Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reducing Atheist Infighting

I now return to my discussion of Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy.

Specifically, I return to Faircloth's plea for less infighting.

Earlier, I objected to the way he defended his call for less infighting. Faircloth divided the world up into a group of "us" and "them", and arguing for a higher standard of behavior for members of the "us" group - a standard that included less infighting BECAUSE they were fellow members of the "us" group.

I argued that we apply the same standards of criticism to everybody. These standards included an obligation to present another's view fairly and accurately, and to make criticisms that are true and relevant.

However, on the issue of atheist infighting, there are two common arguments we should drop. The reason we should drop them is because the arguments themselves are fundamentally flawed.

The first argument to drop is any argument of the form, "Shut up. It's people like you who give atheists a bad name."

I cannot stress how contemptible this approach is.

Blaming a fellow atheist for the ill treatment of atheists is like blaming a Jew for the Holocaust, or blaming blacks for American slavery and racism. It's like saying, "If those Jews had treated the Arians with more kindness and generosity, they would not have ended up with the death camps. Or, "Blacks brought slavery upon themselves with the way they treated white people who visited Africa".

This type of statement is not just a historical mistake, it is an expression of the very bigotry that was the true cause if these horrendous acts to begin with.

This objection does not require that every Jew or every Black be perfectly virtuous. We can know that some were not merely from the fact that they were human. However, the misbehavior of some members of a group never justifies treatment of a whole group.

If it is possible to "give atheists a bad name" it is only because one lives in a community permeated throughout with an unreasoned bigotry against atheists. Without this precondition of bigotry and prejudice, it would not be possible to give atheists a bad name.

Somebody with a last name starting with the letter "F" may commit a horrible crime - torturing and murdering children, for example. The story can be in the news for weeks while investigators discover one body after another, and reports on the days of torture each child endured before death. Yet, nobody would even suggest that the perpetrator was guilty of giving people with a last name starting with 'F' a bad name. We do not get this suggestion precisely because we do not live in a society that tends to make bigoted derogatory overgeneralizations about people based on the first letter of their last name.

Where people are inclined to make unjust, derogatory overgeneralizations across a whole group, you know that they are fishing for excuses to justify their bigotry. Neither truth nor reason is going to stand in their way (since derogatory overgeneralizations are themselves unreasonable and leads to false conclusions). That is how bigotry works. It is filled with confirmation bias, cherry picking, and tainted interpretations. If people are already fishing for excuses to support prejudice against atheists, it is neither fair nor just to join them in blaming atheists for that bigotry.

This is really what somebody is doing when she accuses a fellow atheist of "giving atheists a bad name." She is joining the bigots in blaming the atheists for the bigotry against them. It is not the bigots’ fault. It is the atheists’ fault. Logically and morally, it is no different than blaming the Jews for the Holocaust or blaming blacks for slavery.

Before I move on to the next objection, let me derail an expected protest. I am NOT comparing the treatment of atheists to that of the Jews in the Holocaust or Black slaves. I am comparing the logic of blaming atheists for the discrimination against them to the logic of blaming the Jews for the Holocaust or blaming blacks for slavery.

The second dispute that should end because it is fundamentally flawed is the dispute between the "New Atheists" and the Accomodationists - the ones who take a hard line against all religion versus those who seek friendly alliance with liberal religion.

This issue turns out to be related to the issue above in virtue of the fact that the most common criticism an Accomodationist will make of a "New Atheist" is, "Shut up. You are the reason why they hate us."

Yet, both sides are wrong on this issue. There is no justification for this dispute.

The claim that we must all be "New Atheists" or we must all be Accomodationists is as ill conceived as the idea that we must all be doctors or we must all be engineers.

There is room for both.

In fact, there is a need for both.

My perspective on this can be found in my opposition to the national motto, "In God We Trust" and "under God" in the Pledge. I hold that dividing a community between "us" who trust in God and "them" who do not is as objectionable as dividing a restaurant or a bus between "white" and "colored" sections. Particularly given the fact that the discrimination written into the Motto and Pledge serves to keep atheists out of public office. One might as well put a sign on the doors of the legislature that says, "Theists only".

Yet, I am not such a fool to think that a politician who agrees with me has any hope of winning an election. If an otherwise well qualified politician were to say he agreed with me, I would tell him to lie. Because I would not want him to throw the election to somebody who did not agree with me. I would want that politician to be an Accomodationist. That is the only way he can do his job effectively.

We need “New Atheists” with their uncompromising ridicule off all of the stupidity and foolishness we find in religion. And we need the Accomodationists making real change in the real world as it currently exists. The future is in the hands of the first group. The present is in the hands of the second.

Together, I would say that these two complaints make up the majority of the current disputes between secularists.

The first dispute is morally objectionable. Whenever I read an atheist who says that other atheists are responsible for anti-atheist bigotry, I think of two Jews standing naked under a shower head with one turning to the other and saying, "NOW look at what you've gotten us into."

The second dispute is irrational. It is not the case that we must all be alike. We are better off with some diversity, with different people taking on those tasks that suit their personality and temperament. Members of this community should understand the practical value of diversity – given its representation in evolutionary theory. They should not be fighting against it.

I would argue for both of these types of disputes to be put to rest. I would have the Accomodationists get along with their job of accommodating. I would have the new atheists continue their practice of "New Atheisting". And I would have nobody blame atheists for the bigotry that is targeted against them.


tr_ said...

A most astute observation, one in which I concur completely.

Bipolar Alcoholic :-))-: said...

I agree. Have you seen the religious antagonist videos? He did one pertaining to this very subject; on how atheists are more critical of him than actual christians. Here's a link...

Sigmund said...

I think you could modify your description of the non-accomodationist side of atheism. In my opinion the 'militant' new atheists will work alongside the religious so long as the topic is of benefit to both groups. For example atheists working with the likes of the Rev Barry Lynn of 'Americans United for the Separation of Church and State' or working to promote good science education in schools.
Accomodationists, on the other hand often seek to promote (moderate!) faith itself as a positive and will disparage those who disagree with this strategy (meaning that accomodationists almost by necessity have to attack new atheists who do not see faith, moderate or extremist, as a virtue.)
It's not the working with the religious that new atheists object to - rather it's the working with the religious to promote religion that is the problem.

Austin Nedved said...

Godwin 1, Alonzo 0.