Tuesday, October 09, 2007

On Calling Oneself 'Atheist'

Though apparently not the most warmly received talk at the Atheist Alliance conference, Sam Harris’ speech suggesting that we do away with the term ‘atheist’ is almost certainly the most talked about. I find the proposal to be extremely naive. To explain why, I want to silently sneak into a conservative/fundamentalist political strategy session.

In this session, a group of religious fundamentalists are seeking to promote a policy P. P could be a law, a nomination to the Supreme Court, a slate of political candidates, a change in television programming, the shutting down of an abortion clinic, opposition to including a gay-pride float in a city parade. Whatever it is, they want to get the public to support P, and to oppose not-P.

One of the things that they know is that two-thirds of the population associate ‘atheism’ with ‘bad’. (The do this, I contend, substantially because they are taught in school that those who are not ‘under God’ are ‘un-American’, and those who do not trust in God belong in the excluded group of ‘they’ or ‘them’ as opposed to the included group of ‘we’ or ‘us’.) So, anybody with even the slightest marketing sense will note, “If we can associate not-P with atheism, then we can turn a majority of the people against not-P.”

So, how are we going to associate atheism with not-P?

Well, we need to get the word out. We talk to our preachers about giving sermons associating atheism with not-P. We are friends with all sorts of columnists and religious writers – we get them to write a piece associating not-P with atheism. We present the idea to radio talk-show hosts, we talk the people over at Fox News and any other member of the media who we can trust to present our view, we buy advertising, and we saturate the region with the message that not-P is associated with atheism. If we do this, then our pollsters tell us that we can promote public approval of P (public disapproval of not-P) by (for example) 6 percentage points. Which just might carry the day.

Now, in order to augment our attack, we need to make sure that we preserve or, if possible, bolster the idea in the public mind that atheism is bad. So, in addition to making these claims that associate not-P with atheism, we need to make sure that we use this media to bolster the association of atheism with badness. So, we need to continue to present the idea that atheists are opposed to religious freedom. We must at all costs continue to fight to keep the pledge of allegiance in our schools and ‘In God We Trust” on our money, we must hold on to every success we have won that associates atheism with badness in the public mind, and to find new associations where we can.

Here’s an idea. Almost nobody in our audience will actually read Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris. They will read us, as they always do. So, they will almost certainly believe us regardless of what we say about Dawkins and Harris. It is not at all difficult to associate Dawkins and Harris with atheism – they have done this ourselves. Now, all we need to do is associate Dawkins and Harris with badness (even if we have to invent this association). Then, presto, we have made another association between atheism and badness in the minds of the bulk of the population.

The one crucial fact to take away from this strategy session is . . . and, please, listen carefully . . . they are not asking for our permission. The people who get to decide how the term ‘atheist’ is used are the people who decide to invest the most time and money in using it that way – the people who can get their use into the press and into the public mind the most often.

What rational people need to do is to recognize that this is one of the facts about the natural world – about how things in the real world work – and figure out what to do in the real world given these facts. Harris wants to get rid of the word ‘atheist’. Sorry, that will not happen – not so long as opinion polls show that the term ‘atheism’ can be used in an effective marketing campaign, it will continue to be used in those ways in which it is most effective.

What needs to be done is to change the fact that the term ‘atheism’ can be used in this type of campaign – to change the fact that when the religious right associates not-P with atheism, that they can generate an additional 6 points of public disapproval of not-P (or approval of P).

This can only be done by making a huge – and I mean substantial – investment in countering the association between atheism and badness that the religious right has cultivated in this country.

The very reason that I chose the term ‘Atheist Ethicist’ as the title for this blog is because, one of the ways the religious right associates atheism with badness, is by associating atheism with immorality. It would be useful, I felt, to help counter this by writing something that associates atheism with morality. With a significant amount of education in moral philosophy behind me, this is an association that I felt qualified to make. And I make a significant contribution to drawing that connection every day through this blog.

