Toxic Communities

Trigger warning for emotional abuse

This post over at Amusing Nonsense left a bitter taste in my mouth, but not because of anything he said. Word by word, everything he said seemed pretty accurate and made sense. It’s just that it was a defense of New Atheists, and my sister’s two abusive exes were the first New Atheists I ever met, and that association, for me, will probably always be there.

The comments over there are consistently excellent discussions. On that particular post, a recurring topic was whether or not atheists are in danger of falling into the same traps of groupthink and extremist, mindless passion as most other groups. I don’t think it’s a danger; it’s an inevitability, because I have never met a political subculture where some factions didn’t fall into this trap. Feminists, liberals, queer communities, social justice advocates… every one of these groups that I (proudly) belong to has also contained rather sizable groups of people who I just have to avoid because of horrible petty bullshit.

In all of these cases, I have heard defenses that a person’s feminism/atheism/Christianity/-ism of choice had nothing to do with their overall shittiness, and thus shouldn’t reflect on the group they are a part of. For the most part, I agree with this. Any sufficiently large group will contain some awful people, and the group as a whole shouldn’t necessarily be blamed for this. However, I want to go a little deeper.

When you have someone clever, mean spirited and engaged in some sort of movement, they can often find ways to twist an ideology to serve their own purpose. For example, a New Atheist behavior I frequently saw was using religion as an excuse to separate a newly-deconverted atheist from their former friends. Religious people often come from circles where nearly everyone they know is religious. Often some former friends will cut a friend who lost their faith off, but usually some people will be interested in maintaining a respectful friendship. New Atheists can shame a lowercase new atheist for still having religious ties, or belittle their remaining religious friends to their faces and take said friend’s offense as proof that they are intolerant of atheists and bad, bad people. This is a classic predator tactic; cut the victim from their former support network, so they have no one to help them and may even be completely dependent on the abuser. In certain politically idealistic communities, it is common to have a reflexively derisive attitude towards those unenlightened outsiders, so this kind of behavior may not even be noticed as unusual, while some shy newcomer is being harassed or even beaten up behind closed doors.

Again, this is not a problem of ALL NEW ATHEISTS ARE EVIL!!! It’s an example of how even a good idea can be twisted. (Good ideas like “atheists should be as free to be open about their lack of belief as Christians are about their having-of-belief, and also religion should either get out of the public sector or be willing to share the space with everybody. And that’s actually everybody, not ‘epic Nativity scene plus a menorah in a corner somewhere’ everybody.”) And the trouble is that while communities are great at recognizing abusive tactics when they are shrouded in an ideology that isn’t theirs, they are terrible at recognizing the exact same tactics when the language used is their own.

So what’s the solution to this? I don’t think there’s a perfect one that will eliminate this happening ever. That would be like expecting weeds to not show up in your garden. You can spread down some mulch to minimize it, but sooner or later something will pop up. The only solution is to be aware that it happens, even in your garden. If you’re somebody who has the power to weed, then make sure you check for weeds.

And for those who don’t have that power, let me tell you what I wish somebody had told me and my sister. If you like the ideals that get passed around in a group, but often find yourself feeling belittled, bullied and ignored, or if you’re not but you feel like you constantly have to live up to high standards of behavior in order to not be treated that way, that means you’re in one of those weedy subgroups. Leave. It’s okay. If these ideas are as awesome as you think they are, somewhere out there is a group where people live those ideals without being total assholes.

Advertisements

My Original Sin

As a young Christian, I had a problem. I was too good.

I know, what an arrogant thing to say. I’m rolling my eyes at this moment, so let me take a moment to clarify. There were times I did bad things. I would promise to do something and then forget. I would leave my chores undone even though I knew mess really bothered my father. I, um… sometimes even though I knew God wanted me to give up something meaningful for Lent, the only thing I could think of that I loved enough to give up was Doctor Who, and I really didn’t want to give up Doctor Who. It made me happy when everything else felt empty.

