Monday, October 15, 2007

Contributing to the Conversation

I have spent the past week discussing some of the ideas that Sam Harris raised in his controversial speech before the Atheist Alliance International. These have included:

(1) The thesis that atheists should surrender the term ‘atheist’ to the theist. (Opposed.)

(2) The thesis that atheists should recognize that not all religious beliefs are equally bad and should respond by taking on the worst of those beliefs first. (Defended, and augmented by the proposition that some of the worst beliefs and attitudes are not religious.)

(3) That atheists should simply give up on trying to counter such things as the Hitler and Stalin clich̩ Рthe tendency to hold all atheists in contempt because Hitler and Stalin were atheists (Opposed, with the response that atheists should respond to moral outrage that also applies to the national motto and pledge of allegiance).

I have one last topic from that discussion that I want to discuss – the fact that theists have very effectively changed the subject – away from the subject of whether their faith-based harms are justified, and onto the subject of the ‘tone’ of the atheist writers and the foundation of atheist beliefs.

They have been able to do these things because theists control the microphone in this country. They have been able to do these things because they are willing to shout louder and longer than their opponents, and drown their opponents out. The volume of their writings, the fact that they have a ready audience, and the fact that people who want to sell products realize that there are more Christian customers in the market place than atheist customers, all substantially leads to the silencing of the atheist voice when compared to the Christian voice.

In the public mind, it is not the case that the claim made with the strongest defense will be claim that the public accepts. People, instead, are more inclined to accept (blindly) the claim that they hear the most often, and which is spoken with the greatest authority, regardless of the quality of the evidence for that statement. This hypothesis is easily confirmed by observation – by the wide array of nonsense that people believe where no evidence can be found for believing it.

Even when it comes to the contents of Dawkins’ and Harris’ books – few people will read them. Most people will believe that the books say what those who speak with the loudest voice and greatest authority report. If that report is a vicious misrepresentation of the contents, then for the bulk of the population this vicious misrepresentation of the contents will become the de facto belief about the contents of those books.

All of this hinges on a willingness to speak up – on a willingness to spend time and money increasing the volume of one’s own voice in the public media. It depends on the willingness to spend money, time, and effort saying the things that one thinks it is important for people to hear.

As I have written above, since the proposition, “At least one god exists,” contains no moral implications in itself, I do not see it as being particularly worthwhile to refute this statement. I am more keen to advocate opposing those statements that do the greatest harm. We cannot base 21st century society on the scientific and moral ignorance of people dead for thousands of years without inflicting great harm on a great number of people. So, the idea that all scripture is to be treated literally is one of those ideas that does contribute to harm, and one that I would be keen to hear refuted.

Another dangerous idea is the idea that faith can justify harm to others. If people want to accept foolish, harmless beliefs on the basis of faith, then they are only harming themselves by doing so. The problem is when one decides to advocate doing harm to others (particularly harm to people who do not belong to their church) and doing so on the basis of faith. When it comes to the proposition, “Those people should be made to suffer,” the speaker needs more than faith to justify his statement. He needs evidence. Those being harmed have the right to demand evidence.

These (types of) messages – that scripture is consists of the prejudices of people as ignorant of morality as they were of science, and that faith cannot justify doing harm to others – are messages that will be drowned out unless and until people are willing to invest time and money and effort into making them heard.

The virtue of this activity is that this is time and money that is actually devoted to protecting people from harms they would otherwise suffer. There is no difference between making contributions that will protect people from disease and treat their injuries, and contributions that will protect people from harms inflicted by those who would base modern society on a primitive moral foundation. Contributing to a cause of fighting the false beliefs that stand in the way of preventing and curing disease is no different than fighting the disease itself.

It does not count as a contribution to fighting these types of dangerous false beliefs to talk only among ourselves. These activities are classic examples of ‘preaching to the choir’. The real task is to get these messages out among those who most need to hear it. This means contributing enough money to fund a marketing campaign, to create advertisements (billboards, radio and television commercials, and the like) that get the message out to people who do not browse atheist blogs and discussion groups.

It means, when one is in a public forum with any of these people, simply refusing them to change the subject. The subject is, “You have become a group of people who do harm to others and base your harm on ‘faith.’ You provide no evidence that the harms you would inflict are well grounded, yet you insist on a right to ground them, and claim that those who protest the harm are attacking your religion. How does blind faith justify harm, and how do you prevent blind faith from justifying any harm that an individual might want to inflict?”

“I would assert that your religion’s prohibition on homosexual acts is like your prohibition on eating shellfish. You have no more right to use your religion to ban homosexual acts than you do to ban the eating of shellfish or the executing of a citizen that works on the Sabbath. They are all equally cases of harm inflicted on the basis of faith alone and, as such, unjustified harm. It is an example of faith making you a threat to the well-being of others.”

Most importantly, it means making contributions to organizations capable of producing advertisements that then make it out to the general public - to people who would not visit an atheist site such as this one on their own. It would be an organization that is involved in making an delivering a message that shows up in shows that the general population watches. This is an expensive project that requires the contributions of a lot of people. However, without it, few people will ever actually get to hear what the atheists are trying to say. They will only hear the interpretations that the theists provide through the media that they control and are more than happy to use.

1 comment:

Deep Thought said...

I think you need to be more clear when you discuss the rather vague term 'faith-based harms'. This is, in my opinion, cadgey language. For example, I have neighbors who openly support Dawkins' statement that raising a child Catholic is a form of abuse - is this the sort of 'harm' you are discussing? When you write,

"Contributing to a cause of fighting the false beliefs that stand in the way of preventing and curing disease is no different than fighting the disease itself."

are you attempting to condense the rather complicated moral issues of embryonic stem cell research into the nebulous term 'harm'?

When you write,

"We cannot base 21st century society on the scientific and moral ignorance of people dead for thousands of years without inflicting great harm on a great number of people."

are you attempting to claim that moral concepts have a 'shelf-life' after which they are harmful? Are you attempting to claim that a particular person's ignorance of, for example, quantum theory means that their concepts of civic governance or human rights are inherently flawed? If not, what *do* you mean?

I am sorry, but as an outsider looking in this piece smacks a little bit of 'others = bad' and I would like some clarity, please.