Monday, January 16, 2012

Interview with Dr. Daniel Fincke, Part 1

BRET: I’m here today with Dr. Daniel Fincke from the blog Camels With Hammers. So, I have to ask, why do you hate being called “Dr. Dan?”

DAN: It’s trivializing. Except in contexts where people would normally be formal, I don’t expect to be called Dr. But in those cases, it rankles a bit to be called Mr. and in cases where people should just call me Dan, “Dr. Dan” feels like they’re teasing. Also it sounds gimmicky. One of those “I’m a Dr. but approachable” things. I feel like that condescends to insecurities that are ridiculous. So treat me like an equal and call me Dan or if you feel like showing special respect, call me Dr. Fincke.

BRET: So you don’t harbor a deep-seated hatred for alliteration?

DAN: Okay that made me laugh out loud. No, but now that you mention it, that probably only increases the flippancy of it in my mind. When I was a kid my older cousins (whom I loved) would say in a sing-songy voice “Dan Dan The Ice Cream Man”. I loved that when I was six. Dr. Dan sounds like that to me when I’m 33. It’s not the same.

BRET: Who is your favorite philosopher?

DAN: Friedrich Nietzsche

BRET: Hmm... is it because of his stance on animal rights?

DAN: Ha! No, not quite. I got into Nietzsche when a close friend of mine in college went through a severe crisis of faith based on reading Nietzsche. We were both devout evangelical Christians at a religiously and politically hard right wing college and at the end of freshman year Nietzsche got under his skin when we both took Ethics together. Nietzsche loomed over our discussions for the next couple years as my friend’s doubts became stronger and stronger and as he flirted with full out philosophical skepticism and an almost suicidal nihilism.

Eventually it was an existential urgency that I fully encounter Nietzsche for myself so I read the entire Portable Nietzsche in 10 days and it knocked the spiritual wind out of me. After that I struggled for 5 months before abandoning the faith.

BRET: I’ve noticed there’s two sort of paths to atheism, one where the faith pushes you out, and another where atheism draws you in. For example, I became an atheist by reading the Bible, whereas you became an atheist from reading the thoughts of someone criticizing religion. Do you think there’s something to that?

DAN: Sure. There are a few more ways to break it up. But I loved being a Christian and never thought of things like hypocrisies or the strangeness and immorality of the Bible being a threat to my faith. For me it was just a long journey of trying to defend against external philosophical attacks, from when I was 14-21.

Where Nietzsche really got under my skin was where he shifted the ground to the ethical. Believing became a moral matter and Nietzsche’s power was not in making philosophical arguments against the faith. I could develop those on my own and already had through years of studying philosophy. But what he did was present this defiantly alternative perspective on the world. It was really like visiting a whole other universe reading Thus Spoke Zarathustra and it profoundly messed with my mind in ways that could not be articulated.

It was like I had spent all these years building these elaborate apologetic routines and then encountered this literary masterwork that just ignored all that and moved on completely from my clever little excuses and assailed the very ethos of my beliefs and painted this picture of a whole different world with a whole different, rival, coherent ethos.

It’s very hard to explain how it worked, but it was like basically like being beaten by someone so far out of your league you have no idea what hit you. And so I spent the next 10 years trying to figure out what exactly had happened.

BRET: What rival ethos does Nietzsche present?

DAN: Well, I’m thinking specifically of the Nietzsche one finds in Thus Spoke Zarathustra, so I’ll say it’s “Zarathustra’s” ethos. Not the historical Zarathustra, of course, but Nietzsche’s.

Zarathustra has this sort of high minded seer demeanor about him. He is this character who just has contempt for all pettiness, for all backwardness, for all weakness, for all hatred of the body and the world. And this desire to affirm nature and the body and to look at the future as a place of open-ended transformation of values. There is this overwhelming feeling like we can do so much better as human beings if only we took the dare to radically question our values and overcome everything weak in our humanity. Zarathustra is all about air that is both rarefied and fresh.

He’s incredibly inspiring. It’s by far Nietzsche’s most visionary and positive and inspiring work. But at first it was devastatingly challenging. It was a world that I didn’t fit into, and which had utter contempt for me, and which landed so many blows to my faith indirectly. Again, it’s really hard to describe the effect. It was emotional and “spiritual”.

BRET: Do you find that odd, that something spiritual led you to atheism?

DAN: In a way it makes perfect sense because a religion gives someone a Gestalt that integrates one’s “spiritual” feelings with one’s metaphysics and values and identity and community. It’s a whole way of thinking, feeling, and practicing. When someone says it’s false, well it sure does not feel false. It seems to be ordering your life wonderfully---if you’re one of those people it works for.

