The Digital Plague

It occurs to me that many of you may not be aware of a very serious epidemic that’s been silently ravaging the globe, so I’d like to take this time to talk with you about it. Before I begin, let me start with the obligatory disclaimer: I am not an epidemiologist. I do not have a degree in virology or anything similar. What you are about to read may not be 100% medically accurate, and I apologize in advance for any inaccuracies. Where I lack the medical jargon to deliver this information with clinical precision, I have instead substituted analogy. In the many places I am sure to deviate from good science, you are encouraged to take my words as the metaphor they are intended to be. Do not give in to the affliction I am soon to discuss. Engage your irony sensors before objecting. Let us now begin to discuss the digital plague—digititis, if you will.

Common symptoms include:

Headaches, vomiting, and nausea in one’s neighbors. Mental flatulence. Reflexive disagreement. Inflamed sense of self-importance. Uncontrollable urge to make everyone know how right one is. Inability to back down. Intermittent fusion of one’s cranium and buttocks.

Of course, this list is not comprehensive, and some of the items need elaboration, so let’s begin, shall we?

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A Truly Controversial Position

As an “out” atheist, I’m used to proffering polemical positions on everyday subjects. When you don’t believe in the existence of the supernatural, magical thinking becomes something of a trifle; there’s little point in holding court on the hidden minutiae of the Tooth Fairy. “Luck,” for example, does not exist; it’s a meal of hypersensitivity in the brain’s pattern recognition software combined with a spot of confirmation bias tea—if you think you’re un/lucky, you’re far more likely to remember experiences that support that conclusion and forget ones that run in contradiction to it. “I’m so un/lucky” is an absurdly common trope, and I have to confess my desire to roll my eyes when I hear it, but such is life. When I tell people that I don’t believe in luck, destiny, innate “higher purposes” and the like, I’m used to being greeted with some combination of surprise, apathy, and condescension. What I am not used to getting, however, is open hostility. Not to worry, though: I’m relatively certain I can evoke abject horror in my audience by sharing an unprecedentedly contentious position:

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Confrontationalism and Bridge Burning? (More on Atheism+)

Addendum: This is the second post I’ve made on this subject. The first can be found here. If you don’t care about atheist community stuff, feel free to skip both.


It must be obvious to anyone who’s read anything I’ve written that I have a bit of a confrontationalist streak. When someone says or does something glaringly stupid but fails to realize the stupidity of that thing, I find it difficult to be diplomatic. “Perhaps you’d like to reconsider that point because of X, Y, and Z?” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily as “Are you fucking shitting me right now?” I even have a “that was the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard” face that I reflexively make when I hear something from way out in left field. Sadly (okay, let’s be honest here—thankfully), that face does not translate well into text; one might even say that it is lost entirely.

Smart people who say dumb things need to be called out on those dumb things. This is the only way to avoid forming a cult of personality. No person is without error, but we all want to be, in spite of the impossibility of this goal. In the (ultimately futile) attempt to become paragons of rightness, we engage in a cumulative process of becoming less wrong.  The sad paradox is that the further along this path we’ve come, the harder it is to see where we’re still wrong; it’s not easy to accept criticism from someone so far behind you on the path to perfection, you see. Naturally, this approach is fallacious, but the flawed nature of the thought doesn’t stop it from being our natural reflex—we instinctively doubt things said by people we view asHow can I put this diplomatically?—misguided. In a contest between your Average Joe and yourself, most people will default their support to themselves.* It is far to easy to take offense at the little people when they (mistakenly, of course!) believe that something we’ve said is a dumb thing. To someone who is interested in continuing the process of becoming less wrong, it is necessary to consider the merits of their arguments, which may necessitate an attempt to understand their perspective. (Trying to refute something you don’t understand, after all, is often an exercise in hay-punting.) I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask someone to listen to your point of view instead of dismissing it outright.

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What’s in a Name? (a.k.a. on Atheism+)

Christian? Muslim? Pastafarian? Agnostic? Humanist? What does it mean to be one of these things? Most simply, to call yourself any of this indicates that you wish to be associated with those groups. It means you want to identify yourself with the beliefs associated with those groups. Perhaps just as importantly, it means you wish not to be associated with opposing groups.

What, for example, is a “Christian?” Is a Mormon a Christian? There are indeed some who say that Mormons are not Christians (I have addressed this fallacy previously)—this is, of course, absurd; Mormons affirm the divinity of Jesus, and this alone qualifies them to be considered “Christians.” They further believe the Bible is the word of Yahweh, even if they do add a third chapter to that book. How is it that some Christians feel justified in excluding Mormons from the circle of Christianity? To such a person, that distinction is, for whatever reason, important to their self-image. Regardless of whether the supposed difference is true, that person sees value in asserting “I am X, and they are not.” In the case of Mormonism, this separation is entirely without merit,* but there are certainly cases where such divisions are not only beneficial but necessary. Being a Christian means that a person cannot be a Muslim or a Buddhist, for these are contradictory belief systems.

