On “Leaving The Tribe” – Rethinking my Slate Article
It’s been nearly 6 months since I first wrote my article for Slate, which they titled in their editorial wisdom “Leaving the Tribe – Why I’m no longer part of the online atheism community.” From my perspective, it was a poorly though out decision to publish this article, for several reasons. First and foremost was my underestimation of just how badly it would be received by the readers at Slate. The most common sentiment was a sense that I was like a teenager suddenly discovering that being a dick isn’t a cool way to be. And I don’t blame them really. The way the article was written made it seem like this was the first time I’d come to this realisation. In actuality, I hadn’t actively engaged with the “trolling” side of Twitter and Facebook for some time, and had only confronted people with knowledge and facts in a more constructive manner. But every now and then, someone would get on my bad side, and then the dark-side would be revealed.
My frustrations, vented in the illustrious pages of Slate, were as just much with myself and the way I was conducting myself as they were with the unreasonable manner in which believers hold on to belief, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. It was my position, one of feeling like bashing my head against a brick wall, which lead to this frustration, and the subsequent venting was cathartic to say the least. In hindsight, maybe some of the commenters were right in saying that Slate wasn’t the place for such venting, that I should have just stuck this on my blog, to be read by a couple of hundred people, and be done with it.
But the fact remains, I was approached by Slate to publish this piece, and I saw it as an opportunity to reach a larger audience with my writing. I was hoping to open up the taboo of atheist conversation, to widen the scope of conversation beyond the debates about the existence of god, and that “faith is stupid”. Instead, I feel like it closed some doors, that it ended any credibility I may have gathered over the years (not that there was much of this), and became a point of derision against me, rather than what I had intended this article to be. I don’t blame Slate for this, but I do know that they only approached me to publish because it would be controversial.
Another point that came from my article, and one that some people took to heart was the fact that, while I said I’d no longer take part in the dickish behaviour, that I wasn’t going to change much in the way I conducted myself online. One person in particular took it upon themselves to labour over this point, to the degree of an obsession, in the hopes of defaming me for this. The same person said I wasn’t qualified to talk about the way people behave when matters of faith are questioned because I’m “not an anthropologist or psychologist”. He also demanded that I recant my statements, telling the “community” I was sorry for writing the piece, and that I should just fade away into obscurity never to be seen again. And I guess in a way I am sorry. I’m sorry that you thought this post was about you. I’m sorry that you took offense from my standpoint. And I’m sorry that my observations and experiences of online behaviours do not reflect yours.
One main point, and a point that people seem to have glazed over or simply ignored that remains true, and is my main motivation for being active in my atheism is this one: “If someone is espousing beliefs that are actively harmful—i.e., promoting intolerance based on belief systems—expect me to be the first to stand up and say something. I can’t allow this kind of thinking, and if I can help it, I will move to sway the believer into rethinking their position. But this will be done with reason and rational discourse, not with contradicting the finer points of the religious texts.” I still stand by this. If you disagree, then I say that there is room enough in the world for both approaches, and good luck in your endeavour. This approach, one of ridicule and cajoling, is not mine. Ridicule can be effective in swaying ideals, but I’m not good at it, and I feel my time is better spent using my mind to make broader points about the peril we are in if we don’t approach things with a rational and reasonable sensibility.
My article was about refocusing efforts on a holistic view of what the word faces, in the hopes that others would also see that atheism is not the answer to the world’s woes, but a part of a bigger fight for a humanistic future. Without the buy-in from as many sides as possible, we are doomed to fight as humanity whimpers to its grave.
We do not need to stop arguing, because from arguments can come constructive realisations about reality. As I said in the Slate article “This is not to say that I think people should stop arguing—quite the opposite. Argument helps us suss out the finer points of what we believe to be our rights and needs, and what are simply comforts that we are so used to having that we can’t imagine life with out them.”
One last thing I saw as a criticism of my article was righteous indignation, mostly coming from people who think that berating and ridiculing people is a way to change their minds. As I have said, most believers are not fundamentalists. Most believers are “supplementalists”, in that their faith is a supplement to their lives, a part or facet of what they regard as their whole person. The old lady who goes to church once a week, then goes home to her retirement village to sit alone in front of the TV is not the enemy. The sportsperson who prays for a goal, the person who has “faith” that their lives will be okay in a bad situation, even those who believe they will be reunited with their loved ones after death, if it’s not harming anyone else, then it’s not a problem. The passive use of faith to “get one through” should not be the focus of anger and hatred. It’s the ones that actively use their religion as a sword and shield to push social agendas that are the problem, and it is those that should be focused on. And this is all my opinion, about how I should conduct my life. It has nothing to do with you. The fact that you internalised this as a criticism of how you do things perhaps says more about yourself than it does about my article.
And I still don’t know why so many people got angry at me for voicing an opinion. It was, after all, my article.