Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Uncompromising Positions

Preliminary Comment: The next time a major broadcaster says, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” I want to see that broadcaster get at least a two-week suspension for doing so. I want you, reader, to think about this. Plan for it. Insist upon it. And help make it happen.

Truth, Error, and Compromise

In the recent flurry of discussion over the use of the term ‘atheist fundamentalism,’ which I in a post called, “Intolerance, Militancy, Fundamentalism, and Trying to Eradicate Religion”, I encountered another term that I had an opportunity to think about.

What does it mean to say that a new atheist is ‘uncompromising’?

My first thought was that this was a rather odd term to use. My favorite model in discussing these things is to consider a dispute between a heliocentrist (one who holds that the sun is at the center of the solar system) and a geocentrist (one who holds that everything revolves around the earth). What would the heliocentrist have to say or do – how would he have to behave – for it to be the case that he is guilty of being ‘uncompromising’?

What would a ‘compromise’ in this case look like?

“Okay, geocentrist, just to show you that I am willing to compromise, here is my offer. You say that the Earth is at the center of the solar system. I claim that it is the sun. So, let’s compromise. Let’s say that the solar system revolves around a spot that is halfway between the Sun and the Earth. Will you find that position acceptable?”

Actually, I find that position absurd.

Reality does not yield compromise. You cannot take one person who says that 2+2=4, and another who says 2+2=5, and say, “We must show respect for each other’s opinion. To show our moral virtue, we shall hereby declare that in all dealings between our two people, 2+2=4.5.” The fact is,2+2=4. If somebody comes along and asserts that 2+2=5, the proper response is not to ‘respect their opinion’ and agree to give it equal weight with our own in all. The proper response is to say, “You are wrong.”

In the real world, it is either true or false that the sun is at the center of the solar system. If the best available evidence points in that direction, then that is what you go with. If the best available evidence points in that direction, then anybody who does not agree with that conclusion holds an opinion that conflicts with the best available evidence. We cannot magically transform the solar system into a place where its center is half-way between the earth and the sun simply because those who are in error demand that their opinion be respected. The center of the solar system will remain inside the sun in stern defiance of arrogant human wishes that it be otherwise.

Regarding Error

The next question to ask is what we should when we must deal with people who hold false beliefs about how the real world is put together. “How should we treat people who (we think) are wrong?”

In this blog, I have argued for the principle that, with a few exceptions (e.g., national security, privacy concerns, perjury, fraud), the only morally legitimate response to words are counter-words. In an open society, the only legitimate response to a political campaign is a counter-campaign.

This is how a society keeps the peace, and keeps from denigrating into a state like we have in Iraq. The problem with Iraq is not that it’s people are religious, but that it has not adopted the principle that the only legitimate response to words is words alone. A religious people who agree to limit the response to other people’s words with words alone can still live in peace, while a group of atheists who forsake this principle will be just as much at war.

(Of course, some will argue that it is because of their religion that they think it is appropriate to respond to a difference in religious opinion with bombs and bullets.)

My experience has been that the so-called ‘new atheists’ have behaved in a way that is consistent with these requirements. They have reason to continue to do so. When the only life you have is that life here on earth, you have good reason to keep your society from degenerating into an anarchy that kills hundreds of people per day. So, instead of weapons and bombs, the new atheists use books and speeches and, occasionally, turn to the courts for a peaceful adjudication of their disputes.

So, when it comes to claiming that these ‘new atheists’ are uncompromising, it would be simply false to assert that this means that they are unwilling to keep their dispute within the moral confines that allow for a civil society; namely, words against words, political campaigns against political campaigns, and a refusal to turn to violence to resolve a difference of opinion.

I feel compelled to offer a warning that things can change. Psychologists tell us that good people can turn bad quite quickly. So it remains possible that the ‘new atheists’ could change to something more brutal and violent. To protect against this option these ‘new atheists’ must be ready to disown and denounce any of their member who decides to advocate violence as a political tool.

Political Alliance

In the previous section we entered into the realm of politics. Politics is the realm of compromise. Politics is the art of taking two groups with different goals and objectives and finding a solution that they can both agree to. So, if there is a sense to be made of the claim that the ‘new atheists’ are uncompromising, it may be found in the claim that their words are not politically wise.

Everybody knows that it is sometimes politically foolish to tell the truth. Go ahead, tell your boss what you really think of him, and see what it will get you. We bite our tongue all the time when there are more important values at stake. So, perhaps, the problem with these ‘new atheists’ is that they have a fondness for being blunt when bluntness brings a heavy political cost.

This may be true. I do not write this blog to discuss political strategy. I write this blog to discuss morality. If the truth is not politically useful, it is still true.

