Why I Criticize My Fellow Atheists

There are a lot of atheists who can’t stand outspoken atheists. They cringe at what they see as replications of the ugliest of theists’ traits. They often think that outspoken atheists are fascistic fundamentalists, pushy proselytizers, bullying bigots, thin-skinned whiners, shallowly scientistic, intolerantly overconfident about the non-existence of God, hypocrites, and/or willfully ignorant, smug, blowhard know-it-alls whose simplistic criticisms of religion show no understanding of the complexities of history, culture, psychology, literature, art, anthropology, sociology, or contemporary geopolitical and socioeconomic forces.

As an outspoken atheist myself, I have defended us and criticized anti-atheist atheists extensively. But I also take seriously whatever grains of truth in their complaints that I can find. And between learning from them and thinking for myself about what I see from my fellow atheists, I develop a number of arguments about how we should improve what we say, do, and value as a movement.

To my disappointment, I encounter atheists who get one degree or another of pissed off when I either criticize atheists or say anything positive at all about religions. For a while I found this startling since I naturally assumed that a community that vocally called for critical thinking would enjoy critical examinations of how it could do better, or at least that it would welcome such criticism coming from someone so obviously and deeply sympathetic to all its core beliefs and value commitments and, so, on its side in all important matters. So, to answer their balking, here is why I criticize strands of atheist beliefs, behaviors, values, and attitudes:

First off, I love truth more than I love my friends. Sometimes my fellow atheists and I are wrong, have bad habits, fall into intellectual errors either peculiar to us or common to people generally. I primarily spend my energy criticizing the behavior and thinking of theists and would feel like a hypocrite if I didn’t take those fewer chances to criticize my “own” side when they arose. If I’m spending post after post criticizing my opponents, it’s only fair that I acknowledge when and where we’re wrong too. That’s a nice antidote to self-righteousness. It’s also a way of keeping myself fair and of letting my theistic and religious readers know that I am willing to criticize atheists too. I’m not just looking for flaws in theism or religious people’s behavior out of some animus. I apply the same critical thinking skills equally and with minimized prejudice or malice.

Another vital reason to criticize other atheists’ mistakes is to signal that they do not represent my views or values in those cases. People form their judgments of groups by their members. It is important that either prominent or commonly occurring bad behaviors, attitudes, or beliefs within a community be vocally rejected by a noticeable majority of the members of that community (as well as by its leaders). It is up to members to define their group’s reputation with what they say and do, and with what they denounce, marginalize, and actively distance themselves from. Their enemies will not go out of their way to give them the benefit of the doubt. And to the extent that this incentivizes groups to police their own, that’s probably for the best. It’s not up to our enemies to assume the best of us. It’s up to us to demonstrate it.

Much more intrinsically importantly, I scrutinize atheists because I want to be a better thinker and a better person and so scrupulously analyzing myself, and those who think and behave like me, is an essential part of that process of self-improvement. And since my fellow atheists profess to share many of my core intellectual and moral values, I am all the more disappointed in them when they are in violation of those values. I don’t want them to be hypocrites with respect to those values since their failures make all atheists, including me, look bad and set back our cause. I care about the cause. I care that atheists argue as rationally as possible and don’t settle for sloppy thinking or become ethically lazy or self-righteously self-satisfied.

I also care that becoming an atheist actually does mean becoming a better thinker and person and not just retaining most of the poor habits on both fronts that we atheists see so clearly in theists. If becoming an atheist only is a matter of becoming right about a few more things but then as likely to be wrong about anything else (and wrong on special new topics that represent special new blindspots unique to atheists), then what are we really gaining intellectually by dispelling theistic illusions? If, ethically, becoming an atheist only means having the same moral and intellectual virtues and vices (or a different set of virtues and vices but basically the same number and/or degrees of virtues and the same number and/or degrees of vices) as theists do, well, again, what have we really gained on net?

I am in this game to see people, including myself, become conscientiously better people and thinkers, not just to see people become better at talking about how other people should be as right about everything as they uncritically perceive themselves to be. Some atheists really do seem to think being rational means agreeing with them in all matters great and small. Some atheists really do seem to have gotten into this movement to indulge in their feelings of superiority to those they pitilessly disparage as “stupid” or wicked. They give little impression they are interested in the kinds of ongoing introspection and self-suspicion that are invaluable to personal growth. They are just in this to throw rocks at the “retards”. I have no sympathies with such people and am ashamed that they’re associated with me.

I also find it boring to spend all my time thinking about how I am already right. I like actively seeking out how I might be wrong. When I read people I disagree with, I don’t waste my time contemptuously dismissing their every word as risible deluded foolishness and wickedness. I look as hard as I can for some grain of truth in there. I try to really think of whether their arguments might have some merit I need to engage with. I have come to much richer perspectives by sometimes taking positions opposite to mine that I have never encountered a good argument for and simply figuring out one for myself. And when I read my ostensive allies, I adopt the perspectives of our opponents and I see how the arguments hold up against that viewpoint. I rarely read anything holding either pompoms or a pitchfork. I read most things with at least two opposing perspectives waging war inside me. And that’s how I keep learning and growing. And that’s what this is about for me.

