Insularity?


Infidel753 has written a rather fertile article entitled Internet insularity. I say fertile because it’s spawned numerous responses and articles like Ute’s Speaking Out and John Evo’s The Common Agenda of Atheists. It’s actually John’s article that made me aware of Infidel753′s fertile piece and I’ve felt myself needing to respond as well at considerable length.

I think the dangers of insularity that Infidel753 describes don’t apply to atheists online. I’ve yet to meet or hear of an atheist who thinks we’re really a majority, that we do in fact stand for what most people think, or are completely surprised to see political candidates pandering to christians. No, we all know we’re a minority, a much hated and misunderstood minority, and in that respect the sense of community that the internet allows for is much needed. I think it continues to be a valuable support mechanism for atheists on many levels and as discussed on several blogs recently, is very important as a beacon in the storm to those just beginning to examine the god thing, those recently arriving at an atheist answer or even those well entrenched there but who have always thought they were some lone and perhaps crazy individual.

I also don’t see atheists online being as gullible as Ron Paul supporters, swept up in some cult of personality pinning all their hopes and dreams on some odd little outspoken man to right all the wrongs. No, what I see are people with even more of the frustrations, the anxieties, the desperation than the Ron Paulians but yet don’t blindly latch on to someone to be their messiah. Oh we have our champions like Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris but they are repeatedly scrutinized and dissected. I don’t see their opinions being white washed or some team of atheist apologists rushing in to do spin control explaining what Hitchens “really meant” when he said we should bomb the hell out of all of them muslims. Even amongst ourselves online we don’t hesitate to dissect and criticize what each of us has to say, and this perhaps is due to what we all really share, and that’s critical minds.

Aside from the occasional mindless anomalies, atheists became atheists due to critical thinking. We looked at the issue, weighed the evidence, rejected the irrationality of faith and arrived here together. Now not all issues are as cut and dry as the god issue, so when we apply this same thinking to US foreign policy, health care, immigration reform, abortion, gun control or even capital punishment we probably won’t be arriving at all the same conclusions. We can be diametrically opposed to our atheist kindred next to us, but perhaps at least we can rationally debate the issues because we share that common ground of critical thinking and rejection of irrational faith. A commonality in the manner in which we think is far more important than a commonality of opinion. On a common ground of rational critical thinking, variety of opinion is actually a good thing.

What I see the atheist community as is something like the abolitionists, the suffragettes, those who fought for and still fight for civil rights and women’s rights and even like the gay community. What unites us is fighting for our rights, minority rights, against a devious, well entrenched enemy which is no longer satisfied with it’s long held trespasses against us but has been actively seeking and gaining even more ground through both political power and in capturing control of the hearts and minds of the majority (at least here in the US). We of an atheist opinion are still small, relatively unorganized, and besieged on all sides. The supposed dangers of becoming insulated in our little atheist world seem like a fantasy in light of today’s reality and I say we should be so lucky to have insularity become an actual problem.

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21 Responses to “Insularity?”

  1. Well, Philly, I knew from your succinct comment to this effect on my blog that you could express this much better than I was able to. Thanks for writing this. It really hits at the heart of what I was trying to say when I fumbled the ball by using the abominable “AGENDA”.

    Plus you were able to work in some great points that hadn’t occured to me at all while writing.

    It’s funny how we view our own writing sometimes. I finished writing that and thought, hey, that’s pretty damn good! And, it ain’t bad! But such a small change of focus could have made it much more powerful.

    Nice art, as usual. You’re so creative.

  2. I fumbled on your blog with “abandoning faith”. Ah, those damn words. Ironic that we who are reading Pinker would be so careless. LOL
    I knew what you meant though.

    Evolution of the image:
    I googled the Apple ad based on 1984 and found a kid’s toothpaste commercial that had a much better crowd shot than the Apple ad had. I grabbed a frame of that and slapped the “A” on the screen.
    I’m glad you liked it.

  3. Oh, I hate like hell not to have anything to add or argue about.

    Good post, Philly.

    Oh, wait a minute. I do have something to add, in anticipation of other comments. You said: Aside from the occasional mindless anomalies, atheists became atheists due to critical thinking.

    Someone is sure to respond: “Well I was always an atheist, even when I was a little kid.” That someone was almost me, as a matter of fact.

