Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Family Relations

I have a request from a member of the studio audience for a piece of family advice.

An email scarcely provides sufficient information to suggest to somebody what they should do. However, it does identify some relevant principles that should be applied to a situation. Some of those principles tend to be overlooked.

One of my uncles, whom I was relatively close to as a child, is a pastor who works as a missionary to immigrant communities . . . introducing them to established community support networks through the church . . . searching for and destroying any physical or behavioral vestiges of their prior religions or religious-like cultural habits. My uncle is very good at what he does.

Obviously, there is some good that comes out of this . . . but it's at the cost of indoctrination into a new set of superstitions from a voice of seeming authority. His job is about as acceptable (to me, now, as an outsider) as being a professional torturer, but he's the pride and joy of that side of my relatives. . . . Ideally, I'd be able to confront him politely, say, "Look, I can't agree with what you're doing because XYZ, atheist, dubious church history, etc." and we'd all be able to toast marshmallows together after a mutually enlightening discussion, but that's not quite so realistic, particularly since my family credibility is low being (a) The Atheist and (b) under 21. What is an ethical course of behavior? And does it let me keep my uncle?

First, be honest.

One lesson that I learned at a young age is that it is truly irrational to try to buy acceptance by pretending to be something you are not.

When I was in the 5th grade, a new kid at a new school, the other kids discovered my atheism. The treatment that followed turned out to be quite brutal. (When Judge Bea asked at the Pledge trial yesterday why a child cannot simply leave the room when the Pledge is given, my immediate response was, ‘Why not just ask a child to put a sign on his own back that says ‘kick me’?”)

In order to buy acceptance, I started to pretend that they had convinced me of their religion and to go through the motions of accepting Jesus as my savior. It worked, in terms of buying acceptance. However, it bought acceptance for a character I was pretending to be, not for me. My peers were not accepting me unless they were accepting the person that I was in fact.’

If your uncle cannot accept who you are, but can only accept who you pretend to be, then you cannot ‘keep’ your uncle, because you have already lost him.

Second, be tolerant

If the fact that somebody else does something that you do not approve of is sufficient reason in itself to reject that person, then you are going to live a very lonely life. I cannot think of a single person who does exactly what I think should be done. So, if I cannot accept some deviation from my own norm in others, then I would not have any friends at all.

In a political context, I pointed out that winning a political victory (at least in this country) means uniting the best 51% against the word 49%. If the group of people who are politically ‘acceptable’ to you makes up less than 51% of the population, then you are advocating a political end that hands power to the worst 51% (or more) – which is not very practical.

In a social setting, I would argue for putting the best, say, 80% against the worst 20%. If we could convert or reform the worst 20% of the population, that alone would be a tremendous benefit. So I would ask of any particular person, “Is he a member of the best 80%? Or is he a member of the worst 20%?”

These numbers are not metaphorical. If one were to say that all theists belong in the category of “worst 20%” – then he would be speaking nonsense, since more than 20% of the population are theists. No . . . a majority of the “best 80%” are, in fact, theists. That is a simple real-world fact and, as rationalists, we should insist on the merit of dealing with simple real-world facts.

Another real-world fact is that some of the worst 20% are atheists.

You stated that you consider your uncle’s actions to be similar to those of a professional torturer. I hold that this view is mistaken. What the bottom 20% of the people do to children is pretty horrible, and professional torturers are not in the habit of directing their victims to social services – services that can help them get food, shelter, and medical care.

By the way, in saying this, I am far from saying that members of the “best 80%” are beyond criticism. One of the qualities that we should hope to find among the “best 80%” is the capacity to accept constructive criticism. In writing this blog, I have stated that I am certain that I have made at least one mistake – a mistake that I cannot recognize, but which somebody else may be able to point out. Refusing to accept criticism is a sign of extreme arrogance that pushes one further towards the bottom 20%, than into the higher ranks of the best 80%.


There is another issue that you did not express as a concern in your email, but which I know that some people would be concerned about, and that is the prospect of replacing one culture with another. There are a fair number of people who view ‘cultures’ as some type of living museum, and who react to any type of cultural change the way others would react to the destruction of a priceless worth of art.

Your uncle is involved in making cultural changes. Is there any reason to view this alone as contemptible?

I would say not. Cultures change – that is a fact of life. Some change for the better, while others change for the worse. There is room for improvement in any culture – room for changes that will fulfill more and stronger desires than the status quo; where advocating that the culture not change means insisting that the people in that culture suffer the thwarting of those desires.

There is some reason to believe that cultural elements that have persisted for a long period of time in any environment are well adapted to that environment. The secrets that people hand down from one generation to the next will tend to be secrets that have helped the people live. The new ways of living might not be well suited to that environment, and can easily introduce a host of desire-thwarting problems.

So, I am not talking about a blanket permission to change cultures a will. A morally responsible person would ask, “How will these rules fit into this environment, compared to those?” Many missionaries tend not to ask this question, preferring to hold the view that their principles are universal and will (should) work under all circumstances. They excuse any observation that they have brought misery to a population by saying that it was God’s will, rather than their responsibility.

Where this happens, there is good reason for moral condemnation. However, once again, I am in a poor condition to judge what is or is not happening in fact.


The decision of whether to ‘keep’ your uncle is, to a certain extent, not up to you. It is a question of whether your uncle has any desire to ‘keep’ you. If not – of what you are in fact is too loathsome for him to tolerate, then the game is already lost. You have my sympathies.

If not, then you and your uncle should both realize that there are worse people out there in the world. There is a great deal to be gained by the two of you getting together and allying against the worst of them, rather than combating each other while letting the worst of them benefit from a lack of attention.

1 comment:

Thesauros said...

Good advice. Nice work.