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Nov 01 2012

Is it racism or trying to correct for privilege?

There’s a lot of indignation about Bruce Gorton’s guest post about faitheists. People have been badgering Paul Fidalgo about it on Twitter merely because he linked to it in the Morning Heresy – he linked to it, he didn’t endorse it. James Croft has a long post on it. Vlad Chituc challenged me on it via Twitter, and we ended up having a decent discussion.

The indignation is about the claim that Chris Stedman “holds a degree of the basic unconscious racism that I find common in a lot of these arguments over religion.”

Part of the problem is just that people translated that into “Chris Stedman is a racist.”

Look closely at the two and you’ll see the difference. I pointed that out to Vlad yesterday, and I also pointed out that it’s pretty common to be told that one holds a degree of unconscious racism; he didn’t fully agree but he did at least see my point, which is how we ended up having a decent discussion.

So that’s one thing. It’s just the basic idea that no one is free of unconscious racism and other biases, or at least that it’s not safe to assume that anyone is. The charge can be annoying, certainly, but it’s not the same as just “you are a racist.”

So what about the merits? Bruce went on, first quoting Stedman:

“But how can we discount the role religious beliefs played in motivating the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi?”

Why do I say this is unconsciously racist? Gandhi and MLK Jnr were both fighting against social injustices they personally suffered – and they were fighting shoulder to shoulder with atheists to achieve it.

[snip]

I do not think religion was the motivating factor behind Martin Luther King Jnr, I think not wanting an America where the colour of his skin relegated him to third class status had a lot more to do with it. I do not think religion motivated Mahatma Gandhi, I think desiring an India free from colonial rule had a lot more to do with it.

I think that’s right. I also think it’s possible to find moral support and encouragement and so on from a selective use of religion – obviously King was not “motivated” by the same religion that “motivated” the white supremacists – but that’s not the same as being motivated by religion in general. I think Bruce is right that the real motivations for social justice campaigns like those of Gandhi and King are moral and thus secular. They are not rooted in ideas about obedience to God; they are rooted in ideas about equal treatment among human beings on planet Earth.

I think the idea of unconscious racism has to do with making special rules for other races, and that that’s patronizing and thus racist.

I think I’ve often found that idea somewhat persuasive, but I think I was probably wrong. I think what’s really going on is people trying to correct for their own privilege, and it seems pretty perverse to call that racist. I think the idea is, “it’s easy for me to give up religion, because I’m not shut out of nearly everything else, but it’s not so easy for people who are shut out of nearly everything else. That makes me hesitant about trying to talk them out of religion.”

See what I mean?

I could develop it more, but I’ll let you do the work.

81 comments

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  1. 1
    jflcroft

    I think Bruce is right that the real motivations for social justice campaigns like those of Gandhi and King are moral and thus secular. They are not rooted in ideas about obedience to God; they are rooted in ideas about equal treatment among human beings on planet Earth.

    I think we must be working with a very different set of definitions or understandings here because I simply don’t see how being motivated by moral considerations is inherently “secular”. Much of the moral discourse of humanity has been conducted through religious institutions, in religious texts, and by religious figures. So clearly moral =/= secular, necessarily. I just don’t understand the point you are trying to make.

  2. 2
    Ophelia Benson

    The fact that religious institutions do some talking about moral issues doesn’t make the moral issues religious.

    I think atheists and secularists should be clear about that, because otherwise we just go along with the (mistaken) consensus that morality and religion go together, as they do on all those “religion and ethics” pages on news sites.

    Religious morality is about the relations between humans and god. Secular morality is about humans.

    Why should we hand over the latter to religions? It makes no sense – not for atheists. (Of course it makes sense for religions!)

  3. 3
    Pierce R. Butler

    jflcroft @ # 1: Much of the moral discourse of humanity has been conducted through religious institutions, in religious texts, and by religious figures.

    Much of the food production and consumption of humanity has been conducted at religious institutions, described in religious texts, and participated in by religious figures, so eating is not a secular concern.

  4. 4
    Rutee Katreya

    I think the idea of unconscious racism has to do with making special rules for other races, and that that’s patronizing and thus racist.

    Even if it weren’t special pleading, it’d be racist. If it isn’t special pleading, then there are plenty of white people who did good things motivated primarily by their religion; focus the fuck on them. I generally have to tell Gnus this, but civil rights movements and the like don’t exist for white people to score points on each other. Don’t appropriate the struggles of a minority that doesn’t concern you to argue with other white people.

  5. 5
    Rutee Katreya

    And in case this isn’t clear, it also applies to Bruce. Who for some reason I thought was named Robert until I checked.

  6. 6
    jflcroft

    There’s a simple logical fallacy in both of your responses: to affirm, as I do, that the realm of the moral is not necessarily purely the realm of the secular does not commit me to also affirm that morality is never within the realm of the secular. There are religious moral systems and secular moral systems, and it seems to me unarguable that MLK, for instance, was motivated in part by what can rightly be described as a “religious” moral philosophy which gave great weight to the nature, desires and actions of a God.

    To claim his thinking is “secular” because, as well as dealing with relationships between humans and God it also dealt with relationships between people is to use a definition which would exclude most texts usually considered “religious” treatises on morality from being considered “religious”. This seems completely perverse – a form, as I said in my response to Gorton, of special pleading.

  7. 7
    doubtthat

    I ran into this working in a legal clinic in Chicago. The churches in the black community were so essential on every level–food, clothing, housing, child care…etc.–that it was impossible to criticize their role in the community. They were also among the few safe places youth could gather.

    Just about every one of my clients spoke in religious terms–”I feel so blessed,” “God has a plan…”–and despite being one of the nasty sorts of atheists in most settings, I would never engage in religious discussions, even when I would see people outside of the scope of my role as an attorney.

    The issue here is the neglect and failure of secular society, but how do you convince someone that the lone institution they can rely on is founded on a bunch of ancient bullshit? Why would you try to convince them of such?

    Of course, their religion was the same religion that provided justification for centuries of slavery and the subsequent segregation/racial violence. It was a matter of history that black churches were one of the only institutions not intentionally destroyed by the white power structure, thus, it became the logical source for social and political organization. Black people weren’t beaten and harassed for carrying around Bibles and spending extra time in church. The same was very much not true of schools.

  8. 8
    Ophelia Benson

    What?!

    Rutee…Don’t tell us struggles of a minority don’t concern us. If the struggles of minorities concern only the minorities then they’re mostly doomed. If the minority is small enough everyone else can just shrug and go on shoving them aside.

    Also, why are you assuming you know who is white and who isn’t?

  9. 9
    eric

    I think the idea of unconscious racism has to do with making special rules for other races, and that that’s patronizing and thus racist.

    I don’t think this is where you were necessarily going, but there does seem to be shades of the fundamental attribution error here. “Raised religiously” is an external cause of action. Attributing King and Gandhi’s noble acts to external causes is to undervalue their own internal decision-making processes. Its a way of saying that King didn’t really choose to be the person he was or do the things he did, outside influences made him what he was (and should get the credit).

    These were truly remarkable individuals. They made harder decisions than most of us will make. Its insulting to chalk those hard decisions up to “way he was raised,” which is basically what describing their contributions as ‘religiously motivated’ is doing. Their actions were King-motivated and Gandhi-motivated and those individuals – not the external influences on their lives – deserve the credit.

  10. 10
    Vlad Chituc

    Thanks for the post clarifying, Ophelia.

    I’ve been thinking and there is a difference between some implicit racism and overt racism, but there is definitely a spectrum of implicit racism, and Bruce’s comments struck me less as “you have an unconscious bias like everyone else does” and more as “you’re unintentionally think less of the capacities of POCs.” There’s a spectrum of how racist implicit racism is, and I think the prototypical examples I was considering were perhaps more extreme than the ones you might have been, so I think I’ll chalk our disagreement up to that.

    I still disagree that Chris was showing even implicit racism. I would be amazed if he didn’t hold white abolitionists in the Civil Rights Era as motivated by religion, too (for example, I remember reading about James Zwerg, a Freedom Rider, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Zwerg, who explicitly cited his religious belief in motivating his activism). I still find much of Bruce’s post way off, but I appreciate the discussion,

  11. 11
    Ophelia Benson

    doubtthat – exactly. That’s what I’m saying. Would it be fair to call that racist? I really don’t think so.

  12. 12
    doubtthat

    #1@jflcroft

    “I simply don’t see how being motivated by moral considerations is inherently “secular”. Much of the moral discourse of humanity has been conducted through religious institutions, in religious texts, and by religious figures. So clearly moral =/= secular, necessarily.”

    Here’s an attempt at answering:

    What happened to cause Christians to move from believing that slavery was justifiable to believing that slavery was evil? In 500AD, almost all Christians accepted slavery in some capacity; in 2000AD almost no Christians accepted slavery.

    Was the immorality of slavery discovered in a new Biblical text? Did God appear and give new commandments? Did the portions of the Old and New Testament that, at different points, gleefully endorsed or tacitly accepted slavery magically evaporate from all of the books in hotel night stands?

    No. Secular society moved on. Our understanding of justice and morality changed–the Bible didn’t. We learned more about what it meant to be human in a scientific sense, and the ancient superstitions about race slowly evaporated. The Bible remained unchanged.

    So it seems ridiculous to believe that Martin Luther King was sitting around one day reading the Bible and stumbled on a passage that made him change his opinion on segregation.

    The more believable scenario holds that MLK saw the humanitarian disaster surrounding him, knew that it was wrong and evil, then extracted portions of the Bible that supported his already-arrived-at view, and ignored the ones that didn’t.

  13. 13
    Ophelia Benson

    MLK, for instance, was motivated in part by what can rightly be described as a “religious” moral philosophy which gave great weight to the nature, desires and actions of a God.

    By reading secular morality into God. No? What else would one do?

    I’ve never seen anyone actually try to figure out what the morality of “God” might be, by for instance thinking carefully about what our morality is with respect to bacteria, or fleas. The gap between “God” and us is vastly bigger than the gap between us and bacteria.

    What does anyone know about the nature, desires and actions of a God? Nothing. So a “religious” moral philosophy is just a projection of human morality into god, and thus secular.

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    Also, what doubtthat said.

  15. 15
    Rutee Katreya

    Rutee…Don’t tell us struggles of a minority don’t concern us.

    Why not? It factually doesn’t. It perhaps should concern the generic Gnu Atheist you, or the generic faithiest you, or the generic religious you, but as a rule, people are working on other shit. Assuming that the generic you isn’t directly and happily standing in the way as a problem, it’s generally not that person’s primary work.

    That, in and of itself, is fine, for like, dozens of reasons I doubt I need to repeat to you, that I know for a fact you’re familiar with as an activist. But to then use that struggle as a cheap rhetorical device against some one else (Almost always a majority member), as primarily an outsider to that struggle? No. It’s not your problem, stop trying to use it to your advantage.

    Also, why are you assuming you know who is white and who isn’t?

    I actually checked that Stedman wasn’t a black-Indian before talking about him, and couldn’t find Bruce, but I’m willing to bet neither of you are Black-Indians (Because Gandhi and MLK Jr. both came up). It’s not just about not being white. I’m Latin@ and still try (and fail) to stay away from doing this shit to black people, or native americans, or what have you. Our racisms aren’t the exact same, and although I do what I can to help, ‘helping’ doesn’t involve pretending the precise shit that happened to say, native americans happened to Latin@s. Especially not when all three groups engage in racist shit to each other, and more. And that goes double for white people, who are the ones usually doing this.

