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Accommodationism: the facts don’t matter March 2, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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I have been thinking a little the last couple of days how frustrating the whole gnu atheist/accommodationist conversation has been on the blogosphere in recent months.  As I have argued previously, I don’t have a lot of tolerance for the tolerance-monkeys we call ‘accommodationists.’  I think they are more concerned with tone and appearance in a way that makes them dishonest and ironically disrespectful.  But why do they annoy me so?

Today I was thinking about it and it became crystal clear that it is the exact annoyance I experience while talking with a creationist.  I begin to see, as I argue with them, that the facts simply do not matter.  In each discussion, facts are ignored and sophomoric philosophical dribble are uttered in place of an actual conversation about what is true.  Content is almost completely ignored while tone, respect, and other misused terms are bandied about with like antidotes, but which end up being more homeopathic than anything.

Ha! Accommodationist arguments are homeopathic! They are nothing but water, but the vanishingly small amount of actual argument is presented as a strength.  I like that.  Feel free to borrow it at your leisure.

And what’s worse, is that not only do they not respond to the actual content, they fancy their own arguments as powerful.  Just like a creationist; an argument that displays more ignorance and made-up silliness while they often throw the same accusation towards their targets (that would be gnus like me).

Why don’t they address the content; facts? Because they can’t.

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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.

The Deep Rift in Atheism: picking a tribe April 28, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Skepticism and atheism.
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Over the last few years, a deep rift has emerged in the atheist community.  If you don’t know about it, and don’t care, then I’m not going to summarize it for you.  For sake of clarity, I am talking about the rift between the FtB bloggers (because they are a hive mind, of course) and those who refer to them at “FtBullies” or somesuch.  You know, like many at Skeptic Ink, the slymepit, or A Voice for Men (and other such places).

venn-scopeofproblemNow, I will start out by saying that I recognize the tribalism emerging here.  For a while, say around 2007, it looked like the atheist community was going to be a tribe of it’s own; breaking away from the tribes of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc and creating a space for those who were interested in science, reality, and who were skeptics.   Quickly, it began to fall apart a bit at a time.  From the fall of the Rational Response Squad, through #Elevatorgate, and to the “deep rift” which still causes trembling in the blogosphere today, there are a number of tribes within the larger community of reason.  Again, I’ll start by acknowledging this, and using it as the basis to say any more about it.

Nobody here is completely right.  In every camp within the atheist community there are people who have made mistakes, with whom I disagree sometimes, and with whom I will not choose to spend my time reading (which is not to say I will refuse to do so, I just don’t follow those blogs).  But that does not mean that the answer is (necessarily) to mediate the dispute by planting oneself in some neutral zone between these camps.  That philosophy of diplomacy is fundamentally flawed, as I think The Daily Show has shown many times over the years by demonstrating that Fox News is not Fair nor balanced.  Similarly, as PZ Myers once said (and I’m identifying my” tribe here), trying to sit halfway between the evidence and “those worshipping superstition and myth is not a better place. It just means you’re halfway to crazy town.”  That is, there is a side here which is more right than others (or, in some cases, all in-accordance-with-the-evidence while the other is all wrong).  In short, I think that there exists, within this rift, a side which is one the right side of justice, and sees the long term goals of the movement are worth paying attention to.  I think that side is the FtB people, for the overwhelming majority of examples.

Many do not agree.  Justin Vacula, for example,  has said that atheism has nothing to do with feminism.  He puts it this way:

Atheism, as it’s commonly understood, and how I use the term, is lack of belief in any gods. The lack of belief in any gods does not entail any other facts about a person. Atheism — although there may be a large percentage of atheists at least in America who share some unrelated common ideals — is no indication of political views, positions on social issues, guarantee of intelligence, educational background, ideas concerning feminism, or socioeconomic status.

Here, Vacula is technically correct.  Atheism, qua atheism, will tell you nothing about a person other than their lack of belief in gods.  Vacula is here playing the part of the dictionary atheist, as defined by PZ Myers.  And I will admit that I have a small quibble with PZ’s view here about why we are atheists.  I disagree with PZ semantically (because my mind works in such a way that the lack of semantic precision bothers me), but I think I understand PZ’s point in that linked post (from February 2011, mind you…and it’s still an issue…) and agree with it mostly.   On the other hand, I find Vacula’s semantic quibbling, some 2+ years later, to be grating and annoying.  Vacula, like some many around him, is missing the point while trying to be too technical, too lawyerly.

Here’s what I posted to facebook, quickly, before going to work earlier today (in part) after reading an update by Vacula;

Atheism has nothing to do with feminism, eh? Only in the most strict sense that the lack of belief in any gods (per se) is not directly related to the role of gender discrimination and structural inequalities therein are concerned. But the same skeptical methodology and the value for human rights which led me to care enough to take part in the atheist community led me to care about the rights of all genders, discrimination, and to work towards a better world for all people no matter their gender.

And so now I want to elaborate on this.  I want to explain why I think that the atheist community has a lot to add to and contribute to the many social justice movements, feminism included, and why people like Vacula should stop being a clueless douchemonkey about this, if possible.  It’s not that I think Vacula and his ilk is always wrong, that they have nothing worth-while to add, or that he should be kicked out of anything (although I will not seek him out when I go to Women in Secularism 2 in a few weeks).  It’s that I think that they are missing the goddamned point.

ApluslogoAtheism+

I don’t participate in the A+ forums.  My wife (Ginny) is a moderator there (although I think her graduate school works and upcoming website project have made her participation there nonexistent recently).  I don’t know enough about what goes on there to speak with great authority, but I agree with their general goal as I understand it.  And despite what anyone will say about the Matt Dillahunty affair which occurred there (Matt is seemingly still on board with A+, so that should tell you something), they are a dedicated group of people who care about social justice and they are people with whom I’m willing to ally myself generally.

What is the point of atheism+? We know that atheism, per se, is simply a conclusion; the answer “no” to the question “do you currently hold an active belief in any gods?”  So why that title? Simple; it caught on from an organic conversation, and that’s how terms come to be.  It came into form here, with Greta Christina pulling together an idea that was initiated by Jen McCreight about how there is more for us to do, as atheists.  We don’t only disbelieve in gods, we have values and positive beliefs.  Granted, not all atheists share the values which the atheism+ movement embraces, but that is the nature of addition; those who don’t fall into that category are not being counted here.  If you don’t add those values, then you are not part of the set that is defined by atheism + social justice.  There is no attempt to re-define atheism, just to FUCKING ADD TO IT! Nobody has to count themselves as part of it if they are not in agreement.  Personally, I’m glad to leave some atheist dipshits behind here…OK, perhaps it would be better to educate them and bring them along, and I’m juts being cynical and negative.  Fine.

