Recently I tend to start these by first providing some personal back story – and then the point I hope to make. I hope my GS writing isn’t becoming far too narrative in this way, perhaps just intellectual reflection.
Anyway, I’d like to begin by describing a bit more about my past. In the fall of 1998 I was 19, quite poor and on my own, working as a waitress in a little diner next to a L.I.R.R. train station on Long Island owned by a deeply religious Greek orthodox couple. So decidedly religious in fact, that when I started working there and they discovered I was new to the town as well, they wanted to know if I’d found a local church to belong to yet. When I indicated I had not, I found myself being picked up by them early the next Sunday morning to accompany them to their church.
Already considering myself an atheist, even though I had not yet advertised it as much, for the next few months I found myself there most Sundays. Being quite young, quite alone in the world, and a few weeks away from homelessness if I suffered a job loss, I kept my doubt shut. My overall fragile situation left me in fear of reprisal by way of termination if I spoke up (despite later realizing I’d have had quite the lawsuit if they did dismiss me for declining the invitation to worship alongside of them).
Years went by, and it was not until I neared the end of an undergraduate degree and found myself in better jobs and a better financial situation that I became increasingly more open about my skepticism, and lack of faith. I still get attacked for it (even by old friends and family members) but it’s of no consequence. Looking back, it was very frustrating to feel like the only atheist in a sea of believers (believers who also did not shy from vocalizing their dislike of those without the firm moral compass religiosity offered), especially while at the same time also lacking the necessary stability and confidence to say as much. It is for this reason that I understand both sides of the so-called ‘atheist in-fighting’ described in a recent NYT article, summarizing the recent Council for Secular Humanism sponsored debate in Los Angeles.
On the one hand, and as Phil Plait put it so eloquently (and people will be linking this, I imagine, for many more months to come), we aren’t going to make a very compelling case to be heard if we go around calling people stupid for believing what they do. On the other hand, well, if what we’re saying is we need to educate people in science better, so that they can reason more properly and see the dogma for what it is, aren’t we inherently saying that nonbelief is higher order thinking then faith? Aren’t we saying then, somewhere underneath this, that faith is the result of less sophisticated thinking? Atheists can coat it all they want in more inclusive statements, qualified by reminders of one’s right to conclude as they wish, but no one seems to be actually disagreeing with Dawkins or Myers, just arguing that they needn’t be so abrasive.
Let me be clear, so far I’m talking about atheism and non belief – not skepticism. But, while we’re headed there anyway, skepticism is largely agreed to be the application of the scientific method in evaluating claims. Ergo, skeptics find that scientific thinking is a preferential approach compared to other forms of thinking (such as the the kind that result in events like the NYC UFO sighting last week). Maybe I’m wrong to admit this, maybe it’s revelatory of deeply held frustrations stemming from how I felt while closeted long ago, but yeah, when someone tells me they believe in a god or gods (or psychics, homeopathy, various woo, etc) – I think somewhere a sort of wire has been disconnected. I might care for the person deeply, and in every other way find him or her to be bright, fun to be with, all around swell, but if I’m being really stunningly and unapologetically honest, I think there is also flawed thinking present.
So the atheist in-fighting, the arguments both for a more inclusively framed discussion and those for a more blunt approach, can be understood. On the one hand, engaging the public is the only way to get some people to hear the point (presuming that this is the goal). On the other, some of us are just mad as hell with tip-toeing around what we’re thinking. For those in the non-belief community and/or the skeptical community, who also ever experienced feeling afraid to say what their true thoughts are on the issue, it might also be cathartic to be so straightforward.
A short while back I detailed an exchange I had that turned explosive regarding the so called “world trade center mosque“. In it I stated that I worried I was being too much of a dick (and cited personal upset and mood to be at fault). Looking back after some time to clear my thoughts, I don’t think I was being a dick, but I was being honest. Perhaps more honest than I ever have before. I’m all for inclusion, and I’m all for honesty: that’s my dream, that’s my nightmare.