Posts Tagged ‘freethought blogs’

Atheists will be used to mischaracterisations of their position. One common misunderstanding is that being an atheist means ‘believing in nothing’. As we know, the term ‘atheist’ describes our lack of belief in (or denial of) the existence of gods. Of course, atheism is compatible with ‘belief in nothing’, but usually atheists will hold other positive beliefs about other issues. For instance, one might be an atheist and be pro-life, or a socialist,  or a preference utilitarian, etc. The label ‘atheist’ doesn’t speak about other beliefs you might have, unless it would be contradictory to both be an atheist and hold that belief. For example, one cannot be both an atheist and believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, as belief in the Resurrection requires first that one believes in the Christian conception of God. That would be a contradiction.


With that in mind, it isn’t hard to see why I’m surprised that blogger Jen McCreight has started a new movement, or ‘wave’ of atheism: Atheism+. She sees atheism (as a movement) in its current form as a ‘Boy’s [sic] Club’, and makes an analogy with the ‘waves’ of feminism:

It’s time for a new wave of atheism, just like there were different waves of feminism. I’d argue that it’s already happened before. The “first wave” of atheism were the traditional philosophers, freethinkers, and academics. Then came the second wave of “New Atheists” like Dawkins and Hitchens, whose trademark was their unabashed public criticism of religion. Now it’s time for a third wave – a wave that isn’t just a bunch of “middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied men” patting themselves on the back for debunking homeopathy for the 983258th time or thinking up yet another great zinger to use against Young Earth Creationists.

That is very unfair. Take her scoffing at those debunking homeopathy for instance. Firstly, it is unclear what homeopathy has to do with atheism. Secondly, those who do spent a lot of time debunking homeopathy might have a variety of reasons for doing so. One might be that debunking pseudo-scientific claims is a hobby for them. I see no harm in that, and examining such claims can be a great learning experience in general. Another might be to prevent harm done by people peddling homeopathy as a substitute for real medicine, and this is a very worthwhile goal. One can do these things without harming the cause of social justice. That is important. We each make our own contributions in our own way. Many people do not actively help disabled people in their plight, for example. But unless they’re standing in the way of those who actually are doing that, I don’t think that we should criticise them for their lack of action (or else we’d all be hypocrites).


In a follow-up post, McCreight illuminates her idea further:

We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

It speaks to those of us who see atheism as more than just a lack of belief in god.

I’d like to think that I am all of those things. I could add more: I’m an atheist plus a socialist. I’m an atheist plus I’m pro-choice. I’m an atheist plus a Wagnerite! ‘Atheist’ describes just one part of my belief system. However, McCreight’s idea that atheism should be seen as ‘more than just a lack of belief in god’ does not make a lot of sense. If ‘atheist’ includes social justice, then saying ‘atheist plus social justice’ is trivial. If it doesn’t, then it is difficult to see how this is different from ‘first wave’ atheism.


Perhaps I’m being uncharitable here. McCreight isn’t talking about the definition of ‘atheism’, but rather she is talking about forming a new movement with atheism at its core. I still believe this is problematic.


1)  There is already something like this: humanism. It involves positive ethical beliefs in addition to a commitment to rational, philosophical and scientific inquiry. One difference, however is that humanism isn’t explicitly atheist, yet I don’t see why this should matter. After all humanism already has an explicit commitment to human rationality, so it is unclear what benefit there is to getting rid of religious belief completely. We might call it ‘humanism that excludes non-atheists’ without any substantive difference, yet when framed like that it sounds rather unnecessary.


