The Good Atheist

Probably the strangest thing about attending a seminary for my (first?) graduate degree is the expectation that I’m “not really an atheist” (in the sense of Oprah Winfrey saying that if you can feel awe, you aren’t really an atheist; everyone knows that atheists are grouchy and only eat Brussels sprouts). If you can discuss religion, if you can do theology, if you can say the word “spiritual” with a straight face, then you aren’t really an atheist…or at the very least, you’re a GOOD atheist!

If the expectations of my classmates are anything to go by, a good atheist is an atheist who respects other belief systems and who is constantly sad that her personal systems of meaning-making can’t guarantee everlasting life. She’d be an atheist who feels included in moments of silence that nevertheless end with “amen” and who never makes religious people feel awkward.

So, Christian people are disappointed to find out that I’m not a one-of-the-good-ones atheist. Oh well.

The ironic thing is that, according to some atheists, I’m not a good atheist either — as in, I’m not good at being an atheist. Not because I’m attending a seminary or because I can say the word “spiritual” with a straight face, but because I’d rather do feminism than do atheism, because I’d rather join hands with a liberationist than a rape apologist, because I do religious people the courtesy of taking their life experiences seriously (which is markedly not the same thing as taking their beliefs seriously; I just can’t stand anyone who is in the business of auditing other people’s lives).

Clearly I’m not a “good atheist” by either definition presented thus far, so I’ll just have to create my own.

To my mind, a good atheist is a person who behaves ethically and who does not express god-belief/belief in the supernatural. Because a good atheist is not saddled with 6,000 years of patriarchal theology, a good atheist is able to seek out, identify, and reject the patriarchal artifacts in our culture. A good atheist in my social location is aware that the current Euro-American conception of “God” is particular to this time and this place and knows that to assume all believers worship “God” is ethnocentric in the extreme. A good atheist knows that people deserve respect, even when their beliefs don’t. A good atheist is not afraid to point out when beliefs don’t deserve respect. A good atheist knows the difference between ignorance and choosing to be ignorant.

Those are the most general guidelines I can come up with. Here are some other guidelines which are more particular to me and my own experiences. Please note that your mileage may vary and that you are never under any obligation to do something which makes you feel unsafe.

  • A good atheist is OUT. A good atheist is constantly in the process of coming out.
  • A good atheist recognizes when she is the recipient of Christian privilege and rejects it. A good atheist recognizes when other people are dealing in Christian privilege and calls it out.
  • A good atheist has carefully considered how to identify herself. Is she a skeptic? Maybe. Is she a freethinker? Maybe. Is she an agnostic? Maybe. But she has considered all of the connotations and decided that to identify herself as an atheist is the most intellectually honest approach available.
  • A good atheist is not holier-than-thou, or rather, more-atheist-than-thou. As interesting as de-conversion stories can be, the quality of the story does not determine the quality of atheist. The idea of “atheist street cred” is basically meaningless.
  • A good atheist, if speaking publicly about atheism, is well-versed in counter-apologetics — which is to say, you shouldn’t ever concede a philosophical point. It isn’t turtles all the way down and you know it.
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The Trickery of “Secular”

I had a wild time Tuesday afternoon when I tried to convince an adjunct faculty member that his “secular” is my “Christian supremacy.”

It took me a few minutes to put my finger on why exactly his claim was bogus, because he was using such stupendous verbal slight-of-hand (slight-of-tongue?) that I was not clear, at first, whether or not he was trying to characterize America as a Christian nation. I mean, he jumped from “justice is secular” (is not! should be, but is not!) to “the Founding Fathers were Christians” (except for the Deists, but what-evs; they are all dead anyway) in about 30 seconds. What was this dude doing?

It finally occurred to me that he was saying “secular” when all he meant was “civic.” I caught on when he told me — and here is proof-positive that a PhD doesn’t guarantee any degree of intelligence — that the Pledge of Allegiance is secular. Let us be clear. In my mind, the Pledge of Allegiance, or, as I’d rather call it, the Pledge of Monotheism, is not at all secular.

Suddenly, every conversation from earlier in the day made sense. I had been saying “secular” and meaning freedom from religious coercion. Other people had been saying “secular” and meaning civic expressions of Christianity.

The secular movement is important to me because it is a space from which I cannot be exiled if I refuse to parrot a creed, if I refuse to stand for values I do not hold, or if I refuse to lie by pretending to pray while you pray. My strength is my refusal. The secular is where I am included, and where I am allowed to speak truth. The idea that the secular can be corrupted to refer to the civic glove on the fist of Christian supremacy or the middle-finger of Christian privilege is dizzying.

Secular means: you leave your gods at home, and I will not tell you why you should try reason instead. Liberal Christians need to stop trying to weasel into secular space. You are invited in — Jesus is not.

Against Hope

As I said in my last post, I encountered some offensive nonsense coming from the instructor during my Saturday class. She asserted — without any subtlety — that religious organizations are better at peacebuilding than secular organizations are (!). Having already dealt with 9/11 and moon-landing conspiracy theorists, as well as “quantum morality,” I was not in a good place to be told that religions are peaceful entities.

