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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Jerry Coyne and Mark Oppenheimer on the LA humanism conference (and some random observations)

Jerry Coyne has a nice comment over here on this article by Mark Oppenheimer, entitled "Atheists Debate How Pushy To Be", which covers the recent Council for Secular Humanism conference in Los Angeles. Here's Oppenheimer's spin on the whole thing:

They agreed on two things: People can be good without religion, and religion has too much influence. But they disagreed about how stridently to make those claims.

Well, Oppenheimer is on to something here. Publicly forthright atheists currently seem to be locked in a debate about what it is smart, or nice, or effective to say - where "effective" may depend on your chosen goals. I think that this debate is something of a distraction, and I wish we could avoid it, but I don't think it's possible. So, against my wishes, I find myself involved in it. I'm currently running a series of posts (more in the series to come soon) commenting on Philip Kitcher's views, since these seem to provide the best critique so far of the "New Atheism" - perhaps not surprisingly since they come from someone who could almost be classified as a "New Atheist" himself but has a slightly different agenda from, say, Richard Dawkins. In the upshot, I'll doubtless keep blogging about this issue: I think it's necessary to talk about it, even though it's not my favourite topic at all.

Although there are a couple of snide comments, such as the comparison between atheists and Star Trek fans, which tends to poke fun at both, the Oppenheimer article is generally pretty good in the sense of being fairly straight reportage. The bit at the end, quoted by Jerry, is well worthwhile, so I'll also quote some of it:

“I’m not ‘out’ at my workplace,” said the woman, Claire, a 27-year-old arts administrator who asked that her last name not be used. “Because most people think atheists have no morals, I could damage the organization if I’m honest about where I stand on the issue,” she said.

Mr. Myers and other “confrontationalists” surely do alienate some potential Christian allies. But they may also give comfort to people like Claire, who feel like an invisible minority. Mr. Myers is way out of the closet as an atheist — proudly, outrageously so. We’re here, he’s saying. And we don’t believe. And we have science and reason on our side. Get used to it.

Yes, good. My only caveat about this (and Jerry's comment) is that it's a very American perspective - as is Chris Mooney's perspective of, "Don't frighten the religious demographic."

Even in countries such as Australia and those of Europe, which are far more secular than the United States, there is some point in standing up to challenge the epistemic, moral, and political authority of religion. Kitcher's analysis may be helpful to us with this. In these more secular countries, the percentage of out-and-out religious believers, in Kitcher's sense, may be quite low. Most people may fall into his secular, mythically self-conscious, and doctrinally indefinite groups. Nonetheless, many of them may tend to cede a certain degree of moral authority to religious leaders. Even when they putting arguments that have been given secular "translations", religious leaders are accorded a degree of deference, as if they are moral experts. Quite weak arguments can gain a, well, halo effect if put by people who are accorded moral authority.

It's worth reminding people that religious leaders are not moral experts. When we point this out, we may not cut much ice with Kitcher's religious believers - the people who really do base their goals, values, and so on, on supernatural doctrines. But we may well cut some ice with people in the other categories, who may instinctively accord more authority to religious leaders than is really justified.

Kitcher thinks - as I'll get to in a later post - that we have reasons not to engage in breaking spells, debunking delusions, and so on at all costs. Perhaps. That thought may give us some guidance about when to refrain from mockery and satire. But this cuts both ways. Many people who fall into the mythically self-conscious and doctrinally indefinite camps may be quite happy to be reminded, even through satire, that religious leaders don't have the kind of authority they so often claim. Even setting aside the special situation of the US, where various unusual circumstances apply, a more sophisticated awareness of the range of religious belief may well encourage us to fine-tune our approach, but not in all cases by turning the dial in the direction of being softer on religion.


stevec said...

There really is no polite way to say -- and say why -- you do not believe in the various Abrahamic religions. At the core, the claims these religions make are plainly ridiculous. There's no polite way to rationally disagree with them. Get over the need to be polite and just be honest say what you really think. Lots of people will be offended no matter how politely you try to explain your problems with their faith. Don't sugar coat it, don't cushion it, just rip it right off, like a bandaid, and let fly, say what you really think. It's the best way, I think.

