On “Concern-Troll Apologists”

Daylight Atheism exposes a disingenuous tactic for addressing atheists:

Concern trolling is defined as masquerading as an ally or a friend in order to offer your enemies “helpful advice” that, if taken, would hurt and undermine them. For example, take this condescending report by Zoe Brennan of the U.K. Daily Mail on the summer camp for freethinking kids, Camp Quest. The headline is, “Is Britain’s first atheist summer camp harmless fun or should we be worried?” (Cue ominous music.)

The question remains: why do atheists feel the need to resort to such high-profile tactics at all? After all, with campaigns, fundraising endeavours, a ‘High Priest’ in the form of Richard Dawkins and now holiday camps for children, aren’t they simply turning into a parody of the organised religions they so sneer at?

If you read between the lines, you can see the fear in this. What “worries” Brennan is that this atheism stuff is catching on. What she’s basically saying is, “Why are you atheists so eager to organize and create a community together with other people who think the same way as you? Only religious people do that! If you’re really atheists and don’t want to be like religious people, you should just go back into the closet and stay silent and invisible!” It’s little cleverer than saying, “Religious people eat food and breathe air! If you don’t want to be like them, you should stop doing those things.”

Another instance of concern trolling is this story, where renowned philosopher (and Templeton Prize winner – what are the odds?) Charles Taylor scoffs at the atheist bus campaign that’s spread to Canada, calling it “pathetic”:

“A bus slogan! It’s not likely to trigger something very fundamental in anybody… This new phenomena is puzzling — atheists that want to spread the ‘gospel,’ and are sometimes very angry.”

The religion concern trolls must, as Daylight Atheism goes on to note, “miss the point” because they cannot consciously confront it and still have any legs to stand on in trying to silence and block atheist attempts to organize. Consciously they may not “get it” but implicitly they are precisely avoiding confronting the real point and will blithely miss it repeatedly and in whatever new ways are necessary to preserve religion’s hegemony.

They know that billions are lured to religion against their reason out of need for ethical community, rituals, meditation, and other goods that they put above their concern for truth. It only makes sense that atheists finally realize the imperative to meet these other psychological needs for people to keep them away from the peddlers of superstition. And these concern trolls are deeply invested in not realizing that if people can be swayed that they do not need religious institutions for moral, social, and “spiritual” goods then they just might be able to chuck the superstitions that they now think are inevitable parts of those other bargains.

They also cannot comprehend the notion that being pro-atheism is distinct from being anti-theism. They feel inherently threatened by organized atheism because what unites us essentially AS atheists, as a group, is our very opposition to their theism. In this way, we strike them entirely as a negative, a threat, and an anti- to them. Any of our efforts to do something constructive and alternative to them sounds to them like just a ramped up opposition to them and what they stand for.

While the unity of atheists is predicated on the common philosophical rejection of theism, we can organize a sense of identity that has productive, constructive possibilities far beyond our reference to opposing theists. But since in their minds this is all about them and we’re just a fly in their ointment, they cannot conceive that we could have goals of doing any community building of our own. To recognize this would be to see the falsehood of their dogma that people need religion for community, ritual, morality, meditation, etc., and take one of their reasons for insisting on irrational beliefs away.

Finally, since they are admittedly arguing for faith against strict rationalism, they lose the philosophical arguments on the merits in a matter of seconds and so their only remaining strategies are ad hominem—first that we are militant and now that we’re misguided for trying to muscle in on religion’s turf when we dare to suggest that we will address people holistically.  If we can stay true to being a force for wedding holistic community with explicit focus on training people in skepticism, rationalism, and anti-dogmatism, then we strike a major blow against their alleged raison d’etre for millions who rationally know better but cling to irrationalism for other life-needs.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • George

    As per the Canadian article, could you please tell me when the Templeton prize became one of the “(philosophy’s)two most prestigious international prizes”. I read it to be so because they list two prizes awarded to him further down in the article, one of which is the Templeton. Do all philosophers really want to win the Templeton prize? Is it not just a covertly religious prize given to someone who most agrees with the twisted logic of a man who once formed a challenge that would smack as patently idiotic to anyone familiar with philosophy? Or is that a different guy?
    Your Thoughts?

  • Dan Fincke

    Hey George,

    Really good question. I think that as far as awards for twisting one’s logic to support religion go, the Templeton is as respected as you will get. And surprisingly (and unfortunately if you ask me) the largest single subgroup of the American Philosophical Association is the Society For Christian Philosophers.

    Christian philosophy was dead in the first half of the 20th Century but in the latter half the rise of figures like Alvin Plantinga and William Alston in the wake of the exposure of the limits of logical positivism led to a revival of respected Christian philosophy in the Anglo-American tradition.

    Even though they don’t make up a majority of total philosophers, being the largest minority would probably contribute to the popularity of a prize that appeals to them. Plus, I would not be surprised if there are many theologians who dabble enough in philosophy to submit philosophy oriented proposals to Templeton. And, lastly, I have a friend who is for all intents and purposes an atheist but who nonetheless had a project that got him a Templeton opportunity of some sort. He said they really go all out to make it a plush experience for the scholars involved. It’s a great free vacation if nothing else.

  • Dan Fincke

    and the more I think about it—another major factor is likely that there are so many areas of philosophy that can be related to philosophy of religion and in much more defensible ways that science can. Attempts to scientifically confirm faith are either dubious and desperate or they just wind up disconfirming it (like Templeton’s famous study of prayer that proved it ineffective.)

    Philosophy is not science, though, and there is a lot more room to explore epistemological or metaphysical defenses of faith or God or free will or the resurrection of the body, etc. There are always new ways to try to solve the problem of evil or to argue for mind-body dualism. Within philosophy it is a less cut and dry matter to permanently refute the existence of God or an immaterial immortal soul or a free will, etc. There are a lot of plausible enough arguments that theists can make.

    In science, theism is just a joke. When theism starts turning into “revealed religion” it is patently false. But when it’s in the realm of metaphysical possibilities and debates about epistemology, theism still has legs to stand on at least.