24 February 2015

Focus points for secularists?

In the wake of some of the "anti-theist" business and any sniff of this being tied to violence, I thought it useful to outline some social focus points of atheists and secularists as they might apply to the lived experiences. That is: does this form of demonstration of faith actually conform to a form of oppression that demands a response, or is this form of demonstration of faith causing a form of oppression upon other people (eg, not necessarily atheists/secularists) and demand a response. And if these are in conflict, where should priorities or loyalties lie.

Some groundwork or disclosures may be of use here though first.

1) I have pretty much always been an atheist or secularist. I did not de-convert, as it were, as I was never compelled to believe in any deity. I find the concept frankly baffling that other people have had to or expend much time and energy discussing the merits of the demands of such entities (as though they could be interpreted in declarative manner anyway), or would expend much time and energy having to convince other people the entire edifice is absurd, or would expend much time and energy on the portion of life where they did share in these beliefs. This is an important distinction I expect in the level of animosity and annoyance toward the religiously inclined that I feel and the practicability of the goals as set out.

2) I also have been finding that reading many secularists or atheists I am frequently at odds with what I perceive as their projected ends, their methods, or their conclusions of truth in that they too often resemble a similar level of certainty to that brought by their adversaries and subsequently expend precious resources and time fighting relatively meaningless battles that seem to do little to advance a secular cause, or at least a humanist one. Even if we assume the goal is to make more people secularly inclined, I do not think much of this activity in punching down on religions necessarily does this and has mixed results as far as making more people inclined to so identify if they are already broadly in agreement. It may be emotionally satisfying as a project but most probably does less than we think to advance any practical and effective objections to the projects and intentions of religious groups and peoples. It tends to resemble either "group therapy" of a self congratulatory variety or picking on the dumb kid a little too often to serve any broader purpose.

If people are merely looking for the most obvious tie-ins to how people might become more secularly inclined I would suggest the following:
a) raise children who aren't explicitly brought up in, or prevented from being exposed to religious ideas. They will seek out ideas on their own, including religious concepts from theology and secular concepts from science or philosophy. Curious minds are open to questioning and looking at uncertainty as opportunity to try to learn.

b) raise children who read and have an interest in multiple faith traditions. Comparative faith exercises is unlikely to make people into affirmative believers to any particular faith tradition at the very least, and may establish a degree of tolerance.

c) most obviously start with mythology also. The stories of the Greeks and their pantheon of gods had a strong anthropological influence on whether to accept the stories of the Hebrews or the Arabs as anything distinctive. I typically find it amusing that fundamentalist Christians complain about prayer being taken out of school or trying to remove the theory of evolution and don't spend time trying to take Greek mythology out. Darwin's theory is elegant and has a variety of complicated factors owing to the multiple lines of evidence for it marshaled to support its basic claims. Most children, even teenagers, are not going to take away from it very much even if they get a decent primary education. Most children can take away from reading about Zeus that this isn't something people take seriously anymore and that religion is sort of like a comic book story. The way they start to treat the concept of Santa as they get older. And that this has implications for other religious traditions.

d) possibly read a good deal of fantasy or science fiction growing up (or watch TV/movies of same).

e) failing all of that, raise children in an explicitly and literal fundamentalist religious tradition and take your chances that any of those beliefs will survive long on contact with reality. Evidence suggests that it certainly might, depending on a level of cultural isolationism, but is much more likely to crumble than a more liberal and interpretative religious tradition. A more liberal, interpretative faith is more amorphous and vague, and undoubtedly more annoying to argue with but by those lights is also flexible enough to incorporate many secular ideals and attempt to gloss over or entirely concede areas of disagreement to work together to deal with issues of suffering, for example (in this way, it is similar to ideological disagreements).

The advantage of the more liberal, interpretative version is that it leaves room for doubt and mysteries that can be made more compatible with the empirical processes of science and the examples of human history. The more literal version requires a degree of certainty that ultimately requires rejecting far too much of reality, or deliberate attempts to seclude from its effects, to survive.

