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New Atheists, Skepticism, and the Golden Rule December 17, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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The Golden Rule, with its various incarnations, permeates religious thought.  And while it can be formulated in many ways, the most common way to express it essentially states that you should treat others as you would want to be treated.  It emits an attempt at fairness in action, making sure that one does not make a double-standard  by making exceptions for yourself that you don’t allow for others.

Fair enough.  And while I think that the Golden Rule is best said when it attempts to treat others as they wish to be treated, due to the fact that what I want is not necessarily what others want, I think that this is often problematic because we do not know what others want.  We could ask what people want, I suppose, but the practical application of this is insurmountable on a societal scale.

I think that the general idea is to act such that those actions create a world that is consistent with our desires, while keeping in mind the desires of others and their ideal worlds.   Thus, as a general rule, to act in such a way that would be consistent with a desired world which is created by those types of actions is a good place to start. Figuring out an ideal world that we can all agree on is probably the biggest problem.

And so what do we, the new atheists, do? (And yes, I still dislike the term).  Our criticisms are not always appreciated by other people, especially strongly religious ones.  We try to speak out in order to be able to gain acceptance in culture, to stop theocratic intrusions into government policies,  and to make sure that theology stays away from science so that we can continue the process of understanding unimpeded by silly mythology (i.e. creationism) and other superstitions.

But are new atheists following the Golden Rule?  Should we follow the Golden Rule?  Are faitheists and other critics of the new atheists following the Golden Rule?

Skepticism and Atheism

Not all atheists are skeptics, nor are all skeptics atheists.  I agree with people such as Matt Dillahunty, that to be a skeptic should lead a person to be an atheist.  Why? Because I don’t think there is any evidence to believe in any gods, and without evidence in such things, one has no cause for a belief in any gods.  Thus to be skeptical concerning the question of gods, without sufficient evidence to believe in them, must lead to atheism as the only reasonable conclusion.  As soon as there is evidence, then a skeptic has to address that evidence.  But there is no good evidence that I know of, and I have been looking.

Skeptics, at least “real skeptics” (I’m being playful, not trying to drag in a “true Scotsman”), encourage criticism of all kinds of beliefs.  Skeptics are all about the evidence, use of rationality to address that evidence, and accepting as true what the evidence points to.

As an implication of this, I think that skepticism would desire a world where open debate, conversation, and challenges to beliefs would be encouraged.  A world where all of the data is explored, all sacred cows inspected, and people are encouraged to have a real desire to know what is true and not just what is preferable or easy.  This is antithetical to faith, by definition, and is what the current public atheism is all about, at least concerning the questions of religion, gods, and faith.  The criticisms of religion are ancient, in many cases.  These ideas being promulgated is what is new, and religious people are not used to hearing these ideas.

Another, hopefully obvious, implication of being a skeptic is that a person should be open to have their own beliefs challenged.  Thus, when the superlatively respected skeptic James Randi wrote this piece the other day about Global Warming, he was appropriately challenged by various people in the skeptical and atheist community.   And while his point may be valid (or not), he is willing to accept the criticism and respond to them, rather than claim persecution as many Christians often do when criticized in the same way.  I would think that Randi  encourages the challenges in general, even if he may not have liked some of them specifically (As his follow-up seems to imply).  The bottom line is that when skeptics make claims, hold beliefs, or sign on to something, they should be willing to accept criticism when it comes their way.

These implications are an essential part of a skeptical worldview.  It is how we want to live, the kind of world we want to live in, and how we think one should act with other people.

Including theists.

Therefore, when the new atheists, insofar as they are also skeptics (and many of the leading atheist speakers and writers at least attempt skepticism), offer public criticism of religion, faith, etc, they are following the rule of treating others as they want to be treated.  They are acting in such a way that is consistent with creating a desired world that the actions they make will create.

