Ed Brayton: Political Atheist

PZ has an interesting taxonomy of the different kinds of atheists. It’s hardly a comprehensive one, of course, and he says so himself. And there is obviously a good deal of overlap — one can be several different kinds at at the same time. But I think he nails me pretty well. using me as an example of a “political atheist.”

While the scientific atheists have knowledge and forcefulness, and the philosophical atheists have reason and logic, the political atheists are the ones who get the hard work done. These are the organizers and diplomats and lobbyists, the people at the cutting edge who make it their business to work every day with (and against) the opponents of atheism. They’re willing to work for incremental gains, so they’ll often be more narrowly focused on what we can get done today, next week, next year. If you find an atheist who will cite case law at you and wants to organize a campaign to resolve a church-state separation conflict, you’ve found a political atheist.

Examples: This Week in Christian Nationalism, Dispatches from the Culture Wars, all of the sites of the major atheist organizations.

Strengths: They do the work. Without these people, we’d be a bunch of stuffy academics meeting in university auditoriums to talk about ideal universes and inconsistencies in the Bible.

Weaknesses: Infuriatingly willing to compromise. Oh, wait, is that a weakness?

Yeah, that’s pretty accurate. And let me make a confession here: I’m bored to tears by debates over the existence of God. There was a time when I loved participating in those arguments, tearing down the argument from design or the argument from first cause. And in certain contexts, like evolution and creationism, I’ll still jump in to such arguments from time to time. But to be honest with you, I don’t really care whether someone believes in God or not.

What I care about is a set of basic principles (justice, equality, freedom), which leads to caring about a range of specific political issues (LGBT equality, women’s rights, criminal injustices, free speech, etc). And as long as your religious beliefs don’t lead you to have regressive positions on those issues, I don’t much care. So with my many Episcopalian friends who fight for justice and equality on a wide range of issues, for instance, I have little desire to talk them out of believing in God (and, conversely, they don’t spend any time trying to get me to believe in God either). It just doesn’t come up, because we share the same set of principles on the things that matter to us and we have better things to do (like seeking out cool food adventures).

That doesn’t mean I think others shouldn’t focus their time on debating the existence of God. I think they should put their time and energy into whatever is most important to them. That’s what I like about a network like this, that we have people who focus on a diverse set of issues and readers can pick and choose the ones they read based on what they think is worth their time.

28 comments on this post.
  1. mmfwmc:

    I think you used to describe yourself as a deist, didn’t you? Has that changed? If so, what made it happen? Inquiring minds want to know!

  2. abb3w:

    What I care about is a set of basic principles (justice, equality, freedom), which leads to caring about a range of specific political issues (LGBT equality, women’s rights, criminal injustices, free speech, etc).

    You start from a few fundamental concepts to bridge the is-ought divide, infer certain potential changes as “better” than current conditions, and actually care about achieving those changes.

    In short, you are an Applied Philosopher — which I suspect is generally the case for the Political taxa.

    Myself, I’m presently more focused on checking out the bridge (and previous is-terrain’s basis), though I’m also somewhat interested in opposing at least the scariest of the political theists… the former in part because I suspect such checking might reveal a better tool for such opposition, but more because of my basic disposition.

  3. tacitus:

    I don’t really care whether someone believes in God or not.

    Yep. Debates can be interesting, but they’re typically an exercise in futility.

    Either way, it’s where the rubber meets the road–when someone’s belief in God is used to justify injustice and bad public policy–that’s where the attention needs to be focused.

    The majority of Americans will always believe in something. Even once most of us can see the Old Testament God in the rear-view mirror, not that many people will be content with non-belief as the alternative.

    The public policy battle, however, can be won, and has been won in many other nations around the world where the fundamentalist Christians are little more than a curiosity to most people. It’s going to take a while longer, but the demographics are already shifting, and eventually the religious right will see their power base shrinking.

  4. Gretchen:

    The absolute first concern for me is the individual right to live, and especially to believe and speak, as one pleases. That’s where it starts– if you can’t speak freely, you can’t debate the existence of God because simply asserting the atheist perspective amounts to blasphemy. If you can’t speak freely, you can’t publish scientific research that goes against claims of the supernatural because it will offend believers. And if you can’t speak freely, you can’t join the humanists as a secular humanist who wants to help out your fellow man while noting that God has nothing to do with it for you.

