The Moral High Ground

I promise, I’ll be done with Atheismpluscrap after this, but they’re just such a bottomless pit of ignorance and cognitive dissonance that it’s hard to resist the urge to document it for posterity.

Anyway, while I think most folks who sling around gendered slurs like they’re the height of discourse has already ceded the moral high ground, it’s not often that I get to see such a stunning display of blatant hypocrisy (or possibly incompetence; Atheismpluscrap is a bit like an ELIZA bot built to demonstrate the Dunning-Kruger Effect) in action. To whit:

@atheismplusdogma: @Doubting_Tom it's duplicitous to call this movement atheism+

(Screencap)

I disagreed, but the point is that Atheismplusdogma appears to recognize that duplicity is bad. Later, I said this, in a candid moment:

@Doubting_Tom: @atheismpluscrap I'm not particularly interested in atheism anymore, I can't speak for the movement. I barely participate.

It’s true. I have an account on the Atheism+ forums, but I haven’t visited in quite some time, and got bored and disinterested pretty quickly after it started. I think it’s important to promote secular community and dismantle religious privilege, but “no gods exist” is one small, relatively insignificant, completely impractical thing I’ve learned about our vast universe. It has little more bearing on my life than the fact that unicorns and leprechauns don’t exist. I’ve grown far more concerned with the people and systems that do exist, and how we can make them better.

Not to mention I’m tired of dealing with the puffed-up pseudointellectual bigot dudebros who have rallied around the term “atheist” and think that adopting it confers magical reason-powers on everything they do or say. People who think “gods don’t exist” is somehow the pinnacle of human knowledge are people who I have no interest in or respect for.

Anyway, somehow that tweet got twisted by Atheismpluscrap into this:

(Screencap)

@atheismpluscrap: #AtheismPlus insider admits “they’re not interested in atheism”

Now, Atheismpluscrap has had some difficulty understanding symbols and words, so maybe they just didn’t know that when you use those double quotation marks, especially after saying “X says,” you’re supposed to be quoting what another person has said verbatim. Deviating from that means you’re falsifying the quotation, and omitting relevant context is quote-mining. You know, of the sort that religious creationists do.

It wasn’t the only time Atheismpluscrap used that tactic:

@Doubting_Tom: Yep, one tweet is really all you need. "Gods don't exist" – and that takes care of atheism. What next?

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom all human beings should be treated equally. What next?

@Doubting_Tom: @atheismpluscrap Well, next we determine the source of inequalities, and how to correct them. What are the logical conclusions of atheism?

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom if you're not a deceptive liar, explain why A+ tweet about feminism, based on your "what next" logic. Tripped up.

@Doubting_Tom: @atheismpluscrap A+ tweet about feminism to draw attention to ways in which people (in this case, women) aren't treated equally. See, "all people should be treated equally" is prescriptive & suggests action. "Gods don't exist" is a conclusion. And as we say all the time to theists, you can't get from "gods don't exist" to any other action without other premises.

Became…

(Screencap)

@atheismpluscrap: #AtheismPlus insider admits “it’s all about feminism, we tell theists there’s no god, end of”

It’s silly, because Atheismpluscrap is a thoroughly unpleasant twit, but it’s enlightening to see such stark proof of the uselessness of “atheism.” As I said a couple of posts ago, there’s nothing about atheism that requires its adherents to be reasonable or consistent people, and here we have proof: a Twitterer who assigns phrenological meanings to Tweet/follower/following ratios, shifts goalposts with all the skill of a creationist, and openly flouts his hypocrisy:

@Doubting_Tom: @atheismpluscrap Yes, I'm the one ho [sic] should be embarrassed, because you make accusations of duplicity then make up quotations.

@atheismpluscrap: @Doubting_Tom that's what #AtheismPlus cunts are doing every day. Your cults tactics. Do you want the last word? Is it di important.

There was a time when I thought being an atheist meant that someone had applied skepticism and good reasoning skills to the question of god’s existence. There was a time when I thought being an atheist meant rejecting the unreasonable, fallacious tactics of religion, and the reprehensible moral systems they promoted.

I know better now.

7 Responses to The Moral High Ground

  1. Jeff says:

    “There was a time when I thought being an atheist meant that someone had applied skepticism and good reasoning skills to the question of god’s existence. There was a time when I thought being an atheist meant rejecting the unreasonable, fallacious tactics of religion, and the reprehensible moral systems they promoted.”

