jump to navigation

The Monogamy Delusion? March 29, 2012

Posted by shaunphilly in Polyamory, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , , , ,
comments closed

So, I just finished reading Greta Christina’s new book Why Are You Atheists So Angry: 99 Things That Piss Off The Godless (Kindle version), right after having met her after the Reason Rally, and I will briefly say that I recommend it as a great resource for both believer and heathen alike.  It is a great read for anyone who does not quite understand why we get so fired up about religion and faith.

I use this as a premise for talking about goals of social movements, a question that Greta addresses in her book concerning the goals of the atheist movement specifically, and what this might have to teach the polyamory community.  After watching the atheist movement grow and mature over the last 10 years or so, and given that I am usually thinking about polyamory, I inevitably will ask whether there will ever be a large, organized, coherent polyamory social movement.

And if there were, what would it look like?

As Greta talks about in her book, there are fundamental problems which the larger atheist community addresses through various means.  There are the basic issues of confronting stereotypes, discrimination, and hatred of atheists.  Such things range from moral, legal, and to philosophical issues and are fought for by both theists and atheists.  There is also the front of the atheist community which actively responds to theistic claims, both to truth and socio-political access of levers of power (in the US, this is usually through Christian privilege), with counter arguments of varying levels of intensity.  On the farther end is the ultimate goal of ridding the world—through persuasion—of religion.  Greta and I share that goal.

With that in mind, what types of issues could a polyamory social movement address?

  • are there fundamental cultural, legal, or philosophical problems which polyamory addresses?
  • is there any real and significant discrimination against polyamorous people in the world? If so, is it primarily cultural or legal in nature?
  • Would such a movement be essentially a struggle for equal rights or would it also include questions of truth, such as whether polyamory is the best model for relationships that all people should emulate? (I a thinking about that last point in terms of Sam Harris’ Moral Landscape)

I don’t have any definitive conclusions to these questions right now, nor do I think anyone does.  I ask these questions to tease out some stark differences in the types of problems that the atheist community is dealing with from what the polyamory community has to deal with, whether it will become a larger social movement or not.

 

Will there ever be a poly equivalent to accommodationists?

In the atheist community, there are those whom like to argue that religion is worthy of respect, should not be criticized, and that there is much about religion that we should perpetuate, learn from, etc.  I have addressed this question numerous times over the last few years, and will not say more than I disagree with this view.  Strongly.

On the other side are people, like myself, who believe that religion is more harmful than not, untrue, and perpetuates the worst parts of our humanity; specifically faith.  I will resist urge to rant about that here.  Resistance is not always futile.

(In other words, urges to rant about faith can be countered with Star Trek references)

So, the question is whether this pattern holds for the polyamory community?  Are there people who will argue that, for example, monogamy is more damaging than not?  That monogamy cannot be a healthy relationship structure? Will people argue that polyamory is objectively better than non-polyamory? Will there, in short, be anti-monogamists? Not merely people who prefer polyamory, think it a better way to live given more options, but actually against the practice of monogamy as an irrational and delusional lifestyle? Will someone write a book called “The Monogamy Delusion”?

Again, not mere amonogamy–the lack of monogamy–but the active social activism against (through persuasion) the continuation of monogamy as a cultural practice.

(Some of you are thinking about Brave New World.  Or, if you are uber-literate, you are thinking of WE.)

Now, I don’t doubt that there are a few people out there who might try to make such an argument.  I’m sure that a rare poly bird out there, or a few, will argue that monogamy is fundamentally wrong, irrational, and possibly a bowing to the worst instincts of humanity; things like jealousy, social conformity, and living against one’s true desires (living inauthentically).

And on some points, I will agree with such people.  I might, in fact, agree with many of the points they will make, and make some of those points myself.   But despite this affinity for such arguments, I am not, at least not right now, one of those people who will make such an argument.  And I want to explain why.

 

Theism v. monogamy

Theism is a hypothesis about the world, specifically the existence of some supernatural being commonly referred to as a deity, god, etc.  It makes a specific claim which is either testable or untestable.  If it is testable, it has not survived skeptical/scientific analysis so far, and does not appear as f it will ever pass such a standard.  If it is not testable, it is a worthless hypothesis and should be thrown out on those merits alone.  Atheism is the lack of that hypothesis, whether made out of ignorance or through informed analysis, and the arguments it makes are in response to a proposition of how the world is.

Monogamy is a relationship style based upon sexual (and usually romantic) exclusivity between two people.  It is the lifestyle of having one lover, sometimes a spouse, at least at a time but possibly life-long.  It is not a hypothesis about the world, but it is a…choice? (is it really always a choice, given how many people are not even aware of alternatives? A question for another post!).  In any case, monogamy is a structure of one’s relationship, rather than a claim about reality.