2)  There are already movements that support these extra causes. If I want to fight racism, promote women’s rights or anything else, I could join one of the many groups around that are already fighting these things. They have nothing to do with atheism. We might as atheists also fight these causes, but it is not part of atheism. This also applies to things like homeopathy – we might be atheists plus homeopaths without contradiction. If there is to be an atheist movement at all, it should be to ensure that atheists are not discriminated against, but this is not to say that the atheist movement should not promote these sorts of things internally. For instance, there should be no sexist or racist (…etc.) discrimination at atheist conferences, just as there also should be no such discrimination at Wagner Society meet-ups. There is no need for ‘Wagnerism+’ for those who are Wagnerites plus believe in gay rights and so forth. Just as it doesn’t make sense for the Wagner Society to be about fighting transphobia, it doesn’t make much sense for the atheist movement to be about that either. Wagnerites might still hold these beliefs and are of course welcome to join feminist groups, but it does not make much sense for the Wagner Society itself to fight these causes.


3)  It is unclear exactly which issues should follow the ‘plus’. Even if you are still on McCreight’s side at this point, you might have your own idea about what ‘Atheism+’ should mean. I have already seen requests for extra doctrines, like animal rights and so forth. What about a concern for the poor? What about a welfare state? What about supporting Palestine? It is unclear how we decide what does or does not count as part of ‘Atheism+’. What about atheism plus the view that immigration is out of control? I doubt they would support that idea (and nor would I), but why not? It is a positive belief accompanying some people’s atheism after all. Should the third wave not include these sorts of people?


4)  It seems to be exclusionary. McCreight writes:

I don’t want good causes like secularism and skepticism to die because they’re infested with people who see issues of equality as mission drift.

I think that I have been arguing that issues of equality, when not confined to meta-issues like conference organisation and so forth are examples of mission drift. Barbara Drescher wrote an excellent post about the issue of mission drift in the skeptical movement. The idea that people like Drescher and I are ‘infesting’ the movement and causing it ‘to die’ is in my view, very unfair. We should be able to talk about these issues, but already ‘Atheism+’ seems unwelcoming to those who question it. What if we disagree about what exactly ‘social justice’ entails? What if we disagree on whether x is or isn’t an instance of homophobia? What if we believe that atheists+ should oppose hate speech laws?


5)  Why ‘Atheism+’ and not ‘Social Justice+’? As McCreight describes it, it seems that the social justice component is the most important part. Why does she not campaign for the idea that there should be a new wave of social justice? “I believe in social justice plus I’m an atheist”. “I fight racism plus I think religion is harmful”. I think there is no substantive difference between this and her position, and yet all it does is sever ties with some strong allies. There are plenty of religious people who fought and are still fighting for some form of social justice: Martin Luther King, Mary Daly, and more recently Giles Fraser, Rowan Williams and Christina Rees (and many more, of course). Why exclude them? If you keep the social justice movement separate from extra baggage like atheism you are less likely to exclude those who would otherwise support your cause.


So what’s the harm? Perhaps there is no harm. If atheism+ appeals to some people, then I think they should go ahead  join in with it. It might however lead to the view that any non-believer who doesn’t identify as an ‘atheist+’ doesn’t really care about social issues. That would be a mistake, in my opinion. It might also put off* some atheists from identifying as an atheist because they disapprove of one or more of Atheism+’s doctrines. I also feel that it lends support to the (sometimes harmful) notion of ‘atheist beliefs’.



* That is, if ‘atheism+’ becomes famous outside of a handful of blogs and lasts for more than a few weeks. I’m sceptical of that, too.

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Two points relating to my last post regarding the principles that ought to govern ‘freethought blogs’.

Was I talking about FTB?

Freethought blogger Kylie Sturgess of Token Skeptic comments:

From the comments here and elsewhere, it’s very clear everyone reads this as about Freethought blogs. Vagueness isn’t much help and detracts from your overall message, I think.

Kylie is right; I had FTB in mind while writing the piece, and I do think that, in general, FTB would benefit from my advice (although I don’t think her blog has any of the problems I mentioned).

