Agnosticism No More

I'm starting to shift away from being an agnostic atheist. It's been a long time coming, but I've been sort of on the line between adopting the belief that there is no god, and genuine emotional angst over there possibly being one. However after reading +Matt McCormick's piece What’s Left to be Agnostic About? I've done some serious thinking about the topic and feel that I am ready to take the very tiny step necessary to adopting the belief that there is no god. It's by no means an easy step, because despite it seeming that way, I have been asking these questions for years. I always felt that the only fair and rationally justifiable position on the existence of god was that god may or may not exist. The trouble I found is that when defining myself as an agnostic, I wasn't considering what it means not to believe in god. What is god anyway?

Well, we can take various broad definitions, and find ourselves in a place where analysis of god beliefs become mired in endless debates because the definition of god is never quite established. So to be clear, the god I believe does not exist is the god of western philosophy. Philosophy of religion has defined god as basically the monotheistic abrahamic god. This implies that this god must basically possess a few qualities. It has to be 
  1. Omniscient (all knowing)
  2. Omnipotent (all powerful)
  3. Omnibenevolent (all good)
  4. Involved directly in human affairs 
If a definition of god diverges from any of the above, I may feel somewhat agnostic to such gods, especially with regards to the last quality. But nobody else does. Almost everyone in the west finds "gods" which lack those qualities unconvincing, and are atheists with regards to such gods. Gods with finite powers overflow in our history books. Nobody gives them any credibility, so defining myself as agnostic merely to allow for the existence of such entities seems like overkill. 

So what does this mean for my epistemic position? Before I learned anything about theories of knowledge, I recognised that we cannot prove that god does not exist. However in learning more about knowledge, it became increasingly clear that we can't really prove anything to such an extent that the possibility of such a thing is completely removed from reality. So there will always be a possibility that such a being exists and I recognize that in a logical sense, on the condition that apologists can reconcile some of the logical problems inherent in godly superpowers. But I can't pronounce that it is physically possible for such a being to exist. I lack the information to make such a claim, and therefore I think that theists largely assume such a possibility and take it on faith, and I think that due to the cultural baggage of the west carrying the corpse of Christian domination, many atheists grant the physical possibility of such a god even in the face of the logical problems with the superpowers it supposedly posseses. We shouldn't have to. 

The next question may be what nudged me away from agnosticism about god's existence. I would probably say that if apologists and theologians couldn't create convincing arguments in 2000 years for an entity that literally runs the universe, I see no rationally compelling reason to lend such an idea any real weight. That's not to say that we shouldn't take their arguments seriously, but I don't think we should see every apologetic argument as having any realistic chance of being convincing. In fact, a god not existing is completely consistent with failing apologetics, constant divergence between believers and a world that is easily explained by the most libertarian of gods: nature. 

I guess the next question that me from about 2 years ago would pose to me of today is whether this puts me in a precarious position, having to scour the entire universe to disprove god. This is not the case. It is true that I do carry a heavier burden of justification, but I don't find it significantly heavier than the one I had before. If you take the general idea that if a god like the one above did exist, that certain things would be a certain way and that our current state of affairs is sort of weird and unexpected, then that directly contradicts the existence of god. Apologists have responses to these ideas which I am aware of, but their explanations are not as harmonious with the knowledge we possess as the simpler answer, which is that there is no god. If that changes I should find myself shifting back into agnosticism, and if it's good enough I may shift to theism. Given the circumstances we find ourselves in, theism is less rationally justifiable than atheism, and it seems unlikely that this will change in the near future.