    In all truth, I’m kind of surprised to hear (er – read) that, Tom – it had always seemed to me that you’d already believed otherwise a long, long time ago!

    To be fair to the hypothesis, there was a time when “being an atheist” very likely did suggest those other traits, to some extent, simply because it was unlikely that someone would even get a chance to explore the concept of atheism unless they went outside of the usual avenues of inquiry and applied a bit of careful scrutiny, and the effort and/or resources required to make that leap (in those times) might as well be put into high gear and applied to everything. (In for a penny….) Even so, many of the most diligent and accomplished people of science back then didn’t look in the other direction – they still didn’t bother applying this clever approach, that won them so much scientific knowledge, to the allegedly dicier subject of theology.

    These days? Saying “I’m an atheist” is like an “I’m rubber, you’re glue” taunt on the playground. It carries about as much weight, too, as far as I can tell – i.e., if you’re sensitive about it, it takes you down a peg and you feel like the battle will never end, and if you see it for the tripe it is, all you can do is shake your head and/or shout louder…and you feel like the battle will never end.

    It’s like the Internet equivalent of pinning an American flag on your lapel: “See, I’m patriotic. Now just ignore the fact that I clearly don’t give a damn about the principles of freedom or equality that I will still pretend our country was founded on, provided I get to define what those principles mean and to which people they apply!”

    Never mind that some people with a American flags on their lapels actually do seem to be on the “side of right” (whatever that may be) – the often entirely contradictory positions of the many wearing that pin are strong evidence that there’s no way all of them are right on every subject. The pin itself has become a symbolic non-symbol. It doesn’t mean anything.

    Claiming “atheism” in any online forum or other “debate” venue looks strikingly similar: “See, I’m an atheist. Now just ignore the fact that I clearly don’t give a damn about the principles of critical thought or the scientific method that I will still pretend my atheistic view was founded on, provided I get to define what those principles mean and to which subjects they apply!”

    And sure, there are plenty of people who claim atheism who are also applying pretty reasonable approaches to many (if not all) other subjects besides the existence of deities, but from everything I’ve seen, that’s not a rule…just a possibility. Again, the label is just a symbolic non-symbol. It means nothing useful.

    To paraphrase God himself – in Futurama, anyway – “Rational and irrational are just words – what matters is what you do.”

    I’ll also admit that while I’m pretty careful about applying a critical, rational approach to any subjects (and hope I’m successful more often than not), my atheism came about largely by default: that is, indoctrination just never took. After I heard the fanciful stories provided in (culturally-mandated) Sunday School classes, It never even occurred to me to consider if religious beliefs or beliefs in god/gods could be about a “real” thing (they seemed so silly!) until I was already old enough to rationally and rather immediately determine that they weren’t (they were, indeed, silly). This is also part of why it’s hard for me to knowledgeably respond to the “conversion to atheism” stories that were so prevalent in the “atheoskeptisphere” when I was more active. I just didn’t share that experience, and while I’m interested, sympathetic and curious, the thought of ever having had religious beliefs still seems very alien to me.

    The point being, though: in my case, skepticism and critical thought actually didn’t lead to atheism – they just developed in parallel, possibly independently (or possibly influencing one another as they went – it’s hard to tell). I imagine there must be others who share with me this somewhat “unearned” path (there wasn’t much hardship involved – just happenstance – so I feel as though I got off easy) to broad-scope rational thinking.

    What my take indicates about my own personal feelings toward any group or movement probably isn’t hard to suss out (and you probably remember it anyway), but I take no real joy in pissing all over another person’s interest in belonging to a group with which they share commonalities, even if I myself have no strong urges for same and genuinely believe (for whatever reasons exist in the wrinkles and chemicals of my brain) that it’s a very weird, if perhaps natural, desire. Friends are great; social circles, too. “Important,” supposedly heartfelt connections with people who claim limited, specific, common traits? Nah, I’m good.

    So…yeah. Quite a bit of verbosity for a comment on someone else’s blog (but you’re one of the few blog hosts I know who will probably not mind that).

