Friday, January 13, 2012

A Secular and Atheist Coalition

The third plank in Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy is the most straightforward and easiest to explain.

I have already discussed the fact that the key to political effectiveness rests in the number of dollars and the number of votes one can bring to the political table.

Well, if Person 1 comes to the table with V(1) votes and D(1) dollars, and Person 2 comes with V(2) votes and D(2) dollars, then a coalition comes to the table with V(1) +V(2) votes and D(1) +D(2) dollars.

Okay, yes, there may be some overlap in membership and patronage, but, to the degree that there is no overlap, the point stands. And where we are talking about local organizations forming an international coalition, we should see less overlap.

There are a few arguments to support the practice of having a coalition of diverse organizations over a single large organization. One of those reasons is something that any student of biology can understand - diversity. A diverse population is more versatile, better able to survive changes in the environment, and better capable of growing stronger over time (evolving) than a population of one genotype. As different subgroups thrive and fail, the population benefits from the survival of the fittest and evolves.

Somebody who sees evolution as "the enemy" likes to characterize survival of the fittest to mean attacking and destroying everybody else. In all honesty, these are hate-mongering bigots seeking personal advantage by bearing false witness against others - contemptible low-life creatures seduced into hatred.

Really, those people seek to elevate themselves by selling hated and fear. Against "Darwinists", this means selling the message that "survival of the fittest" means that those who consider themselves fit must seek to slaughter everybody else. That Would be a good reason to hate and fear "Darwinists" if it had any foundation in the truth. It does not, of course. However, to the stockholders in groups that can rake in profits by selling hate and fear - which is exactly what many creationist groups are - truth in advertising has never been a high priority.

Surprisingly, they are creatures that use and seek to profit from the very same practices - promoting themselves by unjustly inflicting harms on others - that they condemn as the morality of "Darwinism". However, where hated, fear, and intellectual and social irresponsibility lurk, we should not be surprised to find hypocrisy as well.

The rest of us only have to look to nature - colony animals like ants and bees, herd animals, flocks of birds, schools of fish, and even relationships across species such as that between bees and flowers to see examples in which the fittest seek to cooperate with others. In human societies, we see the advantages of specialization, division of labor, and trade. The "fit" human is not living by himself in the wilderness, hunting or growing his own food and taking care of his own needs for shelter and medical care. He is a member of a community where he can focus on developing a useful skill and trading with those who have other skills.

The same applies to a diverse group of secular and atheist organizations.

To begin with, different people have different tastes, interests, and concerns - even if there are areas where they overlap. There is more than one flavor of soda, more than one restaurant, more than one type of game, more than one type f television show - because people have different tastes and interests. "One size fits all" (or "one group for all secularists and atheists") is a strategically poor choice.

A diverse set of groups promises to bring in more members. A secularist - a proponent of the separation of church and state - would not join an atheist club, but could join a group concerned with church encroachment into politics. A theist who accepts the scientific fact of evolution can join a group opposed to creationism in the classroom. A psychologist or social worker who cares nothing about religion can join a group that focuses on eliminating stereotypical and bigoted messages that contribute to bullying in the classroom.

Local and regional concerns are best addressed by local and regional groups - whose ability to add weight to a national campaign having local implications is invaluable.

The secular and atheist community needs a diverse offering of groups for the same reason that a restaurant puts more than one item on the menu - more customers or more members, as the case may be.

Another benefit is that diversity allows for experimentation and innovation. Group 1 tries things one way, while Group 2 tries a different approach. Over time, we collect evidence on the merits or demerits of each option.

And while Group 1 may do well in one environment, a sudden shift in the political or social climate may create a situation in which Group 2 thrives.

Finally, a diverse set of groups minimizes the harm done by serious mistake or malevolence. A political or sexual scandal in one group is something that other groups can hold at a distance and condemn, where it deserves condemnation. Let us not pretend that secularists and atheists are always and always will be the paradigm of virtue.

