The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics
Hello all! Dave Muscato here. It’s time again for one of my favorite types of posts: Reader mail!
I received the following about my previous post about the Vatican and youth culture. Hang on tight, folks; this is gonna be a long one!
Dylan C. writes:
Hey Dave, hope you had a pleasant day at the courthouse. [NB: I had jury duty the other day]
I’m curious about something. It seems to me from a great number of your recent postings that you have grown increasingly paranoid and irrational in your analysis of information and subsequent conclusions. I assume that as a self-identified activist, you have taken the time to search out and discover things that are important to keep in mind as an activist. In other words, what are some of the key principles that an activist ought to follow in order not to allow their identity as an activist to become all-consuming and deterministic? I ask this because I am concerned for you, for your health, for your sanity, and for your reputation.
“It becomes very difficult for a pastor to get away with lying for Jesus, when anyone—especially young people—can whip out a smartphone and find real answers on Wikipedia faster than you can say the Lord’s Prayer.”
I’ve noticed that you enjoy coming up with and using catchy one-liners such as this to add humor and emotionally-charged content to your posts. But I’m going to have to challenge you on this practice. You of all people should know the significant dangers and limitations inherent to the use of Wikipedia and Google for discovering the “truth”. And young people especially tend to be completely ignorant of how to avoid these dangerous pitfalls. Anyone can post information on the internet, and for just a little bit of financial investment, they can also utilize search engine optimization to make their information more highly visible. A lot of this information is of course from activist groups, some much more biased than others, but all significantly biased nonetheless. The fact that we have labeled this the “Information Age” is a horrible joke to me at best. In fact, from the internet, equally as much as from the “pulpit”, young people are told what to believe. This is REALITY, and I dare you to disagree with me.
Here’s my response:
Hey Dylan! I really appreciate your feedback. It is true that I have shifted more toward a “confrontationist” approach to religion, as opposed to an “accommodationist” approach. There is actually a division within the secular movement about this: There was a debate/panel discussing the topic at the Skepticon 3 conference that’s worth watching if you’re interested.
Many atheists believe, although we disagree about the existence of gods, that churches have a lot to offer and the best course of action is to work together on “interfaith” activities to make the world a better place. Confrontationists, on the other hand, see religion as dangerous, and see religious moderates as enablers for fundamentalists. The accommodationists dislike that confrontationists add to the stereotype of “angry atheists,” and the confrontationists dislike that the accommodationists give irrationality a free pass.
I’m reminded of the conflict between hellfire & brimstone preachers versus welcoming congregations. The hellfire & brimstone preachers dislike that the welcoming congregations permit gay people, etc, while the welcoming congregations see the hellfire preachers as turning people away from religion and not teaching the “loving” aspects of Christianity.
I feel I must stress that my natural inclination is to be an accommodationist. It feels right to me, and it’s difficult for me to criticize religion as a whole, when I have personally enjoyed so many positive experiences as a formerly religious person, and considering I have many friends whom I love and who are religious.
However, the more I research religion, the more I come to realize that religion is the root of virtually all of the things I consider wrong. The Biblical theme that some God “gave” humankind dominion over the the whole of the Earth and all the animals on it, along with the idea that this God is “in control” of the environment and would not allow us to perish before Jesus returns, is directly at odds with the urgency of the global environmental crisis, and with vegetarianism/veganism. The Biblical theme that woman are subservient to men is directly at odds with feminism. The Biblical theme that souls exist and life begins at conception is directly at odds with reproductive rights, abortion access, and stem cell research. The Biblical theme that there is an afterlife is directly at odds with the secular humanist priority of making this life count for everything it’s worth because you only live once. The Biblical creation mythology is directly at odds with the science education and the teaching the scientific fact of evolution by means of natural selection. The Biblical theme that a man should not lie with another man is directly at odds with LGBTQ rights. Etc, etc.
In fact I am hard-pressed to come up with a cause I care about that DOESN’T have its root conflict in religion. I care about a lot of things and wish I could be an activist for them all, but I understand the prudence in picking one’s battles. Fortunately, it’s not a hard choice: By choosing to focus on atheism activism, I am in effect also fighting for LGBTQ rights, women’s right to choose, birth control access, stem-cell research, science education, vegetarianism, secular humanism, and critical thinking.
