Why I’m not more active in the atheist community.

I was asked that question the other day by someone who thinks I have a lot to contribute to the cause. My blog is fairly popular and I seem to say a lot of things that other people agree with and I’ve been at this for a long time, so how come I’m not as well known as other proverbial leaders of the movement such as PZ Myers or Hemant Mehta?

I was flattered to be considered on par with those folks, but the simple truth is I don’t have a lot of interest in being a leader, unofficial or otherwise.  I don’t know if one of the reasons is because I grew up a middle child and am just used to doing my own thing or the fact that I have ADD and find it difficult enough just to take care of myself let alone anyone else or I’m just an asshole, but it’s probably one or all of those things.

But that’s just part of the reason. The other part is there are aspects of human nature that I have a hard time dealing with that always seem to come into play when people start banding together into groups. These annoying tendencies show up whether it’s an official group like American Atheists or The Center For Inquiry or unofficial like the atheism movement in general. Even among a small group of people with a similar viewpoint on a topic there will be variations in the details of those viewpoints and lots of tangential issues that may come up in which a wide disparity of views ends up causing conflicts.

A recent example of this in the atheist movement is the whole ElevatorGate kerfuffle. That’s a shitstorm that’s still raining down all over the place and the incident that started it all happened months ago and it’s divided the community in a major way. The response from both sides in this dust up was astounding in its vitriol at the time, but there seems to be a large contingent of people out there who just can’t let it go. Rebecca wrote a blog post about this at the end of September that illustrates exactly what I’m talking about:

Someone Tweeted to ask if I get emails like that often, and I had to laugh. Ever since the incident that shall not be named, I get these emails several times a week. But more than that, I’ve now amassed a following of obsessive creeps who have seemingly devoted their lives to hounding me down and making sure I never dare to speak my bitch mind again. Their tactics? Scientologist-level private investigation to dredge up the deepest, darkest mysteries of my past combined with grade school-level name-calling. It’s impressive, really. Really. Really.

Someone started an Elevatorgate blog with the mission of having Watson removed the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast. The folks who run the Pharyngula Wiki added a section called the Slimepit which lists off “commenters regarded as personae non gratae at Pharyngula.” So then someone started up a competing wiki called Phawrongula Wiki which explains its purpose as follows:

Keeping the charlatans that are poisoning secularism honest. This is a resource to document systemic abuse of reality by self-described “freethinkers” and secularists who are actively harming these communities in the pursuit of personal interest and ideology.

I said back when I wrote about this topic that I thought it was badly handled by both sides and there was enough shit being tossed back and forth between them that everyone was looking pretty bad as a result. Hell, it even got the attention of USA Today. The name calling and trolling of the major players on either side hasn’t abated all that much either. The fact that a lot of people seem to holding grudges over this mess is something I just don’t understand. Rather than have a discussion on the issue brought up people spend all their time claiming the other side is destroying the movement.

Obviously this isn’t a unique phenomena among atheists/secularists. It seems to happen in any group that gets large and diverse enough in size. It’s the same reason that in the six years I’ve played World of Warcraft I’ve been in several dozen different guilds. For those of you who aren’t gamers, a guild in the game is an official grouping of players that offers benefits over going it alone. This is especially true in the current version of the game where in addition to guild banks (item storage that members of the group all have access to) there are perks that the guild can earn that grant more XP when killing monsters, additional loot, better chances at skill ups when crafting items, etc. that make being in a guild beneficial for everyone. Most guilds have a pseudo-military style of rankings that bestow more responsibility/privileges as you go up in rank.

