Thursday, November 30, 2006

Atheist Evangelism and Political Strategy

Before going into tonight's posting, I would like to say that it is quite satisfying coming home at the end of the day and discovering that people have actually come to read my stuff. I thank you.

There is a debate going on over the strategy to be used in the quest to promote science education – specifically, evolution. It is focusing on the claim that Richard Dawkins comes across as dogmatic and uncompromising, which some people assert is the wrong strategy. Critics say that this will serve only to alienate moderates and other potential allies and rallying creationists, ultimately giving them political control over science education. Instead, they say, we should be kinder and gentler atheists, willing to draw moderates into our camp.

Let me start by saying that this is an ethics blog. I care nothing about political strategy, except to ask whether particular elements of various strategies are moral or immoral.

On this ground, the debate does raise some issues.

The Psychological Abuse of Atheists

When I listen to atheists discuss strategy, I tend to think about a group of abused children discussing the best way to avoid a beating. Because of the children’s concern, they quickly turn against any child who dares to do anything that might upset the abusive guardian. History has shown that, once the guardian is riled, all of the children are in danger. So, it becomes important to ‘punish’ those who rile the guardian to promote an aversion to doing so.

However, this question – how do we not rile the guardian – still hides the moral assessment of the guardian’s abusive behavior. If people perceive certain acts as politically risky or strategically unwise, we should also ask whether they would be risky or wise if the guardian – the ‘others’ one is trying not to antagonize – were fair and just people.

I intend this argument to be more than a metaphor. I hold that the atheists are being subject to effects illustrated in Jane Elliott’s ‘blue eyes/brown eyes” exercise – only on a national scale. This exercise divides children into two groups, a ‘blue eyes’ group and a ‘brown eyes’ group. The blue-eyed children are then treated as the superior children, while the ‘brown eyed’ children are treated as inferior. Its psychological effect is to make the 'favored' group proud to the point of arrogance, self-confident, and assertive. It causes the 'inferior' children to become passive and submissive.

In the case of atheists, the Pledge of Allegiance (particularly when it includes an invitation for atheists to sit down and not participate) deliver the message that those who believe in God are the 'superior' group, and those who do not belong in the ‘inferior’ group. As a result, we find ourselves in a country where the President can say that a only those who believe that our rights come from God are qualified to be judges and face no substantive opposition for those remarks. In fact, he is cheered more than he is criticized.

Even those who are theists in school, who should come to consider abandoning their religious beliefs, are made aware of the costs of doing so. They are still likely to feel some of the shame and humiliation that 12 years in a public school tell them is appropriate for those who become atheists.

I hear many who describe attempts to organize atheists as being like “herding cats.” Actually, I would argue that atheists are very easily herded. We simply need to look at the way they have been herded away from political and social activism. Most atheists have well learned the lesson acquired through 12 years of psychological abuse in the school systems and hide their atheism in fear and same – behaving very much like the ‘brown eyes’ students in this exercise. We are not in fact ‘cats’ but ‘sheep,’ and the traits that some describe as attempting to ‘herd cats’ is simply the difficulty in getting sheep to do anything but what the passive, submissive role they have been culturally trained for tells them to do.

Religious Implications of Scientific Truths

On this model, I am not concerned about some atheists standing straight in opposition to what the theists do. I think it is about time – and it is necessary. One of the most important things for atheists to do is to forcefully (though nonviolently) insist that the psychological abuse of atheist students in the schools must come to an end.

This is the perspective that I bring to the issue of whether we should be concerned with offending religious moderates on the issue of teaching scientific truths in the school.

This relates to a question of whether science is compatible with religion. On this issue, I was actually a bit early. I wrote a post last year on “Science and Religion” when the Dover Intelligent Design case was being decided. I wrote then that the claim that science is compatible with religion (and that those who protest that scientific teaching is anti-religious) is nonsense. The fact that some theists are comfortable with evolution does not change the fact that some religions simply cannot handle it. At best, we can say that teaching evolution promotes compatible religions over incompatible religions – and does so in the science classroom.

