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Sunday, August 5, 2012

What's a "bad atheist"?

Ian Murphy has a piece on AlterNet called The 5 Most Awful Atheists, the title of which can be read a few different ways. He could be talking about people who happen to be atheists, who are awful. Or, he could be talking about people who are awful at being atheists. His subheading-- Many notable atheists believe in some powerfully stupid stuff, thereby eroding the credibility of all atheists-- suggests that he might believe that you can be awful at being an atheist by being an awful person, or at least being a person who believes awful things, or who believes things for awful reasons. Murphy's article actually conflates all of these things, which is precisely the problem with it. It does, however, work admirably as an illustration of why they shouldn't be conflated.

In short, Murphy contends that Sam Harris, Bill Maher, Penn Jillette, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are "awful atheists" because they are awful people-- in his opinion. Specifically, they hold personal and political stances that he finds repulsive, which means (to him) that they aren't rational. And as we all know, "rationalist" and "atheist" are the same thing.

Wait, they aren't? Could've fooled Murphy:
The thing about the so-called “rationalist” movement in America is that disbelief in gods seems to be the only qualification to join the club. Disbelief in a supernatural creator, especially as the movement becomes more popular or “hep,” as I'm pretending the kids say, in no way guarantees rationality in matters of foreign policy or economics, for example. Many notable atheists believe in some powerfully stupid stuff—likely owing their prominence to these same benighted beliefs, lending an air of scientific credibility to the myths corporate media seeks to highlight, and thereby eroding the credibility of all atheists in the long-term. In other words: The crap always rises to the top.
Here's a thought: From here on out, criticize self-proclaimed rationalists for dropping the ball when it comes to being rational. Say that people who declare themselves to be skeptics are "awful skeptics" when they fail abysmally at applying skepticism in their outlook. Disbelief in a supernatural creator-- or more accurately, a deity generally-- is all it takes to be an atheist. So saying that Harris, Maher, Jillette, and Hirsi Ali are "awful atheists" because of something you dislike about their thinking which is not a lack of belief in a god or gods is incoherent. They have not failed at being atheists. They may have failed at being rationalists, skeptics, humanists, non-bigots, or just decent people generally, but not at atheism.

Why have I excluded S.E. Cupp from this consideration? Well, because I think she might actually have failed at atheism. I really don't know much about her-- less by far than any of the other people Murphy criticizes-- but he describes her as being "self-loathing" as an atheist: "She recently said, 'I would never vote for an atheist president. Ever,' because she thinks religion serves as a 'check' on presidential power." The only time I am likely to think of someone as a "bad atheist" is when they don't appear to actually be an atheist, and/or can't seem to get his or her mind around the concept. The most recent time that happened was Christopher Beha's review of recent books by atheists in which he counts himself amongst the "disappointed disbelievers" whose only recourse is to seek simple pleasure in recreational drugs (!) or other transient entertainment in order to avoid or ignore the nihilism to which non-belief logically, inevitably leads. Atheism: you're doing it wrong.

Hemant Mehta wrote of Murphy's piece:
Here’s a summary of his list:
  • Sam Harris: He thinks religious profiling might have merit and defends torture in some instances.
  • Bill Maher: He’s misogynistic, condescending, and anti-flu-shots.
  • Penn Jillette: He’s a libertarian.
  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali: She’s practices “neoconservative lunacy” and is excessively anti-Islam.
  • S.E. Cupp: She’s a self-loathing atheist
I’ll give him S.E. Cupp. When it comes to atheism, she’s pretty embarrassing, talking about how she openly wishes she were religious and how she refuses to vote for an atheist. It’s arguable that her atheism, true or not, is more of a schtick she uses to get attention. 
But the rest of them? Please.
Mehta goes on to discuss the validity of Murphy's individual objections, and evaluates whether these five people in terms of how much they have done to convince other people to become atheists, which I'd say is more a measure of their individual respective knacks for evangelism. It doesn't specifically address how good they are at being atheists, because that's fundamentally silly-- you can't be "good" at not believing in something. Lack of belief has no merit badges, no ranks, no authorities, no governing organizations. There are certainly organizations of atheists, but rising in power and influence within those organizations is not about how strongly you disbelieve (what a bizarre thought), but how good you are at....well, making it more comfortable to disbelieve. Easier. More acceptable. Less like something you'd feel the need to snort a line of cocaine to escape from, or openly disdain in order to curry favor with believers who require the myth of the self-destructive and nihilistic non-believer to be maintained.

It is, by the way, to the benefit of atheists to clarify these distinctions rather than blur them, intentionally or otherwise.  If we don't pretend that rationalism, skepticism, secularism, humanism, and atheism are all the same thing, then people won't mistakenly think that pointing out downfalls in one is the same as refuting them all, especially when the downfalls they're pointing out are restricted to an individual person-- intended for some reason to not only represent the entirety of one (non)ideology, but of all of them. That's an absurd move, one that shouldn't receive any help from the people it seeks to vilify. So don't give that help. Pay attention to the distinctions. Recognize that people aren't packages-- they can be exemplary at one thing you admire while failing abysmally at another-- and adjust your need for spokespeople accordingly.

Reject them when they don't speak for you. Don't let other people assume they do, and then hold you accountable for their failings. And for god's sake, don't assume that a person failing in any way somehow reflects on an entire body of people whose connection to that person really has nothing to do with whatever flaw you found. That's called prejudice, and the people unfairly slandered by it are not the ones at fault.

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