[Continued interview with Dr. Daniel Fincke of Camels with Hammers from Part 1 and part 1 and Part 2]
BRET: I sometimes wonder if atheism should go corporate and adopt an iPad strategy. Basically, atheists should not let new atheists join for a while, make it exclusive, because what makes religion appealing to people is that they see it as cool, quite often. It’s still too easy for people to claim they’re an atheist.
DAN: I think natural selection has made it that way already.
BRET: There’s still too many atheists embarrassing the rest of us.
DAN: I don’t think you’re making any sense. It’s pretty hard to identify as an atheist and no one thinks religion is cool.
BRET: Not really.
DAN: Not even religious people. Religion is clearly the anti-cool. And it reaches its height of anti-cool when it tries to be cool.
BRET: No, no, no... okay I see the problem. You’re listening to religion like they aren’t lying. Religion is the cool thing, everywhere, especially for young kids. The kids who feel left out in high school aren’t Christians who all hang out at church together.
DAN: Maybe it’s popular but that’s different than cool!
BRET: It’s the one Jewish kid and the handful of Catholic kids and the vaguely eastern kid who are left out and feel uncool.
DAN: Well that’s a different thing than cool.
BRET: I dunno... if religion isn’t cool, then Tim Tebow should be a loser.
DAN: That’s a matter of in-group and out-group.
BRET: But the in-group is always cool, the out-group is always not.
DAN: Cool is too much about an understated, defiant independence.
BRET: Maybe in the 1950s.
DAN: Cool people wouldn’t be caught dead being religious.
BRET: Are you kidding? Religious people smoke cigarettes and ride motorcycles, too. The guys on the football team are not a bunch of atheists. The cheerleaders aren’t atheists.
DAN: Yeah and then they start talking Jesus and become completely uncool.
BRET: Well, I’m not saying you be Ned Flanders religious.
DAN: So there is conformity cool.
BRET: But there’s that cool level of religious. Right.
DAN: And there’s non-conformity cool. I only see non-conformity cool as really cool. Conformity cool is simply popularity. But that’s semantics.
BRET: You don’t see any value in popularity?
DAN: Popularity because you’re non-conforming cool is awesome.
DAN: Popularity because you’re conforming cool is corrupt.
BRET: It may be corrupt, but the world is run by popular, corrupt people.
DAN: Right. That doesn’t make it good.
BRET: I guess it depends what you rebel against.
DAN: Yes, we should conform to true virtues and to many normal social standards that have good reasoning behind them. If you want to call that “conformity,” okay. But we shouldn’t conform as conformists.
BRET: Right, you’re a philosopher, you care about what’s good or right. I’m more of a pragmatist.
DAN: We should conform as cool people who know why the right is right and who don’t conform otherwise.
BRET: But most people are too dumb for that... I’m talking about manufactured scarcity which increases demand. Like a club that only lets in a few people, and pretty soon it’s the coolest place to be.
BRET: I know it’s impractical and impossible. But I like the idea.
DAN: Yes, I am not interested in atheism becoming popular at all costs.
BRET: Not popular, per se... maybe just 51% of the population.
DAN: Either it’s because people are developing rationalistic virtues or other virtues, or it’s not making anything better that they’re atheists.
BRET: True, there’s nothing inherently better about being atheist.
DAN: Not at all.
BRET: That’s sort of the rub.
BRET: But if there are going to be dumb people in the world, I still would like them on my side. You know, to send out in the front line.
DAN: (laughs) But the problem is that being an atheist does not mean they will be on your side on much else. There are some anti-social atheists like Ayn Rand.
BRET: Only some?
BRET: I’ll add Hitchens to that, since he thinks nothing of going to war, so long as we are only slaughtering Muslims.
DAN: I prefer a pro-social theist who refrains from chatting me up about Jesus to an anti-social atheist who won’t shut up about how selfish he’s entitled to be. Hitchens is a tough case. He helped me go full lion as an atheist. It’s hard for me to accept his hyena tendencies.
BRET: I know atheists have a boner for him, but that one issue is a huge turn off for me.
DAN: Yes, I understand.
BRET: I have the same feelings on Carlin.
DAN: I’ve never much liked Carlin. Back to my religious days when I thought he was an acerbic jerk. Now I see him as too cynical.
BRET: He’s the source of my least favorite atheist meme, that religion starts all wars.
DAN: He says some profound stuff and a lot of cynical, cry baby, anti-pragmatic, misanthropic stuff. I really hate misanthropes. In fact, I almost wrote about this but shelved the post. When you wrote that post attacking me over interfering with your “rowdy kids” table.
DAN: With all my “don’t call religious people stupid” stuff.