What is the significance of this distinction? Essentially, it is the fact that polyamory is not a reaction to monogamy in the same way that atheism is a reaction to theism.  A polyamorous advocate could say something like “this is a better lifestyle for my wants and needs, and it may be better for you” and not “your lifestyle is objectively unproven to be best, true, and so your lifestyle is objectively wrong and you should give it up.” Polyamory is not a reaction against a claim to objective truth, as atheism is.  Polyamory has a relationship, and not always an antagonistic one, to a traditional cultural ideal of monogamy (traditional in much of the world, but certainly not all of it) that feels unnatural to many people.

To clarify the distinction between these two issues, let me ask two questions:

  1. Is it reasonable to consider all of the arguments for and against theism and rationally come out a theist?
  2. Is it reasonable to consider all of the arguments for and against monogamy and rationally come out monogamous?

In terms of (1), there are no good arguments for any gods’ existence, so any skeptic should become an atheist if they properly apply their skepticism to the question of gods.  As for (2), there are people who will, upon honest reflection, discussion, and consideration with their partner, find that they both are actually quite happy, satisfied, and feel no desire to be with other people sexually/romantically.  Those people will be what I call “accidentally monogamous.”  They have seriously considered whether they would want other people in their sexual/romantic life and have concluded that they need no rule about exclusivity but will end up living a monogamous lifestyle, for all practical purposes.

And before anyone thinks to point this out, I admit having argued that a true skeptic should be polyamorous, but I have also argued that monogamy is legitimately rational as a needs-securing lifestyle for at least some people.  To be clear, my view is that polyamory (not having an exclusivity rule) should be the starting position for all relationships, and monogamy is subsequently only fully rational if, and only if (iff), that is what both people actually, authentically, want with each other.  Which means that they would need no rule arguing for exclusivity, because doing so would be redundant because neither is actually interested in pursuing other people.

Wes would probably say that this lack of a need for an exclusivity rule is coterminous with polyamory, and I tend to agree. But I think there is room for debate here about the definition of polyamory, so I am allowing that room in my analysis here.  My views may change in the future, in that I may completely adopt his definition as being sufficient for polyamory.  The consequence of this would be that I might then conclude that all monogamy, unless it is reached “accidentally,” would be irrational and possibly harmful.

I’m not there right now.

 

Polyamourous evangelicalism?

The conclusion from all of this, as I see it, is that any movement to advance polyamory culturally, socially, or politically will probably be limited to providing information, legal and philosophical challenges, and the decreasing of any discrimination which polyamorous people experience or are legitimately worried about.

I don’t see a strong argument, parallel to atheism’s arguments against theism, religion, and faith, against monogamy.  I see arguments for being polyamorous, but that is not precisely the same thing as being against all monogamy.

There will be people who want to get rid of monogamy, and I will want to hear their arguments why they think we should strive for that (as I would hope atheist accommodationists should want to actually read new/gnu atheist arguments. I’m looking at you, Julian Baggini!).  But for now, I don’t see much room for a “new/gnu poly” movement.  But I suppose only time will tell.

If anyone feels I am being to accommodating to monogamy, I’m open to arguments.

Advertisements

On imaginary friends March 25, 2012

Posted by Ginny in Religion, religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , ,
comments closed

Had a great time at the Reason Rally, despite the rain and chilliness, and despite it using every last scrap of social energy this introvert could muster. Adam Savage’s was perhaps my favorite speech, especially this part at the end:

I have concluded through careful empirical analysis and much thought that somebody is looking out for me, keeping track of what I think about things, forgiving me when I do less than I ought, giving me strength to shoot for more than I think I’m capable of. I believe they know everything I do and think and they still love me, and I’ve concluded after careful consideration that this person keeping score is me.

This nicely summarizes a thought that I’ve meant to write about for a while. It’s one of the less obvious negative consequences of religion, and something I myself didn’t realize until I’d been an atheist for several years. The idea of God I grew up with was everything Adam Savage describes in the quote and more: an ever-present companion even in my most profound loneliness, someone to pour out my worries to, share my joy, amusement, and exasperation with, someone who understood me at the deepest level, and, while he might not always approve, always loved and forgave me. Atheists mock theists for their “imaginary friend,” but perhaps they don’t really consider what it would be like to have such a friend that you actually believed existed. It means always being loved, always having support, never being alone. I, like many ex-believers, mourned the loss of this friend deeply when I found it was impossible to believe.

It took me a lot longer to realize that those experiences of feeling loved, supported, and listened to were real. Of course they were: I genuinely felt them. The interpretation I put on them was false, but the feelings were real. And what that means is that that support, that love, that listening ear, was only ever myself. The wise, calm voice I heard speaking back to me, giving perspective on my problems: that was me too. I had all those resources within myself the whole time, but I believed they came from outside of me. I didn’t give myself nearly enough credit. That friendly presence is not lost to me; it’s where it always was.

