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The atheist culture wars; applying moral foundation theory to the great schism May 13, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Skepticism and atheism.
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This morning I found myself pondering the idea of cultural relativism, tribalism, and how it relates to the various fights which have emerged in the atheist and skeptic communities.  Cultural relativism is a concept in anthropology which developed as a reaction to a kind of tribalism which is called ethnocentricism.  Just think of Bush-era conservatives with their nationalistic, jingoistic, and what they called “patriotism.”  Ethnocentricism is exemplified by the idea that America was getting it right (well, at least their red-state America, anyway).  Those of us on the political Left, those who voted for Al Gore and who saw Dubya as an awful president surrounded by an awful administration (which dragged us through scandal after scandal) would sometimes point out that perhaps we were not doing it all right.  Perhaps some relativism was necessary…which led to us being told we hated America.

culture_warsIn other words, the culture wars.

As writers such as Jonathon Haidt and the (discredited, but largely for different work) Marc. D Houser have pointed out, much of these political and cultural differences are based in differing value-sets.  There are different ways that we perceive information, in emotional and moral ways, which change how we draw conclusions about reality.  In short, what values we have will influence our intellectual opinions.

Both of these writers have emphasized two primary narratives which lead in two major directions concerning how we think about our tribe, other tribes, what kinds of rules our tribe should have, etc.  In American culture, this translates into the conservative “red state” America and the “blue state” America.  You know, the culture wars distinctions we have been talking about for more than a decade now.

I think this is what’s happened to the atheist community.  I don’t think that the main differences are precisely the same as they are in the larger culture, but I think this is the type of thing that has happened to us, and I am not sure anything can be done to fix it, just like with the larger culture wars.

How can you change someone’s values? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do things like criticize other people’s values (I, for example, think that liberal values–such as care and fairness–are actually superior to largely conservative values –such as loyalty, authority, and sanctity.  But of course I would say that; I’m a pinko ‘Murica-hatin’ liberal).  The question is  how, assuming that I am in any meaningful way objectively (or at least inter-subjectively) right that my values are better, can I convince a loyal, authority-loving, sanctimonious…sanctified conservative of that?

That’s a harder thing to do.

imagesEver talk to a creationist? How about a “pro-life” (or pro-choice, if you are on the other side of that fence) activist? There is more than a distance of facts (although there often is that), but there is a distance of language-games, values, and worldviews.  Such a conversation needs more than a good moderator, it needs a cultural anthropologist in order to shake out the worldview distinctions.

Ever read a blogger who uses the term FTBully not ironically? Ever read a post by PZ Myers or Rebecca Watson? I do, fairly frequently.  And guess what; I think one side of that fight is crazy, and I think that they are fundamentally wrong from the bottom up (guess which).  The problem is not the factual disagreements (that is a symptom, not the cause), the problem is the fundamental worldview distinctions.  The problems are fundamentally about what values matter to us.

That is, they are not wrong because of their bad logical argument itself, but of their assumptions, worldview, and moral values. This is because logic is only a tool.  It can only manipulate information given to it.  Just like a Bible-toting evangelical conservative Christian can use logic to make their points, so can the atheist they are arguing with.  And while both may make logical errors (guess which I think is likely to make more), the source of the problem is at the level of things like values, assumptions, and biases; not mere facts.

Those who oppose the efforts of inclusion in the atheist community are not wrong because they are opposing inclusion.  In fact, the very framing of that statement was (intentionally) worded to lean one direction (hey, Fox News does it, so can I…).  They are wrong because they are valuing the wrong things.

Value divisions in the atheist community

Surely, there are both political liberals and conservatives in the atheist community.  But how the foundational values we have get expressed in the larger political sphere will differ from how they will create splits in our smaller atheist culture.  The values which split us here; values such as authority, loyalty, and sanctity being expressed in the atheist/skeptic communities as opposed to liberty, care, and fairness will illuminate the foundations of our disagreements.  In other words, I’m applying moral foundation theory to this split, and I’m claiming that it is largely analogous to the conservative/liberal split in the larger community.

Let’s take a look at the third moral foundation, for a clue:

3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

I will bet that both sides of this split will identify with this, but in different ways.  Clearly, some people feel bullied by others in the community, and claim that those people are trying to wrangle authority over everyone else.  Those people trying to define what atheism, skepticism, etc mean when it’s clearly not what it means (to them).

