Seeking Quality over Quantity (or why most people are not worth my time)

For many years I have thought that through determined effort, rational thinking, and patience, it was possible to change people.  And sure, people change their minds in the face of facts, or more likely experience which includes emotion and reflection, but this happens through appealing to a central set of values, inclinations, and other emotional considerations.  I once thought that it might be possible to actually change the core emotional values people have; to make them more prone to caring about self-improvement, authenticity, and thus to become better skeptics (and thus better people).  Granted, I never thought this was possible for all people, perhaps not even most, but now I think such a thing might be impossible, or at least vanishingly rare.

Much of what I have written here at, even before the creation of that newer URL nearly a year ago, has been in the hope of making an argument for the application of self-challenging skepticism in order to show that faith is perhaps the worst human trait, as well as to explore the  social and cultural predominance of an often stifling and broken view about sexuality and relationships.  I was hoping that through a combined application of rational argument and a perspectivist’s critique of cultural norms, I could demonstrate that skepticism was a tool for our improvement as people, and hopefully create some new atheists and polyamorous people, because I believed that the truth of atheism and the promiscuous inclinations of the vast majority of humans was universal and that more people should be able to see that.

And while such actions may create new atheists and polyamorous people, what I am leaning towards concluding is that the underlying skepticism is harder to inspire.  There are certain sets of inclinations, desires, and fears which either make a person more or less likely to utilize skeptical thinking, and if some personality traits are not present, you might as well try and yell down a wall.

So, as a result of this leaning (which is even more cynical than I have been previously), I am leaning towards an updated approach to writing about the topics of religion and relationships.  The casual reader may not notice much of a difference, but anyone who knows me will notice the importance of the subtle distinction.  Rather than try and find people who are stuck in the cultural milieu of theism and monogamy, and try and convince them that they would, perhaps (and probably), be happier giving up such things, I want to focus on finding people who display certain personality traits, in order to grow a better atheist and/or polyamorous community.  Rather than transform people, I want to cultivate certain types of people in the hope of finding ways to educate and inspire them, while looking for others to inspire me as well.

Because in many cases, such communities have done a fairly good job at growing (especially the atheist community in recent years), but in doing so it seems we are more interested in quantity, rather than quality.


Build Quality Rather Than Mere Quantity

Here’s the thing; the atheist community has become a cultural phenomenon.  it’s not quite mainstream yet, but it is on the path towards it.  But many people seem to think that we just need to grow, rather than actually improve, what exists. The goal is not to create more atheists per se, the goal should be to find and cultivate better people, and better people will become atheists because atheism is rational (and if it isn’t, those better people will discover that).  Similarly, the goal is not to create more polyamorous people, it is to have people better understand their own romantic and sexual desires, and show them how to find a more healthy way to explore and express those desires.  Thus, better people will tend towards polyamory (or accidental monogamy).

Getting numbers for our communities is an important part of the larger cultural shift, and I will not disparage it altogether as a strategy, but there is a point when the community needs to pause and take note of the shape of the community, rather than its mere size.  What values do we have? How skeptical are we being? Are we keeping in perspective the larger goal of cultural improvement, rather than merely caring about our immediate concerns? Etc.  And I think that many in this community have got caught up in squabbles about stupid shit, and frankly I don’t want to associate with some of them who do not display traits worth wanting.

So, having said that, what types of qualities do I want to seek out and help cultivate in our communities?

1) Attention and empathy.

You know, like mirror neurons and shit.  I want to seek out people who have the capability, and desire, to see the world through the perspective of others.  This means listening, yes, but more importantly trying to understand concepts like privilege and cognitive biases.  By empathy, or even compassion, I don’t mean merely being nice and gentle with people, because sometimes people need a (metaphorical) kick in the ass, and accommodating is not always a good solution.  I mean that we need to make a genuine attempt to understand what is being said, including  the context of those ideas, so that when we do unleash our raptor-like wit and eviscerating critiques, we can hit as many of the actual weaknesses of their position, as well as be aware of our own weaknesses.

Also, it’s possible that we are wrong, or at least partially wrong, and understanding the argument of others might actually teach something about ourselves, including our own privileges and cognitive biases.

In short, the best means to criticism is to make sure you understand the other positions as well as they do (if possible), and the best way to know such things is to listen carefully and try to understand their perspective, especially if it seems ridiculous.  Makes me want to quote some Sun Tzu or someshit.