I want a world where people’s beliefs are challenged when such criticism is warranted.  I want a world that is not simply based upon faith, but rather evidence, reason, and an attitude of curiosity.  I want to help create an environment where skeptical inquiry is supported by people rather than blind (or at least partially obscured) faith.  And I know that many of my fellow atheists share this desire, and so we are simply following what we think the right thing to do is, according to the very “Golden” rule that religions share.

So, if there is a problem with the actions of atheists these days, then the problem is with the rule itself, not with our actions.

But wait, didn’t I say that I liked the other formulation of the Golden Rule better?

I said, above, that I prefer the idea that one should treat others as they want to be treated, and not merely as how I want to be treated myself.  I said that the issue was that I didn’t know how others wanted to be treated all of the time, creating a practical problem with implementing the idea, not a problem with the idea itself.  I also stated that this will lead to inevitable conflicts of opinion about what kind of world we want to live in.

We know that many religious people tell atheists that they do not want us speaking out.  They don’t want our billboards, our books, or in many cases they don’t even want us (to exist).   Now, if they are willing to lay down their arms, then they might have a point.  And many religious groups do not proselytize, advertise, or otherwise bother the public.  But the simple fact is that religion is part of pur culture and public life, and so to demand that atheists keep quiet is a double standard, violating the very essence of the Golden Rule itself.  We have as much of a right to speak publicly about our lack of beliefs (as well as whatever actual beliefs we hold in addition to that lack) as theists do.  It does not even matter if the United States were a Christian nation (which it is not), because that would not take away our freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and freedom of opinion.

To simply capitulate to some religious people’s desires to not have us vocal, they further create a double standard when they don’t treat us as we want to be treated; to be allowed to speak publicly if we want to.  The result is the collapse of the rule.  They want to be left alone by us, we want to have a dialogue in the public square where they are, and both cannot be attained.  Some compromise must be reached.

Atheists do not, and should not, disrupt private worship.  Atheists do not, and should not, take god away from people’s lives, mostly because we could not possibly do so anyway.   And despite the mythology by many in the religious community, we are not taking their god out of the public square or schools.  We are only arguing and working towards government neutrality concerning religious ideas.  The government should be secular (which is not the same as atheistic).  Do what you want privately, just don’t expect the government or it employees to condone or lead those activities.

Religious groups should not tell atheists that they cannot advertise on billboards.  They have a right to be offended.  They should not claim that their faith is beyond criticism out of some misplaced desire for respect.  They have to keep in mind that if they do bring their beliefs to the public square, they have to accept the criticism along with the conversions.  If they want to recruit new members, they have to accept that potential new members might offer that very criticism.  And if they want to write books, then they have to accept that we will write books as well.

And, of course, most do except these rules, even if they do so unhappily.  That’s fine, because here we have the right to pursue happiness, not necessarily to be happy.

What I find fascinating is the idea that this criticism is itself is bad.  The idea that we should not criticize is worthy of criticism itself; why is criticism bad? Isn’t the idea that criticism is bad a kind of criticism? What if I am offended by that opinion? What if my strong belief is that criticism is good, and the accomodationist or faitheist  critic of my criticism is violating my rights and tastes? Perhaps they should shut up.  No, I don’t believe that.  They should, I think, re-examine their assumptions and reasoning, however.

I am doing unto others what I would want done unto me.  The believers who want us to shut up are just protecting their beliefs from scrutiny.  Those faitheists who say I should not criticize are not following this Golden Rule, violating it because they don’t want their own beliefs, the idea that people should not criticize certain things, to be criticized .  They might see some hurt feelings if we keep this up while making them look bad, while hiding beneath our shadow, to the rest of our culture.

No.  They are doing a good job of looking bad without our help.

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Comments»

1. Tomkinson - December 17, 2009

“All that atheists like me want is the right to say it without being called intolerant by people like you who really are intolerant.”

I’m not calling you intolerant I’m claiming you’re wasting your time and that you’re an embarrassment to mature atheists, skeptics, and intellectuals. Criticizing believers for not being skeptical or rigorous in their thinking is like criticizing dogs for not using the toilet. Your a joke.

