The Deep Rift in Atheism: picking a tribe April 28, 2013Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: atheism, Justin Vacula, PZ Myers, religion
Over the last few years, a deep rift has emerged in the atheist community. If you don’t know about it, and don’t care, then I’m not going to summarize it for you. For sake of clarity, I am talking about the rift between the FtB bloggers (because they are a hive mind, of course) and those who refer to them at “FtBullies” or somesuch. You know, like many at Skeptic Ink, the slymepit, or A Voice for Men (and other such places).
Now, I will start out by saying that I recognize the tribalism emerging here. For a while, say around 2007, it looked like the atheist community was going to be a tribe of it’s own; breaking away from the tribes of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc and creating a space for those who were interested in science, reality, and who were skeptics. Quickly, it began to fall apart a bit at a time. From the fall of the Rational Response Squad, through #Elevatorgate, and to the “deep rift” which still causes trembling in the blogosphere today, there are a number of tribes within the larger community of reason. Again, I’ll start by acknowledging this, and using it as the basis to say any more about it.
Nobody here is completely right. In every camp within the atheist community there are people who have made mistakes, with whom I disagree sometimes, and with whom I will not choose to spend my time reading (which is not to say I will refuse to do so, I just don’t follow those blogs). But that does not mean that the answer is (necessarily) to mediate the dispute by planting oneself in some neutral zone between these camps. That philosophy of diplomacy is fundamentally flawed, as I think The Daily Show has shown many times over the years by demonstrating that Fox News is not Fair nor balanced. Similarly, as PZ Myers once said (and I’m identifying my” tribe here), trying to sit halfway between the evidence and “those worshipping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.” That is, there is a side here which is more right than others (or, in some cases, all in-accordance-with-the-evidence while the other is all wrong). In short, I think that there exists, within this rift, a side which is one the right side of justice, and sees the long term goals of the movement are worth paying attention to. I think that side is the FtB people, for the overwhelming majority of examples.
Many do not agree. Justin Vacula, for example, has said that atheism has nothing to do with feminism. He puts it this way:
Atheism, as it’s commonly understood, and how I use the term, is lack of belief in any gods. The lack of belief in any gods does not entail any other facts about a person. Atheism — although there may be a large percentage of atheists at least in America who share some unrelated common ideals — is no indication of political views, positions on social issues, guarantee of intelligence, educational background, ideas concerning feminism, or socioeconomic status.
Here, Vacula is technically correct. Atheism, qua atheism, will tell you nothing about a person other than their lack of belief in gods. Vacula is here playing the part of the dictionary atheist, as defined by PZ Myers. And I will admit that I have a small quibble with PZ’s view here about why we are atheists. I disagree with PZ semantically (because my mind works in such a way that the lack of semantic precision bothers me), but I think I understand PZ’s point in that linked post (from February 2011, mind you…and it’s still an issue…) and agree with it mostly. On the other hand, I find Vacula’s semantic quibbling, some 2+ years later, to be grating and annoying. Vacula, like some many around him, is missing the point while trying to be too technical, too lawyerly.
Here’s what I posted to facebook, quickly, before going to work earlier today (in part) after reading an update by Vacula;
Atheism has nothing to do with feminism, eh? Only in the most strict sense that the lack of belief in any gods (per se) is not directly related to the role of gender discrimination and structural inequalities therein are concerned. But the same skeptical methodology and the value for human rights which led me to care enough to take part in the atheist community led me to care about the rights of all genders, discrimination, and to work towards a better world for all people no matter their gender.
And so now I want to elaborate on this. I want to explain why I think that the atheist community has a lot to add to and contribute to the many social justice movements, feminism included, and why people like Vacula should stop being a clueless douchemonkey about this, if possible. It’s not that I think Vacula and his ilk is always wrong, that they have nothing worth-while to add, or that he should be kicked out of anything (although I will not seek him out when I go to Women in Secularism 2 in a few weeks). It’s that I think that they are missing the goddamned point.
I don’t participate in the A+ forums. My wife (Ginny) is a moderator there (although I think her graduate school works and upcoming website project have made her participation there nonexistent recently). I don’t know enough about what goes on there to speak with great authority, but I agree with their general goal as I understand it. And despite what anyone will say about the Matt Dillahunty affair which occurred there (Matt is seemingly still on board with A+, so that should tell you something), they are a dedicated group of people who care about social justice and they are people with whom I’m willing to ally myself generally.
