Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Principles - Vague vs Specific

After spending four weeks discussing Sean Faircloth's new political strategy for atheists, I am going to start looking at his list of policy objectives.

However, before I do, I would like to make some general comments about policy objectives.

It is politically useful not to make them too specific. The more specific you make them, the smaller the audience you can appeal to in defending them. Every specific claim will peel off a set of potential supporters who do not like that interpretation, but who thinks a different interpretation still fits the general principle.

By keeping one's policy objectives vague, one can continue to appeal to a larger audience. People will tend to fill in the gaps with their own ideas. This means that different people with incompatible beliefs can all claim to be obeying the same vague principle.

We find an excellent example of this in the Bill of Rights. These items are vague - intentionally so. That is how the authors got the votes to get these amendments passed.

"Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech."

What does this mean?

I have given and defended an interpretation in my last post. However, nothing of that interpretation shows up in the First Amendment itself. Somebody else could offer a different interpretation with key elements that conflict the one I gave, and can still claim to be defending a right to freedom of speech. Both of us may have reason to vote for the vague and general principles, even though, in practice, we would be at odds on a number of issues relevant to that principle.

One relevant point to make is that only an absolute purist defends the idea that the First Amendment implies that Congress shall make no law abridging libel, slander, or revealing military information to the enemy. Nor does the right to freedom of speech invalidate all laws against fraud and misrepresentation when spoken or written.

None of these points are covered in the principle itself. There is no way either I, or the purist, can appeal to the principle itself and say, "This is how it must be applied". We must bring in other facts - facts outside of the specific wording - to make our case as to what the wording actually allows or prohibits.

Some people believe that we can examine the words and actions of the original authors - in this case, the founding fathers - to determine its meaning. This option fails for three reasons.

First, it follows from what I have already written that the vagueness of the Bill of Rights allows people with different and conflicting views to support the same bill. To use the intentions of the original author is to use a conflicting mix of attitudes, each of which the holder could somehow shoehorn into the principle that was passed. The idea that all of the founding fathers had exactly the same thoughts in their head regarding each of these principles, and that we can determine what that common shared belief was, is simply absurd.

Second, nothing can be more clear than the fact that, for the founding fathers, there is sometimes a huge gap between principle and practice. Slavery and the denial of voting rights to women provide the clearest examples of this. When their practice deviated from their principles, we have a question we need to answer. Are we going to follow their practices and abandon their principles? Or are we going to preserve their principles and adopt a more consistent set of practices?

Third, the founding fathers believed that there were moral truths independent of the opinions of mere humans. This is an opinion that I share. There exists, in the objective world, certain moral rights and a just government is one that respects those rights. When the Bill of Rights says that certain rights may not be abridged, they are not saying, "My opinion of what these rights are shall not be abridged". They are saying, "The rights that exist must not be abridged". From which it follows, "If my opinion about these rights deviates from the truth - because I am mortal and prone to error - the Constitution tells you to ignore my opinion and go with the moral facts."

All of these elements leaves open the possibility of different people, with different political and moral beliefs, supporting the same vaguely worded general principle. These elements allows each of them to draw the conclusion that, "In the end, through debate and discussion, my interpretation will win out. So, yes, I can support this principle."

It is politically useful to have a set of vague general principles.

However, this is not a political blog. In the confines of these blog pages, I care nothing about political advantage. I wish to report on the moral facts of the matter - even where some if those facts might be politically unwise.

I will leave it to the politicians to denounce any politically harmful elements, as they see fit.

Starting tomorrow, I will look at Faircloth's policy objectives, and examine, specifically, what they should allow and prohibit.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Freedom of Speech and Freedom to Criticize

I spent the first four weeks of his year - a presidential election year - discussing the six points of Sean Faircloth's new political strategy for atheists.

Faircloth followed up his presentation of these six points with a second list – a list of ten political objectives.

Whenever somebody presents such a list, there is an irresistible urge on the part of those who would comment on such a list to counter with their own “improved” list. Then the discussion gets bogged down in a trivial debate over the fine differences between each list.

I am going to struggle to resist that urge - and fail in at least one respect.

It is, after all, an irresistible urge.

The principle that I would put at the top of the list - a principle on which all of the others depend - is that the right to freedom of speech includes the right to criticize and condemn what other people believe. Governments shall not infringe on this right, but instead shall organize its institutions to protect speakers from private violence.

It is argued in some circles that a prohibition on criticism is required to "keep the peace". Somebody's beliefs get criticized, they become maniacal and violent, and the next thing you know you have suicide bombers in the shopping malls, on the busses, and interfering with airline traffic in various ways.

This strategy – that of banning criticism of groups who respond to criticism with violence – will fail to keep the peace for at least two reasons.

First, it teaches people that they can control speech just by threatening violence against those who say anything they do not like.

Have the American Astrological Society threaten suicide bombers any time somebody says anything critical of astrology, or have Steven Spielberg fans threaten to blow up the head offices of any company that prints a negative review of one of his movies. According to this philosophy of banning criticism to keep the peace, criticisms of astrology and Stephen Spielberg movies would have to be banned.

After all, we cannot possibly blame the astrologers or Steven Spielberg fans for threatening violence. That is out of the question.

We can imagine a group of scientists who accept a disease theory for the extinction of the dinosaurs threatening to detonate bombs in any classroom where a professor advances an asteroid impact theory. Using the idea, teaching that there are flaws in the disease theory would have to be prohibited.

In fact, those who accept the theory of evolution could put this philosophy to use. Just threaten to kill people any time somebody criticizes evolution, and criticizing evolution would be banned.

Except, scientists (and science as a practice) thrives on criticism. Remove criticism from science, and science itself will come to an end.

The flaw in the philosophy of banning criticism when those criticized threaten to respond with violence is that it gives political power to those who threaten violence. As such, it becomes a source of violence, not a way to prevent violence.

We can see from these examples that the organizations that control speech are those that are willing to use violence against its critics. We do not expect prohibitions on criticisms of astrology and Steven Spielberg precisely because these are not organizations prone to violence. How are we going to decide what to prohibit and what to permit? The answer that this philosophy provides is to identify groups willing to respond to criticism with violence and ban criticism of those groups – to “keep the peace”.

One of the effects of this philosophy will be expand the number of groups that decide to respond to criticism with violence. While I doubt that astrologers, Steven Spielberg fans, or scientists will likely take up the practice, there are a lot of organizations that might find it tempting.

Second, ultimately if you follow this philosophy, the state as to choose a set of beliefs and defend it from all criticism by threatening to punish all critics. Assume that you have a group that believes X. Well, then, everybody else who believes Y - where Y implies not-X – is necessarily “critical” of the belief that X. If one group believes there is only one God and Mohammed is its prophet, then anybody who does not accept this must hold that it is not the case that there is only one God and Mohammed is its prophet. To refuse to believe X – or to at least announce that one does not believe X – can be taken as an insult to everybody who believes X. It says to all believers, “I think you are wrong. I am better than you because my belief is true and yours is false.”

The state will have no option but to choose a set of beliefs and to prohibit anybody from denying the :”truth” of those beliefs.

I want to add that, while I have used religious examples in this post, everything I have written would apply to atheistic political movements as well. I have known Ayn Rand Objectivists who spoke passionately in favor of the use of violence against the state. Atheistic anarchists and communists have taken this route. It is not impossible for an atheist organization to take the position that claims made critical of atheism and in defense of religion are socially destructive and should be met with violence. From which it would then follow that, in order to "keep the peace", criticism of atheism should be prohibited.

I also suspect that, if there were a successful movement to ban the criticism of beliefs in order to "keep the peace", that it would not take long for some atheist group somewhere in the world to start threatening violence against its critics while making reference to this prohibition on criticism.

