The Self-Defeating Argument In The Salon Article “Atheists’ Self-Defeating Superiority”

The Self-Defeating Argument In The Salon Article “Atheists’ Self-Defeating Superiority” March 24, 2015

My fellow blogger Steve Neumann wrote a recent article on Salon called, “Atheists’ self-defeating superiority: Why joining forces with religion is best for non-believers.” It’s the kind of article that a Christian would pass over to me and say, “Hey, look at this!  Even one of your fellow atheists says you’re getting a bit too militant.  Maybe you should shut the hell up!”

But…its self-defeating logic made his actual position difficult to determine.  Seriously.  I mean… my disagreement with him would be a bit stronger here, I think, if I could better follow his logic.

Take passages like this, for example:

“New Atheists like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Bill Maher — with their legions of followers, numbering in the millions just on Twitter — continue to employ the Us vs. Them rhetoric of tribalism. But what these New Atheists fail to realize is that even if their criticisms of religion are correct, pointing them out does nothing to combat tribalism—in fact, it only strengthens it. Their faith in the power of rationality, which is effective but not perfect, blinds them to the larger problem.

“This isn’t surprising, because science has convincingly shown that individuals don’t really reason well on their own—our rationality is unreliable because of the pervasiveness of motivated reasoning. This suggests that the only cure for our cognitive biases is other people. The problem is that we’re more receptive to alternatives only when challenged by members of our own tribe. Atheists as well as religious believers are relatively immune to attacks from those “other” people.”

Uh-huh.  So tribalism is BAD, right?  We shouldn’t be so, um, tribal, because then what’ll happen is that we won’t see our own biases.  What we need to do is stop focusing on us vs. them rhetoric, and begin combatting tribalism.

That logic is ridiculous.

I mean, would we apply that to any other system in which one side was, y’know… importantly right?  Seriously.  Like, would you walk into a meeting on what we need to do about climate change and go, “Look guys.  What you’re failing to realize is that, even if you’re critical of climate change denialists, pointing that criticism out does nothing to combat tribalism — in fact, it only strengthens it.  Your faith in the power of science, which is effective but not perfect, blinds you to the larger problem.”

Or to the people giving vaccines.  “Look guys.  What you’re failing to realize is that, even if you’re critical of anti-vaccinators, pointing that criticism out does nothing to combat tribalism — in fact, it only strengthens it.  Your faith in medical science, which is effective but not perfect, blinds you to the larger problem.”

Or to the NAACP.  “Look guys.  What you’re failing to realize is that, even if you’re critical of the Klu Klux Klan, pointing that criticism out does nothing to combat tribalism — in fact, it only strengthens it.  Your faith in the importance of equality, which is effective but not perfect, blinds you to the larger problem.”

Yes, people who work in NASA are biased against people who say that we didn’t really land on the moon.  Thank the FSM for that.  Could you imagine if they were like, “Guys, we’re not really reasoning well on our own. The only cure for our cognitive bias is people who don’t agree with us.  So go ahead, let’s sit down and talk about how we’re going to the moon, and allow these guys who think the moon landing was an elaborate hoax help us figure out whether or not we’re being realistic in our plans”?

That’s how ridiculous this sounds to me.  You’re basically saying, “Hey, if you stand with people who don’t have imaginary friends, you’ll become biased against ways of thinking that put an imaginary friend into the mix.  That gives you a blind spot.  Do you want that blind spot?”  Yes.  Yes, I think I do, especially when considering the fact that many books describing this imaginary friend make it atrociously uncivilized.

Then, later in the article, Steve Neumann gets to the crux of his point:
“Adam Lee says that atheists’ natural allies are in the progressive movement, most prominently LGBT rights groups and feminists, because they have most often been the targets of religious harassment and oppression.

“I’d like to encourage my fellow atheists to push the circle of our tribe out a little bit further than that. Combining the forces of secularism with the progressive religious movements of the various Abrahamic religions, for example, can achieve even more than we can by ourselves. Forget about disabusing believers of their core convictions with the “universal acid” of rationality—the best way to fight for social justice and pluralism is to ally ourselves with those who share the same values, regardless of their metaphysical beliefs.”