And so it makes sense that it was a powerful alternative ordering of things that hooked my emotions and challenged my identity directly. It took superior intellectual content which also had a mesmerizing charismatic appeal that invited my religious mind into a full perspective that it could try on and feel overwhelmed by and eventually have a Gestalt shift within---and then have a wholesale change of feelings right along with it. So, I became a zealous Nietzschean. Until I could finally separate myself from him and move on. But that took a while.

BRET: So you aren’t one of the mechanical atheists who pretend they are logic machines with no emotions?

DAN: Not at all. I am flabbergasted when Christians who know me disingenuously try to pull that card on me. They know I wear my heart on my sleeve and they can see that I’m brimming with passion for philosophy and for atheism. They just take my words insisting that we be very rational and apportion our beliefs to evidence and say that must be a cold way of life. But they must see in front of them an atheist who is decidedly living hotly.

BRET: Do you read many Christian blogs?

DAN: Only Andrew Sullivan and I’ll read some things he links to.

BRET: Do you read many atheist blogs?

DAN: Yes, I read nearly all of Freethought Blogs and a couple times a week I check out Planet Atheism. I stack my Google Reader with every promising atheism blog I come across so that someday I may stumble on something great.

BRET: For atheist bloggers and Christian commenters you may see on those blogs, what would you say would be your biggest criticism of each, in general? And feel free to name names or mention more than one criticism.

DAN: Well this is my specialty as my most popular posts are the ones with tips for believers reaching out to atheists and atheists reaching out to believers, so there’s a lot I could say. I would say as a general rule my frustration with Christian commenters is that they are utterly clueless about atheists. Most of them are, anyway.

BRET: You don’t eat baby?

DAN: They have no idea how much their block texts of bible verses make atheists’ eyes glaze over. Like no idea how completely ineffective Bible verses are on us. They don’t grasp that any bit of Christianese starts sounding like Chinese to us. They don’t get that we have no interest in their salvation--like, this is just not a problem for us!

BRET: Atheists don’t die?

DAN: Well, we don’t need to be saved from sins. And we don’t see any connection between the fact that we die and that we’re sinners.

BRET: Depends on the sin and cause of death, I suppose. If you have sex with cows and you die in a stampede...

DAN: (laughs) That’s true. Maybe those are the sins the Bible has in mind.

On the other end of the spectrum are Christians who know better and will engage philosophically. And I get along with some of them very well. I have a few Christian friends who are politically very progressive and they love my blog. I cannot get a bead on their theology since they’re constantly agreeing with me even when I’m trashing their fellow believers and they’re very slippery when put direct questions.

Then there are the educated Christians who are more combative, or who have an edge to them even when not directly being combative. What bothers me most about them is that even when they are ostensibly just engaged in the truth of the particular issue, you can feel their sense that they are in hostile territory.

The only Christians you can truly engage with online are those with an agenda-free interest in the truth of the issue at hand. The ones who care about the philosophical issues for their own sake and without constantly worrying about how this will defend or threaten their faith. They exist and they and the non-combative progressives are delights to have around.

They are the people who in real life too you can have mutually edifying friendships with. Anyone who is screening everything you say and sending it back to the mothership in their mind for approval or disapproval is usually a lost cause. With those people you should probably avoid discussing religion and instead just discuss psychology in a non-threatening way, and plant ideas that way.

BRET: That mothership bit almost sounds like Scientology.

DAN: (laughs) Scientology, Christianity....

As for atheists online it’s really really nice to be part of a community of atheists, first and foremost.

BRET: Ha, but...

DAN: I’ll admit I can tolerate an over the top atheist way more easily than an over the top Christian. Because there is that feeling that at least they’re on my side.

BRET: Is that because of the absence of death threats and promises of eternal damnation?

DAN: Well not just that but I sympathize with their anger a great deal even when I think they express it wrongly. Let’s distinguish several kinds of atheists (and how everyone should be my kind).

BRET: Sounds glorious.

DAN: First you have your ashamed atheist who feels terrible that she just can’t bring herself to believe. And think it’s nothing but wonderful that others “have something to believe in” and feels almost a moral or psychological failure for not believing. My heart breaks for those atheists.

BRET: I thought those people became Buddhists.

DAN: No, Buddhists are people who just think Buddhism seems like a better religion or of some practical use. Buddhists have strength of non-conformity if they’re Western and come from an Abrahamic background. They’re not apologizing for not being able to believe.

BRET: Right, but an atheist yearning for something will often eventually find it. Even if it’s not where they first looked.

DAN: Yeah, but I don’t think it’s bad if they adopt an atheistic religion and don’t exhibit any of the negatives we often associate with religious excess (authoritarianism, exclusiveness, faith, irrationalism, superstition, pseudoscience, cultishness, patriarchy, misogyny, etc.).

