Saturday, October 15, 2011

Reason, Logic, and Atheist Snobbery

On reading the blogs of other atheists, I am reminded of why I so rarely do so. There are plenty I truly enjoy, especially those that focus on politics (whether I agree with them or not) or on the practical side of atheism, by which I mean “atheism” as it pertains to real-life situations and issues. However, there is a certain atheist snobbery I am getting a bit tired of.

Perhaps what irritates me so much about it is what irritates me so much about religion: I used to be like that, I’m not anymore, and it is frustrating that I can’t pinpoint some sort of roadmap for how I went from there to here. It’s like being at a roaring party and having the noise of where I am drown out any attempt to give someone directions on how to get here.

Let me make something perfectly clear: atheism has nothing to do with logic or reason. Zero, zilch, nada. You can formulate a trillion reasons for not believing in gods without once stumbling upon something that makes any sense at all, and if even one of those “reasons” is meaningful to you, you may believe it and become an atheist.

Don’t get me wrong, there is justification based on logic and reason for why atheism is the obvious default stance, a stance which has not been disproven, and is therefore the only acceptable view for any intellectually honest person. I’m not saying atheism is illogical or without reason. Rather, I question the effectiveness of such arguments on the religious.

Perhaps I am mistaken, but it is my impression that most atheists who discuss logic and reason based arguments don’t do it to reinforce their own views or the opinions of other atheists. Rather, I am assuming the end goal of writing a “proof” against gods is to get someone to abandon their religion.

This is strange of me to assume, because this isn’t my own goal, but I have learned long ago that most people are not like me. In some ways, I am mind-numbingly typical, but in others, I am stubbornly unconventional to the point where I derive glee from espousing taboo ideas. Ironically, I imagine this makes me quite normal. This probably describes most people: average in some ways, proud to be unusual in others.

I certainly began blogging thinking I might change some people’s minds, but people don’t read blogs to be informed or persuaded. People read blogs to be entertained. So, I settle for just saying things no one has heard before, and if it makes you smirk or think or angry… I did my job. As long as you felt something real, besides boredom, I will be driven to keep writing.

This is not the case with some atheist bloggers. Many elucidate long, complex, heady discussions on the fallacies behind religion. I’ve been guilty of this far more times than I would care to admit, and in my lazier moments, I still fall back on writing what is essentially a lecture. I don’t mind writing this way at all, but even I yawn as I proof-read it [this].

And that’s about what happens if a Christian reads it.

I try to write the way those who convinced me of atheism wrote. I became an atheist in the heyday of the early internet. I used to read harshly critical articles on the American Atheists website. I watched George Carlin’s stand-up comedy and read his books. I knew an older guy I worked with one summer in high school who was an atheist, and we used to smoke pot in his attic while mocking religion and other things we mutually hated while listening to Nine Inch Nails.

These are not intellectual pursuits. I was not drawn to atheism because of its legitimate merits; I was drawn to it because I found it to be an escape from the uptight religious world. The reasons I became an atheist don’t hold up under a microscope, they were merely appealing to the rebel inside me that was looking for an outlet.

I sometimes wonder how often this is the case for other atheists, whether people leave religion because religion is wrong, or because it’s no fun. If I took a look around the atheist blogosphere, I might assume that most atheists were enamored with Nietzsche or Dawkins, and that their lack of belief stems from some sort of deep, philosophical pursuit or a strict science-based outlook.

And yet, I can’t help but think this is a fallacy erected by atheists to justify the basis for their views. Again, don’t get me wrong, I think the deeper you delve into atheism, the more it is accurate. But honestly, I think we can drop some (I’m not saying all) of the ivory tower eggheadery in an effort to make atheism more accessible to the average religious person.

Let’s be frank: people who are happy with their religion don’t one day randomly decide to become atheists. What makes people initially question their faith has to come from within, not from without, so in order to reach someone who is religious, you must focus on what someone might not like about their religion.

To put it another way, if religious people cared about logic and reason, they would already be atheists, so trying to present logic- and reason-based arguments for atheism is like trying to shout instructions at someone in ancient Sumerian. No matter how technically right you may be, they don’t understand or care. It doesn’t make any logical sense to approach the religious using language and values they don’t share with you (or in many cases, have been expressly taught are evil and to be ignored).

