Saturday, February 25, 2012

5 Ws

When teaching writing, we remind our students that for a writer to completely capture their subject they need to make sure they've answered the 5 Ws: Who?, What?, Where?, Why? and When?. (hoW is also thrown in here sometimes.) I've had several Ws on my mind over the past few days, though I can't promise that I will hit on all of them. I can promise that there is a connection between them.


The one that got me off on this train of thought, and the one that led me to reflect on the other four, came out of a conversation I had with a good friend of mine, and fellow blogger, over coffee. As we sat and sipped, she told me of a conversation she'd had with a friend of hers, where, for whatever reason, she was talking about myself, and this blog. She said she'd said, “He writes this kinda atheist blog.” This made me cringe, for several reason, most of which should be known to anyone who has been reading this blog for a bit.

The first is, I rather dislike the term “atheist,” and avoid it whenever possible. In fact, now that I'm well past the point of needing to make that aspect of my thinking as clear as possible, I've removed the term from the blog's header. It's not that I find the term offensive (I don't find any term for anything offensive). It's that I think the term "atheist" frames the ideological affirmation of reason, evidence and unrelenting questioning in a negative way. Not negative in the put-down sense, but negative in the sense of missing or lacking something. 

Of course, an atheist is "missing" something from their ideological toolkit- namely faith and/or superstition. But since these things are themselves negative concepts- belief in the absence of, or in spite of, evidence- framing atheism in a negative sense is rather like saying a meadow is "incomplete" because it is not full of holes. Of course, some will assert that the emphasis in the definition of faith should rest not on "absence" but on "belief." This fails, of course, because while there are many reasons one can come to believe something, only faith does it with no reason at all.

Why Not?

Since I have returned to the topic of terminology, I'd like to take a minute to add some thoughts on why, although I dislike the term atheist, I much prefer it to "agnostic." Now, I will be the first to admit that in a technical sense, I am an agnostic on every single question there ever was- there is nothing that I would ever assert I know the answer to, beyond any doubt, and or that there are any questions on which I will never change my mind. ('Cause I'm not a fundamentalist.) However, while this is sometimes thought of as "deep agnosticism" (not "deep" in the "Whoa man, that's deep," sense, but in the "very expansive" sense), it is actually the shallowest sense of agnosticism, since it only asserts the very, very obvious. Because this use of the term is basically the equivalent of pointing out that you are not omniscient, or pointing out that you are human, since both of these imply the same thing.

But calling oneself "agnostic" in reference to the question of the existence of God is very misleading, and inaccurate for most of the people who refer to themselves in this way. Because calling oneself "agnostic" suggests that on the question of God, specifically the Abrahamic God that is foremost in most people's minds, you think the odds are split right down the middle between his existence and non. If this were the case, if someone really thought there was a 50/50 chance that the Abrahamic God existed, in all his retributive, malevolent hegemony, shouldn't you really be taking Pascal's Wager

But most people I know who label themselves agnostic, don't seem to be living their lives under this assumption. They seem to be, like me, living their lives with the conviction that the existence of the Abrahamic God, with all his thought-policing, prayer-sometimes-answering, natural-disaster-as-teaching, and eternal-"rewarding"-and punishing, is very, very, extremely improbable. They also probably think, like me, that there is a somewhat greater chance of the existence of a non-meddling god, one who was genuinely perfect enough to create everything and not need to make any after-the-fact corrections (sending floods, sons, prophets, etc.) And then they may find more or less probable than that scenario (I find it somewhat more probable) the idea that there is no god, not in any sense that that we would recognize from the way he is spoken of on our little planet. (I'm not even considering the use of the term "God" to refer to the "universe" or "all existence" because that is so broad that it loses all meaning.) And of course, there are myriad other possibilities of which we have not or cannot conceive, which we are, technically, agnostic about, to the last.

But if someone is living their life without the thought of God crossing their mind on a regular basis, isn't spending precious hours wondering if they might be wrong, is that really agnosticism, at least in any meaningful sense? Someone attending church service or mass for the first time in many years, not sure what they believe, curious to see what this is all about, and wondering if they really have been missing something in their life, but still not convinced enough to believe, this would be agnosticism on the God Question, in a meaningful sense.

To put it another way, just to be very clear here, let's do a quick thought experiment. I am sitting in the living room of my family's house on the lake (gorgeous in the February still) writing on my laptop. There may or may not be an invisible, incorporeal elephant across the room from me. My non-omniscience makes it so that I am incapable of ever having an absolute, definitive, complete and total certitude on this question, one way or the other. I am technically agnostic about the existence of said elephant. 

But so what? The very, very, very slim possibility that there may be an invisible, incorporeal elephant sharing this view of the lake with me, is not affecting my thoughts, behavior or life in any way. (Beyond his utility for this thought experiment, of course. But the point stands.) So does it mean anything for me to say that I am "agnostic" about the elephant question? It really doesn't, not without utterly diluting the term "agnostic" itself, which is a beautiful term with a great many uses, much more purposeful than this.


