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No Apologies: Why Strident Atheism is Good Atheism

Anyone remotely familiar with the atheist movement knows we get a lot of criticism, not merely for our ideas, but sometimes overwhelmingly more often for our rhetoric and tactics. The following quote from Greta Christina sums it up nicely:

As a blogger, I’ve received a lot of advice from believers about how atheists should run our movement. I get comments all the time. It’s very difficult to avoid the observation that this advice is almost always in the direction of telling us to tone it down. Telling us to be less confrontational, less visible.

I have almost never seen a believer advise the atheist movement to speak up more loudly and more passionately. To not be afraid of offending people if we think we are right. To be willing to get in people’s faces about things they might not want to think about. I have gotten a lot of advice from believers, and it is almost always in the direction of politely suggesting that we shut up.

For many bloggers and outspoken atheists, this rings especially true. And the variety of forms it takes is almost unbelievable. Just within the last week and a half, I have had people tell me to stop “ridiculing” religion and to “stop offending people”. People on Facebook have called me a “jerk” and say that I’m too “mean”. These criticisms range from outright confrontation (e.g., “Stop it now!”) to concern trolling (e.g., “What’s the point? You’re just going to alienate a lot of people.”). And people like Dan Savage have been fiercely criticized by concern trolls for pointing out that the Bible is “bullshit” when he was addressing gay bullying.

These kinds of messages often flood the channels of public discourse, and they crowd out real discussion about serious problems in religion. In other  words, atheists are often criticized for being confrontational, angry, offensive, etc. simply for being part of the public dialogue, but are rarely criticized for their ideas. Believers criticize atheists for the act of criticizing religion, but don’t give arguments for why the atheist criticism is wrong.

The first thing people “offended” by atheist rhetoric should understand is that religion is indeed a sensitive topic, but it shouldn’t be. Claims about the universe like “God exists” and “God cares about me” are hypotheses about the world, and are therefore subject to criticism in the free marketplace of ideas. As we see every single day, there are people who go batshit crazy at the idea that their religious assumptions can be ridiculed or criticized, and they confuse criticism with personal attack. And it surprises me to see “concern trolls” act as if this is a problem with atheists/atheism, and not a problem with religion.

The other thing to know is that since religion often seeks protections from criticism (and demand intellectual “respect”), if we are going to be concerned about truth and reality, we ought to be more skeptical, not less. Criticism of religion is a basis and a model for all criticism. Christopher Hitchens says it succinctly:

Mockery of religion is one of the most essential things because we need to demystify supposedly “holy texts” dictated by god and show that they are man-made. What we have to show is that there are internal inconsistencies and absurdities. One of the beginnings of human emancipation is the ability to laugh at authority.

Open, unfiltered criticism of religion isn’t just something we think is a good idea; it is essential to a free and liberal society.

The second major point is that the “concern trolls” have very little idea of what the modern atheist/secular movement is, mostly because they aren’t in it. This is not surprising. Even in progressive circles and events (like 2012 NetRoots Nation conference for activists, which didn’t feature a single event about atheism), the atheist movement is largely being ignored as a legitimate social change movement. And this lack of understanding is fueling much of the well-meaning, but deeply mistaken beliefs about how atheists should act.

The fact is that the movement has been incredibly successful in the last ten years. We went from nearly nothing to holding a major presence in the consciousness of the American public; we’ve infiltrated popular social thought, as well as colleges and high schools in all fifty states, and we have sparked a large public conversation in the mainstream media. In religious demographics, there has been an explosion of secularism, especially amongst young people. In every single one of the fifty states, the fastest growing religious identification is “none”. Activist secularism–whether in the form of Damon Fowler and Jessica Ahlquist, in the lobbying work performed by the Secular Coalition for America, or in spirit of tens of thousands of people who descended upon the National Mall in Washington for the Reason Rally–is a force that is shaping America, and the entire world.

