Not an Atheist

It's not just semantics anymore

Image: na_too_stupid
I also have issues with the way the word "science" is thrown around, but that's a topic for another day.

You'd probably call me an atheist. After all, I'm not the type to even consider "belief" in any god since they don't exist. More than that, I generally think that the world would be better off without religious organizations. That sounds pretty atheistic by most people's standards. But I don't consider myself atheist. For a long time now I haven't defined myself as "atheist" because the semantics of the word bulldozed over what I really feel. Defining oneself as a not-something implies that the something is the norm, and to be not that is the deviation. The word gives religious people the mental scope to define you as lacking a quality intrinsic to being a complete person. A quality that only matters to them.

In short, I don't feel the need to define myself as being not a theist for the same reasons I don't feel it's necessary to give any weight to describing myself as acaudal. I don't have a handy term in place of "atheist," either, not least because it would just be code for "atheist" anyway, but also because no one really needs labels of any kind in order to distinguish themselves. Labels are merely the front end of stereotypes for others convenience.

Still, all that said, up till now I haven't really fought tooth and nail whenever the word "atheist" is thrown my way, because, well... fuck it. I can't be bothered to have a semantic debate every time the word comes up.

That's changed, though, because I've discovered an aspect of the recent, assertive form of atheism that is out in the world to have a very distasteful component to it. A sensibility I would like to distance myself from. Sometimes it's referred to as the "new atheism." Though the atheism isn't new, the idea that atheism can be a social and political block deserving the same treatments enjoyed by other demographics is what distinguishes it. Which, like anything that makes any human equal and able to have a voice, is good. I'm all for people standing up for their right to be heard. It's what they say that sometimes irks me.

What I see as a pervasive meme in the atheist disposition is an-us-and them mentality where what draws the line is the capacity for rationality. The prevailing belief among atheists is that anyone who has not accepted the realities that preclude the magical thinking of religious belief are morons, deserving of mockery. Richard Dawkins, noted vocal atheist, who I respect a great deal, unfortunately sums up this attitude best by saying, "It is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane."

Richard Dawkins.
The guy does more good than bad, so, he's cool by me. Still, there's a lot wrong with this quote.

I used to think that way too. I had little to no respect for people who seemed to me to not take full advantage of all their capacity as human beings to reason. If I felt a person might be wilfully ignorant, then I outright disdained them. I was the type of person that I now find unappealing. I agree that someone who doesn't accept evolution as a fact is wrong, but I entirely disagree with Dawkins on how it is they came to be wrong about it. The premise the quoted statement seems to come from is that an optimally functioning human being, when presented with the facts, should be able to clearly see the most rational conclusions. Any other method of thinking is an obstruction to how they should think.

Even when atheists are being nice about it, there is still often an intellectual elitism built into their disposition. Carl Sagan once said, "In the way that scepticism is sometimes applied to issues of public concern, there is a tendency to belittle, to condescend, to ignore the fact that, deluded or not, supporters of superstition and pseudoscience are human beings with real feelings, who, like the sceptics, are trying to figure out how the world works and what our role in it might be. Their motives are in many cases consonant with science. If their culture has not given them all the tools they need to pursue this great quest, let us temper our criticism with kindness. None of us comes fully equipped." That's nice and all, as it allows for the idea that when dealing with someone who is given to having a religious model of the universe, you shouldn't be a dick to them. But, still, the problem is that those people are not "fully equipped," meaning they are lacking a precious quality that the rational have.

In other words, there isn't a handy word for it, but it's the same problem as when a religious person refers to me as atheist. It's a world view that says they are lacking, whoever they are that don't share your way of seeing the world. They are lacking an intrinsic quality, without which, they are not fully human. Prejudice that depicts others as lacking humanity, whether boldly antagonistic or dressed up in diplomacy, is never justifiable, no matter where you're coming from.

I'm sure that someone like Mr Dawkins, around this point in my little rant, might say that life is not intrinsically "fair" for anyone, and some qualities just are better than others. Compassion is better than hate, understanding is better than ignorance, and rationality is better than gullibility. All of which I would agree with, because I'm not making the argument that we should be arbitrarily nice to ignorant people just because that makes us better. That's merely the Sagan approach. No, my argument is in what defines a complete person, and the ethics of defining others based on value judgements about qualities that go beyond individuality.