It is essential, I would argue, to get ‘under God’ out of the Pledge and ‘In God We Trust’ removed as the national motto – not because of some abstract principle of ‘separation of church and state’ – but precisely because these acts were passed and approved as a part of a program to denigrate those who do not believe in God, and it is unjust for the government to adopt the position that those who do not believe in God are not true Americans. When people make the claim that these acts are not intended to denigrate atheists, the response should be a very angry and terse, “Yeah, right. The pledge was not altered to denigrate non-believers in the same way that Auschwitz was not altered to murder Jews.”

Now, imagine a professional boxer who has decided to adopt a strategy that, in the ring, he will always defend and never attack. He will spend one hundred percent of his efforts tryong to block the blows that other opponent tries to land, and never spend a moment trying to land a blow of his own. The best that such a boxer can hope for is a draw, and he has to be absolutely perfect in his defense to do that well.

So it is in the ‘marketing’ of atheism, it is not sufficient to simply defend atheism from the attacks landed against it. It is necessary to land some blows against religion as well.

One point of moral fact that needs to be mentioned – the purpose is not to deliver blows against religion for the sake of scoring some otherwise pointless victory. The point is to address the very real harms that some religious beliefs bring to the lives of very real people. The proposition, “A god exists,” contains no moral implications and is irrelevant to any policy question under debate today. The proposition, “Primative, superstitious people who died thousands of years ago had perfect scientific and moral knowledge and we should follow their dictates without question,” is an absurdity that makes people do things that seriously impair not only their own quality of life but the lives of their neighbors. The target, then, should be on delivering blows that aim to prevent the damage that such people do.

Blows like, “People say that religion gives their life meaning. There is no way that a myth can give a life meaning. The only thing that a myth can do is to give a life the illusion of meaning. That meaning may appear real, but it is as imaginary as the God from whose that meaning springs. The only way that a life can have real meaning is if it is engaged in the real world. There are, in fact, real-world diseases, real-world poverty, real-world ignorance, and real-world conflict, all of which need our real-world attention. If we want to do something about these things, then it is time for us to get real.”

Blows like, “The morality that we get from scripture is the morality of a bunch of primitive tribesmen who knew as little about the moral world as they did about the scientific world. Sure, they got some of the more obvious facts right, but they were wrong on almost everything that was not obvious. Running societies as if Scripture contains perfect moral truth is as foolish as running our hospitals as if the works of Hypocrates were the last word in medicine. Any time moral fictions – or science fictions – make their way into policy through scripture real people are going to suffer real harms as a result.”

Scripture does, in fact, contain as many moral fictions as science fictions – and anybody who actually looks at the moral claims made in scripture can see this.

These deal with two of the wrongly believed ‘advantages’ of religion – that it provides a life with meaning and that it provides us with morality. It’s ‘meaning’ is no more real than the God they worship, and its ‘morality’ are the blind prejudices and superstitions of people long dead.

Ultimately, it will not be possible to retire the term ‘atheist’ until it can no longer be used by those who seek a political weapon. This means that it will not be possible to abandon the term ‘atheist’ until it no longer matters whether one is called an ‘atheist’ or not. As long as the term ‘atheist’ contains all of the negative baggage that it does in our society, people will try to exploit that negative baggage to promote their agenda, and they will not be asking anybody’s permission to do so. The choice is not ours to make. The question then is, how are we going to deal with this real-world fact. How relevant is it to the choices we can make?


Hume's Ghost said...

"Atheist" for the religious right does not even mean atheist. It means heretic, which is different. Fundamenatlists told Jimmy Carter while he was president that they wished he would abandon his religion of secular humanism. Justice Hugo Black received hate mail calling him an atheist for ruling against prayer in school.

The term, historically, has been used not against genuine atheists but against unorthodox believers.

Neil Phalanx said...

I say we keep embracing the name. I was flushed with pride the first time I finally admitted that I was an ATHEIST in public.