What is the first item on my list of political objectives?

Government shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, which includes the freedom to criticize other beliefs through words and pictures. And instead the government shall establish its institutions so as to protect critics from those who would respond to criticism with violence or threats of violence.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Fate of Alexander Aan

What are we going to do for Alexander Aan?

Aan is a 31 year old Indonosian civil servant who wrote on his Facebook page that God does not exist. This resulted in some heated exchanges with some posters. Some of those who were offended by his words formed a mob that intercepted him on his way to work. They beat him. When the police came, they arrested Aan for blasphemy. He now faces five years in prison.

I cannot find any news of what has happened since then.

Since the beginning of the year, I have been looking at Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy. Faircloth works for the Richard Dawkins foundation, and has been selected as the opening act for Richard Dawkin's upcoming book tour. His task is to put the secular and atheist community in America on a new - and hopefully more effective - track.

His strategy contains six components that I have covered this month.

The first item on that list was to focus on stories that have a deep human impact.

Well, here's a story of a man who defended his beliefs and was accosted by a mob and beaten. Furthermore, instead of being helped by the police, he was arrested. He now faces the prospect of five years in prison - where he will be surrounded by people with a demonstrated lack of concern for the welfare of others, some of whom no doubt share the passions of the mob that beat him, as do some of the guards whose duty would be to protect him from other prisoners. Even if he it is decided that he is innocent and allowed to go free, what type of future can he expect to have? What type of security can he expect in that environment?

This should not be a story about political strategy. This is a story about a human being.

One of the questions I am asking is, "How is Alexander Aan. Is he (relatively) safe?"

I, personally, want to know.

I would appreciate it if the Richard Dawkins foundation - or some secular or atheist organization - would make a point of finding out, of providing regular updates, and make the relevant Indonesian government officials aware of the fact that the situation is being monitored.

This ties in with Faircloth's third and forth items on Faircloth's list - a secular coalition of organizations pursuing different ends, and innovation in the pursuit of those ends.

Here us an idea. How about a web site that focuses on collecting and reporting on atheist and secular stories around the world? Its focus will be to learn about people like Alexander Aan and make sure that their cases are not forgotten and that their security is assured.

In monitoring the situation that these people face, this organization also would direct the attention of the secular and atheist community to any situation where it may do measurable good.. An organization with the end of monitoring and reporting on religious violence against atheists would be a valuable part of such a coalition.

The sixth item on Faircloth's list was to reclaim moral language.

Aan's story exemplifies a moral principle - that it is wrong to respond to words (or pictures) alone with violence. The only legitimate response to words are words. They may be harsh words. They may be words of condemnation and outrage. However, the line beyond which this response must not cross is that of violence or threat of violence.

Does your religion call for responding to words alone (or pictures) with violence? Then you have an immoral religion.

This is a vital principle for us to be defending. Without it, society risks disintegrating into violent chaos. Without it, all sorts of political, social, and religious factions take up arms to dictate what others may or may not say. The violence ends only when a society finds itself in unanimous agreement - or at least the appearance of unanimous agreement. But it is an agreement reached solely through force if arms.

And when has any society as large as a nation been in unanimous agreement about anything?

If we want peace, and if we want the type of culture that thrives with the constant comparison of ideas and the influx of new ideas, then we want a society that condemns responding to words with violence.

This leads to another issue - which seems to have been swept under the rug.

Has anything been done to identify, arrest, and convict those who are guilty of assault against Mr. Aan? Or is the message being spread throughout Indonesia that acts of violence against theists are acceptable and shall not be punished?

We should be demanding that action be taken of those guilty of assaulting Aan, at the very least to establish a precedent and to give a warning, for the sake of all atheists, that these forms of violent response to atheist beliefs are to be shunned. The fifth item on Faircloth's list is to promote a diversity.

I fear that we are going to find it easy to forget about Alexander Aan, and to leave him to his fate in an Indonesian prison or a vengeful and violent Indonesian mob, because he is a dark-skinned man in a distant land. This is the type of situation in which we must make sure that our learned prejudices do not cause us to unfairly discriminate, and to base decisions on criteria that are irrelevant to the principles we defend. It is exactly these types of cases that we are inclined to ignore and forget about that we need to put an extra effort into including and remembering.

Will it be the case that we forget about Aan and leave him to his fate, only because our prejudices cause us to lack concern for the fate of such people?

So, in conclusion, I would like to ask again.

What are we going to do for Alexander Aan?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Atheism as Lacking a Moral Foundation

On the issue of reclaiming moral language - the sixth component of Sean Faircloth's new political strategy for atheists - atheists should learn to react to the claims that they lack a moral foundation the way Jews react to the phrase "Christ killers."

We react as if it is a mere intellectual error - requiring a rebuttal in terms of reason and evidence. However, it is more than that. Like the term "Christ killers" it is politically and socially useful. It serves to marginalize a group of people - to promote religious animosity and to brand those who use this claim as "morally superior" to the target group.

When people make certain mistakes, we have reason to ask why they make those mistakes and not some other. When it comes to the mistake that atheism lacks a moral foundation, we have reason to ask why the theist makes this mistake and not some other.

Religion is mostly make-believe. So, why make-believe that some target group lacks a foundation for their moral beliefs and attitudes? Why make-believe that, at any minute, they run the risk of breaking out in an orgy of political and social violence because they have no moral constraints? What makes this fiction more attractive than some other fiction?

They could have adopted a fiction in which the universe contains certain moral truths built into it by God, but which are available to everybody. They could have invented a religion that holds that moral facts are like scientific facts in that even an atheist can determine and assent to valid moral laws the way the atheist can still determine and assent to the laws of motion and thermodynamics.

Using this fiction, atheists and theists may disagree on the fundamental origin of the relevant type of laws. However, theists do not assert that because the atheist lacks belief in a divine author of the law of gravity he is in danger of floating away (and of causing those he convinces of floating away with him.) It isn't argued that some people choose atheism because they seek to flaunt the second law of thermodynamics or live life as if it were not the case the E=m*c^2.

So, why not choose a fiction in which moral facts are facts available to atheists and theists alike, allowing us to have intelligent discussions as to what those facts are, even if we disagree about their source?

Of course, a theist may object to some of the premises in this argument - particularly the premise that religion is mostly make-believe. However, I am not seeking arguments convincing to theists. I am seeking arguments that attempt to examine the world as it currently exists.

This is a world in which theists make-believe that atheists lack a moral foundation when they do not have to do so. This is a world in which the belief that atheists lack a foundation for moral beliefs is not merely a mistake. It is a mistake that serves a social and political purpose - to socially elevate those who make this mistake, and socially denigrate and diminish those whom it targets.

Some may claim that the reason the theists believe atheists lack a moral foundation has nothing to do with a desire to establish and maintain a social order in which they are held as socially and politically superior to the target group. They may claim that theists believe these things because they find it in scripture. But how did it get written into scripture to start with? And why is it that this version of the story is the one that got accepted?

We have little reason to doubt that it is because this interpretation not only feeds the ego of those who adopt it, but gives them an excuse to cast others onto the lower tier in the social order.

In America, it casts atheists as untrustworthy, as least likely to share American values, and as being likely to establish a Stalinesque totalitarian regime complete with programs to round up and execute all believers if it should come to pass that atheists get political power.

This type if attitude deserves more than, "Pardon me, but I do not think that reason and evidence properly supports the propositions you are asserting."

It deserves, "If your fraking religion grants you such a strong moral foundation, why didn't it teach you about the evil of promoting hatred and fear of others for the purpose of harvesting social and political power? Where is that in your moral code and why don't you start practicing it?"

