31 December 2013

Atheism as a political movement

Pamela Stubbart has an insightful essay about whether atheism is elitist and why atheists don’t care so much about convincing disadvantaged believers that they are wrong:

to the charge that atheism is somehow “elitist,” I say: “of course. who cares?” The forefronts of knowledge have always been, and in some sense must be, the bastion of those who are privileged along some dimension or other. …  We can agree that it would be “cruel and point­less” to try to talk these peo­ple out of their the­ism. But label­ing atheism itself an “intel­lec­tual lux­ury” con­sti­tutes a near­sighted attempt to imbue athe­ism with the con­no­ta­tion that it’s unnec­es­sary and friv­o­lous. Please don’t for­get that in other con­texts, the non-religious do impor­tant work towards cur­tail­ing religiously-motivated harms (female gen­i­tal muti­la­tion, any­one? allow­ing chil­dren with eas­ily cured med­ical con­di­tions to die?) At those times, it is keep­ing quiet about unjus­ti­fied reli­gious claims (“think­ing differ­ently” from athe­ists!) which would be cruel.

On Facebook, Kevin Vallier was ticked off by another comment from the essay:

Kevin Vallier: "If you have gone to college and you do knowledge work for a living, the pursuit of truth ought to be of significant (though probably never overriding) importance to you. Theists of this class are aggravating, because they seem to be either willfully ignorant of science and philosophy, or capable of withstanding huge amounts of cognitive dissonance." Seriously? I hope I'm not one of these unfortunate souls.

In my experience, there is indeed a third possibility apart from willful ignorance and cognitive dissonance. The highly educated theist redefines what religion and faith mean in a way that is more compatible with what s/he knows about science and philosophy. From an atheist’s perspective, the problem with this approach is that each enlightened theist seems to redefine religion and faith in their own idiosyncratic fashion. Hence, there is no way to provide general arguments that would address all enlightened theists’ concerns. And this allows each enlightened theist to feel smug about their own version of theism observing that the atheists only “focus on straw men”.

A second issue is the following. Many of those enlightened theists would accept all the atheistic positions that have public policy impact. For example, they would agree with the separation of church and state, that children should be vaccinated, that evolution should be taught in schools, etc. As such, there is no real political benefit in trying to convince the enlightened theist of their error. Suppose they agree with all the atheist public policy concerns, but nonetheless think that there’s life after death – for example because they think life would be unbearable and meaningless unless life after death exists. (I have actually met a person who believes exactly this, but, again, many enlightened theists would think the belief in life after death is a silly straw man, and would feel smug about it if you would bring it up). So, what would be the point in trying to convince this person of their error?! Perhaps if they were a neuroscientist it would be important, for purely science concerns, but not for many other professions. Moreover, perhaps they would indeed feel worse and meaningless if there were no life after death – why would I try to harm them?

This brings me to what atheism really is. The fact that most atheists would not be “going to the ghetto, shak­ing peo­ple awake, and call­ing them ‘stu­pid’ to their faces”, nor would they be terrible interested in convincing enlightened theists of their idiosyncratic errors, reveals something about what atheism really is. Namely that it is a political movement. Indeed the great bulk of energies atheists in fact spend are in countering the relatively uninformed, but politically relevant, views. Hence, in the same way in which Pascal Boyer looks at what religious people actually do, rather than at their verbal rationalizations, to understand religion, we should also define atheism based on what atheists actually do.

This political movement has two big concerns:
  1. Making sure that all public policy and judicial acts are science-based or at least scientifically informed and not explicitly counter to what we know to be true.
  2. Getting more funding for scientific research, while maintaining the political independence of science.

(Libertarian atheists are skeptical that 2 is realistic, i.e. that you can maintain political independence while getting state funding, but they are a small and inconsequential force within the atheist movement. Although a big chunk of libertarians are atheists, a small chunk of atheists are libertarian.)

As such, atheism, as a political movement that targets mainly the relatively ignorant, can be seen as the political branch of the scientific community. If you’re looking at it this way, you will understand better the pissed reactions of various atheists towards Richard Dawkins – it’s not so much that they disagree with him on substantive grounds, including the inherent incompatibility of religion and science, they disagree with him on strategic grounds. Adopting such a confrontational approach may be a bad political strategy as far as the two goals above are concerned. To succeed at those goals it might be better for the bulk of the population to think that science and religion are compatible, even if they are not.

Frankly, I don’t know what my own position is about this, but each time I see some atheist pissed at Richard Dawkins, this is what I think is really going on – a call for politically savvy hypocrisy.