emotions can be a distracting drug

So, I seriously get annoyed with some aspects of liberal culture, especially where it intersects with religion.  I’ve written about this before, many times, so I don’t need to sat too much (and yet, I will…).  But it is a thing which grinds my gears fairly frequently, including today when I found this good criticism of Francis Spufford’s article at Salon.com by professor Ceiling Cat himself.  Go read Jerry Coyne’s post.  As usual, he makes good points.

While reading the post, however, I was thinking about this argument, which I have heard before, about how religion is a spiritual or emotional experience.  Some atheists, while being smug and disrespectful (as we are wont to do) will compare religion to a drug, and there is some justification for this crude comparison.

But more generally, emotions act in addictive manners in more arenas than religion.  It is certainly something I am familiar with.  The the poly world, there are sometimes discussions of NRE being addictive, which leads some people to pursue new relationships almost unceasingly.  This sometimes leads to situations where one starts to neglect those with whom they share intimacy, simply due to spending time pursuing more and more novelty.

As a Borderline, I am familiar with the desires to pursue the thrills of both intense joys and of (the illusion of) control.  The highs are great, but the pretend goal of maintenance of those heights, and avoidance of the lows, is delusional. In my worst memories, I have images of having gotten the emotional reaction my anger–a result of fear in the absurd pursuit of being loved–was after, which is accompanied by the fleeting, deceptive, addictive pleasure of it all.  Fleeting because a few seconds later it is clear that not only will the reaction not lead to them loving me, but that they will probably never want to be close to me again.

And yet the mind craves it, all too often.  All too often because ever is too often.

And so here we are, back to religion, with Mr. Spufford arguing that we new new atheists are wrong because we do not get that religion is about the emotional experience and not primarily about truth.  The turn-around, here, seems to be that it is Mr. Spufford who does not understand.  I, a life-time student of religious history, theology, and its relationship to culture know all too well how emotion can lead us to belief.

Spufford says:

It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas.

which is, of course, reminiscent of the old Catholic idea of belief prior to understanding (which, if memory serves, was Thomas Aquinas’ dictum.  Correct me if I’m wrong).

This idea is not inspirational.  I am not led to see religion as more understandable because of feelings people have.  Good feelings do not imply a good worldview, moral sense, and especially not good ideas.  I am not less critical of you and your religion  because you have pleasant feelings, which religion provides you with.

And then I think how often, we as humans (even within the atheist community) rationalize terrible ideas, policies, or moral worldviews based upon feelings.  How much is misogyny the result of genuine feelings? How much is homophobia based upon feelings? Etc.

And the feelings don’t have to be bad ones.  Perhaps some misogynistic MRA out there is motivated by a genuine desire to right the wrongs where the system is actually slanted away from men? Well, that instinct is generally good, but without a larger perspective to compare those instincts and feelings to, those feelings (if they are, in fact, good) are insufficient.  Because while motivated to right a structural wrong, many MRA’s miss the larger point that the vast majority of structural injustices in our world are stacked in the favor of men.  Our friendly MRA, and his good feelings which lead him to beliefs contra-feminism, are not sufficient.

Similarly with religion.  Spufford and his family go to church, have good feelings, and so they believe the things believed by the people who are there when they have the feelings.  How absurd is that? We, new atheists, know that you have good feelings while singing about Jesus.  We are glad you are capable of good feelings, we want you to have good feelings, we just want you to get your head out of your ass and realize that the time and place of where those good feelings happen may have nothing to do with the feelings per se.

Or, if they did, then perhaps those feelings are not worth wanting anymore.  Perhaps good feelings are not sufficient reason to keep doing something, you selfish asshole.

At some point, this conversation about truth/experience, science/art, etc comes down to moral principles; things like authenticity and integrity (which I am teased about, by more than a few people, for sharing with hipsters apparently.  I was doing it before there were hipsters, so there…:P).  These moral principles are structures by which we decide how to go about daily living.  Do we care about other people, our environment (immediate and/or global), and what is true or don’t we? Are our good feelings we have at church (or whatever selfish pleasure we are pursuing) more important than the larger picture of our lives and those close to us?

In short, are your jollies more important than all the things that you could do besides them?

Are your emotions more important than the effect they have on the world around you? Are they more important than mine, your neighbors, etc?

Spufford, and others who make this argument, seem to essentially be saying that the good feelings that religion give them are more important than the larger question of whether religion is harmful to society as a whole–let alone whether they are true. They seem inclined towards associating their religion with emotional and spiritual self-improvement, rather than a larger cultural phenomenon with consequences upon history, power structures, etc.  Because their religion only makes people feel good, unlike the fundamentalists who just hate everyone.  Excuses.


