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“Gnu Religion”? December 24, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.

I do appreciate getting comments on my blog.  But sometimes someone comments that, despite their seemingly jovial and friendly appreciation for what I have to say, gets it so horribly wrong that I cannot leave it without response.

A while back I wrote this piece about gnu atheism, and the other day I received this response.  By all means go and look at it for full context, but I quote enough of it below for you, dear reader, to get the gist.  I will not reproduce the entire comment here in the name of brevity as well as to avoid unnecessary repetition.

But I thought some of what I said in response might be worthy of posting as a blog post, and so here it is.

Well, I thank you for your thoughts, but I have to respond to some of this because I find many flaws here.

It sounds like a gnu atheist is essentially a citizen scientist.

OK, sure.  I can agree to that

It occurred to me some time ago that atheists spend a lot of time pointing out the silliness of religion but little time considering reasonable alternatives. We offer parodies of religion, but have we ever considered that it may well be possible to offer an alternative to “believers” that provides many of the features that make religion attractive to them?

There is a sort-of stock reply to a lot of what you said, especially about finding an alternative, or something to replace religion with.  It is to say that what do you replace cancer with when you get rid of it?

Religion has some good aspects to it (they are human things appropriated by religion.  No, usurped is better), but where it is unique it is poisonous and unnecessary.  Instead of replacing those things, we need to outgrow them.  We need to grow up as a species.

You said:

If we postulate that all information in the universe is conserved, then it would seem inevitable that at some point in the future our descendents or some other sentient beings in the universe would discover how to access that information….

No, information is not conserved.  Energy is conserved (it is equivalent to matter), but the information is lost.

We may be able to find technological ways to store that information and upload it.  This is, in fact, the dream of many transhumanists who look forward to a much longer life lived either in some sort of Matrix world or even in some technological bodies which won’t get sick, can be fixed easier, etc.

To me this is no different, philosophically, from looking forward to a heaven that follows this broken, sinful, world.  It says that this life is not only insufficient, but essentially worthless.  It de-values human life, and makes us overlook it in the hopes for something better.  It is precisely what is wrong with religion, not what we should save from it.

Until such technological feats are a reality, this is dreaming away our lives.  Sure, let’s research the possibilities, but please enjoy this life because it is almost certainly all that we will have.

Faith is of course necessary, but not blind faith, but rather faith based on reason and knowledge – faith in the potential of the human race to evolve and improve, faith made stronger by continued and serious skepticism, faith in the scientific method.

No.  A thousand times no.

Faith is poisonous.  It is the rotten center of all that is not rational or scientific.  Faith is the exact opposite of skepticism and science.

What you seek is reasonable expectations based upon empirical study.  Faith is the vileness of insisting that something is true in the face of all that demands that it is a lie.  It is the assertion of truth where no justification can be found.  It is believing in what has not been shown to be the case.

Ancestor worship would be one handy way to keep our descendents interested in us. Of course we might also simply provide a source of entertainment or research material. There’s plenty of potential for future judgment, which seems to be required by some people to behave themselves. Those that eventually grant us afterlife may judge some to be more deserving than others, and, yes, there’s even the potential of torment and suffering. God would be that future society, hopefully our descendents, that develop the capability of granting us our afterlife.

A millions times, no.  Worship nothing.  To worship is to place it where it cannot be reached, probed, questioned.  If anything is worthy of reverence, it is that nothing is beyond question.  Do not elevate any aspect of reality to a place beyond question, for that is where we lose ourselves to mental slavery.

Idle speculation. However I note that it’s just now approaching the time of the Solstice, and that would be an auspicious time, and convenient holiday, to mark this beginning of the Gnu great religion. ;^)>

Religion is to be outgrown; plain and simple.  I want no part of any “gnu religion.”

