Okay, maybe I just shot myself in the foot. Yes, there are secular lobbyists (see Secular Coalition for America). Yes, atheists care about religious discrimination laws, women’s rights, gay rights, prayer in public schools, science education, etc. These are all hot political issues. Yes, tens of thousands of people congregated in Washington, D.C. demanding “legislative equality” and asking everyone, including politicians, to come out.
But there seems to be a difference between involving atheists in political affairs that relate to religion and defining what it means to be a good atheist with reference to a set political ideology. For example, I find the National Atheist Party not so much cringeworthy because of the things it has done, but rather because the idea is dangerous. It is troubling to think that one political party–with a single platform (and maybe a candidate in the future)–represents atheism and or at least what it should look like.
Of course, there is the much greater problem of the actual and deliberate hijacking of atheism by the Leftist, anti-capitalist, feel-good social justice kind of crowd. Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to say about religious conservatism and its evils. There’s a lot to criticize about our current market economy and the policies we have in place. And yes, there’s a lot more good that could be done by the atheist/humanist/secular community to fight for the dignity and rights of oppressed peoples.
But there’s a raging temptation within parts of the atheist community to say that you aren’t really up to the standard if you aren’t a strict liberal, if you aren’t supportive of Occupy Wall Street, if you don’t agree with the left’s tax policies, if you don’t agree with the many subtleties of race and poverty in America, if you don’t neatly fit within the box that is the “activist” political left. There are also people like Chris Stedman who criticize people like Greta Christina and say that you aren’t really furthering worthwhile goals of the atheist movement if you seek to change people’s minds about religion in a rational context.
The fact is that this kind of narrowly-defined atheism is absolutely counterproductive. This issue is bigger than the fact that there are many conservative/libertarian atheists in America. Defining good atheism narrowly means that atheism is not really atheism, that the movement isn’t really worthwhile as an effort to spread rationality and reason (and to bring about positive change), unless we all adopt ideologies that frankly have little to do with atheism.
I, frankly, would much rather have our movement be successful in creating a rational society that is majority secular than having atheists neatly fit itself into a modern American liberalism. The former would not necessarily mean a political consensus, but it would be an absolute game-changer in terms of building more welcoming communities for nonbelievers, as well as opposing the influence of religion in the public sphere and effecting secular change. I know this is shocking, but one of the best ways to ensure a secular humanistic society is to have an electorate of secular humanists.
The idea that all atheists should instead be holding “I am the 99%” signs in front of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago is far less appealing to me. It’s even short-sighted in that it trades an open, dynamic, and diverse movement for an almost blind (but not necessarily bad) involvement in specific political activities. We should be very skeptical of this kind of stuff, and of the socio-economic ideologies that purport to be atheism’s soul-mates.
The secular/atheist movement is a huge tent. I say we keep it that way.
1. It was better than going to church.
Sure, there was plenty of music and dancing and feel-good stuff, and yes, there was even a mock church service by Sam Singleton. But this was first and foremost an amazing educational event where people learned about things like molecular biology, Baye’s theorem, math education, rationality experiments, Solomonoff induction, poker strategy, as well as hot political/social issues like death, Hollywood rationality, sex positivity, atheist anger, and mental illness. Come on, when was the last time church-going challenged anyone to think this deeply, or to think at all?
2. The speakers were absolutely incredible.
Simply the best and brightest in their particular fields. Many, like PZ Myers, Greta Christina, Rebecca Watson, Hemant Mehta, are wildly popular bloggers. Eliezer Yudhovsky is the author of the most popular Harry Potter fan fiction in world and an artificial intelligence researcher at the Singularity Institute. Dan Barker was a former preacher who now works with the Clergy Project, a group that helps closeted atheists in the church. Spencer Greenberg is a mathematician who founded Rebellion Research, a company that develops machine learning technology for investing. There were so many amazing speakers there that it would take too much time to talk about them all!
3. Too many people showed up.
Skepticon started as a small event a couple of years ago with merely two speakers. It has grown exponentially since, and this year, we nearly filled one of the largest theaters in the city. Who would have thought that people would actually show up in the middle of nowhere in America?
4. It was so far away.
Road-trips are fun, and nine-hour road trips are even better! Well I kind of cheated and flew to St. Louis, but we drove back to St. Louis and took Megabus back to Chicago. Thanks to SA-ers Chana Messinger and Brian Green (no, not the physicist) for an unforgettable time.
5. We stood up against atheist discrimination.
The owner from Mio Gelato, a gelato vendor right next door to the Skepticon event, thought that skepticism was limited to questioning the existence of UFO’s or disproving astrology. So he unknowingly walked into the Sam Singleton event (an amazing comedic event, btw) and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. In response, he posted a sign on his window that said “Skepticon people NOT welcomed to my CHRISTIAN business.” Soon enough, people were taking picture of this sign, and his Yelp score took a nosedive, and this was all reported in the local media as well as the blogosphere. Afterwards, the owner posted a quick apology, and, after more public pressure, finally issued a long, thorough apology.
