Friday, November 1, 2013

How one man justified his own bigotry by blaming atheists.

atheistI ran across a baffling exchange last night before I went to bed. There was a particular statement that most bothered me which I will quote. I’d link directly to the blog but for two things. One I don’t want to give these particular people any extra traffic, and two, I don’t want my blog to show up in the traffic sources on their blog stats. The second reason being because the quote I’m critiquing comes from a person who I once considered a friend. I suspect you will understand why that friendship is in past tense when you read the quote.

In any case, to give you some context this was in the comment section of a blog post discussing the recent kerfuffle started between atheists and Oprah after her interview of Diana Nyad. I didn’t write this thing because quite frankly I couldn’t think of anything to say about it that hadn’t already been said elsewhere. Posts like the ones on The Friendly Atheist, and Camels with Hammers already covered everything I could want to say on the topic, so I didn’t see much reason to weigh in.

In any case the OP thinks that atheists who complain about Oprah are whiney, which makes me conclude that they haven’t actually read much of the actual criticism that atheists wrote about this interview. Most of the criticism was a lot more nuanced than just rabid demands for an apology. Further most atheists don’t get bent out of shape about every bit of religious iconography as the OP indicates that they do, only the ones that used to promote state endorsement of religion..

The OP says they were not criticizing all atheists but just liberal ones, but even this is odd since nothing about this conversation is directly related to politics. I wasn’t terribly happy about Oprah’s statements but I don’t consider myself a liberal or a Democrat. Of course, I don’t consider myself a conservative or a Republican either, but again this discussion is really unrelated to politics, not everything has to be about what political party one belongs too.

The real fun starts when a fellow atheist chimes in with criticism the simplistic way in which the OP addresses atheism and a commenter chimes in with this:

You know this problem would go away if they would just admit that they’re a religion (a belief system based on faith without a single shred of proof)…then we could break them into denominations and only attack the denominations that were annoying…but since they refuse to admit the obvious it becomes difficult.

I rarely see such a blatant attempts at victim blaming outside of a men’s rights website, or an advocate for Social Darwinism. The poster believes we are to blame for both his and the OP insulting statements about atheists because if we would just break up into denominations they wouldn’t have to generalize so much. There are so many things wrong with this statement it is difficult to even know where to begin.

First, there is no reason to think that such an action would really change anyone's behavior because you actually have to be familiar with a system of beliefs in order to start to understand the nuances in that belief system. For example, there are multiple “denominations” of Buddhism, (that range from polytheistic to atheistic) but how many people in the U.S. actually know that? I would venture to guess there aren’t many.  Nothing indicates to me that this poster cares one bit about understanding the opinions of atheists.

Secondly, it is quite easy to categorize ideas with turning them into a “religion.” We do this for politics, philosophy, and a variety of other ideas without blinking. If the commenter is unable to separate out different ideas within atheism unless they admit they are religious than that is simply a lack of imagination on their part. Though I suspect it is more likely just an excuse for what I can only refer to bigotry. Which brings me to my third point.

Categorizing people by “denominations” is not a substitute for actually getting to know people. To put it another way, I regularly criticize religion on this blog, but you won’t hear me say things like “Christians are stupid,” or “Every Muslim is a terrorist.” The reason for this is that I am not going to assume that every single person who identifies with a certain label necessarily thinks lockstep with every other person who shares that label. I’ll criticize religious ideas, and even specific religious people, but I try to avoid sweeping generalizations, and for good reason. Creating a group of sub categories just attempts to hide the problem behind another layer of generalizations that are just slightly less general.

In any case, Have denominations really helped sort out the problems in Christianity? Even within specific Christian denominations there are disagreements about a wide variety of things. We can generalize that southern Baptists are Republican and against gay marriage, but I have met a few who are neither of those things. Heck, despite thousands of denominations some Christians still argue that their beliefs are not actually a religion.

They also miss a very real reason that atheists don’t tend to like to categorize themselves much. We, meaning all humans, like to categorize things. It’s something we do quite well. It’s why things like Apophenia (seeing patterns where there are none) exist. It’s evolutionary beneficial, because it allows us to make quick decisions about unfamiliar things by attaching them to a category of things that are familiar. However, it’s also lazy thinking, and can lead to errors. Once something is fit in a category we tend to stop thinking about it very carefully. Many atheist are skeptics (though not all), and as such we recognize this behavior, and the potential problems that go with it. People who join a new group, be it religious, political or something else, don’t start out agreeing with everything, but over time tend to embrace more and more of their ideas. Categorizing ourselves into different denominations would be easy, but in the long run it would make it more difficult for us to assess new ideas fairly.

What the commenter doesn’t seem to realize is that other human beings don’t exist for their benefit. There is no requirement that we fit into neat categories to make things more intellectually easy for them. I see no reason to give up my intellectual autonomy because someone promises to quit making hatful generalizations about me if I do. If you have trouble understanding other people make an effort to understand them don’t opine about how things would be so much easier for you if everyone else conformed to your overly simplistic expectations.

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