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Sunday, October 14, 2012


For the past year or so, my mom has been keen to keep reminding me that she doesn’t believe in anything like the classical concept of God.  Of course, this is always a prelude to her spewing out some crap about connectedness, spirituality, or homeopathy.  I point this out because by the way most atheists use the term, my mom is technically an atheist: She doesn’t believe in anything worth calling a god.  However, in terms of our end goal towards a more reasonable tomorrow, my mom does not represent any substantial progress.
Even though she’s gotten rid of the god, my mom still thinks religiously.  She still holds things on faith.  She still believes it is morally good to hold things on faith.  She still treats vagueness as an answer.  There are still things she doesn’t think can be explained; that she doesn’t want to be explained.  She’s still attached to the mysteries of ignorance.  So attached that she won’t even try to figure it out.  Because in many ways, she is still religious.
Just as deconversions are not the end goal, Atheism is not the end goal.  It is the current battleground, and it is a good current battleground.  It is a useful way to highlight the problems with people believing in random crap without good evidence., but Atheism is not the foundation.  It isn’t even a foundation.  It’s not an input, it’s an output.  It’s a conclusion.  The real foundation is skepticism, rationality, empiricism, freethinking; whatever you want to call it.  Good epistemology.  That is the driving point of the movement, the thing that will actually yield our end goal.  Atheism versus religion is just the surface fight.  Deep down, the real confrontation is rationality versus faith.
I say all this not because I think the atheist community doesn’t realize it.  Far from it.  Most self-proclaimed atheists, especially most of those who are even remotely active, realize this fact.  Rather, my goals for highlighting this fact are twofold.  First, it seems that with regards to particular topics, many atheists lose sight of this fact.  And second, many atheists do not do an adequate job of presenting this distinction.
As for the first, there are several points I need to make.  For starters, the topics in question tend to be the most emotionally charged topics.  One that has been particularly apparent as of late is the topic of equality and discrimination.  And I wish to offer some advice to atheists engaged in these highly-charged discussion, as I feel such topics are an area where our movement is losing some of its integrity.
My first piece of advice is that we all need to remember that just like atheism, morality is also an output.  Preferences are good inputs.  Solid epistemology is a good input.  But courses of action are conclusions, not premises.  I think too many atheists have become so convinced of their stance on certain moral questions (especially those regarding discrimination) that they are no longer able to think critically about the topic.  There is too much name-calling, mud-smearing, and general ad-hominem.  We need to remember that just like the existence of gods, the accuracy of the bible, the effectiveness of homeopathy, and pretty much everything, moral frameworks are not unquestionable.  We need to learn to accept people asking the uncomfortable, even bigoted questions and responding with genuine answers instead of vitriol.  Remember that one of our greatest strengths lies in our convergent epistemological methods.  When we have a disagreement, we should be able to resolve it.  We should not need to resort to schisms or branches, to ‘agree to disagree,’ as the theists have done.  For down that path lies disaster.
My second piece of advice is that atheists need to be comfortable with calling people out and getting called out.  When you see someone, especially someone who’s a part of our movement, making an erroneous argument, or presenting erroneous information, call them on it.  But do it politely.  If your goal is to convince them (as opposed to public debate, where that is usually not your goal), then don’t call them a moron.  Don’t insinuate that they are lacking in intelligence.  Say ‘misinformed’ instead of ‘ignorant.’  And I strongly recommend that if you think someone is saying something utterly idiotic, ask for clarification fist.  There have been many times where a friend and I could have ended up in a heated argument, but avoided such a chore by first asking for clarification, and subsequently realizing that we weren’t even thinking all that differently.
While we do need to ally with other organizations and movements, we must not let this damage our intellectual integrity.  What goes for atheists goes for allies too.  If we unite with the Occupy Movement, the Feminists, the LGBT Community, the NAACP, or the ACLU, we need to be willing to give and receive constructive criticism.  As with each other, we need to be polite in this criticism.  And just as importantly, we need to be willing to forgive people who have been wrong, stupid, or biased once they realize and correct those errors.  Such efforts will go a long way towards keeping our movement united.
My final piece of advice on this matter is that we all need to remember that this is the internet.  You are typing, or making an editable video.  If you are too emotionally charged to think clearly, wait.  Take a step back, calm down, and then put in your say.  Edit it carefully, to make sure you’re not being confrontational with your allies.  The types of communication this movement uses the most are the types that give you the most tools to keep from going irrational.  Use them.
The second focus of this post is on the promotion of our movement.  I think there are a lot of ways that we can go about improving the messages we send to make sure our atheism is connected to our high-quality epistemology.  It doesn’t need to be blatant; in fact subtle is definitely a plus here.  But it does need to be present.
When promoting science, make sure that you present it as being linked with atheism.  There is far too much science promotion that doesn’t go anywhere near the topics of religion or even rationality.  We need to make sure that when we promote science, and especially when we promote it to teens and kids, that we highlight the fact that science and atheism share a foundation.
When promoting atheism, we also need to present it as being an output of good epistemology.  We need to make sure to highlight  not just the different beliefs between an atheist and a theist, but the different methods used.  The different ways in which we reach our conclusions.  That way, we can show the next generation that there is something very fundamentally different between us, and the theists.  We need to make sure the next generation realizes that skepticism offers intellectual fulfillment (our counter to the ‘spiritual fulfillment’ offered by religions).  When religions tell them to stop asking questions, make sure they know that we’ll be there to answer them.  Make sure they know that while a skeptic may not know the answer to all the questions, he or she will never have to be satisfied with ignorance.
Next – and this is one that many of the older atheists messed up – we need to be absolutely sure that we do not speak religiously.  We can’t afford to let our mannerisms signal similarity between us and the theists, intentionally or not.  Don’t use ‘God’ the way Einstein used it, that will just confuse the point.  Don’t talk about being spiritual, being ‘one with the universe’ or similar profoundly vague shenanigans.  While it’s okay to speak emotionally, about a sense of awe, but not through vagueness.  Be sure to present awe at the things we now, instead of awe at the things we don’t know.

And finally, we need to keep this in mind as we proced with the other four pillars.  As we increase our Presence, promote Liberty, build Community, and produce Art, we need to be absolutely sure that we do not sacrifice our intellectual integrity by doing so.  Becuase atheism itself is not the end goal.  Even if we succeed in realizing a purely atheist world, if it costs us our intellectual integrity we will have achieved not a victory, but a crushing defeat.

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