I started out saying that this was a negative consequence of religion, and I still think it is: religion, for many people, teaches us that the best and wisest part of ourself is not ourself at all, but external. It teaches us that we are dependent on someone else for love, forgiveness, wisdom, and encouragement. And that is a travesty. But on the other hand, perhaps the teachings about God enabled me to develop that part of myself. I don’t know; I’d have to hear from people who grew up atheist, whether they have anything like that sense of self-affirming internal companionship. (Evidently Adam Savage does, but I don’t know his religious history.) My guess is that some do and some don’t; and certainly not all religious people gain that particular thing from their notion of God. For some, indeed, God seems to embody many of the worst aspects of themselves, the bigoted and judgemental, the hateful and fearful. But I was lucky enough to be raised with a version of God that was everything best and wisest and most loving, as I could conceive of it, and perhaps that helped me develop that part of myself in a way I might not have otherwise.

So it may be that this is a possible positive as well as negative aspect of religion: providing a venue for people to shape and nurture their own best impulses. To the extent that my childhood religion did this for me, I’m grateful to it, as much as I resent it for telling me that those things were external to myself. Perhaps one thing the atheist movement should work on is encouraging those impulses, teaching people how to develop that supportive, forgiving, wise voice within themselves. Even though I recognized that it was present and accessible to me, I’ve lost sight of it in recent months, and I think I’d do well to recover it. I’m never as happy, healthy, and well-balanced as when I’m being my own imaginary friend.

On absolute truth and those disrespectful accommodationists February 29, 2012

Posted by Ginny in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
comments closed

I could not have looked for a better way to sum up the difference between Gnu Atheists and fundamentalist theists on the one hand, and liberal ideologues of all stripes on the other, than this quote from Alain de Botton:

Probably the most boring question you can ask about religion is whether or not the whole thing is “true.”

De Botton is an atheist, but he thinks there’s a lot of useful and interesting stuff in religion, which he goes on to discuss. All well and good, and I agree with him that there is much about religion that’s “useful, interesting, and consoling,” — in fact I myself am still looking for ways to fill some of the holes that leaving religion has left in my life (no, none of them are god-shaped.) But through all the changes I’ve been through, there’s never been a point where I wouldn’t have been deeply offended by the claim that the question of religion’s truth or falsehood is “boring.”

De Botton’s position is very familiar to me. A lot of people, both religious and non-religious, have moved into a space of being fairly indifferent to the actual nature of the universe, and instead seeing religion as purely a social institution or personal mythology. Whatever works for you… all paths lead to God… I believe this, but you don’t have to… they’re all ways of saying the same thing: it doesn’t matter what’s actually true. This is compatible with a lot of religions, as well as with atheism or agnosticism, but it is absolutely incompatible with the monotheistic Abrahamic religions (and perhaps others that I’m less well familiar with.)

In a lot of ways the “I don’t care what’s true” stance is a big improvement, particularly in its social effects. But a key tenet of people who embrace it is not offending anybody, and what they fail to see is that that statement is profoundly offensive to those who do think truth matters. It’s worse than dissent, worse than disagreement: it’s invalidation. It’s saying “I reject the entire foundational concept of your belief. I think the things that are most important to you about your religion are irrelevant.”

A few days ago the story about Mormons baptizing deceased Jews got around, and my take on it was somewhat unusual. If I truly believed that a posthumous baptism was going to gain somebody an (optional) admittance to the eternal kingdom of God, I’d probably do it too! Being the compassionate literalist I am, I’d probably devote a major portion of my life to doing it — if I truly believed. That’s the gift of eternal life, people! Am I going to refrain from giving it just because somebody gets offended? To the extent that these baptisms are being done out of a sincere belief in their efficacy, and not for one of a host of other reasons religious rituals are practiced (I know nothing about the church politics around posthumous baptisms), I can’t fault them for doing these; from their viewpoint, it’s the absolute right and loving thing to do.

I pointed this out on facebook, and somebody responded, “But the people being baptized didn’t believe in the Mormon afterlife!” Which is colossally missing the point. The Mormons doing the baptisms do believe it (I assume, giving them all possible credit.) And under that belief, it doesn’t matter whether what afterlife the other person believed in: your belief is true, and you are helping them to eternal life despite their erroneous beliefs.

The happy, harmonious, multicultural view of religion whereby it’s all just social institution and personal mythology and nobody’s beliefs have a real impact on their life, death, and afterlife is completely ineffective in dealing with people who sincerely belief in the objective truth of their religion. I know; I used to be one. People who stood in that viewpoint appeared hopelessly naive and logically impaired to me. The statement “My religion is objectively true and has real-life consequences” cannot be effectively countered with “To each their own, whatever works for you.” The literalist believer will, at best, dismiss the religious pluralist with an annoyed shrug, and go on literally believing. As long as there are people who say “My religion is objectively true,” there will and should be non-believers who say, “No, it is objectively false,” and I think — have always thought — that those non-believers are giving the believers a hell of a lot more respect than any accommodationist.