You can explain these facts to the hate-mongering bigot who holds that all "Darwinists" seek the survival of the fittest by slaughtering all competitors, but he will not listen. A person whose interest is in the selling of hate and fear for a profit is not going to listen to arguments that show that their claims are false. The only way to fight such creatures is to get the message to their potential customers.

In the mean time, the best way to proceed is through a multitude of groups addressing separate concerns in new and different ways, but groups willing and able to form a united force against concerns that emerge on a larger scale.

8 comments:

Stephen A. Sherrier said...

As you no doubt realize, the first two sentences of your "About Me" tell a story that is, in form, religious, in terms of an inchoate inspiration followed by a quest to find out what that inspiration is all about:

"When I was in high school, I decided that I wanted to leave the world better off than it would have been if I had not existed. This started a quest. . .to try to discover what a 'better' world consists of."

I'll return to the above quote later, because I think it is particularly interesting in terms of your current post and its references to Darwinism. You ask us to "look to nature," including "herd animals," and present the more benign aspects of Darwinism among humans thus:

"The 'fit' human. . .is a member of a community where he can focus on developing a useful skill and trading with those who have other skills."

Surely no one will think that you would exclude from ethical concern those who have no tradeable skills. Yet is not such exclusion inherent in the behavior of the herd animal? The wildebeest could easily, as a group, trample any attacking lion. Then the wildebeest would probably overbreed, at the expense of their species' future fitness.

No, it is not a Darwinian advantage for the members of the herd to treat the lions as enemies. The lions are only part of the wildebeest environment. The true enemies of the wildebeest are each other, in the race to pass on their genetic heritage.

When lions are pursuing, what is it to the alpha or beta male of the herd that a sickly youngster is about to be devoured? Or would it not be to the advantage of the alpha or beta if one of them could see the other falter momentarily and step into a meerkat burrow?

Do herd animals really have a cooperative interest, in any manner that we would want to call "ethical," (or maybe "proto-ethical") or do they not really have conditionally convergent interests?

Is it not true that, while some persons (reasonable and sane, I will grant) can logically rule out the existence of God as a tenet of human life, still no one has answered the question of the existence of selfless ethical behavior? To say that such behavior might be explained by inner psychological reasons is no more weighty than to say that such behavior might be explained by the yearnings of a soul for God (maybe even a God who is frequently angry with religion.)

The powerful logic of atheism and humanism can rule out God; no similar process can be reasonably posited to rule out the "inspiration" of ethics. To return to your "About Me," I'm sure we can agree that for the bulk of human history your determination to openly confront the nature of a "better" world would have been sabotaged by religion.

It would be ridiculous, however, to claim that the history of human moral progress began when atheism somehow sprang up, full-grown, and started the process, unaided, of overthrowing brutal religion. Unless we are going to engage in unproveable fantasies of the inner life of many of the great persons of history, we would be led by history to conclude that religion did the heavy lifting of overthrowing brutal religion.

There is only one case history for the history of mankind, and that is the history of mankind. Does that not dictate that the ethical coalition of secularists and atheists you envisage excludes, with no defensible warrant, the enlightened (though overtly) religious?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Stephen A. Sherrier

As you no doubt realize, the first two sentences of your "About Me" tell a story that is, in form, religious, in terms of an inchoate inspiration followed by a quest to find out what that inspiration is all about:

No, my first two sentences are a description of a learned desire and a search for a method to fulfill that desire (to create a state of affairs in which the proposition that is the object of the desire is true).

Surely no one will think that you would exclude from ethical concern those who have no tradeable skills.

"Fitness" in this context is a biological term - not a moral term. I was making a point that in a group of diverse individuals, some will grow, and others will perish.

Attempting to draw a moral conclusion from "fitness" is as much a non-starter as attempting to draw a moral conclusion from "E = M * c^2".

My use in this post was to demonstrate to those who understand nature that having a diverse group of individuals does not imply a war of all against all, with each seeking their own destruction. It was to help visualize the concept of a diverse group of individuals forming a community or coalition.