Gnus: Is it too accommodating toward accommodationists to strive for a balance of values in this “war”? May 9, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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My post the other day about facts and values got me thinking about another issue that I have done some thinking about concerning values.  Generally, there is little controversy about saying that someone can have the wrong facts.  The controversy is usually which facts are right or when to say so, not whether that a fact can be wrong.  Only in the deepest fringes of postmodern philosophy can one say that a fact cannot be wrong, and among the straw-man of the uber-accommodationist that they can never be stated.  But there is a more subtle question embedded in this issue.   What about values? Can the principles you accept as important or essential be wrong to have?

One value I have is honesty.  I believe that honesty is an important attribute to practice because it leads to interactions with people which engenders trust, which is a thing I have an interest in creating.  When I am trusted, and trust others, I live in a world of lesser anxiety.  And that, I think, is a good thing.  Yes, sometimes the truth is painful, and in times of emotional upheaval it can be put off or at least put in the background, but there must come a time when the truth has to be dealt with or live a life of denial and possible delusion.  I’m just sayin’….

My value of honesty, being a good means towards creating a more trusting and less anxious environment (assuming this is actually the case), is a good thing if trust and lesser anxiety are good things.  And, in general, the values I have are right to have iff the effects they have are worth striving for.  But for Thor’s sake what kind of world are we trying to create?  What would be good effects for us to evaluate our values?  Upon what criteria do we ultimately judge a value by? I don’t know.  Further, this is not a question that I am particularly interested in solving at the moment (although you may guess what kinds of answers I might give, if pressed).  I am more concerned with a related question.

Is criticizing a person’s values wrong?

This question is similar in many ways to the question of whether it is appropriate to question or criticize a person’s religious beliefs. In the same way that a religious belief is an integral aspect of a person’s life, so are their values.  And in many cases one’s values are tied to their religious beliefs, and vice-versa.  Values are also, like religious beliefs, shared things.  We tend to identify ourselves in terms of our values and use them to tie ourselves to others.  The people we associate with, call allies, and like will often have similar values as ourselves.   Often, when talking with someone you fervently disagree with, it is the difference of values which causes the inability to comprehend how they managed to come to a certain conclusion, way of life, or perspective.

One value,which I have seen in both religious and non-religious people, is what I will call self-deprecation.  This can take the form of depriving oneself on specific pleasures, causing oneself specific harm, etc.  By this I do NOT mean sado-masochism, which is a different animal (although perhaps not completely unrelated, but that’s a topic for another blog).   Within the evangelical and conservative Christian community this is somewhat common, especially when it comes to one’s sexuality.  Part of the problem in those types of cases is the putting off of pleasures in the belief that something greater comes in the future; whether it be the idealized bliss of the marriage bed or the eternal one of heaven (which are, from what I understand, associated in order to maintain the conservative view of sexuality).

Depriving of oneself of the pleasures of the world is, from the point of view of this hedonist, materialist, atheist, a waste of time and harmful to a healthy lifestyle.  This does not imply that we should never miss out on an opportunity to experience pleasure, just that the so-called “family values” espoused by social conservatism are, in my opinion, harmful and possibly unethical.  The values of “family values” are, in my oh-so humble opinion, the wrong values to have.

I am willing to say this because I think the universe is such-and -such a way, and the reasons for adopting such values are based upon an alternative and delusional worldview which is not supported by the facts.  As I said in my post about facts and values the other day, values are a kind of fact.  They are supported by beliefs about the world, and are things we believe to be true and important.  But if the worldview one holds is not justified, then the values dependent upon that worldview may be wrong, or at least not ideal.  They may, in fact, be detrimental to emotional, intellectual, and physical growth.  Take for example what happens when you believe that sickness and injury should be dealt with by prayer.  The values that are derived from such a worldview will often have direct consequences upon the health and welfare of such people.