    Mostly, I was just surprised at the implication that there was ever a time when you automatically equated “atheism” with skeptical and/or critical and/or rational thinking – I certainly wouldn’t claim personal knowledge of you, your experiences, or your thinking, but what I’ve read from you over the years suggested to me that you’re more skeptical about this than you’ve indicated above. (I don’t see this “revelation” about your thought processes as more positive or more negative – just different from what I thought.)

    Traits like atheism, rationality, and ethical behavior do seem to coincide with some degree of frequency (that degree depending, I suppose, on the nature of those you choose and/or are forced to interact with), but in my own (anecdotal) experience, there isn’t even a significant quantity of correlation, let alone causality. We humans are funny little critters.

  2. Doubting Tom says:

    After all the enormous comments I’ve left at your site over the years, Jeff, you’ve got carte blanche here.

    The nice thing about having deconverted since becoming a blogger–or at least, having gone from wishy-washy agnostic to full-on atheist to someone who just doesn’t care that much about it all anymore–is that I can actually pinpoint a time when I believed that atheism and rationality had a significant positive correlation. It was back in 2007 (have I really been writing here for six years?), in this post, where I phrased it as “I feel really bad about it, because there are a lot of Christians that I genuinely respect, admire, and love, but I feel just a little bit disappointed when I first find out that someone I know is Christian. I’m sorry. I get over it pretty quickly, though.” At least, that’s specifically the post I had in mind when I was writing this; maybe I’m strawmanning my younger self, memory’s a funny thing.

    I don’t know that I could pinpoint when I stopped thinking something like that, but I would guess it’s probably around the same time I started abusing the “counterproductive infighting” tag.

    Thanks for dropping by, by the way. Nice to know you’re still around.

  3. Jeff says:

    Yeah, still around! I like reading up on our Usual Suspects, like you and BD and others.

    I just can’t really get up the enthusiasm to participate in a lot of the usual arguments – it feels like we’ve all been through them so many times already. I think it’s precisely what you said: I just shifted into the “someone who just doesn’t care that much about it all anymore” phase. Sometimes a very specific thorn or two can prick me and elicit a reaction, but other than that, I just think about this stuff internally (or discuss it with 2% Tom, or my wife, or the bathroom mirror while I brush my teeth!).

    Honestly, I don’t even dig using the word “atheist” – it’s a shorthand way of saying “not theist,” but also adds a lot of excess baggage that unfortunately presents a red herring. To throw another on the neverending pile of the same old obvious analogies we always use (stamp collectors, anyone?): I don’t define myself by the fact that I don’t cut up meat for a living, and I wouldn’t presume to know anything about a person who does identify as a “butcher” beyond the fact that they do – calling myself a “non-butcher” wouldn’t mean anything, and would suggest that there’s something about butchery that does have a significant (even if only oppositional) effect on my life. (Though our local guy who gives us free samples of that incredible Spanish cured ham has a decidedly positive effect!) Theists who used poor logic to suggest that atheists are “against” god (rather than just not having that belief) were utterly wrong…but the use of the word didn’t help counter that risible argument. Though, admittedly, there aren’t many other viable options (and I never liked or saw a point in the old “what do we call ourselves” discussions).

    While I find so many of the Atheism+ principles and goals to be admirable, it seems to me that using the term “atheism” to identify such a group was the troublesome part in the first place – as you mentioned in your Tweet-rumble, there’s a big difference between “People should be treated equally” and “There is no god,” and that difference comes from whether you can draw any useful conclusions on what to do about it after making your statement. Every group is free to call themselves what they like, of course, but it’s not like they exist in a sociopolitical vacuum, and everyone else will have a “knee-jerk” opinion of said group based on that name. Bottom line for me, personally: do the principles and goals of Atheism+ really rest on atheism, or on a solid understanding of general human needs and the importance of egalitarian provision of rights, protections and privileges? And if the latter…why confuse the issue by using the word? I know, I know…because they have to call themselves something, and it’s a good rallying cry for many of the people they wish to attract. Just wouldn’t have been my move, if I were a good “group” type of person. I would have gone with “Yellow Plastic Spoon” or “Calcite Cereal” or something equally meaningless, to get the focus off the name and on the point of the organization.

    Your “counterproductive infighting” tag seems like a big factor, yeah. Once that starts (and, from what I’ve seen, it always does, eventually – No True Scotsman begins to seem like an inevitable result of universal physical laws!), the arguments go in spirals, and the actual goals get flung off like so many subatomic particles lost in space.