To get upset about the fact that we live in a predominantly even if only nominally christian culture is a sign of weakness and makes atheists look like all the whining babies that feel they need to form support groups. I thought you liked Nietzsche?

Putting up a billboard with Santa Claus saying “No Virginia There is No God” is not criticism or debate its a worthless publicity stunt. In fact dare say its the kind of thing that done the other way would upset you (though not me, I don’t give a fuck). So here you are defending the Brass Rule: Do unto others as they do unto you, not the Golden one.

The New Atheists, at least the most visible ones are hacks who DO NOT want to debate anything that is sacred to them. In fact they will often claim what they have to know is false. Like Dawkins claiming that evolution proves their CAN’T be differences in human intelligence. I’ve got dozens of examples of this and much like the old atheists in your photo they are miserable people as well.

You keep calling me a faithiest but I don’t have respect for religion or organized atheism. Most people are not intellectually capable or inclined to deeply consider their beliefs and its colossal waste of time to try to change this and its even sillier to be offended by it.

You can criticize religion all you want but there are times when atheists should take a stand, fighting junk science in schools, providing legal and social support to those harassed at the armed services academies etc. Coming off as a blow-hard or killjoy with these stunts IS counter-productive. It might even be helpful to defend the rights of religious people sometimes as well.

You see I’m not a faithiest, I’m a realist or maybe even a cynic. But I’m definately not locked into some kind self-righteous fantasy where I believe that If I can only teach the sheeple to see as clearly as I do then the world will be a much better place. Get Real Man!!!

shaunphilly - December 18, 2009

Why do yo think these things are dedicated to you? I’m not calling YOU a faitheist, I’m calling faitheists faitheists. This isn’t about you. Believe it or not, there is a larger debate going on in the atheist world that does not include you.

If you don’t give a fuck, then why do you comment?

Let me be as clear as I can. I don’t care very much about what you think. My blog is not a response to you. I am curious why you apparently care so much, but say you do not.

Atheists should take stands in those times you mention. And the publicity stunts are sometimes silly. So what? I don’t really like them either, but I don’t think they are harmful. I just think some of them are mildly amusing and move on with my day.

But you seem really bothered by them. So much so that you just have to tell me so.

Please find another blog to read, if you don’t like what I have to say.

2. Tomkinson - December 19, 2009

Here is something you wrote, I may post my response to this on other sites because I think its important:

“That is, they were seen as too aggressive and intense by those who wish to be quiet and respectful nonbelievers, rarely seen and never heard. These naysayers are, in fact, theist appeasers and what I’ll call house-atheists, which would be somewhat akin to the term ‘uncle tom atheist’ which sounds clumsy. The louder voices of atheism, the ones out in the field doing the work, what I’ll call the field-atheists, are treated much different than those willing to sit quietly and perpetuate the myth of majority religious culture out of misplaced respect.”

We have to address this piffle but first I’ll explain something.

I’m arguing with you for two reasons, one I LOVE to argue and more importantly two because you are in ERROR and yet you claim that not only you but EVERYONE should be called out when they are in error; yet you don’t seem to like it . Too self-referential for you?

In other words I’m doing unto you what you claim you want done unto you (and others) and by so doing demonstrating one reason your approach is counter-productive since your reaction proves my very point.

Now here’s why you are in error:

You have claimed that any atheists that don’t speak up are essentially house niggers. You’ve also claimed that the majority of atheists annoyed by what your ilk are doing are faithiests. This is false.

The majority of us feel as follows:

We walk down the street and see a sign that says “The fool hath said in his heart ‘there is no God'” and we think to ourselves “I wonder what idiots paid for that”, we walk farther down the street and see a sign that says “Smile, there’s no hell” And we think to ourselves “I wonder what idiots paid for that.” In other words we don’t have any special esteem or respect for religion but rather a disdain for all forms of evangelism.