But on the other side, the argument is that mere philosophical or semantic precision are not what matters.  PZ Myers’ concept of the “dictionary atheist” was not an attempt to redefine atheist in the philosophical sense, nor to force this definition on anyone, but to recognize that those philosophical senses are secondary to many people.  And he’s right.

See, we are not primarily rational beings.  We are emotional beings who believe things for largely non-rational reasons, and then we rationalize (or explain) the causes of our beliefs.  Hopefully, we are willing to change our minds based on new information, but believing (or not believing, in the case of atheism) is an emotional phenomenon which we later rationalize.  Some people are not aware of this and get overly focused (as I have, in the past) on the semantics and philosophical side of the question.  This is, I believe, Justin Vacula’s primary fault, as a thinker, and why he fails to get it so often.

In other words, rationalized arguments about semantics when the difference is one of values.

Let’s get back to moral foundation theory to see more facets of this disagreement.

Some people want to employ fairness:

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

If we interpret this in the sense of giving everyone a fair chance to participate, then there are at least two ways that we can go.  The question concerns the issue of whether we should treat everyone the same or whether we should treat people in the way which produces equal outcomes.  The question of privilege, which has become a lightning rod in recent years, is relevant here.  Treating people the same, irregardless of their place relative to privilege, often leave people in different outcomes (says this liberal pinko).  This is part of an old argument which is reminiscent of not only recent atheist discussions, but culture war arguments over the last few decades.

In the atheist community, this has been most obvious in terms of the treatment of feminism, which some see as exclusive of the rights of men, but which other’s see as learning from the experience of women to make it better for everyone, regardless of gender.  If we seek to include more women, do we treat them like men or do we try to dig deeper and understand that the assumptions about gender need to be revisited so that we stop perpetuating gender roles and expectations, hopefully leading to a more gender equitable community where the varying perspectives are better seen and understood? Seems simple to me, but other people have different values and view equality either secondarily or as a simple function of treating everyone the same, even if that means people get to different places.  One of these values is superior to the other.

Then we can ask whether this foundation is more or less important than purity, or sanctity:

6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

But don’t let the description fool you; this is not a strictly religious behavior pattern.  This pattern of behavior, in my opinion, is not religious per se, but was usurped by religion just like morality and rituals.  The feeling that something does not belong; social justice is not relevant to atheism (for example) is a deep and important value for many people.  The question is whether this or the desire to include those affected by social injustice, and trying to counteract that, is more important.

For me, the sanctity of pure skepticism or atheism (as it is seen by some, say Jamy Ian Swiss) are not more important than addressing the intersectionality of skepticism with atheism, racism,gender inequality, etc.  But if someone else feels disgusted by that degradation of the purity of the cause of skepticism (or atheism), they will reject movements such as Atheism+.  They will feel that to include gender issues, race issues, etc into the larger cause is a form of contamination; it just is not what atheism/skepticism is about! (says our sanctimonious friends).  Again, this is a difference of values more than a difference of facts. Again, one of these sets of values is superior.

Accommodationism

Remember the old argument about accommodationism? One of the issues was whether it was important to care about people, despite their beliefs.  How nice were we supposed to be? Well, that’s all about the care/harm foundation:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

Take that in balance with other values, such as the liberty/oppression foundation:

3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

and we can see why the anger at oppressive religious institutions and doctrines might override the care/harm value.  Some people were so angry, justifiably so or not, that they were not concerned about being sensitive to people’s feelings. Who cares if some Christian’s feelings are hurt when their beliefs are criticized when you balance that against the harm Christianity is doing to so many people! On the other hand, argued others, if we do not accommodate their beliefs, we will never change their minds and we will simply push them further away.  Whether this is true or not is relevant too, but at an emotional level it exposes how our values are the origin of such arguments, not the facts per se.

Big Tent Atheism

What about our desire to create a large umbrella organization or a big tent? The goal of coming together as atheists no matter our differences, for the sake of our shared rights? Well, that’s the value of Loyalty/betrayal:

4) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

Here, anyone who is perpetuating the drama is a traitor.  They are betraying their larger cause in the name is stupid arguments over secondary concerns.  This is, I believe, the motivation behind my long time friend Staks’ anti-drama pledge.  It is a value I understand, but which I do not share as a primary moral concern.  I am more interested in making our community better than making it bigger and closer.  That is, I would rather be a part of a smaller, more inclusive atheist community than one which is more concerned with what I see as a false sense of community around the answer “no” to the question “do you believe in any gods?” I’m more concerned with addressing social justice and the intersection of issues around atheism than focus on merely getting along for the sake of what I see as short-term atheist rights issues.