We are successful not because we have been quiet and nice to religion. We are successful because we are loud and critical, as well as legitimately angry. We are angry at injustice. We are angry at the the idea that people are being unnecessarily harmed. We are angry that there are serious metaphysical claims about the universe that are considered “too personal” to be criticized. We are angry at ignorance, at the lack of skepticism and critical thinking in this world. And we want things to change.

And things are changing. Not only are social attitudes (i.e., incredible distrust) towards atheists changing for the better, not only are more and more atheists coming out, but more and more people are becoming atheists. If you hang out for a while on /r/Atheism, for example, you’ll read hundreds of stories about how intense, uncensored debate has changed people’s mind on religion. If you watch videos dedicated to Christopher Hitchens (one of the most vehemently and outspoken anti-theists in history), you’ll see many people describe how his strident writings have turned them into atheists. It is not an accident that the most influential atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett) aren’t known for being nice to religion. Even I have personally have changed people’s minds about creationism, about sexual ethics, about end-of-life issues, and of course, about the existence of God by talking honestly and openly about my beliefs. Sharp, harsh criticism of religion is making a difference, and it shows.

And this loud criticism is what gives us our power, socially and politically. It’s what’s driving more and more people towards the movement.

The fallacy of concern trolls is therefore the following. They think that just because they are personally offended (or because they perceive others will be offended), they then automatically think our tactics don’t work or should be squashed. In other words, they ask us to give up one of the most essential aspects of our movement (our angry, critical attitude) just because they hold personal dislike–all without any evidence, and without any sound argument.

Following the orders of the concern trolls is one of the most dangerous things we can do. We are being asked to give up our power and our voice at a time when we are beginning to gain it.

Don’t let this happen. Speak out. Speak loudly. Be skeptical. Be critical. And don’t keep the faith.

Inspiration from the 2012 Global Atheist Convention

It’s 2012, and records are being broken. First it was the Reason rally, which drove tens of thousands of people to Washington, D.C., and made it the largest atheist/secular gathering in world history. In April, the Global Atheist Convention was held in Melbourne, Australia, and unsurprisingly, that event because the largest atheist event in Australia’s history.

As we celebrate our progress and continue the fight for a more rational, more humanistic society free of the shackles of superstition and religious pseudo-morality, as we continue the march towards full legislative and social equality for all atheists in all countries, it is important to reflect on the things, large or little, that makes our community strong.

The Global Atheist Convention was large enough of an event to attract a sizable cohort of Muslim protestors. These protestors carried signs saying “Athiesm is the CANCER, Islam is the cure”. (Yes, with the misspelling.) Also, as you can see in this video, there were synchronized chants of “Ayaan Hirsi Ali, burn in hell. Burn in hell. Christopher Hitchens, burn in hell. Burn in hell.”

The thing that cracked me up the response from the crowd, which partly consisted of the singing of the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. That we could take something so hateful, extreme, and ignorant, and respond to it in a fun, innocent, and parodic manner is simply amazing.

Lastly, it would be blasphemous of me to mention “inspiration” at the convention and not talk about Christopher Hitchens himself. There was a video played at the convention that paid tribute to him. It perfectly captures his tone and unapologetic stances, and the last section of the video called “On Death” hits the nail on the head when it comes to summarizing what he lived for.

How Lucky We Are Indeed

How Lucky We Are Indeed

This image of two men shows why our movement transcends all the false offerings of religion; it shows the moral courage and intellectual honesty of humanistic atheism, as well our love for all our brothers and sisters in the only life we have.

My Video Tribute to Christopher Hitchens

It’s 2.00AM Chicago time, and I spent the last few hours making this video. I’m reading Christopher Hitchens’ letter to the American Atheist Convention, an event that he missed because of his sickness. In his letter, Mr. Hitchens describes in unmatchable elegance the resolve we must have to fight for the future of humanity.

He was not flawless, he was far from perfect. But for all his faults, the world is truly a better, more secular, more loving, and more humanistic place.

(This is also the launch of the new Youtube channel of Inspirational Freethought. I do not know yet what content will follow, but I promise it will be worth your time.)