Of course, teaching the germ theory of disease, the heliocentric theory of the solar system, the brain-disorder theory of mental illness, an d the plate-tectonic theory of earthquakes and tsunamis also promotes certain religious views (those are compatible with these ideas) over others (those that are not compatible).

It is a bare fact that science and history classes must necessarily make claims that some religions handle better than others – and as such promote some religions while demoting others.

Theistic Evolutionists

This calls up the question of whether atheist evolutions may permissibly tolerate or work with theist evolutionists. My arguments above may be thought to argue against this. They do not.

We all make mistakes, and no two of us are in perfect agreement. The person who decides that he cannot accept or work with others who he thinks are mistaken in some way on some issue will find himself a very lonely person. Instead of asking whether or not another person is mistaken on anything, the only relevant question should be whether the other person is mistaken about the subject matter that we are studying. The theist evolutionist is still an evolutionist.

Does he understand evolution? Is he making meaningful discoveries that advance the science? If the answer is ‘yes’ – the fact that he also happens to believe that Bruce Willis stared in the science fiction series Babylon 5, that moral terms refer to evolved (rather than learned) dispositions, that a God exists, or any of an infinite set of false beliefs the agent might have, is simply not reason to condemn his work as an evolutionary biologist.

Verbal Gladiators

Another factor to consider is that Dawkins and Harris have the microphone right now – they have the audience they do – in part because their views are dogmatic and uncompromising. This is what draws their audience.

Cable news networks have realized this a long time ago. This is what generated ‘shout TV’ – the practice of bringing in two talking heads to talk on an issue. The networks do not want people who can engage in calm and rational debate or who are willing to compromise. This would damage their ratings. They want to show their audience rhetorical combat among verbal gladiators skilled at shedding dogmatic blood in the television arena.

I find this practice itself morally objectionable. I have argued that the best way to create a more educated public is to promote a culture that gives the microphone to those who can calmly and intelligently discuss the issues by giving them the ratings that attract advertisers. Until this happens, we live in a world where one will not be heard (with a few rare exceptions) unless one accepts the role of verbal gladiator.

In other words, if Dawkins and Harris tone down their language to be less dogmatic, this would cost them their audience. They would not have a better effect on the public because nobody would hear them. In the mean time, the audience will look for somebody who is willing to take a dogmatic and uncompromising position, and can make their stand with a sharp wit and sharper tongue, to take their place. Either way, the person with the microphone will still be somebody who is dogmatic and uncompromising.

Yes, I have criticized Dawkins and Harris. However, I have not criticized them because I think their words are unkind. I have criticized them where I found their arguments unsound and their conclusions untrue and unjust. Where they have not made any mistakes, I have no objection to the fact that others might find their words harsh.

Then again, as I have said, I tend not to be concerned with strategy.

Those who are familiar with this blog know that I argue that praise and condemnation are essential parts of morality. Reason is applicable to changing people’s beliefs, but it takes praise and condemnation to change their desires. Whereas morality is primarily concerned with promoting good desires and inhibiting bad desires, morality is primarily concerned with how best to use the tools of praise and condemnation. Those who are unwilling to condemn wrongdoers are unwilling to prevent wrongdoing.

Only, those who condemn others do have an obligation to ensure that the condemnation is in fact justified and deserved. Some of the condemnation from Harris and Dawkins fails this test. Here, Harris and Dawkins should change their tune – not because it is bad to condemn others, but because sometimes it is wrong to condemn others, like when one condemns others for wrongs they did not commit.


Anonymous said...

Good point about the pro-wrestling nature of the current debate.

But I wonder about this:

"Let me start by saying that this is an ethics blog. I care nothing about political strategy, except to ask whether particular elements of various strategies are moral or immoral."

