Monday, January 09, 2012

Atheist and Secular Strategy: A Question of Content

I am reviewing in detail Sean Faircloth’s new strategy for atheism - a video representation of which can be found in my first post on the subject.

In that introduction, I looked at the claim that to make meaningful political change, one has to come to the political table with money and votes. Strong evidence and sound reasoning are not the standard of exchange here.

On the issue of money, things go best for an organization that designs a political product that it can sell to "the top 10%". They have almost all of the disposable wealth that can be contributed to such a campaign.

On the issue of votes, I stressed the importance of recruitment, the insignificance of non-voters, and a need to deal with the psychological impact of growing up in a culture that gives very strong anti-atheist messages to children at a young age. I also discussed the merits of forming a community and the need for political organizations to increase its power by making alliances.

With these basic claims in the background, I would now like to start looking at the specifics of Faircloth’s new atheist strategy.

His first recommendation was that atheists "convey the human impact of religious bias in law."

By this, Faircloth meant that we should tell stories - human stories about real people harmed as a result of religious bias.

Faircloth illustrates this point with a couple of stories of children who were in the care or religiously connected day care centers, each of whom was left in a car for hours and each of whom died. With these stories in mind, Faircloth brought forth facts about religious daycare centers having special exemptions and immunities from state standards and inspections. The conclusion is that, for the sake of the children, religious daycare centers should be subject to the same standards as secular daycare centers.

This recommendation actually has two components. Faircloth advocates that the new atheist strategy focuses on stories – as opposed to cold hard facts and statistics – because they touch the emotions and are more efficient at motivating action. That is one component. The other component concerns content. In this new atheist strategy, the issues that atheists are to focus on about which it is possible to tell these types of stories.

In this post, I will discuss the effect on content. Tomorrow, I will discuss the style of presentation.

The way that this strategy will impact the content of atheist activism is illustrated by the fact that it is difficult to come up with a moving stories of human impact that argue against a manger on the courthouse lawn, or a city council beginning each session with a prayer. There is nothing in these issues that compares to a story about a couple of young children roasting to death in a hot car when left alone for hours by workers at a religious day-care center.

In using Faircloth's strategy, that lack a compelling story fade into the background.

Faircloth did not say that the issues of symbolism should be dropped entirely or that it is wrong to pursue them. His claim is that, in addition to doing so, atheist and secular organizations should also focus on those issues where stories of significant human impact can be told. Of people dying of AIDS where religious institutions oppose the use of condoms, and people with spinal cord and other injuries who might benefit from stem cell research.

From an ethical perspective, I agree with this approach.

This is a type of moral triage. Action that aims to prevent the slow death of young children in day care – to provide for their improved safety and security – ought to be considered more important than removing a manger from the courthouse lawn or prayer from a city council meeting. I would recommend a strategy that focuses first on improving the quality of life - a strategy that would exclude people from using religious justifications or claiming religious immunity from condemnation when they lower the quality of life.

I see no reason to be particularly worried about whether somebody believes in a god. Everybody I know is wrong about something. Well . . . actually . . . everybody I know holds at least one thing to be true that I hold to be false. If I held in contempt everybody who disagreed with me, I would have a very lonely life. I would not recommend it.

However, when another person's false belief makes them a danger to others (that they are a danger to themselves is less of a concern) - as false beliefs about blood transfusions, homosexuality, stem cells, reproductive health, and so forth often do - then that is something that matters.

I would also argue that the accused should obtain the benefit of reasonable doubt. Note here that the standard is reasonable doubt. None of us should be so arrogant as to assume that we are always right - even about what is helpful or harmful to others. Consequently, we should begin with a presumption of freedom - a presumption of non-interference. Note that this presumption applies equally to secular and sectarian beliefs. However, this is a presumption – not a law. When we have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, we may act to prevent people from doing harm to others.

To the perpetrator of harm, I would say, I do not disapprove because you believe in a god. Many harmless people believe in a god. I disapprove because your behavior makes you a threat to others. And I do not accept your claim that you can go ahead and be a threat to others whenever you sincerely believe that your god gives you permission to do that which is harmful. You can go ahead and harm yourself through your religious beliefs, but when you harm others, they deserve a better justification from you than, 'My god told me to.'

When the employees of a religious daycare center negligently kill a child, the proper response is that belief in a god is irrelevant. People who believe in a god do not have a special permission to engage in acts of negligence than those who do not believe in a god. The standards of evidence should be applied equally to believers and non-believers.

And that should be one that best secures the health and well-being of children.

The specific objective here is to combat negligence by holding negligent people morally responsible for the harms they inflict regardless of their religious affiliation - and not to grant special immunities . . . what amounts to a special permission to be negligent . . . to those who believe in God.

In general objective is to adopt a strategy that focuses on improving the quality of life. It is to prevent harm – to prevent the physical, sexual, and psychological abuse of children, to prevent bullying at school, to providing people with equal opportunities in employment and health care and to promote the quality of their lives, to prevent violence including the extreme violence of religiously motivated terrorist bombings, to allow people to obtain the benefits of our improved medical science.

This is how the strategy of looking for stories with a deep human impact can affect the content of atheist and secular activism. The fact that it is focusing on quality of life is a definite improvement.

However, we need to go back and look at the issue of style. I will do that in my next post.

No comments: