October 8, 2013

Additional Thoughts on Boredom Among Atheists

English: Boredom Italiano: Noia
English: Boredom Italiano: Noia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Internet may have changed the experience of boredom by making it easier for us to find interesting content, but I do not think it has rendered the concept of boredom obsolete. I suppose this should not be surprising. After all, I still remember when we moved from 3-4 channels of network TV to the 100+ channel packages we now enjoy through cable and satellite TV. They did not eradicate boredom either; we simply learned that 100+ channels of crap is still crap.

I recently wrote a post about boredom among atheists in which I noted that I do find myself feeling bored with online atheism from time-to-time and that I think this happens mostly because the content seems to fall into the same few areas, each of which can seem a bit monotonous after awhile. I find that I tire of writing about the same handful of things here almost as much as I tire of reading about them elsewhere. Cephus (Bitchspot) shared his thoughts on the subject, and something he wrote resonated with me:
One of the problems with being an atheist, we don’t get monthly notices that we’ve liberated another country, or even a city or small town, from the ravages of religion. Very little ever changes, it’s the same old thing, day after day, week after week and month after month.
Yes! That's a big part of it that I had neglected to mention. Of course the content one finds in the online atheist community gets repetitive! This is exactly what one would expect when so little changes. We rarely have brand new things to talk about, so we keep treading the same ground. Even the big news stories that are relevant often seem eerily familiar to many others. I think Cephus is right about this. When it comes to the few goals shared by most (but certainly not all) atheists, change can be so slow it barely registers.

How long have we in the U.S. been complaining about the sorry state of our education system and decrying the lack of critical thinking that occurs there? How long have we in the U.S. been fighting to keep creationist nonsense out of our public schools? How long have we fought what often looks like a losing battle just to maintain the wall of separation between church and state? And while I do believe that we have made some progress toward educating the public about atheism, this has been painfully slow to translate into reduced bigotry and discrimination aimed at atheists.

In part, our lack of clear and measurable progress leads to feelings of discouragement. This may be related to boredom but is not quite the same thing. But where the boredom comes in is that many of our arguments are the same today as those being made several decades ago. We often seem to be fighting the same battles in the same ways. Is it any wonder that we find ourselves feeling bored at times?

When Boredom Becomes Dangerous

It may seem odd to suggest that boredom can be dangerous in this context. After all, many of the people who get bored with online atheism simply disappear. It isn't like they stop being atheists; they just stop participating in online atheism. I'm sure we lose some atheist activists due to boredom, as boredom is closely associated with burnout. This is certainly a cost worth noting because we all benefit from their contributions. But they aren't who I'm thinking of when I suggest that there are dangers to be found in boredom. No, what I have in mind are those who cope with boredom by stirring up trouble.

I had a friend for a few years growing up who used to set fires. They were mostly small and did not hurt anybody, although he would eventually burn down his family's home and disappear from my life shortly afterwards. I'm not sure what the deep psychological motives for his behavior might have been, but the explanation he always gave was that he did it because he was bored. I was always inclined to believe him. Setting fires was not the only bad thing he did. In fact, he did quite a bit of trouble-making out of what he described as frequent boredom. He did what he had to do to stir up excitement, and that included theft, vandalism, fighting, and fires.

As I suggested previously, I think that at least some of the conflict and infighting we have seen in the atheist community may be the result of boredom. For those who merely observe it from the sidelines, it may be a welcome break from what seems monotonous at times. For the active participants, it might be a way of stirring things up to alleviate boredom. If arguing with Christians on Twitter has become boring (and it certainly can), one might try arguing with social justice warriors instead. Maybe that will be more interesting. Say what you will about conflict; it is seldom boring, at least initially.

While I'm reluctant to characterize any of this as dangerous, I hold open that possibility. If we are genuinely concerned about the health of the atheist community and the efficacy of the secular movement, it might be reasonable to regard efforts to stir up trouble to escape boredom as potentially dangerous. Of course, that does not mean we should ignore existing conflict or appease the loudest voices involved in it. I think that is a poor strategy that will do far more harm than good in the long-run.

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