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

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Okay, so here's where I don't agree with Julian

As I was saying yesterday, I was reading Julian Baggini's Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, and I liked this little book a lot. I especially like his discussion of the religion/morality issue. I recommend the book to anyone who'd like a brief primer to read themselves or give to a friend.

My viewpoint diverged significantly from Julian's only at the end where he started explaining why he doesn't like "militant" atheism and is not "hostile" to religion. This material struck me as rather weak. He says that he has some sympathy for "militant" atheism but he likes to leave open the possibility that he is wrong. Well, sure - there is a possibility that I am wrong about all sorts of things, but that doesn't mean I can't feel strongly about them. There's a theoretical possibility that it would be better to enact laws drastically restricting abortion rights, criminalising homosexuality, abolishing the mechanisms of the welfare state, and who knows what else. There is always the theoretical possibility that I'm wrong - that I'm missing something - but I'd be opposing those laws vigorously. We could never feel strongly about, or passionately oppose, anything if it required first ruling out all theoretical possibility that we are wrong.

He then looks at some reasons for being hostile to religion across the board and concludes that they are not strong enough to justify a hostile attitude. Now, I'm not entirely out of sympathy with this. I do think that it's better to be hostile to particular manifestations of religion rather than to be hostile to it across the board in an undiscriminating way. I think we should all be a bit discerning in our hostility.

In my case, I'm mainly hostile to religion insofar as it seeks political power and attempts to impose its values and ideas on non-believers through the mechanisms of the secular law. That's not the entirety of my viewpoint - there are plenty of situations in which religion is damaging to children or to the interests of women, and much else, without the involvement of the state. But my hostility to religion in these situations is focused on specifics. I don't go around feeling hostile to every Quaker, Anglican, or Buddhist who crosses my path. I freely acknowledge that there are situations where people are motivated by religion to do good in the world.

However, there are plenty of reasons for a certain amount of hostility to various important manifestations of religion, even if we don't take religion to be monolithic. And none of those reasons requires an attitude of dogmatism.

Once again, I can entertain the theoretical possibility that some belief system will turn out to be the correct one in some sense while still being hostile to it. I don't, for example, need to pursue every issue to the point of mathematical certainty in order to justify my hostility to Nazism. This is not to "play the Nazi card" (rolleyes) and suggest that all religion is as bad as Nazism, but it shows the absurdity of the claim that I can be hostile to a belief system that I regard as harmful only if I can demonstrate its falsity to a mathematical standard. At some point, we are entitled to conclude that certain ideas, organisations, and leaders of organisations are harmful and should be opposed. Our lack of theoretical certainty about anything other than, perhaps, some very simple logical truths, is not a reason for quietism.

So, I suggest that Julian has not put good reasons against being "militant" or "hostile", though there are reasons to be somewhat discerning in our "militancy" and "hostility". In my case, what I mainly want is a society that embraces secularism in the political sense - i.e. a society in which the government makes decisions on grounds relating to people's interests in the things of this world, rather than attempting to impose its preferred religious ideas. It's not my aim to wipe out or persecute religion, though I do think that the various religions are untrue and that it is worth challenging their truth claims. I'll reserve my greatest level of hostility for situations where I think religion is most harmful.

All of which makes me think that Julian's softly softly approach in the last pages of his excellent 120-page primer is more a matter of temperament than anything else. That's fine, but some of us aren't quite so laid back, and I think we have good reasons to take a more aggressive approach. For many of us, a certain amount of "militancy" and hostility can be perfectly reasonable choice.


NewEnglandBob said...

I would still like to see an example of Baggini's laid-back softly approach that won someone over.

It didn't work for civil rights for Blacks. Aggressive activism did.

It didn't work for suffrage for women. Aggressive activism did.

It doesn't work for atheism. Aggressive activism does.

bad Jim said...

Perhaps we should make it clear that we're not opposed to pageantry and make-believe, but only to religious privilege, the presumption that certain traditions have special access to virtue and are valuable as such.

Lance Bush said...

I'm inclined to agree with NewEnglandBob; I don't think a soft approach is all that effective. Dawkins and Harris have probably put far more of a dent in religion than people who want to deal with religion with kiddy gloves.

In fact, I suspect, though I have little way of proving (especially with any degree of mathematical certainty) that a certain degree of being "militant" and "hostile" is precisely what's needed to make a real difference in diminishing the role of religion. That is, that not only is it not counterproductive, it may be the only, or the only particularly effective, way to minimize religion.

What gives me pause, though, is that my attitude about what works just so happens to comport with my disposition towards religion. Isn't it a bit to convenient that I think a hostile stance is the most effective one when it just so happens I'm inclined towards hostility? It's that concern that's led me to want to see what people pushing a soft approach present by way of argument, and once again there doesn't appear to be any particularly good arguments.

