August 21, 2014

Confronting Our Own Hypocrisy and Repudiating Bad Behavior

Hypocrisy at Glasgow Cathouse
Hypocrisy at Glasgow Cathouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The last of the four suggestions in my Four Things We Can Do To Make More Atheists post was the one that will probably be most controversial. I said that I thought we needed to take a look at ourselves, confront our own hypocrisy, and repudiate bad behavior we see coming from within our community. While I have been trying to do this for some time, I will not pretend that it has been easy or that I am not conflicted over how best to do it.

When we look at religious believers, I have no doubt that most of us find hypocrisy widespread, relevant, and off-putting. I cannot say that hypocrisy made me an atheist; skepticism and lack of evidence did that. I can say that religious hypocrisy helped to shape by attitudes toward religious belief. I have no reason to think that hypocrisy among atheists will not shape attitudes toward atheism. But I am not looking at this primarily as a public relations issue. My main concern is not with how religious believers may view us; I am more concerned with how our hypocrisy limits our effectiveness and our attractiveness to other atheists.

As I wrote previously,
In the last six months, I have met a few atheists online who went so far as to say that they no longer identify themselves as atheists because they do not want to be associated with the garbage they have seen coming from other atheists online.
This concerns me because it suggests that things have gotten so bad that some atheists are deciding they want nothing to do with the rest of us. This isn't just burnout, shifting priorities, or dissatisfaction with a perceived lack of progress. This is something more, and it may have an adverse impact on secular activism.

Avoiding Hypocrisy In Ourselves, Addressing It In Others

We need to look out for hypocrisy in ourselves and avoid it where we can. We can only be so effective in detecting our own hypocrisy. Sometimes, we are going to have to rely on others to help us do so. This means that we need to be receptive to criticism and use it to do some self-exploration. Condemning our critics without listening to them dooms us to hypocrisy.

We also need to figure out what to do when we encounter significant hypocrisy coming from other atheists, especially those who are prominent public figures. The outrage culture embraced by some atheists is not working. And yet, many of the complaints I have heard center not so much on the hypocrisy itself but on the fact that it is largely being ignored by the rest of us. Sometimes, our silence makes it look like we are giving people a free pass simply because they are atheists.

The answer, it would seem, is that we may need to address hypocrisy and repudiate bad behavior among atheists. But of course, this raises the difficult question of how best to do this.

A one-sized-fits-all approach is unlikely to work here. How we respond to mild hypocrisy should be different from how we respond to extremes of bad behavior. In most cases of mild hypocrisy, I think it is probably sufficient to address it with the person in a calm manner that focuses on the content and avoids personal attacks and name calling. For example, we should be able to highlight the difference between what someone says and does without necessarily calling them a hypocrite.
I've noticed that you seem very committed to free expression, and I appreciate your efforts in this regard. I'm curious how you reconcile your commitment to free expression with the petition you've been circulating to punish this person for expressing herself.
More significant examples of hypocrisy, especially when they are recurrent, might call for something a bit different. Perhaps a blog post pointing out a pattern but not necessarily identifying any one person as responsible would be a start. This tells the community that we are aware of a problematic pattern and are less than enthusiastic about it.

Before doing anything, I might ask myself, "If I was a recent atheist seeing this play out, what would I think? Would this make me think twice about associating with atheists?" My answers might help me assess the importance of doing something and inform me about what I might do.

Blatant Hypocrisy and Bad Behavior

As we reach blatant hypocrisy and other destructive behaviors (e.g., doc dropping, declaring that certain subjects are not open for debate in a community that prides itself on freethought and skepticism), it probably makes sense to address it and those involved. What I have in mind here is not personal attacks or name calling but clear, unambiguous statements of disagreement and criticism.
It appears that a controversy has been brewing over recent allegations against person X made by person Y. I believe that it is important for person X to have the opportunity to tell his side of the story before being declared guilty by the community. Frankly, I am appalled by the lack of skepticism on display here. I think those calling for mob justice are making a serious mistake...
This sort of repudiation may not be easy to write. One who does so will almost certainly be the target of outrage. But I do not think we can allow that to be a deterrent. The atheist community is in desperate need of more rational voices. Again, one of the most common complaints about hypocrisy and bad behavior within the atheist community is that too many of us seem content to ignore it.

Making an effort to rise above petty conflicts taking place around us does seem noble but only up to a point. At some point, conflict must be addressed, and stands must be taken. And the worse the hypocrisy or bad behavior is, the sooner it will need to be addressed.

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