June 23, 2012

My Response to Ed Brayton of Freethought Blogs

Ed Brayton says he welcomes disagreement. Does he? If we both started driving toward each other we could meet halfway in an hour and a half for a few beers and laughs. We are that close to each other in our views too. We are not world’s apart. I suspect he welcomes disagreement from people he considers his friends. Am I his friend? We shall see. While Ed appreciates my work very much (thanks so much Ed!) he recently answered two questions of mine and offered two basic criticisms of me. Let's start with the questions.

Ed answers my request for a mission statement by saying:
Freethought Blogs does not have a mission statement. It will never have a mission statement. And we do not have a collective goal or agenda in writing our own blogs or in joining this particular group of bloggers. Each of us has our own motivations, goals and reasons for both of those things.
No that's not true. As I had said, the unwritten mission statement of the FTB is this:
We at FtB have come together as a diverse group of atheists who have a diverse set of atheist agendas in order to have a bigger voice than we would normally have if we were not here.
Disingenuously Ed opines:
Loftus seems particularly focused on the idea of a “bigger voice,” whatever that means.
Uhhh, he doesn't know? Really? I'll say more about this later. In any case I said that's okay if people want a bigger voice in the midst of many disagreements with other bloggers. Minority voices among members at FTB are basically shouted down. If those minority voices can live with this then that is their choice.

I had also asked, "What are the criteria for atheists to be included at FtB?" Ed replied:
First of all, let me note that it isn’t even a requirement that one be an atheist to blog here...What binds us together, it seems to me, is that we are all proponents of reason and science and we all want a more rational and just world to live in. Each individual person has their own priorities, where they choose to focus their attention....the answer is that there are no criteria. We decide as a group which bloggers to add to the network. We have a whole long list of potential invitees and even an official subcommittee to sort through them and make suggestions. But we makes those decisions based on consensus.
He also included the desire for diversity. Well, I have already described my own experience with this so-called "consensus" process and I wasn't happy with it. But okay, as an addendum to the aforementioned mission statement let's add, "we are all proponents of reason and science and we all want a more rational and just world to live in." I guess that rules out accomodationists, correct? Or not? [I'm not one of them]. I have an 83 year old fiscal conservative atheist friend who is totally against President Obama's health care plan. Would he be ruled out as a FTBer? Or, is it that it would be his choice if he can take the heat from others there? The fact is that a blog with such a massive audience should consider who to ask on-board since it puts people into a positions where they can influence the thought of others. It makes leaders out of them despite, once again, Ed's disingenuous claims to the contrary.

So let's talk about diversity. I agree with this as a goal, most emphatically, and FTB is achieving it to some degree as best as possible. I think however, that there are an inordinate number of people on the first side of the following disjunctives:

Activists vs Scholars who blog in their area of expertise.

Anonymous people vs Named people

Bloggers, Podcasters and Video makers vs Published authors

Confrontationalists vs Accomodationists

Liberals vs Conservatives

Bloggers who offer political commentary vs Bloggers committed to debunking religion and Christianity in general

Emotional Thinkers vs Critical Thinkers (Sorry but almost every time I have disagreed with one of the FTBers I found they did not think very well. It only arises when there is disagreement. Until that happens it appears that people think well).

Individual bloggers who speak for themselves vs Bloggers who can represent to some degree atheist organizations

Former believers vs Former ministers

Lifelong atheists vs Former believers (I'm not sure about this one).

Non-Scientists vs Scientists (i.e., scientists who have credentials and blog in their area of expertise)

Young people vs older people

I'm not sure of all of these disjunctives so I stand to be corrected if I'm wrong. It's a bit too time-consuming for me to check these all out. This is not necessarily to be a criticism of FTB in some cases since it's hard to get a good balance of bloggers. In other cases I think it is. If nothing else they should consider them in the future.

Let me focus on one issue, the issue of feminism. I think the focus of a group can be seen by the number of posts and the kind of posts that are written. Let's take Elevatorgate and the ensuing discussions about it. Richard Dawkins's utterly insensitive comment to Rebecca Watson sparked the issue of sexual harassment at Freethought Conventions. From it women have argued for and gotten several atheist sexual harassment policies put into place, so they have achieved a modicum of welcomed success. But there was a point to what Dawkins had said, which has largely been lost. He insensitively, but somewhat accurately, compared the problem Watson had experienced, as bad as it was, to the sufferings women have experienced in male dominated societies around the world. And guess what? The FTBgers have put out many more posts about the kinds of things women experience at Freethought Conventions than on some of the horrible sufferings women are experiencing around the world by a margin 50 to 1. The only person who has a better focus is Taslima Nasreen on her blog No Country for Women (I urge people to scroll down and read several of her archived posts). While all abuses of male privilege and abuse are to be condemned, it sure looks like the kinds of abuses FTB focuses on are personal ones related to only a few atheists, those who attend conventions.