When you are talking to a religious person, like the kind who takes fairy tales about putting every animal in existence onto a single wooden boat as something literal and serious, you are not talking to someone who has failed to see the truth. You are talking to a form of success. That person is the manifestation of the very qualities that made our species a top predator. As Richard Dawkins should well know, we did not evolve to be rational. We only evolved to survive. Rationality is merely one of many useful tools we have leveraged to accomplish that. Rationality been a helpful evolutionary asset for mere tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of years at best. At it's longest, though, it's nothing compared to the millions of years in which we used cooperation and group cohesion to survive. Our biological wiring as pack animals certainly predates us as a species and easily goes back many iterations of the species we might delineate as stages on our branch of the evolutionary tree.

This is not an argument based on biological determinism to simply forgive religious thinking for being a product of peer pressure. It's a tough fight, to be sure, but rationality can trump group dynamics. It happens all the time that people think things through and decide that their current group is not for them. Mr Dawkins was raised Anglican, but broke away from it, which can't be discounted as a personal achievement of breaking away from a poisonous group mind. But at the same time it can't be ignored that centuries of atheist thought exist in the world, so to what degree did a personal revelation emerge inside him, and how much was there a greater appeal in simply another community outside the one he came from?

In any case, if we assume that the fight for the emergence of rationality is only in people's brains, not also in the social landscape in which we all live, then we haven't left the Dawkins territory of thinking that people who have not reasoned their way out of magical thinking have an underdeveloped capacity for rationality. As if all these fairy tales are merely placed there, like any other mundane thought, as concepts to be evaluated, and your ability to accept or reject them is only limited by the quality of the rational part of your brain. These thoughts aren't merely there to be absorbed or rejected, though. As humans we all need to define ourselves by the community we participate in, and religious thought, or lack of it, which determines your sense of community not only to other humans but the universe itself, is not on equal ground with mere facts.

The memes of spiritual thought have self perpetuating mechanisms that span beyond individuals. It's not as if the Catholic Church's Pope retires to a back room where he laughs about duping everyone and rolls around in swimming pools full of money like Scrooge McDuck. No, he almost certainly believes the web of bullshit the Catholic Church is built on as hard as anyone else. He almost certainly has to in order to move up the ranks, and when he gets to the top, he turns around and rewards his minions for their genuine commitment to the fairy tales and twisted ethics, creating a perpetual cycle where the entity that is the organization of the Catholic Church thrives beyond any individual needing to wilfully use it as a tool for manipulation.

Carl Sagan.
Patronizing, but still, trying to be nice.

Whether it's individuals using religion for direct benefit, as you get with smaller cults and within political and social organizations, or the organizations themselves acting almost as if they had their own ambitions beyond individuals, religious thinking preys upon our most fundamental attributes as humans. The need to know who we are as a person is in part a need to know who we are as a people.

We can easily imagine that you, me, Mr Dawkins, or anyone else might not be well enough equipped for rationally assessing religious claims if we were locked in a box from birth to age 18 where we were given an electrical shock if we ever questioned the existence of whatever deity, prophet, or spiritual energy our captors wanted us to believe. But that kind of manipulation is peanuts compared to building a persons identity through their place in a group. In the electrified box, you can always identify the captor as the source of judgement, thus giving yourself identity that is separate and able to step outside of their assertions. A community, though, isn't just the vehicle for a set of ethics that are offered for you to evaluate. A community is you.

That may not sound convincing on the face of it, to just declare "a community is you." But ask yourself, how do you define yourself as a person? The work you do, the country you're from, the music you listen to... You didn't invent the concept of a job, or a country, or a song, and yet all those yardsticks outside of yourself are the measure of your identity. And yet, assuming you think like a human, you go about assuming your particular identity is entirely self created. That you got a job being a scientist because you have a scientific mind, or as a designer because you have artistic ability, or whatever. Would people take pride in specific jobs as video editors or pharmacists if those jobs didn't exist? Even the most crazy artistic mind trying to defy all of a cultures conventions has the problem that everything they do is in opposition. What would it even look like to be a truly cultureless human? We literally might not be able to conceive an answer, it's something we are not evolved to conceive of, the same way we can't imagine a colour outside of what the cones and rods of our eyes can receive.

At the same time, we all have the hubris of being sold on the absoluteness of our individuality. Concepts like culture and community are like accents. Everyone thinks their own accent is the just how speaking sounds, and everyone else has an accent that deviates from it. Similarly we all assume we have an individual identity that springs from deep inside of us, and it's everyone else who can be defined by where they're from, the experiences they've had, the culture they exemplify. It's easy to see other people's cultural tropes in terms of external identifiers. Two people may believe in different gods, but each one assumes their belief is the product of personal revelation, and the other person's belief is a product of the family that raised them. A Christian thinks they're Christian because of a personally revelatory experience with their god while assuming hundreds of millions of Buddhists are Buddhist because they happen to be born in Asia. Atheists too, seem to always assume that everyone else is stuck in religious thinking because of cultural influence, but their own ability to rationalize their way out of it came from inside.

