severe the oppression, there are those who cannot absolutely submit. There are gays who, even under the death penalty, can't stop being gay, can't completely hide their sexuality. And there are atheists who will still be atheists, who will still — in some way — talk about and express their atheism.

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  15. I'm not advocating stupid and pointless acts of open defiance. I'm staying only that no matter how severe the oppression, there are those who cannot absolutely submit. There are gays who, even under the death penalty, can't stop being gay, can't completely hide their sexuality. And there are atheists who will still be atheists, who will still — in some way — talk about and express their atheism.

    And you're one of them. Wow. That's great.

    I don't know if I would be. Maybe I'm more like 'slut'.

    I can't find the quote with Google, but Jennifer Hecht's book "Doubt" had a quote from an nineteenth-century American atheist who said something like, "If I could die a thousand times over in order to remove the a bit of the hold religion has over the human mind, I would do it gladly." Maybe you have a bit of his sensibility, Larry. I admire that.

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  16. Maybe you have a bit of his sensibility, Larry. I admire that.

    But that's just it: I don't have this sensibility; your admiration is misplaced (although I hope it's earned for my other good qualities).

    I'm not interested in dying one death, much less a thousand, for the well-being of other people.

    What I'm saying is that it's physically impossible for me to stop being an atheist. It's physically impossible for me to not talk about atheism, skepticism, rationality, sensibility and logic.

    I don't have a choice: these ideas, these impulses have become at this point ineluctable characteristics, just as my sexual desire is an ineluctable characteristic.

    If I'm ever called to heroism (and I hope I'm not), it won't be the heroism of the guy who throws himself onto a grenade to save his buddies. It'll be the heroism of the guy who charges a machine gun because he's sick and tired of the mud and the dirt and the noise and the fear and he just doesn't give a shit any more.

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  17. Repent! Repent! For the hour of cheese is upon us! The skies will rain squirrels, and we shall be inundated by the vocalistic stylings of Bobby McFerrin! So shall the hour of judgment be at hand! Repent ye, before it is too late!

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  18. On a more serious note, I often get the feeling that many a theist is personally offended by atheism.

    Can anyone explain that to me?

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  19. Can anyone explain that to me?

    They're offended in the same sense that I'm personally offended by IDiots and cretinists: An offense against truth is an offense against everyone who values truth.

    Of course, I'm right about the truth and they're wrong. :-D

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  20. I think they're offended on a more basic level. It's that they're ignored by people they think believe in nothing. To be held in contempt for your beliefs is one thing; to be held in contempt for your beliefs by people who you think believe nothing has to be infuriating.

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  21. Theists are offended by atheists in the same sense that the Chinese court was offended when the British trade mission in 1793 refused to kow tow before the emperor. In a world where everyone is expected to kow tow, it is the ones who refuse who are deemed to be upsetting the natural order of things.

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