Sunday, May 6, 2007

Confrontation. What is my focus?

My wife just unexpectedly breached our do-not-talk-of-religion taboo. Even though her phrasing was not conducive to dialog -- she was more interested in making a point -- I am very glad to see some discussion maybe starting to happen. It's certainly better than none.

I had just read an article on Afarensis disputing one anti-evolutionist's claim that:

All the hominid fossils we have wouldn't fill a single coffin.
Afarensis handily deals with this misconception, summarizing with:

The Catalogue of Fossil Hominids put out by the British Natural History Museum in 1976 listed over 3900 fossils. I've heard recent estimates in the 10,000 range. In short, DaveScot doesn't know what he is talking about.
I found this amusing and related the story and the summary to my wife. She took it in, and sighed over the original claim. And then she stopped, leaned a bit against the piano behind her, and said, "You know...." That's when it happened. The breach! It wasn't complimentary -- in fact, it was a complaint. But that's really beside the point. It was dialog. Just a bit. But there it was.

She told me that she didn't like how I was always complaining. That all I ever did while "learning to become an atheist" was focus on how stupid intelligent design people were. She admitted that yes, they were in fact stupid (she's a biology major and understands even more of evolution than I do), but she didn't like me talking about it all of the time. She equated it to her constantly talking about how stupid Muslims were, or Jews were for, say, not beliving in Jesus' divinity. "You wouldn't like it if I did that all the time, would you?"

I decided to ignore the "learning to become an atheist" phrasing, even though I found it very insulting on a visceral level that I might explore later. It was probably just a slip of the tongue, probably in lieu of "learning about being an atheist." I was more interested in her use of the word "focus." I started wondering what, exactly, my focus is. Did atheists as a group have a focus, or was there only the focus of each individual atheist? How could I even begin to explain myself if I hadn't determined this distinction yet?

I'm not sure how she took my silence as I contemplated this, but she gave me a few seconds, told me "Think about that," and walked off.

It was not the best dialog I could have hoped for, but as I said it was a breach in our religion taboo and any breach is welcome. Best of all, she left me with something to contemplate.

It wasn't what she had really intended me to contemplate, of course. Her seeming interpretation of my atheism as a series of complaints against anti-evolutionists is simply because evolution is our common ground, so those are the stories and statistics that I relate to her. Specifically, it has been things like the public acceptance of evolution statistics, or gripes about Ken Ham's creation museum. Her analogy is poor because she is comparing the dispute over the scientifically supported concept of evolution with a dispute over an untestable traditional belief. In essense, comparing a dispute over fact with a dispute over opinion.

This is like a math student complaining to an english major that is spreading incorrect answers to math problems. When the math student calls him on the issue, the english major defends himself by saying, "You wouldn't like it if I spent all my time saying how stupid it is to like math, would you?" The correctness of math problems, which can be right or wrong, should not be compared with a preference or interest. Using this kind of correlation in an argument would be a logical fallacy known as a non sequitur. (which translates to "it doesn't follow")

Another aspect to her complaint is that the stories I relate and the complaints I make are usually over individuals, and very rarely regarding entire social/cultural groups. The only time I make comments on groups is when referring to statistical findings -- also very different from disputing traditions. When referring to individuals, I only need to say the words "Fred Phelps" to show that I am not the only one between the two of us that makes complaints of a religious action or belief!

But as I said, it was the term "focus" that really got me thinking. Do atheists, as a group, have a focus? Can we? In contrast, I would assume that a theists' focus could be something like, "follow the wisdom or Jesus," or "save as many souls as possible," or "wipe out the infidels," or "spread Christian love," or even just "live a good life and get to heaven," etc. But since the only real definition of atheism is the lack of any god belief I find that there is a corresponding lack of any atheistically-defined focus. We have no doctrine, therefore we can never have a doctrine-defined-focus. Instead, rather like discovering your own unique meaning of life, individual atheists must determine their own focus. Some examples are Dawkins, who has clearly stated that he hopes The God Delusion will change some minds and reduce the evils stemming from religion. Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor put much of their effort into defending the separation of church and state. The list goes on. But what is my focus?

I would have to say that my primary focus, lately, has been to become as educated an atheist as I can become. This includes becoming versed in god/atheism and evolution/ID arguments, spotting logical fallacies, learning more about the bible, learning more about world religions, and so on. My goal for this is to be able to hold my own in any discussions or debates that may come up, so that my position will never look like a weak one. A secondary focus is to be part of the larger atheist community in order to fill a social gap in my life, to start and contribute to discussions and reflections in order to learn more about myself and other atheists, and to find friends.

What my wife has interpreted as my only focus is actually a side-effect of a distant, third focus. As an atheist and a Bright, I am also acutely interested in truth. The scientist inside of me cringes every time I hear of such ridiculous misconceptions as the 'hominid coffin' statement above. I feel the need to try and counter the spread of such misconceptions and lies with an attempt to spread the truth. If I spend any time complaining about them, it is only my inner scientist trying to bury the lies. It is a reflex -- a gag reflex -- to spit out any garbage that has infected my day.

What is my focus? Knowledge, friendship, and truth. What is yours?

10 comments:

Sacred Slut said...

My focus is probably similar to yours...trying to enlighten people, to stamp out ignorance and superstition.

