Saturday, February 03, 2007

Michael Shermer: The Art of Political Compromise

The fourth presenter at the Beyond Belief 2006 Seminar (which I am commenting on in my weekend posts for the next few weeks) was Michael Shermer, founding editor and skeptic in chief of Skeptic Magazine.

Shermer spoke on the issue of alliances.

The main point of Shermer’s presentation was to argue that if one wants to accomplish anything, one needs to form alliances with others. A willingness to form alliances with others means compromise.

I think I can best illustrate Shermer’s case by looking at an extreme example. If you wish to accomplish something, but you refuse to work with anybody who does not totally agree with you on every issue, then you will have an organization of one person. There is no person on the planet in perfect agreement with you on everything.

If you were trying to form a political party in a “winner take all” political system like the United States, you need to form a big enough alliance to get a majority of the votes. This means a lot of compromising. Those people who insist that their party take positions that a majority of the people cannot support effectively insist on forming a party that cannot win elections.

In short, those who are pursuing political solutions in such a system should see their task as uniting the best 51% against the worst 49% - because the attempt to unite the best 49% against the worst 51% is not likely to do much good.

Shermer made this analogy to political parties explicit in his presentation. He identified himself as a libertarian, and noted that there were people in the Libertarian Party who insisted on pure idealistic purity on the part of other members. The result was that the Libertarian Party never made it out of the low single digits in terms of popularity (except in a few isolated regions of the country).

All of the earlier speakers talked about the differences between scientist methodology and religionist methodology. Steven Weingerg and Sam Harris, for example, spoke of the importance of authority in religion, where there are books and leaders who are assumed to have all of the truth and nothing encountered outside of religion is permitted to contradict this truth. While science, on the other hand, holds everything open to question and ready to be dropped as soon as sufficient evidence can be mustered for dropping it.

Shermer, without ever making this explicit, spoke of a way of thinking that is different from both of these – the way of politics. He begins with a fundamental truth of practical reason – in order to pick out the most efficient course of action a person first has to identify a goal. Once we know the end, then we can start looking at means to reaching that end. Against Harris, Shermer argued that Harris’ method is great if one’s goal is to simply get into peoples’ face about religion, but not useful if one wants to talk them out of religion and get them to embrace science.

There are two main differences between political thinking and scientific or religious thinking.

First, political thinking considers the effects of a proposition, not its meaning. If a scientist wants to argue in defense of P and against not-P, he presents empirical, testable evidence and shows it to be consistent with P and inconsistent with not-P. If a theist wishes to argue in defense of P then he finds a religious authority and asserts that this authority asserted P. If a politician wishes to get somebody to adopt P, then the politician appeals to emotion, rhetoric, and other mind games – whatever works to get people to accept P even if it is very poor evidence that P.

Second, political thinking is a realm of compromise. Neither science nor religion allows compromise.

In religion, the idea of compromise is out of the question. Religious truths are claimed to be universal and absolute. A religion need not hold that non-believers must be destroyed on Earth and will be condemned to hell in the afterlife. However, God’s tolerance of those who make a few mistakes on matters of religious dogma does not prevent that dogma from being ‘true’ in a religious context.

In the case of science, if one scientist answers that a particular scientific quantity is P and another argues that it is Q, the scientists will not get together and say, “The answer must be ((P + Q)/2).” No, the scientists will fight until either P is established as true, or Q is, or some third option R comes out on top. R might end up being equal to ((P + Q)/2), but R is not the right answer in virtue of the fact that it is ((P + Q)/2).

Politics, on the other hand, requires compromise. It is essential to the nature of politics that politicians be ready to give up their ‘truth’ in order to support a ‘fiction’. If one person wants a minimum wage of $9.00 and another thinks it should stay at $5.00, then the politician will see if they can gather enough votes to pass a minimum wage hike to $7.00. Politicians make deals in ways that neither scientists or theists are willing to allow.

Shermer is asking the audience to take a politician’s view of the disagreement between religion and science.

The main problem with talking people out of religion, according to Shermer, is that people’s social lives are seeped in religion.

If you give a person a choice between, say, Darwin and the theory of evolution in particular, or science in general, and his religion . . . . What you really asking them to do is give up their family, their friends, their social circle, their community, their social life, virtually every aspect of their life. . . . They won’t even get past the first paragraph of your book which, because they are not interested in giving all of that stuff up.

Shermer’s answer is to tell people that they do not need to give up anything. If God is eternal, it does not matter whether he created the world and populated it in in 6,000 years or billions of years.