Closer to home for me is the balance of two values that I have, but in different proportion from other atheists.  And many people will notice that these values have similar effects on different issues of political, social, and cultural importance.  They are what I will call truth and diplomacy.  I value more strongly the value of dealing with whether something is true or not over whether the answer I give will win me friends, votes, etc.  Others are more concerned with building metaphorical bridges when trying to reach out to people who are not already in agreement with their worldview.  Because of the shift in balance of these values they shift the tone, often resulting in a shift in consistency with what they may believe, in order not to alienate people.  And while I don’t think they see it as preferring politics over truth, that is often what it seems like from my point of view.  Surely the fact that many people simply accept that politicians lie tells us something about this phenomenon; diplomacy works, and truth is often an obstacle to achieving goals.  I know, I’m cynical.

Now, I do not think that there is some absolute right way to go about this balance.  I do not think that my honesty-oriented value is always better than the values of diplomacy, but I think that in some cases it is.  This implies, I think, that there are indeed some times when diplomacy is warranted, and even I, an unabashed and unapologetic gnu atheist, measure and hold my tongue depending on circumstances.  I never lie about my beliefs concerning religion, but there are times when I might soften a quip into a question or observation, suggest rather than blatantly criticize, but I never coddle or demonstrate faux respect for an idea which I do not respect.

That is, I think there is a point in the balance of truth and diplomacy where the scale simply falls over.  Those ‘accommodationsists’ of whom I am critical seem to me to be overly concerned with appearing respectful (or actually respecting an idea which I think they should not) and the straw-man new atheists they demonize go too far in not knowing the time and place, and the appropriate level of criticism therein.  The problem there is finding actual people, especially among the leaders of the atheist community, who are the analogs to these straw-men.  Are there people who are invited to speak at atheist conventions (if that is the appropriate criteria) who ferociously and incessantly attack beliefs, believers, or institutions without regard for what anyone has said, done, or supported?  In other words, are their criticisms unjustified?  You may think they should tone it down, but do you think the actual content is wrong?

And yes, there will be wiggle room in where that balance rests, as well as the extremity of their opinions*.  Certainly I am likely to be somewhat more or less confrontational than someone else, but the important thing, from my point of view, is honesty.  I am concerned that in striving to appear friendly, I don’t also appear dishonest or contradictory.  I don’t want to be seen as someone who says nice things about faith here, but elsewhere say how I think it’s ultimately delusional (even if I didn’t want to use that word, because it might offend someone).

People such a Chris Mooney argue that we should watch how we communicate so as to not chase moderate believers towards the sanctums of fundamentalism, while he  does not seem to comprehend that it is our lack of faith itself which alienates us from people, not the belief that their doctrines are inconsistent with science.  Does Mooney believe that the doctrines of religious groups, specifically Christianity on one case, are consistent with scientific theories like natural selection?  He might, but he seems uninterested in the truth of this question, which bothers me.  It is not that people like Mooney have to say, in every circumstance, that the doctrines of this and that faith are inconsistent with science (or whatever he believes personally).  Rather, the issue is that he does not have to be afraid to give an opinion he has if he actually believes it.

What I often see from many accommodationists, whether in anti-atheist or anti-gnu articles or in comments on various blogs, is a lack of shyness in terms of telling other atheists what they think about them, without regard for what the gnu atheist has said.  They do not appreciate the fact that there is a difference in balance between the values of truthfulness (I almost wrote “truthiness”) and the diplomacy which they find so important…except when talking to or about the gnus.  For people like myself, who actually believe that there is a fundamental incoherence about faith, religious doctrine, etc in relation to what we know about the universe, we simply want to be able to say so whenever we feel it is appropriate to do so.  My value is truth over diplomacy, but diplomacy is a value I have, even if it is secondary.

And, of course, the opinions of when it is appropriate will vary.  So long as it is to not ever say it unless you are talking with people you agree with (how would you know if you can’t say so?), I think we have room to talk.  So my question for those people whose balance is more accommodating than mine is this; are there times when I can say that things like faith and religious doctrines are incoherent or wrong?  And if so, when? Are there times when I can say these things to people who are religious?

And, to go meta, is there an appropriate time and place to say that your value of diplomacy might not be, if not outright wrong, overbalanced?

Is it going to far to say that the tone of accommodationists, in saying that our gnu beliefs are incompatible with their goals of effective communication,  is going to push gnus away from a moderate position towards atheist extremism?


