Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Ethics of Protest

Today, I am going to do something a bit strange and respond to the comments to somebody else's blog posting. These comments contain a list of common excuses against engaging in any type of atheist activism, and I would like to address those excuses.

These comments were made in response to a posting at Atheist Revolution in which vjack asked if atheists should be involved in picketing churches whose leaders express extreme religious views.

I am not going to write on the specific merits of vjack's proposal. The specific case does not matter. His proposal drew a number of general comments that are brought up any time somebody suggests some form of atheist activism – comments that do not depend on the specific type of activism being suggested. Those are the comments that I am interested in.

From CJ:

One thing I have always despised about most religious people is the fact that they feel the need to force their views on me. Why then should I want to be a part of something that is trying to force my non religious views on someone else?

There are two points that can be made against this type of statement.

The first has to do with this claim about 'force'. The forms of atheist activism that I am talking about do not involve 'force' in any meaningful way. It does not involve holding a gun to people's head and saying, "Renounce your God or die." Atheist activism falls perfectly within the realm of free speech. The right to freedom of speech includes the right to respond to the claims of others with words of criticism and condemnation and private (peaceful) actions.

Some atheists are annoyed by theist proselytizing. They don't like it when people come up to them and push belief in God. "My goal is to change your beliefs. Please give me some of your time so that I may do so." The response is, "No, get out of here." Proselytizing falls in the same category as telemarketing. "Leave me alone, I just want to get on with my life."

This is a valid point. However, what happens when the beliefs of others contribute to real-world harms suffered by real-world people? For example, we are all familiar with religious practices that do harm to the interests of those who (1) would potentially benefit from the medical treatments made possible by stem-cell research, (2) effective programs for family planning and against the spread of sexually transmitted disease, (3) the ability to run for office without facing an politically fatal level of religious bigotry because one does not trust in or pledge allegiance to God, (4) seek an early-term abortion, (5) wish to marry somebody of the same gender.

These are just a few examples.

There are certain views that it is perfectly legitimate to 'force' on others. Imagine taking the position, "I dislike it when people force their views on me, so I will not force my views on others," and apply it to issues such as rape, ethnic cleansing, segregation, slavery, and the right to vote. Are we going to morally prohibit the forcing of these views on others?

Refusing to protest religiously based policies that do harm to others is, in effect, permitting the harm done to others. The individual is saying, "It is better that the religious person maintain the freedom to do harm to others, than that his victims obtain freedom from those harms."

That is not a morally defensible position to take.

This does limit the scope of atheist activism to the protest of religiously-based activities that have victims. Yet, as the list I gave above indicates, these are not at all difficult to find. There are a great many things out there that are worthy of protest. Of all of the absurd beliefs that people can hold, there is good reason to concentrate first on those that do the greatest harm, and to work one’s way down the list.

Historically, this is the trend that we have seen. From the dark ages, where the slaughter of people holding different religious views to the norm, to increasing degrees of religious tolerance, to the abolition of slavery, to political equality for women, to the present it has been the worst of religious doctrine that has fallen first.

This is the historic trend, but the conflict is far from over. There are a great many prejudices still to pull down.

None of these historic prejudices have fallen as a result of people cleverly sitting home and doing nothing to protest against it. All of them have fallen because people have had the courage and commitment to stand up and put their foot down. Every time they had their say the defenders of the status quo were there to condemn them for being 'annoying', 'brazen', and even 'militant' (even when the protesters were emphatically non-violent). Yet, they would not have won if they had listened to these objections and decided that, instead of protesting, they should give up their fight and say nothing.

There is a choice to be made between two possible worlds. One world puts the sentiments of those who hold absurd beliefs above the life, health, and well-being of those whose interests are adversely affected by those beliefs. The other world puts the life, health, and well-being of real-world people above the sentiments of those who hold absurd beliefs. To do nothing is to say that the life, health, and well-being of the victims of absurd beliefs are not important – that they are not worth protecting or standing up for.

Keeping in mind that the type of 'force' we are talking about here is verbally assaulting absurd beliefs that are the basis of policy decisions harmful to the interests of innocent people, the harm that one seeks to prevent provides the right, and even the duty, to 'force' others to abandon absurdities.

