Also see my previous post.
Continuing on, I concur with Myers on at least one point: his admiration for the writings of Susan Jacoby. Her book, “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism,” is a brilliant contribution to skeptic thought in this nation. In his post, he quotes the following two passages from a New York Times piece from Jacoby titled, “The Blessings of Atheism:
The atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.
Today’s atheists would do well to emulate some of the great 19th-century American freethinkers, who insisted that reason and emotion were not opposed but complementary.
to which Myers responded:
There’s the step the Dictionary Atheists don’t want to take — that once you’ve thrown off your shackles you’re now obligated to do something worthwhile with your life, because now all of our lives shine as something greater and more valuable and more important. That with freedom comes responsibility.
And other passage from Jacoby:
We must speak up as atheists in order to take responsibility for whatever it is humans are responsible for — including violence in our streets and schools. We need to demonstrate that atheism is rooted in empathy as well as intellect. And although atheism is not a religion, we need community-based outreach programs so that our activists will be as recognizable to their neighbors as the clergy.
To which Myers concluded:
But not as clergy, as privileged people set apart from others by a special paternalistic relationship. How about as a community of equals? What if every atheist, rather than some particular special subset of atheists, were to acknowledge their part in building a better society?
Maybe then this movement could change the world.
OK, that’s a lot to dig through, but first, I fully realize and acknowledge the deep history of freethought, not just in America, but in Europe and even the Middle East, and I recognize that many freethinkers, like Robert Ingersoll, have found it worthwhile to devote their lives to important social causes. But that is the key. They found it worthwhile on an individual basis. There is no corporate mandate to do anything, and this seems to be what Myers is supporting: A mandate or a strong exhortation to turn atheism into a social justice movement would could equal a slavish loss of freedom for some people. People have the freedom to be self-absorbed assholes just as much as they have the freedom to move to Africa and do the hard work of feeding children and giving shelter to the homeless. In every case, I prefer the latter and sincerely hope that more people would work toward equality and making the world a better place, but that’s not my choice to make for other people. The best we can do is discuss our thoughts on creating a better society and how we get there and hope the enthusiasm spreads.
Myers, of course, attempts to adopt Jacoby to his cause, but in doing so conveniently leaves out a key distinction that she makes and understands:
Today’s secularists must do more than mount defensive campaigns proclaiming that we can be “good without God.” Atheists must stand up instead of calling themselves freethinkers, agnostics, secular humanists or “spiritual, but not religious.” The last phrase, translated from the psychobabble, can mean just about anything — that the speaker is an atheist who fears social disapproval or a fence-sitter who wants the theoretical benefits of faith, including hope of eternal life, without the obligations of actually practicing a religion. Atheists may also be secular humanists and freethinkers — I answer to all three — but avoidance of identification with atheism confines us to a closet that encourages us to fade or be pushed into the background when tragedy strikes.
Did you catch it? She said atheists “may also be” secular humanists and freethinkers. There is a good reason why Myers, in his endless nods to Atheism Plus, didn’t mention this paragraph. Because it clearly shows that Jacoby realizes that atheism alone does not come freshly and neatly packaged with social justice and by itself it is not a movement at all. However much Myers might want to cater to to his Atheism Plus friends, he is simply wrong on this one, good intentions aside.
I also want to add a few more thoughts to another of Myers’ passages about newly minted atheists that I touched on briefly yesterday:
You lack belief in the existence of gods? That’s nice, you’ve taken your first tiny baby step. Now what does that mean for human affairs? What will you do next? When will you stride forward and do something that matters with your new freedom?
This was stunning to me because it sounds exactly — I mean exactly like — things I was told as a believer. I remember hearing sermons about how people who were infants in their faith needed time to progress to maturity in Christ (a la 1 Corinthians 3:2) and that when someone came to believe in Christ, they gained “true” freedom. Of course, once someone becomes firm in their faith, they can then go out into the world, “stride forward” and perform the Great Commission, which in the analogy I’m making would be akin to Myer’s final sentence in the above paragraph. The point I’m making is that both propositions — what I heard in church and what Myers is saying here — are both doctrinal in nature, one just happens to be about the belief in Christ, while the other is, although built on a core nonbelief in God, is still purporting as a matter of policy that atheists “do something that matters.” I see little difference in these two: the content may be different but the preachy exhortations remain. Dogma is dogma whether it comes from the pulpit, a dusty old book or an overlord of the blogosphere.