The Zen of why atheist men should understand #ShutUpAndListen

OK, so I’m a man.  I am going to preempt this post by saying that his is an attempt to explain my understanding of an issue which I may be completely wrong about.  But I think it’s valuable to express it anyway, just in case I might flick on a light bulb for some people.


Ex-theists and perspective:

Many atheists used to be theists.  If this is true for you, then there was a time when they were involved in questioning your beliefs, and during that time you probably had conversations with atheists who were attempting to provide evidence, logic, etc in order to get you to see a point.  For whatever cognitive reasons, your past self was just not seeing it.  But over time, you started to digest the ideas, have them incorporate themselves into your mind, and one day it just sort of clicked.  It just made sense, perhaps suddenly, perhaps a little at a time, but one day it just made sense that belief in a god is not rational nor justified.  You were not necessarily exposed to a new idea, but you were exposed to a new perspective that shifted how you saw the issue.

I am willing to bet that a lot of what delayed this ‘getting it’ was trying to engage with the information.  A theist hears a logical point from an atheist, and they have to try and employ their current worldview against it; their mind has to address it with what content it already has.  In short, they are trying to respond to it as part of an intellectual conversation.

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Privilege is a tricky concept.  One of the important aspects of it is that if you have it, it works to blind you against seeing it.  In our culture, belief in god, mostly the God of Abraham, is widespread and the tradition called “Christianity” has a privileged position.  I’ll bet that most ex-Christians didn’t understand the privilege that theism and Christianity had before they started living as out-of-the-closet atheists.  And now that they are out of the closet (I hope, anyway), they start to understand that privilege because they see it from a new perspective.

Just like the theist could not understand the atheist position, intellectually or in terms of the cultural privilege such belief comes with, many men are struggling with the concept of male privilege right now, and the relationship between these two phenomena should be enlightening.


Male privilege as a perspective

A few women have told me that the ideas that some men are trying to communicate, in regards to feminism, sexism, and “Men’s rights” are ideas they are well-aware of.  On the other hand, many of the messages that many women are trying to communicate to such men, especially right now in the atheist community, are not being understood.  Feminist criticisms are based on ideas that are not part of the mainstream and which are marginalized in comparison with the ideas some men tend to make in such conversations.  So when some men respond, rather than listen, they are repeating the mainstream view which the feminist criticism is responding to in the first place.  It’s like a theist responding to an atheist claim by saying “but god really exists.  Just ask anyone!”

For our purposes here, the (mostly Christian) theistic ideas that many ex-theists are familiar with are analogous to the anti-feminist ideas which many of those same atheists still defend.  Similarly, atheist arguments are analogous to feminist criticisms of mainstream gender concepts and behaviors.  The atheist talking to the clueless theist (clueless in the sense that they do not yet understand either their privilege or the superiority of the atheist position) is therefore also analogous to the feminist talking to the MRA or someone like Ron Lindsay (also see Amanda Marcotte’s open letter to CFI) who simply is not getting why they are being told to shut up and listen.

This is not about free speech.  This is NOT about silencing dissent or quelling men’s place in the conversation.

I will repeat.  #ShutUpAndListen is not about silencing dissent, conversation, or about bullying forward an ideology.  It’s about the fact that if you are not listening, you may not be in a cognitive position to understand because your mind is oriented along the lines of the mainstream idea being criticized.  In this specific case of male privilege, it’s about how one’s position as a male in our society gives that person unconscious, automatic, and unintended advantages that they will not see by trying to engage by using it.

One’s intellect is not in question here per se, but it is partially your intellect—your ability to engage with and converse about ideas—that is the cause of the blindness.  By engaging by use of your perspective, which is privileged, you are using your privilege rather than trying to see it.  There is a paradox at work here, in other words.

zen-circle-sheilan-sheilanIt seems to me that this is very much like a Zen koan.

If you try and use your intellect only to understand Zen, you will never understand the concept of Zen.  Zen is about transcending ourselves, consciousness-raising, etc.  It is about allowing you to take yourself out of yourself so you can see yourself from another perspective.  Once you see it, your perspectives shifts in a way that you could not have understood, or predicted, before the shift.   After you see the shift, you can engage with it intellectually, but not before.

Privilege is about perspective, perception, and is entwined with the very foundations of how we understand ourselves in relationship with other things.  It is not an objective concept to be apprehended, it is a way we see such concepts.  It is a method, not a fact.

Think about how it changed the way you understand the world to understand that your previous religious worldview (for those that had one) was fundamentally wrong.  Was it conceivable to understand what you understand now, then? When I first saw the shift of my own privilege (which happened much too late, when it comes to male privilege), it changed the conversation for me.  And so now talking with men who do not get it yet is much like talking with a fundamentalist Christian.  I simply cannot show either of those interlocutors either my atheist or feminist  perspective, but I can talk around it.  I can describe it and hope that they are listening to me, rather than thinking about their reply, but I cannot force them to.

All ex-theists had to spend some time really listening, whether live or via reflection, to what an atheist has said to them about belief. Some may do this on their own and without external argumentation, through genuine introspection and self-doubt, but it amounts to the same.  Understanding privilege is more about introspection than it is about understanding a concept.  it’s about understanding how our mind works (or, more correctly, how it doesn’t).

And that’s why we all, at some times, need to shut up and listen.  It’s like meditation; we have to shut down our privilege engines, our verbal and intellectual powers, and watch the mind in action to see how it’s skewing the world for us.  By insisting upon verbalizing it—by talking rather than listening or watching—we are not able to see the machine in action, and to fix it.

