Monday, June 30, 2008

Motivating Atheists

This post is long - the type of post that it is easy to skip past. Yet, I think it has some useful information for those who have asked a question or two about how to actually motivate atheists and secularists.

A member of the studio audience wrote to me expressing disappointment that so few people seemed interested in the Pledge Project in specific - or motivating atheists in general. He wondered why this was the case, and what can be done to change it.

In light of this question, I want to say some things about what Desire Utilitarianism has to say about motivation in general - how to get people to act in certain ways. For example, how do you motivate people to put some serious effort into countering the anti-atheist propaganda that is written into the national motto and national pledge?

We start with the proposition that people always act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their own desires, given their beliefs.

[Note: If one is interested in a more technical description; people act in a way such that, if their beliefs were true and complete, then their action will produce a state of affairs in which the propositions that are the objects of the most and strongest of their desires are true.]

So, how do you get people motivated to take on the pledge and the motto?

Answer: You make it the case that actions that take on the pledge and the motto will fulfill the most and strongest of the desires of those you are talking to - given their beliefs.

In other words, if the people you are writing to are not already acting so as to take on this task, then it is because the task does not fulfill their desires, given their beliefs. In motivating them, you must alter their beliefs, or their desires, or both, so that the task does fulfill the more and stronger of their desires, given their beliefs.


There is a moral issue here with respect to beliefs. This model suggests that one of the ways in which we can motivate people into choosing to act in a particular way is by lying to them. Since people act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, given their beliefs, if we get them to (falsely) believe that a particular act will fulfill their desires, we can manipulate how they choose to act. With the right lie, we can get them to act in ways that they think will fulfill their desires, but which will fulfill our desires instead.

For just this reason we have many and strong reasons to promote a love of truth and an aversion to deception. We have reason to praise those who strive to make sure that others have true beliefs, and condemn those who attempt to manipulate others through false beliefs.

I have mentioned in an earlier posts that liars are parasites. They feed off of the intentional actions of others – manipulating others into thinking that an acti will fulfill the agent's own desires when, in fact, it will thwart the agent's desires and fulfill the desires of the liar instead. We have reason to view these parasites with great condempt, and become deserving of contempt ourselves if we take this route.

So, let's add the moral constraints that we are going to be concerned with true beliefs, and we are going to respect a person's interest in actually fulfilling the most and strongest of her own desires.

With this moral restriction to provide true and complete beliefs in place, then the task of manipulating others is limited to the task of providing them with information that they are missing that is currently preventing them from fulfilling the most and strongest of their own desires. Belief-centered persuasion here focuses on, "Here are some facts that you seem not to be aware of. With these facts in place, you can see that the most and strongest of your desires can be better fulfilled by doing act A." This, then, motivates the agent to perform act A.

Much of what I have written in the Pledge Project fits into this category of motivation. I have sought to bring into the light some moral facts about 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' that have been buried behind an excess of interest in legal facts

Namely, that 'under God' in the Pledge adds atheism and other non-monotheist beliefs to the list of great evils that no patriotic American will support – the others being rebellion (indivisible), tyranny (with liberty), and injustice (with justice for all). It is my hope that readers will have an aversion to being classified with those who support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice, and see stronger reason to oppose 'under God' in the Pledge.

Also, I sought to point out how "In God We Trust" translates into "We Trust in God" – which means, "If you do not trust in God, then we do not think of you as one of us." This, I argue, is morally comparable to a sign that says, "If you are not hite, then we do not think of you as being one of us," since not being white is as irrelevant to matters of patriotism and moral character as not trusting in God. My hope is that people will have a sufficient aversion to this type of injustice that they would be motivated to challenge the Pledge and the Motto.

However, I could be wrong. It may be the case that opposing the Pledge and the Motto fulfills (or prevents the thwarting) of the agent's most and strongest desires. To the degree that this is the case, the person seeking to motivate others has to look towards another set of motivations.

Reward and Punishment

The next option in motivating people is to create a situation where the actions one wants them to perform will fulfill their desires. That is, to use threats and rewards in order to create a state where, "If you perform these actions that I want you to perform, you will be rewarded - that is to say, I will see to the fulfillment of other desires of yours. If you do not perform these actions, then you will be punished. That is, I will see to the thwarting of certain desires of yours."

Of course, it takes a fair amount of power to do this. In the United States today, it is those who advocate in favor of the Pledge and the Motto who have this type of power. We have seen it at work in a number of cases regarding the Pledge over at "Atheist Ethicist Journal" - people who have been subject to threats in order to get them to support or endorse the Pledge in some way.

This actually presents us ith a Catch-22. The reason that atheists do not have power, is because they are not organized. This lack of organization is caused, in part, by a lack of motivation to challenge the Pledge and the Motto. Increasing motivation will increase power, yet, to some extent, increased power is required to increase motivation.

Altering Malleable Desires

Setting this problem aside for a moment, the next option for motivation is to alter the desires that agents have. If people act so as to fulfill the most and strongest of their desires, if we can change their desires so that they have a strong aversion to any state that includes 'under God' in the Pledge and 'In God We Trust' as the motto, then they will be motivated to realize a state in which these do not exist.

Unfortunately, we have a situation where those who favor 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' have a virtual monopoly on the power to manipulate the desires of others – particularly young children. They have used this power to promote a desire to protect 'under God' and 'In God We Trust' – and to promote an aversion to any who would object to these practices. They use this power in particular on young children, where the aversions can be set deep and affect an individual long into adulthood.