I should probably address the argument from ignorance claim that might be flung my way and the good old "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" claims. Let's suppose that there is a common belief that dew is the result of pixies watering the plants every morning. It doesn't take long for anomalies to start pouring in. Why don't they show up when it's dry? Why do they water my car's windscreen if it isn't a plant? Why can't we see them? Now pixieologians can come up with all kinds of clever reasons why that which is apparent is not true. It is quite apparent that there are no pixies, just as it is quite apparent that there is no god. The absence of the pixies were their downfall. At best we shouldn't believe things that give us no no rational reasons to believe them, and we shouldn't cling to beliefs as long as someone can find an explanation, no matter how contrived or invented, to reconcile that belief with reality. Most people frown on the attempts of conspiracy theorists to explain things in contrived ways that some central authority is actually in charge behind the curtain, but when apologists do it we praise their efforts because we've put their beliefs on a pedestal. Just as I am not agnostic about moon landing conspiracies, I won't be with regards to god. With things like science it's different. Reading gradually pulls you in with increasingly convincing arguments. Being convinced just kind of happens without strain. All the questions that seemed odd about pixies, like why they water my car if it isn't a plant, becomes perfectly easily to explain in scientific terms. The anomalies melt away. Theists have to constantly deal with pangs of doubt because there is a large, dark cloud of doubt looming over their beliefs. There aren't articles on the internet about how to deal with doubting evolution or e=mc2. Shouldn't this be surprising if theism was so obviously true and apologetics was so good?

It's taken a lot of thinking, reading and discussion over the years, but I think it would be healthier for me not to lend the credibility to god beliefs I had as an agnostic; not to let mere possibilities lure me into false equivalence between possibility and likelihood. That may change and if it does I am perfectly open to that change and will eagerly refute whatever mistakes I made here. I will continue to take apologists seriously, because I believe we should take all people and their ideas seriously. What I won't do however, is keep pretending that there is a significant possibility that their abject and continued failure is going to turn around.

(PS. If you know theists or apologists that would enjoy reading my blog, please share this with them. I think I can here an echo in here! It's hard to build a diverse audience in such a polarised issue. Thanks!)

Skeptical Theism: If We Can't Win, Everyone Must Lose

It's hard to find relevant images to abstract philosophical concepts okay!?

Sceptical theism is the idea that the best way to respond to evil is essentially to say that God works in mysterious ways. I will try to express why I think this is a weak defense and why I think that the argument from evil still works. 

To put it another way, the sceptical theist responds to the argument from evil by saying that: 

We cannot know whether a particular event that causes suffering was permitted or executed by god in order to prevent a greater evil in the future or bring about a greater good in the future. 

My primary problem with this objection to the problem of evil is that it itself is a type of theodicy, because sceptical theists are not indifferent to the moral nature of god. There is still an inherent belief that god does not allow any unnecessary suffering. In the mind of a sceptical theist then, they have absolutely no justification for the apparent suffering in the world, and the moral nature of god is unknown. I would see sceptical theism as strong as it is exactly because it is a position that has retreated from more stronger claims that apologists usually hold. This also explains why it isn't mainstream. It's implication is that even though the problem of evil does not justify absolute belief that god does not exist, it is a good justification for agnosticism. 

To suggest that god's reasons are inscrutable to man creates a scenario where we cannot judge god as a character whatsoever. Such a lack of capability strikes a serious blow to a god with which you can have a personal relationship. How personal of a relationship do you really have with a being that murders babies and drowns kittens but you just don't know why they do that? It's even worse, because your belief that they have only good intentions when horrific acts happen under their watch is supported by blind faith alone.

Sceptical theism violates a central idea in scepticism, and that is the idea of withholding judgement. You can't claim scepticism and at once be committed to one side of an argument despite agreeing that you have no justification to hold a position. In a desperate attempt to grant the usual weakness of responses to the problem of evil sceptical theists essentially grant the problem of evil most of its power and cripple their own philosophical position in every other quarter. For apologists promoting the idea, it may seem like a victory. At best it is a pyrrhic victory, and at worst it is a devastating defeat with a good PR campaign back home. 

If you want to read more, the IEP has a pretty good coverage of Sceptical theism. What I've said is nothing new, but hopefully a good short primer to the subject.