A religious person says “I’ll pray for you” and Staks gets upset because he feels another person is using force against him (really, he does) even though he KNOWS a prayer is meaningless to anyone besides the prayer. To most smart-atheists we think of it as a quaint gesture and getting upset by it would be silly not to mention a damn fool waste of time, yet somehow we are collaborationists in the the faithful’s attempts to impose their beliefs on us? What?

Yes Virginia there are ‘faithiests’ like say David Sloan Wilson, but they are a minority of the objectors and you guys make a very weak case as to why your position is superior to theirs. You also write as though they ARE the majority of the opposition (wrong again). Furthermore you distort history (especially American history) and often hide your real agenda. Disgraceful.

So why do I or the silent majority of smart-atheists care? Because the so-called New Atheists are by far the most visible representations of atheism with their stupid stunts and their obnoxious books and their dopey appearances on Bill O’Reilly. If I could debate them I would but I can’t so I have to settle for you and other ‘local’ guys.

Now I don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks about the real me but when they misperceive me because of the actions of idiots, I do care. When we smart-atheists engage believers in a discussion we first have to distance ourselves from you clowns which is sad enough but many people won’t get to engage a thoughtful atheist in person and will come away from the TV thinking we’re all like Chris Hitchens at his soggiest.

Finally I find this sentence of yours to be the most self-important, self-deluding, self-serving flight of fancy I’ve ever read on this issue ” The louder voices of atheism, the ones out in the field doing the work…”

What WORK?! Atheists are not oppressed for God’s sake! I’m not forced to go to church or to pray or anything. I did get a religious Christmas card today, should my reaction have been “Please, Please help me field-atheists the religious are out trying to perpetuate the myth of their majority again- aghhh!!!” Field-atheists do, nothing, NOTHING but retard secularization by energizing the hard-liners on the other side and undermining atheism qua atheism by integrating it with a liberal political agenda.

Most Americans ceased to behave according the dictates of the Bible long before this New Atheist movement. The sexual revolution had NOTHING to do with you guys. Religion really doesn’t affect us in America very much at all unless we want it to and if your stupid enough to want it to, FINE!. Some more examples

By far the biggest predictor of how judges will rule from the Supreme Court on down is political affiliation, not religion, not even close. Take the two most recent SC justices, Sotomayor and Alito, both Catholics. I’ve no doubt the Democrat Sotomayor will generally favor pro-choice issues while Republican Alito will generally be opposed to abortion rights. Lets not forget though that a Bush-appointed Republican judge struck down Intelligent Design in Dover ruling in favor of group comprised mostly of church-goers.

We were told in the Bush years how terrible it is that Christians don’t want to do anything about global warming and how badly we needed a president that respects secularism and science. Well now we have one and what did we get from Copenhagen? A meaningless piece of paper (not even the promise to come back in 2010 which was expected) because the secular states of western Europe and the deeply secular China and our WONDERFUL president who acknowledged non-believers in his inauguration were all motivated primarily by economics; as they ALWAYS are. And by the way a better way to deal with AGW would be geoengineering. It’s cheaper, more reliable, something we could do alone but of course it doesn’t involve the massive transfer of wealth from rich to poor countries that liberals want.

So please tell me Shaun what ‘work’ have you guys been doing and how has it benefited old Uncle Tomkinson here? And if your response is “well we’re not doing it to benefit you”, then tell me how it benefits the “house-atheists” and if it doesn’t benefit them how dare you exalt yourself or your “labors” and then explain the paradox of why people should ‘work’ toward a goal that they don’t want.

p.s. Its very telling that in your “House-Atheist” piece you gloss over the fact Malcom X said “house-nigger” why? Is it because the truth might offend some people ? Methinks you don’t have the courage of your convictions, hypocrite.

3. shaunphilly - December 19, 2009

How the hell can you speak for most atheists? How do you know that these types of atheists think like this since they are so quiet? How can you know who they are or how many of them there are? That rant of yours seems to be based on a huge assumption. I meet many atheists. And some do fall under your assumptions. But most I meet feel very differently than what you feel. Granted, the section I meet tend to be more open about it, hence why I meet them.

