Monthly Archives: September 2008

An argument sketch on not falling for another Democrat, again

God I’m sick of this Obama shit.

An argument sketch, to be followed by a lengthier article:

The “power base” of a presidential candidate—what moves him and makes him, fundamentally—is not any segment of the electorate but the monied interests that have to be satisfied long before a candidate gets to the electorate. This is why businesses donate to both parties at once. This base effects a natural rightward pull on the candidate which will be effective unless a suitable political “counterweight” is applied. It explains why every single presidency since the Sixties has been a step to the right of the presidency before it. Obama will not and cannot buck the trend no matter how much he would love to and no matter what he says (which isn’t all that good, by the way). Good and benign presidential behavior is not correlated with good and benign intentions in the minds of presidents; it is correlated with that “counterweight” to the rightward drift—namely, robust progressive social movements. And we don’t have any. (We had the beginnings of an anti-war movement which pissed itself away getting behind the drive to elect Kerry. Learn from this.) This basic fact made a Nazi like Richard Nixon our last truly progressive president—far more progressive than Clinton ever dared in his private heart of hearts to be.

And voting for Democrats actually hurts the progressive cause: Not only does it hinder social movements on various levels (more on this later), but it teaches the Democrats that they don’t have to be but a “step to the left” of the Republicans. When Democrats can rest easy in their support from progressives (women, minorities, labor, the poor, my friends on myspace), they don’t have to concede anything to them. They only have to make concessions to the conservative (male, white, middle class) voters who they can’t take for granted. This has gradually shifted the whole scope of political discourse in the US—what counts as left and what counts as right—to the right. This makes it harder for presidents and those social movements alike to get anything “good” done.

Reflections on and prompted by Rev. Fred Phelps (a bit scattershot)

I just finished watching a documentary on Rev. Fred Phelps and his followers. He is the frothingly homophobic preacher from Topeka, KS, whose congregation pickets homosexuality-related events like PRIDE and the funerals of gaybash victims. (You can google his website(s) if you like. I can’t bring myself to link them.)

They also picket the funerals of (straight) American soldiers killed in Iraq. How exactly this is connected to the anti-gay tack is less than clear. I used to think the argument was that—as Bush himself argued—the war was about exporting Western values to the Middle East, and Phelps took these to include tolerance, or encouragement, of homosexuality; I figured he took up this line to say, these values are bad, so exporting them is bad, so the war is bad.

At this point, I don’t think he makes that much sense, even. His opposition to the war isn’t about exporting values but protesting anything representing “America.” Actually, judging from the signage, his anti-Americanism is a more prime focus than the homosexuality. (Though again I suspect the former stems from the latter. Some signs call the dead soldiers “fag enablers,” suggesting this is the problem with them.) Phelps equates liberal values with the nation-state and is prepared to protest anything he thinks the nation-state does or anything that, however tenuously, represents it.

Sure enough, soldiers represent the state and provide the security which makes it possible. Of course, blaming rank-and-file soldiers for the state’s actions is not the same thing. That connection is tenuous enough, but it gets weirder: A funny part in the documentary comes when the Phelpsians are protesting a Kansas University debate on the violability of the Pakistani border, while puzzled students are interviewed wondering aloud what “God Hates Fags” has to do with any of that.

Watching Phelps, it strikes me that any definition of “fanatic” has to include never thinking about strategy. I’ll never understand why the people with the goofiest ideas never bother to think about the most effective way to promote them. That just isn’t a concern. They have a feeling that being right (as they think they are) is quite enough; that a right idea is fit to be disseminated by any means, in any tone, at any time. (Perhaps they just drop the seeds and trust God to take care of the conditions for their taking root in the soil of people’s minds. In that case, though, why not trust God to drop the fucking seeds? How do you know what part to trust him with and what part to do yourselves?)

The video also reminds me of the deep contempt I have for (classical) liberal arguments on social issues like abortion and gay rights. I probably have more contempt for the onlookers, counter-protesters, and “good ministers” who oppose the Phelps’s protests than for Phelps himself. Given the chance to say, on camera, anything in the world about why Phelps and virulent homophobia are bad, all they can come up with—I mean, down to a person—are tepid lines against “hate” and “judging other people.”

