On Our Team

I knew someone calling themselves “atheismpluscrap” wasn’t likely to be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but some of their stuff got retweeted into my timeline today, and it presented me with amusement, fodder for the “skeptics being profoundly unskeptical” tag, and an opportunity for a teachable moment. So, what the hell, here’s a blog post.

My involvement began when I saw these gems, in response to this tweet by Helenarth (hooray for clever puns!):
The relevant quotations:

@Helenarth: @atheismpluscrap How can someone be a “fake” atheist? / @ool0n

@atheismpluscrap: @Helenarth they join #AtheismPlus and say they’re atheists in order to discredit atheism. In actual fact they are religious @ool0n

@atheismpluscrap: @ool0n <- proven to be deceitful 40,000 followers for his bot almost overnight. Check how many twts about atheism. He's a theist @Helenarth

@Helenarth: @atheismpluscrap Wait, so not tweeting about atheism = theist? @ool0n

@atheismpluscrap: @Helenarth in a faction called Atheism+ but doesn't tweet about atheism. Has a block list of atheists. Argues with atheists, never theists

That’s where I came in. See, Atheismpluscrap seems to have a misunderstanding about the definition of “atheism,” which is the lack of belief in gods. You’ll notice that nowhere in that definition is there anything about block lists of atheists, arguing with atheists, or arguing with theists. The sole qualification for being an atheist is lacking belief in gods, just as the sole qualification for being a theist is believing in at least one god. This is particularly funny since, in my looking for those tweets to screencap, I found Atheismpluscrap chiding another Twitterer for “hav[ing] trouble with simple word definitions” ([link] [screencap]).

So anyway, I pointed out this little definition problem:

@Doubting_Tom: @atheismpluscrap @helenarth And strangely, none of those traits are necessary to be a theist. In fact, only one trait is.

I’ll admit here that I hadn’t seen the conspiratorial second tweet up there; I was just amused by an atheist trying to prove that they could determine a person’s beliefs through a No True Scotsman argument. So I was a little surprised to see the conspiracy theory come raging forth:

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom if he's discrediting atheism by pretending to be an atheist he won't wear a cross, dumb ass

Not entirely sure how you discredit atheism, since it’s just a lack of belief in gods. I suppose you could prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that gods exist, but that’s about it.

But what Atheismpluscrap is doing here is something we’ve seen quite a bit of in the atheoskeptisphere, with different variations. The “X isn’t a real atheist, but is a theist trying to make us look bad” argument gets pulled out from time to time. S.E. Cupp is a common target, but really any conservative or religion-friendly atheist is going to get it at some point, and probably some of the bigger assholes too. Basically any atheist that any other atheist might be embarrassed by.

Another common variant is “X is a secret atheist,” which got trotted out about Barack Obama a lot in the early years of his presidency, and got bandied about regarding Mother Teresa when letters about her crisis of faith surfaced. The historical spin on this is “If X were around today, they’d be an atheist,” which we see about most of the Founding Fathers at one point or another.

And in every case, it’s about wishful thinking. It’s all about seeing atheism/skepticism as a team, and wanting to have the right people on your team. We like to think that because we’ve adopted a label and started slinging around the word “community,” that it means we have more in common than just a lack of belief in gods. We like to think that we arrived at the right conclusion for the right reasons, and that the people who agree with us did as well. We like to think that being an atheist is a sign of being super-rational, and like to imagine that other atheists are similarly super-rational. And I suspect a lot of that is because the surge in atheism and the building of an atheist community, over the last several years, comes on the backs of books and campaigns by scientists and philosophers who came to their atheism from positions of scientific skepticism. There’s a lot of overlap between the atheist and skeptic communities, and that overlap creates a lot of impressions which aren’t necessarily true.

And chief among them is the notion that anyone who values reason, logic, science, or skepticism is necessarily an atheist, and vice versa. When we encounter unreasonable atheists, we feel like they’re giving us a bad name and want to make it clear that they don’t represent us, that they’re not on our team. And when we encounter reasonable people who don’t profess atheism, we like to imagine that they’re just keeping it a secret, but they actually are on our team. We like to believe this because it’s comforting and validating.

Unfortunately, like many comforting and validating beliefs, it’s also false.

There are many paths to rejecting the belief in gods, and skepticism is only one of them. Being skeptical about some things doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re skeptical about everything, or that you’re exercising skepticism properly and not dipping into denialism. Being a scientist or science enthusiast doesn’t necessarily mean that you understand things beyond your expertise, or that you’re applying skepticism. And none of those suggest that you’re a worthwhile person to be around.