    That might mean I’m a political atheist too, but in terms of everyday emphasis I suppose I’m a psychological atheist. Yes, psychology is science (and for that matter, science is philosophy). But PZ describes the scientific atheist as a person who seeks to validate or refute the existence of supernatural phenomena empirically. I’m more interested in using science to find out why and how people are religious or irreligious, and philosophy to ponder the theoretical dimension of it.

  5. Ed Brayton:

    mmfwmc wrote:

    I think you used to describe yourself as a deist, didn’t you? Has that changed? If so, what made it happen? Inquiring minds want to know!

    I did used to describe myself that way, but I ultimately realized that it’s a pretty meaningless term. There isn’t any functional difference between a deist and an atheist because there isn’t any difference between a universe created by something that never intervenes in it (or died off, or just doesn’t care, or whatever) and a universe with no god whatsoever. I took a lot of heat from atheists for calling myself a deist, but they were right. It wasn’t a coherent position from the get-go.

  6. matty1:

    My recollection of your Deist position is that it amounted to “The universe may have had a cause but if it did there is no reason to think that cause has done anything since let alone that it resembles the gods of popular belief”

    I’d say that is a perfectly coherent position though it probably doesn’t need a separate label to atheism given how ungodlike such a cause would be.

  7. Sastra:

    And as long as your religious beliefs don’t lead you to have regressive positions on those issues, I don’t much care.

    And yet the more seriously a person takes their religious faith — whether it be a belief in a fundamentalist version of God or a belief in a vague transcendent principle of Love — the more significant it is to them that they have this faith. And this rather significantly entails that it is very significant to NOT have faith.

    Religious belief will necessarily, I think, lead to regressive positions on atheism. They’ve manufactured a divide which can’t be reasoned against: in and of itself, I think this is a problem. Where people put the dividing line is arbitrary — for that’s the nature of faith.They can’t just say atheists are rationally mistaken about a trivial matter without either minimizing the importance of faith — or minimizing the importance of God. Sooner or later, I suspect that’s even going to bleed into the other positions.

  8. Azkyroth, Former Growing Toaster Oven:

    So would political atheists be “militant humanists” or is that a subset, an overlapping category..?

  9. Gretchen:

    I’d say that no one should be called militant– or call themselves militant– unless they’re willing to commit violence in pursuit of their cause. Maryam Namazie appears to disagree with me, or at least I hope she does.

  10. lancifer:

    Ed,

    It wasn’t a coherent position from the get-go.

    Hey, you can’t admit you were wrong. This is the internet.

    You’re setting a very dangerous precedent.

  11. lancifer:

    Gretchen,

    I am willing to use violence to defend myself and my beliefs against those that would use violence to deny me my freedom to express myself or live my life as I see fit.

    If that makes me a militant atheist so be it. I’m not much for “turning the other cheek”. I prefer self defense to passive resistance.

  12. StevoR:

    @10.lancifer :

    Ed,It wasn’t a coherent position from the get-go.
    Hey, you can’t admit you were wrong. This is the internet.
    You’re setting a very dangerous precedent.

    Well I guess you’re joking but aren’t we almost all wrong sometiems about some things and don’t the best of us usually admit it when we are?

    I’ll admit I’ve been carried away on occasion and said some silly things I’ve regretted in the morning along with my hangover.

    Pretty sure I’ve seen a lot of good bloggers including PZ Myers and the Bad Astronomer admit & correct mistakes before – in fact there was at least a couple of mentions of that I’ve just read about now~ish one in a comment on another FTB thread about where Laci Green admits using a transphobic slur and apologising and correcting herself and PZ admitting he madea mistake in classifying (I think twas?) Maryam Namazie the other day.

    Of course, I could be mistaken..

    Hmm… on second thoughts maybe Ed Brayton has set aprecedent and started trend there after all!

  13. StevoR:

    Durnnit! Blockquote fail.

    @10.lancifer :

    Ed,It wasn’t a coherent position from the get-go.
    Hey, you can’t admit you were wrong. This is the internet.
    You’re setting a very dangerous precedent.

    Well I guess you’re joking but aren’t we almost all wrong sometiems about some things and don’t the best of us usually admit it when we are? etc ..

    Like uh, now for me. Plus I mispelt sometimes too. Sigh.

    Plus

  14. lancifer:

    StevoR,

    Realizing that one has made an error and admitting it is a quality that I admire greatly.