Because this - in fact and in practice - is what the claim that non-believers lack a moral foundation is all about. It is about preaching hate and fear for the purpose of harvesting social and political power.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Reclaiming Moral Language

Today, I come to the sixth of Sean Faircloth's principles for a new secularist and atheist political strategy. In this principle, Faircloth calls for secularists to reclaim the word 'morality'.

Faircloth asserts that the religious right has turned "morality" into a word for sexual trivia. Yet, not to long ago, it applied to such things as concern for the poor and the dispossessed.

It had to do with, as the ancient Greeks said, taming the savageness of man and making gentler the life of this world.

It has to do with making into a world a better place.

As can be expected, I wholeheartedly endorse this principle.

The very heart of this blog is an interest in reclaiming moral language and to presenting the idea that morality is a set of social institutions that aim at making the world a better place.

Morality is not about sexual trivia. It is about killing and maiming, and torture. It is about the plight of those who do not have enough food to eat, clean water to drink, and about those who stand helplessly and watch their young children die from diseases that could have been treated for mere pennies, while others spend billions of dollars on games and entertainment.

It is about rape. It is about slavery. It is about being used solely for the pleasure of others while one’s own interests are regarded as irrelevant.

It is about breathing unpoisoned air and drinking unpoisoned water. It is about not being lied to or defrauded out of one's savings. It is about having control over one's own creative works. It is about being denied opportunities not because if one's character or abilities, but because of the color if one's skin, where one was born, or some other quality that is entirely irrelevant to the work being done.

Whether or not one's sexual partner is the same gender of oneself is as much a matter of sexual trivia as whether or not one’s partner has the same hair color as oneself. What does matter in the moral is that a committed couple be allowed to take advantage of the institutional safeguards that would allow them to build and to live the one and only life they have with the person of their choice - so long as the person of their choice can and does give informed consent to the arrangement.

There is a substantial portion of the Republican party today that is willing to forego all concern over climate change, medical care, famine, and war, and base their whole political decision on their interest in denying a certain percentage of the population the benefits of institution of marriage to the partner of their choice. We can certainly use moral terms where these people are concerned. They are blind and unthinking bigots who have been raised on such nonsense that their political life is now devoted almost exclusively to that which harms others.

Perhaps they are victims of their culture – a claim many have made in forgiving the racism and sexism that many of our nation’s founding fathers embraced without question. However, they are more like the last holdouts of (hopefully) dying primitive bigotry, than they are like the first thinkers in the generation that first comes to question what a previous generation took for granted.

Like Sean Faircloth, I have been criticized for using moral terms on the basis that morality is the realm of the religious. In addition, I have heard it said often enough, that the realm of description falls to science, while the realm of prescription needs to be assigned to the realm of morality.

I reject this entirely.

First, I reject it because religion is almost entirely the realm of myth, superstition, and fictions invented by tribesmen (and, yes, they were almost exclusively men) whose understanding of the moral universe was as primitive as their understanding of the physical universe. Declaring that some centuries-old text is the final word on morality is as absurd as declaring Hippocrates to be the final word in all matters of medicine - not only in terms of its assault on reason but in terms of the disastrous consequences of acting on that belief.

Second, I reject separating morality from science because issues of the quality of life are certainly a part of objective fact. At the age of 13, I accidentally put my hand on a hot metal plate. In an instant I had 2nd degree burn blisters all across the palm of my hand and my fingers. I did not need to believe in a god to know that I did not want that to happen again. Even today, I do not need to believe in a god to have reason to direct social institutions to reducing the chance that others might do such a thing to me on purpose – or to anybody that I care about. Nor do other people need to believe in god to have reasons to cause me to be concerned about their welfare – to object to them being subject to this kind of behavior.

Also, the animal kingdom is filled with examples of creatures that care their offspring, their mate, and others in their community without a belief in a god. There are good biological explanations for these facts that make no reference to a deity.

The idea that we need to invent a god to account for the facts that underlie morality is as primitive as the idea that we need to invent a god to explain the motion of the planets. It is another "god of the gaps" argument, and the gap is closing rapidly.

Having said this, I will add that a substantial number of atheists and secularists make some significant mistakes in drawing relationships between morality and biology. However, these mistakes appear to be disappearing from the academic field (though they are still common among bloggers and others who discuss these issues in more casual settings).

Long time readers of this blog will know some of the objections that I have to the relationships others have drawn between biology and morality.

However, the fact that people make mistakes in drawing relationships between biology and morality does not prove that there is no relationship - any more than mistakes made about the relationship between swamps and malaria (that malaria is caused by "bad air") does not prove that no relationship (independent of divine power) exists.

According to Faircloth:

Now it is time for us . . . Secular Americans - to step up and offer hope and a specific plan to change our society for the better.

Actually, it is long past the time for this maneuver. Claiming that religion is the realm of morality was and continues to be a significant mistake. It has put myth, superstition, and primitive thinking in control of human well-being, and yielded some predictably poor results.

In saying that these results are poor, one is capable of making a claim as objectively true as any claim in science.

Of course I endorse Sean Faircloth's six principle for a new atheist strategy. Around here, the principle is not all that new.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

A Diverse Atheist Community

I have reached item 5 on Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy, which is a call for greater diversity in the secular movement.

It is quite obvious that the current rise of atheist activism has been dominated by white males. Faircloth's response to this is to call for an outreach program as a part of his strategy that aims to create a more diverse atheist community. He spoke about making an intentional effort to include women at a conference in May, 2011. He also reported that the Richard Dawkins foundation will seek to provide forums for Black atheists and Latino atheists among others.

There us something odd in this maneuver. I once saw Richard Dawkins give a speech in which he ridiculed the idea that science was like religion. If science were like religion, he argued, then we could put up a map of the world and note, "This part of the world is dominated by the view that an asteroid impact caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. While in this other region the dominant view is that they fell victim to a plague."

The point being that, while people draw their religious beliefs from their culture (which gives us regional-cultural differences in religious beliefs), scientists draw their beliefs from the evidence, which prevents it from being "regional".

Would it not be equally strange for impact theorists to have an "outreach program" to draw more women and minorities to the view that the dinosaurs died out as a result of an asteroid impact? This sounds a lot less like science, and a lot more like religion.

And since atheism is a hypothesis about what exists or does not exist, it would seem most appropriate to focus on simply presenting the evidence and letting that be the sole foundation for the beliefs.

However, even though science may be blind to matters of race and gender, scientists are not. Scientists are human. A scientist raised in a culture that dismisses the intellectual accomplishments of women can dismiss a woman's contribution to a scientific field out of hand before even viewing the evidence - or giving the evidence a slanted interpretation that conforms to his prejudice. A scientist raised in a racist culture can easily favor his white colleagues in terms of tenure, professional honors, and in awarding grants and funding.

As a counter to this, it is useful that a lot of scientific peer review is anonymous. This allows even a young child to submit a paper for review and get it accepted without prejudice against her age affecting the review decision. There is no need to include information about the age, race, or gender of the author - that is irrelevant to the quality of the argument. Yet, the scientific community recognizes that humans tend to let themselves be persuaded by these factors. It does not ignore prejudice. Instead, it designs procedures that reduce the effect of prejudice.

The atheist community is made up of humans, and also needs to adopt procedures that address these types of biases. One if the most abhorrent features of the atheist community to date has been a willingness at times to use sexual language - and, in particular, remarks of sexual violence - against female participants. This was exhibited recently in an incident on Reddit Atheism in which a female contributor was treated to sexual remarks, some of them of a violent nature, when she posted about a gift she had gotten from a religious family member. There is no dismissing this as "boys being boys" or even blaming our biological heritage. This behavior can be molded by social forces, and we have many and good reason to muster these social forces against this type of behavior. While desirism does not allow for moral absolutes, I can not think of a real-world situation that would provide an exception - and no reason why these types of comments can or should be tolerated.