I can't say what it's like in your household, but as a former theist spouse of an atheist, it seemed to me that theism bashing went on waaay too much back then. I don't think he said all that much, or was particularly offensive, really. Now that I'm an atheist myself, I'm sure I go on about religion just as much or more.

I think the thing is, most theists just don't think about their beliefs that much. And also we have had, until recently, this unwritten law that these religious discussions are taboo. So any time someone points out how stupid the beliefs are, it tends to strike the theist as fairly offensive.

In light of that, I wouldn't take your wife's comment as a positive development. Maybe you should encourage her to study religion more. That's what did me in. :)

Jude said...

I have no desire to debate anyone about religion. I have enjoyed reading the writings of other atheists since I started reading atheist blogs, but I'm not really interested in finding friends this way either. I don't want to enlighten others or proselytize about my non-faith. Perhaps I've been an atheist so long (since the age of 10) that I no longer focus on it at all, any more than I focus on being a female. It's just who I am. If I were married to a theist, I wouldn't talk about religion because I'd figure that was one thing we didn't have in common.

Brian said...

My wife had a hard time with my deconversion as well and got tired of my questioning everything all the time. When it comes down to it, her faith wasn't that strong and she felt threatened.

Having my faith torn down was a scary experience for me and I was doing it to myself. If you are not the one in control of the procedure it would be even scarier. My wife came to the point where she refuses to think about the topic.

I would advise putting her in control of her own thinking. Just ask her occasional questions about what she belives and why. Asking her to explain her beliefs without you judging or criticizing will get her to re-evaluate the situation on her own terms and could led to more of a mutual understanding.

David W. said...

...any more than I focus on being a female

This was one of the reasons why the "learning to become an atheist" comment was weird. She might as well have said, "learning to become a white man." But, like I said, I'm just going to write that off as a slip.

it seemed to me that theism bashing went on waaay too much back then

Oh, I don't do any god-bashing if that's what you mean. I only bring up evolution/ID/creation stuff. My wife feels the same way I do about evolution, so actually I'm not even making comments that oppose her point of view. (another reason why her analogy was weak)

Having my faith torn down was a scary experience for me and I was doing it to myself. If you are not the one in control of the procedure it would be even scarier.

I'm definitely not trying to tear down her faith. I just want to get to the point where we can dialog a little about religion, and I can ask questions or make statements without agonizing for days (or weeks) over how to inject it into the conversation. :-(

Intergalactic Hussy said...

Luckily my boyfriend is an atheist, so we always agree! In fact, he brought me "out". But debate is always good, whether you agree or disagree. That's one of the ways we learn and grow.

I do understand how you'd be insulting by that phrasing.

I try not to debate religion most of the time. But if someone asks, I won't lie.

Sacred Slut said...

By theism-bashing I meant Christianity. And I thought Christianity was stupid as well, not being one myself. It's just that it was too often a topic of discussion. Your wife's comment makes me suspect she feels the same about your evolution comments.

If you can, subtly encourage her to take some religious classes. Getting people to ask religious leaders "how do you know that?" is the best way out IMO. When I started studying my religion, I used to come home and ask my husband, "Does that (their explanation of the POE or whatever the subject) make sense to you?" You can guess it didn't.

David W. said...

Ah, that's what makes my wife particularly interesting to discuss religion with. She was just a couple of classes away from being a religion minor.

I explained a little to her about my other focuses, that I had written about here, and she explained that what she's really after is just hearing more about the rest of what I'm interested in -- not just the creationist bashing, despite our agreement over that topic. I'm still trying to decide what I should and shouldn't bring up. I don't want to hurt her feelings and I know that a lot of what I read on a day-to-day basis would. But, the conversation is definitely opening up, and that's a very good thing.

Terra said...

David,

Congratulations on the opening of conversation. And, I think your focus (and the process of defining it) was excellent!

My bf is often a "devil's advocate" when we are discussing something. He will take a position he doesn't really believe, just to have the argument. Mostly, this is a great thing, because it makes me really think about my position and has kept me from talking about things that I don't know much about and thusly, make an ass of myself. On the other hand, it gets a little out of hand sometimes. If I suspect he is doing it just to goad me, I usually just refuse to continue the argument.

Anyway, I don't think you're goading your wife, but she may very well see it that way. By being skeptical all the time, you could be wearing her out. I also think it's scary to be asking yourself the "big" questions and you probably make her do that. So, she's attacking the one thing she can-your perceived negativity.

Do you think you could/would talk to her about fascinating bits of evolution? You said she knows more about it than you do. Can you ask her to explain the finer points of articles/processes? I guess my point being, start from the point of common understanding/interest and let the rest take care of itself from there.

But, I don't want to sound condescending by giving you "advice." It sounds like you have things well in hand.

btw, I think the first part of your "focus" is a very lofty and laudable goal. If only the xtian trolls would care about knowledge and truth as well. Or, at the very least, leave the rest of us alone.

David W. said...

Hi Terra, thanks for the great comment! I agree, the "devil's advocate" position can be a good thing for intellectual growth, but it requires a lot of sensitivity to take it in an emotionally taut discussion. The goading sense can really come into play.

I do bring up the interesting news and articles I find regarding evolution. But you know how it is -- the positive parts are always so difficult to see behind the negative ones.

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