Coming Out A

This is a post about some comments about a few posts… pretty meta, huh?

A couple of folks have asked me why is it important to frame atheism in a “palatable” way? Or maybe the question is why I feel that it is important…

First off, I will say that I think P.Z. Myers and his sort of in-your-face atheism is important and necessary. There needs to be various ways to get out the message that religion is not only potentially dangerous, it is ludicrously infantile in the way it attempts to insulate itself from criticism.

So I see efforts like the “Out Campaign” as healthy and valuable… why, therefore, would I hesitate to “join?” And for me it is, once again, the obfuscation of labels. While I know what I mean when I say “atheist” there are so many who associate the term with a “dogmatic” kind of absolute knowledge concerning… well… everything… that I would just rather avoid it. If someone asked me, do I believe in God? (and I thought they were asking from an Abrahamic perspective) I would unequivocally say, “No!”

Of course that still doesn’t get at the “palatability” factor… and what is palatable to me, may not be to others. I am perfectly willing to vet someone else’s beliefs. I will pelt them with questions and debate their answers until we are both exhausted. And if I find contradictions, closed-mindedness, prejudice, or any other annoying line of reasoning, I will say so. Some find this highly-unpalatable, but I consider it a fine meal.

When I say palatable, then, I simply mean clear, understandable, and meaningful… of course if I can also make it attractive, intriguing, and desirable, so much the better…

I hope Jay doesn’t mind, but I’m going to quote him at some length (this is a comment from the Avampirism post):

If you don’t believe in a god why would you show concern over being called godless? Certainly if a person isn’t worried about the wrath of a deity coming down upon them for their defiance I cannot see how any lesser judgement could matter, although people have certainly perished for their beliefs. To be concerned with external perceptions or labeling of your position is either to be uncertain of the resolve in your decision to deny a divine being’s existence or you fear being outcast for something that others do not understand.

Jay was spot on, I am very concerned with the 2nd one. Here was my reply:

It’s true enough I am not worried about the wrath of a deity, because for all that I can tell wrathful sorts of deities are the product of our imaginations… or more precisely our psychology and evolutionary past.

That said, I do worry about beings that do exist, and those are all my human fellows. Humans can judge, and make vastly incorrect judgments — misunderstandings can so easily arise, and those misunderstandings can have repercussions… I don’t believe it is small of me to “worry” about such things and to want to avoid them… thus the problems with labels generally…

As for the label Atheist, not only is it often misunderstood (to mean someone who is “immoral”, arrogant, who claims to “know” things that cannot be known), I just don’t see why it’s necessary at all. If someone doesn’t have “a philosophy” (e.g. they are not a Positivist, Rationalist, Empiricist, etc), we do not have a need to call him/her an “aphilosophist,” do we? It’s just silly to see religious labels as somehow so “defining”, and it’s even sillier to put one on someone who wishes not to play that game…

And I stand by that response. Religious and non-religious labels are too important, and I think they shouldn’t be. Rather than try to “overcome” religion with the power of my “atheism,” I would rather get everyone thinking about what it is they really believe. It is my position that when they simply reflect on what they already believe, many people will come to realize they are, already, not Catholics, not Methodists, not Episcopalians. They will realize they are something else and they don’t necessarily need another label to describe it…


I believe that a world less chock-full of religious adherents (even if by name only), would be a world less “spiritually” conflicted… and the less we are worried about spirits and ghosts, the more our humanness becomes a bond — the better shot we have at real and lasting peace…  


Well, that is my hope anyway, and that’s why I am shy about brandishing my scarlet A.


14 Responses

  1. Well now, I think this speaks to the heart of that link I sent you awhile back:

    One of the speakers [Greg Epstein, Harvard, Humanist Chaplain] talks about the need for agnostics, atheists, et al. to be able to sit at a table of their religious brethren and enter a debate about solutions to real-world problems, not to mention, dissolve the inherent prejudice between the groups. i.e. atheists do not have horns, and morality is not the singular domain of the religious. Yes, it’s important for atheists to point out religious illogic and supernaturalism, but not ad infinitum. Otherwise, there’s never any getting together, coming up with earthly solutions or dissolving horns, thorns, tattoos or any other distinguishing blemish. Come on, I’ve had to do it with my in-laws. And yes, it’s HARD! But at some point, we all have to do the age-old “agree to disagree” dance and focus our energies on what we have in common. Cause we’re rarely gonna convince the other side of our rightness. I guess, that’s why I find door-to-door missionaryism so annoying [how often are they successful at changing anyone’s mind, really].

