[Blogathon] On Challenging Religious Beliefs

I have a confession to make: I have an entirely negative attitude towards people who ask religious people about their beliefs. When I hear at a party, “But how do you know God exists?” or when I hear over a Friday night dinner table, “But what about the contradictions in the bible?” or anything similar in any social situation, I cringe and walk the other way. Part of that is for decent reasons: I have no reason to expect that anything will be said I haven’t heard a hundred times before, the conversation is likely to be unproductive and/or combative, and there’s high probability of someone getting offended or upset. I honestly don’t want any part of that, especially in a social context.

But that doesn’t really excuse how little I think of the people asking. If I’m being honest, I see asking such questions as low-status. They are, to me, a marker of a 101-type, a newly christened atheist still asking the basic questions. Atheism is boring, after all. There are so many other questions to discuss besides God. I would obviously never be so gauche as to ask my friends what evidence they have for god; my intellectual sophistication means that I instead discuss Talmudic sources and argue about the consistency of John Calvin’s theology.

This is what a page of Talmud looks like, by the way

This attitude also means I’ve bought wholeheartedly into the truth of the Courtier’s Reply. That is, atheists are silly to counter the claims of fundamentalists or youtube commenters. Those are easy to rebut. If you were to read Platinga (I haven’t) or Calvin or Luther or Vatican II, you would understand. Again, it’s a marker of low-status to be pointing out silly things like lack of evidence or evil in the world. Haven’t you examined the best possible counterarguments to your position? Humph, done with you, I’m off to read Luke Muelhauser and Leah Libresco, they’re atheists (or used to be) who take religion seriously.

Now, I’m not throwing out all of this approach. I do think discussions about God at a party are largely uninteresting and unproductive, I do think asking such questions gives me good evidence that someone is a 101 level atheist, and I do think that atheists could stand to know more about common counterarguments to their positions.

But I am deeply questioning the morality and accuracy of my position. Firstly, the sneering superiority really isn’t a good look for anyone. Atheism isn’t my primary hobbyhorse, and I might argue it shouldn’t be anyone’s, but that doesn’t mean that the people who like to argue about it a lot or talk about it a lot are to be looked down on. People have their interests and their preferences, and it’s much more appropriate for me to disagree with the extent to which these people have implicitly prioritized their atheism than to dismiss them entirely. (Somewhat to my credit, consistency-wise, is that I tend not to have a lot of patience for anyone who has just the One Big Thing that they care about, hence my general disapproval of hedgehogs. But the whole low-status business is pretty disgusting on my part.)

Furthermore, some subset of the people who talk about atheism a lot online or in person are new to atheism. Anyone new to a belief system and community deserves the space and patience to do the whole 101-thing, to figure it out for themselves. We should be happy and excited that they’re asking questions and being skeptical, and recognize that there are things we’re all still figuring out. That’s how we make atheism a safe place to land.

Also, I’m often secretly happy that this kind of person challenges religious people, and actually makes them argue for their position. As we know, religious people frequently get a pass on their beliefs that no one else gets on any other type of belief, and I’m only contributing to that state of events by not asking. Good on them for being willing to have the intense conversations, even if I wish they were more charitable and/or less focused on “winning.” And after all, without Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, Jacoby, Dennet and others writing books that tackle these issues, the atheist movement really wouldn’t be what it is today, whatever else one might say about them.

On the empirical part, I’m currently reading the entirety of Calvin’s Institutes for a class, and I recently attended a Veritas Forum on Truth and Tolerance that I livetweeted. You know what I’ve noticed? The sophisticated arguments for the truth of scripture and the existence of God? Really not much better than the ones I see on facebook every day. Why is humanity sinful? Because of the fall. Why did god make us fall? He didn’t, we did. Then we have free will? No. Then why is it our fault? It was necessary, but also voluntary. Why would god make our wills such that we would fall? God is perfect. Really? Yes. (The format is different, but this is the actual content of Calvin’s argument). Similarly, the Christian (David Skeel) at the Veritas forum made utterly uncompelling arguments for the existence of god and the redemption of Christ. So I seem to have been wrong about at least a large part of the my belief in the Courtier’s Reply.

That’s why at the Veritas Forum, I asked Professor Skeel what it was like to live in a world where most of the people he cares about and interacts with were going to hell. He’s a public intellectual, making public claims about the nature of the world I think are both wrong and disturbing. Many, many other religious people are making similar claims, equally wrong and equally distressing. They should have to defend those claims, and the fact that I think it’s boring or low-status to be the one to make them doesn’t erase that truth.

Professor Skeel himself

Now, I think there’s a difference between public intellectuals and people at a party or online. And I think there’s definitely a difference between people who personally believe things and people who are very public about them. But I no longer think it is a useless or rude thing to ask about and challenge religious beliefs (except when it is, and I trust my readers can figure out appropriate contexts). I may still find it uninteresting, and I may still find many of the actual arguments made in such discussions uncharitable or badly made, but I am committed to working on no longer seeing the very act of asking as a low-status thing to do, as something worthy of derision. On the contrary, it’s deeply important.

