Monday, July 31, 2006

If Atheists Ruled the World

What if atheists ruled the world?

Would it be a time of peace and prosperity? Would it be an era of scientific wonders, with great advances allowing us to cure disease, process information, and harvest the powers of natural forces (e.g., dark matter, dark energy) that we do not even begin to comprehend today?

Or would atheists split into factions, each certain that they have an unfailingly accurate understanding of the universe that others are just too stupid to understand or too wicked to deal with honestly?

For the moment, there is an outside pressure holding us together to some extent – the threat of what others would do to us if their faction should win the various political and military battles that surround us. However, if this pressure were to go away, and atheists would become the dominant world view, what would happen?

Our founding fathers decided to put aside their religious differences. Yet, almost immediately they broke into political factions -- The Federalists and the Democratic Republicans. Their dispute was not a matter of the interpretation of scripture that was supposed to be the divine word of God. Their dispute was on how to interpret a document that they, themselves, had recently finished writing.

[Note: I often wonder how Supreme Court Justice Scalia thinks he can determine what the Constitution meant and what the intent of the founders were when the founders themselves could not even agree on what they meant and what their intentions were.]

We have to accept the historic facts of the French Revolution and Communism. Though it is a clear example of hate-mongering to use these episodes as a brush with which to paint all atheists black, they still provide sufficient proof against the idea that an atheist regime would necessary be a regime of piece and scientific learning.

What raises this question in my mind today is a smaller and more local dispute in my own virtual neighborhood among people who live in the same electronic village.

It started with a post at God is for Suckers called “Reclaiming the word ‘liberal’” that asserted that one must either be a liberal or one must be a fascist. This is after it defines ‘liberal’ as:

1. A political theory founded on the natural goodness of humans and the autonomy of the individual and favoring civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary authority.”

I feel comfortable in asserting that this also works as a definition of ‘Conservative.’ Just about any Conservative that I have met (with the possible exception of a faction that seems to have recently taken control of the Republican party) will readily assert that they favor civil and political liberties, government by law with the consent of the governed, and protection from arbitrary autority. Where they would disagree is over what specific policies best embody these general principles.

I am curious as to where I would fit in this schema. In the course of this blog I have tended to argue on the side that some may call ‘liberal.’ However, I have also argued against raising the minimum wage, against a windfall profits tax for the oil companies, against any form of price controls that will keep the price of oil and gasoline artificially low, in favor of outsourcing jobs to other countries, against an automatic withdraw from Iraq (meaning that I do not know if we should stay there and will wait for the judgment of people who know what they are talking about and not those who plan their strategy based on 3-minute news clips).

Since these are not 'liberal' ideas, I must be a fascist. Every sane person should instantly recognize that this is because I have a deep-seated need to enslave myself to an authority figure, that I have no capacity to think for myself and I merely parrot the slogans that I pick up on Fox News each day, and/or I am a selfish sadist who can't get to sleep at night unless I am confident that I have contributed sufficiently to somebody else's misery and suffering.

Certainly, one of these un-liberal characterizations must fit me perfectly.

I wonder which one?

The fact is, God is for Suckers is not talking about the merits of any particular policy. The post is a 'flag and patriotism' post – a call for loyal followers to rally around the flag and get into a fighting posture so as to challenge any who may desecrate its banner or denigrate the group and those who proudly call themselves members.

“If you are not for us (liberals), then you are against us (fascists).”

I have heard those types of speeches too many times.

It says that the speaker has no interest in reaching out to those who do not share his ideas. He or she has no interest in political dialogue. The speaker simply puts everybody (such as me) on notice that we must either agree with the speaker, or we have pitched our tents in the camps of the 'fascists' – clearly those with whom no decent person could ally himself.

I am going to allow myself enough hubris to write that if the speaker is not interested in the political companionship of individuals such as myself, that the speaker is going to be that much worse off for his decision.

Human nature seems to dictate that we divide ourselves into camps. Each of us is supposed to pick a camp to belong to. We adopt the name of the group, we pick up its banners, sew its flag on our uniform and paint its colors on our vehicles and pin them to our clothes. From this point on, "You are either with us, or you are against us." Anybody who does not align themselves with one of the camps, then, is the enemy of both camps.

Though the current conflicts seem to be between different religious camps for the most part, I see no real reason to believe that if we put an end of these religious wars (by putting an end to faith), that secular camps will not spring up and conflicts between secular views will not rise to take the place of conflicts over religious views.

