#Occupy Middle Ground

When people talk about atheists being one extreme as compared to religion it awakens that little part of my brain that wants to punch all the dumb out of the world.  You know what extreme reason looks like?  It looks like technology that let’s us take pictures of other galaxies.  It looks like cell phones and laptops.  It looks like people getting past their differences because they’re searching for what’s true rather than clinging to ideas to which they’ve become emotionally attached.  “Extreme” reason rocks.

But there are some people who want to behave as though the proper place is always smack dab in the middle.  When encountering two people having a debate wherein one side is passionately arguing that 2+2=22 and another is arguing that 2+2=4, some on-lookers would chastise them both and try to drag them toward the conclusion that the answer is 13.

The middle ground is not always where the truth lies.  One side really can be entirely correct.

And when it comes to atheism, I’m to the left of PZ Myers.  I hardly ever miss an opportunity to tell a believer I think they’re not only wrong, but embarrassingly so.  Not because I hate them or enjoy spreading sadness, but because it’s the truth and because I think they can (and should) do better.  I think faith keeps people ignorant, which is a liability for us as a species (and therefore our planet).

Then I read this post on Friendly Atheist yesterday about the PA state director for American Atheists Ernest Perce and suddenly, to my surprise, I find myself smack dab in the middle ground.  It feels warm, but it smells like compromise.  Yuck.

Ernest is about as extreme in his atheism as I am: he thinks religion is quite silly and really, really bad.  Top hole, Ernest!  Sadly, Ernest is also extremely silly.

He’s correct when he says Islam is repulsive.  C’mon, death penalty for apostates?  That’s pretty sick.  On the other hand though, you don’t get to paint all Muslims with the same brush (assuming that your goal is to be accurate which, as secularists, I think it should be).  Even I will never say that religion moves all followers to violence.  It could justify violence in any mind, but it is a poison that doesn’t completely kill everybody who ingests it (even if it does damage to different extents).  Not every Muslim is a terrorist.  This is not giving religion slack, it’s the damn truth.

Insinuating that all Muslims endorse terrorism is not a good way to be an advocate for what is true in the world.  You could say Islam has a huge problem with suicidal bombings in comparison to other faiths/worldviews.  You could say that no other religion motivates people to become violently homicidal about cartoons and other trivialities and use that to condemn Islam specifically.  You could even say that all of their beliefs are equally untrue and equally unsupported by the evidence.  But if you care about being accurate in your criticisms, you can’t say some of the things Ernest said.  When you extend into untrue hyperbole while attempting to be factually sound you dilute the “Religion is bad” message, since people can no longer trust you when you say “Here’s how bad it is.”  Being wrong about something related to religion doesn’t make you a more extreme atheist, it just makes you extremely wrong.

Passion is good as an activist.  Hell, it’s the blood of effective activism, even if it’s not the brains.  But passion combined with inaccuracies is the flagpole to a fractured world.  That people can be so wrong and yet be so passionate about it is one of the main problems with religion.  I will say it time and time again: the reason religion draws so much of our fire is because we care so deeply about reason, and religion/faith is its greatest enemy.  But reason is our North Star, and we should never stray from it no matter how passionately we feel about something.

So bad form to Ernest.  But then Hemant (for whom I have tremendous respect) said this:

Even worse than hatred is hatred motivated by ignorance. Atheists ought to be the first people who look for evidence to challenge our own beliefs and Perce’s claims are so goddamn easy to disprove…

I agree that hatred motivated by ignorance is pretty lame, but why the dogging on hate that’s not motivated by ignorance?  Ugh…here I am in the middle ground again.  It feels freaking dirty.

Some things are justifiable targets for our hate, as are some people.  As Hitchens once famously said:

Do I love the theocratic suicide murderers?  No, I don’t.  I dislike them.  I wish to encompass their demise.  They want to be martyrs?  Alright, I’m here to help.  But at no point would it be moral to say I must love them.

Fred Phelps?  I despise him.  Osama Bin Laden?  I freaking hated that guy.  Thomas Monson, the head of the Mormon church, who oversaw the dumping of millions of dollars into a campaign of bigotry, thereby contributing to the suffering of millions of good people?  Yeah, I loathe that guy and have no problem admitting it.  The pope and the higher-ups in the Catholic church who knowingly protect and enable child rapists?  If you had a tub big enough to contain my hatred for those guys you could give Jupiter a bath in my animosity.

A while back somebody accused atheism of being a hate movement and I responded

And you call atheism a hate movement. To an extent, I guess you can say that it is. We hate irrationality and think it’s something to dispel from the human condition. We hate the results of institutionalized unreason. We hate food banks that require church attendance before they will feed the poor. We hate the suppression of equal rights for all. We hate how misinformation and needless hate can be spread under the banner of love because of some gut-wrenchingly stupid ideas from a time of comparatively great human ignorance that have been enshrined and made durable by suckers like you.