Is it not true that, while some persons (reasonable and sane, I will grant) can logically rule out the existence of God as a tenet of human life, still no one has answered the question of the existence of selfless ethical behavior?

This is not the place for that discussion. I do have a lot of posts on desirism that address that issue, but this was not one of them.

Yet, in total, I would say that denying that we have an explanation for "selfless ethical behavior" is pretty much like claiming that we do not have an explation for the tides going in and out. In fact, it's not that difficult to explain.


It would be ridiculous, however, to claim that the history of human moral progress began when atheism somehow sprang up, full-grown, and started the process, unaided, of overthrowing brutal religion.

I have argued - and continue to argue - that atheism has as little to do with morality as theism. The only reason I mention atheism in this context is to confront the bigotry that claims that there is a disconnect between atheism and morality.

It is like having a black baseball player or a black president. Being black has nothing to do with being a baseball player. However, having a black baseball player or a black president serves as an example for those who hold that "black" and "baseball player" should not or cannot go together.

Having an "atheist ethicist" is meant to serve the same role.

There is only one case history for the history of mankind, and that is the history of mankind. Does that not dictate that the ethical coalition of secularists and atheists you envisage excludes, with no defensible warrant, the enlightened (though overtly) religious?

Not the way I described it. In fact, the post above explicitly identifies areas where the overtly religious can have a role. There is no contradiction between being overtly religious and secular. The overtly religious but secular person simply states that he holds to certain religious beliefs and principles, but they are a poor foundation for public law (which must govern everybody, not just those of my religion).

So, I am not excluding the overtly religious. I am only excluding those who overtly do harm to others for religious reasons.

Stephen A. Sherrier said...

I think I understand what you mean by your last paragraph above:

"So, I am not excluding the overtly religious. I am only excluding those who overtly do harm to others for religious reasons."

However, I am not sure that this formulation can hold up in practice, particularly when the matter to be dealt with is the question of what is to be, as you say, the "foundation for public law."

The sovereign nation is the greatest power on Earth (though it helps to live in a really powerful one, like the U.S.) A sovereign nation either claims to draw its legitimacy from above, or from some variation of moral self-sufficiency, ranging from "might makes right" to "the will of the people."

The United States, regardless how worldly its people have always been or how near-atheist its founders were, was unquestionably founded on an appeal to divine sanction. Let a child hear this only once in his growing years, in a mumble or a whisper, or read it only once in an old book--nonetheless it is true.

I have often wished it were not true, so often have I known it to be misused. However, I know of no responsible adult who will deny that the understood justification of the founding of the U.S. was that it reckoned itself to be "under God."

I wonder, if being told that America is "one nation under God" is harmful to a child, how many times it must be said to be harmful. I can only conclude, from the January 11 post on this blog, that your view of the number would be very few indeed.

I think the coalition you describe either has two options. Either secularists and atheists can strive for liberality and equality for all in an America under (an enlightened, benign, deist) God, or secularists and atheists can insist that religious people be coerced into silence about the very foundation of America's laws while still being assured that "overt" religiosity is not at all objectionable.

Jesse Reeve said...

I have often wished it were not true, so often have I known it to be misused. However, I know of no responsible adult who will deny that the understood justification of the founding of the U.S. was that it reckoned itself to be "under God." ... [religion is] the very foundation of America's laws.

Well then, I am pleased to grant your wish. These claims are, in fact, not true.

The phrase "under God" does not appear anywhere in the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, or Federalist Papers. References to God appear in the latter two, but not in the Constitution-- and the Constitution is the only one of those three documents with legal force in the United States. The only places religion is mentioned in the Constitution are Article 6 (no religious tests for office) and the First Amendment.

The Founding Fathers of the United States created a secular Constitution and a secular system of laws.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Stephen A. Sherrier

When it comes to what the founding fathers believed, I hold that this is of little moral relevance.

