I Am A Rationalist, Not A Tribalist.

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.

Your Thoughts?

  • http://www.laughinginpurgatory.com/ Andrew Hall

    I’ve always thought that religion is abusrd enough without attacking the religous. However, I still satirize leaders of faith (Pat Robertson, the Pope, etc.) in order to make a broader point about their belief-based assertions about reality.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      And I will happily join you.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    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 have been known to use indelicate language when discussing various topics with goddists. The occasional “dagnabit” and “tarnation” have been uttered or written by me. I have even used the term “bovine feces” to describe the bovine feces certain goddists spew forth. But I don’t hate goddists irrationally. I hate what various goddists do and say, using their goddism as an excuse for their actions and sayings.

    Mormon High Muckamuck Boyd K. Packer uses his religion to excuse his homophobia. Pat Robertson uses his religion to justify his far right politics. Ken Ham uses his religion to promote teaching mythology instead of science in public schools. Fred Phelps is in a category all of his own. I find all of these people and what they’re doing in the guise of religion to be hateful.

    So no, I’ve got no irrational hatred for these folks and people like them. My hatred is entirely rational.

    But thank you for denigrating me for not being a member of your team. Perhaps you might want to give a little more thought to the subject.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      But thank you for denigrating me for not being a member of your team. Perhaps you might want to give a little more thought to the subject.

      I have not denigrated you and not said you’re not on my team. I have said quite the opposite, I said I’m not in it to support the team even when the team wants to become the mirror image of the Pat Robertsons, et al. by being just as vile in rhetoric and dehumanization of the enemy as they are. They also are quite sure their rightness justifies them. Being actually right in substance is irrelevant. If you are really so offended by my emphasis on simply curbing one’s hatred and putting it within rational boundaries that take whole people into account and not just seize on demonizing the worst of one’s Other, and you think that makes me an Otherer of you, then you are showing a really hypocritical soft skin for such a proud defender of the right to attack hate in whatever intemperate terms you feel just because it refers back to a truth!

  • http://quoded.wordpress.com quoded

    You are absolutely spot on. There are, certainly, specific religious people who I hate, and who I hate for very rational reasons. But this is no excuse, as you say, to demonize and dehumanize people. And, I suppose, practically speaking, some group, at some point, has to refuse to respond to hate with hate and violence with violence or tribalist, nationalist, in-group biases will continue to destroy the world.

    • dochopper

      These days I give back what I get from the Church Folk.
      I am an easy to get along with kind of a person.
      Leave me alone and things will be fine

      But I can and will be Mean Cutthroat and Personally Vicious when I feel my personal belief systems are being challenged and attacked by some self righteous Believer.

      I will go out of my way to point out the believer I am talking to own personal Faults and How “I” have noticed they don’t seem to be quite right within the faith they worship. And trying to Pawn off on me.

    • http://quoded.wordpress.com quoded

      Not sure I’m parsing what you said appropriately…..but I didn’t mean to imply by my comment that atheists should just sit back and take whatever hatred religious folk send our way. Obviously not. But I don’t think it is productive at all to respond to hatred/dehumanization/derogation/etc. in kind. Isn’t it more productive and beneficial to simply call that sort of religious folk out for such behavior and then not engage with them, rather than engage in similar tactics?

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      And how are you better than them if you are personally vicious? If your beliefs are so intertwined with your identity that you would rather be cruel and dehumanizing to other people than deal with challenges, then you have the vices that give religious extremists a bad name. Just having them as an atheist does not make you superior. Knowing there is no god is not enough to make you a rational or a morally ambitious person. It takes hard stuff like rationally grasping that people are more harmful than they intend and require patience and reason to ever be made to change. Your attitude just perpetuates the cycle of hatred and makes this one tribe against another. Like THAT’S what the world needs, another tribal allegiance worth dehumanizing others over.

      No, what it needs is a rationalistic tribe devoted to reason in practice as much as in theory. That’s the tribe I want us to be and want to hold us accountable to be.

    • dochopper

      Sorry I mean no disrespect.
      I guess I should rephrase my statement.
      When someone suggests accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and a Belief in god is a way to better my life in general,I have no problem pointing out how I think Having Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior Has done little to improve who and what they are as people.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      That’s much better. (And much different than what you originally said.)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Thank you, quoded. I appreciate the support.

  • karla

    hear hear! well said.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      thanks, karla

  • martha

    I’ve noticed that various FTB blogs have taken up the topics of community & the definition of atheism, but seperately, not together. Thinking about this blog, I finally figured out why I feel like they might be linked.

    A philosophical idea doesn’t need boundaries and norms, nor does athiesm, but a community really does and has to work them out somehow, and so do Atheists. The trouble is that communities tend to gather around philosophical ideas and there by hang many tales. Many of these ideas imply something about the values of the group, but atheism is particularly unhelpful in that area. I think it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the core values of Atheists have to do with rational thought and the pursuit of truth, of which atheism is a consequence, not a cause, and which the strict (negative) definition of atheism does not imply.

    To go all sci-fi for a moment, if God returned from Her 13 billion year tour of alternate universes, offered ample evidence of really being here and turned out to be mostly benign and not too into the overlordship (overladyship?) thing, I bet 99% of Atheists would cheerfully acknowledge Her existence, and what would they call themselves then?