So, whether it comes to gender, race, etc, shut up and listen.  Sometimes, it’s the only way to understand.


20 thoughts on “The Zen of why atheist men should understand #ShutUpAndListen

  1. Most of the criticism I’ve heard of the “shut up and listen” meme (Ron Lindsay’s included) is with the “shut up” half, not the “listen” half. The “shut up” half is very much about silencing what are perceived as unwanted voices in the conversation. You make a compelling argument for why we should all listen, but I fail to see any arguments regarding why we should shut up. Your assertion that it’s not about silencing voices in the conversation seems to ignore that half.

    In fact, your entire post is an example of you NOT shutting up. You have listened, processed what you heard, and are not speaking out about it. Isn’t that what we should all do?

  2. In conversations about this over the weekend, the shut up part was always intended to emphasize that not only can you not listen while talking, but that it was primarily relevant in places, like this conference, where the point is to have the women do the talking. In those conversations, men did talk (and were listened to), but they were not the presenters. Ron Lindsay was not intended to be a presenter, but as the head of CFI he addressed the conference anyway, because he could. That was an inappropriate abuse of his power (and privilege).

    Anyone who argues they are being told to stay shut up in general is not paying sufficient attention, and such arguments are therefore evidence they weren’t listening to what many feminists have been saying in the first place. That’s the point. Anyone using the argument that they are being told that they cannot contribute to this conversation has not been listening, and they are being told that they should listen rather than merely talk about what they don’t understand. And to do that, they need to shut up first.

    As I argue above, the active intellectual process of talking, or getting ready to talk, blocks full comprehension of what is being said. Such people need to learn to not merely listen, but listen while not preparing to answer immediately. If you are thinking how to respond, you may not be sufficiently listening.

    The shut up, in #shutupandlisten, is not about what I write on my blog or anything like that. It’s about paying attention to the arguments which critical feminists make about gender issues rather than demand that a male perspective is heard–because they already understand a lot about know that perspective anyway. So when I listen in this context, I don’t think about what I would say in response, I try and fully understand the perspective being talked about. Later I reflect on that and then when I think I understand, I can then contribute. This post is in no way in logical tension with #shutupandlisten, but is rather a logical conclusion of it.

  3. There is no learning where there is no exchange of ideas. This is the crux of the problem. It has fairly clearly been shown that education is the enemy of belief. The greatest asset of religion is when the atheists/non-believers do not speak. A silent atheist is not an anti-theist, and a vocal atheist is by definition an anti-theist whether or not this is intentional.

    On the other hand, atheists have been listening to theists for thousands of years, often losing their lives in the discussion. The time for listening is over, really.

  4. myatheistlife,

    So, shall we infer, from that logic, that the age of listening to misogynistic and anti-feminist voices is over as well? Perhaps. Certainly, similar to the fact that atheists tend to know more about religion than theists, feminists know more about gender issues than anti-feminists.

  5. “Shut down our privilege engines” is useful. For me it is more about listening and then processing what they said with what I already have in my head. It’s consistently a work in progress. I try to be aware of the words I choose but it isn’t always perfect.

  6. Your post reminded me of something Christopher Hitchens wrote in God Is Not Great regarding Buddhism and other spiritual pursuits

    “Those who become bored by conventional “Bible” religions, and seek “enlightenment” by way of the dissolution of their own critical faculties into nirvana in any form, had better take a warning. They may think they are leaving the realm of despised materialism, but they are still being asked to put their reason to sleep, and to discard their minds along with their sandals.”

    Now I know your intention is not to be insulting but you basically are suggesting that atheist/skeptical men should surrender their critical faculties when listen to these women for that is the only way their arguments will be compelling.

  7. Ben,

    You do not understand at all. I am not asking anyone to surrender anything. By all means USE your critical faculties, but realize that you may have to listen more than talk in order to do so. The point is that the experience men and women have in our culture is so different that men cannot understand the problem until they pay enough attention to women’s description of their experiences. Therefore, listen to them completely and with some compassion.

    The idea is to not think cease thinking critically, it’s to do so after listening (and hopefully understanding).

    The bottom line here is that reason itself, divorced from reality, is insufficient. The feminist critiques I allude to cannot be apprehended by pure platonic-style reasoning. They are based in a difference of social and cultural experience that you cannot understand solely by critical thinking or living as a man in our culture.

  8. I do understand the importance of empathy and the need to try and identify one’s own biases and prejudices in any discussion (any skeptic does). But when you write things like

    “It’s like meditation; we have to shut down our… INTELLECTUAL POWERS”

    you are clearly suggesting we surrender (or shut down) those aspects of cognition which are key to analyzing anything.

    In rereading your post, the more I disagree with it. For example I don’t know what your experience was like but I didn’t become an atheist by mind-melding with a person who was but by a through the use of my intellect and realizing how logically incoherent and empirically false Christianity is. The cognitive reasons for my former theism were the limitations of my childhood brain.

    In fact the more I think about that particular analogy the more I think it reveals flaws in your argument and the arguments of those who think there is a natural alliance between skepticism and extreme feminism.

    Well at least you got me thinking and I have interesting topics for discussion with friends over the weekend. Regards

  9. Congratulations, you’ve traded one imbecilic religion for another newer one. You’re a terrible thinker, no wonder it took you a decade to graduate.

  10. What? It didnt take me a decade to graduate. I finished my MA in 3 semeseters, and graduated summa cum laude. Perhaps you should work on your reading comprehension.

    Also, if my thinking is terrible, perhaps you could enligghten me.

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