One of the first and most obvious breaks I would find is that I do not think it is worth a great deal of time arguing with religious people over theology, or attempting to de-convert people away from religious belief. I do not argue that this project has no merit, but that it has very little chance of resulting in a very broad population of people who are now rendered "faithless" and also has very little chance of replacing a Christian or Buddhist or Muslim set of ethics with something workable in a diverse and secular community. If it has any impact of generating disaffection with religion, it mostly results in a lot of people who are pissed off at organized religion instead of productively engaged in a project of moral and social exploration. To the extent I find organized religions repellent and often socially harmful, that's fine. But it's not like religion is going anywhere as a social feature of its own and the best we can do in the meantime is seek to mitigate its most destructive features instead. The project of investigating why other people are religious is interesting as an intellectual exercise and most religious people are reasonably happy to oblige in such a discussion, but suggestions that it will on its own have much impact on the minds of the involved parties are unlikely to achieve much. The argument is best used as a vehicle for others to observe the ideas or back and forth and decide, but has potentially little value to the participants themselves to illuminate errors or falsifications they are making.

Secondly. I expect this is more controversial and difficult to articulate, but the main goal and project as I see a secular ethic of requiring of an individual is in discovering what a secular ethic should or might be in the first place. Abandoning the simple world where all things are black and white and complete with moral certitude and all things are decreed as in or out of bounds by received wisdom or authority compels people to determine for themselves the utility or damage of their deeds and intentions. Aristotle's line "I have gained this from philosophy: that I do without being commanded what others do only from fear of the law." should be instructive here that we should be constantly seeking to understand how these oughts and is's are actually working, and what is demanded of us not merely in the negative sense of doing a thing because there are penalties to our non-compliance (don't kill people because you could go to jail), but advantages to a society where people do not do a thing (don't kill people because a society where people do not have to worry about being randomly killed is much more prosperous and capable of achieving a variety of ends instead of dedicating an infinite quantity of finite resources to security). I am aware there are a wide variety of secular and humanist persons, and religious persons to boot, who engage in this as a process. What I do not see is this being undertaken as a particularly public project versus making emotionally satisfying attacks on those ridiculous faithful people. The majority of attention on these concerns of how to live as a social question seems to go elsewhere, into these less useful enterprises. 

Thirdly, pick and choose battles more wisely. The black and white "this is wrong" may be true, that a behavior may be discriminatory, but is it aggressive proselytizing, or does it compel an overall social policy goal that is at odds with a secular and inclusive or diverse society. I do not much care about a diner offering a discount for prayers not because it isn't discriminatory, but because I do not see it as a sustainable business practice. I similarly do not worry very much about the question of whether a variety of discrimination should be bound up with automatic legal penalties (be they fines or other objects). I do not oppose such a project automatically either, but I find it more productive to convince more people that what they are doing is wrongful in the first place through discourse and then failing a resolution, to move toward a variety of other civil society actions (economic boycotts for instance, or publicizing the dispute, etc). Changing laws is a less flexible or adaptive approach to amending behavior that I would prefer remain reserved for the most egregious and most harmful behaviors. 

I see a strong undercurrent of people in a recent story demanding what seems like blood involving a doctor refusing her own services (but not that of the practice entirely) to a lesbian couple and their child; that the license to practice medicine should be stripped out for instance. We are in a society that is only recently shifted to a position of dominance for the practice of tolerance or acceptance toward homosexuals and the families they may (now) seek to create as adults. We can perhaps afford to be relatively charitable in how people who are still uncertain or intolerant should be treated in how they come to terms with that society. This is hardly an atypical story within secular circles for how many react to it, with demands for heads on spikes. I see such a reaction as sometimes overblown and sometimes necessary and there does not appear to be as much flexibility in how we choose which principles must be applied with rigidity and force (state action if necessary) and which can be achieved through other methods of persuasion, or at least much less force. Much of living in a diverse society is learning how to deal with people who will ultimately disagree about something. That something may be very important, say whether a country should go to war against a perceived enemy or how criminals should be punished for serious crimes, or even what constitutes a serious crime, or it may be moderately important, say an appropriate tax policy or set of reforms, or it may be fairly trivial, as in which sporting team is best and what kinds of foods we enjoy. 