BRET: By atheistic religion, do you mean religion based on atheism, or an atheist religion, like Buddhism?

DAN: I mean a religion that has no theistic beliefs.

BRET: Pre-existing, then?

DAN: Or new.

BRET: Okay.

DAN: You can’t make atheism itself a religion, it’s just a philosophical position (whether positively affirmed or by default). But atheists could have religions (and do).

Then you have apatheists, who I don’t identify with. I’m a passionate person. I feel like the apatheists are just proudly irresponsible for not caring about whether their culture has good values and true beliefs.

Then there are those atheists who care about values and beliefs but only when they have a negative political impact or threaten separation of church and state. Those sorts of atheists often become accommodationists. “Just leave religion out of science and politics” And that irritates me because I’m a philosopher. Faith-based religions don’t deserve to be ceded all the important philosophical questions about ethics and fundamental conceptions of the self, etc.

And so those accommodationist atheists, again like the apatheists, also have too much of a path of least resistance willingness to concede the stuff of most important cultural, psychological, and ethical value to wholly illegitimate institutions.

And when they defer to faith-based religions as no big deal for those who believe, they take no interest in whether or not those people would be better served by truth and they seem callous to the fact that many people are in those religions unwillingly and are hurt by them. (Most obviously countless conflicted children.)

Then come the identity-atheists, those atheists for whom it is a big deal to be an atheist. And there are several of us. Some of us are just “out of the closet” and angry and pushing back.

BRET: Right, all us flaming atheists.

DAN: And I totally get that.

This is what I call the “lion” stage, following Zarathustra’s “Three Transformations of the Soul”. It’s a stage Nietzsche describes in which you’re just saying “No” to received “Thou Shalt Nots,” and I’ve seen it start with a couple of atheists who I’ve helped “activate” who had been either a doubting Christian or something between an apatheist or an accommodationist.

And when the light switch goes on, when the consciousness is raised, they get really angry and start saying they’re “Anything But Theist.”

BRET: ...and start a blog. Ho ho ho!

DAN: So, yeah. I get the fury. And when dealing with the first three kinds of atheists I want to make them into lions.

BRET: The “Anything But Theist” blog name was only chosen on the basis of availability and high ranking in alphabetical order. My wife beat me though with “Abandoning Eden.” Hard to top “Ab.”

DAN: Should have gone with Aardvark Atheist.

BRET: Well it had to make sense...

DAN: Blog names have to make sense? Boy did I screw up!

BRET: But yours sounds mysterious, like a Led Zeppelin lyric. Aardvaark Atheist is just... Weird Al or something.

DAN: This is a bad thing?

BRET: My whole blog is a joke, at least the title should make sense. I owe people that much.

DAN: (laughs) So anyway, I want to light the fire under the groveling ashamed atheists, the apatheists, and the accommodationists. And I’m encouraging to the lions. But then there’s a choice that the lions have.

Either they move on to the next stage Nietzsche describes, which is “The Child”, or they become something Nietzsche did not describe which I like to call “The Asshole.”

BRET: Oooh, can it be the Hyena?

DAN: Might work.

BRET: You know, since they just sit around laughing and stealing the lion’s kills.

DAN: Yes! That really does work!

BRET: I was born to make animal metaphors.

DAN: And that’s it, it’s just feeding on the carcasses. And laughing their heads off.

BRET: Oh God... I’m a hyena... I have failed you.

DAN: It’s not building anything new and constructive. The child can just say yes. Nietzsche calls the child a “self-propelled wheel.” The child builds new values without obsessing over saying No anymore. The Child no longer lives in the shadow of the Dead God but creates that new world which is not defined by the negative, by the opposition to something else.

Now, not to make this all so much more confusing I started as a Camel. The camel is the absolutely obedient moral and truthful creature whose morality and truth lead him to realize the limits of absolutism, and out of commitment to truth and morality themselves comes to criticize received truth and received morality. To do that requires becoming the lion though, since the Camel is just obedient.

So I see Nietzsche’s writings as constant shifting. Sometimes he’s the Camel, sometimes the Lion, and sometimes the Child. And that’s how I like to write: sometimes as the obediently detached and disciplined truth-seeking academic, sometimes as the no-saying lion railing against the abuses and falsehoods of bad religions, and sometimes as the child who moves beyond opposing theism to reopening the questions of values and seeing how even the things the lion said no to (like religion and morality) might be salvaged in post-theist ways.

But the children get attacked by hyenas because the hyenas confuse them for accommodationists, when we’re not. Some us are willing to be lions when necessary.

BRET: We need some lion skins to hide the babies in.

[Part 2, Part 3, Part 4]

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