Over the course of the last week, I published a series of ten
commandments tips for atheists reaching out to religious believers. In truth most of those values are ones I could have written with minor modifications to be commandments tips for simply being a good person.
Now, some people have objected in various ways that my rules like “don’t insult people” and “don’t demonize people” and “love your enemies” are not good strategies at all. Or maybe they are good strategies if you want a religious person to keep talking to you face to face but if you don’t care about that you can just ignore the advice.
And this troubles me. A lot.
I love being part of the atheist community. I love having friends who are atheists. I really do. It may sound like a trivial thing to enjoy having a bond with someone over atheism, but there it is. The psychological scarring of having to pull myself out of fundamentalist Christianity and rebuild a sense of identity without religion is there. Also I feel a lot of pride in having made it out and having made it through painful years of having to work out a whole lot of deep questions about who I was and what I valued and what I believed, etc., in a culture that works very damned hard at excluding explicitly atheistic discussions of these questions from the mainstream. I was even at a Catholic graduate school which, while always congenial to me and never remotely discriminatory, didn’t provide me with many atheist philosopher friends—even though the vast majority of philosophers in the wider profession are non-believers. I was on my own in this.
So my atheism got bound up in a deep way with my identity as a result of all this. And since atheism is a minority position which suffers from the costs of religious privilege at our expense, from our demonization to our being alienated from people we care about, this just got packed deeper and deeper into my core sense of identity.
And fellow atheists are the people who appreciate, and in many cases identify with, my experience as it has been distinctively shaped by an atheistic identity. Our shared atheism by no means makes us identical people with identical values in any number of ways. But in the case of my fellow activist type atheists, I am grateful not only for having people who share my hard deconversion experiences but also people who share my really strong commitment to rationalism, freedom of thought, autonomy, epistemic humility, maximal human flourishing, progressive transformation of the world in accord with Enlightenment values and scientific power, etc. These are my core values. Atheists are often people freed to share them more fully and in specific ways I identify with.
And finally, atheists and I are more likely to agree on a lot of issues—a sometimes surprising number—where atheists typically are going to come down the same way given the philosophical consequences of their being no gods and given some of the shared viewpoints that led us each to that conclusion in the first place.
So, I am a proud atheist—one who is very happy to make it a central part of my personal and public identity.
But I am not a tribalist.
I am not willing to compromise my core values for the sake of competition with other groups. I am not willing to compromise my rationalism or my commitment to maximal human flourishing for the sake of deconverting people. I am not willing to stoop to treating individuals or groups abusively by demonizing or personally insulting them in unnecessary ways for the sake of my group.
I am a rationalist who is committed to rational persuasion against physical and emotional forms of coerciveness. I am committed to the principle that the only way it is justified to persuade someone to my position is in a way that involves no bullying and contributes in no way to coarsening the public discourse about the topic at hand.
I oppose falsehoods and prejudices and manipulation of people for tribalistic ends. If the rationalists become tribalists and see no problem with doing whatever it takes to deconvert people then as far as I am concerned they are rationalists in name only and an insult to, and misrepresentation of, the word “rationalist”.
Even more deeply than an atheist, I am a rationalist to my very core. I would consider an atheistic movement that is irrationalistic in its practices and in its techniques of persuasion as much a human failure worth denouncing as the religions it has arisen to oppose.
Despite what the slanderers of New Atheism say when they conflate honest, principled, rationally consistent disagreement with rude closed-minded intolerance, “New Atheism” is not about being abusive and militant at its core.
At its core it is about being uncompromising about truth in matters that require truth, about austere philosophical and scientific standards for knowledge claims, about fighting religious privilege, about advancing freedom of conscience and religiously-neutral secular government for all, about not mincing words in calling outdated nonsense and absurdity what they are. It is about refusing to being bullied into revering or deferring to symbols and institutions just because it offends religious people when we don’t do so.
In all these stances, I proudly and unwaveringly align myself with the prominent “New Atheists” and judge that they essentially enough speak for my views that I want to be a part of their cultural movement.
But when I see undercurrents of irrational hatred of our enemies among some of the rank and file it worries me. I am not in this for the team. I am in this for reason and better ethics based on reason. I am in this movement to educate and to help create better values and institutions and formulate philosophical truths better. I am not in it to demonize and hate anybody. And I do not identify with those who do those things when they do those things.
I feel some empathy and give a little slack for my fellow atheists as people insofar as I know that some of their excessive rage and anger is based on countenance with genuine injustices and is sometimes based on having been dealt enormous psychic pain by abusive religious people, institutions, and lies.
But my end goal is that atheists live up to rationalist ideals in practice. It is that we do not stay angry and reactive and raging forever but rather that we become models of the values we so publicly champion. It is that we be the “salt” and the “light” of the world that our opponents have failed so spectacularly at being.
That’s my goal as an atheist activist and blogger. And whether or not it is always the most effective strategy for deconverting the most people is actually irrelevant to me, when all is said and done.