It's obviously your blog and you can think about whatever you want to, but this strikes me as a naive and somewhat unproductive distinction. Politics and morality seem to be deeply intertwined. This seems especially true for atheists -- if there's no transcendent source of morality then people have to figure it out for themselves as a social process, and that's inevitably going to involve politics.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Yes, there is a relationship between law and politics. The very concepts of 'just' and 'unjust' laws and institutions speak to this overlap.

My concern is not between morality and politics, but between morality and strategy.

Note that the most vile person on the planet might be an excellent strategist, and that good strategy can be put into play in defense of the most evil ends.

Karl Rove, I would argue, is an excellent strategist. It is our misfortune as a society that we are cursed with somebody who decides to use that skill to pursue ends that are, in fact, evil.

I also believe that there is reason to favor some sort of specialization of effort. Being a strategist requires doing certain types of research that I do not have time to do. For the sake of efficiency, I would argue that I do research into the moral issues, and leave the strategic issues to experts in that field - and hope that I can convince at least some of them to pay attention to the moral issues along the way.

Anonymous said...

I find it odd that a lot of people who themselves have nothing against atheism or atheists still react worried when someone declares their atheism in a conversation about beliefs.
In many instances when I declared my opinion on religion, the people around me reacted as if I should have kept it to myself, even close relatives.

When the census was conducted I wondered what to say about my religion affiliation:
Atheist-agnostic, other or dose-not-wish-to-answer. I said Atheist-agnostic and my own mother, who is no more fond of organized religions than me, looked at me with concern and asked if I was sure.


If I live in a country where I might be harmed or discriminated based on my beliefs that say more about the morality of the country (general population) than it dose about mine.

If we are cats, let us be lions and stand up for ourselves - not hide away like kittens.
If we are cattle, let us be buffalos and stand together – not scatter frightened for easy picking.
Either way let us show courage. Passive submission never improved anything.

Ian Parker said...

Some of the points Dawkins makes are excellent. Others are weak. His views on morality, on the Old Testament and on the anthropmorphism of many views of God are unanserable. His chapter on "Why there cannot be a God" is weak.

There is one important question that has not been asked and that is about what the nature of religion is. A religion is partly about belief in God and is partly about transferring ones prejudices to God. Religious people in fact present a rather dishonest prospectus. If you were to say for example that you found being in bed with another man distasteful one would say - "OK that's your choice", bring religion in and we elevate this to a moral principle.

Stephen Pinker has said that pastural ssocieties are more violent than agricultural or industrial ones. The Arabs for example are pasturalists who have transferred the norms of their violent code into Islam. The Koran BTW is rather ambiguous. Dawkins is correct to point out that religion when it does this is a thouroughly bad thing.

He is wrong though to say that religion is the root of all evil. This is reserved for nationalism and racism. Religion only in so far as it underlines a national identity.

Anonymous said...

Alonzo - I surfed here from Unscrewing the Inscrutable. Great essay! I'm a survivor of child abuse and your analogy about children trying to avoid a beating really hit home.

One question - do you have a cite for Bush saying atheists aren't qualified to be judges? I vaguely remember it happening but I have no idea of the timeframe, and couldn't track it down with Google. Your post has inspired me to draft an article on my own blog, and I would like to have a link to document the point.


No More Mr. Nice Guy! (

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Mr. Bush made the claim initially in response to the Pledge of Allegiance case.

I trust that you will be content to reference a transcript and video on the White House web site itself.

"Yesterday a court in America made a ruling that I want to comment on. America is a nation that is -- a nation that values our relationship with an Almighty. Declaration of God in the Pledge of Allegiance doesn't violate rights. As a matter of fact, it's a confirmation of the fact that we received our rights from God, as proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence.

I -- I believe that it points up the fact that we need common-sense judges who understand that our rights were derived from God. And those are the kind of judges I intend to put on the bench."

Anonymous said...

Thanks! I also found a link at Newsmax (ugh.)

Here's my post if anyone's interested.