If I had my say, I’d call it skepticism+ (as I think that skepticism is the more fundamental position, compared to atheism).  But the boat sailed on that, so I’m sticking with the term until the unpredictable direction of cultural movement carries it another way.

Atheism is boring

It pains me to do it, but I will mention that Alain de Botton said that the question of whether a god exists is boring.  I detest Alain de Botton’s perspective for many reasons, and wish him the obscurity he deserves for his flat and vacuous philosophy.  But I will partially agree with him here.  It’s not the question per se  which is boring, but rather it is the way we are still answering it, the way we have been doing it for a long time, which is boring.  I’ve been around this block for more than a decade now, addressing theological claims, accommodationism, etc and it’s getting old.  Hence the need for the “third wave” of atheism which started this whole atheism+ thing.  I’m glad that there are people still handing the 101 atheist questions (my good friend Staks, who disagrees with me very strongly about the issue at hand in this post, does a good job of that even still).  In my opinion, basic atheism should no longer be the focus of anyone’s efforts within the atheist community, but should be an occasional peg to be smacked down when it becomes occasionally relevant.  We need, as atheists, to recognize that we should be concentrating on what we are for, and not merely what we are against.

I’m for feminism.

I loved Evid3nc3’s videos.  I thought his voice was remarkable and fresh, and I was glued to the monitor whenever a new video in his series about his conversion came out.  But recently he started a blog, and one of his posts from last year, entitled “Why I am not a feminist” missed the point, hard.  Being a feminist is not about ignoring the rights, plights or hardships of men [edit: Evid3nc3 wants me to clarify that his issue is that his”problem is with the word “Feminism” and the way it alienates people. It isn’t a good common banner to unite around.”  Apologies to him for misrepresenting his view.].  It’s not about focusing on women only (again, Greta Christina has said it well; the patriarchy hurts men too.  Also, see part 2).  This mistake is exactly the same as that which I identified above in discussing atheism+.  The name stuck because of the history of the subject; by studying the cultural positions, experiences, and structural discrimination of women, we learned about the problems we have with gender assumptions and the effects of those assumptions.  Feminism, as I use it (and as it is used within the atheism+ sphere) is an attempt to fix the problem for everyone, and is not misandric.  Those who identity as Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) who argue that feminism seeks to hurt men, are simply missing the point, and often will conflate some (2nd wave) forms of feminism with what people like Rebecca Watson, Stephanie Zvan, and others espouse.  It’s not called feminism because it’s anti-man, man-apathetic, or even because it seeks to reverse sexism, but because that’s the historical title that stuck.  We could try to change it, but given how cultural memes work that seems harder than just realizing that basic point that the title is historical, and not normative.

It’s time to move on

Fighting for civil, social, and human rights of atheists is a grand cause which I was glad to be a part of, and want to see continue.  I support all of the people who continue to try ato make a better name for atheists in the world, and would love to see our status as a trusted and understood group improve.  And the fact that this will continue makes me happy.  But some of us need to move on and do more—to add on—than mere atheism   Mostly, this is because it is not sufficient to merely grow our community, it is also important to make our community stronger, more mature, and more broad.  We need diversity of opinion, perspective, and experience and we cannot do so by ignoring what those potential others may teach us.  We need to open our skills up to challenges beyond mere theological claims, and be broad skeptics who understand that there are other causes and effects to the problem of religion than theology.  The role of gender is an important narrative to trace in religious history, and so is race, physical ability (ableism), colonialism, economics, etc.  As a larger community of reason, we need to open ourselves to the various disciplines from all over the social sciences, including history and feminism.

I’ve been paying attention to all sides of this deep rift over the last few years, and they all claim the same crimes of the others, and I’m sick of it.  But the truth is that I’ve learned much more from one side of this than any other. Those at Skepchick, FtB, and even Patheos have been a source of great personal education in recent years, and rarely have I read anything which has brought about personal growth or understanding from anything written elsewhere within the atheist community in recent years.  It’s not so much that one side is right concerning the deep rift per se, but that they have been attuned to ideas which have raised my consciousness more, while other places have just been doing either the same old boring atheist blogging (and not much else) or vilifying the so-called “bullies” elsewhere.

I get it; your feelings are hurt, and you don’t like the people over there.  I don’t give a shit because your blogs are boring, your perspective parochial, and your continuous victim-playing as old as your blogging style.

I’ve moved on and think mostly about the intersection of atheism, skepticism, and polyamory.  Some others are thinking mostly about the intersection of race, feminism, etc with skepticism and atheism.  But at least they have moved on.  You, my atheist brethren who are complaining about the bullies, have not.

It’s time to do so or become irrelevant, at least to this blogger.

Naked Skepticism and the new polynormativity February 1, 2013

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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One of my motivations for writing this blog is a general sense that there is an important issue which needs to be addressed by, well, all of us.  Our culture does not have a healthy view about sex and relationships.  The mainstream view is not ideal, even where aspects of non-mnogamy and kink enter into it.  50 Shades of Grey; need I say more? And where polyamory gets introduced to the mainstream (and I will be writing more about that in the next week or so), it is portrayed in the light least offensive to that mainstream, much like how accommodationists present atheism to the mainstream.

Atheists tends not to be polyamorous, poly people tend not to be atheists, and skeptics just aren’t implementing their tools at all they should be.  Philosophically, I primarily identify as a skeptic.  But for similar reasons as PZ Myers (link above) and Jen McCreight have trouble with the skeptic community, I identify first as an atheist because I prefer the way that the new atheists have addressed religion in our culture.  I think something similar needs to be done for polyamory.  Let’s called it the new polyamory, or perhaps something less awkward.

In essence, we need to talk about sex.  Oh, and relationships, desires, social expectations, etc.  We need, in short, to apply skepticism to how we think about such things, and I think if we do so then polyamory will be much more prevalent, because I think that polyamory (or at least accidental monogamy through polyamory) will be the result if we do apply skepticism to our sexual and romantic lives.

I have said that skepticism, properly applied, necessarily leads to atheism.  With polyamory, I am willing to say something similar.  Skepticism, properly applied, leads to a new paradigm of relationships, including sex-positivity and the non-default status of monoamory.  If we think critically, as a culture, about relationships, we should arrive at a place very much like the polyamorous world (only better, because their skeptics too).

 

Naked Skepticism

A good skeptic learns to strip away, as much as cognitively possible, the assumptions and biases which lead us towards irrational conclusions.  Nobody can do it completely, but it should be a goal for all of us to aspire to; deconstructing the worldviews we hold about all of the important aspects of our lives.  Skepticism implies that we require sufficient* evidence in order to believe something.  Something which is merely logically possible cannot be said, reasonably, to be true on those merits alone.   Rather, there should be some empirical evidence in order to lend weight to a proposition.  The proposition that a “god” exists, for example, does not survive this test and so any skeptic worth their salt should not accept the proposition that a god exists until good evidence presents itself (I know of none), and therefore a skeptic should be an atheist.