The Problem Of The Problem Of Evil

The problem of evil is hotly debated in philosophy of religion circles. It is a central concern of theology, and the reason for that is that it destroys the plausibility of Christian theism. If Yahweh is supposed to create moral intuitions in human beings, it boggles the mind as to why the actions and inaction of the deity are contrary to our own moral intuitions. Apologists like William Lane Craig like to state that the appeal of the problem of evil is purely emotional, yet these are the selfsame emotions that this god supposedly created in us. It simply does not make sense that humans would think that a monarch that drowns the vast majority of his people has some underlying good purpose behind this action. 

Apologists like to appeal to intuition when it comes to many of their arguments. Irreducible complexity, a universe requiring a finite beginning, and the idea that the conditions of the universe are tailored  to suit human life are all arguments that appeal to intuitive human thoughts, but when the problem of evil enters the discourse we are told to discard the very intuitions that god supposedly gave us. We need to stretch our imaginations to believe that somehow regardless of all the suffering in the world, it is still the best possible world, or that commanding the genocide of or destroying entire cities is okay because the people in those cities must have been totally depraved and evil. We are supposed to believe that two wrongs make a right, that the ends justify the means. The selective application of intuition by apologists indicates that there is a fundamental flaw in Christian theology, and it cannot be overcome by simplistic analogies and become convincing like other arguments are for christians. We are to believe that a universe that seems indifferent, that random events and suffering are all in service of some bizarre and mysterious higher purpose. 

It might be a good time to point out that many intellectual fields have central problems. Science has the problem of induction for example. But science still holds a pragmatic truth value because of its undeniable utility to the human species. The problem of induction prevents science from achieving absolute truth status, but this is hardly a requirement for it to work. There is absolutely no pragmatic value to the inscrutable actions of an absent deity that is subject to endless disagreement. It is a divisive force that we would profit from throwing on the pile of bad ideas in our history. Modern ethics and jurisprudence has no reliance on the Christian religion anymore and functions perfectly well on its own. In fact whenever Christian ethics interferes with modern ethics it is with a negative effect, such as the institutionalised discrimination against homosexuals in the western world. If we were to judge Christianity only by its utility we would have discarded it long ago. 

What does it mean for an intellectual field that has a central problem that seemingly cannot be solved or dissolved. It casts an ominous shadow on the entire field. Some former Christians claim that reading apologetics made them less convinced. I have no doubt that the problem of evil was central to that experience of apologetics, as I myself have shaken my head at the various responses to the problem of evil that I have seen. As I've previously mentioned, even if theodicies work in theory, there is no direct nod from the deity to indicate their truth. They are just hypothetical explanations for the suffering we see in the world. They are also horribly contrived and often cold to any emotional intuitions; as if crafted by psychopathic PR executives. Saying we live in the best possible world when natural disasters displace millions and destroy lives is an insult to humanity. One of my personal turning points was a thought experiment. I wondered if I could sincerely tell a dying cancer patient that all of the suffering they endured was part of a greater plan. No amount of conviction or love for the Christian god could bring me to that point. 

The problem of evil presents another solution, which is more parsimonious than the one offered by Christian apologists. A world where bad things happen to good people, natural disasters strike, and diseases decimate is perfectly in line with a world that has no master plan, no caretaker, no loving father. Although it seems bleak it results in a call to action; a motivation for us to unify and leave our petty differences behind and make life better for ourselves and all our fellow living things. It means that no eyes have gazed under the ice-covered ocean of Europa. It's a reason for looking beyond our suffering here and now, instead of fantasizing about a hypothetical paradise beyond our current existence. It's a reason to create the best possible world we can create with our limited powers. It's a reason to flourish. If there is some god out there that is looking at how we conduct ourselves, it would be monstrous for it to condemn us for trying to make the real lives of all living things better and indulging in our endless curiosity.

Breaking Down Street Epistemology?

