My post the other day about facts and values got me thinking about another issue that I have done some thinking about concerning values. Generally, there is little controversy about saying that someone can have the wrong facts. The controversy is usually which facts are right or when to say so, not whether that a fact can be wrong. Only in the deepest fringes of postmodern philosophy can one say that a fact cannot be wrong, and among the straw-man of the uber-accommodationist that they can never be stated. But there is a more subtle question embedded in this issue. What about values? Can the principles you accept as important or essential be wrong to have?
One value I have is honesty. I believe that honesty is an important attribute to practice because it leads to interactions with people which engenders trust, which is a thing I have an interest in creating. When I am trusted, and trust others, I live in a world of lesser anxiety. And that, I think, is a good thing. Yes, sometimes the truth is painful, and in times of emotional upheaval it can be put off or at least put in the background, but there must come a time when the truth has to be dealt with or live a life of denial and possible delusion. I’m just sayin’….
My value of honesty, being a good means towards creating a more trusting and less anxious environment (assuming this is actually the case), is a good thing if trust and lesser anxiety are good things. And, in general, the values I have are right to have iff the effects they have are worth striving for. But for Thor’s sake what kind of world are we trying to create? What would be good effects for us to evaluate our values? Upon what criteria do we ultimately judge a value by? I don’t know. Further, this is not a question that I am particularly interested in solving at the moment (although you may guess what kinds of answers I might give, if pressed). I am more concerned with a related question.
Is criticizing a person’s values wrong?
This question is similar in many ways to the question of whether it is appropriate to question or criticize a person’s religious beliefs. In the same way that a religious belief is an integral aspect of a person’s life, so are their values. And in many cases one’s values are tied to their religious beliefs, and vice-versa. Values are also, like religious beliefs, shared things. We tend to identify ourselves in terms of our values and use them to tie ourselves to others. The people we associate with, call allies, and like will often have similar values as ourselves. Often, when talking with someone you fervently disagree with, it is the difference of values which causes the inability to comprehend how they managed to come to a certain conclusion, way of life, or perspective.
One value,which I have seen in both religious and non-religious people, is what I will call self-deprecation. This can take the form of depriving oneself on specific pleasures, causing oneself specific harm, etc. By this I do NOT mean sado-masochism, which is a different animal (although perhaps not completely unrelated, but that’s a topic for another blog). Within the evangelical and conservative Christian community this is somewhat common, especially when it comes to one’s sexuality. Part of the problem in those types of cases is the putting off of pleasures in the belief that something greater comes in the future; whether it be the idealized bliss of the marriage bed or the eternal one of heaven (which are, from what I understand, associated in order to maintain the conservative view of sexuality).
Depriving of oneself of the pleasures of the world is, from the point of view of this hedonist, materialist, atheist, a waste of time and harmful to a healthy lifestyle. This does not imply that we should never miss out on an opportunity to experience pleasure, just that the so-called “family values” espoused by social conservatism are, in my opinion, harmful and possibly unethical. The values of “family values” are, in my oh-so humble opinion, the wrong values to have.
I am willing to say this because I think the universe is such-and -such a way, and the reasons for adopting such values are based upon an alternative and delusional worldview which is not supported by the facts. As I said in my post about facts and values the other day, values are a kind of fact. They are supported by beliefs about the world, and are things we believe to be true and important. But if the worldview one holds is not justified, then the values dependent upon that worldview may be wrong, or at least not ideal. They may, in fact, be detrimental to emotional, intellectual, and physical growth. Take for example what happens when you believe that sickness and injury should be dealt with by prayer. The values that are derived from such a worldview will often have direct consequences upon the health and welfare of such people.
Closer to home for me is the balance of two values that I have, but in different proportion from other atheists. And many people will notice that these values have similar effects on different issues of political, social, and cultural importance. They are what I will call truth and diplomacy. I value more strongly the value of dealing with whether something is true or not over whether the answer I give will win me friends, votes, etc. Others are more concerned with building metaphorical bridges when trying to reach out to people who are not already in agreement with their worldview. Because of the shift in balance of these values they shift the tone, often resulting in a shift in consistency with what they may believe, in order not to alienate people. And while I don’t think they see it as preferring politics over truth, that is often what it seems like from my point of view. Surely the fact that many people simply accept that politicians lie tells us something about this phenomenon; diplomacy works, and truth is often an obstacle to achieving goals. I know, I’m cynical.