*What we have here are two separate dimensions; 1) The strength of one’s views, and 2) the willingness or unwillingness to be confrontational about the beliefs one has.

Respect: ideas, people, and rights. (A message for accommodationists and ecumenical theologians) March 13, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Edit: Me, being a horrible boyfriend, did not notice that my lovely lady-friend posted about respect yesterday.  She makes some good points as well.


One complaint from the religious and accommodationist alike is that we gnu atheists do not demonstrate respect for religion.  We say critical things about the doctrines of various beliefs, we are strident, and we are arrogant.  There are a number of points to be made in favor of a direct and critical approach (and many have made them in addition to my own comments), and one of them is to make a distinction between respect for an idea and respect for a person.  I want to take this idea and expand it a little; I would like to explore the distinction of respect for ideas, people, and rights.

Respect for Ideas
One issue I have with a number of people who are not comfortable with criticism of people’s beliefs is the issue of whether they actually respect another person’s beliefs.  Very often I will hear a person who does not share a religious belief with someone else say that they still respect their belief.   I am not sure this is true, at least in the sense I am using the word ‘respect’ here; I think what is being confused here is a respect for their right to believe what they want, not for the belief itself.  The issue for me, here, is whether it is possible, or even conceivable, to respect an idea that you don’t accept as true.

Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead after having been tortured, crucified, and placed in a tomb.  I find this claim to be unbelievable.  The evidence that would be required to accept such an extraordinary claim are not present, the circular logic of the Bible being a trustworthy source is insufficient, and all I know about nature does not make such an event probable.  As a person who does not accept this belief as a possibility, is it meaningful to say that I can respect it?  Now, I must clarify; I am not saying that the belief should be mocked (necessarily), that a believer of such an idea should be disrespected, or anything like that.  I’m asking if the idea is itself respectable.   To put it more clearly, if the idea were encountered on its own, say if it were read on a piece of paper outside of the context of someone who may or may not believe in it, then could one think it respectable?

With this particular belief about Jesus, I would say that it is not respectable because it does not pass a rational test for probable occurrence.  But it is conceivable to have ideas that I don’t accept as true to be respectable in themselves.  Someone may have an idea that mint/chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla, and I don’t agree (I hate the combination of mint and chocolate).  But this opinion is respectable because it is consistent with probable facts (it is conceivable and probable that people like this combination of flavors) and it is an opinion based upon a distinct set of physiological states of body that differ from mine; some people just prefer other flavors of ice cream.

More to the point it is respectable for someone to believe that Jesus was a real historical person.  I also happen to not be convinced of this proposed fact, but it is not an extraordinary claim; even if the New Testament is fiction almost completely, it is possible that the mythological literature that resulted was based on a real person who may or may not have been named Jesus (or Yeshua) but whose last name was certainly not ‘Christ’ (as this is the Greek word for the Hebrew word which we use today as Messiah, or ‘annointed one’).  A person who inspired the letters of Paul, the gospels, etc could have really existed; I think this is a respectable position to hold, even if I disagree with it.

But religious ideas are not like opinions of taste, nor are they only about opinions about the existence of historical persons.  Even if Jesus (or Yeshua) existed, the stories of miracles, divinity, etc are still up for grabs and in need of evidence and argumentation to be respectable.  We have different emotional needs, desires, etc about how we live our lives, but religious claims are not just about our emotional needs and desires for fulfillment; they are claims about reality, indeed often about the nature of that reality, and not just historical facts about it.  While for many people the different religious perspectives are akin to the various needs and desires that human beings have, and talking about those differences is like exploring the varieties of human experience with their ‘spiritual’ side or whatever, they are more than that.  Religious beliefs are more than mere metaphors for many people, and even when they are metaphors they are often still contradictory and not respectable.  That is one of the differences between the gnu atheists and most other people; we care about what is true, not what feels good or fulfills some need.  So when we say that we don’t respect an idea, we are saying that we don’t accept the idea as probable or even believable.  We are not commenting (at least not necessarily) on whether the idea should not be meaningful to you or give you some access to poetic beauty, we are saying that the idea does not seem possible to be true and in coherence with reality.

