So, what can we do this year to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been?
Do we even have reason to leave the world a better place than it would have otherwise been?
Well, clearly, I hold that the answer to the latter question is ‘yes’. The only reasons for action that exist are desires, and we all have desires. We all have reasons to promote in others those desires that tend to fulfill other desires. Then, when those desires drive those people to act, they will have even more reason to promote desires that fulfill the desires of others.
Yet, we live in a world where a great many desires are thwarted. More importantly, they are thwarted by other human beings – human beings who could, themselves, whose desires to fulfill the desires of others could be strengthened, and whose desires that tend to thwart the desires of others can be more adequately weakened.
We have reason to do so, and we have the tools. If we do not act, then one can wonder where we can find the high ground for saying that others are both irrational and harmful.
I have been carefully going over Sam Harris’ argument in “The End of Faith”, seeing if I can pull out a coherent set of premises and conclusions that make sense of his many claims. So far, it has proved difficult. I can find multiple interpretations to many of the things he writes.
Which itself creates a problem for Harris, who seems (from time to time) to argue that we should reject any work that it is possible to misinterpret in ways that would appear to justify atrocities. Given the possibility of even willful misinterpretation by those who want to make some atrocious ends of theirs seem justified, I doubt that any document could avoid condemnation on these grounds. The Declaration of Independence (…whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it…) served to justify Southern secession.
Harris also appears to equate ‘moderatism’ (if I may coin a word) with ‘abject tolerance’ (or ‘a prohibition on criticism’). There is nothing in the concept of ‘moderate’ that insists on a toleration for fundamentalism. Indeed, it is quite consistent with ‘moderatism’ to view extremism as a vile and vicious practice. They are, in many instances, the first to condemn and criticize those who are not moderate, just as some of those who are tolerant are the first to condemn and criticize those who do practice tolerance.
However, there are, indeed, moderates who object to any criticism of another’s views, even those of people who are, themselves, highly critical of others. This is an entirely incoherent position that would, for example, condemn the abolitionist (who is critical of slave culture), but praise those who are critical of abolitionist culture. It is a form of moderation that is as incoherent and twisted as any religion.
If it is a fault of ‘moderatism’ that it gives a free ride to extremism, this raises a question.
Would this also be a fault of ‘apathetism’ – the attitude of, “I do not want to get involved?”
Here, I am merely expressing the attitude inherent in the cliché, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Does this not make, “Good people doing nothing,” as guilty of aiding and abetting fundamentalism as the ‘moderates’ in Harris’ sense? Is there a moral difference between the moderate who does not stand up against extremism out of principle, and the ‘apathetist’ who refuses to do so out of lack of interest?
It is widely noted that there are substantially more atheists in America (and the world) than there are Jews. Yet, the atheists are far less visible, and cannot even hold public office in the United States. We can blame theists for their bigotry in this regard, but we cannot also deny that another proximate cause is lack of effort in opposing these doctrines.
Well, New Year’s Day is a good day to cast aside bad habits and try, at least for a little while, to replace them with good habits. It is a good day to ask, “What am I going to do this year that is better than what I did last year?
In 2006, the atheists received a lot of press. This will invite a question. Are you ready for the backlash? Think of a chess game. Last year, the atheists were able to perform Harris-Dawkins maneuver. It caused some significant damage to the (political) force of the theists. However, let us not be so naive to think that there are not theists today plotting their counter-attacks – and that they will not seek to put the anti-theists back on the defensive, even return them to silence.
What are we doing to prepare for that counter-maneuver? What form might it take? Will we be prepared for it?
One suggestion for the form that this counter-move may take employs the classic tradeoff between quality and quantity. The quality of the arguments may be on the side of Harris and Dawkins. The quantity of public expression clearly favors the theists. Expect Dawkins and Harris to become sources of fundraising for the theists, who will then use their money to purchase the microphone of public media, who will simply drown out their critics in the volume of their response.
History clearly shows that a well-marketed, well-funded lie; even a well-marketed and well-funded absurdity that no rational person could think true for an instant, can win the public hearts and minds. Back in the realm of incoherence and absurdity, there is the view that, in the end, the rational argument will always win against all attackers, being held by somebody who needs only to open his eyes to see the widespread acceptance of such falsehoods as define the beliefs common to most religions. The agent who thinks that he can stand back and do nothing and victory will go to the agents of reason by default simply has not opened a history book. Rational argument will not win unless it is vigorously defended.
In speaking about this defense, I must make some things clear lest I be accused of doing something that even I have condemned in the past. I have asserted the principle that the only legitimate response to words are counter-words, and the only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign in a society with freedom of speech and free elections. There are limits to what is justified in the defense of an idea.
Which brings me to yet another problem with Harris’ book – and, indeed, many arguments against theism that I have encountered. The argument is that these fundamentalist Muslims and Christians are to be condemned because they hold that others (infidels, heretics, and the like) are in error and must be converted in order to find full acceptance. Yet, are we not saying that only those who convert can find full acceptance?
I’ve posted an article stating that those who hold that the Earth is less than 6,000 years old are not fit for public office. What is the moral difference between this and the claim that those who deny that the Earth is less than 6,000 years old are not fit to hold public office?
This, indeed, is where I suspect the counter-attack against Dawkins, Harris, and the ‘New’ atheists will come from – from the idea that the ‘new’ atheists are just as intolerant – just as demanding of conversion – just as willing to view ‘moderates’ as the enemy and argue for their elimination, either by conversion or by coercion, as those that the “new atheists” condemn.
So, what is the defense?
We could say that it is permissible to exclude them because they are fundamentally wrong about certain facts and, because of their error, cannot be trusted to make wise decisions. They would, no doubt, say the same thing about us. We could say that they really are wrong, and they would answer that it is we who really are wrong.
Does a person have a right to hold public office regardless of what he believes, or can beliefs be held against a person who believes the wrong things?
Clearly, beliefs are relevant. The idea that we may not consider a person’s beliefs when deciding if he is qualified to hold public office is absurd. When it comes to keeping atheists out of office because their beliefs, the fact is that it is not wrong because we should not consider beliefs in judging candidates. It is wrong because those who judge the beliefs of atheists as disqualifying them for public office are making a mistake.
In fact, depending on their moral views, atheists are particularly well qualified to hold public office because they are particularly well qualified to judge the real-world effect of real-world laws. Whereas the reliance on myth and superstition means that others are prone to adopt laws that only have good effect in their imaginary worlds. The difference, instead, rests in whether the agent accepts the limitation that the proper response to words must be limited to words – and violence not be used to enforce beliefs; and that political campaigns (in a free and open society) only be countered by political campaigns regardless of the degree of certainty one has that the ‘victors’ have the wrong beliefs.
Whether the upcoming counter-attack against atheists comes here or elsewhere, there is no doubt that its perpetrators will be putting its full financial resources into the campaign, and it is indeed quite possible for the most mistaken and irrational views to become dominant even in modern times with the right backing. The question is whether atheists and rationalists will resolve to hold back this counter-attack with the forceful voice that the situation will likely require.