Friday, May 10, 2013

Yes I'm one of those atheists

This is part of my "Fantastic Primer" series, which incorporates a few fictional elements.  Please read the introductory post, which explains the premise.

Why I'm not so worried

In the previous post of this series, I explained why I had really low expectations of how my atheist readers would react to asexuality.  In contrast, I think my asexual readers will hardly be bothered by my atheism.  Why?  Because of this:

The data is from this survey, although some of it may not be in the public report.  I did not choose how to aggregate the groups; I would have split spiritual and non-religious groups.  Non-religious non-spiritual people make up 19%.

I don't know why there are so many atheists, agnostics, and non-religious people.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that the community is centered online, or that its members are relatively young.  Or perhaps it's in who decides to stick around the asexual community.  Or it could be that religious asexuals are less likely to search for ways to understand themselves outside of abstinence and celibacy.  An indulgent explanation is that identifying as asexual requires some introspection, and that introspective people are more likely to leave religion.

In any case, any asexual who interacts with the asexual community probably interacts with a lot of atheists, agnostics, and non-religious people.  It's hard to see it as a big deal when you do it all the time.

On the other hand, even non-religious people, even self-identified atheists, sometimes have prejudices about those atheists.  You know the ones.  The "new atheists", "fundamentalist atheists", "militant atheists", or what-have-you.  They not only disbelieve religions, they actively oppose religions and faith.  They're angry, they're jerks, they're dogmatic, they only ever respond to fundamentalist religions, they're mocking, etc. etc.  Yeah, those.  I'm one of those, minus the stereotypes.  For want of a better term, let's call us "movement atheists."  (This is just my term, not an established label.)

And that's why, even though I'm not worried, I think there is still some utility in explaining where I'm coming from.

No I'm not here to deconvert you

Lots of people have told me stories about that one atheist they knew in high school, who was a jerk about it.  They tried to argue everyone around them out of religion, sometimes pushing people to tears.  I'm not sure what to make of these anecdotes.  I guess they were just assholes?  I don't really have enough information to say?  I've heard a smaller number of similar anecdotes about asexuals who were really pushy.  What do you make of those?

I think it will become immediately obvious that I am not very pushy.  Persuading people out of religion is by all accounts very difficult, and could only possibly be accomplished over a period of decades.  I don't see the point of working at it with every word I write.  When I do try to persuade people, I only do it a little at a time, by writing things on the internet that people are free to ignore.  In this series here, I'm not trying to persuade people out of religion at all.

Most stereotypes of movement atheists directly contradict my experience.  I don't think religion is the root of all evil.  I recognize that lots of religious people are in opposition to religious fundamentalism.  I don't even think all religion is bad.*  I'm not that angry or passionate.  Basically I just think that: a) Religious beliefs are wrong, b) these beliefs frequently cause harm, and c) this is a problem that personally interests me.  I don't have to believe that religion is the biggest issue in the world to advocate atheism, just like I don't need to believe that asexuals have it the worst in order to advocate asexual visibility.

*I withhold judgement on religions I'm unfamiliar with, though I think supernatural beliefs are all wrong.  This is not a consensus in movement atheism, it's just my own position.

I think an apt comparison is to politics.  It's more than a comparison really--it is politics.  Atheism vs religion is really a parallel universe of politics.  When my friends talk about politics, they talk about the latest scandal or crisis, and various stupid things that politicians have done.  Many of my queer friends talk about the parallel universe of queer politics, which is mostly about problematic things said by various people.  As for movement atheists, they talk about stupid things that religious leaders and politicians say.

With that in mind, my view of atheists is similar to how a democrat might view other democrats.  I can admit that atheists on average have some excesses.  I don't always like what organizations or leaders say.  As for pushy atheists, they're not much different from pushy liberals.  Arguments can become unproductive, but there's nothing wrong with arguing in principle.  Compare it to religious evangelism if you like, but I don't think there's anything intrinsically wrong with religious people advancing their own beliefs, except that those beliefs happen to be incorrect.

How I fell into movement atheism

Of course, that's just my attitude, and here I must add standard disclaimers about how I can't really represent a whole group.  In fact, I should really explain my particular background.

I grew up Catholic, in California.  My family was not particularly religiously observant.  I attended church weekly when I was young, but at some point I stopped because I found it excruciatingly boring.*  My father married into Catholicism and did not attend church.  My parents didn't care to instill ideas of heaven and hell, and had a rather secular morality.  I went to public school, except for my high school which was a Jesuit school.**

*Catholic services are reputed to be especially boring, but I didn't know that at the time.  All I knew was that the Church was too echoey, and I didn't understand a thing said.
**Jesuits are a relatively liberal and intellectual organization within Catholicism.  They run good schools.

