As part of an event being run on campus by the Freethought Association, the other day I found myself involved in an argument over the existence of God.  That wasn’t anything unexpected given the circumstances.  However, what was unexpected was how utterly I forgot one of the most basic ‘laws’ of such discussions: there is no shortage of people willing to bring out the most worn-out and thoroughly overthrown arguments as though no one had ever heard them before.  I don’t merely say this as an atheist making fun of certain arguments for the existence of God that ought to have been laid to rest centuries ago (although that is what I’m doing here): I’ll admit that some of my fellow atheists are also willing to make silly arguments which ‘the other side’ have in fact answered more than adequately.  –Personally, I think it all goes a long way to supporting a claim made by Thucydides millennia ago: despite the passage of time, people are people and so they inevitably do the same basic things that they’ve always done.  The great historian’s claim is that history inevitably repeats itself (and therefore that, not unrelatedly, there is use for us historians).–

Here’s what happened.  We were sitting in two groups facing each other: atheists on one side and theists on the other.  The people on the theist side were, I think, all Catholic with the exception of this one fellow.  When he said that he could prove to us that there was a God, no one on either side knew what he was going to say next.  I’ll skip past the details of what he did first, which was to attack our club’s name.  He next held up three objects, an orange peel, a plum pit, and some other thing from the produce aisle which I’ve since forgotten: he said that he would use these simple objects to make his point.  I was actually excited to hear what he was going to say next: I had no idea where his train of thought was going, as though I had forgotten everything I’ve ever learnt over these past few years of getting into such arguments.  I thought I was really going to hear something new, something interesting.  Do you see already where he was going though?  These were not his exact words, but they’ll have to do: “Behold the peach, so finely designed for an animal to eat its fruit to free its seed.  Behold the orange leaves, which know to arrange themselves so as not to block sunlight from the orange.  Design implies a Designer, etc.”  This was simply a rather dated version of the argument from design, one that predates the modern evolutionary theory by which it is well answered.  There were audible groans from the atheist side of the room, and I saw people on the theist side looking deeply annoyed as well: I don’t think anyone was impressed.  As for myself, I felt rather let down at first, and then irritated that I’d been so naïve as to have expected that he really was going to present something which no one had ever heard before.  At the very least I should have seen it coming once he pulled out the produce.

Don’t misunderstand: my complaint isn’t simply that his argument was old.  Many such arguments lose none of their force as time passes.  My complaint is simply that this wasn’t one of them.  It is the year A.D. 2012: presenting an argument which lost any power which it might ever have had by the 19th century doesn’t make for a very interesting discussion.  But what can be done?  Obviously not everyone knows that these arguments really are so obsolete.  I suppose that those of us who are so inclined can keep trying to get it through their thick skulls help them to understand.  It doesn’t always work, but the fact that we’ve seen it work sometimes (i.e.: there really are people who listen) shows that it isn’t necessarily a useless struggle.  I remain doubtfully optimistic, picturing Sisyphus watching his boulder roll down the hill yet again and wondering if maybe, just maybe, it’ll stay there at the top next time.

Quiet Condemnation

Last week our freethought group on campus met with some representatives of Campus for Christ.  A friend of mine, blogging about the experience here, was taken aback by the fact that they really do believe in Hell and eternal damnation, that we actually “spent most of the evening sitting and having a civil and polite discussion with some nice, fairly intelligent people who sincerely believe that I and my friends will be in eternal agony after death.”  Put like that, I can recognize how strange it was, yet all the same I didn’t find it strange.  As I told him then, I’m used to those doctrines.

To explain, I was raised in a fairly devote Catholic family.  While the doctrines concerning Hell were never emphasized in the way that is stereotypical of Catholicism, they were there.  At Mass they did sometimes teach the concept of mortal sin, but I relied on books to follow its course of logic to the end and learn among other things of the damnation on account of such sin of those who understand that they scorn the faith.  (These books, some admittedly rather dated, “taught” me many things besides this, but that’s perhaps a subject for another time.)  I came to believe that “the damned” were all around me, in my community, my school, my church, and that I might even be one of them should I fail to behave in accordance with God’s will.  Unbelievers seemed to be a particularly bad sort in light of the nature of their rejection, but as far as I could tell, most of the people I knew were unbelievers.  I was very reserved though, so I never tried to evangelize to them or anything like that.  I merely became used to having ‘civil and polite discussions with nice, fairly intelligent people whom I sincerely believed were (probably) going to be in eternal agony after their deaths.’  So I’ve been that person who thinks this way.  I know well that such people exist.  Their experience is too familiar to be strange to me.