    • John Morales

      What is this “God” to which you refer in your hypothetical? ;)

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yes, atheists insofar as we are a self-conscious, deliberate movement need to take responsibility for how we behave as a group and as individuals and not hide behind the fig leaf that we are only united and associated accidentally by a common lack of belief. Either we are forging a community and influencing one another through aggressive attempts to make our arguments known or we are not. But we can’t be loud and proud and then decline all responsibility for how each other behaves.

  • Aaron

    I like what you say, I hope that makes me a rationalist too.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      thanks, Aaron, I hope you stick around

  • mal099

    You know, I’ve been going through kind of a rough time in my life lately, and I’m really glad I’ve had the fortune to read your writing right now. You’re reminding me that the person I am right now is pretty much the worst I have ever been (although I carry none of my negativity outside… but my thoughts are very negative), and you remind me of what I am supposed to be, of what I used to be, and how the person I used to be was better.

    It can be hard to stick with your values when you feel like these values have brought you pain, and when people who lack any kind of values seem to just be able to take what they want and laugh at you.

    I’m starting to rant here… just, thank you. It feels good to be reminded that not all the world is out to get you, that there are people out there who truly want to make the world a better place and who are willing to work hard to achieve this.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      I’m very glad to help, malo, reach out if you need something.

  • Rhinanthus

    I am committed to a rationalist worldview. One empirical consequence of rationalism is atheism, and so I am an atheist. If I ever came across unambiguous, empirical evidence in favour of theism then I would become a theist. However, it is possible to be an atheist without committing to rationalism; one can believe in all kinds of irrational things and still not believe in God(s). I would have no respect for such an atheist. Therefore my primary allegiance is to rationalism, not simply to one of its many consequences (atheism). As a purely practical and political matter I have always thought that starting one’s argument with a positive affirmation (rationalism… therefore atheism) is a much more enticing strategy. After all, few theists would deny the value of being rational and so theists would either have to (i) argue for the superiority of irrationality or else (ii) tie themselves in knots trying to explain how it is rational to believe without empirical evidence or else (iii) actually confront their believes using the standards of rational argument and the available empirical evidence.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      Yes, exactly. That’s what I was trying to get at here.

  • laurentweppe

    I think that these 10 rules can only work if the person following them already agrees wholeheartedly with the ideas which underlie them. At the same time, I know by experience that any other approach will not convince anyone to change their stance (religious or otherwise) except by accident. I know that you can shame someone into silence by being openly agressive toward them: and it can be usefull and even necessary (cases in point: holocaust deniers, creationists, climate change deniers… pretty much everyone whose opinion rely on faked erudition: saying unapologetically that these are not “opinions” but lies and that the only people defending such lies are either willfully ignorant or knowingly repeating lies), but most of the time, you’re not going to convince your interlocutor (then again: why losing time and energy trying to convince an antisemite who’s trying to make his bloodlust appear principled or a corporate mouthpiece paid to lie? It is much more important to make them as powerless as possible).

    *****
    *****

    So in the end, I’d say that the people who don’t agree with these 10 rules should stay away from the convincing business: I would add an adendum or two about this rules:

    If you despise religious people, if you think that they are not smarter than cattle or house pets, and/or if you think that proud atheists are the only human beings worthy of respect, then disregard the ten previous rules and read these:

    Rule 11: “I want to be the BFF of this retard”: No you don’t

    Do not pretend you want to convince the religious to leave religion: No one tries to convince someone unless they consider them worth it, and since you already consider religious people to be either:
    •Way more stupid and/or
    •Way more malevolent
    than what you consider to be worthy human beings, your “attempts” at convincing them will be but a pretense to justify your contempt toward them (“I totally tried to convince that evangelist guy to leave his cult by telling him how stupid he was to follow the evil perverts who rule his cult, and he called me a douchebad: I tell you: they hate us for our superior intelligence and greater compassion toward each other“)

    ***

    Rule 12: “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”: Don’t play this game: you’re thousands of years too young to win it.

    Do not pretend that you still like religious people, or care for them, or that you intend to help them. Even when you’re talking to fundies… Especially when you’re talking to fundies: They have spent millenia perfecting the art of pretending to love the people they hate: they know every trick used to conceal their detestation: they invented them. As for the moderates, centuries of being conned and abused by fundies have made them more suspicious and careful than you may suspect. No matter how good you think you are at concealing your contempt of religious people, you’re not, and they’re seeing through you.

    ***

    Rule 13:”I’m already the better man”: It’s already cringworthy when it’s said by a fictional holocaust survivor with cool superpowers: you’re way less cool than a fictional holocaust survivor with superpowers.

    Don’t you dare pretend that being an atheist immunizes you from tribalism or irrationality or bigotry: doing so is indulging in cultural determinism, which very expression is proof enough of being an irrational tribalistic bigot.

    • Stacy Kennedy

      Don’t you dare pretend that being an atheist immunizes you from tribalism or irrationality or bigotry

      QFT.

    • http://indiscriminatedust.blogspot.com Philboyd

      No disrespect to Daniel, but these are absolutely brilliant. Well done.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Camels With Hammers

      No disrespect taken! They’re great.