Sunday, April 30, 2006

No Comment

By The Raving Atheist

How am I going to handle the comments? That was my greatest concern upon accepting the keys to The Dawn Patrol. Apart from automatic spam controls, the comments aren’t touched at The Raving Atheist. Dawn, however, enforces the dread Harris Protocol. I barely made it through Robert’s Rules of Order, and had no desire to learn and apply a new set of speech regulations.

Fortunately, Dawn agreed to continue to police you. (Yes, you). But the prospect of assuming that unfamiliar role got me thinking about some of the free speech and censorship issues that arise at religious and secular blogs. In particular, I was wondering whether the stereotypes of the prudish (or authoritarian) believer vs libertine atheist withstood scrutiny. Also, given that abortion is a frequent topic at TRA and the Patrol, I’ve also considered whether there is more censorship on the pro-life or pro-choice side of the blogosphere. Although abortion isn’t a religious issue for me (nothing is), the debate generally breaks down along faith-based lines. So if the stereotypes held, you might predict more censorship at pro-life blogs (at least the non-atheist ones).

As noted, at my godless site reader submissions are completed unregulated. Is this in any way a function of my atheism? Indirectly. First, atheism is a negative philosophy, in the sense that its only purpose is to negate and attack theism. Such criticism, at least in societies with a religious majority, requires protection to survive. So atheists (especially those running the ACLU) have traditionally advocated strong free speech guarantees. And it would make little sense for an atheist blogger to censor believers, because their views are very subject matter of his site.

Atheists also tend to be blasphemers, which often leads to obscenity. Doestevsky's "everything is permitted" naturally morphs into Cole Porter’s Anything Goes: “Good authors too who once knew better words/Now only use four-letter words." My own cursing has declined over the years, but in the early days it was ubiquitous. Bad language are not a necessary component of atheist discourse, and, in fact, large philosophical works devoted to the topic have been written without them. But with respect to censorship, my point is just that given my own behavior I’m in no position to criticize or curtail anyone else's choice of words.

Atheists can, of course, be censors. Communists don't have a reputation as civil libertarians. And being a disfavored minority doesn’t inevitably lead to a love of speech -- the Nazis who fight for the right to march obviously wouldn’t reciprocate once in power. (Note: comments debating whether communism/Nazism are necessary consequences of atheism, or vice versa, will be deleted).

Atheism, by its nature, also acts as a censor, or at least a filter. Many religious people would not read, much less post comments on, an atheist blog. And those who do sometimes find them driven off by the nastiness of the atheist regulars, who forgo civil debate to exploit known sensitivities to blasphemy and obscenity. Some of my readers view TRA as a private atheist club, with the religious being unwelcome, proselytizing outsiders. So my failure to moderate has resulted in a less open forum in some ways.

The club atmosphere, however, is more prevalent at religious blogs, and more likely to be enforced by the site proprietor. Many of them are akin to churches or prayer groups. Their point is to worship and glorify God, not to debate. Atheists who leave comments can expect to be expelled as surely as they would had they started ranting in a cathedral. Some religious sites do welcome theological dialogue, but commonly the discussion is limited to narrow doctrinal differences within the context of theism rather across the theism/atheism divide. This is not necessarily evidence of theocratic intolerance -- it’s just a function of having a narrowly-themed blog. I'd expect (and deserve) to be banned if I started extolling the virtues of atheism at a stamp collecting blog, or engaged in cat-hating at a feline fanciers' site (or a cat god one).

The religious sites with the least censorship are those devoting to refuting atheism rather than promoting theism. Like atheist blogs, they depend to some degree on input from their adversaries. But there aren't very many of them (in fact, the only one I can think of is a defunct blog called The Secularist Critique).

The Patrol is not, strictly speaking, a religion blog. But it is evolving in that direction. Its author already has such a reputation as a religious wingnut (I take no position on the question) that no matter how common-sensically she writes her views are denounced as mere sectarian dogma. Her reputation as a censor is almost as bad. Stories of "banishment from Eden" so permeate the Blogsophere that you’d think you were reading Genesis. "She deleted me just for disagreeing with her" is a common refrain.

To which I say, bullsh*t. Not just because she's letting someone like me guest host (which can be attributed to our agreement on other issues) or just because she's never deleted any of my comments (which can be attributed to me being careful). I've read enough of the complaints -- usually posted at comments sections in other blogs with the offending Patrol comment reproduced -- to know better. Invariably, the commenter either engaged in a unacceptable level vulgarity or, more commonly, expressed the disagreement on an off-topic subject.

I don't obsessively police Dawn's policing and I imagine it's possible that she sometimes bans someone out of pure spite. (I certainly hope so). But what I find ironic is that the sites I've found much of the complaining on are atheist and/or liberal sites that have banned or threatened to ban me -- Pandagon, Feministe and BushvChoice -- for politely expressing an opinion, usually about abortion. The Pandagon ban (by atheist blogger Amanda Marcotte) resulted from commentary on the John Roberts nomination (reproduced here) which did not even mention "choice." The comment deleted from BushvChoice (see full discussion here) also concerned Roberts, including his views on abortion and other topics. Atheist Lauren threatened to ban me from Feministe (see here) for allegedly "hijacking" a comment thread -- after leaving an on-topic comment, I made the mistaking of responding to her fans' patently off-topic questions to me about my abortion stance. And Jill of Feministe more recently implied that I was banned from that blog (I haven't tried commenting to see if it is so) for allegedly mischaracterizing her view on abortion and religion at a post on my site (discussion here).

It's surprising to me that people who complain so frequently about religious oppression and advocate abortion up to the line of infanticide can be so thin-skinned sometimes about mere words. BushvChoice even once deleted a comment by Katha Pollitt -- an atheist pro-choice advocate -- because she criticized NARAL's support of pro-choice Republicans who voted for cloture on the Alito nomination debate (see here). It hurts me not to blame such intolerance on religion, so I'll just chalk it up to religious zeal (about politics). Or maybe "magical thinking" (which, as Amanda taught me, is how atheists can insult other for expressing allegedly superstitious thoughts).

I suppose Dawn will have an easy time overseeing the comments to this post since I haven't really said anything on which reasonable people could disagree. It's been fun guest-hosting the Patrol and I hope you've enjoyed my stay. If you haven’t, well, I have just two words for you:

[God Bless!]
[Conclusion Edited by Siteowner]