Must we fight about fighting?

Must we fight about fighting? March 21, 2012

Today is the LAST day to vote in the Atheism Awards.  I’m one of five nominees for Best Atheist Blog.  More details here.

After reading my post about being visible as an atheist (and what comes next), Brian Green from The Moral Minefield was dismayed.  He wrote (in two comments, which I’ve condensed):

“My goal is for everyone to be atheists.”

I thought your goal was to find the truth. Statements like this make me wonder if I should question your sincerity. Because it sounds like you are finished; already done…

Of course one can still act while short of 100% certainty. And I do think you are sincere. But I have to say, I am Catholic and even I don’t say that I think everyone should become Catholic. That all should be atheists is a very oddly totalizing statement, indicating certainty without doubt, to me. And denying even multiple paths to the truth (whatever that may be). I think we have learned by now that diversity is a strength, not a liability…

I suppose my real concern is a theory-practice one again, as usual. As you gain practical commitment to atheist causes, the bond strengthens. Theory follows practice. Habit deepens. When you become president of the American Atheists, your freedom of thought will become highly constricted just due to practical concerns, even if on an unconscious level. The stronger your overt physical commitment, the more tightly are you mentally chained to that commitment.

This is a problem that’s come up before, especially in reference to the ‘My Burden of Proof‘ tab above, which serves as an about page and will hopefully be updated by the end of the week. A previous iteration of the page ended with the line “I’m in this argument to win, and I don’t want to shirk any challenge.” I ended up revising after I found out a number of Christian readers were turned off by that line (one reader raked me over the coals for it).

I suspect this is mostly a cultural/personality issue.  Especially after four years in a philosophical debating group, I just don’t think of “I plan to convert you” (whether to Catholicism, Atheism, Marxism, or a math major) as an inappropriately aggressive statement.  It’s how we say hello, and how we say we care.  If we didn’t like you, we’d just try to contain you, instead of correcting your error.  But if you think the stakes are high, and you’re pretty sure you’re not wrong, trying to persuade others is just common courtesy.

And as to how sure you need to be, I’d refer everyone back to my faith and probability post.  Most decisions don’t require a “bet your life” level of certainty.  And when you’re making a choice, the way you commit to your most probable choice should look exactly like the way you would commit if you were rock-solid certain.  Whether you’re just over the tipping point or as certain as you are of the Pythagorean theorem, you’re still fully committed until new evidence emerges.  The only difference is how strong the new evidence has to be.

Tactically, though I guess I could stand to soften my tone for a general audience.  Just as I wouldn’t (sadly) expect to use Roberts Rules of Order in everyday life or rely on some traditional slang (though I think I’ve managed to get you all in the loop on ‘metaphysical backsliding‘).  But perhaps I can’t use the pugilistic metaphors that come so naturally without frightening people off.

Are there any suggestions about how to frame this differently, so people stick around for the arguments?  Or is it the very idea that philosophies and ethical systems should aggressively confront each other and attempt to triumph over each other that people find inappropriate?

I seek out conversation and hard questions on this blog, but I don’t see dialogue as an end in itself.  Every conversation is always directed towards conversion.  Searching for truth is good, but if you’re not coming up with any truths to share, or identifying any falsehoods to purge, you may want to reevaluate your methodology.


I’ll address the other problem Brian raised, about compromising your reasoning by making an ideology part of your identity in tomorrow’s post.

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