But more than that, a skeptic should be willing to strip away their assumptions, the foundations to their worldview, as much as they can.  Why do we seek one romantic partner? Why is monogamy the goal? Why is sex often considered dirty, or at least somehow less than pure? Why don’t we start with the bare facts of our desires?

Part of the reason is related to religion, especially when it is tied to traditional gender roles and such, but that is only part of the answer.  Religion is a symptom of this problem, in most cases, and the fundamental problem is the tendency towards jealousy, sex negativity, and perhaps some evolutionary psychological reasons having to do with things such as men wanting to make sure that our children are really theirs, and not those of the mailman (but evolutionary psychology is less reliable, in many cases).  Traditional family values, conservatism, and patriarchy, in other words, are at fault.

So, what can we do about it? We can start by asking ourselves questions like

1) what do we really want sexually and in terms of relationships in general?

2) what are we afraid of, jealous of, and why?

3) what do the people in our lives want?

But in order to get there, we need to strip away the layers of moral, cultural, and often religious thinking about these issues.  We need to be able to apply the best that skepticism, science, and soul searching has to offer us.  We need to challenge assumptions and apply skepticism to our relationships with people, but first we need to apply them to our own worldview so that we can be sure that the answers we give are actually true answers.

 

Towards a new polynormativity

Recently, the Sex Geek wrote an interesting post called the problem with polynormativity, which is well worth the read.  And while I thought that the post was good and made some excellent points, I think it missed an opportunity; one I wish to tackle here.  The post in question addresses how polyamory is depicted in the media and to the mainstream in general.  The Sex Geek says this:

The problem—and it’s hardly surprising—is that the form of poly that’s getting by far the most airtime is the one that’s as similar to traditional monogamy as possible, because that’s the least threatening to the dominant social order.

This is undoubtedly true.  In my experience with the media, I have noticed that the questions, framing, etc seem to imply a couple-centered view which misses much of the point.  The Sex Geek addresses this and more quite well, so I will encourage you to read the whole post.  So, after that brief thesis, the post continues and eventually goes on to list four norms that make up “polynormativity,” which I will simply list and hope that you will read the full post for the full effect.

1. Polyamory starts with a couple.

2. Polyamory is hierarchical.

3. Polyamory requires a lot of rules.

4. Polyamory is heterosexual(-ish). Also, cute and young and white. Also new and exciting and sexy!

The observations therein are good, and I am in general agreement, but where I think Sex Geek dropped the ball was the opportunity to define what polynormativity could be, rather than what it is.  Because what we are faced with in our Western culture is a hetero-monamorous-normality which is not particularly healthy for many of us, although many manage to tweak it enough to work for them.  And that’s part of the problem.  We are often forced to tweak a set of values about sex and relationships which do not match up with our desires, but which seem ubiquitous, rather than throw out the framework altogether.

So, if we were to claim the term polynormativity to mean something other than a tweaked hetero-normativity, what would it look like? Well, allow me the boldness to try and sketch out a few pieces of that potential puzzle.

1.  Polynormativity would be sex positive. Sex would be what we wanted it to be.  It would be fun, it would be recreational, and it would not be restricted to just our serious partners (hell, if we wanted we could be non-sexual with our serious partners and slut up the rest of the town!).  We would not be ashamed about our desires, we would seek to satisfy them consensually (and hopefully enthusiastically), and we would be transparent about it.  It wouldn’t quite be Brave New World (which was refreshing to read because it turned our current model on it’s head, even if that is not our goal here), but it would erase the idea that sex is reserved for just one person, or one person at a time, and even that it’s not OK to have with friends.

2.  Relationships would be agreed upon.  All relationships structures should occur through overt agreement, or possibly organic growth from actual needs, and not by default or assumption.  Currently, for mainstream society relationships may not start as exclusive, but they tend to assume the default ideal goal of monoamory, often monogamy.  Dating is not assumed, at least in cosmopolitan culture, to be exclusive by many of us young people (especially those even younger than I am).  But the goal for most people is to find one person to make a “commitment,” as if commitment ever necessarily implied exclusivity.  The idea currently is that real love, a relationship of real depth and meaning, must be an exclusive club.  You may be able to have two lovers, but you can’t truly be serious with more than one at a time, because we rationalize our jealousy into a culture of possessiveness through the Disney-esque romanticism of the princess and her prince.

*barf*

3) We would start with our desires, and build up our relationships upon them.  All too often, we fit our desires into the mold of our relationships, rather than the other way around.  We may really like that person we met at the party, but we have a relationship already so that desire either gets suppressed or we act on it surreptitiously.    We decide that a desire, whether it be homosexual, non-monogamous, or kinky in nature, is not acceptable to our lifestyle, so we grin and go along with the status quo.  How many people are in the closet, either as homosexual or bisexual? How many people repress desires for people they care about because they are in a relationship? How many people have fantasies they never explore because they think it is wrong, dirty, or it might make people judge them as a ‘pervert’?

What the hell is wrong with being a pervert? So what if someone gets of on being tickled? Who cares if what Bob really wants is to get peed on? Why do you care if what I want for my birthday is to have hot sex with two or three beautiful women after drinking some fine Belgian ale? (I’m really not that kinky, am I?) We need to have the strength to admit what we really want, and try and find ways to have it if it’s possible (and moral.  If your kink is to murder people, well you might be out of luck).

If we were to follow basic guidelines such as those three above (and the list is not intended to be comprehensive or exhaustive), then I think that most people would land on something like polyamory, assuming they are willing to do the work it takes to maintain the relationships they want.  And the more people that do it the less weird it becomes, and people can stop using the excuse that they don’t want people to find out because it’s weird and they might lose their job or someshit.  If everyone’s doing it, it become the new normal—hence the new polynormativity!

Love each person as you actually love them.  No less and no more.

I’m ready for it.  Are you?

—-

*And what is sufficient will depend on many factors, which go beyond the scope of this post.  But I’ve always liked the maxim that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.  That is, the strength of your evidence should be proportional to the audacity of your claim.  Of course, what is audacious to one may not be so audacious to another, leading to a spiral which I choose not to follow at present, mostly to maintain my sanity.

Reading Jonathan Haidt as a “New Atheist” December 5, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion.
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A week ago I wrote a quick post about how I was reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, and quoted a bit from early on in the book.  I am nearly done the book (I have one chapter left), and although I liked much of the early book and think that some of what he thinks about the relationship between our moral instincts and subsequent rationalizations of them are worth reading, I must conclude that i am not on-board with Haidt’s approach to religion, especially his criticisms of the “New Atheists.”

