Dupes, All

I know I've said this before, but I'm going to say it again. Anyone who reads the fundamentalist atheist blogs (you know, like the biggest blog on ScienceBlogs) knows that these people have a lot of passion and energy. They use it to write 50 posts a week pummeling creationists and telling us how evil religion is. Can you imagine what they might accomplish if they redirected that energy towards really important progressive issues like, say, health care, or poverty, or reproductive freedom, or AIDS in African American youth, or ending the war, or you know, pretty much anything else?

Sometimes... actually, pretty much all the time, I think creationism and the contrived "religious war" are issues created simply to distract and divide. It distracts from important issues by dividing people and getting them to argue about the second law of thermodynamics with preachers who've never taken a science class or whether people dislike atheists and how that affects the coffee-house experiences of like 3 people in this country, instead of arguing about anything important. Dupes.


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Chris, I fear I'm going to come off as a concern troll here, but I worry that this is perilously close to "How can you be wasting your time worrying about X when there are so many bigger issues to worry about?"

Indeed, it is often possible to worry about X and the bigger issues, but as my mother is always reminding me, one picks one's battles. Some folks start trying to deal with X, others start someplace else.

(Of course, if you could show me evidence of a serious conspiracy to distract people from Y and Z by fabricating outrages around X, I'd probably become suspicious of the wisdom of putting X at the top of my own fixing-the-world agenda, but I may be more sensitive than most about looking like a dupe.)

Doc Free, I'm not a conspiracy theorist, of course. I don't think the issue was invented for that purpose. But I do think it's a nice wedge issue that people, particularly conservatives, can use to inspire far-right religious voters, and to force progressives to not only spend their time arguing about it, but to actually force progressives to argue about it on their ground, which only serves to confirm preconceptions about secular/atheist progressives.

And there's a difference between saying something like, "Why are you arguing about reproductive freedom when so many babies are dying from starvation," and saying, "Why are you arguing about whether Bud Lite is less filling or tastes great when there are so many babies dying from starvation." The former is saying that you should spend all your time on every important issue, which is impossible. The latter says you should spend your time on something important, instead of a contrived issue with few if any practical implications.

Obviously, science is winning, and it will continue to win no matter what the creationists do, because we live in a society that is utterly dependent on science, like a drug, and which won't let anything get in the way of its next fix. The fact that some scientists have decided that people not believing the facts that their particular field has discovered is a major political, social, cultural, and philosophical issue, strikes me as little more than myopic hubris.

No matter which battles a person chooses to wage, there will always be some who insist that their efforts are worthless because something else is the bigger issue. The relevance of a problem will always be, in large part, arbitrary. While I agree that having language wars between atheists and theists tends to be more of a distraction than a positive contributor to knowledge and society (see the posts and comments at fstdt.com/fundies), certain facts remain. One, a vocal minority of religious groups and individuals are responsible for fomenting the vast majority of this unending argument. Dominionists, in particular, delight in sidetracking intellectuals and the wider public with such ploys while quietly pursuing their own self-serving, sometimes delusional, usually destructive ends. Second, if religion usurps science in the realm of education, which is what a lot of this public opinion war concerns, then humanity's ability to adapt and survive will be severely compromised as thought is radically constrained to match a selective, static group of documents. (The glory of science is its ability to refine and correct its ideas, yes?) Vitriolic blog attacks aren't the most effective way of combatting this, but they are sometimes *a* way.

(Whether people dislike atheists has far-reaching implications for the well-being of thousands across the country, by the way, including one's ability to secure gainful employment as religious hiring criteria subtly but certainly persist.)

I do what I can to fix the world. Speaking out against destructive current trends in religion is a part of that.

OK, I guess part of what's happening is we're plugging in different values for X.

I was assuming X = "people are being given a hard time simply for being atheists" where the hard time takes the form of hassles from teachers or judges deciding custody cases, etc.

You are looking at cases where X = "people are resisting embracing atheism like I have".

Myself, I'm inclined to agree with you (assuming I'm not ascribing opinions that are not your own) that the first of these values of X might present a more appealing cause than the second (even if only because the likelihood of addressing X and changing the situation seems better).

Then again, it seems like there are an awful lot of people prioritizing X at their main cause where X = "people are resisting embracing what I hold to be the one true religion". They seem always to be ringing my doorbell.

The human mind is a mystery to me.

I've noticed that the 'fundamentalist atheist' bloggers tend to severely exaggerate the position of their critics. Someone points out that in the long run it's probably counterproductive to refer to religious moderates as 'morons for Jesus' (or a term of comparable sentiment) and the nonsensical reaction is: "You just want atheists to shut up and lay down for the status quo!!!"

I am not convinced the world would be a better place tomorrow if religion died out tonight. But I am just about equally sure that no matter what we do, eventually atheism will become the default position, and religion will be considered odd or eccentric. It does not seem obvious to me that we could hasten that day by calling people names.

Atheism is not a cure for global warming, world hunger, disease, or Fox news. (OK, it might be a cure for that last one) We can find common cause with many religious people on all those issues, if we try.

I offer you a parallel for your consideration.

Consider the War on Terror. The Iraq War ended after 6 weeks, 2003 May 1st. The interminable occupation has forced millions into exile, killed hundreds of thousands, and has plunged the US into an abyss of debt. The war is a fraud that enriches the profiteers while beggaring the rest of us.

Should people who know the War on Terror is a fraud stop railing against it and instead spend their time at something more to your liking -- say cleaning up graffiti?

Religion impoverishes the world, squandering efforts, lives, and money on elaborate games of let's-pretend. Fighting the evil of religion is not an irrelevant distraction: it is the duty and mission of every human on the planet. The problem is that most people are failures as citizens.

