An Evening With Russell Glasser
Ever have one of those nights you really never thought would happen? Lately I have been having those. I have that night where I get emails from strangers thanking me for writing what I write. I have nights where someone I didn’t even know existed, who lives halfway around the globe, dismantled an entire piece I spent days writing. But then tonight, I had a special ‘one of those’ nights.
The food drive went really well and we had a great time packing boxes for the elderly. So, when I saw there was a ‘Nerd Herd’ night to be had with this same skeptics group, I was signed up before the page finished loading. The idea is that they get together once a month or so, and the group lets people give a short 8-10 minute talk about a subject of their choosing. Followed by a discussion of varying length depending on topic, progression of the conversation, and how many times Benito wants to talk. (Hi Benito!)
After signing up I read the ‘more…’ section of the description. It appeared there would be a ‘special guest’ at this meet up. Some dude named… let me see if I bothered to keep the notes…. um… oh yes, Russell FUCKING Glasser. Yeah THAT Russell Glasser. The man of atheistic fame from little shows like The Atheist Experience and the wonderful podcast The Non-Prophets. This man is one of the handful of people who unknowingly helped me get off the god glasses and get to doing the work I’ve found I love so much. I place him, for me personally, with David Smalley, Christopher Hitchens, Matt Dillahunty, Seth Andrews and Daniel Dennett. I mean that, this guy and his work are formative to me. So, no pressure… no pressure at all. It’s ONLY a chance to sit at a table of 12 or so people and having 8 minutes to basically show the guy what I’ve got.
So I did what any self loathing writer would do, I put a question out to my readership. “If you were going to this group, what would you like to hear me talk about for 8 minutes”. A few suggestions came in via email, FB, text, etc. The best one by far was ‘Apathy in Atheism’. So, today I plunked down at my keyboard and wrote what I feel like is a good representation of what my fears are with apathetic atheism, a few things we all could either start doing, or do better, and a couple of punch lines. What follows is that 8 minute talk. I wasn’t able to video or audio record, as it was too informal a setting. It would have just been weird, trust me. So, I have the written transcript as it were. I hope you enjoy it.
Oh, and I’m just going to leave this here.
Apathy in Atheism
First Id like to define apathy as “lack of emotion; or lack of interest; a listless condition; indifference.”
So, what does apathy matter to Atheism or Secularism as movements?
Here are a couple of quotes I have found on apathetic atheism (often referred to as apatheism):
“My unbelief is apathetic and simply follows from my materialism – I don’t see why I should care about the non-existence of gods.”
“Of course god doesn’t exist. So what?”
The above intentional apathy would make sense in a closed system where, once you discard those things which cannot be evidenced you move on, but we don’t live in a vacuum. We live in a world of thousands of different opinions about gods, their existence, and their roles in the world.
I’ve no doubt there are several ‘kinds’ of atheists here tonight ranging from the evangelical atheist like myself, to the more secular ‘live and let live’ kind. What happens in a movement like ours is that a lot of people see the movement gaining momentum and popularity (often a metric that’s distorted by ones own confirmation bias) and think ‘good, I’m glad someone is doing that’ or ‘whats the harm in my keeping quiet?’ or ‘I’m not a public figure, why would I need to be active in my non-belief?
That answer is two-fold: 1. Any positive publicity and ‘normalization’ of secularism and atheism will help keep the movement growing, reaching more people and to become a more accepted world view 2. Apathy like this allows entropy in the movement to propagate.
The first point is fairly obvious but nonetheless seems to be downplayed. People seem to undervalue the effect they can have on others. Your active, if subtle, work can mean the world to the right person at the right time. Not everyone is a ‘firebrand’ but you can be effective in your own ways.
The second point might be less obvious. Ideas and cultures take hold in society not because they are good ideas, but because people hold them up to BE good ideas. A lot of us would argue that a religious nation is a horrible idea, but there have been several over the years due to the ideas being actively propagated. When people stop actively supporting a cultural ideal or norm, that idea can fade from consciousness. When we stop actively endorsing secularism, or atheism, the movement can experience a lot of entropy and run down. An ironic but topical analogy would be the Church. If you leave the congregation to keep itself motivated, entropy starts to kick in and people get distracted with work, family, kids, politics, etc. The system runs down. What do they do to resolve the apathy in church? Revivals, camps, active study sessions, etc.
So, all that being said, what can we do to eliminate apathetic behaviors from our movement?
