Meet The Web Guy Behind Camels With Hammers: An Interview With Dave Smith

This is the third interview and fifth overall post of the Camels With Hammers blogathon on behalf of the Secular Student Alliance. See links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

For this interview, I decided to talk to my webmaster Dave Smith, the guy without whom Camels With Hammers would have never gotten off the ground. This is both because I had abandoned my previous blog in disappointment over lack of readership and my lack of technical skills in the summer of 2008. Then Dave discovered the blog through Facebook after we reconnected there. He was so excited by it that I was both encouraged about the potential of blogging and saw hope that maybe I had someone I could persuade to help me pull it off from a technical standpoint. The following June we were a team and our friendship has grown greatly ever since. He is as nice and easy going a guy as you will ever ever meet. This summer I will be in his wedding as a groomsman.

Daniel Fincke: So, Dave, when we met, it was at one of the most religiously conservative colleges in the country. What are we doing running an atheist blog?

Dave Smith: Who knew, right? I’m actually surprised when I look back at how many of my friends from Grove City became atheists, agnostics, or at least less-conservatively Christian than the average alumni. Maybe there were some common threads among us that both drew us to each other during our college days and were predictive of our future paths. I found out around the time that I was really struggling with what I believed that you had become an Atheist, and shortly thereafter stumbled on your blog, which at the time was called neitzscheanideas.com. I remember getting together just to reconnect, and our discussions at that time really inspired me to be involved. And here we are today!

Daniel Fincke: Amazing. Have I changed much since college? Am I the same person I was as a Christian? And as an 18-22 year old!

Dave Smith: You’re the same person. When we first met after 10 years apart, it felt like nothing had changed. You had changed your beliefs, but your personality was indistinguishable from what I remember in college. You have the same evangelical approach that you did when you were a Christian, and I think that’s something that’s a much deeper part of who you are than the specifics of what you believe. Your approach hasn’t changed, and it seems that the same things that led you to to embrace Christianity did the same for Atheism.

Daniel Fincke: What about you? How did you become an atheist and do you think becoming one has changed you at all?

Dave Smith: My becoming an atheist happened very slowly over a long period of time. I didn’t have a moment, as you did, where you considered yourself a Christian beforehand, and an Atheist afterward. My Christian faith, for as long as I can remember, was of the luke-warm kind. I knew what I was supposed to believe but struggled to believe it. I never had the conviction that you did, and had trouble finding any real passion for it. And even though I never had a real moment of conversion, what I did have was a moment where I realized that I was unhappy and that things needed to change. Either I needed to embrace Christianity wholeheartedly, or let go of it entirely. That started the real period of change for me, which happened between 2006 and 2008 where I spent a lot of time reading and thinking, slowly distancing myself from the church and becoming more comfortable with identifying myself as an agnostic and and atheist.

Daniel Fincke: Was your faith, lukewarm as it was, making you unhappy or did you just come to think that deciding the issue of religion was somehow important to happiness one way or another? And are you now happier as an atheist? If so, why? Or if not, why not?

Dave Smith: It wasn’t my faith that made me unhappy, it was the level of congnitive dissonance I was dealing with. I remember sitting in church, knowing what I was supposed to believe, and feeling increasingly incredulous. I also played in the church’s praise band, and I remember thinking how manipulative that felt. I knew deep down that we were just manipulating people’s emotions. Even when I believed, it felt dishonest. Why did we need to play on people’s emotions and portend that god was the cause?

I think the seeds of the cognitive dissonance I was feeling were planted when I was very young. Although I was raised in a conservative christian family, my parents didn’t shelter me entirely from the outside world. Despite going to a religious college, I went to public schools growing up. I’m really thankful for that experience, which my sisters didn’t have (apparently after seeing how I had turned out, my parents sent them to a private christian school ;) ).

In school I was immersed in an entirely secular environment. My two best friends were an atheist and a hindu. I had the highest respect for them – they were and are great friends and excellent examples of how to live life in every way we would consider moral and upstanding. So I never grew up seeing the church as the foundation of morality. And found the idea that either of my two friends would be punished for their lack of belief or for having chosen the wrong religion to be utterly preposterous. These secular influences, juxtaposed with what I was being tought at home, caused me much anxiety over the years. Given my personality, my first instinct was to simply bury these feelings and go with the flow. Which is what I did for many years.

I’m definitely happier now as an atheist. What I believe feels… right. I felt like two persons before – the one trying to believe what he should, and the other wanting to believe what he shoudn’t. So I let go of what I should and shouldn’t believe. And just believed what reason and experience told me was true. I’m much happier as a result.

Daniel Fincke: Does your fiancé Meagan identify as an atheist?