  16. 16
    Ruth

    I’d like to expand on what has already been said about the difference between religious morality and secular morality.

    Religious morality is about what a God, Goddess or Gods want. Secular morality is about what people want/what’s good for people.

    A particular religious morality system may claim that God wants you to do something because it’s good for people, but in that case, the ultimate reasoning behind the moral rule is that it’s good for people, i.e. a secular reason.

    A moral rule is only truly a religiously moral rule if the most important reason behind it is that it’s what God wants, and if the action is either neutral or even negative in regard to what’s good for people.

    Praying, pilgrimages and avoiding work on a particular day are examples of religiously motivated rules which are neutral – they neither benefit nor harm people.

    Circumcision and banning contraception are examples of religiously motivated rules which are negative – they actively harm people.

    Anyone who claims that their motivation for acts which help people is purely, or even mainly, religious, is saying that what God wants is more important to them than helping people.

    The best way to tell whether someone’s motivations are secular or religious, is to ask what they would do if they were shown evidence that their ‘moral’ actions were actually hurting people rather than helping them. Those with secular motivations will stop doing the hurtful things.

    Of course, the ones who have a lot invested in their claimed religious motivations will do a lot of ‘we have always been at war with Eurasia’ re-writing of their religious rules so they can still claim that their motivations are religious.

  17. 17
    Beatrice, an amateur cynic looking for a happy thought

    I have mostly stayed out of the MLK discussion, but I’ll just note that doubtthat gives a really good explanation in #12.

  18. 18
    Ariel

    doubtthat #12

    So it seems ridiculous to believe that Martin Luther King was sitting around one day reading the Bible and stumbled on a passage that made him change his opinion on segregation.

    Agreed.

    The more believable scenario holds that MLK saw the humanitarian disaster surrounding him, knew that it was wrong and evil, then extracted portions of the Bible that supported his already-arrived-at view, and ignored the ones that didn’t.

    Another more believable scenario holds that MLK saw the suffering surrounding him, knew that good God couldn’t accept it, then … etc.

    The difference between my scenario and yours is that in your picture wrong and evil appear as secular categories, detached from religion. Bible (identified with religion) comes next in chronological order. In mine wrong and evil come from the start with religious associacions. And I must say that I don’t find your scenario very plausible. He was a pastor, my guess would be that moral categories had for him strong religious connotations. In effect in describing my scenario I could really repeat yours word by word, but with reservation that “wrong” and “evil” are understood from the start within a religious framework. I chose a different wording just for clarity.

    All in all, I find the task of disentangling religious from secular aspects of one’s motivation rather daunting. I’m surprised you think it can be done so easily. Good luck!

    On the main topic: Ophelia, I haven’t followed all these reactions to Bruce’s text, so I can only speak for myself. I don’t have a problem with accusations of unconscious racism as such – sometimes they are true. I have a problem however with using such accusations indiscriminately, as a stick to beat a dog, with no sound reasoning standing behind it. In my opinion Bruce wasn’t able to formulate any cogent argument in his OP. If you want to see how devastating anger can be to logical thinking, Bruce’s text is an excellent reference. The sheer amount of non-sequiturs makes it reasonable to suppose that it was one of the texts of the sort “I already have my conclusion; so let’s not be picky about the arguments”. It is in such a context that I find the accusation of racism – conscious or unconscious – as very nasty indeed.

    I wrote earlier that it was one of the worst OP-s I read on FTB. I haven’t changed my opinion.

    All the best

  19. 19
    eric

    [Ophelia] Rutee…Don’t tell us struggles of a minority don’t concern us.

    Why not? It factually doesn’t.

    Preamble: I’m going to focus on pragmatic reasons here because I don’t think the moral argument will be compelling to you. But don’t take my omitting it to mean I’m just a cynical pragmatist; I also believe there are moral reasons why other people’s struggles concern me. With that said…

    …Are you flipping insane? Fashioning a just society is in my best personal interests because the legal and social inequalities that are turned on others could be turned on me. (White) atheists should concern themselves with the rights of minorities for the same reason that religious people in the colonial era supported the 1st amendment; because those weapons of the state can be turned on us too, and smart people recognize that. Now obviously not every religious person back then did support religious freedom, just as not every privileged person supports equality today. Some people thought the short-term advantage of maintaining a religious privilege was worth the risk that it could come back and bite them in the ass. But the analogy is sound and many people get it. They get why everyone’s equality is good for them despite their currently privileged position.

    Not only that, but general prosperity and education lowers crime and improves our government. Poverty creates more criminals that could attack me. You being able to have a living wage directly benefits me. A lack of education creates more voters who will elect people that I don’t like. As with the 1st education argument, not everyone gets that. But a lot of people do.

    Society is not a zero sum game: when you win, I do too. Other people’s struggles do factually concern me because they will impact my life, my safety, how my government acts, etc., etc.

  20. 20
    doubtthat

    @Ophelia

    “Would it be fair to call that racist?”

    The notion that it would be racist seems to rely on the argument that the only way to avoid racism is to treat everyone exactly the same in all scenarios. Thus, we get “reverse” racism as evidenced by Affirmative Action and THE FACT THAT THERE’S NO WHITE ENTERTAINMENT TELEVISION!!!

    Recognizing a historical reality created by past (and often on-going) racism, and modifying behavior to compensate for that reality necessitates differential treatment. As long as that difference isn’t evinced in the form condescension, I don’t see how it could be racism.

    Second, to call the sort of behavior we’re discussing “racist” relies on some notion that the most important thing is getting an answer on the God question. I don’t think that. I think atheism is a fun philosophical discussion, but it’s only real value is directly proportional to the amount of social justice it allows.

    In other words, it is better for someone to believe in God and have food, shelter, health care…etc., than it is to lose all of those things and shed ancient fairy tales. It is a factual reality that the services provided by black churches in many urban areas cannot currently be covered by secular institutions, so I think it’s better to support those churches even if I disagree with their source material.

    Finally, I’m a straight white dude, so it was easy for me to ignore the less sterling opinions many of the churches expressed. On women’s issues and definitely LBGT matters, there was a lot of hateful stuff being spread. It was certainly my privilege of not being affected by that stuff that allowed me to ignore religious questions.

  21. 21
    doubtthat

    @Ariel

    “Another more believable scenario holds that MLK saw the suffering surrounding him, knew that good God couldn’t accept it, then … etc.”

    I find this to be a baffling statement. First, God did accept it, it was happening. He’s omnipotent, he could stop it. And second, way, way worse stuff goes on in the Bible. It’s only by a completely selective reading that you could read a book full of rape, murder, and genocide and come to the conclusion that God won’t accept violence. Hell, he orders it, over and over and over…

    “And I must say that I don’t find your scenario very plausible. He was a pastor, my guess would be that moral categories had for him strong religious connotations.”

    I would be willing to wager a massive sum of money that MLK was an opponent of segregation long before he was a pastor. And his “religious” education was lead by groups of people who arrived at their conclusions concerning segregation the exact same way.

    But again, that same exact book was the source material used by the pro-segregationists. How do we determine which one correctly interpreted the WORD OF GOD? If it’s really the word of God, why is it so ambiguous? There were segregationist pastors with strong Bible-based moral categories that thought it was their God-directed duty to keep black people out of their schools. It should also be pointed out that this basic understanding of the Bible with regard to race was BY FAR the majority understanding for the previous 1960 years.

  22. 22
    Rutee Katreya

    Are you flipping insane? Fashioning a just society is in my best personal interests because the legal and social inequalities that are turned on others could be turned on me.

    You don’t get it. I’m not arguing that you shouldn’t help. Go read. I’m saying you’re not really helping by reducing a struggle you mostly don’t participate in to a rhetorical point. The struggle of black people does not exist so that white atheists or white theists may score points off of each other in their discussions of atheism/theism.

    It’s great that you get that equality really is important and all, but if you want to pretend that the atheist movement as a whole does, well, I’ve heard that fairy song before.

  23. 23
    Ariel

    I find this to be a baffling statement. First, God did accept it, it was happening. He’s omnipotent, he could stop it. And second, way, way worse stuff goes on in the Bible. It’s only by a completely selective reading that you could read a book full of rape, murder, and genocide and come to the conclusion that God won’t accept violence. Hell, he orders it, over and over and over…

    You don’t understand. I’m not a believer, defending the Bible. I could try to do it just for the sake of argument … but it would be moot in the present context, wouldn’t it? So let’s assume that what you are saying is correct. So what? What bearing does it have on the question whether MLK’s motivation was religious or not? Do you take it for granted that he reproduced your reasoning in his head? Accept it? And still be a pastor afterwards? I’m sorry, but you just can’t use (quasi)theological arguments to decide the psychological issue.

    The same goes for your question “How do we determine which one correctly interpreted the WORD OF GOD?”. In this context – irrelevant.

    I would be willing to wager a massive sum of money that MLK was an opponent of segregation long before he was a pastor. And his “religious” education was lead by groups of people who arrived at their conclusions concerning segregation the exact same way.

    By contrast, this is relevant. I know very little about MLK’s biography. It seems to me that only biographical details could really shed light on the issue of MLK’s motivations. Hard way. No quick arguments for a ready-made conlusion you are trying to promote. Sorry.

  24. 24
    Rutee Katreya

    By contrast, this is relevant. I know very little about MLK’s biography. It seems to me that only biographical details could really shed light on the issue of MLK’s motivations. Hard way. No quick arguments for a ready-made conlusion you are trying to promote. Sorry.

    You don’t seriously think religious lessons about equality could possibly precede the hurt and wrong of having racism directly happen to you, in turn of the century USA, do you?

  25. 25
    Rutee Katreya

    Well, turn-ish.

  26. 26
    doubtthat

    “So let’s assume that what you are saying is correct. So what? What bearing does it have on the question whether MLK’s motivation was religious or not?”

    This is the point: whether or not there was ever a Bible or a figure called “Jesus,” Martin Luther King growing up in Jim Crow America would have opposed that legal institution. May people who know very little about the Bible have made similar stands against oppression throughout history. The Bible is neither necessary nor sufficient (and, if actually read, often contradicts the stance taken by MLK), and, point in fact, it was consistent from the time of slavery to the time after slavery, so it could not have been the relevant variable.

    As people’s attitudes changed, the portions of the Bible they sought to rationalize their behavior also changed.

    Essentially we’re having a version of the Hume-Kant debate over moral motivation. Kant would take your side, thinking that some abstract morality contained in the Bible could motivate action, while Hume would point out that moral reasoning was simply a means to an end. Hume makes much more sense in this case (and all cases): MLK wanted to end segregation, therefore he sought parts of the Bible that aided his task. If the Bible never existed, the means would have changed, but the result would have been the same.

    Likewise, people who wanted slaves used the Bible as a means to that end. It’s just a big book of generally poorly constructed words that just about anyone can use for anything.

  27. 27
    Ophelia Benson

    It’s not the psychological issue I’m talking about. I keep saying that. It’s the issue of what the idea of equality is – whether it’s religious or secular. I’m saying it’s not religious. It’s secular. Psychology can and does ignore that, but I think it’s very important to us, and worth clarifying.

    Saying it’s secular doesn’t mean religious people can’t share it, you know. Of course they can. It’s not secular as in “religious people get out!” It’s secular as in “not about a god or gods or what they want.”

    It’s a contingent fact that the US civil rights movement was often centered on churches. It’s not because civil rights is a religious subject.

