Sunday, January 4, 2009

To Young Atheists

Gather round the fire O younguns, and listen to the lore spun by your elder! Well, I turn thirty-five this month. Is that elder enough?

In my media links to the right I try to focus on content that might be of interest to younger atheists - teenagers and college students - because you guys and gals can make the biggest difference of any of us. That's not pep talk, it's plain truth. Not only do you have more energy and better looks, you have friends and relatives and fellow students who are also young, and whose minds aren't made up. It's the rare thirty-five year old whose mind will change much, even stepwise. An adolescent is still very much in play, and we're all counting on you to make a difference. You have a breadth of opportunities that adult atheists can only dream about. That's exactly why you can't waste these opportunities while you're young. Get involved, organize, speak out, get your friends to think about the world, and if you're in a location or a family that you think will be unhappy to hear about your deversion, find a community. (Look in the links to the right. You're not alone - don't let others think they are either.) But most of all, don't be a shock-value atheist.

Come on, you know what I mean. When you're young and full of piss-and-vinegar and can't believe the stupid things that people not only believe but are trying to force on you, it's difficult not to give in to this tendency. I know, because when I was younger, I was about as guilty of this offense as anyone. I couldn't wait to challenge or mock, to someone's face, their ridiculous beliefs; as an adult I'm not fully recovered but I try to limit the tendency to harmless cases. It's still important to adhere to the doctrine of conversational intolerance - when a grown-up tells me they believe in the tooth fairy, I don't let it go - but there's a way to do it that might actually make a positive difference.

The distinction is this: a shock-value atheist is looking for a laugh in the here-and-now, and to prove that he's right (yes, "he"; sorry gentlemen, it's mostly us that suffer from this disorder!). Consequently, shock-value atheism is really just egotism masquerading as intellectual smugness. And when you commit it, it reinforces negative stereotypes and damages our cause - which should be more important to you, unless (again) you're just an egotist. I've seen apparently atheist teenagers heckling street corner preachers - not debating, not arguing, just heckling - and felt what I imagine Jews felt when the Bernie Madoff case broke. I've witnessed this more than once, and in retrospect I'm angry at myself for not taking the hecklers aside.

Shock-value atheists also show that their philosophy has a long way to evolve. In a Wired article in 2006, an atheist was told he was an atheist because he enjoyed pissing people off - and he agreed. I hope that's not really his main reason, or I would be pretty sad for the poor guy. Wearing shocking T-shirts does not constitute a value system. How about: wear a nice shirt, and impress a (probably thoughtful) Christian classmate that atheism is a good way to live your life? Wouldn't you prefer that? Think for a second how embarrassing the Four Horsemen meeting would have been if these guys had sat around just swapping stories about how they blew some religious person's mind with offensive comments. Dawkins would say "Yeah man, I wore a Slayer shirt to my interview with Ted Haggard, you should've seen his face man!" and there are high fives all around. You'd slide down in your chair while watching this. You'd think "Is this really all there is to it? Can this really be a way to live my life?" I can't say the idea of Richard Dawkins as a Slayer fan displeases me, unlikely though it is, but that's another story.

Finally and most importantly, shock-value atheism makes people feel bad. Perhaps not surprisingly, mocking desperate people that their prayers will never be answered and that they live in a dark and godless world will not change anyone's mind. If you're reading this blog entry, you've already solved the philosophical problem of religion (i.e., it's a sham and there isn't one) - so the next step is to recognize religion as a political problem. That problem is that we have to defend secularism in public life - joined in this struggle, by the way, by many religious people. And here again I invoke my example of a middle-aged mom in Kansas, behind on her credit card payments and scared that her kids would get involved with drugs. She doesn't care about Charles Darwin or the genocidal decrees of iron-age high priests. If you can't think of something to say to her that will make her realize her life will be better without religion, keep thinking; otherwise, she'll conclude that atheism really doesn't offer anything. In my case, I never had a choice and from adolescence couldn't believe in the supernatural even if you held a gun to my head. My own experience of atheism has been one that's incredibly positive and liberating. I have every indication this is the case for other adult atheists I know, few of whom have had any fall-out from coming out as atheists. I have no urge to wear black turtlenecks and chain-smoke despondently in the absence of God, which is one impression of atheists that many Christians have, as memorably described by Dave Fitzgerald.

If you think I'm advocating that atheists keep our mouths shut, think again. In fact it's critically important that young atheists have clear ideas about how to discuss atheism with age-peers, and there's an important distinction to be made here between shock-value and conversational intolerance. Conversational intolerance is just about expecting grown-ups to eliminate superstition from their thinking. We do this in the near term to improve our own lives and help the people around us, and in the long term to strengthen the rule of secularism in public life. Shock-value is when we do it for a laugh, or to prove how smart we are, disregarding the feelings of other human beings. You can be a strong atheist, even a militant atheist, without being a shock-value atheist; you can ridicule superstitions without ridiculing human beings. True, as Dan Dennett said, the faithful will sometimes react in exactly the same way to shock statements and conversation intolerance, but we can't expect religious people to make this distinction for us.

I'm sure that most readers will shake their heads in disgust at these behavioral pitfalls. If we're honest, many of us have such a rebellious contrarian streak in us, which is how we arrived at atheism in the first place. It behooves us to resist it, because it doesn't help anyone, especially us.


Anonymous said...

Many times when I resort to shock value atheism it is in response to shock value theism. It would be better to keep ones cool during these conversations and the the other show his butt.

Michael Caton said...

Exactly. There's always an audience to these discussions (the other people on the quad or the bus or in line at the movies) and that's who is really important, because most of them will not be strongly committed - yet - to either position.