I was perusing r/TrueAtheism recently and came across a link to an article by Sam Harris. It turned out to be a response to Daniel Dennett’s criticisms of Harris’ book Free Will, written in the form of an extended and somewhat conversational (if not a bit irritated) essay. As someone with a strong philosophical inclination [looks at Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy hanging on wall], I found the essay’s topic – free will - to be quite interesting, even if I had not read either Free Will or Dennett’s extensive critique. What I found to be more interesting, however, was the lone comment attached to the article, posted by reddit user Siguard. To quote:
"This is a discussion on free will, and therefore belongs in a place like /r/philosophy and not /r/trueatheism. I know it's common to lump everything Harris does as relating to atheism, but I don't think this has anything to do with his atheism and more so to do with his neuroscience background, which is the root of his philosophical view on free will."
The comment itself is accurate, and reasonably articulated (one of the reason’s my default atheism-related subreddit is r/TrueAtheism and not r/atheism), but something about it struck me as odd. The original post didn’t gain much traction, nor did Siguard’s comment (in either a negative or positive way). I say all this because I don’t want my following comments to be seen as criticism of either the article, Siguard, or the content contained within Harris’ article. Rather, I highlight their comment because I think it hints at a perceptible cloistering within communities like r/TrueAtheism that are unnecessarily limiting of the community itself and the content we can find therein.
Nothing within the rules of the subreddit prohibits postings that aren’t specifically related to atheism, and I believe this is purposeful. As I have written about elsewhere, atheism itself is a negative belief and it would be difficult to find discussion-worthy content often enough to justify the existence of r/TrueAtheism if “atheism qua atheism” was the only subject under discussion. As such, it is only natural that related topics - typically religion, relevant social issues, and personal posts – get tossed into the mix. Atheists are more than the simple belief that "gods do not exist” and I would expect a community that ostensibly exists for atheists would be as varied as those atheists are themselves. Why, then, should a philosophical topic as interesting as free will be dismissed so easily, especially if the subject is being discussed by two of the most well-known atheists out there?
Again, this was one person’s comment on a post that did not receive much attention. I do not aim to pass judgment on all atheist redditors, nor to make sweeping claims about how degenerate the online atheist community is. I am one of them and I can happily say that overall I have found the topics posted to be interesting, engaging, and very often emotion and personal. Yet for all of that, there was something in that comment that struck a chord with me, and I believe it is because there is an undercurrent of opinion that dismisses tangentially related topics as irrelevant or – worse - as unwanted distractions.
While it is certainly the case that some things don’t make sense to post to a forum like r/TrueAtheism, I think the intellectual net should be cast wider than many others might. The reason is simple: atheism simply doesn’t say or mean much in and of itself and as such it leaves atheists at a bit of a “disadvantage” to their theist peers. We don’t come "pre-programmed" with a worldview that contains answers to the more pressing questions out there, nor are we necessarily given the philosophical tools useful for understanding the world and people around us. As someone who both lacks a belief in gods and as someone who values the insights of (western) philosophy, I grant that I am biased on the subject. Nevertheless, I think that philosophical discussions are crucial for fleshing out a coherent, explanatorily useful model of reality. I also think atheists can perhaps benefit more than many others in this pursuit, as we are not encumbered by dogma and myth to the extent that most of the world seems to be.
Consider why a topic like free will might be a ripe topic of discussion for non-believers; if properly fleshed out, any insightful conversation about “free will” must necessarily bring in metaphysical assumptions or premises.
- Does the world operate according to strict laws that we can understand and, thus, use to predict future outcomes?
- Or is the universe under the sway of randomizing forces, forever removing true predictability from the equation?
- Are we self-generated, or are we the outcome of forces beyond our control?
- Depending on the answer to the previous question, how should be go about punishing wrong-doers in a way that respects their autonomy and humanity?
Each of these are in some way restricted or informed by one’s atheism, which I believe makes them ripe topics of discussion by atheists, for atheists.
All of this is to say nothing of the fact that it is not a terrible idea to understand the type of things that prominent atheists get up to when not advocating or defending atheism qua atheism. Your personal opinion of Sam Harris or Daniel Dennett aside, these men are two of the most publicly recognizable faces of atheism. This makes them, for better or worse, ambassadors for the non-religious, which I believe makes their public exploits – particularly those between the two – an area of interest for atheists. It’s not that their opinions or thoughts should inherently matter more to atheists, but it is reasonable (if not also pragmatic) to understand that those opinions and thoughts have a greater chance of influence the world’s attitude towards atheists than those of your average atheist.
Siguard was correct when they stated that the issue being debated in Harris’ article was not strictly related to his atheism, but I think the impetus to deflect the article to another subreddit is indicative of a limited view of what a community like r/TrueAtheism can be. I don’t want the old r/atheism, filled with snark and irreverent memes, but I also don’t want a place devoid of discourse that might only be tangentially related to atheism. There is so much to be discussed that can be effected by one’s belief that there are no gods, even if those topics are not, in and of themselves, inherently beholden to or grounded by atheism qua atheism. I hope that others share that spirit, because I think it can and will lead to more fulfilling and intellectually stimulating discussions through which all atheists can benefit.
Featured image used with permission of Flickr user Torley.