2) Judgment

We need to be able to be authentic concerning what we think, and be honest with our conclusions (tentative as they may be).  We need to exercise our abilities to discern rationality from irrationality, rationalization from explanation, and good from bad.

There are bad people in the atheist community.  There are bad people in the polyamorous community.  These people have bad ideas, treat people badly, and make rationalizations and excuses for why they are not bad, and for some reason people follow them.  Yes, those people are still part of the larger community, but they should not be our inspirations.  But mostly, there are people who have a mix of bad and good ideas and behaviors, and we need to be able to separate those things.  There are many people who have contributed very much to our success as a community, but who maintain ideas which are damaging.  We need to be able to criticize them without eschewing them, but we should be able to eschew when necessary, at least in terms of our support or respect for such people.

We need to encourage good ideas and criticize bad ideas, and be able to not divide into camps which no longer talk with each other because of disagreements.  We need to be able to take judgment, give judgment, and not create battle lines because of judgments made against us.  In short, we need to accept judgment as a good thing, rather than as a thing which divides us.

Judgment being a bad thing is a religious idea, more often than not, and we need to re-appropriate it for our use as a tool, not a weapon.

3) Expanding our domain of understanding and concern.

Battle lines create quasi-dogmas.  It prevents communication, yes, but more fundamentally it prevents us from taking seriously the perspectives of others.  We need to be perpetually broadening our arena of concern, even if our actual arena of action remains small.  That is, we might only fight for the rights of polyamorous people in the workplace, church state violations in your state or city, or focus on the relationship between race and religion in your culture.  All of these things (and many more) are worth doing, but if you are doing those things, it is important to be aware of how the concepts that you use in your work map onto other parts of our struggle for social justice.  And yes, you should care about social justice in general, and apply skepticism to such questions.  If you don’t care about such things, then there is no point in talking to you, is there? I can’t make you care about something that you don’t care about.  Similarly, if you don’t have the basic emotional capability to empathize, talking to you about morality would be futile except as an intellectual exercise.

The idea that religious people have a privileged status in American culture is not exactly like the privilege that men have, but the concept is transferable to some extent.  How some people understand one while rejecting the other makes no sense to me, and strikes me as a fundamentally conservative mind-set which acts to undermine the larger goal of improving our culture.

Self-improvement is not always linear, in the direction of your personal goal, it is more like a network, where concepts and efforts that we use are related to other things around us, and we should see that the effort to solve issue X is related, in some way, so solving Y and Z.  Skepticism is a tool to be applied to religion, astrology, and homeopathy for sure, but also to gender, relationships, and many other cultural concepts that are too often unquestioned or not analyzed.

4) Exclusion.

There are some people I don’t want at my party.  They simply don’t care about the perspective of others and are unable to comprehend the problem and so they mock it, they either judge in only one direction or pretend not to judge, or they see no reason to expand their scope of applying skepticism and rational analysis to their lives.  Whether it’s fear, apathy, or simple cognitive or emotional inability to understand, there is no point in exerting much effort on some people; they just don’t want the discussion, and it will just be time wasted on your end.  The resources will exist, on the internet, in books, and in your head, if they start to care, but before they do care it’s not really worth the effort.

Such people may still be atheists, they may be non-monomagous, they may be skeptical about some things.  But they are probably not worth my time when it comes down to explaining nuanced concepts which they will not retain even if I tried.  We have to be willing to cut our losses in some cases, and realize that some people simply are not equipped to be real adults with the ability to understand certain concepts.

Fuck ’em.

I’m not wasting much of my time fighting them anymore.  If you want to, then by all means do so.  But I wash my hands of people who don’t have the fundamental values and desires to make themselves better people.  They won’t be going anywhere, it’s just that they are not worth arguing with so I leave them to others who still feel like they can do something to get through to them.  I certainly did for many years, and I can’t change their mind for them either.

I want to see more effort in improving what community we have, rather than merely get more attention and attract more people.  Yes, we want more people, but we should make sure those people are worth wanting.

Meh, call me an elitist if you will, but I think that many people just are not capable of being good as people.  I view relationships the same way; some people are not really worth pursuing.  Why would I try to date a person who I didn’t respect (or wasn’t attracted to)?