Respect for people

Whether or not we respect the ideas that people have, it is also possible to respect the actual person.  I may disagree with you, agree with you, or perhaps be unsure whether we agree due to some uncertainty of your or my belief, but that little to do with what I think about you.  Now, I have criteria for what I think makes a good person.  For me, it is a desire to be self-challenging, honest, and so forth.  These qualities are things I respect in a person.  I prefer a Christian who is willing to have a frank and open discussion about religion to an atheist who thinks the issue should not be discussed ever.  I prefer a staunch conservative who will listen and respond to issues politic than a liberal who toes the party line and refuses to listen to another opinion.  I prefer people who are wiling to go beyond themselves than to surround myself with an echo-chamber of agreement and demonization of the other.  I want not only to challenge, but to be challenged.  And I want to be around similar people.

A respect for another person, from another person’s point of view, will probably differ depending on what values that person has.  Another person may judge someone else based upon the empathy, kindness, and selflessness.  But what is important to recognize here is that this judgment occurs.  All to often I hear that we should not judge other people (having grown up in a very liberal Quaker environment, I heard this nearly every day).  But this is simply not possible.  Even a Christian who believes that judgment is for their god to make and not them, they are making a judgment.  No, it’s not a final or meaningful judgment in a cosmic sense, but all people evaluate the behavior, opinions, and accomplishments of other people and make judgments about them.  To say otherwise is a form of delusion and is not being honest with themselves; so obviously someone who values honesty will not respect that.

We all judge one-another and we all have varying criteria for making such judgments.  Whether we have respect for other people will depend on these values and will have little to do with the ideas those people have, although their is a relationship between a person’s behaviors, temperament and their opinions to some degree.  The bottom line is that a person’s opinion about religious or political matters will not necessarily tell you if you will respect them.

Respect for people’s rights

I may not agree with you or even like you, but I would be willing to fight for your right to say what you believe openly.  I think that freedom of expression is just about the most important right we as people can defend.

I have respect for people’s rights to belief what they want.  Well, belief is not really subject to the will, so I have respect for what people do believe and to speak openly about those beliefs.  But this respect has to be 2-way; Religious believers of all kinds have the right to their beliefs and to express them.  At the same time, those of us who disagree, think those ideas harmful, etc have the right to have our criticism heard on equal terms.  That is, no governmental power need help disseminate either view, support either view, or even address either view.  Religion should not get any support from the state, nor should the criticism of it receive any support or be silenced by any state.  The state should be simply neutral on such questions, and either support all or neither (the latter being the simplest and probably most wise choice).

You have a right to believe in Jesus, Harvey the 8-foot invisible bunny, or Xenu the galactic emperor.  You have every right to hold whatever ritual you want to (so long as it is not breaking secular law, infringing the rights of non-believers, etc), believe whatever doctrines you want, and to talk about, publish books and other literature about, and even produce audio and video media about your beliefs.  We don’t have to listen, of course, but you can do those things.  And we also have the right to respond to those ideas with ideas of our own (And no, nobody has to listen to us either).  I’m simply not sure how much religious believers would be willing to fight for my right, as an atheist (especially of the gnu variety) to speak my opinions.  I know there are some out there who would, and I respect them (as people) for that, but I also know many would not be willing to do so, and they have some help from the accommodationists.

The respect for the rights of believers is a road of many ways.  You have the right to your beliefs, and I have mine; even if my belief is that you should not have yours or that yours is stupid.  Nobody has to implement my opinion or agree with it, but I have a right to it.  My beliefs are that religion is here to stay for a long time, but I should be able to say what I want about religion.  You don’t like that? I don’t really care.

The Combination of respects

All three of these types of respect differ in ways that will be expressed differently in response to different people and their ideas.