BRET: I wrote about rowdy kids tables and not calling religious people stupid? On your blog or mine?
DAN: Something like that. Hold on.
BRET: I can see not calling religious people stupid... but a religious person I might call stupid.
BRET: “Religious people are stupid.” Verbatim. Right in the middle of the post.
DAN: So you were explaining why it was fine for me to be all philosophical but I shouldn’t pick on people like you who had a place by picking food fights or something. Apparently you didn’t use that phrase.
BRET: I did a find for “food.” Okay, I found it now.
DAN: You wrote, “But maybe you, and all other atheists who deign to bless the atheist blogosphere with your intelligent discourse, may come to see those of us eating at the rowdy table as valuable allies, every bit as important as you are. Not more, not less, just equally important for the role we play, for we have different skills, and we apply them in ways I doubt you could even stomach.”
BRET: I’m sure that week I was sick of atheists acting high and mighty.
DAN: I was the atheist in question! But it’s alright because I absolutely loved the post because throughout it, you assiduously called me Dr. Fincke.
BRET: My wife would kill me if I didn’t [she has a PhD].
DAN: You probably wrote that as much as anyone has in the first year and a half since I got the degree. And people calling me Mr. Fincke had me all pouty just weeks before. And so you proved my point. People will be much more open to criticism if you pay them that respect.
BRET: My wife would be like, “He didn’t finish his PhD for you to insult him and not call him doctor.”
DAN: You know, when you said your wife had a PhD I realized that might have been the root of your respect.
BRET: I interviewed a guy who wanted me to call him “Your Lordship The Gun-Toting Atheist,” and I was happy to do it. So I’m fine with titles.
DAN: (laughs) One time I started a criticism of a religious friend by saying, “Look, man, you’re a savvy guy…
DAN: …in fact, I bet if both of us were buying cars, you’d be far shrewder and more skeptical and do a better job of not getting ripped off…
DAN: …so why don’t you see what I’m saying about taking that shrewdness to all your beliefs.” And that conversation went a long way from there. He was more than willing to play.
BRET: Hehehe. People are so easily flattered.
DAN: They are! And they like you when you do it, as long as you don’t make it too obvious.
BRET: When I hear flattery, I hold my wallet tightly.
DAN: But we’re talking about dissuading the credulous, not the cynical. So, why not appeal to the religious’ virtues and their highest conception of themselves? And if you find contradictions in that, you threaten their vanity in a far deeper way than telling them what they already know---that their beliefs sound silly to outsiders.
BRET: I think they relish in that. Both the silliness and the criticism.
DAN: Sometimes. Any defense mechanism in a storm.
BRET: They see it as “their cross.”
DAN: Right. I’m not saying to be disingenuous, mind you, but look on the bright side of the person you’re engaging.
BRET: I think the best way to engage a religious person is to quote their holy book. They eat that shit up.
DAN: I think you need to actually be more dialectical than that. Just ask questions; why this? Why that? What does that mean? Oh I see, but then wouldn’t that mean this?
Internal contradictions are much harder to just dismiss, and it is a good strategy to focus first on non-controversial stuff, like skepticism in general and interesting philosophical questions, before applying skepticism and hard philosophy to the beliefs they have irrational, religious attachments to.
BRET: You would probably know more than I, since I don’t think anyone became an atheist because of me since high school. But man, I cleaned up back then. I got the guy who walked me down the aisle as my sponsor for Confirmation.
BRET: I just peaked early.
DAN: Well I have no idea if anyone’s become an atheist through my influence. I take that back, I’ve gotten a couple e-mails, but really it’s hard to know what to take credit for.
BRET: Jealousy becomes me...
DAN: And frankly, I wouldn’t want to take credit for things like that.
BRET: Take credit for all of it, who cares. You’re too kind, sir.
DAN: I’m all for taking credit for things, but not for how someone thinks. That’s creepy. I just want to know I helped someone think. I don’t want to think I made them think anything, if that makes sense.
BRET: Can someone make someone think something? I get what you’re saying, though. I just question if it’s possible.
DAN: Sure it is.
BRET: If you open a door and they walk through, then... you didn’t make then enter.
DAN: Right, that’s what I want to do.
BRET: But if the door was locked before, you can take credit for letting them in.
DAN: I want people to see me as an awesome door opener to ideas, but that the ideas convince them.
BRET: I suppose.
DAN: I guess I don’t like when people change their mind because of the personality of their conveyor.
BRET: You have to invite atheism into your heart, right? Only you can do so...
DAN: Ugh. (laughs)
BRET: Hehehe. Is it just me, or do charismatic Christian leaders have more success than charismatic atheists?
DAN: There are charismatic atheists?
BRET: I hear Hitchens was one.
