Outspoken atheists are a minority, even among atheists, and so get goaded a lot–even by atheists.
And one way both atheists and theists are hostile to us involves accusing us of wasting our time. Another way is by accusing us of, ironically, being “just like the religious after all!” Supposedly we are unable to be any better than what we’re trying to criticize. “So take that! Checkmate anti-theists!”
One criticism combines these two attacks: Supposedly we atheists, by spending so much time on what we don’t believe, are wasting our time in a super silly way because this means identifying ourselves with what we don’t believe and that is, supposedly, an absurd thing to do. Apparently the only things worth identifying oneself with are positive beliefs or values or institutions. It just makes no sense to have any key identity through your opposition to other things. Apparently anti-war activists, slavery abolitionists, capital punishment abolitionists, anti-regime rebels in authoritarian states, etc. all have egg on their faces too. Because, really, what kind of a ridiculous person ever defines themselves by what they’re against.
The criticism of us doesn’t stop there. This identification according to what we oppose is thought to make us dependent on the very religious constructs we don’t believe in! So, the charge goes, we are defined wholly by our relationship to religion after all! We should feel like real fools on account of that! See atheists, you failed to escape religion in the end. It still has you in its clutches! Were only you to ignore it and leave it to unchecked hegemonic social, moral, and epistemic power among ordinary people throughout your culture and the whole world, you would be free of it!
Let me start by making clear that just because we devote serious energies to arguing against religious beliefs does not mean our positive views or our entire lives are defined by religious constructs. It’s not like before every action I ask myself, “What Wouldn’t Jesus Do?” in order to figure out how to act. I have a whole entire positive philosophy that ignores (or refutes and moves on from) what I don’t think is true and focuses on arguments for what I do think is true. And none of my life choices are made by reference to what any theistic religion would or wouldn’t think of it. And I’m not uncommon.
Outspoken atheists seem as radically and comfortably outside the bounds of theistic influence as anyone I know. We tend to be far freer of theistic prejudices than merely nominal believers and likely even apatheists (atheists who simply don’t care to think or argue about questions of God) because the apatheist may not be troubled enough to examine just how many of her beliefs and values and assumptions and habits are influenced by the massive religious influences on the culture. Self-conscious atheists paying so much attention to theism are much more proactive about uprooting its patterns of judging and prioritizing from our minds as thoroughly as possible and really doing something beyond its errors.
It did take me time to fully extricate myself from my former faith since it had socialized me for so long before I left. In some ways my habits of mind will always bear some legacy influence. But over time I worked out a root to branch philosophy that neither requires nor references any religious authority qua religious authority. Having done that, I am a far more liberated thinker than the merely passive recipient of a Western culture with pervasively lingering unexamined theistic prejudices.
While apostates like me come to proactive atheism as pushback against our religious indoctrination, it’s worth noting that many others come to proactive atheism because theists are interfering with their existing positive endeavors that are much more important to them. Atheistic scientists get pissed off when theists miseducate people about scientific issues. Atheistic women get pissed off when theists try to pass laws restricting their rights, spread slut shaming moral attitudes, or use the Bible to reinforce patriarchal attitudes throughout the culture. Atheistic gays, bisexuals, and transgender people go after the religious roots of the homophobia they endure.
Just as doctors don’t live unhealthy lives because they hang around sickness all the time and detectives are not defined by criminality because they investigate crimes, argumentative atheists are not in some covert way defined by theism and supernaturalistic religiosity just because we debunk theism and supernatural religious beliefs. When we’re talking about what we don’t think, naturally we focus on these things we reject. When we are trying to oppose something we think is misleading people and sometimes harming them, naturally we research it! We think through how to oppose it. That does not mean it is the entirety of what we think, and it does not mean we don’t have plenty of time and other interests to develop whole other lines of productive, positive thought, and engage in sets of life activities that completely table the ideas we think are worthless and only to be debunked.