Green Donate

Midnight Run: What I Learned When I Stopped Doing Nothing and Helped People

There are a lot of reasons not to do charity. Personally, I come up with new ones every day.

Source: news.change.org

When I say “sorry” to homeless people who ask for money on the street, passing them without giving, I think to myself, “There’s no way this is the most efficient use of my money for good. Also they might use it for drugs and alcohol. Also I’m tired and I have places to be. And it’s not even my money, most of it is my parents’.” Plenty of that is true, of course, but it’s also true that I generally don’t donate to charities and I have extra cash almost all the time and it would likely mean a great deal to these people if I donated and it is especially true that I spend my parent’s money on far less worthy things.

But let’s say all of it is true and just because I don’t do better things with money doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do at least some, less good things. Maybe I don’t have the time?

Except, my time isn’t worth a lot (I’m currently doing two different unpaid internships. My time is not just worthless, it is doubly worthless. Which, to be fair, is still just worthless.) So, presumably, I should do good things with it, like volunteer or, for the purposes of this post, help out the homeless.

So maybe there are other reasons it’s a bad idea. I mean, isn’t it just putting a band-aid over more systemic issues? And people aren’t hungry in this country, right? And Maimonides had a thing somewhere about not doing charity for other people in which they know who you are. And if I were homeless, I wouldn’t want privileged rich kids feeling all righteous and virtuous because they took one night off from drinking or watching Youtube videos to make and hand out basic sandwiches, the cheapest apples they could find, and three shirts someone was kind enough to take off his back root out of a pile of things he likely never wears (which is still better than almost everyone else, myself included, who did not donate any clothes).

So I, wracked by guilt and paralyzed by indecision, do nothing. I am not sure where or how to give money, so I do not give at all. I am not sure that this is the right decision, so I do not look those who ask in the eye, worried that at some level they know that my smile and conversation would be a self-serving act intended to alleviate my guilt over not doing what seems like the obviously correct things by replacing a donation that would help them with a greeting that helps me because I get to be proud of “treating them like a human” and therefore being better than everyone else on the street. But, of course, I don’t even have that, because I don’t do it at all.

The truth is, I do not give food or money to the homeless because I am embarrassed. I am embarrassed at how little I am doing compared to how much I could do. I am embarrassed that I am abusing my privilege, that I am Othering the homeless, that I might be causing more harm than good. I am embarrassed that I might be, in the end, making the wrong decision, and my heartfelt sincerity is my socially evolved emotions’ joke on me. I am embarrassed that my friends might find out, and think how silly I am, to do something so gauchely earnest instead of engaging in further argumentation about Foreign Aid legislation and welfare politics. I am embarrassed to be doing something that I know looks good to others when I do not totally believe in it myself, even though I’ve been doing social justice projects my whole life.

What this means, of course, is that more privileged than spending money on conferences instead of malaria nets, more elitist than acting as if other humans are not worth my time, more self-serving than potentially getting more out of charity in the form of gratification and a sense of righteousness than I give in help or kindness, worse than all of that, I decided that my embarrassment was more important than their need.

It took doing the Uri L’Tzedek Summer Fellowship’s annual mandatory-for-fellows Midnight Run on Tuesday night to get me to shut up my over-active hyper-analytical excuse-finding machine that sits atop my neck. We signed up ahead of time, made about 100 sandwiches, put them in paper bags with cookies, juice boxes and snacks, and went in a van to preset spots to give them away. When we handed out the bags, we also spent time talking to the people we saw. This is fraught, too; who are we, to be entitled to their stories and their lives, when we would expect nothing of the kind from the housed? And yet, they spoke to us freely and happily, and those that did not want to talk were not pushed. We learned that Jose’s parents died when he was young, and Cynthia has a nursing degree and a terrible employment agency. Another woman told us she loved us and gave us all hugs. They often formed a network, telling us where their friends were and how long it had been since they’d eaten. One man hadn’t had anything to eat in two days. Overall, they preferred tuna sandwiches to peanut butter. It was wonderful, joyous, friendly, amazing. I felt happy; I felt like the evidence of the happiness and gratefulness I was causing showed I was doing the right thing, or at least a right thing.

What did I learn?

That empathy has limits. Empathy is a process of plugging a situation into your brain and letting it spit out what you might feel. It does brilliantly at illuminating the truths of what it means to be other people in the face of humanity’s overwhelming commonalities. It crosses barriers, extends care and undermines Otherizing. But empathy fails to contribute to understanding when there are real differences of experience and circumstance to contend with, and such is the case here. What I think I might feel is less than unhelpful; it turned out to be actively counterproductive, and exactly wrong.

That, contrary to popular belief, people still go hungry in this country.

That kindness, a willingness to engage, and a respect for choice go a long way.

That charity is a severely political act.

That even if we get more than we give, it’s a getting that doesn’t take.

I don’t think everyone should necessarily start giving money or food to the homeless. There are many reasons not to. Find whatever moves you, or maximizes the variable you’re looking for. But if what’s stopping you from doing something good is constant fear of doing it wrong, you should just do it. Grab friends, or do it alone. Sign up with a group, go with a church or a community service group or Volunteers Beyond Belief. Do it thoughtfully, of course, with as much care and respect and planning as possible.

