More than one valence

Something I’m ambivalent about:

On the one hand, there’s the value of being reasonable, and trying to see all sides of a question. There’s the value of not getting things wrong by being too one-sided; by confirmation bias; by seeing everything the way you see everything and so becoming blind to other ways of seeing everything. That’s different from the more political value of giving everybody a fair hearing, and letting people pursue the good in their own way as far as is compatible with the rights of others. The value I mean is epistemic and cognitive.

On the other hand there’s the value of countering a very loud, dominant, hegemonic, majoritarian, conformist brand of conventional wisdom.

Those two things are in tension. Hence my ambivalence.

On the one hand, as an atheist I think I have a duty to try to consider ways in which theism can be a good thing. On the other hand, as an atheist I also think I have a duty to help spread the minority view that theism is on the whole a bad thing, especially with regard to free inquiry.

Those two things are in tension.

The trouble is, there are already whole trainloads of people willing and eager to say that theism is wonderful and atheists suck. There are whole trainloads of people like that even in the UK and Australia and Canada and other places lucky enough to be more secular than the US, but in the US they also have a firm grip on the mainstream.

Given that fact I think we need a lot of unadulterated atheism just to make atheism more available. From that point of view, I actually don’t want to talk about ways in which theism can be a good thing. I want to insist that conventional wisdom notwithstanding, it isn’t.

But there’s always the nagging little voice in my ear droning away about confirmation bias and group psychology.

It’s a pain in the ass.


  1. Steersman says

    Those two things are in tension. Hence my ambivalence.

    Reminds me of Yeats: “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity”.

    Definitely a problematic issue: how to find the point of balance in there, to not become excessively self-indulgent with passionate intensity – as far too many of the religious and some non-religious do – while not sliding off on the slippery slope of conviction and over the cliff into apathy if not nihilism.

    On the other hand, as an atheist I also think I have a duty to help spread the minority view that theism is on the whole a bad thing, especially with regard to free inquiry.

    I quite agree with you and have thought along those lines in some depth even if not conclusively, although I kind of wonder why – genetics and determinism to some extent I expect. But it seems to me that there is a bit of an is-ought process in play there and while I also feel that sense of duty the concept itself is a bit of an unexamined premise that can be somewhat problematic. On one hand that sense can be motivated by something central to Francis Bacon’s “I hold every man to be a debtor to his profession.” Which I like to extend to all persons and not just profession but culture and society: we are all the inheritors of the sacrifices and commitments of a long line of ancestors which one tends to think have to be honoured and, in effect, redeemed.

    And on the other hand, or tentacle as the case may be, there is the question that forms the subtext to the view encapsulated by “Après moi le deluge” – why any of us really would or should give a rat’s ass for what happens after we’ve checked out. Personally I think it is a bit of a “mind fixed on eternity”, a wan hope if a racial one of immortality – again part of our genetic inheritance. Part of the reason why I think that even though the religious are largely out to lunch their dreams of immortality – “puerile egotism” in the views of some – is an important motivating and guiding thread to society in general.

    The question, for me anyway and for more than a few others, is how to keep the “baby” while throwing out the bathwater and the monster – literalism – therein. Which is part of the reason for championing the idea of free inquiry: far too easy for the orthodoxy of yesterday and today to become the dogmatic straitjacket and burial shroud of tomorrow without it. As Russell put it:

    As soon as it is held that any belief, no matter what, is important for some other reason that that it is true, a whole host of evils is ready to spring up. Discouragement of inquiry, … is the first of these, but others are pretty sure to follow. Positions of authority will be open to the orthodox. Historical records must be falsified if they throw doubt on received opinion. Sooner or later unorthodoxy will be considered a crime to be dealt with by the stake, the purge, or the concentration camp. I can respect the men who argue that religion is true and therefore ought to be believed, but I can only feel profound moral reprobation for those who say that religion ought to be believed because it is useful, and that to ask whether it is true is a waste of time. [Bertrand Russell in Why I Am Not a Muslim (Ibn Warraq); pg 161]

  2. Sastra says

    Technically, everything that is “good” in religion can only be good because it has no direct, explicit, specific, inherent connection to religion — because we are the evaluators here, and we are atheists.

    That’s the Catch-22 situation those defending the value of religion find themselves in when they want to appeal to atheists and get us to admit that religion has value. If they bring up goods which are obviously and clearly religious (“repentance removes sin;””prayer communicates with God”) then we will be unable and/or unwilling to admit there is any genuine benefit there. But find a common ground to stand on (communities which help each other; inspiring art and architecture; relaxed meditation) and we’re all standing on secular ground. The supernatural claims are completely unnecessary. They can obviously be eliminated — because we eliminated them.

