Why I’m Not Shutting Up About Atheism…


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From Richard Dawkins Foundation

I’m tired of being told to shut up about what I think. I am especially tired of being told to shut up about what I think by people who think I am actually right.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not tired of being disagreed with. I am not tired of people coming forward and passionately arguing that I am wrong. I am not tired of encountering dissents, ripostes, rebuttals, rejoinders, admonitions, counter-evidence, counter-arguments, speeches, books, articles, sermons, scholarly publications, conferences, blog posts and comments, tweets, e-mails, Facebook comments, face to face confrontations, telephone calls, photoshops, memes, imgurs, instragrams, instant messages, text messages, billboards, television shows, movies, songs, plays, .gifs, faxes, telegrams, carrier pigeon messages, messages in bottles, sky written messages, statements entered into the Congressional record, birth announcements, eviction notices, bill collectors’ letters, mime performances, interpretive dances, or birthday cards attempting to make the case that I am wrong. If you think I am wrong about something, by all means make your case.

So long as you don’t try to verbally abuse or otherwise use subversive emotionally pressure, so that I might concede to you against my free intellectual conscience, I am happy to listen. Let me feel comfortable honestly working through my own ideas for myself until my own mind is truly convinced based on all the best available arguments, evidence, and considerations. If you can engage and convince me in such a manner that respects me as a free thinker, then by all means please enlighten and correct me if you can. If you want to encourage me about how to be a more civil and compassionate arguer, consistent with affirming the value of me speaking my mind, then do that too.

My problem is not with people who see things differently than I do. Some are more insightful and excite me to evolve my own thinking. Others may be frustratingly obtuse. But so long as they’re saying what they really think (or being upfront enough when they’re exploring positions they’re not actually committed to hypothetically), I’m never going to blame someone for simply disagreeing, no matter how adamant I might be that they’re wrong or being systematically irrational, self-deceiving, prejudicial, etc.

My problem is with people who ostensibly do see things as I do and yet complain that I or others like me dare to say what we think. I am tired of being told by atheists not to argue about the truth of theism.

I am tired of being told by fellow evolution supporters that it’s only appropriate to criticize creationism and that it is somehow inappropriate to argue that accepting the factual dynamic of natural selection philosophically requires either outright abandoning Christian theism or, at least, drastically revising it in ways few Christians are willing to deal with.

know it is better that religious people have truer explicit, or functionally effective, beliefs and values. So long as they feel pulled to be religious, I encourage them as much as possible to interpret their beliefs, and shape their practices, to be as literally or metaphorically as representative of the true, or creative of the good, as they can. But it’s also not my job to say, “That’s good enough!” when I see ways they can be still truer and still more conducive of the good. It’s my job to speak my mind about where I still see falsehoods. It’s up to them to figure out what to make of my sincere objections.

I am tired of being told by handwringing atheists that theistic allies’ willingness to accept evolution is probably so tenuous that we can’t risk them reverting to creationism by creating a fear that their choice is between evolution and atheism. It’s not my job to manipulate religious believers’ perceptions for them. I’ll encourage them to at least believe in evolution and theism together if the only other option they’ll countenance at the moment is creationism. But I’m under no compunction to pretend I don’t see problems even with that compromise and or to refrain from chiding them to think harder from there.

I am tired of being told by elitist atheists that it is inherently gauche, mean, condescending, pushy, intolerant, unsophisticated, ignorant, or uncompassionate to challenge religious beliefs that allegedly “hurt no one” and that “make people happy”. I am tired of the way this elides all the ways that living by religious falsehoods does hurt and encumber people (including my younger self, with ramifications for me still today) or make them less happy than they might be.

I am tired of being told that because I want to speak up for what I really think that this automatically makes me closed-minded, absolutist, or “just as bad as a fundamentalist”. I offer reasons in arguments, not dogmas. I invite reasoned replies and I change my mind in response to persuasive arguments. There’s nothing inherently closed-minded about having or arguing for my opinions and asking for them to be engaged with rationally. By no means are all strong opinions inflexible, arbitrary ones. Some are actually grounded in a wealth of good arguments and still amenable to change. And everyone telling me and my fellow outspoken atheists to shut up has strong opinions too. That’s why we so upset them!