    But kids, even little ones, do think critically. In my case, I just couldn’t make sense out of the concept of god. I didn’t reason it out philosophically, or struggle with the difficult cosmic questions. I didn’t immediately seek out background information on various religions to discover their arguments. I didn’t have long, pointless discussions with friends and relatives, eager to hear what they had to say so I could rebut them with my brilliant logic. The concept of god just. Didn’t. Make. Fucking. Sense.

    To a four-year-old, that’s critical thinking. It’s still, really, the basis of my atheism today.

  4. Not only that, Ex. But kids are a bit of a different case. If you “grew up” in atheist surroundings then we have to ask, what was the determining factor for the parents to become atheists? Probably the use of reason.

    Then, a child grows up. They are in a fully theistic society and have a lot of time and opportunity to do what all kids do – test out the claims of their parents in the real world. That a child grows into an adult and remains an atheist is probably attributable to an act of reason. Even though, when questioned, that adult will say “me? I’ve always been an atheist. I didn’t have to deconvert”.

  5. Good post, Philly. I think you’re especially correct on two points. One, atheists generally value critical thinking and are willing to change their minds when given good reasons to do so.

    Two, atheists are not generally prone to hero worship. Yeah, I like Dawkins and I enjoyed The God Delusion, but that doesn’t blind me to the fact that the book has flaws (I’ll post my review at the chapel one of these days). My atheism does not depend on Dawkins being infallible. Ditto for all the recent flap about Antony Flew – the fact that he shifted to a deist position doesn’t undermine my atheist position at all. My view is not dependent on the Gospel according to St. Antony (or that of St. Richard either).

    Contrast these characteristics: independence in thought and independence from persons, with traits common among many theists. Theists, particularly conservative ones, are conditioned to accept indoctrination with few questions. It’s okay if they ask shallow, simple questions for which their leaders have prepared answers. But, if they start probing too deeply, they are discouraged from going further and thereby endangering their souls. Theists, especially conservative ones again, also frequently get caught up in personality cults. Well, that shouldn’t surprise anyone: what else is worship of, and a purported relationship with, an allegedly personal deity but a huge personality cult?

    Theism is particularly well suited, strike that, is intentionally designed, to breed dependence and authoritarianism. Atheism is especially well suited for cultivating autonomy and distrust of brute authority. Given these inherent differences, plus the fact that atheists are, by far, a minority, there is little danger of atheists becoming too insulated in the near future. We are, after all, a herd of cats, not sheep.

  6. chappy:
    That was some damn good writing in your last comment there.

  7. “Critical thinking” sums it up much better and is exactly what lead me away from the church.

    Atheism in Australia is much more prevalent and we’re lucky enough to be able to admit to it in any forum (social or political) without fear of ridicule or recrimination. In fact, I took much more abuse as a born again christian here, than I ever have as an atheist.

  8. Phillychief — frankly I agree with most of what you say here. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, my original “Internet insularity” posting was written mainly with political viewpoints and political cliques in mind (the Ron Paul cult being an especially good example, but far from unique), and certainly not about atheism specifically.

    We can be diametrically opposed to our atheist kindred next to us, but perhaps at least we can rationally debate the issues because we share that common ground of critical thinking and rejection of irrational faith. A commonality in the manner in which we think is far more important than a commonality of opinion.

    I have more respect for someone who has a different opinion from mine but has a rational basis for it, than for someone who mindlessly agrees without thinking (that has happened). As John Barth said, the intelligent man judges you not by what you believe, but by why you believe it.

    John Evo: If you “grew up” in atheist surroundings then we have to ask, what was the determining factor for the parents to become atheists? Probably the use of reason.

    In my case, the determining factor for the parents to be (not “become”, as far as I know) atheists was the fact that they were immigrants. Remember that the intense relgiosity of the US makes it an anomaly among developed countries. My parents found the pervasiveness of religion here one of the hardest things to adjust to, but that did not change their view of religion as vaguely distant, alien, and incomprehensible, whether the surrounding society was 10% religious or 90%.

    Plonka: Atheism in Australia is much more prevalent and we’re lucky enough to be able to admit to it in any forum (social or political) without fear of ridicule or recrimination. In fact, I took much more abuse as a born again christian here, than I ever have as an atheist.

    It seems that most advanced nations are like that. The United States, again, is the odd one out in this regard — and things are changing even here.

  9. Infidel – I’ve read that story before. I think I may have posted about it but whatever… It gives some hope, but the trend would have to continue over several generations to be really meaningful.