  28. 28
    Orlando

    MLK may not have needed his religion to help him see the evil of segregation and racial inequality, but it sure was useful in helping him sustain his belief in the subjugation of women.

  29. 29
    Pierce R. Butler

    jflcroft @ # 6: … to affirm, as I do, that the realm of the moral is not necessarily purely the realm of the secular does not commit me to also affirm that morality is never within the realm of the secular.

    So anything that religion has touched on becomes at least partly within the domain of religion.

    Which gives the churches a “legitimate” grip on everything except certain technical manuals (and a claim to those just by showing up and planting the flag, à la Columbus).

    God-botherers have rejoiced in an absolutely noodly flexibility way before the advent of the Prophet Bobby Henderson! [Insert snarkasm about accusations of special pleading right here ____, please.]

  30. 30
    Acolyte of Sagan

    I would think that it’s pretty easy to understand. The idea of equality has to be secular simply because religions are, by their very nature, divisive.

  31. 31
    Ophelia Benson

    Now that you mention it – there’s an annoying evasiveness about that response that’s kind of veiled by the academicky style. I don’t know what tf he’s saying.

    to affirm, as I do, that the realm of the moral is not necessarily purely the realm of the secular does not commit me to also affirm that morality is never within the realm of the secular.

    He “affirms” that the realm of the moral is not necessarily purely the realm of the secular – what the hell does that mean? It has that awful academic gaseous quality that avoids saying anything.

    Ugh. James at his worst.

  32. 32
    Ophelia Benson

    It’s even simpler than that, Acolyte. This world is this world, and that’s what secular means. Morality is of this world. It’s human.

    People are systematically bullshitting and tapdancing to obscure that. It’s annoying.

  33. 33
    Ophelia Benson

    Ariel, if you’re too drunk to comment, then don’t comment.

  34. 34
    Ariel

    Sorry. Never again. Good night.

  35. 35
    Bruce Everett

    There’s also classism thrown into the mix, at times, which I recall Madeleine Bunting projecting back in the day, RE: an atheist bus campaign…

    “Then I thought about how it might look through the eyes of some of the people who travel on the buses I use from Hackney. The ones who look exhausted returning from a night shift of cleaning. Often they have a well-thumbed Bible or prayer book to read on their journey. And along comes a bus emblazoned with that advert. A slogan redolent of the kind of triumphal atheism only possible when you have had the educational opportunities, privileges and material security of the British middle class. The faith of this person is what sustains their sense of hope and, even more importantly, their sense of dignity when they are confronted every day by the adverts of affluence that mock them as “losers”, as failed consumers. Ouch, I winced that we can be so blindly self-indulgent to this elitist patronising.”

    Because she *isn’t* sustained by her faith alone. She’s above that, unlike the unwashed…. Sheesh.

    The phrases ‘poverty porn’, and ‘class tourism’ come to mind.

  36. 36
    Ariel

    Doubtthat #26
    [trigger warning: this is going to be dull, pedantic, and mercilessly academicky (love the expression, thanks Ophelia!). No other way to do it.*]

    You now present an essentially different argument than before. The gist of it is:

    If the Bible never existed, the means [i.e. religious framework] would have changed, but the result [MLK’s actions] would have been the same.

    What you try is in effect a counterfactual strategy. Would MLK’s actions remain unchanged if he wasn’t a believer? Like Ophelia some time ago, you give him enough credit to answer “yes”. And you conclude that religion wasn’t a crucial motivating factor.

    I think that this approach leads nowhere. A minor worry would be impracticality – it’s really not much more than a “credit”. But I don’t want to dwell on this, since there is a more important flaw here (in my opinion, a fatal one).

    Imagine that I’m deeply in love with Ruth. One day she asks me to walk her dog. As a matter of fact, I hate dogs. But I want her to love me too! I want to show her how much I care! So I do it, motivated by my love, my passion, my sweet dreams of Ruth. [Academicky, isn’t it?]

    Would the result – my actions – have been the same, if I wasn’t in love with Ruth? Surprisingly perhaps, the answer is yes. In the absence of love, other motives – not so crucial in the real case – would fill in the lacuna. I’m an old fashioned guy, with a blooming chivalry-sexist complex in my head, and if a woman asks for a favour, I do not normally refuse. In a different possible world that would become my primary motivation. But it simply doesn’t follow that it’s a primary motivation also in the real world. Now and here, it’s mainly love, not chivalry, that pushes me to action.

    Applying this to the case under discussion: it may well be, that in a different possible world MLK would perform the same actions for (possibly) secular motives. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us anything about his actual motives. No such conclusion follows … unless you stipulate that the motives remain the same across possible worlds. But such a stipulation would be obviously question begging.

    Sorry again. Still only the hard way left.

    *And besides, why should I be the only one suffering from hangover?!? Time to introduce some justice to this cruel world!

  37. 37
    Timon for Tea

    “It’s not the psychological issue I’m talking about. I keep saying that. It’s the issue of what the idea of equality is – whether it’s religious or secular. I’m saying it’s not religious. It’s secular. ”

    How? How can you get to the idea that all humans are in some sense equal in purely materialistic terms? At first sight, all the evidence seems to contradict you.

  38. 38
    eric

    Ariel:

    it may well be, that in a different possible world MLK would perform the same actions for (possibly) secular motives. Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us anything about his actual motives.

    I approach it from a different angle. There were millions of religious people in the 1950s. Only a few acted like MLK. If his religion had been his primary motivation, they all would’ve acted like him, but they didn’t. His fairly unique passion for equality is better explained by personality factors unique to him – not by the broad social influences on him.

    Look, if everyone reads Catcher in the Rye and one person kills over it, the cause of the killing is most likely not the book. If everyone goes to church and one person goes extreme civil activist over it, the cause of the activism is most likely not the church.

  39. 39
    Ophelia Benson

    Timon – the claim isn’t literally that all humans are “equal”; it’s not even clear what that could mean. It’s that all humans should be treated as equals. It’s normative, not descriptive.

    How can you get to that idea? By thinking. About humans, history, emotions, justice, politics, rights.

    You don’t just automatically get there by invoking god, you know! On the contrary. If you think all this is god’s plan, it’s a short step to decide that god meant women to be subordinate, and/or that god meant people in some way distant from your people to be subordinate.

  40. 40
    Timon for Tea

    “It’s that all humans should be treated as equals. It’s normative, not descriptive.”

    I don’t think that helps. Why should all human beings (at some level) be treated as equal? Thinking about history etc. leads in the opposite direction. We know that for most of human history the idea would have seemed preposterous and many many humans have been diabolical in their behaviour. For many of the greatest thinkers in human history the idea didn’t even merit consideration.

    We can think the idea of equality and rights, but why prefer it to the more obvious idea that humans are not equal in the positive sense and so should not be treated as equal in the normative? I don’t see how you can argue for this sort of equality from a purely materialistic worldview. What is the argument to put before the oppressor who says ‘I am greater than these, wiser, more powerful, let them serve me’. Yes, you can assert it, and prefer it, but then you are just in for a battle of wills or a test of power.

    No, religion does not magically solve the problem, but it is at least not incoherent. It claims that there is (we know because we experience it) a non-material aspect to humans that is essential (usually the only essential). This is shared by all humans and since it is the moral dimension, we are all morally equivalent, equivalent in value. Something like that anyway. You can say to the despot: you may be mightier, but that which makes you a man (the non material bit) is the same as in this puny creature, so he is, in that sense, your equal.

  41. 41
    doubtthat

    @Ariel

    All you’re doing is fiddling around with the meaning of the word “religion.” You’re using an incredibly trivial sense of the word. Essentially, an idea espoused by any religion at any time is a “religious idea.”

    For 1500 years, the Christian religion ignored all of these human rights issues and gleefully supported slavery. At some point people decided that slavery was wrong, but because some religions decided to use the Bible to justify their opposition to slavery, the opposition to slavery is now a “religious idea,” and the abolitionists were “motivated by religion.”

    Until the twentieth century the Catholic Church was creationist and denied the Theory of Evolution after it was discovered. At some point the hierarchy decided that Evolution was compatible with their religion, so it’s now part of the doctrine. Would it make sense to call Evolution a “religious idea?”

    Of course not. It had nothing to do with religion, it was co-opted by religion, just like abolitionism and opposition to segregation.

    None of the ideas we’re discussing have their origin in religion. They weren’t divinely given, they weren’t found by study of religious scriptures. In fact, they were mostly developed in opposition to existing religion and expressly contradict the contents of the text. This is why people describe these notions as secular.

    Now, if your point is simply that MLK took an idea that his church took from somewhere else, but once a church has grabbed an idea, it is forever “religious,” then I don’t disagree with your point, I just find it so trivial as to be meaningless. The moral progression of our society will still come from knowledge gained through decidedly non-religious means, and later religious will gobble up the good ideas to make their product more marketable.

    By the way, I’m not sure any actually religious people would like the argument you’re proposing. They want to make the stronger claim that morality comes from God, and that “religious motivation” derives from fidelity to divinely inspired commandments. I would be curious if you can drum up any religious people willing to say that Evolution is a “religious idea,” and I don’t see how you can separate the Catholic church’s acceptance of Evolution from Christianity’s move away from slavery. It was the exact same process.

  42. 42
    Ophelia Benson

    @ 40 – Nice going – “a man” – brilliant argument for equality.

  43. 43
    Anthony K

    If I’m to buy the argument that equality is in any way a religious concept, I’m going to have to request those making the argument account for the fact that equality was not discovered to be a belief the religious apparently held all along until well after the enlightenment.

  44. 44
    Ophelia Benson

    More substantively – your question answers itself.

    Why should all human beings (at some level) be treated as equal? Thinking about history etc. leads in the opposite direction. We know that for most of human history the idea would have seemed preposterous and many many humans have been diabolical in their behaviour.

    Quite so, which is why we want to do better. Equality is doing better.

  45. 45
    Timon for Tea

    “@ 40 – Nice going – “a man” – brilliant argument for equality.”

    I assumed that the illustrative depot (but not his victim) was a man because I think that that has generally been true in history. But the point is the same if you prefer to imagine a despotic woman.

  46. 46
    Timon for Tea

    “Quite so, which is why we want to do better. Equality is doing better.”

    Why should we want to do better (especially if we are the ones benefiting from not doing better) and why should ‘better’ be defined as ‘more equal’? How can you get there in purely naturalistic terms? How can there be ‘universal rights’ in a mechanistic universe?

  47. 47
    Anthony K

    We know that for most of human history the idea would have seemed preposterous and many many humans have been diabolical in their behaviour.

    Surely not the religious ones, though. Because if you cannot account for equality using a materialist approach, then it must have come from…

    [Looks up and glimpses something that looks like it might be the equality fairy, getting into God's UFO, but can't be sure it's not a trick of the light.]

  48. 48
    Paul W.

    Ariel:

    I think you’re missing the main point of the counterfactual. It’s not to prove that MLK’s motives were secular, but that Stedman’s talk of “religious motives” is likely wrong and at best subtly question-begging.

    We think that given certain assumptions about MLK’s psychology that we think are probably true—and which I suspect Stedman et al. also think are true—there’s something wrong with calling MLK’s motives “religious.”

    Here’s a different counterfactual that may make that issue clearer:

    Suppose MLK, mid-career, had stopped believing in God and thus in God’s will.

    Would he then have lost his passion for social justice, because it was a religious motive and he was no longer religious?

    We don’t think so, and I doubt many atheists do, including accommodationists like Stedman. We don’t think that’s the bone of contention.