(i) I mean, as if nobody could ever do anything so bad that you shouldn’t hate them for it. Not that “hate” is ever really defined; so I have to speculate: If by “hate” is meant simply any very strong opposition, what’s wrong with that? The counter-protesters display their own strong opposition to the Phelps’s. I’m sure we all strongly oppose all kinds of bad things, and if we don’t display the opposition publicly, we certainly wouldn’t object to it.

On the other hand, if “hate” refers to a consuming emotional state wildly out of proportion to its object, an unhealthy obsession of some kind, then, yes, “hate” is probably something nobody should ever hold for anything, no matter how bad. (Nursing this hate would psychologically harm the hater, if nothing else.) But I don’t reckon Phelps’s protests display this kind of “hate” in a clear way. He has an irrational opposition to something, sure enough, but I don’t know the emotional state attending this. That’s a separate issue.

Even if we could know Phelps “hated” in this sense, this wouldn’t be the most interesting thing about his protests.  It wouldn’t rank high on our list of criticisms. If Phelps “hated” Hitler, or some guy who molested his son, nobody would object. Nobody would even mention the “hate.” So if he does “hate” gays, the “hate” isn’t the real problematic issue here. I guess I’m saying that the “hate” is something separate from the position entailing it. Hating something that is actually good or benign is bad–but that doesn’t make the “hate” itself bad, any more than carrying a dangerous weapon around in a container makes the container dangerous. And on the other hand, just because Phelps’s “hate” is a vehicle for a bad viewpoint doesn’t make his “hate” the problem. It’s the viewpoint that should be opposed.

(ii) The counter-protesters’ whole “don’t judge anyone” tack is worse. I doubt it were even possible to act upon this maxim consistently. Surely the counter-protesters “judge” Phelps, for one. Not making judgments about people would prohibit social intercourse entirely. And can you imagine us refusing to “judge” the quality of music, or food, or the morality of child ripper-rapists? Can you imagine a father hearing his daughter’s favorable recital and telling her, “Sorry, it would be wrong to judge your performance (or you as a performer)”?

The formulation I hate the most is when someone offers the challenge, “Who are you to judge?” This makes me want to say: Who do I have to be to judge? I can only respond, “Well, I hope I’m the guy with the right view—the guy judging correctly; that’s who I am to judge.” Now, you can argue that I’m not right about my view, after all, and that this is why I can’t judge; and fair enough, I don’t guess anyone has a “right” to false judgments. But that’s different from saying nobody can hold an opinion on the thing in the first place. It’s the judgment that would be wrong—not the act of judging itself; and damn it, we won’t know the judgment is wrong until the judging is committed, and we can evaluate it.

In short, I judge the hell out of homosexuality, and so should everyone else. Namely, we should judge it to be perfectly fucking acceptable. That is why Phelps’s homophobia should be opposed: Because there is simply nothing goddamned wrong with homosexuality. (If there were, well, then…; but there isn’t.) It is OK because it is OK, not because nobody is allowed to hazard a guess as to what is or is not OK.

But there has to be a reason why this, the ostensibly most straightforward and “natural” reason to oppose homophobia, is virtually never brought up in these “debates.” If Phelps was protesting something good, or benign, like cartoonists or egg yolks, we would not shake our heads and sigh, “It isn’t proper to make judgments.” We’d say, “WTF?? What’s wrong with cartoonists or egg yolks, already? These things are fine. You’re crazy!” And if he was protesting a genuinely bad thing, like an inefficient tax cut, nobody would ask him not to “judge” issues. For that matter, nor would anyone say he were right to judge issues. “Judgment” just wouldn’t come into it; we would just talk about the merits, or not, of the thing being protested. I know I must be missing something here, but I can’t see why we talk differently about homosexuality.

This liberal way of assessing things has a leveling effect upon the whole moral field, reducing all values to neutral. Not judging cuts both ways: If homosexuality is OK simply because nobody is in a position to say that it is not OK, than homosexuality can’t be good, either. (That is, we cannot say that it is good—for that would be to judge it.) When all things become, effectively, equally valuable, then all things become equally trivial. That is, “value” ceases to be a term of distinction, a usable concept, altogether. Be gay, be a hermit, watch youtube or twiddle your fingers in a sandbox all fucking day, whatever. It’s all the same. It no longer means anything to be anything. And that is a loss. I want to live in a world, a culture, where there is a place for saying that homosexuality is good, its a good way to be. But this requires us to judge some things, and it may even require us to “hate” some things (in the first sense of the word).