I was able to persist in such belief for several years, longer than I think should have been possible.  There were two main reasons for this.  The first is probably applicable to many: the belief that being good requires a certain degree of orthodoxy means that challenging the orthodox doctrines of Hell was out of the question, since believing such doctrines and not challenging them was one of the things necessary to being good and thereby being saved.  (Duh!)  The other reason is probably common as well, but by nature not something easy for others to notice: as I said, I seldom talked about these beliefs.  In fact, I didn’t talk much about my beliefs at all.  The result is that they received little direct challenge.  How could they?  But I was sensitive to those devilish sentiments which made their way in my general direction by less direct routes, and the basic dissonance inherent in believing in the probable eternal damnation of seemingly-decent people around me gradually became too much to remain acceptable.  Something had to give, and in the end it was my belief in Hell (and its God).  I have to thank everyone who ever said that it is a foul doctrine, and so I don’t hesitate to join them now.

What I really want to talk about though is the basic social dynamic involved in situations like these, where (let’s say) two people can sit around having a friendly discussion while each quietly believing that the other is fundamentally wrong on some important matter.  After all, believing that one’s interlocutor surely faces eternal damnation while not saying much of it to them is just one of the more excessive forms of this pragmatic civility.  I’m sure that it’s something we all do in other forms.  Here are just a few examples that come to mind from my own experience.

1) In a certain community organization I find myself working with people with whom I share rather different political views, and by that I mean I often find their views quite repugnant.  But we have things to do together and fighting each other for political reasons wouldn’t seem to be productive, so I simply do what I can to avoid political discussion.  (I admit that I could be mistaken on that last point about avoiding conflict, especially because it leaves open the risk that the inaction of people like me will passively allow the group to move in a distasteful direction.  Case in point: ‘doing what I can to avoid political discussion’ has increasingly meant simply being less involved in the group.)

2) For mainly ethical reasons, I’m a vegetarian.  Most people aren’t, including the majority of my friends.  We tend to avoid the topic.

3) Someone is wrong on the internet, but I don’t hit ‘reply’ because I have things to do.

What should I do in these situations?  They’re not entirely comparable, but what they have in common is that they all involve silent inaction for practical reasons in the face of a situation which might seem to call for something more from anyone with a conviction that they’re in the right.  More generally, what is the proper response to such situations?  This is a difficult question and I won’t pretend to have the answer, even if I assume that the context underlying the situation is always one in which it is safe to speak.  (It’s also problematic for me because I tend to be somewhat shy.  This means that the fundamental reason for my saying nothing in such situations is sometimes only that I find myself too unassertive to say anything when the occasion surely calls for speech.  I can then rationalize my failure by saying that it was a sound tactical decision on my part when it was merely a thoughtless reaction.  Separating good reasons for inaction from such rationalizations adds another level of difficulty to this situation, and I’m sure that many people face the same difficulty.  Shyness is after all something that may vary with context.)  I suppose it’s something to think about.

Better than the Others

This is a response to this post (which is itself a response to this one).

“But the sheer condescending dickery on the post above isn’t a lack of polish. It’s indicative of one of the worst tendencies of the atheist community – to be smugly superior. Think Dennett’s attempt to create a “Bright’s” movement. It thankfully never took off, but there is a tendency in certain quarters to assume being an atheist automatically makes you cleverer than anyone else. I can see where this might crop up, especially in the States, if the only religious people you ever encounter are Tea Party-esque evangelicals, or Bill Donohue of the Catholic League. But for the most part, atheists are not smarter than anyone else, just (in my view) right about a single thing.”