I feel there are four things we can do to eliminate apathetic behaviors:
Criticize Religious Belief
It’s important to point out why mistaken beliefs are mistakes. If people were able to maintain beliefs in packets or quanta, then a single bad belief may not be so bad. However studies seem to indicate that belief systems (and subsequently the process one uses to come to those beliefs) permeate most if not all of that persons decision-making. Believing that you are going to heaven might not be a destructive behavior on the surface, but it could also make one not resolve chasms between them and other family members filling that chasm with ‘we will be okay once we are in heaven’ not realizing you have just missed your chance to have a meaningful relationship with that person. Having a ‘Jesus take the wheel’ approach to life might sound harmless and even stress relieving, until you apply that mindset to your local bus driver’.
It’s also very important to not let people have unchallenged beliefs in the public forum. As has been pointed out time and time again, when we challenge beliefs and philosophies we are not necessarily working to change the mind of the person holding said beliefs, but to present thought bombs to others that are reading the material, watching the video, etc.
The more people have to rationally, publicly and without quarter, defend their beliefs and positions the more we will see these ideas for what they. These ideas can successfully thrive when in a closed system like a church, but when you have to apply them to reality and defend them in a public forum, they fall apart. People need to see that happen.
Promote Positive Atheism
This may seem obvious, but a LOT of people have the mentality of ‘that’s someone else’s job’. I’m not saying you need to be an activist per se. You may not want to do like me and write a blog, run a Facebook page or two, start a podcast AND work a full-time job. But that doesn’t mean you can’t speak up when you see something that needs to be spoken about. You can pass around information on Facebook, emails, casually correcting the course of conversations that you see headed down pseudo-scientific or nonsensical paths.
The other side of the promotional coin is more simple still, its promotion through action. Just by living your life as a ‘out atheist’ and showing people how you really can be good without god often goes further in showing that we have a more favorable world view than yelling about how stupid and retarded someones beliefs are. Follow the secular golden rule of ‘don’t be an ass’ and then be willing to explain to others how you came to your moral or ethical conclusions without invoking imaginary friends or bronze age poems.
Support other Atheists
Being an active member of atheistic or secular organizations like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the clergy project, JREF, Back Yard Skeptics, or any other groups you can find is a great way to support other atheists. Giving money to activists activities, like supporting your favorite podcasts, Call-In Public Access TV shows… sorry I meant (*motions to Russell* ) Internet Show. *Note: inside joke, since dropping the Austin Public Access show and going internet based, Russell has had some trouble changing his intro spiel, and it’s quite funny*
You can attend conferences, or even small groups like this one. You do a great amount to support other atheists simply by giving them a community, a forum… Or like what you are doing for me now, a small boost of self-esteem to help keep me pushing forward in my own activism.
Lastly on the topic of supporting atheists, be sure to speak up in public or private conversations where you feel like an atheist or secularist is not being treated like a human being. Here in SoCal there is a lot less of this than in the south where I came from. Having the guts to stop a conversation that’s basically ‘you are a crappy human being, how can you not love god, you are going to burn in hell’ can be both a HUGE amount of support to the person being attacked, as well as a reminder to the attacker that they are not going to be allowed to be bullies anymore, that we stand together. Sometimes just being there for someone is enough. Just telling them that you really do understand what its like for them leaving their religion can be enough to keep someone on the path to stepping out from their delusions.
Confront Our Own Hypocrisy, Biases, and Repudiate Bad Behavior
We aren’t Christians, how can we be hypocrites, right? Joking aside, at the bottom of all of these debates is the fact that we are human beings. Flawed, imperfect human beings. We all have, at one time or another, told someone not to do something when we have done the opposite. We have all chastised believers or other skeptics for their positions, lack of logic or rationality while not applying those methodologies to our own beliefs.
Hypocrisy is something we ALL commit. How we deal with it afterward and how we work to minimize it in the future is what matters. One must first be willing to admit they can be wrong, and be willing to call yourself out on your mistakes, instead of doubling down on bad information.
Biases are like assumptions, they are dangerous because most of the time you don’t know when you are wrapped up in one. Developing a good toolkit for recognizing and dismantling biases is a great way to fight the apathy of atheism. It’s good for kicking yourself in the butt every now and then and saying ‘I wonder what nonsense “I” still believe?’. The really hard thing is once you recognize an inconsistency is actually working on that evaluation and finding the truth. Being willing to say, “I was wrong” or to tell a story “where I was SO mistaken” not only helps you to (as Matt Dillahunty would say) believe as many true things and as few false things as possible. It also helps tremendously with showing others that its OK to be wrong, and that you can be wrong about things yet find the right answers.
Repudiating ‘bad’ Behavior
We simply MUST own up to our own actions or inactions, taking responsibility for ourselves. If you do something wrong, admit it. If you back a fallacious idea or philosophy , be willing to admit that and be willing to do the personal work to change. There isn’t much more that needs to be said. Own your side of the street.
Apathy in this movement could be a deathblow to all the great work that’s been done so far by so many, so please stay positive, stay active, and keep thinking.