A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Monday, September 10, 2012

A few thoughts on Alom Shaha, confrontation and Atheism+

Just the other night I have the pleasure of hearing Alom Shaha speak at Oxford SITP - Alom is the author of The young Atheist's handbook and despite the title, this book is not a guide to godlessness but rather a memoir of a deeply personal journey, and I recommend it heartily. He writes with an engaging honest style, rather than a breathless polemic rant.  During the course of the discussion, someone asked how he could thought we could best convert believers; at this stage Alom's polite demeanour momentarily broke down and a sigh escaped him - why, he argued, should we have any interest in converting believers, unless they're trying to force something on us?

The majority of the room nodded in agreement at this pronouncement, with a few exceptions. Alex Gabriel shook his head and declared Alom was "an accomodationist" - I should clarify this was a not a heckle, and Alex's thoughts can be seen here. Alom stopped, and declared he may be - but was that such a bad thing? People have the freedom of conscience, and so long as they're not pushing their beliefs on us, why do we need to convert anyone? He pointed out that despite the assertion by many atheists that they were merely following logic, the online discourse of many of them contradicted this stance and he doubted it was always logic that made people atheists, as people lie on a spectrum between intellectual and emotive, and to some people, himself included,  God just doesn't "feel" right. 

Everybody sing the mandolin part! Do do dooo doo doo - do do do dooo do do!

I'm inclined to agree with Alom for the most part. I am an advocate of secularism; that anyone can hold ANY belief they like, provided they do not expect it to be mandated for at a political or social level. Do I feel the need to 'convert' believers ? No. Not especially. Sure, if it comes up in discussion it's always an interesting topic. But do I feel some compulsion to bring them over to 'my' side or show them how silly their ways are? No, no and thrice no. For starters, to do so would be underpinned by incredible arrogance that even someone as bloody smug as myself (and I am a self satisfied git at the best of times) would find a bridge too far; I find it irritating and condescending when believers try to convert me, so why would I inflict the same irritation and sense of superiority upon anyone else?

Now, I have inadvertently 'converted' (a term I loathe) people before; there have been times when someone came me to and asked "why aren't you a believer?" and subsequent to our chatting about it they have gravitated towards faithlessness - but this is entirely distinct from the concept of evangelism which I would not inflict upon anyone. In these cases, the person wanted to know why they thought one thing and I another, and after discussion they felt my case was better. But would they have responded as well if I demeaned them and forced my views upon them? I should bloody well think not.

The confrontation thesis is a flawed one;  It wouldn't matter if what I said was correct or not; with that attitude, all I would do is turn people OFF from considering becoming less religious. Cognitive dissonance is ubiquitous in humans and sometimes confrontation merely entrenches people in their belief; People seem to forget, especially in online keyboard warrior style, that the person they're denigrating is a real human being with feelings and values and everything else; Robin Ince has said memorably that when it comes to online discourse, humans can fail the bloody Turing test and I'm inclined to agree. But being antagonistic and confrontational does not usually do much else than preach to the choir - even if you're entirely right, you'll merely end up building walls, not eroding them. People will retreat into their positions and entrench further. Those people in the middle group become entirely polarised the complex situations with a myriad of interpretations are pigeon holed into false dichotomies, turning many off and militarising the rest. This may be precisely what we're seeing with atheism+ but that's a musing I'll return to later.

If there's anything World War I has taught us, it's that entrenchment tends to result in protracted stalemates

This is a point that Alom Shaha made the other night at his excellent talk; he pointed out he found some American atheist attitudes off putting, occasionally conceited and often counter productive which the majority of the room agreed with roundly - he cited both American atheists billboard campaigns and PZ Myers blog as examples of approachs to the issue he found incredibly distasteful. Now, in defense of the US atheists, the religious landscape of the US is much more militant than the EU where we are mainly secular and perhaps that lends itself to our more laid back live and let live approach, but without quantitative data this is at best a hypothesis.

Even so, the difference in style is striking; even the most "militant" of the EU atheists such as Dawkins and the late Hitchens refrain from overtly denigrating to anywhere near the same extent; their approach is more akin defenders of secularism and rational thinking than to blitz religion, which I suspect is a human urge that will always have some manifestation. Here, for example, is Hitch on religion to illustrate the point.

There are of course times when religion NEEDS to be challenged ; I have argued tirelessly with religious people about challenged certain things, and I will not stop doing this; particularly in Ireland where the Catholic church still hold a lot of influence over issues like abortion (like here) and gay rights, or when certain protestants sects want creationism taught in schools etc is where I draw the line and over such issues I've protested, blogged or written for the Irish times etc. I was even assaulted by Catholic pro lifers in 2006 and verbally abused by them last year. But I fight them on these issues because they violate secularism - they insist the state mandate for belief without a modicum of evidence, and this is where my line is drawn. They have every right to hold these beliefs, but none whatsoever to inflict them on others.

Now, what about the Atheism + thing that has been raging angrily on the Internet for a few weeks yet, with passionate furore on both sides? It's a hard one to call - the bitterness around the debate is off putting, but from a Eurocentric point of view, this looks ridiculous. In fact this Guardian article compared it to this infamous Monty Python sketch.

This is a little harsh, but there is a grain of truth to it - Atheism+ is a laudable attempt to fuse areligious sentiment to a social movement with a feminist, progressive liberal outlook. These are all good things,but it is not a label I will ever use for myself because, quite simply, trying to brand together all these threads in a single label is like herding ducks - doomed to fail.

The issues involved are nuanced, and while I individually support all the tenants, I do not feel they should be lumped into a single orthodoxy; for example, atheism - I am an extreme agnostic, and in all practicality atheist but like Alom said I find the attitude of some of the figures in Atheism+ to be off putting and reactionary, and would not want to be associated with it. That is not to say I do not respect them on many issues (I do) , but I am against using aggression when satire or just plain ignoring idiots would be a better approach. Feminism itself has several difference waves at odds with each other, and while I support fully a world where all people have equality, there will always be tensions with those who actively seek equality and those who quote from one the many conflicting schools of feminist theory. I can foresee this being a problem, and discussion on the topic becoming increasingly dogmatic and acriminious on this emotive and complex issue, despite all having good intentions.

But crucially, there ALREADY is a term for people who want social equality, critical thinking and a freedom from religious influence - secular humanist. It is the term I have always used to describe my social outlook, even in my debates with bishops because it encompasses all these things. There is really very little difference between this and what the atheism+ proposals are, with one variation; Humanist thought posits all people are inherently capable of being ethical and moral without religious intervention. It does not seek to attack religion, but encourages secularism. Humanists reasoning is not to engage in elitism and divionism, which at the moment is the chief difference I can see from Atheism+, despite all good intentions.

At least in the UK around London and Oxford, the vibe I'm getting from people seems to be the new label is at best pointless and at worst elitist. Certainly, at home the prevailing impression seems to be the same. Maybe this is again a product of the difference in EU and US culture, or maybe it's something else altogether. It will be interesting to see how it pans out. I still think the confrontational idea will not do anything but alienate and entrench people - to convince someone to change their mind, it's usually a good idea to at least try and respect their initial opinion but I will keep an eye and see what happens. When this first broke, I reiterated a stance I've had since I was a teenager, and I'll stick to it for now while wishing all involved the best - I was irreligious for years without a support club - I certainly don't need one now.

So, what do you folks think? I'd love to hear all sides sound off in the comments, as constructive dialog is always a good thing. Anyway, after that rant I'll leave you with this lovely XKCD comic which sums up the kind of secular humanist attitude I have to this whole thing!

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