Friday, July 25, 2014

Freethought Blogs--The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Atheism?

It's a bastion for many self-described atheists that atheism isn't a religion, but that line gets harder and harder to maintain as time goes on. At this point, now that an atheist has called for an excommunication, it seems like it might be a losing battle.

Don't get me wrong--I don't think atheism constitutes anything that could be like a religion! And it isn't just on the technicality that religions seem to somehow require something to do with the supernatural, particularly some brand of theism, that it fails to qualify. What I, with many, mean by "atheism" can only be understood as a non-position--not believing in gods--except maybe to philosophers staring at the thing in all the wrong way (by thinking that not believing something is a form of believing something negative--even if it is, so what?). That is, it's a non-position unless someone decides to make it into something more than that, which I think constitutes an error that might easily be read as being very "religious" in nature.

Religion, specifically, is doctrinal. It has particular doctrines (some of which happen to be theistic) that it adheres to explicitly, these often being called "creeds" like the Nicene creed or the Apostle's Creed. It seems some people seem to want to make "atheism," whatever the hell they mean by that, doctrinal too. It's a grand error that is still enormously comedic, even if it is getting tiresome and shows all the signs of becoming tragic.

But... an excommunication? Yes, it seems so. Here's what that word means, to be sure.
Excommunication is an institutional act of religious censure used to deprive, suspend, or limit membership in a religious community or (as in the present discipline of the Catholic Church) to restrict certain rights within it.
"Freethought" Blogger, or so the brand says, Greta Christina, whom I've been impressed with in the past for various reasons, typed up quite the contribution earlier today, one that I've been blessed with seeing a link to about a dozen times and finally, reluctantly, acquiesced to reading. She's (justifiably, I'd say) mad at an angry blowhard on the Internet that goes by the monicker "The Amazing Atheist" for saying all sorts of "vile and unacceptable" things.

Again, to be sure, I wouldn't say, or even think (I don't think) any of those kinds of things and am no fan of their content (and I will not be reproducing them here, though Christina did, so you can read it there if you choose), but as is becoming cliche, I do have to respect and defend his right to say them unless it is legitimately illegal. (This is to imply that if he is legitimately threatening, that's a problem, even if the legal issue on that point regarding speech via the Internet isn't settled yet, and this idea isn't open to wanton interpretation but is, in fact, carefully legally defined and regularly adjudicated upon by judges and magistrates.) Let me make this double-plus-clear, I personally find the content in question, produced by "The Amazing Atheist," crass, tasteless, and unnecessarily offensive, and if I had been acting in editorial capacity over him regarding it, I would not have published it for that reason. Further, I'm no fan of it. If you are, though, that's your business, and as you'll see, I completely get it about the free speech issue.

Christina half-titled her considered rant, "Is There Any Line You Think Should Not Be Crossed?" I'll answer in a moment. The other half troublingly reads, "The Amazing Atheist, and What the Atheist Community Apparently Is Okay With." That will need addressing too, and not just for the histrionics tied up in "is apparently okay with," which she seems to defend mostly by appealing to the opinions of some people and with the slightly problematic assumption that "Neutrality is not neutral. Neutrality supports the status quo." (Neutrality is neutral, by definition, and this only makes sense under the assumption that the status quo is evil and, in context, really also requires that the reason someone is being neutral isn't a good one, but this is a separate topic entirely.)

Christina makes some important points

First, let's talk about what Christina gets right. She is quite lucid on the point that the stuff that "The Amazing Atheist" said is "vile," and as usual, she is on point with bringing awareness to the fact that there are people for whom that kind of speech is harmful. She's even correct in noting that what "The Amazing Atheist" is up to is really bad for the atheist brand (more on this in a moment too). She does a great job of exposing the fact that there is something misguided in forgiving the vile by means of the fact that he is occasionally funny, "happen[s] to agree with [something you think] (broadly construed), and "sometimes [says] clever things about creationists." This last point is really important too--we really should be freethinkers and try to avoid rallying around someone just because he or she brands him- or herself as an atheist.