When it comes to biting one’s tongue about, in this case, somebody else’s foolish beliefs, the rightness or wrongness of the act depends on the number of people (and the innocence of the people) who will be caused to suffer. We all know people with harmless foolish beliefs, where we bite our tongue and refuse to criticize them. When we offer our opinion, we do so softly, making it clear that we are willing to drop the subject if it upsets the listener too much.

However, we have less liberty to bite our tongue, or to speak softly, when the people we speak to are doing real harm to real people. It is one thing to foolishly believe that the way one organizes one’s furniture will improve one’s chance of winning the lottery. It is quite a different thing entirely to believe that it would be healthy to add large quantities of arsenic to the city’s water supply.

For quite some time, people in this country were willing to see religion as a set of harmless beliefs. Its practitioners did little harm to others, and some of them even did some good. So, this was a good case for biting one’s tongue.

However, the belief that these people were harmless was forcefully shattered on 9/11.

Since then, many people who once thought that religion was harmless and should be left around looked around to see just how destructive it had become. Israel/Palestine, The Balkans, Ireland, Niger, and India/Pakistan are just a few examples in which religious belief was far from harmless.

Even in this country, we saw a powerful political movement filled with people who believed that the only way their lives could have meaning and purpose is if they spent those lives promoting religious fictions that threatened the lives, health, and well-being of other citizens. If one looks at the agenda of the evangelical movement, they have made their most important issues those that bring misery and, sometimes, death to harmless people.

The greatest example of this is their opposition to embryonic stem-cell research, where their devotion to ‘persons’ who exist as persons only in their imagination compels them to stand in the way of real people preserving their lives and their health.

Now, I disagree with some of these ‘new atheists’ in that they extend the blame for these harms to those who are not responsible. At the same time, I, too, am disinclined to suggest ‘biting one’s tongue’ when it comes to those who directly and purposely campaign for policies that inflict so much harm on harmless citizens. That these people inflict harm on others in God’s name is no defense. Their claim that these harmful actions fill their lives with meaning and purpose is irrelevant – they should learn to find their meaning and purpose in beneficial, rather than harmful, activities.

Compromising – biting one’s tongue – with the worst of these offenders is the same as saying that the life, health, and well-being of their victims is of lesser moral worth. That is a difficult case to make.


BlackSun said...

Alonzo, great post. I have one quibble:

Now, I disagree with some of these ‘new atheists’ in that they extend the blame for these harms to those who are not responsible.

I think what Harris says, if I can summarize him correctly: By refusing to challenge the preposterous ontological claims of extremists, which they also believe, (though they reject the tactics), moderate believers foster a climate that allows the extremists to prosper.

Now this to me is very different from holding a moderate religious person responsible for the actions of others. I think it's important for atheists to make this distinction and stand up for Harris.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Actually, the idea that it is wrong to challenge the views of extremists finds its strongest expression in the secular European philosophy of post-modernism and its less radical cousin moral subjectivism, not among religious moderates.

Even in America, it was secular liberals who embraced the idea that all of morality is subjective and there is no objective basis for the criticism of another person's morality, while many religious moderates continued to hold fast to the idea that there is an objective wrong and some people can truthfully be called evil.

Blaming religious moderates for what was essentually a secular philosophical movement is a bit unfair.

This brings to the surface another point - that there is no necessarily relationship between one's religiosity and one's unwillingness to criticize moderates. There is nothing inconsistent with a moderate condemning extremism as a perversion of religion, or with an atheist refusing to condemn extremism in the name of tolerance and inclusion.

So, let's blame those who are actually guilty, rather than make up excuses for condemning people who do not share our views about God.

c said...

I've recently discovered your blog - very insightful stuff.

The best response I've heard to the atheist/foxhole statement is "There are no Christians in hospitals."

nullifidian said...

“Okay, geocentrist, just to show you that I am willing to compromise, here is my offer. You say that the Earth is at the center of the solar system. I claim that it is the sun. So, let’s compromise. Let’s say that the solar system revolves around a spot that is halfway between the Sun and the Earth. Will you find that position acceptable?”

Actually, I find that position absurd.

Although, technically, the centre of mass (barycentre) of a single planet heliocentric system (in this case the Earth) isn't at the centre of the Sun, but still pretty close to the solar centre (the Sun has over 99% of the entire system's mass) so there is a middle ground, of sorts, but I will freely admit to spliting hairs.

Of course, within a multi-body solar system within a local stellar group, etc. this can get very complicated very quickly, but for all intents and purposes to assume that that is the case for things that we have control of on our metre scale (e.g. shuttles and satellites and the like) is both practical and scientifically sound (i.e. you can predict where a spaceship will go if you launched it on a certain vector).