It is a wildly decontextualized and emotionally unimaginative mindset that thinks that no one can ever have a good reason to define themselves in part by something like what they don’t believe. When the vast majority of people–billions of people–believe in a particular set of falsehoods related to the most fundamental questions of reality and morality, then it is meaningful to count oneself as a non-believer in those things–in addition to counting oneself as having any number of positive philosophies and identities. It should not be such an incredible revelation that more than one label can importantly apply to someone. In one respect or another there are plenty of labels that, as context occasions, fit me.
One of those important labels is atheist. I proudly make known to others that I don’t give any undue deference to fraudulent religious claims to authority and truth. I make my dissent clear. For me, it’s a moral, political, social, and intellectual act of defiance based on my moral and intellectual conscience and philosophical rigor. It scandalizes and infuriates people who want religious hegemony and uniformity. Which is great!
It signals to cautious or confused doubters that they don’t have to believe; that others out there don’t. That’s awesomely subversive to religious hegemony and potentially liberating to doubters. I love that. Blows to religious hegemony, when they add up, can be huge catalysts for social, moral, political, and intellectual change. They’re worth making.
It also signals to new deconverts who feel alienated and adrift that they are not alone. That is deeply satisfying since I didn’t have any mature atheists to understand me and take me under their wing when I became an atheist, and I sure could have used that. It is a rich thing for me to be that for others. It’s very meaningful. The culture is set up to give no resources to apostates. Some of us atheists care to take care of them.
I also define myself as an atheist and focus on atheist things because I am deeply excited by the constructive project of creating the philosophical worldviews and communities for the average person that can be alternatives to supernaturalistic religions and theistic frameworks. I want to chip in to help with those processes. And atheism is the big tent in which to unite a great many non-supernaturalists/non-theists (even though, yes, not all atheists are non-supernaturalists, particularly in the East). In English speaking Western countries, atheism is a powerful unifier of non-supernaturalists. Since so many of us have our entire categories defined for us by theistic religions, when we come out of the faith we do not have positive secular alternative categories in many cases. In many cases all we know is we are an agnostic or an atheist. So it’s great we atheists use the easily recognizable word “atheism” to help us catch people in the initial stages of apostasy and signal to them that we’re like them and that we’re there for them. They may not know that if we only defined ourselves in positive terms as “humanists” or something else we positively were.
And even though I think supernaturalistic beliefs have no plausibility atheism engages my intellect a great deal as a philosopher, a lay psychologist, and an educator. This is because dissuading people of false religious beliefs involves deeply fascinating challenges. How do you get around the incredible interlocking mazes of complicated psychological defense mechanisms, contorted rationalizations, tribal allegiances, and innate cognitive biases and superstitiousness all masterfully exploited by theistic religions to secure their control over people’s minds. How do you work out your philosophical understandings about the natures of mind, will, morality, knowledge, and even reality itself so that they are not distortable by religious apologists who will use any lacuna in thought or equivocation in language as a loophole to drive a truck through in order to destroy philosophy and science themselves on behalf of faith? How do you translate all this better philosophy into comprehensible and intuitive terms that will inoculate people against being misled into theistic errors or into being incapable of being disabused of them once they’ve acquired them? That’s all quite a labor to engage in!
I am constantly reinvigorated by the challenge of untying some uniquely messy, interconnected knot of false ideas in somebody’s indoctrinated and tenaciously, irrationally, defensive head. It takes creativity, patience, and precision to neatly take apart every strand of why something wrong in a dozen interconnected ways is so messed up. It’s intellectually satisfying the way any complicated and meticulous problem solving is. No one asks what’s so fun to a mechanic about figuring out how to fix uniquely broken engines. Why does anyone think it’s inherently uninteresting to try to figure out the logic behind a broken belief system and each unique believer’s contorted perspectives on the world, and try to correct them? Problem solving is problem solving. You could point to any of a thousand projects humans enthusiastically exercise their minds on and ignorantly say “how boring!” They’re not boring to everyone just because they’re boring to you! (Can you believe that??)
And helping to untangle people’s confused beliefs and help them think more clearly is not just a fun problem solving exercise. I care about people autonomously living their lives guided by the true and able to achieve the good as much as possible. Opposing institutions that are such systematic miseducators in these regards is as lofty an educational goal as I know of. Breaking the strangleholds of deference to dogma and faith-based prejudicial thinking liberates and empowers people like few other educational accomplishments. It is totally worth my time to focus on that. This is the kind of philosophical education that changes lives.