However, bigotry neither begins nor ends with blatant acts or even threats of violence. By far its greatest expression is in small day-to-day decisions where it has its influence substantially without being noticed. It is found in the teacher who views a black student's paper as "just not being good enough", or in an employer who thinks that the woman in his office does not quite qualify for a raise. These decisions are not backed by explicit racism, "You do not get the job because you are black". They are backed by implicit racism, "I feel more comfortable with the white applicant than the black applicant because . . . um . . . because the job experience is more relevant. That's it. Yeah. There is just something about this applicant that I was not comfortable with. It has nothing at all to do with race. I despise racism."

I will confess that I am racist, I grew up in an environment that taught me to have a strong averse reaction to blacks. Intellectually, I know that this emotional reaction is not only irrational but one that good people would not have and people generally have reason to condemn. However, emotions do not respond to reason, and the emotions planted in childhood are not so easily changed.

This ties in to my condemnation of "under God" the Pledge and National Motto that identifies community membership with trust in God. These practices aim to generate in children a strong aversion to atheism that will carry them through adulthood and affect their behavior - independent of anything we may do to affect that person's beliefs. Bigotry, planted in a child, is very persistent.

This also ties in to the objections that I have made against basing moral conclusions on "feelings" - a common practice, even among atheists and secularists. "Feelings" do not provide a special mental access to moral truth. They provide a special mental access to one's current learned likes, dislikes, and prejudices.

These types of issues cannot be dealt with by ignoring race and gender. One must confront the psychological fact of casual and comfortable discrimination with a conscious and deliberate effort to correct for its influence. If you are driving a vehicle that pulls to the right, you are best advised not to ignore it, but to make a conscious effort to correct for it, if you want to actually reach your destination.

So, I agree with Faircloth that an outreach program should be a part of the strategy. Furthermore, I would like to see the atheist community make a conscious effort to acquire and apply a sound scientific understanding of these types of biases and their influences on behavior, as well as a sound scientific understanding of the types of social institutions that might eliminate or mitigate its influences.

It would be great if the secular and atheist community could tackle the fact of these biases in an objective, open, and straight-forward way, and provide a model for the rest of the world to avoid prejudices and responsibly handle those that were not successfully avoided.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Innovation, not Infighting

In my continuing evaluation of Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy, we come to a call for innovation - as a substitute for infighting.

There is some connection between these two issues - which I have already discussed.

There are bound to be disputes over the right way to do things. Rather than have knock-down fights (without evidence) over which is right, let's do this the scientific way. Let each person try things their own way, and collect some data on the various options - then discuss the results.

Infighting among secular and atheist organizations should be modeled after infighting among academics - rather than infighting among religions.

Faircloth did not mention this aspect in his discussion of innovation. He used, as his paradigm example, the out campaign - the red letter A that identifies one as an atheist. He boasted that there is an atheist 'out' page in Afghanistan.

On the other hand, an atheist in Indonesia, last week a civil servant posted his opinion that God does not exist on a Facebook page. An angry mob came to his office, beat him up, and he was arrested - and faces a prison sentence for blasphemy. There is now a Facebook page to Support Alex Aans' human rights.

A high school student, Jessica Ahlquist ets police protection on the basis of threats surrounding a successful court case to get a religious banner removed from a public school.

A speech in London is shut down when somebody with religious passions started filming those in the audience and threatened to hunt them down if anything was said against the prophet Mohammed.

There are risks associated with being known as an atheist. The more who come out, the safer we all become.

I identify myself as an atheist.

However, I do not participate explicitly in the "Out Campaign", nor do I use the red letter A.


Flags make me nervous.

More to the point, flags should make people nervous.

There are far too many instances in history where people have given up rational thought and replaced it with a call to rally around some flag or other, giving their unquestioned loyalty and obedience to the flag waver above all other concerns. People get into a contest over who can wave the flag with the most vigor, and we start to judge each other by how well one serves the flag as the ultimate virtue.

However, this is a warning to the Out campaign, not an objection to it.

To the degree that people are afraid of the effects if coming out, it is comforting to have a group one can belong to. One of the most serious effects of coming out is the loss of family or friends who cannot accept the idea that one does not believe in God. Seeing the red letter A means that one has found an ally - and a potential new friend. As a result, one should point others to this community. At the same time, the Out campaign could be improved by putting some effort into making it a community that people can belong to.

Another useful purpose for the Out Campaign is to announce to others, "We are here, and we are no longer content to hide in the closet. You had better get used to the fact that there are atheists in your world. We are not ashamed. We will not hide."

This latter point is why I named this blog "Atheist Ethicist". There is no particular link between ethics and atheism. There are no moral conclusions that one can draw from the premise that the proposition that at least one God exists is certainly or almost certainly false. I could have easily written a blog just on ethics, leaving the "atheist" portion out - and probably had a much larger audience as a result.

However, I live in a society of prejudice against atheists - a bigotry that particularly focuses on the claim that atheists lack any moral foundation and, to the degree they are decent people, it is because they "borrow" their morality from religion. Notwithstanding the fact that many of the most popular religions have moral elements that are not worth borrowing.

Another claim is that atheists seek to live a life free of moral constraints, which is why we have rejected God.

Consequently, I hold that it is important to have an atheist explicitly discussing moral constraints without reference to any God or scripture - and I have put the term "Atheist" in this blog title.

So, I agree with all if the things that the Out campaign stands for. However, I am still concerned about the psychology of flag waving. I think somebody needs to stand away from the flag a bit (without standing outside of atheism specifically) to wave a different kind of flag - a warning flag or a penalty flag - if the psychology of flag waving starts to produce some unacceptable results.

That is my strategy - my innovation. It may not be as well thought out as I would have liked. It might have some serious flaws and its foundation might be cracked beyond repair. However, it has not (and should not) generate any form of infighting. Instead, it is best to let the strategy play itself out, and discuss its merits and demerits as one would discuss any experiment.

To the degree that there is infighting among secular and atheist societies, it should be the type of infighting we find among scientists and academics - not the type we find among religious factions.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Reducing Atheist Infighting

I now return to my discussion of Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy.

Specifically, I return to Faircloth's plea for less infighting.

Earlier, I objected to the way he defended his call for less infighting. Faircloth divided the world up into a group of "us" and "them", and arguing for a higher standard of behavior for members of the "us" group - a standard that included less infighting BECAUSE they were fellow members of the "us" group.

I argued that we apply the same standards of criticism to everybody. These standards included an obligation to present another's view fairly and accurately, and to make criticisms that are true and relevant.

However, on the issue of atheist infighting, there are two common arguments we should drop. The reason we should drop them is because the arguments themselves are fundamentally flawed.

The first argument to drop is any argument of the form, "Shut up. It's people like you who give atheists a bad name."

I cannot stress how contemptible this approach is.

Blaming a fellow atheist for the ill treatment of atheists is like blaming a Jew for the Holocaust, or blaming blacks for American slavery and racism. It's like saying, "If those Jews had treated the Arians with more kindness and generosity, they would not have ended up with the death camps. Or, "Blacks brought slavery upon themselves with the way they treated white people who visited Africa".

This type of statement is not just a historical mistake, it is an expression of the very bigotry that was the true cause if these horrendous acts to begin with.

This objection does not require that every Jew or every Black be perfectly virtuous. We can know that some were not merely from the fact that they were human. However, the misbehavior of some members of a group never justifies treatment of a whole group.

