A Movement Of Disappointment

•April 12, 2012 • 9 Comments

As I sit here pondering my new embrace of agnosticism, I am brought to contemplate events of past and present.

I identified as an atheist for quite a while—long enough that I can no longer remember precisely when I first embraced the identity. This era lasted approximately two decades. My atheism was a reaction to the injustices I saw perpetrated by dominant forms of religion. During these two decades, my critiques focused upon the human flaws of prejudice, hierarchy, and authoritarianism which interlaced so many religions (quite similar to my critiques of many secular institutions, actually). I didn’t care about others’ faith so long as their beliefs excluded these three social ills. Abuse of power and the spreading of oppression were the horrors that offended me.

I have happily welcomed Pagan, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim friends into my life. As long as one’s beliefs respected the lives of others and one’s faith brought a sense of peace, I took no issue. Although I could not personally believe in such things, their belief was fine by me.

My sense of fear and dislike centered mostly upon Christianity, which has served as a source of oppression for religious minorities, women, and queer people in the US. I admit to being quite distrustful toward the religion—to the point of hating it at times—but after meeting Quakers and various other Christians of a leftist persuasion, I relaxed my animosities as my knowledge of the faith grew more nuanced.

I’ve even personally toyed with spirituality over the years. Although I’ve not embraced a belief in deities, I’ve tried my best to engender a deep sense of connection with nature and people. Yes, I’ve had experiences of woo and weirdness, and believe it or not, I actually value those experiences (there goes my last few hard-core materialist readers). I’m not certain what to make of these experiences, but the sense of lasting connection they have engendered has been extremely important in my life. You could call me a kind of Pagan who remains neutral on the existence of deities. Although Pagans’ spiritual embrace of the gender binary is sometimes off-putting, I find these folks to be generally awesome. I’ll happily share coffee and laughter with a Pagan any day.

So, what I’m trying to say is this: in spite of having an uneasy relationship with some forms of religion, I’ve never viewed religion as THE ENEMY. Many variants of religion are terrible because they hurt and oppress people, and many variants are beautiful because of the sense of peace and connectedness they bring into people’s lives. I’ve witnessed the beauty that spirituality and religion bring into the lives of people I know. Happily, I have also discovered a window of understanding into these experiences as a consequence of my own godless experiments with spirituality.

So far, so good.

Then, along comes 9/11, the Bush administration, and a sudden upswing in the power of conservative Christians. In response, we have the genesis of a wave of mistrust, fear, and hatred of all forms of religion that starts to grow within a large segment of the secular left. Because of the previous oppressive influences of traditional Christianity, this animosity has always been present in the left, but after the events of the early 2000s, the bubble of animosity starts growing to immense proportions. Then, several books are written which declare all religions to be irrational, dangerous, and worthless. The expanding fear, mistrust, and hatred in the secular left is then harnessed as an organizing tool by these authors, and thus, the new atheist movement is born.

I have not been swept up in this storm tide of irreligious animosity. I think of the many kind, open minded, and intelligent religious/spiritual people I have known, and I fail to see the ugly specter that new atheism has made of people’s religious impulses. Some forms of religion are indeed harmful, but to declare all forms as horrid, worthless enterprises is to form an ugly stereotype of religion and religious people. This is nothing more than an all-encompassing religious intolerance. Not surprisingly, the words of those who populate this movement reflect the negativity of these stereotypes. Their goal is not to foster a spirit of pluralism. Rather, the intent is to shame others into conforming to a template of being that excludes religion and spirituality. If you wander outside of the confines of this template you are a deluded fool, playing with barbarism and irrationality. Your beliefs place you squarely in the midst of a stupid and dangerous mode of being.

In spite of the rancor, I’ve spent several years delving into new atheist discussions and I’ve seen a particular mantra repeated in many places: “We are criticizing the person’s beliefs rather than the person.” On one level, this assertion comes from a place of ignorance, and on another level, it is a self-serving lie. Ask anyone who has experienced a deeply held form of spirituality or religion, and they will tell you that this experience runs down to the core of their being. Religion and spirituality are more than a mere set of ideas and beliefs: they are a way of being. And so, when you criticize a person’s religion/spirituality, you are also criticizing a way of being that is deeply incorporated into the person’s persona. The place where belief and spirituality begin and the person ends is a boundary that can scarcely be drawn.

Hence, when you leave civility behind and you ridicule a person’s spirituality, you are showing contempt for something that is deeply incorporated into their sense of self and their sense of connection with the world. You are no longer merely criticizing ideas, but rather, you are attacking the person themselves. Thus, you are leaving the realm of discussing beliefs and entering the realm of bigotry.

Here is an excerpt from Richard Dawkin’s speech at the Reason Rally:

So when I meet somebody who claims to be religious, my first impulse is: “I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you until you tell me do you really believe — for example, if they say they are Catholic — do you really believe that when a priest blesses a wafer it turns into the body of Christ? Are you seriously telling me you believe that? Are you seriously saying that wine turns into blood?” Mock them! Ridicule them! In public!

Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion is not off limits. Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be substantiated and need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.

When I first read these words, I was completely unsurprised because Dawkins said this in April of 2009:

Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.

You might say that two can play at that game. Suppose the religious start treating us with naked contempt, how would we like it? I think the answer is that there is a real asymmetry here. We have so much more to be contemptuous about! And we are so much better at it.

As you can see, this isn’t an unfortunate loss of temper for Dawkins. Endorsing mockery, ridicule, and contempt at a rally in the US capitol is more than a momentary lapse of reason.

This is hardly a novel approach in new atheist realms. If you spend any time on new atheist blogs and comment threads, you can see Dawkins’ recommended mode of discourse play out on a daily basis. In the weeks following the rally, I have searched new atheist spaces for a critique of Dawkin’s “advice” and what I have encountered has been rationalizations in some venues and a deafening silence in others. This is more than the misdeeds of a few bad apples. This is endemic to the movement itself.

These common place bouts of intolerance and bigotry drive me away from the new atheist movement. If this is the way new atheists wish to engage religion and spirituality, then the movement is only a few steps shy of becoming a hate group. This saddens me, because this movement could be so much more than it is. This could be a truly progressive movement which encourages not only the acceptance and understanding of non-belief, but also a movement that encourages the acceptance and understanding of all philosophical and religious minorities. Instead, the excitement and energy of the moment are being squandered in a celebration of petty insults and aspirations of religious conformity. New atheism has distorted the social insights of secularism into a negative form of religion, replete with tribalism, dogma, and leaders who spew exclusivist drivel.

I am angered when I think of the haphazard denigration of the many kind, progressive spiritual people in my life—people who interact with others in a far more humane and rational way than many new atheists do. Consequently, I hope this movement will mature as time passes and finds a place of constructive engagement with religious and spiritual oppression. Should it fail to mature, it is my sincerest hope that it founders under its own dysfunction.

May calmer, more humane voices prevail.

House Rules II

•April 10, 2012 • Comments Off

I have reworded #3 of the House Rules to be as inclusive as possible. If you wish to denigrate another person or group of people based upon their religion, belief in deities, or non-belief in deities, find another blog. I am proudly non-inclusive of bigots of all stripes. If you have the flag of hatred flying upon your mast, cast anchor somewhere else, mate.

3. I will not tolerate bigotry or prejudice of any kind. I find such attitudes to be deeply triggering and I see them as generally harmful to society. If you are a racist, homophobe, misogynist, or bigot of any persuasion, don’t bother posting here. This includes those who express bigotry toward others based upon the targeted person’s religion or theism-related philosophy (for example: islamophobia, antisemitism, anti-theism, or prejudice against atheists and agnostics). I will not print your invective. If you really must share your hatred and you live within the US, I suggest that you go here to find a more welcoming gathering.

Rational Rationalizing

•April 6, 2012 • Comments Off

Lately, I have noticed an interesting pattern. Those who fancy themselves to be superior rationalists are often quite superior at rationalizing.

It takes great intelligence and creativity to craft a maze of logic whose byzantine passages lead to one’s starting point. The intricacy is dazzling, but the end result is still unconvincing.

Agnostic Videos!

•April 6, 2012 • 4 Comments

I’m positively in love with the narrator’s voice. Sexy, sexy.

(FYI: The title of the second video sounds slightly derogatory, but the actual content is not.)


House Rules

•April 6, 2012 • Comments Off

I’ve made a small modification to the commenting guidelines of this blog. Please note #3 of my House Rules. If you are an anti-theist, your comments are not welcome here. I see your prejudices as holding no appreciable difference from the sad perspectives of any other variety of bigot.

This is not up for debate. I know that this is terribly unfair, but you have plenty of places on the internet where you can share your wisdom with like-minded folk. They will surely appreciate your company.

Safe travels.

Agnostic

•April 5, 2012 • 15 Comments

I have reached a point where I am done with atheism. This is no longer a label that I choose to identify with. I have had it with the arrogant certainty that I see plastered across the internet and uttered in the words of people in real life. I am tired of the Islamophobia, sexism, and racism I see appear in atheist spaces, day after day. I am tired of the bigotry of anti-theism that goes unchallenged in atheist spheres. I have spoken of these problems to others in these very same spaces, and for the most part, no one seems to care. I have addressed these issues in person and have in turn, received rationalizations and denial.

For me, this has been building for some time. The sheer ignorance I’ve seen displayed toward women, people of color, and people of religions that are oppressed in my country (the US) is incredibly angering. The vehemence of my response is one that has accrued as a consequence of this widespread ignorance. For a group of people who have declared themselves to be rational and deep thinking, there should be no excuse for this, yes?

