Sunday, May 13, 2007

A Chat on Social Activism


I am having one of those days in which I would rather chat than write about any subject in details.

The item which has my attention now is a clip on Bill Moyers’ Journal “Keeping the Faith” about the graduates at Regent University. This is Pat Robertson’s university, whose objective is to create a cadre of lawyers who are particularly devoted to Christianity.

Cherry Picking and the Sources of Morality

I have written recently on the “cherry picking” that religious people do with respect to biblical moral principles. I find it difficult to think that we could ever revert back to a form of barbarity that would come from true biblical fundamentalism. That is to say, I see very little real-world possibility that we will become a country that executes those who work on the Sabbath or children who talk back to their parents.

These people do not, strictly speaking, get their morality from biblical sources. They get their morality from something else, using religion as a cover when it is useful to do so, and otherwise simply ignoring or rewriting scripture that they do not like.

One question to ask is, "What is this 'something else'?" Where do these people actually get their morality?

Bluntly, the “something else” is the political whim of the leaders of a group. The leaders decide what they like and dislike, and the group blindly follows. All the leaders need to do is find a boogey man and point.

Now, I am not talking about a conspiracy, headed by people who are fully aware that the claims they make are nonsense and whose only goal is personal power. The mind is more subtle than that. The leaders, too, think they are doing good. However, they do not get their ideas of goodness from scripture (which we know for the reasons given above). They get their measure of good and evil from their own 'hearts'. This means that they get their sense of good and evil from their own likes and dislikes.

They think that their ‘hearts’ tell them the word of God. What their ‘hearts’ really tell them is what they have learned (through their culture) to like and dislike. They dislike homosexuality, so they brand it as evil, and use scripture for cover when it is available. They do not dislike people working on the day of the Sabbath, and they particularly do not dislike the business of banking or the charging of interest, so they ignore scripture in these cases. The differences here is not a difference between what scripture says and does not say. The difference is what the preacher likes and does not like.

Another part of the dynamic, for getting the sheep to huddle together into a single mass, is to identify some threat - some group of them that are the source of all of our problems. In this case, them are homosexuals, feminists, atheists, and liberals.

At this point, I think that it is important to note that atheists are capable of the same type of thinking. There is no law of nature that prevents atheists from getting involved in the same type of social dynamics, where a small numbers decide what is good and bad by listening to their own hearts (only, they may call this an evolved sense of right and wrong), and uniting their followers behind them by pointing out some group of them as the enemy. When this sort of dynamic takes over, no atrocity will seem undeserved or unjustified against them who are the source of all of our problems.

And, yes, this does concern me from time to time. Atheists are human. (Or, at least, all of them that I know are.) As such, the psychological facts that make these the dynamics I warned about above possible are facts about humans. A serious study of the forces that lead to these types of attrocities should show that a belief in God is only one way that they can manifest themselves. Those who put too much attention on the idea that religion is the root of this evil, rather than a convenient scape goat for some manifestations of it, may not recognize in themselves their own potential for the same type of attrocities. To avoid these attrocities, harms, it is important to recognize and respond to the psycho-social facts that make these types of acts possible in any group.

Anyway, that concern is for a future time. Today, my concern is with the fact that we have this flock of graduates heading out in the world dedicated to doing things that they (wrongfully) think as good, who will in fact be living their lives delivering endles harm to others. They will do so in the name of God and for the greater glory of their not-quite mortal leaders.

How do we deal with these threats? How do we protect people from the harms that these people will inflict?

I see a lot of electrons being spilled on the questions of how to organize atheists or whether atheists should form alliances with others.

Which reminds me . . .

Richard Dawkins: The Roosevelt and Churchill Analogy

I read (or, rather, heard, since I do much of my reading over the head phones as I exercise) Dawkins discussing arguments about whether to form alliances with other groups. Dawkins addressed the argument that Roosevelt and Churchill, during World War II, saw fit to ally with Stalin to defeat Hitler. It was a wise move.

Dawkins’ response was to say that the situation he is concerned with is different. His enemy is religion itself. It makes no sense to form an alliance with those who say that science is compatible with religion if what one wants to do away with is religion.

