Saturday, January 28, 2012

Atheist and Secular Strategy: A Question of Style

In yesterday's post, I began looking at the details of Sean Faircloth's new atheist strategy. Specifically, I looked at the recommendation that the new strategy focus on stories with a deep human impact.

Yesterday, I wrote about how adopting this suggestion would change the focus of atheist activism away from such things as mangers at city hall and prayer in city council meetings, and direct them towards behavior that inflicts real harm on real people - from blocking stem cell research to denying homosexual couples the benefits of marriage.

Today, I want to talk about the moral merits - and demerits - of using these stories.

The reason for using these stories - rather than (or in addition to) true premises and sound reasoning - is because they work. They are effective at motivating change.

To illustrate this technique, Faircloth uses two stories, each of which involved a child in the care of a religious day care center, where the child was left in a car unattended and died from the heat. He then went on to note that 13 states have religious exemptions from standards and inspections that secular day care centers have to follow.

His conclusion was that religious day-care centers be subject to the same regulations as secular day-care centers. Religious exemptions should be removed - and this should be done for the sake of the children.

However, the conclusion does not follow from these premises.

I have a question I want answered.

What is the safety record for state-monitored secular day-care centers compared to religiously affiliated day-care centers?

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that 10 children out of 100,000 die in religious day-care centers. However, in state-monitored secular day-care centers, the fatality rate is 15 per 100,000. It is true that we can tell deeply moving stories of human impact about every one of those 10 children who died in a religious day-care center. However, that would not justify moving children from a system where their chance of dying actually goes up by 5 out of 100,000.

I want to know . . . how many lives can we save? How many injuries can we prevent? How much better off are the children who attend a religiously affiliated day-care center compared to those who attend a state-monitored secular day-care center? These are the forms of evidence that determine whether a policy is a good idea or not, not the anecdotal stories of the 10 children who came to harm.

Stories work at motivating people. However, they do not prove anything. This means that they are just as effective at motivating people to do bad things as to do good things. They are a favorite tool of the bigot, the hate-monger, and the fear-monger.

Tell the story of a young and attractive white girl raped by a black man, and you can incite a crowd into a murderous rage against the next black man they see.

Tell the story if the good German family man driven out of business by the Jew who opened a shop up the street, and you can incite all sorts of hatred against the Jews.

A single story about a parolee who commits a crime can end a state rehabilitation program independent of the fact that the program costs less and is more effective at preventing crime on the whole than incarceration.

In general, one of the major sources of irrational behavior - harmful behavior - is this tendency to over-generalize - to assign to a whole group the qualities of an individual member. We can see proof of Faircloth's claim that this method is effective in its use to justify wars and injustices throughout history. It is, in fact, a powerful motivator. But it does not distinguish between motivating for good, or motivating for evil.

Faircloth recognizes our disposition to prefer sound reasoning and to rely on evidence-based conclusions. However, he calls this a "noble flaw". It is certainly noble to seek sound reason before acting. But it is a flaw. The reason it is a flaw is because stories work. Secularists and atheists have very little to show for our political efforts precisely because we do not use the tools that work.

On the contrary, I hold that seeking justification for one's actions is not just noble. It is an obligation. Given the harms that can be inflicted by those who are persuaded by stories, this is a technique that morally responsible people should be arming others against. "Do not take stories as proof" is one of those messages - a distinctly secular message - that prevents harm.

If we are to tell stories to illustrate our point, we can tell stories about the times in history where an irrational response to a story - even when true - resulted in great injustices.

This, now, leads me to a point that suggests a way in which stories can be legitimately used. This point draws on a distinction between an argument and an illustration.

By means of all sorts of scientific research I can argue that ice is less dense than water at the same temperature. At the same time, I can illustrate that fact with an image of an ice cube floating in a cup of water.

There is nothing wrong - or even unscientific - with illustrating a point with a picture. Furthermore, these forms of illustration can be effective at helping people to understand the claims being made in the argument.

The thing to remember is that the illustration is not an argument. The illustration is not to be taken as evidence that the conclusion is true. The evidence comes from the text itself.

As long as it is used as an illustration.

I would recommend the following:

Go ahead and use your illustrative stories. However, when you are done, tell the audience, "This is just a story. It doesn't prove anything. As rational and morally responsible human beings you have a right - in fact, you have a duty - to demand real evidence when people ask you to do something. And I have a duty to provide you with that evidence. Nobody should ever try to convince you to do something based on a story alone. So, let me present my evidence."

This is the point at which one would then add the evidence suggesting how many lives would be saved, how much abuse can be prevented, and how the quality of life can be improved by subjecting religious day-care to the same state monitoring and standards that are used for secular day-care.

If any. We must be aware of the possibility that - in spite of a few moving stories of human impact - religious day-care centers have a better track record than state-monitored secular day-care centers. Let's not get into the trap of allowing our prejudging our conclusions based on our prejudices. Let the evidence decide which conclusion is correct.

This rejection of unsound reasoning - used as often as not for evil as for good - should be a part of the atheist and secular brand. In making it a part of the brand, we should clearly mark strong evidence and sound reasoning from rhetoric and demagoguery. A story may illustrate a point. However, stories are not proof. A story may motivate action, but it SHOULD only be used to motivate action where that action can be shown by true premises and sound reasoning to be worthwhile.

These principles do not identify a "noble flaw". They represent a set of moral obligations that thinking human beings have towards each other to base their actions on true premises and sound reasoning.

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