Christina really nails this bit too, absolutely: "It is deeply distressing that this is a controversial issue in our community. It is deeply distressing that we even have to have this conversation." I couldn't agree more--except, given the context, with the use of the phrase "our community," which I again promise I will get to later. 

Greta Christina is a passionate and articulate voice for many of the causes she finds worthy, and that's commendable, and she has done a fantastic job clearly stating many articles that are of importance to atheists (e.g. why atheists are often so angry, for which she is probably rightly best known). That said, I think I can take a stab at her question, though it will take some doing.

One thing she misses

I see this a lot, and I think the thing she's missing by identifying atheism as a kind of community is that what we're really talking about here is people, and I don't mean this in the mushy moist-robot-with-feelings sense. What I mean is that I think it's a mistake to identify as atheists, as I will elaborate upon at the end, and that what she needs to be calling "The Amazing Atheist" out for is being a vile, crass, or what-have-you person by saying those things. That he's an atheist should be completely immaterial.

And I think this problem is endemic to thinking about an "atheist movement" or "atheist community." Take an example from David Silverman, director of American Atheists, that showed up on Twitter recently, which he was addressing to a couple of notable rabbis (Rabbi Shmuley and Rabbi Spero). He tweeted, though I only know the context to be related to giving children herpes in the metzitzah b'peh ritual in which a Jewish man sucks the blood directly from the penis of a freshly circumcized baby,
If ANY atheist hurt kids I'd step in. Too bad and can't be bothered
Silverman immediately went to a moral comment about atheists. I offered him an improvement on Twitter that he immediately accepted, replacing "atheist" with "person." Of course, Silverman was talking about in-group behavior, the problem seemingly being that Jews are tolerating a harmful practice from other Jews because of their Jewishness, but there's really no meaningful reason to group atheists or to imply to people who already make this mistake as a matter of course that in-group thinking applies to the notion of atheists. As I've said, though, more on this topic later.

About line-crossing

In general, is there any line I think should not be crossed? No. No, there is not, so long as we are within the law, but it is, of course, far more complex than that.

This is free speech, as plain and simple as the question comes, and free speech, to be free speech, must be, well, free--admitting only the most reasonable restrictions. Those restrictions aren't up in the air, and they're not out there for grabs or dictation by any group or individual that might like to employ them. They're part of our legal structures (United States, and more broadly). There are, and should be, limits on free speech, but those are legal determinations. Of course, Christina isn't exactly saying that "The Amazing Atheist" shouldn't be allowed to say what he said, but if he is allowed to, then she hasn't got much business telling him he isn't and may be acting supremely irresponsible by attempting to harness the Internet Rage Machine, Social Justice Wing, against him.

Particularly, since Christina notes that "The Amazing Atheist" engaged in speech that could be construed as threatening, since that already is not protected speech in the United States, with a Supreme Court case pending on whether or not, and when and when not, Internet threats constitute legitimate threats, there's not really any need for her to make such a declaration. If she has a legitimate case, or people she is affiliated with do, they should file a suit and appeal it all the way up to The Nine if they have to (not that now would necessarily be such a great time to do that, what with how The Five of The Nine happen to see things like this).

Free speech might literally be the one true sacred article of a free, secular society. Free speech is the cornerstone upon which all of our other freedoms are petitioned, secured, and defended. We must take guarding free speech very, very seriously--yes, more seriously than some of its consequences--and so, no, so long as it is within the law, there is no line I would draw on what someone can say, including the reprehensible. If there's a question about the legality of certain acts of speech, there are venues through which this can be pursued. There are ways to handle instances when someone's legally secured free speech is reprehensible or harmful, including denouncing it publicly, but attempting to police it or manufacture nonlegal consequences for it really probably isn't a good one (even if it seems to be one we evolved to engage in, but that's evo psych and I understand that's not something to freethink about over there).