Mark McGee is another apologist on the smear campaign against street epistemology. Although I don't fully agree with the principles of SE(street epistemology), I can't help but defend it simply because there is a very central truth to it that is hard to deny. That truth is that respectful, kind and sincere engagement can change the way we have the global conversation about religion. The book encourages atheists to be kind and thoughtful, and people like +Anthony Magnabosco and +Socrates Jones  are practicing those principles actively. The methods of SE has changed my own life for the better, because I've learned to ask questions instead of going for an all out assault with a battery of logic and philosophy.

Mark does not understand this. Mark is focused squarely on what he perceives as the insidious nature of questioning the faith of others. I'm going to examine some of the things Mark says and I think you will also come to agree with me that Mark's reaction is a knee-jerk reaction and not a reasonable evaluation of SE as it is practised.
"The atheist is looking for possibly unreliable methods to determine belief in God, which means he or she is claiming to know the reliable method to determine belief in God. But, wait a minute! Do atheists believe there is a reliable method to determine belief in God? Of course they don’t. If atheists believed there is a reliable method to believe in God, they would believe in God because they know the method upon which they can rely."
This is a simple misunderstanding. Unfortunately Mark, like other apologists, are not committed to understanding anything that is counter to their strongly held beliefs. It is absolutely true that atheists do not posses a method to reliably know if god exists. That is why we ask believers. If there is a reliable method to know god we want to know what that is. To quote from the SE book:
"Certainty is an enemy of truth: examination and reexamination are allies of truth." - A Manual For Creating Atheists (pg 43)
"It’s obvious that the statement about helping people discover that they’re using an unreliable method to arrive at belief in God is a ruse, a clever trick."
Not at all. I know that when I believed I had poor reasons to believe. So I don't believe anymore. If anyone can show me that there are good reasons to believe I will change my mind. Mark would be lying if he had to assert that most christians have good reasons to believe in god. If he believed that he would not be engaged in apologetics, which aims to soothe the cognitive dissonance believers experience when they encounter disagreement. If these believers had good reasons, Mark would have nothing to fear. The "trick" would not work.
" Christians ask questions to understand what people are thinking and to guide them to supply ‘evidence’ that will help answer people’s questions about God and the Christian worldview."
Not in my experience. Christian street evangelists (who are the opposite of SE practitioners) trigger cognitive dissonance in other christians so they can get those christians to buy into apologetics.
" So, we ask, are street epistemologists (atheists) asking questions to understand what people are thinking so they can supply them with ‘evidence’ to help answer people’s question about the atheist worldview?"
Atheism is not a worldview. I almost feel physical pain at this point having to mention this over and over again.
"Is it reasonable to ask someone to select a percentage of their belief about God?"
"Does that mean anything?"
"Where is the logic in a belief percentage?"
It's very simple. If you have absolute certainty then you assign 100%. Maybe you have some doubts, but you are still sure, so you might say 75%. If you don't believe it will be less than 50%. It is a very simple concept. It is not systematic; it is just meant to be a subjective evaluation from the perspective of the believer.
"From an apologetics perspective, what is the atheist’s argument? What is their evidence? "
Mark wants this to be about apologetics. Somehow we are not allowed to ask people why they believe. We always need to present an argument. It is about the believer's internal reasons for believing what they do. I often use the methods of SE on racists. I will ask them why they think one race is superior to another. As the discussion moves forward, and they become aware that they have poor evidence, they are open to changing their minds. That's the point. If Mark's argument is that we can't just ask people for justification of their beliefs, then he implies that we should leave racists, sexists, and all manner of mistaken people to their own devices. The fact that I use SE on fellow atheists should confuse him, and it should probably confuse him more that I use this exact method to get atheists to abandon bad arguments against religion.
"Asking unreasonable questions in what appears to be a reasonable manner is an off-balancing technique."
I suppose this is fair, but thus far Mark has not demonstrated that any of the questions street epistemologists are asking is unreasonable.
" ‘What if that hadn’t happened to you? Would you still believe in God?’ ‘What if your grandmother didn’t get better after you prayed, would you still believe in God?’ ‘What if the feelings you have after a church service are bad instead of good, does that mean you would feel differently about God?’ And so on. ‘What if’ questions are not based in evidence. They are not reasonable, rational arguments. They are not logical. They are just ‘what if’ questions used as a tactic to confuse and mislead."

