The following is an interview with Vjack of Atheist Revolution.
You were brought up Methodist but if never really took. Do you think there is something fundamentally different about you and others who are skeptical of God compared to those who so easily believe? Do you supposed there is a skeptical or gullibility gene or do you chalk it up to upbringing?
That is a question I've asked myself many times, and I generally think of it from a psychological perspective. Is there something fundamentally different about atheists in terms of our personality or upbringing? This is an empirical question on which I would love to see some good research.
I would speculate that there may be some differences - not necessarily in upbringing but in personality or the interaction between personality and upbringing. The first sort of study I would like to see would be a fairly simple comparison of atheists and religious believers on a widely accepted measure of personality (e.g., a measure of the Big Five personality factors). My guess is that there would be statistically significant but not large differences. I would then wonder about using this as a starting point to determine the potential role of other variables (e.g., parental relationships, early peer relationships, critical incidents in one's development, etc.).
For me personally, I've always felt like the aspects of my personality that have been most influential in my arrival at atheism would include my introversion, intellectual curiosity, and tolerance of ambiguity. Some of these were likely inborn, and the manner in which my parents interacted with them was probably influential too.
In graduate school you had trouble accepting that you needed to be tolerant of other people’s unfounded beliefs in classes of “multiculturalism.” Do you think there would be more to gain stripping away such classes of tolerance or would it be better for them to continue providing some teaching of tolerance towards atheism as well?
I'd keep these classes because they are valuable in training helping professionals. If we imagine the damage a racist, sexist, or homophobic counselor could do to a vulnerable client without even being aware what he or she was doing, it is easy to see the need for such training. I vividly recall a peer telling a heterosexual client that he "seemed gay" because he had interests that she considered feminine. She had no idea why making such statements was problematic and was actually surprised when the client did not return and complained to the director of the agency where she was working. Developing awareness of human differences is critical.
What I would like to see in these courses is (1) the inclusion of material on atheism, and (2) a shift away from the celebration of religious belief as beyond reproach. Regarding atheism, I'd like to see students provided with accurate information about what atheism means and the discrimination atheists face. I think that would go a long way, all by itself, to helping trainees develop tolerance.
On the question of religious belief, I think it needs to be addressed in a different manner than what many instructors are doing. Holding a false belief may indeed be part of one's cultural tradition, but that does not make it praiseworthy. Some clients would benefit from changing or even abandoning their religious beliefs. While I would never advocate teaching helping professionals that this should be a goal in all cases, I do think it is a mistake to perpetuate the notion that religious belief is necessarily a strength.
You’ve been blogging for around seven years now. Since becoming an atheist activist, have you seen an improvement in rational thinking in America or are we going downhill? Do you commend/blame yourself?
I see positive change in the rapid growth of atheism, primarily fueled by the Internet. When I started, there were a handful of active atheists blogs. Now there are more than 1,000 just on the Atheist Blogroll. It is much more difficult today to imagine someone searching online for information about belief or non-belief and not finding it. Atheism is beginning to seep into the public consciousness, and that's a good thing.
This has not yet translated into large-scale improvements in rational thinking in America. I don't necessarily think we've gone downhill; I'm not sure we've gone anywhere. This sort of change is going to require a meaningful investment in education and continued activism by the reality-based community. Action is needed not just from atheists but also from anyone who believes that children should have a sound education in science.
For a new atheist, what would be the single best course of action to join the community, promote the cause, and take part in the Atheist Revolution?
There are so many different ways one can be part of the atheist community and promote our various causes. I'd like to see all new atheists learn something about atheism. For some, this will involve attending a meeting of a local atheist group. For others, this might be reading a book or a blog on atheism. Informed activism is going to be far more effective.
Once the atheist has a basic understanding of the issues, finding a way to contribute is easy. I think we often make the mistake of assuming that all activists are full-time, professional rabble-rousers. This is rarely the case. Atheist activism does not have to be time-consuming, difficult, or personally risky. Some will become politically active and inform themselves about church-state issues. Others will join national organizations that promote atheism. Still others will write letters to the editor of their local paper or to their elected officials.
If I could convince atheists of one thing, it would be that every little bit helps. Be active in any way that fits for you. Just be active.
As atheists, we often talk about the harm caused by religion. What do you see as the primary benefit of religion, if any?
Organized religion certainly helps many people find a sense of community or belonging. While it is possible to achieve this without religion, it is not nearly as easy. I would consider this the primary benefit of organized religion today. Religion gives people a ready-made community. When a believer moves to a new community, he or she can easily find a new church and gain instant community, immersion in familiar traditions, and a sense of being part of something larger than oneself.
The benefits of individual religious belief are a bit more difficult to identify. We could certainly say that many people find comfort in religious belief, but it is a false comfort that may impede effective problem-solving. It seems to me that religious belief often serves to shield people from reality. While I can certainly understand why that would be appealing at times, I cannot think of very many cases in which that is optimal.
Who is your atheist role model? Why?
I do not have an atheist role model, and I am wary of putting anyone on a pedestal above the rest of us. I've learned as much from my readers over the years as I have from any so-called atheist celebrity, and I find an egalitarian community far more appealing than a hierarchical one.
When I look around the atheist community, the idolization of people like PZ Myers baffles me. Yes, he probably receives more traffic to his blog than the rest of us combined. But I fail to see how that makes him any more worthy of our admiration than anyone else. When I see some of his more rabid fans blindly defend anything he does or says, I worry about the health of the atheist community.
I think it is great that people can go to atheist conferences and learn something of value from those presenting. There is no question that someone like PZ has some things to teach us. But I'm not sure I will ever understand why some people are so determined to be fans of those presenting.
Is there anything that would once again convince you that there is a god? If so, provide an example.
Sure. I'd need a logically coherent definition of this god so that I'd know what I was believing, and I'd need evidence proportional to what I was being asked to believe. Sound beliefs are based on evidence, not faith. If there was sufficient evidence to support god belief, I'm sure I would believe.