If you believe God is the creator of all things and he is omnipotent and omniscient, then what difference does it make how he did it? Spoken word, lightning bolt out of the finger, natural selection, gravity.

There seems to me to be an obvious answer to Shermer’s argument. It matters how God did it, because the Bible/Koran/Torah/Whatever says that it matters. It matters because there are people out there whose family, friends, social circle, community, and every aspect of their life is not tied simply to the proposition, “God exists.” It is tied to the idea that everything in their bible is literally true. It is tied to such things as opposing homosexual marriage, blocking stem cell research, criminalizing abortion, requiring schools to teach children that all true patriots pledge allegiance to God, or – in other parts of the world – become suicide bombers, execute those who dare to teach anything other than their interpretation of holy text, and view science as the enemy of God.

In a sense, this blog follows Shermer’s strategy. I do not argue about the existence or non-existence of a God, because I do not believe that this question in itself is important. The proposition, “God exists” (because God is a made-up entity and, as such, can have whatever qualities the speaker decides to assign to Him) is compatible with anything else.

I have said before, the proposition “God exists” is quite compatible with the idea that God created the universe and filled it with moral value and that desire utilitarianism describes this moral system that God created. On this model, there is no substantive difference between the Christian slogan, “What would Jesus do?” and the desire-utilitarian slogan, “Do that act that a person with good desires (desires that tend to fulfill other desires) would perform.” I see no reason to be particularly worried about such a person.

If somebody wants to add, “God will condemn to hell those who do not act as a person with good desires (desires that tend to fulfill other desires) would act,” and reward with heaven those who do act in this way, that person is not a threat to me or anybody I care about. As such, I do not focus any attention on such people. I focus, instead, on those whose religious beliefs cause them to adopt attitudes that make them a threat to others.

This follows the spirit of Shermer’s strategy because I have asked the question of what my goals are, and I have excluded the requirement that others agree with me on things that are not essential to that goal. In this case, it is to make the world a better place than it would have otherwise been in a universe where desires are the only reasons for action that actually exist. Others do not even need to agree with me that desires are the only reasons for action that exist to act as a person with good desires would act.

However, I do not pretend that asking most Christians to accept even this compromise would not require asking them to give up their family, friends, social circle, and virtually every aspect of their life. They have built that life in a community that thinks Jesus would condemn homosexuality, block stem cell research, criminalize abortion, and demand that all true patriots pledge allegiance to God. Their Jesus is not a desire-utilitarian. As such, their Jesus is somebody who would do a great deal of harm in the name of God, and doing what Jesus would do also means doing a great deal of harm in the name of God.

Shermer is not wrong. It is the case that, to accomplish anything, one cannot refuse to form alliances with those who one disagrees with on certain issues. It is wise to ask, “Is this issue relevant to my goals?” If not, then there is no reason not to form an alliance with those who do not have the same views on irrelevant issues. It is true that a prudent individual keeps this fact in mind. However, there are limits. There are certainly views out there that a person with a concern to make the world a better place has reason to oppose, and to oppose directly.


Irene Mettler said...

I live in Austria, a country with about 95 % Catholics. We do not oppose homosexual marriage, we do not block stem cell research, we do not criminalize abortion, we do not require schools to teach children that all true patriots pledge allegiance to God, we are not suicide bombers, we do not execute those who dare to teach anything other than the holy text and for such a small country we have quite a few Nobel Prize winners. The father of genetics, Gregor Mendel, was an Austrian monk.
What does this say about your “obvious answer”?

Dawkins, Harris etc. are embarrassingly narrow-minded and prejudiced in their idea about “God” – it is THEIR (and your) God and therefore you think it must the God of the rest of mankind as well.
Dawkins even went so far as to say that everybody who doesn’t believe in the God that he had defined in the first chapter of “The God Delusion” doesn’t believe in God at all.

bpabbott said...

Irene responded to Alonzo: "it is THEIR (and your) God and therefore you think it must the God of the rest of mankind as well."

Irene, is your view of God so subjective that he is different for each of us?

Personally, I find such a philosophical approach to God very much to my liking. It eliminates religions human authority and places religion in its proper context as a relationship between each individual and his God.

Of course, this view of religion is much different than that described Alonzo. Alonzo was quite clear to qualify religion, which he spoke of, as being under the rule of authority ... and implied that this authority was literally manifested in holy texts such as the Bible and Koran.

While I find the inference that religion is subjective to my liking, I also find Alonzo's words both thought provoking and insightful.

