So Tell Me ... What's The Weather Like on YOUR Planet?

11 June, 2010

Tips for Atheists

In the last few days I have had the misfortune to come across a half-handful or so of largely unrelated discussions in which various atheists demonstrated to me once again why theism/atheism "discussions" on the internet are a waste of time in general, and a waste of time for a polytheist like me in particular.

I mean, sometimes I comment in them anyway, but for the most part it's like I didn't say anything, because I'm not engaging According To The Rules, which rules are apparently defined by conservative Protestantism. I am not feeling as sarcastic about this as I was when I first ran across it a few days ago, but I would like to muster a few points about cultural awareness.

I know a number of completely personable atheists, including a few who are happy to have serious and in-depth conversations about not only theological theory but my actual religious experiences. Not a single one of them participates in theism/atheism discussions on the internet; most groan and don't want to know when I mention stumbling across one.

So, my angry and offensive opinions:

1) You may very well want to express contempt for "so-called holy books", but do not mistake revealed scripture for religion. Not all religions have scripture at all. The ones that do interpret in different ways than you are obviously used to; the Tanakh is read rather differently than the Old Testament, and those are, technically, mostly the same words. Try to apply the same standards to the Principia Discordia and you might understand why that scripture includes the line "A Discordian is Prohibited of Believing what he reads." Your mission, if you choose to accept it: The Oresteia.

2) Similarly, condemning "belief" as a category does not get you anywhere useful. Not only does it slam things like "I believe that my husbands love me", but you are presuming that belief is a fundamental and important factor in religion. Orthodoxic religion is familiar, yes, because Christianity is more orthodoxic than most religions, and Christianity is, well, pretty popular in the English-speaking world. But that whole "more orthodoxic than most religions" thing means we cannot actually have a meaningful conversation. This feeds into the ridiculous and pernicious cultural angst about whether or not Judaism is a religion, a culture, or an ethnicity; contemplation of this may be enlightening. (Condemning "faith" is sufficiently similarly problematic that I will not make another bulletpoint for it.)

2b, though) Also, you're ignoring theistic or religious agnostics when you dismiss religious people as "believers".

2c) Not to mention nontheistic religion.

3) And on the subject of that religion, culture, ethnicity thing: when you talk about your utopian future in which there is no religion, you are expressing a position that is, at best, colonialist. It is rooted in a culture that grew up descended from the Roman notion of "religion" as a category that could be pointed to as something disinct from or other than "the way we live as a people", a notion that Christianity inherited. When you say you want to wipe out "religion", what you communicate to many people is that you believe that their culture and heritage should be destroyed. The people you may hit hardest with this particular colonialist club are likely, of course, the members of surviving indigenous colonised tribes who have been on the butt end of Christianisation used specifically as a tool for destroying them as people with an independent identity. Be careful of the company you keep.

3b) Also, if you are basing your anti-religion-X argument on the way that religion-X treats its women, children, sexual minorities, etc., fucking listen to the religion-X people who are women, children, queer, whatever else rather than stomping all over them with your I-know-better-than-you-poor-deluded-people-who-haven't-escaped-the-trappings-of-your-oppressive-religion boots, okay?

4) Yep, "supernatural" is a big fancy word for stuff that doesn't exist. The relevance of this point to religion is questionable and both 100% dependent on a privileged definition of "god" and a complete avoidance of the concept of orthopraxy. For a trivially obvious couple of examples, an animistically inclined religious person can entirely agree with you that there is no supernatural and still have boatloads of gods kicking around; a religion that is primarily defined on the social practices and behaviours of a community does not go away even if gods do.

5) On that "disproven" thing, yes, gods are not scientific axioms. People who try to use them as such are idiots. Most religious people do not think their religion is science, and trying to tell them that their religion is not a substitute for science will mostly get you an, "Why are you telling me this rather than join me in doing something about the idiots who want to get 'intelligent design' into my kids' textbooks?"

5b) Science is not the full range of reality, either. I like art and music and other subjective experiences! I bet you do too! I'll bet that sometimes you do something daring like eat some chocolate or have sex or listen to Bach sometimes without engaging in a peer-reviewed study of the process by which your neurons fire! I like blue things, and I do it without deriving my enjoyment from the principles of the electromagnetic spectrum!

5c) And regarding that whole "but religion suffuses everything" thing that's part of the arguing with people who want to get intelligent design into the textbooks. Trust me, I hate "God Bless America" played at baseball games at least as much as you do, possibly a little more because it is in my muscle memory as the accompaniment to a tae kwon do kata and I prefer not to accidentally kick people in the head in the seventh inning stretch. (Ceremonial deism is a crock.)