I don’t respect Fred Phelps’ ideas, him as a person, but I do respect his right to hold them and promulgate them.  I am severely annoyed by his tactics, but he and his family/church have a right to them and to say them.  Perhaps we should just ignore them, but we don’t and they keep at it.  Fuck Fred Phelps, but he has the right to be a fucktard and I have the right to ignore him or call him a fucktard.

I respect some of the ideas (especially about the truth of religion, which they rarely address) of many accommodationists.  I tend not to respect them as people, although there will be exceptions, because their temperament is one of dishonesty, faux respect, and politics-playing.  I respect their right to their beliefs.

I respect many of the ideas of the gnu atheists out there, but certainly not all.  what I appreciate is that this disagreement is welcome among the gnus (I hope in all cases).  Thus, I tend to respect them as people as well, but there will be exceptions to this of course.  I respect their right to their beliefs and will continue to fight for the right to say those ideas.

I don’t respect blasphemy laws.  There is no right not to be offended, and to try and make it illegal to say certain things about religious beliefs is short-sighted and harmful to free expression.

I don’t respect liberal theological attempts at universal ecumenicalist worldviews; I find them absurd and short-sighted as well.  Religious traditions have real differences and contradicting goals, interpretations, and values.  To try and ignore these and find what is in common is good for sharing of ideas towards understanding, but ultimately the cafeteria-style picking and choosing of beliefs becomes absurd because it diminishes the importance of the scriptural and traditional sources and makes them mere human ideas (which they are) which undercuts the very tradition they are trying to respect.  The progressive idea that religion is merely a means of self-expression and window into our own spiritual journeys is a relatively new idea, and it cannot be reconciled with all religious views, thus the enterprise is self-defeating.  By trying to respect religion, they are actually disrespecting what the majority of religious believers actually believe.

This is an irony that seems to be missed by intellectual and academic theologians who want the various institutions of religion to be the beautiful thing which they themselves have created out of the various corpses of the religious traditions they had to kill to attain such a perspective.  This type of humanism would be better as a secular activity, which is part of what accommodationists are trying to do.  But in both cases they are ignoring the truth that the religious traditions they have slain to get their worldview still exists around them and is being dragged through history by legions of literalists, moderates, and others who still really believe, not merely as a metaphor, that their god(s) are true and that their will(s) are absolute.  Dangerous ideas!

There are a plethora of ideas about religion out there, and such ideas are part of the larger conversation about religion.  But they need to be directly addressed, and not merely thrown aside or minimized in an attempt to create some ecumenical pulp that is but a shade of the source from which they were extracted.  This only seeks to kill the religion and the truth at the same time.  Good luck with that, accommodationists and ecumenical theologians.

I’ll finish with a short story about an event that I witnessed recently among some friends and acquaintances.  Some liberal Christian people I know held a book-burning recently.  They took some conservative books from their conservative parents and burned them in disgust for the ideas contained within.  This, in my opinion, is the exact opposite way to deal with ideas.  Do not destroy them, hide them, or simply ignore them; face them, challenge them, and demonstrate the absurdity of them.  If you can’t do that, perhaps that says something interesting in-itself.  Perhaps one of the reasons many liberal Christians simply toss aside or physically destroy the carriers of ideas held by conservative Christians is that in some way they cannot directly confront them; they are too much like their own.  And the conservative/literalists will tend to have a significant percentage of scripture to back up their discrimination of the queer community, even if they can’t back up their conservative politics.  Their is a real battle between what a lot of scripture says about things and what a lot of liberal religious people value, and so it is difficult for liberals to directly confront their conservative parents, neighbors, and acquaintances.  The only real way to do this is to simply leave religion behind and not use any authoritative source for truth.  Freethought is still the best option for either liberal or conservative values, as it does not tie you to any doctrines or truths.  You only need to follow the evidence, not any book.