What is the point of atheism+? We know that atheism, per se, is simply a conclusion; the answer “no” to the question “do you currently hold an active belief in any gods?” So why that title? Simple; it caught on from an organic conversation, and that’s how terms come to be. It came into form here, with Greta Christina pulling together an idea that was initiated by Jen McCreight about how there is more for us to do, as atheists. We don’t only disbelieve in gods, we have values and positive beliefs. Granted, not all atheists share the values which the atheism+ movement embraces, but that is the nature of addition; those who don’t fall into that category are not being counted here. If you don’t add those values, then you are not part of the set that is defined by atheism + social justice. There is no attempt to re-define atheism, just to FUCKING ADD TO IT! Nobody has to count themselves as part of it if they are not in agreement. Personally, I’m glad to leave some atheist dipshits behind here…OK, perhaps it would be better to educate them and bring them along, and I’m juts being cynical and negative. Fine.
If I had my say, I’d call it skepticism+ (as I think that skepticism is the more fundamental position, compared to atheism). But the boat sailed on that, so I’m sticking with the term until the unpredictable direction of cultural movement carries it another way.
Atheism is boring
It pains me to do it, but I will mention that Alain de Botton said that the question of whether a god exists is boring. I detest Alain de Botton’s perspective for many reasons, and wish him the obscurity he deserves for his flat and vacuous philosophy. But I will partially agree with him here. It’s not the question per se which is boring, but rather it is the way we are still answering it, the way we have been doing it for a long time, which is boring. I’ve been around this block for more than a decade now, addressing theological claims, accommodationism, etc and it’s getting old. Hence the need for the “third wave” of atheism which started this whole atheism+ thing. I’m glad that there are people still handing the 101 atheist questions (my good friend Staks, who disagrees with me very strongly about the issue at hand in this post, does a good job of that even still). In my opinion, basic atheism should no longer be the focus of anyone’s efforts within the atheist community, but should be an occasional peg to be smacked down when it becomes occasionally relevant. We need, as atheists, to recognize that we should be concentrating on what we are for, and not merely what we are against.
I’m for feminism.
I loved Evid3nc3′s videos. I thought his voice was remarkable and fresh, and I was glued to the monitor whenever a new video in his series about his conversion came out. But recently he started a blog, and one of his posts from last year, entitled “Why I am not a feminist” missed the point, hard. Being a feminist is not about ignoring the rights, plights or hardships of men [edit: Evid3nc3 wants me to clarify that his issue is that his"problem is with the word “Feminism” and the way it alienates people. It isn’t a good common banner to unite around." Apologies to him for misrepresenting his view.]. It’s not about focusing on women only (again, Greta Christina has said it well; the patriarchy hurts men too. Also, see part 2). This mistake is exactly the same as that which I identified above in discussing atheism+. The name stuck because of the history of the subject; by studying the cultural positions, experiences, and structural discrimination of women, we learned about the problems we have with gender assumptions and the effects of those assumptions. Feminism, as I use it (and as it is used within the atheism+ sphere) is an attempt to fix the problem for everyone, and is not misandric. Those who identity as Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) who argue that feminism seeks to hurt men, are simply missing the point, and often will conflate some (2nd wave) forms of feminism with what people like Rebecca Watson, Stephanie Zvan, and others espouse. It’s not called feminism because it’s anti-man, man-apathetic, or even because it seeks to reverse sexism, but because that’s the historical title that stuck. We could try to change it, but given how cultural memes work that seems harder than just realizing that basic point that the title is historical, and not normative.
It’s time to move on
Fighting for civil, social, and human rights of atheists is a grand cause which I was glad to be a part of, and want to see continue. I support all of the people who continue to try ato make a better name for atheists in the world, and would love to see our status as a trusted and understood group improve. And the fact that this will continue makes me happy. But some of us need to move on and do more—to add on—than mere atheism Mostly, this is because it is not sufficient to merely grow our community, it is also important to make our community stronger, more mature, and more broad. We need diversity of opinion, perspective, and experience and we cannot do so by ignoring what those potential others may teach us. We need to open our skills up to challenges beyond mere theological claims, and be broad skeptics who understand that there are other causes and effects to the problem of religion than theology. The role of gender is an important narrative to trace in religious history, and so is race, physical ability (ableism), colonialism, economics, etc. As a larger community of reason, we need to open ourselves to the various disciplines from all over the social sciences, including history and feminism.
I’ve been paying attention to all sides of this deep rift over the last few years, and they all claim the same crimes of the others, and I’m sick of it. But the truth is that I’ve learned much more from one side of this than any other. Those at Skepchick, FtB, and even Patheos have been a source of great personal education in recent years, and rarely have I read anything which has brought about personal growth or understanding from anything written elsewhere within the atheist community in recent years. It’s not so much that one side is right concerning the deep rift per se, but that they have been attuned to ideas which have raised my consciousness more, while other places have just been doing either the same old boring atheist blogging (and not much else) or vilifying the so-called “bullies” elsewhere.
