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James A. LindsayJames A. LindsayDec 5, 2016

On Fighting God – Part Zero: Foreword (by Cara Santa Maria)

James A. Lindsay -- @goddoesnt

I'm finally going to do something I probably should have done a year ago. I'm going to publish a series of essays reviewing, as earnestly as I can, David Silverman's book Fighting God: An Atheist Manifesto for a Religious World.

Silverman's book is a year old now, and he and I have, at times, disagreed about it on Twitter. He insists I mischaracterize him by having failed to read it (though usually I'm targeting something he has tweeted). I insist that I'm talking about things he's saying from a vastly different perspective than he's used to. I think we're probably both right in our charges. I am now going to see what his book says, give it all I think it's due, and yet comment upon it (not necessarily critically) from the perspective that led me to write my own book, Everybody Is Wrong About God (which was released on the same day as Silverman's, December 1, 2015). Please feel encouraged to buy and read Silverman's book and, if you are interested, my own. I know I'd be interested in reading side-by-side comparisons, including ones that do not favor my approach.

I intend to review the book chapter-by-chapter, as I have time, and I may do a thorough overall review when I complete the project. Normally, I don't like to review books this way, but as I'm very busy lately and have a head very full of other matters, it will be better overall for me to approach it in digestible chunks like this. Normally, I feel such an approach gives itself to being overly critical and unfair to the author, but as I'm not interested in being critical of Silverman so much as commenting upon my perspectives regarding things he is saying, it should be fine. (That is, I will be talking mostly about my thoughts and feelings in response to Silverman's, not so much his. I'm effectively done with "atheism" now and don't intend to go back or care much about it, save this.) Either way, I'm going to start, rather uncharacteristically, with the foreword.

As a general statement, I think it is dimly unfair to critique a foreword to a book, particularly to do so in a way that seems to critique the author of the book based upon the foreword written for it. Still, I think that in this case it is necessary. Silverman's book has a very short foreword written by the popular science communicator Cara Santa Maria, and while I find nothing particular about Santa Maria to impugn based on the foreword itself, nor do I hold it against Silverman, I think the commentary they agreed would represent his book deserves rather extensive comments that will also properly introduce my series of remarks concerning his book.

As those of you who follow me on Twitter or have read my book will know, I harbor extremely deep reservations for movement-style atheism and for atheism-based communities. I don't exactly detest them - and I do see their utility and value - so much as I hold very deep concerns about them. These concerns were exacerbated into something like panic after spending a few years studying moral and religious psychology. My commentary on Santa Maria's foreword to Silverman's book should be illustrative of my reasons.

The tone and message of her foreword express an almost perfect microcosm of the inherently tribal problems latent within movement atheism. Indeed, they represent merely its kinder face, with there also existing a far uglier underbelly that's much more disconcerting and corroborative of my unhappiness with the phenomenon. My hope is that her foreword merely represents her own thoughts about movement atheism, but as Silverman's book is a dedicated "manifesto," as he puts it, for movement atheism, I come away from these few pages harboring serious concerns, to which I'll now turn.

Santa Maria notes, "I'd given many talks about science, but I'd never spoken to a live audience about my own atheism" (emphasis added). This notion of "my atheism" is particularly relevant throughout my discussion of atheism in Everybody Is Wrong About God, and its centrality to the tone of the foreword of Silverman's book leads me to suspect that the book will rest very heavily on the concept of "atheism" as an identity.

Taking labels as portions of one's identity is something I hold serious reservations about in general. I don't like it because it encourages the in-grouping and out-grouping of social identity psychology, which means that it leads people to want to live up to whatever their particular identity position considers "good." That is, such a thing is the precise seed of tribalism, or religion.

In the case of feeling ownership of a personal "atheism" to speak about or to represent, a common perspective on the matter Santa Maria clearly expresses, the problems of taking the label to oneself is compounded enormously by the fact that atheism isn't a position. It's the negation of a class of positions (theism), which means to identify as an atheist is necessarily to have to seek something that can be conflated with atheism to identify as. (Most self-identifying atheists use some cobbled-together combination of humanism, secularism, skepticism, rationalism, anti-theism, science advocacy, and sometimes leftist politics for this identification.) Atheist communities then arise like denominational groups, exactly like churches in many psychosocial respects, that hone group identification according to those priorities and squabble amongst each other about which parts are most important - rather like seeking the One True Atheism, which is by definition precisely none of any such thing.

