Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Politics of Atheism, Part 2: Towards a Secular Public Policy

It's easy to get lost in the "new atheist" debates without having a clear idea about what is at stake. What is the whole point, after all? Are atheists simply out to prove that they're right, and that God really doesn't exist? Is their goal to wipe religion, in all its guises, off the face of the earth? Or are they simply trying to educate and raise awareness?

I don't think there's one answer that covers the motives of all atheists today. However, I think we can close the net a little bit. For two of the biggest and most important names in the "new atheist" movement (and by "most important," I mean that they have, unlike Sam Harris, established themselves as major contemporary intellects outside of this movement), Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, the primary goal is to raise awareness and understanding of religion. Dawkin's explicit goal, as stated in The God Delusion, is to raise consciousness about what he sees as an unjust and dangerous social institution, much the way the civil rights movement in the 60's raised consciousness about unjust social inequalities. Dennett's goal, in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, is to open the doors to an uninhibited scientific investigation into the roots and nature of religion. Dennett is more weary about drawing premature conclusions about the values or dangers to be found in religion. Yet, both authors are ultimately trying to support and contribute to our scientific understanding of what religion is.

Sam Harris, on the other hand, doesn't seem so interested in contributing to our scientific understanding. (At least, not yet; he is pursuing a doctorate in neuroscience, with which he will apparently attempt to further our understanding of the neurological underpinnings of morality and spirituality). Instead, he offers critical social and philosophical analysis which seems geared towards the complete annihilation of religion from the free world. To Harris' credit, he makes good arguments for the importance of embracing science and rationality, and he consistently and eloquently points out how religions tend to resist a fair and rational approach to life. Unfortunately, Harris' critique of religion is wide open to criticism for being overly scathing and simplistic.

Like Dennett, I think we have no choice but to investigate religion as a natural phenomenon, as something just as open to scientific discovery as any other aspect of life. And, like Dawkins and Harris, I think there is enough evidence to draw some conclusions about the worrisome nature of religious institutions and authority. (That should be clear from several of my other posts in this blog.)

Of course, there is nothing to be gained from a blanket condemnation of religion. Religion cannot simply be banned or regarded as a criminal enterprise. For one thing, religion is too complex a phenomenon for such a simple judgment. For another, the freedom of speech is too valuable, and too fragile, to allow for such an oppressive verdict.

What I want to do with this post, therefore, is help direct the atheism debate towards more managable ends. The question is, what are atheists really proposing, in terms of public policy?

Education is primary. We must increase spending on education, so that better teachers and resources are available to students.

We shouldn't fire teachers for criticizing religious beliefs. Instead, school boards should encourage teachers and students alike to take a critical attitude towards everything.

Thus, philosophy (its history and practice as the cultivation of critical and methodical thinking, particularly thinking about thinking) should be a mandatory part of the public curriculum.

Religion (as a social phenomenon to be analyzed, and not as a set of doctrines to be followed) should be a part of public education, as well, as a topic to be critically analyzed from a variety of angles, all of which must adhere as strictly as possible to rational philosophy and scientific methodology.

We must reverse all legal decisions which respect religion, and that includes whatever rule keeps public schools from teaching students about the logical absurdities of theology, the scientific inaccuracies of biblical teachings, the psychological implications of myth and worship, the philosophical and psychological issues surrounding faith and notions of the supernatural, the critical sociological attitudes towards religion, and the political, often violent details of religious history. Let students make up their own minds about religion, but give them the tools required to make an informed decision.

We can't stop people from teaching their children to be religious, but we have no obligation to respect, let alone support, their efforts.

We must treat religious organizations like any other, and not give them special financial or legal privileges. Religious groups, individuals and institutions must follow the same laws as the rest, and should, if anything, be treated with a fair amount of suspicion, not reverence, by the law.

Ultimately, we should reject and remove all legal measures which recognize religious authority as a valid form of authority.

Should religion be outlawed? Of course not. However, we might want to consider laws which would prosecute more aggressive forms of religious leadership as fraudulent and an abuse of trust. But that certainly wouldn't make going to church or attending prayer groups illegal.

Hopefully discussions about religion and atheism can focus on these and similar areas of social and political concern. For this is where our true interest lies, and not in metaphysical disputes about how the universe came into being (as though such a topic could be meaningfully discussed), or in purely scientific concerns about how best to account for evolution and morality.

Of course, until the meaning and value of science is understood, many people will continue to argue that such things as morality and the meaning of life are not within the reach of scientific analysis. It's for this reason that more education about the nature of philosophy, thinking and science is required.

I will end this post by addressing a major concern about atheism. Many criticize atheists for being too certain about their own views. One reason people give certainty a bad name is because, in the absence of certainty, so much harm has been done in its name. But that shouldn't lead us to conclude that anything done in the name of certainty is a bad thing, or that certainty is equivalent to blind faith. Certainty is a fact of life. For, we cannot claim to be uncertain of everything, as that would mean we were certain of our absolute uncertainty.

What we rightly fear is the emotional certainty that motivates people of faith; what we rightly should embrace is that philosophical certainty which people demonstrate through rational argument.

This is the foundation of intellectual integrity, and it is what sustains the philosophical inevitability of atheism and radical secularism.