    That said, I believe things are indeed changing. I’m not tooting any victory horns or anything. I’m sure I’ll die (even if it’s as a very old man) in a country that is still a bastion of fundamentalist Christianity. But I’m hopeful that a lot of things will have changed by that time.

    I actually think that as bad as things have gotten during these Bush years, it probably works in our favor. Backlashes are always a part of the American socio-scape. You can criticize the really vocal atheists all you like, but the fact is that they have help awaken a sleeping giant. There are a lot more people discussing these issues that we talk about every day, than there was 10 or 20 years ago. Again, discussion itself works in our favor since rational arguments work in our favor.

  10. Infidel753: That shift is encouraging, thanks for the link.

    people who are not Christians (that is, atheists, agnostics, people associated with another faith, or those who have essentially no faith orientation).

    I found it interesting that they categorised “those who have essentially no faith orientation” and “atheists” separately though. A-theism would preclude faith I’d have thought.

  11. It gives some hope, but the trend would have to continue over several generations to be really meaningful.

    Actually, it has already continued for several generations. I’d argue that it’s part of the overall trend of weakening of religion over the last 400 years that got us where we are today, despite some fluctuations.

    The decline of religion periodically produces frightening backlashes from the alarmed believers, but they subside eventually. The activities of the Christian Right since 1980 were one of those backlash periods. I would argue that it was already subsiding toward the end of the nineties — leaders were openly saying things like “the culture war is lost”. Bush’s election gave them a second wind for a few more years, but that’s all. And the secularizing trend continued through that period among the general population, for all the noise the fundamentalists were making. Atheism got more common (and recently more respectable), abortion stayed legal, attitudes about homosexuality continued to evolve, etc. The Christian Right has actually achieved very little on the issues it cares most about.

    You can criticize the really vocal atheists all you like

    Maybe this was addressed to somebody else? I’ve never criticized them (I assume you’re referring to people like Dawkins and Harris); I’m glad they’re doing what they’re doing.

    I found it interesting that they categorised “those who have essentially no faith orientation” and “atheists” separately though. A-theism would preclude faith I’d have thought.

    A lot of anti-atheist Christians, at least in the US, like to claim that atheism is a quasi-religion rather than just an absence of religion. I don’t know whether the Barna people are in that category, but they may be trying to differentiate between people who strongly assert the label “atheist” and people who don’t believe in a god but don’t have much interest in the issue one way or another.

  12. I’d say the “those who have essentially no faith orientation” run the gamut from agnostic to deist with every new agey, crystal wearing bullshit in between.

    Hearing talk about the christian right waning sounds like Cheney a couple of months into the Iraq war claiming the insurgents are in their death throws. These fuckers aren’t giving up, and don’t believe for a moment that Roe v Wade is safe. I think we’re in the midst of a crucial point in our history, where we could see a lot of change in the next 10-20 years, and that change could just as easily go bad as well as good.

  13. The Chaplin said: “My atheism does not depend on Dawkins being infallible.” Thats the best oneliner I’ve heard all day.

  14. Infidel:

    “You can criticize the really vocal atheists all you like

    “Maybe this was addressed to somebody else?”

    Rhetorical statement, badly worded. Read – People can criticize…all they like…

  15. Read – People can criticize…all they like…

    Ah. I get it.

  16. Infidel:

    claim that atheism is a quasi-religion rather than just an absence of religion.

    I’ve run into this a few times and it was my initial thought. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but making it seem like there’s more to the “non-christian” group than there really is probably also helps to provide a convenient excuse as to why numbers are dropping.

  17. I know at least three people whose religious observations are more due to what Clemens discribed as “corn pone opinions” than any true belief. I know one person who just likes to run things and the church he attends gives him this opprotunity, really. None of them actually believe any more than I do.

  18. I know several music directors at various churches that exemplify what you’re saying, Sarge. They’re there to run something and don’t necessarily believe in all or any of the church stuff. I think also, in most cases, the churches are aware of this but just overlook it because otherwise, they’d have nobody to run their programs, or at least nobody as qualified.

  19. I know quite a few like that, too. I usually wind up playing in their church at the last minute when someone drops the ball as to procuring special music.

  20. Hey Philly, memory meme is up.

  21. Hey Philly, memory meme is up.

    And it’s one of the most moving ones I’ve read in a blog post.

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