Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Year Ahead - Atheist Activism


This is a time traditionally assigned to assessing one's place in the world and plotting a course for the year ahead. What should be the goal of atheist activism in the year ahead?

There seem to be a lot of people who think that every atheist should line themselves behind a single cause - marching lock-step behind a single message, without deviation or dissent.

I object to this way of thinking. It requires individuals to give up the practice of reaching their own conclusions based on an application of reason to the evidence available. Instead, it requires that each person obligate himself or herself to be a puppet obeying and serving the puppet master. Whether or not this form of power does good or evil depends a lot on the moral character of the puppet master.

The Republican party operates this way - and as a result it exercises political power out of proportion to its numbers. However, it has also seems to attract immoral people seeking to use this mass of unthinking puppets for their own personal use. Either that, or it elevates as leaders those members who are experts at the type of unthinking, irrational idiocy that this system requires.

I would not want the atheist movement to acquire this type of lock-step mentality.

Besides, I think it is useful to have different groups pursuing different objectives.

For example, I strongly disapprove of a pledge of allegiance that groups atheists with traitors, tyrants, and the unjust. I strongly disapprove of a national motto that segregates the community into groups of “we” versus “they” on the criteria of trust in God. However, I fully realize that no politician could get away with defending this position, even if he agreed with it. It is useful to have a community advocating the removal of these offensives. While, at the same time, others seek public office that will not advocate policies that will guarantee the position they seek goes to their political opponent.

It is good to have a PZ Myers harshly condemning all of creationism (on the grounds that it deserves criticism), while at the same time having others with their mind in the political realm taking a softer approach and seeking compromises that can actually have an effect on policy. It is not the case that one is a villain and the other is a hero. It is the case of two people pursuing means appropriate to their ends. The loss of either will be a great loss indeed.

In general, this means that we will have to accept as a working assumption that there will be a diverse set of groups that call themselves atheists, they will be run by people who have different ideas on how best to proceed, and some of them will be embarrassingly wrong.

There's another fact that atheist activism will have to accommodate in 2012 (or any other year) is that we do not get to pick and choose which of our leaders will become popular. This is true in the same way that we cannot pick and choose which YouTube videos will go viral. The culture itself will determine this - and will do so according to its values.

This means that, in 2012, the leading news stories will continue to be those that are embarrassing to atheists. This is simply because the critics of atheism have good numbers and an eagerness to embarrass atheists. Those people simply have no incentive to take an example of an atheist doing great deeds and sending it off to their friends - given that the bulk of those friends will likely to be hostile to anything that depicts atheists in a favorable light. Only things that cast atheists in an unfavorable light have much of a chance of making news.

This is how bigotry works. There is widespread bigotry against atheists in this country. That bigotry will grasp onto anything that serves its interest. Those are the things that it will introduce into and spread throughout the community - while ignoring and burying anything that does not serve this interests.

When we criticize those who "embarrass" atheists - but who do not actually do anything wrong - we are actually giving voice to and embracing the very same bigotry and prejudice that we complain against.

In the absence of bigotry, an atheist can do something foolish or embarrassing without this reflecting poorly on all atheists. It is only in an envirnment filled with anti-atheist bigots, eager to make invalid inferences from the specific to the general, one atheist's foolishness does harm to the image of all atheists. When we join in the criticism of the atheist activist by saying, "Don't embarrass us," we are simply giving bigotry and prejudice a seat at the head of the table.

Consider the fact that a religious person can do something foolish and embarrassing - it happens all the time - yet the community does not take this as proof that all of religion is defective.

Granted, some atheists make this leap. However, this only shows that some atheists are anti-religious bigots. I am not shy at calling them that. In fact, I am deeply embarrassed by the atheist community that, while they profess to be the champions of reason, their writings are filled with the bigot’s fallacy – repeated arguments that begin with premises identifying the immoral or irrational acts of a single person or small group that leap inexplicably to conclusions about "religion" in general.

I wish these would disappear from the atheist community – not because I think they represent poor tactics, but because they fly in the face of a commitment to reason that permits supporting only the conclusions that one’s premises will allow. The principles of reason do not permit the bigot's leap from the specific to the general.

They are just as immoral as anti-atheist bigots who make the similar move, begining with premises about the immoral or foolish actions of some atheist (usually Stalin), and drawing conclusions about all atheists. This is as clear of an example of the bigot's fallacy as one can imagine.

In light of this fact, I would suggest a different response in the face of atheists doing something foolish or embarrassing - or that you just don't like. You should use this as an opportunity to turn on those who commit the bigot’s fallacy and condemn them for their immoral conduct.

"Look, here's proof of how pervasive anti-atheist bigotry is in this country. Atheists are human, and in any group of humans you will always find some of them doing something foolish or embarrassing. Non-bigots recognize that all groups have a immoral and foolish members and refuse to condemn the whole group and dismiss them as not being characteristic of the group. Bigots, on the other hand, love to exploit this fact to belittle and denigrate whole groups of people in those communities that their bigoted mind wants to target. Where we see people using the foolish acts of some atheists to denigrate all, we see this bigotry at work."

This does not deny the legitimacy of criticizing certain things that atheist activists do. Some of them are simply wrong.

In the recent past, there was the sign that said of religion, "You know it is a scam". Setting aside the question of whether this is good or bad tactics, it is false. A scam requires an intent to deceive. Much of religion simply does not have the required intent (though some of it - a lot of it - certainly does) to be a scam.

I have noticed that, in light of the criticism this campaign generated, the message has changed to, "You know it is a myth," which is perfectly acceptable.

Nor do these arguments prohibit reasoned criticism of the methods used by others when those methods seem ineffective. There has to be a debate on the effectiveness of different means – both in terms of their effectiveness in realizing ends and the legitimacy of those ends.

However, it should be a debate grounded on evidence and reason – and much of it is not.

When I read about one group of atheists criticizing another group of atheists for actions considered tactically or strategically unwise (as opposed to being factually wrong), I immediately come up with two questions. These are questions that the critic almost never answers.

Question 1: What is your measure of whether something works?

A system works when it generates a state of affairs that fulfills the desires that the system was generated to fulfill. A change in desires implies a change in the lists of states of affairs that will fulfill those desires. This means that what works relative to one set of desires might not work relative to a different set. What works for you given your interests may not work for me given mine.

In determining whether something works one needs to first determine which ends it is meant to serve (and the merit of those ends). Then one must determine the effectiveness of the means available in achieving those ends - straight forward statements of cause and effect.

Question 2: How do you know?

In these debates about which strategies to use, I have noticed a shortage (in some places, a complete absence) of evidence in favor of one's position. People who participate in these debates seldom offer anything more than a gut feeling backed by anecdotal evidence - personal stories - unsurprisingly selecting only those stories that confirm the gut feelings of the person who picked and interpreted them.

We are supposed to be a community of rational, scientifically minded individuals. How about introducing some rational scientific evidence to claims about which tactics "work" and which do not?

In short, my recommendation to atheist activists is not to worry so much about what other atheist activists are doing. Instead, turn your attention on the anti-atheist bigots who so eagerly embrace the bigot’s fallacy of derogatory overgeneralizations.

Every group in existence has members who will be doing things that other group members find foolish or wrong. Usually, we do not feel our own reputation to be at risk by their behavior. Many people my age can do something foolish or wrong without me having the slightest sense that my own reputation has been harmed. The difference between groups where one persons foolishness harms the reputation of others and groups where it does not is the difference between groups where bigotry is at work in the community and where it is not.

We will never be able to end foolish behavior on the part of some members of the group. But we can tackle the bigotry that gives this foolishness unwarranted implications on the reputation of others.

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