As far as I know, I have only played a part in encouraging a few people to become atheists, most of them while I was in high school. I have chatted with one of them about this, and he explicitly told me that he became an atheist because of me. This is particularly amusing, because he was my sponsor when I was confirmed in the Catholic Church against my wishes, and he walked down the aisle of the church with me to be blessed by the Bishop while being an avowed atheist. In fact, it was that travesty of religion that he said partially cemented his current views.

He said that in high school, I always pointed out how hypocritical the Bible and religious people were. And it’s true: at the time, I primarily focused on criticizing religious people and the things they did, as well as pointing to inconsistencies and immorality in the Bible. I was greatly concerned with what people said and what they actually did, and of course, I repeated every semi-clever thing I ever heard or read pertaining to atheism or in contempt of religion. I was (and I suppose, still am) a walking compendium of bumper-sticker wisdom.

I was far less educated on the subject than I am now. Many people I know who are atheists became so during college, compared to me becoming an atheist in high school. It’s no mystery why college will churn out so many atheists. There are so many factors.

College is characterized by young people being away from their parents (and churches) in a new place where they are surrounded by people from different cultural backgrounds while being exposed to education that includes a comprehensive criticism of fundamental core values which are instilled by religion. Plus, there’s the sex, booze and drugs, you can’t underestimate those.

I mean, sure, most atheists will deny that last bit played any part (and I doubt it was the only part for nearly anyone), but you show me a sober virgin who became an atheist and I’ll show you one hideously grotesque and lonely person who wishes they could at least get laid.

Don’t get me wrong, I know that people don’t leave religion to become promiscuous. You don’t have to leave religion to have sex before marriage (hell, you don’t even have to wait until marriage in order to feel justified in touring the country claiming that other people should wait, just look at the Palins). Plenty of promiscuous people are religious, and most atheists I have known are romantically faithful individuals.

For me, college was largely about refining an ideology that had taken root years before. Thinking back, this is when my view of religion and atheism really became distorted to the point of being irrelevant to the average religious person. In a way, one can learn too much about religion and atheism for one’s own good.

You should be able to talk about atheism without asking someone to read a whole book on the subject. That has to be my biggest pet peeve: seeing so many atheists say to religious people, “Hey, you need to read [insert book here], then you’ll really see why religion is a scam.” There is only one book that made me an atheist after reading it, and that’s “The Bible.”

I have yet to read any book about atheism itself, and I don’t think I’m any less informed on the subject than anyone I ever met. Reading most of what atheists write about religion is reminiscent to reading a several paragraph essay on why two plus two equals four (which is about as interesting as this essay right here).

This phenomenon has led to a sort of atheist snobbery that I find akin to what I found among art students. Go to a museum with a student of art, and they will be able to appreciate certain works more deeply than I ever could. Something I always found odd, however, was that many of the works I enjoyed were ridiculed and laughed at by “true artists.” Meanwhile, they ooo’ed and ahh’ed over a giant canvas with nothing but straight lines of solid color, a composition which flat-out bored me.

I sort of see the discourse within the atheist community as being comparable to a museum. There is some work that is appreciated by people who don’t know the first thing about it, and some pieces are best appreciated by the experts, but only a select few that can be enjoyed by both (the Salvadore Dalis and Vincent van Goghs of atheist rhetoric). What I can’t stand, however, is that some atheists would force out those who appeal to less academically rigorous arguments, preferring instead to criticize atheists for their lack of quiet, reserved scholarship.

Just as one example, one of the primary causes of me abandoning religion is, without any doubt, George Carlin’s diatribes against religion. He had me convinced religion started all wars. He characterized God as a huge jackass and religious people as little jackass-wannabes. There were no facts beyond humorous anecdotes, mostly mean-spirited mocking that appealed to my own prejudices against the religious.

That’s what stupid people respond to: playground tactics. When you go off to college and you take English 101 or some other class that teaches elementary rhetoric (maybe even in high school), they teach you about these things called “fallacies.” Strawmen, ad hominem attacks, arguments from authority… you have to be literally taught what is wrong with all of the methods people use to convince others, and you have to be taught because naturally, you will fall for them. Without the knowledge of why they are baseless, you will find these arguments appealing.

