Saturday, July 17, 2010

Atheism in modern society

Any Fark thread on atheism, such as this thread shows the importance of a vigorous anti-religious atheist movement. Fark commenters are comparatively intelligent and sensible, but mention atheism and the inanity and stupidity goes off the charts.

The atheist critique of organized religion is not that the religious do silly things. Civilized people do a lot of stuff that is in some sense "objectively" silly. We are fortunate to have developed a level of material prosperity such that a lot of people can spend a fair fraction of their time doing things for no better reason than that they like doing them. There's nothing objectively sillier about magic underpants or incense and funny hats than there is about Dungeons and Dragons or any professional sport. If you don't care for something something that doesn't have an immediate material reward, anyone who does like it is going to look silly to you.

The atheist critique of religion is that they claim social, political, economic and philosophical privilege because of their silly activities. Religion is not just something that religious people enjoy doing; mastery of the details of religious silliness gives people an inordinate influence over the material workings of our society. Atheists therefore point out the silliness of religion not because we're against silliness per se, but because we want to undermine that privilege. We don't care that Mormons wear magic underwear; we are outraged, however, that one's diligence in wearing magic underwear is at all helpful in Utah politics. We don't care that the Pope wears a funny hat; we're gobsmacked that people actually listen to him about important matters of medicine, ethics, and law because he wears a funny hat.

There's no reason atheists shouldn't hang out together, and create more-or-less organized social scenes. When I moved to my present undisclosed location, the local atheist organizations gave me a foot in the door into a social scene and acquaintances I could spend time with. I knew I would share some common interests and values with most of the members, such as enjoyment of science and philosophy, disdain of religion and New-Age woo woo bullshit, humanist ethical values, open-minded intellectual discussion, etc. I wasn't going to walk in and get a job, a place to live and a girlfriend, but just hanging out with the groups does 90% of the chore of superficial filtering of potential acquaintances.

Why shouldn't we? Atheism just means (depending on how you like to phrase it) believing there's no god or not believing there is a god. It's an attitude about one specific family of propositions in an ocean of the beliefs, attitudes, opinions, knowledge and philosophy of human beings. We don't think people shouldn't be social, we don't think people shouldn't hang around with other people with common interests and values. And we have no objection per se to religious people hanging out together and doing the weird things they do.

There's nothing wrong per se with religious people proselytizing. As a social species, human beings are constantly interacting with each other to persuade each other to social, political and ethical values. There's nothing any more wrong in itself with religious people going door to door to talk about Jesus than there is with Greenpeace, Amnesty International or your local congressional candidate doing the same thing. Our argument is (or ought to be) with the content of the message, not that they are engaged in the ordinary human activity of discussing their beliefs and values with others. We don't object that they're knocking on our doors, we object that they're knocking on our doors to try and sell us something ridiculous. We object that they prey on the troubled, the ignorant, the poorly educated and the mentally ill. We don't object that they hand out pamphlets and tracts, we object that they hand out pamphlets and tracts of breathtaking stupidity.

To the extent that some atheists object to religious proselytization, we object on the same grounds that people object to email spam, telemarketing and junk mail: the specific method annoys almost everyone while appealing to a tiny few, and we object because the method is unusually susceptible to abuse by frauds, charlatans and con-artists.

We do not object to literature, mythology, fiction, art, beauty, happiness, ethics, love, emotion, preference, enjoyment and value. We embrace them, they are fully and completely human, fully and completely natural. They do not come from, they do not depend on, they are in no way about the supernatural, the "divine", or an invisible man in the sky. They are of and about the unimaginably complex task of a naturally evolved intelligent species trying to find its way in an un-sentient, unfeeling, uncaring and mostly inhospitable universe.

