Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Out Campaign

I want to declare that I will not be wearing or displaying the new atheist flag as presented by the Out campaign.

Is it because I am ashamed of being an atheist, or I am fearful of being ‘out’ as an atheist, or I consider it unimportant to do so?

Well, look at the name of this blog. Look at the profile on the right hand side. That’s my real name. Look at the photograph. That’s me.

When I created this blog, I could had a lot of different options available, depending on what was important to me. I could have called it, “The Desire Utilitarian Review” and foregone all mention of atheism. I would probably have larger readership if I did.

However, I wanted to use this blog to promote good over evil. One of the evils that I wanted to fight was bigotry against atheists. Much of that bigotry was built on a social stigma that said that atheists were immoral. So, I figured that a blog by somebody who was not afraid to give his real name, a picture, and his home town while identifying himself as an atheist and intimately connecting his blog to the subject of morality might be an effective tool towards that end.

So, why will I not use the new atheist flag?

Atheism Is Not a Virtue

First, atheism is not a virtue. My primary interest is not in the existence or non-existence of God, but in virtue and vice and the appropriate use of violence by one person against another. The proposition, “No gods exist” entails no moral premise. Believing that no gods exist brings a person no closer to virtue than believing that the sum of the square of the sides of a right triangle is equal to the square of the hypotenuse. Both are facts that carry no moral implications whatsoever.

I sense an undercurrent in the atheist community in that, though atheism itself does not imply any moral principles, rationality itself is a virtue, and this virtue supports atheism.

In this regard, I have argued that intellectual recklessness is a vice. Intellectual recklessness involves adopting beliefs that put others at risk of harm without exercising the moral responsibility to make sure that one does not cause unnecessary harm. Just as a driver carrying a heavy load down the highway has an obligation to make sure that the load is fastened down securely so that he does not put others at risk of harm, a policy maker has an obligation to make sure that his ideas are securely tied down so that he does not put others at risk of harm.

However, intellectual recklessness does not require only the use of reason. None of us have the time to hold every one of our beliefs up to the light of reason, so we must use ‘rules of thumb’ that quickly give us reliable but fallible beliefs. I have used what epistemologists call Neurath’s boat metaphor. This describes our beliefs in terms of a ship at sea, where we can replace parts of the boat at any given time, but each change must be firmly attached to the other parts of the boat that already exist. None of us can ever rebuild all of our beliefs completely from scratch. These facts put serious constraints on the obligations of belief.

If eight-five percent of the population were atheists, I suspect that most people most people will be atheists for the same types of reasons that explain why most people are Christians today. They will simply absorb the attitudes that are common in the society in which they live, unquestioningly, and assume that they are true simply because they are so widely held. This rule of thumb – accept as true what people around you generally assert to be true – is an extremely efficient and reliable way of forming beliefs. In fact, in the vast majority of cases (except in the case of religion) it works quite well. People will continue to use it even in a nation made up mostly of atheists.

In fact, one of the effects of this atheist flag would be to promote just this type of effect.

This is important, so I want to draw special attention to it. It is inconsistent for an atheist to promote the virtue of reason alone in forming beliefs, and support this campaign, since this campaign’s strength will rest in its ability to tap into the irrational ways in which people form beliefs. This big scarlet letter A does not convey any argument or refute any proposition used in the defense of God. It promotes atheism the same way that lawn signs and political buttons promote candidate – by using effects on beliefs that have nothing to do with reason – by exploiting elements of the psychology of belief that have little to do with reason.

[Also, I have argued in the past that ‘coming out’ will not likely have more than a local effect. Bigots will continue to see people through the lens of their bigotry. Those who see blacks as disposed towards criminal and violent behavior are not persuaded that they are wrong simply because they see so many blacks in their community. Just as it took more than black skin to fight racism, it will take more than a T-shirt with a red letter to fight anti-atheist bigotry.]

‘Us’ versus ‘Them’

A charismatic leader, rallying a group of followers around a flag, can get them to kill just about anybody – even if that flag is a big red letter A.

Atheists are human beings (contrary to some claims to the contrary) and are subject to the same influences that have affected humans through the last 10,000 years. One of those influences is the ability to rally people around a flag, point to some outside group as ‘them’ who are responsible for all of society’s ills, and turn ‘us’ against ‘them’ with tragic results.

Look carefully, and you will already see some of the weaker elements of this way of thinking. these psychological factors already at play, causing people to band together to show special favoritism to those who proudly wave and salute the flag, while ostracizing those who dare to criticize these loyal flag-wavers. “You are for us, or you are against us – and if you do not support us in our campaign against the hostile enemies of civilization, then, for all practical purposes, you are to be considered as in league with the terrorists theists and traitors to your own people.”

I am not speaking about people in a back room scheming to manipulate others. I am talking about an ‘invisible hand’ of human psychology whereby people habitually form ‘us groups’ and ‘them groups’ and look for some easy way to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’ – a uniform, a flag, a gesture such as a salute. Research shows that if you take a group of people, divide them up randomly into two groups, they will almost immediately exhibit the symptoms of unwarranted favoritism towards members of their assigned group and unwarranted hostility to those who do not belong.

My opening statement may sound somewhat harsh. It should be taken as a warning. A great deal of harm has been done in the world by rallying people around a flag and pointing to those outside the group as ‘the enemy’. It is absolutely foolish to say that this cannot happen – to say that atheists are somehow immune. Anybody who said this would have to be saying that atheists are not human.