See, that’s my problem. I’m trying to think of things that were bad, and that I would have considered bad at the time. There are things that I thought were right, but now regret. All the times I was arrogant and judgmental, all the times I proselytized at people who just wanted to get on with the theater rehearsal, all the misinformation I spread, all the gay-bashing I participated in. I also had shitty social skills and said hurtful things sometimes. Also, if you’re looking at, say, my childhood before I was seven or eight, there were plenty of times I lied or broke things or even stole. But I really wanted to be good. I was very motivated to live according to the rules that were taught to me. Recently I discovered a British comedy called “Would I Lie To You?” where contestants share weird anecdotes and their opponents have to figure out which are true and which are lies. While I was watching, I realized that from ages 7 to 17, I have no memory of lying. My sister can’t remember me lying either. I remember telling truths when I was terrified, when I felt certain that honesty would get me punished. I even remember telling the truth when I thought honesty would get me punished unfairly. The idea of lying was so terrifying to me I feel like I would have remembered it if I had. It’s hard to say for certain, but I’m fairly sure I went for about a decade without telling a lie.

My point is, once I was neurologically developed enough to have a reasonable amount of self-control, I followed the rules really, really well.

This was a problem because I was supposed to be a sinner. I was supposed to be overwhelmed with gratitude at the great love my redeemer had shown me in dying for my sin. I was supposed to understand that all had sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and that if I thought I was perfect, that just meant I was full of pride. All week, I would struggle to do good, and then on Sunday, at confession time, I would wrack my brains to think of something to confess, and the fact that I couldn’t think of anything filled me with guilt and terror.

This post reminded me of that. As a Christian I thought I was alone. I thought everyone else was easily caught up in this beautiful cycle of sin/forgive, and I was left out, because either I was too good to be forgiven, or too sinful to see my own sin. I wanted to confess my pride, and sometimes I did. It never felt adequate, because it was not a genuine confession that came from understanding that I had sinned, just a desperate prayer to cover my ass. Now, coming out of religion, I see my experience reflected so often. So many decent people, told again and again that they were bad.

On absolute truth and those disrespectful accomodationists

I could not have looked for a better way to sum up the difference between Gnu Atheists and fundamentalist theists on the one hand, and liberal ideologues of all stripes on the other, than this quote from Alain de Botton:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

De Botton is an atheist, but he thinks there’s a lot of useful and interesting stuff in religion, which he goes on to discuss. All well and good, and I agree with him that there is much about religion that’s “useful, interesting, and consoling,” — in fact I myself am still looking for ways to fill some of the holes that leaving religion has left in my life (no, none of them are god-shaped.) But through all the changes I’ve been through, there’s never been a point where I wouldn’t have been deeply offended by the claim that the question of religion’s truth or falsehood is “boring.”

De Botton’s position is very familiar to me. A lot of people, both religious and non-religious, have moved into a space of being fairly indifferent to the actual nature of the universe, and instead seeing religion as purely a social institution or personal mythology. Whatever works for you… all paths lead to God… I believe this, but you don’t have to… they’re all ways of saying the same thing: it doesn’t matter what’s actually true. This is compatible with a lot of religions, as well as with atheism or agnosticism, but it is absolutely incompatible with the monotheistic Abrahamic religions (and perhaps others that I’m less well familiar with.)

In a lot of ways the “I don’t care what’s true” stance is a big improvement, particularly in its social effects. But a key tenet of people who embrace it is not offending anybody, and what they fail to see is that that statement is profoundly offensive to those who do think truth matters. It’s worse than dissent, worse than disagreement: it’s invalidation. It’s saying “I reject the entire foundational concept of your belief. I think the things that are most important to you about your religion are irrelevant.”