And anyone who’s paid any attention should be able to rattle off a dozen examples off the top of their head. Bill Maher is an atheist who’s an alt-med proponent and science denialist. Penn & Teller are skeptical atheists who used their show to promote global warming denialism. Linus Pauling was a two-time Nobel laureate who blundered his way into promoting vitamin megadosing pseudoscience. And in terms of assholery, you’ve got the racism and Islamophobia of guys like Dawkins and Harris and Pat Condell, the disgusting misogyny of guys like the Amazing Atheist and Thunderf00t, and plenty of patronizing, smarmy douchebags.

It’s tempting to think that they’re not really atheists, but what reason do we have to doubt that? There’s nothing about being an atheist that keeps you from believing all manner of ridiculous things, just ask the Raelians. We have to come to grips that not everyone who agrees with us on one thing will agree on other things, and that not everyone comes to beliefs through reason and logic. The scary thing is that it suggests that maybe we’re not as reasonable as we think we are.

Rather than face that discomfort, however, folks like Atheismpluscrap follow the train of logic that results from it: if they’re not really atheists, they must be theists. If they’re actually theists, why do they call themselves atheists? It must be to make atheists look bad.

Because apparently that’s something that theists are worried about, despite the fact that many of them seem to think atheists are all just amoral hedonists. And the way they choose to make atheists look bad is by…setting up a block bot to serve a particular subset of atheists, and arguing with some atheists on Twitter. So no, that block bot can’t be for a subset of atheists. In fact, all of Atheism Plus must be some kind of religion trying to infiltrate atheism and bring it down from the inside. And they’ll do that by promoting feminism and social justice issues. Because…profit?

Like any conspiracy theory, it falls apart when you consider motivations and scope and Occam’s Razor. The most parsimonious explanation is that these are simply other people who lack belief in god but disagree with you on other points. I don’t deny that The Amazing Atheist probably is, in fact, an atheist. I think he’s also a giant frothing asshole and the only amazing thing about him is his bigotry and ego. There’s not really a contradiction there, much though one might wish there were.

I flippantly pointed this out to Atheismpluscrap:

@Doubting_Tom: @atheismpluscrap @Helenarth "Discrediting atheism"? That's some conspiracy theory you've got there, chief. Ever hear of Occam's Razor?

Atheismpluscrap responded by asking “ru in a+ ?” as if it had any bearing on whether or not his conspiracy theory had any validity. They liked my next tweet, which lampooned the conversation:

@Doubting_Tom: So-called atheist throwing out No True Scotsman arguments is worried about fakers discrediting atheism. Almost ironic.

I wished in that moment that they’d had the word “skeptic” in their ‘nym, since it would have made the irony less Morissettian. But Atheismpluscrap apparently lacked the reading comprehension to get that I was making fun of them:

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom I agree with you. I’m glad you too have rumbled A+. Welcome aboard

It’s the same cognitive error there: Atheismpluscrap agreed with what I said, so they assumed I must also be against Atheism Plus and on-board with their conspiracy ravings. I suspect at that point was when they bothered to have a look at my timeline, because their next tweet was this:

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom 21721 tweets 399 followers. Mmmmm. Maybe social interaction isn’t for you? #Boring #incoherent #AtheismPlus

As arguments go, it’s a swing and a miss. How many tweets I’ve written and how many followers I have has no real bearing on whether or not Atheismpluscrap’s conspiracy theories are reasonable, nor does it have any bearing on the truth of any of my comments. It’s a bog-standard argument from popularity fallacy, and the sort of thing that, as a skeptic and atheist, I’m embarrassed to see from another atheist.

But I don’t doubt that Atheismpluscrap is an atheist–even though by their standards, I should. After all, Atheismpluscrap argues with atheists, tweets obsessively about atheism plus, and even compliments theists! By their own reasoning, we should assume that Atheismpluscrap is a mole out to make atheists look bad by slinging around words like “fascism” and “cunt” in order to make atheists look hateful and stupid.

But Atheismpluscrap is not good at reasoning, which is why we don’t come to that conclusion. Instead, we use the principle of parsimony to accept their word regarding religious belief, and recognize that there’s nothing preventing an atheist from being that kind of hateful twit. Atheismpluscrap is on Team Atheist, embarrassing though that may be, and that’s something everyone else on Team Atheist has to deal with.

Why, it’s almost enough for a group of team members to split off and form their own team.

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