So wait — Neumann is against tribalism earlier, remember (remember the social justice NAACP example) and here he is for it.  Look: “the best way to fight for social justice and pluralism is to ally ourselves with those who share the same values, regardless of their metaphysical beliefs.”

But, um…isn’t that tribalism against the viewpoints that AREN’T interested in social justice and pluralism?  So is Neumann initially saying he’s against “tribalism,” or is the concern making sure that concerns  for social justice and pluralism be concerns that push concern about atheism and against religion out the window?

If it’s tending towards the first, then the faux-concern against tribalism at the beginning seems…well, faux.  And if it’s tending towards the second…my response to his point is no.  No. No. No. No.  A thousand times, no.

Let me be clear:  I’m not saying that I’m unwilling to work with “progressive Christians.”  Heck, I’d work with them — and, I’ll admit, DO work with them — every goddamn day, whether it’s the barista getting my latte, the road I drive on that is built (I’m sure) with a few progressive Christians, or the food pantry I may volunteer at where a few progressive Christians (and conservative ones, as well, for that matter) hang out.  I got nothing against religious people who want to help me accomplish my goals as an anti-theist (he says as he defends anti-theism on a blogging site managed by religious people).

I will work with you as a PERSON.  If you want to help me live my awesome life and I happen to have a desire to help you live your life in some way, awesome. If I’m out marching for an unarmed black man that got shot and a black Christian is beside me, I’m not inclined to leave the march any more than I would be inclined  to throw back a latte at a barista who just happened to be a Christian.  OK?  Hopefully that’s clear.  And I’m fairly certain that most self-proclaimed anti-theists feel the same way (more on that in a moment).

There’s a line here for me.

I will not frame the discourse I associate with working within these environments as attempts to “join forces with religion” — sorry (not sorry) but I have no intention of aligning myself with a way of thinking that gets its dictates from imaginary friends.  I will not remotely assent to courting or coddling belief systems that proclaim, “This is the way things should be, because God.”  I cannot and will not worship, give credence, or provide even the appearance of tolerance for the atrocious nature of the Bible’s God in any way, shape, or form.  If there was a way to say that more strongly in this paragraph, I would.

Lemme make this concrete.

I’ll help a progressive Christian ladle soup at a soup kitchen. Why not? I work with progressive Christians, as aforementioned, all the goddamn time in, like, Starbucks and stuff.  Why the hell wouldn’t I do it in a soup kitchen, too?  No skin off my nose, as they say.

But if you even begin to say, “I feel the presence of God in this place” or something similar while passing soup across the counter — if I’m not seen as having a right to respond with a “That’s bullshit” or something to that effect because of some misplaced sense of “respect,” or sense that we are “part of the same tribe,” then we have a problem.

Also, I’d like to point out that us “militant” anti-theists are out there talking against religion. We’re knocking on its door.  As an anti-theist, I have very little interest in staying within my own club and never venturing out.  In the area of Bible-Belt Dallas-Fort Worth, I talk often with Christians and occasionally attend Christian events, precisely BECAUSE I am so anti-religious (and I choose Christianity because it’s the religion I know most about).  I write blogs about Christianity and against Christianity, engaging Christians in dialogue precisely because I can’t stand their views or the impact the concept of their rather oppressive imaginary friend has on culture.  It’s not remotely like I’m hiding in my own little corner in the world.  I am vigorously writing and working to try to make the concerns of anti-theists be understood by Christians.  As is Richard Dawkins.  As is David Silverman.  As is Bill Maher.  And a laundry list of other major individuals.  We’re working our asses off to be heard by religious people, and most of us work with you regularly.  You make our coffees, and we make your coffees.  We build your roads, and vice versa.  We pay taxes for all of our own social welfare.  And many of us have no qualms about working alongside you in a soup kitchen as long as we don’t have to keep our mouths shut about our disagreements with whatever religious views you voice, and if Neumann is even remotely saying that we should, or if you hear him remotely saying that we should, then I’d like to go on record saying that I disagree with his viewpoint in the strongest terms possible.

In a way, I’m lost as to what Steve Neumann is trying to change when he says that the “militant” atheist should be open.  Here’s some news: If you’re staying in your little atheist camp and not touching religious people’s lives, you’re not being militant, you’re just enjoying your atheism.  And here’s another news-flash — there’s nothing wrong with that, in itself.  Sometimes you need to be around people that don’t follow imaginary friends instead of hearing about God’s opinion all the time.

