Last night, I made a huge mistake. I commented on Freethought blogs, namely Greta Christina’s blog. I now wish I’d had better judgment because commenting there turned out to be a losing proposition, a zero-sum game. Though I believed, or at least I hoped, I would find some constructive dialogue there if I approached it directly and honestly and transparently, in the fifteen or so minutes I was there I was
- Accused of operating in bad faith
- Accused of being a fake atheist
- Quoted out of context and accused of “stirring the pot” (Heaven forbid someone stir the pot there)
- Patronized, repeatedly
To illustrate the patronizing I received, note this email that awaited me this morning:
I read the thread you participated in over at Greta Christina’s blog, and I was moved to write to you. I’d be interested to read a post from you in which you summarized, then responded to, one (or better, both) of Greta’s posts explaining what was wrong with Lindsay’s speech. I think writing up such a post would be really helpful, both to you, in getting a better understanding of the questions that you posed in the thread, and for the other people reading the thread, in getting the sense that successful communication is occurring. I expect this will take some time — I’d love to get an email from you when/if you chose to write such a post. Thanks for your time.
It is not often that I am given a summary and response assignment. But I can summarize Greta Christina’s outrage like this:
- Ron Lindsay was patronizing to his audience
- Ron Lindsay was tone-deaf and set a negative tone for the conference
- Ron Lindsay got the context all wrong
I don’t disagree with any of those points.
My question: did Lindsay’s faux pas warrant Christina’s and others withdrawal of support? To answer that question, I would point out that my favorite function of the CFI is its outreach to students and young people. In a culture in which almost half of people polled believe in creationism, the CFI’s commitment to science and reason is like a beacon in the darkness. As a teacher routinely swarmed by students who lack even the most basic critical thinking skills, I need the CFI to be strengthened and empowered. It does real on-the-ground good in the world. It needs more support, not less. These are not abstract issues for me. I live in Mississippi, a state particularly rife with ignorance and my work gives me the opportunity to ameliorate that, for the small role I play. I teach writing, and to write well, one must think well. Minds clouded by superstition, minds unable to empathize, minds unable to understand diverse perspectives, are real and persistent problems that keep Mississippians from moving forward.
It is true that there’s no monolithic atheist. After all, the word means “no god”, and among those who lack belief in god you find the panoply. You find those who drift toward humanism as a vehicle for loving and helping his or her fellow men and women. You find nihilists who don’t think it matters either way. You find every position in between. If some atheists want to spend their time on social justice, I support that.
I have two daughters, and I want them to grow up smart, healthy, strong, and fully capable of thinking for themselves. For me, making this world a place in which my daughters will be less likely to be assaulted or raped is a real goal. But also, I’d very much like it if they could go to school and be treated fairly despite the fact that they don’t go the right Baptist church. Atheists are, most of us know, the most distrusted group in the United States, and that has to change. I postulate this: in-fighting, reneging support for institutions that are fighting for just that, is counter-productive and does not further this cause.
I don’t have much of a voice in the atheist movement. I do what I can, but no one really cares what I think about anything. I’m not even in the minor leagues. I’m fine with that. I have parenting and raising literacy to keep me busy. But people like Greta Christina have power. Her book Why Are You Atheists So Angry? is widely considered one of the essential books on the atheist bookshelf. Her voice is strong, and I admire her. That said, I have to question the wisdom of removing support from a necessary institution. I have to do that because, again, lack of critical thinking in this world is a very real problem I face on a daily basis.
My view on the Lindsay flap is that the response was disproportionate to the offense, and those who were offended by it used a hatchet when they should have used a scalpel. I’m sure I’ll be lambasted for writing that, but that is honestly how I feel. I’m raising daughters, and their well-being, their safety, are primary among my concerns. Ron Lindsay’s tone-deaf obliviousness doesn’t even come onto my radar as remotely important in making this world a better place for my daughters to inhabit. It just doesn’t. Given that 1 of 3 women in this world can expect to experience some form of violence, I can look at the Lindsay flap as nothing more than a first-world problem. I’m not writing it off, but I am saying a healthy dose of perspective is in order.
I understand why these conference attendees were offended, but being offended is just part of living. I’m offended every day by something, usually ignorance, bigotry, stupidity, and if I made it my policy to demand an apology from everyone who offended me, I’d have to quit my job. And in this case, if I weigh the good done by the CFI against the offending comments by Ron Lindsay, well, it isn’t even close. Surely, Greta Christina knows that.
Everything about demanding an apology in this circumstance smacks of a political move, a power play, of Christina and others flexing their muscles. And I say, good for them. If I had power in the atheist community, I would be patting myself on the back right about now, thinking, look what I did. I got the apology I demanded. I won. That victory demonstrates that Atheism+ is here to stay. Given that, will the Atheism+ crowd now reach out and work to close the fissure? Will they accept that they are at least part of the problem? I’m hopeful about that.
How many of Christina’s acolytes will refuse to support an excellent institution from now on because of what I can only view as a minor flap? As Christina moves forward, will she recommend that her followers renew their support for the CFI? Will she bury that hatchet?
I certainly hope she does because outreach to minorities, to women, is absolutely essential to growing the atheist movement. Biting the very hand that can help make that a reality strikes me as counter-productive. It has a chilling effect on dialogue and it takes us a step backwards, not forward. The waters have become so toxic, I wonder how many people out there seeking community, seeking like-minded others with whom to work on making the world a better place for freethinkers, for women, for minorities will just stay on the sidelines. I hate to say this, but I know I will. Given what was given to Lindsay, you better believe that I won’t be opening my mouth about women’s issues, at least not among the atheist community. What if I said the wrong thing? No way I would bring that down on myself or my family.
I know I will never comment on FtB again. It was made clear to me that I am unwelcome. Lesson learned. Staying out of those toxic waters is the only option I have. They are there, claws sharpened, ready to pounce. Christina, with her immense power in the movement, can use that power to detoxify the waters. It is my sincere hope that she does her part to accomplish just that. We find ourselves in a historic position as atheists with the “nones” growing, and we have to seize that opportunity, and we can’t do that if we are fighting amongst ourselves.