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.

Mini Post on Humanism

Things have been pretty quiet on this page for the last few days. Sorry about that. I’ve been kind of busy. To make up for it, here’s an awesome video by the British Humanists, who pretty much just rock all over the place.

I’m a big fan of humanism. I’d probably identify as a humanist, if asked, because it’s an excellent secular value system. Humans are important, so we should treat each other well. That’s pretty much the core tenet of humanism, and it’s sufficient grounding to justify the most effective morality conceivable. In its reasoned approach to human interactions, it requires no supernatural assumptions nor any other such credulity. Because of its lack of reliance on bullshit, it’s a far more good moral framework than its religious counterparts.

I’ll get back to writing soonish.

More on Objective Morality

I’ve been involved in a discussion of objective morality recently, and I’d like to open up my most recent thoughts on the matter to comment. What follows is the argument I’ve laid out for a system of morality based on objective measurements of actions as they relate to a shared value (although it goes without saying that a number of greater minds than mine have made similar arguments). If you’re not familiar with how the term objective varies within the scope of philosophy, I’d urge you to read my previous article on the matter. If you’re interested in a more developed account of non-theistic moral reasoning, you can’t go wrong by reading this book.

To construct our moral system, we require no god, nor any other supernatural claim. We begin with a single goal, which is a subjective value, and build a network of objective standards on top of that value statement. With this goal clearly identified, we can objectively establish whether any given action furthers or impedes that goal. The initial premise does not need to be universally supported, but we can use something that almost everyone would agree with. To demonstrate how this works, I’m going to suggest the most selfish value possible: “I want to be happy.”

This may not be the strongest ethic upon which to build a society, but it’s entirely sufficient. (Indeed, I think we can and should choose better goals, and it’s not actually necessary to restrict ourselves to just a single value, but I’m trying to illustrate a point here.)

What kind of world would be compatible with this end goal? Is a society that allows murder/theft/rape going to make us more likely to be happy? Superficially, if you’re the kind of person who wants to do these things, you might think you would be better served by answering in the affirmative, but if you consider the implications of your being unrestricted, it quickly becomes apparent why your freedom to do these things would not be more likely to lead to your happiness. If you’re permitted to commit atrocities on other people, they are also permitted to inflict them upon you. The standard applies to all people equally, so the only options are either 1) X is okay for everyone or 2) X is okay for no one.* Since having our property stolen and our dogs murdered would not make us happy, the goal is objectively better met if we outlaw theft and at least one form of canicide. So what happens in the case of aberrant behavior?—what obligation is there in this system to prefer law and order over chaos and mayhem? Well, if someone criminally victimizes you, you will be less happy, so you have an active incentive to discourage criminality; an objectively efficient way to do this is to have a fair, strong, and consistent legal system. And so on.

Again, the goal of self-happiness is not the strongest possible example, but I’m just trying to demonstrate that even selfish values can be used to create “good” systems of morality. Once that goal exists, the moral system is objective in its evaluation of actions by judging their relationship with that goal.

In anticipation of the (ridiculous) question of why someone should be obligated to be moral even if the system isn’t founded on philosophically objective values, I offer this explanation: it’s for the same reason that we would desire a legal system in the “I want to be happy” system of morality; the rest of us are not obligated to let you abuse us. We are and should remain capable of defending ourselves against violation, and it would be self-destructive to allow outside threats to torture and kill at their own discretion.

Believers often profess a desire for a moral system to be immutable, and it’s possible for the kind of moral system I’ve outlined here to maintain its goals indefinitely, although there’s no reason to demand that to be the case. As societies develop, new problems also develop. Even within the scope of a single goal, we may be forced to alter our perceptions of how that goal can be best achieved over time. Thus, it is absolutely vital to maintain an element of flexibility. Unless the “perfect” moral system** has been achieved (and I think such a thing is factually impossible given the influence of time), a system whose rules are incapable of being changed would be undesirable because it would permanently crystallize any inequities in that system.

I believe this sort of moral system is far closer to what we see in reality than any of the claims made by religious texts. If there were really an all-powerful god concerned enough with the world to establish a set of absolute rules and demand obedience, we’d expect to see widespread (or at least 50%!) adherence to those rules. As it is, the world’s largest religion is actively disbelieved by two-thirds of the world’s population. That does not strike me as a statistic that supports the claim that an omnipotent entity wants our obedience, but it is the kind of statistic you’d expect to see if people form their moral values in communities.

 * Although we can safely constrain both of these possibilities to say "X is okay/forbidden in situation Y."
** I actually think the notion of a perfect moral system is not even coherent. Is it possible to have a society
in which nothing can be improved? I doubt it.