Now, I do not think that there is some absolute right way to go about this balance. I do not think that my honesty-oriented value is always better than the values of diplomacy, but I think that in some cases it is. This implies, I think, that there are indeed some times when diplomacy is warranted, and even I, an unabashed and unapologetic gnu atheist, measure and hold my tongue depending on circumstances. I never lie about my beliefs concerning religion, but there are times when I might soften a quip into a question or observation, suggest rather than blatantly criticize, but I never coddle or demonstrate faux respect for an idea which I do not respect.
That is, I think there is a point in the balance of truth and diplomacy where the scale simply falls over. Those ‘accommodationsists’ of whom I am critical seem to me to be overly concerned with appearing respectful (or actually respecting an idea which I think they should not) and the straw-man new atheists they demonize go too far in not knowing the time and place, and the appropriate level of criticism therein. The problem there is finding actual people, especially among the leaders of the atheist community, who are the analogs to these straw-men. Are there people who are invited to speak at atheist conventions (if that is the appropriate criteria) who ferociously and incessantly attack beliefs, believers, or institutions without regard for what anyone has said, done, or supported? In other words, are their criticisms unjustified? You may think they should tone it down, but do you think the actual content is wrong?
And yes, there will be wiggle room in where that balance rests, as well as the extremity of their opinions*. Certainly I am likely to be somewhat more or less confrontational than someone else, but the important thing, from my point of view, is honesty. I am concerned that in striving to appear friendly, I don’t also appear dishonest or contradictory. I don’t want to be seen as someone who says nice things about faith here, but elsewhere say how I think it’s ultimately delusional (even if I didn’t want to use that word, because it might offend someone).
People such a Chris Mooney argue that we should watch how we communicate so as to not chase moderate believers towards the sanctums of fundamentalism, while he does not seem to comprehend that it is our lack of faith itself which alienates us from people, not the belief that their doctrines are inconsistent with science. Does Mooney believe that the doctrines of religious groups, specifically Christianity on one case, are consistent with scientific theories like natural selection? He might, but he seems uninterested in the truth of this question, which bothers me. It is not that people like Mooney have to say, in every circumstance, that the doctrines of this and that faith are inconsistent with science (or whatever he believes personally). Rather, the issue is that he does not have to be afraid to give an opinion he has if he actually believes it.
What I often see from many accommodationists, whether in anti-atheist or anti-gnu articles or in comments on various blogs, is a lack of shyness in terms of telling other atheists what they think about them, without regard for what the gnu atheist has said. They do not appreciate the fact that there is a difference in balance between the values of truthfulness (I almost wrote “truthiness”) and the diplomacy which they find so important…except when talking to or about the gnus. For people like myself, who actually believe that there is a fundamental incoherence about faith, religious doctrine, etc in relation to what we know about the universe, we simply want to be able to say so whenever we feel it is appropriate to do so. My value is truth over diplomacy, but diplomacy is a value I have, even if it is secondary.
And, of course, the opinions of when it is appropriate will vary. So long as it is to not ever say it unless you are talking with people you agree with (how would you know if you can’t say so?), I think we have room to talk. So my question for those people whose balance is more accommodating than mine is this; are there times when I can say that things like faith and religious doctrines are incoherent or wrong? And if so, when? Are there times when I can say these things to people who are religious?
And, to go meta, is there an appropriate time and place to say that your value of diplomacy might not be, if not outright wrong, overbalanced?
Is it going to far to say that the tone of accommodationists, in saying that our gnu beliefs are incompatible with their goals of effective communication, is going to push gnus away from a moderate position towards atheist extremism?
*What we have here are two separate dimensions; 1) The strength of one’s views, and 2) the willingness or unwillingness to be confrontational about the beliefs one has.