Sunday, January 23, 2011


Hello. You can call me Watt. I have decided to remain anonymous for the time being, but I was born and raised in the USA, born in 1982, and am one of the many white, middle-class, straight, male atheists on the internet writing what he thinks about things. I hope to give you a better idea of who I am in a sort of literary sense as I write more posts.

To start off, I'd like to describe what I have in mind for this blog. When the topic being discussed is atheism, I often find myself in an odd situation when it comes to the "new atheists" - though I agree with something like 85-95% of what they say and write, something strikes me as lacking holistically about the general approach of writers like Richard DawkinsPZ Myers, and Christopher Hitchens*.

This is not to say that I think they do more harm than good; quite the opposite. After all, I belong to the choir they preach to, and I indulge in a vigorous, scathing venting session quite often myself on Facebook or in a casual blog where I mostly choir preach to even more like-minded people in turn. But there's more to my appreciation of "new atheist" writing than the mere fact that I sometimes indulge in the style myself for fun, catharsis. Before I started reading people like them and their predecessors like Bertrand Russell, I was an agnostic on the fence about a very "born again" style of Christianity in which the choice is, quite literally, between putting your faith in Christ and burning in Hell forever. I knew that I was not "saved", and when I tried to figure out how I could know for certain that Jesus was real, I often began to have thoughts like those of the "new atheists", but I would shut them down half-formed and hover over their edges like a kid afraid to jump into a swimming pool, poking at the surface with my toes and feeling unsettled about its being there in the first place. I knew that I was supposed to have faith and walk over it as a spider or a savior walks on water, but I could do neither, nor could I swim in it, for that was unthinkable; I know that really I was supposed to trust Jesus to do this carrying or something like that, but this path was always completely incomprehensible and the explanations of adults only served to make it more so. Only through reading atheist writings - with their unapologetic tone and all - did I find a well-established and well-traveled intellectual and emotional ground to build a world view. I had only known this ground as a pathological, lonely terrain traveled aimlessly by me and me alone with shame, doubt, and confusion, but knowing that others had thought similar things and carried them out into complete sentences, paragraphs, essays, books, and lives changed everything - I had the right to take my own thoughts seriously, to regard doubts and reservations on their merits and evidence, rather than according to a spoon-fed set of moral answers in the back of some divine textbook with which I must eventually come into agreement at the end of whatever labors I took. There is no telling how much longer I would have fumbled along waiting for the light had I continued to hold the assumption that faith held the answers and that my epiphany to clear it all up just hadn't come yet.

Yes, a lot of the so-called "new atheist" writing is choir preaching - but it is not pointless or in vain, especially for those choir members who do not yet know what choir they belong to. When in no uncertain tone, the thoughts and attitudes of an unabashedly atheist community are broadcast clearly, humanly, and in detail, the faithless listener who hears and reads can no longer romantically pity himself as a Doubting Thomas, but instead finds himself growing a spine, some self-respect, and maybe even the infamous chip on the shoulder "new atheists" are so famous for having. At least that's how it was for me.

No, I don't want to write off the "new atheist" movement or scold them on their tone. I merely wish to fill a different niche here. I do not have much of an interest, at least in this space, over "the God debate" - I'm more or less tired of it, and know fully well that it just goes in pointless circles after a certain point, and I am nowhere near being "on the fence" on such matters anymore, and haven't been for the better part of a decade. I am not here to rally the atheist troops against the latest initiative of James Dobson.

What I more specifically have in mind is something like this strikingly human post on Reddit, in which Michael Behe's** oldest son discusses his recent deconversion from Christianity (sample quotes here), and other young people share similar experiences and their attitudes toward the religion they were raised in and later rejected. These kinds of feelings and experiences are undoubtedly very common, but not the kind of thing that is likely to come up in the persuasive format common to the so-called New Atheist bestsellers of the '00s. Or to cite another example, there is Blankets by Craig Thomson, which is so loose and directionless, defying well-trained narrative expectations and cliched notions of "destiny" precisely because it is faithfully adapted from real life directly to the page, but communicates life experience so much more honestly precisely because of its matter-of-fact lack of a "moral" to take home.

This is what I'd like to do: write clearly about my experiences in a way that makes it that much harder to write off atheism as reckless, unexamined, thoughtless, hateful, pitiable, one-dimensional, rebellious, or selfishly contrived out of short-sighted convenience. Atheists are human, and many of us have considered religious questions much more seriously than we're likely to be given credit for from the pulpit on Sunday. In order to undo the caricature, there is no substitute for providing the real person.

I am not here to be a shill for atheism and claim that it's wonderful and fulfilling and the best thing that could ever happen to you or anyone; I am here simply to be honest about it, so that there can no questioning the sincerity or motives of whatever I say. Whether atheism is a happy view or not is a race in which I have no horses. I just want to speak honestly about it, and to be regarded on my own terms in a light in which I would be able to recognize myself, not as a Doubting Thomas or a prodigal son or a silver-tongued devil, but as an ordinary person who sees no reason to believe in gods and probably never will.

To my knowledge, the exact niche I'm looking for isn't quite filled yet, but in terms of non-polemical atheist writing in general, Greta Christina comes highly recommended - in fact, I might skip over a great deal of "What (Many) Atheists Think And Why 101" material, secure in the knowledge that a somewhat comprehensive resource exists already with which I agree on most points. Her blog strikes a very nice balance of maintaining an even-handed and civil tone while remaining firm, clear, and even uncompromising. Her writing avoids the siren call of polemical rhetoric that makes for good choir preaching, but is sure to alienate all but the most questioning, open-minded, thick-skinned, fair-minded and agnostic of the believing, half-believing, and trying-to-believe crowd. I can't recommend her enough.

In the near future, I hope to include a little more required reading, which I expect everyone to read before commenting, seeing as I'm looking for a very particular kind of discussion here of a very literary quality. All comments will start out screened, and I will unscreen them only if I find them to be keeping with the goals of this blog. This is not a debate forum, nor is it a place to fish for men, nor is it a place to unload volleys of polemic against religion. Though heartfelt criticism of religion has a place here, I expect rhetorical flourishes to serve the goal of clarity, not that of hammering nails into a coffin. Clearly expressed profound disappointment is allowed and encouraged, but barrages of insults and anger are not. Stories about how a reader came to be a believer might, in some cases, be acceptable, but something about such a story should be unusually honest in a way that distinguishes them from the fairy-tale conversion stories I was subjected to by the dozen in my childhood. Similarly, discussion of how get along with or otherwise relate to the atheist in your life will not be allowed to go in the "how can I get X to come to church and/or find Jesus" direction.

At times the difference between open conversation and raw polemic can be ill-defined and hard to discern, and I reserve the right to make judgment calls. I cannot guarantee that writers and readers will not be upset by what I choose to leave out or include, respectively.

* - There are nice exceptions; Hitchens also edited the more even-handed The Portable Atheist; some of Myers' more effort-intensive posts are very thoughtful and even delve into ruminations on mortality, but he updates a LOT and can't write like that all the time.
** - An excellent NOVA documentary on the Dover trial can be found here.

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