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:
- Is it reasonable to consider all of the arguments for and against theism and rationally come out a theist?
- 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.
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.