I get it; your feelings are hurt, and you don’t like the people over there. I don’t give a shit because your blogs are boring, your perspective parochial, and your continuous victim-playing as old as your blogging style.
I’ve moved on and think mostly about the intersection of atheism, skepticism, and polyamory. Some others are thinking mostly about the intersection of race, feminism, etc with skepticism and atheism. But at least they have moved on. You, my atheist brethren who are complaining about the bullies, have not.
It’s time to do so or become irrelevant, at least to this blogger.
Anger Management June 23, 2012Posted by Alex in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: atheism, loss aversion, monogamy, polyamory
I was struck by many things in the “Godless Perverts” panel video Shaun posted yesterday, but one thing in particular that I’ve been meaning to write more about was the idea of the narrative of redemption through suffering (Maggie Mayhem segues into Charlie Glickman discussing it, starting at around 30:25 of Pt. II). I’m going to try to tread very carefully here as I discuss the ways in which I think this concept is relevant to nonmonogamy, so please accept the caveat that I’m trying to make somewhat broad conceptual associations in order to see if they’re fruitful.
When we “come out” as atheists, many of us face the usual types of reactions. Some people accept our decision right away (or don’t really care–i.e. it’s not really their business how we live our lives); some say they knew all along and are genuinely happy for us; some completely reject atheism and, thus, reject us along with the proverbial bathwater. If I think about people as roughly falling into three camps–true believers/theists, nonbelievers, and “weak” believers (i.e. those who may identify as religious but whose religiosity operates more as a cultural identity, or quasi-ethnicity, than as a dominant life philosophy)–all of these reactions make some sense to me. The true believers are likely to want nothing to do with an atheist (except the ones who might think they can “save” us, but that’s another blog post altogether), and may even feel threatened by an atheists’ presence in their lives (because, as everyone knows, we recruit). The nonbelievers will either embrace our newly-announced identity or be indifferent, neither of which harms us much, though the former can certainly help.
The middle group, though, are the ones who tend to respond angrily. Some people seem to get very angry when I share my atheism (or skepticism of almost any kind, honestly) with them, and I’ve spent some time trying to understand why.
(Big assumption alert)
I think the “weak” believers get angry when we decide to live our atheist lives openly and unapologetically because, at least on some level, they’ve bought into the narrative that pious people deserve to be rewarded and wicked people must be punished. Even though they may not go to church every week, or observe all of the holidays, rituals, etc. required by the most devout members of their religious identity group, they still want to believe that their lukewarm belief–and, often, adherence to at least some elements of their religion’s moral/ethical rules–will gain them a reward. In other words, they’ve given up some things in order to convince themselves that they’re a good “insert religious identity here,” and if atheists are living happy, free, unapologetic lives and not being punished for it, the “weak” believers’ entire ideological framework is in danger of crumbling like a house of cards.
The historically religious narrative of asceticism and punishment leading to reward/redemption is so powerful that, I’m arguing, it has become a powerful secular narrative, even in the minds of those who do not strongly identify as religious. Hence, they often can’t articulate why they’re mad at us. Usually they say things like, “why can’t you just keep that to yourself?” or “did you have to shove that down my throat?” when we’ve done no such thing. They feel threatened because our unpunished existence directly contradicts the narrative not only that they want to believe but that has motivated actual life choices they’ve made, and these choices often involve sacrifices that they would not have made were it not for their belief in the reward/redemption at the end of the narrative.
When we come out, and especially when we openly and honestly live our lives, as polyamorous, we tend to get the same spectrum of response. Some people simply can’t accept our choice, or they may feel threatened that we’ll try to “steal” their partners, etc. This is always sad, but I think we can all deal with it. Some people (often the similarly nonmonogamous) embrace our choice and/or take a “it’s not really my business, but I’ll show tepid support” attitude, or (occasionally) express mild disapproval but tolerance. Again, the latter responses are not my favorites, but I don’t worry too much about them. They might be described as falling into the YKINMK camp, and that’s understandable. The angry responses, however, can be tough to grok. Why do other people get so exorcised over our chosen lovestyle?