Two things to say about this: first of all, yes, discrimination against atheists is so not fucking okay. This case is no different than posting a sign that says “Blacks not welcome to my white business” or “Jews not welcome to my Islamic restaurant”. Giving excuses like “I was offended when I voluntarily walked into a black church” or “Hamantash and Latke made me throw up last night” is NOT okay.
Secondly, I’m glad we stood up as a community. Two decades ago, this kind of bigotry was not only common, but also occasionally supported by popular figures like the President. Since then, we’ve made a lot of progress. I’m also glad that the owner learned his lesson and that he has apologized publicly for his indefensible actions. I do not think we should excuse him. I do not think we should forget. But I hope we can, instead of holding grudges, move on and learn collectively from this experience.
6. I met unbelievably smart and talented people.
Skepticon is a spectacular social event. I remember meeting wonderful student skeptics from KU, MSU, UofI, Depaul, and an engineering college in Indiana that I can’t remember the name of. I also met many non-student skeptics not just from the Missouri area, but also from places like Arkansas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, etc. I met people from CFI, Unitarian Universalists, and other skeptics/freethinkers. I met Jesse Galef who works at the national SSA and co-writes Measure of Doubt. I also had the amazing opportunity to have dinner with several speakers from the event, namely Eliezer Yudhovsky, Spencer Greenberg, and Julia Galef. During dinner, we talked about game theory, the infinite hat problem(s), the axiom of choice, Godel’s incompleteness theorem, etc. etc. It was super!
7. We had an influence on Springfield, MO.
Besides the Mio Gelato incident, the experiences I’ve had with people from Springfield were overwhelmingly positive. The Christian activists outside our event did not cause any trouble at all. Also, many restaurants in Springfield opened early on the weekends just to accommodate us! One even gave us a special menu (I ordered a Skepticon salad, for example, but wasn’t sure if it was really a salad). In return, some of these businesses had one of their best weekends ever in terms of sales!
8. It made me proud to be part of this movement.
What more can I say? America is changing, whether you like it or not. Religion is losing its grip on the human mind, and especially with the advent of the internet, it now has to compete, for the very first time in history on such a large scale, in the free marketplace of ideas. Wherever skepticism leads us, there is no doubt that this movement has already had a profound effect on American political and social thought, and it will continue to do so. There will be a time in America when Christians (and religious people in general) will be a minority, and if the current trend continues, that day is approaching very quickly. I left Skepticon 4 with a great sense of optimism and a sigh of relief that we really are a movement that continually questions itself, continually tests itself, and continually tries to improve itself. We’re skeptics, we’re proud of it, and we have no apologies.
It’s been a long week, and I have a million things I want to write about.
First up: update on Damon Fowler, the recently-graduated high schooler who was kicked out of his community and his house for challenging an illegal school-sponsored prayer.
Greta Christina wrote a long post with all the important details about his situation and the response of the secular community. This passage struck me the most.
But when Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community stepped up. It provided compassion. It demanded justice. It offered emotional support. It offered practical support. It opened its wallets. It made it unassailably clear to Damon Fowler that he was not alone: that although his school, his community, even his parents, had all turned their backs on him, atheists would take care of him, as best they could, until he could take care of himself. It made it clear that, even though he no longer had a home in Bastrop, he had a home in this movement. When Damon Fowler was suffering and in need, the atheist community proved itself to be a real community.
Reflections like the one above don’t just make me feel warm and fuzzy; they make me proud to be part of this movement.
I’ve been thinking about this movement lately, and I realize that the road doesn’t stop here. There’s a lot more to be done. There will be more troubles ahead. We’ll face misunderstanding, ignorance, and outright hatred.
But we have to remember to never ever give into the belief that only religious communities can provide real support and comfort. Don’t let anyone ever tell you that there are some things that others can provide that we can’t.
Greta Christina slammed William Lane Craig a couple of days ago on his insane defense of Biblical atrocities.
And he [Craig] said that as long as God gives the thumbs-up, it’s okay to kill pretty much anybody. It’s okay to kill bad people, because they’re bad and they deserve it… and it’s okay to kill good people, because they wind up in Heaven. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it’s okay to systematically wipe out entire races. As long as God gives the thumbs-up, it’s okay to slaughter babies and children. Craig said — not essentially, not as a paraphrase, but literally, in quotable words — “the death of these children was actually their salvation.”
You can and should read the whole blog post. I’ve never seen an argument so bad and intellectually suicidal since… the last time I heard this argument (at an SSA debate).
Before my secular readers go into “WTF” mode, I say we have to show some sympathy for people like Craig. You see, we atheists don’t know what it is like to have to kiss up to a book at all costs, despite all the evidence in the world that the characters in the book are fictional (cannot possibly be good or divine).
