Monday, October 27, 2014

Not All Atheists?

A couple of days after I got here, I got into a dustup with my Liberal Artist Friend on Facebook.  He posted a link to this meme, which had been posted on an atheist Facebook page.  The comments there are painful enough.  LAF remarked on his repost:
Religious friends: Why are so many of your co-religionists so stupid and hateful? And why can't they write or spell? This person thinks there are dessert islands! (Sounds great!) He thinks bombs hatch. He doesn't capitalize Jesus (!?!). And weirdly and surprisingly, he's concerned about the safety of "out women." Why, why, why???
Now, the first thing to notice about this is its self-righteous stupidity.  Does my friend really believe that if people stopped being religious, their spelling and punctuation would suddenly, magically improve?  I've known too many atheists who can't spell or punctuate (and theists who can) to take that notion seriously.  What do spelling and punctuation have to do with religion anyway?  As for "stupid and hateful", I've been pointing out the stupidity and hatefulness of many atheists, including prominent ones, for years now, and I don't see any improvement coming.

I don't know why many people have difficulty with technical skills like spelling and punctuation, but those skills are not rational (English spelling? please!), and they're not a sign of moral virtue or even intelligence.  They are class markers, of course, which I suspect is why my friend invoked them.  That speaks badly for him, and for his own ability to think critically or rationally.

The same goes for attitudes towards women.  When challenged by one of my friend's friends, I mentioned the attacks on Rebecca Watson for pointing out sexism among atheist males, most infamously by Richard Dawkins (though I hear he's retracted his earlier statement, however belatedly and gracelessly).  My challenger jeered: was that all I could point to?  Why, it was years ago!  Of course it wasn't all I could point to, and it's still a live issue among atheists, as is sexism among scientists.  Another person, a woman this time, argued that you can't expect atheists to get rid of all their sexism instantly:
Sexism is part of our culture. It began in religion but that does not mean a person can easily remove themselves from that reality just because they do not believe in a god.

And a few men do not represent all atheist men. Just as this idiot does not represent all theists.
"Sexism began in religion" is ambiguous, because you could probably say the same of everything in every culture: art, science, cooking, etc.  So where did religion come from?  This person was talking, as so many atheists do, about religion as if it were some autonomous system distinct from human beings, that imposes its will upon us, instead of something that human beings invented.  Religion is sexist, insofar as it is, because human beings were sexist and created their gods in their own image.  Religion has also been a medium through which people have challenged and tried to delegitimize oppressive structures, for the same reason: I don't like it, so obviously God must not like it either. And you know where that goes.

These countermoves were drearily familiar to me. I get them from Christians and other theists all the time.  Oh, that was a long time ago, it's not a problem anymore.  Oh, that is just a problem now because some have fallen away from true faith, it didn't used to be a problem.  You can't judge all Christians by that person, he or she is not typical at all, he or she isn't really a Christian.  Of course Christians aren't perfect, it takes God a long time to cleanse them of their errors and wash away their sins and corruption, but they're so much better than they'd be without Him.

I don't expect atheists to escape or abandon all problematic errors automatically; I certainly haven't.  That's what I've been saying for years.  In my experience and observation, though, it's mainly atheists who blame every problem on religion and talk about "enlightenment" and "waking up" as though error will simply fall away once you throw out belief in gods.  You will then be rational, free of superstition, a new creation in Not-God.  And while my friend and his friends disavowed any such notions, they still are too cavalier about the work needed to get rid of error in themselves.  That's one reason why their cheerleading for science and jeering at the religious annoys me so much: they're like fundamentalist Christians who bask in the intelligence of a few unrepresentative literati or academics like C. S. Lewis, but don't want to work at educating themselves.  I'm enlightened and rational unlike those stupid religious believers who can't spell, because I honor Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, Stephen Hawking, and Neil DeGrasse Tyson!  But these guys are no more representative of atheists than C. S. Lewis was of fundamentalist Christians.  And you know, I'm not a fan of any of them.  For a long time, and maybe still, the most influential atheist in the US was the "prophetess" (as Mary Midgley mischievously dubbed her) Ayn Rand.