    And your loquacious contributions to TPC were always appreciated – when you (and BD and Ryan and TimmyAnn and Dikkii and Jason and Adam and all the regulars) were handling the moles and trolls, it meant that Tom and I didn’t have to rush to get our replies up! (That gave us time to throw in the extra profanity for freshness.)

  4. Bronze Dog says:

    It’s good to be appreciated alongside Tom. I really need to find some stuff to post. And get to work on editing that Atlas Shrugged audio review I recorded.

    I identify as an A+, myself, but I certainly understand wanting a different name for the group. I think keeping atheism as an explicit part does some good since having self-identified atheists out there helps counter the religiously inspired propaganda that we’re demons conspiring in the shadows instead of being seen in the open as people just like everyone else. LGBT groups have benefited a lot from having a lot of people come out of the closet, inoculating many of their friends from the propaganda against them. One annoyance I’d predict if we came up with some other name is that theists would try to argue that we’re not “really” atheists. Either that, or they’d say we’re “hiding” our atheism in order to trick/seduce people into joining our fashionable Satanic cult.

    Given the exposure of these raging misogynists and racists who try to use their atheism as a shield against criticism by other atheists, we’re experiencing a public relations issue a lot of us aren’t used to dealing with. It’s probably feeding the original propaganda right now. It also doesn’t help that the skeptical aspect/side/overlap of the community has its share of proclaimed skeptics engaging in denialism, conspiracy mongering, and cargo cult logic.

  5. Jeff says:

    You’re definitely appreciated, BD – I still refer to the Doggerel Files when I see miseducated people unwittingly rattling through half the list as they “debate” online (or offline, for that matter!).

    And it’s not exactly that I “want” a different name for the group. If I’m so unwilling (or uninterested) when it comes to joining a group, then I don’t really get to complain about the name chosen! All I can fairly do is point out my own opinions (right or wrong or subjective or some combination of the three) on how that name might affect the perceptions, goals, and methods of said group (and that only to people who don’t specifically and politely ask me not to!). In tawdry Internet terms: it’s not “concern” trolling so much as it’s “logistics” trolling. (Yeah, that makes it more palatable, Jeff…) Except that I would never bring up something that I’m not actually interested in discussing.

    It does strike me, though, that if the point of calling yourselves Scotsmen is to make sure the Germans can’t say you’re not Scotsmen (or accuse you of trying to hide your Scots identity), it doesn’t seem to work to your advantage when other Scotsmen will still say you’re not Scotsmen – due to you preferring kilts to pants (or vice versa) or over some larger concern – and many Germans will frequently lump all the “Scotsmen” together anyway (including you and those jerks in pants), regardless of those differences.

    Whereas if a particular segment of the Scottish population was really into providing, say, soup kitchens for those in need, and another segment was vehemently against the idea, the goal of welcoming other Scotsmen (outside of the “enemy” Scots) into the group would seem (to me) to be better served if the group called itself “Soup for Everyone” rather than “Scots And More,” since the fact that they are Scottish doesn’t seem to be the thrust of their soup-kitchen-oriented goals, and neither does it differentiate them from the Scotsmen who are against the soup kitchens. It’s like there’s an assumption that of course Scotsmen are going to be for soup kitchens, because…hey, that’s what Scotsmen are like, right? (Just ignore those Scotsmen who are against them. I think Tom already covered this ground above!) Plus, the “And More” isn’t terribly specific, and could just as easily be a title claimed by Scotsmen who are against soup kitchens, if we want to play semantic antics. “Scotsmen for Soup” would seem to be a more appropriate moniker, which differentiates them both from anti-soup Scotsmen and from foreigners who support their soup kitchen ideals.

    Dropping the Analogy Mask, the thoughtful justifications you suggested for the choice of name seem like they work just as well against it, which is where I see it starting to get muddy.

    It doesn’t seem that “atheism,” in itself, is the primary thrust of Atheism+ (speaking as someone who hasn’t dug too deeply there – I read you guys when I can, but not all of the sites involved in this issue). It seems like it’s more about the fight for equal rights and protections, and honest/decent behavior in general, and atheism (or at least secularism) just meshes very nicely with that because it’s about keeping religion – which historically has a pretty poor track record on these subjects – out of those decisions. Which is great, but then that seems to be a small (if useful) piece of the much larger movement, and it looks funny to me that this is the piece the whole movement is named for. (The problem for ever-inclusive accommodationists is even further compounded, but I’m not one, so I’ll leave that argument for them to handle.)