Feeling good is great.  But there is a reason I don’t want to try heroin.  I have a feeling I will like it, if I tried it.  That isn’t the question.  If I try it, my intelligent mind will find ways to rationalize using it more, despite the detrimental effects it will have, upon extended use, on my life and the world around me.  Spufford’s article is a rationalization of his addiction.  It is a human behavior so common, so ubiquitous, that we forget that we need to step back and apply skepticism, rationality, and logic to the world to make sure we are not getting caught up in our addictions.

Emotions are not inherently bad.  Emotions are an integral part of the tool-kit of decision-making and enjoying life.  But when we see people so blinded by their preferences, biases, etc that they are incapable of seeing the larger picture, we need to be able to say that it is time to stop being led around by our religious dicks.

Poly Living Conference this weekend and thoughts on atheist blogging

I really should be getting to sleep, considering I have work in the morning (11AM, but that’s still morning!), but before I do I wanted to post a few thoughts.

Thought #1: I’m going to my first poly conference this weekend, the Poly Living Conference which is in Philadelphia this year.

I’m planning on taking ample notes, talking to many people, and trying to get a sense of the state of skepticism within the polyamorous community, you know because I’ll be speaking about that in about 5-and-a-half weeks at the Atlanta Poly Weekend Conference.

Centered around this upcoming weekend is some amount of anxiety, because despite a recent comment on this blog, I don’t see a lot of overlap of skepticism and polyamory (especially among those at Loving More, who are running this weekend’s conference).  Now, I know some of the people at the Atlanta conference next month are skeptics and atheists, but I am not sure about the people at the conference this weekend, the keynote speaker of which is Kamala Devi (from the recent Showtime series), a person who seems to be pretty into the woo side of things [Feb 10 2013 edit: my preconceptions here ended up not being fair or true.  I hold Kamala in high regard after having met her this past weekend, and apologize for the prejudice], including tantra. (information about the speakers can be found here).

I’m anxious because I am interested in the conversation about skepticism in light of sexuality, relationships, etc and want to talk with people about it, but in my experience those on the liberal side of religion, who call themselves spiritual, or who are pagan, tend to be pretty sensitive about criticism in general, and I don’t wish to make the conversation impossible by, well, being myself.

I’m anxious because I really don’t want to dislike the polyamorous community, and in some of my experience I have been rather disappointed in polyamorous people when it comes to skeptical thinking.

Though#2: I’m not sure about atheist blogging, sometimes.

There are some wonderful blogs which are primarily about atheism and skepticism, despite the various splits and interpersonal issues that have surfaced in the last few years.  But there are some atheist writers who are still plugging away at the atheism 101 topics, addressing the same old topics that we were all plugging away at back in 2005 or so when this new atheist thing became all the rage.

And there many still be a reason for them to be doing so, because so many still don’t understand this basic stuff, but as a long-experienced atheist activist, writer, etc I find it pretty boring.  Those blogs are not for me anymore and I am less interested in addressing the same issues as I did like 8-10 years ago.  I think that we should still have those resources available for those interested in those basic questions, but I think that we all need to keep our eyes on the larger prize: an intelligent, informed, skeptical world that tries to address injustice wherever it lives.

Others have moved on to try and not only grow the community, but make it better.  By trying to broaden the scope of skepticism and atheist activism, many writers and activists have started to realize that’s it’s not just about being an atheist (which is great, don’t get me wrong), but about helping create better skeptics all around.  I will continue to write about atheism in this sense (and possibly, occasionally, in the other sense), and try to make a world where tehre are mature, aware, and quality atheists; not merely atheists.

Those are my thoughts for the night.

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?


Third wave atheism or the ‘new skepticism’?

edit: I saw Jen’s follow-up post as well.  I like this image best:


A couple of days ago (I’ve been moving and such), Jen wrote this post on her blog about how the atheist community has been a “boy’s club” and how we need to help progress towards a “third wave” of atheism.  The key part is this:

I don’t want good causes like secularism and skepticism to die because they’re infested with people who see issues of equality as mission drift. I want Deep Rifts. I want to be able to truthfully say that I feel safe in this movement. I want the misogynists, racists, homophobes, transphobes, and downright trolls out of the movement for the same reason I wouldn’t invite them over for dinner or to play Mario Kart: because they’re not good people. We throw up billboards claiming we’re Good Without God, but how are we proving that as a movement? Litter clean-ups and blood drives can only say so much when you’re simultaneously threatening your fellow activists with rape and death.