Here’s why I did not make my article about the network ‘Freethought Blogs’. Firstly, I think that the principles I outlined should apply to any blog that considers itself a ‘freethought’ blog, and not just those on the FTB network. Secondly, I don’t think that the problematic blogs are all on FTB. Thirdly, if I was to make the claim that FTB doesn’t follow what I called the Principle of Rational Discussion (PRD), then commenters may justly expect evidence for that claim. This was a tricky one for me. I could provide one or two instances, or show vast amounts (and there really are vast amounts) of evidence. The former might not convince people that there was a widespread problem, and the latter would be very long and time-consuming.

I therefore preferred the constructive approach, thinking about how bloggers interested in promoting freethought might wish to police their blogs. If someone wishes to see the dirt on FTB (and the other blogs I had in mind), then the evidence has been documented all over the place. My advice would be to go there and look. Look at a contentious issue (especially involving social justice), and watch what happens when someone posts a reasonable disagreement. Better still, disagree yourself and see what happens. Follow the PRD, and see if they follow suit.

Dealing with disagreement

Anyway, here’s one example that dissent is treated less than favourably by one of the FTB leaders. Today PZ Myers posted a YouTube video about former FTBer thunderf00t‘s dismissal from the network. I commented:

I don’t recall thunderf00t saying anywhere that he didn’t support the idea of gender equality. I read him as disagreeing about the idea of extra harassment policies at conferences. You may disagree with him on that point (I do), but his position is quite compatible with a belief in gender equality.

I don't recall thunderf00t saying anywhere that he didn't support the idea of gender equality. I read him as disagreeing about the idea of extra harassment policies at conferences. You may disagree with him on that point (I do), but his position is quite compatible with a belief in gender equality.

The offending comment

I thought that was reasonable enough. Anyway, I tried to respond to another comment a few minutes later and I had been blocked from commenting by the channel owner, PZ Myers. The comment above was my only comment. Worse still, I notice commenters who say things like:

PZ IS ruining the image of atheism dude. He’s allowing the stupid dogmatic ultra feminist viewpoint to take over and divide us.

…have not been banned, and are still arguing hours later. It seems clear to me that PZ allows commenters who make the ‘other side’ look bad, and bans those who argue calmly and reasonably. This creates the illusion that one side is calm and rational (his side) and the other side is ranting and raving, and I say that is dishonest of him to do so.

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Edit: For clarification: I am not necessarily talking about the network Freethought Blogs (FTB). I am talking about any blog that wishes to promote freethought.

Edit: Kylie Sturgess of FTB posted a response to me at http://freethoughtblogs.com/tokenskeptic/2012/07/08/on-advice-for-a-freethought-blog-by-notung. She raises good points relating to FTB as a network.


Advice for a ‘Freethought Blog’


What is ‘freethought’, and why might we want to be a ‘freethinker’? Freethought is a reason-based approach to forming beliefs about the world, and a respect for scientific inquiry. It is productive; when we employ reason when assessing claims, or test hypotheses using the scientific method we tend to get useful results. There are other reasons for preferring the freethinking approach but for my purposes I need not worry about them here.

The opposite of freethought is dogma. We want to oppose dogma for a variety of reasons, of which I will just provide two (from Mill’s On Liberty). Firstly we are fallible beings, and if we do not allow our beliefs to be challenged we can never really be sure that they are the correct ones. Secondly, even if the belief happens to be true, granting it the status of dogma avoids a ‘collision with error’ (as Mill puts it). This collision allows us to see the weak points in our position in order to refine it appropriately. It encourages us to learn how to defend our position, and develop a stronger understanding of why what we believe is true.

So what would a ‘freethought blog’ look like? If it is to warrant the name, it would surely practise and promote the approach outlined above, putting reason before all else. It does not matter necessarily what conclusions one is led to by this approach, but rather that the posts one writes attempt to shake off received wisdom and dogma, and endeavour to replace it with a freethinking methodology. A freethought blog would encourage rational discourse in the comments, where arguments are challenged robustly and reasonably, and all opinions live or die by the quality of the reasoning that leads to them.

So I propose what I will call the Principle of Rational Discourse, which will take two forms; one weak, one strong.