If it is possible to "give atheists a bad name" it is only because one lives in a community permeated throughout with an unreasoned bigotry against atheists. Without this precondition of bigotry and prejudice, it would not be possible to give atheists a bad name.

Somebody with a last name starting with the letter "F" may commit a horrible crime - torturing and murdering children, for example. The story can be in the news for weeks while investigators discover one body after another, and reports on the days of torture each child endured before death. Yet, nobody would even suggest that the perpetrator was guilty of giving people with a last name starting with 'F' a bad name. We do not get this suggestion precisely because we do not live in a society that tends to make bigoted derogatory overgeneralizations about people based on the first letter of their last name.

Where people are inclined to make unjust, derogatory overgeneralizations across a whole group, you know that they are fishing for excuses to justify their bigotry. Neither truth nor reason is going to stand in their way (since derogatory overgeneralizations are themselves unreasonable and leads to false conclusions). That is how bigotry works. It is filled with confirmation bias, cherry picking, and tainted interpretations. If people are already fishing for excuses to support prejudice against atheists, it is neither fair nor just to join them in blaming atheists for that bigotry.

This is really what somebody is doing when she accuses a fellow atheist of "giving atheists a bad name." She is joining the bigots in blaming the atheists for the bigotry against them. It is not the bigots’ fault. It is the atheists’ fault. Logically and morally, it is no different than blaming the Jews for the Holocaust or blaming blacks for slavery.

Before I move on to the next objection, let me derail an expected protest. I am NOT comparing the treatment of atheists to that of the Jews in the Holocaust or Black slaves. I am comparing the logic of blaming atheists for the discrimination against them to the logic of blaming the Jews for the Holocaust or blaming blacks for slavery.

The second dispute that should end because it is fundamentally flawed is the dispute between the "New Atheists" and the Accomodationists - the ones who take a hard line against all religion versus those who seek friendly alliance with liberal religion.

This issue turns out to be related to the issue above in virtue of the fact that the most common criticism an Accomodationist will make of a "New Atheist" is, "Shut up. You are the reason why they hate us."

Yet, both sides are wrong on this issue. There is no justification for this dispute.

The claim that we must all be "New Atheists" or we must all be Accomodationists is as ill conceived as the idea that we must all be doctors or we must all be engineers.

There is room for both.

In fact, there is a need for both.

My perspective on this can be found in my opposition to the national motto, "In God We Trust" and "under God" in the Pledge. I hold that dividing a community between "us" who trust in God and "them" who do not is as objectionable as dividing a restaurant or a bus between "white" and "colored" sections. Particularly given the fact that the discrimination written into the Motto and Pledge serves to keep atheists out of public office. One might as well put a sign on the doors of the legislature that says, "Theists only".

Yet, I am not such a fool to think that a politician who agrees with me has any hope of winning an election. If an otherwise well qualified politician were to say he agreed with me, I would tell him to lie. Because I would not want him to throw the election to somebody who did not agree with me. I would want that politician to be an Accomodationist. That is the only way he can do his job effectively.

We need “New Atheists” with their uncompromising ridicule off all of the stupidity and foolishness we find in religion. And we need the Accomodationists making real change in the real world as it currently exists. The future is in the hands of the first group. The present is in the hands of the second.

Together, I would say that these two complaints make up the majority of the current disputes between secularists.

The first dispute is morally objectionable. Whenever I read an atheist who says that other atheists are responsible for anti-atheist bigotry, I think of two Jews standing naked under a shower head with one turning to the other and saying, "NOW look at what you've gotten us into."

The second dispute is irrational. It is not the case that we must all be alike. We are better off with some diversity, with different people taking on those tasks that suit their personality and temperament. Members of this community should understand the practical value of diversity – given its representation in evolutionary theory. They should not be fighting against it.

I would argue for both of these types of disputes to be put to rest. I would have the Accomodationists get along with their job of accommodating. I would have the new atheists continue their practice of "New Atheisting". And I would have nobody blame atheists for the bigotry that is targeted against them.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Stop Internet Piracy Act

I interrupt my analysis of Sean Fairchild's New Atheist Strategy to discuss the campaign today regarding the Stop Internet Piracy Act. This post is still relevant to that series in that it covers the subject if bringing about a political objective.

Many web sites today have gone dark, allegedly to protest an attempt at internet censorship by means of House Resolution 3261 - the Stop Online Piracy Act. Censorship is a bad thing, so it people count it as a good deed to be taking a stand against censorship.

Unfortunately, this interpretation of the bill is not entirely accurate. The bill does not censor anything. It does not identify any set of content and say, "This shall not be shown". There is no censorship in this bill.

There is a component of the bill that blocks communication. However, the communication being blocked is material that has copyright protection. We have always had limits on reproducing copyright material – and we have never called it censorship. To count as censorship, material has to be blocked because of the message it contains.

Ultimately, this bill concerns the question of who will bear the cost of policing copyright laws already in effect.

However, some employee in the marketing department at Google probably figured out that if they used the word "censorship" in their campaign against this legislation, they would get a huge knee-jerk reaction from people who do not do their own research that would be politically useful.

Anyway, let us take an honest look at the details of this legislation.

The entertainment industry (and others) creates electronic content. They invest time, energy, and resources. Their goal (among other things) is to make money. The way they make money is by either charging people directly to experience the content they create, or by charging them indirectly by directing their attention to advertisements - where the advertiser pays a fee.

However, we now live in an age where this type of content, once created, is hard to control. Somebody else comes along and takes the content. Often, the pirate will also charge people a fee to see it - either directly or through advertisement revenue. Thus, taking for themselves the revenue that would otherwise have gone to the people who created the content.

The people who create this content view this as a form of theft.

And . . . they are right.

The pirate does not accept any of the costs of production. The original creator pays the writers, the actors, and the crew to create the content. They pay the rent on the buildings and buy the equipment. They create a content that they think will bring money. Then somebody who bears none of the costs comes along and siphons off a share of the potential revenue into their own pocket.

Even when the pirate gives the material away for free, we still have an act of theft. This would be similar to a person going into a store, carting things off the shelf, and setting it in the street for others to take. It would be accurate to say that the store owner has been robbed, even though the thief did not materially profit.

Let's be honest. Companies such as Google and Facebook make a great deal of money by wrapping their advertisements around this pirated content. If their bank account increases by one billion dollars per year, then - moral considerations aside - it is worthwhile to invest a few tens of millions of dollars in a campaign to protect that revenue stream.

When they go to the marketing department (and they do have a professional marketing department) with the project of defeating this legislation, some genius in the marketing department is likely to come up with the idea, "We can get a lot more mileage with this money if we brand our efforts as anti-censorship. This will generate a politically useful knee-jerk reaction from a lot of people who do not look at the issue in any detail, and very few will look at the issue in detail. It does not matter whether this is true or not. What matters is that people will believe it."

Somebody in the marketing department also probably also figured out that Rupert Murdoch is widely disliked by the target audience. Therefore, if the marketing campaign can attach Rupert Murdoch's name to this legislation, they can increase the opposition to this bill. Again, there is no logical inference to be drawn from the premise "Rupert Murdoch favors this legislation" to "this is bad legislation." However, marketing departments tend not to care about validity or invalidity. They care about cause and effect. In marketing, the value of an inference rests in its consequences, not in its validity.

This is how marketing works - when it is used by people who care only about producing a useful effect, but who does not care whether their claims are true or their arguments are valid.

(Note: This is very closely related to the issue I discussed with respect to Sean Faircloth's atheist strategy, in A Question of Style)

The fact remains, these claims are false or invalid.