Finally, the Bible probably doesn’t condemn homosexuality anyway—at least not the New Testament (NT), which I think Christians are (or should be) concerned with, since otherwise there isn’t a basis for their chucking all of the other Levitican laws out while picking on homosexuality. First, it is bizarre that people read the Soddom and Gommorah story and conclude a fundamentally anti-gay message from it. The story is about men wanting to gang-rape another man [1]—a stranger who was entitled to special hospitality from this group, no less. (And hospitality was virtually a sacrament in that time and place.) Isn’t it straightforward enough what is wrong with that? If the story were about men wanting to gang-rape a woman, would Christians interpret this as anti-heterosexual?

My understanding, anyhow, is that the archetypal homosexual relationship in the ancient world does not resemble the contemporary phenomenon. The former was not between freely consenting equals. It was often coercive in the full sense and nearly always so in our statutory sense. It was like our “pederasty” or close to it. (Again, I refer to the “archetypal” ancient homosexual relationship, not “every single ancient homosexual relationship.”) We are talking about two different concepts carrying the same name; it is perfectly within warrant to oppose the one and accept the other. Whether the coercive aspect is why the Bible condemns homosexuality is not clear to me. But it seems Christians could make a distinction here that they could live with. All of the specific injunctions against homosexuality (or what appear to be against it) in the NT are problematic as well. (The Metropolitan Church site has resources on this sort of thing. Pretty interesting stuff.)

Phelps’ trademark is to say that “God hates” homosexuals and other sinners. His evidence for this–at least, for the idea that God is capable of hating certain humans–is that the Bible quotes God as saying, “Jacob have I loved; Esau have I hated.” I doubt whatever word translates as “hate” here is any less ambiguous than our own “hate,” but I guess I don’t know. But even if it isn’t ambiguous, it can still be used metaphorically: If our word “hate” meant (only) a deep, abiding, serious moral hatred, we could still use it metaphorically to say we “hate” peanuts or having to work on a Saturday. So Phelps needs to say more here. Not to mention that there are other places in the Bible that suggest God loves everyone, no matter what; so the “evidence” is mixed or incoherent at best. Anyhow, not that we should care what the Bible says, but (a) I may want to talk to those who do, and (b) I just can’t help myself….

Notes

[1] Well, a male angel–someone they thought was a man.

Why A ‘Personal Relationship’ With God Is Impossible

Mainstream Christianity carries the imperative that a believer must have a “personal relationship” with God akin to that one has with other humans. (At least, it is akin to these in its being “personal.”) My simple view is that God is just not “built for” a personal relationship. He isn’t the kind of being that could enter into such a thing as we understand it. (Therefore, to the extent Christianity requires this, Christianity cannot be true.)

For example, a relationship requires a certain degree of novelty and “accident.” It is something mutually determined as opposed to pre-determined—not spelled out in detail from the start. A relationship “unfolds” over time. Neither party knows precisely how it will turn out. This makes it interesting enough to sustain itself over time; knowing precisely how some human exchange will happen, in every tiny detail, would render it pointless for a participant (from the perspective of the relationship, at least). It also allows for certain virtues key to a relationship: We wish and hope our partner the best, we wait to see if things work out for them; we probably worry about them; we listen to stories of her day, excited to hear how they turn out; surely we laugh together—which requires not knowing all the “punchlines” in advance.

This entire dynamic is so central to any genuine, deep human relationship that we literally don’t know what it would mean to have one without it—nor to be a “person” totally incapable of entering into such a dynamic. But God is precisely incapable of it, because he is omniscient. He can’t hope, nor wish, nor worry, nor appreciate novelty nor accident. He can’t co-create something with another that is beautiful and exciting precisely because a myriad of unimagined possibilities await. He can’t get to know somebody, or develop an interest in someone (or in something together with someone). He can’t do any of these things because all of them require not knowing precisely how things will turn out before they happen.