    On another sort-of-related note, I have a genuine question for your audience. Last night, my 5-year old daughter asked me, “Mommy, I know when we die our bodies turn to dust, but what happens to the rest of us?” Sigh … such big-girl questions. And therein lies the argument for religion … soothing the fears of our children/selves. But … I wasn’t quite ready to take that one on right b4 bed, so let’s just say I caved and said, “some people think x, y, z, but Mommy doesn’t really know.” So, as an atheist-agnostic-humanist-scientist, how the hell does one answer a kid’s question like that without scaring them to death … about Death?

  2. It seems I find this blog quite enjoyable, so here I go again 😛 :

    I agree with you that “Atheism” is a term which shouldn’t be needed, just as you say. We don’t call critics of alchemy a-alchemists. But I will get back to why and how atheism is usefull.

    To me atheist means a-theist = no religion, and that’s all. The problem of what is futher associated is nothing unique however. Incorrect assumptions is formed all the time about all kind of things from missunderstandings, undeliberate and deliberate, and subjective interpretion. But what better opportunity to start a conversation to explain it! That’s what we want anyway, to have conversations.

    Thus I don’t think one should be afraid to describe themself as atheist when it comes to the use as a description of ideas.

    When puting an s after some aspects of its meaning becomes undefined, or at least it should. Atheists can not mean a group of people adhering to atheism. Not only because atheism is the “lack” of theism, but also because being atheistic doesn’t say anything in itself about what goals and ambitions such a group would have.

    However, atheists can, and should imo, mean a group of people who oppose the implications and effect of theism. But, why the atheist label?

    I’d say there’s another level of seriousness about this enterprice. While alchemism didn’t kill anyone by direct intent this is exactly what religion unquestionable does. Now we need cannon rounds, as ordinary bullets doesn’t cut it (absolutly not meant in the litterary way). Just as political parties are formed to strengthen sets of opinions, so are atheists starting to organize themself.

    In spite of this it’s important to not fall into the same trap as theists. Arguments doesn’t become stronger because many hold them and in conversation we should have a non-theists, rather than atheist, rhetoric.

  3. Miriam Brown:
    “Cause we’re rarely gonna convince the other side of our rightness.”

    Let me just note that this is made infinitly harder when one/both sides hold their opinions dogmaticaly.

    None the less, changing someones mind might seem impossible, but that is because it often takes a long time and require influence from many sources.
    Or they just refuse to listen…

    About your daughter, if you’re scared you don’t often ask. Your daughter asks, are you sure she is scared? Would it not also be logical that the more you know about something the less scared you are of it?

    There is one quote (forgot by who) which goes roughly: “I’m not afraid to die. I have been dead for millions of years before I were born, and it have not caused me the slightest inconvenience.” If she get the point you know you have a smart kid 😛

  4. I was going to say something like that. I mean, how do you know she would be afraid? Is it reasonable to say something like, “After we die, we live on as good memories in people that we love and who loved us?” It seems to me, if you don’t create some wacky vision of never-growing old and all that stuff, then she’ll never have to loose it!

  5. As far as the kid question….whats so wrong with saying, “I don’t know.”

    That is a big part of life…not knowing things and to be okay that you just don’t know. Isn’t that what Tyson is kind of talking about? The labeling of everything. There is a lot of unknown that goes on in the world and personally, I am okay with that.


  6. “and the less we are worried about spirits and ghosts, the more our humanness becomes a bond — the better shot we have at real and lasting peace…”

    I know I’m nitpicking, but your whole thing is to challenge beliefs right? So, I challenge your belief stated above. On what do you base your assertion that less ghosts = more humanness/bonding/peace? Show your work.