Yet, Dawkins ignored (or did not allow himself to see) the obvious counter-reply. Roosevelt and Churchill could have said, “Our enemy is against tyranny itself. Therefore, it is more important to us that we sever our alliances with China and Russia and drive them into the hands of the enemy, so that we end up fighting them, too.”

Yes, it would have been a good plan . . . to refuse to give any help whatsoever to Russia and China, because they, too, were ‘the enemy’. It would have been a perfect plan, assuming that Roosevelt and Churchill wanted to loose the war and to help Hitler and the Japanese Empire take control of the bulk of the world. Assuming that it was important to actually stop Hitler and Imperial Japan, allying with China and Russia was not an entirely a foolish idea.

Organizing Atheism

I have argued in the past that I see no particularly great value in organizing atheists, because atheism does not entail any particular moral view. A more important goal is to tackle the actual issues facing the country and the world today. In doing so, I would argue that it is important (vital and necessary) to point out where religious thinking is the cause of great harms. Yet, the goal remains, not to end religious thinking, but to end great harms.

If an atheist were to join a gay rights group, and speak forcefully about the stupidity of drawing anti-homosexual bigotry out of the Bible, one would probably find a lot of people receptive to that message. If one were to join an environmental group, and ridicule and attack the argument that the impending rapture means that we can ignore environmental concerns and go ahead and destroy our planet one would likely find people willing to listen.

Go to the environmentalist organizations, join them, and form and strengthen a subgroup there whose main argument is how this same millennial thinking is putting every species on the planet (including humans) at risk of great harm.

Join a group that is fighting Parkinson’s disease, or Alzheimer’s, or diabetes, and let them know how religious thinking is killing the people they love.

Join an anti-war group and complain about how the backwards thinking of the Bush Administration – its religious disposition to take certain facts as given and accept or reject evidence based solely on whether it supports a pre-drawn conclusion – has gotten so many Americans killed or wounded and cost us hundreds of billions of dollars.

In all of these cases, one would be fighting religion where religion is doing some significant real-world harms, and talking to people who have a real stake, in terms of life, health, and quality of life, in listening to the message.

Atheism does not entail any particular position on any of these issues. I draw my moral conclusions, not from atheism but from desire utilitarianism. However, atheists in all camps have a unique position for fighting arguments that effecitively boil down to, “The harm that comes from our policies is harm that we inflict in the name of God, so it is justified.”

It is, I think, quite important to try to say something that will let people like those graduating from Regent University see the magnitude of the gap between the type of person they want to be, and the type of person they have been trained to become. They could be somebody who does good in the (real) world. Instead, they are being trained to be people who will live their lives delivering harms to others, blind to the harms that they do. I think it is important to speak, not strictly (or even mainly) to the existence of God, but to the existence of great harm.


Anonymous said...

Your position that many theists’ moral ideas are what they feel in their hearts, and then they use these feelings to decide what to follow in scripture, leads me to something I have been wondering about for some time in reading this blog.
Do you think desire utilitarianism leads you to your moral positions, or do you think your moral positions come from your “heart” and you developed desire utilitarianism to match them? Have you had instances where you felt something is wrong, but desire utilitarianism convinced you it was morally OK?
Do you think desire utilitarianism is precise enough to actually use as a prescriptive tool, that everyone attempting to apply it would come to the same moral conclusions, or that it could be interpreted in different ways, so that “what a person with good desires would do” or “the desires that fulfill other desires” are sufficiently general that a great variety of moral conclusions is possible?
One measure of a moral theory is, as you have asserted, its ability to answer many philosophical questions (including hypothetical ones). Another measure is does it provide something that is actually useful in making real time decisions in real life, i.e., does it provide a better guide than simpler concepts such as “be fair, be honest, and treat others as you want to be treated?”

The maiden said...

Very good, very well reasoned insights, as usual. Just wanted to let you know how very much I enjoy and learn from your blog.

Hume's Ghost said...

I can't helpt but point out that Regent has another main objective ... and that is to produce lawyers who will be fiercely partisan for the Republican party (actually, for the elements of the GOP that have been captured by the authoritarian conservative movement.)

For example, Monica Goodling is a graduate of Regent and she is one of the individuals involved in the Just Dept. purges. One of the first things she did upon getting her job was to deny a job promotion to someone on the basis that the person was a Democrat and that she didn't trust her (seriously, that was the reasoning given.)