    I am a scientist and this is the dynamo of scientific inquiry. It is the reason that science is so much more powerful than religion. How do you correct sacred, infallible scripture?

    Unfortunately human nature often works against this tendency.

    I am hardly immune but I count it as progress when I realize I have held a faulty concept and then moved toward one that better explains things.

  15. Michael Heath:

    lancifer writes:

    I count it as progress when I realize I have held a faulty concept and then moved toward one that better explains things.

    I’m truly amazed you make this claim, you certainly do not demonstrate this behavior in this venue. You’ve been provided dozens of opportunities to correct positions where science has falsified your position and to date I’ve observed you always, yes always – I’m not resorting to hyperbole, avoiding even confronting the evidence presented to you which falsifies your position. Even when you repeat the same falsehoods and peer-reviewed cites held by the relevant experts destroy your position, e.g., your argument from ignorance that conditions in Antarctica cancel out the observations we find in the Arctic.

    I can think of no regular commenter in this venue more resistant to correcting notions they hold where the evidence convincingly reveals how wrong their current position is. And you claim to be a scientist? There is no one in this venue who demonstrates more antipathy or ignorance regarding scientific methodology, and no who misconstrues the difference between skeptics and cranks. I can’t even think of a close second.

  16. Michael Heath:

    I should also point out that lancifer also misrepresents what’s happening in Antarctica. I didn’t mean to convey the evidence in Antarctica argues against dangerous trends in climate aren’t occurring there, that is another of lancifer’s dishonest representations.

  17. lancifer:

    Michael Heath,

    Nice hearing from you. Pity it’s more of the same personally insulting drivel.

    You are becoming unhinged. The last non sequitur about Antarctica is especially troubling.

  18. Michael Heath:

    Outstanding projection lancifer.

  19. lancifer:

    “Projection” is the pseudo-intellectual’s answer to “I know you are, but what am I”.

    Just sad.

  20. TCC:

    Is that really better than calling someone unhinged without responding to any of the substance of their comment, lancifer?

  21. lancifer:

    TCC,

    Michael Heath’s post (inaccurately and selectively) referenced a conversation we had sometime ago. I refuse to discuss climate change with him because he consistently misrepresents what I say and laces every other paragraph with disgusting personal attacks on my intellect, honesty and personal integrity.

    He is indeed “unhinged” when discussing climate change.

  22. lancifer:

    TCC,

    I also don’t respond to any of Raging Bee’s comments for similar reasons. SLC1 will sometimes yell “Hey everybody, you should ignore Lance’s opinion on “X” because he is a climate change denier.” I try to ignore those little outbursts if he desists and gets back to the topic at hand.

    I sometimes engage Michael Heath on topics unrelated to climate change. I may reconsider that behavior if he continues to drag climate change into every discussion I enter.

  23. Michael Heath:

    lancifer writes:

    Michael Heath’s post (inaccurately and selectively) referenced a conversation we had sometime ago. I refuse to discuss climate change with him because he consistently misrepresents what I say and laces every other paragraph with disgusting personal attacks on my intellect, honesty and personal integrity.

    Please show me where I misrepresented your prior comments, i.e., quote what you said and then also quote what I said which according to you, misrepresented what you wrote. That would be the same courtesy I’ve done dozens of times for you where you’ve rarely reciprocated in the same way – including the last time the climate of the Arctic and Antarctica was raised. And good luck with that . . .

  24. lancifer:

    Michael Heath,

    You are grossly misrepresenting the nature of our discussions.

    How many times have I tried to have a reasonable and rational discussion of climate change with you?

    You have proven over and over again that you are incapable of engaging in a civil and rational discussion on that topic.

    James Hanley has even called you on it and you stomped out of his blog like a petulant child.

  25. Michael Heath:

    lancifer writes:

    You are grossly misrepresenting the nature of our discussions.

    Then please provide an illustration as previously requested and requested many times prior yet as best as I can recall, you always or least predominately avoid doing. The fact you repeat this assertion yet fail to provide evidence while I continually blockquote what you write and then falsify it with facts possibly suggests projection so bad you can’t control it.

    lancifer writes:

    How many times have I tried to have a reasonable and rational discussion of climate change with you?

    Defaming scientists, misrepresenting commenters’ posts, avoiding inconvenient facts cited from peer-reviewed journalists which directly refute your claims, and relying almost completely on rhetorical and logical fallacies is neither reasonable or rational.

