Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Atheism is Not Enough

Coughlan666 from YouTube once a video posted a video in which he read a poem he had written entitled "Atheism Is..." For a such a simple a straightforward piece, I always found it particularly powerful. The message was simple: Atheism is... Nothing. It is merely a lack of belief that has no direct effect on society or the individual. Paradoxically, this fact, in effect, makes atheism meaningful. With it comes the freedom from faith, which does have a marked effect on society and the individual.

A few weeks ago, I was on the phone with Hassan in what has since been termed a "philosophy booty call". He was driving home from school and was plagued with the idea that atheism could be possibly be considered a religion. He asked me to prove him wrong. When I pointed out that atheism wasn't even a belief system, that is was just a single belief on a single issue, he told me that atheism seemed like more than that because of how his way of life changed upon rejecting religion. I believe his exact wording was "When I realized there was no god, I thought "hey, I can do shit now!"".

While this is probably a common reaction among newly deconverted atheists, I gave the statement some thought and realized what a troubling statement this actually was. One of the more common assertions we hear thrown at us from the religious camp is the notion that we're only "reject god" because we want to live our lives they way we see fit, without listening to the commands of a deity. Rightly, most of us find this notion insulting. We aren't nihilists a la Ivan Tergenev who wish to do away with the established fabric of society simply of the sake of doing so. Yet even I was thrilled at that prospect of not going to hell for having premarital sex, cursing the names of deities or believing blindly in the untestable. I have come to realize how easy it is, even for the supposedly rationally minded among us to fall into the trap of mistakenly thinking that atheism is permissive.

Even in the context of religion, it is not the belief in god that binds us to the deontological morality that permeates faith. The beliefs we have about the god in question are what permit or forbid certain actions. Take, for example, premarital sexual activity. Sex before marriage only becomes a sin if we believe that our god values virginity or "purity" before getting married. It does not come directly from the theism itself. If we were to examine a pagan belief system in which ritualistic sex was a part of the religious sacraments, premarital intercourse would no longer be condemned despite the fact that the practitioners of the religion would still, by definition, be theists.

Of course, most modern atheists reject not only the theistic belief but the entire religion. This is entirely rational considering the fact that, without theism, most western religions lose the premise on which all of their other beliefs rest. Even so, this does not mean that our atheism, or even our rejection of religion necessarily gives us permission to partake in behavior forbidden by the religion. There are many behaviors forbidden by religion that may be perfectly acceptable, this is true. But the reverse may also be true. The fact that religion X is wrong is not sufficient grounds to say that the things forbidden by religion X are permissible. If there were a good moral argument against all premarital sexual activity (I don't believe there is, but let's keep the examples consistent), that argument would be sound regardless of whether or not religion X forbids it and premarital sex could be termed immoral. What we need in addition to atheism is a comprehensive and constant philosophy that helps us determine how to live our lives and improve our society.

This is not the post in which I tell you exactly what this philosophy is, but it certainly need not be a rule based system of ethics as we find in Christianity. The problem comes when we discount philosophy entirely, mistaking it for the tiresome mumbo-jumbo used to rationalize belief in the supernatural. As non-religious atheists, we have released ourselves from the shackles of dogma, but emancipation is not the last step in our intellectual development. If we want to term ourselves enlightened, we need to remember to keep thinking. What atheism gives us is not the freedom to act, but rather the freedom to figure out how to act. Let's not forget that not having been given all the answers comes with the responsibility of having to find the answers ourselves. Next time a religious person asks you "where do you get your morality from?", make sure you can answer the question before you laugh at their ignorance.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Interfaith and the Complicated World of Tolerance

A lot has been said in our community lately about the newly released book by Chris Stedman entitled Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious. Stedman is an enthusiastic supporter of the interfaith movement. In his book, he posits that the aggressiveness of the New Atheist Movement is divisive and that modern atheists should make an effort to participate in interfaith activities in order to create a more peaceful coexistence between the religious and nonreligious communities. I have yet to read the book in its entirely, but excerpts have recently been released on Salon and The Friendly Atheist blog. Having read through these excerpts thoroughly then read them again, I find that my feelings on Stedman's opinions are very personal, very strong and very mixed.

The Good.

When I first read Salon's except from Faitheist, I reacted negatively. Upon thinking about the subject a bit more, I realized that Stedman's book is something that I have, in subtle ways, been calling for for a while now: a comprehensive and constructive criticism of the New Atheist Movement. I, of course, would be the first to bring to light my deep love and passion for my secular activism, but I cannot deny that our movement has problems. At the CFI Michigan Secular Summer Retreat, I distinctly remembered having an in depth conversation with a friend about the prevalence of staunch ideologists in the movement. We have plenty of members who are more interested in being dicks to people who disagree with them than they are in critical thinking. When Michael posted a series of videos on Youtube on this exact topic, the reaction he received was a barrage of anecdotes along the lines of "but I was convinced by a confrontational atheist!" from so-called rationalists who apparently forgot that anecdotal evidence is bad evidence. I always thought that "confrontation vs accommodation" was a false dichotomy: neither one is a particularly effective strategy in the big scheme of our goals as a movement.