During my last years of high school I was very interested in skepticism.  I liked Michael Shermer's Skeptic column in Scientific American.  My favorite column was one about bottled water (which was becoming fashionable at the time), and how it was no better than tap water.  I was interested in critical thinking and effective methods for aligning beliefs with reality.  I applied this thinking to religion too, though somehow I knew that I wasn't "supposed" to do this.  I discretely read a deist's personal webpage, and I compared his arguments to those in the apologetics classes I was taking at the time.  After I graduated, I decided to identify as an atheist and not Catholic.

And for some reason, I waited a year to come out.  I basically didn't have a good reason to wait.  My mother was upset at first, but otherwise my parents accepted it just fine.  Much later, when I identified as asexual, I didn't hesitate to come out immediately.

I started reading blogs when I was in college.  At first I only read the Bad Astronomy Blog, which grew out of a website that debunked moon hoax conspiracy theories.  From there I started reading other skeptical blogs and atheist blogs (which are two different things, to be explained later), and then I started a blog myself.

Later, when I came out, I decided to try the skeptical student group on campus.  They were a really eccentric bunch, but I liked them.  I guess I'm a joiner!  (This is probably also why I stick around asexual communities.)  I served as president of the skeptical group for a year.  I wasn't a very good leader, in my honest opinion.  In my new university as a grad student, I participate in the atheist student group, but I stay away from leadership roles.

To sum up some key details, I grew up very liberal and nominal Catholic.  I didn't leave the Church out of anger or distaste, or in reaction to conservative elements.  I left it because I disagreed with high-minded philosophical arguments.  I often think I am too dispassionate about Catholicism's harmful attitudes about queerness, abortion, birth control, and so forth, just because they weren't relevant to my own experience.  I'm thankful that movement atheists are a diverse bunch, with some more passionate than others.

I'm not much of an activist, because all I really do is discuss things.  In particular, I stick to atheist blogs and atheist student groups. Perhaps I could be called a dillettante, but this is not much different from people who comment on various political news stories without being political activists.

Next time, I will talk about the various goals of movement atheism.

A realistic way to categorize atheists (in which I define the "movement atheist" distinction)
Why atheists focus on certain religions

The Fantastic Primer series:
1. Introduction
2. Why I don't trust you
3. Yes, I'm one of those atheists
4. A skeptically-oriented Asexuality 101 
5. Atheism as minority, atheism as political cause 
6. Atheism and asexuality: a historical comparison  
7. Why atheism and asexuality taste great together 


Carmilla said...

I love this post, even though I'm not an atheist.

Your opinion on anecdotes about "preachy" people coincides with my experiences. There's vegetarians and vegans like that, too. I guess some people just have to be missionaries, no matter what they're actually promoting.

As to atheism, I'm a spiritual person, but, after growing up in a family that sounds awfully like yours, I grew deeply suspicious about everyone who claims to know the one truth about the universe. Monotheism has an especially bad track record... I actually basically agree with most of the stuff Jesus said about being kind to other people, but I heartily dislike what else I'd have to believe if I wanted to be a true Christian.

miller said...

I generally don't agree with the moral lessons that are attributed to Jesus. Here is an example of Greta expressing such a view.

Although, another peculiarity of my religious background is that I don't much care about the Bible, positively or negatively. Catholic education deemphasizes the Bible, so I tend to think more about the traditions and practices of Christians. What people think Jesus taught tends to be heavily filtered through their religious tradition.

(I said I wouldn't try to persuade people in this series, and I'm not doing that here. I'm just trying to show that there are many real disagreements between me and people who are merely disaffected with Christianity.)

Anonymous said...

When you say "I believe religious beliefs are [factually] wrong," what would you say makes a belief religious?

miller said...

I don't split hairs over the definitions. The beliefs that are wrong are wrong, and it doesn't matter whether they're classified as religious or not. Beliefs that are particular to any religion are usually beliefs I disagree with. Supernatural beliefs especially so. I don't have a problem with the Jesuit belief in the value of education.

Carmilla said...

Thanks for the link - anyway, the quotes listed by Greta Christina are why I am not a Christian. Basic human decency in the stories I agree with - which, incidentally, seems to be the stuff they tell the kiddies to lure them in. Everything else... meh.