John Ashcroft is now teaching at Regent.

I think its important to point out this aspect of Regent's symbiosis with the transformation of the GOP into a religous party (Kevin Phillips conclusion in American Theocracy.)

Hume's Ghost said...

but to address the subject of the post, I agree that organizing atheists is not the best idea.

Organizing humanists and secularists committed to the Enlightenment values is a far better goal ... and it allows for the creation of a coalition that cuts across religious/ethnic/national boundaries.

Planetary Humanism is what I believe Paul Kurtz calls it.

One benefit of this approach it will help to demolish the imaginary outgrouping that are being manufactured between "traditional" Americans and "secularists".

At some point in the next point I plan on making this point when I review Jimmy Carter's Our Endangered Values. I'm a positive atheist and Carter is a born again evangelical Christian, yet I agree with virtually everything in his book.

olvlzl said...

I have a somewhat different take on Robertson, I don't think he believes what he claims to. There are some people who think Pope Alexander VI (if I remember correctly) was actually an atheist, though I certainly wouldn't want anyone to think I'm blaming you guys for him, people are responsible for only those wrongs they actually commit (sorry Dawkins, that's only fair). Looking at his activities instead of his words, I think he saw the start ups in fundamentalist religion and he figured it was his ticket to the easy life. You certainly couldn't look at him and intuit the moral teachings of Jesus, especially if you take out what is probably folk lore. As regards cherry picking, when it comes to these folks I think manure spreading is the more apt agricultural analogy.

Richard Dawkins motives are more speculative, though I've recently come to believe that E. O. Wilson's career might be his model. I suspect that if Dawkins had spent more time with ants instead of "memes" he might be spending his time on something more likely to produce some good in the world. As it is, ... well, you've heard me on the futility of that romance before.

Paul Kurtz, now he reminds me a lot of Robertson.

Hume's Ghost said...

"Paul Kurtz, now he reminds me a lot of Robertson"

Congratulations, this is the dumbest thing I've ever heard uttered on the internet. Unless you meant that he reminds you of Robertsn in that he's old.

olvlzl said...

Hume's Ghost, Paul Kurtz is a fundamentalist who has built a large and varied profit making empire to enforce his chosen beliefs. He has a history of, let us say, less than honest promotion of those beliefs. Ever read the story of sTARBABY? There is an account by Dennis Rawlins on line, it's kind of complicated but it is interesting reading, especially if you can handle the math. I'm doing some research in CSICOP, a pretty dodgey bunch of pseudo-skeptics. You might be interested, especially in Kurtz' early history as the czar of that group, full of intrigue and some quite low humor, in a manner rather depressing for those who are interested in actual scientific standards instead of promotion of phony "research". Oh, yes, as I recall that fiasco around "sTARBABY' was the first and last bit of "investgation that the Committe for the "Scientifc" INVESTEGATION of Claims of the Paranormal did. Read it and get a load of what Kurtz and his equally dishonest allies did with the only science that group has produced on its own.

And that's only CSICOP, his empire is far more extensive and interesting than that.

I assume you didn't know about any of this before you "investegated" my little comparison. I thought you guys were all about reality and evidence.

Hume's Ghost said...

"Paul Kurtz is a fundamentalist..."

Ok, you're playing a joke? This is parody right? "Neoastrology?"

You're right about the guys that founded CSICop... especially Carl Sagan ... "dodgy" is the word that comes to mind when one thinks of him.

Maybe Alonzo will feel like rebutting your nonsense about Kurtz and his "media empire" ... I've got other stuff to do.

Hume's Ghost said...

Here's a faq on the "starbaby" incident.

Here's the comment Lippard added at the end

I'm not afraid to criticize CSICOP where it is merited. And they did do some criticizable stuff regarding the Mars effect and its handling of Dennis Rawlins. But in general, they have not gotten a fair shake in descriptions of this controversy by advocates of the paranormal.

olvlzl said...

Humes Ghost, Dennis Rawlins is in no way an advocate for the paranormal, as someone unfamiliar with him or the rather too successfully covered up affair might gather from your response.

