Confrontationalism and Bridge Burning? (More on Atheism+)

Addendum: This is the second post I’ve made on this subject. The first can be found here. If you don’t care about atheist community stuff, feel free to skip both.


It must be obvious to anyone who’s read anything I’ve written that I have a bit of a confrontationalist streak. When someone says or does something glaringly stupid but fails to realize the stupidity of that thing, I find it difficult to be diplomatic. “Perhaps you’d like to reconsider that point because of X, Y, and Z?” doesn’t roll off the tongue quite so easily as “Are you fucking shitting me right now?” I even have a “that was the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard” face that I reflexively make when I hear something from way out in left field. Sadly (okay, let’s be honest here—thankfully), that face does not translate well into text; one might even say that it is lost entirely.

Smart people who say dumb things need to be called out on those dumb things. This is the only way to avoid forming a cult of personality. No person is without error, but we all want to be, in spite of the impossibility of this goal. In the (ultimately futile) attempt to become paragons of rightness, we engage in a cumulative process of becoming less wrong.  The sad paradox is that the further along this path we’ve come, the harder it is to see where we’re still wrong; it’s not easy to accept criticism from someone so far behind you on the path to perfection, you see. Naturally, this approach is fallacious, but the flawed nature of the thought doesn’t stop it from being our natural reflex—we instinctively doubt things said by people we view asHow can I put this diplomatically?—misguided. In a contest between your Average Joe and yourself, most people will default their support to themselves.* It is far to easy to take offense at the little people when they (mistakenly, of course!) believe that something we’ve said is a dumb thing. To someone who is interested in continuing the process of becoming less wrong, it is necessary to consider the merits of their arguments, which may necessitate an attempt to understand their perspective. (Trying to refute something you don’t understand, after all, is often an exercise in hay-punting.) I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask someone to listen to your point of view instead of dismissing it outright.

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What’s in a Name? (a.k.a. on Atheism+)

Christian? Muslim? Pastafarian? Agnostic? Humanist? What does it mean to be one of these things? Most simply, to call yourself any of this indicates that you wish to be associated with those groups. It means you want to identify yourself with the beliefs associated with those groups. Perhaps just as importantly, it means you wish not to be associated with opposing groups.

What, for example, is a “Christian?” Is a Mormon a Christian? There are indeed some who say that Mormons are not Christians (I have addressed this fallacy previously)—this is, of course, absurd; Mormons affirm the divinity of Jesus, and this alone qualifies them to be considered “Christians.” They further believe the Bible is the word of Yahweh, even if they do add a third chapter to that book. How is it that some Christians feel justified in excluding Mormons from the circle of Christianity? To such a person, that distinction is, for whatever reason, important to their self-image. Regardless of whether the supposed difference is true, that person sees value in asserting “I am X, and they are not.” In the case of Mormonism, this separation is entirely without merit,* but there are certainly cases where such divisions are not only beneficial but necessary. Being a Christian means that a person cannot be a Muslim or a Buddhist, for these are contradictory belief systems.

What does it mean to be an atheist, though? Atheism is rife with ambiguity, so additional differentiation is necessary. The “dictionary definition” of an atheist is someone who does not hold a belief in god(s). As such, this leaves an almost infinite list of other things that atheism does not address. Atheism alone says nothing about a person’s morality, political affiliation, height, preference for chocolate, gardening ability, or almost anything else. Is a person, by nature of being an atheist, guaranteed to be more or less moral than anyone else? Not according to the dictionary. So if atheism does not contribute to the strength of a person’s moral character, can an atheist be a good person? Obviously, yes. The only problem is that one cannot say “atheists are predominantly good people as a consequence of their atheism.” How can this puzzle be solved?

The traditional  answer to this would likely have been humanism—a person who adheres to humanist principles would almost certainly qualify as a good person. At its core, Secular Humanism is about being good without reference to any sort of supernatural mumbo-jumbo as a motivating factor, and that’s great. Wearing this label has never been the only way to be both an atheist and a decent human being, of course, but donning the badge of humanism has been a convenient way of advertising one’s status as a non-douchebag. It’s not the only label that one can identify with if one wants to advertise one’s decent-human-being-ness, and it’s certainly not a requirement, but it has been one of the most convenient ways of doing so for some time.

One of the problems I’ve had with calling myself a humanist, however, is the non-confrontational nature of it. Religion is an actively harmful entity in the world at large. Christopher Hitchens got it right when he said it poisons everything. When we nonbelievers hide from the atheist label, it becomes easier for religious people to pretend we don’t exist; it also becomes harder for us to identify and support each other. (Incidentally, this is the same criticism I have of nonbelievers who insist on self-identifying with only the agnostic label.) That** is why I am excited about the idea of this new Atheism+ thing. It’s about a week old now, but it’s hitting the scene pretty hard, and I have it seen best summarized as “New Atheism plus Humanism,” two things I endorse separately, each made better through combination with the other.

