#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.

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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.


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