Russell, you don't comment on this here but I still feel inclined to at least somewhat object to characterizing a critical approach towards religion as “militant” or “hostile”, so I'm glad I'm seeing them in quotes. These words just seem to go too far, or invoke false equivalence, when dealing with at least some of the criticism of religion that's been given this label. When I apply these terms to religious fanatics, “militant” and “hostile” call to mind murders, assaults, and the type of vandalism that smashed Piss Christ. When “militant” atheism comes to mind, I think of a professor on a stage proclaiming, calmly, that he actually thinks religion isn't particularly good for the world and that prayer doesn't work. I don't think this disparity is all in my head. Time and time again I run into believers who tell me I'm “just as bad as the religious fundamentalists” because I'm “hostile” and “militant”; apparently telling them their beliefs are false and potentially harmful is entirely equitable with homicidal rage.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, the scare quotes should convey my suspicion of the word "militant" and its cognates.

Dave Ricks said...

The book is unique and very good for presenting material gently to someone who is new to the topics - especially his perspective on moral responsibility being the same problem for believers and nonbelievers, which I believe is crucial for society to accept atheism and atheists in the future. But it occurs to me, in the section on "militant" atheism [pp. 101-103], the source material switches from topics we can study academically (by reviewing what others have written) to his personal feelings and opinions (which he can't print out and read with the same perspective). That might explain why his definitions get weak and his arguments get hard to pin down.

I've read this passage several times to see if I can get a definition [p. 101]: Atheism which is actively hostile to religion I would call militant. To be hostile in this sense requires more than just strong disagreement with religion - it requires something verging on hatred and is characterized by a desire to wipe out all forms of religious belief.

In that passage, did he define "militant" atheism to be: 1) atheism actively hostile to religion, or 2) atheism characterized by a desire to wipe out all forms of religious belief? Because those can be two different things. Anonymous trolling of religious beliefs on 4chan /sci/ is for teh lulz (not to wipe out beliefs), so maybe 4chan trollan is 1) but not 2) (or it's militant apatheism, srsly). And what about Jerry Coyne's article Seeing and Believing - maybe Baggini would consider that 2) but not 1), I'm not sure.

Russell, you write your criticisms precisely - e.g. above, you're "mainly hostile to religion insofar as it seeks political power and attempts to impose its values and ideas on non-believers through the mechanisms of the secular law." Your narrowly-defined "hostility" might fall outside the excerpts 1) and 2) above, but his real objection is still unclear to me. His objection seems too abstract or meta for me to evaluate - I would need a more explicit definition and/or some examples.

Anyway, the text of Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2003) is also published by arrangement as Atheism: A Brief Insight (Sterling Publishing, 2009). The Sterling book is reformatted to have more pictures (e.g., page 11 has a color photo of tagliatelli to illustrate the etymological fallacy - om nom nom nom). In either book, the short section about "militant" atheism seems more confusing than harmful, especially in light of his more significant point that moral responsibility is the same problem for believers and nonbelievers.

Bruce said...

I've been thinking much the same thing, more generally. People have been conflating epistemological meekness, with political meekness, except of course, when they want to advocate for something. The conflation is applied unevenly - hypocritically even; 'no activism for you.'

James Sweet said...

We could never feel strongly about, or passionately oppose, anything if it required first ruling out all theoretical possibility that we are wrong.

From Daniel Fincke of the Camels and Hammers blog:

"It is valuable to put my foot down today so I have something definite to put in my mouth tomorrow."

Blamer .. said...

It's worth keeping in view that "militant" atheists are critical of (1) belief in gods, (2) religious claims, and (3) specific Islamic and Christian denominations who repeatedly attempt "to impose its values and ideas on non-believers through the mechanisms of the secular law".

The latter surely being the most urgent and most certain.

If others can only agree that changing laws is an illegitimate way of changing hearts and minds, then for God's sake start "stridently" say so.

Anonymous said...

I also enjoyed this book, and have recommended it to others. It was the first of the Very Short Introduction books I have read. Nice overviews of a variety of topics.

I have read Baggini off and on for over a decade, since the days of TPM’s forum. That said, I don’t feel like I know enough about him to speculate why he has taken the view he has. When he speaks descriptively it doesn’t match up with my own perceptions of events or people. When he speaks prescriptively his ideas don’t seem, to me, likely to achieve his stated goals (but then, given our differences over the current state of the situation this isn’t too surprising.)

I’m at a loss. Since I don’t trust him to report objectively on matters of fact, I really can’t rely on anything he says regarding his subjective reasoning. Lately I have decided it’s best to ignore him on this subject. If you all manage to get a worthwhile response I’ll reconsider. But for now, being a fan of really bad movies, I’d rather waste my time on something entertaining than frustrating.

Grendels Dad