So some of my criticisms are about a misplaced or unbalanced focus. If I were Watson or Ophelia Benson or Ashley Miller would I also write a bunch of posts about this? Damn straight I would. We can only tackle one problem at a time, so like them, I would tackle the ones that effect me the most, the ones I have hopes of changing. I sure hope they move on though, that's all. There are larger, shall I say, more important feminist issues to tackle, the ones Nasreen writes about.

Then Ed offers two basic criticisms of me, which, since they're about my consistency and personality I take the most offense to. First he writes about my consistency:
John Loftus, who briefly had a blog here...has gone from complaining about the mythical hive mind among the bloggers here to complaining that we disagree too much. Yes, I’m serious....On the one hand, if several FTBers agree on a subject and each write about it expressing a similar perspective, that’s bad and it’s obviously all orchestrated behind the scenes; on the other hand, when we disagree we’re drowning each other out and undermining atheism in the process...Which is it, are we a hive mind that is undermining the cause by gang-style attacks on other atheists? Or are we a highly fractured bunch who is undermining the cause by disagreeing with one another? Jesus, folks, pick a horse and ride it. We’re either a bunch of people who disagree with one another too often and therefore undermine atheism and “drown out” one another, or we’re a cult that destroys anyone who disagrees with us; we can’t be both, for crying out loud.
I never said FTBers represents a "hive-mind" nor did I say they act like a cult. Where did Ed get that? Not from me, that's for sure. I did incorrectly say one time that they were all attacking DJ Grothe, which I retracted later because I was not fully informed. It happens. Sometimes we're wrong, all of us.

But they do think alike on some issues, that I know. They all are against religious faith. They all embrace reason and science. They are all social liberals (some of them seem to me to be radical liberals--"radical" is in the mind of the beholder, I know). I suspect they all agree that the Jesus story was probably a myth. And they most emphatically all want a bigger voice. Who doesn't? And if I can co-opt the meaning of a hive-mind then they swarm out like bees to sting most any outsider who offers a criticism of FTB, at least, almost no one speaks in defense of such a person. Most of them want the money that comes every month from blogging too. Justin Griffith said he made $100 last month, but donates it to a good cause. When I blogged there I earned $166 in December. We were paid per number of hits we received and a couple of them are making some really good money, like Ed Brayton and PZ Myers. PZ, for instance, got at least twenty times the number of hits I did (I wish I had kept the stats but I didn't, so I could be off the mark a bit), which means that if I got $166 then PZ probably gets over $3,000 a month. No wonder Brayton and PZ get irritated and defensive when I offer criticisms of their blog. I would be defensive too. And I would sure like to earn that kind of money myself. But as it stands I don't even make that kind of money from my daytime job, and it's one of the reasons I cannot blog much. Whenever I do, I lose business because I'm spending time on something that does not earn me money. [Edit: For instance, this particular post of mine took about eight hours of writing and editing and thinking about how to properly respond. Who will pay me for the time I took to write it? If anyone wants to help out there is donate link in my sidebar. I appreciate all the help I can get.] Atheists praise the sacrifices that recent former Clergy members have made for coming out as atheists. I have come out myself and I still suffer financially for it; after all, what am I to do with theology and philosophy degrees without a PhD? Atheists also praise the sacrifices of students who take stands against prayers in their High Schools and who suffered for it. They are indeed all to be congratulated and helped! I have made sacrifices too. It's just not something so noticeable I suppose.

Ed finally writes about my personality by saying,
We invited John Loftus to join FTB last year because, as a group, we have genuine respect for his work debunking Christianity. And we still do. But let me just say this: I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone with as fragile an ego or as strong a persecution complex as John. He is forever demanding “respect,” by which he seems to mean that everyone must bow to his greatness. I think the reason why he seems so baffled by the idea that a group of 40 people would disagree on some things (not to mention the hypocrisy of his criticism of the exact opposite when it suits him) is because he simply cannot fathom the idea that anyone would disagree with him. From the moment he joined FTB to the moment he left to his most recent postings, he has displayed consistently diva-like behavior. And frankly, I am relieved that he decided to leave the network. I don’t mind herding opinionated cats at all, but I have little patience for those who have displayed a level of pettiness and narcissism that would make Bill O’Reilly envious. When he says things like this:
They need me and don’t realize it. Someday they will.
You get a mere glimpse of it. Yes, John, we’ll rue the day you left (/sarcasm)
First off let's be clear. I have never "met" Brayton. I'd like to but that word implies something it isn't. What he means to say is that he has never met anyone online like me. The internet is a bad way to judge someone's character. Doesn't he know this? I used to be a minister. I know how to deal charitably with people. I am a kind, caring person. A lot of people in my churches loved me, and some of them still do even though I'm an atheist. When it comes to the internet I argue for ideas I find persuasive. This is a different venue. It's hard to be funny when you are passionate like I am. But I make people laugh all of the time. Humor eases tension, it puts people at ease. And much of my humor is self-effacing, making fun of myself. But to suggest that I think everyone must "bow to my greatness" and that I "cannot fathom the idea that anyone would disagree with me" is quite literally ludicrous. What, does he think I live in a cave or something? Is this how he treats allies, people for whom he has a genuine respect for their work? What he has done is to dehumanize me. He can do that because he's not picturing a person but rather words on the computer.

