So I'm probably not quitting atheism


Photo credit to Monica Harmsen

Photo credit to Monica Harmsen

Followers of my Twitter feed may have noticed, through interpreting some occasionally abstract tweets, that I was at the Center for Inquiry’s Student Leadership Conference two weeks ago. Over a weekend, I sat in on and live-tweeted talks on philosophy, activism, policy work, engaging ex-muslims, and enacting social change. I put faces to Twitter feeds and Facebook profiles I’ve seen for some time, saw friends I haven’t seen in years, and met some fantastic and exciting people I was sad to leave come that Monday.

I haven’t been too active on the blog lately, and that’s been in large part because I’ve gone through a stressful and busy few weeks at work preparing to transition to a new lab. But to be honest, I’ve also just become frustrated with the culture that often surrounds atheism.

My tolerance wavers, but I’ve slowly realized that, as it stands, I don’t really want to be associated with the atheist movement. I can’t think of a recent lawsuit where I thought that American Atheists, for example, had demonstrated a solid grip on the establishment clause or the legal precedence surrounding it (the holocaust memorial controversy being an obvious example). I can’t remember the last time I was able to read more than a handful of Sam Harris’s or Richard Dawkin’s tweets without cringing just a little bit. And I can’t help but wish for many atheists to take a more balanced and thoughtful perspective on religion.[ref]It’s always troubling when you realize that Michael Shermer and Lawrence Krauss are posturing on philosophical issues, while the Christians in a debate, Dinesh D’Souza and a Ian Hutchinson in this case, have a better thought-out take on science and religion. If you think I’m exaggerating, listen closely to Shermer’s argument and see if anything he says actually relates to science.[/ref] And this is all before considering all the horrific misogyny and harassment that’s just now receiving their due attention.

The movement can look pretty bad to many young atheists, particularly to people from the outside. So more and more I’ve been wondering whether I could spend my time somewhere more productive, where disagreements are handled more pleasantly. I’ve been preparing myself to just give up, quit atheism, and devote my time to cool research during the day and hanging out with my dog, reading more books, and drinking PBR in the evenings which, writing it out now, sounds more or less like heaven.

But I’m not so sure anymore, because I think a sea change is happening.

Four years ago, the Yale Humanists brought Greg Epstein to speak. At the time, most responses to his work seemed to simply question whether Humanism was too much like religion, whether we needed to organize around anything other than atheism, or whether atheists ought to even organize at all. The next year, at the 2010 CFI conference, interfaith work and engagement tactics[ref]aka the confrontationalist/accommodationist debate, which I still think is a silly and false dichotomy.[/ref] were hotly contested, with many people, myself included, on very different sides of these debates than we are now.[ref]Fun anecdote: Chris was among a few speakers on a panel, and I found myself largely disagreeing with him, actually. I was a jerk to him afterward and we somehow ended up friends, initiating events that lead to the eventual revision of my stance on religion and the start of my tenure blogging here.[/ref] In the intervening years, I’ve seen James Croft go from a maligned fringe figure mocked in comment sections to an admired and passionate speaker in mainstream Humanist circles. I’ve seen a shift from questioning whether we need Humanist chaplains to expressing outrage at their exclusion. I’ve seen a lot of progress in what seems like a short time.

Just as religion has been softening, it seems like atheism has been softening, too. When I introduced myself at this year’s conference, I began by sheepishly apologizing for being the “squishy interfaith atheist type” but discovered throughout the weekend that not so many people opposed that position. Most people I talked to seemed largely supportive of Chris’s work, even those who identified as New Atheists.[ref]I even convinced a few people to buy Chris’s book from the book table, which was doubly exciting.[/ref] Most everyone I remembered having a harder stance on religion in 2010 had a softer one now, and they either told me they were convinced by Chris’s work or had independently come to similar conclusions.

Fire-brandy accommodationist and an accommodating firebrand.                    Robby and I during our joint presentation.

My own presentation was on how best to engage in religious debate and criticism—an often heated topic, and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say that positions like mine are rarely embraced, at least online—but there was relatively little push-back, and I was surprised by how well it was received. It’s not that people didn’t disagree, but those who did expressed it in a way that seemed more thoughtful and composed than some of the discussions in 2010 that occasionally lead to yelling and once even tears.

I don’t think I can overstate how encouraging and fun this conference was for me. Legitimate concerns about CFI’s management of recent controversies aside, the people on the ground are fantastic, and the conference was legitimately inspiring, helpful, and practical. But more personally, this was maybe the first time I’ve felt embraced by something vaguely representative of the broader atheist community, instead of derided and marginalized for the company I keep and positions I stake.

