The following is an interview with Bud of Dead-Logic. He may have my favorite mission statement ever. Check it out at Killing the Buddha.
You’ve written recently about Atheism+ and the ups and downs it has faced in the harsh world of public opinion. Clearly, you aren’t a defender of labels, and not every atheist identifies with feminism or even skepticism. Can you think of any qualities all atheists share?
The one characteristic that comes to mind - which might be the only quality all atheists share - is the absence of a belief in a god or gods. Best I can say is that they all share an "absence" of theistic belief. I can't say "atheists deny the existence of a god" or "atheists believe there is no god at all," because not all atheists believe that way. Some do, sure, but certainly not all. If there is another quality all atheists might share, perhaps it's the feeling that something is wrong with the status quo. Why be part of an often misunderstood and often persecuted group like the atheist community - even if one keeps one's atheism to himself - unless one can't help but think a change in the majority's thoughts, attitudes and/or actions is needed? I'm speculating here, but I wouldn't be surprised to discover this to be one other commonality among atheists - even those atheists who aren't skeptics or freethinkers.
Do you think your experience rejecting religion has made you a better freethinker than if you were simply raised in atheism? Is there any value in a background of faith?
The value I find in my religious background is that, as an atheist, I have a deep understanding of the power of our biases, and how easily we can blind ourselves for the sake of maintaining our preferred belief systems. When I first learned the phrases "cognitive dissonance" and "confirmation bias," I already had an existential understanding of those concepts, because I lived them for a good portion of my life. My religious background reminds me daily that no one is immune to prejudice, and critical thinking and truth-seeking are not easy tasks. They require a lot of work.
From reading your blog, you seem to put an emphasis on how to think over what to think. If you were in charge of government/education/whatever, how would you emphasize critical thinking?
If I had my way, logic and critical thinking would be mandatory high school subjects, like science, language and mathematics. There are people in our society who can earn doctorates without ever having learned anything about logic. I would push to make logic and critical thinking as fundamental to our education system as the "Three Rs."
What is the most rewarding aspect of being part of the online atheist community?
The people, by far. I have developed friendships with other atheists and atheist bloggers online, and have conversed with them and learned from them, as well as non-atheists who are at least aware of the atheist community and empathetic, even if they disagree on an area or two of metaphysics. I feel part of a "koinonia" again.
Koinonia is a Greek word that means "communion by intimate participation." Christians are familiar with this word. English counterparts include "fellowship," "participation," and "communion." Koinonia implies not only fellowship, but a joint venture, teamwork for the greater good. This koinonia is the very thing I miss about being a Christian. A folks who post comments on my blog remind me that I am part of a new koinonia of freethinkers here on the wild world wide Internet. I am humbled and grateful to be part of a group of such insightful readers, fellow bloggers and critical thinkers.
And while this online koinonia isn't quite the same, in a lot of ways it's even better, and way more meaningful. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised by it. I wrote a blog entry about South African resident Eugene Gerber not too long ago in which I pretty much threw everything at him: sarcasm, tongue-in-cheek insults, even sparkly animated gifs, and after all that, he had the strength of character to engage me in discussion and present his side of things. Our discussions went from here on the blog to one-on-one via email, and subsequently, per my request, Eugene even submitted blog entries as a guest writer on my blog.
This is the kind of koinonia I want and need, where we can challenge each other - even somewhat acrimoniously with egregious displays of glittery animated gifs (if one is so inclined) - and still come out of it with respect for each other. I have this online, and it is by far the most rewarding aspect.
What do you see as the most harmful aspect of religion?
The most dangerous aspect of religion is decision-making and belief-forming based on faith. "Faith" is belief irrespective of evidence. Most people who come to faith do so apart from any rational reason. Few religious people - if any - came to faith via rational scrutiny of evidence and logical argumentation. Even those who accept faith for "reasons" don't have reason as the basis for their decision to convert. Those who, after already converting, desire to be (or appear) rational will begin searching for reasons to believe (or continue believing), but there's a huge difference between arriving at a conclusion through reason and attempting to use reason to justify a conclusion one's already accepted. What's worse is that this "faith" is considered a virtue in religion, whereas doubt is a vice and a hindrance.
All it takes is one person with a "message from god" to form a small group of zealots who subsequently start making converts of their own. A preacher becomes a cult which becomes a movement which becomes a religion - as long as they get enough converts (and the cult leader doesn't have all the followers drink the poisoned kool-aid so they can reach the mothership or some other such nonsense). Religions like Christianity maintain a strong influence because of the fact that faith is passed down from parent to child. The indoctrination process begins at a very young age, before the child can do any kind of rational analysis of the teachings. How is this a virtue?
When I came to the realization that my faith lacked a rational foundation - and then realized that "faith" by definition requires a lack of a rational foundation - that's when I began to understand all the other issues that bothered me so much about religion. Without a rational base, anything can be justified. Cast aside logic and reason, and now the moon can be comprised entirely of Spam, I can build a house made out of dance, and 2 + 2 can equal Portuguese and any freaking atrocity you can think of can be justified simply by calling it "God's Will." This is what makes faith so dangerous.
If you could incorporate any aspect of religion into your life or the life of others without the mythology, what would it be and why? (bonus, how would you incorporate it?)
Steve Martin came out with a comedic song not that long ago called "Atheists Don't Have No Songs." Some of the traditions and practices that religion uses to fuel faith and keep it from fading - communal singing, group gatherings, and listening to homilies - are lacking from most atheists' lives, including my own. I wouldn't say such things are necessary for living a happy life, but I remember looking forward to Sunday service because I knew I'd see friends. I remember church camp, sitting around the fire in the evenings as the camp leader led the group in praise songs while playing his guitar. I haven't quite felt such cozy, happy feelings I felt in those moments since leaving organized religion. Make no mistake, my emotional life has improved significantly since discarding faith. All I'm saying is that a secular form of those practices I enjoyed while in religion would be a nice addition to my life.
And honestly, I have no idea how I'd try to incorporate such things. Maybe I'll invite people over for a big group sing-a-long and pot luck dinner.
Who is your favorite atheist activist?
I'm not sure who would qualify as an "activist," but I know who inspires me to continue seeking truth and living a good life. Some of them may not consider themselves atheists, but are certainly pro-science, pro-critical thinking, and anti-dogma. I'm a huge fan of Carl Sagan, and see his influences in other thinkers I admire, like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye. I respected Christopher Hitchens' intellect, and grieved over his passing. I find Tim Minchin's work to be both hilarious and thought-provoking, and, in spite of my occasional disagreement with her, I have much respect for Rebecca Watson.
I can't really pick just one, but if I must choose someone who both fits the label of "atheist activist" and is someone who makes my list of favorites, I'd have to go with Ayaan Hirsi Ali. I've been reading more of her work lately, and find great value in her experiences and insights.