This is not a universal creed, it’s just where I stand on this issue at the moment.  And like I said before, I will not decry anyone who wishes to howl at the moon or yell down walls (hell, it sometimes even works!).  I’ll just be watching, paying close attention, judging openly or quietly (depending on the circumstances), while trying to expand my own understanding so that I can keep growing myself.

I’ll hope to meet others doing the same.

Reading Jonathan Haidt as a “New Atheist”

A week ago I wrote a quick post about how I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and quoted a bit from early on in the book.  I am nearly done the book (I have one chapter left), and although I liked much of the early book and think that some of what he thinks about the relationship between our moral instincts and subsequent rationalizations of them are worth reading, I must conclude that i am not on-board with Haidt’s approach to religion, especially his criticisms of the “New Atheists.”

In chapter 11, Religion is a Team Sport, Haidt tries to deconstruct the new atheist approach, following on his anti-worshiping of reason from earlier in the book, and says we need to address religion for what is is (a group selected set of community-building institutions) rather than what it is not (a set of beliefs, ideas, etc).  He thinks that our attention to beliefs as motivators for action is too simplistic, and points out that “belonging” has to be placed along with belief and action, in the matrix of religious behavior.

Well, yes of course it does!

I don’t need to get into the details of what is wrong with the book, at least in terms of the criticism of the new atheists, because that has already been done:

Sam Harris has some thoughts about Haidt’s treatment of morality, as well as how beliefs inform our actions.

PZ Myers has thoughts about Haidt’s relationship to the Templeton Foundation, and thus to accommodationism in general.

Als0, Helian has a good critique which points to another good critique from the New York Times by William Saletan.

I agree that there are parts of the book which are quite worth-while.  I did just get it from my local library, after all, and didn’t spend a cent to read it.  If you are interested in moral psychology, evolutionary psychology, and group selection (whether or not you agree with any of those research areas specifically), then I suggest reading at least the first several chapters.

But what was most telling was that Haidt kept on talking about the difference between what makes a group work well and what does not.  His conclusion is that religion makes groups work well, at least for members of the group.  Atheists who ask us to leave religion, as individuals or as a species, risk losing what Haidt sees as the glue that can hold us together.

Haidt is seemingly unfamiliar (due to lack of mention) with any new atheist thoughts past 2007 or so (the book was published in 2012).  Perhaps the problem is that he is unaware that many atheists have been working, especially in the last 2-3 years, on building up an atheist community.  No, we may not have anything sacred (not even science), but we are working on creating a sense of what it means to be skeptical, non-religious, and living in a world with potential for beauty and terrible atrocity.

Religion is not the only force for group-cohesion, even if it has the advantage of having sacred spaces, authority, and thus loyalty (what Haidt identifies as primarily conservative values).  I believe that care, a concern for fairness/ justice, and a sense of liberty (what Haidt identifies as what liberals tend to prioritize) are means to creating community as well.  We do not need to give up a concern for what is true (a value Haidt does not list, interestingly, especially because it is a high value for many new atheists, including myself) in order to create shared group identities.

Haidt, an atheist himself, is not connected to the atheist community.  Perhaps if he was, then his arguments would not be so poor.  Perhaps we should invite him to the party?


Atheist clones and “stock responses” in the evolution of the atheist community

Dawkins Clones?

In a conversation at another blog, especially the comments, a criticism I have seen before arose; we atheists are all repeating the same arguments that we hear from the arch-bishops of atheism make, and we are all Dawkins clones (or PZ clones, or whatever).  This got me thinking about how the atheist community has, over the last several years, started to coalesce.  I have seen the community start to come together in social, political, and memetic ways that may look like clones to the outside, but from the inside speaks of our growing unity, even among the various in-fighting about tone, strategy, etc.  Ultimately, I believe that our clone-like behavior is indicative of a strength, not in itself, but in that it is a symptom of that growing unity.