Like I mentioned in the previous post, Christians usually go through all kinds of obstacles to make up desperate rationalizations for things that don’t normally make sense. They reinterpret Genesis to fit evolutionary theory. They think the Flood was a metaphor. And in this case, they come up with some morally bankrupt defense for atrocities in the Bible.
It’s only a few days until the Apocalypse, and I’ve been thinking, what if it doesn’t happen? What do people who have absolute faith in a prediction do when they find out that they are wrong?
I suggested on my last post that a lot of people will gravitate towards a more scientific understanding of the world. Ptolemists become Copernicans. Creationists who dedicated their lives to advancing pseudoscience often change their minds. Psychologists reverse their opinions about homosexuality based on evidence. The Flood didn’t really happen. Adam and Eve weren’t actual people. Muhammed didn’t really fly to Jerusalem. Dedicated believers, even priests, become atheists. But these positive changes are not singular events–they come from an gradual buildup of knowledge, experiences, public debates, self-reflection, and self-questioning over many years and with many different kinds of people. We can’t teach the value of reason or the methods of science in a day; it has to be built over a lifetime.
So that’s why it was naive of me to assume that a singular event, like the Great Disappointment, would shake the faith of believers.
Part of the problem lies with the way religion has turned out after centuries of criticism, often from secular society. As Greta Christina notes, religion is often a pile of mushy nonsense.
And when I ask religious believers who aren’t theologians to define what exactly they believe, they almost always evade the question. They point to the existence of “sophisticated modern theology,” without actually explaining what any of this theology says, much less why they believe it. They resort to vagueness, equivocation, excuses for why they shouldn’t have to answer the question. In some cases, they get outright hostile at my unmitigated temerity to ask.
I’m pretty sure all of us who’ve had experiences talking to or debating with people of faith can relate to the problem above. It’s a problem that seems to come from a reluctance to truly examine or rigorously defend the propositions of what it really means to be a person of that faith, as well as a deep fear of being wrong, which is a common characteristic of religion. However, I think the greater problem is described below.
Even when religions do make falsifiable claims — like “Prayer is effective in treating illness” or “The world was created 6,000 years ago” — their defenders slip and slide and squirm away when their claims actually do get falsified. They find the most convoluted rationalizations for why the evidence doesn’t count… or they just stick their fingers in their ears and ignore the evidence altogether. The beliefs are falsifiable in theory — but in practice, they’re unshakeable articles of faith.
The scariest thing is that I sometimes worry that there’s nothing you can do about this. No matter how much evidence you put on the table, no matter how rigorous the studies are, or how clear it is that a position leads to results that benefit the common good and promote human flourishing, religious people may never lose their faith in their immoral, unscientific positions. On topics like blood transfusion, to circumcision, to marriage, to talking snakes, to the movement of the sun, there are some people who will never change their minds, no matter how strong the evidence or clear the reasoning.
It’s definitely true for people who make End Times predictions. Harold Camping, the mastermind behind the May 21 prediction, previously predicted 1994 to be the lucky year, but just admitted that he made a “calculation mistake.”
What about the Great Disappointment? Did the thousands who gave away their possessions on the lie that Jesus was coming back in 1844 leave their faith? Did they vow never to make predictions again? Did they become atheists?
Of course not. Instead, as we expect, all kinds of desperate rationalizations came into existence, ranging from the “shut-door” hypothesis to the idea that the whole event was actually the beginning of a judgement party in heaven. All kinds of new sects and denominations formed, many of them popular and thriving today. They still make all kinds of eschatological predictions, although they don’t dare to be as precise.
This rationalization process that Greta describes is a widely understood by psychologists to be a coping mechanism for cognitive dissonance. It’s the way we humans have evolved to take into account all the contradicting information in the world and to find a pattern that fits the evidence. It keeps us functioning, so that we won’t be shocked every time we learn something new, and it keeps us happy, so that we don’t always have to know that everything we’ve lived for is a lie.
Part of understanding this world and understand who we are, of course, is to understand our limitations. Although there are millions of people of different contradicting faiths who say otherwise, we don’t have to capacity to know whether there’s a supernatural being with any definitiveness. We almost certainly don’t know this being’s mind, instructions, or commands. Yet, the religious always find ways of making human predictions about supernatural events.
Greta Christina put it most nicely.
… supernatural explanations of unexplained phenomena have never once panned out… and a natural explanation has always, always, always turned out to be right.
We’re atheists because religion has had millennia to prove itself right — millennia in which it has dominated the intellectual and scientific discourse, for all but the past few decades — and has utterly failed. We’re atheists because the religion hypothesis has been tested — and tested and tested and tested, and tested again, and tested yet again, and then tested one more time to be sure, and given the benefit of the doubt and tested again, and then again, and again — and has never, ever, ever panned out.