[Note: I will know that I have reached the big time when people start quoting only the last half of the previous paragraph in order to depict me as some type of moral monster ready and willing to start the next Stalin-like purge.]


Alex Steed [of Make Something Happen] said...

"None of these historic prejudices have fallen as a result of people cleverly sitting home and doing nothing to protest against it."

I am wondering what you think of pajama engagement/protest, as I have heard Lawrence Lessig call taking action from home (on the Internet). When it comes to protesting, and advocating for what is considered to be the side of reason, what elements are handled online and what elements are handled in face-to-face education? Or have these two fields been successfully blurred, as far as you're concerned?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I am wondering what you think of pajama engagement/protest, as I have heard Lawrence Lessig call taking action from home (on the Internet).

This is an empirical question, and I would yield my opinion to empirical evidence suggesting that online protest can be effective. In the absence of evidence, I see any reason to count anything done from home as a 'protest'.

Not even my own blog.

In fact, I think that a lot of people use the internet as a rationalization for doing nothing. They go on the internet, make a posting on their blog or on a forum discussion board in order to convince themselves (mistakingly) that they have accomplished something.

They have not.

There are two major problems with internet protests:

(1) People tend to read only what they disagree with and easily dismiss that which they do not agree with. So, it tends to involve almost exclusively 'preaching to the choir'.

(2) A person communicates the importance of a principle through how much he or she is willing to give up to defend it. The person willing to stand up in front of a crowd and get shot at, or who is willing to go to jail in an act of civil disobedience, communicates much more loudly then the person who can't even be bothered to leave her house.

So, when I defend protest, I defend actually leaving the house and joining others to make a public statement in ways that others will find difficult to ignore.

PZ Myers' desicration of a cracker said far more than any of the thousands of posts that he has put on his blog.

Sheldon said...

"Refusing to protest religiously based policies that do harm to others is, in effect, permitting the harm done to others."

While I agree that we should vigorously protest religious based policies, my question is where should this be done?

By all means we should be supporting gay marriage. This should probably be done by getting out to defeat ballot initiatives in states meant to limit marriage equality.

We should be active in public forums such as school boards actively promoting comprehensive sex education and access to contraception. And that is in spite of how the religious may wish to deny their own children access to these.

Perhaps we should be doing counter-harrassment of anti-abortion protests outside clinics and abortion provider homes. Or again defeating ballot initiatives that seek to limit abortion rights.

But I am thinking that actually protesting at churches may not be the best tactic to combat religious based harms. Particularly making them "atheist protests".

Those would make religious beliefs in itself the issue. And don't get me wrong, I am all for more people becoming more secular, agnostic, and atheist. But I think that requires different tactics than protesting outside of churches.

But on the other hand if we really do want legal equality for LGTG peoples, don't we also want to make common cause with believers who support that? Same goes for sex education policy and abortion rights, and stem-cell research.

Ron in Houston said...

If we truly live in a free society then the individual should have some freedom in their beliefs.

Group X may not believe in stem cell research but that doesn't mean that individual Y shares the same belief.

Just because individual Y is a member of group X does not mean logically that he shares all characteristics of group X.

I see no ethical difference between trying to change your belief in theism than trying to change your belief in atheism.

Both disrespect your right to believe as you wish as an autonomous individual.

Matt M said...

Both disrespect your right to believe as you wish as an autonomous individual.

If you were trying to fix up a computer under the mistaken belief that it was running Windows Vista, would it be disrespectful of me to inform you that it was actually running Windows XP?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Ron in Houston

There is no 'right to believe as you wish'. Imagine a person who believes that all Jews should be killed, or all blacks should be enslaved, or that women must obey men in all things.

To say that people have a right to believe such things as long as they do not act on them still runs into problems when we consider their right to believe that "I may act on these beliefs." Do they have a right to believe that?

Does a parent have the right to believe that their child's diabetes can be cured through prayer, or does Bush have a right to believe that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that separation of church and state is a myth?

There is no "right to believe as one wishes". There is, instead, a right to freedom of belief as there is a right to freedom of speech. This right is not a right to immunity from criticism, it is a right to immunity from violence.

Yet, even this has exceptions. The right to freedom of speech does not imply a right to engage in libel, slander, or fraud. Similarly, the right to freedom of belief ends where one believes that one may engage in murder, rape, theft, or other acts of violence against others.