This does not imply that I am in favor of this legislation. It has some real, legitimate problems.

On the media side of the equation, one obvious goal they have is to shut down or hobble their competition. One of the ways to hobble competitors is to saddle them with extra costs. In this case, the relevant costs are those associated with enforcing this legislation.

Furthermore, the creators of this pirated content also make money by wrapping advertising around that content, or by selling direct access to that content. They have to compete against people who produce similar content at a lower price – or for free. Anything they can do to harm a competing industry or the producers of free content gives potential customers fewer options. It is every company's dream - for a company that has leadership that lacks a conscience - to increase its profits while dumping the costs onto others.

Another legitimate objection to this legislation is that it has the same moral status as using a hand grenade on a crowded street to stop a purse snatcher from getting away. It creates a lot of collateral damage. In this case, blocking a site that contains pirated content also blocks the legitimate content hosted on that same site. No doubt, some of that legitimate content exists as a type if "human shield" - innocent people put in harm's way to protect illegitimate activities.

Yet, this issue is still not clear cut. A terrorist organization that also runs a hospital and food distribution network will have its funding cut off without regard to our ability to distinguish between its terrorist and other activities. The mere fact that a legitimate activity is harmed by action taken against illegitimate activity is a point to consider, but it does not decide the issue one way or another.

However, that neither of these legitimate concerns count as censorship. The sites are not being blocked in virtue of their content. The legitimate site would end up being blocked in this case regardless of its content - merely because of its proximity to a criminal site. People are using the term 'censorship' here entirely because it generates an emotional response.

These are legitimate concerns. However, the 'censorship' objection is not. This is not so much about censorship as it is about two groups of ultra-rich people trying to use the government to control the flow of money into their bank accounts. But that does not sell very well in the political marketplace, so useful deceptions are employed instead - on both sides of the debate.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Secular Community Infighting

Item 4a in Sean Faircloth’s frame for a new atheist strategy calls for a reduction in infighting.

Since the start of the year, I have been going through the elements of Sean Faircloth's new secular and atheist political strategy. He states that we have precious little to show for our political efforts to date, and argues that a new strategy may change that. Item 4a on Faircloth's list of suggestions is the suggestion: Before you start a battle with another member of the secular community, you should contact that person first and make sure you understand their position.

In saying this, he puts a lot of emphasis that this standard applies strictly to members of the secular community - because they are fellow members of the secular community.

He states that, before you post or blog or twitter of say anything critical:

If it is about somebody in the secular movement - if it is about somebody on our team - let us do the evidence-based thing and contact that person directly, and then give them a chance to . . . offer evidence . . . so you might actually know before you click - before you say something negative to thousands of people. It's really important for our movement.

I object.

Faircloth is advocating a double standard. He gives us one standard to use when writing about members of the secular community that prohibits posting things before knowing the facts and making sure that your criticism is true and relevant. Apparently, when we criticize members of the non-secular community, malicious exaggerations, gossip, and innuendo are perfectly legitimate.

Granted, Faircloth does not say that our standards when addressing fellow members of the secular community are to be higher than those we apply to the non-secular community. If pressed, he would probably say that we should apply the same standards across the board. However, this does not change the fact that the argument he presented was one that advocated a higher standard of behavior regarding members of the secular community BECAUSE they were members of the secular community.

I do a lot of criticizing in this blog. It’s an ethics blog – condemnation (along with praise) is inherent in the subject matter. However, I hold that the same standard applies to everybody that I criticize.

This standard includes an obligation to present the other person's view fairly.

I cannot count the number of times that I have written a caustic post condemning some person or group. However, I gave the subject matter another thought before posting and I deleted the post. Or, I get halfway through the post presenting my arguments when I discover that my arguments are no good. Either way, I delete the posting. Which meant that I had nothing to post for that day. When you see a gap in my posting - this is often the reason.

(In fact, two be honest, there was originally a second half to this post. However, I could not make the argument work. In trying to make the argument work, I think I proved my original premise for that second criticism to be flawed. So, I deleted the second half of this post, and resolved to give the premise I would have used more thought.)

This is a standard that applies to everybody - not just fellow members of the secular community.

The main reason why I worry about Faircloth's suggestion - or at least his way of presenting it - is because of the risk of setting up tribes. It is a part of our human nature to divide the world between “us” and “them”, and then treat "us" better than "them". I study history, and I have paid particular attention to what has brought about the greatest atrocities in history. They all begin by dividing the world between "us" and "them", and holding that "us" are somehow entitled to a higher standard of treatment then "them".

This is the main reason why I detest the national motto, "In God We Trust". It is nothing but an expression that divides the world into "we" who trust in God and, by implication, "them" who do not. That it is associated with all sorts of prejudice and discrimination against "them" by "us" who control the political and economic power is inherent to this type of division.

This point also explains the virtue of the motto the founding fathers actually selected for this nation, "E Pluribus Unum". It is a motto that rejects "us" versus "them" divisions.

I want to point out that my conclusion here is not that it is permissible to make derogatory, unsupported claims about other members of the secular community. My point is that we should always go to the effort of making sure that our claims are true and relevant. We should never post unsupported derogatory claims about anybody - secular or non-secular. We should not be dividing the world between "us" and "them" with a different moral standard to apply to each. We should have one standard that applies equally to "us" and "them".

Having said this, I should add that there are a couple of areas where criticism of members of the secular community are common and absurdly stupid. I will discuss these common criticisms and their absurdity in my next post.


I wanted to add a point to this issue of criticizing other members of the secular community.

Because of the anti-atheist bigotry most of us experience as children, one of the effects we can expect is that it simply feels more comfortable to criticize members of the community than non-members.

Lessons like this that we learn as children are learned at an emotional level. We are made to feel comfortable doing that which is accepted, and to feel anxious and uncomfortable at doing those things the society condemns. Certainly, we are given no reason to feel uncomfortable when criticizing atheists.

These emotional relationships we learn as children do not disappear simply because we come to realize as adults that they are groundless. They are not mere propositions to be accepted or rejected. They have touched our likes and dislikes and, in doing so, they touch our behavior.

I suspect that a lot of the criticism of members of the secular community by other members is grounded specifically on a learned prejudice that says that it is OK to criticize atheists.

Yes, I hold that the Pledge and the Motto go a long ways in planting these emotions in children that carry through into our adult lives.

Yes, I hold that I am not immune from these effects. I notice a certain amount of anxiety when it comes to criticizing theists that I do not feel when criticizing atheists. Intellectually, I can know that a planned criticism of theists is deserved. However, that does not make the learned emotional reaction any less real.

Whenever I write something critical of atheists, I ask myself, "Am I choosing this topic because it is easy? Or because it is necessary?"

I think that members of the secular community should be aware of the fact that they, too, might be affected by a prejudice against atheists that makes it easier to criticize other atheists in spite of their feelings.

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.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Widespread Permission to Do Harm in God's Name

In many parts of the law, if you believe in God, the state will grant you special permission to do harm to fellow citizens and benefit yourself that others do not have - but only if you justify this harm as God's instructions.

People can use the claim that God wants them to do harm have greater permission to beat their children - or kill them (or bring about their death).

They can block others from getting health care and other health benefits.

They can use the state to tap the bank accounts of other citizens to pay for certain goods and services, and reserve taxpayer dollars for members of their sect - excluding all others.

They insist in being able to dictate who may marry and who may end a marriage, and to dictate who lives and who dies.

They have special permission to poison the air and water.

They can close businesses, and dictate employment in a community - giving sect members economic opportunities denied to others.

In some parts of the world, they claim a special permission to treat women and children no better than property – where house pets have more freedom and can expect better care.

