Friday, August 24, 2012

Atheism Plus: Arguments and Concerns

I have been following some of these arguments about "atheism plus" - and I wish to comment on some of the arguments.

Atheism plus is an attempt to define a new subgroup in the atheist movement - a subgroup that is concerned with atheism plus some elements of social justice. It is atheism plus a condemnation of sexist, racist, or homophobic trolls. There is also some mention in there about concern for the poor, putting the, "I got mine so screw you," attitude and other moral and social concerns, and putting people with certain positions on those issues on the same list of undesirables as these trolls.

I write from the point of view of an outsider. Even though this blog is built on the principle of atheism plus ethics, I do not fit into the atheist plus club.

There are two primary reasons I seem to be unqualified for membership.

First, I do not care much about atheism. I am an atheist, and in my opposition to anti-atheist bigotry I make it clear that this ethics blog has an atheist author. However, my concern is almost exclusively with ethics - not atheism. As many atheists themselves often report, atheism has no - zero - moral implications. There is not one single 'ought' claim following from the premise that the proposition that at least one god exists is certainly or almost certainly false. Consequently, to a person interested in ethics, atheism is not interesting. For the record, there is also no - zero - moral claims that can be derived from the proposition that the proposition that at least one god exists is certainly or almost certainly true. Both beliefs have the same irrelevance to a blog concerned with ethics.

The second reason for exclusion is that I am interested in a much broader set of moral claims than atheism plus is focusing on. Their decision to include some moral concerns in their atheism is admirable. However, my interests are broader than this club allows.

This is simply a fact of the matter. There are a great many clubs to which I do not belong - even though I admire their work. It's a matter of not having the ability to do everything.

Objection 1: Atheism Plus is Divisive

One of the objections against atheism plus is that it is divisive.

It is not - or, more precisely, it does not need to be.

Let us look at the medical support groups for an example. We see a number of groups concerned with a subset of medical issues. There is the American Cancer Society, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the American Diabetes Association. Each group has adopted its own specialized area of concerns. Every group has a legitimate set of interests. It is even the case that different groups compete for the same money. However, no argument has been made or can be made that the American Cancer Society (for example) should be abolished and its advocates and supporters should be condemned because their decision to focus on cancer is "divisive".

There has been some talk suggesting that, for atheism plus, an individual who does not join this group is a friend to sexist, racist, homophobic trolls. This, of course, is a false dichotomy. It follows the pattern of, "Either you are with us, or you are against us," that makes no room for, "Or you are working on something else that is also a legitimate concern."

The atheist community is filled with this way of thinking. We see it in the camp that blames religious moderates for the behavior of religious extremists. They also employ this black-and-white "for us or against us" dichotomy. They ignore the fact that blaming religious moderates for Al Queida is as bigoted as blaming all atheists for Stalin. Yet, a reasoned objection against that position has not prevented a lot of atheists from embracing it.

Is atheism plus going to embrace this "with us or against us" attitude as well?

Objection 2: Atheism Plus is Exclusive

It is true by definition that atheism plus is denying a certain group of people admission into the big tent.

And rightfully so, I will argue.

However, this fact alone has been used as a source of criticism. It raises the question of who, ultimately, gets excluded, who gets to decide, and what criteria are they going to use to make that decision?

These are legitimate questions - but they do not imply that everybody should be invited into the tent.

Nobody in the atheist movement is universally inclusive. If it were discovered that some member of the atheist movement was buggering young boys in the shower, I would fully hope and expect that this person would be dropped in an instant - no longer invited inside the atheist big tent. And not just because their activities were illegal - after all, homosexual acts were illegal in most states until recently, and homosexuals joined the military in clear violation of laws against it. However, they were not excluded, so the illegality of actions is not the criterion here.

Nobody is talking about including everybody. Nobody is talking about excluding everybody - that would be nuts. Everybody is talking about drawing a bright line somewhere in the vast field of gray between these two - excluding some and including others.

Which means - those questions above about who we are going to exclude, who gets to decide, and what criteria are we going to use - we have to address those questions no matter what. There is no option that will allow us to navigate around them. People who argue as if they can be avoided are ignoring reality.