In further reference to my friends description of these pages as "an atheist blog:" 

As often as I return to the question of non-belief, and as often as I employ faith as an example of quintessentially non-critical thinking, I've tried my durndest to keep the blog from becoming as single-track as all that. I may have failed. (My wife assures me that this is not the case, but she may have just been saying that.) And it is certainly not my friend's fault for framing it in that way, if that is how she has perceived it.

However, several recent experiences have led me to not think so harshly of writing an "atheist blog," though I'd at least like to switch the term to "a freethinker blog." I've gotten more and more feedback, through the comments section of the the blog itself, through email or RL conversation, that this is the aspect of the blog that has had the most positive impact on people's lives. And if this is the case, then I will continue on that theme less reluctantly than I have done recently.

So the W above refers to Who Do I Write This For? Well, I am number one. I enjoy writing, I enjoy debating, and I find that the process of writing helps me sort my own thoughts. But after that, I am writing for the number of people who find themselves in a position, as I so often do, where faith is assumed, where it is assumed that without faith, one cannot be truly good and where questioning faith is still regarded as one of the most offensive, inconsiderate, disrespectful things one can do.

And I write because it seems to help those people who haven't had the time to ponder these questions quite as much as I have, or read up on the topic quite as much as I have. Or maybe they have, but a different perspective is valuable to them. It seems to have helped some readers articulate thoughts they'd had themselves but couldn't express quite as clearly or succinctly as they wanted to.

Some people are surrounded by a family whom they love, and loves them dearly, but who consistently fail to consider that on some of the biggest questions in life, they don't see eye to eye. Your family may pray before every meal when you get together, and while there is no harm in letting people execute rituals that are important to them, since there is rarely a polite way to excuse oneself from these things if you don't believe in their efficacy, it often puts a freethinker in between the regrettable choices of being a fake or being rude.

Or your family may send you God-inspired well-wishes when you are sick, or tell you that they will be praying for you when you go in for surgery, or labor, or a job-interview. And again, while this is almost entirely harmless (although studies have shown that those who are prayed for recover more slowly), it puts a freethinker in the same undesirable position between dishonesty and rudeness. (I mean, you can say nothing, as I usually do, choosing the least rude rudeness, but even a "Thank you," lacks integrity, to those of us who are picky about such things.)

Or you may be a parent who wishes his children's education to continue free of the distortions and lies that come from a teacher injecting their superstitions into their curricula.

Or you may be a teacher in a public school who is ostracized by his colleagues for pointing out, "Well, no, technically the school can't hang 'Merry Christmas!' banners everywhere, as that violates the separation of church and state."

This blog can't get you out of those sticky situations on its own, but perhaps you, having had a little more time to read, think, and question, can.


This one has come up quite a bit for me personally, lately. When should someone "come out," as it were, to family and friends who assume that everyone they care about shares their unfounded superstitions? While this may sound rather trivial, especially to those who did not grow up in a family or community of strong believers, I have enough personal experience with this to assert that it is not as trite as it sounds.

There are some particularly unfortunate folks who have legitimate reason to believe that if they were to come out and assert their non-belief in the same superstitions that those around them hold dear, that they would be irrevocably shunned by many of their friends and family. There is no easy answer to this. It is a question that each individual must decide on their own, but they need to be cognizant of what they decide between: integrity or acceptance. I would always, always (try to) choose the former, but I am fortunate enough to not feel a deep-seated need to be accepted by more than a small handful of those nearest and dearest to me. Others need more widespread acceptance to fulfill their emotional needs, and find peace and happiness in their lives, and I can respect that. 

But most of us are probably in a slightly easier situation. Our family and friends are not so hard-core that we would be cast out, but we do fear that they would be deeply hurt by the revelation. When this is a spouse or a parent, that thought can be a very strong deterrent. We can imagine the pain and distress of a mother who fears that the souls of her children are eternally damned, even if we believe that fear to be entirely unfounded.  

So here the choice is a bit different, as acceptance is not the major consideration, nor is the question of integrity so black and white. For where does integrity lie, on the side of honesty, or on the side of consideration for others, even if means allowing them to live a delusion? 

This is essentially the choice I was faced with, when questions of faith and its place in the world reasserted themselves in my life with the birth of my daughter. And hence the blog, the most non-confrontational (medium, not content) approach I could take. I figured it would give me space to share my thoughts on this question and others, without requiring me to assert my non-belief to those who might be hurt by learning of it. Those who wish to read it, can. Those who don't aren't required to. (I do not believe that it is read by the people in my life who would be most disturbed by its contents.) And of course, I am always willing to discuss these questions, or any questions, with anyone on anything, at any time, in any place. (I mean real questions, meaningful questions.) 

This passive approach has worked for me, but others may not desire to make their thoughts quite so public, forcing them, ironically, towards a more aggressive approach if they really wish to make them known to those around them. Or not. If you are a freethinker, have shunned superstition and any show of it, chances are pretty good that those who are closest to you already know, or at least suspect, your thinking. It may be best to let them come to you. If they don't ask, it's probably because they don't want to know, and it may be best to respect that. If they do ask, be honest. Hide nothing. Dishonesty never got anyone anything of any lasting value.