A lot of really smart people have written some really insightful things about Atheism+. This is a sentiment that’s been boiling beneath the surface for at least a year, and it’s hard to imagine that I could express it any better than people like Jen McCreightAshley Miller, Greta ChristinaRichard CarrierRussell Glasser, and so many others.*** (Not to mention Jason Thibeault‘s helpful graphics!) Like everything on the internet, there’s even a reddit page for it now.

Given that this is a blog thus far dedicated largely to issues of morality (specifically, advocating secular morality), I couldn’t be happier to come back from vacation with a post wholeheartedly supporting the Atheism+ movement. I agree that discrimination has no place in a movement that advertises itself as primarily rational. Prejudices based on race, sex, sexuality, and other such states that have absolutely nothing to do with a person’s moral character (yes, even religion) simply have no room in a movement aiming for social justice. The only reasonable approach is to judge people based on their behavior, and those who refuse to accept others as equals based on these otherwise irrelevant factors should not be welcomed or accepted in this kind of movement. A group cannot be inclusive if that group welcomes bigots, and anyone who advocates discriminating against someone over these states is practicing bigotry. Thus, this new anti-douchebag atheist movement is just what we need to combat the rising tide of increasingly vocal irrationality that has infiltrated what should, by all rights, be the one of the most inclusive movements in recent history. As a badge, “atheism” is not a shield against unjustifiable aggression, but Atheism+ can be. Atheism+ can include positive goals that dictionary atheism cannot. Atheism+ can be the inclusive movement atheism cannot be. This is a step in the right direction.

Even if you don’t feel called to identify with the Atheism+ label yourself, the movement’s goals thus far are unquestionably good, and it deserves recognition for that. Not being part of this movement doesn’t make someone a bad person—this has not been suggested by any right-minded individual. Rather, the label serves as a helpful tool for illustrating an atheist’s preference for equality and social justice. In the same way that “vegetarian” is helpful shorthand for “doesn’t eat meat” without also necessarily communicating “people who eat meat are evil,” Atheism+ communicates “how we treat people matters.” And it does matter.

In sum, I support Atheism+, and unless you’re an ignorant asshole, you should too. Asshattery shall not be tolerated.


Addendum:  My thoughts on the subject of Atheism+ continue here.

*Christianity is not “a” religion but rather an umbrella term for a number of differing religions sharing belief in Jesus as a core tenet. Thus, Mormons surely aren’t Southern Baptists, but both groups are clearly Christian.
**… in addition to the “deep rifts” caused by misogynists, racists, and the like …
***Daniel Fincke prefers a diplomatic approach, expressing similar thoughts quite eloquently. I had originally included this link alongside the others, but it doesn’t really fit there because he doesn’t speak directly about Atheism+. I should probably avoid clicking “publish” late at night.

Morality: Let’s Compare, Shall We?

What is morality?

mo·ral·i·ty /məˈrælɪti, mɔ-/
1. Principles concerning the distinction between right and wrong or good and bad behavior.
2. Behavior as it is affected by the observation of these principles.

So we should conclude that a moral system effectively differentiates between right and wrong behavior in those circumstances where such distinctions are meaningful. Great. What makes a thing moral? If you’re a Christian, it’s generally adherence this list of ten rules:

  1. 2 I am the LORD thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. 3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
  2. 4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: 5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me; 6 And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.
  3. 7 Thou shalt not take the name of the LORD thy God in vain; for the LORD will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain.
  4. 8 Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.
  5. 12 Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.
  6. 13 Thou shalt not kill.
  7. 14 Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  8. 15 Thou shalt not steal.
  9. 16 Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
  10. 17 Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour’s.

I, on the other hand, adopt this* much more concise list:

  1. Harm is bad.
  2. Well-being is good.
  3. Intending to do harm is bad.
  4. Intending to cause well-being is good.
  5. In moral arithmetic, consequences matter more than intentions.
  6. All things being equal, harm done outweighs well-being caused.

Which principles better describe morality? Which list covers more territory, behavior-wise? Which standard forbids the abuse of children? Which construct includes commandments that do not actually pertain to “good and bad behavior?” Which model better values human life? Which option is more moral?

* This list may not be final. It is subject to revision upon further consideration. Like all things properly rational, it is not set in stone. If you have suggestions for revision, I am eager to engage them.

Why the “Moral Objection” Fails

This notion of the Affordable Care Act (ACA, a.k.a. Obamacare) as a violation of a person’s religious liberty persists because it sounds like a convincing argument. It isn’t, of course, or the law wouldn’t have been ruled constitutional by the (majority Catholic) US Supreme Court. There are two main reasons why this argument does not hold water:

  1. It is a red herring.
  2. It is not sound policy.

It is a red herring because it mischaracterizes the way the law works. That the Supreme Court has ruled that the law is constitutional in its entirety (including this contraception mandate) should be sufficient to illustrate why this objection is irrelevant, but I’ll elaborate further for the sake of being comprehensive.

