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Monday, August 20, 2012

Academic Freedom and Freethinking Academics

Apolitical atheists don't understand why I expend so much intellectual energy on atheism. I understand their bewilderment. To them it must be like Seinfeld, a show about nothing. To an apolitical atheist, and by that I mean someone who is apolitical about their atheism although not necessarily on issues of class, race, gender, etc., the paucity of religious thought is self-evident. You might think it could be relegated unceremoniously to the scrapheap of history. Religion, however, is more tenacious than that and has earned for itself the most strident scorn that is routinely offered up by antitheists. As long as antitheists stop at coercive repression, any judgment that they have gone too far can be dismissed as a false equivalence between actual persecution and withholding the customary exemption from derision reserved for doctrines of a religious nature. Religion should stand or fall on its merits like any other institution. Far form being about nothing, atheism for me is about everything the religious mind must deny to preserve faith.

A friend and academic colleague pointed out that that my Facebook posts betray a preoccupation with atheism. She noted the puerile humor of some of the posts. For a moment it seemed our conversation had become an intervention if it hadn't started as one. If that was her objective, she was successful. Mind you, I appreciated the challenge to set a higher bar for myself and  value her opinion and her friendship. She made me rethink the way I expend my energy. I began blogging shortly thereafter to crystallize my thinking in the hopes of channeling it into worthwhile, publishable material.

My academic preparation has taught me to think critically. As a psycholinguist, I identify most closely with Sam Harris because of the cognitive perspective he brings to the table. You don't have to be a cognitive scientist to conclude that religion is an anathema to higher learning. You don't have to be a biologist to appreciate Richard Dawkin's derision of creationism, or a historian to understand Jefferson's secularism or a political scientist to note Emma Goldman's antitheism. You don't have to be a physicist to admire Carl Sagan's Humanism or a literary scholar to recognize Twain's skepticism or relish the rapier wit employed by Hitchens and Wilde to eviscerate theism. There is a point of entry from a variety of disciplines to make a substantive contribution to atheist thought. You only need to see the nexus between freedom of thought and a better world.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

What's in a Name?

At first blush, it seems odd that a campus "Interfaith" center would support an atheist student group, but some of the success of such an alliance may lie in the degree to which the student group's name suggests antipathy toward religion. Whether or not a group seeks favor with an Interfaith center, the name of the group communicates to potential members the nature and scope of the group's interests. This post sketches out some of the key differences between different nominal identities and their implications, isolating the dimension of perceived religious harm.

The Interfaith community seeks to bridge the differences among people of different faiths. In doing so, it acknowledges by implication that religious dogma can be divisive. Interfaith dialogue has been formally inclusive of Humanists in principle, but this inclusion seems to imply that Humanism is a faith. Any cooperation between the Interfaith community and the Freethought community is limited by the fact that Interfaith dialogue, by definition, will be unfriendly to a antitheistic perspective.

Secularism implies an opposition to religious privilege in the public sphere. Secularists can be people of faith, but tend to be nonbelievers. The secularist viewpoint on religious harm is limited to religion's undue influence in public policy. To the strict secularist, private beliefs are a private matter. A Secular Student Alliance has the potential to make allies in the faith community, but this alliance could result in the suppression of antitheist tendencies. If a group wishes to limit its scope to matters of religious privilege and be inclusive of theists, on the other hand, a Secular-Interfaith alliance is a viable model.

A skeptic rejects implausible propositions in the absence of evidence. A skeptical view of religious harm rests on the view that religion promotes credulity. A skeptic may simply reject religion and other forms of superstition on a personal basis or actively challenge credulous arguments at every opportunity. In this regard, a skeptic is not necessarily an antitheist. Skepticism, however, is antithetical to faith in its own right, and would seem to preclude participation in Interfaith dialogue.

Atheism is godlessness by definition. While not necessarily antitheists, atheists withhold the customary deference given to religion, insisting that religious claims be subject to the scrutiny of reason. There is no obvious reason for atheists to be involved in an Interfaith dialogue, having embraced an identity that renounces faith. An atheist perspective on religious harm can be understood in terms of the marginalization of nonbelief. The atheist struggle is against theism as normative. While an Atheist-Interfaith alliance is counter-intuitive, the inclusion of atheists in Interfaith dialogue has the potential to raise awareness among people of faith about the marginalization of nonbelievers. The problem of theonormativity (or skeptophobia) can be represented in Interfaith dialogue under the banner of secularism, or another of the many names by which atheism is known.