It ruins the negativity if the culture embraces it. Look at other examples of negative name-association in society, and how the evil has been taken out of it by the very minority the name targets.

My 2 cents...

Sheldon said...

Yes, lets call ourselves atheists. Especially if you conduct yourself in public in a respectful and friendly manner. Do the other things Sam Harris recommended, but not the part about not calling yourself an atheist.
Calling yourself an atheist allows you to represent yourself, as opposed to what happens in Alonzo's scenario, where our opponents misrepresent us.

Anonymous said...

I was pretty excited about Harris' challenge.

Elites/the powers-that-be OWN the term. They have defined it and it is in their pocket. We're not going to "take it back," if Paine or Ingersoll - two of the nation's most beloved atheists - even "had it" in the first place.

So I think you guys are a little naive here. The word is spoiled, and luckily we don't have to cling to it for our good ideas to have uniformity, and continue to devastate bad ones.

I think PZ Myers is incredibly misguided and his obnoxious blog is nothing more than an echo chamber, a perpetual pat-on-the-back. He doesn't hate religion, he loves it; without it he would have to kiss his beloved identity goodbye: that of a presiding leader of the "enlightened smart people club," that of an "atheist." As far as we can get from that method, the more effective we'll be.

Unknown said...

Harris acts like this hasn't been done before. Look at what happened to the word 'liberal.' Running away from it hasn't changed anything. All it's done is further cement that idea that being a 'liberal' is bad because even the liberals are running away from it!

The same result will occur by trying to abandon 'atheist.' People won't care. They'll just go, 'Oh, those atheists are calling themselves X now. Heh, damn atheists.'

Epiphenom said...

As more and more people stand up and declare themselves to be atheist, the word will lose its shock value. It'll take time but it happened in Europe (I'm from the UK). I think it's wrong to change terminology reactively

Alternatively, many athiests (even in the UK) prefer to call themselves humanist, because atheist says what you are not, but humanist says what you are. It's a positive thing, not a negative. thing.

Epiphenom said...

PS The Out Campaign: http://outcampaign.org/

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Tom Ross

I believe that empirical evidence speaks against the idea that, "If they just knew who we atheists were, they would love us."

People had no idea identifying blacks during the slave trade and the Jim Crow laws. Germans in 1930 and 1940 had no trouble identifying blacks. The ability to identify people specifically as Armenian in 1915-1917, or Native American, did not prevent the widespread slaughter of these people.

In fact, the Nazis insisted on outing Jews (by forcing them to wear identifying marks on their clothes) knowing that this will have no affect on the hatred they generated against Jews.

The Pledge of Allegiance (with the invitation to sit it out) serves the same role in America today as the star of david in Germany. Its purpose is to identify (or 'out') those who do not share the socially accepted view about God so that public pressure can be put against them to change.

The WANT atheists (particularly atheist children) to be outed so that social pressure can be more efficiently used against them.

This does not imply that I am against the campaign. After all, I publically identify myself as an atheist. However, I believe that a lot of people who pride themselves on living in the real world are putting blinders on when they think that this 'out' campaign will significantly affect public perception of atheists.

Epiphenom said...

Hi Alonzo. What the religious zealots rely on is fear of what's new and strange. The thing is that most of the population are 'don't cares'. The only reason they have an opinion on atheism is that they are fearful of anything that differs from the established order - most people are inherently reactionary and conservative.

The reason that this state is perpetuated is that most people in the US never knowingly come cross an atheist. Similarly, in the past, jews and blacks were kept segregated, which allowed suspicions to grow and allowed the bigots to perpetuate fear.

There is really only one way around this. And that's social conditioning - make what seems new and weird commonplace and ordinary. So once blacks and jew and gays took part in white christian society, they became less frightening. Ordinary people realised that they were "just like us", and so zealots couldn't play the fear card any more.

It's a long slow process, but it's had a tremendous lift from the recent books. Now's the time to capitalise on them!