Monday, January 26, 2009

People Are People, Unfortunately

Back in November, after more than two years of being in a Yahoo group that I participated in off and on, I removed myself from their membership.

The group was the Atlanta Freethought Society, of which I'm still a paying member until March, and at which point I will not renew.

The list is populated mostly by snarky, older, left- or central-leaning atheists and agnostics who used the list to comment on news stories and such, usually having to do with the clash between the religious and the non-religious or anti-religious, but also including "woo" topics like Bigfoot or alien abduction.

And I'm okay with that. These are my peeps when it comes to that. Who better to appreciate stories of ignorant people in some backward, podunk town expelling a teenage girl from high school on the grounds that she's a witch? The list abounded with stuff like this, day in and day out, for most of the time I was on it.

Last summer, I went to one in-person meeting of the group and was not impressed, but still remained on the email list.

And then, the Troll occurred.

The group acquired a troll back sometime during the summer. He was from Indianapolis, which was clearly stated in his Yahoo bio. Yeah, we're the Atlanta Freethought Society, but there's nothing in the charter (I checked) that said only people from the Atlanta environs could join and participate. In fact, there is nothing anywhere that states that a person has to believe, not believe, think, or not think anything in order to participate. I want to say this up front because it becomes important later.

So, this guy whom I'll call "Jim" starts posting to our group. It becomes readily apparent from the get-go that Jim is a Christian, because he takes every opportunity to make sure that we knew this. Not in what I'd call an obnoxious way, at all, but simply stated as part of his responses.

Now, when you have a list of people who all believe in X and you introduce someone who believes in !X, it will inevitably cause some conflict. The sane response for the X people is to ignore the !X person, and eventually the !X person will get bored and go away.


Well, actually, no one has ever tested this hypothesis, nor are they ever likely to. Because, like the question of how many licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop, no one has ever gotten past three. :) People are constitutionally unable to ignore a troll. Trolls, knowing this, gleefully stay where they are clearly not wanted, because their sole purpose in life is to stir up trouble. But I digress.

People in the Atlanta Freethought Society—and I stress this to point out the absurdity of what you're about to learn—attacked. Mercilessly. Because he didn't agree with their point of view. "Hey, idiot, this is an atheist group, and so all your preaching isn't appreciated!" was the general tone of most of it. A few people popped up at this point and said, "Actually, you know, it's a free-thought group, and I'm {an agnostic|a deist|a theist|whatever}," but these people were ignored or shouted down.

Jim stated on several occasions that he was there to learn and be exposed to other points of view. He stated that although he was a Christian, he had no truck with organized religion, hated the Catholic church1, was in complete favor of church-state separation, etc. The only substantial way that he differed from the majority of our group was that he was not an avowed atheist or agnostic.

As soon as people started snarking off at him, he started snarking back. And so the snark got snarkier and snarkier until it was barely concealed (or just plain raw) contempt.

Where I got involved was when someone just out of the blue asked Jim if he was a "reformed" homosexual. In other words, a gay man whose Christian values have convinced him to deny his nature and proclaim he's "cured" of homosexuality.

Whoa. Where did that come from? So I jumped in. "What does Jim's sexual orientation have to do with anything?" I asked. "We were talking about <whatever>."

"Well, he just sounds like he's one of those guys. He has all the hallmarks," came the reply.

"But why does that matter? What does whether he's straight, gay, bisexual, transsexual, or something else have to do with the issue you're arguing with him about?"

"He's a troll! And I have to make him admit he's gay! Because he's gay! And until he admits he's gay, he's dishonest!" (I wish I were making this up. This is not a direct transliteration, obviously, but it captures the spirit of what was said.)

It went on like this for several more exchanges. People were getting downright nasty. And then a couple of the gay people on the list got involved, and were actually supporting this nonsense, calling for Jim to admit to his homosexuality. Which he did, openly. He claimed that, like me, he just had no clue why it was such an issue, and didn't answer because it was not relevant. But eventually, he said, "Yeah, I'm gay. I'm proudly gay, out, and have been for 30 years. Now what?"

So they they started in with the "Aha! I thought so!" nonsense, even though they didn't seem to remember that the entire brunt of their argument had been that he was trying to hide something. They then quoted all the parts of the bible back to him that have been used on a bunch of religious sites to condemn homosexuality.

Do you see it? Right there. They became the very people they claim to be fighting against. Here were a bunch of avowed atheists and agnostics using the Bible to try to catch a gay Christian man in a contradiction.

What the hell is wrong with people? I mean it. There has to be something just wrong in our heads to make us do this kind of crap.

It reminded me all too much of scenes in Frankenstein movies where the villagers have pitchforks and torches and they're all yelling at once and waving their weapons at the poor monster.

That really opened my eyes. I started to pay more attention to not only what was being said but who was saying it and how it was being said. I never did get back into participating at my usual level. I started looking at what was really being said behind the posts, and I decided it wasn't my kind of message. But that was later. Back to the summer.

One other person joined me in a call for civility (for which, incidentally, I was given grief), and for a couple of weeks, most people (there are always a few who just can't keep anything civil) treated Jim as a visitor, took him at his word that he was there to share ideas and learn different points of view, and basically engaged in a conversation instead of a verbal fist-fight.

It didn't last long, though, and soon, the gloves were back on and the moderator (who, although he didn't participate in the flame war, took no steps to try to end it, either) ended up banning Jim from the group. I state again that Jim did nothing wrong, because there is nothing in the charter that said his beliefs--or lack thereof--had to be in lockstep with the rest of the group in order to participate.

But it really showed what these people are made of. At the very first hint of an opinion that didn't match their own, they started shouting "Faggot!" and throwing figurative stones. And one of the very people shouting "faggot" the loudest was a self-avowed lesbian in a long-term relationship. It boggles the mind, really. I stress again that these are self-proclaimed free-thinkers, who are supposed to welcome discourse on a variety of topics and from a wide range of points of view.

I mean, isn't that what free-thought is all about?

Instead, this group turns out to be nothing but a cabal of back-patting, self-congratulatory jerks who just want a captive forum where they can bash religion and right-wingers—well, basically anyone who disagrees with them—at will.

  1. This seems to be a common misunderstanding of non-believers by believers. They believe that all of us hate the church. Yes, there are some non-believers who fall into the "anti-theist" category who believe that all religion should be abolished. There are others, like myself, who don't care what religion you are as long as you don't proselytize us.