Gnosis, pt 2 February 29, 2012

Posted by Ginny in Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , , , , ,
comments closed

In my last post, I wrote about my own ups and downs with knowledge and belief about God, and the several-years-long transitional phase where I was truly neither a theist nor an atheist. Today I want to dig into what I think was going on with that.

I’m inclined to compare my transitional phase with the apparent beliefs of a lot of non-theists who nonetheless talk about things like “the universe,” “fate,” or “karma” on a regular basis.  There’s a kind of animistic habit of mind which seems very common to human nature, which insists on attributing intention and consciousness to everything. It’s this habit of mind that remained when my explicit God-belief had vanished from my brain; it’s this habit of mind that made me say “God took away my belief in God.”

On top of that animistic habit, I had a deep and thorough understanding of an internally consistent Christian worldview. Everything that I perceived in the world could be interpreted through the lens of Christianity in a way that made sense on its own terms. Even my loss of belief could be interpreted that way. It did not require mental effort or self-deception to come up with an interpretation of the world that was consistent with Christianity: having grown up Christian, it was easy, almost second nature. That meant that it was still possible to continue believing in (a form of) Christianity with full intellectual integrity; what had changed was that it was also possible not to.

I did some studying; I read The God Delusion and some other writings; and I came to the conclusion that an atheist worldview was also internally consistent. I had hoped that there would be features of reality that couldn’t adequately be explained without a deity, but in my search I found none. I found myself looking at two complete, coherent accounts of reality, both plausible to me, both accounts that I could accept with full intellectual integrity, and entirely incompatible with each other. At that time in my life, I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that I was a theist or an atheist. I found both believable, and consequently couldn’t truly believe either.

I said before that I don’t like to use the word “know” in relation to questions of theism, because of its ambiguity. But if asked at that time in my life whether I believed in a god or not, all I could have honestly said was “I don’t know.” For a few years there, I’d say I was a true agnostic, an agnostic lacking both knowledge and belief.

Halfway through those transitional years I returned to Christianity, not because either my beliefs or my assessments of the truth had changed, but because I wanted it to be true. Not a strong reason, but it was all I had. If I’d had more unbelieving friends at that time, it probably wouldn’t have happened — I’d probably have continued in my agnostic paralysis until the unbelieving neural pathways clicked into place. (I just made that up, but it’s a terrific way of thinking about it… the whole thing was basically like a gear shift, and there was a long period there where the chain was suspended, adjusting over the gears, neither one thing nor the other.) But I was lonely, and all but one of my close friends and family were Christian, so I was looking for a way back in. I never thought that my desire for the Christian God to be real made it more likely that he was real; I just seized on desire as an acceptable stand-in for “faith,” since I didn’t have any of that. And I was backed up in that interpretation by some statements in the first few chapters of Introduction to Christianity, by Joseph Ratzinger, who did rather well in the ranks of his faith profession.

I’ll write more about my ins and outs with religion later; now I have to go rant about truth!

Gnosis February 26, 2012

Posted by Ginny in Religion, Skepticism and atheism.
Tags: , , , , , ,
comments closed

In the last week or so, I’ve begun a project of going through the emails, blog posts, and private journal entries I wrote throughout my deconversion from Christianity. There are a lot of them, and I may pull them together into a book project in the near future, but for now I want to comment on some thoughts they’ve provoked.

One advantage to having detailed personal records like this is that they guard against hindsight bias and retroactive interpretation. I haven’t looked at most of these writings for years, and I find, looking back, that the story I tell now about the trajectory of my deconversion isn’t entirely accurate. When I want to give the short version of my history with religion, it goes something like this: I was raised in a conservative branch of Christianity and accepted it pretty much without question for the first 25 years of my life. Around the time I was 25, I began seriously questioning my faith, and actually stopped believing in God,  although I wasn’t happy about that. I was basically an atheist, though I didn’t use that word, for about a year and a half, then I found a definition of “faith” that allowed me to go back to calling myself a Christian, although never with the same kind of faith as before. Then, around my 29th birthday, the last reasons I had for clinging to Christianity fell away, and I became a full-fledged atheist.

That’s the short version, and it’s broadly accurate, but in retrospect I missed a lot of the complicated nature of that in-between time, between “Yes I am definitely a Christian” and “Yes I am definitely an atheist.” For those who have never had God-belief as an element of their psyche, it might be difficult to understand exactly what was going on there, and it certainly muddies the definitions of “belief” and “knowing” that I’ve been using in the last couple of years. So let me try to explain it.

During part 1, the Christian part of my life, I absolutely believed in God. I would have found it impossible not to. Even if someone had rationally convinced me that there was no good reason to believe in God, I’d have been nodding along and saying, “You’re right, there isn’t a good reason to believe,” and wondering the whole time what God thought of this conversation. It was not something I was consciously maintaining or defending: it was just there, in my brain, a part of the way I thought about the world. To say “I don’t believe in God” would have been a lie, even if I had wanted to disbelieve and had every rational cause for disbelief.