I remember back in the days of yahoo chat (does that still exist? I’m too lazy to find out right now…), while in the religion debate chat rooms, discovering the atheist community online (this was before the days of 9/11 or around the time of the start of the Infidel Guy show).  I remember how after a few weeks of listening to and talking with people who came in, I saw the same arguments occur again and again.  Christians (and sometimes Jews, Muslims, or even some pagans) would come in, make their arguments, and the atheists in the room would seemingly repeat what they said 5 minutes ago to another theist chatter.  What I began to realize was that these atheists who came in night after night were responding to a small set of claims, or set of related claims, made by theists of many different conclusions.  In other words, it didn’t matter what they believed, they had similar arguments, emotional appeals, and experiential anecdotes to present as proof.  There was very little actual difference between theistic claims in general.  It was around this time I discovered that I had always been an atheist, and that I just didn’t know it because I had misunderstood the term and its relation to religion and belief.

Once I started to become active in the IRL community (around early 2002), I saw a lot of the same thing happening.  And so finally, in around 2005-2006, the various atheist books started to be published by Sam Harris and so forth, I started to see, in print all over book stores, all the arguments I had been seeing for years.  Yes, the arguments were often a little different, sexed up, and given flare that they may not have had in yahoo chat and in my experience with the community at the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia (now just the Freethought Society).  But they were really essentially the same.

Since then, atheists will freely refer to a concept of Harris, a quip of Hitchens, or a witticism of Dawkins when at meetings or in conversation with theists.  They do so for a number of reasons, whether because they like the way that person said it, that was the first way they heard it put, or because they are trying to identify themselves as being familiar with the work of said person.  But in the end, these memes that have become part of the atheist community are evidence that we are really a community with our own language, developing history, and shared experiences.  In many ways we atheists are often fiercely independent and strong minded (hopefully not stubborn, because many people think they are strong minded when they are actually stubborn), but we have developed a community that has shared ideas.  We share them because they work.  We are not repeating them merely to copy other people, but because we find them useful in conversation or debate.  It is a kind of evolution of atheist arguments, where memes which have a better zing or are more affective remain as part of our shared language.

Does this make us clones? No.  Yes, there is some fanboy behavior that occurs around Richard Dawkins, PZ Myers, etc, but that is part of human behavior and is to be expected, even if it is silly.  Atheism, for good or ill, has celebrities, minor and major.  (As a side note, I was recently talking with a long time friend about the issue of science and morality, of which we share very differing opinions, and brought up Sam Harris to which he responded “I don’t know who that is.”  It just put things in perspective for me).  The fact that I may make a point in response to a theist that sounds like something Dawkins has said does not mean I am trying to emulate him or that I idolize or worship him.  It may mean I respect him and think the point which he has uttered is a good one, but that may be accidental;  remember that many of the counter-points to theists that Dawkins and others use in their books, lectures, or debates are not all original to them.  The fact that they made many of these ideas popular for the growing atheist community, as well as much of the general public, does not mean that when I use them I am a Dawkins clone.  The simple fact is that many of the points people like Dawkins make I knew of well before I knew Richard Dawkins was an atheist.  In fact, it is not impossible that the community I was a part of might have influenced Dawkins’ writing, or (more likely) the ideas were conceived independently or drawn from the many atheist books, communities, or internet resources from before the 21st century began (George H. Smith anyone?).

But, perhaps most interesting, the fact that our arguments are similar is possibly attributable to theism itself, at least n part.  After all, the atheist community is mostly a response to the largely theistic world in which we live.  Theology is old, complex, and erudite but in every day religious conversations the arguments foisted upon us (or invited) are simple and pretty similar themselves.  Sophisticated theology (which in my opinion is philosophical gobblygook, in most cases) is not exempt from this, but at least theologians make the attempt, in some cases, to dig into good intellectual soil.  And much of the popular atheist responses to theistic claims are mirroring the simplistic reasoning that we see day to day, which is largely poor reasoning or the simple lack of serious consideration of one’s beliefs.  Therefore, our clone-like memes and counters will seem repetitive…because the claims we are responding to are assertively repetitive.  What is worse is that when we try to engage with intelligent theists, their arguments are not much better; unsophisticated rationalization dressed up for the party, but essentially the same poor reasoning under the makeup.  They have good vocabularies, are educated, and present themselves well, but their reasons for belief are as weak as anyone else’s belief, but they have rationalized it by this dressing-up game they play with their explanations.  William Lane Craig is a great example of this.