I’m curious as to what you mean by “increasingly paranoid and irrational in your analysis of information and subsequent conclusions.” Correct me if this isn’t what you meant, but I assume in effect you mean my increasing willingness to blame religion for social ills. As I stated, it is true that it’s becoming easier for me to criticize religion as a whole. I assert that this is because I am learning more about the pervasiveness of religion in society as the source of many twisted beliefs. These beliefs cause people to do many terrible things out of ignorance and just plain indoctrination.
I am intolerant of bigotry and make no apology for this. If that makes me a confrontationist, so be it. Because I have a conscience, I cannot stand by idly when I see violence, whether physical or structural. I cannot stand by idly when I see irrationality guiding moral decision-making and public policy. These things are just too important.
…What are some of the key principles that an activist ought to follow in order not to allow their identity as an activist to become all-consuming and deterministic?
This is an important question and I’m glad you asked. This applies to activists of all stripes, not just within the secular movement. Here are what I consider key principles to avoiding burnout:
Now on to our third and final point: the internet as a source.
Of course, I do not recommend that anyone interested in atheism or secular history use Wikipedia as their sole source. Wikipedia is very good for certain subjects and less good for others. But what I love about Wikipedia is that hard sources are provided at the bottom of every article, and information without solid citations is flagged and removed.
It is equally important, if not more so, to read proper history books from credible historians. But I disagree with you about using Google to find sources. Google indexes not only blogs and interest-group websites, etc, which may be heavily biased and contain factual errors and logical fallacies. Google also indexes accredited university websites, peer-reviewed academic journals, and fact-checked magazines and so on.
These are legitimate sources for correct information and I completely disagree that people searching on Google are being told what to believe equally with what comes from the pulpit. Not believing what comes from the pulpit brings with it the threat of “Hell,” for one thing. Not believing what comes from the pulpit, for many young people, comes with the threat of losing internet privileges, games, toys, etc, and sometimes even food. In extreme cases, though unfortunately not all-too-rare, not believing what comes from the pulpit comes with the threat of being disowned and being homeless.
It is simply not true that people are being told what to believe equally on Google and at church.
With regard to Internet sources, the information is simply there. People choose to read it or not, and choose to accept it or not. They can choose to explore opposing points of view with just a few clicks, and just as readily access training on how to think critically and examples of various logical fallacies.
So-called “Internet literacy” is a skill that must be learned—fact-checking information from one site against other sites, using logic and critical thinking to see if the information is coherent with what you already know, and making sure what you’re reading is internally consistent and contains no fallacies. There is a very famous example of teaching Internet literacy regarding a fictional “tree octopus” that’s worth a read if you have time.
I think the most important thing, when it comes to claims of any kind, is to be skeptical. I consider myself a skeptic—SASHA stands for Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics—and skepticism is an important part of my worldview. Skepticism is, in my experience, NOT taught or encouraged in religious settings. In fact in my experience, I have seen it actively discouraged, painted as the work of Satan, trying to trick people into losing their faith in Jesus. Frankly, I find this ridiculous, although I more-or-less believed that myself at one time in my life.
As I mentioned above in #4, it’s important to regularly study opposing points of view. It expands your mind and forces you to think critically, which I think is never a bad thing. As Sam Harris wrote in Letter to a Christian Nation, “I know of no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too desirous of evidence in support of their core beliefs.”
I hope this article has been helpful to you. Thank you again for your message, and please let me know if there is anything you would like me to clarify.
Until next time,
Dave Muscato is the Kansas/Missouri-Area Volunteer Network Coordinator for the Secular Student Alliance. He is also a board member of MU SASHA. He is a vegetarian, LGBTQ ally, and human- & animal-welfare activist. A non-traditional junior at Mizzou studying economics & anthropology and minoring in philosophy & Latin, Dave posts updates to the SASHA blog every Monday, Thursday, and Saturday and twice monthly for the Humanist Community at Harvard. His website is http://www.DaveMuscato.com
and don’t forget… other SASHA members! We are here for you, too!