Likewise, God can’t learn from us in any way, nor be left better than when we “met” him—for he knows everything beforehand and is perfect already. Not to mention his all-powerfulness: Only a deficient being needs anything. And a relationship in which we have literally nothing to offer the other is too one-sided to be authentic. It cannot fulfill our human need-to-be-needed. And an omnipotent being probably can’t enjoy us or suffer along with us either. He cannot feel frustration, or sadness, or fear, so he can’t possibly feel our frustration, or be sad or fearful along with us. God can know facts, but he cannot know what it is to do wrong or be tempted to do wrong, or struggle to do right. In short, he cannot identify or empathize with us.

This implicates a distinction philosophers have made between different types of knowledge. Believing true statements is one kind of knowledge, but it isn’t the only kind. A person could know every single true statement about how to ski, but this wouldn’t mean he could actually ski. Yet the skill of skiing amounts to real knowledge nonetheless. As God lacks a physical body, he can’t ski—therefore he can’t know how to ski, therefore he can’t know what it is like to ski. This goes equal for knowing what it is like to hold a job, to feel the sunshine on one’s back, have sex, walk along the beach, and, if we believe our emotions are causally connected to chemicals and receptors in our brains, to feel and love and to give a damn as well. (And if you don’t think emotions require a physical brain—fine, then: God doesn’t know how to love and feel as a human does it.) When you subtract all the types of activities one needs direct, embodied acquaintance to know, it is hard to pick out anything recognizably human among the remainder. If God can still be called a “person,” he can by no means “relate” to one like us.[1]

One always hears that mutual trust is the bedrock of a sincere personal relationship. But trust means believing in the other person when one doesn’t fully know what they’re up to. We have to trust because we don’t have all the facts. God has all the facts, so he can’t trust anyone. Also, Christians believe that God will not ever fail them. This means, if Christianity is true, that this belief is true—Christians know God will not fail them. But to the extent that they know God cannot fail them, they “have all the facts” about his behavior as well. Therefore Christians cannot trust God, either. (Therefore a personal relationship is not possible.)

Also, being in a personal relationship means giving certain information to a partner at critical times. We are aching to know whether this cancer will pass—or which of two treatments lends the best chance for success, and the least chance for painful side-effects. We need to know who started that vicious rumor about our child so that we can address the parent and teacher. Can we imagine a “personal relationship” with someone who possesses this information, but refuses to give it to us? (Much less with someone who can just heal the cancer—or could have prevented it from the start—but won’t, nor tell us why they won’t.) Perhaps there are good reasons a God witholds the future from us, or denies us certain benefits; well, so be it—but it doesn’t make for a personal relationship.

Finally, for evangelicals, the relationship with God is not free but compulsive. We must enter into this, or face eternal damnation. This is problematic enough: Even a freely chosen relationship with a benign, loving individual will strain greatly if it becomes evident that the other cannot leave without punishment—even if he doesn’t want to leave! Also, with God, all of the reasons authentic friendship is difficult between authority figures and their subordinates would apply to an infinite degree. Could you be friends with someone who was openly planning to judge you on a certain day (known only to him) and to execute you with this gun, right here, if you didn’t turn out to prove worthy? Even if this judgment were perfectly legitimate, it isn’t conducive to a “personal relationship.” Even if you could be friends with such a person, could you ever know that your motivation was “personal” and not a rationalization borne of fear of falling afoul of the coming judgment?; and if you couldn’t know, could the relationship be authentic?

Conclusion

I have presented the “facts of the case” as I see them. This is partly the point. To the extent that evangelical Christianity is false, and it is better to believe true things than false things, this stands as an appeal to believe the true and reject the false.

But my second point is to stress that these facts have—must have—some effect on believers. On some level they must apprehend them in the basics. If they’re being honest with themselves, they know we don’t converse with God as we might converse with our spouse or coworker or mailman. The false idea of the relationship must be forced by the believer, against all evidence, and nobody can do this perfectly. And the idea of this personal relationship is no more harm-free than when a child holds an imaginary play-pal into adulthood, long past the point of developmental benefit. It becomes a case of wanting something we can’t get, developing needs that can’t be met. Whether or not this makes us blow up coffee houses or vote against stem cell research—some atheists speak as though this is the only way religion can be bad—it is degrading and alienating, and wars against authentic human living. In some ways, that is the worst thing ever.