It’s time for a new wave of atheism, just like there were different waves of feminism. I’d argue that it’s already happened before. The “first wave” of atheism were the traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics. Then came the second wave of “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens, whose trademark was their unabashed public criticism of religion. Now it’s time for a third wave – a wave that isn’t just a bunch of “middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men” patting themselves on the back for debunking homeopathy for the 983258th time or thinking up yet another great zinger to use against Young Earth Creationists. It’s time for a wave that cares about how religion affects everyone and that applies skepticism to everything, including social issues like sexism, racism, politics, poverty, and crime. We can criticize religion and irrational thinking just as unabashedly and just as publicly, but we need to stop exempting ourselves from that criticism.

Yes, I agree.  We, in the blogosphere have been talking a lot about “new” (or “gnu”) atheism, but in the same way that a Jr. leads to a III, we can have the future of the skeptic/atheist movement be a third wave where we include all of the various effects that religion, theological thinking, and non-skepticism generally affects our lives.

In short, we need to transcend mere atheism and move onto application of skepticism to all aspects of culture, beliefs, and actions.  We need a new skepticism.

I have been trying to do just that for years at this blog.  I saw the kinds of arguments that people had about god, religion, and things like science, and saw parallels between how we think about monogamy and polyamory.  I saw unskeptical thinking leading people towards conservative views about sex and relationships, and I began to draw those lines using what I had seen in the skeptical community since I ran into it a decade ago.

In the years that I have run this blog (and after subsequently adding some new writers), I have broadened my focus to include questions of orientation, gender, and have even wrote about my own neuro-atypicality.  Yes, I still focus on atheism and polyamory most of the time, but that is because these are the subjects I know best.  I look to people like Ginny (my lovely wife) to write about gender, trans, sexology issues (when she’s not burdened by grad school work, that is).  And Wes and Gina do their things, whether controversy or convulsions of laughter.

In doing this, I have come to a fairly progressive perspective, which I suppose is no surprise to anyone who knows me.  I support LGBT rights, including the right to marry, raise children, etc.  I support people who are simply trying to live their lives with political and legal freedom afforded to them not according to theological concerns, but by rational and empirical arguments based on fairness and compassion.

But most importantly, I support the freedom of speech and thought, without which the freedom to act would be parochial and hindered.  As Keenan Malik recently said,

Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be complete freedom to express them, short of inciting violence or other forms of physical harm to others. Whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to assemble to promote them. And whatever one’s beliefs, secular or religious, there should be freedom to act upon those beliefs, so long as in so doing one neither physically harms another individual without their consent nor transgresses that individual’s rights in the public sphere. These should be the fundamental principles by which we judge the permissibility of any belief or act, whether religious or secular.

(H/T Greg Mayer over at WEIT)

I support maintaining a skeptical community that fights for the truth, is aware of concepts like privilege and how it influences or worldviews, and which perpetually self-improves by allowing for criticism and dissent, when dissent is warranted.

To conclude, I agree with Jen that we need a third wave of atheism.  And whether we think of it as an atheist movement, a skeptical movement, or a social justice movement led by skeptics and atheists, the important thing is that we must keep challenging ourselves to understand more, listen better, and remember that religion and non-skeptical thinking has effects which may not be immediately obvious to us, with our perspective.  Religion effects different groups in different ways, and so we need to be inclusive in order to progress towards the goal.

The goal of making ourselves, as activists, obsolete.

Individualism, association, and atheism

A recent post on Camels with Hammers about intellectual temptations atheists must avoid voices a lot of my thoughts better than I could. Fincke generally allies himself with the New Atheists, but often speaks out against the cruder and less thoughtful instances of New Atheist thought, in a way I really appreciate (since I’m basically in his position as well.) #6 in his list is one I’ve thought about a lot, and want to expand on somewhat here.

Atheists, on the whole, are a pretty individualistic bunch. Relative to the rest of humanity, they feel okay going against the grain, risking social pariah-hood, and rejecting customs that exist for the sole purpose of making humans feel more connected to each other. This makes sense: to adopt a position so counter to cultural norms, a person needs to have a pretty thick skin toward social disapproval. Individualism is a self-selecting quality for atheists in this day and age.

What I see happening a lot is that atheists conflate this individualistic personality trait with superior rationality. They care less about social approval and social bonding, they see that other atheists feel similarly and that people subscribing to all kinds of woo and religion care more about it, and they assume that caring about social approval and social bonding are in themselves less rational. So any time an attempt is made to incorporate community, ritual, and institutions which prioritize social bonding into an atheist frame, you get some voices pooh-poohing the attempt as worthless and meaningless and anti-rational. When someone confesses that they have difficulty leaving religion because of the inevitable social isolation, this is seen as a sign of weakness.

This point of view “I’m individualistic and rational, if you were rational you’d be individualistic too” ignores a basic fact of humanity: we are social animals. We were social animals before we were intellectual, inquisitive animals, and the rise of curiosity and higher-order intelligence did not erase that part of our nature. The social impulse is as valid a part of our humanity as the truth-seeking impulse, and to try to weed out either is to try to change the fundamental nature of humanity.