I’ve noticed this.  There is certainly a tendency among some in the atheist community to think that we’re smarter than everyone else.  But, I don’t think this problem of feeling smugly superior is at all unique to us.  Let’s review.  People can be atheists for all sorts of reasons: the only significant generalization that can be made about us is that we don’t believe in any god.  However, there is more that can be said about people involved in the atheist movement than can be said of atheists generally.  This is a community which defines itself largely in terms of a shared epistemology: we value reason, critical thinking, freethought, scepticism, and that sort of thing.  We value these things because we think they are useful for ascertaining the truth of matters of a certain sort and for recognizing claims which are false.  As a community we distinguish ourselves from others on the basis of these things.  It’s no wonder then that there are many within the community who think that we’re smarter than everyone else, since we define our community –a process of setting ourselves apart from others– in these intellectual terms.  This is therefore not simply a matter of atheists in our view being “right about a single thing,” since we are speaking about the atheist community and not merely everyone who happens to be an atheist.  As a community we define ourselves as a group who are right about a number of things on account of our superior epistemology…

Of course, that last bit isn’t quite true.  For it to be true we would have to assume that humans are internally consistent in their thoughts, entirely rational, etc, and these things are demonstrably false.  It is by recognizing our limitations that we can realize an expressed commitment to a certain method of ascertaining the truth does not inevitably mean being right about anything at all, and in this, perhaps somewhat regrettably, lies the escape from a misguided feeling of smug superiority.

If what I’m saying is at all true, then it would follow that other communities may also feel superior to others on the basis of those things by which they define themselves as a group.  Based on my own experience in some of these communities, I would say that this is indeed so.  A good example can be seen in the vegetarian/vegan/animal movement.  Once again, the only generalization that can be made of all vegetarians is that they don’t eat meat.  There are any number of reasons why people mightn’t eat meat, and so little else of any significance can be said of them.  But once again, there is more that can be said of people involved in the animal movement.  This time, we define ourselves largely in terms of a shared ethics, or rather that we largely share an ethics which grants more consideration of a certain kind to animals than is usually done.  The reasons for this are actually rather varied, probably much more so than the reasons for which people in the atheist movement value scepticism and whatnot, and so generalization is somewhat more difficult.  Whatever the reason, the community defines itself largely in ethical and moral terms, and so it is not surprising that there is a tendency among some to feel morally superior to everyone outside the movement.  (Of course, some of this is related to the religious reasons for which some people are part of the movement, since religion is itself another way in which communities are defined.  Even in the West, where most religious discourse has not encouraged vegetarianism for a very long time, there is still a powerful narrative of purity originating in part from certain strands of religion in Antiquity that did, ready to be tapped by anyone.)

This is why the stereotypical animal-rights activist has a marked holier-than-thou attitude, and it is for the same basic reason that the stereotypical atheist is a snob who thinks he (I think the stereotypical atheist is a guy) is smarter than everyone around him.  For the reasons described, there are people like that.  That said, there is also an extent to which these stereotypes emerge from people outside the communities involved.  For instance, if I tell someone who isn’t an atheist that I’m an atheist, then at least implicitly it is probably clear to that person that I think they’re wrong about something: I can’t help but have something of an oppositional stance when I do this.  My interlocutor may then make a similar mistake to the smug atheists and assume that, because I think I’m probably right about these matters for the reasons mentioned, then I must think that I’m smarter than everyone else.  In other words, to someone to whom I say that I’m an atheist, I could be thought to be deeply conceited either because they’ve encountered other atheists who are, or simply because they think it must follow inevitably from atheism.  Or both.  In any case, it wouldn’t follow: it would be a mistake to assume this of someone for such a reason as that.

So, while I agree that there is a problem with some people in the movement thinking they’re smarter than everyone else, I think this is simply the particular manifestation of a more widespread phenomenon common to (among others) self-selecting communities seeking social change, arising from the way in which these communities define themselves in relation to others.  This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t resist this tendency to have misguided feelings of communal superiority, nor that I think there is anything wrong with having activist movements like the ones I’ve mentioned, but merely that to be effective we have to keep in mind what sort of a deep-seated human tendency we are probably dealing with here.