In chapter 11, Religion is a Team Sport, Haidt tries to deconstruct the new atheist approach, following on his anti-worshiping of reason from earlier in the book, and says we need to address religion for what is is (a group selected set of community-building institutions) rather than what it is not (a set of beliefs, ideas, etc).  He thinks that our attention to beliefs as motivators for action is too simplistic, and points out that “belonging” has to be placed along with belief and action, in the matrix of religious behavior.

Well, yes of course it does!

I don’t need to get into the details of what is wrong with the book, at least in terms of the criticism of the new atheists, because that has already been done:

Sam Harris has some thoughts about Haidt’s treatment of morality, as well as how beliefs inform our actions.

PZ Myers has thoughts about Haidt’s relationship to the Templeton Foundation, and thus to accommodationism in general.

Als0, Helian has a good critique which points to another good critique from the New York Times by William Saletan.

I agree that there are parts of the book which are quite worth-while.  I did just get it from my local library, after all, and didn’t spend a cent to read it.  If you are interested in moral psychology, evolutionary psychology, and group selection (whether or not you agree with any of those research areas specifically), then I suggest reading at least the first several chapters.

But what was most telling was that Haidt kept on talking about the difference between what makes a group work well and what does not.  His conclusion is that religion makes groups work well, at least for members of the group.  Atheists who ask us to leave religion, as individuals or as a species, risk losing what Haidt sees as the glue that can hold us together.

Haidt is seemingly unfamiliar (due to lack of mention) with any new atheist thoughts past 2007 or so (the book was published in 2012).  Perhaps the problem is that he is unaware that many atheists have been working, especially in the last 2-3 years, on building up an atheist community.  No, we may not have anything sacred (not even science), but we are working on creating a sense of what it means to be skeptical, non-religious, and living in a world with potential for beauty and terrible atrocity.

Religion is not the only force for group-cohesion, even if it has the advantage of having sacred spaces, authority, and thus loyalty (what Haidt identifies as primarily conservative values).  I believe that care, a concern for fairness/ justice, and a sense of liberty (what Haidt identifies as what liberals tend to prioritize) are means to creating community as well.  We do not need to give up a concern for what is true (a value Haidt does not list, interestingly, especially because it is a high value for many new atheists, including myself) in order to create shared group identities.

Haidt, an atheist himself, is not connected to the atheist community.  Perhaps if he was, then his arguments would not be so poor.  Perhaps we should invite him to the party?

 

PZ Myers and Michael Ruse’s mis-attribution of the fault in our wars October 3, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
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I have been writing, reading, and thinking about the issue of accommodationism for some time.  Type ‘accommodationism’ in the search box above for some context, as there are too many posts to link to here.  I will say that  I have tended to agree with Jerry Coyne’s views about the relationship between religion and science most of the time, and I tend to agree with PZ Myers more often than not.

Yesterday, PZ Myers put up a post about Michael Ruse which I largely agree with, but I want to address something, not because it makes me disagree with the point PZ makes, but because I think it takes a step back and gives some larger perspective on this issue.  Here’s the relevant section from PZ’s post, quoting Ruse:

But wait! There are more paradoxes! One of the big problems with the New Atheism, says Ruse, is the way we idolize and support our leaders unquestioningly.

There are other aspects of the New Atheist movement that remind me of religion. One is the adulation by supporters and enthusiasts for the leaders of the movement. It is not just a matter of agreement or respect, but of a kind of worship. This certainly surrounds Dawkins, who is admittedly charismatic.

We worship Dawkins? And possibly Hitchens and Harris? Has he ever noticed how much we all freaking argue with each other? There are no saints and popes in the New Atheist movement.

Oh, wait, yes he has noticed. In the very next paragraph.

Freud describes a phenomenon that he calls ‘the narcissism of small differences’, in which groups feud over distinctions that, to the outside, seem totally trivial. It is highly characteristic of religions: think of the squabbles about the meaning of the Eucharist, for instance, or the ways in which Presbyterians tear each other apart over the true meaning of predestination. For those not involved in the fights, the issues seem virtually nonsensical, and certainly wasting energies that should be spent on fighting common foes. But not for those within the combat zone.

The New Atheists show this phenomenon more than any group I have ever before encountered.

So which is it? Blind, unquestioning worship of our leaders, or incessant fractiousness and dissension? It doesn’t matter. Ruse is just spinning his wheel of deplorable sins and accusing us of whatever random flaw pops up.

I will point out that PZ has missed that these two ideas are not, in fact, in necessarily contradiction, even if Ruse’s argument is ridiculous (which it is).  It is logically possible that people in the atheist movement idolize atheist leaders and that fractious arguments also result, just like with religion.  All it would take is a hypothetical Dawkins follower to argue with a Sam Harris follower, insofar as Harris and Dawkins would disagree.  And there are some people I have met who do seem to look up to some atheist “celebrities” with some level of idolization, but this is to be expected.  We are human, with personal flaws, after all.  The ideal, however, does not have anyone idolizing anyone.  I, for example, respect some people more than others, but I’ve never been a person who idolizes anyone, and never get fanboyish around well-known people, nor do I understand why other people do.

And I agree that there are arguments within the community, but I see this as largely a good thing even though in some cases it is evidence of bad ideas remaining among atheists (such as misogyny and privilege).  There is a lot of work to do before our culture matures emotionally, cognitively, and in terms of being aware of our privileges and biases.  And as a result of that, many atheists will tend to be stuck behind their own blindness, and fractures will exist which we need to addressed in the form of criticism and education of those people.  Hence Atheism+.

But what Ruse is identifying here is not so much that the atheist community is like religion, but that when groups of people gather for any common cause, belief, or lack of beliefs, they tend to have similar behavior patterns of idolization, arguing, etc.  So yes, the atheist community has some behavioral issues which are reminiscent of religion, but once again the error is in mis-attributing such things to religion, when in fact religion is the result of human group behaviors not the cause of it.  Ruse is showing how atheist communities are acting human, just like religious groups.  Why does Ruse make the (apparently unconscious) assumption that these behaviors fundamentally belong to religion?

Our goal—as skeptics and atheists concerned with our culture, our beliefs, and our actions—should be to improve how we all think, behave, and interact.  Those working on including social justice in their actions, whether atheist or religious, are taking a step in the right direction in such terms.  But what new/gnu atheism is about, Michael Ruse, is about asking whether the views some group has are true or not.  We must take as a given that we will err in how he think, behave, and interact, but the question which concerns us is whether our ideas are true, not whether our community is perfectly ideal.

That’s the long-term goal, and it will take time to get there.  And, as I understand it, this is what efforts such as Atheism+ were developed to answer.  Because if we want to address the human flaws and how they emerge in the atheist community, we have to understand how psychology turns into sociology; how our personal flaws turn into groupthink and tribalism.  The problem with religion is not that it fractures, idolizes its leaders, and then fights among themselves.  No, that’s a human problem which we all have to deal with.  The problem with religion is that it isn’t true; that they are arguing over fantasies.