Identifying as a freethinker is a way of viewing atheism in positive terms. Where the skeptic rejects credulity and the atheist rejects theism, the freethinker affirms reason. The term "freethinker" seems to equate religion with mindlessness by contrast. For that reason, the term "freethinker" might seem to indicate a greater degree of antitheism than the term "skeptic." On the other hand, an Interfaith center could hardly object to freedom of thought publicly without betraying the subjugation of reason that religious faith represents. A Freethought-Interfaith alliance is another viable model that may hold more appeal for antitheists. It encompasses the secularist objection to religious privilege and the atheist objection to the marginalization of nonbelief. It also poses a strong challenge to the presumption of faith implied by the Interfaith model.

Interfaith dialogue has already formally included Humanism. A campus Humanist group might have an easier time securing a place at the table in an Interfaith dialogue than an atheist group. Humanism is antitheistic in the sense that it faults religious moderates for inconsistency and religious nonbelievers for obscurantism. If the least doctrinaire forms of religion are counter-productive, there is little to recommend religion as a whole. Humanist antitheism is tempered by the desire to see the believer embrace a dignified life without religious delusions. Like Freethought, Humanism encompasses the Secularist struggle against religious privilege and the atheist struggle against the marginalization of nonbelief. Humanism is also associated with progressive values and community service. A Humanist-Interfaith model is not only viable, but also implies a more ambitious scope than a Secular-Interfaith partnership.

Contrary to what its name may suggest, antitheism is not a desire to eradicate religion by force. It is essentially the philosophical position that religious faith is intellectually dishonest and undermines human potential through the voluntary alienation of intellectual curiosity, moral reasoning and sense of meaning. Antitheism is at cross purposes with faith by definition, but antitheists are well equipped to represent the causes of Secularism, Freethought and Humanism in an Interfaith dialogue. While an antitheistic perspective is not essential to make the case against religious dogma, religious privilege, or the marginalization of nonbelief, antitheists need not feel marginalized merely because the scope of discussion is bound by the criterion of relevance. Other group initiatives will benefit more fully from the intellectual arsenal of antitheism, given sufficient autonomy from Interfaith centers.

There is a good deal of common ground to be found between Interfaith centers and nonbelievers. Interfaith dialogue implicitly recognizes the harm of divisive religious dogma. The secularist's struggle against religious privilege and the atheist's resistance to the marginalization of nonbelief are issues that compassionate theists can easily adopt. While Interfaith dialogue precludes discussion of how to rid the world of religion, the common ground remaining is considerable. If the alliance can be made without marginalizing antitheists, it promises to be productive. Nonbelievers who present themselves under the banner of Secularism, Humanism or Freethought may be in the best position to engage in Interfaith dialogue without renouncing antitheism. 

A scale of perceived religious harm, such as the one presented below, might assign a religious moderate engaged in Interfaith dialogue a (1) for rejecting extreme sectarian dogma. A religious moderate who opposes religious religious privilege in the legal sphere (Secularist) would score a (2). If also sensitized to the social marginalization of nonbelief, the Secularist religious moderate would score a (3). An apolitical atheist (or Freethinker) who is indifferent to private religious beliefs would also score a (3). An antitheist (or Humanist) would score a (4) over the additional concern for the disingenuous self-alienation that religious faith represents. Through Interfaith dialogue, theists interested in pluralism can be recruited as allies on all but the final front. Theists who come to understand the case for antitheism will have graduated from allies to partners.

Scale of Perceived Religious Harm

  1. Sectarian Enmity
  2. Religious Privilege
  3. Theonormativity
  4. Self-Alienation


Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Member Quote: Atheist Quotes Of The Day

Member Quote: Atheist Quotes Of The Day
"If you encourage your children to perpetually defer to your authority rather than develop into autonomous adults, you are a failed parent. The God of Abraham is a failed parent."