At this time in my life, nearly the opposite is true. If evidence for a god’s existence started springing up all over the place, that internal state of belief still wouldn’t appear in my brain, at least not immediately. I could acknowledge, “Yes, given a Bayesian probability analysis it seems overwhelmingly likely that a deity is the cause of these things we are witnessing,” but in the back of my head I’d still be thinking, “But there can’t really be a deity… let’s keep looking for other explanations!”

It’s important to note before I go further that neither of these belief-states are unchangeable: as evidenced by the fact that my first one did eventually change. I’m no neuroscientist, but my guess is that these belief-states are simply strong neural patterns, habits of thinking that can’t be changed instantly, but only worn away over time as new patterns are developed and rehearsed.

The middle state, that transitional period of 3-4 years, is where things are weird. The things that were going on in my brain at that time don’t fit into a simple category of belief and knowing. The moment that really kicked off that whole transitional phase of my life was a moment where my rock-solid, undeniable belief in God was removed: and my emotional response was anger at God for removing it.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense. I stopped believing in God, and I was angry at God for making me stop believing in him. Clearly, then, on some level I still believed in God, and interpreted even my unbelief through a theistic worldview. But something very significant had changed in my brain, and the best way I could put it to myself was that I had lost my belief.

This state continued, by the way, even after I reclaimed a “Christian” identity. My state of belief didn’t change very much during this time; instead I changed my definition of “faith” to give myself a way back in. My reasons for doing that belong in another post, but from the point of view of mental states of belief and knowing, I didn’t change very much during those 3-4 years.

In atheist circles there’s been a lot of buzz recently about the difference between knowledge, belief, and certainty (prompted mostly by Richard Dawkins’ “shocking” revelation that he wasn’t 100% certain that no god existed, which anyone who’s actually read The God Delusion already knew (actually, anyone who’s read the subtitle of The God Delusion should have known: the word almost is there for a reason, people)). The relevant ground has been pretty thoroughly covered (and is being added to by Shaun even as I write… we’ll see which of us posts first! (I have a parenthetical addiction, by the way; I try not to use at all, because when I start it gets hard to stop)), so all I want to add is my own experience, and how it fits or doesn’t fit into the tidy “atheist/theist” “gnostic/agnostic” categories.

At no point in my life have I been 100% certain that my beliefs about God or gods were accurate. Even aside from evil genius / brain in a jar / Matrix scenarios, I recognize that my foundational assumptions about what constitutes a good basis for knowledge are just that: assumptions, that could be incorrect. I do the best I can with what I have.

I don’t use the word “know” a lot with reference to theism, just because its meaning is too ambiguous. Some people use “knowledge” synonymously with “certainty” (in which case I am an agnostic atheist), some people use it in less absolute terms (in which case I might be a gnostic atheist, depending on how severely you draw the line), and some people equivocate (in which case I’m not playing.)

Belief, now, is a harder question. I don’t think belief is a simple idea, based on my own experience. If all I’d ever experienced were those two states of initial full belief and present full unbelief, I probably would think it was simple. But my transitional phase leads me to think that there are several different strains or mechanisms of belief, which in most people (perhaps) are concordant, but which can also be conflicting. With part of my brain I believed in God, and with part of it I did not, and that was a very different mental state from the ones that came before and after.

Next up: digging a little deeper into the anatomy of that in-between time.

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

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , , ,
comments closed

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.

Gary Gutting on Atheism and agnosticism August 31, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , , , , , ,
comments closed

Gary Gutting is a professor at Notre Dame, in the department of philosophy.  About a month ago, he wrote this article for the New York Times.  I rather liked the article, as I remember.  But there was a small annoying catch that caught my attention.  It happens here:

In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case.   This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.

*facepalm*

I have addressed this.  I even re-addressed this.

No, Dr. Gutting, this is not the consensus of expert philosophical opinion.  This is ignorance displayed as consensus by gobshites who are so far removed from the atheist community and feel the need to feel superior.  OK, maybe they just have not thought this through….

I was moved to respond.  And so I hopped on my keyboard and churned out a quick response, while including my link from one of my favorite posts about agnosticism.  You know, the one linked above.

I didn’t hear from him after a few days, and forgot about it.

Then, the other day, I happened to glance over at my left-hand panel on my gmail page and noticed that I had a draft email.

What could that be? I thought

For some reason, the email to Dr. Gutting had never sent.  It was just sitting there, unsent, all this time.  So, I decided to send it, finally.

He replied to me today:

Thanks for your thoughts.

