Thursday, July 7, 2011

Won't Somebody Think of the Children?

While privileged, outspoken members of the secular community insist on waging a self-destructive war against each other in the name of personal vendetta, a serious issue affecting the youngest and most defenseless in our ranks remains unaddressed. By virtue of the rise of the internet and the visibility of New Atheists, more and more young people are questioning the superstitions passed down from their parents and embracing freethought. Sadly, their parents are not always embracing them in return. Rather, in keeping with the words of the Bible, some parents have put faith before familial obligations to the intellectual growth of their offspring.

Don't eat that baby, you may need to
validate its secular beliefs one day!

This unfortunate phenomenon was recently embodied in the form of Damon Fowler. For those of you who don't know, Damon challenged his high school's plan to have a prayer during the commencement ceremony for his graduation. The school backed off, but the backlash from his small Louisiana town was vicious. Mocked and jeered, Damon was ultimately kicked out of his parents' house and forced to move to Texas where he is currently living with siblings. While the outpouring of monetary and emotional support from the online skeptic community was admirable, it seems that the most important point was lost: Damon's situation is far from anomalous. It seems that hardly a day goes by during which there isn't a new post on r/atheism from a young skeptic venting his or her fear and frustration at what would happen to them if their feelings on spirituality were known within their family. No organized response to the phenomenon exists. Camp Quest and the Secular Student Alliance are both fine organizations which allow young atheists an outlet to feel like they're part of a community, but the involvement of minors in either group is entirely contingent upon the assent of their parents. In such a case where freethought is demonized within the home, such overt association with the secular movement is entirely out of reach. So what can we do?

The fact of the matter is, these fundamentalist-born secular minors will likely be subject to the whims of their parents until they come of age. Nonetheless, we can work within society to make it a more welcoming place for those who espouse freethought. One model for success should be the pro-LGBT campaign, It Gets Better, which was launched in the wake of a series of suicides within the gay teen community. While there has been no pattern of suicide within the secular teen community (to my knowledge), it is nonetheless perfectly clear how unwelcome atheists are across the United States. To hear the animators at Pixar and the President of the United States encourage pride in being different could be a big step in alleviating the pent-up frustrations of a closeted teen freethinker. A permanent fund for helping displaced young atheists get on their feet, as well as a more visible and official version of AtheistHavens, would also go a long way in providing a much-needed safety net. I don't have all the answers, but there should be something.

If you navigate away from this page unafraid that failure to clear your internet history may have severe negative consequences in your life, take a moment to realize the privilege that represents. That your financial stability and continued access to a place to call home are not threatened by reading the words of an atheist is a benefit not awarded to minors in many households. I would request that such a privilege be utilized  in speaking for those without a voice, rather than amplifying those who already do. In a recent Pew survey, leaders of the evangelical Protestant community identified "the influence of secularism" as the aspect of modern life that they feel most threatens their movement. If you have any desire to prove them right, to promote the value of critical thinking and scientific exploration, protecting young, curious minds is a great way to start.


Franklin said...

Very good article, but I have a question about some of the implications in the first paragraph (of course!). Let me preface by saying that I agree with you (and Hemant, among others) that the bickering going on right now isn't doing much good, which I'm sure you're aware of based on my last blog post I wrote (although I think we are moving forward). But if you remember I also said that there is a lot of value to arguing, even within the movement, and that the problem is not that we're arguing but that we're doing it so poorly.

My thesis and yours are not compatible- either the arguing that we're doing is a problem because it is taking away from bigger things we should be focusing on, or it is a problem because we're doing such a poor job that we're not accomplishing or learning anything from the experience. So here's my first question:

If the quality of the argument was better (focusing on the actual issues, in a method similar to what I detailed in my blog post) would you still think that we should drop the topic and move on? I think if you agree with me on this then I don't have to say anymore, but if you disagree then we have more to talk about.

Sam Shore said...

Franklin, of course I value open and earnest discussion. However, Coffeegate has brought out the worst in people. So many layers of emotional involvement have been bundled into it that I'm not at all convinced that it's not better to move on and come back to the topic when we're all feeling a bit less irritable.

I draw this conclusion from the fact that so many posts have been made with so little substance. We've heard many peoples' opinions, but few ruminations about larger issues. Even with the injection of Dawkins into the discussion, the broader concerns are lost in a sea of shrieking discourtesy. Simply, there is a dogmatic factionalization inherent to the debate as it is currently framed. Stef's friends feel like they must defend her point of view, Skepchick's readers feel somehow threatened by the possibility of male attack, and everyone else is so sick of the thing that even if a good point was finally raised now it would be ignored.