Furthermore, because we are drawing a bright line in a field of gray, this is a permanent debate. There will always be people near the bright line on one side are not much different from people near the bright line on the other side, and using that to argue for moving the line. This is a debate that we must get used to. We cannot let it become such a distraction that paralyzes all action.

There is an easy argument to be made for excluding sexist, racist, homophobic trolls from an atheist club. If one is going to protest religious clubs that nurture sexism, racism, homophobia, and anti-atheism, then we would be hypocrites to then accept sexist, racist, homophobic trolls into our clubs merely because they are atheists.

Besides, as the defenders of atheism plus tell us - it is the right thing to do.

These people with these attitudes do not deserve to be considered legitimate. Giving them a pass will only allow them to better pass these attitudes to a new generation where they will also create a new generation of victims. These attitudes deserve our condemnation in the present, even if the people who have these attitudes are atheists.

However, when we look at the attempt to include attitudes to the poor on this list, we see a danger. This is not to say that disgust towards the poor is legitimate and is to be accepted. Instead, there is a tendency, particularly among liberals, to view some attitudes as anti-poor that actually are not. In fact, they are attitudes of people who can make the case that they actually have a stronger interest in helping the poor - a strong enough interest to prefer policies that actually work.

Many policies regarding poverty are arguably the liberal counterpart to abstinence-only sex education among conservatives. They sound good on the surface, and their advocates claim to have a genuine interest in solving real problems, but they actually cause more problems than they solve.

Consider this: For the past 30 years Africa has been the recipient of hundreds of billions of dollars and countess hours of liberal-style aid and intervention. Meanwhile, China and India embraced market principles and freed up their economies. In those 30 years, the situation in Africa has scarcely improved. China and India, on the other hand, have lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

Those improved standards of living come with better sanitation, better health care, better education, and more opportunities than the citizens of these countries a generation ago thought possible.

We are talking about a real change that has affected the lives of real people - hundreds of millions of people.

Is it really important to you to lift another billion people out of poverty? If it is, then China and India provide a promising model.

This habit of branding those who support free markets as pro-squalor or anti-poor is nothing but an attempt to protect an economic cult through name-calling rather than reason and evidence. Where reason and evidence fail, name-calling is all you have left - short of violence.

The question then becomes: Is atheism plus going to become an economic cult where people are required to pledge allegiance to a set of policies independent of an honest examination of any actual evidence regarding the question of whether those policies actually work?

That would not be a good thing.

As a caveat, support for markets does not imply embracing Ayn Rand style Libertarianism. Arguments can be made against that position. Nor does it imply a blanket prohibition on redistribution of wealth - I can argue against that implication as well. In this context, the points made above serve only as a warning against clutching an economic bible too strongly and thumping it against all of the heretics and unbelievers out there who dare to question the policies contained within.


This, then, is an atheist ethicist's view on atheism plus. As in all things, there are some nonsense arguments, and some legitimate concerns. Some of these issues will always exist - atheism plus did not introduce them, and having atheism plus go away will not cause them to disappear.

These trolls deserve our condemnation, not only for the sake of those today who suffer from their abuse, but for the benefit of future generations. All things considered, atheism plus is a good idea.

However, there are some legitimate reasons to worry as well. Its advocates are well advised to admit that there is a possibility of overstepping - and be willing to constantly and seriously question what they are doing and making modifications as more evidence and better arguments come forward.


Randy said...

I disagree, on perhaps everything.

You do not appear to be using the word "troll" correctly. It doesn't mean "bigot". Specifically, it means someone who leaves short insulting or nonsense comments, solely to generate a heated reaction. It's largely an online behaviour, due to the anonymity that encourages free speech. While trolls may be bigots, there's no requirement that one be the other. There are feminist trolls. Some feminist bloggers and readers tend to conflate "troll" with "bigot", so their own trolling is excluded, and legitimate objections are included as trolling.

"Is atheism plus going to embrace this 'with us or against us' attitude as well?"

I'm confused. If you've read their own recent posts on Atheism Plus, or observed the year-long meltdown on FTB over elevator etiquette that sparked the Plus reaction, you know this question has been answered, repeatedly. Read Blag Hag's post yesterday on the matter ("responding to common misconceptions..."), point number 4. While reading the statement, you have to remember that the FTB definition of "misogynist" includes anyone who disagrees about elevator etiquette on bases of freedom and equality and proportionality, earning such persons the additional label of "asshole".

