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Dec 28 2011

It’s the Authority, Stupid

Massimo Pigliucci has a post up entitled “The goals of atheist activism.” *sigh*

I recommend PZ’s post deconstructing much of Massimo’s argument and note that Massimo is every bit as wrong about the confrontational tactics of the gay rights movement as he is about the civil rights movement. If he thinks people weren’t called “murderers” over their response to the AIDS crisis, he wasn’t paying attention. 

I’ll add a harumph of my own for the idea that atheists don’t experience “real discrimination.” Maybe Massimo and his friends have things cushy enough that the kinds of discrimination atheists face aren’t real to them. It’s a little different for those who had to fight to prove they were fit to be custodial parents. It’s different for those politicians who know they can’t aspire to higher office without facing de facto religious tests in their districts. It’s different for those who work for religious bosses or companies and get to choose between being quiet and fighting a lawsuit for discriminatory treatment or termination that they can’t actually afford.

But this post isn’t actually about atheists. This post is about the fact that Massimo still managed to miss my main goal in his list, despite me pointing him to my response to the Stedman article when Massimo linked it on Twitter. Somehow he missed this part:

What people like Stedman like to tell you is that they are practicing outreach, furthering dialog, enhancing trust. That’s all well and good, if that’s your thing (I actually do a certain amount of it as well, though no one pays me for it). As far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t go anywhere near problems more pressing than hurt feelings and bruised religious privilege.

Stedman has read the blog posts he cites, right? He knows that people are dying, that others are in hiding or pretending to be someone they’re not so they don’t die, that children are being mutilated and raped, that they’re being groomed for martyrdom instead of educated and employed–and that the authority conferred by Islam plays a huge part in making these intractable problems? He knows that most if not all of those things, plus a few special others, happen in places where Christianity or Judaism or Hinduism plays the role of the heavy instead?

Or maybe Massimo read it but missed the point. The closest he comes in his list of goals is:

Combating dogmatism — even internally! Atheists and freethinkers pride themselves in being free from prejudice and open minded about life, the universe and everything. Which is why our antipathy towards religion is rooted in the latter’s dogmatism. But then we ought to realize that some religions are actually not dogmatic (e.g., there is a long tradition of internal criticism within the Jewish tradition, and one of the least dogmatic religious figures of all time is the Dalai Lama), which means that not all religions are our enemies, or at least not all to the same extent. Moreover, look me in the eye and try to seriously make an argument that you’ve never seen or heard a dogmatic atheist, and we’ll have a good laugh. Let’s start by cleaning our own house, before we self-righteously pretend to (metaphorically) demolish other people’s abodes.

Sure. Dogmatism is bad. We should present evidence and reasoning for our positions, and we should listen to that presented by others. However, as Massimo himself points out, dogma is present everywhere. Got a dogmatist? Set another dogmatist facing the opposite direction in front of the first one. Let them butt heads while you go get something done.

That’s when you find the real problem.

You want to, say, improve the education of girls in an impoverished country. You haul out your evidence that this improves the lot of women later in life. You lay out the data showing that this is one of the best ways to improve the standard of living for everyone around these women. You make a convincing case tying the well-being of the nation as a whole to this type of investment. Then you sit back and smile, having shown how what you want is a good thing for everyone.

“No. God forbids it.”

You can call this dogmatism all you want. It won’t change the answer, because this isn’t really dogma. This is the “other sources of knowledge” problem in action. And this particular source is an authority your sources can never match.

I did a radio discussion/debate with a very liberal Christian for Christmas (like you do). He asked at one point whether it was fair to blame religion for all the world’s problems. I told that religion isn’t responsible for all the problems in the world. Religion simply makes these problems intractable because there is no position, no matter how awful or out there that can’t be justified with “Because God said so.” At that point, too, you’ve been trumped. How do you top God? No, not with another–obviously false–god. There simply isn’t an answer that will satisfy.

Nor does it make a difference that appeal to authority is a fallacy. That just means it works, exploiting a weakness in our brains’ functioning that takes time, attention, and will to overcome–for one issue or argument at at time, all while “God” tells you not to do it. It’s simpler to wait for another generation to come along, either less religious or with different information coming from their gods, as the same-sex marriage issue is demonstrating.

So, yes, Massimo, you have very nice goals. I even share them. However, they aren’t my primary goals by any means. If the choice comes down to helping people like atheists and undercutting–through ridicule, insults, or pointing to the things that polite people would prefer to forget about religion–the authority that is the only thing that can support many of the horrors of our world, then hand me my knife.