My answer is that mononormativity operates as a secular form of the historically religious narrative of suffering leading to reward/redemption. Here I’m defining “suffering” extremely broadly. In the case of monogamy, what I mean is that monogamous people deny often themselves the pleasure of multiple intimate relationships (these need not be sexual–remember that many monogamous people believe that even having close friendships with people other than one’s spouse is a form of cheating). This sacrifice has a cost, but it also has a reward. Monogamists feel a kind of secular piety, a sense that they’re doing the right thing. Moreover, they tend to think that the sacrifice is the very thing that gives the monogamous dyad its special status.
I’ve seen this sentiment over and over again in online forums and in conversations with “devoutly” monogamous people. People have told me that I just don’t understand what “true” love is because I’m not giving 100% of myself to each of my relationships (because, you know, it’s mathematically impossible and all that). People seem to feel the strong need to prop up their own lifestyle choices and to devalue mine, even though my being polyamorous doesn’t in any way directly affect their monogamous relationships. So why should they be angry? I think they get angry because they believe that my successful, happy, unapologetic polyamory does threaten their relationships. If they’ve sacrificed to be monogamous, they must be rewarded and, conversely, those who deviate from mononormativity must be punished. Our lack of suffering does not compute.
I’m not suggesting that this is a new phenomenon, or that it’s unique to polyamory. Quite the contrary. Normativity in all of its forms elicits this desire for secular piety on behalf of its adherents. Deviation from the norm is systematically demonized, most notably in popular culture (which is overwhelmingly heteronormative, sex-negative, pro-theist, etc.). If gay/polyamorous/freethinking people live their lives openly and happily, how can “normal” people maintain the fiction that their ways of living are worthy of praise and reward (especially in the absence of something as dramatic as an actual intervention of a deity, the full wrath of a state apparatus, etc.)?
I’m also not saying that people who obey normative rules are bad people. In fact, I think their obedience is largely due to their desire to be good people. And I also believe that they are aware of the sacrifices they make for normativity. Thus, they experience a real sense of loss when non-normative beliefs/practices are shown to be completely benign (or, gasp, rewarding). Studies of loss aversion have shown fairly consistently that humans tend to react much more negatively to losses than they react positively to gains. This is not only true in economic situations but in social ones as well.
Some people surely feel that monogamy involves no sacrifice at all. Given the statistics on infidelity within monogamous relationships (over 50%), I’m not sure we can fairly say that a majority of monogamous people see things that way, but certainly many do. I don’t think they get mad when we say we’re polyamorous and show that we’re happy that way.
However, I believe that most monogamous people are “weak” monogamists. They are monogamous by default, without ever really knowing alternatives exist. I say this, by the way, as someone who for more than 30 years thought exactly the same thing. “Weak” monogamists are aware that closing off a large part of our humanity (love/sexuality) to all but one person for our entire lives causes us suffering. In order for that suffering to be bearable, they must believe that the reward outweighs the sacrifice. This, for me, explains their often visceral reaction to our living (and loving) openly.
Polyamory challenges our culture’s dominant, cultural narrative about love/sexuality because it shows that stable, committed, loving relationships are still possible when all parties involve have other stable, committed, loving relationships. And challenging people’s dominant cultural paradigms, especially when those people haven’t examined those paradigms very deeply (one of the pernicious things about normativity is that it seems, to most members of a society, simply to be “natural,” not culturally constructed and reinforced)–makes people angry.
Godless Perverts June 22, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: atheism, sex, spiritual
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I don’t really have anything to add to this. Watch these videos.
(H/T Greta Christina)
So, you don’t see atheist discrimination? June 1, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society.
Tags: activism, atheism, discrimination, privilege
Now, I have been wearing shirts that advertise my atheism for many years. I have some acquaintances who question why I wear them as well as why it matters. They are atheists too, in most cases, and nobody seems to care about it around them.
Well, a few things:
1) Most of my acquaintances who make such comments, especially people I’ve known from from high school, are very privileged private school educated, upper middle class, white men.
2) They rarely or never talk about their atheism, especially to non-atheists. How would they know if discrimination existed? It’s easy not to be discriminated against if you are so deep in the closet nobody can see you there.
3) I’m not sure if most of these people would know what discrimination looks like, from the receiving end, if they did experience it.
My own admitted privileged status in our culture means that I don’t fully comprehend the repercussions of discrimination myself, and this is magnified for those who don’t expose themselves to being out atheists. I am well aware of my ignorance about the experience of serious discrimination. But what small amount of lack of privilege that being an atheist entails in our society (especially when compared to what women, non-white, trans, etc (not to mention the various intersectionality that people experience), I can assure you it does exist.