A few days ago the story about Mormons baptizing deceased Jews got around, and my take on it was somewhat unusual. If I truly believed that a posthumous baptism was going to gain somebody an (optional) admittance to the eternal kingdom of God, I’d probably do it too! Being the compassionate literalist I am, I’d probably devote a major portion of my life to doing it — if I truly believed. That’s the gift of eternal life, people! Am I going to refrain from giving it just because somebody gets offended? To the extent that these baptisms are being done out of a sincere belief in their efficacy, and not for one of a host of other reasons religious rituals are practiced (I know nothing about the church politics around posthumous baptisms), I can’t fault them for doing these; from their viewpoint, it’s the absolute right and loving thing to do.

I pointed this out on facebook, and somebody responded, “But the people being baptized didn’t believe in the Mormon afterlife!” Which is colossally missing the point. The Mormons doing the baptisms do believe it (I assume, giving them all possible credit.) And under that belief, it doesn’t matter whether what afterlife the other person believed in: your belief is true, and you are helping them to eternal life despite their erroneous beliefs.

The happy, harmonious, multicultural view of religion whereby it’s all just social institution and personal mythology and nobody’s beliefs have a real impact on their life, death, and afterlife is completely ineffective in dealing with people who sincerely belief in the objective truth of their religion. I know; I used to be one. People who stood in that viewpoint appeared hopelessly naive and logically impaired to me. The statement “My religion is objectively true and has real-life consequences” cannot be effectively countered with “To each their own, whatever works for you.” The literalist believer will, at best, dismiss the religious pluralist with an annoyed shrug, and go on literally believing. As long as there are people who say “My religion is objectively true,” there will and should be non-believers who say, “No, it is objectively false,” and I think — have always thought — that those non-believers are giving the believers a hell of a lot more respect than any accomodationist.

Orientation vs. identity: some thoughts on belief

When sexologists talk about sexual orientation, we often use some variation of the Orientation-Behavior-Identity model (OBI). The idea is that sexual orientation can be understood and discussed in three distinct aspects: a person’s identity, what they define themselves as, both publicly and privately; a person’s behavior, their actual sexual acts with different genders; and a person’s orientation, the natural bent of their attractions (which may or may not be innate or changeable, but which is much less subject to power of choice than the other two aspects.) It’s a helpful distinction, and clears up a lot of miscommunications about what it means to be “really” gay, het, or bi.

I wonder if a similar model would be useful for discussing religious belief. Is belief or unbelief in a deity (pick your favorite!) a choice? I would argue that at any given moment, a person does or does not believe in a particular deity. Analogous to the “orientation” piece of the OBI model, this is just a program that is running in your brain: you cannot choose to switch it on or off, although various paths you take in life may contribute to its running or shut it down. But it’s not subject to conscious, volitional will.

Then there is the “identity” component: whether you think of yourself as a theist, and usually a member of a particular religion, or not. This may or may not have anything to do with your belief orientation. There was a time in my life where I identified as a Christian although I no longer had the belief in God that I had in my earlier years. Similarly, anyone who identifies as an “atheist” because they are mad at God is not an atheist in the orientational sense: people who genuinely lack belief in a deity have nothing to be angry at.

Finally, there is the behavior component, which is independent of both orientation and identity. Attending church does not make you a Christian believer, nor do you have to call yourself a Christian to attend. And many people identify as members of a religion without engaging in any of the behaviors prescribed by that religion. Whether there are any behaviors that could be categorized as “atheistic” is an interesting question… I can’t think of any off the top of my head, although I can think of many that could be described as humanistic or skeptical.

What do you think? Useful categories for discussions of belief and unbelief?

The scandal of atheism

This excellent post by Greta Christina on why atheism is inherently confrontational did a good job of summing up why I felt acutely uncomfortable at times in my recent class environment. It was a class on sexuality, not religion, but the teacher was a Christian minister, and Christianity or theism in general did come up a number of times. While I enjoyed both the class and the professor very much, I had several moments of squirming in my seat thinking, “I wish I could say something to this… but I have no idea how to say what I am thinking without making this an intense, defensive discussion of theism and atheism.” So I kept my mouth shut.