We manipulate malleable desires through praise and condemnation. Those desires that we praise (particularly in children) tend to become stronger. Those desires that we condemn (particularly in children) tend to become weaker.

One of those hidden and unappreciated facts about the Pledge and the Motto is that they are instances of praise and condemnation. 'Under God' in the Pledge is a statement of praise for those who would support 'one nation under God' – just as it aims to praise those who would support union, and support liberty and justice for all.

"In God We Trust" is also a statement of praise for those who trust in God – claiming that such people deserve the honor of being included in the group known as "we"; while those who do not trust in God do not deserve membership.

When these emotional manipulators are applied to very young children, they created deep-seated desires and aversions. In this case, one of the aversions that it creates is an aversion to challenging 'under God' in the Pledge and 'In God We Trust' in the motto.

So, when I (and others) suggest that people challenge things like the Pledge and the Motto, we discover that such an act does not fulfill the desires of very many people. People, trained since early childhood to resist challenges to these practices, look on the instructions with a feeling of uneasiness – even dread. Following the suggestion thwarts basic desires planted in them at a very young age, and people will tend to avoid actions that go against their deepest aversions.

Theocratic Use of Three Tools of Motivation

In this, I want to point out how well the theocratic supporters of the current Pledge and Motto have used these three tools of motivation. They have manipulated beliefs so that people believe that support for the Pledge and the Motto fulfills desires that those agents already have. They have branded these acts of discrimination as acts of prejudice, and constantly assert that they show respect for all people who have fought for our rights.

They have power and they are willing to use it to make sure that others act so as to promote this Pledge and Motto. Let a politician dare to challenge the Pledge and Motto, and they summon their friends and neighbors to make sure that the perpetrator knows, "You will either support us on this, or you will suffer the political consequences."

Finally, they mold the desires – particularly of young children – by exposing them constantly to the idea that support for 'one nation under God' is praiseworthy, while failure to support 'one nation under God' is the same as insulting America and insulting all of those who have fought for our freedom. They expose children – and Americans in general – as much as possible to the praise of knowing that those who trust in God qualify as being one of 'us', and that those who do not trust in God are not to be counted as one of us.


Other groups that have faced discrimination have faced the same problem. Universally, it is recognized that one of the primary tasks in motivating people is to tackle these unproductive aversions that the culture has planted in people. Other groups recognize this problem as the problem of empowerment.

Gay-pride parades are not useful so much because of the effect that they have on others. They are useful for the effect that they have on those who march in the parade. This is an act of empowerment – a way of asserting oneself and overcoming the sense of shame and guilt that one has learned to associate with being gay at a very young age.

The women's rights movement instituted a ritual where women would burn their bras. What did this accomplish? What it accomplished was that it was an act of empowerment – a way of burning the psychological baggage that has been associated with a culture that has branded them as inferior and fit only to obey the rule of men.

Two rituals of empowerment have emerged in the atheist community to date. One of them was the Blasphemy Challenge. To make a video in which one denies the existence of God, and to post it on the internet, is an act of empowerment – just what is needed to throw off the yoke of aversions planted in us since childhood.

Another ritual of empowerment is Dawkins' Out Campaign. This campaign has promoted as a political act – an act grounded on the principle, "If they knew us, then they would not hate us." I have objected to this claim. History provides us with too many examples of groups easily identified yet still easily discriminated against.

However, if we take the same campaign and put it in a different context – if it were branded as an empowerment campaign, then it has merit. On this perspective, wearing the scarlet A is not a way of changing the world. It is a way of changing oneself. It is a way of taking power back from those who have claimed unjust power for themselves.

An act of empowerment is not a magic pill that instantly erases the effects of emotional manipulation through years of exposure to the Pledge and Motto as a child. It is, instead, a step. It weakens the effects of those practices, hopefully making it a little easier to perform another act of empowerment, which weakens those learned reactions even more.

Derived Lessons

Since they have effectively used these tools that secularists have ignored, we have the effect of living in a society where more people are motivated to defend these practices than to remove them.

How do we change this?

(1) Remove the Pledge (when it contains the words 'under God') and the Motto from as many places as possible – particularly from places where young children are involved. Recognize that these practices aim to manipulate the emotions (desires) of young children by praising support for 'one nation under God' and 'In God We Trust'.

(2) Engage in and promote acts of empowerment. So something to take back power from those who have been using these tools to take power for themselves for 50+ years. Wear an atheist t-shirt, attend an atheist gathering, attend a civic event just so that you can sit through the Pledge of Allegiance in full view of everybody, or just 'come out' to somebody you have not come out to before. These are all acts of empowerment. These are all acts that say, "This is my life and I am claiming it for myself. You do not have control over me any longer."

Of course, acts of empowerment are infectious. When a child sees somebody standing up to the Pledge and the Motto, the child is much less likely to see that these practices are unquestioned. She is much more likely to ask questions. "Is it the case that the Pledge unfairly brands atheists as un-American by putting them in the same category as those who would support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice.

But it has to start somewhere.


Anonymous said...


thanks for your essay, it has brought me a good step forwards in understanding desire unilitarianism.


Anonymous said...

Very interesting article. I came here via the blog carnival - I'm glad to have found you.