I find both his opinion and yours to my liking because you are each using the same word, "religion", to describe two different things ... apples and oranges, if you will.

Irene Mettler said...

Yes, you are absolutely right. The problem is that we don't talk about the same God, and that's why we all become so angry. Dawkins' God is not my God, and my God is not the God of a Hopi or that of a Hindu or a Bantu.

My big, big problem with Dawkins and Harris, and in this case with Alonzo, is that they generalize. They claim that there is only ONE God for all of mankind, and that everybody has the same belief system.
I don't mind if they think that God is an old man with a beard, but that's the atheists' view of God, not mine, and I don't want to be bashed anymore for something I don't even believe in.
But Dawkins and Harris and Dennett and Weinberg are ubiquitous. Whenever I open a newspaper I read that I'm an idiot because I believe in God.

Dawkins wrote in "The God Delusion" that everybody who claims to believe in another God than the one he invented in the premise of his book commits "high treason" (his words!).
What kind of argument is this?

It seems that atheists don't understand that THE religion does not exist. Or as we say in Vienna, they talk about religion like a blind man would talk about color.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Irene Mettler

Your comments are puzzling. I have several paragraphs in this post specifying that different concepts of God exist, and I have no objections to some of them.

I explicitly deny that everybody has the same belief system, and repeatedly stress that my objection only applies to those whose belief system cause them to be a threat to others. I am more than happy to ally with those whose God tells them to actually help others.

Irene Mettler said...

Sorry, Alonzo, but you speak of “most Christians” and that “their Jesus is somebody who would do a great deal of harm in the name of God, and doing what Jesus would do also means doing a great deal of harm in the name of God.”

There are roughly two billion Christians on this earth, in about 9000 very different denominations – Anglicans, Protestants, Roman Catholics, Greek Catholics, Orthodox, Pentecostals, Methodists, Quakers, etc., etc. ( Orthodox Catholics and Quakers, for example, don’t have much in common.

Now, how many of these two billion people are your “most Christians” who are threats to others? 75 %? 80 %? 90 %? Are they Quakers, Greek Catholics, Hutterers, Ukrainian Catholics, Amish, Roman Catholics, Anglicans? Are they from the United States, Russia, Mexico, the Netherlands, Swaziland?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Irene Mettler

I do hope that you can see that "most Christians" is not the same as, in your words, "There is only ONE God for all of mankind, and that everybody has the same belief system."

By the way, your accusation is also false when applied to Sam Harris. Harris takes pains to distinguish different belief systems and acknowledges that while some tend to promote suicide bombings and other forms of murder, we can trust that devotees to other religions will not kill under any circumstances.

I do have an objection to Harris and Dawkins (which I express in My Basic Problem with Dawkins and Harris) that even though they distinguish between different religious beliefs, they still hold moderates morally accountable to the harms of fundamentalists because moderates give a pass to and make fundamentalism possible.

This is not the same as saying that they all have the same beliefs. In fact, it contradicts such an assertion. However, I hold that it is still a problem. I stated as recently as the post before this one my objections to the notion that that moderates share in the moral culpability of fundamentalists.

As for what "most" Christians believe, I think that if you took a serious look at North and South America, southern Africa, and Europe, that Europe is substantially alone in its liberal interpretation of Christianity. And even in Europe, substantial minorities of Christians still hold to these traditional beliefs.

In fact, a poll of European attitudes towards homosexual marriage and adoption, conducted just a few months ago, show that a majority (that is, most) Europeans still oppose homosexual marriage and an even larger number (2/3) oppose homosexual adoption. I suspect that approval will be lower than average among Christians and higher than average among non-Christians.

In another recent poll on European attitudes, 1/3 of Europeans are opposed to abortion and to homosexuality itself (let alone marriage or adoption). Though clearly not "most" Europeans, we can still expect the percentages to be higher among European Christians (and Muslims) and lower among European non-religious, and the numbers to be higher in non-European Christian countries than in Europe.

In all, I am comforable with my assertion about what most Christians believe.

However, I do not share the attitude that because MOST Christians believe X that ALL Christianity is to be condemned. I have written extensivly against this form of bigotry. I, certainly, would consider it unjust for anybody to condemn me on the basis of what MOST Atheists believe, particularly when I put so much effort into arguing against those beliefs.

Irene Mettler said...

Thank you for your detailed reply and for the polls. The second one is especially interesting, since it says a lot about the correlation between faith and tolerance. Just look at the majorities ;-))