    The bone of contention is whether it’s appropriate to call MLK’s basic antiracism a “religious motive,” assuming that he’d still have it if he lost his belief in God and thus God’s will.

    We don’t think so. We think it’s at least very plausible that MLK’s antiracism was mostly independent of his belief that God was antiracist—he wasn’t obeying God’s will mainly because he was motivated to obey God, and God said to be antiracist.

    If our assumption is true, he was pursuing what he “God’s will” because he was antiracist (in a way that did not actually depend on belief in God), but also thought God agreed with him, so by fighting racism for its own sake, he’d be following God’s will too.

    If Stedman wants to claim that MLK’s major motives for his activism were religious motives, he needs to show that those motives were crucially dependent on (logically prior) religious belief—that MLK was antiracist mainly because he thought God said to be antiracist.

    We don’t think that. We think that MLK was antiracist mainly because he knew very well that racism actually sucks, in a way that has no special dependence on religion.

    That’s not necessarily to say that religion wasn’t significant in shaping MLK’s attitudes and especially his his behavior, and I for one think it likely was. Religion gave him certain opportunities to express his antiracism, and to be an effective organizer within a largely religious community, and he may well have only chosen to behave in such a strongly antiracist fashion because he saw those opportunities.

    That may well be true and have interesting implications, but it doesn’t have nearly the same implications as claiming that his motivation was religious.

    If Stedman only wants to claim that there are some religious people like MLK and Gandhi that we should respect and be willing to work with, few of us would disagree. People like us did work with MLK and Gandi.

    But if Stedman wants to imply that religion deserves special respect because it creates good religious people like MLK and Gandhi, who do a lot of good work, that’s not fair at all. It simply doesn’t follow.

    In a religious culture, it shouldn’t be a bit surprising if many progressives are religious, and that effective progressive leaders are mostly religious. Religion tends to disqualify people who aren’t religious from most “moral leadership” positions—even secular political ones.

    Religion does tend to “create” progressive leaders like MLK and Gandhi, but it does so largely by depriving non-religious people of similar opportunities.

    If Stedman wants to imply that religion deserves any particular respect for making people progressive, he needs to argue that it’s better at it than irreligion.

    I’m pretty sure it’s not. Less religious countries tend to be significantly more socially progressive, and if religion is so all-fired good and promoting social justice, that needs some serious explaining.

    Lack of religion may or may not cause progressiveness—I think it does to some extent, but there are arguments that the causality mostly goes the other way—but it’s pretty clear that religion does not cause progressiveness to anywhere near the extent needed to justify according it any particular respect.

    Yes, we may respect particular progressive leaders like MLK and Gandhi that are products of religio-political systems, but that doesn’t mean we should think that religion is very good at creating progressives. It’s clearly not.

    The appearance of religion being particularly good at creating progressive leaders is an artifact of the game being rigged in favor of religious leaders over irreligious one, by religion.

    The dominance of religious leaders in largely religious communities should be no more surprising than the dominance of white ones in white communities.

    Praising religion for generating religious leaders in a mostly religious community is like praising whiteness for generating white leaders in a mostly white community.

    Maybe you have exactly the wrong end of the stick, and it’s really not something that should inspire respect.

  49. 49
    Timon for Tea

    “If I’m to buy the argument that equality is in any way a religious concept, I’m going to have to request those making the argument account for the fact that equality was not discovered to be a belief the religious apparently held all along until well after the enlightenment.”

    But it was. the history of Christianity is more or less a constant tussle over this issue. A radical idea of equality was obvious in Christianity from the start, it is its unique feature. I think human rights is, basically, a Christian idea (although I don’t believe in a Christian god – or any other kind).

  50. 50
    Timon for Tea

    Brownian, why should we treat humans as our equals when they are far less powerful than us?

  51. 51
    Anthony K

    A radical idea of equality was obvious in Christianity from the start, it is its unique feature.

    I’d like something way more substantial than some hand-waving assertions for this, please, since equality has not been a provinent feature of Christianity form much more than smatterings through history.

    Brownian, why should we treat humans as our equals when they are far less powerful than us?

    Nuh-nuh. You’ve got it wrong. Neither of us believe in the Christian god. Therefore, if human rights came from anywhere, they came from people. Nobody has any obligation to prove that the concept of equal rights came from a source other than the divine, since it clearly did so.

  52. 52
    Timon for Tea

    Therefore, if human rights came from anywhere, they came from people. Nobody has any obligation to prove that the concept of equal rights came from a source other than the divine, since it clearly did so.”

    Yes from people, but with what justification? If we cannot argue for them, they don’t amount to much. Are they(as many philosophers think) just a legal fiction? Or are they something real? Were human rights invented or discovered? For people with a religious world view, I think that is an easier question to answer because, as I said, human rights seem to me to be a religious idea. There may be a Nagelish halfway house, of course, but surely religious believers would just look at that and say, ‘well, yes, that non material aspect is just what we call God, you can call it ‘tea-tray’ or whatever else if you like’.

  53. 53
    Anthony K

    Yes from people, but with what justification?

    If we don’t accept that gods are real, then these beliefs came from some aspect of our evolutionary history (or, more accurately, our evolutionary history allows for us to hold these ideas), whatever our justification.

    As for whether or not human rights are ‘real’, I certainly don’t hold that any such things are ‘real’. Empathy is ‘real’, though. Cooperation with other members of whatever unit we hold to be important, whether it be the family, the tribe, the nation, the race, the species, etc. is ‘real’. So is an understanding of historical contingency. I don’t see that these concepts are not sufficient to explain our general trend towards ideas of greater equality, much like our capacity for using tools explains millions of years of stone tool use, to more complex tools, to nuclear reactors.

  54. 54
    Ophelia Benson

    Oh, well then – “as I said, human rights seem to me to be a religious idea” – that settles it, doesn’t it. It seems that way to you, and you’ve already said so. Case closed.

  55. 55
    Ophelia Benson

    Also – Timon – you’re doing a lot of talking, so please do make your comments easier to read by using the blockquote tags. Others have asked you to do that before; please comply.

  56. 56
    Anthony K

    Really, justifications are for the most part post priori. Believers use their mythologies to justify what they already do. Philosophers use other means. Scientific materialists use yet others.

    The unassailable fact is that these concepts exist. If they didn’t come from gods, they came from humans. ‘Religious’ can only be a description for the post priori justification of where some people tell themselves these ideas came from. Calling something ‘religious’ does not create a special space in which ideas simply spring free from secular thought processes.

  57. 57
    Timon for Tea

    “Oh, well then – “as I said, human rights seem to me to be a religious idea” – that settles it, doesn’t it. It seems that way to you, and you’ve already said so. Case closed.”

    It seems to me for the reasons I have given and, also because I haven’t seen any convincing non-religious justification for them. How does it work?

    Since this is your blog and you have asked, I am happy to use blockquotes if someone can tell me how.

  58. 58
    Anthony K

    I am happy to use blockquotes if someone can tell me how.

    Do like this:

    <blockquote>Thing to be blockquoted</blockquote>

    Turns into:

    Thing to be blockquoted

  59. 59
    Timon for Tea

    “The unassailable fact is that these concepts exist.”

    Yes, as do many other concepts. We honour some, we ignore or fight against others. It helps, if you think someone should value the human rights of others, if you can explain why. If you want to strongly assert that rights have no religious content, it helps to show that they can be derived from a non-religious context. What did Bentham call the idea? Nonsense on stilts? Was that Bentham? I can see what he means.

  60. 60
    Timon for Tea

    I wish I could stop but I have to go. I think these problems are perplexing, maybe we can pick it up again another time.

  61. 61
    Anthony K

    If you want to strongly assert that rights have no religious content, it helps to show that they can be derived from a non-religious context.

    Do gods exist? Is there any non-material genesis for these ideas?

    If not, then they have been derived from a non-religious context, namely human cognition and behaviour.

    At this point, you’re just playing morality of the gaps.

  62. 62
    Ophelia Benson

    Morality of the gaps; that’s good.
    Religion seems to help because it’s a shortcut. You just say “because god” and the job is done. With secular morality, it’s not that easy. You have to argue. But the drawback to “because god” is that it’s just a shortcut. 1. There’s no reason to think god is there. 2. There’s no reason to think god wants what is good. “Because god” is quick but empty.

  63. 63
    Lyanna

    I agree with doubtthat, and with Ophelia’s final conclusion that it’s wrong to call this sort of thing racist.

    It’s not racist to acknowledge historical differences between minorities and the majority culture. Religion has played a different role in African-American culture than in white American culture. You can’t attack religion without grappling with the role that it plays in people’s lives–and that role will be different depending on which people you’re talking about.

    All of this is pretty damn obvious, honestly. There’s a lot to criticize about Stedman’s book but this isn’t one of them.

  64. 64
    Anthony K

    You just say “because god” and the job is done.

    Right. And it explains nothing, unless you’re seriously positing that god(s) exists, and those concepts came from it(them).

    If you are not, then you must agree that those concepts came from humans, nothing more. Saying “Well, those humans had a belief in god” doesn’t explain where those concepts came from, it just tells us that ‘because god’ is the—erroneous, unless god(s) exist—explanation that those people use for themselves.

    Unless someone can explain how beginning a sentence with “God exists, and it wants us to…” allows us to envision concepts unthinkable any other way.

  65. 65
    Anthony K

    No, religion does not magically solve the problem, but it is at least not incoherent. It claims that there is (we know because we experience it) a non-material aspect to humans that is essential (usually the only essential).

    By the way, this is hardly a religious concept. Concepts such as the ‘essence’ of things are certainly older than Christianity, at least.

  66. 66
    Paul W.

    Timon:

    I’m not sure exactly what you mean by “moral universals,” or why you think we need them.

    Nobody’s claiming that irreligious people can ever all agree on every aspect of morality or moral theory.

    Most of us do think that once people have dispensed with religion, there’s a much better chance of most people converging to moral systems that are similar enough, that we can achieve a practically useful degree of agreement.

    We think that’s better than the situation we have with religion, because religions generally claim to have moral universals, but can’t agree on what they are, even within a single religious denomination.

    That’s the great thing about religious moral standards—there are so many to choose from. <- sarcasm

    When religious morality progresses, it generally does so by absorbing more and more secular morality—stuff people can come to a useful degree of agreement on without reference to religion—and shedding stupid "moral" rules based on false religious beliefs. (E.g., that God ordained the inferiority of women or the descendants of Ham, or that God doesn't want you to use your genitalia except for procreation, or that certain groups of people have to have inferior social status to work off bad Karma from previous lives, or whatever.)

    Secular moral standards are based on nothing but shared human predispositions and the human ability to reason—which can get you a lot further than most religious people realize. (And even further than most irreligious people realize, for that matter.)

    Most people are capable of empathy with people "like them," and are capable of recognizing that most other people are like them, given certain crucial facts—e.g., that it’s untrue that blacks are on typically a whole lot stupider than whites, or that Jews are typically a whole lot less honest. Most of the ways human empathy gets limited to in-groups are based on false beliefs about out-groups.

    The combination of empathy and reason can therefore get you to some important agreement on things like social justice, eventually, if enough people reason things through without being snookered by false claims, especially false claims of religions.

    People generally tend to agree that they’d prefer a world in which they and others were healthy and happy, all other things being equal, based on innate moral dispositions and reason. That’s not nothing—it means that most people value Utility to at least some extent.

    Beyond basic empathy, most people are instinctively able to think in terms of things like fairness, and to value equity among people there’s no good reason to treat inequitably. Justifications of inequity are usually based on falsehoods about how and why certain people or groups don’t deserve equal treatment.

    Most people also seem to value obedience to proper authority, to quite varying extents, but such duties of obedience are generally predicated on the assumption that the authority in question is good, at least on the whole, in a Utilitarian sense—an authoritarian scheme or leader that systematically makes most people miserable is not what most people would want.

    That’s why religious demands for obedient sacrifice and suffering in this life are usually “compensated for” by promises of it being beneficial, in the long run and on the whole, to the sufferer and/or to the community in this life and/or the next. Even a God who is overtly able to simply “dictate morality” had better respect certain basic principles of beneficence and fairness (to at least a minimal degree, most of the time) or in the long run, most people will lose respect and lose faith.

    Religious morality evolves by the same basic means as secular morality—it is shaped by the basic demands of human nature and human societies for reward, fairness and Utility, in light of an understanding of the world.

    But religious morality is always more or less derailed by inhibiting rationality and introducing bogus claims—e.g., that a certain God disapproves very much of certain people or certain actions, and will punish everyone if they don’t punish those people or punish those actions.

    Without religion doing that, the nearly universal human tendencies to desire utility and fairness can result in things like democracy and civil rights, by reasoning in light of facts about what is likely to result in a better and fairer situation for society.

    That doesn’t mean that people will not be selfish to varying extents, or that they’ll agree on the right altruistic balance of fairness and utility.

    Some people may not really buy into democracy, and may want something like an authoritarian dictatorship of sorts, either because them think it will differentially benefit them or because they think a certain kind of dictator would do a better job of promoting the general welfare.

    Nonetheless, such people may be able to compromise and accept a democracy instead, because they’re unlikely to get the particular kind of dictatorship they want, with the right violations.

    Similarly, some people may not buy into the notion of equal civil rights at all, and prefer that certain people have certain special rights, but may still buy into a scheme of equal rights in practice, because they’re unlikely to get the particular imbalance of rights they want, and want to prevent others from imposing differently imbalanced rights on them.

    To make moral and social progress, you don’t have to get everyone to agree on anything, or anyone to agree on everything. And you don’t need to get everyone to agree in theory, if they can agree in practice.

    (For example, a Kantian or Rule Utilitarian may think rules have a certain special kind of importance to morality, and a straight Utilitarian may not, but they may all agree that certain basic laws are useful, whether you regard them as legal reflections of moral rules, or just legal rules that tend to promote Utility per se.)

    That’s the kind of entirely secular reasoning that can result in widespread acceptance of things like democracies constutioinally limited by civil rights, in preference to monarchies and various other kinds of dictatorships and oligarchies.

    And I think it is that kind of reasoning that has resulted in such widespread acceptance of such things—despite religion habitually taking credit for stuff that it historically resisted as threats to its authority and power.

    It’s nowhere near perfect—e.g., people may not all agree on something like democracy, and many people may disagree on the proper balance between civil rights and democracy, or between superficial equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcomes—but isn’t nothing, and it isn’t done yet.

    If you get rid of religion, much of the remaining “moral” disagreement is actually mainly disagreement about facts—e.g., whether a dictatorship of the proletariat is actually likely to promote the common good in practice, whether strongly progressive taxes or supply-side economics actually promotes the common good, etc.

    There’s a lot of potential agreement based on facts and reason there. Most people instinctively care about mostly the same things, and even agree on a lot of priorities of various goods, if they think about things enough in light of true facts.

    Religion tends to fuck that up, by downplaying our basic moral instincts and reasoning abilities, and substituting divine revelation or spiritual inspiration—and doing so differently for different people, with different religions and sects having bullshit differences over bullshit reasons for moral bullshit.

    Aside from introducing spurious “facts” that fuck up moral reasoning, religions’ claims to moral authority tend to simply distract from and systematically derail any attempt to resolve basic moral issues, or to clarify the nature of any partiucular compromise between competing principles.

    For example, a lot more people are familiar with trite, superficial Jesus quotes than with the clear and deep principles they could use to understand moral better.

    They know “do unto others” and “judge not” and “the least of my brethren,” but don’t know basic terms like commons problems and Utility that are necessary for intelligently discussing morality.

    The don’t even know what kind of thing morality itself basically is. They think it has a lot to do with God and his essence of Goodness, and Purity and crap like that, which is about about as useful as thinking of it in terms of Fairy Dust and Unicorns.

    Religion is one of the two biggest obstacles to moral agreement and progress. The other is a human tendency toward self-serving rationalizations and lies. We’re not going to be getting rid of the latter any time soon, but we can at least get rid of the former. That will also reduce the severity of the latter, because religion is one of the best ways to get away with self-serving rationalizations and lies.

  67. 67
    eric

    Timon @40:

    I don’t see how you can argue for this sort of equality from a purely materialistic worldview.

    Its easy. Look at the history of unequal sytems. Notice how they almost all turn around and bite those initally privileged in the ass, and extrapolate. Sure Marie Antoinette lived a good life – right up until the decapitation. Do I want that? Nope.

    Our 1st Amendment was passed by a people who were overwhelmingly Christian. Why would they do that? Why not give themselves legal priority when they had the chance? Because, having been through sectarian wars and having been on the short end of the inequality stick, they knew that guaranteeing other people’s religious freedom and a legal equality with their own was in their best long term interests.

    I want equality because it emprically, it works. It creates a stable, prosperous society that inequal systems do not. (This is aside from my believing it moral, which I don’t think you will necessary accept as a credible argument.)

    @49:

    But it was. the history of Christianity is more or less a constant tussle over this issue. A radical idea of equality was obvious in Christianity from the start, it is its unique feature

    That must be why Paul sent Philemon’s slave back to him, eh? And told Philemon to treat this slave nicer than the other slaves, because he was Christian now. Real equality, that. And this was Paul, the most influential follower of Christ of all time. The guy whose writings basically defined church doctrine. Should we also go over what Paul said about Jews and women?

    @57

    It seems to me for the reasons I have given and, also because I haven’t seen any convincing non-religious justification for them. How does it work?

    Do you prefer to live in the US or in the Sudan? Under an autocratic system or a democratic one? It seems to me that the convincing non-religious justification for equality is that, empirically, it seems to have a better chance of leading to longer-term prosperity. Not all autocracies end in bloody failure and not all liberal democracies succeed, but in terms of trends, I’d put my money on the latter.

  68. 68
    Argle Bargle

    eric #67

    Not all autocracies end in bloody failure and not all liberal democracies succeed, but in terms of trends, I’d put my money on the latter.

    This calls to mind the famous quote from Winston Churchill:

    Democ­racy is the worst form of gov­ern­ment except for all those other forms that have been tried….

  69. 69
    Rutee Katreya

    Christianity has a basic streak of equality, which is why its adherents spent centuries subjugating women, non-Christians, and each other. Really.

    And you apparently want a crash course in philosophy. Which… not feeling it.

  70. 70
    Ariel

    Paul #48

    The bone of contention is whether it’s appropriate to call MLK’s basic antiracism a “religious motive,” assuming that he’d still have it if he lost his belief in God and thus God’s will.

    I think it’s a hopelessly misleading way to describe “the bone of contention”. What does it mean that “he would still have it”? What sort of emotions were engaged in his actual antiracism? What level of description is required here? Can we rest satisfied with describing part of it as a revulsion to discrimination? Or was it a rage against discrimination of beings with immortal souls, equal to others in the eyes of God, with the last part being emotionally important to MLK? In this case it would have to be supplemented by something else in another possible world – would we then say then that MLK “still has it”? You are trying to use such ambiguities here; in my opinion, with rather bad effects.

    Very telling is your total disregard of the emotional aspect of religion. You write:

    That’s not necessarily to say that religion wasn’t significant in shaping MLK’s attitudes and especially his behavior, and I for one think it likely was. Religion gave him certain opportunities to express his antiracism, and to be an effective organizer within a largely religious community, and he may well have only chosen to behave in such a strongly antiracist fashion because he saw those opportunities.

    The role you are leaving for religion is that of a strategic and organizing tool. This makes MLK look like a shrewd, perhaps even cynical strategist, using religion in a cool and detached manner. No place for religious feelings, religious passion, religious devotion. I’m sorry Paul, but that’s a wooden ideologue’s picture of religion.

    Long time ago I was a devout Catholic. I was also an anticommunist. (Later religion dwindled; anticommunism stayed for longer.) My anticommunism had various sources. On a general level you could say that it was because what the commies did to my country. However, at that time it went with important religious components. Not abstract, not of the “rule following” type, but emotional. How can they do something so sinful? How can they destroy everything that is holy to us? These were not just rhetorical phrases; these expressions had a lot of emotional meaning for me. When I lost religious faith, it all required quite a lot of painful rebuilding.

    How much of religious passion, feeling and devotion stand behind MLK’s activism? Is there enough of it to justify the use of the phrase “religious motivation”? To what extent was it a cool calculation on his part, using whatever organizational tools were available? I’m not versed in MLK’s biography. In short: hell if I know. But I strongly suspect that many of you, with your so categorical judgments, don’t know much more either. Settling such issues requires biographical analysis. The real discussion is there. Only … it’s not for ideologues with their counterfactuals.

  71. 71
    Ophelia Benson

    Ariel – can you explain what “sinful” and “holy” meant to you? Are you sure what they meant was really religious, in the sense of not-of-this-world (i.e. not secular)? Are you sure they’re not intensifiers rather than religious? (See Martha’s comment in the latest thread.)

    They seem meaningful to me in that sense – and in me that sense is entirely secular.

    I agree with you about the emotion. I just disagree that it belongs specifically to religion (supernatural, other-worldly, theistic religion). If religion is defined just as uniting around strong feelings and values, of course, that’s another matter, but that’s what I want everyone to stop doing, so that religion won’t get to have it both ways and maintain its monopoly on all the good things.

  72. 72
    Paul W.

    Ariel,

    I think you’ve partly misunderstood me, but also made some good points that I downplayed too much, and failed to even acknowledge as clearly as I meant to.

    When I said that I thought that religion was likely important in shaping MLK’s attitudes and especially his behavior, and went on to describe him as exploiting opportunities available in a religious context, I didn’t mean to make it sound like the influence on his attitudes was minor, and he was just an opportunist. I don’t think that.

    The emphasis on his opportunities and thus his behavior wasn’t meant to imply that he was an opportunist to any bad extent—I mainly meant that if equally sincere and motivated people are given very different opportunities, the outcomes will be generally be very different. (Just as hard work pays off on average, but the payoff is often much bigger for hard-working upper-class people than for hard-working lower-class people.)

    That point was not meant as a slam against MLK. It was mainly in service of my point that the game was rigged in favor of religious leaders and against irreligious ones—were it not for the religiosity of his audience, other (extraordinary) people would likely have been able to do what MLK did, comparably successfully, without being religious like him and playing the religion card—and MLK would have been less successful. The niche for him would have been smaller.

    That doesn’t mean that MLK wasn’t an extraordinary man, but it does mean that he didn’t succeed just by being personally awesome. His personal attributes may have been crucial, but the circumstances and especially the fit of his attributes to the circumstances were crucial as well. Other comparably extraordinary men were presumably less effective because they didn’t happen to to be the particular flavor of extraordinary man needed in that inevitably biased context. That’s usually how things work, IMO. (Do you disagree?)