All the magical thinking, all the fairy tales, of course it's all nonsensical bullshit. But if you engage on that level, arguing about how the Earth is not flat, or that people used to be famous historical figures in past lives, or that someone can heal another without touching them, or whatever else, you are not actually engaged in an argument about anything. These are memes planted inside the head of the believer to act as bullet catchers on the front lines of the battle for their mind. Religion hasn't thrived for thousands of years because ideas like talking snakes and oil lamps that last a bit longer than usual are so super compelling the people who heard them couldn't resist them. Religion has lasted because it gave people a powerful sense of belonging, where the fairy tales act merely as secret hand shakes to let you know who you belonged with and who you didn't. They're of no more significant than the stories that bind people together at comic book conventions.

Even more complicated than evaluating the hierarchies involved, the meme of religion itself is not always a bad thing. Some religious thoughts are ugly, like the assumed authority over people they think of as infidels. Some religious thoughts are beautiful, like the exhalation of spiritual over material happiness. The degree any one person religious person manifests the ugly or the beautiful is what matters, and is the foundation of to what degree you can reach them and how. Whether they think their prophet sat on a lotus flower or dispenses virgins in an afterlife is not only as irrelevant to the degree someone prefers Star Wars over Star Trek, it's a mere shell that has evolved into the meme that has successfully buffered the core issues of identity from outside scrutiny.

Not that mockery isn't sometimes justified. As a comedian, I'm all for the use of satire or humour to make a point. But the target matters. You don't make fun of soldiers for fighting a war, you make fun of the politicians that put them there. Similarly, if you want to make fun of religious people, mock the people who use religion, not those who are used by it. Which is which is not easy to tell, but that doesn't excuse you from being lazy and not working to figure that out. After all, you're a smug atheist who holds rationality in high regard, so you're a hypocrite if you don't appreciate the complexity of the situation and work to discern who is a victim of, and who is a benefactor of, religion. Blanketly calling everyone who accepts the religious ideas as "ignorant, stupid, or insane" is fucking lazy.

This is why I am more adamant now about not being called an atheist. I don't want to be associated with that culture. In my own little world, not believing in gods and the mystical means having there's that much more of my brain available for figuring out how to get along with people. If the atheists really want to be different, something new, a form of admirable human culture, then they could really shake things up with sympathy. All of human history is chock full of ideologies that call the other side deficient, deserving of hostility or pity, so what's atheism bringing to the party that's new? What would it be like if every atheist decided to not confront completely unsupportable and incongruous logical fallacies not with smug witticisms, but with a sincere and sympathetic desire for inclusion? To simply side step the fairy tales and connect with people on real issues of community, of support, and inclusion. Separate abusers from abused so that we can take down the generals but not shoot the soldiers?

Of course, a lot of religious people would probably be offended by my pity, having essentially described them up to this point as being victims of cultural memes that exploit traits fundamental to our evolutionary success. And frankly, I doubt I could say much to save myself from their offence. But I honestly, once I realized that multi armed blue gods and the miracles of prophets wandering in deserts is of no more significance than how I happen to prefer Spider-man over Superman, then you're left looking at how people are defined by their intention.

Bottom line, currently the term "atheist" doesn't just mean "person who does not believe in any theism," it means "smug self righteous jerk looking for opportunities to lord their intelligence over someone." An attitude such as the one expressed in Dawkin's quote above doesn't merely draw battle lines between two sides of a debate. It defines one of those sides, the atheist side, as being derisive, smug, hostile, and judgemental. All of which are qualities that can be found on the religious side as well, so where's the progress? It makes me wonder if, given a choice, would I rather live in a world of rational atheists who are dicks, if the other choice was community and love along with unfortunate magical thinking.

It's not a choice anyone has to make though. There's no reason you can't be an atheist who sees religious people as humans, not in the sense of pity for what they lack in rationality, but in welcoming for how the very same feelings that make them religious make them the kind of people who are potentially loyal and caring friends. To some degree, the religion meme has figured this out long ago, and some of their sects make assimilation seem appealing because they offer so much kindness. They love you for your flaws and tell you that you, like the rest of the meek, shall inherit the earth. Whether you see that as an ethical approach as I'm describing here, or a cynical manipulation to kill your rational thought with kindness, I don't care. I would love to live in a world where different sides of any religious debate were trying to out-nice each other.

When being "atheist" means "person who helps others feel that belonging and acceptance aren't the monopoly of religion," then I'll take that label.