There are those who would blame faith for much of the conflict in the world today. I would like to suggest that the culprit in this case is not faith, but arrogance. Faith may well feed arrogance in that there is no better sign of arrogance than that of a person who believes that he serves as the one and only right-hand of God and is His the best and finest of all of the messengers that God has here on earth.

However, faith is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for arrogance. The post about reclaiming the word ‘liberal’, and many of the comments made in response to this post, support this thesis. Atheists can rally around a flag where they feed on a diet of mutual contempt for some ‘enemy’ that flies a different flag. Under different circumstances, it is not at all difficult to see these camps going to war, and for the world to witness a level of secular vs. secular violence comparable to any sectarian conflict.

I would like to think otherwise. However, thinking otherwise means thinking that atheists can adopt some measure of humility – enough to claim that, “Even though you and I disagree on these matters, we can best approach this issue with an intelligent discussion of the issue themselves, rather than rallying the people with a campaign of patriotism and hate-mongering.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you wrote about this as I've been thinking about it myself over the past couple of days. I was bothered by the initial post on GifS and then further bothered by this entry on Goosing the Antithesis by Francois Tremblay which ripped on the GifS post.

Francis apparently considers "atheist liberals" to be hypocrites that make as much sense as being a "gay Christian." He offers the following as a rebuttal:

In the name of all atheist libertarians and anarchists, who actually care about the freedom of everyone to live the way they want and the freedom from political power, permit me to politely say "go fuck yourselves".

Now, in addition to being an atheist, I also consider myself to be a liberal with a strong libertarian bent so I'm left to wonder where I fall between these two opposing viewpoints. Neither camp would seem to consider me a member based on the commentary they've made so far.

I suppose it's a good thing I don't mind being a lone-wolf type.

Anonymous said...

Safe to assume that people use the language of exclusion more often in election years. Don't feel too bad for the GifS guys, though. Those of us in Bill Hicks' "People Who Hate People" Party are still having a hard time gathering in any significant numbers.

ps. Les I like your site and it's how I found this one, so thank you.

Anonymous said...

Even though you and I disagree on these matters, we can best approach this issue with an intelligent discussion of the issue themselves, rather than rallying the people with a campaign of patriotism and hate-mongering.
I agree, but this principle itself is under serious attack in the present-day US. It's difficult to even attempt an intelligent discussion with people who are more interested in bombing Lebanon, making death threats or telling you to "go fuck yourself". (Obviously those actions are not morally equivalent, but all interfere with an attempt at honest discussion of the issues.)

The main problem here is that the word "liberal" is not well defined. No two people can agree on what a liberal person, or a liberal position, is. There are a few cases where there is broad consensus (e.g. Dick Cheney is definitely not a liberal), but a lot more where some people will consider a person liberal and others will not (e.g. Bill Clinton).

Therefore arguments about liberals or liberal philosophy tend to have a lot of equivocation, non sequiturs and semantic disconnects.

FWIW, I consider free market principles liberal; Tremblay and you seem to disagree. Basically I take the position that the modern use of "liberal" is so vague as to be totally useless and therefore if it is going to be used to mean anything, it should be the 18th-century "classical liberalism": focused on individual rights and a pragmatic distrust of bureaucracy and rent-seekers (which includes protectionism and price controls).

Anonymous said...

I feel comfortable in asserting that this also works as a definition of ‘Conservative.’

I wouldn't. It's been my experience that even conservatives typically define political conservatism, in part, by the idea that people are not naturally good. However many positive ideals people may have, they still tend to behave badly and therefore must have a government which is either strong enough to prevent bad behavior or is structured so as to redirect bad behavior towards good ends. This is why conservatives think highly of the separate branches of the government (by giving people a personal stake in preventing too much power from accruing in any one branch) and capitalism (private greed leads to the overall good of the economy).

Don't be me wrong, I don't disagree that it's a mistake to say that one is either liberal or fascist. I also don't intend the above as a criticism. On the contrary, I think it has a lot going for it. I'm just saying that your mistaken in saying that the quoted definition of liberalism works equally well for conservatism. I'm just taking the first point to show how that isn't so — I think that at least minor differences exist with the rest as well.

vjack said...

I can't find any trackback links, so I'm doing it manually. My thoughts on this post are Here .