I think it's going to be very difficult for a label created explicitly to be "us versus them" to evolve into anything else. Bridges have been burned.

I doubt the American Cancer Society formed explicitly because the larger health community were "assholes" against cancer treatments and cures. The only valid comparison I see between the ACS and A+ requires regarding people who disagree on elevator etiquette as a fatal disease.

"If one is going to protest religious clubs that nurture sexism, racism, homophobia, and anti-atheism, then we would be hypocrites to then accept sexist, racist, homophobic trolls into our clubs merely because they are atheists."

It's a matter of proportionality. The sexism exhibited by religious groups is clear, and anti-female, and institutional. The sexism exhibited by atheist groups to date is not as clear, tends to be anti-male as much as anti-female, and is not yet institutional. Atheism Plus is an attempt to institutionalize some of it.

"These people with these attitudes do not deserve to be considered legitimate."

An unfortunate statement. These folks are legitimate. Their views should be heard, even by the next generation. Atheists often like to say the Bible is the best way to create an atheist, specifically because it advocates much that atheists oppose. If Atheist Plus folks are confident in their positions, they should not stoop to censoring opposition, even if they strongly disagree with it.

Last, I think a comparison of India and China vs Africa, in the short-term, is premature. We won't in our lifetimes know whether the best approach was taken. But even constant economic activity accelerates climate change. Increasing activity worsens even that sad situation for the entire world. We should be scaling down economies, while focusing on improving health, self-sufficiency, and freedom for everyone.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

I have seen comments I disagreed with - but that is true in any organization.

I have written blog posts here against some signs and claims that atheists have made - including claims by Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris. I have objected to posters put up by atheist groups that contain malicious over-generalizations indicative of bigotry.

I can disagree with some claims made by a group without being opposed to the group's principles.

I do not agree with every statement made by the advocates of the "atheist plus" proponents.

Yet, the fact that I disagree with some on matters of specifics does not imply that I disagree with the principle that those who are verbally (or otherwise) abusive towards others on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation, and the like deserve to be condemned.

In addition, I think there has been some bluring of a line on the part of all parties between the fact of disagreement and the manner of disagreement.

There are several methods available through one one can raise an objection against a proposition - and one can protest a particular manner of disagreement without protesting the fact of disagreement.

Grimeandreason said...

Thank you for this reasoned blog, you speak a lot of sense, particularly the dangers of trying to incorporate moral 'content' rather than simply moral 'method' into the founding of a community. Do you mind if I link to it from my blog?

I have written a piece from my own relatively-outside perspective that I would love your feedback on (from the point of view of community identity dynamics and cultural evolution):

Randy: I think what the piece was getting at (certainly what I have been trying to emphasise) is that Atheismplus is a week old and born out of an angry and emotional situation. It would be unfair to paint everyone that is excited by the idea (for a multitude of different reasons) with the same brush through what are heated and reactionary words of individuals you cherry-pick.

Anonymous said...

Maybe go on Youtube and type “Does Heaven Exist” and you see amazing films of people that went to heaven! Just watch them and ask yourself honestly if it is true or not…

Did you ever see ? Amazing Stories that I saw there, and I cant say that those people are not honest people.

You know I dont care about having it right, I just want the truth in life, and these people that went to heaven and hell actually SAW it! and God!

bcdaurelle said...

I'd like to point out that just because no moral obligation is inherent in the adoption of an atheist viewpoint, I think that anyone with an honest interest in ethics has a moral obligation to promote atheism.

This is not simply an appeal to the obvious lack of ethical behaviour on the part of the religious. I simply mean that a rational aproach to ethics that is not grounded in any appeal to supernatural authority or phenomena must be free not only of those things, but of the attitude that makes them possible, i.e. the acceptability, or desirability of faith over reason. No rational basis for ethics is possible while we allow for any but the most rigorously skeptical and metacognitive mode of thought. If you are indeed interested in the promotion of ethics, this should be of fundamental importance to you, not because atheism has moral implications (it doesn't) but because a discussion of ethics cannot be separated from a discussion of religion.