One thing we can say for certain is that the founding fathers fully intended to have one white nation - and a nation ruled by men. We can treat the doubts that some had about the moral worth of a black man (let alone a black woman) the same as their doubts about the existence of a god.

Yet, this hardly justifies a return to slavery or a repeal of the nineteenth amendment giving women the right to vote.

The founding fathers, like all humans, are better people in principle than in practice. Where practice deviates from principle we must ask a question - to abandon their principles and adopt their practice? Or to abandon their practice and hold true to their principle?

Humans did not get their morality from God - God (that creature that humans invented) gets its morality from those who invent it. People may assert that America's laws came from God. However, that law, in fact, was a human invention throughout with no god involved.

Stephen A. Sherrier said...

I'm afraid I've been mistaken here for a type of person who has always caused me to shudder: a "Christian nationist," or some such thing.

I refer to the type of person who will claim that the U.S. was founded on the Bible, or that X of Y signers of this or that (it doesn't even merit looking up) were "orthodox evangelical Christians"--at a time when the phrase would probably only have gotten blank stares.

I imagine we've all heard that hogwash.

The only comfort I've felt when listening to "Christian-nationists" is that they invariably overstate their claims, trying to twist the reverence of the Founders (who were doing a God-awful scary thing) into some justification for some modern-day Religious Right horror.

Relying as they do on blanket statements about Eighteenth Century America, the arguments of the "Christian-nationists" are easy to poke holes in. The Founders were a mixed bag, and the most influential of them probably escaped flogging (or worse) for heresy by being born just a generation or two late enough.

However, not all notions of legal enshrinement of religion in America are so easily got rid of.

America in its first hundred years scarcely questioned the justification of the "sovereign" states in their support of religion. And the federal government, in such matters as payment of military chaplains, was not about to take a secularist stance.

When the first significant inroads were made against established religion, it was in terms of the Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of equal protection, along with piecemeal implementation of the First Amendment found in accordance with those guarantees.

The United States of America never overthrew its initial dedication to God, and no constitutional amendment, statute, or ruling has ever been produced to change that. The Supreme Court has no legislative history or legal precedent to change that.

I also agree that what the Founders did was of little moral relevance. It is, however, of legal relevance. If anyone knows of a novel legal argument with which to make the Court or the Congress change their minds, we would do well to hear it.

Meanwhile, religious people who are asked to tone down their fervor to the point of forgetting the "under God" part will have substantial cause to wonder if they are being asked to extinguish their belief altogether.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Stephen A. Sherrier

I'm afraid I've been mistaken here for a type of person who has always caused me to shudder: a "Christian nationist," or some such thing.

I have no idea what your overall philosophy is and would think it irrational to draw a conclusion based on a few posts.

My point is that the history you draw upon is irrelevant. If a history of discrimination were to justify discrimination, we would never have combatted racism or sexism. They, too, have a long history.

Meanwhile, religious people who are asked to tone down their fervor to the point of forgetting the "under God" part will have substantial cause to wonder if they are being asked to extinguish their belief altogether.

It is a bizarre belief if it is the case that one cannot believe it unless it is included in the Pledge of Allegiance. How did these people get along between 1776 and 1893 when there was no Pledge of Allegiance, or between 1893 and 1954 when we had a pledge that did not contain the words "under God"?

Stephen A. Sherrier said...

They got along by believing that both the history and the law of the United States amounted to a continual ratification of the notion that this country saw itself as "under God"; they were right.

(I use "under God" in the broad sense of a phrase included or implicit in virtually every public pronouncement or act, as I believe you find such a notion offensive in the pledge, motto, etc.)

They also used the notion of "under God" as an excuse for discrimination of many kinds; they were, of course, wrong.

I do not think America will ever give up the notion of "under God"--that non-denominational notion that was a radically non-sectarian sentiment for the Eighteenth Century.

I am afraid that trying to get rid of "under God" serves only to empower sectarian activists and encourage renewed discriminations fostered by religious zealots who seek to convince themselves that (prudence and civilities be damned) they are doing something concrete for the cause of God.