As for "fundamentalist", yes Paul Kurtz has all the necessary closed-minded, fanatical obcession, dishonesty and zeal that defines a fundamentalist. I maintain that anyone who was familiar with him would conclude that word to be quite accurate, if they weren't also a fundamentalist. You know, there are fundamentalist "christians" who deny they are fundamentalists too.

I suggest anyone who wants to find out who is correct read Rawlins very detailed and annotated account and, if they suspect he's a "secret theist" they read some of his other writings, sort of like Dawkins with charm and better research skills.

Hume's Ghost said...

The FAQ I provided clearly states that Rawlins is not a paranormalist.

I was, however, under the mistaken impression that you were a neoastrologist. Now I see you're just someone who has picked up some erroneous beliefs about Kurtz and his "media empire" (which is largely non profit).

olvlzl said...

I was, however, under the mistaken impression that you were a neoastrologist. Now I see you're just someone who has picked up some erroneous beliefs about Kurtz and his "media empire" (which is largely non profit).

I am obliged, before I posted the comment about sTARBABY, I wrote down two predictions, first I predicted that I'd be accused of being a believer in astrology. That would be rather odd since most of what I've posted here are diatribes against biological determinism. Refusing that form of pseudo-science it would be rather amusing for someone to believe I had for planetary determinism. Hume, I assume would have found out if he was correct before jumping to this kind of conclusion, the type which a number of "skeptics" go to first.

You mean that Kurtz didn't derive an income from any of his businesses? I'd like some evidence of that before I take your word for it. You do know that many non-profits pay their top people, don't you? I have a pretty good reason to be looking further into the Kurtz holdings though I won't go into that.

I am not as inclined to let CSICOP off the hook for this incident as some of its major players were either directly or indirectly involved. My reluctance is that their stock and trade has been to promote the assumption of dishonesty, fraud and incompetence in even the most careful of professional researchers, some of whom have never had any evidence of any fraud or incompetence sustained against them. To have CSICOP's leaders, Kurtz foremost among them, make an incompetent challenge, botch their own test design and then to try a roaringly dishonest cover up of the affair is something that should sink their credibility to the bottom of the pond. I used to be an admirer of a lot of these people UNTIL I looked into their activites and history. They are hypocrits who look on press relations as the ultimate tool to cover for them. There are times I think they're changing but then something happens to raise all my old doubts. I think that the wholsale willingness to hold CISCOP, James Randi, Paul Kurtz, and any number of other professional "Skeptics" to a far lesser standard of skeptical investegation is the greatest flaw in pop-"Skepticism" and more so in the professional side.

It's interested to note that Ray Hyman actually acted quite decently in the sTARBABY matter. I wonder if that was because he saw Rawlins as being on the same team. Hyman hasn't always acted with such disinterest, at least it seems to a number of people. That's to be regretted because he is a very good analyst of experimental design.

The second prediction was that someone would snark that the article was published in Fate. I'd have pointed out that Fate also published articles by a number of CSICOP's more eminent members, other than those who were forced out by the Kurtz clique.

olvlzl said...

I forgot Carl Sagan. I liked him, I thought he was prone to speaking out of prejudice and ignorance in "defense of science and rationality". He was prone to making some rather stupid remarks about the kinds of things CSICOP doesn't like. Personally, I think "Exobiology" is a para-science at best, pure horsefeathers, more typically. Having looked at a lot of its speculations I hope that other life forms are less like the creations of sci-fi writers of the post-war era.

I always thought his assumption that the discovery of life on other planets would be the end of religion. He didn't seem to think it was possible that they would have religion too. Like the rest of his exobiological stuff, how the hell would he know?

Hume's Ghost said...

Golf clap. You got me.

In attempting to understand why you are so vociferously convinced that Kurtz is a figure comparable to Pat Robertson I guessed that you might be some kind of neoastrologist. After reading through several links about the "starbaby" incident I saw that probably wasn't the case. So the fact of the matter is, I did go through the effort of checking to see if I was correct about that assumption.

If you think Kurt'z "media empire" is comparable to Robertson's, and that Kurtz is "enforcing" his views through said "empire" then I'd invite you to at some point write something making that case.

olvlzl said...

Just to complete the record, look at James Randi's involvement in sTARBABY. If anyone thinks he is anything but a huckster after reading it, maybe he'd be interested in selling you some swampland. The guy's a bigger fraud than most of the ones he debunks.