As I see it, any movement that focuses on its own civil rights over the intersectionality of all human rights is participating in short-term thinking, and will eventually be left behind with the conservatism of history.

As our community continues to grow, transform, and gain political and cultural influence, we will become institutionalized, inevitably.  How we think of ourselves now will effect how we will leave our mark on history.  I would rather leave a smaller, but more inclusive mark on history than a larger but more conservative and exclusive mark.  With this in mind, I want to address the fifth, and as of yet unmentioned, moral foundation; the Authority/subversion foundation:

5) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

Five years ago, this foundation would have had no place in this discussion.  Five years ago, we were all subversives, pulling away from a larger tradition of hierarchical religious institutions which dominate our culture.  And, of course, this is still largely true.  But in another sense, this has become a point of division within the atheist/skeptic community, now that we have at least established, at least internally, some traditions (or at least tendencies) and some leadership.

No, there is no atheist pope.  There is, however, some hierarchy and some power.  Richard Dawkins saying something about atheism carries weight.  Not for all of us, but he is a symbol of our movement and his opinions carry some weight.  We can and do disagree with him (some more than others, of course), and his words are not officially conclusive, but because so many people respect him his words have an effect on our thinking.  He’s just one example.

If you love PZ Myers, Rebecca Watson, or Justin Vacula, then their words carry weight.  The people you are willing to listen to will influence your thinking, and those whom you vilify you will, tribalistically, either ignore or hate.

If you have written off someone like Rebecca Watson or PZ Myers (as bullies or whatever), then you will only see her words when someone you like quotes them, and your view of them is skewed.  If you hate Justin Vacula, the same is true from the other side.  Personally, I make a point to read the words of those I disagree with as well as those I tend to agree with.  I never agree with anyone all the time, but there are certainly people with whom I agree more often than not, and those with whom I rarely agree.  I am aware that this is more about values than mere facts.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m on board with Atheism+, that I am very appreciative of Skepchick for exposing me to many ideas and perspectives I did have 3 years ago, and that I abhor Men’s Rights Activists.  I’m a third wave feminist who makes the attempt to be aware of the privileges I have, and to understand my cultural blind spots.  I have chosen my side, not because I think my side is always right and the others wrong, but because I share values with them.  Just like I am not a Republican or a conservative politically (even if I might occasionally agree with them), I voted for Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama (twice), and I think that Fox News is pretty awful, I have a side in this atheist schism.  But I still listen to the other side.  I try to understand their values and arguments, and understand that I may never be able to get them to see what I see.

But, most importantly, I think that my values are superior.  Not such that I will force them on anyone, but insofar as I think that they lead to a better world.  Am I objectively right? Well, I don’t think that’s a meaningful question.  Am I intersubjectively right? I think so.   The difference between the two is that the former assumes an objective perspective, while the latter only assumes that such a perspective is always abstracted from a subjective one, and is thus not universal or authoritarian.  This is what I think many political conservatives do not see; liberals may think their views are superior, but they are not actually trying  to demand authority over others based on it.  We want you to see that we are right and join us, are frustrated when you don’t, and we are amused when you call us bullies or totalitarians.  We find it funny because the values which make totalitarianism or bullying possible are conservative values, not ours.

bulliesThe same is true for those in the atheist community who call people such as PZ Myers bullies, to whom the remainder of this post is addressed  The values we have do not include authority as strongly as do yours, so we are not natural bullies.  But since you have those values in stronger measures, you think everyone feels the same and so you project the authoritarian attitude onto us.  We’re not telling you what to do or what you should think, we are just saying what is better (and hopefully why they are better).  And we are sad when you don’t understand it and pull away from us, creating the schism.  We don’t create the schisms; we identify the sources of them and offer a bridge to join us where things are better, which you subsequently see as a demand, a redefinition, and as some sort of totalitarianism (a Horde, if you would).  We don’t seek to control you, we seek to have you understand that the controls already exist and that you are subject to them because you don’t see them.

We are not bullies.  The bullies are your projected values onto us.

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