I’ve been mulling over Sam Harris’ talk at the Atheist Alliance International Convention (video: part 1 and part 2). I avoided commenting on it while the debate crested in the atheist community because I wanted to think it over.
Up to that point, I’d begun to think Sam Harris a bit overzealous. This talk changed my opinion. The response from the leaders of the atheist community seemed largely to misunderstand what I thought Harris had said. I took away from his talk that by labeling ourselves as Atheist (or Bright, Humanist, etc.) we become incapable of seeing nuance in complex situations and finding common cause with our religious brothers and sisters.
So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves â€œatheists.â€ We should not call ourselves â€œsecularists.â€ We should not call ourselves â€œhumanists,â€ or â€œsecular humanists,â€ or â€œnaturalists,â€ or â€œskeptics,â€ or â€œanti-theists,â€ or â€œrationalists,â€ or â€œfreethinkers,â€ or â€œbrights.â€ We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radarâ€”for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.…
Atheism is too blunt an instrument to use at moments like this. It’s as though we have a landscape of human ignorance and bewildermentâ€”with peaks and valleys and local attractorsâ€”and the concept of atheism causes us to fixate one part of this landscape, the part related to theistic religion, and then just flattens it. Because to be consistent as atheists we must oppose, or seem to oppose, all faith claims equally. This is a waste of precious time and energy, and it squanders the trust of people who would otherwise agree with us on specific issues.
I’m still considering dropping the atheist label and speaking out against ideas that I disagree with as nothing but myself.
Recently, I experienced the business end of the blunt instrument of atheism that Harris had observed. The Eloquent Atheist recently ran a four part memoir of growing up in a small Idaho town. Included in this memoir are some assertions about Mormon beliefs and history, many of which were in error. The inaccuracies disappointed me because I naïvely expected better from fellow atheists. I submitted the following comment.
Warning: A lot of petty back-and-forth follows, but if a blog isn’t good for getting pettiness out of my system once in a while, then I don’t know why I bother. Please skip to the end if you have better things to do.
As a former Mormon, I found your perspective as an outsider interesting, but as a former Mormon, I noticed that the historical and doctrinal information presented was riddled with inaccuracies. I’m as critical as the next guy of Mormon history and doctrine, but it’s a better education tool when it is presented as it really is. Otherwise, Mormons can justifiably charge that their critics are ignorant of the truth. Please fact check your memories and impressions before presenting a seemingly authoritative essay.
I admit that was quite blunt and confrontational. I had just finished reading Nonviolent Communication, so I knew a better way to dialog, but I was lazy and went the more familiar violent approach.
Somehow, I was mistaken for a Mormon apologist and challenged to provide proof of God and to produce the Golden Plates. Color me nonplussed. I then submitted the following comment (which has been removed from their website):
I regret that my comment didn’t make my position more clear. I’m not arguing that Mormonism is verifiable, but that the history and doctrine presented here are inaccurate. A believing Mormon (which I am not) could legitimately object to the inaccuracies of this series which aims to be an exposÃ©. Allow me to give two examples from part 3:
they are white cotton underwear, somewhat similar to long johns, except that they are in two pieces, a â€œblouseâ€ and pantaloons, which both men and women wear continually, after baptism, for the remainder of their lives.
This can be falsified by reading the Wikipedia article on temple garments. There seems to be some confusion in part 3 over whether the garment is worn after the receiving the ordinance of the Endowment in a temple or after receiving baptism which is received outside the temple. The garment is only worn after the Endowment.
Needless to say, only Mormons can enter any of three levels of Mormon Heaven.
This is an inaccurate and unfair statement of Mormon belief. Mormons are exclusive, but not quite that exclusive. The Celestial Kingdom is reserved for baptized Mormons, but the other two degrees of glory are open to all depending on their virute. In fact, vanishingly few people (no more than a dozen some have speculated) end up in Hell in Mormon eschatology. Even murderers end up in the lowest degree of heaven.
I worry that with inaccurate portrayals like these cropping up on the internet, believing Mormons will stop listening to the critics who do know what they’re talking about. I want them to hear the truth, but they might start to form the opinion that all critics are ignorant of the facts. I hope that all critics will inform themselves before taking up the pen.
Again, I confess to being in attack mode, and it had the ungratifying result of gaining me a place of dishonor: they took the trouble to devote an entire post to denouncing my theism, my Mormonism, caricaturing my statements, and refusing to allow any further comments until I could produce proof of God.
Mr. Blake, however, insists upon arguing about a few points of religious â€œhistoryâ€ and Mormon â€œphilosophyâ€ ad infinitum, apparently not understanding that we should not and do not care about the small points until the broad issues have been settled. As an example of a broad point I submit the following for Mr. Blake’s consideration: â€œThere is no god.â€
Yet Mr. Blake insists that we concern ourselves with the material out of which the magical Mormon royal undergarments are made. Now, Mr. Blake has sufficient unmitigated gall to tell me that I do not understand his point.