I do not condemn others in trying to change my belief that the proposition that at least one god exists is almost cetainly false. I object to their methods when those methods are coercive. And I object to the actions of atheists when their actions are coercive. I do not think you can find an instance in which I argued that atheists may perform actions that theists are prohibited from performing. (At least, I hope not, though I am human and subject to occasional lapses in judgment.)

Ron in Houston said...


There is a vast difference between holding a belief and acting upon that belief.

Honestly, who has the right to tell people what they must believe? Sounds like a 1984 style mind control to me.

You, my friend, are a profound thinker. So, you haven't fallen into what I'd call the atheist double standard.

You don't condemn others who attempt to change your non-belief. However, many atheists take almost violent umbrage at people doing that. Yet they claim it is their right, or perhaps their duty to change the belief of the religious person.

Now in my swirling world of thoughts and beliefs, I don't like someone violating my right to not believe in a deity. So, I apply the golden rule and don't do that to others.

I will criticize particular acts. For instance, I will criticize the religious person who allows their child to die because of faith healing.

I'm not saying people shouldn't protest beliefs. I do however question whether such protests really accomplish much other than in the minds of the protesters.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

ron from houston

This issue is going to take a whole post.

I hold that there is no disposition between holding a belief and acting on a belief.

A "belief that P" (for some proposition P) is a disposition to act as if P is true. Consequently, believing that P, while not being disposed to act as if P is true, is not possible.

If a belief has no effect, then we have no reason to postulate that it even exists - we would have no evidence for its existence. Beliefs show their existence by their effect on intentional actions. So, again, a 'belief' in the absence of effects on intentional actions, does not exist.

Eneasz said...

Honestly, who has the right to tell people what they must believe? Sounds like a 1984 style mind control to me.

This comment sparked a memory, so a quick bit o' googling brought this post back: Thought Police

Yet they claim it is their right, or perhaps their duty to change the belief of the religious person.

I don't know how accurate this claim actually is. I see many occurances of religious folk going to people's houses and trying to convert them. Or distributing evangelical tracts and magazines everywhere. Or shouting at strangers from street corners. Or passing legislation that pushes their belief system onto others and/or indoctrinates everyone's children in the public square. Or only providing comfort/services to the desperate on the condition that they open themselves to prostalization. Literally seeking out strangers, unsolicited, for the sole purpose of spreading their own beliefs.

Perhaps I my experience is limited, but I've never seen anything even close to this from any atheists. Their "attempts to change other's beliefs" amount to mentioning they think other people are mistaken on the existance of god IF the topic comes up in conversation somehow. At the most extreme they publish books and give speaches which anyone is free to buy/attend or not. There is no attempt to seek out and convert anyone who isn't already asking. To try to compare "atheist evangelism" with theistic versions of such is downright silly, IMHO.

Ron in Houston said...


If I can provide the stimulus for a whole new post, then I feel honored.

Unless we step outside of the thoughts in our heads, we're likely to do silly things in the name of irrational beliefs.

PhillyChief said...

What exactly is "almost violent umbrage" Ron? Can you give an example?

If you question whether protests really accomplish much other than in the minds of the protesters, take a look back at the US between 55-45 years ago.

I can't say I see much of a difference between trying to convince someone to vote Democrat over Republican and being christian or atheist. I think what most people find upsetting is the solicitation. In other words, it's not the arguing to convince that's the most upsetting, but the unsolicited attempt to do so. Knocking on my door to tell me the "good news" or to get me to vote for a particular candidate is distasteful, but if someone hears me say something or even sees a bumper sticker on my car and then responds by engaging me in a discussion of religion or politics, well, I asked for that, didn't I?

Likewise, I see nothing wrong with protesting against statements and/or actions by people and organizations. In my opinion, they're asking for it with their actions and statements. This is what seems to have been forgotten in America. Respecting someone, and respecting their right to believe something does not mean we have to respect what they believe. Freedom of belief, like freedom of speech, does not mean freedom from criticism.

James W. Isom said...

There are many good points here about the merits and ethics of protest, but has anyone considered the logistics? Modern protests are carefully orchestrated by marketing experts. I've posted a whole blog on the topic.