And you know what?  A lot of us atheists, especially those of us in strongly religious cultures, do need a home base.  You are under no obligation to beg and plead for Christians, progressive or otherwise, to accept your place in their organization.  You are more than free to join any group of atheists you happen to be around.  And if you want to reach out beyond that, that’s your prerogative.

In case you thought you needed someone’s permission.

I do think that if we proceed as a culture it may be necessary for us to be more generous, more kind, more compassionate, and a few other similar synonyms AS A CULTURE — regarding our viewpoints more than our rhetoric (I have heard silver-tongued preachers teach the cruelest concepts of hell I’ve ever heard). But I also think that there is danger in moving forward while just kinda accepting that there’s an imaginary friend, especially when the characteristics of that imaginary friend are too often controlled by charlatans and atrociously offensive books, full of misogyny, homophobia, encouragements of genocide, and the like.

Then, Neumann says that atheism isn’t really on the rise, despite our efforts:

“This is relevant now because we’ve never had an opportunity like this before. The great decline of religion in America doesn’t necessarily mean that people are becoming atheists; it more likely means that more and more people are adopting more liberal views of the traditional religions.”

That is simply false — the number of atheists itself is slowly climbing in the United States although it is still small — the number went from 1% in 2005 to 5% in 2012 according to The Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, and the perhaps more biased Pew Forum, even with its much more conservative numbers, states, “The number of people who identify themselves as atheists in the United States has been rising, modestly but steadily, in recent years.” Religion, by the way, is on the decline in the United States…according to many, largely due to the very Internet discourse that Neumann seems to deride.  So we atheists are slowly but surely making progress just the way we are.

Finally, where is Neumann going with all this? Near the end of his article, he seems to paint his utopia:

“We should see a softening of the positions of the “militants” on both sides, precisely because human beings are more receptive to messages from those with whom we share a tribal badge.”

This is a terrible thing to say to or about atheists — because, for many Christians (and many atheists, as well, in fact) who read this article, a “militant” atheist is someone who has the nerve to say that Jesus is, um, still dead.  Think about that.  It’s not militant to say that he’s alive and you gotta believe that in order to go to heaven.  It’s militant to just utter the simple fact that he’s dead.  And you’re not supposed to say it.  And, again, it’s perfectly fine for people offended deeply by that comment to say that if you don’t believe in Jesus you’re in danger of perishing somehow.

That’s the thing about applying a false equivalency to the word “militant.”  If you are in the larger, more powerful group, “militant” for you means different than “militant” for someone else.  To take a relevant contemporary issue, what heterosexual homophobic Christian culture calls the “militant lgbtq rights movement” might consist of something like a gay pride parade, or even a public kiss. And yet, heterosexual couples kiss in broad daylight, regularly make movies showcasing their love for each other, and have persecuted lgbtq couples for years without once being seen as “militant.”  Why the double standard?  Because the larger, more powerful group sets the terms.

So, Neumann, you’ve really got it wrong. It’s not the atheists’ sense of superiority (!) that’s the problem.  We’re in the minority here.  It’s the sense of superiority that the overwhelming Christian majority has that really is the problem.

So the danger of using that word is that Christians will say, “Oh, look!  Salon says that ‘militant’ atheists are bad news — in an article written by an atheist!” It makes the phrase dirtier and more damaging, when it’s already damaging enough.  Christians will love it.  Atheists will continue to be hated and seen as “militant” unless they capitulate and beg to be placed under the same banner as those who have imaginary friends that have said some…pretty disturbing things.

If Neumann is saying that we’ve gotta, like, soften our stance or something – that only has relevance insofar as the atheist stance is irrelevant.  And, um, it’s not.  There are many reasons why theistic religion, in various forms, is bad, but they all boil down to this:  It inserts a powerful imaginary, nonexistent friend into the equation where it doesn’t belong. And to that I say again – no.  I am not interested in assenting to the reign of an imaginary friend, be it in the coffee shop, in the workplace, or the soup kitchen in the misplaced name of unity.

At least, not since I left church.

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