Russell Blackford said...

I actually think that there's a lot of room for thoughtful, civil critique (though, as you say, stevec, plainspoken) of religion. If all I'd ever encountered when I was a Christian was mockery and naked assertion, I'd still be a Christian. It was largely the arguments of (among others, of course) Bertrand Russell, JL Mackie, Paul Edwards, and (alas given what happened with him later) Antony Flew that persuaded me. These people used humour, satire, and mockery where needed to draw out the absurdity of a particular idea. There is a place for those things. But there was also intellectual substance.

By and large, civil argument with intellectual substance is what Dawkins and Dennett provide - and even Harris and Hitchens are civil in their critiques.

Let's remember where all this current row started. It was with a claim that Jerry Coyne should not have published his thoughtful, civil review of the books by Miller and Giberson. I actually think that a lot of religious people would have been fine with the review ... even some theologically conservative religious people are prepared to hear the arguments.

It was, I'm afraid, people supposedly on "our" side - most especially Chris Mooney - who said that this should not be done. Presumably this means that the writings of Bertrand Russell, Mackie, Flew, Edwards, and so on should never have been published ... let alone the satire of Voltaire.

Rieux said...

That's right. That's what I've been missing in your response to Kitcher—the point that the more complicated view of the religious population Kitcher advocates does not necessarily argue in favor of a more accommodationist approach. It's anything but clear that the messages Dawkins, Dennett and company deliver are actually ill-suited to "mythically self-conscious" folks, and so on. It seems to me that there's a case to be made that there's real value in forcing such "believers" to actually consider the difference between the creeds they recite on Sunday mornings and the things they actually believe; if our aim is to reduce the influence of religious ideas and leaders over society (and I think that's definitely one of our aims), that effort might well have salutary consequences.

I haven't actually read Kitcher yet, and obviously you haven't finished responding to him, but going only from your first few posts about his article, that message—which I suspect you're starting in on here—seems to me to be one that needs to be delivered.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"Let's remember where all this current row started. It was with a claim that Jerry Coyne should not have published his thoughtful, civil review of the books by Miller and Giberson."

The row started long before that. I'd say that the debate as we currently know it got started with Dawkins' "Neville Chamberlain" atheist bit.

steve oberski said...

But they disagreed about how stridently to make those claims.

If this had been a conference on how to deal with global warming or holocaust deniers would the question be framed in terms of how strident the response should be ?

The mere existence of atheism is taken to be strident and fsm help you if you publish the most mild mannered critique of religious beliefs, that in any other context such as art, literature or politics would be the most gentle kind of kid glove handling.

Atheists are going to treat religious ideas exactly like any other idea would be treated in the marketplace of ideas. Get used to it.

Jeff Chamberlain said...

"If all I'd ever encountered when I was a Christian was mockery and naked assertion, I'd still be a Christian."

Perhaps so. But does this describe anyone's actual experience, anywhere, ever?

Russell Blackford said...

Probably not, but I was offering a note of caution in response to stevec (not necessarily contradicting him, just qualifying what he said): i.e. I do think it important to put actual arguments rather than just saying, "That's ridiculous."

Russell Blackford said...

@JJ ... or it may have started before that with something nasty that Ruse said about Dawkin, or before that with .... whatever. You get the point.

But what currently has people like me grouchy isn't any of that ancient history. It's the sort of claim made by Mooney, that we are wrong to put forthright, but thoughtful and civil, argument against religious views.

If someone said, "Don't be uncivil", I wouldn't really agree because there can be a place for incivility. In many situations, a bit of snark is defensible, and if we abjure it unilaterally we're fighting a cultural struggle with one arm behind our backs.

But what is being put by the Mooney/Kirschenbaum/Nisbet camp is that even civil criticism of religious doctrine is somehow beyond the pale - something that would never be said about critiques of political positions or ideologies.

It's worth reminding ourselves of this. I'm prepared to make some efforts in the interests of civility, but I'm not prepared to shut up about my substantive points.