The more seriously the members of the guild take these ranks the less likely I am to stick around for very long. There’s always that handful of people who are always vying to move up in ranking so they can feed whatever fantasy power trip they’ve got going in their heads and those guys end up trying to tell everyone else how to play. If you’re not geared to their standards or aren’t playing the optimal spec for your class or haven’t spent the gold necessary to have every enchant and gem that a hardcore player has then you get a lot of grief from these people. Oh, and don’t forget to show up for every raid they have scheduled or you’ll get more shit from them. Almost inevitably there will be a power struggle between those players or one of those players and the Guild Leaders and someone — often a lot of someones — either quit the guild or get kicked and it’s a crapload of drama I’d really rather not deal with. I generally don’t ask for a higher rank than whatever one I’ve been placed in to start because I really don’t care what my rank is. I’m perfectly happy to let someone else run around playing out his power fantasies while I concentrate on just enjoying the game. When the drama starts kicking in is usually about the time I quit and look for another guild.

There’s also the fact that I don’t really see myself as being a big fucking deal. As an example, I’m basically not like this guy who is wondering why he’s not been asked to speak at the upcoming 2012 Global Atheist convention:

Next year, in Melbourne, where I live and 2 hours from where I have been living over the past several years, the Global Atheism Convention will be held. I am an Australian practical atheist (and philosophical Agnostic, which will become significant in a minute), who has published in The Australian Book of Atheismand published many discussions and defences of atheism and secularism in Australia on this blog. I am a professional philosopher. I speak well and do not smell too badly or expose myself in public to the unwilling.

So, why am I not a speaker at this conference? Why wasn’t I one at the last one? Is it because (*gasp*) I do not fit the profile of orthodoxy that the present atheism movement seems to have adopted? Is it because I have defended accommodationism? One can only wonder. Maybe there are just that many public atheists in Australia I couldn’t be fitted in.

Bertrand Russell, Darwin and Huxley all held the position I hold: that we cannot rule out the existence of every kind of God, only the ones that are contrary to fact. Maybe they too would be considered as Unsound, as Sir Humphrey Appleby would have said…

Given my lack of funding, I will not be paying the $200 or more that it will cost to go otherwise.

As always, if this is the case, I fear the exclusionism of modern atheism as much as I despise the dehumanisation of the unbeliever that often gets pushed by theists.

I really don’t know who this guy is. Maybe he is worthy of speaking at the conference. Perhaps he has a lot of useful things to contribute. For all I know he could have some truly deep wisdom that many would benefit from if they could only hear him speak it. I don’t know. What I do know is that he seems to think he’s a big fucking deal.

Don’t get me wrong, I recognize that my own ego is probably over-inflated in that I’m narcissist enough to write a blog for 10 years because I think I have something worth saying, but I’m not suggesting that the whole of modern atheism is being exclusionary simply because I haven’t been asked to speak at an atheist conference. Some folks might think I think I am a big fucking deal, but I really don’t. I’m just some blowhard shooting his mouth off on the Interwebs that some folks find mildly amusing. Hell, I was slightly embarrassed when I attended my first (and so far, only) Skeptics in the Pub meeting and was introduced as an Internet Celebrity. If I were to be asked to speak at a conference like that I’d probably turn it down.

In the past at least one other atheist blogger that I look up to contacted me about joining him to do a skepticism talk at GenCon, which I politely declined. I really wouldn’t know what to say. I have a hard enough time coming up with things to blog about that don’t sound like the mumbling of someone who was dropped on his head as a child too many times. I have to beg you guys for topics for the SEB Podcast for crying out loud. There’s also the fact that I probably couldn’t afford to take the time off of work or pay for the travel to do these things either, but it’s mostly that I’m admittedly lazy and am happy to let others do the leading.

And laziness is another big part of it. Folks like PZ and Hemant are crazy-prolific in their writing and I just am not. They seem to knock out dozens of blog entries a day and whip up talks for the conferences without much effort. I’m sure they are working their asses off doing it, but they make it look easy. Meanwhile I’m content to sputter out an entry or two every few days or so and a podcast whenever ***Dave and I think to do one and our schedules don’t conflict too badly. It’s a nicely relaxed pace that allows me some time to do completely unproductive things like playing video games and sleeping in on the weekends. Plus there’s a benefit in not having to deal with the drama that always seems to come from being considered a leader.