This is not the first time I have seen an apologist express a hostile attitude toward thought experiments. What if questions are valuable tools in thinking. What these questions often expose is that the reason the theist has given for their belief in god is not the actual reason they have for belief in god. When they are pressed on this they say that if that event hadn't occurred they would still believe, when they have given a specific event as their reason for belief. This indicates that the believer is just using these justifications as cover for some other underlying reason for belief. The purpose of Socratic method and SE is to get to those reasons.

As a sign of good faith, I will answer Mark's questions:

‘What if Christians you knew growing up in your church had been nicer to you? Might you have grown up believing in God?’

Unlikely. Noah's ark set me on the path of doubt, not how christians behaved. If christian behaviour had any effect, I would have been an atheist much sooner.

‘What if your grandmother had lived instead of died after you prayed for her? Is it possible that you would have believed in God if she was healed?’

Sure it is. Something had to trigger my doubt, and grammy's passing definitely made me think more about my beliefs than I did before.
"That is not a reasonable discussion, it’s a tactic."
Okay, but I just answered the questions without hesitation. It was an interesting thought experiment.
"However, and this is the danger to believers who have not learned why they believe what they believe, unreasonable questions asked in a reasonable fashion often have the appearance of being reasonable and thereby can mislead without being obviously misleading." (my emphasis)
This is exactly the problem with apologetics. If someone does not know why they believe what they believe, they have no justification and should not believe it. That's the entire point of things like SE, to get people in a place where they believe things based on good reasons. But people need to go on this journey for themselves. By telling them why they should continue believing something we rob them of true knowledge. Mark himself was an atheist and claims to have found god through evidence, but he wants to rob others of the journey he himself went through. If you don't have good reasons to believe something, don't believe it. Look at the evidence and decide as objectively as possible whether you find it convincing or not.
"Christians of all ages, but especially the young, must be equipped to ‘recognize’ atheist arguments for what they are, including when there is no argument."
Of course the best way to prevent people from engaging with people they disagree with is to indoctrinate them. If christians have good reasons for their beliefs they don't need to fear SE. In fact SE should have the effect of converting people to their beliefs, because it encourages openness to the ideas of others.
"The word ‘faith’ means “trust, confidence,’ so a crisis of faith means a believer is struggling with trust and confidence issues."
Trust and confidence in what or who? This definition is nonsensical.
"All believers, if they’re honest with themselves, have times in their walk with God when they struggle with trust and confidence, but that doesn’t mean they are going to ‘lose’ their faith."
Doubt is important. Doubt is how we find the truth. And we shouldn't run to our own camps when we feel doubts about any of our beliefs. We should go and see what the other side has to say. If your goal is to find the truth this is what you will do.
"ask them to ask one question at a time and allow you to answer the question before commenting or asking another question."
This assumes that we don't let people answer our questions? Really? In no kind of interaction is that desired. In fact the Gish Gallop was a Christian invention. I haven't seen it used by SE practitioners. What this seems like is an outright lie.
" A true conversation is two-sided. What atheists are looking for is a one-sided event where they ask questions for the purpose of pushing their agenda on an unsuspecting victim."
There is nothing that prevents believers from responding with questions. This is where I diverge from SE. I think an exchange is positive and should be promoted. However I don't think that SE practitioners refuse equal exchanges. At least I've never seen it.
"Atheists are not trying to help anyone discover a reliable method for believing in God. They have one primary motive – to lead believers to ‘disabuse themselves of their faith.’ That’s a term atheists use as the goal of talking people out of their ‘faith tradition, irrationality, and superstition,’ and ‘into reason.’ Atheists believe that once they can lead people ‘into reason,’ the former believers will ‘disabuse themselves of their faith.’"
The level of projection here is severe. Christian apologists are focused on converting people, so it is hypocritical to find that behaviour wrong in others. Yes, I want to talk people out of their poorly held beliefs. That is true about every kind of belief be it about science, politics or religion. I want to live in a world where people have good reasons for believing things. As far as I can tell, Christians have poor reasons for their beliefs, so they must abandon them if we are to have a better world. If people can use reason to come to belief in god, then more power to them, but I am not okay with a majority of the world having beliefs for stupid reasons like being taught to believe those things by their parents. We need to move beyond that as a species because it represents the friction that hampers our continued progress.
"Because I’ve been on both sides (atheist and theist) I have some background in what each side is doing and why they’re doing it."
Not really. It is evident that Mark was not a intellectually fulfilled atheist. Anyone who refers to the "atheist worldview" is ignorant about stronger forms of atheism.
"They need to know that the atheist world is coming for them and will use any trick they can find to deceive them to the point of questioning what they believe. Teach your children what to believe ‘and’ why they can be confident that what they believe is the Truth based on truth and reason."
I'll use this final comment to move into my conclusions. There was a time before SE, when all we did was try and show religious people the flaws of their beliefs. This method is not convincing to people. People need to follow their own path to knowledge. Each and every one of them. By talking at them instead of to them nothing changed. Street Epistemology changed all of that. It is the beginning of a discussion that I think we need to have to improve the way we conduct ourselves in these exchanges. We never asked questions. Questions give people a chance to reason through their beliefs. There isn't a better question than one that makes you think. It is a gift, and if it results in you changing your mind it can be extremely rewarding. Apologists like Mark are in damage control mode. They know that most christians don't have good reasons to be christian. If most of those christians realise that the rational step for them would be to abandon their faith and investigate the question objectively as committed agnostics there would be a level playing field. Mark does not want that, because he knows that once people lose their belief in god it is unlikely to return. He is an exception, not the rule. 

