September 23, 2014

The Atheist Positivity Challenge: Why I am turning it down, and I think you should too

Recently, Steve Neumann wrote up a column for Salon where he gave us the Atheist Positivity Challenge.

Neumann described the challenge as:

I’d like to challenge all atheists, myself included, to refrain from posting disparaging commentary about Christian newsmakers on Facebook and other social media sites — including blogs — for one month. Let’s call it The Atheist Positivity Challenge, or the APC for short. The purpose of this challenge is to draw attention to two things: The fact that gloating about the lunacy and misdeeds of specific Christians is not only unnecessary, but probably counterproductive; and the need to rehabilitate the reputation of atheism in America.

 I'm turning it down. I think you, nonbelievers, should too.

Here's why a breakdown of why. For reference, Neumann was inspired by Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism, writing this piece.

1. People that judge me because of their beliefs about the group I adhere to are not my problem.

Neumann says:

Refusing to indulge our desire to vilify the easy targets will make us look less arrogant and therefore less aversive.

 He also says, a bit earlier:

I don’t doubt that Driscoll wrote that, or even that he sincerely believes it. But the problem with focusing on clowns like Driscoll is that it’s much too easy to single out for righteous indignation the most visibly disgraceful member of a group. And the unavoidable implication that others get from this is that the entire group must hold those beliefs as well.

And this:

In the parlance of philosophers, the temptation to view an individual as representative of a group is called a “hasty generalization.” It’s a weak analogy and a type of informal fallacy. It’s basically guilt by association. But I don’t want to live in a Fallacious Fool’s Paradise, however emotionally satisfying and cathartic it may be. The simple fact is that Driscoll is an outlier in the Christian world. Like atheism, Christianity is an incredibly heterogenous movement — from biblical literalists to liberal believers whom the literalists wouldn’t mind seeing burn at the stake for heresy. And though Libby Anne incorporates an important caveat when she says that she’s not surprised that this is the viewpoint taken by at least some evangelical men and not all evangelical men — the implication is still there, and it will be taken that way by Christians nonetheless. 

It is a generalization. In fact, on another post by Libby Anne, I argued in the comment section that Ayaan Hrsi Ali could not be held accountable for the interpretations of her message, and was met with some friction on that idea.

But it's true. If you take an idea, and apply it to a whole group, it's you that's guilty of the fallacy. Those individuals that would accept that the concept represented by Driscoll was a wider indication of the over 3000 Christian denominations and sects out there, are committing the fallacy.

The same applies to atheism. If the wider world will judge me, an individual, without taking time to get to know me, that's their problem--not mine. What other religious/belief minority would we hold accountable for changing their own reception?

I don't hear very many people arguing that Muslims in America, for instance, have a responsibility to distance themselves from terrorism. I personally don't believe that they do, because I operate from the viewpoint that people are people. Not labels.

I know that this is an incredibly rosy view. I know that we naturally label people, we naturally judge people by those labels, and that's the way things are. I know that there is a certain amount of PR that needs to be done. I don't agree with Neumann on what needs to be done.

2. Criticism is important for growth.

The implication underlying some of Neumann's reasoning is that generalizations can backfire. He makes the connection, at least three times, that both atheism and Christianity are heterogenous movements. And this is quite true.

But the answer to having our own movement questioned isn't to stop questioning others. The acceptance of our movement--in lieu of its loudest voices--isn't to stop criticizing parts of religion, or calling out religious leaders.

Religious leaders having followings. Mark Driscoll isn't a lone wolf--he was at the helm of a mega-church. Mega-churches really. And he wrote books from his point of view. And those teachings--those teachings are toxic.

Part of discrediting those teachings is discrediting the man that conceived of them.

If what we are looking for is acceptance--for people to stop judging our entire movement by its outspoken leaders--what we need is change within the movement.

This doesn't happen by silencing criticism. It happens by listening to it--from sources within and without.

We may disagree, but I believe Christians are fully capable of lodging valid and rational criticism at atheism--criticism we should listen to so that we can grow and learn. In the same vein, many atheists are fully capable of lodging true and valid criticism at the faithful also.

3. Cultural forces aren't aligned with us.

Call me crazy, but I simply disagree that cultural forces are aligned in our favor. At least, not solidly. And I most certainly don't agree with a "wait for it  to happen" or "wait for the regime change" approach.

Neumann writes:

Not only should this make us less susceptible to open animosity, but it should help accomplish atheist goals which, as author and blogger Greta Christina put it, are about “reducing anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination, and to work towards more complete separation of church and state.” I know it seems like blasphemy to refrain from criticizing loonies like Driscoll, but we need to have “faith” that the cultural forces currently in play will accomplish what we want.