This is long and rambling and I’m not sure I’m getting my point across the way I meant to, but the “too long; didn’t read” version of it is simply this: I’m content to babble away on my little blog and podcast where I don’t have to deal with the shitstorms everyone else seems to deal with and I really wouldn’t know what to do to be a bigger part of it anyway. Call it laziness or cowardice or what have you, but I’m fine with my spot shouting from the sidelines whenever something catches my attention. There are other, more capable, people out there contributing that I don’t see a void that needs to be filled by some loudmouth like me.

13 comments

  1. I’ve been a leader both in (the City of Heroes equivalent of) a guild, as well as on an internet discussion board about ideology, and it will be a long, hard effort to ever get me to do either again, for all of the reasons you describe above.

    And, no, it’s not just an atheism thing. I chair a group at our church that meets a couple of times a year to discuss the various liturgical plans and how things are going with the different volunteer groups that contribute to weekly services … and while it’s usually fairly relaxing and rewarding work, sometimes THE DRAMA wells up over the most (to me) trivial things, usually over some sort of (gasp) change in what we do each week, or (eek) aesthetic judgment about music or language that takes on the proportion of a Major Schism in Christianity.

    And people wonder why volunteer leaders burn out.

  2. This kind of thing drives me nuts, too, Les. But, ultimately, whether atheist or Christian, gamer or non-gamer, we’re dealing with people. While we might hope that those things we have in common, or the high ideals we hold to, might make us more tolerant and less selfish and competitive, ultimately human frailty always seems to shine through.

    As Dave (above) has shown, this kind of thing isn’t confined to just our community. In any group activity I’ve been involved in there have been power-struggles, shit-fighting, slanging-matches and storms in teacups.

    I now try to stay away from working in groups for this very reason but, sometimes, you just have to recognise that a group effort is going to have more impact. There is strength in unity – even if unity can be very, very difficult to achieve and sustain!

    I don’t think you’re either lazy or cowardly for avoiding involvement in ‘the community’. Each of has to choose not only what we can do, but what we can cope with. In my view, you’re a hero because you’re doing *something* when so many are doing *nothing*. I’m certainly not going to condemn anybody for that.

    Oh, and I wrote for the Australian Book of Atheism and I haven’t been asked to speak at the Global Atheist Convention either. Too bad, so sad. If they’d put all of us on the programme, there wouldn’t have been room for anyone else! I think John needs to get over himself.

  3. I’d rather you kept SEB going at your own happy pace rather than push yourself further than you would like. I’d hate to see you burn yourself out and shut SEB down. I came here almost 10 years ago after Netslaves shutdown to find some intelligent chat. I may not have replied to anything in the past few years, but I come to SEB every day to see what’s posted. I appreciate the fact that you and others will take time to follow through discussions as long as posts come up. Not like Consumerist or Facebook, where the discussions are short lived and it can be hard to sit and think about a response before everyone loses interest in the thread.

  4. I still find the results of the U. S. Constitutional Convention utterly amazing. How that many leaders with so many disparate views managed to agree on ANYTHING, let alone a political document with such far-reaching consequences never ceases to smack me dumb with awe. I, too, have had some leadership experience, and the human conditions mentioned here are all too prevalent. Glad to see you’ve found a comfort level of participation, Les, and look forward to many more years of dialog. Dialog. That indicates that at least one of us is listening some of the time. Most difficult for the average human, it seems.

    Peace.

  5. I still find the results of the U. S. Constitutional Convention utterly amazing.

    Maybe the experience of writing the Declaration of Independence with the threat of a noose lingered?

  6. I became an atheist all by myself at about age 13. While it’s nice to know you’re not alone in your thinking and I appreciate having other atheists speak out and explain our thinking and particularly defend the Constitutional separation of church and state, to me the idea of a big Atheist organization is too much like a big church with its imposition of doctrine. After all atheism is about what you don’t believe. So I see no obligation for any of us to join a movement.

    It’s disappointing that people who are supposedly rational should get into such deep conflict over a minor incident such as Elevatorgate. Gives me no hope that the world will ever be free from wars. Unless the human race lives long enough to evolve into a less combative species, something that seems unlikely to me.