Friday, August 3, 2012

Fear and Loathing

I can think of nothing more toxic to the individual and society than the willing subjugation of intellectual curiosity, moral reasoning and sense of meaning to an imaginary being external to the self.  If a parent deliberately impeded a child's intellectual, moral and emotional development, a reasonable person would deem that parent a failure. Yet that is precisely what religion does. Externalization of judgment impedes the ultimate attainment of autonomy. The belief that we are but children deserving of no more that what a capricious celestial parent sees fit to bestow is a form of self-loathing that inevitably manifests itself as intolerance when the same standard is applied to others. It sells ignorance as valor, deprivation as justice and mystery as meaning.

Religion teaches detachment from the world. It sets up a duality between the sacred and the profane, placing before us an impossible standard to revere a world we can never know and despise the world we do. It debases engaged living is base and elevates detachment. The requirement of faith is inherently authoritarian, rendering doubt a thought-crime. Even the most innocuous banalities such as "everything happens for a reason" represent a rejection of an indifferent universe by sheer force of will. The refusal to accept the possibility of meaning in an indifferent universe is not only infantile but narcissistic.

Only rationalism, religious practice without supernatural faith, is exempt from a broad critique of religion. Rationalism, however, is guilty of obscurantism. Once religion is co-opted by those who reject supernatural beliefs, the target of atheist critique need only shift from supernatural faith to a tortured redefinition of religion. Humanism would do well not to fall into the obscurantist trap by avoiding the temptation to co-opt the meaning of "faith." Faith in a principle is not the same as faith in a truth claim. The former arguably represents a measure of valor, an optimism of the will. The latter is an optimism of the intellect, which may be provisional until the evidence is in. When maintained in the face of evidence to the contrary, faith in a truth claim is nothing more than wishful thinking.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Coming Out Atheist

I met Greta Christina at the Secular Student Alliance conference last month. She spoke about coming out as an atheist. The most salient point from her talk for me was that unlike coming out queer, coming out atheist implies a judgment that you are rejecting the other person's way of being. When you tell someone you're queer, there's no expectation that everyone should be. Everyone has to find the sexual and gender expression that seems most authentic personally. Atheists, on the other hand, tend to believe that anyone who thinks it through will come to atheism as the only reasonable conclusion. Coming out atheist implies rejection on some level of the person on the receiving end of the announcement in a way that coming out queer does not.

Greta Christina's presentation reminded me of some advise I once read about coming out queer that also bears on coming out atheist. The advise was to bear in mind that the person to whom the declaration is being made is at a disadvantage. While the person making the disclosure has had time to ponder and rehearse, the person on the receiving end is hearing the news for the first time. In light of the point about the rejection implied in coming out atheist, it may be even more important for the atheist to prepare for a spontaneous, raw reaction to the coming out disclosure.

Greta Christina's presentation also reminded me of a second aspect of coming out queer that would seem to apply to coming out atheist. The issue is heteronormativity, which would translate to something like theonormativity for atheists. The problem is that people in the majority do not have to make a grand announcement. It's a burden that falls entirely to the minority. There's a certain absurdity about having to disclose something personal merely because people will make a default assumption otherwise. The fact is that coming out consists of some episodes that are dramatic announcements and others that are matter-of-fact disclosures that come up spontaneously in response to a faulty assumption. You're never finished coming out until everyone you'll ever meet has gotten the memo.

I delayed coming out to my ultra-conservative, religious family because I knew I could never expect any sincere expression of support from them. I opted for voluntary estrangement. By the time I'd grown indifferent to their support, I resented any obligation to make a grand announcement. The chance of a casual, matter-of-fact correction in the context of a faulty assumption was improbable in the extreme, given the infrequency of our interaction. I hesitated to send  Facebook friend requests to my family to obviate the need for an announcement because I didn't want to be governed by my righteous indignation or refusal accept the world as it is. A friend observed that the Facebook strategy would give my family the option to initiate discussion or persist in the polite fiction that has become the basis of our now tenuous relationship. I've been prepared for many years to be rejected unambiguously by my family, but I never prepared for the alternative. It never occurred to me how much work might be involved in repairing damaged ties, but it wouldn't be fair to sever them altogether without testing them first.