Thursday, January 19, 2012

Sometimes There Are No Right Answers, And Sometimes There Are


Much has been made in the Atheist Visibility Movement of a similarity between atheism and LGBT experiences in our culture: specifically, the rite of coming out. Most marginalized groups cannot easily hide their status as a member of that group because they are defined in whole or in part by appearances. Conversely, religious minorities and most LGBT individuals are defined by aspects of their mental states, not their appearance, meaning you cannot necessarily tell who they are just by looking at them. In a society dominated by straight, cis Christians most people (even some LGBT individuals and non-Christians) will assume you are also a straight, cis Christian and treat you as such until they learn otherwise. Non-Christians and LGBT individuals can conceal the behaviors that are a consequence of their minority identity and by so doing take advantage of the presumption of normativity, avoiding some of the maltreatment they might otherwise experience. This act of secrecy is called being “in the closet” and therefore “coming out (of the closet)” is the act of revealing the deception and your true identity in a particular setting. Reactions to coming out as an atheist and coming out as, for instance, gay, play out similarly and can have similar consequences – attempts to fix you, demands that you change back, threats, estrangement, etc.

Too much has been made of this similarity, I think. In exploring the similarities in our situations there are some important differences that can get overlooked. I'm not talking about the severity of negative outcomes – oppression one-upmanship is pathetic and counterproductive. I'm talking about a major qualitative difference that must not be ignored. When you tell someone for the first time that you are queer, what you are revealing is about the nature of you, of your mind and your identity. It has nothing to do with the mind of the person you come out to. Atheism is not like that. When I say I am an atheist I am saying that I believe it is the case that no such thing as a deity exists. I'm not just making a statement about subjective brain states; I am making a statement about the objective nature of reality, independent of my mind. When I come out to someone, I'm not just revealing how I am different than hir, I am declaring that I disagree with hir. Saying that I believe no such thing as a deity exists implies that people who do believe a deity exists are wrong.

There's a reason there is still so much disinformation out there regarding homosexuality being a choice. Part of it is the ongoing conflict between Christian theology and reality (I'll be getting to that later), but it pretty much boils down to a desire on the part of homophobes to say, “I'm right, and you are wrong.” The normal people made the right sexual choices, according to their warped world view, and the fags chose incorrectly, which is why they suffer. It's their fault, really, for being so wrong. Falsely attributing instances of a group's oppression to the choices of its members is a common tactic of marginalization. Women don't rise above a certain level of corporate management? They must have different priorities. Black people have less wealth than white people? They must be lazy. Obese? Also lazy. She was raped? She was asking for it. Employing this tactic requires that the disadvantaged have some freedom of choice in matters that could theoretically, if not in practice, reduce or eliminate their plight. That is why you don't see it leveled against the handicapped (please don't Google a counter-example, I hate humanity enough already). The LGBT community can be cast as making poor life choices to explain their unhappiness. Its a load of bullshit - homosexuality is not a choice and oppression is the reason for the discontent - but it is internally consistent bullshit.

He chose... poorly
Some bullshit is not so consistent. Atheists get this crap, too... sorta. I have been told several times that I am wrong to choose not to believe in God. It is even more absurd to think that I can choose to disbelieve a claim as it is to think I chose to be straight. People form beliefs as an inevitable consequence of their experiences. Bigfoot and the Incredible Hulk are fighting a cage match right now on top of the Seattle Space Needle. Do you believe that? I sure hope not. Can you make yourself believe it? No, you can't. The best you can do is willingly suspend your disbelief for the sake of an argument or entertainment. Imagination is not the same thing as belief. Now, just because I can't choose to believe in god, that doesn't mean my mind can't be changed. In fact, if I encounter ample evidence or a compelling argument in favor of a god's existence, I will helplessly change my belief. That is why they are called compelling arguments. They compel the listener to accept a proposition.

Whether or not belief is choice is an annoyingly pointless argument to have. People accustomed to abusing their privilege are so acclimated to the tactics of marginalization that they reflexively try to apply this one to atheists. They think they have to falsely make atheism a matter of choice (as is done with homosexuals) so that they can blame any injustices we might want to complain about on our allegedly poor choice to be an atheist. They contort language to try to accomplish this absurd rationalization while completely missing the obvious: they don't have to use this tactic to set themselves up as superior to us. The whole point of using this abusive tactic of false choices in the first place is to position themselves in a framework where they can say “I am right, you are wrong.” The impetus to claim that homosexuality is a choice comes from a need to have a moral disagreement with homosexuals - a false conflict in which they can claim the moral high ground. With atheists, there is no need to concoct a false disagreement of choice. Real disagreement exists; our group is defined solely by the way we disagree with the majority. We are either right or wrong about the god proposition and so are they. If the theists want to claim the intellectual high ground, they can go right ahead. They don't hold it, but it is not because they made the wrong choice. It's because they came to the wrong conclusion.

The thing about privilege is, it is okay to have it. What you shouldn't do is abuse it; you shouldn't participate in the marginalization of those who lack your privilege (even by silent consent). It is okay to be straight, or gay, or cis, or trans... you are not wrong to be so – it is absurd to even think of it in terms or right and wrong. Similarly, it is okay for you to believe there is a god, but dissimilarly, you are wrong to believe that. It is an incorrect belief.

Another thing I have been told several times, often by the same people who accuse me of choosing my beliefs, is that I can't prove there is no god. This is also false (and a double negative). What I can't do is convince the person who says I can't prove there is no god, that there is no god. Ze does not have an open mind – an accusation ze will vehemently deny and reflexively turn about, but true, nonetheless. Ze started the conversation about the existence of God by claiming that demonstrating my position on the issue is utterly impossible; how ze could claim to be open to the possibility of me being right after making such a statement is beyond me, yet this is quite a common experience among atheists when they come out or are otherwise discovered.

I can prove there is no god, have done so, to my satisfaction and beyond. A fair minded assessment of the scope and breadth of my investigation into the possibility that a god exists would probably be that it was “comprehensive,” or dare I say, “exhaustive.” If there was a compelling argument for the existence of god, I would have found it, because I looked in all the places such a thing would be kept, if it existed. It does not. Further, there exist good deductive arguments demonstrating that most of the specific deities popular today are logically impossible, and compelling inductive arguments concluding that god(s), or anything supernatural, probably do not exist.

It turns out that coming up with new material to write about with frequency is harder than I expected it to be, and I expected it to be rather hard. As this post passes 1500 words it occurs to me that part of the solution might be embracing brevity, but I have a different plan. My next post will be an index of sorts, a set of links to other posts that I will write in the future, the sum total of which will constitute disproof of the existence of god(s). This will be an effective cure for writers block; coming up with new social justice topics is hard, but systematically dismantling the case for god, that's easy – partly because I have already done it, but mostly because it is not a very compelling case. Once I have finished disproving god (again), and probably while doing so, I will talk about why it is important to reach the correct conclusion about god(s) existence because that does have to do with social justice. If there is anyone that hates social equality, it is the God of Abraham. Fortunately He isn't real, but His followers are, and if they get much more power than they already have, social equality is fucked.

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