Humanity is greatly indebted to the individualists: they ask the questions no one else will ask, they think of things no one else has thought of, and they create new ways of being when no one else dares to try. But in doing this, they must also remember that they are statistical outliers: that if the rest of humanity is going to follow them, we’re going to transform the vision into something that meets our common need for connection and social order. This will always happen: this is the kind of beings we are.

I hear some individualists say, “Well, of course I understand that it’s hard to risk social rejection… I struggle with it too.” Yes indeed… individualism and the need for association are not mutually exclusive, and nearly all of us have elements of both. But what I would like more individualists to understand is that their need for association, while genuine, may be far less strong than another person’s. What, for you, was hard in the way running a marathon is hard, might for another person be hard in the way that climbing Mt. Everest is hard. We’re all calibrated differently; we all have different threshholds of need for different human necessities.

And yes, depending on social connection can be a bar to rationality. Of course it can. I’m a good example: several months after my initial deconversion, I was desperately searching for a way back into Christianity. Eventually I found a definition of “faith” I could accept, and I went with it, and continued calling myself a Christian for several years. It wasn’t until I began dating an atheist that I could call myself an atheist again, and that’s not a coincidence. I wanted back in because I was lonely. Because all the people who loved me were Christians, and I felt hopelessly cut off from them — even though they still loved me, I needed a sense of belonging. I couldn’t hack it as an atheist on my own. My need for social connection guided my intellectual investigations, and biased me towards one conclusion.

So, a need to “belong” can influence and distort rational thinking. You know what else can influence and distort rational thinking? A need to be smarter and more correct than other people… a personality trait that self-selecting atheists are overall in no shortage of. The wise, mature ones acknowledge this tendency, recognize how it can bias them, and find ways to minimize its effect. Similarly, I’ve come to acknowledge my profound need for social connection, recognize how it can bias me, and find ways to minimize its effect. One thing that doesn’t work is deciding to care less. That only leads to self-deception.

There are a lot of people who are socially dependent to a degree that cripples them, that cuts them off from acknowledging truths that would improve their lives. A LOT of people. But the way to self-improvement, for many, is not to become diehard individualists, but to become more thoughtful and choosy in the ways they form and maintain their social bonds. The diehard individualists would do well to remember this.

Alain de Botton and the costly middle-man of religion

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.

-Steven Weinberg

A little background and setting

Alain de Botton in Philadelphia 3/11/2012

Yesterday, which was Sunday March 11th, 2012, for those of you reading this from the future, I went to see a free talk given by Alain de Botton about his book, Religion for Atheists.  There has been considerable conversation about de Botton over the lest couple of months, and after reading some of his work as well as much of the criticism (both for and against), I had already felt pretty strongly that I was not in favor of his view.  But I have not read the book and wanted to hear what he had to say for myself, with the possibility of asking a question (I was not able to).

In any case, this will not be an evaluation of the book itself.  Rather, this will be an evaluation of the talk he gave yesterday about the book.

I arrived a bit early, and easily found a seat in the second row, but to the side.  The auditorium filled up quite quickly, however, and there was almost no available seating by the time he was introduced.  The audience was primarily older, although quite a few people in their 20’s and 30’s were there as well.

Many were toting a copy of the book.

I saw few of the people I know from the local atheist community.  The significance of this I will have to leave until after I evaluate what de Botton said in his talk, as I think it will be a fact which illuminates an important problem for the atheist community as a whole.

For now, let’s skip the description of the scene and get to some of what de Botton said, and what I thought of it.

There is no god.  Where do we go from here?

As de Botton has done a lot of recently, he immediately mentioned and criticized the harshness and tone of the atheist critiques over the last decade.  While not always naming names, or even using the term “new atheist,” it was clear what types of people he has in mind; the new atheists such as Dawkins, Dennet, and the late and great Hitchens.

De Botton sees the new atheist criticisms as having a “disgust” for religion, and as an attempt to create and maintain a “complete separation” between religion and the secular ideal of reason.  he sees them going too far, and wishes to rebut their criticisms with a milder, reverent, approach.

He states, flatly and without reservation, that for him “God does not exist” while inviting anyone offended by this to exit at their leisure.  He admits there is much bad about religion, but wants to focus on the good in this discussion and leave the bad aside.  The issue for him is, in admitting unashamed atheism, “where do we go from here?”