Religions rely on fallacies, as do politicians, marketers, parents, teachers, administrators, the crazy guy on the corner… literally everyone who wants you to do something their way will use fallacies to argue their point, even if they are correct. They use them because these tactics work, and because you don’t earn any extra points in this world by using logic and reason alone.

Even if a stance can be argued using logic and reason, it’s not uncommon to see it argued using fallacies, because fallacies are like a short cut, a hack for the human brain. Fallacies are like a Jedi trick that works on the weak minded. If religion has taught me anything, it’s that it is easier to deceive a fool than it is to convince him.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from writing long treatises on the logic and reason based arguments for atheism. Quite the contrary, I am glad it happens. I am glad there are people taking the time to shore up the foundations of atheism, and at times I attempt to do so as well (clumsily, but in my own way). Rather, I am asking that atheists consider this: don’t criticize fellow atheists because of their zeal. Encourage them, because it is enthusiasm like that which actually attracts new atheists, not somber essays in the tone of a textbook.

It is counterproductive to criticize someone for being a “militant” atheist, a “juvenile” atheist, a “religious” atheist, or some other derogatory terminology picked solely for its ability to demean and marginalize them. That is a logical fallacy, an ad hominem attack, and it’s particularly stupid to be using such a tactic against someone on your own team.

It’s taken me some time to come to this conclusion, but it’s what I believe to be right. I started out as a crude neophant atheist, then I was a snobby pseudo-intellectual atheist, but now… I’m more of a pragmatist. Even though it goes against my own ethical beliefs, I would call Jesus a faggot if I thought for one second that it would convince anyone to be an atheist. At the very least, it might amuse someone. I mean… he did hang out with a bunch of sailors...

Enthusiastic atheists don’t “make atheism look bad,” we already look horrible to believers. Pretend all you want, but even if every atheist was a calm, collected, college-educated individual who was polite (like I used to be on my blog years ago), there would still be religious people who think we ate babies. It’s a losing battle to try to win the hearts and minds of heartless and mindless people. The best you can do is to get a laugh out of them, just to confirm they’re still human.

But don’t stop writing logic and reason based pieces. While those like George Carlin can convince people to become an atheist in the first place, it is articles about reason and logic that keep one an atheist after the initial excitement wears off and the old familiar cynicism kicks in.

That is what atheists ought to be doing: instilling cynicism in others. Encourage people to be skeptical, to question, to seek, to look around, to read everything, to listen to everyone, to take an active part in the world rather than just be another passive cog turning in one place. That is what leads to atheism: an awareness that we are here, that we have no idea what’s going on, and that the people who pretend to know what’s going on are the most wrong of all.

It’s not logic or reason that leads most to atheism, it’s finally being able to admit to yourself, “Maybe I’ve been lied to all along.” That’s not logic or reason, that’s curiosity. You can’t teach that, you can only hope to encourage it.


  1. Encourage people to be skeptical, to question, to seek, to look around, to read everything, to listen to everyone, to take an active part in the world rather than just be another passive cog turning in one place.
    -- Agreed.
    One method I find useful when visiting theist sites, or even atheist sites, is to ask questions occasionally instead of just ranting. Seek to understand the other person a bit beter.

    Hey, I'm curious if you intentionally don't use pics on your posts? Might color up this black-and-white type heavy blog.

  2. I'm a big fan of questions, though Socratic ones. I rarely ask a question to which I personally seek the answer. It's generally better if someone believes they came up with an idea themselves, and that's where asking questions can help.

    More pictures, eh? You got it.

  3. Cool, lookin' forward to them. BTW, do you make that comic strip?

  4. They are fun. I hope to do the same -- but I can't draw. But hell, it will be fun to try!

  5. I think my cartoons prove that you don't need to be able to draw... or write, for that matter.

  6. Dammit Bret, I was going to disagree with you and then you had to go and have a rational conclusion.

  7. That's why I never interrupt people. Sometimes, we only make sense at the very end.

    Why couldn't I just get to the damn point... I dunno, bad writing, I guess.

  8. Don't be so hard on yourself, a lot of us have a hard time being concise.

  9. I think it's only fair that I'm as hard on myself as I am hard on others.

    Heh heh... hard on.


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