The New Atheists (u.e. modern anti-religious politically-oriented atheists) do not have a dogma; our common beliefs and values are not privileged by some supernatural or human authority, and dissent from those beliefs and values is not prima facie evidence of evil or corruption. But we do have common beliefs, a "doctrine" or "ideology" if you will, beliefs that are widely shared:
  1. Religion — specifically the sort of religion that holds a supernatural authority who grants some sort of social privilege, especially ethical privilege — is not just not to our taste, not just something that an individual should have the freedom to deny. Religion is itself actively bad.
  2. As bad as we believe religion to be, we should never employ violence or physical coercion of any sort, state-sanctioned or vigilante, to suppress religion.
  3. We should employ only lawful means to suppress religion; we should completely refrain from unlawful but non-violent means such as vandalism or harassment.*
  4. We should never employ lies or bullshit to suppress religion. The factual truth and our sincere ethical opinions are sufficient to the job.
  5. Because we do believe that religion is bad, we will use every truthful, legal, non-violent means at our disposal to suppress and deprecate religion, including philosophical criticism, mockery, shame, and outrage. We will use political action to ensure the government does not establish any religion** and to promote humanist, civilized values in our legal and political system.
*I'm not particularly enthralled with the capitalist pseudo-democratic legal process. Still, a bad legal process is (usually) better than no process at all, and I go to considerable lengths to fit my personal conduct to existing law. Indeed, I believe a violent revolution is both possible and warranted only after the capitalist ruling class itself decisively and openly abandons the Constitution, and either the law itself becomes openly tyrannical or the capitalist ruling class abandons the rule of law in general.

**We are just as opposed, at least in principle, to the government prohibiting the free exercise of religion. We typically lack standing to contribute meaningfully to the government's attempts to limit the free exercise of minority religions, so free exercise is typically not a high priority.

We are sometimes accused of being "intolerant" and attempting to "shut up" our opponents. It is a matter of some philosophical controversy* whether criticism and mockery are legitimate tools of suppression — of course, one cannot help employing criticism and mockery to suppress those who would use criticism and mockery as tools of suppression. We are unapologetic that we aim to suppress religion by peaceful, legal and honest means, and we object to the suppression of any mere belief, opinion, attitude or value — even religion — by violence, illegality, dishonesty or insincerity.

*Keep in mind that there is some philosophical controversy about whether there is a real world, and whether things fall when you drop them. There is even philosophical controversy over whether the phrase "philosophical controversy" is meaningful. After a decade of study, I've come to the conclusion that philosophy is mostly theology without the discipline and intellectual integrity provided by an anchor to scripture. "Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)"

In principle, I don't object to criticism or mockery of atheism or anti-religion. However, after being deeply involved in the atheist community for more than a decade, I have never seen a criticism of atheism or anti-religion that was not just flawed, but obviously and ridiculously intellectually vacuous. I have never seen mockery of the actual beliefs and values prevalent in the atheist community, only mockery of beliefs and values that even a cursory examination of atheist thought and writing would quickly reveal are absent or completely marginalized.

We're here, we don't believe your ridiculous superstitions, we aren't going to sit down, shut up and allow the religious to impose their authoritarian, misogynist, homophobic, oppressive, exploitative, rapist-protecting, heretic burning crap on our society. Get used to it.


  1. Correct me if I'm wrong, but essentially you detest the idea of anything religious being used in any public sector (healthcare, justice system, etc) and instead use secular humanist principles to govern them?

    So you'd allow the pope to spew whatever dogma he liked advocating child molestation and discouraging the usage of condoms in AIDs-ridden Africa but you would keep his political and global purview to an absolute minimum and even completely eradicate any of his influence?

    Just to make sure I'm on the right path, I'm not the most educated person so I have a bit of difficulty grasping your articles.

  2. Keep in mind that there is some philosophical controversy about whether there is a real world, and whether things fall when you drop them.

    When I was in college I worried about this Cartesian crapola. Then I grew out of it. I came to the conclusion that whether there is or isn't a "real world" has fuck all to do with anything I have control over, and so what's the fucking point of wondering about it?


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