I am not a particularly confrontational brand of atheist (although I am marrying one, in case you hadn’t noticed.) I pretty much never start discussions of theism, although I am happy to engage in them if somebody else does. With most people I encounter, I am more interested in maintaining harmonious connections than I am in expressing my thoughts and beliefs fully. Maybe that’s a weakness — I don’t know.

What I do know is that expressing my thoughts and beliefs openly, with many people, stands in direct opposition to maintaining harmonious connections. When I was a Christian theist, and engaged weekly in debates with two friends (one was an atheist, one a weirdly self-defined agnostic), I was explaining to them why I couldn’t date an atheist. I said, “Because he thinks I’m delusional.” I didn’t say this in a defensive or injured way; it was a simple statement of fact. I thought that I had a personal relationship with a being that he did not believe existed. That’s pretty delusional. To claim otherwise, for either of us, would be to deny the reality of my faith; to lessen the import of what I believed. Because my belief was in a real, absolutely existing God, not a God that could be “true for me” but not for someone else. For someone to say, “If that’s true for you, that’s great” was to mentally diminish my concept of God and then hand it back to me as a peace offering. To which I could only say, “No thanks.” I can coexist peacefully with people who I think are glaringly wrong on any number of important topics, but to diminish the importance of this topic was then, and is now, insulting to me. Anyone who didn’t believe that my God existed was in fundamental disagreement with me, and had to account in some way for the cognitive errors that gave rise to my belief. Anyone who pretended otherwise, I felt, did not fully respect my beliefs.

Now on the other side of the table, I can at least say that I give believers the same respect I wanted from atheists when I was a believer. I won’t mentally diminish their beliefs just to spare myself the discomfort of thinking, “but I think that’s wrong.” Depending on someone’s perception of God, of course, I may have very different assessments of the cognitive errors that lead them to believe something I think is untrue, but the socially uncomfortable fact is that I do think they’re wrong. I don’t go around telling them so: I realize most people don’t share my love of debate, and many of them, unlike Christian Ginny, might prefer a “If that’s true for you, great!” than an earnest confrontation. (If you recognize that I am a person who’s passionate about truth and loves philosophical argument, but has an almost pathological aversion to making people uncomfortable or unhappy, you will perhaps understand why most of my intimate relationships are with people who enjoy confrontation and debate.)

So what am I supposed to do? I hold an unpopular belief: a belief that some human beings, excellent and wise and moral and educated in many respects, are wrong about something important. I can’t talk about my perspective on religion without saying “That God/Goddess entity you believe in? The one that provides comfort and meaning and a sense of love and belonging to your life? I don’t think it exists.” That’s what it means to be an atheist, and I don’t know how I can talk for more than fifteen seconds about being an atheist without exposing that.

There are times and places where I feel doing that is worthwhile; specifically when I’m in a forum where intellectual debate is part of the goal, or where I am on the receiving end of a challenge. But in most social gatherings I prefer to hold my tongue, or to say quickly, “Well, I”m an atheist” and change the subject. And in this class, where we already had to cover too much information in too little time, I didn’t feel it was right to derail the conversation with a discussion of theism and atheism. (Also, of course, there’s the fact that the Christian minister was the person giving my grades. I really don’t think he would have been unfair or discriminatory, but people can surprise you in that way.)

So I kept silent, and I still didn’t know whether I did the right thing or the wrong thing.

Humanist

I have been a humanist longer than I have been anything else, philosophy-wise. When I was a Christian, I was drawn to the work of Christian humanists like C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and George MacDonald. I was unable to leave religion until I found a reflection of those core values of mine in secular humanism. The core value of humanism, to me, is simply this: The ultimate good, whatever that may consist of, includes the happiness and fulfillment of all human beings. It is not limited to that, but to construct an ideal “ultimate state of good for the universe” that does not include the happiness and fulfillment of all human beings is nonsensical to me.