The idea that we are trying to trick people is the worst part of what Mark has to say. He assumes that we think we need to trick people to get them to abandon their faith. That we are inherently dishonest and evil. It makes me angry that apologists keep smearing us like this. We have a difference of opinion. We are trying as honestly as possible to get people to question. That's really all we want: people who question, doubt and consider things carefully and abandon certainty.  

The truth is that Mark is afraid, and he should be. Mark is afraid that SE will work, and that there will be more atheists. He is afraid of people asking questions. He knows that people who embrace their doubts are likely to lose their faith. He doesn't want to see that, because he assumes that he has "Truth" with a capital letter T. Maybe Mark should listen to what SE is about, instead of trying to smear us evil tricksters.

Ego & Humility: What's An Ego For Anyway?

One of the primary struggles I have in my life has been my ego. I can feel it encroaching wherever I go. Your ego is a self identity that you craft out of the bits and pieces that you know about yourself as a coherent whole. An ego is a peculiar thing, given that you, me or anyone else is not really a coherent whole to begin with. You might think you are a object, but we are all really just fluctuations in a contiguous soup of particles. The hydrogen atoms occupying my brain at this very moment that I am writing this are not a part of me, they are sojourners bound for other places in the universe. But is it meaningful to say "in the universe" in the first place? Aren't we all just arbitrary subsections of the universe?

Why would I get all philosophical about our place in the universe? How is it relevant to the ego? Well, once you disconnect the concept of the ego from reality you can start to view it as an independent concept crafted by your mind. It's a view that works better at self evaluation because "me" is a someone, but that someone is just a concept. Your mind will craft all kinds of ideas about you. There will be a coherent narrative of who you are and what kind of person you are, and your mind will vigorously defend the concept of self, trying to avoid changing it too much, especially in the face of negative information. It makes sense to have a positive self image, because a negative self image can result in self loathing and indifference to your own needs of survival. In an evolutionary sense, an ego makes total sense.