We are not clones.  We are a community that is still evolving and finding our common voice in society.  Often, that voice will have focal points in people who use them and receive the most attention.   In many cases the atheist celebrities are channeling the larger community, sometimes the community channel the voice of individual leaders, but in most cases the distinction is irrelevant.  The question is whether the content of our voice is rational or not.  It does not matter who says it or how many people say it precisely some way.  It matters only a little how it is said, but the essential question is whether the idea is true. Responding to points made by atheists (or anyone else, for that matter) with anything except a criticism of the truth value of our claims is simply playing politics and rhetorical games.

I have little patience for those games.

Atheist Communities and ‘religious’ behavior

Over the weekend I had a conversation with some friends about what the atheist community might need to do in order to create an environment that would replace that of the world of religion.  The community, social activities, and even the rituals were mentioned, and it is clear that this is no easy question.  But what I hope is commonly accepted by the atheist community is that we are not replacing religion; we don’t want to emulate the cultural institution in all ways.  We are, I hope, trying to create activities and institutions to improve upon our culture, society, and ultimately the world.  We are not going to build atheist churches, but we are going to build a better world based upon skeptical and rational thinking, evidence, and science.

But how?

First, I would like to make a distinction about what makes up religion.  It is often said that if we are to get rid of religion (which is not the goal of most atheists, I don’t think), we would have to replace what religion does for people socially and so forth.  But what I think is missed here is that the social gathering, community, common purpose that happens when religious communities are done well (As opposed to in-group feeling churches of intolerance, judgmental propensities, and in-fighting, which also is relatively common) are not unique nor original to religion.  Just like how religion usurps the idea of morality as their own, religions often usurp the idea of community as their own idea.  We are not trying to take away people’s communities, we are trying to install reality into them.  There is no need to take away their group upon educating people, we just need to give them new visions of what their communities can be like.  Reality is a good start.

Humans naturally group into communities.  And while I want to see people of different views and opinions talking to each other more, it is clear that we seek out like-minds for most of our socializing.  And so obviously when people come up with strange opinions about the nature of reality, they will seek out others who will accept those views and create churches, temples, and so forth.  But the social grouping came first.  What I take from this is that the atheist community does not have to worry that much about creating alternative communities for people who leave their faith, as that will happen naturally.

However, I think that we, as the atheist community, will need to think about how we organize those communities when we do create them.  We do have to remember that there will be people who are scared, timid, and intimidated upon entering our community for the first time by those who are here and boisterous.  We will have to keep in mind that there are people with very strong opinions and loud voices who will annoy other people.  We have to keep in mind that there are genuine conflicts about definitions, tactics, and goals of the atheist community.  And if we are to try to create umbrella groups (such as UnitedCOR), we have to keep those things in mind.  But since I am not in a position of leadership of such an organization, I will not dwell on the details of how to do so.  Mostly because I really don’t know.

All I want to emphasize is that what we call  “religion” has aspects of it that are good.  Most of these things are natural behaviors of humans whether those humans believe in silly theological positions or not.  But much of what is natural in human groups are things we can leave behind, ideally.  If we are going to, in the long-term, replace the institutions of “religion” with activities that don’t include gods, we will have to be prepared for the reality that things such as tribalism (like what happens between liberals and conservatives) will exist.  In fact, with the arguments such as the one between gnu atheism and accommodationism, it is clear that this already exists.   Because while atheism per se cannot be a religion, the communities that atheists can create will start to emulate, in many ways, the activities of religious groups.  But the mistake that so many commentators make, in trying to argue that this implies that atheism is a religion, is that they forget that the group behaviors that they think of as “religious” are actually as secular as anything gets; they exist independent of religion. So the question is not whether atheism is a religion, but rather whether atheists will create groups like religious people, or whether they will improve upon the idea.

We need to be prepared, as atheists creating communities, that we are potentially subject to the same mistakes that we see in religious communities.  And while we are unlikely to create a system which allows continual abuse (of children or anyone else)  by our leaders, we are certainly capable of sectarian thinking and avoiding continual communication with people of differing opinions.  We must deal with this now, not later.  It’s not as important that we all agree on the definitions, tactics and goals of others (although it might be nice, ideally, to do so) so long as we are trying to comprehend those alternative definitions, tactics, and goals in order to work together when we need to, and set aside those debates for more appropriate times and places.

But we need to keep the lines of communication open, the enemization (rather than demonization) of those we disagree with to a realistic and appropriate minimum, and keep re-building our own views when they are presented with reasonable challenges.  It’s not about being correct, it’s about staying correct.