Skeptical atheists, at least, are arguing over what is true with a methodology which works; science.  And if they are not using science and skepticism well enough, then we can use skeptical criticism to point out how and why.  When does religion do that? Religion uses logic on top of the assumptions of its theology, but it rarely, if ever, appropriately uses empirical methodology and good skepticism.

Michael Ruse is stuck comparing religion to atheism in ways which must be true because they are activities done by humans.  Where atheism and religion are alike, it is attributable to anthropology (what I have my undergrad degree in).  What Ruse misses, and what PZ does not articulate well in this case, is that what does separate religion from atheism is the concern for truth of worldviews rather than behavior of participants.

Because sure, some atheists go around  idolizing people and arguing over small details, but our goal is to help them personally grow until they are mature, skeptical, knowledgeable people with good cultural and personal perspective.  And unlike religion, we actually have real ways to achieve that because we do not have any scripture, doctrine, or limitations of criticism.

We have the best methods in our hands, no rules about where we cannot inquire, and only our personal flaws to hold us back.  That tempered by caring about what is true, rather than what is comforting, preferable, or sanctioned is a good road to progress.

Poly 101 Lessons for life: Effective Communication March 10, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Culture and Society, Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
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The skills we need to be successfully be polyamorous are nothing more than skills to be better people all around.  For a series on what polyamory has taught me about being a better person, I want to address how they are also important in non-poly circumstances.

One of the most essential things a person needs to do in order to successfully maintain a polyamorous set of relationships is to become better at communication.

This means not only saying what you think, communicating concerns and appreciation, and listening, but also making sure that you do these things effectively.  You need to do your best to not merely do enough, but to make sure that what it is you are communicating is understood by the hearer.  Otherwise why communicate at all?

And this goal of effective communication has obvious uses everywhere, although applying the necessary tools for such are different within relationships than they are in general. In an intimate relationship, for example, you know a fair bit (hopefully) about your interlocutor, and so this is easier than communicating with co-workers, aquaintences, or strangers.  Communicating with the public at large (like most of our readers!) is perhaps one of the hardest things to do with complete effectiveness due to our lack of familiarity with the audience and their points of view.

Obviously, we are not getting our message across...

When I compose my thoughts for a post, I have to consider the way many kinds of people will read the ideas I am trying to convey.  There are readers here who are monogamous skeptics, polyamorous spiritual-but-not-religious people, and even many people of faith who will disagree with just about everything I say.

As a result of these considerations, I have to try and make points in a way that will communicate the idea I want to be read for the largest possible audience, knowing that despite this effort many people will not quite understand my point of view no matter how clearly I try to communicate.

This problem of mis-communication has been a challenge for much of the atheist community over the last several years.  If I had known, back before the publication of The End of Faith or The God Delusion what types of challenges the small and young community would go through with issues such as new atheists/accommodationsts, privilege/minority atheists, and how many in-fighting splits would occur, perhaps we could have avoided some of the mis-communication snafus and be less divided now as a community.

Probably not, but it’s a nice thought.

In many cases I don’t think the ultimate points of disagreement which exist in the movement could be avoided, as they are endemic to the differences in people rather than mere points of confusion (accommodationism is, perhaps, a good example of this).  And in other cases, knowing how things turned out, there are people out there who might have avoided some comment, term, or line of argument had they known what would happen.  And undoubtedly some would change nothing of what they did.

And no, the attempt at constructing effective communication is not the same as accommodationism.  The goal is not to change wording to avoid offense or direct criticism for the sake of tone.  Rather, it means avoiding miscommunication of the strident and blunt points we wish to make by ensuring that the word choices we make do not get taken a completely different way than they are intended.

Because it sucks when you craft a message with the intent to make a harsh point, and have it backfire because something else was interpreted.

Consider the recent issue with the PA-Nonbelievers billboard (pictured above) which was taken to mean, by some, something very different than what it was intended to convey.  By all means, follow that link for the details of the issue, but essentially the question is whether the billboard, as it appeared (before it was vandalized after being up for one day), was racist.  And although it was not intended that way (I know quite a few of the people from PAN, and I have no indication of racism on the part of those who created the image), being that much of central Pennsylvania (Pennsyltucky, we sometimes call it) is pretty racist, the billboard could easily be mistaken for a very different intended purpose.

BTW, it’s purpose was to respond to the Year of the Bible legislation in PA by showing how immoral the Bible is, using its advocacy of slavery as the vehicle for such an observation.  It simply did not occur (I’m guessing.  I don’t know for sure) to those at PAN that it would be taken as an endorsement of slavery non-ironically.  Slavery is abhorrent (think most Christians), Christians loves their Bibles, and Bibles condone slavery.

Instead, some saw the billboard as racist, the ambiguity of the message left many people confused and irritated.

The fact that this snafu of miscommunication occurred demonstrates that the importance of effective communication is not only essential, but it is quite hard.  Just like, while having an argument with a loved one, sometimes the best-intended statement can be taken quite badly due to a different parsing of the words or even due to some semantic diversion by speaker and listener, the general public will often misunderstand what we atheist activists (or at least proponents) have to say about religion and faith.

Now, there are many sources, both online and otherwise, for learning about how to effectively communicate.  A simple Googling of the term will find you quite a bit about the many techniques and guidelines that can help, and so my outlining them for you here would be redundant.

But the general message I want to convey here to people of any persuasion is that in many cases our conversations, whether they are debates, disagreements, or shouting matches with people being wrong (on the internet or otherwise), we need to keep in mind how we are presenting our case and what pitfalls might interfere with our goals.

By all means, express your indignation for whatever idea you disagree with.  Don’t hold back your opinion, but make sure it is communicated in a way that will not be read as something that it is not.

And remember to listen.  Listening is perhaps the most important skills in effective communication, and it is clear that we need to listen to whatever feedback we receive.  In many cases, this does include keeping your eye on the general public’s views on what you will communicate about, which usually entails reading blogs of those who are theists or defenders of monogamy in many cases, for me.

That said, I want your feedback here at polyskeptic on any and all posts.  we want to know how well we are communicating with you.  If we can do a better job at communicating our point of view, we want to know how we can do so.

 

Robert Benne responds July 7, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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A few weeks back, long before the events of this last weekend, I posted a response to Dr. Robert Benne’s article in a local paper.  I didn’t hear from him for a while, so i assumed I would not hear from him.  Today, he wrote back.

Today’s post is a response to the vast majority of what he wrote to me.