The religious “moral objection” issue seeks to erroneously portray the law (savvy readers might recognize this terminology as indicative of a straw man) by claiming that the law requires employers to provide contraception for their employees. This is false. So what does this law do? It does three things:

  1. It mandates that people carry health insurance.
  2. It mandates that employers of a certain size (50+ employees) offer health insurance.
  3. It regulates the insurance industry.

At the abstract level, that’s “all” it does.

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Moral Evaluations

When it comes to weighing the moral implications of an action, I take the otherwise uncontroversial stance that we can make meaningful, reliable judgments about the relative morality of competing models. Some systems of moral evaluation are frankly terrible, and we gain nothing by standing by without voicing condemnation when people attempt to justify atrocities with these bad systems. I say my position is “otherwise uncontroversial” because some believers assert that atheists cannot make claims to objective morality, suggesting that only members of their own faith have the One True Morality (which I have previously disagreed with at some length). Such presumptions are quite ridiculous and cannot be made by anyone who purports to engage in honest discourse.

Consider the hypothetical case of a soon-to-be rapist who has convinced himself that his victim will enjoy the experience; he believes himself to be an unparalleled lover, and it is inconceivable to him that his victim will be in any way harmed or traumatized by the experience. His intentions are good, even though he is about to perpetrate a terrible misdeed. Would anyone thus argue that his actions were morally good? I don’t think so. Is our moral evaluation of this person any different from that of a rapist who knows that his actions will cause great suffering and actively continues them anyway? I think so, yes, because the first rapist does not intend harm while the second one does. From a “what now?” standpoint following each rape, however, it should be obvious that both men deserve punishment, and I believe this demonstrates that an action’s consequences (i.e., effects in the real world) outweigh any intentional considerations.

Let’s look at this issue from a different angle, though, by considering four different scenarios:

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Situational Values (a.k.a. Religion)

At the risk of further abusing a decayed and desiccated equestrian cadaver, I’ve had it up to here (crap—you can’t see my gestures through text. Bah, just imagine it) with the “contraceptive coverage violates my religious liberties” argument. Here’s the latest one, courtesy of Speaker of the House John Boehner’s twitter feed:

The Obamacare HHS mandate takes effect today that requires Americans to violate their religious beliefs to implement the president’s health care law. The mandate compels religious employers to pay for and refer women for abortion-causing drugs, birth control, contraception and sterilizations.”

Let’s ignore, for a moment, the absurdity of the notion of an “abortion-causing drug” and—oh nevermind, let’s not. This one’s so stupid, it needs its own paragraph. What is an abortion?

a·bor·tion   /əˈbɔrʃən/
1. Also called voluntary abortion. the removal of an embryo or fetus from the uterus in order to end a pregnancy.
2. any of various surgical methods for terminating a pregnancy, especially during the first six months.

And contraception?

con·tra·cep·tion   /ˌkɒntrəˈsɛpʃən/
the deliberate prevention of conception or impregnation by any of various drugs, techniques, or devices; birth control.

Abortion is an intervention, either surgical or medical (85% and 15%, respectively, per the CDC), to terminate a pregnancy. Contraception, by definition, cannot be abortion because abortion can only occur after impregnation. An abortion can be done, realistically, at any point in a woman’s pregnancy, all the way up to the final (ninth-ish) month of pregnancy, although third trimester abortions are exceedingly rare (91% occur in the first trimester, and most of that remaining 9% in the second). Contrast this with the notion of “abortion-causing drugs,” by which the author is presumably referring to ella, a “Plan C” pill that a woman can take up to five days after sex to prevent pregnancy (it also triggered a good deal of outrage in the wingnut lobby). It should be obvious—but apparently it isn’t—that swallowing a pill is radically different from undergoing an invasive surgical procedure. One cannot merely swallow a pill six months into her pregnancy and consider the whole ordeal over. The implication that these drugs are fundamentally equivalent to a surgical procedure is at best a gross misrepresentation of the facts (and is more likely a deliberate distortion intended to compel people with more emotion than sense to yell vociferously). Comparing abortion to contraception serves only to demonstrate an unwillingness to engage in rational discussion. It is a red herring, meant only for deception.

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Mini Post on Humanism

Things have been pretty quiet on this page for the last few days. Sorry about that. I’ve been kind of busy. To make up for it, here’s an awesome video by the British Humanists, who pretty much just rock all over the place.

I’m a big fan of humanism. I’d probably identify as a humanist, if asked, because it’s an excellent secular value system. Humans are important, so we should treat each other well. That’s pretty much the core tenet of humanism, and it’s sufficient grounding to justify the most effective morality conceivable. In its reasoned approach to human interactions, it requires no supernatural assumptions nor any other such credulity. Because of its lack of reliance on bullshit, it’s a far more good moral framework than its religious counterparts.

I’ll get back to writing soonish.