It’s nothing immediately dangerous (in the vast majority of cases, but I also live in a liberal metropolis), and in most cases it amounts to awkward conversations with clueless people. It certainly can make job-hunting problematic, as advertising atheist activism on a resume may not be wise. Although I once did get hired for a job (years ago) while wearing a “Hi, I’m your friendly neighborhood atheist” shirt.
So, atheist discrimination, in comparison with discrimination received by other groups of people is comparatively tame. But it exists. The more people that come out of the closet as atheists, the better it will eventually get.
So, whether you wear a shirt like the one pictured above or not, keep in mind that there are significant religious privileges in our society, and that we need more people standing up, speaking, and acting in the name of social justice of all kinds.
All social justice activists are working to make their activism irrelevant. Let’s make atheist activism irrelevant.
Women at TAM: I think what you meant to say was… June 1, 2012Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: atheism, sexism, skepticism
The sphere is all abuzz with DJ Grothe’s complaints about how all the attention on sexual harassment at atheist and skeptic conferences may be discouraging women from attending. If, somehow, you’ve missed it, here’s the offending comment, from facebook:
Last year we had 40% women attendees, something I’m really happy about. But this year only about 18% of TAM registrants so far are women, a significant and alarming decrease, and judging from dozens of emails we have received from women on our lists, this may be due to the messaging that some women receive from various quarters that going to TAM or other similar conferences means they will be accosted or harassed. (This is misinformation. Again, there’ve been on reports of such harassment the last two TAMs while I’ve been at the JREF, nor any reports filed with authorities at any other TAMs of which I’m aware.)
I have to say, I find this more funny than upsetting. Maybe it’s outrage fatigue… but it’s just becoming comical to me that, after all the conversations we’ve had in this community around this issue, somebody who (I do believe) is sincerely on the side of increasing women’s voices and women’s presence in the community could say something this obtuse. Somehow he’s missed the part where women who are subject to harassment often fear that they won’t receive institutional support if they report it. He’s missed the part where multiple reports of harassment and abuse are passed around as backchannel warnings between women, because they believe (justifiably, in my opinion) that the prominent status of the abusers would mean that a public report would do much more damage to the reporter than to the perpetrator. Saying “we haven’t had any reports of harassment” is like… well, it’s like saying “I’ve never seen a monkey turn into a human, so I don’t believe in evolution.” That objection just proves you weren’t listening in the first place. Saying that harassment occurs has only been half of the point of most bloggers I’ve read writing about this: the other, far more urgent half, is that women on the receiving end of harassment often don’t feel safe reporting it. And Grothe’s comment has only exacerbated the latter problem.
While I think Grothe is probably correct that part of the attrition of women at this year’s conference is due to the conversations we’ve been having around harassment, here’s the response that would have made it better instead of worse:
“I’m afraid a lot of women are avoiding attending TAM due to fears of harassment. While I’m not aware of any incidents at the last two TAMs, I want to assure all our attendees that we take the problem of harassment seriously, and that we’ve put the following policies in place to ensure the safety of our attendees: [insert policies here]. I encourage anyone on the receiving end of harassment to submit a written report to JREF, so that we’re better able to track this problem and address it.”
It can be less PR-speaky (I hope it is!), but that’s the essence of the message any conference organizer should be putting out in response to the harassment buzz, and possibly-related attrition in women’s attendance. Convince us your meeting is safe by showing us what you’re doing to make it safe, not by claiming that it was never unsafe in the first place. That cat is already out of the bag.
Individualism, association, and atheism April 5, 2012Posted by Ginny in Culture and Society, Religion.
Tags: atheism, new atheism, religion, respect
A recent post on Camels with Hammers about intellectual temptations atheists must avoid voices a lot of my thoughts better than I could. Fincke generally allies himself with the New Atheists, but often speaks out against the cruder and less thoughtful instances of New Atheist thought, in a way I really appreciate (since I’m basically in his position as well.) #6 in his list is one I’ve thought about a lot, and want to expand on somewhat here.
Atheists, on the whole, are a pretty individualistic bunch. Relative to the rest of humanity, they feel okay going against the grain, risking social pariah-hood, and rejecting customs that exist for the sole purpose of making humans feel more connected to each other. This makes sense: to adopt a position so counter to cultural norms, a person needs to have a pretty thick skin toward social disapproval. Individualism is a self-selecting quality for atheists in this day and age.
What I see happening a lot is that atheists conflate this individualistic personality trait with superior rationality. They care less about social approval and social bonding, they see that other atheists feel similarly and that people subscribing to all kinds of woo and religion care more about it, and they assume that caring about social approval and social bonding are in themselves less rational. So any time an attempt is made to incorporate community, ritual, and institutions which prioritize social bonding into an atheist frame, you get some voices pooh-poohing the attempt as worthless and meaningless and anti-rational. When someone confesses that they have difficulty leaving religion because of the inevitable social isolation, this is seen as a sign of weakness.