He starts, after some initial introductory comments, by complimenting my civility.  Wait, I thought I was one of those gnu atheists who are uncivil…

I appreciate your civility and attempt at fair-mindedness in your response.  Those virtues were not present in many of the vitriolic and contemptuous responses from what you call “the atheist community.”  I doubt if there is such a thing as an “atheist community” because there are atheists of all stripes, running from open-minded, classical liberals to those as dogmatic and nasty as any hide-bound fundamentalist Christian.  I received a lot of responses from the latter group, so I appreciate your reasonableness.

This is a problem that our community (and it is a community) is dealing with.  We argue amongst ourselves more than we argue with the religious world, I’d bet, over issues such as tone, accommodationism, new/gnu atheism, etc.  A recent issue with how to behave towards women has sparked an upsurge in conversations about feminism and the atheist community just in the last week.  We, as a community, only share a lack of belief in any gods.  Outside of that we disagree about any potential subject (including what to call ourselves, in many cases).  But we are a growing community, evidenced by the various groups, umbrella organizations, and online discussions which are interconnected.  We have a while to go before we are more solidified, assuming that will ever happen.

 

I think there is still a confusion in your response between the separation of church and state and the interaction of religion and politics, which was the main topic of my op ed.  When you inveigh against those Christians who want to exercise their religiously-based moral values in the political process—as in the restraint on abortion or resistance to gay marriage—you use separation of church and state language  (and suggest that the efforts are somehow illegitimate) when in fact it is an interaction between religion and politics.

One of the reasons for this is that for those of us fighting for the separation of church and state, the distinction between that and the separation between religion and politics is nonexistent, or at least insignificant.  And while the strict legal church/state (or religion/politics) fight is a little different than the issue of keeping parochial religious opinions out of public policy, they are part of the same basic concern.  For many of us, church/state and religion/politics (or government, more often) are interchangeable sets of terms.  This is one of the points of disagreement within our community, but many of us view the separation of parochial religious opinions and public policy to be paramount. Many of us,, in fact, are opposed to religious people imposing their religious views on public policy because there simply is no secular reason to support said views.  Where the courts and precedent will end up on this, I cannot say.  However I believe that trying to keep public policy based upon secular reasons as much as possible is the best way to go about this issue for the sake of everyone, including religious people.

I, for example, am strongly opposed to the government defining marriage based upon religious ideas.  For me, the definition of marriage (as an example) is NOT the union of ne man and one woman.  That definition is only accepted by many because religion has usurped the cultural phenomenon of legalized santioning of people merging their lives for reasons of property, financial advantage, love (that is a recent historical reason for marriage, and not traditional in any way) etc.  The conservative definition, ironically, is relatively new and culturally unsupported by actual practice in the world.

Christians, like others who have deeply held moral values, have every right to push for those values in the legislative and legal processes.  You may disagree with them and will have to contend with them in many ways—arguments, political organization, etc.   It will be in the rough and ready democratic process that these things will be worked out. That sort of democratic process is being worked out on the issues mentioned above. Sometimes it is also worked out in the judicial realm, though it is dangerous for judges to legislate and usurp the legislative process.  That is what has been happening too often, and that overreach makes the courts look too politicized.

I don’t want to address the issue of “activist judges” here, because that’s a rabbit hole too deep for this conversation at the moment.  I will ask you to consider this from another point of view; would you be comfortable with Muslim representatives implementing something like sharia law into our policy?  Are you paying attention to what is happening in Europe concerning this issue?  Is it sufficient that the majority may accept something to make it policy that effects the whole, especially when many are discriminated against as a result?

 

 

I agree that Christians should argue the case for their preferred public policies on as common ground as they can, but sometimes it may have to be on more particular religious grounds.  It is a question of prudence and effectiveness.  But as the Norwegian bishops put it when the Nazis tried to compel them to announce racist policies in their country, “we have to obey God rather than man in this case.”

But if there is no god, then the Norwegian bishops were just saying that they must obey their man-made laws over those of another set of men.  That is part of the problem with this issue from an atheist’s point of view.  There is no reason to appeal to God at all because we do have real reasons to reject such policies.  This leads me to the most important aspect of our disagreement here:

Actually, Shaun, there may not be universal rational grounds for anything.  Once reason was spelled with a capital R and purportedly could discern the Good, the True, and the Beautiful on autonomous grounds.  But postmodernism has pretty much finished that.  Reason is much tamed now, mainly being instrumental in character.

I am not a postmodernist.  I reject the postmodernist, relativist, “all-perspectives are valid” view.  I agree with Sam Harris, who in his most recent book tells us that science is the best (no, the only) tool that gives us real effective answers.  Postmodernism has put a hiccup in the liberal worldview that I hope it transcends soon, because it is philosophically sophomoric, politically problematic, and just plain incorrect.  Reason is not tamed; reason is tempered by the realization that we cannot have absolute certainty about our answers, and we must remember that all conclusions are tentative (even things like general relativity, the current explanation of gravity).  Science is a empirical and probabilistic enterprise, but it is effective and achieves results.  The skeptical methods utilized by science and rational thinkers is the best tool we have yet devised to determine truth.  Methods of revelation, pure insight, and even pure philosophy (my field) are all problematic and inferior to science in every way.  This is why I don’t want religious opinions being pushed towards public policy; it is based upon bad methodology, poor reasoning, and is not supported by skeptical inquiry.  When it is shown to the light, it dies.

Reason in this more modest sense draws upon cultural streams that have been dramatically shaped by religious traditions.  You are indebted to the Western Judeo-Christian tradition for your values.  Your “universal” rationality would not work so well in other societies—Islamic, Hindu, Confucian, Communist.

No.  religion usurps our values and calls them their own, while at the same time adding an other-worldly orientation that not only de-values reality, but poisons our ability to think clearly about this world.  In fact, Eric MacDonald, a favorite blogger of mine, wrote about this subject just today.  Here’s the link: http://choiceindying.com/2011/07/07/on-the-web-and-forgetfulness-or-how-the-poison-of-religion-poisons-everything/.  I encourage you to read it, as it says with more eloquence what I would like to say in response to your above comment.

I am not claiming that we know or have some universal rationality necessarily, I’m claiming that if one is to be found, we must use skeptical analysis to find it.  Religion, and the vast majority of its conclusions, simply fail at this.  Therefore, we need to keep it away from public policy.  This is not precisely what Jefferson had in mind, and in defending church/state the argument is somewhat more nuanced, but as a rationalist, atheist, skeptic I am arguing that religion would be better to be grown out of.  The fact that so many representatives pander to religion tells me that either they are lying to us for sustained power or are not the pinnacle of intellectual and emotional maturity.  In other words, they are indeed representatives of our current society.

That concludes my reply.  I will be interested to see if this conversation continues, and what will come of it.  I still think it is good to keep open dialogue with people with whom we disagree.  I hope my civility was sufficient still.