To put it plainly, while I don't know what may be the worst way to deal with someone venting spleen about something, I'm quite sure that telling him that he can't or shouldn't is probably right up there, particularly when one of the things he's venting spleen about is being told that he can't or shouldn't speak in a certain way. I also don't know the best way in this, or any, case. Ignoring someone who is harassing you can be very difficult, as can be getting the law to be of much help in those cases (I've lived this and know firsthand that the legal venues are often insufficient in this regard--such is a cost of a necessarily imperfect system that does, and should, assume innocence over criminal guilt). What we are witnessing here is the classic trick of navigating the difficult canyon between positive and negative rights being done very badly by everyone involved.

The excommunication

Lacking a good way to deal with these things in many cases, we often default to bad ones. Of course, a great deal of speech is utterly tasteless and frequently utterly inappropriate, but that doesn't make it illegal. Perhaps with the kind of irony that must be savored for its bitterness, there is at least one good reason to say such things, though, and it's probably only one really legitimate reason: because we can, and that itself is precious. The irony, of course, is that the only really good reason to say really horrible things like this, assuming they are not legitimately threatening speech and thus unprotected, is to stand up to people daring to tell us that we can't, be they censors for Islam in Pakistan or, well, I'll just let Christina say it,
In many instances, of course we can agree about some things while disagreeing about others, and agreeing when someone says (X) doesn’t automatically mean you agree when they say (Y). But when someone crosses a clear line into vile and unacceptable behavior, the community needs to make it clear that this behavior is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. We need to show that some lines absolutely should not be crossed, and that if people cross them there will be consequences.
Granted, all she's calling for here are consequences to saying vile things, which people should be on the receiving end of. But what are these consequences she's referring to? Excommunication (from what?--yeah, I know, I'll get to it).
Shunning is an extreme measure. It is a last resort. We are a social species, we need other people, and deliberately pushing someone out of a community is a strong and harsh response to bad behavior. Accepting human imperfection, accepting that everyone screws up and does things we have serious problems with, and being willing to move forward from that, is absolutely necessary if we’re going to live and work together.

Shunning is an extreme measure. But if we are never willing to do it, even in the face of the most despicable behavior, we are saying that we will tolerate anything. Literally anything. We are saying that there is no line that cannot be crossed.
While it's clearly not specifically true that we would tolerate "literally anything," particularly at the individual level where it really makes sense to talk about, we can make no bones about the fact that she is asking to shun someone from a "community" as a "strong and harsh response to bad behavior," this being called for nonlegally since if the speech is legitimately illegal, there are other effective responses that deal with it. Specifically, Christina is asking, addressing atheists in particular,
Is there any line that someone could cross that would make you unwilling to support them or work with them? Is there any line that someone could cross that would make you not link to their videos, not share their blog posts, not upvote them, not post admiring comments about them in public forums, not buy or promote their books? Will you really support the work of absolutely anyone, regardless of how vile their behavior has been, as long as they say one thing you happen to agree with?
She later adds, technically accusing "The Amazing Atheist" of wanting to rape people (which is potentially libelous (not protected speech) if he does not actually want to do so and is acting in a comedic or otherwise artistic fashion, which would bizarrely include trolling, however tasteless, crass, and vile, and however and hurtful it is to hear),
You cannot welcome people of color into our community, and also welcome racists. You cannot welcome LGBT people, and also welcome homophobes. And you cannot welcome women, and also welcome hateful misogynists who want to rape us.

This is a call for excommunication from... we'll get to that. Let's check this out, to be sure. It looks very much like Christina is calling for an act of censure used to deprive, suspend, or limit membership in a community (do not link, share blogs, upvote, make admiring comments about, buying or promoting their books, welcome into the community) or to restrict certain rights within it (certain kinds of speech). The only things missing from the outright definition of an excommunication here are the words "institutional" before "act" and "religious" before both "censure" and "community." And now I can talk about that thing I keep saying I will.