  7. Well, just to give recent examples you’ve got war and genocide along religious lines (e.g. the 1990’s Yugoslav Civil Wars in Bosnia/Croatia/Kosovo, Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, India and Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Tibet, ongoing civil conflict in Iraq between Sunni/Shi’a militants), then you have religious terrorism (e.g. 9/11, the 2005 London bombings, the 2002 and 2005 Bali bombings, attacks by Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and Malaysia, the bombing of Danish embassies), you also have the existence of destabilizing theocratic regimes (e.g. the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Islamic Republic of Iran), and then you’ve got things in this country like religious-inspired homophobia and racism (e.g. the Westboro Baptist Church, the Christian Identity Movement).

    I would say the above are either entirely or partially the result of clinging to a paranormal, other-worldly “reality” that spills over into the all-too-real worldview and motivations of its adherents…

    Those are, of course only the most extreme examples, then you have the slow-burn tensions that underpin things like the “anti-christ” accusations against Obama or other such nonsense…

  8. I would argue that the examples you cited do bolster the notion that religiosity/ghosts/whatever do seem to highly correlate with violence.

    I see no evidence, however, that lack of ghosts means Rainbow Puppy Island.

    It’s sorta like if I said we should get people to stop caring so much about their sports teams in order to reduce drunkenness. Yes, sports do seem to highly correlate with drunkenness. But, correlation is not causation, and I have no reason to think that removing sports teams will do anything to reduce drinking.

    All your examples are God+People=Violence. You have not shown that People-God=Harmony.

    I personally suspect that People+People=Violence, and God/religion/ghosts/spirits have little or nothing to do with it.

  9. “and the less we are worried about spirits and ghosts, the more our humanness becomes a bond — the better shot we have at real and lasting peace…”

    Can you give an example of humanness becoming more of a bond in an environment where spirits are not a concern?

    To be fair, you stated this as a belief, not as a fact. But I urge you to take your own medicine and really examine this belief.

  10. You are free to have that opinion, of course, (where is your evidence?) but among the most devoutly theistic societies we currently have the most social unrest—they are concentrated in the Middle East. Among the most atheistic societies—Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Netherlands, Japan—we have among the highest “social health” indicators (including “mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems”… I can point you to a study if you are interested). Among the “Western Democracies” the most religious nation (the U.S.) ranks lowest in those “social health” indicators. Not to mention, there are very few atheists in prison.

    If people+people=violence then we would simply have more violence where we have more people, which is not the case—there are other factors at work. If you cannot see that religion (or a religious, faith-based devotion to some ideology) has been a motivating force in all of the examples I gave previously, well… I dunno what else to say really…

    And if you accept that religion is a motivating force, you accept (some amount of) causation. If religion is causing violence, it is likely that removing religion will decrease the violence (at least in those situations). Just as not having a football match would prevent football hooliganism. Now it might be that some of those folks might find something else to fight about, but it would likely not resemble the flashpoint and intensity of the post-match violence so many cities are dealing with. Now, if football hooliganism was a world wide, thousand year-old problem involving whole nations and races, and if it infected the lives of billions of people—I would likely suggest we take a hard look at football, our allegiances to it, and possibly suggest we loosen our grasp on it…

    I needn’t prove that a religion-less world be perfectly peaceful, but I can show that among rational secularists and nations that have greater ratios of them, there is more “social health”… and imo that is a likely pathway toward peace…

  11. Yeiser: “I know I’m nitpicking, but your whole thing is to challenge beliefs right? So, I challenge your belief stated above.”

    Now, it’s very important to differentiate between levels of belief because all beliefs seek the same validity. The previous sentence were an example of a “proper” belief. Any statement requires an explanation, that’s what the word “because” indicates. Based on this I personaly avoid the word belief unless meant in the faith based way.

    Koska is after beliefs based on faith, and he can explain his own argument as shown, but it becomes tedious to rewrite the whole argument each time. You don’t have to just assume he stated it based on faith.

  12. um.. it should be “all beliefs doesn’t seek” :-O

  13. Sure it becomes tedious to repeat it every time. But I hadn’t even seen it once. I don’t think once is too much to ask.

  14. And for the record, I consider my question well answered.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: