Thursday, April 28, 2011

Like herding cats.

It must be a day whose name ends with a "y," for once again the Internet is abuzz with scandal du jour. This time, what seems to have set the fuse alight is Jerry Coyne's recent open letter to the NCSE and BCSE. While I found Coyne's letter to be well-written and compellingly argued enough to have been proud to add my name, there's bigger fish to fry at the moment.

Namely, I want to address the flood of comments directed at ν atheists that this melee has brought about. As Ophelia Benson has snarkily documented, this most recent shitstorm has prompted quite a few people to boldly define for their readers what ν atheism is. Perhaps my favorite contributed definition is that from Rob Knop, with whom I have had at least a few completely unproductive arguments:
Do the New Atheists really believe that they aren’t being argumentative, aggreessive, and generally dickish in their attacks on religion? Or, are the religious the “other” against whom any sort of rude behavior is justified?
With apologies to PZ Myers, the emphasis is mine, but the duplicitousness is all Knop's. Notice how Knop correctly notes that many atheists (including those often pinned with labels like "ν," "Gnu," "noo" or even "new") do not extend to religion the special privilege of immunity to criticism, but then immediately switches from talking about religion to talking about the religious. This bit of sleight of hand does the religious quite a disservice, as it implies that religious adherents are so incapable of separating themselves from their religion that criticism of their beliefs must necessarily equate to a personal attack against them.

By contrast, the view held by us νs is generally that religious adherents are, by and large, quite reasonable people, and in particular, are capable of engaging in arguments with those who disagree with them. Of course, one can point out examples where νs have engaged adversaries with more hostility, but as I have argued before, this is largely as a reaction to bad faith on the part of, well, some of the faithful. If you choose to call it "dickish" to point out that people like Knop are being duplicitous in their arguments, then I will admit that your definition of the word "dick" has little in common with any definition that I recognize.

While there is some judgment implicit in criticizing the positions of another, we rightfully do not let that stop us from criticizing political positions, accidental and intentional prejudices, breaches of ethics, illogical actions, etc. Why we should then suspend these actions where religion is involved eludes me. After all, criticism both at the level of society and at the level of one's immediate social circle is a valuable way of seeking a better world for everyone. At the same time, it is commonly understood in our culture that there is a time and a place for such criticism, but given the monumental importance that religious beliefs play in our world, I should rather err on the side of too much criticism of irrational beliefs than not enough.

To expound on that point just a little bit, let me direct your attention to one of Greta Christina's articles, in which she points out that even moderate and "sophisticated" religious beliefs must somehow deal with the genocide and infanticide on display in the holy books such as the Bible. That some widely respected theologians such as William Lane Craig decide to deal with the problem of evil in their holy books by actually making arguments that genocide isn't so bad after all should give us pause. Do we really want to leave unnoticed an elephant in the room that would render even well-educated and good intentioned people into apologists for the systematic destruction of a race? Now, before Knop or Staynard or someone else misinterprets the previous sentence, note that I emphatically did not just call all religious adherents genocidal. What I said, and let me make this precise, is that the process of rationalizing a religion with a modern understanding of morality can lead one to ignoring or attempting to justify atrocities. If criticism of the kinds of religious thoughts that lead to these problems can help make the world a better place by ensuring that we can continue to progress morally, without being bound to a the values written down in millennia-old book, then I will accept the label of "dick" that seems to come with the territory. I am, after all, in good company.

Returning to the original point, though, why is it that such dishonest and useless definitions as that quoted above still have such staying power? There are obviously lots of reasons for the unfortunate pervasiveness of the "New = Asshole" style of definitions, but I would like to add one more for your consideration: ν atheists are, for the most part, hard to characterize. Is ν atheism new? No; people have been loudly and proudly atheistic for quite a long time. Is gnu atheism well-characterized by a set of beliefs that are distinct from "garden variety" atheism? Not that I've been able to tell.

What unites noo atheists is mostly  what unites many humanists, skeptics, agnostics, atheists, brights and what have you: a dedication to the positive power of rational thought as a tool for advancing human understanding. This comes along with quite a lot of consequences, naturally, which are adopted more readily by some rationalists more than others, but that's as basic an understanding of ν atheism as I've ever been able to achieve. Past that, there is a constant flux of arguments by which we refine and develop our understanding. We are, by nature, curious and exploratory. Many of us are feisty in our ways, celebrating not only in chances to show someone else wrong, but to be shown wrong ourselves. From my view, trying to characterize ν atheists is a project as doomed to failure as trying to herd a bunch of cats.

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