The atheism community, and the atheism movement

Greta Christina, in this post alone (it being a frequent topic both for her and for "Freethought" Blogs in general), explicitly uses the word "community" in the context of an "atheist community," twelve times (including once in the full title) and explicitly mentions the "movement," in the context of an "atheist movement," three more. With a few possible exceptions obvious enough not to require mentioning, few things are more deeply woven into the fabric of "Freethought" Blogs, and somewhat more widely among people who happen to be atheists, than the notion of a vibrant and important "atheist community" that is engaged in a (apparently extraordinarily Progressive) "atheist movement."

That takes care of the "institutional," then, the institution being the imagined (orthodox?) "atheist community" that must take itself so seriously as to purge itself of unsightly "members." Though it isn't religious, being specifically irreligious, the community she is talking about is pretty clearly doctrinal on some doctrine that blends certain kinds of Progressive "social justice" with "atheism." That said, I think we have on our hands a legitimate case of a call for an excommunication from The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Atheism, better known as "Atheism+" or "Freethought Blogs." Of course, amongst self-identifying atheists, this particular community is every bit as universal as the Catholic (which means "universal," by the way) Church, which is to say not universal at all except in their own minds. Note also that at its broadest, apostolic means "on a mission," which seems undeniable in the case at hand. As to "holy," we'll cover that in just a second.

This is where the problem lays: misidentifying atheism as a thing, a community, a movement, a brand. Note that if we aren't concerned with the atheism brand, or the flawed idea that atheists somehow form a community by virtue of... what, exactly?, "The Amazing Atheist" is exactly what I said in the first place, nothing more than an angry blowhard on the Internet.

How did this happen?

Christina's phrase for it was "community standard." Morality and culture are profoundly interrelated concepts, something like two sides of the same coin. Groups of people gather together for whatever reasons, realize things they have in common, and bond. This defines a community. That community evolves a moral framework about acceptable and unacceptable behavior for that community, and we get a subculture (since it is technically a community within a broader community nearly every time and imports most of its cultural ideas from broader cultures nested all the way up). As it works out, that moral framework concentrates the community and eventually defines it, and the whole thing becomes self-reinforcing. This is exactly what Christina seems to think is happening or has happened with "atheism." As she writes,
And that’s especially true in the case of rape threats, persistent harassment of women, and other misogynist behavior — because in the atheist community, we don’t, unfortunately, currently have a clear ethical standard that this is unacceptable. We have a culture in which it’s depressingly common for people to engage in this behavior, and for other people to defend, rationalize, trivialize, dismiss, or victim-blame it — without consequences, or without serious consequences. Leaders in the movement do this, and remain leaders. We need to change that culture. We need to make it unmistakably clear that we do not tolerate this behavior. Promoting people’s work who engage in this behavior is tolerating it. And tolerating this behavior helps perpetuate it. (emphasis hers)
Observe how she talks about needing a "clear ethical standard" for "the atheist community." We, meaning "atheists" or atheists in the "atheist community," have a "culture in which [something about community-specific moral values]." That culture has a "movement" associated with it with "leaders [who behave in ways that do not comport with her view of the moral framework of the community] and remain leaders." And "we need to change this culture [by redefining the moral framework that defines it and adhering to that by creating a way to institutionally censure people who violate it]." Guess what. Here's your "holy," meaning that which is considered morally excellent. (I can account for the aspects of this term wrapped up in the "spiritual" and "consecrated to God" in a cogent way too, but I will not do so at present, just to let you know.)

The entirety of her piece reads with exactly that tone: there exists an atheist community whose moral standards need to be defined and used to strengthen and purify the community, not least because we're concerned about the brand image as our "movement" grows. And so, based on the insistence that atheism is so important that it be a thing, we have a clear call for an atheist excommunication by a notable figure in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Atheism. What a shame.

Edit: The original version of this post referred to the means of ostracism as "extralegal" when the author meant "nonlegal." The author regrets the error, and it has been corrected.

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