6) By the way, if you start arguing against "omniscience" or "omnipotence" as divine traits, you're basically talking about at best one hypothesised godform, and the rest of us may as well bugger off and have tea. Don't mistake that for a definition of what a god is. (And if you, like one atheist did once to me, respond to someone attempting to point out that that argument is completely incoherent from a non-monotheistic perspective with "What's the point in worshipping a god that isn't omnipotent?", you lose at cultural awareness and probably capability to understand basic polite conversation outside your microscopic frame of reference.)

7) So on that "What's the point" thing, by the way, when you assume that religious people are religious out of fear (fear of death is a popular more-specific version of this), wanting a cookie from some all-powerful parent figure in the sky, or similar infantilising trivialisations, you are probably not going to get a response from the adults in your vicinity. Not because there aren't any, but because the work to disabuse you of your notions just doesn't look worth it, and being a responsible adult bears a remarkable resemblance to being too tired.

8) When you make your arguments about religion, it really helps if you don't use catchwords that indicate you only know about one or two of them. (Hint: "salvation" is a tip-off. "Original sin" too.) Also, saying something like "Your god will eventually vanish into prehistory and superstition, just like nobody worships Thor, Zeus, or Osiris anymore!" will make the polytheists in the vicinity very tired; most of them, however, know that pointing out that they worship Thor or Zeus or Wesir will just get them called childish and primitive or something in the unlikely event that anyone acknowledges their existence at all, and thus don't bother to correct your ignorance.

9) Most religious organisations suck, and institutionalised power leads to abuses. WELCOME TO PROGRESSIVE SOCIAL ACTIVISM AWARENESS, HERE IS YOUR INFORMATIONAL BROCHURE ABOUT WAYS THE HUMAN CAPACITY TO GANG TOGETHER GOES HORRIBLY WRONG. Seriously, are you expecting religious structures to differ from corporate structures? Nations? High school cliques? People form social structures to make levers; people apply levers to get what they want. Some things people want are bloody awful. If you want to end holy wars you'll have more success with it by fixing water rights, health care access, economic security, and all that hope-for-the-future stuff than by trying to abolish gods.

9b) Seriously this is an argument for anarchism not against religion.

10) If you start out your comment or your shiny blogpost by saying "Religion does X thing and I don't want to hear from anyone pointing out religions that don't", posting a comment later on going, "Gee, just about everyone who reads my blog agrees with me on this!" is just - fucking - ridiculous. When you state up front that you're uninterested in hearing counterarguments, only the most bullheaded ideologues will ever bother to make any. (I'm not making this one up, though I will admit it's more of a general Internets Argumenting point than something specific to this particular standing-wave flamewar. I just saw it a day or two ago when catching up on the last few weeks of blogs I read and the resulting explosion led to this post.)

So yeah. There's my inflammatory bullshit. Let it join all of the other inflammatory bullshit about this subject that's kicking around the internets lately.


cheshire said...

Thankyou for having the words when I feel like I have none of them. Although you do loss some points for not publishing this several weeks back because I am currently sitting here with the biggest ever case of "on the stairs" and seriously considering emailing this to one of my lovers under the heading see points 2, 2b, 3 (dear white male) all of 5, 7 and 9 for the other conversation about why I strugle with the idea of being "a liberal" even though that is probable a good discription of my politics.

But then, I am too tired I think.

Teeth Whitening said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Meecie said...

Mostly, I'm sorry the Atheists you've encountered have been such assholes. It gives us moderates a bad name (and maybe the reason I identify as "skeptical agnostic" rather than "atheist"). I don't let anyone dictate what feels right and sacred for me, why would I try to do that for anyone else?

Keshwyn said...

Bless you - I wish I had had this paper to wave at the Atheists in the panel I was listening in on, because you say far more coherently, "Look, you, here are your holes."

Also, it pisses me off no end that people I know and like keep condescendingly pointing me at the Bright organization and saying, "Hey, you should join this here with us because you're not a Christian and that means you agree with us that Christians and religion all suck and are a load of bunk." The logical fallacy inherent in the comment never seems to register. >:|

Dw3t-Hthr said...

cheshire - sorry my precognition is on the fritz. :}

Meecie - as I said, this is mostly a rant about The Sort Of Atheist Who Gets Into Arguments About It Online. Which is certainly not all of them/you - but the people who get into screaming arguments on the internets frequently give the worst show of anyone with their adjectives.

Keshwyn - I'm pretty sure one of the things I read before generating this was a run-down of what was likely that panel at Wiscon (the one with a bunch of atheists and a rabbi on it?), so that's unsurprising.

And I wish more atheists really had a handle on the notion that there are religious options other than Jack Chick Christianity. As Graydon said a while back on rasseff, people don't disbelieve in Thor the same way they disbelieve in Yahweh. (Of course, he got a few defensive atheists saying they did too disbelieve just the same! Did too did too! Why, listen to this argument that only applies to some Abrahamic god-conceptions, that'll show you!)

thene said...