Those trying to shame and silence any one who takes their views on philosophy or religion seriously enough to argue about as intolerant and closed-minded are the real enemies of free and open discussion here. They’re the ones trying to impose their view that the order of things should be one where people are allowed to stay cocooned in their own arbitrary faith communities, safely insulated from challenges to their basic beliefs or values. They’re the ones who mischaracterize rational arguments that appeal directly to people’s minds as irrational impositions against people’s wills. They’re the ones backing up the practice of responding to rational arguments with calls for the discussion to be preemptively stopped and for those being refuted to be protected from intellectual challenge, coddled in the misapplied name of tolerance.

You can, as I myself have incessantly done, insist that atheists not verbally degrade, insult, and disparage theists, without telling them to stop making fair-game philosophical challenges. You can argue adamantly that atheists should not call religious people “stupid” without also saying atheists have no right to call it irrational when religious believers tenaciously cling to baseless beliefs by a faith-based, religiously ingrained and cultivated, willingness to dig into their prejudices in the teeth of all counter-evidence and basic sense. You can suggest that atheists not have acrimonious personal relationships with religious people and not start fights over religion at funerals orother emotionally vulnerable times for others, without also encouraging a policy of atheists always hiding their true thoughts away and deferring to religious feelings as paramount socially, and without bemoaning abstract arguments in appropriate times, places, and forums wherein atheists uncompromisingly give atheistic criticisms of religious answers to suffering.

I am tired of the condescending assumption that religious people would prefer to be treated with patronizing kid gloves than actually be engaged with authentic challenges and criticisms, as though they typically like being patted on the head as benighted rubes who can’t crave, understand, or emotionally handle the truth. I find this condescension offensive and harmful on behalf of my younger, religiously fervent self, whom it insults.

I am tired of the ill-supported belief that having the truth is irrelevant to an ideal life so long as one is psychologically sated. I am tired of people acting as though it is not at all empowering but somehow inherently stifling when I implore religious people to embrace their moral rights to full freedom of rational thought, engage in genuinely open ended inquiry, and experience true intellectual autonomy. Leaving my faith behind was liberating and maturing in a way I want for others. I’m not ashamed of this.

I am tired of atheists who refuse to appreciate or care about just how much excessive, stifling, rationalizing deference to religious traditions and authorities causes intellectual and moral stagnation, regression, and outright training in what can fairly be called anti-critical-thinking skills. I am tired of atheists who waive away the reality that religious people routinely not only argue in irrational ways but also make explicit defenses of irrationalism and belittling attacks on science and the entire secular world in their routinely cultish reactionary backlashes. This is a problem. I am not apologizing for defending reason against these assaults on it. The presence of some rationality that does work within religion does not make this a non-issue.

I am tired of people insisting none of these things are problems so long as people are “happy”, as though systematic misunderstandings about reality, psychologically ingrained in people with the force of literally religious pressure to never change them, could not lead to any systematic intellectual or moral failures worth blaming religious indoctrination itself for. As though living well and thriving doesn’t ever hinge in any tangible or meaningful ways on actually seeing the world as cleareyed as possible when making decisions or understanding oneself. And as thought knowing the world more truly had no intrinsic value, when I would argue it does.

I am tired of being told by politically liberal atheists that challenging theological falsehoods for their own sake is a distraction from “real issues”, a threat to political coalition building, and a matter of taking the bait to engage in the dreaded “culture wars”, which would otherwise somehow (miraculously maybe?) go away if only secularists ignored fundamentalists and pretended they were a much smaller fringe than they demonstrably are.

I am tired of so many religion-appeasing secularists’ moral and cultural shortsighted irresponsibility that mistakenly assumes the only place values matter is in the spheres of legislation and politics, and not in the private spheres of fundamental beliefs, morals, and culture that constitute the very soil of a people and its values.

I am tired of having my concern for what is true and good conflated by other atheists with a desire to impose my beliefs on others when I simply make arguments and never advocate for using the state to impose my beliefs or values beyond what is necessary for the sake of political justice. The ideal of free speech means we can and must have vigorous public arguments about the true and the good, however uncomfortable that makes everyone. This is completely consistent with (and complementary to) the government staying as neutral as possible on questions of what is metaphysically true or what the good life is for individuals.

We can and must have cultural, philosophical, and moral arguments. They don’t have to turn into violations of anyone’s rights to their own opinions or own ways of life. They don’t necessarily in any way violate others’ legal rights to pursue their own visions of the good life as they wish. I am tired of having my interest in conscientious and explicit dialogue and debate about the most fundamental beliefs, values, commitments, and identities demonized. Yes, we have all dealt with obnoxious, authoritarian, bullying proselytizers. The solution is not the end of all discussion of contentious philosophical or religious matters. The solution is the deliberate and scrupulous inculcation of civil, respectful, rational, and compassionate norms and attitudes for having these discussions. But the discussions need to happen. It’s irresponsible not to have them.