But they do need me. Of that I'm sure, at least to some extent. I didn't mean they need me at FTB though. From my perspective I don't think many of the people at FTB care what Christians think. Somehow people are supposed to become atheists on their own, and when they do, it's the goal of FTB to show them the way forward. This is all so disheartening to me. Who is supposed to do the dirty work of helping Christians come to their senses? What, am I the janitor or something, someone who is supposed to deal with deluded people respectfully day in and day out while atheists throw more trash on the floor for me to pick up? Or, a more interesting analogy, how would they like it if they were on the front lines of a battle and were fired on from behind? That's how I feel. Feelings can deceive but I cannot feel any other way.

I have fought similar battles with Christians over whether I should be included in SBL's Biblioblogger list, and won, due in some part to Hector Avalos who defended me. Many of them didn't want me on it and for good reasons, because DC is now kicking their asses every month. It's so disheartening to me to have to fight both battles, sometimes at the same time.

I remember being inspired by a talk Eddie Tabash gave on the separation of Church and State, a version of which can be found here. I liked it so much I traveled from Indianapolis to Grand Rapids to hear it again. I told Eddie I would do all I could in my writings to help build up that wall of separation. It was before my first published book came out, Why I Became an Atheist. And I devoted extra hours upon hours to it, making that book the very best I could. I thought to myself that if there is a battle then I wanted to join the fight in a big way, with my guns a blazing. Little did I know that I did too good of a job. Little did I know there were people who just might be offended by it because people said it was better than what Dawkins or Harris or Hitchens had written. So Dawkins has never endorsed it and others did so only privately. Here I was putting my everything into it and not getting any encouraging help. I went out of my way not to criticize any prominent atheist for years in hopes they would. But they ignored my work for the most part. Perhaps it was because they adopted the Courtier's Reply and were boxed in and couldn't do so. That was frustrating to me because when Christians blasted them with arguments that they could not answer, all they had to do was recommend my work. And although Michael Shermer wrote a blurb for my book, to this day (as far as I know) his Skeptic magazine has never mentioned my books, not in a review, and not in the books for sale in the back. I was really beside myself about this. I never thought it was a conspiracy and I don't think I have a persecution complex. But why this silence? I still can't figure it out.

Perhaps I need more accolades then I receive. Ed would say that just by being asked to join FTB I was supposed to take it as some great honor. I was told they wanted me so that I would attract more Christians to their site, that is, get them more hits. Okay, I thought, great. But my main target audience couldn't stomach being there and I was attacked by too many atheist commenters. When my suggestions were ignored or dismissed in the email discussions FTBers had between us, it was too much for me. I couldn't take it anymore. I had to get out of there. And so I left gracefully and would have left it that way, except I was attacked for leaving, or that's how I felt. Ed suggests my criticisms of FTB spring from sour grapes, and some of that is true. The sour grapes I have are that I wanted to make a bigger difference and was prohibited by the circumstances from doing so. What Ed has never acknowledged is his own sour grapes because he could not keep me there, which would have increased the hits FTB got along with its influence. I'm sorry about this. I really am. But I just couldn't stay.

Perhaps I am arrogant, an egotist. I know I don't suffer fools gladly. I would think most people who changed the world were like that, although not all (Darwin is but one example). I know I don't take criticism very easily, but it hurts the most when it comes from my own side, my allies, who want to disenfranchise me, something I think most FTBers have done.

The fact is that I do not like arguing with atheists, and I have answered these type of criticisms even before becoming a FTBer.

If you have ever read Plato's works you know that Socrates was a bombastic person. The Delphic Oracle said that “Socrates was the wisest man alive.” So he went about testing this, asking poets, statesmen, educators, artisans, and people of high repute to clarify certain fundamental issues, like beauty, justice, truth, etc. They could not do it. So Socrates was smarter than the rest because he at least knew that he was ignorant. The discovery of one’s ignorance was the beginning of the philosophical task, for only then could one begin to overcome one's own ignorance. His personal mission was to convince others of their ignorance so they might search for a knowledge of how life should best be lived. He called himself a gadfly (stinging fly) as a gift from God to the state.

Anyone who has read the ending of the Euthyphro dilemma sees this plainly.
Soc. Were we not saying that the holy or pious was not the same with that which is loved of the gods? Have you forgotten?