Then you might want to stand back. That’s fair. Not every battle is for every person. But do me a favor, please, and don’t try to describe what I’m doing while you’re looking away. You’re going to get thing very, very wrong if you do, just as you did here.

Note: Anyone not getting the reference in the title should read up a bit on the 1992 U.S. presidential campaign before commenting to suggest I’m calling names. Also, yes, I’m old.

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  1. 1
    Irène Delse, on dry land among seabirds

    Re the infallibility of God’s Word: I remember one of the guests on Steve Novella’s SGU podcast (I think it was Dr. Ray Greek) who explained that he was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community and managed to go through college and even medical school while staying a creationist, and that it wasn’t only when he started questioning the validity of what was written in the Bible that he could accept the validity of evolution. He explained that the fundies aren’t swayed by logic, science and evidence because for them, the Word of God (or what they define as so) trumps everything.

    Just one more anecdote, of course, but a good illustration of what the defenders of reason are up against.

  2. 2
    Lou Jost

    Stephanie, this hits the nail on the head. Authority imported from religion makes rational discussion almost impossible.

    I add the “almost” because sometimes one can sometimes argue (using reason and textual arguments) that their authority has been misinterpreted….doesn’t always work, but sometimes it does.

  3. 3
    jonmoles

    “It’s the economy, stupid” has been a pervasive enough meme over the years that hardly anyone should need to look it up. It’s funny, 1992 was the first Presidential election in which I voted and I can’t remember if I remember that slogan from the campaign or from just having heard it repeated over the intervening years.

    Also, not sure what your definition of old is, but sometimes I’m feeling that way as well.

  4. 4
    Irène Delse, on dry land among seabirds

    Oops, I meant of course “it was only when he started questioning the validity of what was written in the Bible”, not “wasn’t”. Sorry for the typo.

  5. 5
    BKsea

    Thanks to you and PZ and others for deconstructing that post. I read it yesterday and was pissed off about it all evening. Your point about the blanket authority is spot on.

    I think another point missed by Massimo is the target audience of the message. I always view the new atheist message going out to those with doubts and those who are afraid to admit to their true feelings out of fear of repercussions, etc. For those people, an in-your-face message saying “Yes! The dumb-ass emperor has no clothes and we’re all with you” is quite effective. The accomodationists worry that this approach will never change the true believers (i.e. the emperors). But, I don’t think new atheists expect that. The goal should be to increasingly marginalize the true believers until poof, they are gone.

  6. 6
    Stephanie Zvan

    jonmoles, the phrase has been pervasive, but I’m not sure the details have been well-preserved in the repetition. In other words, a lot of people won’t know that it was an exhortation Clinton deliberately kept in front of him to remind him to focus on the important issues or that it was written by his friend in order to help him win.

    1992 was my second vote for president. The 20-something activists around FtB are great to see, but they do tend to make me feel a wee bit decrepit.

  7. 7
    San Ban

    It’s this same “other sources of knowledge” problem that also sets skeptics like me firmly against non-theistic peddlers of all manner of woo. It’s what makes me implacable when confronted with wilful ignorance of reality. And I think it’s a very worthy goal to undercut it at every turn – hand me that other knife!

  8. 8
    abb3w

    Agreeing with the assessment that “It’s the Authority, stupid”, I’ll like to plug Dr. Robert Altemeyer’s free PDF book The Authoritarians — which deals incidentally with religious fundamentalism, but is focused more on the underlying problems of authoritarian mindsets.

    He has at least two other (non-free) works that might be of interest to atheists, both co-authored with Bruce Hunsberger. The first is the 1997 “Amazing Conversions: Why Some Turn to Faith & Others Abandon Religion”. The publication of this contributed in part to another study, detailed in the 2006 “Atheists: A Groundbreaking Study of America’s Nonbelievers”.

    I’d also note that the same sex marriage issue demonstrates that while it can be helpful to wait for another generation to come along, even older minds may not be fully ossified. While the GSS indicates younger generational cohorts tend to be more accepting than their elders, even older cohorts are tending to be more accepting over time on this issue.

  1. 9
    It’s the Authority, Stupid | Almost Diamonds

    [...] This week is full of commitments and deadlines. Rather than try to meet all my blogging commitments with new work and failing, I’m pulling out some old posts. Given how my audience has grown, most of you won’t have read them at the time. This post was originally published here. [...]

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