No PZ, The Atheism Movement Doesn’t Have To Be a Progressive Movement

A libertarian friend of mine sent me a link to a post from serial-conflater PZ Myers, who once again is espousing the idea that atheism as a movement must be a progressive one. The post contains the usual PZ crumbs, a dig at libertarians, and a myopic conclusion. We’ve seen it before.

And again, PZ is wrong. Atheism is the lack of belief in a god (to use shorthand) and the conclusion that there is no deity should have little bearing on what you think the top marginal tax rates should be. Sure, there are lots of issues in the US that appear on the surface to be religious issues, ie gay marriage opposition, but those are really secular issues. In the US, it might be easy to conflate secularism and atheism, but you shouldn’t.

Religions can be progressive. They can support climate change legislation, nationalized healthcare, equal rights, and equal opportunities for all. There is nothing inherent in the concept of religion that precludes the possibilities of supporting all the same political positions that PZ holds. Where would the atheism movement be then? Marginalized again is my guess.

Why do people continually want to make atheism take on their politics? I think the issue is that those people are becoming bored with atheism as a movement. I wrote about this earlier concerning the skeptic movement, but it applies here as well. Also, while the secular movement has many fronts to work on, politically speaking, the atheism movement, not so much. It’s hard to “push” atheism politically, while at the same time asking that religions be prevented from pushing their beliefs. Atheism is “relegated” to a non-political philosophy movement, one that is very important mind you, but it doesn’t itself belong in political dog fights.

If atheism has any chance to move beyond it’s current size, it has to accept that some atheists are going have different political beliefs. If you are unable to accept that, then you have a problem, because pluralism is how this world is going to look for a long, long time. If you’re a progressive atheist, and you can’t find common ground with your libertarian atheist brother, then I think you have some growing to do.

Atheism Plus One Year Later: More Meh than Plus

It’s been been a little more than one year since the “Atheism Plus Movement” was started. What started out as a small group of social justice bloggers has become….a small group of social justice bloggers. That’s my conclusion after doing some actual googling today. I was inspired to do this because while I have considered Atheism Plus (A+) to have been going nowhere, I still see references to how bad it is and the people in it. I rarely hear much positive about it, but I concede that is probably due to the people I follow.

A little bit of research, though, seems to confirm my suspicion that it went nowhere and that there is no reason for people to still be talking about it negatively, any more than they would talk smack about any other tiny group of likeminded people. Furthermore, I’m tired of hearing about it. Ironic, right, since I’m writing this post, but this post will also mark the last time I will write about or pay it any mind.

It failed, it went nowhere, it happens. It happened to the Brights movement, too, something I signed up for all those years ago before I really had thought much about it. I’m no stranger to things that go nowhere.

From here, I will offer a post-mortem on why it went nowhere, from the vantage point of a biased outsider who hasn’t payed attention to A+ but for short fits and spurts here and there.

  • A lack of an inspirational leader
    It’s extremely hard to be an inspirational leader. For every one, there are probably a thousand other people, good intentioned, who fail. With all due respect to Jen McCreight, she doesn’t fit the bill. She also basically quit a month after she wrote the original post, and ended any involvement. Some people have tried since then, but they were mostly divisive and not inspirational.

  • A lack of a cohesive vision
    Movements that succeed do not originate from polling the audience for what you think you should stand for. With A+, there is no real overarching vision that ties everything together. Saying “social justice” doesn’t really mean anything anymore, so you can’t just slap that label on Atheism and have something.

  • A lack of differentiation from Secular Humanism
    For most people, including myself, the differences between Secular Humanism and A+ seem few and far between. If A+ proponents support helping people without the weight of religious baggage weighing them down…well, that sounds a lot like Secular Humanism. If the ultimate goal is to actually help people, well, why try and build a whole new movement and infrastructure? Why not just tap into the existing movement?

  • A terribly divisive beginning
    I won’t rehash it all, but the early rumblings of A+ were very confrontational, where ideology and tribalism were the face of the movement. I think it could be a fair point that if people are angry and frustrated with something (in this case the Atheism movement), the natural inclinations of people will be confrontational. I accept that it could happen, I don’t accept that it’s an effective way to operate.

  • It was created on a blog
    This section represents my cynicism towards the current state of blogging and activism. I’ve seen too many cases of bloggers becoming more concerned with maintaining fame than with the original activism. I feel fortunate to know a few bloggers who are able to do this very well (I’m looking at you Jamie F.), but most fail to move into actual activism.