The best defense against these types of abuses is to admit that they are possible, look for the symptoms, and be willing to stand up against that particular tide when one sees it starting to rise.

For my part, consider this a warning. Watch for it.


Some of what I said above may be taken to imply that I am against this particular movement and that my advice to readers is not to participate.

That is not true.

As I said above, my concern is primarily with ethics, and atheism is not a virtue. There are literally thousands of symbols that I am not going to display this year. This will be one of them.

This does not imply that I think that these symbols ought not to be displayed. It implies that each of us have limited time, and it is actually a good thing that there is somebody out there willing to take up each cause that is worth taking up.

I have said that this flag makes use of aspects of the psychology of belief that have nothing to do with reason. I do not believe this is a bad thing. In fact, I have said that we must base our beliefs on something other than reason because reason requires too much effort – and we simply cannot tear all of our beliefs down and rebuild them from scratch. Since we must depend on non-reason-based elements of the psychology of belief, then we might as well put them to work promoting beliefs that reason could defend. In fact, this is the ideal objective of such systems.

However, there are dangers in rallying people around a flag. People who are aware of and respect those dangers are less at a risk of falling victim to them – or, in this case, less at risk at victimizing others. People who ignore those dangers, or – worse – fall victim to them, may well do more harm than good.

Since atheism is not a virtue, there is nothing in atheism itself that will stop a group of atheists, rallied around the flag, to commit the same atrocities that humans have always been able to commit when they have been rallied around the flag. There is nothing to stop them but the knowledge of what can happen and a determination to make sure it does not happen.


Vulcan Tourist said...

I think you're overreacting to some minor misconception of this new campaign by Dawkins. It's the first I'm hearing of it, but on the face of it, it appears to have the same primary goal as one you just stated for yourself: that of erasing bigotry against atheism (and by extension other similar nonconformist principles).

I had (and still have) a beef with the Brights over their stupid name and the semantic manipulation it represents - and I know Paul and Mynga so they've heard it in person - but otherwise I support the goals of that organization. I suspect your beef with this new Out campaign is similarly minor and misplaced.

Don't create an ideological divide where one doesn't exist!

Alonzo Fyfe said...


My qualms with the campaign are neither ideological nor based on the intention behind the campaign.

I have raised no objections for those whose who seek to campaign for atheism to join this campaign.

My own campaign is based on promoting virtue rather than promoting atheism, but I explicitly denied the idea that all people must work on the same campaign.

My qualms have to do with possible unintended consequences that could follow if people do not take certain facts of human psychology into effect.

These facts have to do with the the way that rallying a group of people around a flag creates a disposition to divide the world into 'us' and 'them' whereby "Those who do not support and contribute to our campaign against 'them' - who are the root of all things evil - are to be considered allied with 'them' against 'us'."

It is my hope that warnings such as this will cause people to keep these dangers in mind, and thus lower the risk.

Anonymous said...

I have similar qualms and agree with much of you reasoning. However the thing that is attractive to me about participating is the possibility of finding others in a community that I would otherwise not be able to find.

Do you have a recommendation for a Shibboleth, if you will, to allow those of us who are more comfortable with our atheism to support those who might behave more reasonably if they felt that they were not alone?

anticant said...

Coming out is a continuous, life-long process. As a longtime [and public] campaigner for gay rights, I am still not 'out' to everyone I have passing contact with in my daily life where the information would not be relevant.

I've always said, and found, that coming out as an atheist is harder than coming out as gay. So many people simply go along with the prevailing conventional lipservice to religion that if you say you think it's all twaddle they usually respond with "you can't be serious" or "you must be joking". A minority are indignant, and a smaller minority say "thank goodness - I agree with you but don't feel able to say so".

I think coming out as atheist is important for the sake of the latter group, and to ensure that fewer people feel the need to be hypocritical - because the majority of people are almost certainly non-believers if they are honest with themselves.

Alonzo, you don't need to join a movement, wear badges, or wave banners, if that's not your style - but you aren't promoting virtue by staying in the atheist closet.

olvlzl said...

"Brights" has got to be the most tone deaf, lame brained, public relations idea since marketing the "Nova" in Spanish speaking countries. It's arrogant, smug, concieted and demonstrates the fact that the people adopting it are making an assumption that is contradicted by their own actions. "Superior Smarty-Pants" might be less offensive and has the virtue of being funny.

Uber Miguel said...

I don't understand how many of you can say that Fyfe is creating an ideological divide or staying in the closet as an atheist. Do you realize that such irrational slander is actually proving his very point about such movements creating an "us vs them" mentality? You've already fallen past the warning point by casting Fyfe into the "them" camp.

I came on here to argue against the point that while atheism is not a virtue.. disregarding the supernatural may be pretty close.. but forget it. The heart of Fyfe's post is spot on.

Now I just have to figure out whether I want to stand for ethics.. or have my message be about nonbelief entirely. Too bad most people only seem to be able to absorb one message at a time.

Becky said...

In fact, I have said that we must base our beliefs on something other than reason because reason requires too much effort – and we simply cannot tear all of our beliefs down and rebuild them from scratch.

As someone who has done her best to do just that - to tear down all beliefs and rebuild them from scratch - I appreciate you saying this.