This behavior is as natural for human beings as breathing, but there's some irony in the fact that when self-proclaimed atheists are doing it, they're usually acting in precisely the way they believe they are refuting. They're selling Frosted Flakes instead of Corn Flakes and pretending the sugar makes the flakes not corn. I find this attitude worrisome, and it's troubling that it sets the tone for Silverman's book in the foreword.

Nearly immediately after nonchalantly embracing a personal atheism, Santa Maria makes it explicit by remarking, "...my atheism still felt personal - a fight within, a worldview that took years of lonely struggle to cultivate and fully own." That's… worrying in exactly the way I just mentioned. The parallelism to religious thinking is almost complete. One needs only take out the word "atheism" and replace it with any religious designation to see it. In case the issue isn't clear enough on its own, however, she concludes this thought by saying, "I didn't understand the depths of the atheist community that existed outside my comfortable life." Replace the word "atheist" in this sentence with "church" or "holy" and try not to shudder at what you see unfolding before you.

This is social identity psychology at work. These are the seeds of tribalism, and "atheism," despite its inherently null meaning, is somehow made the unifying banner for the tribe. It's a bit funny, given how much self-described atheists criticize the stunning malleability of "Christ," for example, in terms of serving as a representative banner for the many Christianities, to watch the same process unfold among atheists who have attached their senses of self to a term with even less definite positive meaning. At least "Christ" always has to be some kind of a "Redeemer" and is at least very loosely based upon a particular set of legends about a potentially historical figure.

Let me make it clear that I understand what is going on here, and I've felt it myself. I, too, was a non-believer isolated in a deeply religious community in the Southeastern US. My own brother and I, who are very close, were each "atheists" for nearly a decade before either of us dared the conversation in which we proved it to each other. The desire to form a community around this shared sense of isolation and the associated struggles is immense. The desire to erect a movement that will topple the sense of oppressiveness (and even oppression in some cases) can be overwhelming. I understand that, sympathize with it, and encourage it. There should be no stigma placed on people who do not believe in God, at least not simply for that reason, and supportive communities are something I think every human being deserves access to. The question, though, comes to what to do about these problems - or, what not to. Our innate tendencies toward tribalism and identity politics are also overwhelming, and the invitation, if we are to deserve to be known as freethinkers, must be resisted especially where it is most tempting and comforting.

Blissfully unaware of the ways in which it breathes life into concerns of people who see the problem clearly, Santa Maria's next sentence reads, "David saw me as a contributor to the cause, and he reached out to me" (emphasis added). The parallelism to religion is, again, overwhelming. On its own, that fact wouldn't really be concerning if it weren't consistently billed as the antidote to religion.

Obviously, Silverman's book is about encouraging movement atheism, and Santa Maria is speaking specifically to that, but, again, given my research in social and moral psychology, including religious psychology, I cannot help but find the casual use of such language very indicative of the exact problem I devoted a third of Everybody Is Wrong About God to address. That is that movement atheism bears every sign of falling under the same category of object that captures religions too, what I called "IMMCs (Ideologically Motivated Moral Communities, read 'imm-cee')" in the book and now refer to as moral tribes. A moral community is a group of people bound together around a shared sense of morals - a "moral framework," as I've called it, that defines their peculiar culture - and when that moral framework becomes ideological in nature, it results in a moral tribe.

All religions are moral tribes, but not all moral tribes are religions. The Republican Party is a moral tribe that isn't a religion, for example. Movement atheism is also readily identifiable with moral tribalism now, and it's deeply concerning. Hence, the secondary theme and agenda of Everybody Is Wrong About God. (It's primary theme is expressing why this is the case in a more fundamental way, because that which people mean by "God" isn't captured by theism, so both theism and atheism are misguided projects in exactly the same way.)

Let me indulge a brief aside into that primary theme of Everybody Is Wrong About God, as it will come up again shortly in this essay an probably frequently in subsequent ones. The whole thrust of my book can be captured in the single idea that people mean something by the word "God" that theism doesn't account for. Moral and social psychology account for those meanings better than theology can. In that, "God" (intentionally written in scare quotes to signify its meaning as a word) is merely a symbolic and mythological figure imposed upon social and moral structures that are endemic throughout human societies, even in cultures that do not use the term "God" for the self-righteous backing to their ideologically motivated moral frameworks.

