Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Positivity and Teamwork in the Atheist Community

Hemant Mehta has posted a great open letter signed by multiple national U.S. atheist organizations, calling for civility in discussions online and elsewhere. I'm glad to see this being addressed, and saddened that it's because of rifts between atheists that this problem has worsened recently. (If you haven't noticed this, good for you not to have paid attention to silliness.) The actual issues that have been brought up and continue to be debated in our community deserve attention, but it's where the discussions - online and in person - become personal that nothing and no one is improved. Except, maybe, FOX News, and I'm glad they haven't been paying attention; otherwise they'd have some great fodder to fuel claims about how atheists by their nature are nasty and can't cooperate.

In particular it's worth pointing out that the San Diego atheist community, big as it has become, has largely avoided this so far, and we all deserve a lot of credit for that. Way to go us! (That's in case you're trying to read between the lines here. There's nothing there. Seriously. This was inspired by stuff at the national level I've watched from a distance.)

The open letter I linked to hits a lot of really excellent points that I'd like to second and reframe below. And some of this is, dare I say it, the result of the kinds of personalities that tend to declare ourselves out atheists. So I post the following with love, really I do - but sometimes having a lot of these personalities together is good, and sometimes it's not so good. For example:

- Sometimes we're rightly upset about something one of our secular comrades has said or done; maybe it's even personal, based on their words or actions. Does the ensuing discussion have to be in virtual public? Aren't we all big enough to pick up a phone and resolve what may actually be a misunderstanding? And even if it's not, is it always the case that our need to vent in public overtakes

- Sometimes it's really tough not to be a fire-breather when something really stupid or hurtful happens. Fair enough: but aren't we the rational ones? Don't we want our frontal lobes to be in charge of our limbic system, and not the other way around?

- Why do beliefs matter? Because they affect decisions. Ever notice the debates about semantics and distractions and minutiae that we atheists can devolve into, even (or especially) when we're trying to make a decision? There is an infinite number of arguments that can be debated, but we have only finite time and attention, and our attention is precious. Are we always using it on the best things?

- Movements (like the modern atheist movement) are team sports. Sometimes it pays to go along for the time being with a decision that you didn't think was the smartest, or let go an argument about something that's not that relevant anyway, or just accept that you won't ever fully agree with or convince the (socialists, libertarians, surrealists) also in the group. We're doing something important, but it's not like we're trying to deflect an asteroid in the next ten minutes.

- It's about ideas, values and goals, not people. To the extent possible, it's good to constantly have fresh blood in positions of responsibility in groups, rather than having it be about personalities. It's unfortunate if someone you don't like is running an event or a group, but this way it won't be for long and it's harder for factions to form. That's high school stuff.

- Perhaps most importantly: do we think what we're saying and doing will make someone who doesn't already identify as an atheist, want to start doing so, or learn more about us? Are we making a good impression? Always try to make any contact the start of a conversation rather than the end of one, and you won't always be successful, but deciding to steer that way is quite empowering, regardless of outcome. I don't know about you but I've been in some real and online conversations with some atheists that I didn't care to be around much longer, and I think most people (atheist or otherwise) would feel the same. Not good!

None of these little pointers should be construed as a commandment not to rock the boat when someone is full of crap or bullying, always deferring to group harmony. That attitude, writ large, is exactly why atheism as a positive movement needs to exist in the first place! But try to...focus your rocking on the person in question, privately, rather than rocking everyone on board straight into the water. (Okay, so my metaphor-kung-fu is weak. You know what I mean.) In fact one of the things that makes the secular community unique and strong is that we can disagree in public...about issues, without ad hominem attacks. And I think we rationalists are smart enough to know when some decision or claim actually doesn't matter that much in the grand scheme and reign in our reaction, versus when there's a hill worth dying on. A lot of this comes down to recognizing that even when we're offended or angry, the best thing is usually not an immediately rhetorical nuclear counter-strike. For most of us I think our values and goals as humanists consist of more than amusing ourselves by being a one-person argument army.

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