Friday, February 02, 2007

Sam Harris: The Tone of Political Discourse

This is the third in a series of posts that I am doing, going through the presentations made at Beyond Belief 2006.

Sam Harris, the author of A Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith was the third speaker at the conference. He claimed that science is fundamentally at odds with religion because both make claims about was, what is, and what will be. However, according to Harris, religious claims are based on bad evidence, and religion allows people to be en masse what only an insane person could believe as an individual. These crazy beliefs, he claims, are driving us into an abyss where we could lose everything.

As is typically the case when Harris talks, the conversation afterwards does not focus on whether his claims are true or false, but whether it is prudent or imprudent for him to say them the way he does. Immediately after his presentation, Lawrence Krauss (the second presenter who I wrote about last week), objected that it is better to praise rationality than to condemn irrationality.

It is interesting, and well worth the exercise, to listen to Harris speak and, at the end of each sentence, ask, “Is that true?”

There are some things that Harris says I have found untrue. First, I do not condemn irrationality in all instances. I hold that rationality takes too much time and, if we were to demand perfect rationality in all things, we would all end up dead. Prudence demands that we sometimes use quick rules that do not always yield the right answer, but which yields answers more quickly, in cases where a quick probably right answer is much better than a slow but certainly right answer.

Also, I have written in the past, I object to an assumption that is implicit in Harris’ writing that, if Person 1 believes X and Y, and Person 2 believes X and not-Y, that Person 1 is morally culpable for the fact that Person 2 believes not-Y (on the basis that he agrees with Person 2 on X). That is to say, religious moderates are blameworthy because of the excesses of religious extremists. I hold that such accusations are fundamentally unfair.

Be that as it may, I listen to much of what Harris says, and I can say after each sentence, “That is true.” It may not be diplomatically phrased, but that does not change its truth value. Even if true, apparently, these are truths that are not to be spoken because speaking them has bad consequences.

These points relate to a couple of items I read in the past few days.

Austin Cline at "About: Agnosticism/Atheism" wrote in a posting "Atheism in Trouble? No, Christianity Has Already Lost" responded this week to an editorial in Christianity Today that spoke about “The New Intolerance” of Harris and Dawkins.

Vjack at "Atheist Revolution" recently posted an article in which he asked, “The New Atheism: A Boon to the Religious Right?

I want to make a quick digression here. In the Christianity Today editorial, the authors pull a rhetorical trick by those who cannot stand being criticized by applying the term ‘intolerance’ to what is in fact ‘criticism’. I discuss the difference in an earlier posting, “Speaking vs. Acting”.)

On the issue of tone, I want to make two points.

(1) Atheists do not get to pick their tone. Their tone is going to be picked for them by the media, who determine which speakers it will broadcast and which they will not.

(2) There is no way to bring about change and end an injustice without making those who are defending injustice uncomfortable in that position, and those who have traditionally been most comfortable in that position are simply going to get angry.

The Media

In “Atheist Evangelism and Political Strategy,” I argued that the media is going to select the voice for various factions in conflict in society, and they are going to do so in whatever way brings the highest ratings. They are in the job of making money, and making money means bringing eyeballs to the advertisements that their sponsors have paid for.

It is simply bad business to create a show that makes atheists feel good and alienates evangelicals, when it is far more profitable to create a show that makes evangelicals feel good and alienates atheists. Since atheists are already the most hated group in the country, showing atheists as people deserving of hate is clearly one way of showing viewers what they want to see, and showing them what they want to see is the best way to make sure that they come back to see more.

A case in point can be found in a recent segment of Paua Zahn Now (which Austin Cline discusses on his site) in which two atheist-bashers and an incompetent defender were invited onto a panel to discuss anti-atheist discrimination.

Ultimately, this is about like inviting two Nazis and a Stalinist into a room to discuss whether the Jews are being treated unjustly. We do not have to watch the show to know what they are going to say.

(Note: Some may interpret this as a statement equating Catholics with Nazis. This, of course, is a distortion which, if used, will only demonstrate a willingness on the part of the speaker to hide his bigotry under a smoke screen of rhetoric. The above paragraph is meant to demonstrate the unfairness of an episode in which two attackers and an inept defender discuss the persecution of an unrepresented group by using an extreme example that makes this unfairness most obvious.)

I suspect that Zahn did not intentionally or knowingly create an unfair show. Instead, what probably happened is that, like any successful television personality, she always keeps the question of ratings in the back of her mind. Without even any conscious thought, a show consisting of two atheist bashers and an inept defender probably just felt like a good idea. She could not explain why it felt like a good idea, but it just seemed the right thing to do.

It seemed the right thing to do because, where ratings are a concern, there is good reason to provide atheist-bashers with a few minutes of guiltless atheist bashing. This will please a large segment of the population and help to ensure that they will come back later for some more of those good feelings.

