Tuesday, May 12, 2009

ag-i-tate 1. To move with sudden force of violence. 2. To upset emotionally. 3. To stir up public interest in a cause. (Webster’s Dictionary.)

Over the years, I have become more and more militantly atheist. I have been more and more willing to take my views into the public square and present them for discussion. Furthermore, I have often used hyperbole, rhetoric, and even some inflammatory statements to start and participate in these discussions. To such ends, I have taken to task by many different people for my militancy. Obviously, the religious set (particularly Christians) have taken umbrage with my statements and stances. At the same time, some atheists, skeptics, and other free-thinkers have chided me as well. While the religious offense should be self-evident, I have always wondered why there would be offense from my own side. It has really caused me to think, to ponder, and to try and formulate a reasonable answer to this. This post is my best attempt at this answer.

As a part of this discussion, I feel that it is necessary to define some of our terms and labels. It will help us to better understand my case. I also need to state that these labels and descriptions are created via my experiences and meetings with various people. I do not presume to be the “definer” of any one person. In no way am I attempting to build a straw man through these definitions. I also know that there is a great deal of crossover from position to position and that more than one label may apply to an individual and that the definitions can be more nuanced that those I have given here. Rather, in my experiences, many of the free-thinkers that I have met fall primarily into one or more of these labels.

Atheism: A lack of belief in a theistic based system or worldview.

Agnosticism: The lack of knowledge or evidence that god(s) exist.

Anti-theism: A direct opponent of religious or theistic thoughts. Opposing religion.

Rationalist: One who uses tools of logic, rational thought, and evidence to form opinions, statements, and ideas.

Skeptic: One who doubts any claim which does not provide sufficient evidence to support its claim.

Free-thinker: One who forms their world-views without the aid of religion.

If I were to label myself, I can see all of these in me. Some, however, are more prevalent. Let me describe myself inside of these definitions. The order presented here also ranks the level to which I see myself.

1. Agnostic: There has been no evidence provided to me which suggests that any god(s) exist or have ever existed.
2. Atheist: Without this evidence, I have no beliefs which are based in a theistic worldview.
3. Free-Thinker: Without religion, I am allowed to form my own world view.
4. Rationalist: I form my worldview paying homage to logic, rational thought, and evidence whenever possible.
5. Anti-theist: I find myself in direct opposition to religion especially in the realm of public policy.
6. Skeptic: I am dubious of unfounded claims.

I suspect that most atheists would be able to define their worldview within these basic definitions. However, many would rank their priorities differently. What I have found is that the concerns expressed to me have usually been those who tend to define themselves around a more rationalist/skeptic mindset speaking out against my anti-theism. Specifically, they frequently suggest that anti-theism can be antithetical to rationalism. While I understand their arguments (and my inner rationalist actually agrees with them), I believe that there can be a case made for my militancy and anti-theism.

Limits of Skepticism and Rationalism
To start, I love rationalism and skepticism. I believe that many of the great thinkers in this world start with a healthy skepticism for conventional wisdom. I also think that rationalism is the foundation for the construction of good ideas. However, when stretched to their limits, both skepticism and rationalism start to show flaws. Furthermore, in many cases, attempting to establish a purist skeptical/rational worldview is a wonderful thought exercise, but is very impractical to live by in the real world. Let me give two examples.

Skepticism taken too far will approach absurdity. For example, when I go to sleep at night, I am sure that I will wake up again in the morning. I am so sure that I will rise again, I tell my wife, my children, and co-workers that I will see them in the morning. I make plans for tomorrow and the future. There is plenty of evidence to encourage my confidence – most notably the fact that I have always arisen from my bed in the morning. However, there is no direct evidence to suggest that I will. Any number of things may strike and prevent me from getting up in the morning. Most skeptics, will as I do, are willing to put a little faith into the idea that they will not die in the night. See, the key is that there are many decisions, events, and other things in life in which we have to exercise some faith. I accept on faith that my wife will not cheat on me when she goes out with her friends. In 17 years of being together, there is precedent which buoys this faith, but ultimately I have to have some trust and faith in her. Skeptical purists would suggest that my faith in getting up or my faith in my wife based upon precedent is not real assurance that the same will happen in the future. True – but what sort of reality do we live in without some modicum of faith? I certainly concede that there is a gulf of difference between blind faith and a modicum of precedent supported faith. However, pure skepticism won’t even allow that. Using this one simple example, I would suggest that skepticism has its limits.

Rationalism also has its limits in the practical, real world. I love rationalism. I love looking at evidence, creating argument, and searching for truths in logic. However, I have found that taking rationalism too far also has flaws. In the first few years of our marriage, my wife and I used to argue bitterly. She would get mad at me about something (usually something stupid.) We would start to bicker at each other. I used to sit and just pick her arguments apart using a disciplined rationalist approach. In nearly all cases, I would be able to win the argument – but somehow I lost the fight. Even though I could pick each of her accusations to pieces and I could get her to concede that I was probably not as much at fault as she accused me of, I would always wind up on the couch and in her doghouse. I learned over the years that when she started to bicker at me, no matter how easily I could pick her apart, I needed to shut up, apologize, and move on. It worked – our fights were less bitter and fewer and farther between. The fact of the matter is that most of her fights were not at all rational. She was very emotional about something. Trying to use pure rationalism to get out of trouble only got me in more trouble. Again, while rationalism certainly is my preferred way to assess a situation, it’s effectiveness is limited in certain cases.