What becomes visible in noting that people disagree is that they also disagree over what sets of things are or should be prioritized. Vegetarians may or may not place great importance on whether other people share in this practice, for example, and internal divisions between say, vegans and vegetarians can become visible over these as priorities. Environmentalists likewise may have a variety of views that to oppose makes one no longer a presentable member of the group, expelled from that society for not appropriately being concerned with nuclear power or GMOs or fracking and by this favoring a set of policy proposals. Similarly religious organizations and traditions have a long history of disposing themselves in the process of declaring other groups to be heretics. The issue is not necessarily that such groups divest some portion of time and efforts on defining what the parameters of membership within their groups are, but that the visible and ugly process of disagreement over what the parameters of membership often becomes a means of dissuading others to join in shared goals and no longer makes identification with a group palatable, either because the group appears to demand (but usually not actually demand) a certain set of fealty to a certain set of ideas in an unreasonable way. This is one reason I do not worry very much about ISIS since it spends an enormous quantity of its time killing other Muslims for these putative heresies in acts of brutal tribalism. This is appalling morally but a self-limiting and self-defeating principle for advancing any of its other aims to control territory outside of a limited base of support that declarations of it as a threat to national security seem obviously overblown. Or else because the group spends too much time engaging in this project of self-cleansing itself of heathens and their radical ideas to actually advance any of the plausibly useful and interesting notions it claims to actually support of its own (modern Republicans/conservatives and their agendas versus say, libertarians with a variety of civil rights concerns). 

"Atheist" in a similar fashion has been expending a lot of energy as a movement at times debasing itself in public by having prominent members who are often too inflexible and averse to nuance in public statements, and by this weakness often evincing a level of incuriousness toward questions of oppression or subjugation of other groups, such as say, women or minorities, both within the greater society and even within the community, such as it is, of like-minded atheists and secularists. Other atheists even commonly argue that these are not required projects for atheists to concern themselves with, or that a project of humanism does not require us to distinguish these as unusual problems to proliferate our work toward alleviating. To an extent this is true. The problems identified in feminism or racism in society are a human problem, but to gloss over these as effectively unimportant or unworthy of effort, perhaps because there are bigger fish to fry elsewhere or because we believe there might be more important matters is not an effective solution either. The problem does not disappear because we may want to close our eyes to it. It clings on to us then as a situation we may ignore until it is dangerously myopic in what we have instead focused upon. Civil societies have often attempted to set aside such issues as slavery, racism or religious intolerance, the status of women, of homosexuals, or even more basic concerns as the issues of economic opportunity generally to young people, or the care of the elderly and infirm, or the conduct of the justice system and its agents, and so on only to find that these issues again and again become too pressing to ignore. The situation now in Iraq comes about in part because a government there sought to repress a religious group and the religious group sought affirmation in agents that were willing to fight back. By any means necessary. 

