June 11, 2017

Critical Self-Examination Among Atheists

critical self-examination
I came across a thought-provoking post by Godless Mama, and although I've already shared it across many of my social media accounts, I wanted to give it an added boost by writing about it here. The post, A Crisis of Lack of Faith, is one that she appears to have written with some reluctance about how it would be received. While I am not going to claim that I agree with every word of it, I found it worthwhile and recommend it without hesitation to anyone interested in organized atheism (and skepticism) and willing to engage in some critical self-examination.

I want to acknowledge at the outset that I can relate to the author's point about some of the negative baggage around "atheism" and "skepticism" that has accumulated recently as a result of how some of those who use these labels to characterize themselves behave online.
The label of “atheist,” along with the labels “skeptic” and “rationalist,” have become so weighted with the baggage of bad actors that I too am left wondering what to call myself so as to not bear the guilt by association.
While I have seen many of the same things she points to from self-identified atheists and skeptics on social media, this has not made me question whether to call myself an atheist or a skeptic. I am not willing to allow bad actors to define me or these various terms. When I see bad behavior coming from others who use similar labels to identify themselves, I experience a pull toward behaving better and offering an alternative model. I am not tempted to stop thinking of myself as an atheist or a skeptic.

I think it is important to confront what Godless Mama is talking about head-on.
It is clear that scientific evidence and consensus count for far less among atheists than most atheist Facebook memes would have you believe. To pick the lowest hanging fruit, I am routinely confronted by atheists who are anti-vaccine, anti-GMO, and anti-nuclear power. Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus on the safety and efficacy of all three of these, whenever these facts come up in conversation there is a flurry of pseudo-scientific, long-since-debunked comments combined with no small measure of garment-rending, and previously satisfied followers head for the exit in droves. Is this the kind of behavior one should expect from people who profess with such fervor to be beholden to the scientific method?
No, this is absolutely not the kind of behavior we should expect from those professing to be scientifically-minded, rational, and so on. Some will object that these things have nothing to do with atheism, but we aren't confining ourselves just to atheism here. We're also talking about skepticism (and even humanism).

Godless Mama goes on to note that this sort of thing is not at all limited to questions of science.
...Conspiracy thinking is also not uncommon in our “community.” Mention any conspiracy, from 9/11 trutherism to birtherism to pizzagate, in any online atheist group and you will uncover passionate, devoted subscribers to every single one.
Sad but true. I've seen this sort of thing widely propagated across all the social media platforms on which I am active.

A critical point of Godless Mama's post, and the one we would all do well to heed, concerns the objection we can all see coming. Of course atheists are going to make mistakes; we're only human! We aren't perfectly rational, and we make mistakes. Godless Mama effectively demolishes it when she points out how we tend to present ourselves.
We are indeed mere fallible humans; that much is true, so far as it goes. But the hyperbole and braggadocio that permeate most atheist forums offer no such caveats.
We are the ones running around claiming that we prefer the truth, accept reality, and value evidence more than the theist. We are the ones who insist that we have made the reality-based community our home. And yet, our behavior often suggests otherwise.
I am not unfairly holding atheists a higher standard; it is atheists themselves who claim to operate on a higher standard. I am merely pointing out the regularity with which we fail to meet that standard.
I can't argue with that assessment. We've set the bar high for ourselves. We either need to meet it or abandon it.

Admittedly, I am not entirely sure I know what Godless Mama means by "movement atheism" in this context. She does not define it, but the way she describes it makes me think that it must be something fairly different from secular activism. It sounds like it is much broader in scope than church-state separation and likely has social justice goals attached that I'd associate with humanism. If so, this part of the post is likely to be the most controversial. Not all atheists are interested in humanism or whatever else the political left has embraced as social justice. I agree with Godless Mama when she says that we have to abandon the notion that "religion owns the market of bad ideas" or that "atheists are more willing to challenge their own beliefs than theists."

On the other hand, I'm not inclined to accept responsibility for someone else's bad behavior just because they happen to be an atheist. I find the whole "guilt by association" thing to be fairly toxic. I'm also not sure that humanism needs to be a part of "movement atheism." Some of us want to do both; some prefer to focus on one over the other. I think that's okay. And I am not at all interested in attempting to "clean house" if it means trying to expel every atheist I might consider to be a bigot or a hypocrite. That sort of thing has been tried, and I think it made things worse rather than better.

I do very much like Godless Mama's idea about seeking to amplify the positive voices among atheists, humanists, skeptics, and freethinkers. I believe this is something we should all seek to do more often, and I think it can be done without simultaneously attempting to marginalize people who may say things we don't like. In this context, I find rewarding positive behavior to be more appealing and likely more effective than attempting to punish bad behavior.