The second principle in Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy – which I have been writing about since the start of the year - is that secular and atheist organizations need to demonstrate the pervasiveness of religious special treatment.

This, when combined with the first principle (that secular organizations should focus on stories with a human impact) points to the massive number of ways in which religious organizations are given special permissions and powers to lower the quality of life for others.

It really is shocking how many ways a person still has permission to act so as to lower the quality of life for others as long as they invoke the name of some deity in defense of that harm.

In some cases, we can well expect that this special permission to do harm if one invokes the name of God or quotes scripture is a strong inducement towards religion. Are you interested in some policy or practice that harms or threatens others? Then I suggest you find some interpretation of scripture or discover some gold tablets (that will soon be lost) that claims divine permission to perform those actions. Then, you can invoke a special permission to “practice your religion” to justify your harms.

However, we already recognize limits to this argument. When I assert that there are limits to the freedom of practicing one’s religion, I am not presenting some radical new philosophy. I am stating something that is already widely accepted and agreed upon with respect to some behaviors.

Let a person go around killing apostates or burning witches claim that the government may not interfere with his religious practices, and we see instantly that there is a line that religious freedom may not cross. Let him claim that God sanctions marriage to a seven year old girl and let's see him (at least in this country) try to make a first amendment argument in defense of that marriage. Let's see him make a first amendment defense for killing those who charge interest, or who work on the Sabbath, or in defense of stoning a rebellious child.

The thing to do is to define the principle – define the line – that religious freedom may not permissibly cross.

It would seem that the most obvious place to draw that line is in where religious practice does harm to others who are not a member of the church or who cannot give informed consent to belonging to the church. A child's ability to join a church should be as limited as a child's ability to enter into a marriage - and for the same reasons – the capacity to give informed consent is required.

There will be no killing of apostates, Sabbath breakers, or bankers. There will be no marrying of young children even if the children are of parents do belong to the church, or the killing of disobedient children deemed rebellious by their parents – or who are thought to have “dishonored” the family.

There will be no childhood genital mutilations for reasons other than health. There is no special permission to bring about the death of or injury to a child through faith healing or by denying the child medical treatment. Religious arguments shall not be invoked to dictate who, outside the church, may marry or may divorce. Nor shall religion be used to dictate end of life choices or other forms of medical treatment for non-members. There will be no special power to take property from others who do not give explicit informed consent, or to force non-members to pay for goods and services and the church buys. This includes police, fire, and military defense – except in ways that are granted to all non-profit organizations, secular and sectarian.

We will no doubt hear the protest, "But what of all the good the church does? You mention the harm, but you ignore the good?"

By all means, continue to do good.

However, go you think that doing good buys you moral credit giving you special permission to do harm? For example, do you think that a person who has saved two lives earns a moral credit, giving him permission to murder one person of his choosing at a later date? After all, he will still have a net moral balance of +1 life saved. That makes him a hero, right?


Well, then, do not use the good that a church may do as justification for its harms. Good deeds do not buy a special permission to inflict harm on others or to treat others unjustly.

While I am on the subject, we can inquire as to the moral character of a person who attempts to strike a moral bargain like the following: "I will cease to do good unless I am, at the same time, granted a special permission to do harm." An example of this would be a person who says, "I will save these two lives only if you grant me permission to murder a person of my choosing at a later date and time."

Personally, I would grant the permission, only to revoke it after the lives are saved - because a permission to treat others unjustly is not mine to give.

This principle applies to religious organizations that attempt to blackmail the state into giving them a special power to harm other citizens or to treat them unjustly. An example of this is a religious organization that will take state money to help orphaned and foster children only if they are, at the same time, given special state permission to act with prejudice against homosexuals.

A person, or a church, is free to discriminate with its own money. For example, an individual may refuse to patronize a store ran by a gay couple. However, nobody has a right to discriminate with government money or when acting as an agent of the state. In those cases, they have an obligation to treat all others with the equal respect that equal citizenship demands.

The point of this exercise, of course, is to point out the fact that we are not talking about some minor part of the culture or law that affects only a few people in extremely rare circumstances. Our culture is steeped in examples where religious people are given special permissions to engage in behavior harmful to others – or even call upon the state to harm others - just because their god is supposedly jumping up and down with glee at the knowledge that such harms are being inflicted by his followers.

It is not the case that just a few people in rare circumstances are harmed. In fact, in some parts of the world, the harms are extremely wide spread and severe - applying to well over half of the population and threatening the whole of their liberty and, in some cases, their very lives. There is a lot of work to be done to improve the quality of life on earth by battling these harms.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Faircloth's New Atheist Strategy: The Pledge and the Motto

So far this year I have been discussing Sean Faircloth’s new atheist strategy.

A part of that strategy involves focusing on those issues that create stories with a deep human impact, and shifting away from those issues that involve mere symbolism. He distinguishes protesting a home depot manger with a plastic Jesus on the courthouse lawn from protesting laws that block stem cell medical research and the benefits that may come from it. He asserts an important difference between protesting a cross on government property with concern over the dangers that children may face in unsupervised religious day-care facilities.

In making this distinction, he puts the issue of “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” as the national motto in the 'symbolism' category.

I disagree.

From the time a child enters grade school, he or she encounters a very strong anti-atheist message. The pledge of allegiance tells her that people who do not support a nation "under God" are to be thought of the same way as those who promote rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. If she looks at her money - when she learns to read the message printed there - she learns that if she lacks trust in God then she does not qualify as "one of us". "We" trust in God.

Furthermore, in a young child's mind these are not mere propositions to be accepted or rejected as true or false. These messages reach into the emotions - into the evolved need that children gave to being accepted and valued - because the child's survival depends on this. It makes trusting in God and supporting a nation under God comfortable and safe, while rejecting God and God's rule is dangerous and frightening.

Young childhood is when social forces have their greatest power to affect our moral character. The shaping of character does not involve getting the child to hold certain beliefs - like teaching them that 2 * 2 = 4. It involves teaching them to have an emotional attachment to being a "good boy" or "good girl". It goes to shaping the child's likes and dislikes - a desire to help others and to share, and an aversion to lying, cheating, and doing harm. The character the child learns will affect her whole life.

The function - and in the eyes of many who support these practices, the purpose - of the Pledge of Allegiance when originally created was to give a child a moral aversion to aversion to rebellion, treason, and injustice. In the 1950s, the government added a moral lesson in the wrongness of atheism.

We have clear evidence that this effect exists. We have poll after poll showing us that Americans view atheists as the group least likely to share their American values. Of course Atheists are not true Americans. They neither trust in God nor do they support a nation under God.

We now have polls that put atheism on the same level as rapists when it comes to public trust. At the same time, we have a Pledge of Allegiance that puts atheists on the same level as rebels, tyrants, and the unjust.

We have a substantial body of empirical evidence on the effects of these types of practices. Take any group of children and divide them randomly into two groups. Identify one group as the "in" group and give them praise, while the "out" group is excluded from praise. The children in the "in" group become dominant, assertive, and self-confident. The "out" group becomes timid and passive.

In this way, the Pledge and the Motto are a clear invitation to school bullying by their peers, and even to abuse from teachers who also come to view the “disruptive” atheist student as a problem student. A teacher can be made to "feel" that the atheist paper deserves a B and then search for features in the paper to justify this feeling, and equally "feel" that the religious student deserves a special letter of recommendation to some opportunity or program.

We see the same effects in the United States as a whole. We see a religious community that trusts in God and supports a nation under God that is dominant, assertive, and self-confident. And we see an atheist and secular community that is timid, passive, and politically ineffective.

It is no wonder that the "in" group is so defensive of these practices. As long as it holds this ground, everything else is mere window dressing.

