Monday, August 20, 2012

A month for identity crises

This month seemed full of identity crises for atheists and skeptics.  I recall several discussions making criss-crossed tracks all over this theme.

First, there was a list of the 5 most awful atheists, which led to a lot of back and forth on whether they're great people with flaws, or flawed people who did some great things.

Later, Pharyngula attacked the skepticism label:
Ultimately, it just reaffirmed my regret that “skepticism” has become a label for the timid almost-skeptical, who like to reassure each other that they’re all truly the very best critical thinkers, now let the believers among us close their eyes and pray.
Then Massimo Pigliucci wrote a self-assessment of the community of reason.
The problem is that my experience (anecdotal, yes, but ample and varied) has been that there is quite a bit of un-reason within the CoR. This takes the form of more or less widespread belief in scientific, philosophical and political notions that don’t make much more sense than the sort of notions we — within the community — are happy to harshly criticize in others.
And then Natalie Reed says she is giving up on the atheist and skeptical movements (though not on atheism or skepticism).
At first how I assumed this went was people generally thinking “secularism is one of many important issues presently going on, and one that I happen to feel especially passionate about, so that’s where I’m going to be put a significant chunk of my energy and attention”.
But lately it seems to me that a much more significant percentage than I’d assumed are people thinking “atheism is the most important issue, so that’s the one I’m going to focus on”.
And now, on Blag Hag, people are discussing Atheism+.
We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.
That's cool, but I'm pessimistic that it will devolve into incoherence before long.  Let's wait and see.

In future posts, I'd like to discuss a few ideas.  This is an outline I may or may not follow.

1.  Is claiming "skepticism" just boasting about your critical thinking prowess?
2. What does it mean to prioritize the cause of atheism or skepticism?
3. How do we deal with skeptics who are wrong about things?
4. Why doesn't humanism serve the purpose of Atheism+?
5. Where does skepticism go from here?


Anonymous said...

Hello Miller,

Will this Drama motivate you to see a distinction between communities and movements? :-p

For me as a total outsider the community Drama looks socially generic. As a skeptic atheist I'll give my thoughts on your list if you don't mind. You often provoce me into thought I must say.

1.: At some point a skeptic will see a pattern in all supernatural ideas and ones own objections to them, and may label him/herself as such. However, bringing it up in a discussion seems more like laziness to me. On the web not the same rules apply though.


3.: Outside the supernatural (and philosophy) I don't think "skepticism" means anything without a context...or this is where the answer to 1. is "Yes". So if a skeptic is wrong about something, just argue. If you want to be fancy or more constructive, then argue on a meta-level.

4. For the same reasons as liberalism does or does not in America. I think it's stupid to politicalize atheism.

Personally Humanism gives me the chills, in the same way as a beheaded zombie does. I've never shaken off the impression that it's not just a modern religion without God.

5. Twiddle your thumbs for the next UFO landing with its grain circle or for the New New Age.

I think one of the reasons why I end up writing ridiculously long comments to your blogs is that you think and approach issues in a different way than I do, yet I usually end up agreeing with you anyway.

miller said...

"Will this Drama motivate you to see a distinction between communities and movements? :-p"

First, you should use a pseudonym if you ever wish to refer to previous conversations. Second, isn't it a bit presumptuous to think that I will automatically come to your view just because Drama happens? What inference are you using? "Atheists have drama, therefore there is a distinction between communities and movements"?

Third, I said I don't recognize a definitive distinction between communities and movements. As in, I reject black and white distinctions. That's completely different from what you said I said.

sz said...

Ok, I was teasing you there, but it was NOT a rethorical question! I edited "more" out, because I lost confidence in knowing its proper grammatical place, so that may not have helped. To clarify, my impression was that you shrugged your shoulders at the distinction, pragmatically. The motivation for my question was your blog post, where you demonstrated an objective and hands-off approach to issues discussed on which I cannot but imagine you actually have your own opinions. With it you contributed to the community, and not to the movement. All the Drama (with its sarcastic capitalization) only relates to the movement aspect. The same for any identity crisis, as there is no doubt about what atheists and skeptics are, modulo semantic hair splitting (of which you are no fan). Furthermore, you anticipate your contribution to the movement aspect. Well, I can't give you any real help to that endeavour as a somewhat nihilistic outsider. But I can remind you that it is an option to be more aware of the difference between community and movement in such a discussion. Because it is more pleasant to reject ideas instead of people and I see you as a nice and social guy, and because practically you already showed the distinction with this blog post.

This is my reading and like my other comments I give it to you as a viewpoint (outside the blogosphere) which you may use in your considerations. I don't tell you what to think, or how to use words. And I apologize if I created that impression. Just because my tone may be more pompous than your timid one, does not mean I expect argumentative surrender.

miller said...

I don't see your point at all. It's kind of incoherent.

Why does describing a discussion with a hands-off approach contribute to the community but not to the movement? What does that even mean? Why do you think drama and identity crises are things that pertains to movements and not communities? Why is this a useful distinction to make? Can you give a single example of what it's supposed to tell me?

sz said...

I had to elaborate because you misunderstood me and made wrong assumptions. But it appears we are somewhat talking passed eachother, even if I'm not sure how...

I'll try to answer your questions, except your last one, which I don't understand.

1st & 2nd question:
Because the resolution of a discussion about the causes to be persued will define the movement, while the community already exists. You did not jump into any discussion. If you disagree with the above, then my point means nothing.

3rd question:
I don't, I only think that in the case of the examples you provided. All you need for inevitable drama and identity crises is people. That is what I meant with "socially generic" in my first comment.

4th question:
Simply because, in fact, a community is not the same as a movement, even if a group of people can be both?
For example, in my opinion it starts being prudent to make the distinction when a subgroup of a community tries to redefine the whole community as some movement, i.e. by its will or behaviour, while that's not the connection between the people. A movement requires agreement, a community does not.

miller said...

I didn't jump into discussion because I believe in occasionally withholding my opinion. For instance, I am temporarily withholding my opinion on your view until I understand what your view even is. This has nothing to do with communities vs movements, it has to do with my personal ethics of argumentation.

Do you think is that this is a case where we have a community (a group of people with no particular cause or agreement), and a subgroup wishes to redefine it as a movement (a group of people with a cause)? What does it add to our understanding to think of it in terms of communities vs movements?

sz said...

I think that specifically if there is wide agreement within a community yet there is a narcistic discussion with potential for nastiness, that it is a good thing to remember that it is about additional ideas, and not about the people who in society belong to the same subgroup regardless of talk. A new label for the additional ideas, like Atheism+, makes the difference explicit and the discussion not about the identity of the community. People will not get disenfranchised and relations not soured. It can make a discussion positive instead of negative.

I can not judge as an outsider from the snapshot of the discussions you provided if it's warranted to start emphasizing the distinction, but that is why I posed it as a question to you, to remind you that you can. Fundamentally man is not rational, so I have no faith that simply because it's about "atheists" or "skepticists" that the discussions can only be constructive.

miller said...

I don't think your explaining yourself very well. Whatever. I'm not getting anything out of this discussion.

sz said...

Well, you read my original question as a statement, which does not make an easy start...

I'll summarize your answer to it as "nope". Which is fine. I'll better understand the way you approach these kind of issues when you'll publish the follow up blogs.

I welcome suggestions on how I can be more clear in my expression.