There are valid points to be made about the larger issues, but I've not seen them generated within the student secular community. NukeThePope had a great comment that actually addressed a root cause of RW's concerns, something that no one within the blogosphere has done in anything but the most pedantic manner.

But regardless of the tenor of the discussion, there has been too much of it. While there is value to the claims of some feminists with regards to sexism within society, and there is also truth that in attempting to balance out a perceived injustice a group may overreach, take a look back at just how much energy has gone into the argument in comparison to other issues important to the secular community. By any measure, it strikes me as overblown.

Franklin said...

OK, good! We agree that this argument may have greater purpose if it had gone better- you think that the issue causes so much dogmatism and factionalization that at this point it is simply impossible for any good to occur; that at this point we as a movement are simply too emotional about it to accomplish anything. I think I disagree with you on this, but I don't think this is something we need to argue about, as it isn't directly related to your post and would send us down a path that isn't quite relevant, and we agree that the bickering isn't accomplishing anything, which was the important part of my question.

Here's the next point I DO want to argue with you about though: I hate to quote you on something you said on a different medium, but I'm pretty sure that you won't mind since you stand by it, so I'll do it anyway. You say on Facebook, regarding your article, "There's a secondary theme here, and it's that we have limited time and energy that has been ill-spent." I'm not sure I agree with this contention, but I want to make sure I understand it first. I get the impression that you think that we are working less on serious because this Watson situation came up, that we are spending less time on those because we are wasting so much time on this. Is this assessment correct? If it is, could you talk a bit more about it? At this point I'm not convinced that this is the case, as I think the problem is that we aren't talking about the important issues regardless, Watsongate or no Watsongate. If these issues were something we as a movement truly wanted to spend our time on, we could very easily be doing it while bickering about the implications of asking someone if they want some coffee.

Sam Shore said...

Yes, I believe this fixation on Watson has been directly detrimental to our ability as a movement to discuss other issues.

Time is finite, writers are finite, the attention spans of readers are finite, and so the potential output of the atheist blogosphere is likewise finite. Of course, not all of these factors will be utilized entirely efficiently, but I dispute the notion that there would have been nothing of higher value than Coffeegate brought to the forefront over the last two week.

I am particularly sure about this final point because of the venue in which this debacle truly took off - CFIcon. The reviews of the experience of those who were there suggests that there was a general sense of stimulation, that groups were feeling the vibe that ‎"It's not enough to come out of the closet... You gotta leave the house." Though I admit my conclusion is based solidly on conjecture, it seems to me that there was enough going on that different groups would have found different areas of focus from what they heard at the conference. Instead, they colluded to create this situation.

Franklin said...

This is where we disagree, at least, mostly. You bring up the CFI conference and the stimulation and inspiration that occurred there, and suggest that this Watson issue has taken away from the effectiveness of that. I disagree, and, while I was at the conference and you were not, I still think that there's no real way of knowing which one of us is correct on the matter short of omniscience. So let's leave that there and I'll try to explain to you why I think my view is correct.

To clarify, my counterclaim is that a) There are important issues that are being discussed thanks to this Watson debacle (although not all voices have been equally eloquent on the matter), and b) that these discussions are by no means replacing other issues that would be talked about had it never occurred.

I think about this by trying to answer the following question: If Watsongate never happened, what would we be talking about or spending time on right now instead? Is it a better scenario? It's important to keep in mind that it's summer, so most student groups aren't active/doing much, so activity is already at a near-grinding halt. I don't think that our group would be doing more awesome things at this present moment if Watsongate never happened- I think the situation would be largely the same, just with one less thing to talk about (and probably a shorter officer meeting because of it).

Let's take a look at our blog for an example, looking at what kind of activity we've had recently and comparing to the rest of the summer. We have had four blog posts this first week of July, three of which are very solid, insightful posts inspired by the Watson situation that I think we can be proud of (including yours). Let's compare that single week to the entire MONTH of June- There are a total of three real posts not relating to the CFI conference or simple image reposting. We're still quite on track for keeping that consistent this month without counting Watson-related posts. If anything, Watson has given us the opportunity to shed our wisdom on issues important to the movement that otherwise wouldn't have been heard.