This point of view “I’m individualistic and rational, if you were rational you’d be individualistic too” ignores a basic fact of humanity: we are social animals. We were social animals before we were intellectual, inquisitive animals, and the rise of curiosity and higher-order intelligence did not erase that part of our nature. The social impulse is as valid a part of our humanity as the truth-seeking impulse, and to try to weed out either is to try to change the fundamental nature of humanity.
Humanity is greatly indebted to the individualists: they ask the questions no one else will ask, they think of things no one else has thought of, and they create new ways of being when no one else dares to try. But in doing this, they must also remember that they are statistical outliers: that if the rest of humanity is going to follow them, we’re going to transform the vision into something that meets our common need for connection and social order. This will always happen: this is the kind of beings we are.
I hear some individualists say, “Well, of course I understand that it’s hard to risk social rejection… I struggle with it too.” Yes indeed… individualism and the need for association are not mutually exclusive, and nearly all of us have elements of both. But what I would like more individualists to understand is that their need for association, while genuine, may be far less strong than another person’s. What, for you, was hard in the way running a marathon is hard, might for another person be hard in the way that climbing Mt. Everest is hard. We’re all calibrated differently; we all have different threshholds of need for different human necessities.
And yes, depending on social connection can be a bar to rationality. Of course it can. I’m a good example: several months after my initial deconversion, I was desperately searching for a way back into Christianity. Eventually I found a definition of “faith” I could accept, and I went with it, and continued calling myself a Christian for several years. It wasn’t until I began dating an atheist that I could call myself an atheist again, and that’s not a coincidence. I wanted back in because I was lonely. Because all the people who loved me were Christians, and I felt hopelessly cut off from them — even though they still loved me, I needed a sense of belonging. I couldn’t hack it as an atheist on my own. My need for social connection guided my intellectual investigations, and biased me towards one conclusion.
So, a need to “belong” can influence and distort rational thinking. You know what else can influence and distort rational thinking? A need to be smarter and more correct than other people… a personality trait that self-selecting atheists are overall in no shortage of. The wise, mature ones acknowledge this tendency, recognize how it can bias them, and find ways to minimize its effect. Similarly, I’ve come to acknowledge my profound need for social connection, recognize how it can bias me, and find ways to minimize its effect. One thing that doesn’t work is deciding to care less. That only leads to self-deception.
There are a lot of people who are socially dependent to a degree that cripples them, that cuts them off from acknowledging truths that would improve their lives. A LOT of people. But the way to self-improvement, for many, is not to become diehard individualists, but to become more thoughtful and choosy in the ways they form and maintain their social bonds. The diehard individualists would do well to remember this.
Roy Zimmerman in West Chester April 9th April 2, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: atheism, music, Roy Zimmerman, West Chester
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The Monogamy Delusion? March 29, 2012Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: atheism, atheist movement, Greta Christina, polyamory, relationships, religion
So, I just finished reading Greta Christina’s new book Why Are You Atheists So Angry: 99 Things That Piss Off The Godless (Kindle version), right after having met her after the Reason Rally, and I will briefly say that I recommend it as a great resource for both believer and heathen alike. It is a great read for anyone who does not quite understand why we get so fired up about religion and faith.
I use this as a premise for talking about goals of social movements, a question that Greta addresses in her book concerning the goals of the atheist movement specifically, and what this might have to teach the polyamory community. After watching the atheist movement grow and mature over the last 10 years or so, and given that I am usually thinking about polyamory, I inevitably will ask whether there will ever be a large, organized, coherent polyamory social movement.
And if there were, what would it look like?
As Greta talks about in her book, there are fundamental problems which the larger atheist community addresses through various means. There are the basic issues of confronting stereotypes, discrimination, and hatred of atheists. Such things range from moral, legal, and to philosophical issues and are fought for by both theists and atheists. There is also the front of the atheist community which actively responds to theistic claims, both to truth and socio-political access of levers of power (in the US, this is usually through Christian privilege), with counter arguments of varying levels of intensity. On the farther end is the ultimate goal of ridding the world—through persuasion—of religion. Greta and I share that goal.
With that in mind, what types of issues could a polyamory social movement address?
- are there fundamental cultural, legal, or philosophical problems which polyamory addresses?
- is there any real and significant discrimination against polyamorous people in the world? If so, is it primarily cultural or legal in nature?