However when we are trying to form accurate pictures of reality our egos become dead weights. Some things that we see in a particular way make up part of our ego narrative, so we defend those ideas to the death. Upon close self reflection, it doesn't make sense. To get away from being abstract, let me give an example. If you belong to The Order Of People Of Whom We Shall Not Speak, and believe this makes you a good person, then any negative views of the order will instantly trigger your ego defenses. You then resign from being an objective observer of that order.  Once our ego defences are triggered it becomes hard, if not impossible, to remain objective.

When you insult someone, you basically attack their sense of self. Their ego narrative becomes a target. That's why people who don't engage in self reflection or deep thought are so easy to hurt, because they attach their egos to superficial characteristics such as their weight or their financial status. E.O. Wilson, who should know better, called Richard Dawkins a journalist, which in the context of Dawkins' apparent ego narrative is very disparaging. But why is this supposed to work? Why is it that we target a particular person and not their ideas? One thing that people betray when they do this is that they admit that this is something that will work to undermine themselves, so they use it on other people to have that same effect. The reason E.O. Wilson attacked Dawkins by calling him a journalist reflects his apprehension that Dawkins's ego narrative contains the label "scientist", which Dawkins values when considering himself.  

I want this post to highlight the idea that the self is a separate thing and that there is no real self, only views constructed by our own minds to describe ourselves. If we can view ourselves this way, we can begin to objectively evaluate our self concept in order to find potential errors, and to consider ideas with the cognizance of how our self concept informs our interactions with others. Egos are not bad in themselves. They are just something that we need to be aware of in all our judgements, so that we don't get into a position where we emphasize our existing egos over other more important things like finding the truth.

Ego & Humility: Introduction

I want to continue my blog posts about discourse, this time with a focus on general attitudes instead of strategies for productive dialogue. In retrospect I should have started with this, because I think that people who already agree with me on the points I am about to make are more likely open to the idea of focusing on making discussions more productive and meaningful, and those people who disagree will probably look at me as some sort of moralist or sensitive person who wants to take all the fun out of the internet by making it "politically correct" or being the internet behaviour police.

For clarity, the discussions I enjoy the least are the discussions I have with people about their behaviour. I can feel the animosity seeping out of the pixels of the letters in their comments. I understand that people don't like their behaviour criticized and honestly I don't like doing it. I only do it because I feel it is necessary.

Hopefully the arguments I will make in the following posts will make my position more clear and my intentions understandable. I hope it will highlight the path I am advocating for, not as an oppressive regime of stoic behaviour and perpetual cheek turning, but as a positive direction in order to reach meaningful goals. The name of the post series indicates something that I hold to be true. No person can ever claim to be humble, because by claiming that you are humble, you immediately prove that you are not. Therefore humility is an unattainable quality, but the one I consider most valuable in seeking.

What do I mean by humility? I mean approaching the world and all its people from the assumption your conclusions and your self is no more valuable or significant than any other. By ego I mean our evaluation of ourselves. It's impossible to achieve absolute humility, and if you find this post in the midst of me being an arrogant jerk that's because I am failing myself. If you came here for ammunition, I give you a confession of my own failure.

If it seems odd to  you to discuss personal attributes in the context of having discussions with others, it will become more clear. It's important to remember that you are a primary participant in your interaction with others, so your own personality plays a vital role in any interaction. To not be mindful of your own personality is to neglect 50% of the equation.

You Represent Atheism

If you are an atheist, you represent atheism. Recently I've been in quite a few discussions on how atheists behave on the internet, and among those discussions there are different opinions as to how we can improve our interactions with believers. There is a disturbing view held by some atheists that a single person doesn't represent the movement, so if that single person behaves poorly it's totally okay and we should just move on and let it go.

Please see exhibit A

If you haven't seen it, please watch it through to the end. Now consider this. This guy represents you as an atheist. You may think "he doesn't represent atheism" and formally that is correct. It's also correct that people shouldn't look at this guy and make a generalization about atheists. But we live in reality where people make fallacious conclusions, so when someone who knows little about atheists sees this, they use this guy as a template for what atheists are like. Even though the guy is clearly behaving like a huge asshole we will never be able to live this one down because whether we like it or not, people generalize from seeing this.