We should hate these things. We should fight them with all the breath that’s in us. I wish more atheists were unapologetic in their hatred of these things. My gripe with religion is that it is the most nourishing force on earth for these practices.

These things and these people deserve to be hated.  We hate them because we love humanity, and they are undoubtedly humanity’s enemy.  But just as love misplaced is to our detriment, so is hate misplaced.  To the extremes who will tell us that love at all times is a virtue or that all hatred is counterproductive I must, for one of the few times in my life, admonish both sides to join me in the middle.  Not because “extremes” are necessarily bad, but because this really is the most productive and rational place to stand on that front.

It’s the hating for no reason or for bad reasons that’s ugly.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • jamessweet

    Heh. Compulsively avoiding the middle ground is no better than compulsively reaching for it, but I’m sure you are well aware of that.

    Usually when anti-theists go “too far” for my tastes, I am still more or less okay with it, since social change requires a diversity of voices all pushing in the same direction, and it doesn’t work if they are all unflaggingly polite and well-mannered. An example for me is that I’m not super crazy about the confrontational tone of some of the secular holiday displays that have been in the news lately — but I still essentially support them as an exercise in consciousness-raising (as PZ put it, now Christians get a taste of what it feels like to be a maligned minority).

    To put it a different way, I am disinclined to criticize other atheists for being more aggressive or confrontational than I am. Some of this stems from the fact that I am also pretty staunchly anti-theistic, so it’s far more common that I find myself as the more confrontational one :) but it’s also simply that I think social change requires that some people are too extreme, that they cross the line of what is fair or reasonable or in good taste. I’m not really aware of a social movement that was successful without such uncompromising voices.

    I didn’t read all of Ernest’s screed, but what I did read seemed a bridge too far even within my comprehensive view of what’s fairplay for a social movement. Whereas in other cases of atheists going “too far”, I am inclined to defend them by pointing out that provocation is an effective way of making people think, I am not inclined to defend Ernest’s remarks.

    • dfl42

      “Compulsively avoiding the middle ground is no better than compulsively reaching for it”

      Well said!

  • Chiral

    To use your metaphor, I think you’re in the middle ground here because one side is arguing 2+2=0 and the other is saying 2+2=8. The problem with the middle grounders isn’t that they are in the middle but that they think that being in the middle is some indicator of correctness.

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

    I think you’re still speaking too broadly when you say you hate “religion”. It’s too broad a category. The things I dislike are superstition, authoritarianism, tribalism, blind traditionalism, supernaturalism, poor philosophy, fundamentalism, and faith (i.e., willful closed-minded belief which refuses honest assessment of counter-evidence).

    Those are the enemies, those are the corrosives to human life and to the pursuit and flourishing of truth and human excellence.

    And unfortunately the most loudly religious among us double down hard on these vices and unfortunately many religious expressions are inextricably bound up with these things.

    Nonetheless, there is nothing inherently bad about interweaving metaphysical and moral speculation and inculcation with means that involve symbols, rites, rituals, community, tradition, holidays, meditations, songs, parades, festivals, practices of identity-formation, and self-aware mythologies. There is much that religion does that can be done (and should be done) rationalistically.

    The existing major monotheisms (or at least Christianity and Islam–maybe not even Judaism necessarily) seem so far corrupted by the bad tendencies one finds in religion that they seem worth scrapping and replacing with new, progressive, rationalistic, non-exclusivistic, religions. But “religion”, broadly conceived as the integration of moral and metaphysical ideas with the outward communal means of expressing them and the personal practices of living them, can theoretically be redeemed and contribute on net to human flourishing, rather than to obstruct it (on net) as the dominant institutionalized religions do at present.

  • lesliegriffiths

    I’m not sure what middle ground there is. I believe in god(s). I don’t believe in god(s)

    I don’t believe (!) most atheists believe that every single thing that happens as a result of religion is negative. But this is academic. Being an atheist ONLY means you do not believe in gods. That’s it. End of story.

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

      Being an atheist ONLY means you do not believe in gods. That’s it. End of story.

      Definitionally, yes, but there are some atheists whose atheism plays an important and definitional role in a larger identity concerned with more than just that philosophical position.