The thing I appreciate about Stedman's book is that he calls our status quo into question. Though he may go too far in the eyes of our staunchest activists, there is something to be learned from his recognition that religion is nuanced and should not be blatantly condemned without first understanding it. He also attempts to remind us that people more than the sum of their ideas. When we debate, we need to remember to attack ideology, not the people involved.

All of that being said, there is far more in Stedman's arguments that I find objectionable.

The Bad.

On our university's campus, we have a large and powerful interfaith group. Its members frequently reach out to our Secular Student Alliance and all of them appear to be good, well-meaning people. The problem is that, more often then not, the collaboration of our groups has resulted in the bumping of heads. A couple of our members attended an interfaith dinner and friends of mine from both groups reported feeling alienated by the other. When a representative from the interfaith group attended one of our moderated debates, he complained to us that even that was "too aggressive". "Tolerance" is a goal that I want to be able to support, but I simply do not believe that the religious and nonreligious communities can carry on as if nothing is wrong between us. There is a deep divide between us and it is unfair to blame the atheists for the hostility and alienation that we feel. There are a few basic facts that we need to remember when considering relations between the religious and nonreligious communities:

Atheism and Religious Belief are Very Different
Atheism is not a religion. It's not even a belief system. It is not the opposite of religion; it is the opposite of theism. As such, atheists often have surprisingly little in common with the religious as far as the nature of their beliefs, especially if the atheists have rejected the faith traditions completely. At the aforementioned interfaith dinner that some of my SSA attended, one of the topics of discussion was the idea that all religions have holiday traditions that allow them to spend time with loved ones and family. The interfaith people were miffed that the atheists didn't appreciate the topic. "Why couldn't they just talk about secular traditions that they might have as atheists?", one of my friends in interfaith asked. It's bothersome to me that the interfaith group, who claim to advocate tolerance, will only attempt to understand our atheists if we become more like them. It's easy to be tolerant of people who are just like you, but if we want to bridge to division between the religious and nonreligious, the religious need to understand that atheists are not religious, they have no desire to be religious and they may think about the world in a very different way.

Some "Confrontational" Push Back is Necessary
Male homosexuals are not generally as flamboyant and provocative as they appear in Gay Pride demonstrations. I've heard it said open displays of gay pride are equivalent to the "pushing of beliefs onto everyone else" that we see from the conservative subset that persecutes homosexuals. This assertion is not even close to being true. In the past, when homosexuals were silent, they were terribly oppressed. Pride parades and protests are push back; they are defiant reactions to the oppressors, insisting that gay people be accepted by society. Atheists today find themselves in a similar situation. On the friendly atheist, we find this except from Stedman's book:
"The increasingly vocal and vitriolic subset of the atheist community has made my work of persuading people to abandon their negative preconceptions of atheists a lot more difficult [...] This is the opposite of what I and others are trying to accomplish, and it frustrates me that some atheists enable and perpetuate the widespread mistrust of atheists."
Stedman seems to have forgotten that mistrust and oppression of atheists existed long before the Movement. That's the reason we have a movement in the first place. If anything, life for atheists has improved in recent years and, in fact, irreligion is on the rise in the west. It is only in times and places where atheists are silent that they are oppressed. This doesn't mean that all atheists should be dicks, it simply means that we cannot pretend that the religious and nonreligious are playing on a level field. Sometimes we have to be loud. Society fails to accept us completely. That's a problem with society, not with our community.

Our Movement IS Tolerant
There are no prerequisites for "membership" in our movement accept for a lack of belief in a deity. For all this talk about our movement being "divisive", we bring together people from all walks of life and all backgrounds. We are black, white, male, female, gay, straight, monogamous, polyamorous, young, old, book-learned scholars, autodidacts and beyond. There is surprisingly little judgment within the movement itself of various people. There are occasional problems with racism, sexism, etc. but as soon as these problems come to light, there are people who speak out and take steps to fix them. Our community makes an effort to be accessible and inclusive. I have yet to see this to the same extent in any religious community.

I think it's also prudent to point out that some atheists don't want to collaborate with the religious. I know people who have been abused by their religious families and abandoned by their religious loved ones. They have felt hurt and alone and want nothing to do with the belief systems that drove them to be treated badly. Whether or not these sentiments are rational is a separate issue: the fact is that they are present and we need to be empathetic to them. I plan on reading Stedman's book in it's entirety, but speaking now as an atheist activist, I am not ready to jump onto the interfaith bandwagon. From what I've seen, it lacks the qualities that would allow it to make society better for the atheist. As far as society goes, we still have a lot of improvement to do.