The Weak Principle (wPRD):

Stick to the arguments and remain civil.

If we do not stick to the arguments but instead prefer to attack opponents personally, we distract the conversation with irrelevancies. Furthermore, if you or your opponent get needlessly riled up, then emotion takes the place of reason and the quality of the arguments diminishes. There is no good reason not to be civil. If the arguments are poor, then the surest way of demonstrating this is with a reasoned rebuttal, rather than with invective. If they are ‘trolling’, i.e. posting comments of little substance merely to anger people, then they may be justly blocked from commenting in order to prevent the discussion from breaking down and suffering a catastrophic loss of productivity.


The Strong Principle (sPRD):

Concentrate your arguments against the strongest objections to your view.

I call this a ‘strong’ principle since rather than simply granting dissent negative liberty, it involves treating dissent as a positive good. Those who hold a genuine desire to discover the truth always seek out the strongest objections to their position. We must (if we are to obey this principle) be sure to present our opponent’s arguments in their most favourable light, and employ what is known as the ‘principle of charity’. Why should we do this? Suppose somebody makes an argument that you find prima facie ridiculous. Now consider two possibilities: the first is that we have misunderstood their case and end up unintentionally weakening their argument, and the second is that we understood their argument perfectly, but they are a poor reasoner and so their claims are easy to refute. In the former case, we have misrepresented our opponent’s argument and made it easier for us to knock down (this is known as a ‘straw man fallacy’). In the latter case, all we may achieve is that we ‘win’ the argument, and what good does that do? Would it not be preferable to see whether your beliefs withstand a more robust challenge? Thinking in this way can be a learning experience, even if your beliefs remain standing at the end. We gain more of an understanding of our views by examining them in great detail; holding them up to the light to reveal any imperfections, no matter how small. It seems then that the best way to deal with such a situation is to find the interpretation that provides you with the strongest challenge. I would go so far as to say we should help our opponent out – show them how their argument can be improved. As well as being a nice gesture, it demonstrates the sort of intellectual honesty essential for freethought.


My Suggestion

I propose that a ‘freethought blog’ ought to employ wPRD at the very least. However, it seems to me that a blog that is engaged in a disinterested search for the truth should also employ sPRD. We want to be proven wrong. One of my friends at CERN once said that he hoped that they never found the Higgs Boson, since the idea that their current understanding of particle physics was mistaken was a much more exciting prospect than obtaining data that simply confirmed what they already knew. Being wrong is a chance to learn something new about about ourselves, about each other, about the world. We should embrace that – for freethinkers, nothing is sacred.


Some Examples

Name-calling, threats, insults, sarcasm, invective and speculations as to the agenda of a commenter all violate wPRD.

If you are a prominent skeptic leader who recounts an experience and makes a particular moral claim, and then a well-known colleague takes issue with that claim in a way you dislike, try to understand what they mean and what they are arguing. Interpret their argument so that it is as strong as possible (sPRD). Note the points of agreement and the points of disagreement. Ask for clarification if you are not sure. Any examination of their personal characteristics is a waste of time at best (and an ad hominem fallacy at worst), and would violate wPRD. Outline precisely and efficiently why you do not find their objection sound, and await their response to your arguments. That way, a productive discussion might get going, and you may end up convincing many more people than otherwise.

If you are blogging about an issue you are genuinely concerned about, and a skeptic leader raises the idea that the way the issue is being framed might actually be contributing to that issue, then you have two main choices; a rational discussion, or an attack on the skeptic leader. In the former case, the common ground will be more apparent, the differences can be worked out as best as is possible and there is a much greater chance that the issue gets solved to everybody’s satisfaction. In the latter case, you may actually stifle the discussion, and the issue is much more likely to linger and cause more harm that it would have otherwise. It is clear that those who are serious about the issue and not simply seeking drama should prefer the former option.


In Closing 

My advice is intended to be constructive. Comments are welcome and appreciated. Disagreement is encouraged. Please keep all comments civil.

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