People Are the Problem and They Pretty Much Always Will Be

Today PZ Myers ruminates about the problems he has with the atheist movement here in the US, much of which, from my point of view, boils down to “the problem is that there are people in it.”

Which, I will hastily note, is not me snarking. People are hierarchical, status-sensitive and in many ways fundamentally conservative creatures. We crave structure, hate disruption and are wary of outsiders and change. And some people are just plain rotten people, and those people are widely distributed. I’m not entirely sure why the atheist movement (and/or the various public examples of it) would be at all different. And given the larger society in which the atheist movement in the US exists, it’s not entirely surprising that things play out as Myers notes:

Too many atheists turn out to be just as shallow as the fervent faithful I rail against. Too many see atheism as another useless difference they can use to excuse discrimination against others they are already prejudiced against. I used to have this illusion that an atheist society would be more tolerant, that under it government and education would be secular, but the churches would still exist, if people wanted to attend them — a sort of Scandinavian ideal. But no, what I’m fast learning is that tolerance isn’t automatically a property of abandoning the false tribe of religion, but is more a reflection of the greater culture it is embedded in. Atheists can still hold a “kill the wogs” mentality while babbling about the wonders of science; people who regard women as servile appliances for their gratification don’t seem to become suddenly enlightened once the scales of faith fall from their eyes.

Shorter, reductive version: Atheists are as perfectly capable of being complete assholes as anyone else; becoming an atheist will not, in itself, keep one from being a complete asshole. This isn’t surprising; what would be surprising, in fact, is if it did. Because that would be a first, in the history of all humans and all of their congregations, regardless of how, and around what, these congregations formed.

This is why, incidentally, the phrase “we’re supposed to be better than that,” drives me crazy, when it’s used as a way to argue against a group of people laying down certain official guidelines in how to deal with each other, most recently in dealing with harassment issues. Sure, okay, you’re supposed to be better than that, but you know what? You’re not, because you’re all human. Having one thing in common, whether it be a belief or enthusiasm or hobby or political mission, does not make you immune, individually or as a class, to all the other ridiculous social baggage humans carry with them all the time. The belief that it does or should, among other things, creates within any assemblage the space for assholes to thrive and prey on other people.

I am agnostic of an atheistic sort (I don’t believe based on the scientific evidence that the universe needed a creator but as a technicality I’m aware I can neither prove nor disprove that one existed), and quite a lot of my friends are also agnostic or atheist. But they are not my friends because they are agnostic or atheist, nor are they better people because they are agnostic or atheist. They are people who are good and are atheist/agnostic. In some cases becoming atheist/agnostic helped them to become good people, by helping them to abandon ideologies that led them to treat people poorly. In other cases, they were good people, who also came to believe the universe didn’t need a god in it to exist.

Conversely, there are people who believe the same things I do, with regard to the existence of god, who I judge to be absolute shitcanoes. Sometimes they were already shitcanoes, and sometimes they have decided their atheist/agnostic beliefs allow them — or even demand them — to be absolute shitcanoes to others. They’re terrible people and I want nothing to do with them. I’m okay with calling them out for being terrible people.

You don’t get credit with me simply for believing something I believe. You get credit for how you deal with other human beings.

I think internalizing the fact that no opinion/belief/enthusiasm inoculates either you or anyone else from the baser aspects of the human condition, or the larger social milieu in which we all exist, is probably a very smart thing to do. It helps manage the disappointment when the cool new group you find yourself with is eventually revealed to be full of flawed and fallible human beings, and it helps to free you from the initial desire to rationalize shitty behavior within a group merely for the sake of identity politics. And on the rare occasions when everyone in the group is actually good and decent, it allows you to appreciate just how nice that really is.