    Some extraordinarily successful people manage to adapt themselves to the prevailing circumstances, and others just happen to be just the right person in the right place at the right time that they don’t have to, but usually it’s a fair amount of each. I would guess that it was in MLK’s case too, but I don’t know the balance between those factors—I don’t know how calculating he was, or in what ways. I do think it’s naive as hell to think he wasn’t calculating at all and to take everything he said at full face value, as Timon seems to want.

    You are quite right that we haven’t been taking distinctively “religious” concepts and emotions seriously enough, and addressing them properly—particularly sacredness, holiness, and purity.

    I think that Jonathan Haidt is largely right that “conservative” moralities tend to depend on a somewhat different combination of more or less innate values than “liberal” morality. (But what follows is not straight Haidt—it’s more me. Its simplistic and stereotyped, I know, but bear with me…)

    “Liberal” morality depends mostly on valuing a very few basic things like beneficence and fairness. Morality is all about doing good for others, not doing harm, and not exploiting others too much.

    “Conservative” morality is based on those those values, too, but less strongly, because it also strongly values a few other things, particularly obedience to authority, order and discipline, and purity. Conservative morality puts more emphasis on instinctive emotions like contempt and disgust for those considered inferior and/or dirty, and instinctive fear of contamination.

    For liberal moral types, obedience, orderliness, and purity are generally instrumental values, at least on reflection—they’re not very important in themselves, and are mostly valued only insofar as they promote the general welfare and fairness. A moral authority loses legitimacy if it doesn’t promote those liberal values, and you should not be obedient to it. And things being disordered or dirty doesn’t matter very much, unless the particular kinds of disorder and dirt actually do harm. If you find yourself obsessing about disorder and dirtiness, but realize that doing so doesn’t actually make people happier, and you try to get over it. A too-strong emotional concern with disobedience, disorder, and dirtiness in themselves is considered a sign of not having thought things through correctly, and grounded those values in altruism and fairness.

    Religious morality tends to be conservative, in certain ways. In contrast to liberal/irreligious morality, there’s more emphasis on sacredness, holiness, sinfulness, and things like that, which are essentialized. (And counterproductively fetishized, from the point of view of liberal morality.) The specifically religious concept of “sin” is grounded in the basic instinctive mental category of dirtiness, with associations of scary contagion.

    The religious concepts of holiness, sacredness and purity get their emotional loadings largely by being the flipside of disobedience, disorder, and dirtiness and contagion. Something that is sacred, holy, and pure is in accord with the divine order, not in opposition to divine authority, and uncontaminated by the contagious, disgusting filthiness of the profane world.

    Of course that’s very stereotyped, and in practice most people’s morality has all those things going on to some extent, somehow.

    For example, on an emotional level, irreligous liberals who value only utility and fairness on reflection may have a visceral disgust for racists, who they consider inferior, and they may think of racism as kind of contagious filth to be eradicated. And they can be holier-than-thou, because on an emotional level they consider themselves to be in harmony with true moral authority and order—the kind that promotes utility and fairness—and others to be in a contemptibly inferior category, messily confused about morality, and contaminated by contagions like racism, homophobia, unabashed selfishness, etc.

    With liberal morality, you’re generally allowed and sometimes encouraged to have those kind of emotions, and to be motivated by them, but in principle only within certain bounds, and only insofar as your actions are justified by concerns like utility and fairness. For example, you may more or less vilify and hate on racists, and be disgusted by them, but only insofar as doing so promotes the general welfare, or something like that.

    One way in which I think MLK may have been shaped by his religion is that religion makes it somewhat easier to leverage emotions like contempt, disgust, and fear of contagion, and to idealize their opposites as sacred and holy–obedient to unquestionable (divine) authority, orderly in its consistency with divine dictates, and free of contaminating sins like racism.

    MLK may well have thought in that essentialized way more than we’re inclined to think, and been motivated largely to eradicate the filthy sin of racism in holier-than-thou “conservative” moral terms. He may have essentialized and fetishized obedience to the will of God, moral orderliness, and freedom from sin, and been substantially motivated by that.

    In other words, we may be giving him too much credit for being straightforwardly motivated by sincere concerns of altruism and fairness, in a way we’d approve of.

    Maybe distinctively religious moral thinking was very important in motivating him, and his being able to motivate religious people by pumping up moral intuitions about obedience, order, and cleanliness.

    Even so, it’s not clear whether we should consider such motivations specifically religious, or to what extent.

    Secular liberal reformers in more secular societies are pretty good at evoking psychologically “conservative” moral schemas, without the trappings of religion.

    Consider, for example, anti-Nazi communists in pre-WII Germany and later, in occupied France. They were the single most effective group resisting the Nazis.

    My impression is that they were very good at evoking and expressing moral disgust with Nazism, conceptualizing it like a contagion to be eradicated, and at conceptualizing their crusade against Naziism as being in obedience to and harmony with true moral authority and order. (And not just specifically Marxist theory or whatever–mostly just with secular morality of promoting the general welfare and fairness.)

    (And of course the Nazis did the same sort of thing, e.g., painting Jews as filthy and digusting, etc. And they did it in some “religious” ways, invoking accordance with God’s will, and some secular ones, e.g., with bullshit “scientific” racism. Like MLK, Hitler was effective partly because of his ability to use a Christian pitch to a mostly Christian audience.)

    So even if we look at what religion seems to be best at in terms of specifically religious moral motivation, it’s not clear how distinctively religious that really is, where the psychological rubber meets the road.

    “Conservative” morality is human, not-necessarily-religious morality, too.

    To the extent that MLK was effective because he used a specifically religious version of “conservative” moral schemas, it’s just not clear that he was any more effective than an an irreligious leader would have been in a mostly irreligious society.

    At first glance, it looks like religion is obviously much better at getting people to conceptualize things as sin, and motivate crusades in accordance with “God’s will.”

    But if you look at bit closer, it’s just not clear that it typically matters as much in practice, all other things being equal.

    Consider anti-Nazism. Some religious people used religious moral terms arguments to paint Nazism as a disgusting and terrible contagious threat, with contempt for Nazis as morally disordered and contemptibly inferior, and so on.

    Atheists used basically similar not-religious terms to paint Naziism in a very similar way, in terms of the same basic emotionally loaded unconscious schemas.

    In terms of galvanizing people to action, I don’t think it mattered very much which you did, so long as it worked with your target audience’s preconceptions, because once you’re convinced people that Nazism is very dangerous and disgusting and spreading, you’re done. Religious and irreligious people tend to be comparably motivated by the religious or irreligious versions of that, because they’re all human.

    Religous people may have an extra special emotional component to this kind of moral schematization—the subjective experience of righteous crusading may be significantly different if it’s literally religious and literally about God’s will—but it’s not clear that that emotional component is particularly a motivational component, or if it’s usually much more motivating.

    IMHO, it’s usually mostly religious window dressing for the same kinds of motivating unconscious schemas—even if it feels very different, subjectively, in a specially “religious” way.

    The main human motivations come from just from being sure you’re in the right, and that what you’re doing is very important—and cashing those things out in terms of humanly motivating unconscious schemas.

    Of course, there are major two-edged swords on both sides.

    The ability to arouse holier-than thou righteousness to promote an effectively “sacred” cause, and to vilify people or other things as contemptibly inferior and as disgusting contagious filth to be eradicated… well, that’s a wee bit dangerous.

    If religious ideologies is are really significantly better at it than irreligious, that’s not necessarily a point in religion’s favor. The same basic schematizations can be and were effectively used to justify and motivate racism and Nazism, the Inquisition, witch-hunts, and all that.

    Likewise, if secular ideologies are pretty good at it, too, that’s pretty scary.

    IMO, religion is a rather more dangerous, and any extra edge it has in galvanizing people to action is outweighed, on average, by its special ability to get them worked about the wrong things. Secular morality at least has to pretend to make sense, and not be immune from rational critique.

  73. 73
    Paul W.

    Ariel:

    I’m sorry Paul, but that’s a wooden ideologue’s picture of religion.

    I’m curious whether you still have that impression after my last post.

    How much of religious passion, feeling and devotion stand behind MLK’s activism? Is there enough of it to justify the use of the phrase “religious motivation”? To what extent was it a cool calculation on his part, using whatever organizational tools were available? I’m not versed in MLK’s biography. In short: hell if I know. But I strongly suspect that many of you, with your so categorical judgments, don’t know much more either.

    I for one am not making any strong claim to being able to read MLK’s mind, and I did not mean to characterize him as just a cool and calculated opportunist.

    But he clearly was a cool and calculated organizer to a significant extent, and he was a cool and calculated media manipulator to a certain crucial extent—IIRC he himself said so.

    IIRC, King himself said that he was very much inspired by Gandhi’s example, and in particular, by how politically effective nonviolent resistance was, and why. King didn’t claim to be basically a pacifist—that was not what nonviolent resistance was about, in strategic terms. It was mainly about doing what would actually work, politically, and especially how to get positive coverage in the media.

    Nonviolent resistance is largely about maintaining the moral high ground in the media, by refraining from violence whether or not such violence is actually justified, and calculatedly provoking your oppressors into violence against you, which would make them look bad and shift public opinion in your favor.

    In other words, even if you think violence against your oppressor is entirely justified—and it sometimes is—you should behave as if it isn’t, to impress people who don’t yet
    realize that.

    One of the reasons that King was such an effective organizer was that he could make that clearly cool and calculated strategic argument, and convince a lot of people who thought violence was justified to “cynically” behave nonviolently anyway, for political effect. He wouldn’t have gotten so many people behind him and doing what he said to do if he hadn’t been able to make a cool and calculated strategic argument for a particular very strategic line between acceptable and unacceptable behavior–confrontational public law-breaking is acceptable, but violence is not–and make it convincingly.

    That’s pretty clearly calculated, but that’s not a bad thing, and it was quite morally responsible. Given that he though violent resistance would backfire, it was the morally responsible calculation that they should be “aggressively” confrontational and “provocative” but always refrain from violence, which would cross a practical line into ineffective strategy.

    And King clearly was an opportunist in a basic but unobjectionable sense. He saw what Gandhi had done in India, and saw that it was an effective strategy there and why, and he reasoned that the same strategy would likely work for blacks in the U.S., for the same basic reasons.

    He saw that opportunity, and he went for it, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

    Settling such issues requires biographical analysis.

    See above. I’m nothing like an expert on MLK, but I don’t think I’m just pulling this out of my ass.

    I haven’t actually read a whole lot of stuff about (or by) MLK myself, and don’t trust my memory all that much, but I have been involved in nonviolent civil disobedience movements (e.g., the Nuclear Freeze in the 1980′s) where people talked about this very calculatedly and explicitly, and attributed the cool and calculated strategy it to King and Gandhi—including the explicit strategy of explicitly making cool and calculated arguments to prospective nonviolent protesters. That calculatedly explicit calculatedness is attributed to King and Gandhi.

    In particular, trainers I worked with said that Gandhi and King both carefully trained and screened protestors, specifically making the above strategic argument about confrontation but not violence, and disqualifying anybody who didn’t clearly and emphatically buy it. The conventional wisdom is that such explicitly cool and calculating strategy is essential for making nonviolent “demos” (demonstrations) work—especially large ones—and that Gandhi and King only succeeded because of it.

    The real discussion is there. Only … it’s not for ideologues with their counterfactuals.

    Don’t be stupid. If I’m an “ideologue with counterfactuals,” Martin Luther King and Gandhi were, too.