    The group seems to have come together because they are atheists and skeptics, and then they found they shared more pressing concerns beyond atheism and academic skepticism which not all their fellow atheists/skeptics seemed to share. So the name’s a bit of a red herring, and confuses perfectly valid issues as you find yourself fighting the mutated propaganda armies you hinted at rather than fighting the obstacles facing those issues.

    And, just as an aside, the “Plus” sort of implies superiority in the first place, while leaving plausible deniability against that unfortunate implication. To someone (me) who largely agrees with the group’s principles and goals – and even largely agrees that they are objectively superior to opposing goals – but isn’t a part of the group, it seems at least a little…well, smug. Off the record: I threw up a little inside my mouth every time someone suggested calling our fellow skeptic types “Brights” and such back in the day. Ugh.

    But like I mentioned (above and years ago), my opinion is that the whole “what do we call it” argument is so silly and useless precisely because of these more vital factors. Which is why I would think it actually would make sense to just whip up a meaningless, arbitrary name that then becomes the label for what you’re talking about, with no other relevant baggage inherent to the name itself. (Aside from the obvious comedy, the Flying Spaghetti Monster was a good example of this principle in action, precisely because it didn’t have the history behind it that “Santa Claus” or “Tooth Fairy” – and other commonly invoked examples of selective belief systems – did.)

    In a way, it’s like naming a child. The other kids are going to find a way to make fun of your kid no matter what you pick, so there are more important factors to consider when choosing a name. When the time comes, it’s the kid’s actions – what they do – that will attract, repel, defeat or submit to others. As long as you don’t pick something derogatory like “Smelly Farts Johnson” or something pretentious like “Brilliant Awesome Smith,” their name won’t be part of the equation in the long run. There are cultures and time periods where/when individuals had to earn the name they were called, simply by doing what they did (like, you know, dancing with wolves or something). Do what you do, and everyone will start to call you something based on that. In a completely idealistic and totally impractical way, I think that would make so much more sense for people and organizations, though I do understand that the initial marketing strategies (and pre-school registrations) would be a disaster.

    But perhaps no more disastrous than the public relations issues you addressed in your points above, BD. Food for (completely abstract and inapplicable) thought.

    Okay, in only three comments I’ve managed to type more about these subjects than I have in the past three years. Time for me to slink back into my lair before I start dropping F-bombs like the old days.

  6. I’ve been following the American atheist bloggers for many years (I’m Australian), sat on the edge of my office chair during elevatorgate not leaving my office for about 10 hours and the various fallouts since then have kept me gripped. Atheism isn’t quite as big a deal in Australia as it is in the US as religion does not have the political clout here (although we have just elected a Catholic who was in the seminary for a while and has regressive ideas about abortion and women’s rights). When I started my own blog about social justice issues I wondered how much of the atheist sceptical element I should focus on. It didn’t take me long to work it out. A number of my followers are christians (even though I do call myself “godless”) who are passionate about social justice issues, incredibly intelligent and very rational in their discussions. The few atheists that have come on have been mean arseholes, so I have dropped the atheist emphasis. However, I do have a few posts on alternative medicine but watching some other bloggers deal with that (like Furious Purpose) has made me wonder whether I really want to be fighting the kooky crystal set when issues of inequality, poverty and political oppression seem to be more more urgent.

    Anyway, just popped in to say I agree with your sentiments wholeheartedly.

  7. MrFancyPants says:

    having gone from wishy-washy agnostic to full-on atheist to someone who just doesn’t care that much about it all anymore

    That’s pretty much me in a nutshell. I had the zeal of the converted when I first decided that I was an atheist, but in the years since it’s become a very minor part of my identity. I don’t see much need to promote atheism, either. Anymore these days, I think there are a lot of other, more important battles to wage (like fighting sexism, transphobia, homophobia, etc.).

    It was fun to toy with @atheismpluscrap with you today. I suspect that person or persons will probably be more active from now on, given how enraged (s)he was when the game was revealed.

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