If the future of atheism is in the young leaders I met, laughed with, raged with,[ref]I see you James Croft.[/ref] stayed up until 6 AM to get diner food with, almost once or twice cried with, argued about philosophy with, and was appalled by AA’s and FFRF’s stance on the Holocaust memorial with, then that’s an atheism I want to be a part of. So for the time being, I’m still in. Thanks for sticking with me.[ref]Also thanks to Robby Bensinger for the spirited and stimulating debate on the panel we were on. You’ve given me a lot to mull over and I’ll be writing about it soon. Thanks to Cody Hashman, whose idea I think it was to invite me. Thanks to Monica Harmsen for taking great photos all weekend. Thanks to the old friends I saw and new friends I made, and there are way too many to mention so I won’t even try, that talked with me and welcomed me over the weekend (particularly the ones with kind words after my talk and calming words before). Thanks to everyone who put up with my occasionally loud and debaucherous drinking, and everyone who picked up my mannerisms which seemed weirdly contagious. I’m to blame if you see anyone excessively saying “bruh” or “pretty dope” or “could you maybe just not?” And of course a huge thanks to CFI, especially Debbie Goddard, for hosting the conference with such a fantastic array of speakers and some delicious vegan food.[/ref]

Night of the first day.

Night of the first day.

If you want to read more about the conference, here are some other excellent takes.

Vlad Chituc is a Research Associate in a behavioral economics lab at Duke University. As an undergraduate at Yale, he was the president of the campus branch of the Secular Student Alliance, where he tried to be smarter about religion and drink PBR, only occasionally at the same time. He cares about morality and thinks philosophy is important. He has a pretty dope dog and says pretty dope a lot and is also someone that you can follow on twitter.

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About Vlad Chituc

Vlad Chituc edits NonProphet Status. He's a researcher at the intersection of psychology, philosophy, and sometimes economics at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He likes the South very much and lives with his dog, Toad, who is great. In 2012, he graduated with a B.S. in psychology from Yale University, where he spent a lot of time reading philosophy and learning to write.

  • Vanessa Gomez Brake

    I have the same wavering relationship with atheism. But I’m yet to quit it either.

    Glad to know the CFI gathering was so positive and reaffirming. I happened to walk by their Toronto location yesterday. I was also just hanging out with Dan Riley in San Francisco on Sunday. I know he was very active with CFI before and has wrote the book on Generation Atheist. :)

    • VladChituc

      Ah Dan was such a cool dude. Did he kind of just drop out of the movement? I havent seen or heard from him in a while.
      Also glad people like you are sticking around with me :)

      • Vanessa Gomez Brake

        Speaking of quitting atheism. yeah, he said something to that effect. Maybe not quit, but not as active. Believe he is in tech now. Also, we’re pretty secular here in California, so we do atheism a little different.

  • Miri

    Nice post but all I really care about is HOW DID YOU DO THOSE FOOTNOTES.

    • VladChituc

      ha. there’s a plugin we use: simple footnotes (and by we I mean me its basically just all me). there are a few to choose from. I dont know what FtB’s customization is like but its pretty standard wordpress stuff.

      • Miri

        Ah, damn, I knew it was too good to be true. :P FtB already has so much backend problems, I doubt they’d wanna mess around with installing another plugin.

        Also, it was awesome meeting you at CFICon! Good luck in Ariely’s lab etc. etc. screw you I’m so jealous <3

  • Ralph1Waldo

    It’s encouraging that you think things are evolving in this way. I’m a humanist who can barely stand much of what “the movement” is up to. I’m much more interested in social justice and politics and the stuff that really matters now, whereas I feel like atheist gatherings are about atheist elitism.

    • VladChituc

      I think that depends a lot on the individual group. This of course just reflects my subjective experience but groups like those are diminishing and softening, at least if student groups are any indication. Maybe geographical groups are a bit more rigid.

      • Ralph1Waldo

        I’m in LA. We have some nice positive UU humanist groups and the humanist community up in Ventura County, but Atheists United is probably the largest organized secular group in town and has projected a pretty negative orientation for a long time. Their version of community service is highway cleanup – for the free sign – but what they seem to enjoy the most is getting interfaith holiday displays kicked out of city parks and telling kids there’s no Santa Claus. They excel at generating headlines in local papers that reinforce everyone’s favorite negative stereotypes about nonbelievers. I might add that AU is strongly affiliated with CFI here, and I was surprised at the amount of ill-will and mockery I recently experienced at an event there that was supposed to be about helping the less fortunate in developing countries.

        • VladChituc

          I know exactly what you mean. It seems that these types of groups sort of naturally segregate (it’s done so in my area, we have three relatively prominent atheist groups; one more social justice and humanist oriented, another being very much the negative stereotype reinforcing type, and so on. I think these types of things feel discouraging, but hopefully you’ve noticed, just as I have, which groups and which direction younger atheists are going toward.

  • linford86

    Vlad — I share many of your frustrations concerning the simplicity with which many atheists discuss these issues (as you may have noticed on my Facebook wall as of late, where I’ve complained about some of this). Nonetheless, I always saw my place in the movement as being someone who could raise the level of conversations. At the very least, that’s what I try to accomplish on my own blog ( I hope that I don’t sound overly arrogant there; I certainly don’t know whether I actually *accomplish* raising the level of conversation! In any case, I think of you as an ally in that respect, and I think Robby has similar aspirations (which, of course, I welcome). So, I would be very sad to see you leave. We need people like you around to encourage the movement in a better direction.

  • Thomas J. Lawson

    Good to hear.

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