    Start directly confronting the evidence rather than presenting propaganda, be honest, and directly confront rather than avoid or deny facts and expert consensus which is confidently held and you’ll earn respect; especially if you also do so in the context of the best credible arguments which are also inconvenient to your demonstrated preconceived biases. How to do this is why I linked up-thread to an introductory book on how to build arguments. Perhaps learning how to craft an argument rather than relying on obvious logical fallacies while avoiding/denying the science might provide the confidence to also stop continually lying about others and scientists’ work.

    lancifer writes:

    You have proven over and over again that you are incapable of engaging in a civil and rational discussion on that topic.

    My climate change argument is my best effort to represent the latest findings that climate scientists report, as evidenced by my citing the latest peer-reviewed findings and reports, especially those held with a confident and overwhelming consensus by those qualified to explain observations and the physics behind these observations. Your arguments are steeped in denialism – mostly by discredited cranks and denialists, avoids what climate scientists in the relevant fields report, has you lying about climate scientists and their findings, and relies on rhetorical and logical fallacies. Yet you claim I’m the one who isn’t “rational”.

    I concede I’m unapologetically uncivil to liars and those would defame others; especially those who are defamed whose influence is critical to the wellbeing of humanity – like the scientists you lie about.

    lancifer writes:

    James Hanley has even called you on it and you stomped out of his blog like a petulant child.

    More lies; I didn’t ‘childishly stomp out’, as evidenced by the last comment I left at his site which I quote in its entirety below . And I didn’t inform James I’d no longer be participating his blog because he called me out on anything. Here was my last comment post:

    James [Hanley] writes to me:
    Just because many libertarians were inspired by Ayn Rand doesn’t mean that everyone inspired by Ayn Rand was a libertarian.

    My response:

    I never claimed or even insinuated otherwise. I only pointed out that Paul Ryan is a practicing and far more importantly, powerful adherent of this type of libertarianism. A level of power which is new to the libertarian movement.

    James [Hanley] writes:

    You’re not interested in an intelligent debate.

    My response and last reply to James at his blog:

    I strongly disagree and bid your blog goodbye. I think we can both agree our exchanges here are not productive. I wish you nothing but the best.

    So lancifer, please quote exactly what I wrote here which has me metaphorically “stomping out” of James’ blog and is also both petulant and childish on my part. My guess is you’ll do what you predominately do, misrepresent me and of course others, in some future comment post. Face it lance, you’re liar and not even a very good one. The fact you’re a teacher given your demonstrated lack of character and thinking skills continues to sicken me and is my primary motivation for not ignoring you like I do a handful of others in this venue.

  26. lancifer:

    Michael Heath,

    That was a lot of verbiage to get to your usual insulting drivel.

    Face it lance, you’re liar.

    I told TCC that I don’t engage in climate change discussions with you because,

    …he (you) consistently misrepresents what I say and laces every other paragraph with disgusting personal attacks on my intellect, honesty and personal integrity.

    Shall we review your most recent post? Let’s see “misrepresents what I say”

    Defaming scientists, misrepresenting commenters’ posts, avoiding inconvenient facts cited from peer-reviewed journalists which directly refute your claims, and relying almost completely on rhetorical and logical fallacies is neither reasonable or rational.

    Check.

    …disgusting personal attacks on my intellect

    …relying almost completely on rhetorical and logical fallacies is neither reasonable or rational.

    Check

    …attacks on my honesty

    … stop continually lying about others and scientists’ work.

    Check.

    …attacks on my integrity.

    ….given your demonstrated lack of character and thinking skills continues to sicken me…

    Are you so entirely self blind that you can’t see the way you “argue”? Perhaps you should reread the “introductory book on how to build arguments” to which you have linked and see if your “techniques” are representative of the methods they promote.

  27. lancifer:

    Michael Heath,

    Oh, and your quotes from James Hanley’s blog are when he tired of your obtuse intransigence about your other irrational obsession, the Koch brother’s.

    I was referring to the previous time you and he came to loggerheads over climate change. At that point he said many of the same things I have said above and said he would no longer discuss climate change with you. That is when you went off in a huff, of course insulting him on your way out.

    So again you misrepresent what I said, perhaps by mistake, but misrepresent nonetheless.

  28. JT Eberhard:

    Anti-theist all the way! :D

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