What does it mean to be an atheist, though? Atheism is rife with ambiguity, so additional differentiation is necessary. The “dictionary definition” of an atheist is someone who does not hold a belief in god(s). As such, this leaves an almost infinite list of other things that atheism does not address. Atheism alone says nothing about a person’s morality, political affiliation, height, preference for chocolate, gardening ability, or almost anything else. Is a person, by nature of being an atheist, guaranteed to be more or less moral than anyone else? Not according to the dictionary. So if atheism does not contribute to the strength of a person’s moral character, can an atheist be a good person? Obviously, yes. The only problem is that one cannot say “atheists are predominantly good people as a consequence of their atheism.” How can this puzzle be solved?

The traditional  answer to this would likely have been humanism—a person who adheres to humanist principles would almost certainly qualify as a good person. At its core, Secular Humanism is about being good without reference to any sort of supernatural mumbo-jumbo as a motivating factor, and that’s great. Wearing this label has never been the only way to be both an atheist and a decent human being, of course, but donning the badge of humanism has been a convenient way of advertising one’s status as a non-douchebag. It’s not the only label that one can identify with if one wants to advertise one’s decent-human-being-ness, and it’s certainly not a requirement, but it has been one of the most convenient ways of doing so for some time.

One of the problems I’ve had with calling myself a humanist, however, is the non-confrontational nature of it. Religion is an actively harmful entity in the world at large. Christopher Hitchens got it right when he said it poisons everything. When we nonbelievers hide from the atheist label, it becomes easier for religious people to pretend we don’t exist; it also becomes harder for us to identify and support each other. (Incidentally, this is the same criticism I have of nonbelievers who insist on self-identifying with only the agnostic label.) That** is why I am excited about the idea of this new Atheism+ thing. It’s about a week old now, but it’s hitting the scene pretty hard, and I have it seen best summarized as “New Atheism plus Humanism,” two things I endorse separately, each made better through combination with the other.

A lot of really smart people have written some really insightful things about Atheism+. This is a sentiment that’s been boiling beneath the surface for at least a year, and it’s hard to imagine that I could express it any better than people like Jen McCreightAshley Miller, Greta ChristinaRichard CarrierRussell Glasser, and so many others.*** (Not to mention Jason Thibeault‘s helpful graphics!) Like everything on the internet, there’s even a reddit page for it now.

Given that this is a blog thus far dedicated largely to issues of morality (specifically, advocating secular morality), I couldn’t be happier to come back from vacation with a post wholeheartedly supporting the Atheism+ movement. I agree that discrimination has no place in a movement that advertises itself as primarily rational. Prejudices based on race, sex, sexuality, and other such states that have absolutely nothing to do with a person’s moral character (yes, even religion) simply have no room in a movement aiming for social justice. The only reasonable approach is to judge people based on their behavior, and those who refuse to accept others as equals based on these otherwise irrelevant factors should not be welcomed or accepted in this kind of movement. A group cannot be inclusive if that group welcomes bigots, and anyone who advocates discriminating against someone over these states is practicing bigotry. Thus, this new anti-douchebag atheist movement is just what we need to combat the rising tide of increasingly vocal irrationality that has infiltrated what should, by all rights, be the one of the most inclusive movements in recent history. As a badge, “atheism” is not a shield against unjustifiable aggression, but Atheism+ can be. Atheism+ can include positive goals that dictionary atheism cannot. Atheism+ can be the inclusive movement atheism cannot be. This is a step in the right direction.

Even if you don’t feel called to identify with the Atheism+ label yourself, the movement’s goals thus far are unquestionably good, and it deserves recognition for that. Not being part of this movement doesn’t make someone a bad person—this has not been suggested by any right-minded individual. Rather, the label serves as a helpful tool for illustrating an atheist’s preference for equality and social justice. In the same way that “vegetarian” is helpful shorthand for “doesn’t eat meat” without also necessarily communicating “people who eat meat are evil,” Atheism+ communicates “how we treat people matters.” And it does matter.

In sum, I support Atheism+, and unless you’re an ignorant asshole, you should too. Asshattery shall not be tolerated.


Addendum:  My thoughts on the subject of Atheism+ continue here.

*Christianity is not “a” religion but rather an umbrella term for a number of differing religions sharing belief in Jesus as a core tenet. Thus, Mormons surely aren’t Southern Baptists, but both groups are clearly Christian.
**… in addition to the “deep rifts” caused by misogynists, racists, and the like …
***Daniel Fincke prefers a diplomatic approach, expressing similar thoughts quite eloquently. I had originally included this link alongside the others, but it doesn’t really fit there because he doesn’t speak directly about Atheism+. I should probably avoid clicking “publish” late at night.

TAM 2012

Do you like science, skepticism, rationalism, critical thinking, magic (the real unreal illusion kind), humor, and other awesome things? If so, go here, and lose the rest of your day to TAM 2012 related things, including links to recordings of various presentations.

Don’t blame me for any loss of your day, though. Seriously.

Edit: Boo. All the big stuff is on the first page. It gets pretty thin pretty fast. I’m sure more will be released in the future, since apparently most of the talks were recorded. Patience is not a virtue of mine, however. (Aw hell, it’s not even a virtue.)

Here are the videos worth watching so far:

Carol Tavris, Ph.D. – “A Skeptical Look at Pseudoneuroscience” – TAM 2012

Jamy Ian Swiss – “Overlapping Magisteria” – TAM 2012

If you don’t know what rbutr is (Shame on you!), watch this one (the audio sucks): rbutr at TAM2012 – Tim Farley’s Workshop