And this has been a question which many of us in the atheist community have been pondering for some time.  I honestly don’t know to what extent de Botton has paid attention to the atheist community besides his surface familiarity with its harshness and overly aggressive criticism, but from his talk it is quite clear that he is quite bereft of sufficient perspective on the many points of conversation, especially those conversations among us more “aggressive” atheists.  Like most accommodationists, he is quite ignorant of our point of view, and has bought into a caricature  and a straw man, which he attacks like Don Quixote with his windmills.

The irony of distancing oneself from, while signing in harmony with, Richard Dawkins.

His ignorance came through quite early in his talk.  He says that when it comes to the question of whether a god actually exists, or truth of religion generally (an idea he finds “boring“) he admits that “the doctrines are impossible to believe, but…” and then goes on to list many things he likes about religion.  He mentions holidays, hymns, art, architecture, and many other admittedly nice things that coincide with religious institutions.  But I have heard Richard Dawkins, the man who is, in many people’s eyes, the most aggressive and militant of us, say pretty much the same thing.

Richard Dawkins really likes Christmas, for example.  He likes much about religious music, aesthetics, and even goes to church occasionally for the experience.  And Dawkins is not alone in this, although many of us also feel no affinity for those things (I’m one of them) we recognize that these things are often pretty, useful, and worth keeping around on their own merits.  I wonder if de Botton knows any of this.  I doubt it.

Thus, while de Botton is trying to distance himself from those aggressive atheists, he ends up saying something very similar to what many of them say.  When you fight straw men (or windmills), you will often get straw in the eye (or knocked over by windmill blades).  De Botton is, frankly, ignorant of what the objects of his criticism believe and say, and so much of his criticism falls flat.

He does go further in his accommodation to religion, of course, but his blindness to these facts, precisely where he is attempting to emphasize his distance from the aggressive types, is telling.

The “pick and mix” of the litter

Here’s what de Botton wants to do, essentially.  He wants to look at what religion is good at, what it does well, and pick them out for our usage as non-religious, I mean atheist of course, people.  He wants to “pick and mix” attributes, practices, etc from religion to improve the atheist experience, community, etc such that we can emulate what religion has done right in moving forward as atheists, rather than try to get rid of religion whole-cloth.

He recognizes that this is problematic for believers, but cannot understand how this would be a problem for atheists.  Why would an atheist care if another atheist found something useful in religion?  But here’s the thing; I don’t think any atheists should have an issue with this either.  From one point of view, he is exactly right; if we look at religion and find something good, there is no reason not to adopt that one thing (or several things), perpetuate it, or re-brand it for our use.  That is, there is no reason to not do something merely because it is something that some religion does.  That would be absurd.

Here’s what he is missing; by saying that we should be looking to religion for what it is doing right, he commits three critical errors.

  1. He is mis-attributing natural human behaviors to religion.
  2. He is maintaining the association between those natural human behaviors with supernatural superstition.
  3. He is, probably unknowingly, pulling some of the terrible ideas and behaviors along with the good.

As for the first error, mis-attributing natural human behaviors to religion, the error goes something like this.

As religions developed over the millennia, they inevitably co-develop with behavior patterns and subsequently become usurped by the religious traditions.  The intricacies of religious anthropology (what I have my undergrad degree in, BTW) are too complicated to get into here, but suffice it to say that things such as morality, ritualistic behavior, and other in-group behavior pre-existed religious doctrine and institutions, and they were subsequently adopted and somewhat changed by those traditions.

And because religions usurped human behaviors for their use, they subsequently became associated with religion almost exclusively.  De Botton seems ignorant of this fact, and it leads him to urge us to look towards religion for these behaviors which he likes when he should be encouraging us to leave the superstition behind and allow these natural behaviors to form on their own, as they most-likely will.  It is almost like he is unaware that without religious beliefs (the doctrines he finds so unbelievable), the behaviors around those beliefs would all disappear.

Our natural behavior patterns, rituals, etc certainly would change sans religion, and some would likely disappear altogether (and good riddance!), but we don’t behave ritually because of religious tradition, we have maintained those behaviors because religion needs them to survive.  The behaviors which religion uses are deeper than the religions themselves, and will survive religion’s demise.

This leads right into the second error, that of maintaining the association between those natural human behaviors with supernatural superstition.

By not avoiding the middle man and getting his preferred human behaviors through religion rather than just doing them because he likes them and finds them useful, he perpetuates the association between those behaviors/structures and the supernaturalism that even he is leaving behind.  He is strengthening their co-dependence in people’s lives, rather than divorcing them, as they should be divorced.

By doing so, he is also appealing to a lower aspect of our nature, what Nietzsche called the ‘metaphysical need,’ which keeps us pinned down to irrational thinking.  He wants us to maintain a reverence for the history of our behavior, even through the parts where it believed in and stuck to fantasy.  By doing so, he is helping to curtail human progress away from superstitious, medieval, and irrational thinking which many of us, skeptics specifically, are working to address as a cultural problem.