Maybe you don't think our blog is a fair representation, although I think that it is if we're looking at student groups. But regardless other blogs that are normally more active than ours, such as friendly atheist, are still talking about Watson, but I don't see that they're talking about everything else any less because of it. I suppose I can't prove this, but when I compare the amount of posts now versus before I don't see any decrease in how much important issues are being discussed.

Again, I think we SHOULD be discussing these issues more, but I still contend that it is irrelevant to what is going on right now, other than Watsongate being an excellent illustration of how we are willing to spend so much time on the legitimacy of asking a girl for coffee in an elevator but not willing to spend time on other issues that have much greater importance.

Sam Shore said...

I can't say I feel your critique adequately addresses the model I've set forth. I acknowledge how dead the blog has been for summer, but that in no way runs counter to what I posited in my previous comment.

My argument relies on inspiration from CFIcon to get the ball rolling on potential discussions. That event didn't end until June 27th, and given the drive back it is unreasonable to assume that anything could have been put up more than 3 days before the beginning of July.

From your own analysis, what has been discussed since then has made its way onto major blogs such as Friendly Atheist, making it not unreasonable to assume that other endeavors taken on instead of the one in question could have gotten wide acknowledgement. For proof that such seeds exist, I give you Becca's new pet project of building a freethought library for our group. Again, I find it not unreasonable to imagine that campus leaders could have organized around a more constructive cause and then had its message amplified by the larger blogosphere. Certainly I believe that certain individuals on both sides who have failed to give the topic a rest have suffered damage to their credibility.

I do not dispute that the inability of the secular movement to focus on serious issues is multifaceted. There is more to it than Coffeegate, but I contend that potential post-CFI momentum was squandered by the actions of campus leaders. And while I agree that important points have been brought up as a result of this feud, I again suggest that they are overwhelmed by the noise such that adequately addressing them at this time becomes close to impossible.

Franklin said...

First: I think it might be a bit naive to assume that other projects would have taken off had the Watson situation not occurred. Becca's idea for the library is well and good, but there are many many reasons why it might not have gotten any attention: For one, it wasn't part of the title of the post she introduced it with. Two, she posted it at four in the morning, and three, she made another post right after it. Those are a couple of many potential reasons as to why it didn't catch on in the blogosphere, all of which make at least as much sense than trying to put the blame on Watson's actions, if not more. I can't find any justification to believe that Watson's actions somehow hurt the chances of getting these ideas spread.

We atheists aren't particularly good at discussing ideas between student groups, which is one of the reasons our group is working so hard towards that end. What we saw happen after this conference in the blogosphere is pretty much exactly what happens at every student conference I've ever attended (quite a few!): They post about all the great experiences they have and the things they learned, then they move on to talk about other things while they take those ideas and improve their group with them. Nothing different here going on. It's just that the topic of conversation going on afterwards happens to still be related to it.

Rebecca Tippens said...

My own stance is somewhere in the middle, here. Regardless, I would like to point out at this time that if the Coffeegate "discussion" (read: whiny cacophony) were playing out even a little bit like THIS debate, the secular community as a whole would be in a much better place right now.

Instead we're divided, scandalized, and -- it would seem -- getting nowhere.

Rebecca Tippens said...

Oh, and the actual library stuff is to come. I haven't pushed it at all yet -- just made brief mention of the idea. The wishlist/pics will begin tomorrow.

Sam Shore said...

The upcoming library highlights the possibility for coming away from CFI with other plans than perpetuating an internet flame war. I did not intend for it to sound as though I was complaining that it didn't catch on, for the reasons you stated as well as the fact that aside from donations it requires little outside coordination. Further, I don't believe I "put the blame on Watson's actions". I clearly identified campus leaders as those culpable for continuing to fan the flames. But certainly Coffeegate has not been constructive.

Rather than allowing the argument to grow cyclical, I think here I'll sum up my arguments and let you have the last word:

Given that you have not disputed my claim that the way in which the issue has been framed has effectively muted any constructive conversation, and given that at the very least we as a movement have become splintered over the incident, and given that the response to this very post has not centered on generating ideas for aiding those in need but rather on the most precise wording to best encapsulate just how screwed up Coffeegate was, I cannot help but conclude with my initial assessment that, "While privileged, outspoken members of the secular community insist on waging a self-destructive war against each other in the name of personal vendetta, a serious issue affecting the youngest and most defenseless in our ranks remains unaddressed."

Rebecca Tippens said...

I would actually disagree that campus leaders have fanned the flames; There are far more hostile posts from team Watson.

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