Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Culpability of Moderates

Continuing the theme on when it is and is not appropriate to condemn moderates, one of the situations in which moderates can be condemned is when they stand in the way of those who are trying to oppose evil.

History provides us with a good example of this, and an excellent expression of the argument for condemnation.

In 1963, Martin Luther King sat in a Birmingham Jail, arrested for civil disobedience. He received a letter from a group of clergy from Alabama who said that they agreed with King’s cause and were in favor of equality, but that King’s protests were doing nothing but making white people nervous and angry. They suggested that he suspend his protests and wait for a better time.

King’s answer, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”, said that there will never be a better time.

Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant 'Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."

He went on to say that the biggest obstacle to black equality was not the white bigot, but the ‘moderate’ who said that blacks should accept their inferior status ‘for now’ and wait for a ‘better time’ to protest their treatment. If the moderates would, instead, side with what is right rather than what is comfortable, then they could defeat these bigoted laws and the road to true equality could open up.

I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season."

In this vein, I have written postings in which I criticized the atheist moderate – the one who says to people such as Michael Newdow with his suits to remove “under God” from the Pledge and to challenge “In God We Trust” as a national motto, because “the time is not right.”

However, the principle also applies to any ‘moderate’ who says that atheists should not upset religious factions that treat us with such contempt. There is absolutely no reason for an atheist to hold his tongue when the national culture uses the public microphone to say that atheists are not as good as theists. It is particularly objectionable when the State uses the coercive power of the school system to create a school atmosphere that daily and as a matter of ritual tells atheist children that they are inferior to their religious classmates and are undeserving if equal participation and respect by the government of which they are, and by right ought to be, equal citizens.

This is something that Harris gets right – before he goes on and asserts that “all theists are the same.” He is right to point out that there is no obligation to refrain from criticizing another person’s false beliefs where they are false, or another person’s unfair and unjust treatment where they are unfair and unjust. The idea that atheists – that, in fact, all good citizens – are obligated to remain silent in the face of a national campaign of insults and slander that goes so far as to find its way into national pledges and mottos is ludicrous.

Any who say that atheists should shut up and take these verbal slaps in the face from their own government are as guilty as those who would do the slapping.

Any who would condemn the atheist who protests this treatment, and tells the atheists that they should “wait” are actually and actively defending the perpetrators of injustice. These people are, in fact, advocating a policy that the unjust ought not to be challenged by those who would oppose injustice.

This is fully consistent with the principles that I have set out before – including the principle of morally criticizing a person only for his own words and actions, and not for the words and actions of people that he does not condone. In this case, the moderates are not to be morally condemned because the fundamentalists are behaving immorally. In this case, the moderates are to be condemned for something that they do – which is telling (and pressuring) the victims of injustice to cease fighting and submit to their own victimization at the hands of those who treat them unjustly.

The moderates who condemned King for participating in non-violent protests against discrimination and bigotry were wrong. The fault in these cases is never to be found with the victim, but on those who created the culture of discrimination and bigotry they are protesting. They were morally wrong to have written their letters of protest to King, rather than to the bigots that created the situation King was protesting.

Moderates, in the case of separating church and state, are equally wrong when they condemn those atheists who use the court to protest their legal right to fair and equal treatment before the law and in public institutions. These are not people who are strapping bombs to themselves and blowing up restaurants. These are people who are taking keyboard to hand and writing down the legal and moral arguments that prove, “These laws are treating us in ways that are immoral, unjust, and illegal, when held up to a fair interpretation of the constitutional principles that this country has “ordained and established” as our national law of the land.

When moderates take positions such as these, there is reason enough to protest and to condemn those moderates (though, here, too, only those moderates who actually defend positions such as these, and only to the degree that they defend those principles).


Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this post, and wholeheartedly agree.

Anonymous said...

Bravo! Excellent post.

I did have one question for you. What did you mean when you said that Sam Harris asserts that all theists are the same? In both End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, he goes out of his way to distinguish between religious moderates and extremists. Just curious.

Anonymous said...

I think you are largely attacking a straw man.

Most of the moderate atheists are not opposed to standing up for the rights of atheists to be heard, to be considered moral people, to have the protection of the first amendment, etc. And for the most part they support the efforts of the ACLU and like-minded organizations to keep religion out of government.

What they oppose is denigration of religious people as stupid, deluded. or evil (in the general case). This is partly tactical and partly an honest effort to respect those with differing views.

I would be interested in seeing links to the moderates you are criticizing here. Maybe there are some atheists who don't believe in standing up for their rights but I haven't seen much of them.

Anonymous said...

Well said.

Aerik said...

We're not talking about just moderate atheists, but moderate theists. All the people who would rather vote for a fundy than an atheist even though they know the fundy is a loonatic, and every stratum thereof, is culpable for what that fundy in power does.

Anonymous said...

...who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice...

That really says it all.

I'm curious though. Do you consider people who are apathetic to faith-based belief and its role in society to be moderates in their own right?