 

Atheist Communities and ‘religious’ behavior June 6, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Over the weekend I had a conversation with some friends about what the atheist community might need to do in order to create an environment that would replace that of the world of religion.  The community, social activities, and even the rituals were mentioned, and it is clear that this is no easy question.  But what I hope is commonly accepted by the atheist community is that we are not replacing religion; we don’t want to emulate the cultural institution in all ways.  We are, I hope, trying to create activities and institutions to improve upon our culture, society, and ultimately the world.  We are not going to build atheist churches, but we are going to build a better world based upon skeptical and rational thinking, evidence, and science.

But how?

First, I would like to make a distinction about what makes up religion.  It is often said that if we are to get rid of religion (which is not the goal of most atheists, I don’t think), we would have to replace what religion does for people socially and so forth.  But what I think is missed here is that the social gathering, community, common purpose that happens when religious communities are done well (As opposed to in-group feeling churches of intolerance, judgmental propensities, and in-fighting, which also is relatively common) are not unique nor original to religion.  Just like how religion usurps the idea of morality as their own, religions often usurp the idea of community as their own idea.  We are not trying to take away people’s communities, we are trying to install reality into them.  There is no need to take away their group upon educating people, we just need to give them new visions of what their communities can be like.  Reality is a good start.

Humans naturally group into communities.  And while I want to see people of different views and opinions talking to each other more, it is clear that we seek out like-minds for most of our socializing.  And so obviously when people come up with strange opinions about the nature of reality, they will seek out others who will accept those views and create churches, temples, and so forth.  But the social grouping came first.  What I take from this is that the atheist community does not have to worry that much about creating alternative communities for people who leave their faith, as that will happen naturally.

However, I think that we, as the atheist community, will need to think about how we organize those communities when we do create them.  We do have to remember that there will be people who are scared, timid, and intimidated upon entering our community for the first time by those who are here and boisterous.  We will have to keep in mind that there are people with very strong opinions and loud voices who will annoy other people.  We have to keep in mind that there are genuine conflicts about definitions, tactics, and goals of the atheist community.  And if we are to try to create umbrella groups (such as UnitedCOR), we have to keep those things in mind.  But since I am not in a position of leadership of such an organization, I will not dwell on the details of how to do so.  Mostly because I really don’t know.

All I want to emphasize is that what we call  “religion” has aspects of it that are good.  Most of these things are natural behaviors of humans whether those humans believe in silly theological positions or not.  But much of what is natural in human groups are things we can leave behind, ideally.  If we are going to, in the long-term, replace the institutions of “religion” with activities that don’t include gods, we will have to be prepared for the reality that things such as tribalism (like what happens between liberals and conservatives) will exist.  In fact, with the arguments such as the one between gnu atheism and accommodationism, it is clear that this already exists.   Because while atheism per se cannot be a religion, the communities that atheists can create will start to emulate, in many ways, the activities of religious groups.  But the mistake that so many commentators make, in trying to argue that this implies that atheism is a religion, is that they forget that the group behaviors that they think of as “religious” are actually as secular as anything gets; they exist independent of religion. So the question is not whether atheism is a religion, but rather whether atheists will create groups like religious people, or whether they will improve upon the idea.

We need to be prepared, as atheists creating communities, that we are potentially subject to the same mistakes that we see in religious communities.  And while we are unlikely to create a system which allows continual abuse (of children or anyone else)  by our leaders, we are certainly capable of sectarian thinking and avoiding continual communication with people of differing opinions.  We must deal with this now, not later.  It’s not as important that we all agree on the definitions, tactics and goals of others (although it might be nice, ideally, to do so) so long as we are trying to comprehend those alternative definitions, tactics, and goals in order to work together when we need to, and set aside those debates for more appropriate times and places.

But we need to keep the lines of communication open, the enemization (rather than demonization) of those we disagree with to a realistic and appropriate minimum, and keep re-building our own views when they are presented with reasonable challenges.  It’s not about being correct, it’s about staying correct.

 

Good Accommodationist cop, Bad Gnu Cop: How tribalism oversimplifies the issues April 2, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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Edit:

Here is a resource that may be helpful in tracing some aspects of the discussion about accommodationism, in case such a thing interests you.

I have been no friend to the so-called accommodationist camp of this discussion within the atheist community concerning our relationship with believers and our culture at large.   (Here are some examples).  I have clearly staked a claim as a ‘gnu atheist,’ but I will agree that I often am baffled by the so-called accommodationist’s position.  I mean that I really don’t even think I understand what it is..  I have a feeling that there are a number of behaviors that are called ‘accommodationist’ which differ greatly from each other, and I think it is time to parse what those things are.

I want to extend an invitation to people who have either self-identified as either a gnu or an accommodationist or have been labeled as such by others.  I want to hear your points of view.

First, a little background

A few days ago John Shook, author of a book (which I have not read but of which I have not heard good things) The God Debates posted this article up on CFI’s website. I read it and commented almost immediately, which led to some discussions that can be found in the comments section.

Them today, Jerry Coyne discussed Shook’s book and some of his other recent writing and gave him a general thumbs down (if I may summarize in such a terse manner).  I’ll add that I agree with Jerry Coyne here, and find that John Shook is not a very good writer, uses vague language, and is trying to draw parallels which I simply do not see justification for.  My guess is that this is an outgrowth of trying to express a point of view that seems contradictory and indefensible.  Shook’s post led to more conversation (in the comments section, again) which got me talking to people on different sides of this debate….

Sides….

I think that what has started to happen in the last couple of years is a clear split in the atheist community about a number of things.  Many have commented on it, and I will not dwell too much on the history or points of said disagreement here.  But what I want to identify is a certain tribalism that is starting to make itself much more clear to me.  In the comments to Jerry Coyne’s post, I am seeing some people talking about what “side” someone is on, as if this is a clearly defined conflict with clear sides.

I think that Michael De Dora is partially right when he says, in a comment (#5) on Shook’s post)

The term “accomodationist,” in current use, means so many different things that it essentially means nothing.

Now, at first I disagreed with this sentiment (and I still do, but let’s not get sidetracked) as the record shows in that subsequent discussion.  I think that it is something that requires more discussion, and I extend the invitation to other people who are, or who have been branded with the title of, accommodationist.

I think he is right to the extent that because of the various obfuscations, differing uses, etc of the term ‘accommodationist,’ many people are not really clear on what it means.  But I do think that at first there was a use which was clear and which could still make a simple distinction between perspectives on this issue and which describes a real divide in opinions and not mere semantic games.

Definitions:

For me, the central criteria for accommodationism is where one stands on the issue of incompatibility between science and religion.  More specifically, the incompatibility between certain scientific issues (usually evolution) and religious believers.  How much are we willing to appease or accommodate (hence the term) people’s religious beliefs while trying to convince them of the overwhelming evidence for science and its powerful method.