I think that one of the reasons that liberal theologically-minded people, accommodationist atheists, and other mainstream people are so annoyed by both gnu atheists and many literalistic religious people is that we are actually concerned with what is actually true.  Many other people are concerned with what their emotional needs and desires are; what makes them comfortable.  I think this is part of the reason that the issue of respect gets so thorny.  People’s ideas are so-often a reflection of their values, and we are not supposed to disrespect people’s values.  But the truth is that I don’t respect many people’s values, and neither do they respect mine.  As liberal and progressive people, many literally do not respect each-others values, even when one of their values is to respect other people’s values.  This fact goes a long way for me, and perhaps is a bane for many others.

So, let’s stop the pretenses of respect and start really talking about our beliefs.  Respect, for me, starts with honesty, not treating other adults with different ideas like emotionally insecure children.  My disagreeing with your belief is not disrespect, but people trying to shut critics up is disrespect because they are not allowing us the right to our beliefs.  Respect is really only relevant when it infringes on the ability to practice what we believe, and ironically it is the accommodationist and the ecumenical types that do this while pointing the finger of blame at their target.

Oh, the irony!

Accommodationism: the facts don’t matter March 2, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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1 comment so far

I have been thinking a little the last couple of days how frustrating the whole gnu atheist/accommodationist conversation has been on the blogosphere in recent months.  As I have argued previously, I don’t have a lot of tolerance for the tolerance-monkeys we call ‘accommodationists.’  I think they are more concerned with tone and appearance in a way that makes them dishonest and ironically disrespectful.  But why do they annoy me so?

Today I was thinking about it and it became crystal clear that it is the exact annoyance I experience while talking with a creationist.  I begin to see, as I argue with them, that the facts simply do not matter.  In each discussion, facts are ignored and sophomoric philosophical dribble are uttered in place of an actual conversation about what is true.  Content is almost completely ignored while tone, respect, and other misused terms are bandied about with like antidotes, but which end up being more homeopathic than anything.

Ha! Accommodationist arguments are homeopathic! They are nothing but water, but the vanishingly small amount of actual argument is presented as a strength.  I like that.  Feel free to borrow it at your leisure.

And what’s worse, is that not only do they not respond to the actual content, they fancy their own arguments as powerful.  Just like a creationist; an argument that displays more ignorance and made-up silliness while they often throw the same accusation towards their targets (that would be gnus like me).

Why don’t they address the content; facts? Because they can’t.

Gnuism: Is it tru? You’re a gnu! February 6, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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(Not to be confused with this GNUism, which is also interesting and new.  As a writer, I may decide to find a way to combine the powers of these two concepts and take over the world….)

In recent months, there has been a lot of talk about ‘gnu atheism’ on much of the atheist blog-o-sphere, particularly by Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, and (of course) Ophelia Benson (among others).  Despite what some recent articles have ridiculously claimed, the title ‘gnu’ is a take on ‘new’ (as in new atheists), and is supposed to show how seriously we take this title (hint: not very).  As has been said by many people, including myself, there is little that is “new” about our atheism, it’s just that now we are getting more attention (and therefore actually being heard, which many people object to). We have always had this “strident and shrill” (as it is seen by some) tone, but in reality we are just after the truth, with kid-gloves off.

I suppose the new/gnu qualifier, while not being ‘new’ per se, allows us to distinguish us from other atheists in one regard.  PZ Myers seems to have encapsulated the distinction best when he said the following:

Gnu atheism is not simply about what isn’t. Our views do find expression in specific criticisms of specific faiths, but those are just the epiphenomena of a deeper set of positive values that [Stephen] Asma completely misses. Certainly I will make moral arguments against religious pathologies — Catholic priests raping children is bad — and I will judge beliefs by the foolishness of their explanations — creationist dogma is utterly absurd. But to say that is the guiding philosophy of atheism is to mistake the actions for the cause. I have one simple question you can ask of any religion, whether it’s animism or Catholicism, that will allow you to determine the Gnu Atheist position on it.

Is it true?