When the stakes (your embarrassment, possibly making a fool of yourself, maybe doing a suboptimally good thing) are so low, you should just try. There’s time and space to improve; we don’t have to get it right the first time. If we get Food Aid wrong, we can destroy the economy of a small country. But if we get the everyday things wrong, the worst we have done is given sandwiches to those who are hungry, or lost a few dollars to the vicissitudes of humanity, or faltered while learning how to do good. So you try, and you learn, and you reflect, and then you get to do more good tomorrow.

This is going to sound saccharine, but I don’t want to be embarrassed of that anymore, so here goes:

Go make the world a better place. Even if you’re scared. We all are.

Sexism and Rational Discourse, or What are we talking about again?

And I’m back. I guess I just take two months off blogging from time to time. When I’m not blogging, I often feel like it would be such a strenuous effort to return, but then I find I have something very important to say or sort through and suddenly it becomes easy again.

I want to talk about Elevatorgate. For those of you who don’t know, Elevatorgate is the overblown name of an overblown issue, which is the blowing up of the internet over sexism in the atheist movement. I find this larger issue to be a fairly important one, but the degeneration into flaming and name calling is incredibly off-putting. In fact, I’m easily turned off by what I consider deeply problematic or tangential or unproductive methods of dealing with big issues like this one, and that’s exactly what’s happened, and that’s what I want to talk about. For context and background, there are summaries here, here and here.

What I think is most egregious about the entire fiasco is not that Rebecca Watson was made to feel uncomfortable at four in the morning in an elevator in a foreign country, or that women and men attacked her (sometimes fairly, sometimes deeply not so), or that she responded to them publicly and by name, or that Richard Dawkins said some deeply irresponsible and offensive things, or or that there exist sexists and sexism within the atheist movement. What I am so irritated by and am made to feel absolutely frustrated and hopeless about is the quality of the discourse surrounding the affair.

I don’t just mean bad arguments, and unsubstantiated claims and flaming and trolling. Those are all awful parts of people and the internet and so be it. The worst part is that you have intelligent, invested people who are often sensible and rational talking about exactly the wrong things. Everyone is talking about rights. The right to flirt, to proposition, to be a sexually active male, to be offended, to criticize, to be an ass. Frankly, it blows me away how stupid those discussions are. Aside from all of the philosophical problems that the concepts of rights have, the rights to those things are…a little bit strange to talk about, and they’re being discussed as if they are as precious as the right to free press or redress of grievances. Rights are things that humans have in groups, recognized by states or other political (sometimes nonpolitical) bodies. Youtubers simply don’t have the power to take them away from anyone else, and so the anger surrounding the possibility of “losing” those rights seems incredibly silly. To clear up the issue: yes, you have the right to all of those things. You may do all of those things. Other people may (and, wait for it, have the right to) criticize you for exercising those ‘rights’ in the ways that you do. None of it is of any consequence to anyone’s having those rights. So can we stop talking about them?

The other thing everyone’s talking about, though in this case not explicitly, is authority and legitimacy. In other words, who gets to talk about sexism? (women? men? feminists? PZ Myers? Richard Dawkins?) You have women pointing out that there are parts of living as a woman in this society that men don’t (or possibly can’t) know about, and so men should by and large listen to women when they talk about sexism. Sounds fair, except of course that there are men who call out sexism and privilege, and women who vehemently disagree with the analysis of this specific issue, with the broader concepts involved, or with feminism as a movement entirely. In those cases (as when women claim that they would be perfectly comfortable in those situations and so it’s not a problem), who to listen to? To stick to the idea that women understand sexism better would be to fall into a trap of automatic sisterhood bestowed upon all those with uteruses, which is also self-contradictory, since women don’t agree. It also makes men who identify as feminists feel left out and it contributes to the idea that all opinions are equally valid, at least if they’re made by women. On the other hand, criticizing women for their views on sexism can turn into calling women tools of the patriarchy or manpleasers and condescending to them and belittling them, which doesn’t seem to be a particularly feminist thing to do. (This is a little bit of a second/third wave divide). So everyone is left confused, which makes sense, since all of this is rather difficult to wade through. But the question remains: why are we talking about this at all? Why is the relevant question who has the proper credentials to discuss feminism, sex, gender and sexism? Even the most rational and sensible group of people can get tripped up on such a difficult question, and it’s not worth it when it’s not the issue that’s really at hand.

None of this is to say that questions of rights, appropriate behavior, reasonableness and legitimacy are not interesting or important questions. They most certainly are. But in talking about sexism in the atheism movement, or sexism more broadly, the most important questions are those about effects, consequences and harm. How do we make atheism a more comfortable place for women? How do we combine appropriateness and sex-positivity in a way that makes the movement as strong and open as possible? How do we avoid perpetuating stereotypes about women? These are the questions. They often have empirical answers. There is data and concrete argument to be brought to bear on these questions. They are more productive and more relevant. Consequentialism is not a foregone conclusion as a moral system, but in most situations, it is the most pragmatic. So what we need are not only rational people who can argue well, but also people who are willing to make a concerted effort to arguing about the right things. This is how we make progress.