I am tired of fellow apostate atheists who act like even though they were able to see their way out of their false religious beliefs no one else apparently can. I am tired of them hypocritically telling me that it’s pointless to argue with those “stupid” and hopelessly closedminded religious people. How fascinatingly forgetful or arrogant of you to think you’re the only one who can look at evidence and change your mind.

I am tired of the defeatism of atheists who see the enormity of religious hegemony and the religious sway over individuals’ minds that fortifies them against changing their minds easily, and simply conclude we should pack up our tents and just learn to live with perpetual ignorance as an ineradicable feature of life. The religions that survive and thrive do so because their adherents are indefatigable. Christianity is here today because a tiny minority of an oppressed people living under a conquering empire would not shut the fuck up two thousand years ago. They would not stop telling everyone they came in contact with about their beliefs. Judaism is still here because it endured for thousands of years as a persecuted religion as Jews always simply refused to capitulate to other religions’ pressures and convert.

And today, Mormonism, a wildly ludicrous religion easily debunked by the most rudimentary knowledge of indisputable recent modern history is among the fastest growing religions. Presumably this has at least something to do with Mormons going door to door to door to door undeterred.

Christians for two millennia now have shown up in places where no one agreed with them at all and set about brazenly, methodically, and imperialistically taking over those cultures. I am not saying we should adopt all the manipulative and imposing and obnoxious and even violent tactics religions have used to entrench their power. But we also shouldn’t just shut up and get out of their way and simply hope they stop or lose steam on their own. We should be scrupulously rational and honest and educational, rather than manipulative. But we should not be silent. We should be a counterforce. We need to speak up and develop competing cultural forces of Humanism. Our choice is simple. Stand up explicitly for atheism or continue to be steamrolled by theism. I refuse to be streamrolled.

And I’m tired of atheists who trip over themselves praising the sophistication of more liberal believers and accusing other atheists of simply being uniformly ignorant of the wonders of supposedly philosophically sophisticated theology. I’m tired of being falsely accused of being a “fundamentalist too” just because I take fundamentalist versions of faiths, believed in by millions, seriously enough to spend time arguing against them on their own terms. That does not make me philosophically or theologically ignorant. I do it because I’m concerned for the minds of fundamentalists and those susceptible to their influence.

I apostasized after being immersed in Christianity until I was nearly 22 years old. I lived, ate, drank, slept, and abstained from sex Christianity. I evangelized all my friends. I went to one of the most conservative Christian colleges in the country. I spent my summers at Christian camps, including six straight as a camp counselor. I took ten theology classes, learned about numerous liberal stripes of the faith. And after finally becoming disillusioned with my faith as formulated in evangelical terms, I spent another year reading liberal theology just to be sure I had given the faith every fair shot. Then I went to a Jesuit graduate school and so, despite being in a predominantly atheistic field (philosophy), studied with a solid majority Catholics and evangelical Christians. I roomed with and became close friends with a budding Thomas Aquinas scholar. A Jesuit priest philosophy professor went out of his way to verbally compliment me on the quality of my medieval comprehensive exam answers on St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas. I am published  in the New Catholic Encyclopedia, Supplement 2012-13: Ethics and Philosophy  and have contributed reviews on books on Nietzsche’s philosophy of religion to International Philosophical Quarterly, a theistic philosophy journal, and contributed a chapter to the mostly religious philosophy anthology Rethinking Secularization: Philosophy and the Prophecy of a Secular Age. When I argue that the philosophically “sophisticated” Thomistic account of God is a bait and switch, I do so from a well informed.

While I am sure I have plenty of nuances to learn about this liberal theology or that, or this novel theistic metaphysical formulation or that, I am educated enough that I am entitled to my opinions that theistic philosophy and theology, even in liberal forms, are basically wrongheaded. Also so qualified are many of the ~83% of professional philosophers who don’t identify as theists and the ~70% that expressly either lean towards or outright accept atheism. This includes the ~82% of metaphysicians, those specialists presumably best placed to authoritatively analyze theism from an informed and unscientistic perspective, who neither lean towards nor accept theism.