Of course, you can use the terms the way you think best.  But your way of putting things ignores two importantly different ways of not believing that God exists. You might not believe in the sense that you withhold judgment as to whether God exists OR in the sense that you believe that God does not exist.  In ordinary usage, the first sense of not believing in God is called “agnosticism” and the second is called “atheism”.  It seems to me that this is a useful distinction, and I don’t see what you gain by eliminating it.
I also think you confuse the discussion by assuming that the agnostic claim “I don’t know whether or not God exists” must mean “I am not absolutely certain whether or not God exists”.  In most contexts, knowledge doesn’t imply absolute certainty; it’s consistent with at least a small degree of uncertainty.  So, if someone says he knows that Paris is the capital of France, but admits that there’s some small probability that a coup in the last few hours moved the French capital to Lyon, we don’t think he’s contradicting himself.  Of course, you can insist that anyone who allows the slightest bit of doubt about a claim is agnostic about it.  Then almost everyone becomes an agnostic about almost everything, and the term has little use.  But  that’s only because of the artificially strong sense you’ve given to “know”.  And, even if you use “know’ that way, there is still the highly useful understanding of agnosticism in terms of belief (not knowledge): There are still many important cases in which people are agnostic about a claim in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.
Best,
Gary

Well, nice.  He responded quickly, if not tersely.  Of course I didn’t give him much to chew on, and I have no way to know if he ever read my post I linked him to.  I doubt he did.

So, what about his response? I thought he was still missing the point, so I sat and started typing, and eventually replied with the following:

*sigh*

I think you have misunderstood my perspective, and would like to try and be more clear, if I can.  I’m mot saying that I am reserving judgment NOR am I saying that I believe that god does not exist.  Neither of those positions are those of the atheist who has considered the philosophical implications of the question at hand.   That’s what you are missing, I think.  The position of the vast majority of atheists I know from the atheist community is that we are not convinced that a god exists.  Our judgment (again, not a reserved one) is that the claim has not been sufficiently demonstrated towards rational belief, while recognizing that we cannot say with absolute or high certainty that the proposed being cannot or does not exist.

This goes to your second point; I am not using the term “know” in this absolute sense either, but rather it’s more fluid common usage accepted by philosophers of many stripes.  I’m an agnostic because I recognize that there is information I do not have, perspectives I have not considered, and because it is not logically impossible for many concepts of god to exist.  Thus some god might exist beyond my current level of knowledge (or not exist beyond my current state of knowledge, depending, of course, on whether I actually believe in such a being currently) but this is not the point.  Again, this is not a epistemologically absolutist position, but rather one of relative strength in the vein of scientific knowledge; overwhelming evidence is sufficient for using the term “know.”

You said:

And, even if you use “know’ that way, there is still the highly useful understanding of agnosticism in terms of belief (not knowledge): There are still many important cases in which people are agnostic about a claim in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.

This does not touch my use of the term agnostic at all.  In fact, it coheres with it, somewhat ironically.  Allow me to explain;

The first clause I will not grant aside from the trivial point that any word could be used in any way a person chooses to use it.  But if we are striving for philosophical precision, we must try to maintain a consistency of terms insofar as they do not stray too far from usefulness in distinguishing concepts in context to the discussion at hand.  ‘Agnostic’ is derived from the Greek word for ‘knowledge’, and in the context of the question of god’s existence this term plays the role of the question of knowledge, rather than belief, because these are epistemologically different concepts (knowledge and belief) and thus need to be distinguished in being precise.  By allowing ‘agnosticism’ to bleed into the question of belief, one fails to recognize that this distinction is relevant.

And if you think that knowledge and belief are not that easily distinct, then you need to demonstrate why and how this impacts the question at hand.  I do not believe you have done so thus far.  However, I do think that this issue might be a point of our misunderstanding of one-another.  I’ll leave that aside for the moment.

In terms of your second clause from above,

There are still many important cases in which people are agnostic about a claim in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.,

this is possibly trivially true, but again you miss the point.  You are creating the wrong dichotomy to understand how I’m using the term ‘atheist.’  I’ll try and pry apart the relevant issues.

I accept, from the start, that there is no rational way to demonstrate that there are no gods of any kind.  I cannot prove a negative, nor am I trying to.  The problem here is that the antecedent ‘dis-‘ in ‘disbelieve’ is ambiguous in that it can mean both “opposite of” or “absence of,” and the logical distinction between these meanings is the very heart of this misunderstanding.  It’s precisely why I use the terminology of “lacking” belief, so as to get rid of this ambiguity.  The term “lack” implies that I’m not saying “there is no god” or “I believe that there is no god” but rather that “the evidence is insufficient to believe, and so I don’t believe.”

The implication of this is that I will go about my day as if said being does not exist even if I know, when pressed, that I cannot logically believe that it does not exist.  The further implication is that the position of “believing that it’s false” is off the table; it is not a position under consideration.  (At least for me.  There are some that try to move in this direction, especially about specific concepts of gods, but this is beyond atheism and into another topic, perhaps anti-theism or some other term that may be more appropriate.  But I digress….).