Well… that’s what I’m saying, yes. He misunderstood on a very fundamental level and then proceeded to argue against my nonexistent belief in God. I imagined him with his fingers in his ears saying â€œLa La La La. I can’t hear you. There is no God. La La La La.â€
Seeking to clear up this persistent misunderstanding (and being quite frustrated and disappointed at this point), I submitted the following comment which was never allowed to be seen on their website:
I am afraid that I haven’t made my position known clearly. Please let me be clear on this point: God is not great and Joseph Smith was not his prophet. No, perhaps I’m trying to be too clever. Let me try again to be direct: I believe that there is no God. If you read my comments again, carefully, you’ll see that I made that clear from the beginning. So requests for me to justify Mormonism or theism are equally misplaced.
The criticism that I offered came not from a Mormon apologist, but from a former Mormon/current atheist asking for more accuracy in the criticism of Mormonism. If you want to check my godless credentials, please feel welcome visit my personal blog, or take my word for it.
I realize that those posts were mostly in the spirit of memoir. That part was fine and interesting. The posts often however stepped beyond that role into exposition of what Mormons purportedly believe in an authoritative voice along the lines of â€œMormons believe thus and suchâ€. Mormons believe lots of crazy stuff, so there’s no shortage of silly things to highlight. This makes it not only irresponsible and unfair to publish falsehoods, but kind of lazy. And memoir doesn’t cover a multitude of sins, as James Frey discovered.
I regret that my comments have provoked such vehemently defensive posts, ad hominem attacks, caricaturization of my position, and censorship.
I don’t expect The Eloquent Atheist to be a debate club; that would run counter to its apparent purpose. I’m only asking for better editorial oversight. If I want to direct my Mormon friends to this site to show them how passionate and alive atheists can be (which I hoped to be able to do), I don’t want them to find half-hearted exposÃ©s in the guise of memoir.
Let me give you more of a flavor of the kind of misinformation that I object to. Here are the first passages of part 2 titled The History of the LDS Church:
Let’s begin with a capsule history of the Church. The founder, Joseph Smith, was born on a farm in upstate New York in the early nineteenth century. [Joseph Smith was born in Vermont.] That area later became known as The Burned-Over District, a nickname alluding to the many fire-and-brimstone preachers who roamed the area delivering jeremiads to the local residents in tent shows and so-called camp meetings, urging them to repent their sinful ways lest they burn eternally in Hell. In a time of great religious fervor, now called the Second Great Awakening, Smith allegedly searched for a system of religious belief that he could justify in his own mind as legitimate, and investigated a number of the Protestant denominations that existed in the region-Methodist, Baptist, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and so on. None satisfied him as being The True Religion. [According to Smith's most widely known account (the 1838 account of the First Vision), he didn't go to the grove of trees to pray having made up his mind than no extant religion was God's true religion. He claims that he prayed to know which religion was true.] Then according to his account, in 1830, [The first vision is purported to have occurred in 1820.] while walking in a grove of trees on the Hill Cumorah, [The grove of trees reported to have been the site of the First Vision was not on the Hill Cumorah.] near the town of Elmira, [Both the grove and the Hill Cumorah are near Palmyra, New York which is over 50 miles north of Elmira.] he had a vision, in which an angel named Moroni (pronounced â€œmo-rÅn-eyeâ€) allegedly appeared, [While the purported vision of Moroni allegedly happened in 1830, an angel named Moroni plays no part in any account of the First Vision that I'm aware of. Perhaps I'm ignorant of one?] informed Smith that he came as a direct emissary from God, confirmed Smith’s opinion that none of the extant denominations or sects was The True Religion, [As noted above, Joseph claimed to have learned the falsehood of all religions in the First Vision rather than having a foregone conclusion.] and pronounced that Jehovah Himself had selected him (Smith) to found a church that would deliver the True Word of God to those who elected to follow him.
Smith later reputedly reported that he, like Moses, protested that he was unworthy of such a lofty and arduous task, but the angel insisted that he was to be the Prophet and that it was futile to deny the commands of the Almighty. Smith eventually acquiesced to his destiny, and Moroni instructed him where in the Sacred Gove to dig, [Another confusion of the First Vision and the vision of Moroni and also of the Hill Cumorah where Smith claimed to have unearthed the plates, and the Sacred Grove where he claimed to have seen God.] in order to recover the Golden Plates, on which Moroni’s father, Mormon, also an angel, had written, [Moroni is also the nominal author of significant portions of the Book of Mormon. Mormon didn't appear to Joseph as an angel, nor did he purportedly write the plates as an angel.] in an ancient and sacred tongue, the history of two of the Lost Tribes of Israel.…
It got much better after that, but this sloppiness was enough to appall me. Can someone give the man a Wikipedia search?
Once it was mistakenly determined that I was a theist, they didn’t care to read what I said, not carefully at least. Once they presumably realized their mistake, they seemed to cover their tracks by deleting the comments that made their mistake obvious. They weren’t open to nuanced discussion. I had expected better than censorship, dishonesty, and intellectual laziness from my supposedly enlightened fellow atheists.
Is this how some atheists treat theists? Alas, I think Sam Harris was right that labels like “atheist” are useless and probably harmful if they can cause people to turn off their critical thinking and circle the wagons like that.