Saturday, August 4, 2012

Atheism's foil

One common way atheists cope with stigmatization is to distinguish themselves from those atheists.  You know, the bad ones.  I call this creating a foil.  I'm using "foil" in the sense of a character foil.  When you create a foil, you describe a position that contrasts with your own, often to highlight what you think are your positive qualities.

One classic example is Richard Dawkins' scale of belief from 1 to 7 (from The God Delusion). A 1 means you believe there is 100% probability of God, and a 7 means a 0% probability of God.  Dawkins describes himself as a 6, and notes that "category 7 is in practice rather emptier than its opposite number, category 1, which has many devoted inhabitants."  Category 7 is a foil, used to explain that he is not certain that there is no god.

From another point of view, when you create a foil, you create a straw man.  After all, what is strawmanning, but attacking a position that no one holds?  Or perhaps there is more to it than that.  I propose that there is an additional component to a straw man: it must be an explicit or implied attempt to represent a real opponent.  Dawkins does not misrepresent anyone with category 7, because he's quite upfront about the fact that category 7 describes few people.  Therefore, Dawkins' foil is not a straw man.

There are some things I don't like about the foil strategy, but it is undeniably useful.  People have so many misconceptions about atheists: they're certain, they're dogmatic, they have faith in science, they're always getting up in your business, etc.  But even though people hold these misconceptions, they often don't put them into words.  So it's up to the atheist to put the misconceptions into words, and create foils out of them.

Take, for instance, the time it was reported in major newspapers that Dawkins isn't 100% certain, as if this were surprising. People are incredibly ignorant, and foils are necessary

But while foils are useful to spread a low-level understanding of atheism, they just aren't that good beyond that.

It could mislead people into thinking that the main difference between different atheists is the degree of certainty.  In reality, most people in the movement don't care about that, (and to the extent that they do care about it, I don't think they should).  What people actually argue about are goals and strategies.

Foils also set up a hierarchy of atheism.  Rather than thinking about our different backgrounds and motivations, the foil draws all attention towards a single dimension of atheism.  To our right is our fabricated foil, the absolutely certain atheists.  To our left are people less atheisty than us.  And then the people to our left will use us as a foil.  Their foil implicitly attempts to represent us, but they don't do it very accurately, because their purpose is to create a foil, not to actually argue with us.  Yep, it's a straw man!

This is frustrating, and magnifies divisions.  I don't know what we can do about it, but I hope that everyone is at least aware of what's going on.


Anonymous said...

As a category 7 atheist in Holland, I'm actually somewhat curious about this atheist movement in other countries. Perhaps it's necessary in a country like the USA (which destroyed Taliban Afghanistan out of sheer envy one almost feels) given its successful Christian extremist movement, but in other countries? Isn't the atheist movement purely reactionary to what has been happening in the USA?

I like to hear people like Chistopher Hitchens as an antitheist talk about religion, mostly due to his eloquence, yet I don't perceive him to represent an atheist movement...

miller said...

I wouldn't say it is purely reactionary or purely US based. Most of it is internet based, and thus international. And while 9/11 is the event that motivated most people into a coherent movement, many other streams are combined as well. I originally came in from skepticism, which is a movement which gained momentum in the 70s.

Note that I am in my 20s living in the US, and I generally don't have a very worldly or historical perspective.

Anonymous said...

I thought it was the abuse of 9/11 to redefine the USA as a Christian* nation that sparked the reaction? 9/11 itself was primarily politically motivated, though its execution required religious fanatism.

What you describe sounds more like a community to me than a movement. A movement usually represents special interests, and I don't think atheism has anything to add to normal secular interests. Since technically the USA is very secular, and is so even culturally, the only significant minority to stand up against the emerging religious fanatism could be atheists. And to be better represented they reached a hand out to the low hanging fruit.

I read Dawkins' The God Delusion and I thought it was very unconvincing, mostly made out of strawmans and his least good book. Yet it liberated intellectually quite a lot of people. So what do I know...

*They call it "Judeo-Christian" because of the holocaust and because "Abrahamic" would include the Islam. :-)

miller said...

I don't recognize a definitive distinction between a movement and a community.

Anonymous said...

If we are electrons:

movement ~ momentum,
community ~ charge.

I'll leave further elaboration of this analogy to your imagination.