I wanted to post about how Heina Dadabhoy taught me about prison and showed me something I reflexively repeated was wrong, but then I decided I would gather all the recent examples. Here are five articles I’ve read recently, that have changed my mind on something. This is an appreciation post, an acknowledgment of those I have learned from. These are in no particular order.
By Heina Dadabhoy: Fellow Atheists: Quit Bragging About Our Prison Underrepresentation
This article argues that when we want to brag about our moral non-inferiority to theists we shouldn’t use the fact that there is a large lack of prisoner population among atheists.
Atheism is a movement comprised mostly of middle-to-upper-class white people. A middle-to-upper-class white person is far less likely to be incarcerated than a poor person and/or a person of color. The only way atheists as a whole might be less likely to be incarcerated than theists would be if we were a female-majority community. Atheism is hardly the cause of white middle-to-upper-class people’s underrepresentation in the prison population, injustice in the criminal justice system is.
Intersectional issues aside, being arrested and convicted means being caught breaking the law. Would most of us atheists consider, say, possession of small amounts of marijuana to be a crime worthy of incarceration, let alone an immoral act? Yet prisons teem with non-violent drug offenders. As for being caught, I will return to the example of marijuana. How many of us class and race privileged* atheists would be imprisoned for drug possession had it not been for residence in low-density housing in areas rarely patrolled by the police? Living in a detached home reduces the likelihood of a neighbor or passer-by reporting drug use to the authorities but is hardly an indicator of superior moral character.
Given that we’re a movement of people not exactly known for dealing so well, if at all, with issues of race or class, it’s important that we avoid using arguments that lack nuance in terms of racism and classism. To address religious folks claiming that religion makes one morally superior, we atheists can cite examples of religious people behaving immorally, with or without theological justification, and of atheists acting in a moral fashion. We can bring up rules in religions that no believer follows or theological edicts that are not very moral (and even immoral). We can talk about how many religions claim that justice will be served in an afterlife, meaning eternal punishment for finite and often quite trivial “sins”. There are enough other arguments where we don’t have to rely on problematic and potentially fallacious arguments to make our point. We should, and can, do better than that.
As a staunch defender of marijuana legalization (because I think marijuana is a good thing, and even if it were I don’t want government to use law to redeem people), and as someone who is aware that racism is still a fact in the world, I always held two contradictory beliefs in my head, that (1) Prison incarceration includes a lot of injustice (2) One evidence that atheists are good is their prison underrepresentation.
I had never given this a good thought. I just repeated an atheist meme I had seen. So I’m very thankful to Heina for making me think about this and to change my mind, and to stop saying it.
By Dan Fincke: In Defense of Taking Offense
I’m almost never offended at something myself. I’m amused when people resort to personal attacks or say incredibly ignorant things. But there’s a more real reason I never considered taking offense something legitimate: To me, “offense” was summarized in “Defending religion”. I come from a culture in which racism, sexism, and homophobia are not “offensive”, standing up against them is. Personal apathy and cultural background had united to make me someone who readily ridiculed and dismissed anyone who claimed they were offended by anything. But this article by Dan showed me aspects I had never considered, and made me change my mind.
I have always maintained that offense is not only a morally approvable emotion but itself one of the key emotions through which moral judgment itself happens. In other words, part of how we psychologically process and socially express the appropriate anger at what is evil is through the emotion of offense. I have just argued that we are morally obligated not to express our objections in the form of abusive, bullying, authoritarian behavior or language choices. I have always argued that we can level strong, precise, evidence-based moral charges at people’s behavior or ideas. I have just also argued that it is only fair and psychologically helpful to getting through to people to criticize behaviors first and people’s whole characters second, and to do so in a spirit of education rather than recrimination.
I also think that this a matter of being truer and fairer in how we proportion our anger and where exactly we direct it. I really do think that most moral failures are due to ignorance, poor reasoning, weakness, and, most importantly, culturally systemic prejudices and practices that go well beyond the maliciousness of any given person. Comparatively little of what is wrong in what we do is willfully malicious. The good wisdom of Stoicism is to keep these things in mind and to focus compassionately on helping erring people distance themselves from their mistakes, rather than helping to wed them to them. If you blast your anger at the person as though they are inseparable from the action you make them defensive and more likely to defend the action that they are now all the more firmly identified with. If you separate them from their mistake, you help them create the psychological distance they need to reject their mistake as something not really representative of them and disown it. So, criticizing their mistakes separate from attacking their person is usually the best first resort. Only when someone insists stubbornly on owning what is wrong in themselves is it worth it to try to shame them by saying that they have a fundamental character flaw.
I had never before thought of offense like that.
By Miri Mogilevsky: What This Depression Survivor Hears When You Call Religion A Mental Illness
Well I never actually thought religion is a mental illness, but nevertheless I compared the two a lot and never batted an eye, and this article by Miri was really eye-opening and made me realize what an asshole I have been. I took things like conditioning and connected them to mental illness. I’m very happy that I read this article by Miri.
While there may be some useful parallels between mental illness and certain types of religious experiences, calling religion a mental illness in the general sense is a clumsy, inaccurate, alienating thing to say.
This is a list of things that go through my head, things that I hear when I hear atheists calling religion a mental illness. I’m speaking only for myself here. My experience of having depression informs some of these opinions, but so does my knowledge of psychology, my experience working with people who are struggling, and my understanding of what being religious is like and what draws some people to religion.