    Both of them justified nonviolent resistance with counterfactuals and analogies–e.g, saying what would probably have happened in Selma, or the salt-making protest in India, if they had resorted to violence, and justifying that with analogies to protests where even a few people did resort to violence, assessing the results in terms of the resulting media coverage and consequent shifts in public opinion.

    Of course they were calculating opportunists. They were doing something very difficult and dangerous, but very worthwhile, and they weren’t stupid or crazy, so they had to be.

    It would have been terribly irresponsible and immoral of them not to be “cool and calculating”–they’d likely have gotten a lot of people killed and failed to achieve their goals.

    If you have a problem with “ideologues” using counterfactuals, you can’t make any sense of these subjects at all.

  74. 74
    Ariel

    Paul

    we may be giving him too much credit for being straightforwardly motivated by sincere concerns of altruism and fairness, in a way we’d approve of.
    Maybe distinctively religious moral thinking was very important in motivating him, and his being able to motivate religious people by pumping up moral intuitions about obedience, order, and cleanliness.

    Yes, that’s roughly what I was trying to say. I’m glad you appreciate it.

    Even so, it’s not clear whether we should consider such motivations specifically religious, or to what extent.

    I’m not particularly keen on quarreling about a definition of what “specifically” or “truly” religious motivation really is. Definitions are mere tools. If you want, you may even define “truly religious motivation” as your cat :-) – I won’t quarrel, I will simply not adopt your usage as mine, questioning the utility of the tool proposed by you.

    As for religious motivation, one can try to explain it in broader or narrower terms. In the first case we would search for a concept which covers the cases we’ve just been discussing (strong feelings about purity, sacredness and so on). Just like that – we can simply stipulate that such cases are to fall under our concept. It’s a pragmatic approach: we want to have a workable concept, it’s not about some donquixotic search for a ‘true and the only real meaning of the phrase’. The price would then be that (perhaps) we would have to count some Nazi or communist motivations as religious. There is nothing inherently improper in this – maybe in view of the definition’s aims we will be ready to pay such a price. Perhaps it’s not a “price” at all.

    You chose a different way. Together with Ophelia, you are looking for a narrow characterization of religious motivation, which excludes such concerns as “secular”. So far your favorite proposal has been something like ‘a motivation is truly religious, if it’s because God says so’.

    I’m puzzled by your aims in introducing such a strong definition. Both of you admit that it’s quite doubtful whether the term “religious motivation” in your sense has any applicability at all. Normally I would say that non-applicability is quite a strong argument against adopting a given usage. So what are the advantages? In short: what’s the point?

    Well, Ophelia’s explains her point here:

    so that religion won’t […] maintain its monopoly on all the good things

    In other words, you are looking for an explication that will exclude religion as a motivating force behind good things. (This explains the MLK thread, obviously.)

    There are two problems with this explanation.
    1. Such a move would also exclude religion as a motivating force behind bad things as well. In effect you would have to re-describe quite seriously your gnu criticism of religion. The standard arguments about how religion motivated e.g. the 11th September terrorists will lose their force. And a maneuver like “oh, religion doesn’t really motivate, but it can enhance and strengthen other motives” won’t help much. Your opponents will say: “fine, and we are stressing that religion enhances and strengthens the good, and that’s why it deserves respect – look at the MLK’s case!” and you will end up having much the same discussion as before, with the detour through your definition coming out as a useless move. In effect I can still see no point in taking the detour.
    2. The critical force of your “religion doesn’t motivate to do good things” will be lost on anyone who appreciates that you achieve that aim mainly by fiddling with words.

    I’m curious whether you still have that impression after my last post.

    I appreciate much of what you wrote and I do not consider you a wooden ideologist. You are too ready to modify and/or nuance your opinions for that.

    Don’t be stupid. If I’m an “ideologue with counterfactuals,” Martin Luther King and Gandhi were, too.

    Don’t be silly. It was not about counterfactuals in general. I was hinting at your specific way of using them, which I found question-begging.

    And Ophelia one more time:

    Ariel – can you explain what “sinful” and “holy” meant to you?

    I remember feeling a peculiar awe and reverence in church; part of this reverence transmitted also to the feelings towards persons and objects in the external world, e.g. towards the pope. Subjectively, this awe and reverence wasn’t like a secular respect – one you can feel toward a wise and moral person. It seems to me that these feelings were different. Also, certain sorts of immoral behavior felt as filthy – I can think of no better word. But I admit that it was so many years ago (not ten, not even twenty :-)), that my memory might not be a reliable guide.

    Thanks to all of you for a very nice discussion in this thread.

  75. 75
    Paul W.

    Ariel:

    In other words, you are looking for an explication that will exclude religion as a motivating force behind good things.

    I don’t think that’s what I’m doing at all.

    I do think that religion can motivate people to do good things, but not in the ways or to the special extent that most people think it can. There is no religion module in the brain that turns on and gives you different set of basic mativations.

    Religion motivates people to do good or bad things in the same basic ways as other ideologies do—they leverage human moral reasoning based on human instincts and motivational structures that are not specially religious.

    One of the main things we are responding to is faitheists like Stedman who make religion out to be a very special kind of thing with a very special relationship to morality, and which is uniquely part of someone’s cherished identity—a very special part one should accord respect and be very leery of ruthlessly criticizing.

    But he doesn’t say the same kinds of things about Communism or libertarianism. Those ideologies are fair game, because they’re “ideological,” not “religious.”

    If a communist speaks out against economic inequality, Stedman doesn’t say that we should respect her “communist motivations.” If a libertarian speaks out in favor of civil rights, he doesn’t say we should respect his “libertarian motivations.”

    And in general, he doesn’t say that we should respect people’s “ideologies” just because they’re ideologies, and ideologies are important parts of people’s cherished identities. He systematically objects when we talk about religion in the same blunt ways we talk about other ideologies.

    He wants us to walk on eggshells around religion in away that it would be patently ridiculous to suggest that we walk around other ideologies we disagree with.

    Stedman and other faitheists keep reinforcing religion’s privilege, by telling other atheists they’re wrong and mean to criticize religions in the same ways we criticize ideologies generally.

    Of course, faitheists always pay lip service to our right and even to disagree with ideas we think are false–but then they turn around and relentlessy criticize us for actually criticizing religion the same way we would anything else.

    Faitheists like Stedman generally don’t value fundamental ideological criticism as much as sucking up to religion, and in particular sucking up to politically liberal versions of religion, which they view as politically useful allies.

    I am willing to work with liberal religious people in the same way I’m willing to work with communists and libertarians. If we have shared goals in a certain context, I can put aside my objections to their ideologies and do the work—e.g., opposing first-strike nukes, or the draft, or a stupid war, or oppression of racial minorities or LGBT people, or whatever.

    But when I’m not actively working on those shared goals with those people, I can turn around and ruthlessly criticize my allies for their crazily mistaken basic ideas, whether they’re about the dictatorship of the proletariat, or selfishness being the highest moral virtue, or dualism, or God’s will, or whatever crazy-ass shit they spout.

    That’s generally how political alliances work—people agree to work together on what they agree on, and disagree at other places and times about what they disagree.

    Insofar as accommodationists and faitheists want only that, I agree with them.

    But that’s clearly not all they want. In contexts where we’re clearly expressing our basic ideas about science and religion and morality, because we think that stuff’s very important, they want us to self-censor about religion, in a way they clearly wouldn’t expect us to self-censor about communists or Tea Partiers.

    For example, faitheists including Stedman regularly have fits of pearl-clutching and fainting over people at Pharyngula calling ideas and sometimes the people believing those ideas “stupid” and the like.

    If you call Christianity stupid, and talk about those dumbass Christians, they freak right out about how unfair and terribly uncivil that is, because MLK, etc… and aren’t those New Atheists awful, spiteful, counterproductive people. (And that’s despite the fact that people at Pharyngula regularly make clear that they don’t actually think that Christians are typically particularly stupid people, except in the sense that ignorance and Christian ideas make them stupider.)

    And if you call Republicanism (in the US sense) stupid, or talk about those dumbass Republicans, the faitheists likewise freak out, writing overwrought columns and books talking about our terrible incivility to Republicans and how it shows we’re fundamentally spiteful assholes…

    Oh, wait. They don’t do that. At all.

    They never do that.

    Clearly, there’s a double standard at work, in favor of religion, and the faitheists continually criticize us for not respecting that double standard.

    The kind of knee-jerk respect they want us to accord religion and religious people isn’t just basic respect you accord to other human beings, even if you disagree with them—it’s the special respect that religions and religious people are accustomed to getting. Religion is off-limits from the kind of criticism other ideology routinely gets.

    And that’s something we’re against, on principle—people behaving as if religion was respectable, even when they basically disagree with it, and think it’s so stupid people can only believe it because it is protected from criticism in that way.

    We think that there are places and times for accomodationism, and focusing on areas agreement with allies to get shit done. We also think there are places and times for confrontation, and focusing on disagreement—including showing outright, emphatic disrespect for things that should be considered disreputable.

  76. 76
    Bruce Gorton

    doubtthat

    That, is pretty much how I see it as having happened. They were still largely the same texts he was taking his Christianity from, the same basic ideas on a lot of topics were behind him as on the other side, but the major difference was his race.

    Take his skin colour out of it – and you could see Martin Luther King ending up as a moderate. Take his religion out of it, and he would likely have still ended up as a civil rights activist. He may even have favoured passive resistance, considering that there were more people than just him arguing for it.

    The reason I see it as being unconsciously racist, is because it plays with the basic assumption of black religiosity, which in turn plays on a whole load of stereotypes about black people and the civil rights movement.

    I don’t think it is wrong to refer to historic figures who fought for justice in an argument. There is a lot to learn from these figures – and they do provide data points.

    Where I think Stedman is wrong is, he was taking it as a given that without religion, these figures wouldn’t have been motivated to do what they did, which kind of minimises what they were facing.

    It wasn’t just that he thought they were motivated by religion, it is that he couldn’t see how one could dismiss that as a motivation.

  77. 77
    Bruce Gorton

    Paul W., OM

    To add to that – even in the piece on Salon, what was Stedman actually doing?

    Take out the stilted dialogue, and he was writing about a party he attended, in which atheists enthused about a given speaker, disagreed with “faitheism” and spoke disparagingly about religion, in a setting in which religious people weren’t present or indeed invited.

    Not only are we not supposed to criticise on blogs or Facebook, but we aren’t even supposed to be doing it in private conversation. That is how far he wants accommodation taken.

    And he wonders why he gets treated with such scorn!

  78. 78
    Bruce Gorton

    he wasn’t accommodation taken.

    should read

    he wants accommodation taken.

  79. 79
    Paul W.

    Ariel:

    Both of you admit that it’s quite doubtful whether the term “religious motivation” in your sense has any applicability at all.

    I think the problem with the phrase “religious motivation” is that it’s ambiguous and mostly misleading.

    Certainly there are distinctively “religious motivations” at certain levels and in certain senses.

    Here’s an analogy. What about religious transportation, like a school bus owned by a church, or the Popemobile?

    A school bus owned by a church is basically just a school bus which happens to be owned by a church—compared to a similar bus owned by a secular group, it’s mostly the same, able to carry about the same number of people, etc. It has some superficial differences—crosses and Jesusy slogans painted the outside, maybe—but the major difference is in the overt content. The passengers are Christian passengers.

    You could call that religious transportation, but it would be misleading to do so. It’s the same basic kind of transportation as other school buses, with different overt contents.