To continue, I have to profess more guilt about my approach. I really don't want to harp on Santa Maria's foreword, but it is so overwhelmingly telling to the themes in the Atheist Movement that motivated much of Everybody Is Wrong About God that I absolutely must. The purpose of a foreword, often, is to indicate to readers why the author's message is important. Santa Maria says so explicitly, offering two reasons. The first: "it will arm you with a vast array of tools - weapons, if it so pleases you - to face the not-so-hospitable world as an out-loud and proud atheist." Shiver me timbers; we're in Robber's Cave.

Let's not dwell on that, however (but do, if you will, follow the link to Sherif's famous study). We'll stick to the parts of Movement Atheism that give me the willies merely for the in-group social identity treatment it engenders. (Remember when atheists thought it would be a good idea to brand ourselves "Brights"?)

Santa Maria acknowledges - in a long name-dropping list - some representation of the variety of points of view among of nonbelievers, commenting that we are still in some way united. I get her point, but I don't think it goes nearly far enough. I wrote the following about what being an "atheist" tells us in Everybody Is Wrong About God.

What, then, is an atheist? The atheist is a strange kind of animal. Upon discovering that someone in an atheist, we will, upon reflection, realize that we know next to nothing about her. We know nothing about her political attitudes, her favorite sports teams (and whether she even has any), or the particulars of any interests she may have. We know nothing about foods she may enjoy or dislike, not a hint about her hobbies, no clues about about her sexual preferences or predilections, not one of her biases, almost nothing about the culture she was born into, very little about her moral sensibilities, and certainly nothing about how she handles many of the great psychological and social challenges faced by all people in their unique settings and circumstances. Broad statistical statements may apply, of course, and provide us with some guesses about her, but given the variety of spectra of possibilities that characterize these and other aspects of human existence, knowing that a person is an atheist tells us staggeringly little. All we know for sure about an atheist is that, of the countless way that we as human beings reliably mislead ourselves about the nature of the world and our lives in it, the atheist has put one - just one - of these ways aside or somehow managed to avoid picking it up in the first place. (p. 49)

But what unites us, then, in Silverman's cause, to which he arms us (with weapons, if it so pleases you)? Santa Maria tells us, "We nontheists are as varied as any other group of random people, bound together by the single commonality that we don't believe in something" (emphasis original). The best that can be said for this statement is that she refers to it as a "commonality" because it seems utterly impossible to express how we might go about acting upon not believing something, in a movement-ish kind of way, or taking it upon ourselves as a a facet of our personal identities.

These are the kinds of themes that are so overwhelmingly concerning to me in "the" Atheist Movement and "the" Atheist Community that I felt like devoting a significant part of a book nominally about something else to the task of highlighting how atheist groups show every sign of being what they fight. If the conversational but embattled tone of Santa Maria's foreword is any indication, I expect I will find Silverman's book, titled Fighting God, should put "God" in scare quotes, as I do, and then be aimed not only outward at theism but inward at itself as well.

Santa Maria ends on a high note, though, and credit is due where it is due. "David Silverman has been instrumental in defending the First Amendment rights and civil liberties of nonreligious Americans who would otherwise fall through the cracks of a political system powered by evangelical crusaders, hell-bent on maintaining a moral majority in this country." There's much truth buried in that sentiment, and much value to Silverman's project (though means and ends are still a thing to be reckoned on their own merits and may be before it's done). "You see," she continues, "David's fight is not his alone. … [H]e has made the path easier for the next young girl who wakes up one day realizing it's all a bunch of bullshit."

Fair enough, and a valid point worth bearing in mind. Movements are good for visibility, and brand names like "atheist" are good for making that identification both easy and sticky. I've openly acknowledged as much in my own book (and subsequently in public talks). Because there is a real element of standing up to bullies in the fight to normalize lacking belief, there's also something to be said for Silverman's firebrand tactics. They inspire courage and hope and break through loneliness and oppression, and absent fair treatment, those are valuable and worthy ends achieved by the means themselves. They have a place, even if that place isn't everywhere.

Hopefully Silverman delivers more on this apparent promise than he does to the invitation into atheism-based identity politics (and grievance jockeying) and thus a spiral deeper into the variegated churches of nominally "atheist" moral tribes. Santa Maria's foreword does not leave me confident that his approach takes into account the crucial realities of human social and moral psychology so much as it abuses them to achieve its ends.

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