Saturday, June 21, 2014

Righteous Belief

Many religious people think that holding a correct belief is being morally correct, and believing something that's wrong is not just factually incorrect, but morally wrong. This "righteous belief" attitude is why we see the dichotomy between the "righteous" and the "wicked," with the primary distinction between the two being that the "righteous" have the correct faith or belief, whereas the "wicked" do not. This simplistic black-and-white distinction leads to elitism, the casting of judgment upon those who think differently, and battle lines drawn.

I've written about this a few times. I bring it up now because I've seen examples of this same attitude repeatedly on the Internet, although not exclusively within the realm of religion. The first time I really noticed it from people outside of a religious context was when the short-lived "Atheism Plus" movement started. A lot of people used the "A+" label as a litmus test for one's character, such that, if you're not an "A+" person, you're no good. Many of them even said so explicitly. I have no desire to criticize Atheism Plus. That ship's already sailed for the most part. It caught fire, caused controversy, and now resides in a small, quiet corner of cyberland. Honestly, I have no problem with A+. I just had a problem with the elitism fueled ironically by a movement supposedly dedicated to being more welcoming of people. I don't blame Atheism Plus per se. The movement focuses on the right things. I just think a lot of well-meaning people associated with it developed the "righteous belief" attitude, which led to battle lines drawn unnecessarily. Likewise, several folks on the other side of the A+ fence did the same thing.

Related to A+, I've seen the "righteous belief" attitude run rampant in online feminism. Of course, sometimes lines need to be drawn. Fox News talking heads and repeat offenders need to be called out. I'm not talking about them. I'm talking about people who are on the same team, who either 1) make a mistake, or 2) have a difference of opinion, and are vilified and demonized because of it. That happened to me a while back with "Mr. Manboobz," a blogger about whom I knew nothing. I'd never heard of the guy until he posted a link to one of my blog posts and called me a "non-feminist." I took issue with that, naturally, considering how important an issue it is for me. He drew his battle line, and his followers parroted his actions and attitude. I became the enemy, because I held a difference of opinion on a particular topic (and to drag up another point of contention in the atheist community's recent past): "Elevatorgate." Attempts to communicate with the Manboobz group led to name-calling and belittling. I was the enemy. The "righteous" had to cast out the "wicked."

The Internet is a breeding ground for herd mentality and groupthink. And since we're all just virtual representations on the Internet, we can forget that we're all real people, with complexities and histories, and it's easy to turn other people online into two-dimensional characters in our minds. And we live in an age in which one wrong word or a misunderstanding can lead to outrage poured out across all social media. Sometimes - many times - the outrage is justified. Sometimes, it's just outrage for the sake of being outraged at something. Before we speak out against something we see online, or reblog or share an image or link, we should investigate, do our homework, find out the truth. You know, actually be a skeptic. Maybe my one encounter with Mr. Manboobz would've gone differently had he bothered to do a little work. Maybe I could have learned something from him. Maybe he had nothing to teach me. I don't know. What I know is that, because I have imperfect human emotions, my single encounter with him soured me, and I've never gone back to his blog. What I also know is two people on the same side of a very important issue ended up as enemies, and that's a shame.

I'm a white, heterosexual, cisgendered man. I used to be a Christian, and I grew up in a traditional nuclear family with parents who loved their children and took good care of them. I was well-meaning, but mostly ignorant about the plight of those who aren't white, heterosexual, male, cisgendered, in the majority religion, able-bodied, or socially well-off. It took me a long time to realize what "privilege" even meant, and even longer to understand that I had it, and how it affected my outlook on life. Even when I started this blog, I was just starting to learn. I'm still learning. All I ask of people is to give me the opportunity to continue to learn. I might make a mistake, and my privilege might show. Talk to me about it. Don't make me the enemy.

I bring up these old topics because I realize that these events (among other related issues happening at the time) were what deterred me from engaging more with the "skeptic community" online. I saw neither skepticism nor community. I saw the same damn thing that I left behind when I walked away from religion: elitism, judgmentalism, and that same old "righteous belief" attitude. Now I see it elsewhere, and I'm struck with the truth that it must be a natural human reaction that, when left unchecked, spreads like a virus. The only cure is skepticism: not just using the "skeptic" label, but living out what it means to be a skeptic.

Looking back on older articles I've written, I realize that, were I to write some of them today, they would be different, either in tone or emphasis, if not in ideology altogether. Isn't that how it should be? If what I wrote four years ago were exactly the same as what I write today, have I grown at all? That's not to say nothing should stay the same. There are key virtues to which I adhere today just as strongly as I did five, ten, fifteen years ago. But, hopefully, my thinking is more nuanced and refined now. At the very least, my thinking should be less ignorant. If I can't be wise, I can at least strive to be not foolish.

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