* * *

Notes

[1] Some Christians respond that omniscience requires only that God know all things that are logically possible for him to know; and as skiing, etc., aren’t logically possible for a disembodied being to know, not knowing how to do them does not disprove the existence of an omniscient being. That is, for a disembodied being, not knowing how to ski no more calls into question his omniscience than not knowing the highest possible number would. For these things are logically, in principle, not the kinds of things that can be known—“skiing disembodied being” and “highest possible number” are not phrases that mean anything.

Again, God’s existence is not at issue here. Maybe there can be an omniscient being after all. The point is that this entity lacks the makings of a “personal relationship.”

Critique of Sam Harris’s “The Problem with Atheism”

[In his speech, “The Problem With Atheism,” Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith, critiques the term “atheism” from the standpoint of an atheist. He argues that the adoption of the label by what we might call the atheist movement is counterproductive to its own intellectual aims.]

Like Ralph Wiggum, Sam Harris likes stuff

“Philosophical” Objections to Using the Term “Atheist”

i. Grammatical Issues

Part of Harris’s opposition maintains, in his words, “on philosophical grounds.” He begins:

“I think that ‘atheist’ is a term that we do not need, in the same way that we don’t need a word for someone who rejects astrology. We simply do not call people ‘non-astrologers.’ All we need are words like ‘reason’ and ‘evidence’ and ‘common sense’ and ‘bullshit’ to put astrologers in their place, and so it could be with religion.”

He goes on to note that the Civil Rights movement was successful without needing to term itself ‘non-racist.’

It is tempting to respond: It isn’t clear that there is ever a strict “need” for any particular term at all—a case where none but it could work. In any case, “needing” is not a precondition for having. We needn’t “need” a thing to have it, and to use it perfectly well—terms included.

(In fairness, Harris may not be saying that the “unneeded-ness” of the term is a reason to abandon it; maybe it is just the reason we can—and should for other reasons. If so, fair enough.)

Harris continues: “Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn’t really a thing at all.” He is suspicious of the “negativity” of a word like “atheism,” the fact that it defines itself against—as the absence of—some other some other, “positive” entity. (Atheism is just “not theism.”)

Let us not make too much of this. It is perfectly intelligible to speak of “positive” entities, real “things,” in the form of grammatical “negatives.” Harris could hardly go a day without doing this himself. Take the statement, “There is no food in the refrigerator”: “No food” is the true subject, though it is not a “thing” in its own right, but rather the negation of some other thing (food). Suspending everything we know about how language functions, we might expect difficulty with the phrase: “How can you see a nothing?,” for example. (Or that favorite pedantism of mine, “How can you prove a negative?”) But in fact the statement is not the least bit confusing to anyone.

Whether “atheism” is itself a “thing” is immaterial. It doesn’t need to be a “thing” to be intelligible. But I suspect it probably is one all the same. By analogy, a headache is clearly a “thing”; but the same phenomenon can be described alternately as the absence of some other thing—it is a discomfort, or a lack of ease or good health in the head. Its “thing-hood” is not dissolved because we render it as not-something else. The difference is all a matter of words and not of “things” at all. I contend it is purely an accident of history that we don’t speak “positively” of a “thing” called belief in a naturalistic world, against which theistic disbelief is defined secondarily (say, “anaturalism”).

In fairness, I’m sure Harris has no quibble with word choice in itself. His real concern is how the peculiarities of the “atheist” label hinder popular reception of the movement’s ideas. But this hardly diminishes my response: To the extent that “atheist” is not all that peculiar, after all, it is all the less (necessarily) a “liability.”

(On Harris’s criticism that attaching any label to the movement carries liabilities, more to follow.)

ii. Bringing the Real World to Bear

Moving on, if the term “atheism” has more social currency than “non-astrologer,” this has far less to do with any wrong strategic turn atheists might have taken than the fact that theism itself has categorically more social currency than (serious) belief in astrology. If high margins of people openly subscribed to star-reading, if our Congress opened with the Speaker’s horoscope, if Bush waged war against Iraq because the heavens “told him to,” it would not be nearly so silly to distinguish ourselves as “non-astrologers.” For similar reasons, we speak of remaining “unmarried” or “unemployed,” though marriage and employment are the “things” and the former terms are defined as not-them. (Not that we “need” the terms, Sam; we just have them.) If marriage or employment were as scarce a phenomenon as serious astrological practice, it would never occur to anyone to use the label, nor would Harris think to write an essay condemning the practice.