Inspirational Thank You to Mr. Hitchens

In the rigorous pursuit of truth, atheists love to argue and debate with each other. Yes, there are many issues in the emerging secular community that still needs to be worked out. Whether we agree with each other or not, we often forget to take a moment and say “Thank You” to the people who have given a voice to those who have no voice, who have made it their life’s work to pave the road for secularism so that we could be here today.

Silly Rabbis, Tricks are For Kids

The library of idiotic and meaningless statements uttered by self-professed holy men keeps endlessly growing. When will we stop being preached to and treated like mindless children?

The Huffington Post featured a so-called A Reasonable Argument for God’s Existence by Rabbi Jacobs. One might expect another round of toned-down religious mush similar to the arguments from what I now call the New-Age Christians. Instead, we get a pseudo-argument bordering on lunacy.

One might suppose that in the six or so decades since the discovery of the DNA molecule by Watson and Crick during which researchers have been investigating the origin of life they might have come up with some pretty solid leads to explain it. The truth of the matter is that we see scientists coming up surprisingly empty-handed and that even within scientific circles, the few hypotheses they do have are shredded to ribbons by their colleagues within the scientific community.

Rabbi Jacobs wants us to think that the discovery of something means that a complete explanation for it should come from science in about sixty years. How long did it take to fully understand the atom after we first discovered it? The truth is that we STILL don’t understand everything about atoms or their origins (although we are getting closer), and that’s okay. Science does not work on a schedule; it doesn’t promise answers to really difficult questions because some man from the Huffington Post demands it. But the hardworking men and women in the field do try very very hard nonetheless.

And that’s the point. We have made so much progress on the understanding of DNA that it’s simply amazing. Just 20 years ago, many people wouldn’t have imagined how far we’ve come in sequencing not only our DNA but those of many other species, and how much closer we are getting to understanding how early life could have developed and evolved. Rabbi Jacobs, on the other hand, makes a living out of giving answers on things that he couldn’t possibly know or understand, and he attacks others for being as ignorant as he is.

There just is no evidence for it. Not one of them has the foggiest notion about how to answer life’s most fundamental question: How did life arise on our planet? The non-believer is thus faced with two choices: to accept as an article of faith that science will eventually arrive at a reasonable, naturalistic conclusion to this intellectual black box or to choose to believe in the vanishingly small odds that the astonishing complexity, intelligence and mystery of life came about as a result of chance, which of course presents its own problems:

It is not an article of faith to be open to the strong possibility that science will answer questions about life’s origins. It may entirely possible that a good explanation is far away, but the evidence is that science, again and again and again, has always pushed the frontiers of our knowledge. Not only has it done that, it has pushed back the claims of the religious and put a well-deserved check on nonsense claims and superstitions.

One of those claims is intelligent design, which Rabbi Jacobs is essentially making. When Jacobs says that the “astonishing complexity, intelligence and mystery of life came about as a result of chance,” I have no choice but to think that either he doesn’t believe in evolution (which I find unlikely) or that he has a typical but serious misconception of it (one that presupposes the driving forces of evolution are random). That’s because if we was talking about abiogenesis, he wouldn’t be referring to “intelligence” or even “complexity,” characteristics more descriptive of modern forms of life.

In short, his O’Reillian argument is this: God exists because I don’t know how shit came about.

The second trickster is Rabbi Artson, who participated in a 4-person debate with Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Rabbi Wolpe.

When asked by Sam Harris about his explanation for why innocent people encounter so much random suffering in this world, Rabbi Artson gives the following response (at 35:20).

It is a Medieval mistake based on Aristotelian thought that God has to be an unmoved mover, and thereby eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent. … I apologize for the way that philosophers kidnapped the tradition, but it is not in the Torah, and the concept is a nonsense concept.

[Sam Harris]: So you’re saying that God doesn’t have the power to change these things?