    The Popemobile, on the other hand, is more interestingly religious transportation—it’s unique, and its unique features have something do with religion. It’s an armored car like other armored cars, but it’s got a special bulletproof glass display case for the pope, because the Pope is the most adored human being in the world, but also hated by a lot of people, because religion.

    Even so, how different is that from secular but ideological transportation, really? You can easily imagine a world in which a secular leader had such a vehicle.

    You wouldn’t be very surprised to hear that some dictator in some strife-torn country actually had a vehicle very much like that for very similar reasons—because there’s a cult of personality meshed with a popular but controversial ideology, generating both adoring crowds wanting to see the Leader, and determined enemies trying to kill the Leader.

    So even if the Popemobile is strikingly unique in this actual world, because religion, it’s only contingently unique because religion—it could easily have been otherwise in a not-very-different world, and it’s mostly just an armored car for an adored/hated Leader.

    Casually talking about “religious transportation” as though it were particularly special would thus be very misleading. Viewed as transportation, religious and secular transport use the same basic modes of transport—planes, trains, automobiles, etc., and “under the hood” the vehicles are nearly identical—with similar kinds of motors, similar kinds of drivetrains, seats, etc., put together according to basically similar patterns.

    I don’t think that religious vs. secular motivation is just like that—the differences may be somewhat more interesting—but I do think it’s a lot like that, and more like that than even most atheists realize. You find mostly the same motivating patterns in both, in a fair degree of detail, because the motivating patterns are mostly basic patterns of human psychology, not nearly as dependent on the specific, overtly religous content as most people would think.

    Most people—even theological and political liberals—actually believe in dualism, and think there’s really something very different going on under the hood with religious and spiritual motivations. They think that if you could look under the hood at those motivations, you wouldn’t find a motor, but a magic squirrel in a magic squirrel cage, or an invisible blue glow that loves you, or the Hand of God Himself turning a soul crank—certainly not a regular old motor chugging along, just like the nonreligious standard equipment.

    That’s one reason why it appalls me when atheists like Stedman casually talk about special “religious motivations” that we blinkered, narrowminded, nay-saying New Atheist assholes don’t appreciate, in the popular press, for an audience of mostly religious people, as at the Huffman Post.

    He’s reinforcing the popular idea that religion and religious motivation are qualitatively different and fundamentally special, “all the way down,” and that atheists who don’t respect it just “don’t get” that, and stupidly or assholishly deny it. They’re deep, we’re shallow, and we’re the worse for it, because we can’t tap into the special spiritual mode of psychology, or the soul wisdom that religion gives, and which makes religion so darned special and respectable.

    Stedman presumably doesn’t believe the dualist version of that, but his sniping at New Atheists for a mostly religious audience reinforces it—he constantly leverages the stereotype of outspoken atheists as especially arrogant ideological assholes with major blind spots and spiritual deficiencies, so that he can contrast himself and his ilk with it—they at least know to respect religion and religious people, even if they can’t manage to do the religion thing themselves.

    They know their place in a world pervaded with religion, unlike those uppity New Atheists, who stupidly don’t fall all over themselves to praise religion for producing Gandhi and MLK.

    One of the things that insufferable about faitheists like Stedman and Mooney is how much they like to air what they consider dirty New Atheist laundry for a popular audience.

    We wouldn’t find them annoying if they published their criticisms of New Atheists in mostly atheist forums—it could be a mostly in-house debate about how to think about religion, and especially about political strategy—e.g., what degree of confrontationalism is likely to achieve what goals.

    But no, they carry their crusade into the popular media, like op-eds in newspapers, books for a general audience, etc., painting us as the bad guys, and using us as foils to their good guy routines.

    When they discuss New Atheists, they don’t put much time into saying how much they agree with our beliefs but not with our political strategy—instead, they take the easy route of playing on their audiences’ preconceptions to make us look like the kind of stupidly arrogant assholes that most religious people have always thought we were.

    They write as though they think religion actually and obviously deserves the kind of respect we don’t give it, cherrypicking “offensive” quotes and encouraging their audiences to be as offended as possible—instead of explaining why maybe they shouldn’t be all that offended, and should come down off the high horse of religious privilege into the real world of clashing ideologies.

    They often tell us the problem is mainly strategic—that what we do will offend people more than it’s politically worth, and the backlash will make it counterproductive. They’re just giving us good strategic advice, that we’re bullheadedly unwilling to heed.

    But in effect they tell religious people that yes, we are the uppity, psychologically and morally deficient assholes they always thought we were, and the backlash against us is justified, because even the oh so wise and good faitheists can’t save us from our asshole selves.

    The main ways they do that are:

    (1) Giving arguments against our goals and confrontational strategies, leaving out the arguments for them, and then pretending to be mystified as to why we persist in being so stupidly, counterproductively confrontational and uncivil. They don’t have to explicitly say that it’s because we’re really just mean, and really are hateful assholes who just like to beat up on religious people. For a religious audience, that’s the obvious conclusion. It’s what they already tend to think, and they give arguments that reinforce it, and none that rebut it.

    (It’s rather like commentators on Fox after Katrina calling black people in New Orleans “looters” for taking things from boarded-up stores, without mentioning that most of those “looters” were getting necessary food for themselves and their families in the only way they could, when emergency aid was very slow in coming. It leverages the stereotype of black people as having criminal tendencies, without mentioning the obvious justification of a dire emergency compounded by white politicians’ fuckups. And of course racists painted MLK and his literally criminal followers the same way—civil disobedience was just wanton criminality.)

    (2) Painting themselves as the nice, reasonable, pro-social people, explicitly or just obviously in contrast to us, in a variety of ways. For example, they make it sound like we are unwilling to work with religious allies toward shared goals—things that many of us regularly do—because we don’t suck up to religion the way they do. Apparently we’re not just assholes, but full-time assholes, and maybe profoundly socially inept, or even a bit sociopathic or something.

    That’s irritating to most of us, because most of us do not speak out about atheism in most contexts. We’re way too accommodationist for that—but not enough for the faitheists.

    It’s especially irritating to many of us who do the kind of work the faitheists say we should do—defending science without bringing atheism into it, working amiably with religious people on social issues, etc.—but who also speak out sometimes, mostly in other contexts about atheism and religion, e.g., at FTB.

    Apparently we’re supposed to shut up about it and suck up to religion full-time, and never vent about religion as we would vent about political ideologies, even on our own blogs, and even at private parties thrown by and for atheists.

    To hear the faitheists tell it, you’d think we’re full-time ideological extremists and hard-liners. You’d think we wouldn’t vote for Christian political candidates, much less campaign for them, but most of us do the former and quite a few do the latter, too.

    (I’ve never heard a New Atheist criticize anyone for voting for religious people, or campaigning for them. Nobody says that you should vote for, say, an atheist libertarian or communist just because the other candidates are religious. We’re not fanatics about our atheism, or “fundamentalists” or “religous” about it. Almost all of us think many political issues are important enough to put our religious views aside and vote for politicians who routinely kowtow to religion. We may be vocal about atheism, but we routinely prioritize other things higher—including the very kinds of things that Stedman et al. say we should, like economic and justice issues.)

    Most of us have religious co-workers and bosses, family members and/or spouses, etc., and try to get along about as well as those people are willing let atheists get along with them.

    most of us hold our tongues a lot, and always in some contexts. And we prioritize other issues higher than atheism. Just not always and everywhere—like on our own blogs and at our own parties.

    Imagine being a moderate Republican and going to a party thrown by and for Republicans.

    Would you be terribly shocked if a somewhat less moderate Republican called you a RINO? (Republican In Name Only)

    Likewise, if you were a centrist Democrat and went to a party thrown by and for Democrats, would you be surprised if a less centrist Democrat asked if you were one of those Reagan Democrats, as it wasn’t a good thing to be a Democrat who’d vote for Reagan?

    Now think about “faitheists” as being like Reagan Democrats.

    That’s the kind of attitude and labeling that happens sometimes when you have clashing ideologies, and a spectrum of opinion, and people with different opinions about political strategy too—e.g., how much to pander to the mainstream, and how much to dig in and defend your position instead of giving away the store.

    I was once having a kitchen-table conversation with a white lesbian and a black bisexual woman in the former’s home.

    The white lesbian complained about various ways that straight white male privilege fucks things up—e.g., her being unable to put her partner on her health insurance, her not fitting in with the good old boys and girls at work with their sexist and heterosexist banter and flirting, etc.

    At one point she vented and said “God, I hate straight white men!”

    And then she remembered I was a straight white man, and said something like “I didn’t mean you! I’m so sorry! I didn’t really mean that!”

    She was aghast and embarrassed, and I just thought it was funny.

    I hadn’t even for an instant taken it literally as though she hated straight white men in general, or anyone because they were straight or white or male. I knew she didn’t, and didn’t actually have a problem with straight white men per se at all, so long as they weren’t heterosexist, racist, or sexist. And she didn’t literally hate even the somewhat heterosexist, mildly racist and sexist guys she worked with. She was just tired of having to deal with them, and of such stupid phenomena being so common.

    I knew exactly what she meant, and didn’t think anything of it until she stopped and looked at me with a funny expression.

    Given that everyone present knew that she wasn’t any sort of man-hating radical lesbian, it was obvious that her statement was just venting her frustration about what happens because of too many straight white males in positions of power and authority, and too much straight white male privilege maintaining too much heterosexism, racism, and sexism.

    But supposed I’d wanted to make her look very bad with some group, say, some straight white men who were biased against lesbians, that I wanted to ingratiate myself with.

    I could have taken that statement, even “in context” but without background knowledge of the speaker and the audience, and made it sound like she meant it literally, and was some sort of angry radical man-hater, and I had the in-context quote to prove it.

    I sorta feel like faitheists do that sort of thing way too much—e.g., running to their liberal allies and reporting that people at Pharyngula say terribly uncivil, disrespectful things like “Christians are stupid,” as though the statement was meant literally, and as though people there didn’t routinely point out that of course it’s not literally true, and that nobody should think it is.

    We’re not nearly as bad as the liberal religious people think we are, and the faitheists keep running to them and saying that we are that bad, we’re terrible, but they’re much nicer than us—like a weaselly suckup kid exaggeratedly ratting out a sibling.

    Stedman reminds me very much of my older sister, when she was a teenager having a bit of a crisis of religious faith about being a Catholic. She was still a believing Christian, for sure, but wasn’t sure she believed anything particularly Catholic anymore, and didn’t really want to go through Catholic confirmation.

    When my Catholic mother started to freak out about that, my sister diverted negative attention from herself by by telling my mom it wasn’t that big a deal, she was still a good Christian, and anyway, I’d been a closet atheist for several years by then—why pick on her?

    Suddenly she was much more acceptable to my mother, because I was the focus of all the negative attention.

    At least my sister didn’t cherry-pick the most inflammatory things I’d said, or exaggerate for effect. (And she was just a teenager, who apologized later.)

  80. 80
    Paul W.

    Bruce,

    Not only are we not supposed to criticise on blogs or Facebook, but we aren’t even supposed to be doing it in private conversation. That is how far he wants accommodation taken.

    Yes, and his tin ear for dialogue appears to go beyond being unable to write the stuff—see my comment above for the bits about my lesbian friend’s terribly “uncivil” speech, and using such things to exaggeratedly rat people out.

  81. 81
    uggs canada

    3813 Total Views http://www.indoorkartreport.com/forum/viewthread.php?thread_id=26440 2012-12-07 23:39:04

  1. 82
    The Secular Morality of Abortion | Almost Diamonds

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