Sure, a large segment of the US population wants to plunge us back into the middle ages. No science, no freedom. Look at what religion did to the people of Afganistan. Women under burquas, gays killed, executions as a public event. No kits or music for crying out loud. This is my all time most hated excuse for not doing something. I cant tell you how many times I have heard we shouldnt explore space because X is such a big problem!

What I don't like about this kind of debate is that it almost inevitably leads to someone making biased and inaccurate assumptions about the "middle ages". We need some equivalent of Godwin's Law here.

The kind of literalist religious fundamentalism that we're seeing now seems to me to be something new. It has very little to do with medieval religion. Many US right-wing christian fundamentalists are protestant, something which didn't even exist in the middle ages!

The idea that the "middle ages" were primitive and barbaric was invented in the renaissance as intellectuals self-consciously revived classical culture and tried to distance themselves from what they claimed was an unfortunate interlude. That myth is so powerful that it still hasn't gone away.

Whether there was any science in the middle ages is a slippery question which depends on how you define "science", but there was certainly technology which was more advanced than ancient technology. The Romans couldn't have built gothic cathedrals, for example. And there was enough freedom in 14th century England for Geoffrey Chaucer to write.

Can you imagine what intellectually dishonest dupes who toss oxymoronic phrases like "fundamentalist atheist" about might accomplish if they dealt wth reality instead and redirected that energy towards really important progressive issues like, say, health care, or poverty, or reproductive freedom, or AIDS in African American youth, or ending the war, or you know, pretty much anything else?

I think the term 'fundamentalist atheist' describes not doctrine (which wouldn't make any sense) but attitude. And if you listen to fundamentalist Christians and "PZ Atheists" (or whatever) they sound very much alike - an observation guaranteed to infuriate both.

I am always amuzed to watch extremists argue. They always argue to the other extreme; laden their debate with generalities and hyperbole; punctuate with "never," "always," "surely," etc. It is so much easier to argue against the absurdly extreme than to argue against reality (reality is variable). And to argue opinions in the absolute in the name of science - which is a discussion of changing understanding of probablilties - is laughable. Extremists - either end - do little to solve real problems. Backlash and polarization are inevitable results.

Chris, I empathize with your frustration and I'd rather they would focus on something else too. But I think it's counterproductive to let yourself get caught up in that frustration. It won't change anything on their end, while it will suck you in to their mode of "discourse".

I think the only good strategy for counteracting this sort of thing is to lead by example. And most of the time your blog is a great model for calm, reasonable, civil discourse. I look up to that, and I'm sure I'm not alone in that sentiment. Despite the snarkiness, Science Avenger has a point though. If you think something is not being discussed enough, then the place to start is with yourself. That's what I have to remind myself when I get caught up in frustration with cheap-shot internet rants.

Of course you're only human, and sometimes it feels necessary to vent. It's hard to be civil all the time. But still, remember that it's the reasonable (and far too silent) middle of the spectrum that you want to reach- since they're the only ones who will listen and not just react.

Thanks again for all of your quality blogging, Chris.

Science Avenger: I write this blog to promote my field, and if I can, educate, discuss, and perhaps even advance it (I've developed a couple research projects as a direct result of this blog). That's its purpose, and I think it's a good one, because I think my field is valuable. Otherwise, I'd be in a different one.

I rarely get into politics here, and with the occasional excursion into the religious debates (once every few months, say?), I try to avoid talking about things that detract from that purpose. Making myself overtly and obnoxiously political or partisan would certainly do that.

However, if you'd like, you can email me, and we can talk about what I do outside of the blogosphere to promote the non-scientific causes that are important to me. And cutting off your response before it ushers from your snarky fingers, a person who writes 9-10 rants a day on their blog, often responding to long articles elsewhere in cyberspace, and who has a day job (especially one in academia) is not, I guarantee you, doing a damn thing offline to promote any of the causes I mentioned or any like them. Through the blog, they may be asked to speak here and there about the very issues I'm saying are non-issues, but that doesn't help. They're wasting their energy, and it's a shame, because some of them are rather smart, even if their readers are idiots.

They're wasting their energy, and it's a shame, because some of them are rather smart, even if their readers are idiots.

certainly, as a psychologist, you can understand the appeal of a vapid flock of sycophants, no? :)

They always argue to the other extreme; laden their debate with generalities and hyperbole; punctuate with "never," "always," "surely," etc.

Surely you would never claim that they always argue to the other extreme...

It's refreshing to see someone else recognize the fundamentalism in the argument "If you believe in God you're just another Jesus tard!"

I am an atheist and I do not try to waste my time with religion. My fiance on the other hand is religious and anytime she wants to spend on religion is up to her. It certainly doesn't make her a tard, for in my eyes she is brilliant (as well as beautiful). And she understands where I come from and we don't try to force our ideas on each other. We let each other live peacefully.

As DOF and Chris have pointed out (with my rewording), attacking those with religious beliefs to force your ideas on others basically makes you a fundamentalist. A fundamentalist doesn't have to be religious, they just need to be someone that spends their time and energy making their ideas known (sometimes with terrorism, sometimes by badgering the other side).

And I agree with Chris, it is a waste of time and energy when there are much better causes to focus on. Or at the least they could try and create useful dialog.

I agree that name-calling encourages backlash against those whom the atheist bloggers are trying to reach.

At the same time, I think about how those who come from other oppressed groups have often expressed righteous anger at those people/institutions that oppress them.

It is at least understandable as to why they would feel the need to lace their rhetoric with vitriol, both for the cathartic effect and for getting people's attention.

It also can provide inspiration and a sense of growing voice for others in the oppressed group, despite its capacity to generate backlash from those offended.