Again, this leads into the third error; pulling some of the terrible ideas and behaviors along with the good.  Because he fails to see how these sets of behaviors are accessible to us without getting them from religion, he seems blinded to the fact that he has fished up some garbage with the fish.

Probably most egregious in this regard is his unabashed like for the concept of Original Sin.  He “likes” the idea of Original Sin, even as an atheist.  A cry from the audience (it was not me, but it was a person I know well who sat next to me) cried out “but it’s insulting” to which de Botton said nothing substantial in response.  De Botton thinks that the idea that we are fundamentally broken is preferable to thinking that we are ok.  It gives us humility, something to work on, etc.

And they say that we gnu atheists are unsophisticated theologically.  Here is an atheist philosopher defending one of the most decadent and morally bankrupt concepts—a McDonald’s of philosophical ideas—in the history of ideas, and he does so with a smile!  It is astounding how someone can be so unaware of the danger of this idea for people.  It’s not an idea that says “hey, you have some self-improvement to do” or “don’t be so arrogant!”

No.  It is an idea that we are, from the very bottom up and due to a mistake made a long time ago by a (mythological) woman who could not have known better or done otherwise,  fundamentally broken spiritually, intellectually, and physically and thus deserving of eternal punishment by a god who loves us unless we kiss his ass.  Even divorcing it of the theological content, it is perhaps the most despicable of ideas I have ever heard, and I have been listening to the GOP presidential debates!

Not to be repetitive…

Let’s be clear here; Alain de Botton wants us to emulate educational practices of religious traditions.  He wants us to repeat, emotionally charge lectures into sermon-like presentations, and use propaganda.

First, he straw-man’s secular education by describing is as “pouring in of information” and expecting it to stick in their minds.  He then sets up religion’s alternative technique of ‘education’ in the form of repetition, through ritual and structure. He wants to create a way to educate which focuses on having information given a temporal and logistical structure.  This is precisely what good teachers are already doing as part of their teaching curriculum and techniques.  Again, he wants to learn from religion where all he needs to do is look at what people are already doing without religion (necessarily).  And where we may learn from religion in this regard, we risk taking on manipulation, indoctrination, etc.  we are better not learning this from religion per se.

He also wants more sermons and less lectures, because they are exciting and emotionally engaging. he talks about the energy of a sermon, using a Pentecostal service as an example, and (fallaciously) compares them to a lecture, which is obviously boring.  Fallaciously beause he is giving a lecture, and not a sermon.

It makes me wonder if he has seen Sam Singleton do his atheist revival.  Probably not.

And he also wants us to stop thinking of propaganda as a bad thing, just because Goebbels and Stalin made it look bad….which, of course, is precisely what we are doing; disseminating information in the name of a cause.  We just are not doing it primarily with emotional manipulation, slogans (they’re easier to chant repeat), etc.  We are disseminating information in the name of a cause.

Our aggressiveness, which de Botton goes out of his way to deride, is precisely what propaganda, in its real sense, is.  Yes, the term has been associated with the underhanded, dishonest, manipulative techniques of the NAZIs and Stalin’s USSR, but we, again, already are using this tactic without getting it from religion, but from secular sources…precisely where religion and totalitarians get it from.  And then we hear from critics, ironically like de Botton, for doing so.


The important things

De Botton thinks that we are not spending sufficient time structuring our lives to deal with the important things.  I agree that far.  I have been advocating for being introspective, philosophical, and taking time to enjoy the finer and more subtle aspects of life for a long time, but I see what he is proposing as a atavism, not a step forward.

One of my complaints over the years has been that when most people get hit with some tragedy, have something to be thankful for, or just when they are feeling introspective or ‘spiritual’, most people don’t have experience with much of our history of culture such that they can express this type of experience of beauty, pain, or subtlety without appealing to the religion they grew up around.

Even if they are not very religious, the only outlet for such moments, for most people, is religion rather than the wealth of non-religious art, philosophy, and science which gives us insights into these things.

De Botton’s advice would have us perpetuate the poverty of our culture by continuing to associate the most base, unsophisticated, and untrue expressions of human creativity.  Religion is not the highest expression of what humans have to give, although for centuries intellectuals had nowhere else to go because of it’s oppressive nature.  Religion, specifically Christianity, is a true decadence of what is best within and between us as beings, and de Botton is only wedding atheists to an impoverished view, rather than help free them.

It’s truly unfortunate, his perochial view.

And what’s worse, is that the audience responded to him with resounding applause.  To loosely quote Star Wars…so this is how reason dies. to thunderous applause.