That is, when it comes to scientific literacy and education, how do we deal with religion and the fact that there are incompatibilities between religious doctrines and scientific conclusions?  Do we overlook when liberal religious people don’t notice the contradiction or don’t think there is one?  Do we point out that we think that scientific conclusions make their world worldview look indefensible?

A secondary issue is that of the willingness to be confrontational.  New atheists are called strident, rude, and other words which I shall not repeat, while the other atheists are nice, they listen and don’t criticize even while they disagree, and they just go about their godless life almost unnoticed.

And whether one is more willing to be confrontational will not necessarily tell you their opinion about the question of incompatibility.  What happens, I think, is that confrontational gnus get attacked by confrontational accommodationists.  And from the point of view of the religious, the confrontational gnus look worse because they are saying that there actually is an incompatibility while the accommodationist talks up the compatibility.  Good cop bad cop, of a sort?

Here’s a little dialogue from an up-coming play I’m writing called Good Accommodationist, Bad Gnu:

“Hey, fella, that gnu cop is really riled up out there, saying this and that and how wrong you are.  If I let him in he’s gonna rough you up a bit, so I’ll keep him out there, away from you.  But I understand where you are coming from…you didn’t mean what you did and you didn’t know better.  No big deal, right?   Let’s be friends, help me out and I’ll help you out, ok?”

We all know that the “good” cop thinks this “fella” is guilty and is just trying to get a confession, but he’s being really nice  about it.  Will it work? Maybe.  But we have not heard from the other cop, what the guy did, and so all we hear is the “good” cop.  That’s how it is for much of the audience of people like Chris Mooney or the Templeton Foundation writers.  All they hear is the shouting coming from the other room (which they are not really listening to) and a calmer cop in their face, acting like their friend.

And this issue of confrontation is not unrelated to the issue of incompatibility.  The philosophical disagreement about compatibility of science and religion leads to the appearance of confrontationalism being the central difference between the ‘gnus’ and the ‘accommodationists’.  Allow me to try to parse that out:

  1. Atheists have been pointing out for a while that saying something critical about someone’s beliefs is often viewed as confrontational or rude, no matter how politely it is said.  Thus, even when an atheist is trying to not be confrontational, they appear to be confrontational.
  2. Having the opinion that religion/faith and the scientific method’s power to explain (including the so-called ‘scientism’) are incompatible is a position that will be critical of a very significant percentage of our culture.  To point it out is not, many say, diplomatic. It will not make us many friends, and it will chase moderates away from us towards fundamentalism, and fundamentalists towards a more strict literalism.
  3. Therefore, those with opinions about the incompatibility of science and religion are viewed as confrontational, even if they are not actually confrontational, because their position is undiplomatic.  To be undiplomatic is to be confrontational, it seems.
  4. Many atheists (including this one) believe that to pretend, while interacting with religious people (especially about science), that this incompatibility does not exist is to be short-sighted and is only telling a half-truth at best.  We feel that we don’t need to always sweeten the medicine.  And when we see religious scientists, we may say “sure the two things can exist in the same brain, but they are philosophically incompatible.”
  5. Other atheists believe that in order to make short-term gains in science education, the opposition of conservative and fundamentalist religious agendas, and to generally have a better relationship for communication with most of the religious world we need to not press them on their faith.  So they talk up, Templeton and HuffPo style, ways in which religion is a lot like science or naturalism and rarely talk about how they are incompatible.
  6. Many atheists with the perspective that this incompatibility should not be glossed over, appeased, or accommodated are frustrated because it is dishonest or demonstrably wrong.  In my case (and I think Coyne’s and PZ’s), this is due our watching some atheists not point out this incompatibility to the larger cultural audience even when they may agree that the incompatibility exists.  They are talking out of both sides of their mouths.
  7. There are other people out there (and perhaps John Shook is one of them), who believe that the incompatibility exists but insist on trying to draw similarities between naturalism and supernaturalism.  They do this, I believe, with good intentions; they are trying to further the dialogue with the religious world.
  8. Further, many these people often attack those who refuse to play this game of diplomacy.  They try to appease the largely religious (or religious-friendly) culture, which is most of their intended audience, while also publicly attacking the people who are not trying to appease the religious world.  Many of these people agree that religion and science are incompatible.
  9. And even if these attackers don’t agree with atheists like me on the incompatibility issue, they are still attacking other atheists.  They are trying to dissociate themselves from the so-called ‘new atheists’ who are seen as strident, aggressive, and rude (even when they are not).  They are widening the rift which is a difference of opinion about tactics which the public really does not understand nor really cares about.  They are making an internal issue public so they won’t look bad; the irony being they don’t really disagree very much about the general questions of gods, religions, and faith, just how we should address the public about such things.
  10. This is playing politics.  It comes across to me as dishonest, short-sighted, and it treats the public as if they were children rather than adults who can hear what people like Shook claim to actually believe but obfuscates with posts like the one linked above.  If you believe that the incompatibility exists, dont attempt Chopra-esque mental and linguistic gymnastics in order to show how they may be compatible.

All of this amounts to the development of tribalism.  We see the same thing in politics, especially here in the United States, and it turns into sides, rather than perspectives in a complex set of problems that may have a number of solutions, or at least sets of solutions that can be grouped into major categories.

Working towards an internal conversation

I would like to have more dialogue about this issue, and stop building more fences.  I want those who side with the gnu atheists to talk more with people they call, or who call themselves, accommodationists.  I want us to talk through these issues and find a way to either clearly define the boundaries and hack out the actual philosophical disagreements or to throw away the terms and just talk about the differences.  We may have to come up with new terms, although my guess is that the current ones will stick, as terms are wont to do.

There are probably many shades of grey in this discussion, and I am sure that I am not the extreme on either end of the spectrum, if it is, indeed a spectrum.  It’s probably more like a multi-dimensional graph with at least 2 axes; level of agreement with incompatibility and level of confrontationalism.  Picture a simple graph with the y-axis being the strength of their agreement with incompatibility, and the x-axis the level of confrontational behavior you are comfortable with.

I would be higher on both axes, while others would either be high on one, the other, or neither.  We need to recognize that this issue about accommodationism v. gnu atheism is not a simple binary position.  This is complex, and it’s time we talked and figured out what the issues are, the possible positions, and where we all stand.  And perhaps in doing so, we may get rid of the terms ‘accommodationist’ and  ‘gnu’/’new’ or we may simply add to them.

It may turn out that the various positions are incompatible and that the confrontational people on all sides will continue to be strident, but let’s at least figure out what each of us means when we define our positions and why we criticize each other.  I want to know what others think about this, and I want them to understand my point of view.  Right now, I don’t think anyone has a really clear picture of any side.  Even if nobody changes their position, I think some clarity may help us better understand our own position.