Relatedly: One reason we atheists don’t already, instinctively, call ourselves simply “reasonable people” or “right-thinkers” is because there is no very distinct social phenomenon at the forefront of everyone’s thinking called “unreasonableness” or “incorrect thinking.” That is, nobody claims to go to Church to “act unreasonably,” and “bad thinking” is never invoked to stop abortions. Rather, there is theism, or its Christian form, to contend with. I can’t help this fact—perhaps it could have been otherwise—but this inherited reality sets the terms against which we must map ourselves in discursive and conceptual space.1

It only underscores this point that Christians/theists believe they are using “reason” and “common sense” and “right thinking” themselves. If everyone were a serial killer, and thought it were fine and well to be so, it would do little to call ourselves “good people” and hope that the virtue of non-serial killing should in folks’ minds follow from this. To the contrary, we would embrace the distinct virtue of “non-serial killing,” and promote the hell out of it.

iii. Names Versus Descriptions

Harris adds his objection that “atheism” does not imply a “philosophy,” or a “worldview.” (Not only is it “not a thing,” but it is especially not this kind of thing.) His problem seems to be that we atheists do in fact have a philosophy, a worldview, and “atheism” captures but one tiny facet of what that philosophy deals with. Using this term as the primary way to designate adherents to this worldview is limiting and misleading.

More on this later when we treat his “strategic” arguments, but for now: Harris seems overly upset that “atheism” might be a misnomer, that is, that it does not fully and adequately describe or define the thing—that “right-thinking” philosophy or worldview—to which it refers. But is this really a problem? Plenty of other misnomers refer in the same way without confusion. When my father was growing up in Charlotte, a shopkeeper thought it would get attention to market a snack as “World’s Worst Boiled Peanuts.” They were not the worst, nor did anyone who used the terms mean to describe them as such. That is, the term did not function as a (true) description of the product. It was just its name. It “stood for” the product in the same way “Joshua” stands for me without saying anything to describe me. Many place names work the same way: A city called “Green Gulch” need never have actually been green or a gulch for us to use the term.

In the same way, if “atheism” does not imply all that Harris wants his “worldview” to contain, this does not in itself mean that it does not, or could not, refer to it, after all.

Moreover: Presumably, Harris thinks his suggested alternative term, “reason,” implies a worldview. But even so, it hardly implies everything he wants to say about that worldview. Every term, names and descriptions alike, requires qualification. Even if the town is green and a gulch, it is much more than that (populated, hot, folksy) at the same time; even if the peanuts are the world’s worst, they are also small and brown and made in a crock pot. No term—even when it is a description—is a full description. It always bears qualification by way of additional terms. So to argue that “atheism” describes less than what it refers to doesn’t distinguish it from any other term. Saying less than everything at once is just the way of language; this feature can’t indict the term on philosophical grounds.

Finally, if we must abandon “atheism” because it is merely one implication of much a richer and broader worldview, I might as well argue that we abandon “reason” for some broader term—like “propriety” or “behaving well”—since thinking properly or well is just one aspect of (hence, is reducible to) doing everything proper or well. (Indeed, why not promote all virtues, not just “reason” but charity, love, and maintaining a manicured lawn, to this generic “propriety”?) Not all things which are reducible must be, for just any and all purposes, reduced. And it hardly means that it is reduced “away” to nothingness whenever it is. (Remember that everything is reducible to something else: biology to chemistry, male to human, human to ‘entity’ or ‘object’—so a strict “reductionism” is impracticable if communication is to occur.)

“Strategic” Objections to Using “Atheism”

i. “Atheism” As Marginalizing and Bogging Down the Reasonable People; Harris’s Version of the “Wedge”

But Harris also speaks of the practical or “strategic” problems of the use of the label “atheism.” Again, his main issue is with how people get “hung up” on the term, focusing on what he sees as one polemical tree in a vast, rich, forest of a “worldview.” This marginalizes us as cranks who “meet in ballrooms” to talk to ourselves. Harris laments having to endlessly refute everyone’s “knockdown” pet argument for the existence of God. (Or against atheism directly, like the stupid “Stalin and Hitler were atheists” tack.)