Do you need evidence? Just read some of the comments:

Hah. 'Militant' Atheists. They complain about irrational people and bigots, but are bigots and irrational themselves. Any smart person would just ignore the preacher of any religion and move on with their day.
Typical atheist youtube commenter in real life
That's how i imagine most of the atheists on the internet. Crazy
here you see an atheist in the wild
that foul soul is the embodiment of atheism.. excluding the greasy brown hair, neckbeard, fedora and cheetoes fat
Now to be fair lots of people were pointing out the fact that this guy is not representative, and lots of people expressed understanding. But that is not the point. The people we should be trying to reach, the people who are victims of simplistic thinking, are the ones that get a bad impression from this guy. Is that really an image we want to cultivate?

Lots of atheists expressed their distaste at this guy's behaviour. But this guy is an extreme case. There are many atheists around the web that do exactly what this guy is doing in text form and atheist YouTubers behaving badly in video form. These channels have thousands of subscribers. I don't want to drag any specific channel into this though, because it distracts from the point. What do you want atheism to look like to outsiders? If you support these channels you are sending a message that it's okay for atheism to look like that. And we can say these people don't represent us, but here is a particularly bad one speaking to that point himself: say I don't represent atheism, I seem to have several thousand people behind me. How many do you have? That is pretty clear indication that my thoughts and beliefs are hitting home and well grounded. Supported in full by thousands of total strangers.
They know they have support. They know that calling believers childish names gets subscribers, and they love the attention. We constantly go on about how Westboro Baptist Church is wrong, but we support the equivalent in our atheist communities. The person who made the comment above made a comment on a believer's YouTube page calling him a c***. People who think that is witty and incisive need their heads checked. The fans of this channel defended this guy. Fellow atheists, thinking it's totally okay to behave this way. This is an example of how those people respond:
I don't see myself as being a part of some cult where we have guidelines or doctrines that tell us how we should act and what we should say and how we should say it. In fact I think the worst impression of atheism you can give is the one I'd get from someone like you who comes off as some type of religious authority figure.
Other responses included calling me boring, accusing me of whining and thinking I am a killjoy and think that we should treat believers with kid gloves. I believe that mockery and firm statements have their place, but that common decency should be a given.  Telling someone not to go around calling people childish names is telling them to be decent members of society. 

Aggression is the worst way to resolve intellectual disputes, and attempting to shame and insult others never changes their mind. So when people do this they work against their own goals of a better society. But some of these people who do this don't have our best interests at heart. They are just in it for themselves. For example:
Hmmm, my exponential subscriber growth doesn't impress you......vs your 0 count. Wow. I'm hurt. The money I make off my videos just won't feel the same now that you aren't impressed.
This is the caliber of atheist that represents you, me and every other atheist in the minds of the people that see how they behave. Thankfully, the person who posted this loses subscribers quite often, but amidst new growth, it's hard to see an end to the problem. 

So when you talk to believers, when you reshare a post or make a video, keep in mind that you are representing a position we all share. If you do it poorly you act against the goal of changing peoples' minds. By just subscribing or liking something, you have a minor effect on the course of history. Everyone sees what you do on the internet. Every comment is the past equivalent of a published letter. 

If you see someone else behaving badly, don't just walk on by, tell them the effect of what they're doing. Let them know that they are self sabotaging, and by extension sabotaging all of us and society in general. We need to find ways to increase meaningful engagement on the internet and to make it clear that people who hold our position value decency and respect, and are willing to tackle differences on the basis of the facts and arguments, and not by screaming louder or calling people names. If we look like a bunch of juvenile internet trolls we won't achieve a damn thing, but if we behave like thoughtful, humble human beings we will get the audience of the people who most need this change, the victims of organized religion.