This is not to say that we as a society or as a subset within it with distinctive cultural goals should be automatically attentive to any and all claims of complaint and grievance by others, or raised by other members internal to our aims. Rather, that we should not so easily become dismissive to say "well that's not a real problem" or "that's not worth my time". Sometimes it will not be, sometimes it most definitely is. Not all of these claims will be legitimate and need to be respected as such or not always will we be in a position to help. Even if our goal and wish is only to advance concerns of our own that others do not (yet) share it can be beneficial to take up other interests that we could or might share with others that we may otherwise disagree. As a human being, these are often worthy debates to plunge into and try to understand, as it may be shown with the questions of what motivates religious belief above. It may not emerge from that understanding that a thing can be done, or at least that the things that others think are necessary can be done or will resolve our concerns. But without at least some attention, human beings can be perceived as callous and indifferent to the sufferings of others. Libertarians or economic conservatives are often so-labeled where a question on say, an economic inequality arises. It is in fact, incumbent on interested people to identify this question as a situation of note, and whether or not it requires particular solutions then becomes an experimental or empirical question on whether those solutions would resolve it and at what cost or whether some other concept would work better, and then a values question on whether that resolution is worth the cost or whether the solution is needed. One of the weaknesses I see commonly committed is a degree not merely of indifference and incuriousness to these concerns of others, forgivable if sometimes regrettable, but active intolerance toward the idea that such and such a problem is even worth any attention at all by anyone at all. Other people have taken up these issues as their concerns. We may be able to convince them that their concerns are invalidated by evidence (unlikely), or at least convince others that these concerns are wacky and foolish, but we are not at liberty to decide these are concerns that are out of bounds. 

To take a more extreme example. I do not agree with pro-life advocates who protest at clinics and their behaviors or claims should be met by others who disagree. But I also recognize they have firm convictions on which they think their claims rest and for which they are willing to do a great manner of sometimes ridiculous things. There are all manner of arenas in life for which other people have decided "this thing really matters to me". So we have arguments over children and child-rearing. We have arguments over cooking or ethical farming. Over trade, over taxes, over carbon emissions, and on and on. Some of these arguments are based upon incomplete or ineffective reasoning and data, or made out of understandable but misplaced fears. Some are based upon quite reasonable fears but out of ideological malice toward specific outcomes. The point is not that all of these arguments possess a truth making them of equal merit for our speculation and attention. The point is that we don't really get to declare that they are of no merit to anyone at all. We don't care about it and are not persuaded by others that we should, and maybe we can offer up what might convince us that we should at worst to occupy time and attention instead of some other thing, or what might convince us ourselves not to concern ourselves overly with that other thing. For a secularist in a society of religious persons and the influence of religion still being quite expansive upon laws and what things are determined by laws, these are questions that should concern us I would think from a strategic perspective. Is it really worth spending that much time trying to get Christians to stop putting up a display at Christmas (despite the obvious legal and moral implications of the state doing so if it goes up at a public building, where this issue is concentrated), maybe, maybe not is a big deal. It seems more pertinent that we have a justice system built upon concepts of retribution rather than rehabilitation and is thus overly punitive (even by the assessment of its people), or a set of laws that punish consensual behaviors (vice laws), but perhaps those are not actually projects that should concern a secular people to amend. I would argue most secularists and indeed most members of a civil society should be concerned with those things, but this isn't surprising. Those are things I care quite a lot about already. 

It is the effects of having a large quantity of Christians in a society practicing their perspective of what Christian ideas and dogma are that concern me more than the insidious ways that they attempt to legitimize a position of state recognition. If their religious beliefs were not harmful in the impact on public policy, I wouldn't care very much if they try to promote them. As such I care more about what precisely they are trying to promote than that they are promoting it or attempting to. As with most things, I am concerned much more with what the effects of the story are than that there was a story being told. If a thing doesn't work, the utilitarian calculus I feel that public policy demands us to make when assessing these various goals and interests in governing how society is run and by what rules it abides suggests we throw it out and find something that does. In observing the behavior of many, but by no means most or all, atheists and secularists, I find myself often concerned that these are often a people not very concerned with what actually results from not being too concerned with the story that attempting to do something projects, a valid concern for political questions when trying to convince disinterested parties to get involved also, and also not being too concerned with whether attempting to do something actually has the intended impact, a valid concern for political questions when trying to make a functional society. 

That to me leads to me to question what it is that other atheists and secularists are concerned about in the first place if they're apparently not concerned with outcomes and they're not concerned with process. 
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