- Would such a movement be essentially a struggle for equal rights or would it also include questions of truth, such as whether polyamory is the best model for relationships that all people should emulate? (I a thinking about that last point in terms of Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape)
I don’t have any definitive conclusions to these questions right now, nor do I think anyone does. I ask these questions to tease out some stark differences in the types of problems that the atheist community is dealing with from what the polyamory community has to deal with, whether it will become a larger social movement or not.
Will there ever be a poly equivalent to accommodationists?
In the atheist community, there are those whom like to argue that religion is worthy of respect, should not be criticized, and that there is much about religion that we should perpetuate, learn from, etc. I have addressed this question numerous times over the last few years, and will not say more than I disagree with this view. Strongly.
On the other side are people, like myself, who believe that religion is more harmful than not, untrue, and perpetuates the worst parts of our humanity; specifically faith. I will resist urge to rant about that here. Resistance is not always futile.
(In other words, urges to rant about faith can be countered with Star Trek references)
So, the question is whether this pattern holds for the polyamory community? Are there people who will argue that, for example, monogamy is more damaging than not? That monogamy cannot be a healthy relationship structure? Will people argue that polyamory is objectively better than non-polyamory? Will there, in short, be anti-monogamists? Not merely people who prefer polyamory, think it a better way to live given more options, but actually against the practice of monogamy as an irrational and delusional lifestyle? Will someone write a book called “The Monogamy Delusion”?
Again, not mere amonogamy–the lack of monogamy–but the active social activism against (through persuasion) the continuation of monogamy as a cultural practice.
(Some of you are thinking about Brave New World. Or, if you are uber-literate, you are thinking of WE.)
Now, I don’t doubt that there are a few people out there who might try to make such an argument. I’m sure that a rare poly bird out there, or a few, will argue that monogamy is fundamentally wrong, irrational, and possibly a bowing to the worst instincts of humanity; things like jealousy, social conformity, and living against one’s true desires (living inauthentically).
And on some points, I will agree with such people. I might, in fact, agree with many of the points they will make, and make some of those points myself. But despite this affinity for such arguments, I am not, at least not right now, one of those people who will make such an argument. And I want to explain why.
Theism v. monogamy
Theism is a hypothesis about the world, specifically the existence of some supernatural being commonly referred to as a deity, god, etc. It makes a specific claim which is either testable or untestable. If it is testable, it has not survived skeptical/scientific analysis so far, and does not appear as f it will ever pass such a standard. If it is not testable, it is a worthless hypothesis and should be thrown out on those merits alone. Atheism is the lack of that hypothesis, whether made out of ignorance or through informed analysis, and the arguments it makes are in response to a proposition of how the world is.
Monogamy is a relationship style based upon sexual (and usually romantic) exclusivity between two people. It is the lifestyle of having one lover, sometimes a spouse, at least at a time but possibly life-long. It is not a hypothesis about the world, but it is a…choice? (is it really always a choice, given how many people are not even aware of alternatives? A question for another post!). In any case, monogamy is a structure of one’s relationship, rather than a claim about reality.
What is the significance of this distinction? Essentially, it is the fact that polyamory is not a reaction to monogamy in the same way that atheism is a reaction to theism. A polyamorous advocate could say something like “this is a better lifestyle for my wants and needs, and it may be better for you” and not “your lifestyle is objectively unproven to be best, true, and so your lifestyle is objectively wrong and you should give it up.” Polyamory is not a reaction against a claim to objective truth, as atheism is. Polyamory has a relationship, and not always an antagonistic one, to a traditional cultural ideal of monogamy (traditional in much of the world, but certainly not all of it) that feels unnatural to many people.
To clarify the distinction between these two issues, let me ask two questions:
- Is it reasonable to consider all of the arguments for and against theism and rationally come out a theist?
- Is it reasonable to consider all of the arguments for and against monogamy and rationally come out monogamous?
In terms of (1), there are no good arguments for any gods’ existence, so any skeptic should become an atheist if they properly apply their skepticism to the question of gods. As for (2), there are people who will, upon honest reflection, discussion, and consideration with their partner, find that they both are actually quite happy, satisfied, and feel no desire to be with other people sexually/romantically. Those people will be what I call “accidentally monogamous.” They have seriously considered whether they would want other people in their sexual/romantic life and have concluded that they need no rule about exclusivity but will end up living a monogamous lifestyle, for all practical purposes.