Arguing for atheism is not some arbitrary decision to focus some efforts (even substantial ones) on just any random thing that I don’t believe. It’s not like I picked a random non-belief out of a hat and said, “I don’t believe in unicorns. I’m going to make a whole website about how unicorns don’t exist!” Rather I got into this in no small part because these silly beliefs–the very ones we’re so often told are as much a waste of time to debunk as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny–are actually believed on a massive scale. In fact I, and a lot of my fellow adamant atheists, had huge portions of our lives wasted or distorted believing in these things. Please, stop pretending that you can’t see the difference in our universe between politically and socially ineffectual fantasy beliefs and those which billions of people base their identities, hopes, ethics, and politics on. I loathe the cynicism that’s indifferent to whether the majority of people are able to see through the fog of fantasies that our natural superstitiousness makes us prone towards and which religious institutions ruthlessly exploit.
And, on this score, it is downright infuriating when we former believers are mocked for caring about these issues. When people are like, “Well for an atheist, you sure care a lot about religion!” That’s a way of trying to do what, exactly? Paint us as irrational for caring about this? Imply we are still in religion’s thrall as a way to chip away at our sense of identity and make us feel dependent after all on what we are trying to reject? Make us shut up about religion out of fear of committing this supposedly terrible inconsistency you are trying to accuse us of?
I have news for you. Recent deconverts are often enough emotionally in a fucked up place with respect to their former religions. Those religions do still have some pull. And it’s not a fucking joke. It’s not something you should cavalierly exploit to bully and belittle atheists.
I can understand why manipulative religions, which will do anything to keep people from being free of them, engage in these rhetorical tactics against us. When they tell us we shouldn’t worry about their beliefs if we don’t believe in them they’re simply trying to shut us up. They’re not happy with what we’re saying and they’re trying to find a clever way to embarrass us and make us feel dumb for caring. That’s the manipulative and abusive way they roll. This emotional, rhetorical, obfuscating strategy is way more convenient for them than actually attempting the difficult work of trying to actually refute us. They want all the intensity for their religions that they loaded us up with to magically evaporate now that it’s turned against them. But it’s too late for that. They’re not going to get off that easy.
I am not going to be gaslighted and accused of having a crazy preoccupation when I write against their beliefs and values.
Now I sure understand why Christians and other theists want us apostates and other atheists to be quiet. They want only faith’s boosters, and not its critics, to ever be heard. But for ignorant fellow atheists who know nothing of what deconverts are going through to chide us for caring about religion? You should practice thinking from others’ perspectives. You should learn a little empathy. Especially those among you who prattle on so much about tolerance.
Many deconverts are essentially having the experience of escaping a cult. Their former religion may be huge in numbers and influential and mainstream and all, but that only makes it worse in many ways because it’s all that much harder for escapees to get away from it in their families and their cultures. They’re coping with rejecting a totalizing worldview that dominated any number of aspects of their very selves (in some cases–like mine–almost everything about themselves). Their love relationships, their sexuality, their family, their emotional life, their sense of purpose and meaning, their morality, their “spirituality”, their politics, their intellectual life, their goals, their self-image, their career vocation, etc., were all to be submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Or to Allah. Or to whoever their god or gods happened to be.
The very reason that religion is so taboo to attack in the first place is related to how fundamentally dominant that it can be in people’s psyches. But once you deconvert? Those same people who preached respecting you because religion meant so much to you now start trivializing the seriousness of the effects religion had on you and try to exploit it against you to silence you. The inconsistency is purely a function of reflexive prejudice towards religion. This is religious privilege at work, even among atheists.
Goading apostates by saying, “ha ha, see! you can’t really escape!” becomes like mocking someone coming out of a relationship of lies or abuse for still thinking about their ex or for campaigning against domestic abuse. “Ha ha, see! you can’t really escape!”