*bookmarks forever*

What I really hate is the ones who mansplain religion to me. Hi, I am right here, I know more about my connection to my religion than you do because a) it's mine and b) you're an atheist so PLEASE SHUT UP.

Rootietoot said...

"jack chick christianity"
(falls over giggling)
some of my favorite people are athiests, we just talk about other things. Some of my other favorite people are Christians, we talk about it sometimes because it's something we have in common. In general faith/religion/deities are simply not something I like to argue about...dicuss, yes, but hand flapping and finger pointing haven't ever accomplished anything but to piss someone off (in my experience), and to damn someone to hell for their unbelief...well oh boy, that'll convert um!
anyway, this post is articulate, and I appreciate that.

Daisy Deadhead said...

Love it. Great post, and thanks!

Aqua, of the Questioners said...

So I'm an atheist, and yeah, I don't spend much time with other (Jack Chick Christianity) atheists for the kinds of reasons you list.

Also the bit where I try to talk to them about really being an atheist and they have no clue what I'm talking about. I'm an atheist somewhat because gods absolutely do not talk to me and I have actually tried. I can sense the exact space in myself/whatever where they would go (combined with a weird sense that it's not a space where anything can go (in my case)) and it's always only me. I assume this is the space where interesting god stuff happens if you're a theist.

I've met maybe one other atheist who understands what I'm talking about, so I don't quite think of the noisy Jack Chick atheists as real atheists, because they don't have any personal experience to back up their claims of anything so how can I be sure they know what they're talking about (particularly when they're raving about science/religion etc)?

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I believe, but am not certain, that my dear competitor is an atheist of that variety, Aqua. So further confirmation that you are not alone in that (Ugol Ugol).

He's actually one of my favorite people to talk religion with because he approaches it as a sci-fi worldbuilding problem, and that's useful. (We also talk a lot about sci-fi worldbuilding problems, so it's all of a piece.)

Kristin said...

This entire post is pretty awesome, but I wanted to thank you in particular for this:

"2b, though) Also, you're ignoring theistic or religious agnostics when you dismiss religious people as "believers"."

Rarely does anyone recognize this.

WordK said...


mamacrow said...

'People form social structures to make levers; people apply levers to get what they want. Some things people want are bloody awful.'


Anonymous said...

I find myself really intrigued by statement 4, specifically:

"For a trivially obvious couple of examples, an animistically inclined religious person can entirely agree with you that there is no supernatural and still have boatloads of gods kicking around; a religion that is primarily defined on the social practices and behaviours of a community does not go away even if gods do."

It's not entirely obvious to me, and I think that's it not shows my ignorance on the subject. The brief looks at polytheism and your spirituality have intrigued me, and I'd like to learn more. Can you suggest any 101-level books on polytheism- especially this kind of polytheism, or the kind of polytheism you practice?

Dw3t-Hthr said...

I know that there are several books dealing with polytheistic theology out there; I haven't (yet) read them, though, so I don't know what I would recommend. I wish I could help you there, Anonymous.

The books I know of, if you want to look without a specific recommendation, are:

Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion, by Michael York
The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology (S U N Y Series in Religious Studies) by Jordan D. Paper
A World Full of Gods: An Inquiry into Polytheism by John Michael Greer

I don't really have any sources I'd recommend on my own religion's theology; nothing much has been written from the perspective of a practitioner.

mamacrow said...

maybe you should right something then!

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Working on it! In bits. Not terribly coherently.

Eagle said...

Bullshit no. Inflammatory yes, but dammit, fighting fire with fire is so satisfying! Some things need to be burnt.*Waves little happy fanboy flag*

Rosemary Cottage said...

I love this post. (It also made me go look up some of the words, which I think is a good thing.) For some time I've been finding something uncomfortable about a lot of the (online) proponents of atheism and I couldn't completely put my finger on it, although their fundamentalism scared me:

I came to atheism as an conclusion and escape from growing up in a fundy Christian church (which was also a cult, the two do sometimes go hand in hand but not always, they did in this case though - lots of spiritual and emotional abuse especially of children and young people) - imagine my horror when I found there were fundy atheists.

But I think this post put it really eloquantly in particular the part about the colonialist nature of it...

Aqua - I'm an atheist somewhat because gods absolutely do not talk to me and I have actually tried.

Hmm, this rang a lot of bells for me. Sometimes I call myself less of an atheist and just someone who chooses to live their life without deity/ies. But we could be on totally different wavelengths there, not sure.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

(Hey Rosemary, I only just noticed that you sent me a blog invite in, like, April. It's expired by now, could you resend?)