Euth. I quite remember.

Soc. And are you not saying that what is loved of the gods is holy; and is not this the same as what is dear to them-do you see?

Euth. True.

Soc. Then either we were wrong in former assertion; or, if we were right then, we are wrong now.

Euth. One of the two must be true.

Soc. Then we must begin again and ask, What is piety? That is an enquiry which I shall never be weary of pursuing as far as in me lies; and I entreat you not to scorn me, but to apply your mind to the utmost, and tell me the truth. For, if any man knows, you are he; and therefore I must detain you, like Proteus, until you tell. If you had not certainly known the nature of piety and impiety, I am confident that you would never, on behalf of a serf, have charged your aged father with murder. You would not have run such a risk of doing wrong in the sight of the gods, and you would have had too much respect for the opinions of men. I am sure, therefore, that you know the nature of piety and impiety. Speak out then, my dear Euthyphro, and do not hide your knowledge.

Euth. Another time, Socrates; for I am in a hurry, and must go now.

Soc. Alas! my companion, and will you leave me in despair? I was hoping that you would instruct me in the nature of piety and impiety; and then I might have cleared myself of Meletus and his indictment. I would have told him that I had been enlightened by Euthyphro, and had given up rash innovations and speculations, in which I indulged only through ignorance, and that now I am about to lead a better life.
In Aristophane's Greek comedy "The Clouds" you would see just how much the Athenians laughed at Socrates. The play that ranked higher that particular year was called "Connus," written by Ameipsias, and it too made a laughing stock of Socrates.

Socrates was put on trial for “not believing in the gods of Athens, and corrupting the young.” He was pronounced guilty by a 281 to 220 majority vote. Afterward he was given a chance to speak to the Athenian Senate and argued they not only should free him but give him a pension for what he’s done. Afterward they sentenced him to death by a huge margin of 361 to 140 votes. It seems he didn't help his own cause, right? The officials had hoped he would flee into self-exile, and he had his chance. But he refused because to disobey the state would be to undercut all that he taught--and to undermine the state. Hence he drank the hemlock and maintained his integrity.

I am by no means comparing myself to the intellectual greatness of Socrates. But what I am saying is that sometimes people who change the world are arrogant assholes, people of whom if we lived in their day would be hated by us, or disliked greatly. The fact is that many secular intellectuals changed the world despite having a messed up life. Again, they changed the world. I should be so lucky someday that it would be said of me that I helped change the religious landscape. I came into this with an unbelievable passion. Now I'm almost completely worn out. That I even found the strength and time to respond to Ed is surprising to me. I didn't even read what he said until a few days ago.

I have written about some other concerns of mine before: How to Avoid Just Talking to Ourselves, and How to Self-Destruct as a Movement. I hope FTBers take what I say to heart.

In any case, Ed has the power. I don’t. He has the audience. I don’t. He has a bully pulpit. I don’t. That is, not by any comparison. A bully pulpit is a high ranking position of authority “that provides the holder with an opportunity to speak out and be listened to on any matter. The bully pulpit can bring issues to the forefront that were not initially in debate, due to the office's stature and publicity.” I’m against people in power who use the bully pulpit in ways that continually disenfranchise friends when there are more important problems to discuss. Does he do this for financial gain and popularity regardless of who he hurts, and regardless of whether the issues he raises are important ones? That is the question. [Edit: As an afterthought I posted a link to what I've written here on a few Facebook pages so I can have a bigger audience].

Who is Ed accountable to when he spreads these things about me? He likes having a bigger voice, I guarantee it. To anyone who criticizes him he can bellow down from his bully pulpit with a few "Amens" coming from a few people who wish to show their loyalty and gratitude for the platform he's provided them at FTB. If he wants to dehumanize a person he can do it with impunity. So can PZ. So can many others. The rest of us are but peons, serfs, or so it seems.

I think with power comes responsibility. The FTBers have been running around blasting other atheists with impunity, the kind Brayton and PZ have given them. They cannot help but feel empowered by being at FTB. May I humbly suggest they realize this and utilize that power with humility and responsibility.

There are a great many young atheists who will never read this post of mine unless Brayton links to it. They think I'm crazy based on what he wrote. And if he links to it he may have the tendency to blast me yet again with his "bigger voice." I cannot win. But I must try. He simply has no clue how passionate I have been. I wish he would help set the record straight. Will he? That too is the question.

I will bury my hatchet and let bygones be bygones if he does. I would like to be recognized by the FTBers as an equal partner in our shared desire to change the religious landscape. I need their help to get my work recognized, just as I think they need my work in changing the religious landscape. I hope someday Ed and I can sit down over a few beers and have a good laugh about it all too. There are much bigger fish to fry and they basically run this country of ours. As the late Rodney King said, "Can we all just get along?" I'm willing.

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