Much could be said here. On one level the marginalization and endless theoretical defense just seems like the burden of maintaining a very controversial position about anything. In any case, Harris seems to have in mind a kind of backward “wedge” strategy whereby a relatively palatable worldview—“reasonableness” or “evidence” or what have you—should be used to promote a less palatable specific belief like atheism. He sees us “leading with” the worldview, and as we encounter specific beliefs that run counter to it, including theism, we should offer our criticisms as a secondary function of holding the worldview.

Granted, the “wedge” is only an analogy, as Harris is really all about the worldview as an end unto itself, and not a vehicle for any other single thing; but atheism is one component of the worldview, and he makes it clear that if it gets across to people it will be by way of the “worldview.” (I say the wedge is backward because usually a more palatable specific issue is used to promote a less palatable worldview—the way creationists use a generic ID theory to promote a Judeo-Christian theology, or California potheads use medical marijuana to promote full legalization—whereas for Harris the directionality is reversed.)

First, recalling the distinction between a name and a description, there is no reason why the reverse of Harris’s model could not work: In principle atheism could be used to promote the style of thinking which it exemplifies. Indeed, this is usually how social movements work: As a leftist, I understand that a protest for “social justice” is too amorphous to draw supporters, impact witnesses, or scare the State into action. Trying to do everything is the surest route to doing nothing at all. Protests are always localized—aiming to stop the World Trade Organization from meeting on a certain date, or to get a new trial for a wrongfully imprisoned man, etc.; but this does not keep them from serving also as occasions to talk about the broader “social justice.” The general-specific dichotomy is a false one.

Granted, “reason” and “evidence” are easier ideas to promote because they are already accepted by nearly everyone. (For who argues against being “reasonable”?) But for precisely this reason, using these ideas as the “wedge” has the result of trivializing them—or trivializing what “atheists” mean by them in their totality.

ii. What We Call Ourselves Is Not Really Up to Us

But this is only if Harris’s strategy succeeds in substituting “reasonableness” for “atheism.” More likely, the opposite will occur. It is inevitable that promoting such a “worldview” will manifest itself in charges of atheism—or of some other “cranky” idiosyncratic belief of ours—anyhow. In this case we will be forced right back into “endless arguments” at the “margins.” The way Harris speaks, it is as though it should be easy for Jehovah’s Witnesses to get their beliefs “over on” Christians by simply promoting them as “sound Biblical belief,” or some other virtue that is already accepted among Christians. Of course, mainstream Protestants would swallow this up just until the point they realize the “sound Biblical believers” are fucking Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just as socialists who have attempted to call their socialism something else so as not to scare away recruitable moderates are soon enough “outed” as socialists—people will call us “atheists” no matter what we call ourselves. (And just as the term “atheism” has been applied, indeed invented, to denigrate naturalists and “freethinkers” in the past.)

Plus, I suspect that there is a good reason why we promoters of “reason” and “evidence” (wink, wink) are quickly outed, and marginalized, as atheists. And this boils down to my primary reason for retaining the term “atheist”: Because, to repeat, belief in God simply has tremendously more social currency than either any specific tenet of any one religion, or any other idea which falls out of Harris’s “reasonable” “worldview.” This is why our critics will keep moving there, and why we should already be there.

iii. Attacking What Is Common To Religions As Glossing Over Their Important Differences

Harris also argues that our critiques of the claims specific to various religions are drowned out by the general, leveling focus on “God” which stems from our focus on “atheism.” He says this also leads us to be “even handed” in our treatment of religion, while some religious beliefs are more pernicious than others and should be critiqued more harshly. But this is another false dichotomy: We can perfectly well critique religion in terms of (a) the generic features shared by each (and there must be shared features if we use the word “religion” as a collective reference) as well as (b) each in its specific form. For Harris to say otherwise is like saying that because we critique “bad reason” in general, we cannot also critique the specific manifestations of bad reason—astrology, atheism, etc. And yet promoting the worldview first, and arguing these manifestations as they come up along the way is precisely the “strategy” he advocates.

iv. On Going Underground

The oddest part about Harris’s “strategy” is his idea that, beyond not calling ourselves “atheists,” we “should not call ourselves anything” at all. Rather, “We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.” Of course, this is not quite incompatible with meeting in ballrooms to discuss atheism, or any other “worldview.” The other 99.99% of our lives could still be spent destroying bad ideas wherever we find them without even ever mentioning atheism in its own right. I just don’t think the underground strategy is how very large, entrenched ideas are ever knocked out of collective consciousness.