By exploring the real world limits of skeptical/rationalism, I am not at all trying to suggest that they should somehow be less valued. What I am trying to point out is that when we deal with the world around us, there are some limits to skeptical/rationalism. I am a skeptical/rationalist in many, if not most cases, but sometimes I need to step out of the discipline of those approaches and use other tools to make my points – especially when playing the role of the agitator.

The Case for the Agitator
As many of you know, I often wear my anti-theism on my sleeve. Many of my Internet post (blogs, comments, FB, etc.) reflect the general antagonism I feel toward religion of all kinds – but especially towards Christianity. It is sort of funny because people who know me personally would report that I am generally quiet, thoughtful, and gentle spirited. They would say that I reserve judgment on many things and carefully state my opinion when it is needed. Ultimately, I am a pretty laid back sort of guy. As I posted earlier on this blog, I was not always a militant atheist. In fact, I was pretty much a live and let live sort of guy. If they wanted to spend their time and money on something that did not exist; that was their imperative. Who was I to interfere?

Ultimately, however, I was reluctantly drawn into the anti-theist and militant mindset for a number of reasons. Here are just a few:

· The growing influence of the religious right in America over the past decade has become frightening. When religion and politics become enjoined, key public policy decisions are made via the reasoning of WWJD. This is no way to create a pluralistic, equitable, and charitable public policy.

· The ability for man-kind to destroy itself exists. Can we afford to have nuclear codes in the hands of people who make WWJD decisions or as Bill Maher has often stated, “In the hands of people who believe in talking snakes?”

· We have the ability today to increase human rights, to offer unprecedented aid to those who need it, and to ultimately raise the standards of living for all people. Which groups are the most vehement in their opposition to these things? Theistic groups.

· Most religions consider my little girls to be second class citizens. In these theistic world views, my daughters exist to serve the needs of men and to provide and care for offspring. Outside of that, they are expendable. I cannot allow my daughters to be treated in such a way.

· In the U.S. we are still having the incredibly asinine debate as to whether or not evolution should be taught in schools, and then we wonder why our students lag behind much of the rest of the industrial world. Why is this even a debate? Why do we let the theists make science something that we could possible vote on? Am I the only one who thinks this is crazy?

My list of complaints against religion can go on and on.

While the public discussion of these issues is ongoing, the free-thinking voice has often been muted. Certainly there are, and have been, great skeptics/atheists/rationalists who have engaged in this discussion. Russell, Hitchens, Ingersoll, Dawkins, and many more. However, the popular face of atheism has largely been lacking. With the growth and development of Internet networking, this popular face certainly has increased, but it is still dwarfed in the face of theistic thought. I believe that if I am to improve my position in this debate and ultimately improve the conditions of my fellow humans, I have to speak often and speak loudly wherever possible.

Ultimately, I found that to accomplish this, I could adopt the role of the agitator. As an agitator, I have set out to accomplish the following:

· Inspire thinking on a variety of topics. I am not particularly interested in having everyone adopt my views on any particular topic. I just want to see people use their brains more. Thinking is quite often the antidote to blind faith.

· Inspire other closeted free-thinkers and atheists to come out and express their thoughts.

· Challenge the idea that blind faith is somehow a virtue. The whole idea that one can shut off thought, exploration, and debate and be considered virtuous is an anathema to me. This is not a virtue – it is a waste of good, hard working brain cells.

· Add my contribution to the betterment of the world. If I can force some thinking, if I can create discussions, if I can push people out of their comfort zones, then we are more able to develop more creative decisions for the problems that face the world.

Throughout history, every notable social movement has had its agitators. We are the people who spark the fights, discussions, and who rally the base. I would never, ever compare myself to the great agitators in history. I only say that I believe I can add my part to the atheist movement by being one. Being an agitator does sometimes mean that I will eschew rationalism to make a point. Being an agitator does sometimes mean that I will annoy my rationalist/skeptic friends. I guess I am okay with that. We all have a part to play in this – and this is my part: the agitator.

Chat at you all later!!

1 comment:

S A R A H said...

Great blog entry! I really like how you defined everything here, for clarity. I am also currently trying t figure out where my "place" is in this movement. A lot of things have been happening recently which have made me really wonder where I fit... or where I want to fit. You are correct that every movement needs an agitator. I think you make a good one.

I really enjoy reading reflections like this. It seems like every atheist/freethinker changes a lot throughout their life. The never ending journey. I wouldn't trade it for the world!

- Sarah