Friday, August 10, 2012

The Outsider's Field Guide to Real-World Trolls: The Evangelical Atheist.

I'll admit it: I spend way too much time engaging with various forms of "social media." There's an old saying in these parts (by "old," I mean, at least a few weeks old): Twitter will make you love people you don't know and Facebook will make you hate people you do know. I'm not entirely sure if this is true for anyone, but I get the point. Twitter is too small to do much damage, especially to strangers. Give me twenty minutes and a FB wall, though, and I can cause a lot of trouble.

Don't get me wrong--I don't mean to cause problems. I don't mean to be provocative. But I guess I sometimes piss people off. At the very least it sure seems like I do sometimes. The following is an expansion, revision of something I posted on FB this morning. Nobody got really angry or cursed each other (much). Still, I left the discussion feeling slightly less than satisfied, as if nobody (or at least the somebodies whose opinions I was interested in) seemed to be interested in listening, or at least attempting to answer some pretty basic questions. Let me explain.

I run with a fairly liberal crowd; by "fairly liberal" I mean that at least 60% of my FB friends (and a roughly equal number of my Real World friends)find themselves standing considerably to the left of our President Obama. Certain things are not just accepted in this circle but expected: pro-gun control, pro-abortion rights, pro-union, pro-gay marriage, pro-higher taxes for rich people, and so forth. Coming in just behind these tenets of our political and intellectual faith is a wide acceptance, and often embrace of "atheism."

I could write a lengthy treatise on why I've put the word in quotes, the difference between an Atheist and an atheist, and other fiddly things, but I'll try to be brief and clear: in this post, I'm not talking about the dictionary definition of atheist: "a person who denies or disbelieves the existence of a supreme being or beings." If that's you, you're not my problem.

Hell, I'm just such an atheist. I don't believe there is a god. Or gods. I don't. But for reasons which should become clear, I usually don't call myself an atheist, as I believe that the term carries with it certain assumptions absent from the pure denotative meaning. As I see it, atheism has, in some respects, been co-opted by a particular brand of atheist I will call here the Evangelical Atheist (EA). Not simply content to not believe in God, the EA insists on actively pushing his non-belief system of beliefs on others. There are famous EAs and then there are my FB friends who call themselves atheists, post and repost spaghetti monster and yay science! memes, and who I'm guessing don't really think much about what being an atheist means or doesn't mean. I mean, aside from that god stuff. If you are one of those non-celebrity, non-evangelical atheists, let me be clear--I don't hate you. I don't wish ill will toward your family. I don't spend my days wringing my hands and my nights sleepless with rage and indignation over you. You're a lot like me.

It may seem that I'm spending a lot of time on definition here; this is a response to folks who read an earlier version of this post and accused me of being a "self-hating atheist" or of being unduly upset with atheists, or being a pseudo-intellectual with an ax to grind. To those detractors, and to you, the reader, I say this: I do not have a problem with people who don't believe in god. I simply dislike those who would take their atheist belief or position and foist it upon others in the spirit of combativeness while appealing to their own authority and who refuse to tolerate belief that falls outside the parameters of an empirical true/false binary. I think the good-intentioned EA fails to realize that a humane ethics cannot be derived solely from empirical observation and slavish adherence to that which can or cannot be "proved" with the scientific method. To assume otherwise is to rob human beings of a lot of their humanity, their creativity, and what Keats called "Negative Capability."

Once we move beyond our FB news ticker or our family and friends, the next place we are likely to encounter EAs is in traditional media outlets. I'll call these folks famous atheists. Famous atheists come in two varieties: the "Intellectual" and the "Celebrity." The intellectual atheists are well-known for their achievements in science (Richard Dawkins) or witty rhetoric in the realms of politics and culture (Christopher Hitchens). The celebrity atheist is a public figure, generally recognized in his or her capacity as an entertainer. Many of these celebrities also tend to straddle the line between politics and entertainment. Bill Maher and Penn Jillette are two especially vocal celebrity atheists. What celebrity atheists and intellectual atheists have in common is their reliance on a certain brand of specious and reductivist rhetoric that paints the Other (in this case, "believers") with such broad strokes as to render any meaningful engagement with them practically unnecessary. The believer, in the eyes of the EA is either a dolt, a wicked person or somebody who needs to be saved from their own woeful ignorance. Not a lot of wiggle room there.

So what's my problem with EAs? Why not simply ignore them? Well, I try to. But something about crusading under the auspices of "truth" and "critical thinking" while denying the potential for a multivalent concept of truth, and while consciously subverting or ignoring actual critical thinking tends to get under my skin. The careful reader may have noticed by now that I'm not opposed to atheists so much as I have low tolerance for sloppy thinking or, alternately, sharp thinking packaged as witty takedowns or cloaked in logical fallacy so as to make the "message" clear. In having to reduce their arguments to fallacious rhetoric and/or witticisms, the EAs show little respect for or trust in those whom they would wish to convince or affirm. Most EAs can quite handily and convincingly make an argument for the non-existence of God. What is often overlooked, though, is that in discussions of "atheism" the question being asked is rarely, "Is there a God." The question driving the rhetoric is "Should an intelligent person believe in a God or practice a religion?"