This view also makes mush of the analogy Harris wants to draw between his proposal and the Civil Rights movement. Harris writes,

“[H]ow have people of good will and common sense gone about combating racism? There was a civil rights movement, of course. The KKK was gradually battered to the fringes of society…[B]ut, ask yourself, how many people have had to identify themselves as “non-racists” to participate in this process? Is there a “non-racist alliance” somewhere for me to join?”

First, whatever it called itself, the Civil Rights movement hardly “went underground,” but rather attacked bad ideas and the policies embodying them head-on.

Nor did this movement avoid “attaching a name to” itself. (The civil rights movement was indeed “The Civil Rights Movement”). Those “liabilities” associated with taking on a label either didn’t apply or were outweighed by other factors to the point of negligence. (Why need the “atheist” movement be different?)

Also, if this movement never called itself “non-racist,” this hardly means it avoided those “negative” self-descriptions altogether: It wasn’t explicitly “non-racist,” but it was sure as hell explicitly “non-violent”—though “non-violence” is no more “a thing at all” than “atheism.” Nor was this “negative” appellation incidental to the movement’s success. It bore “strategic” implications. Indeed, without the brawny backing of the National Guard, it is far from clear that resistance and protest would have accomplished anything. But being viewed as non-violent was a great point of recruitment and public relations; and this was almost entirely due to the movement calling itself “non-violent.” At the least, surely we can agree that the label neither hindered the movement, nor confused potential sympathizers as to its best ends. The only “underground” model Harris provides could not have done more to violate his recommendations.

* * *

Notes

1 To one degree or another, every term gains its meaning from the fact that it is not certain other terms. Historically, when one term loses currency, the referential scope of another term often “stretches” over time to make up the distance. That is, each term must respect the landscape of other terms “preceding” it, as these determine its own scope of effective action.

Another Bad Argument Against Affirmative Action

In the debate linked in my last post, anti-Affirmative Action speaker Joseph Phillips offers a version of the “racial preferences hurt minorities” argument. He poses that AA programs designed to benefit African Americans send the message that this group “can’t compete” with white students without preferences. Of course this is supposed to insult blacks and offend everyone else.

But the “can’t” here is an odd jump: Could not the same logic be applied to any case in which one seeks to ameliorate a wrong? One reason for condemning slavery in the U.S. is that it thwarted the full and textured human flourishing of its victims. When we say that slavery should have been ended because it has this negative effect, are we saying that the victims of slavery “couldn’t” realize their potential so long as the institution remained? For surely to say so would be false: Frederick Douglass is as “realized” a human being as every lived, and did not need the abolition of slavery to do it. (He escaped its “potential-denying” tendencies “on his own” instead.) Nor does freeing you from an illegal, makeshift dungeon imply that you “can’t” get out on your own; for it is not impossible that you could escape.

But just as the imperative to correct a wrong—to end slavery, or free you from that dungeon—doesn’t mean its victims absolutely “can’t” succeed without the wrong being corrected, the fact that the victims “can” succeed without our corrective intervention doesn’t mean there isn’t an imperative to correct it.

For example, I could place a series of obstacles—potholes, fences, fires, hooligans—between you and your place of work. Whether or not you “can” or “can’t” negotiate these successfully enough to keep your job going is totally beside the question of whether it would be moral for me, or some other person, to remove these obstacles.

And why stick to the righting of wrongs? By Phillips’s reasoning, conversely, doesn’t not erecting these obstacles send the same ugly message that you can only compete in the absence of special obstacles? Doesn’t telling my wife I love her convey the insult that she “can’t” maintain a sense of self-esteem and wellbeing without my affection?

In brief, the reason we stop bad things and create good things is not because the beneficiaries “can’t” possibly succeed at anything without those measures. AA programs no more imply this than any other time we act morally for the benefit of “less than everyone.”