So I reject a philosophy which holds that humans are fundamentally unworthy of happiness, freedom, or existence — a philosophy held by “Original Sin” fundamentalists as well as “humans are a blight on the earth” environmentalists. Undoubtedly we have our problems, our often-fatal flaws, but there’s not something about us that makes us less worthy than any other species or entity (plants, animals, gods, demons, aliens, angels, etc.)

Of course there are lots of definitions and ramifications. For example, under the category “happiness and fulfillment” I include not only wellbeing — comfort, security, pleasure — but freedom to grow, to expand our capacities. One of our needs as humans seems to be to become better, stronger, smarter, to be able to do and think things tomorrow that we are not able to do and think today. A comfortable prison is not enough; we need room to grow.

Coming out of that is a principle of absolute intellectual freedom. Any question may be asked, any line of inquiry may be pursued. We must be afraid of understanding too little, never of knowing too much.

Moral freedom is more limited, because our actions have an impact on the lives of others. Questions of what is right and wrong usually involve a careful assessment of an action’s impact, both positive and negative, and the various factors to be taken into account are dizzyingly numerous. But an action which has negligible negative impact, on oneself or others, is always permissible. Nothing is disallowed without an account of who it harms, and how.

I am inclined to believe that humanism is the native value of humanity, at our current stage of development. I think it’s a natural outgrowth of our sense of kin identification. While selfishness is natural to humans, absolute selfishness is actually rather difficult for us (more on that in a moment.) We tend to have a wider circle of being whose wellbeing is also profoundly important to us. Over human history, I imagine this circle has expanded from the immediate family, to the tribe, to the nation, to the entire race. It is still expanding, and I imagine that in the future it will encompass all beings with awareness, and maybe eventually all life. (Things will get fun if and when we encounter other species with our level of consciousness.)

My anti-value, the thing I most abhor philosophically, is the dehumanizing of others. To me this comes from narrowing the circle of tribal identification, saying “these people I care about, those I don’t.” Most militant ideologies have a way of dehumanizing their opponents, demoting them from the circle of “worthwhile, important, people we care about.” It happens in religious and secular movements alike, and it is one of the most evil tendencies I know of.

I am writing all this out because I am trying to place myself in the ideosphere. It is the first and fundamental part of my expression of what I believe, what I value, and what I’d like to do in the world. There will be more.

Atheist church

I’ve been meaning to post this for a while, but Hemant Mehta’s post about the Atlanta Freethought Society’s meeting house — an old church building — finally prompted me.

Shaun and I went to AFS meetings a few times when we were still in Atlanta. As someone who grew up going to church, I was always amused by the similarities and the differences. Gathering before the meeting

 

As in the churches I grew up in, there was a prolonged time before the meeting of gathering, milling around, chatting, finding seats, drinking coffee. Newcomers found a space and looked around awkwardly until someone struck up a conversation with them. A few gregarious souls would take it upon themselves to talk to people they didn’t know. Since it was our last week there, many people wished us well.

Poster on the evolution of the eye.

Churches I grew up going to didn’t generally have a Darwin Day poster display. (Or cupcakes, although I imagine the latter is more common than the former.) This is one on the evolution of the eye — on the other side of the room there were posters about symbiotic life, different habitats, and Tiktaalik.

Speaker Al Steffanelli pounding the pulpit.

As I’m sure was the case in the Baptist services which used to be held in this building, a speaker gave a lengthy talk as the main event. Unlike the Baptists, though, the AFS brings in a different speaker every month. In February we were treated to Al Steffanelli’s story of his journey from being a small-town pastor to heading the United Atheist Front.

In church it’s common to hear murmurs of agreement coming from the pews around you. I heard them here too, but just as often someone would be shaking their head or murmuring “nuh-uh.” And a few times the speaker would make a small factual error and someone would shout out a correction — something I have never seen in any church. Nobody was offended or accused the listeners of disrespect, and the speaker thanked people who corrected his information. That’s just how we freethinkers roll.