DAN: That’s one, you used the plural.
BRET: Maybe Dawkins or Harris or one of the others I don’t know about. Honestly, I don’t know many, because I don’t read their stuff, so I wouldn’t know if they’re “charismatic.” But they have a larger than average following.
DAN: Seriously, it’s apples and oranges.
BRET: Okay, so why do Christians corner the market on apples when some people clearly don’t like oranges? Why isn’t there a red-faced, screaming atheist?
DAN: I think Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, and Myers have an understanding of how to “activate” atheists. It’s like the atheists have all the pieces in their minds already. Or a certain kind of person that could be an atheist. And there is just something in the way they put it together that just flips the switch and suddenly they have a consciousness of the evils of religions. They just get it.
Nietzsche flipped that switch for me, or he flipped a different switch that made me an atheist. Then Harris and Hitchens flipped another switch that made me a New Atheist. It’s hard to spell this out in my case, because I was already the guy fighting with everyone about religion but I felt no support and had no atheist community and was probably more philosophical and more willing to be deferent to religious people in certain ways. I knew cognitively I was right but still felt the need to justify to Christians why I had foresaken the faith.
That’s the thing the New Atheists crushed in me. They crushed that last emotional delusion.
BRET: Do I want to know what “New Atheism” is? I have heard of it obviously but...
DAN: That’s a word coined in a 2006 article (I think in Wired) to describe the brand of atheism of Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett when they all came out with hit books on atheism in a short span of time. It’s expanded to be a word for atheists who have no intellectual tolerance for religiously derived ideas.
BRET: I know it’s associated with at least the first three of those names. Is it like grunge, where there’s no real cohesion, just an accident of timing?
DAN: It was a ground up movement, I think. But it’s gaining coherence.
BRET: I don’t read much atheist stuff because it drains me. I come away from a lot of atheist blogs wondering if I want to be an atheist, whereas when I read anything religion related, I come away very much confident of atheism. I used to wonder if I was just contrary, but I find pro-atheist snippets here or there that make me think, “Damn, that is brilliant.”
DAN: I know my temperament is always to look for a better question so I can make a new distinction. When I’m reading atheists, it’s their stuff that I want to add qualifications to.
BRET: Because we make so many damn errors...
DAN: It’s not about being contrarian for the sake of contrarianism. Not for me. But it’s about being persistently dialectical. Everyone — whether atheist, theist, or whoever else - is always too simple. There’s always another dialectical move to make. The best thinkers don’t let us stop thinking, they just move the ball so that our own thinking can pick up further down the field.
But it’s up to us no matter what we read to then figure out its antithesis and go there and then to find the synthesis and then the next antithesis. This is how we think best, both on our own and in community. So when I’m immersed in atheist blogs and atheist comments on my site, I start fighting with atheists. It’s healthy. And I can be a good atheist blogger because I love atheists and want atheism to succeed.
BRET: Hmm... it’s almost Godlike. You love them, so you must smite them. Or parentlike.
DAN: Not at all. I’m one of them. I just mean that no matter how critical I might be towards things atheists do I am delighted to be on their team.
BRET: Ugh, but I don’t want to imagine being on the same team as these people.
DAN: It’s a central identity thing for me. I mean, like I said, a given atheist could be as off putting as anyone else. And I prefer a theist who is a good person to an atheist who is a bad person. But in general, my group affiliations are with fellow atheists. I feel a kinship. And so if it’s an awful theist and an awful atheist, I’ll like the awful atheist a little more.
BRET: Fair enough. I somehow managed to be an atheist for about 15 years now without ever feeling like part of a group.
DAN: Yes. That’s very normal.
BRET: So the idea of atheism as a cohesive unit both excites and terrifies me. On one hand, WOO, on the other hand, MAO.
DAN: I never knew it was possible either until the internet. In fact, I was using the internet a long time before it ever dawned on me to find other atheists. Only when I decided to start a blog and finally dispel all the ignorance in the world did I discover that there was already this whole community on the case. It was like, “Oh.”
DAN: That was as recent as June 2009! My prior blogging was much less ambitious and much less frequent. In 2009 I decided I wanted to write a widely read blog and get serious about doing that.
BRET: I think I started then too... unless you count 7 posts from July of 2007 through December. I feel like blogging was on the decline by then. [Note: my actual first full year: 2008, not 2009]
DAN: Depends on how epic those posts were.
BRET: Not very. Some goodbye to Carlin and then probably half of the rest was fiction, since I used to write fiction.
DAN: Yeah, Class of ‘09. It’s a good class. Jen McCreight started that year, too. A lot of blogs seem to have started then. Any given year I guess most blogs will seem to have come from the last couple years since few people really stick with it.