This is the bottom line.  Whether it makes you feel better, makes life feel worth living, or if it has pretty art, music, or rituals we want to know if it is true.  This has been a motivating question throughout my life, one that has alienated me at times.  In fact, this desire for truth is what led me to discover first that I was an atheist (had been all along) and later that I was what was being called a “new/gnu atheist”.  That is, there was no conversion or decision to join the ranks, this term just describe how I thought about the issues at hand.

But this question of “is it true” is relevant for more than religion, but also for many other things (astrology, homeopathy, etc).  And I am finding, as I navigate the world and think about various issues, that this is a strong motivator for me for many things (if not all things).  I find myself asking not so much whether this issue is helpful, pleasant, or even pragmatic, but whether it is true.  And this often causes me to rub against people in the wrong ways, as I’m sure is true for others with similar personalities.

I am hesitant (for once) to site a recent example that acts as the cause for these thoughts, because of the arguments that this example brings up are controversial and I have not clarified my position quite yet.  To reference the issue vaguely and analogously, I will say that my uncertainty of the truth of this question makes my questions appear as if I am trying to take a conservative stance on someone’s rights, when in fact I am asking if the action (and not their right to do that action) is one that even makes sense.  I’ll say that an analogy would be the scene from Life of Brian where Stan declares that he wants to have a baby.  The dialogue continues thus:

Judith: [on Stan’s desire to be a mother] Here! I’ve got an idea: Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb – which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’ – but that he can have the *right* to have babies.
Francis: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother… sister, sorry.
Reg: What’s the *point*?
Francis: What?
Reg: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies, when he can’t have babies?
Francis: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
Reg: It’s symbolic of his struggle against reality.

Now, I love this scene (and this movie), but the comedy here is sort of what I’m getting at at my vaguely referred-to issue.  What does one do when faced with a question of rights when the right might not make sense in the first place?  A question for another time, I think, but I’m going somewhere with that at some point in the future.

For now, what does this have to do with the term ‘gnu’?  Glad you asked, because I was getting off-track there.  I wonder to what extent the distinction between the gnu atheists and other non-gnus might be this preoccupation with the truth.  The desire to find whether something is true or not is certainly not universally shared (perhaps it is not even very common), and it creates a distinction between people who will apply their skepticism to most aspects of their life (perhaps applying universally is an impossible feat) and people who will forgo such skepticism from many aspects of their lives for various reasons, but including the desire to keep it away from things which may not be true but make them comfortable.

Perhaps, as a kind of coining of a term, one can detach the ‘gnu’ from the atheism and view this qualifier as an independent term which would imply a priority of truth.  As Matt Dillahunty has said on the Atheist Experience (and elsewhere), he wants to believe as many true things (and as few false things) as possible.  I agree with him, and this is a personality trait that Matt and I share, which is why I life listening to him so much…because he reminds me of myself, or something (not that I am totally self-absorbed).  And I think that those people who identify as Gnu atheists share this quality; it may be what distinguishes the gnus from the non-gnus.  And since this attribute is applied to more than their views on gods or religions, they are ‘gnu’ in more than a religious sense.  They are gnus generally.  They are, perhaps, Gnuists.

Now, one might say that this coinage is stretching a little, and I can see that.  Others might point out that this term is superfluous because the proper application of skepticism (which does indeed lead to atheism) is equivalent to this term in many ways.  I agree, but I sort of like the term used in this way for the single purpose that it acts to pull out this very issue of applying skepticism properly to all things (or at least trying to), rather than leaving it aside for some things (such as religion) as many in the skeptical community do.

A gnu is a person who wants to ask “is it true” about all things.  They are not accommodating any issue simply because it might avoid controversy or offend someone.  It will imply that they are an atheist (unless, of course, it can somehow be demonstrated that a god actually exists), but it also implies that they are asking “is it true?” to more than just gods.

Here’s a handy mnemonic device:  “Is it true?”, you’re a gnu!

Perhaps I should start a church of Gnuism.  It would be similar to my old idea to start a temple of Gnosis Dionysus, but with less Dionysian hedonism and more questions.  OK, you are right, let’s keep the hedonism.