Some of these may seem contradictory. That’s because they are. Atheists who compare religion to mental illness may do it in various ways and with various meanings. They may do it in a “logical,” intellectualizing sort of way, or they may do it in a spontaneous, ridiculing sort of way. It can be “Religious people are victims of mental illness and need our help” or it can be “LOLOL go see a shrink for your stupid sky daddy delusions.” What I hear when I hear you calling religion a mental illness depends on the context.
Make sure to read it in its entirety.
By Miri Mogilevsky: (How) Should We Call Out Online Bigotry? On “Somebody Said Something Stupid Syndrome”
Again, I used to consider calling out bullies and hateful people online a waste of time, and a severely low priority, because terrible people say terrible things and who cares, but then again, this Miri article opened my eyes. It might speak to my personal apathy as well, but then again I’m happy that I was shown to be wrong.
Third, this: “we only have so much space in our brains and time in our days, and there are more important things to spend them on” seems like a facile argument. People choose what to spend their time and brainspace on. Maybe this topic is not important to Yagoda, but it’s important to other people. I don’t understand how some people spend hours of their week watching sports or memorizing pi to however many digits, but the fact that I think those things are not important (to me) does not mean they are globally unimportant.
Also, it takes two minutes to read an article about something bigoted someone said. That is, all in all, an utterly negligible amount of time even for the busiest of us. But if it’s not important to you, by all means, don’t waste your time on it!
In short, I’m okay with Yagoda saying that this is not important to him and therefore he won’t spend time on it. I’m not okay with Yagoda saying that this is not important period, and therefore nobody should read or write about these things or pay any attention to them at all.
Fourth: “Of course, when you find a big number of people–or people in power–who have said it, you’ve started to prove something important, and I will pay attention.” The fact that Yagoda does not believe that the examples he listed are commonplace and not merely anecdotal really says something. Namely, that he probably hasn’t been listening very much to the people who are targeted by these types of bigotry. He probably also hasn’t been reading the academic research on it, which suggests that these types of bigotry are very common.
People who choose to be “skeptical” (read: hyperskeptical) that bigotry exists and is worth discussing tend to keep raising the standard of “evidence” they’d need to believe us. One racist comment or allegation of sexual assault isn’t enough to show that there’s a problem, sure. How about dozens? How about hundreds? How about every woman and person of color experiences little acts of bigotry based on their gender and/or race, all the time, for their whole lives? What happens online is just one piece of that puzzle.
I had never thought of the topic from these angels, and I’m happy I did. “Doing nothing is not an acceptable solution.” Indeed.
Dan Fincke: On Defending True Spirituality And Taking The Word Back From Spiritually Bankrupt Fundamentalism
To me, spirituality was a dirty word, even when I was still religious. It sounded silly, pathetic, and incredibly selfish to me. I considered it vain for someone to claim anything akin of spiritual experience. And I still am that way, on a mental level. My automatic urge is to reduce my own “spiritual” experiences to irreverence. I am someone who cannot value things too highly, who cannot elevate an experience into a golden realm.
Sam Harris could not convince me. Even Bertrand Russell couldn’t. I was like “this is not religion or spirituality”.
But thankfully Dan Fincke made things click. While I won’t call anything spiritual ever, I won’t judge people for doing so. I used to think of things like interfaith and atheists chaplains with absolute disdain, but now I don’t. Now I think I do my thing and they do theirs, and there’s nothing wrong with either of us. No external source changed my mind on that, but this article of Dan’s got my mind running in that direction (although I still disagree with him on Sartre).
In fact, the nihilistic existentialists essentially adopted a Christian standard of value and judged their lives meaningless according to it. And the legacy of that atheism which gave the game away to Christianity and let Christianity define itself as hopeless is precisely what the New Atheism is fiercely opposing. That’s what makes it “New”.
It’s a New Atheism because it aggressively pushes back against the ideas that morality and meaning are either exclusively or even properly the domain of faith traditions. It’s a New Atheism because it encourages constructive community among atheists and a world that is optimistically, self-consciously atheistic and refuses the defeatism that insists such an endeavor is bound to fail because it lacks guideposts of morality and meaning.
So, to me, the question is why not take the words “spiritual” and “religious” and say the same thing we say about the word “moral”—authoritarian, regressive, irrationalistic, dogmatic, misogynistic, homophobic, patriarchal, racist, superstitious faith traditions have neither exclusive nor even proper claim to these words.
Religiosity and spirituality are words for capturing a number of tendencies of the human psyche and the cultural forms which instantiate them. They can be embodied in wildly malleable ways in different times and places, societies and individuals. Just like morality, regressive and authoritarian traditions in the West have tried to claim exclusive the ability and the right to define and give practical forms to religiosity and spirituality. But it’s not their right.
I do not mean this just as a matter of tactics for fighting faith-based religion. I mean this as a matter of truth. On rationally defensible moral grounds, I think it wrong to call that which is immoral “moral” just because religious institutions have made people think it is moral. And I think it is an abuse of the word “spiritual” to call “spiritual” those practices and beliefs which harm people spiritually.
As you could see, Dan and Miri have been really influential on my thinking. Actually, I am sure I will name them both among people who have shaped who I am. This is a thank-you letter.
Note: for those of you who saw this as a private post, sorry. I hit publish accidentally.