Rambling about Online Discourse

I used to have a much better opinion of atheists before I talked with so many of them on twitter and youtube. And to clarify, it’s not that my opinion of atheists in general has gone down, only that I’ve come to realize that the atheists I had been in contact with before were a sub-set of all atheists. I had lucked into specially good ones. There are honest, decent people who don’t believe in God, but I’m coming to believe that they’re the exception, not the rule. (To be clear, each person must be dealt with as an individual, and never as merely an exemplar of a group, so whenever you come across an atheist, you must deal with him as him, and not as “an atheist”.) The longer I spend online, the more I come to believe that honest people may be quite atypical among atheists.

It does get tiring being insulted by dimwits on the internet, of course—and the average twitter/youtube atheist seems like they’d have trouble passing high school, at least if they had to take all honors classes, so poor is their grasp of entirely secular subjects—but I really don’t think that’s why my opinion is shifting. It’s really that the average twitter/youtube atheist says things which they clearly don’t mean and claims to believe things which they clearly don’t believe, and then takes advantage of the standard rules of politeness in order to try to force others into being complicit in their… if not exactly lies, then at least their reckless and culpable disregard for the truth.

Take for example the trope about “atheism is merely a lack of belief” which actually means, “I’m going to act like there’s no God even though I don’t believe that’s the case”. One could make an argument for probabilistic action—that when we don’t know something we have to operate on our best guesses—but even if that’s the route one went (and lack-atheists rarely argue this explicitly) one still has to make the positive case that the probability for action is above the threshold, or one is acting purely irrationally. Which is, in fact, what lack-atheists usually claim if you push them to be explicit. They don’t think, they just act; reason doesn’t actually work anyway; we’re just the most clever of the beasts who crawl the earth; etc. Which, OK, fine, but if one abjures all truth claims, one shouldn’t go on to make truth claims. But they almost always do, and expect to be taken seriously.

And that’s the part that’s really so frustrating. It’s that they demand that one take part in their lies—what else should we call truth claims they make but don’t believe? And then sometimes they’re even more explicit. I met one fellow who claimed that Jesus said we have to take the bible literally. And here’s the thing: there is no benefit of the doubt to give the guy. If he was beaten in the head with a tire iron for two hours by a team of professional strong-men, he wouldn’t be stupid enough to think that Jesus said, “you have to take the bible literally”. Because here’s the thing about literal interpretations: they’re literal. If Jesus said you have to take everything in the bible literally, it would include what he said, which to literally mean “you must take everything in the bible literally” would have to be phrased, “you must take everything in the bible literally”. Alternate phrasings would of course be fine, “you must interpret everything in the bible literally” etc. But it would have to be clear and unambiguous and require no interpretation of any kind in order to be an instruction to take it (and everything else in the bible) as clear and unambiguous and requiring no interpretation. Even the most cursory familiarity with the bible—and if one is making claims that a book says something, one has a responsibility to find out that it said it—is sufficient to know that there are no such passages. There was literally no honest way this guy could have claimed what he did. And it seems very likely that he was lying as boldly as he did because it is rude to call him a liar. But when someone unambiguously is a liar, what else are we supposed to do? It coarsens discourse, but to treat a liar like he’s honest is itself dishonest. As Tycho from Penny Arcade said:

You aren’t supposed to call people liars; it’s one of those things you aren’t supposed to do.  It seems like a rule cooked up by liars, frankly.  But what if a person dissembles madly, and writhes rhetorically, in the service of a goal oblique to their stated aims?  I see no reason to invent another word.

It’s really normal for Christians to go out of their way to try to make out atheists as being merely misguided, the victims of bad Christians who didn’t teach them well, etc. and I certainly get the impulse. There are some people who are like that. But at the end of the day, when somebody professes something obviously false like that we don’t have free will, or that reason doesn’t work, or whatever it is, they’re still human and still have a duty to actually investigate the world and try to be right about it and so the best case that you can make out for someone saying things like this then ignoring them and moving on is that they’re doing no better a job of being honest than you could expect of them given how badly they were raised. Which may be true, but so what? We’re not their judges. It’s not our job to judge whether they’re culpable for their lies; it’s first to not be complicit and second if possible to help them to stop lying. And I don’t think that failing at step 1 is likely to help succeed at step 2.

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