So, there you have it. The heavily biased post-mortem from someone who only has paid attention here and there. Ok, I’ll be honest. I have followed it a lot more than I’ve let on, and I’ve monitored the A+ sites, so this isn’t completely out of left field. As I said, though, I will never write about it or pay it any mind after this post.

If you continue to bring up Atheism Plus as some sort of organized movement reeking havoc, you’re wrong. It’s a pretty small group, seemingly insular, who have written a lot of forum posts but not much else. Move on.

If you’re part of the small, insular Atheism Plus movement, consider a tapping into the larger Secular Humanism movement. The chances of any movement, much less Atheism Plus, gaining enough momentum to keep going are small. If you enjoy the conversations on the A+ forums, great, keep doing it. Just realize that A+ is a very small bubble and it might be time to get out.

This was something for everyone, and the last bit I feel I will ever need to write. If you’d like to read some deeper ideas I had about Atheism Plus at the time of creation, I would point you to these posts:

What Leadership Isn’t

I have to admit, trying to pin down exactly what makes a good leader is pretty hard.  As the highly overused statement goes, “I’ll know it when I see it”.  However,  it’s easy, at least for me, to start with a list of what definitely isn’t good leadership.   That may sound negative, but I think it’s constructive, analogous to figuring out what you don’t know, so that you’re not fooling yourself.  If you know what makes up bad leadership, you can move on and find the things that really work.  So ultimately, this is a positive post. 

Leadership isn’t

  • Decrying certain kinds of ad hominem attacks while fostering your own culture of ad hominem attacks
  • Making presentations on topics where your only research is comprised of the first ten Google results
  • Giving presentations to your friends where their only research is comprised of the first five Google results
  • having absolutely no level of charity
  • having absolutely no level of empathy
  • only admitting when you make tiny little mistakes
  • burning every bridge
  • admonishing people for the very same behavior you used have before you learned differently
  • using your power and privilege to shutdown discussion
  • using your power and privilege to blackball people
  • trolling through people’s social media posts just so you have something to write about
  • blogging first, doing good later
  • blogging first, researching later
  • straight up insulting people
  • being unable to admit you’re sorry
  • being unable to admit your wrong
  • being unable to change your mind

If anyone has anything they think should like to add to the list or be removed let me know.  Email me at shane.p.brady@gmail.com as my preferred way to be reached these days.

 

I Could Have Been a Writer

Everyone I know has a career choice that they didn’t make that they still think about. Sometimes it can be as fantastical as being a running back in the NFL, sometimes it’s as mundane as being a teacher (not to insult teachers, it’s just easier to become a teacher than an NFL quarterback). For me, it was being a writer.

Now, my desires to be a writer have ebbed and flowed over the years. When I was a really young kid, I loved writing stories. They were usually goofy, treasure hunting stories. Sometimes it was about werewolves. One story I worked on as a young kid involved a hole straight through from one side of the Earth to the other, and I imagined the center to be a place where gravity was such that everyone floated around the center. Being that this was the mid 80’s, my notebooks of story ideas and paragraphs of such, no longer exist. All lost to time and disorganization. My interest in writing waned heavily too, until I barely gave it a second thought.

It wasn’t until my freshman year of high school that the spark for writing came back. My english teacher recognized something in me, and immediately encouraged me to push myself. I was graded on a different scale than everyone else, and if I wrote something that was legitimately bad, he’d write something like “This is crap” or “Not one of your more inspired efforts.” He was also very concerned about me becoming too cynical, and actually told me he didn’t want me to become ” an asshole like this guy over here” pointing to a classmate. That kind of brashness was what I need. I started to take the first steps of taking writing seriously.

I started doing more my sophomore year. Slowly working out ideas and style. I was starting to really come to grips with the small sad world of high school social cliques, which I was totally left out of. That contributed to what I think was a sort of mild depression, though it could also have been nothing but typical teenage angst. The themes I wanted to deal with were strictly high school stuff, but more dark and nasty than typical stuff my friends were writing. I wasn’t trying to impress anyone, I was just exploring.

Then came my junior years, when I took a huge leap forward in skills and themes. The class that year required a lot more creative writing than past years, so I had opportunities to practice. Somewhere along the way, and I don’t remember how I did it now, but I made it okay to use vulgarities in school assignments. Now, this may sound trivial on the surface, but I was writing a ton of dialog, and without the authenticity of f-bombs, writing about teenagers doesn’t work. I had to be honest about how we talked. Sure, some of the f-bomb usage was awful, but that’s what we did. We worked through the use of language, sometimes overusing it, and sometimes sounding crude. But it was honest. I was always honest.