You don’t like evangelism. I get it. I respect it. It’s a difference of taste. But you sure want to evangelize me into your non-evangelism, it seems.

You create this image of the smart, silent, atheist that probably does exist in some significant numbers. They prefer to keep quiet and view what I and other louder people do as making them look bad. So what? Why are they right? You have not done anything more than say what you think one should do. You have not shown that we are doing any harm at all. Yes, we annoy some people, but those type of people are annoyed by anything they don’t agree with, so no harm is actually done.

Now, you have no idea how I engage believers in real life. They are usually surprised that an atheist can be thoughtful, intelligent, and not merely defensive about accepting God’s authority (or whatever). I have been told taht I come across as much more agressive and obnoxious in print than I really am. I hope the same is true of you.

There is room to make this world better by encouraging critical thinking and education., You seem to think of the world full of “sheeple.” I don’t agree with such a cynical note. And if you believe that, than so what if I am evangelical? They are only Sheeple any, so it does not matter. Fuck ’em, right?

The problem I see is that while our culture has ventured from the Christian path, they still think that that path is good while they ignore most of it. When they think about anything deeply, the only thing they know how to do is pray or listen to a person preaching from a pulpit. There are other ways. That’s what people like me do. Most will gain nothing from my efforts. A few do, and have thanked me for it in the past.

You don’t like the evangelism, the ads, etc. I get it. I don’t care. You think that people like Hitchens, Dawkins, etc are imperfect and they are unwilling to be challenged. I know you are wrong because I have met many of them, and they are very open to being challenged.

I like Richard Dawkins very much. He is kind, generous, patient, thoughtful, and eloquent. Would these terms describe you if you were to be less quiet? I doubt it. You seem likely to just call the people you debate stupid and dismiss them. I’m glad you aren’t evangelical, in that case. YOU would make us look bad, if you did speak out.

The work we do is to create a culture where discussion occurs. We organize debates, lectures, educational organizations, and we try to outreach. Many of the ads are intended to advertise groups’ presence, not to piss people off. How anyone could be offended by most of the billboards that have appeared is beyond me. We are doing it to benefit culture, as we want a world where discussion and challenges of old beliefs are good. It doesn’t benefit you, I get it. I don’t care.

What you are doing is just thinking everyone else stupid. How is that helping?

I preferred not to use the term “House-Nigger” not because of any hypocrisy. I didn’t gloss over it, and considered just spelling it out. I decided not as I was typing in an attempt to use a literary device that was not very compelling. I’m not perfect. The analogy was not perfect either. The suffering of slaves was immense in comparison of anything I have ever experienced.

The bottom line is I respect people who are willing to try and work in the public to do something, rather than just merely walk down the street and think that the efforts of other people is idiocy. All you do is complain. You don’t like to argue, you like to criticize. And that’s fine.

4. Tomkinson - December 21, 2009

“I preferred not to use the term “House-Nigger” not because of any hypocrisy. I didn’t gloss over it, and considered just spelling it out. I decided not as I was typing in an attempt to use a literary device that was not very compelling. I’m not perfect.”

Hmmm Ever hear of straw men? He decided not to do it because he was perfect?

5. Tomkinson - December 21, 2009

”The work we do is to create a culture where discussion occurs. We organize debates, lectures, educational organizations, and we try to outreach.”

So how does that benefit me exactly?

6. shaunphilly - December 21, 2009

It will only benefit you if you are interested in participating in a culture where people talk about issues in public forums, get together with like-mined people (at leats like-minded to SOME degree), or something along those lines. If you don’t want to take part iings, then it is no good to you.

Sorry.

But the fact is that there are many other people who appreciate having our efforts available to them. Come to an atheist meetup some time and ask them what they think about the various efforts. What you will find is taht some will agree with some of your points. You will find opinions all over the map. But they will get together and talk about them. It creates a community. If that is not enough in itself, then the small amount of affect it has on the larger world is at least something. And there is some small affect on the theistic and nominally Christian world.


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