The point of this is that anybody who is concerned about poor representations of atheists in front of the camera needs to find a way to stand up and do something to attract the camera towards something that he thinks is a better representation. He must keep in mind that the camera will always gravitate towards whatever makes the audience feel good, and we live in a culture where the audience feels good when they are shown images of atheists they can hate.

One final caveat: This quest to attract the camera must not involve violence. Though cameras have an annoying tendency to always turn towards violence, it still only focuses on those who deserve to be condemned.

Making Others Uncomfortable

The second point that I want to comment on is that there will not be any change without making the perpetrators of injustice actually feel uncomfortable in their position. If you make them feel uncomfortable, some of them are going to hate you for it. They will get angry. They will attack. If one is too timid to make the defenders of injustice angry or too fearful of their attack, then one should not be in the job of fighting injustice.

Unless a person is made uncomfortable in his current position, he has no reason to change it.

When blacks passively walked to the back of the bus, whites - even white moderates - had no reason to complain or to change the status quo. After all, they got the best seats. Why change?

The same is true when blacks passively walked to the 'colored' section of restaurants and used the 'colored' rest rooms, where the best seats were reserved for whites. When white politicians blocked access to the polls by black voters with literacy tests and poll taxes that blacks could not pass or pay (because of discrimination in schools and in employment), blacks who decided not to fight the system and stay home gave the whites the political power they wanted. Why would any white person in this type of system want to see it changed?

It was when blacks refused to move to the back of the bus, sat in the white section of the restaurant, and insisted on removing the barriers that kept them from voting, that things started to change.

However, they also got a lot of people upset – the white people who were accustomed to always having the best seats on the busses and in restaurants, the best schools, the best jobs, and all of the political power.

Was there any way to effect this change without making those who sat comfortably in a position of power from getting upset? I think it is unlikely. I think it is quite odd to hear people make arguments that, if they were made in the slave era of the 1860s, would sound something like, “If we make the white master as comfortable as possible and fulfill his every want and need, this is the best way we can ever hope for to get him to set us free.”

Why would he want to do that?

Dividing a school classroom into a group that stands and pledges allegiance and a group that sits and shows no allegiance is no different than dividing a restaurant between a 'white' and a 'colored' section.

There is no difference between a President who says, "We need common sense judges who realize that our rights come from God, and that is the type of judge I intend to appoint," and a Southern politician who says, “We need white, literate voters and those are the only type that I will allow to vote.”

All of this has the effect of making the theists among us comfortable with the fact that there is a huge segment of the population that they do not need to compete against when it comes to political power – a group of people who have no hope of getting elected – because they have created a set of institutions that surround children from the first day they enter school with the message, “WE trust in God and pledge allegiance to the United States; THEY do not trust in God and have no allegiance to the United States.”

These are not things that atheists can put an end to by voluntarily sitting in the 'colored' section of the classroom during the Pledge of Allegiance, while the ‘white’ kids stand and profess their loyalty to America. And it does no good to paint oneself white and stand with the white kids (so that they do not treat you like a 'colored' person). This does nothing to end the discrimination; it only legitimizes it.

What it takes is making it obvious that those who perpetuate this type of culture are guilty of a gross immorality. It requires making them feel ashamed of themselves, which is going to make some of them very angry.


I am not denying that there are more effective and least effective ways of making change. However, there is no effective way of making change that does not require making those who are guilty of treating others unjustly feel uncomfortable in that position, and that means making some of them very angry. Change will occur when there are enough people willing to stand up to this anger and shout, “You are wrong! I have a right to be here, and I am not going away!”

Atheists pride themselves on the fact that they live in the real world. Well, these are parts of the real world that the atheist lives in. The media will not be the atheists’ friend as long as atheists are the most hated group, and viewers are going to give more favorable ratings to atheist-bashing shows such as Fox News. This does not mean that there is no room for a few fringe atheist-friendly shows, just as there were black bars and restaurants in the early 1900s. They’re just going to have a very small section of the market.

And atheists are not going to solve anything by talking among themselves, complaining to each other about the treatment they get. They will have to do something to get those who would never come to an atheist blog (such as this) to take notice.

As I have said before, this is not an atheist blog. I have no interest in converting people to atheism, and give no space to discussing arguments for or against the existence of God. My interest is in converting others into people who will benefit their neighbors and do no harm to them. Where religious beliefs turn others into people who do harm, I am more than ready to condemn those beliefs. Where religious beliefs are harmless or turn others into people who benefit their neighbors, I see no reason to complain.

Anti-atheist bigotry, moving the atheist into the ‘colored’ section of the classroom, the town hall, and denying them a seat in government entirely, is just one area where certain religious beliefs cause people to harm others.

1 comment:

BlackSun said...

I continue to be impressed by your clarity of thought. Keep up the good work.