Unfortunately, the albatross around new atheist’s collective necks is one of demographics. Atheists are largely white, male, and from previously Christian backgrounds (especially in the US). Atheists, like so many others in the Eurocentric West, are the beneficiaries of centuries of colonialism. So too are they the beneficiaries of current-day Western imperialism. In spite of the absence of religious privilege that is endured by nonbelievers, the demographic composition of atheism accords large degrees of privilege and ignorance. This produces massive blind spots in the movement.

New atheists want others to stop discriminating against their kind, but they have little appreciation for the forms of oppression that others experience. They want others to let go of their hurtful attitudes toward atheists, and yet, they call for mockery, ridicule and contempt toward others. New atheists think that they understand the workings of the world and yet, they have little understanding of those who live outside of their small, white, male, non-believing corner of Western culture.

Nothing blinds like privilege.

And so, I am done. I have tired of the violence of your ignorance.

I am not a part of your “movement”. I do not support you. I am not your ally.

.   .   .   .

I am trying to find a place of calm, now.

This contemplation is part of that process.

There is another reason why the label “atheist” chafes so. I do not live a life of certainty. My life is the product of myriad intertwining axes of oppression and privilege. As a product of this intermingling of power and want, I know that my understanding of the world is inevitably a mixture of bullshit and truth. I am responsible for the hurt of others as much as I am hurt by others. This realization is humbling, and so, I do not claim to know life’s answers. What I have within my grasp is partial knowledge, corrupted by my own power.

I am one small person, facing the inscrutable vastness of a universe that is beyond my full comprehension. What I see is nothing more than a window’s breadth of existence. I can not say with certainty that no aspect of this realm is aware in a way that is beyond human understanding. Nor can I claim with certainty that such an awareness exists.

And so, I assume the trappings of agnosticism.

I am tired of the arrogant certitude that infects those with power and authority. Let the unknown settle around my shoulders, as weightless and insubstantial as silk.

.   .   .   .

For quite some time, I have viewed the deities of the world’s religions as artifacts of human reckoning. For quite some time, I have embraced the notion that the less detail one ascribes to a deity or spirit force, the more difficult it becomes to prove or disprove the existence of such an entity. Such things might exist or they might not. There is no way of knowing.

Consequently, I have called myself an atheist with respect to the world’s religions and an agnostic with respect to undefined ethereal forces. What I have not realized is that both perspectives arise from my own deeply embedded agnosticism. I do not believe in claims made by the world’s religions because I do not believe that human beings can make such claims with certainty. The certainty of the world’s faiths triggers suspicion and disbelief. The same arrogant certitude that so often surrounds atheism also infects the world’s religions. They are reflections of one another. They reek of power and conquest. The stench of empire rolls off of these specters of control.

And so, I prefer the unknown.

I walk through a land without boundaries.

I cast my destiny into the void of formlessness…

.

.

PS: Carl Sagan was an agnostic, and he’s way the hell cool. So there.

Enlightenment…

•April 5, 2012 • 5 Comments

If Americans want to care about Africa, maybe they should consider evaluating American foreign policy, which they already play a direct role in through elections, before they impose themselves on Africa itself. The fact of the matter is that Nigeria is one of the top five oil suppliers to the U.S., and American policy is interested first and foremost in the flow of that oil. The American government did not see fit to support the Nigeria protests. (Though the State Department issued a supportive statement — “our view on that is that the Nigerian people have the right to peaceful protest, we want to see them protest peacefully, and we’re also urging the Nigerian security services to respect the right of popular protest and conduct themselves professionally in dealing with the strikes” — it reeked of boilerplate rhetoric and, unsurprisingly, nothing tangible came of it.) This was as expected; under the banner of “American interests,” the oil comes first. Under that same banner, the livelihood of corn farmers in Mexico has been destroyed by NAFTA. Haitian rice farmers have suffered appalling losses due to Haiti being flooded with subsidized American rice. A nightmare has been playing out in Honduras in the past three years: an American-backed coup and American militarization of that country have contributed to a conflict in which hundreds of activists and journalists have already been murdered. The Egyptian military, which is now suppressing the country’s once-hopeful movement for democracy and killing dozens of activists in the process, subsists on $1.3 billion in annual U.S. aid. This is a litany that will be familiar to some. To others, it will be news. But, familiar or not, it has a bearing on our notions of innocence and our right to “help.”

-Teju Cole, The Atlantic

Read the rest here.

How many “third world nations” and “non-Western cultures” can this same statement be made about?

Do you think that religion or spirituality lie at the heart of the world’s instabilities? Can the world’s ills be solved by $25 sent to your favorite international organization? Perhaps a rainy spring rally in Washington, DC would do? Maybe we should adopt some children from those terrible, undemocratic countries? Maybe kill a few important figureheads via military drones?

Indeed.

We are good. We are just.

God bless America?

 
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