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.

Morality: Let’s Compare, Shall We?

What is morality?

mo·ral·i·ty /məˈrælɪti, mɔ-/
1. Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.
2. Behavior as it is affected by the observation of these principles.

So we should conclude that a moral system effectively differentiates between right and wrong behavior in those circumstances where such distinctions are meaningful. Great. What makes a thing moral? If you’re a Christian, it’s generally adherence this list of ten rules:

  1. 2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  2. 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
  3. 7 Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
  4. 8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
  5. 12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
  6. 13 Thou shalt not kill.
  7. 14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. 15 Thou shalt not steal.
  9. 16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
  10. 17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

I, on the other hand, adopt this* much more concise list:

  1. Harm is bad.
  2. Well-being is good.
  3. Intending to do harm is bad.
  4. Intending to cause well-being is good.
  5. In moral arithmetic, consequences matter more than intentions.
  6. All things being equal, harm done outweighs well-being caused.

Which principles better describe morality? Which list covers more territory, behavior-wise? Which standard forbids the abuse of children? Which construct includes commandments that do not actually pertain to “good and bad behavior?” Which model better values human life? Which option is more moral?

* This list may not be final. It is subject to revision upon further consideration. Like all things properly rational, it is not set in stone. If you have suggestions for revision, I am eager to engage them.

Conceptualization as a Byproduct of Language?

This article from a couple of years ago (which I have only just discovered) paints a delightfully fascinating picture of the connection between language and conceptions of reality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the language a person has affects how they perceive, remember, and respond to the world. It is not terribly controversial to suggest that the entire process of reasoning is potentially influenced by a person’s language ability, but this article casts some light on the kinds of effects this can have. Since this blog is written in English, that is perhaps the most relevant language to the majority of my readers. One observation was that, since English is a particularly agent-focused language, English speakers more easily remember details about agents—that is, the person who performs an action. Some other observations:

About a third of the world’s languages (spoken in all kinds of physical environments) rely on absolute directions for space. As a result of this constant linguistic training, speakers of such languages are remarkably good at staying oriented and keeping track of where they are, even in unfamiliar landscapes.

We tested each person in two separate sittings, each time facing in a different cardinal direction. When asked to do this, English speakers arrange time from left to right. Hebrew speakers do it from right to left (because Hebrew is written from right to left). Pormpuraawans, we found, arranged time from east to west.

English speakers tend to say things like “John broke the vase” even for accidents. Speakers of Spanish or Japanese would be more likely to say “the vase broke itself.”

There’s also a bit in there that suggests that English speakers are far more likely to blame someone for an accident if they read about it in the active voice instead of the passive, which has implications for all manner of legal (or pseudo-legal) proceedings as well as the entire field of journalism.

One disappointingly absent consideration was that of multilingual speakers. How exactly does the ability to speak more than a single language affect a person’s conceptions of reality? To what degree does second language proficiency factor in? How about age—is a person who develops a high level of second language proficiency as a child linguistically influenced to the same degree as another person whose proficiency is developed as an adult? These would be, I suspect, deeply captivating questions to study. In any case, they are questions for another study, not in any way shortcomings of this article.

Do give the article a read if you have even a passing interest in language. (And why wouldn’t you?)

(Disclaimer: This should not be taken as “proof” of any particular interpretation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, especially not the one depicted in Nineteen Eighty-Four as Newspeak. As you should be able to infer from this article, that notion is rather more complicated than Mr. Orwell might lead you to believe. The book is, after all, a work of fiction.)

Jesus-Colored Glasses

Caution: Angry late-night rant ahead. You have been warned.

The thing I hate most about religion today is that it teaches people to view the world through an incredibly twisted lens. It teaches its adherents that it’s okay admirable to reject other people’s views and hold one’s own up as inherently superior.* “You are a member of the elite—God’s chosen people. You alone have the true moral code of the universe, and everything you do to uphold this code is service to God.” To someone holding such an idea, empathy is not just unnecessary, it’s an act of defiance against one’s religion.

Take the recent Chick-fil-A debacle as an example. In the event that you haven’t heard of this, Chick-fil-A is a fast food restaurant owned by asshat Christians who oppose equal rights for homosexuals. (God sez gays are teh abominnayshinz, so tey is bad, kthxbai.) They’ve contributed to anti-gay causes for years, so it perplexes me that it’s taken this long for public outcry to happen, but there’s been a wave of anti Chick-fil-A sentiment over this recently. As a result, corporate sponsors (the muppets) have removed their support for this “biblical values” company, and many individuals have announced that they will be boycotting it. Not content to let supporters of equality express their outrage unanswered, religious apologists have responded by saying, essentially, “Chick-fil-A should be allowed to express their values, just like everyone else,” calling for a “National Eat at Chick-fil-A Day.”

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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.

Pure Logic

“Pure logic cannot tell us anything about facts; only experience can.”
James R. Flynn

This is also the single largest criticism one can make of those who rely only on abstract thinking. It is why theist apologetics cannot be compelling. I can reason that the world was created by the omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent Flying Spaghetti Monster, who defies all attempts to measure Him by actively interfering with the instrumentation of scientists (though judicious application of His noodly appendage) yet reveals himself to the faithful in ways that only He can understand; until there is evidence of my claim, however, you would do well to reject it out of hand. Believers are loath to consider that their arguments apply equally well to the FSM, if not significantly better for its lack of contradictory dogma. When it comes to claims of truth, the following quote should be ever-present in our minds:

“What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.”
Christopher Hitchens