Later in the year, we had a free-form assignment to just write something, anything. I put together all the ideas I had been working on, and almost achieved my first real masterpiece. All things considered, I consider it one of the best things I ever wrote, and way, way, beyond what any of my classmates were even attempting.

See, I created a teenaged protagonist who was truly an awful, awful person. Someone you were supposed to hate, who did terrible things. I outlined the whole thing and worked on it constantly for months. I even was able to have a couple of my friends contribute to it with stories within stories. I pushed the limits of what was allowed to be written in schools to the point where I was told another teacher suggested I be suspended. The stuff was that dark.

I called it “Confession” and while my friends were turning in ten pages, I turned in over ninety. I had to show my teacher the writing as it went along because I was dancing close to the edge of acceptability in a school setting. I mostly pulled it off, too. I did have to change the ending when I ran out of time, and I wasn’t able to flesh out some of the more crazy sounding stuff the way I wanted. But I did it. I easily got an A, and again was told I was being graded on a different level than everyone else.

A side effect of writing “Confession” was that a lot of my angst and cynicism disappeared. I had actually changed my personality by writing this story of horrible acts and ideas. Writing “Confession” was the single most important thing that I did as a teenager to become the person I was to become later on. It put me on a whole different path.

From that time on, for the next few years, I was definitely a writer. I had even discovered poems, for while I loved writing longer pieces, I found that I had lots of thoughts and ideas ideal for poetry. It may have dulled my writing skills a little, but I still worked on lots of new ideas. Senior year, I was turning out so much good stuff, the A’s just kept coming. I could sit down and bang out a ten page story, like it was nothing. I just was in a zone. Alas, most of that writing is now gone I believe, lost to hard drive crashes and sloppy backup schemes.

On the day I graduated high school, a lot of my friends won scholarships from the school for math and science. I had the highest average in calculus that year, but was told by one teacher to not expect anything for it. I was also kept out of National Honors Society because I pissed off some teachers. So come graduation day, I wasn’t expecting anything.

But I did win something that year. I won the Hunter-Parlin (sp?) English award. A complete surprise to myself, my friends, and I think my family. I knew I could write, but in classes that required active discussion, my shyness took over and I rarely spoke. I never looked like I enjoyed classes.

And there are some additional things that made the english scholarship more unlikely. First, the teacher who encouraged me my freshman year, turned out to be a sexual predator who had apparently sexually assaulted some students over the years, one who came to the school one day looking to kill a couple teachers, but instead killed himself later that night. That teacher was long gone and had no involvement in my award. My teacher my sophomore year, certainly didn’t like me much. It wasn’t only me (and certainly not mostly me), but I did make a couple cracks about how little I thought of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, that he cried and decided not to even discuss the book.

So, no, my award came down to the teacher I had for both junior and senior years, who must have wanted to give me the award. There was no one else. It was a nice way to be remembered I suppose for pushing the limits, and really trying to be a writer, versus just writing assignments.

The years right after high school were somewhat productive with writing. I still struggled with depression and other issues. I wrote probably hundreds of poems and snippets, again, mostly lost now. I had become quite a skilled poet, though. My best work was never seen by anyone and can’t be seen by anyone now. A little of it remains, though.

Then I met Kelly, who is now my wife. The years of depression and loneliness disappeared it seemed. I was happy. My job took off. I had money. I had nothing to complain about. And it seemed my muse, my depression and angst, was gone, and with it my writing skills seemed to disappear as well.

Over a decade has passed since I’ve written regularly. I have fits and starts here and there, but haven’t had that spark to continue. Lately, though, I feel it’s coming back. Why? Age.

We lost two dogs this year, and time has passed on. I’ve lost a little hair along the sides, and my stubble is now flecked with white. I’m getting close to forty, and I’m struggling a little with the idea of letting my youth go. The world is not there in front of me like it was when I was twenty five. Even though, twenty-give was miserable compared to now in just about every way, the feeling that you’re about to finally live your life is really enticing. Even though the life I’ve lived has been awesome, I still feel it.

So, I’m back to writing to work out these feelings, to walk myself through the whole process, to remember that the grass is always greener. I’m eschewing any attempt to make my writing more mature. I’m sticking with the style I developed almost twenty-five years ago. The world isn’t as inaccessible as it seemed back in high school. I could still become a writer, publish a book, and even sell a few copies. The world is still filled with opportunity, and I want to use writing, the familiar feeling of writing to figure out how to get from here, struggling with getting older, to there, where I’m a published writer.

I could have been a writer, and maybe I still can.