And before anyone thinks to point this out, I admit having argued that a true skeptic should be polyamorous, but I have also argued that monogamy is legitimately rational as a needs-securing lifestyle for at least some people. To be clear, my view is that polyamory (not having an exclusivity rule) should be the starting position for all relationships, and monogamy is subsequently only fully rational if, and only if (iff), that is what both people actually, authentically, want with each other. Which means that they would need no rule arguing for exclusivity, because doing so would be redundant because neither is actually interested in pursuing other people.
Wes would probably say that this lack of a need for an exclusivity rule is coterminous with polyamory, and I tend to agree. But I think there is room for debate here about the definition of polyamory, so I am allowing that room in my analysis here. My views may change in the future, in that I may completely adopt his definition as being sufficient for polyamory. The consequence of this would be that I might then conclude that all monogamy, unless it is reached “accidentally,” would be irrational and possibly harmful.
I’m not there right now.
The conclusion from all of this, as I see it, is that any movement to advance polyamory culturally, socially, or politically will probably be limited to providing information, legal and philosophical challenges, and the decreasing of any discrimination which polyamorous people experience or are legitimately worried about.
I don’t see a strong argument, parallel to atheism’s arguments against theism, religion, and faith, against monogamy. I see arguments for being polyamorous, but that is not precisely the same thing as being against all monogamy.
There will be people who want to get rid of monogamy, and I will want to hear their arguments why they think we should strive for that (as I would hope atheist accommodationists should want to actually read new/gnu atheist arguments. I’m looking at you, Julian Baggini!). But for now, I don’t see much room for a “new/gnu poly” movement. But I suppose only time will tell.
If anyone feels I am being to accommodating to monogamy, I’m open to arguments.
On imaginary friends March 25, 2012Posted by Ginny in Religion, religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: atheism, belief, god, religion
Had a great time at the Reason Rally, despite the rain and chilliness, and despite it using every last scrap of social energy this introvert could muster. Adam Savage’s was perhaps my favorite speech, especially this part at the end:
I have concluded through careful empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me, keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me when I do less than I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I’m capable of. I believe they know everything I do and think and they still love me, and I’ve concluded after careful consideration that this person keeping score is me.
This nicely summarizes a thought that I’ve meant to write about for a while. It’s one of the less obvious negative consequences of religion, and something I myself didn’t realize until I’d been an atheist for several years. The idea of God I grew up with was everything Adam Savage describes in the quote and more: an ever-present companion even in my most profound loneliness, someone to pour out my worries to, share my joy, amusement, and exasperation with, someone who understood me at the deepest level, and, while he might not always approve, always loved and forgave me. Atheists mock theists for their “imaginary friend,” but perhaps they don’t really consider what it would be like to have such a friend that you actually believed existed. It means always being loved, always having support, never being alone. I, like many ex-believers, mourned the loss of this friend deeply when I found it was impossible to believe.
It took me a lot longer to realize that those experiences of feeling loved, supported, and listened to were real. Of course they were: I genuinely felt them. The interpretation I put on them was false, but the feelings were real. And what that means is that that support, that love, that listening ear, was only ever myself. The wise, calm voice I heard speaking back to me, giving perspective on my problems: that was me too. I had all those resources within myself the whole time, but I believed they came from outside of me. I didn’t give myself nearly enough credit. That friendly presence is not lost to me; it’s where it always was.
I started out saying that this was a negative consequence of religion, and I still think it is: religion, for many people, teaches us that the best and wisest part of ourself is not ourself at all, but external. It teaches us that we are dependent on someone else for love, forgiveness, wisdom, and encouragement. And that is a travesty. But on the other hand, perhaps the teachings about God enabled me to develop that part of myself. I don’t know; I’d have to hear from people who grew up atheist, whether they have anything like that sense of self-affirming internal companionship. (Evidently Adam Savage does, but I don’t know his religious history.) My guess is that some do and some don’t; and certainly not all religious people gain that particular thing from their notion of God. For some, indeed, God seems to embody many of the worst aspects of themselves, the bigoted and judgemental, the hateful and fearful. But I was lucky enough to be raised with a version of God that was everything best and wisest and most loving, as I could conceive of it, and perhaps that helped me develop that part of myself in a way I might not have otherwise.
So it may be that this is a possible positive as well as negative aspect of religion: providing a venue for people to shape and nurture their own best impulses. To the extent that my childhood religion did this for me, I’m grateful to it, as much as I resent it for telling me that those things were external to myself. Perhaps one thing the atheist movement should work on is encouraging those impulses, teaching people how to develop that supportive, forgiving, wise voice within themselves. Even though I recognized that it was present and accessible to me, I’ve lost sight of it in recent months, and I think I’d do well to recover it. I’m never as happy, healthy, and well-balanced as when I’m being my own imaginary friend.