If EAs simply ended the conversation where the non-existence of God is either proved, or the existence of God can not be proved, then I'd have no disagreement.
The EA, though, is not merely content to maintain that there is no god; he or she insists on proselytizing a belief system dedicated to demonstrating (emphatically!) the wrong-headedness of believers, and to attributing most or all societal ills to the existence of religion, which they consider 100% folly and, if they are to believed, dangerous.

Of course the above formulation, with minor tinkering, (read "non-believers" for "believers" and "absence" for "existence" and you have a sentence that with fair accuracy describes most Fundamentalist believers, be they Christians, Muslims, or Jews. (Though, in all fairness, Jews don't actively proselytize.) My point is that when you reach beyond "this is what I know to be true" and extend the personal outward, that is, to insist that others either know it to be true or be branded as either heretics or idiots, you have stepped outside the realm of critical thinking and rational discussion and into the coliseum. We know who the Lions and Christians are, right?

In the realm of more or less academic or "formal" rhetoric, we are taught to avoid what the late rhetorician Wayne Booth called "motivism." Simply put, motivism is the practice of launching an argument against not what an opponent says, but rather what you believe to be the opponent's "secret motivation." The "secret" part here means what they're not telling you, what you believe they are withholding. (For some reason.) Booth's admonishment to avoid motivism does not deny the existence of secret motives, only that the best arguments are made against what we know or can expect to be true or reasonable about our opponent's position. Speculation regarding motives, then, is to be avoided in formal argument. I offer this disclaimer because I'm going to engage in some motivism in what follows. You've been warned.

If the individual atheist is secure and happy in his knowledge of "the truth," happy and capable and completely assured that "science" and "truth" are both sides of the same coin, and in fact are not simply better than "faith" and "religion" but completely obliterate the need for these concepts, then so be it. I don't have a problem with that. The EA oversteps his bounds when he projects his atheism at others.

Why pick on those who do believe? Why do your Dawkinses and your Hitchenses and comedy magicians go on television to proclaim the superiority of science and the infantilism of religion as if these two things are always and unequivocally in opposition, as if one can only be a believer in empirical scientific truth or a believer in superstitious religious mumbo-jumbo and never the twain shall meet?

(These questions I ask throughout are not strictly rhetorical, by the way. I'd love to entertain a thoughtful answer. I'm not simply trying to make a point but am actively seeking a response.)

To ask these questions almost requires that we speculate about motivation. So excuse me while I don my Motivist Hat. We'll start with the EA's enemy, the Evangelical Religious Person.

Though I don't agree with the fire-and-brimstone ERP, I can more easily understand what moves him than I can understand what moves the EA. The religious fundamentalist ACTUALLY THINKS that if you don't believe as he does, you are GOING TO HELL. No matter how misguided, he actually believes this and is, in his way, trying to help. What drives the evangelical atheist then? If he is happy and secure in his knowledge, in his superiority, then why does the existence of the very belief in a god so offend him? Is he also offended by Santa Claus? The Tooth Fairy? Hanukkah Harry?

The primary motivation of the evangelical atheist, as far as I can tell, is hubris. (That was the motivism part! And to my detractor who accused me of name-calling, I guess this is about as close as I get in this post to name-calling, though strictly speaking, I'm not calling anybody names, I'm simply assigning a motive without citing specific supporting evidence.) While some EAs claim to preach atheism in order to save lives, or improve lives, or make the world better place, just as many do not. There is a lot of talk of critical thinking, of questioning accepted norms, of truth, of science. What's missing from these discussions is the sense that there is a compelling reason for atheism. How does it make the world a better place? My take on this is that it's a question that's avoided because it cannot be answered without making sweeping assumptions about what it means to be a believer, how religious belief plays out in the real world. It would also require the EA to acknowledge that religious people are not all the same. Doing so would expose the straw-man argument that paints ALL believers as fanatics for what it is--a logical fallacy. In other words, being forced to acknowledge the diversity of belief and opinion among a wide swath of religious people also forces the EA to venture out of his box of binary truth-value, and this is HARD. This, it seems, is why so many public EAs sidestep the real issue altogether, and instead revert to equating intelligence and reason with atheism, and faith or religious practice with superstition, simple-mindedness, and lack of critical thinking ability. Because it's easier than admitting that things are, you know, complicated.


To end, for now, I have no problem with the non-belief in God. I am a non-believer. I am irritated by sloppy thinking, specious logic, and disingenuous arguments that seem to do little more than aggrandize their inventors. If there are thoughtful EAs out there who truly are driven by a desire to teach, to have dialogue, to do more than demonstrate hubris and smugness, then please come out of hiding! Let's talk.


post-post question for self-described atheists:

Why is it important to you that others discard religion and/or embrace atheism?

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