    It’s rather like when proponents of so-called alternative medicine want to show skeptics that there are many forms of alt med which have been reliably demonstrated to work and have a scientific basis. If they can really do that, then it’s only because they happened to co-opt something reasonable from scientific medicine and tried to claim it for themselves. We’re not going to grant them merit from the theft and ignore the theft.

    I think the best the apologists can do then is try to get us to agree that — for those who have been properly conditioned and/or are particularly susceptible to suggestion — religion (like alternative medicine) offers a placebo effect. It’s an elaborate, over-hyped, expensive, loud, dominant, hegemonic, majoritarian, conformist brand of placebo which insists that if the placebo doesn’t work then there’s something wrong with you.

    This is not impressive. It’s rather disturbing. And it’s not a concession to the value of religion. To paraphrase something Samuel Johnson may or may not have said “what has value is not unique; what’s unique has no value.”

    And then, of course, there’s the value of humbly seeking truth, and — even more humbly — caring about whether something is true or not. If it works, why and how does it work? Does it only “work?”

    So as far as I can tell you don’t need to worry about a conflict of values here. Your values flow smoothly. The other side, though, may have a problem.

  3. says


    “But there’s always the nagging little voice in my ear droning away about confirmation bias and group psychology.”

    It has no doubt long since occurred to you, but it only occurred to me recently, that the majority of the world’s population is ‘anti-theist’ in the sense of rejecting the bulk of the theistic claims around. Even within the major Abrahamic religions of Christianity and Islam, there are those huge sectarian divides that encourage the various theists within each division to regard those on the other side of the divide to be seriously in error, and not so different from atheists in the sight of God.

    So in conversation with an adherent of any major theism, one can truthfully say “you and I are not so different: we both reject the claims of the bulk of theism. You reject all but one of the multitude of the world’s theisms. I simply go one religion further and reject the lot.”

    According to the site footnoted below, the population of the world divides by religious affiliation as follows:

    Christianity 32%;
    Islam 22%;
    Hinduism 13%;
    no religion 12%.
    Buddhism 6%;
    Chinese folk religion 6%;
    Tribal religions etc 4%

    All in their own separate ways are ‘atheists’.

    (“Persons with no formal, organized religion include Agnostics, Atheists, Deists, freethinkers, humanists, secularists, etc. Their numbers are growing in Europe, North America, and other places. With the collapse of Communism in the USSR, the total numbers worldwide dropped precipitously and are now increasing.”)

  4. says

    The sort of self-doubt is why I read Slacktivist (ie. the blog — not the other place ;-)): because Fred Clark is practicing the moderate, humane, progressive variety of Christianity that I used to be in to. If there is anything value in religion, that’s the sort of place one is likely to find it. For the same reason, I’ve added Libby Anne’s newly-arrived blog to my RSS subs — although she’s an atheist who is critical of religion, she’s determined to do it in a gentler kinder way, and to promote non-shouty discussion between opposing parties.

    I love me some Pharyngula, but it’s possible to get carried away. I read somewhere that communities of opinion do not gravitate towards an average of the group, but tend to self-reinforce and drift to a more extreme position. It’s not rational, but humans — even the most skeptical, rationalIST ones among us, aren’t good at being consistently rational, so it’s wise to deliberately expose oneself to countervailing views, and styles.

  5. says

    I think it’s good to feel that tension, that suckiness. It means you’re consistently aware that you’re a human being whose brain is hard-wired to make certain kinds of assumptions and certain kinds of mistakes. This awareness is precisely what differentiates the rational from the faithful, it seems to me.

  6. Steersman says

    David (#8),

    its an age old problem for freedom fighters ….

    Not to mention keeping track of whether one is in the Palestine People’s Liberation Front or the People’s Front for Palestinian Liberation or ….

  7. jamessweet says

    I hear you 100%. It’s good to talk about it and think about it at least, even if you still end up being uncompromising and unconsidering of the flip side of the coin… I don’t think authoritarians even have these moments of doubt.

  8. phil zombi says

    This kind of sounds the opposite of the dunning-kruger effect(wherein ignorance increases ones sense of confidence in wrong ideas). These nagging doubts may be a pain in the ass but I think it beats the alternative. As imperfect as it may be, I would rather have a shot at getting things right. The only way to do that is to be wrong about something first and then change.

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