    Don’t put your blogging down. I only recently discovered it and read it because I enjoy your writing. You seem like a person I would like to know. And, of course, you rescued a cat which puts you high on my list of admirable people. Keep on doing just what makes you happy, no one else will do it for you.

  7. Okay, first thing: don’t look up to me. You’re far cooler than I and also I’m younger than you. Plus I look up to you and I think bidirectional looking up to creates time-space paradoxes.

    And, dude, brain damage rambling would fit right in at Gen Con. Our panels and talks are mostly an excuse to make dick jokes and pop culture references. We pretty much do it because we have a blast doing it and because we can raise a little money for vaccination as a happy side benefit. Which is a large part of the reason I invited you: you’re awesome and I thought (and still think) you would add to the blast we all have every year.

    We really don’t do it to be contributing to the movement. Hell, at least three of us actively disdain the idea of a movement. We even mentioned that explicitly when someone asked us “How do you think people should contribute to skepticism?” We basically answered “Do whatever you want and don’t let someone else define your role for you, if you even want a role.”

    Which, I guess, is an affirmation of what you just wrote. I want nothing more from Les Jenkins than to see him doing what he wants to be doing. It’s worked so far and it’s why I read SEB every day. Well, that and the music videos with dick faces.

    I can totally relate to the laziness, too. I’m getting less and less prolific at my own blog due to a mix of “Blah, I don’t want to write” and “My opinion isn’t that important anyway.” When the second started hitting me really hard the first became really difficult to overcome. You’re still writing more than me and I’ll still be reading until you’ve decided that you’ve said all you have to say. Even if I only rarely comment.

  8. My hunch is that religious groups can suppress these individual vanities more easily, because – er – they are religious.

    OK, I’m even less known than you, so why should I by able to talk sense.

  9. As someone who works in (and reads about) religious groups, contemporary and historical, I assure you, no, they can’t. Or, at least, don’t seem to as much as one would expect.

  10. The basic difference between religious groups and other groups is only the label – they are all just people, at the final bell. Often the religious groups tend to attract the more easily duped people, but not always. Early brain washing is quite successful, usually.

    Pity.

    :cry: ;-)

    Peace.

  11. For more perspective watch the movie, “The Invention of Lying” by Ricky Gervais. At the end of the day people are people and their label doesn’t change who they are deep down inside.

    Les: I think you have more to share to the Atheist community than you think. I applaud your abilities and willingness not to get swept up in the bullshit but it is precisely that message and the importance of attempting to work together that the community needs to hear more of.

    Along them lines South Park got it right. With no religion to fight over people will start wars over what name the Atheist group should use.

  12. I’m in agreement that Les doing what Les does well is more not less… Sorry…it was there…

    I ran across PZ’s blog some time back and enjoyed it a lot — right up until someone posted an intelligently written dissenting opinion and PZ chimed in and literally told them to go after this guy. Whoa! That’s a serious abuse of power and shoved him deep into the slime that he was accusing others of having spawned from. Old PZ has himself a serious case of Self Importance and the last thing I wanted to do was to associate myself with that. I logged off and never went back.

    Your blog is much better for you occasionally wondering why you are doing this and what you are contributing. You listen to others – not shut them up if you don’t agree. You took a lot of crap over the rape subject, but you listened and learned, agreed and disagreed with posters and that’s a very very good thing.

    I’m sorry to hear that the little incident on the elevator has blown up so much. It’s no secret that people go to conferences to get laid. It’s also no secret that it’s not all that safe to be alone with strange men late at night. She took the safe option and is getting hammered for it. It’s bad for a community when it starts to chew on it’s own. Maybe it’s time that Rebecca find a new guild.

  13. Just do right by yourself, Les, and you’ll do alright.

    And yes- what you all say here. I don’t do atheist groups myself, for the same reasons. And yes, lots of people, for whatever reasons, seek power, regardless of ideology. It’s part of being human.

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