Thus the dichotomy that you, and many others, draw between [edit*] belief in and the belief of absence (“in the sense of neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false.”) is not the same one that I draw.  You are drawing a distinction between two beliefs, while I am drawing a distinction between believing and not believing.  Again, this is a judgment, just not in favor of any belief.  My judgment is that the evidence and reasons proposed for the existence of any gods fail to demonstrate what they seek to demonstrate towards rational belief, and thus I lack belief. I disbelieve. I am an atheist.  I am without belief.  I do not ‘believe that their is a lack of gods’, I ‘lack belief in any gods.’  I hope you understand the distinction now.

So those that can fall under “neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false” do not make the point I think you wish to make.  Why?  Your formulation of the statement fits the definition of ‘agnostic’ in the same way that a ‘carpenter’ could be defined as a person who either believes in fairies or that the proposition of fairies is false; the term has nothing to do with the dichotomy at all.  That was my point; whether one is a theist (believes), an anti-theist (believes a god does not exist), or an atheist (simply lacks belief) any of them could be an agnostic because agnosticism deals with what one knows, not with what one believes.  The term ‘agnostic’ has nothing to do with “neither believing that it’s true nor believing that it’s false” except in the trivial sense in which the formulation and the term are not mutually exclusive.  They do not touch each-other at all.

You make the claim that “there is still the highly useful understanding of agnosticism in terms of belief (not knowledge)” but do not support this.  I tried to show here why your subsequent clause did not wed agnosticism to belief in any way but a trivial one of non-exclusivity.  In other words, I have not seen sufficient evidence (or reasoning) for your claim, thus don’t believe it.  It may still be true, but that’s for you to demonstrate.  The burden of proof still resides with you.  See the analogy?

I’ll state my position again, and hope you’ll understand this time.  I’m an agnostic; I don’t know if any gods exist.  This is a given because nobody knows, either absolutely or by use of the term ‘know’ in a less absolutist sense.  The term is thus redundant and thus useless; I toss the word to the side because it does not clarify my position in any way, except in the semi-trivial sense of being clear about my use of the term.  Anyone who says that they know there is a god (or that they know there is not one) has the burden of proof, and I shall await their proof or overwhelming evidence.

I have not been convinced either way. The theist has not convinced me, and neither has the one claiming that there are no gods. I have judged both of their arguments to be insufficient to demonstrate their propositions.

Since I have not been convinced by the proposition (again, either one), even in light of attempts to demonstrate said being(s) existence (or against it’s existence), I lack belief in the proposed being (and the proposed lack of being), and lack belief.

Atheists are not going around trying to show why god does not exist (except in rarer cases, who are the extreme exception.  These people are atheists, in that they lack belief, but are trying to take a further step in presenting an argument that gods do not exist, which goes beyond the definition of ‘atheism’ when we are being precise).

No, atheists are going around talking and writing about why they don’t believe in gods.  They are presenting their arguments as to why the arguments proposed for gods fail to be rationally, empirically, or emotionally compelling.  They are reacting to theology, not doing some bizzaro-world anti-theology (again, except for rare exceptions).

Don’t get caught up in the strong language of people saying “there is no god” because they are saying this in the same non-absolute sense that you objected to using “know” in your response above; They are not saying “there absolutely is no god” but rather “there is no reason, as far as I can see, to believe in one.  Thus, I go about my days as if there is no god.”

(more…)

Atheism: definitions June 14, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , , , ,
comments closed

I while back, I wrote this blog post about how I viewed the distinction between agnosticism and atheism, and offering a definition of atheism that I thought stood up to scrutiny in the world of discourse about such things. And despite some argument from some, I still hold that the best definition of atheist is someone who lacks beliefs in any gods.

Then just today I watched this video, whch makes many of the same points, and does so in a very tight little presentation.

It is a new video in a great series by Evid3nc3, all of which I highly recommend to theists everywhere.  He does a great job of charting his course from being a Christian with questions and becoming an atheist.

Atheism and Skepticism May 12, 2010

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , , ,
comments closed

[edit: This issue continues to be relevant in the skeptical community.  I’ll link this.]

Within the skeptic community, there is a sort of fault, a split, that is often avoided because it is an issue of some contention.  And we know how much skeptics avoid contentious issues! I mean, to do that would be unfortunate–one might stir up some deep-held beliefs that people have.

I’m an atheist.  I’m also a skeptic.  And while I have participated in the atheist community longer than the skeptical community, I have been part of both for some time.  I listen to Skepticality regularly, will often refer to skepdic.com or snopes.com when looking up information.  And while I  have not yet gone to TAM (but would very much like to this year),  I have had the honor of meeting Randi himself once [and later again at DragonCon 2010, where I had dinner with him and Jamy Ian Swiss], who was very friendly in introducing himself with a joke during an Anti-Superstition party in Philadelphia a few years ago.  This coming weekend I am attending the Atlanta Skepticamp.  In general, I demand evidence for claims, as any good skeptic should.

That is what skepticism is all about, right? According to Skeptic.com’s about page,

“[s]kepticism is a provisional approach to claims. It is the application of reason to any and all ideas — no sacred cows allowed. In other words, skepticism is a method, not a position.”