Dave Smith: She does. But she comes at it from a different perspective than I do. She was raised as an atheist, became a Chrstian during her high school years, and gave it up during college. She has the desire to believe, but can’t bring herself to. She wishes it were true, but realizes it isn’t. Whereas I have no desire to belive, nor a wish that it were true. Which probably comes from my struggle to leave the faith, the distain for it that I developed as a result, and the more fundamentalist strain of it that I was exposed to.

Daniel Fincke: Now if I remember correctly she was part of a group of people that tried to set up a sort of church alternative gathering for atheists and it fizzled. Do you know much about that experience she had? Is her desire to believe a matter of desiring to participate with others in religion or is it a belief that a good God would be a great thing or is it a desire for the afterlife? I know you were attending Unitarian services at some point before you and she became a couple. Do the two of you ever go to those now? What is your thought on the value of the Unitarian option for atheists, in your experience?

Dave Smith:  The group you’re thinking of was a Shin Buddhist group, not specifically an atheist group although I’m sure it was comprised of a fair number of atheists. I went to one meeting but found the rituals too foreign to really gain an appreciation for it. But I can’t judge it on just one meeting, and I’m not familiar enough with Meg’s experience to expound on that. I do have more experience with the Unitarian Universalist services that I attended for a couple years. I found it to be emotionally fulfilling, and really enjoyed being in a supportive community that was accepting of what I believe, yet familiar in many ways because it has its roots in Christianity.

But its biggest problem is its unquestioning acceptance of any and all beliefs. It’s tolerant of anything except intolerance. We don’t currently attend services, but would consider it. I really with there were some sort of “religious” organization for unbelievers that was a warm, welcoming, and fulfilling community and also had the critical and intellectual integrity necessary to challenge its members and encourage personal growth.

Daniel Fincke: You mean besides Camels With Hammers?

Dave Smith: It’s been in front of my nose this whole time! I helped create it, but still couldn’t see it!

Daniel Fincke: There is a profound truth there. So next Friday, Camels With Hammers will be three years old. What are your thoughts on the first three years? What has surprised you? What do you expect for the future? And what sorts of optimization of readers’ experiences do you plan on creating once you are done getting married this summer and can spend your full energies back on the blog where they rightfully belong?

Dave Smith: I’m incredibly pound of everything we’ve accomplished over the last three years. I had no idea when we started that we would achieve this sort of growth and visibility within the atheist community. But that’s the way I’ve always approached projects. When I don’t worry about the outcome, when I focus instead on simply doing something I’m really passionate about, the result is most always beyond expectations. In this case, however, I think it has much less to do with me and more to do with you. You’ve put in the hard work of day-to-day blogging and building connections with other atheists. You derserve all the success you’ve had, and with any luck, more to come.

For the future, I have a vision of building a place where the Camels With Hammers community can better interact. We have some great interactions on our comment threads here at the blog, but it would be great to expand on that. We’ve discussed having a message board, and that may be a good start, but I think we could go well beyond that to design something that fits this community specifically. I don’t have anything to share at the moment, but hopefully we’ll have time to start work on that after things settle down this summer!

Your Thoughts? Your Secular Student Alliance Donations?

See links to the many diverse conversations from the blogathon, updated throughout the day, at the blogathon conversation table of contents.

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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001373579092 martalayton

    This was really interesting, Dan and Dave. I enjoyed reading about how you came to atheism.

    One thing that struck me was that you found the praise music you played to be manipulative, even when you thought the ideas behind it were true. I’ll grant you that a lot of praise music rubs me wrong, and in many ways the whole practice is about abandoning thinking for a little while and getting swept away in emotion. That’s dangerous, and even if it’s necessary (as a highly rational person I have a hard time seeing the need for it and am undoubtedly biased), we need to think long and hard about how to balance that need with the need to avoid being emotionally manipulated.

    That said, I was reminded of something Hume once wrote: that “Beauty, whether moral or natural, is felt, more properly than perceived.” Actually, there was a study that came out a little while ago that said atheists and agnostics were more likely to give to causes they felt empathy for, whereas religious folk tended to give similar amounts, but because they thought they had a duty to do so (rather than because they personally identified with the cause). All of this makes me wonder: do you think empathy, sentiment and emotion can be used in a good way? How should you use these kinds of things to influence people (or ourselves) in a good way?

    Interesting interview!

    • John Morales

      All of this makes me wonder: do you think empathy, sentiment and emotion can be used in a good way?

      What, you seriously imagine anyone would deny the possibility?

      How should you use these kinds of things to influence people (or ourselves) in a good way?

      Oh, it was just rhetorical, this is the real question.

      The answer is: you should use these kinds of things properly.

      Do you reckon playing on people’s emotions and portending that god is the cause is a proper usage?

      (Never mind, that was rhetorical too. ;) )


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