On the Herding of Cats

Massimo Pigliucci - professor and writer

Massimo Pigliucci - professor and writer

The latest saga in Atheist groups having falling outs now appears to be happening at New York City Atheists where Massimo Pigliucci has resigned – his blog on the subject can be found here. It seems to boil down to criticism of the way the organisation campaigned on secular issues, not enough effort in social functions, and a leadership style that would not allow dissent.

Reminiscent of the Ellen Johnson story a few months ago. But there is genuine disagreement among secularists about how to respond in the twenty first century. Dawkins likens this to the hammer and feather approach to critics. Something which I touched on when the local secular group was to protest outside a Ken Ham talk here. The disagreement did not lead to a melt down because we understood where we were coming from and were united by the fact that we wanted to challenge creationism in the classroom.

The thing is that in any organisation you do not want “Yes” people. You want honest responses from the people involved in getting things done. You do want “Can do” people – but sometimes people confuse that with always agreeing with what you are saying. I have been involved in organisations that sometimes do not want to live by the rules that govern committees.

But there is a genuine disagreement about the approach – the hammer or the feather – within secular societies and atheists as individuals. My own position is that secularism is not synonymous with atheism or humanism. The stance that the state should not favour one religion over another, safeguarding the free thought of citizens is one that benefits all.

At the same time I appreciate what the four horsemen (Dawkins, Dennet, Harris and Hitchens) have done for putting the issue of religion on the public agenda. Massimo though does worry at the end of the blog:

The problem is uncritical adherence to any kind of ideology, and atheism can be as unpleasant an ideology as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. We can do better, and the cleaning has to start at home. That is why, with much regret, I left New York City Atheists.

Because that is exactly what atheism is not. There is no way of looking at society as an atheist – the non belief in supernatural explanations for things does not tell me anything about economics, codes by which society should run or which non supernatural based political system should be in place, or how health care should be structured. From a philosophical point of view atheism is like he mentioned earlier – a non belief in god. People that treat it more then that are delusional.

Secularism on the other hand is a political principle based on the idea of defending the liberty of people, religious tolerance, avoiding the tyranny of the state, and the separation of church and state. That does have ramifications in how that principle is applied – or broken – in public and private spheres that ideologies and paradigms have something to say on.

On that point he does hit the nail on the head:

I also know that we need much more than angry denunciations to overcome the religious fundamentalist onslaught and change society for the better. This change comes to pass through real tolerance and pluralism, not the fake kind espoused in “sermons” preached by autocratic atheists.

That is true and leadership in the secular movement needs to take advantage of the publicity that has been generated to show that positive social change can happen, and that there are decent citizens who just happen to be atheists. If atheist groups make as their goal the destruction of religion then in terms of the political agenda there will be no change in how fundamentalists think; nor indeed are you for pluralism or tolerance. If what you want is to promote reason and science on social issues, the teaching of comparative religion and preventing the school curriculum being subject to a faith interpretation – you are promoting an idea that needs your energy.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “On the Herding of Cats

  1. I had my own experience with NYCA’s Jane Everhart that was beyond bizarre for words. They advertised an event with a speaker, Rook Hawkins of the Rational Response Squad. I know this kid, smart reasonably well read kid. However I did notice some factual errors in how they promoted him.
    1) He was a Public Historian – Technical term
    2) He was invited to write for an academic series / edit scholar’s essays – Not true to date he doesn’t have a publisher and was asked to retract the claim that he was invited to write for the Copenhagen Seminar
    3) He translated the bible from Greek – Presuming modern it would take someone 5 years @ 17wpm 4hrs/day.

    No issue with the guy speaking, but I didn’t want any misrepresentation. After all of we’re going to be critical of the Discovery Institute or Kent Hovind, we have to apply the same standards to our selfs. Intellectual fraud is IMHO worse than financial fraud, and misrepresenting the bible is one of the oldest crimes and if you’re going to claim Jesus didn’t exist, as in he was a fictional character rather than just a guy who told a pretty good parable and had a modest following, you need some pretty good proof. And translating the bible by 25, even from modern Greek.

    (1) was retracted in favor of self taught expert. (2) was never addressed even though it’s on record that they don’t have a publisher. (3) was met with a Vatican conspiracy theory and accusations of molesting alter boys. And this was the communications directory of NYC Atheists, not some irate member.

    The issue became a larger one. I’m an atheist, apatheist type. Given any polar issue, each side will point at the worst advocates of the other side as evidence of typical. I’m no fan of organized religion, and I am a strong supporter of secularization, but if I’m going to even propose the moderates keep their religious fanatics in check, I must do the same of those who happen to share my philosophical position. This point can’t be said enough.

    The communications director of NYC Atheists addressed legit criticism by numerous people cross the globe by labeling them as theists, and refused to address the core issue which was whether a 25 year old boy actually translated the Bible from Greek. Even worse, claims of harassment over 4 e-mails, threats of legal action, and a rant spanning 3000 words, over what should have been a simple matter of fact checking. Heavy censorship, but I archived every discussion on this matter with their members. Even claims that the Jane resorted to calling me a pedophile was a result of being flooded by phone calls till 3:30am 10Aug2008, but the message in question was time stamped 9Aug2008 10:54pm.

    There are deep issues at the core of NYC Atheists that should be addressed.
    This issue is presently being discussed over on RichardDawkins.net http://tinyurl.com/NYCADawkins

    We need to check our own backyard if we even consider promoting reason over superstition.

  2. I won’t state my views about the NYCA and Everhart because I’m sick of writing about it at this point. If anyone wants to know, please read a mile long post I made about the subject at Atheists Today.

    http://atheiststoday.com/forum/viewthread.php?forum_id=24&thread_id=160&pid=1823#post_1823

    To address your blog points, I am wondering what kind of *community* Atheists would benefit from. It’s a very complicated issue. Other than being Atheists, or green eyed, or fill-in-the-blank, two individuals may have nothing else in common, so how do we form a *community*? I believe we need meetup groups designed purely for social interaction but we also need activist organizations to fight for and protect our rights. I do not feel that meetup groups should pressure members into being activists. If they want and activist branch of the group, go for it, but they should make the primary focus of the core meetup group social. I think most Atheists would enjoy interacting with other Atheist, therefor I believe the social networks are very important. We also need in-your-face activists who have the backbone to stand up and cause a ruckus when our rights are being trampled. And last but not least, we need Atheists who take a softer approach and try to politely alter societies prejudice against Atheists.

    What we don’t need are cults-of no-god and people who are so hateful that they are a detriment to the Atheist *community*. (a term I use loosely) Those people should be shunned and ignored until they go away.

  3. Where I live we have Skeptics in the Pub, which is a social gathering (and odd guest speaker). Then there is a Secular Society that hosts talks, and promotes activism. Which fulfill those separate needs.

    I had a discussion with Matt Chapman about different approaches. We agreed that the key was what ever worked.

    But I agree that being an atheist does not necessarily mean there is a ready made community that thinks the same beyond rationality and reason over superstition and the supernatural. Which was one reason why I thought atheists promoting a health care policy was a step too far.

  4. We are Anonymous

    This our take on the situation

    Encyclopedia Dramatica
    http://encyclopediadramatica.com/New_York_City_Atheists

    We will be watching.

    Have a nice day,

    Anonymous

    PS Keep up the good work!

  5. A potential disadvantage of doing it in general is that the subconversations would become more isolated from each other and it would be harder to discuss connections between them. ,

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