Other groups have had to deal with the effect that social conditioning has had on their political status. Women's liberation groups responded with assertiveness training to shake off a culture that taught women passive obedience. The homosexual community responded with "gay pride" to give homosexuals an effective political voice. Both groups condemned the forms of social conditioning that made this response necessary. Black and Jewish groups have organizations specifically devoted to hunting down and squashing racist and anti-Semitic messages that may have a detrimental effect on black and Jewish children.

Yet, somehow, we are supposed to believe that a childhood steeped in the message that all good Americans trust in God, and all patriotic Americans support a nation under God, is of no importance.

I have had many people respond to this that the Pledge does not bother them. They simply mumble past the words "under God" or substitute words of their own choosing. Yet, I have to ask, "Why is it so important to you to give the illusion that you are pledging allegiance to a nation under God. Are you not treating your atheism as a blemish - something to be hidden from public view?"

When an atheist can remain seated, without any hint that this lowers the opinion that anybody else may have of him, then I will accept the claim that "under God" is of no real importance.

Tell me that you think that a major candidate can refuse to sat the Pledge and get elected.

Seriously, what effect can it be expected to have on a candidate for public office that one candidate refuses to pledge allegiance to "one nation, under God"? At least one of the Republican debates started with the Pledge of Allegiance. It was obviously a form of religious test for public office. It conveys a clear message, "We will tolerate no atheist in the office of President."

As long as "under God" remains in the Pledge, atheism will remain a near fatal political liability.

If we are going to divide potential issues that the atheist and secular communities are involved in into "symbolic" and "deep human impact," then the social conditioning of children, and the prejudicing of Americans against atheist citizens in general and atheist candidates in specific, need to be put in the category of deep human impact.

Furthermore, they have to be fought as practices that have a deep human impact.

Part of the problem with the way the secular and atheist community has fought this issue is that they have treated it as merely symbolic. This has made the challengers look petty and mean-spirited. Faircloth is correct to hold that one gets more political traction with issues that have a real human impact. Not only do these practices qualify, they need to be fought as practices that qualify. The subject does not need to change, but the form if argument does.

In the case of the Pledge and the Motto, the focus should be on the human impact of government practices that socially condition children and prejudice all Americans against atheist children, atheist citizens, and particularly against atheist candidates.

These are NOT merely symbolic practices having no human impact.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Atheist and Secular Strategy: A Question of Style

In yesterday's post, I began looking at the details of Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy. Specifically, I looked at the recommendation that the new strategy focus on stories with a deep human impact.

Yesterday, I wrote about how adopting this suggestion would change the focus of atheist activism away from such things as mangers at city hall and prayer in city council meetings, and direct them towards behavior that inflicts real harm on real people - from blocking stem cell research to denying homosexual couples the benefits of marriage.

Today, I want to talk about the moral merits - and demerits - of using these stories.

The reason for using these stories - rather than (or in addition to) true premises and sound reasoning - is because they work. They are effective at motivating change.

To illustrate this technique, Faircloth uses two stories, each of which involved a child in the care of a religious day care center, where the child was left in a car unattended and died from the heat. He then went on to note that 13 states have religious exemptions from standards and inspections that secular day care centers have to follow.

His conclusion was that religious day-care centers be subject to the same regulations as secular day-care centers. Religious exemptions should be removed - and this should be done for the sake of the children.

However, the conclusion does not follow from these premises.

I have a question I want answered.

What is the safety record for state-monitored secular day-care centers compared to religiously affiliated day-care centers?

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that 10 children out of 100,000 die in religious day-care centers. However, in state-monitored secular day-care centers, the fatality rate is 15 per 100,000. It is true that we can tell deeply moving stories of human impact about every one of those 10 children who died in a religious day-care center. However, that would not justify moving children from a system where their chance of dying actually goes up by 5 out of 100,000.

I want to know . . . how many lives can we save? How many injuries can we prevent? How much better off are the children who attend a religiously affiliated day-care center compared to those who attend a state-monitored secular day-care center? These are the forms of evidence that determine whether a policy is a good idea or not, not the anecdotal stories of the 10 children who came to harm.

Stories work at motivating people. However, they do not prove anything. This means that they are just as effective at motivating people to do bad things as to do good things. They are a favorite tool of the bigot, the hate-monger, and the fear-monger.

Tell the story of a young and attractive white girl raped by a black man, and you can incite a crowd into a murderous rage against the next black man they see.

Tell the story if the good German family man driven out of business by the Jew who opened a shop up the street, and you can incite all sorts of hatred against the Jews.

A single story about a parolee who commits a crime can end a state rehabilitation program independent of the fact that the program costs less and is more effective at preventing crime on the whole than incarceration.

In general, one of the major sources of irrational behavior - harmful behavior - is this tendency to over-generalize - to assign to a whole group the qualities of an individual member. We can see proof of Faircloth's claim that this method is effective in its use to justify wars and injustices throughout history. It is, in fact, a powerful motivator. But it does not distinguish between motivating for good, or motivating for evil.

Faircloth recognizes our disposition to prefer sound reasoning and to rely on evidence-based conclusions. However, he calls this a "noble flaw". It is certainly noble to seek sound reason before acting. But it is a flaw. The reason it is a flaw is because stories work. Secularists and atheists have very little to show for our political efforts precisely because we do not use the tools that work.

On the contrary, I hold that seeking justification for one's actions is not just noble. It is an obligation. Given the harms that can be inflicted by those who are persuaded by stories, this is a technique that morally responsible people should be arming others against. "Do not take stories as proof" is one of those messages - a distinctly secular message - that prevents harm.

If we are to tell stories to illustrate our point, we can tell stories about the times in history where an irrational response to a story - even when true - resulted in great injustices.

This, now, leads me to a point that suggests a way in which stories can be legitimately used. This point draws on a distinction between an argument and an illustration.

By means of all sorts of scientific research I can argue that ice is less dense than water at the same temperature. At the same time, I can illustrate that fact with an image of an ice cube floating in a cup of water.

There is nothing wrong - or even unscientific - with illustrating a point with a picture. Furthermore, these forms of illustration can be effective at helping people to understand the claims being made in the argument.

The thing to remember is that the illustration is not an argument. The illustration is not to be taken as evidence that the conclusion is true. The evidence comes from the text itself.

As long as it is used as an illustration.

I would recommend the following:

Go ahead and use your illustrative stories. However, when you are done, tell the audience, "This is just a story. It doesn't prove anything. As rational and morally responsible human beings you have a right - in fact, you have a duty - to demand real evidence when people ask you to do something. And I have a duty to provide you with that evidence. Nobody should ever try to convince you to do something based on a story alone. So, let me present my evidence."

This is the point at which one would then add the evidence suggesting how many lives would be saved, how much abuse can be prevented, and how the quality of life can be improved by subjecting religious day-care to the same state monitoring and standards that are used for secular day-care.

If any. We must be aware of the possibility that - in spite of a few moving stories of human impact - religious day-care centers have a better track record than state-monitored secular day-care centers. Let's not get into the trap of prejudging our conclusions based on our prejudices. Let the evidence decide which conclusion is correct.

This rejection of unsound reasoning - used as often as not for evil as for good - should be a part of the atheist and secular brand. In making it a part of the brand, we should clearly mark strong evidence and sound reasoning from rhetoric and demagoguery. A story may illustrate a point. However, stories are not proof. A story may motivate action, but it SHOULD only be used to motivate action where that action can be shown by true premises and sound reasoning to be worthwhile.

These principles do not identify a "noble flaw". They represent a set of moral obligations that thinking human beings have towards each other to base their actions on true premises and sound reasoning.

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.