And so my blog is not about simply indulging reactive atheist rage, patting my fellow atheists on the back, or doing a true-believing, self-satisfied form of activism. Don’t get me wrong–I am passionate about supporting alienated and hurting atheists intellectually, emotionally, and socially. I love atheists and care a lot about religious abuses and their effects on atheists. In particular I identify with and feel deeply for my fellow apostates. I feel a special bond with anyone who has conscientiously and painfully wrenched themselves from religious beliefs and attachments that had been the center of their entire universe, their social world, and their personal identity. My experiences of alienation, bravery, grief, and personal formation which centered all around that decisive self-liberation are core to who I have been ever since I went through them. And I always feel like only those who also went through a gut wrenching deconversion from devoutly religious to adamantly apostate really appreciate, from a personal experiential point of view, this crucial part of me. And I admire my fellow apostates for their abilities to exhibit that same intellectual, emotional, and social kind of honesty and bravery that it took me to get free. I am proud of what I did in getting free of my utterly devout Christianity. And I am equally proud of any apostate who managed a similar feat. I also care deeply about the separation of church and state, consciousness raising among atheists that they’d be proud of their non-theism, and the equal treatment and active empowerment of unjustly marginalized people.

But, with all of that acknowledged, we need to be more than just anti-theists. We need to think critically about theism and religions and not just propagandize against them. We need to think critically about what it means to fill the void of theism in people’s lives with robust, non-theistic communities that are focused on constructively developing practices of personal formation, truer thinking about values, and general philosophical rigor. Being a bunch of self-congratulatory, know-nothing know-it-alls about everything moral, social, political, and philosophical, just because we see through transparent supernaturalistic nonsense and trust biologists and physicists, is setting the bar super low as far as I am concerned. Simplistically confusing defending rationality itself with defending whatever one’s own opinions happen to be is complacently clueless. Reflexively rejecting everything associated with religiosity out of anger is merely reactionary, irrational, shortsighted, and hostile to the reality of complexity. Heaping seething abuse on those one perceives to be undereducated, misinformed, brainwashed, systematically deluded, reasoning badly, or just plain wrong out of smugness and hatred is virulently and selfishly opposing the cause of education.

Your Thoughts?


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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://drzach.net Zachary Moore

    Agreed, wholeheartedly.

  • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com/ Captain Cassidy

    Entirely agreed. It doesn’t do anybody any good to reject theism’s over-arching concepts but retain its mental patterns. It’s so hard to see atheists patting themselves on the back while at the same time indulging in the worst that religion brings out in some people.

    • 3lemenope

      Might this suggest that they aren’t so much “religious” mental patterns as they are “human” ones? Most of the cognitive errors that atheists complain about re: theists are really, really common, intuitive thought patterns that one could reasonably expect to crop up in many contexts and from many sources.

    • http://rolltodisbelieve.wordpress.com/ Captain Cassidy

      Absolutely it would suggest precisely that. Religion encourages those patterns, but it’s not the only thing that does.

  • SocraticGadfly

    Agreed indeed. I’ve said before that atheism is no guarantor of either morals, or, for that matter, of rational thought (at least in areas outside of non-metaphysical stances). There are atheists who are criminals. (And, while they may not include Hitler, they do include Stalin [whom some try to explain away as non-atheist because he went to a seminary -- well, so did I] and Mao, who most Gnu Atheists, even, recognize can’t be dodged.) On the rationality side, there are atheists who are global warming deniers. There are atheists who are racialists. Etc., etc.

    And, we engage with Christians of a great variety of stripes. Not all are fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals. Also, we engage with them on some matters that are more loosely connected to their religious belief or our non-theism than others are.

  • Frank Key

    I learn so much more from reading your blog than I could ever hope to give back. One of the things I like most about it is your emphasis on attacking the issues and not the people. I thoroughly detest personal attacks even when there are those deserving of them. For me, it’s always about the issues and only the issues and the best way to put down an obnoxious opponent is to defeat their arguments. Thanks, Daniel, for doing that far more often than not.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      thank you Frank!

  • 3lemenope

    First off, I love truth more than I love my friends.

    I can’t agree. I indeed love my friends more than seeking or asserting truth, and given a choice between protecting one of them and articulating some true thing to their detriment (absent some overriding moral duty, such as reporting a heinous crime), I would defer to the friendship and remain silent. I would say, rather, that a quality I appreciate in my friends is a willingness to discuss truth-bearing topics critically, carefully, and with a lack of animosity.

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I agree with everything you said. I think it qualifies, rather than undermines the sentiment I expressed in an uncharacteristically over simple statement. I was making an allusion to a well known saying in philosophy.

  • http://absurdlypointless.blogspot.com/ Tanner B James

    I’m glad I’m not paranoid. But honestly folks, since my conversion to Atheism I have come to believe it is imperative to improve my critical reading, writing and thinking skills. I’m currently reading “The art of being right” by AC Grayling and “How to think clearly” A guide to critical thinking by Doug Erlandson

  • Neil Carter

    Totes agree, Dan. I’m writing something about this myself as we speak. I always try to pay as much attention to the people who disagree with me as I do the people who already think the same way I think. If I only surround myself with people who agree with me, I may never learn anything new.

    And as for community-forming, this, I think, drives what I do. That’s my ultimate goal. It’s not that I don’t value the stuff that falls short of that, or that more narrowly focuses on one aspect or another of atheist issues. But until “atheist communities” are no longer needed because of a sea change in the culture wars, that’s gonna be the overarching game plan.

    (Gonna steal a line or two from this, mkay?)

    • http://camelswithhammers.com/ Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      hahaha, t’would be awesome, so long as you link!

    • Neil Carter

      But of course.

  • 9B9K9999

    As a proud apostate ( a word I’ve come to own), I greatly endorse all you have written in this article, said as usual far more eloquently and thoroughly than most. I’m sure I will be reading this again and again. I have at times indulged myself in ranting against religion, not that it serves much purpose other than a huge fart. Eventually it come to a natural halt, at least for me. Maybe some are so damaged as to fail to move on. Now that’s an interesting subject is it not? Figuratively atheism is like condemning a dangerous old building and clearing the ground for something newer and better suited to our lives. It is no foregone conclusion that something better will take its place, it is possible to jump from the frying pan into the fire. And there isn’t much acknowledgement of that possibility that I have observed.