Atheism is not a philosophically ignorant position in need of correction from sophisticated theology. The situation is quite reversed, if you ask me. And while the average atheist may not have my or other professional philosophers’ levels of technical specialization, there is a widespread phenomenon of extensive religious education, even and especially seminary preparation for ministry, making people atheists.

And it’s no surprise that Pew’s religious literacy study showed that the average atheist knows more about religion than the average theist. So many atheists had to earn their atheism, inch by inch, largely by themselves and alienated, struggling with their intellectual consciences against enormous religious pressure and their own personal religious desires and commitments. So many of us risked losing friends, family, jobs, marriages, and our entire senses of our own identities. I’m tired of us being told to now spend the rest of our lives tip toeing around religious people’s feelings and beliefs. We have earned the right to get on every soapbox we can find and denounce the lies and damage done to us. We have earned our place in the conversation. And my fellow apostates and the burgeoning doubters on their way there deserve people who reach out to them. They deserve a vibrant outspoken community of unapologetic atheists who let them know there is life outside of what they’ve often been downright brainwashed to believe is the only world they could ever live in.

They deserve a strong community of unabashed and experienced and constructive atheists who care about other atheists to help them with their transition into non-belief and the development of a new, post-faith-based identity. This is psychologically a fissuring experience for so many of us. (Ex-pastor Jerry DeWitt aptly calls his experience “Identity Suicide”.) Atheists don’t deserve to be abandoned. They don’t deserve to be forced to defer completely to their religious spouses when it comes to their religious kids’ education. They don’t deserve to have no alternative, constructive communities and resources of their own for working out their philosophies and educating their kids in values. They don’t deserve to deal alone with their former fellow believers prejudicially judging them.

And even atheists who were never religious have lived so much under religious hegemony that it is a joke to accuse them of disqualifying ignorance of religion. As marginalized and routinely scapegoated people they are fully entitled to denounce what religion has been to them.

So I am sick of hearing from atheists who accuse atheists generally as not yet enough schooled in theology to denounce religion or who sneer at us for deigning to attack religious beliefs the average person in the pews really hold just because there’s some sophisticated theologian with a developed rationalization that undermines that lay religious person’s literal belief. I reserve the right to criticize false beliefs actually held regardless of whether some others within a religion don’t happen to hold them. Thanks for the advice to shut up, fellow atheist. Thanks for your assurances about what religions *really* are about and your apparent assumptions that the theologians will corral the believers for themselves. But I don’t buy it.

And it’s dishonest to compare the lay atheist, or the atheist writing outside his particular field of special expertise for criticizing false religious beliefs, to the most sophisticated theologian. Compare apples to apples here. The lay atheist stacks up far better than the lay religious person in rational honesty and consistency and even in religious literacy. And among academics? It’s no contest. It’s a blow out. Rates of atheism in the sciences are disproportionately higher than in the lay public. 83% of the public believes in a personal god while only 33% of scientists do. Among elite scientists? An unmitigated blow out. ~93% of the National Academy of Scientists don’t believe in any personal gods. And, again, philosophers, those most technically trained in epistemology, ethical theory, metaphysics, logic, etc. are overwhelmingly disinclined towards theism. The only subset of philosophers strongly inclined towards theism are philosophers of religion–those philosophers most inclined to be engaged in philosophy from a motive to rationalize their religious commitments rather than to discover the truth for its own sake, whatever it might be. (Reasonable Doubts has a good new episode detailing this point.)

So, no, atheism is not too unsophisticated a position just because atheism popularizers or internet atheists are sometimes sloppy or paint with broad strokes. Atheism is not simply propped up by an epidemic of low information. It’s religions that are depending on rank and file ignorance of what their own philosophers and theologians really think in order to stay in business. Atheists do not need to keep being told to continue first studying theology and some day come back at some ever receding and stalled “right time” to finally criticize theism.

We know enough to start speaking now. And I’m not shutting up. If you don’t like what I say, send me your counter-arguments. Your invitations to quiet down only make me louder.
~~

2 Comments

Ah, the trap of duality. Even Epicurus speaks from that supposition. Could it be, at least for the sake of argument (which is apparently Dawkins’ overriding passion), that the imaginary entity known as ‘God’ is simply Supremely Indifferent?

    I can remember being amused, even as a child, that folks speak about God as if He could be described and confined to human scale. Such an impertinent approach to what one considers to be supreme is only cute in small children. Adults, developmentally as well as chronologically, learn their limits and do not try to reduce by descriptive fantasy.

    ybera

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