Some side thoughts about the future of the atheist movement

What I see coming now is a further split in the atheist community.  Accommodationists now have another dim bulb to follow through their darkness.  Those who stood and applauded Alain de Botton yesterday are the future of the critics of the new atheists and our goal to disseminate reason sans religion, faith, and theology.

The only upside is that most of them are old.

The major downside is that de Botton and his ilk will be around for a while to taint the progress of reason, skepticism, and secularism.  Their view is mediocre, trite, and atavistic.

All that is rare for the rare, I suppose.

Alain de Botton is not rare.  He is all too common.

The truth of my truthiness

Way back in the stone ages, also known as 2009, I posted some thoughts about religion on this blog (I know, shocking!).  Riding the memetic wave of “truthiness” which was all the rage back then (ah, the good ol’ days…), I wrote a piece called Truthiness of Religion to rave reviews, mass popularity, and numerous awards…which I turned down and subsequently requested never to be publicized that I was offered such prestigious recognition…because I’m humble….   Also, that mass popularity has seemed to have been forgotten, almost as if it never actually happened.  Strange….

Let’s just let that subject drop, m’kay?

I had not forgotten about the piece, but I didn’t expect it to receive any attention either.  It was just one of hundreds of posts that sits in the archives of posts here, many of which are occasionally discovered by some internet surfer (I might be going to far into the stone age with that usage…).  But in the last few days, this particular post inspired not one, not two, but three responses!

OK, that’s an exaggeration.  In reality it was a three-part (and they are all short) response from one blogger; a Presbyterian pastor in New York by the name of Herb Swanson.  So, here are the three parts:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Now, I don’t want to respond in full yet.  The reason is that I have emailed Pastor Swanson and he has said he will get back to me.  I will quote my email to him in its entirety below, as I think all the salient points are hit upon there:

I discovered your post in response to mt comments about truthiness and religion.  I was interested in commenting because I think you got two essential facts wrong about my views, but you don’t seem to allow comments on your blog (which is unfortunate, because it does not allow for dialogue or genuine openness.  Much like a sermon; no questions or comments from the audience.)

You said, on part I:

The reason they are so angry at each other is because they are fighting over common territory, which they both agree is “the truth.”  They both think about truth in absolute terms.  The new atheists believe that there is only one truth, which is the truth of science.  For them science is an absolutely dependable method for discovering the truth.  The literalists posit their absolute truth in the “facts” of their faith.  There is no room for dialogue with either group.  We best leave them to their war.

This is not true.  I am not an absolutist in any way.  I recognize the slipperiness of truth (I’m a philosopher).  I believe that science, far from being absolute, is probabilistic and gives us tentative conclusions.  These tentative conclusions, called theories, become less tentative the longer they survive scrutiny.   Occasionally, with great effort and verification, our theories become better an better.  A classic example is the fact of gravity and its explanation.  Einstein’s improvement of our understanding, the theory of relativity, is better than Newton’s explanation.  Newtons observations are still pragmatically true for every-day uses, but it’s not “True.”  Quite possibly, Einstein’s general relativity will be improved upon, and so until then it is our best explanation and works for levels of description bordering on our current understanding.  One we have a better understanding of string theory and such, some new genius might add more fine detail to the theories explaining gravity and the other fundamental forces.  So General relativity is only “true” in the sense that it is the current best explanation which has been repeatedly verified.  No other explanation is better than it.  That’s what truth is, for me.  This is not an absolutist’s position at all.

Therefore, I do not claim any absolute truth but I do say that the claims of supernaturalism do not pass skeptical analysis.  The burden of proof is on the claimant (e.g. you), and I am not convinced so far, despite earnest attempts to understand. 

Also, you claim that we are not worth talking to.  The funny thing is that we are not generally interested in dialogue with the literalists because they are so different from us.  The canard that we are like them, just on the other side of the issue, is one we are getting tired of.  Not only are we not absolutists (which they tend to be), we share almost nothing with them other than the superficial similarity of the desire for truth; I say superficial because their methodology is terrible for attaining any.  Our methodologies for truth (our epistemology) are drastically different, hence our different conclusions.  They talk of truth a lot, but they don’t have any justification to back up that use.  You cannot say the same thing about science. And if you think you can, then you are falling prey to the postmodernist relativism of modern intellectual thought.  And no, relativism and absolutism are not the two dichotomies from which one can draw a false seed of my own demise.  In other words, if one is not an absolutist, they are not, therefore, a relativist.  That is sophomoric at best (just in case you had that thought….)

In part II, you say:

McGonigal then distinguishes between two states of mind, the first this creative one and the second a critical or analytical state of mind.  Only the second state leads to truth. 

