The Right To Define Ourselves

Greta Christina has an excellent post pushing back against all those who like to tell us atheists what we really believe (like that we claim 100% certainty about the non-existence of God when the majority of us actually do not) and how we “really have a belief system that’s just like a religion,” etc.  Her conclusion:

Defining one’s self is among the most powerful acts a community and a movement can take.

And people who desperately wish for a community and movement to disappear are not voluntarily going to let us have that power.

They are going to keep trying to define us, so they can continue to make us look like rigid, hysterical, unreasonable dogmatists who don’t have to be taken seriously. They are going to keep trying to define us, so they don’t have to think too closely about who we really are and what we really think. And they are going to keep trying to define us, simply because they can: because defining a marginalized group is a way of saying that your definitions, and not theirs, are the ones that count.

We have to not let them do that.

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.

  • Lilly

    I’m completely sympathetic with how Greta feels. It’s so frustrating to be told who you are by someone who doesn’t know you. I think sometimes people meet just one crazy atheist and then assume they’re all like that. It’s a lot easier to attack the nutcases than to take on the more reasonable and nuanced ways of framing, because doing that makes us actually THINK and can be unsettling.

    As a smart, well-educated, sensitive person who also happens to be an evangelical Christian, what Greta describes happens to me all the time. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all allow each other to be as reasonable as we actually are and start THERE rather than making up imaginary enemies and shouting at those?

    • Daniel Fincke

      Indeed it would.

      I think there are several differences that cause legitimate obstacles for members of religious traditions. One of the issues here is that atheists are not inherently committed to one another as a unified agreeing set of people. As much as we may agree with one another on various points, we have not committed ourselves to any party or any particular constructive philosophy by virtue simply of our being atheists. Atheism does not by itself entail very much concretely and it does not entail any strong organization allegiances.

      One hurdle that you’re going to have in self-identifying as an evangelical is that it’s like self-identifying as a Democrat or a Republican—you’re part of a group with hierarchies and defining members. If you disagree with those who publicly speak for your group or with major substantive, defining beliefs of your group, then the onus is on you to prove that you’re an exception to the rule. You can’t blame people who newly encounter you or who talk about your group at large for associating you with the prevalent views within your group. You’re self-identifying with that group and groups have characteristic ideals, practices, beliefs, etc.

      This happens to atheists too as in the case of my decision on this blog to explicitly associate myself with Richard Dawkins’s “Out Campaign” by displaying the “A” symbol prominently on the blog. That starts to create group allegiance and association with a specific interpretation of atheism. It doesn’t entail any specific politics or conception of moral theory, etc. But it does connote certain philosophical agreement about the meaning of atheism and the goals of atheists at least.

      But, say, 6 months ago when I knew hardly anything about Richard Dawkins except the names of his books, to have assumed any commonality between me and him just because neither of us believed in God would have been unjustified. But now there are ties between me and other “new atheists” because I’ve specifically self-identified with the movement and now I have to take some responsibility, say, to disassociate myself from any aspect of the movement with which I disagree. I am free to do so, of course, but the onus is on me to do that and you are entitled to raise those objections to me and force me to account for them. That’s fair.

      But when all the major prominent atheists acknowledge explicitly that there is no such thing as 100% certainty, it is foolish and unfair to keep insisting that we say the opposite.

      Anyway, I hope to see you around more Lilly, and especially should you ever think your views are being mischaracterized so that we can compare and sort out our contrasting impressions of evangelical beliefs both in their logical entailments and their explicit formulations.


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