October 22, 2012

Atheism Plus: Ignore It or Challenge It?

MemeAmong those who reject the manner in which the most vocal proponents of "atheism plus" have behaved, I have heard two different opinions on how (or if) we should respond. One group suggests that we should simply ignore them. The rationale appears to be that they are primarily seeking attention (e.g., blog traffic) and that ignoring them will hasten the demise of "atheism plus" and the "freethought bullies." Another group suggests that we should respond to them in much the same way we respond to other examples of irrational thought or destructive behavior in other contexts. Their argument tends to be that we cannot afford to ignore them unless we are content to let them take the atheist movement in directions that bring it closer to a religion of some sort.

I think that both of these groups make valid points. I can see the merit in both approaches, and I find myself a bit conflicted over which makes the most sense for me. I have found myself trying to ignore "atheism plus" and the "freethought bullies" for awhile, but I always seem to come back to address them again. Why? I'll give you the primary reasons I keep coming back to these memes. I write this to explain and not to persuade.

I Still Care

I suppose the first reason I seem to be drawn to these subjects is that I give a damn. If I didn't care about the atheist community to some degree, I wouldn't be writing about this stuff. It is because I have some investment in our community and the goals we hope to accomplish that I am interested in this situation. Were I to give up on the atheist community completely, there would be no reason to occupy myself with such issues.

The Appeal of Religion

Beyond caring about the community, some of the appeal of these memes, is similar to the appeal of religion as a subject. I write about religion for two reasons. The first concerns its negative influence on society (e.g., religious extremists attempting to impose their version of morality on the rest of us). In a sense, one could say that I write about religion because I feel I must. The second reason involves the irrationality of religious belief. And here, it isn't that I feel compelled to write about it as much as it is that I enjoy writing about it. You see, I find blatant irrationality to be a fascinating phenomenon, and faith is the perfect place to find it.

When I look at some of what has gone on in our community, I see a similar display of irrationality. I see it from some of the misogynistic trolls, and I see it from some of the bloggers and their supporters who label everyone who disagrees with them a misogynist. Awhile ago, I was told very directly by one such supporter on Twitter that anyone who questioned whether Elevatorgate might have been an overreaction was necessarily a misogynist. We've all seen Ophelia Benson mock someone leaving a comment on another blog in the network, and we've observed Ed Brayton (owner of the Freethought Blogs network) call a woman "a fucking moron" on Twitter.

Avoiding Hypocrisy

When a prominent Christian like Pat Robertson spouts off, what do you almost always hear from atheists? You hear something along the lines of, "I wish the liberal to moderate Christians who think Pat is a buffoon would speak out against him." It is common for atheists to find fault with those Christians who allow Pat to go unchallenged. Some atheists even interpret the silence of such Christians as a form of implicit agreement.

Now imagine the common scenario in which Christians criticize atheists as immoral. How do we typically respond? We often point out that Christians are among the last group that should be questioning the morality of anyone. Just look at the god in which they claim to believe, the doctrine of hell, or better yet, look at the behavior of many Christians. One of our most common rebuttals involves the notion that Christians must fix the many problems in their own community before criticizing others. Not doing so, we suggest, is the height of hypocrisy.

I think this is the primary reason I have felt compelled to write about "atheism plus" and the "freethought bullies" meme here. If we are right to call upon Christians to explain that Pat Robertson does not speak for them, it seems like more of us should be willing to state that PZ Myers, Ophelia Benson, "Surly" Amy, and the like do not speak for us. I feel like it would be hypocritical of me to ignore this sort of behavior simply because those engaging it in happen to be atheists.

If religiously motivated bigotry is still bigotry, don't we have to admit that irrational behavior by atheists is still irrational? If it is a problem when religious believers make DMCA complaints against atheist bloggers, why is it not a problem when atheists do the same? If we are serious about wanting liberal to moderate Christians to call out the extremists in their midst, maybe we need to do the same.

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