As with religion, the not-all-atheists approach backfires.  It's true that not all atheists are like Richard Dawkins or Ayn Rand or any other celebrity atheist.  But what are we like?  I'm not sure there are any universals to cling to, and even generalizations are difficult.  Even what would presumably be the core of atheism, the absence of belief in gods, doesn't look the same in all atheists.  There are what I'd call dogmatic atheists, who are certain there are no gods; and there are what the late Antony Flew dubbed Stratonician atheists, who see no reason to believe that gods exist, and who put the burden of argument on theists to come up with (1) some kind of workable definition of what they mean by "god" and (2) good reasons to believe that such entities exist.  I'm in the latter category myself, and though I have numerous disagreements with Flew, his account of atheism has influenced me more than any other.  I've also seen some atheists dismiss Stratonician atheism as not real atheism, and I suspect the dogmatic atheists are more representative of atheism than I am.  Not that I worry about that.

The point is that no matter what you say about atheists or atheism, it won't be true of all of us.  (The same is true of theists, just to hammer the point monotonously home.)  It's okay to generalize, but to do so responsibly you must have reliable information about the group you're talking about, and I'm not sure we do.  It's likely, I suspect, that the less attractive aspects will be more common and so more representative than the more attractive ones -- and who gets to decide what's attractive? -- so it's just safer to remain ignorant of what your movement is actually like.

This is probably one reason why biblical illiteracy is so common among Christians.  I recently had an exchange with someone on Facebook who assured me that hellfire and damnation, sexual repressiveness, faith-healing and exorcism, and end-times preaching were not Jesus' teaching as found in the gospels, they were added by the Church much later.  This is of course false, and revealed my opponent's ignorance of the Bible.

I was bothered, in the post on Dawkins I linked above, when the blogger wrote that Dawkins is "not a good leader for me, but even Jen McCreight, who recently called for new attitudes in atheism, says she likes Dawkins despite his flaws."  And again: "If Dawkins were to learn from criticism the way Cromwell does, then he’d be valuable as a leader.  But I’m not holding my breath for him to check his privilege, because there are much clearer thinkers to pay attention to."  I don't think atheists should have leaders, though of course many other atheists clearly want them.  (Who's more representative?)  I've learned a lot from other atheists, though also from some theists, but I don't regard any of them as a leader.  Once you have a leader, you're going to have authority and a cult of personality, and people will be expected to be loyal and obedient to the leader and to the movement.

It's ironic.  I've been attacked for arguing that it's odd for atheists to treat 'religion,' rather than human beings, as responsible for the bad things we find in religion and culture, and those other atheists accused me of setting myself up as the Authority on atheism and trying to decide what an atheist should or should think.  None of them tried to address rationally what I'd said; they simply declared me a Bad Atheist, perhaps the Bad Atheist.  (When I pointed out problems with their account of some elements of Christianity on another occasion, one of them accused me of being an antigay fundamentalist Christian.  Don't you just love rational critical thinking?) Authority plays an obvious part in most religions, though such authority is often challenged from within in various ways; but like most problematic phenomena, you don't get rid of it simply by disavowing belief in gods or faith in reason.  You don't have faith in reason: you use it, well or badly.  And many avowed rationalists use it badly.

So, for those atheists who want to disavow or excommunicate Dawkins, Harris, or any other celebrity atheist, I must ask the same question I've asked Christians about Christianity: which atheists are representative of the "movement"?  I spent some years listening to Christians' answers and following up on them, always finding their Christian exemplars wanting and being referred to new ones.  I've probably read more on atheism (and on religion for that matter) than most of my fellow atheists have, so I may have an easier time in this area.  I'm not asking for atheists who'd qualify as leaders, as I indicated before; I'm asking who is knowledgeable about the historical and philosophical issues, responsible, and usually rational?  Probably there are no such people, which doesn't discredit atheism; it should be a reminder of our human finiteness, our lack of omniscience, and of how much we have to learn.  That shouldn't really be a stumbling-block for atheists.  Should it?