I don't see how not pointing out the overwhelming Christian bias in our nation helps us accomplish atheistic goals or more complete separation of church and state.

Just this month, we've had an Airman who was nearly not allowed to reenlist because he did not fell comfortable swearing an oath to a god he does not believe in. We have more anti-choice legislation on the tables of legislatures around our nation than ever before. Our Supreme Court ruled in favor of belief over empirical evidence in Burwell v Hobby Lobby this summer. Christian values still infiltrate our society as an alarming rate. They are the norm.

Many people--even the nonreligious--accept these cultural infiltrations without questioning them. They have, after all, 2000 years of history on their side.

That's why it is so important to continue to point out the harm that is inherent in religious teachings--even mild ones.

Does that mean doing away with religion? Of course not. But people that choose to adhere to them should be fully informed.

Neumann uses a survey to prove his point:

Polls have generally shown a decrease in the importance of religion in America. And with regard to evangelicalism in particular, The Pew Forum Religious Landscape Survey from 2008 “confirms that the United States is on the verge of becoming a minority Protestant country; the number of Americans who report that they are members of Protestant denominations now stands at barely 51%.” The Pew Forum also noted that in “the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults.” So the bigots we upbraid simply aren’t having the influence they’d like to have — and that we’re scared they might have.

Wired identified the "New Atheist" movements "leaders" in 2006. Consider these books that came out in the same timeframe:

  •  The Selfish Gene 30th Anniversary Edition, Richard Dawkins, 2006
  • The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins, 2008
  • The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, Sam Harris, 2005
  • The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbelievers, Christopher Hitchens, 2007
  • God Is Not Great, Christopher Hitchens, 2007

You simply can't say how the appearance of New Atheism influenced this trend. I'm not saying that it did--but you can't make the assumption that it's merely cultural trends aligning to create this move. There has also been a shift within nonbelief itself--one that's been publicly critical of religion.

You also can't claim that the bigots aren't having the influence, and then say that we can stop talking about the bigots. Talking about the bigots could be precisely the reason they are losing influence. Pointing out the absurd helps take away its power; silence only increases it.

Neumann also says:

Religion literally speaks for itself, even in the mainstream media — and, increasingly, it’s not what people want to hear.

It's true that there are many examples of Christianity in the media that people disagree with--but there's also many more types that don't get attention except through the networks of former believers that expose them. Homeschoolers Anonymous immediately springs to mind.

4. Silencing voices isn't emphasizing the positive.

I suppose what struck me the most about the Atheist Positivity Challenge is how it advocated silencing voices as a positive move.

Silencing voices isn't a positive move; it's a negative one. It's the subtraction of meaningful discussions, and the imposition of a false status quo.

Neumann says:

 I think that we outspoken atheists, the ones who actively contribute to the culture wars by blogging, writing articles and engaging in public debates, have to ask ourselves: Are we sincere when we say we have a positive worldview? I mean, it’s not enough to just have positive beliefs — that is, beliefs in something, as opposed to not believing in God — what is needed is an emphasis on positivity itself.

You don't change the world from a closet.

5. There are better ways to move towards a more useful dialogue.

I do agree with the basic premise. We need to change the way that we talk about religion. It's easy to be antagonistic with a force that seems so insurmountable, but it's not always productive.

I don't think the answer is to go #NotAllChristians, either.

I think it lies in the middle of these two approaches. On the one hand, the focus should be on the harmful doctrines and principles--not on people. Does that mean not focusing on people like Driscoll though?

No, I don't think so.

What makes those people's transgressions possible is those very harmful doctrines, and it is important to point out those problematic doctrines coming to fruition in scenarios like that.

And, as in every situation, it's up to us as consumers of media and information to sort through that information and come up with the truth. If we allow ourselves to fall into a logical fallacy, that's no one's fault but our own.

In the long run...

In the long run, open, honest dialogue--that gives the faithful room to respond too--is what will bring us closer to achieving a goal of true freedom of (and from) religion.

It means consistently reiterating our basic tenets: that secular government protects everyone, that freedom of thought is essential, and that is okay to disagree.

Of course, that in and of itself is difficult--Neumann himself identified different foundational beliefs for our movement in his piece, which is a pretty clear indication that even we have a long way to go, because it's hard to advance a movement when you don't have a clear and cohesive picture of where you want to end up.

I don't know of many people that want to end religion. I certainly don't want to myself. What I do want is to limit the damaging influence of it in my life.

And I can't do that by shutting up about it.

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