Me: “On what do you base this claim?”

“Religions offer hope.”

Me: (actually losing my cool) “WHOA. Stop. Hope has absolutely no place in this.”

Rather than take on the question of whether or not secular or religious organizations offer more “hope” — because, honestly, where would that discussion get us? — I’d like to use this post to explain one of my core philosophies: Hope is oppressive.

Hope is oppressive because hope is paralyzing. Hope keeps people from taking action, from asserting agency, from rationally weighing potential outcomes and from deciding what is an acceptable risk. Hope is a gamble that you are guaranteed to lose, because while the hoped-for outcome might come to pass, the passive nature of hope is disempowering. Hope just keeps people in line.

Hope is also oppressive because hope is accompanied by the emotions of anxiety and disappointment. Hoping for something is stressful. Hoping for something and not getting it can be devastating.

Hopelessness, on the other hand, is liberating. You’ve heard the expression “beware of the person with nothing to lose,” right? Hopelessness is the space of commitment, the space where we find out who we really are and what we are ready to fight for. Hopelessness is the place where we discover radical self-reliance, because no one is coming to save us. Hopelessness is the place where we make our stand because it has become unbearable to wait any longer, and hopelessness is where justice gets done.

Let me be clear: Hopelessness is not despair. To despair is to lose hope — what happens after hope. Hopelessness is to not waste your energy on hope in the first place and to instead focus your energy on getting things done.

Heard Today…

…from graduate students:

  • 9/11 was an inside job
  • The moon landing was faked
  • Morality is “moral on the quantum level”

This was all from one class, “Conflict & Religious Peacebuilding.”

Update (11:19 PM):

Having had a decent nap, I can now stand to blog about what these three conversations were like.

These are not remarkable examples of fuzzy thinking — not in and of themselves, anyway. These are common. These are easily debunked. Give me a discussion of the Historical Jesus any day. I just wasn’t braced to have all of these things thrown at me when I went to a class in peacebuilding. In some ways, though, it was a relief to show that being a “skeptic” doesn’t mean I’m skeptical about all of The Official Stories. Just skeptical that your god rose from the dead, really.

In a philosophical discussion of “truth,” I was advocating for small-t truth; there are things that are true in the world. I respect that people feel that they have their own capital-T truths, because I have those as well, although mine are derived from reason, evidence, and empathy instead of a Bronze Age text. I was directly asked how I would recognize small-t truth when I saw it, and I gave what I felt was a standard answer about externally verifiable evidence and testable, repeatable proof.

“Well, what about 9/11?”

Me: “What about it?”

“There are all these experts who say that the towers had to be demolished from the inside. They can give you externally verifiable evidence. Why are you ignoring them?”

At this juncture, I wish I had pointed out that, even if the conspiracy theorists were right that 9/11 was an inside job, different “truths/Truths” would still be mutually exclusive in that the preponderance of evidence can only support one conclusion, or else it wouldn’t be a preponderance. I ended up defining “preponderance” instead. I did not avoid the fight that resulted from pointing out that citing “experts” without citing their research is an appeal-to-authority fallacy.

From a second and third student:

“I have my doubts about the moon landing.”

Me: “Why?”

“Well, it looks so fake.”

Me: “Fake compared to what? What do you imagine that authentic pictures from the moon would look like?”

*crickets*

I did not get to point out that you can look through a telescope here on Earth and find the lunar lander on the moon’s surface.

And from the first student, once the question of the moral relevance of truth came up:

“What if things are moral on the quantum level?”

Me (assuming that this is a joke): “Let’s just assume that all of my statements about morality don’t apply at the subatomic level.”

“Well, I don’t think that’s true at all!”

Me: “…what?”

I’ve been mulling this over, and I’ve decided that defending compatibilism would have been the wrong action to take at this juncture; for starters, I bet I would have had to define “determinism” and contest whether or not our universe is deterministic at the quantum level. Clearly this student was coming at word “quantum” from a nonsensical, Deepak Chopra-like point of view, where “thoughts are quantum events!” (Deepak, everything is a quantum event.)

Here’s the thing about me ‘n’ morality: I’m a social constructivist all the way down. Yes, I’m engaging in moral relativism, in that it is descriptive moral relativism. People with different life experiences (we don’t even have to consider different ages or cultures for this to be true) can legitimately conclude that different actions are moral. Developing and exercising your moral compass is a life-long project; immorality is then, by definition, the abdication of that project — the abdication of reason, evidence, and empathy. Claiming that ours is a deterministic universe at the quantum level and that therefore morality is a valid inquiry to make of reality at the quantum level is just a pretentious way of abandoning your responsibility to exercise judgment. (Nota bene, I’m on board with Hannah Arendt’s view that thinking and exercising judgment are essential components of what it means to be human — not moral or immoral, but human.)

This are the absurd things I heard just from students. The absurd thing I heard from the instructor is a different post…