Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Atheism, Spiders, Stones, and "Elitism"

Paul Spinrad is concerned with atheism's elitist proclivities, so very concerned:

If they [atheists] really think the world would be better off without religion, they shouldn't hate religion and call believers fools. Any successful new belief system must appreciate the beauty of what it's replacing and strive for backwards-compatibility. If Matthew 1:1-16 hadn't explained how Jesus' lineage fulfills the prophecy in Isaiah 1:1-5, it wouldn't have gotten where it is today.
Truly? So if anti-meth activists really think the world would be better off without meth, they shouldn't hate meth and call meth users fools. And if abolitionists really thought the world would have been better without slavery, they shouldn't have hated slavery and should not have said untoward things about slaveholders. If people who don't like suitcases full of venemous spiders, well, you get the point. Or is it elitist to demand the removal of the houseguest bearing the suitcase full of venemous spiders?

No, "backward-compatibility" in the sense described is not mandatory. To desire removing the sharp stone from your shoe merely depends on the insight that the shoe without the sharp stone would make for less painful standing and walking. It's not necessary to suggest a positive replacement for the sharp stone -- a dull stone, a cotton ball, a skein of silken thread; nor does the recommendation require that walking and standing would be perfect after the stone is removed. In itself, removing the stone would be an obvious improvement, and that's enough.

When you actually think the world would be better off without X, you don't typically shrink from speaking plainly about the downsides of X, nor from saying unkind things of the people who fail to appreciate these downsides or even continue to promote X. The tone and substance of the plain speaking will vary according to the particulars of the situation, but it is simply not true that calling people fools has never made a difference. It has done so and it will do so again and again so long as there are better and worse ways to understand and live in the world, and so long as there are people wise and experienced enough to tell the difference.

Knowledge, wisdom and experience are not elitism, and even if they are (or manifest in that way), it is better to be elitist and truth-seeking than popular and bullshit-swaddled. I know this because I'm experienced with each.


lastobelus said...

You have to be careful removing a stone from your shoe.

I was walking along talking to a friend once, and I stepped on a stone and it caught in my boot and I reached down to hook it out with my finger and immediately started spurting blood all over the place and had to go to the hospital & get stitches.

Ryland Sanders said...

A wise man (I think it was Robert Heinlein) once wrote that the touchstone for a fair deal is to see how you like it if the terms of the deal are reversed. I wonder how Mr. Spinrad feels about atheism; would the world be better off without it? If so, shouldn't he then try to appreciate the positive aspects of atheism rather than just chucking it out?

Dale said...

lasto, wow! Thanks for the warning. You can never be too careful. Apparently.

Ryland, call it a genre. There are two groups of people who are willing to take the Bible and Koran literally: atheists and fundamentalists.

Atheists do so to say: look how terrible these books are! Let's chuck them out the nearest window!

Fundies to do it to say: god is a bad-ass! We'd better do what he says no matter what or he'll turn us to pillars of salt and/or torture us eternally!

There's a genre of criticism that targets taking the books literally, and when it originates from a certain kind of mushy centrist-y liberal-ish commenter (our dear Mr. Spinrad comes to mind, as does Chris Hedges) it ignores the fundies and goes directly at the atheists.