  • Frank Bellamy

    Maybe I missed something, but where did the PA state director actually say that all muslims are terrorists? The statement I am aware of refers to the “terroristic ways” of islam, not muslims. To say that a set of ideas, such as islam, has “terroristic ways” could easily be interpreted to mean that it promotes terrorism in some degree, that it causes some number of people who would not otherwise be terrorists to become terrorists. That, I think, is true of islam. But that is a long way from saying that all people who believe that set of ideas are terrorists. It leaves open the possibility (also true of islam) that there are a much greater number of people who believe it but are not terrorists.

    I’m not saying this guys comment was smart, it definitely was not. He anthropomorphized islam, he addressed it in the second person, and that definitely lends itself to confusion on a point (the distinction between ideas and people) on which confusion should be avoided to the extent possible. That was stupid of him, but not quite as bad as what you seem to be accusing him of.

    • satanaugustine

      Agreed. Ernest addressed “Islam,” not all Muslims. Good point with the second paragraph as well. I hadn’t thought of it in that way.

  • Daniel Schealler

    If you’re for bees, you have to be against wasps.

  • kaorunegisa

    When I see stuff like this, I can’t help but think of a post I read elsewhere. I want to be a good commenter and link plus cite the source appropriately, but for the life of me I can’t remember where I read it before. At least the message stuck.

    The concept is that the middle isn’t always the place to be. The middle ground during the American Revolution was reconciliation with England. During the antebellum period it was having free states and slave states. Strikes were considered extreme actions as compared to more moderate approaches…presumably begging for more money and safer working conditions. DADT was considered a moderate compromise.

    Sometimes the extreme is the *right* position to take, but not always, and being rational people, we’re able to make a pretty good guess as to when which is appropriate.

    To this incident, I found myself in the same middle ground when I was debating this with my friends on Google + earlier. I found the same middle ground when I was comparing the right wing reaction to All American Muslim and the cowardliness of Lowes et al to Jerry Coyne who posted this on his blog the same day, causing me to have trouble figuring out the difference (though my friends helped me work it out).

    In this case, Ernest is conflating two ideas: Muslims follow really foolish, ancient superstitions and Muslims are bad people. The former is true, the latter, not necessarily. But he made the same mistake I made only last week: assuming people who believe dumb things are necessarily evil not because of the specific things, but because of dumb things in general.

    For example, while I think his reason is meaningless, I don’t mind my friend volunteering to dress up like an elf and give sick kids presents because he thinks Jesus would want him to. It’s not his only reason and that additional superstition doesn’t make him a bad person. Also, he looks really cute in the hat. I feel comfortable considering his mother a fairly awful human being for her homophobia alone, not to mention the other idiot things she spouts off about.

    In this example, we have two nonsense ideas, one of which is as harmless as having an imaginary friend, the other causes great harm to other human beings. We can make a moral judgement on them based on those ideas and their effects on others. What Ernest did, however, is something I’m noticing as I start this journey into non-belief. He assumed that since one nonsense idea is morally repugnant, all nonsense ideas must be morally repugnant, never considering that people can be wrong and not evil.

    So, that was a bit rambly, but I hope it made sense in some respect.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Ani Sharmin

    I think EPV made broad generalizations and brought the misunderstanding on himself, as his comment very much read like something a person would say to a group of people, not a criticism of an ideology.

    What people forget sometimes, especially when talking about Islam, is that while many Muslims will say that they believe the Qur’an is the word of God, if you ask them about the specific details, they’ll disagree or (more likely) pretend it’s not actually in the Qur’an, especially about the really horrible violence, similar to what members of other religions often do. You can argue, as you mentioned, about differences in the percentages of people who support prejudice or violence in different religions at this point in history, but the horrible contents of the holy book don’t necessarily mean that every person who says that they believe in that book will actually do everything it says, or even acknowledge the fact that it says those horrible things in the first place.

    Also, I like these quotes:

    “If you had a tub big enough to contain my hatred for those guys you could give Jupiter a bath in my animosity.”

    “It’s the hating for no reason or for bad reasons that’s ugly.”

    @jamessweet (#1):

    “Compulsively avoiding the middle ground is no better than compulsively reaching for it, but I’m sure you are well aware of that.”

    Excellent point.

    @kaorunegisa (#7): I like your point about people being wrong but not evil.

    Perhaps you were remembering Adam Lee’s The Golden Mean at Daylight Atheism? It definitely stuck in my mind after I read it. (http://www.daylightatheism.org/2007/05/the-golden-mean.html)

  • kaorunegisa

    @Ani Yep, that was the article I read. Thank you! Bookmarked for future citation!

    And it’s just now settling in that people can be wrong and not evil. I’ve been running under the assumption that people with idiotic ideas know they’re idiotic and hold on to them out of spite and tribalism. It’s not as crazy as it sounds written out. Now I’m starting to get the idea that some people are absolutely evil, some people legitimately don’t know and can be taught.


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