Where can we do good? 

This is the question most on my mind as of late. While I think it is vitally important to know what you believe and why you believe it, to be able to articulate and defend it, that is only the very beginning. If we ever wish freethinking to be seen as more than a rejection of venerable institutions of morality, community and philosophy, we must demonstrate what we would put in its place. Destruction is easy. An earnest child who demands real answers would best the most sophisticated theologian in a debate, if it were judged objectively. We can't be content with simply trying to show people why we think they are wrong, or even that their superstitions are inherently harmful. That would be an abdication of the responsibility that comes with moral conviction.

Faith has wrought incalculable damage on this world. It has, and continues to, foster mistrust, hatred, prejudice and reliance on ritual over action. It plays into the absolute worst of the innate human tendency towards the in-group/ out-group dichotomy, where those who are "in" are loved, protected and cared for, while those who are "out" are mistrusted, feared and in extreme (but common) cases, murdered. (And please don't tell me what Jesus taught about loving everyone- when even a majority of his followers are actually practicing that, let me know.) 

But faith is not the only culprit. Life is the struggle for finite resources. Most species, and most of this one, are incapable of seeing beyond their own immediate needs and wants in this. Humans have the capacity to, if this skill is honed. Hone it. 

Because the world grows smaller every day, and there is less and less room for the irrelevant distinctions that have divided our species for the last 200,000 years. There is no more room for divisions based on the color of someone's skin, who they lie down next to at night, or which never-seen deity they bow down to. All distinctions are a product of our perception- the distinctions we envision in our mind exist no place else, even when they are shared with others. 

So let us take responsibility for putting the world back together. Neither Jesus, any other son of David or the 13th Imam are going to be coming back in glory any time soon. Nor is global-warming, financial-armageddon, or the end of fossil fuels going to utterly destroy civilization as we know it, though each will certainly be a test. 

But we have to accept that we will face these tests, or others like them, and that there is no parent in the sky to make it all better on the other side. What we cannot do is hole up with like-minded fellows and expect that we will be the lucky few who will come through unscathed. This would make us no better than a dazed congregation swaying and weeping in anticipation of the Rapture. 

But we also must accept that as the world gets more and more crowded, many will adopt this cowardly attitude. There is little we can do about that, expect set a better example.

So find some small bit of good you can do, and do it. You don't need to do it because you are an atheist, or agnostic or a freethinker, but because it makes the world a better place. And that's good for all of us, yourself included. 

But at the same time, don't forget why you are doing it, and don't be afraid to say it. You're not doing it because you fear punishment, or because you hope for some trivial reward. You're bigger than that. You're doing it because your reason has led you to understand that those of us who have managed to shake off the atavistic prejudices of fear and superstition also have the capacity to do more. 

So do it. 


  1. Egad! First, sorry for any distress. Hopefully the examination was productive at least.

    I may not have finished the thought, but I actually experienced some distress at that description when I gave it. The response was, "So how is it different from a Christian blog?" and when I tried to articulate it (which I decided wasn't really worth it in that conversation)I realized kind of what you described above.

    I think I entered this blog through a post specifically addressing some aspect of belief or non-belief, and the initial impression has endured as the blog itself has outgrown those confines. (Jen's totally not just saying that, it's true). It's not an atheist blog in the sense that it isn't single-topic, but I do think that aspect is the sort of mechanism that opens the door to the kind of examination you're engaged in. A probably unnecessary metaphor: I have a friend who was a photographer, but who has since become more energized about installment pieces and mixed media sculpture. I still to some extent think of her as a photographer and the work she did when she was definitely informs the work that she does now. Knowing all the particulars, that she's a photographer is lazy, inarticulate personal shorthand for her artistic endeavors.

    That said, the term "atheist" is definitely freighted with...well, a lot of things, and aside from meaning it also carries a certain antagonistic quality that really isn't applicable to what you're up to. Despite recent attempts by various parties to attach similarly negative connotations to the word "secular", and while it, too, defines itself to some extent in opposition, I like "secular humanism," myself. But yes, "freethinker" also.

    The "who" is important when it comes to the terminology in part because more sympathetic segments of the audience will apply their nuanced understanding of what you're up to to whatever the sign on the door says. But in the same way that we've a responsibility to be critical and precise in our understanding of the world, so it's important to be mindful that words have particular meanings and use them as intentionally as any fact or algorithm. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. I find I spend very little time even thinking about religion, aside from when faced with its absurdity in a manner that can't be ignored (that includes you Rick Santorum). More interesting to me though is the connotation of what agnostic means, and how it is understood by the general population. Instead of taking up three comment spaces on your blog, I wrote something about it on mine;

  3. Just read your post. Enjoyed it.

    What I wanted to make clear here is that I'd prefer to preserve the term "agnostic" for precisely what you describe on your blog. I think that it gets overused in the realm of talking about religion, which just makes most people confused when someone like you or I try to use it in the broader, far more relevant sense.