The Proper Use of the Pitchfork

I am an atheist in the same way that Asimov was. In an essay late in his life, he said he had always referred to himself as agnostic, that the grand mystery of existence — why there is something rather than nothing at all — was just that, a mystery, and that when it came to God, he could no more prove the positive than the negative condition.

But Asimov’s agnosticism, he argued of himself, was philosophical ornamentation. In as much as God had no bearing on his life, Isaac was an atheist in practice. That is, the structure of his life, his behavior, his relation to the divine, and so on, were all completely indistinguishable from an atheist’s, and so at some point he decided to simply drop the linguistic slipcover.

I think this probably applies to a lot of people. It does to me. Yet for most of my life I was reluctant to self-apply the label “atheist” (or “feminist” for that matter) because that term had become associated with Dawkins-esque militant atheism, a proselytizing atheism, which is different than Asimov’s thoughtful and reluctant atheism-qua-agnosticism.

I hold this Truth to be self-evident: The most dangerous people in the world are The Righteous. It doesn’t matter what your beliefs are. Anything can be perverted, from feminism to Islam. Militant atheists can be stinking assholes. So can evangelicals. And whether or not one group has the greater proportion is something upon which we must remain agnostic — because we can never measure it. And in any case it misses the point.

There are always times to take a stand, of course. But just because you don’t think you’re righteous doesn’t mean you aren’t. Almost no one thinks they’re righteous.

They just think they’re right.

For me, the key has always been, do you believe that you could be wrong? Not about your Holy Mission — such things are unassailable — but rather in your application of it to the little circumstances of life.

And please note, this is not the same as acknowledging you could be wrong. That’s different. That is, like Asimov’s agnosticism, a verbal window dressing that has no practical bearing on your behavior. Begrudgingly acknowledging there is some infinitesimally small chance that God exists is never going to stop you from doing anything horrible.

You have to believe that, however much the Holy Mission (feminism, libertarianism, atheism, antidisestablishmentarianism) is timeless, flawless, and eternally correct, your application of it to these specific circumstances is not. YOU can be wrong – right here, right now, in this case – without your entire Holy Mission being wrong.

It’s something to consider whenever there’s a popular call to grab the torches and pitchforks or otherwise gather in righteous groups and go be angry at The Others – a retailer, a restaurant, a government agency, a church group — because they did something that contravenes the Holy Mission.

It’s something to consider after feeling the flush of ego-validating satisfaction that comes when such gatherings succeed in bending The Others to your will – as if it’s ever enough, as if you’ll ever stop, as if you can cure an addiction by taking more drugs.

(Every great psychologist from the Buddha to Dr. Ruth will tell you that most of the time your behavior has little to do with the evil of the world – there is plenty of evil that doesn’t so much as elicit an eyebrow raise from you – and that what you’re doing here is perpetrating your unresolved traumas on the rest of us rather than dealing with them yourself.)

People who accept that their application of their Holy Missions might, in any one case, be flawed tend to act thoughtfully and remain open to criticism. In most cases, they act defensively rather than counter-offensively. And that’s HUGE. In political terms, it’s the difference between patriotism and nationalism, although “patriot,” like “atheist,” has been lately co-opted by a militant (in this case conservative) extreme.

But I don’t want to be just a different kind of preachy asshole. The point is not to criticize so much as offer an alternative.

At each affront to the Holy Mission, or call to grab your pitchfork, ask yourself first,

Has a real person been harmed? Can I name a single victim? Do identifiable people face an immediate threat? Or am I simply worried about what might happen to someone somewhere in the future?

If the former, act swiftly! Genuine evil is afoot.

If the latter, ask further,

Is there solid empirical evidence that this affront to Nature will lead directly to harm, such as yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater? Can I name or otherwise identify a real person as potential victim, or am I instead worried about the “environment” this creates or its pernicious effect on other people (e.g. “young minds”)?

If no evidence of direct and immediate harm exists, then this is a “crime” of thought, of appropriateness — your sense versus someone else’s — and you are merely policing other people’s fantasies, acting as backseat driver to their lives, worried about their ability to control themselves as well as you do, and you should, quite simply, STFU.