Yes, of course that’s what I’m saying. What God has is a different kind of power than that of the dictator. What I look to God to be is a persuasive power more comparable to a teacher, or a lover, or a parent who teaches and inspires you to be the best by seeing your potential and by giving you the potential to rise to it. But I don’t believe in a God that breaks the rules, who can intervene, and do magic.

God is a weak, powerless entity who just inspires people and can’t perform any miracles? That’s the God of Judaism and Christianity?

Of course, Christopher Hitchens wasn’t going to let this one slide (40:00)

One of the reasons why I like debating with the religious is that you never know what they are going to say next. Sam and I don’t mind being called predictable. We know what we think. We say straight up where we think we know, where we think it is not possible to know, why we don’t think there’s the supernatural, and so on. But this evening already we’ve had your suggestion that God is only really a guru, a friend when you’re in need. I mean he wouldn’t do anything like bugger around with Job to prove a point…

[applause]

If I now tell you that must mean the book wasn’t really the word of God, you would say, “who ever believed that that ever was the word of God?” Let me just tell you something. For hundreds and thousands of years, this kind of discussion would have been in most places impossible to have, or Sam and I would have been having it at the risk of our lives. Religion now comes to us in this smiling face ingratiating way because it has had to give so much ground and because we know so much more. Don’t forget the way it behaved when it was strong and when it really believed that it had God on its side.

Afterwards, Rabbi Artson remarked that he really didn’t like participating in this debate. I don’t know what that is supposed to mean, but the audience really deserved a good debate, and I don’t think they got it. Hitchens and Harris clearly laid out their claims and arguments, while the other side served mush and kept talking about what they didn’t believe, all while changing the story to avoid difficult questions.

The last trickster is Rabbi Schmuley, whose debating style is as bad as his lack of substance. After all, if you don’t have anything worthwhile to say, why not just yell?

Inspiration of the Day: Watch the whole Hitchens, Harris, Rabbi debate. Hitchens makes a Star Wars reference somewhere in there.

Unbounded Admiration

You are unquestionably one of my heroes.

Dear Christopher Hitchens,

Your clarity of thought, your incisive wit, and your genuine and earnest disdain for religion are an inspiration to me. They have been since I finished reading god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything and will be for as many years as I have. Be assured that your effect today on people like myself, all over the world, has been immense. Those of us in positions of education will continue to encourage the development and constant use of critical thinking in our students in part because of you.

I want you to know that you are unquestionably one of my heroes. You stand in rare company.

May you find whatever ease you can in the time you have remaining. Thank you, sir, for so very much.

Most sincerely,

A teacher in Pennsylvania

It was not an easy journey.

… I cannot give you my atheism, nor do you desire it I imagine, but your words, though they come from a long line of brilliant atheists, gave me the confidence I do have in my stance. My passion to see others such as myself, toppling on the edge but not quite over, finally make their way into ‘de-conversion’ is stronger, and more honest, than anything I had done as a Christian.

I say all this simply to say, ‘thank you.’ Thank you for taking the extra step as an atheist and speaking up where other had been silent…

We can only continue to speak up, and to help people out of the muck, and to see what a life well-lived really looks like, no longer passively longing for the eternal reward of kissing ass or burning in Sheol like the garbage religion would have us believe we are.

A ‘new’ atheist,
Bennie Robinson

Perhaps you truly don’t know the impact you have had.

Your works have helped in the battle for truth and compassion based on reason and logic. Your struggle against the forces of dogma has allowed people like myself to openly live as atheists. We need not be ashamed of the simple possession of critical thinking. The free expression of one’s self is a true gift, and you helped make that so much easier for so many of us.

I am certain that there are people walking around in our world that have benefited from your work, yet have never heard your name nor read anything you have written. I hope you take this as the deep compliment I intend it to be. You have helped create a better environment for all of us. As someone who has read your works and knows what you do for all of us, let me simply thank you and offer you best wishes.

Best regards,
Jason Jackson

You can read more letters like this and submit your own on DearChristopher.com.