Apostates don’t have to answer to you. If they still have some emotional reason to be focused on picking through the pieces of their former world, if they have grievances with the institutions and practices that harmed them and they see continuing to harm others, if they are deeply motivated to articulate in detail the logic of the reasons they left the faith that they might explain it to those closest to them in their lives who are rejecting them as a sinner and a traitor for following their conscience, if they are surrounded on all sides socially by their former faith no matter what they do, then the last fucking thing they need is to be shamed by you or told that their interests make no sense except “ironically”. There is nothing bizarre or irrational or even ironic about them taking some time–however much time they find valuable–to both process what they went through in deconverting and to actively push back against lies and other harms that they resent having been subjected to and no longer want to see others fall prey to.
And even those lucky enough to never truly believe wind up rallying around “what they don’t believe in” because they are besieged by religious intrusions into the positive interests that they would rather focus on, and maybe even were focusing on until religious influences started affecting them, or until they had their consciousness raised.
Many scientific atheists get roped into caring about theistic religion by fundamentalists bound and determined to systematically undermine scientific education.
Many women atheists start caring about opposing theistic religion when they see how incredibly regularly religion bolsters patriarchies, makes women second class citizens, opposes women’s bodily autonomy, and demonizes women’s sexuality.
Many gay atheists are pushing back against being shoved into closets, degraded as perverts, and having their love and sexual expressions compared to bestiality. Forgive them if once they stop believing in God, they’re not in a hurry to let homophobic religions go on their way demonizing them with no pushback. Forgive those gay atheists for wanting to dismantle the whole engine of regressive, stagnating, prejudicial reactionary morality that made that hatred of them possible in the first place.
And a philosopher atheist like me? I want people to be able to do quality philosophical thinking and I see it constantly derailed by fealty to religiously ingrained prejudices. Nothing gets people attacking reason and logic themselves like defensive faith. Nothing closes people’s minds to the panoply of philosophical perspectives like fear of contradicting a faith-commitment. I want to clear out all that dreck and intellectual cowardice and slavery so people can make creative constructive advances in their thinking about some of the most basic questions in life. I want to help them feel the intoxicating, open-ended freedom of thought I never was able to feel as a believer. The ability to change one’s mind without an identity crisis. That was such a source of liberation for me. I want it for others.
And particularly, as a moral philosopher, I want to see the richness of rational approaches to ethics promulgated and I want the end of so much pointless and counter-productive, mind-narrowing deference to an imaginary being and a relatively small, boring, and usually unimaginative set of outdated religious texts and figures. I want average people to be freed up to engage more vigorously with the rich range of ethical insights and topics, superstition free.
And, finally, even as many atheists with plenty of positive interests find damn good reasons to make opposing theism a priority, still a fair number seem to actually get bored and move on eventually. Those who get into atheism before they have a life-focusing constructive positive intellectual or activism interest in something else outside of religion are maybe the most likely to move on once they’ve gotten pushing back against theism out of their system. They seem to just naturally gravitate away when they’re done saying “no” to what they don’t believe in and want to go focus on something they do believe in. For some this could even be working on a constructive post-theism worldview and community building. For others it could be that they fall in love with social justice or physics or biology or philosophy or futurism or something else that they delved into as part of opposing false religions.
And that’s great. Not everyone needs to focus on everything all the time. I realize that some of this pushback from apatheists (atheists who don’t care about religion) might just be a matter of them worrying that we outspoken atheists are going to try to conscript them into fights over religion that they are not interested in. For such atheists, I wrote another piece explaining what I really am (and am not) asking of them with respect to confrontations over religion. For now let me just say that I totally appreciate and support atheists who would rather focus the bulk of their life energies on something other than what they don’t believe in. Heck, even as much as I simply love fighting religious falsehoods, I also love thinking constructively and learning about the huge world of real things and getting to ignore theism and other false religious beliefs for the bulk of my time doing actual philosophy and teaching philosophy. And, amazingly, I have a lot of time and energy to do constructive thinking about what I do think, even with all the time I devote to opposing what I don’t believe. I don’t have to pick only one activity! It’s incredible! I can be defined by what I don’t think and by what I do think! How mind-expandingly novel a concept!!
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