September 16, 2015

One Good Thing About the Atheist Rift

English: Bryce Canyon National Park at sunrise...
Bryce Canyon National Park at sunrise (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Maybe I'm just having an uncharacteristic moment of optimism where I am trying to look on the bright side of an unpleasant situation that does not have anything to do with our fascination with conflict, but I think there there is at least one small upside to the atheist rift. It has helped me to confront at least one difficult truth: just because someone identifies as an atheist, a skeptic, a humanist, and/or a freethinker does not mean he or she is rational, fair-minded, kind, or has any other admirable qualities.

Of course I knew this before I'd ever seen any real conflict among atheists. But knowing it in an abstract sense is different from having had enough direct experience with it to finally internalize it. In some ways, it is a lesson I needed. It helps keep me humble, and it helps me recognize that atheism cannot solve all - or even most - of the problems that need solving.

It is not that I ever believed that being an atheist, skeptic, humanist, and/or freethinker somehow made people more rational or anything else positive. Being an atheist may indicate that someone is correct on the question of gods, but knowing someone reached the right answer says little about how he or she got there. And while skepticism and freethought are certainly good things, it is quite easy to be selective about how and where one applies them. Someone could be a skeptic in some spheres and not others; someone could utilize freethought in some areas and not in others. And humanism, with all its different meanings, is challenging to pin down. Many people who claim to be humanists can be seen to treat people quite poorly, including their allies, and to violate much of what we might call the charitable "spirit" of humanism.

But while I never believed this in a conscious sense, I think it is fair to say that I fell victim to some subtle (and some perhaps not so subtle) biases. I had unrealistically high expectations of those who identified themselves as atheists, skeptics, humanists, and/or freethinkers. I expected them to be more rational, fair-minded, deliberate, intentional, kind, and just than was realistic. I expected groups of atheists, skeptics, humanists, and/or freethinkers to function better than groups of religious believers. In short, my expectations were unrealistic and set me up to feel surprised and disappointed by what should have been some predictable shortcomings.

Part of what the atheist rift has taught me is that people will suffer from the same human flaws regardless of what they believe about gods, about the appropriate ways to acquire knowledge, about their fellow humans, and so on. Being an atheist, skeptic, humanist, and/or freethinker in no way prevents one from being a mean, petty, and proudly irrational jackass. Persons who identify as atheists, skeptics, humanists, and/or freethinkers remain perfectly capable of treating one another poorly. Sad but true.

I cannot go along with the view, appealing as it might be, that jettisoning religion will inevitably lead to some sort of utopia. Without religion, there would still be war, inequality, bias, bigotry, hate, and most of the other things we like to blame on religion. I don't doubt that many things could be better without religion; I doubt that everything would necessarily be better.

And yet, this lesson does not make me want to turn my back on atheists, skeptics, humanists, and/or freethinkers. Not at all. It does not make me want to pack up my toys and go home. It does not lead me to despair about the future. How can this be? I recognize it as an opportunity for me to grow and learn. Confronting reality is not always comfortable, but I remain committed to doing so.

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