This is also not true, at least not completely.  I recognize that good art has much to teach us, and we learn much through it.  Creativity is a source for truth, but it cannot, on its own, determine that something is true.  I think that distinction is essential here.  I only think that we need to verify the things we learn via skepticism when they make claims about the nature of reality.  Quite often, things learned from creative impulses are true without much need for verification, and other times even when this seems to be the case, it is due to some cognitive error due to our poorly evolved truth-detection machines in our head. 

But more importantly, I do not think we can make a clean distinction between creativity and reason.  The notion that we can is based upon an ancient idea derived from Plato, and recent neuroscience shows that the two attributes are linked in more ways than we are consciously aware.  This is true not only with moral thinking, but with so called “pure reason” (a fiction that even the great Kant was susceptible).  There is no pure reasoning, nor is there any pure feeling; that is too simplistic a categorization of what goes on in our heads.

Later in the same post, you say:

McGonigal believes that physical reality is reality.  Anything pertaining to the emotions or the a-rational is not real, not true.  Only physical realities can be true.

I want to clarify here.  I believe that emotions, in fact all experience, is a part of physical reality.  I just believe that sometimes what our body/brain come sup with in terms of experience is not always a mirror of any real thing outside of it, however.  That is, the experiences are real, but the simulations that are represented are not always simulations of real things.  We can simulate reality, but we also make grave errors in perceptions, whether via optical illusions or otherwise. Our brains are very easily fooled, as people such as James Randi and other magicians have taught us.

I could comment on more, but most of part III think you might guess what I would say.  Well, given how poorly you understand the “new atheist” position, based upon your comments in your posts, I will not make that assumption.  I will, nonetheless, leave it alone.  If you wish to discuss that we can do so.

The fact that you don’t leave these posts open to public comment, indicates that you are the one who does not want dialogue.  You think there is no talking to us, but you don’t even try.  You make assumptions about what we think rather than ask, and when you do make those assumptions, you do not allow a public forum for us to respond.

I’ve never seen an atheist blog that does not allow comments.  I’ve seen many Christian blogs that do as you do.  That speaks volumes about our relative interest in dialogue.

I will hope to get some actual dialogue going with him, because he is just another theist who seems to have a lot of misinformation about what new atheism is all about.  I’m thinking that I will also have to alert him to my new project, which is intended for people like him and his congregation.  I will post any further developments about our correspondence in coming days.

(BTW, I’m still in correspondence with Dr. Robert Benne.  Right now, not much to report on, just having a discussion about epistemology at the moment.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, here is some linkage: one, two, and three)

Gnuism: Is it tru? You’re a gnu!

(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.


Graduation Moment for Gnu Atheists

For many, the realization that they don’t believe in god–that they have *gasp* become an atheist (!)–is a significant moment.  In many cases, it is accompanied with some sadness, possibly anger, and of course the realization that now one can finally eat those babies guilt-free.

And following the necessary subsequent orgy, such a person will return to life and re-join society as an outsider, because they now view their former co-believers as silly, deluded, mindless fools who are only worthy of mockery and derision.

Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself.

That comes much later.  That comes, when they finally graduate to the upper echelon of atheist, the elite, the creme de la heathen.  See, those silly atheists who are not willing to mock, openly, the beliefs and lifestyles of others with whom they share not opinions metaphysical are not real atheists.


Surely, the realization that one does not believe in god says little to nothing concerning not only what they do believe, but what types of behaviors they will exhibit upon accepting this fact.  Many will remain quiet, and they may not even reveal this piece of personal revelation to anyone except close friends, and then only when the question is relevant.

In short, what one does with this lack of belief varies.

Look out! It's going to charge!

I, for example, will tend to be more confrontational, direct, and open about my lack of belief in gods.  I am, as Jerry Coyne has ‘coyned’ it, a Gnu Atheist.

(Here’s a little clarification, for those who are interested in the meaning of and history of such terms.)

But how do you know you are, in fact, a gnu atheist.  Well, it is not enough to merely not believe, but you have to be viewed, specifically by other atheists, as being aggressive, obnoxious, or rude.  And for many atheists, there will be a moment where you are attacked, spoken rudely to, or criticized by other atheists, for attacking, being rude to, or criticizing religious belief.

This happened to my lovely lady-friend just yesterday for the first time.  Yesterday, in other words, may be her graduation day for becoming one of the elite, Gnu atheists.  So I dedicate this post to her great achievment, a perch from where she can look down upon both religious and accomodationist alike.

Having been attacked for being rude (rudely), and for having spoke her mind to someone who didn’t think it was appropriate to do so, and so therefore spoke his mind, I verily grant thee, Ginny, with the title of Gnu Atheist, with all the powers and responsibilities that come with such an august title.

She does not always wear a bag on her head...