A good start.  Like science, skepticism is not so much about what we conclude as being true (or at least supported by evidence) but the method by which we approach finding answers.  It is a disposition, perhaps, more than any set of conclusions.

To be skeptical is to demand evidence upon hearing a claim about the world. Of course, non-extraordinary claims may not be sufficient to demand evidence; claims such as “I had eggs for breakfast,” for example, may not get your skeptical dander up.  Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence (said Carl Sagan).  The common usage of the term ‘skeptic’, however, is often to conflate it with the term “cynic” (which is itself a term that has diverged from it’s ancient roots), which implies a kind of dismissive attitude towards claims rather than a desire to seek evidence for the claims.  Skeptics are not, ideally, debunkers of beliefs so much as investigators of beliefs and seekers of evidence.  And when such evidence does not exist (or is dubious), the belief is not held by the skeptic.

Within the skeptical community you will hear talk of cryptozoology, UFOs, psychics, and astrology, for sure, but not too much discussion about religion or faith.  Why is that? Well, it is because many people who identify as skeptics are, nonetheless, religious.  That is, they believe things about the universe such as the existence of god(s), but apply their skepticism elsewhere.

OK, well, let’s step aside for the moment and take a look at atheism.  I’ve addressed my definition of atheism before (as well as whether it can be considered a religion), and so I won’t go on at length.  Essentially, my definition oft atheism is the position of not having any belief in any gods.  That is, if ‘theism’ means belief in god(s), then atheism is simply the negation-causing ‘a-‘ attached to that term, meaning the lack of such a belief in god(s).  It is not the belief that there are no gods, because that is a subtle but importantly different position to hold; there is a difference between saying that there are no gods and saying that I don’t currently believe that there are.  The former assertion brings with it the burden of proof, while the latter lack of belief does not bring any burden of proof into play.

My position, as an atheist, is that of a response; when someone says that they think there is a god or that god exists, I simply am saying “I don’t believe you.”  This is an essentially skeptical position.  I am saying that the evidence is not sufficient, from my point of view, to accept such a claim.  Any person who calls themselves a skeptic must hold this position unless they have evidence for the existence of god; evidence which I have not seen (or accepted as sufficient). If they believe by faith alone, then they are not applying their skepticism to their belief in god(s), and thus lose some skeptical street cred (see video below). Faith and skepticism are at odds here.

Matt Dillahunty, the current president of the Atheist Community of Austin, host of the Atheist Experience and the Non-Prophets (both of which I have been following for several years now), has come out strongly with essentially the same position as mine (I think), as can be heard in the following:

Matt and I corresponded a little while back concerning a post at skepchick.com that addressed this very issue.  And while it is true that none of us are completely rational about everything, the bottom line is that by ignoring such a large aspect of one’s life, such as the belief in a god (whether one is a deist or a Christian) is a hit against one’s skeptical credentials.  Simply admitting that one is not being rational about something does not excuse the lack of skepticism.  It would be sort of like an astrologer admitting that they are not being rational about their belief in astrology, but considering themselves a skeptic because they are skeptical about vaccinations causing autism and Bigfoot.

So, can one be a skeptic and be a believer in god(s))?

No, I don’t think so.

I contend that there is no good evidence for the existence of a god.  If there is, I have not seen it.  And if there is good evidence or reasons to believe in god(s), I want to see it.  But in my many years of having discussions, thinking about this issue, and writing about it, I have not yet been presented with good reason to believe.  Not even those skeptical theists have good reasons to believe, from what I have seen.  Thus, believing in a god, despite the lack of evidence for it’s existence is a non-rational position.  A skeptic is supposed to reserve belief for positions that are supported by evidence, not believed despite the lack of evidence (or evidence to the contrary).  A skeptic believing in a god despite the lack of evidence is no different than a skeptic believing in the Loch Ness Monster with similar scanty evidence.

And despite the fact that stating this may cause some rifts among certain ‘skeptical’ people, I think it is important to address because of one very important reason; it is true.  And if it is not true, then it must be argued to be so, not simply stated.  If it is possible to be a consistent skeptic and be a believer in god(s), then that implies that there is good reason to believe in such entities.  And if there is reason to believe in deities, then the issue between skeptics and atheists is that atheists are wrong to lack belief in gods because there is evidence out there that is sufficient for belief.

But if there is not sufficient evidence to believe in any gods, then to be a skeptic and a theist is a contradiction.  A skeptic, being consistent, will be an atheist.  They will not say there is no god, but they will join me in saying that they simply see no reason to believe there is a god.

I’ll leave you with some more video:

Brother Sam is angry! August 1, 2009

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
Tags: , , ,
comments closed

A little while back brother Sam Singleton descended onto Philadelphia, and your truly, brother Shaun, got a chance to meet him.  Brother sam is angry.  Brother Sam thinks you should be angry too.

Why is Brother Sam angry?

Damn right!