Sunday, February 27, 2011

Public Displays of Atheism

I've been discussing public displays of atheism with Jean Kazez, and it's about time I've made my case in a bit more detail. Jean says some prominent atheists are presenting views that aren't appropriate for general consumption. Jean mentions two specific views: first, that atheism is incompatible with objective morality; second, that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible. She says she's more confident about the first point, and that there is room for "reasonable" disagreement about the second one. I guess this means it would be unreasonable to even suggest that atheists should reject objective morality in public. That means I and a number of other atheists, including Russell Blackford, are unreasonable.

There is a whole lot of history here--not so much between me and Jean, but between her and several bloggers far more prominent than myself. I'm talking about Russell, Ophelia Benson, and Jerry Coyne, among others. There are difficult questions about who has been unfair or how we should best interpret some particular comment or other, and I'm in no position to answer them. I'm not involved in a significant sense, and that means maybe I should never have opened my mouth to begin with. But, for better or for worse, I've expressed some concerns over at Jean's blog, and she's been very willing to engage me. Now I'll do my best to continue the discussion and address the substantive issues without paying attention to any of the animosity or unfair play that's been going around.

As I said to Jean recently, I think the underlying concern is that she has a too-restrictive view of what is an acceptable public discussion of atheism. The problem isn't that she wants to silence atheists outright, or that she thinks atheism is publicly unacceptable. On the contrary, she's an atheist and she looks highly upon many strong public expressions of atheism, including some work by Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, among others. So she's not against atheism in public. She's just against atheists presenting some of the views which atheists are known to promote.

In her last comment to me, Jean says that she doesn't "owe" Jerry Coyne a new argument to support her position. That's fine. I'm in no position to say she owes anybody anything. But then she says, "Coyne never looks at the argument. He just makes fun of the conclusion." I don't think that's fair. Coyne wasn't just making fun of Jean's conclusion. He was making fun of her argument. He certainly wasn't nice about it, I admit, but I don't think he was just missing the point. More importantly, I don't think Jean has adequately addressed Coyne's underlying concern. And I happen to share that concern. So, even if Jean doesn't owe anyone a response, I think she should reconsider her argument.

Maybe Jean's right, and some common atheist positions are better left out of, say, USA Today. As true as that might be, it is a highly controversial claim and it is likely to offend a lot of atheists. It therefore stands in need of a strong argument. Jean's argument is very weak. On top of that, it is offensive. She's making an offensive argument for an offensive position, and it's getting her a lot of negative attention.

Atheists are one of the most maligned minorities in the world. We are verbally abused, misrepresented, disrespected, mistrusted, and otherwise alienated from the general public. Fortunately we have not been the target of violence the way other minority groups have been, so it is hard to complain too much. It could be much, much worse. But still, as Ophelia Benson has recently observed, the social pressure felt by atheists is significant.

Atheism--or, rather, public atheism--has a largely political dimension. It often entails political views about the role of religion in society. Public atheism is becoming more and more acceptable, and I'm optimistic that the situation will continue to improve. More and more efforts are being made at philosophical engagement, and in a wide variety of public venues. There's much room for improvement, of course. The effects are not always heartening, but at least efforts are being made. The biggest changes will come when public policies change, especially policies about education and the rights of religious institutions.

For atheists like me, there is one issue that matters most in all of this: the role of religious authority in society. I'm not saying atheists are concerned with this issue above all else. Not at all. They might be more concerned about global warming, say, or human rights violations in third-world countries. What I am saying is that, for many atheists, atheism is first and foremost about the rejection of religious authority. Public atheism is first and foremost about putting religious authority in its proper place. For us, to be a public atheist just is to deny that there is any objectively valid moral authority which religions could claim and to deny that religious authority is similar to, equal to, or in any methodological or philosophical sense compatible with scientific authority. If we cannot argue these points in public, then we cannot be public atheists in the way that is meaningful to us. If we followed Jean's advice, we would not be able to promote atheism the way we need to in order to address the relevant policy issues.

This doesn't mean Jean is wrong. It just means she's making a very strong claim which is understandably going to offend a lot of people.

I don't think Jean means to challenge our ability to make the best case for atheism. Rather, she just has different ideas about what public atheism should look like. I've noticed this before. For example, I was critical of Obama's use of religious talk in his Tuscon Memorial speech. I thought it was inappropriate. A US civil servant should not use her office to promote religion unless doing so serves a secular purpose. Jean defended Obama on the grounds that it was a time for the President to console the public as best he could, and that included religious language. I found the disagreement odd, because it just seems obvious to me that Obama was using his office to promote religion, and not for any secular purpose, and that this just isn't something he should do, even if the general public wants it. So Jean and I disagree on some issues about the role of religion in society, and I suspect this relates to her views about what is and is not an acceptable public display of atheism.

I don't claim to have gotten at anything profoundly significant about Jean's views on atheism or religion. I'm just observing that her views are her own, and that she likely does not realize how directly she is challenging some other people's views of what it means to be an atheist. I'm trying to be charitable and I'm taking her at her word that she does not think people should be appalled by her views. Because, I think if she understood how a lot of people felt about atheism, she would understand exactly why we are appalled.

Again, none of this means Jean is wrong. To see why she is wrong, we have to look at her argument. As I noted, one of Jean's concerns is that Coyne (and others) are taking offense at her conclusion without properly considering her argument. I don't think that's true. Her argument is, first, that candor is not always appropriate. That's fine. Sometimes we shouldn't be too open or honest. That's an acceptable premise. But then she goes on to argue that certain topics related to atheism are too complicated and sophisticated for the average person to grasp, and that, because they are too difficult to grasp, a public discussion of them will do more harm than good. She doesn't think any of the ideas are harmful as such. She doesn't think atheists are worse off for having these ideas. She just thinks they're likely to be misunderstood by the general population. People will think atheists are saying one thing, when we are really saying something else. In other words, either people are too stupid to understand these ideas, or atheists are too inept at presenting them. Either way, it's offensive.

Okay, even if her argument is offensive, that doesn't make it invalid or senseless. But it is offensive, and this is a point Jean doesn't seem willing to accept.

All that aside, it's a very weak argument. First, there's the fact that Jean's lines are arbitrarily drawn. USA Today is not a good place for a discussion of the science/religion issue, but The New Republic is okay? It's okay to write books about error theory for a general audience, but we can't have reviews of them in popular newspapers? Second, there's the fact that atheism itself is a subject worthy of deep philosophical exploration. Jean hasn't shown that atheism is any less philosophically complex than the issues she is worried about. In fact, as I noted above, some people think atheism entails these other complex issues. You can't understand atheism without understanding the issues about religious authority. Jean's argument is not just that these other issues are more complex, but that it will be harmful if they are misunderstood. So, it's okay if atheism is misunderstood. It's just a problem when those other issues are misunderstood. But this doesn't work, because the same harm is done in both cases.

Let's look at the example of error theory, which Jean feels most confident about. While error theorists are perfectly willing to take stands on matters of public policy, they claim that moral claims are not true. So, "It is morally wrong to torture babies" is not true, according to moral error theorists. Noncognitivists too say it is not true; they say it is not the sort of statement that could be true or false. Yet, Jean is not willing to come down against noncognitivism in public . . . yet. For anti-realists of all stripes, these issues do not in any way pose a problem for discussions of public policy. We can still be for or against things like abortion and gay marriage without contradicting our metaethical principles. Yet, Jean says, the public won't understand that. They'll think that anti-realists are really tolerant of people who like to torture babies. She says that, if a prominent atheist and error theorist like Russell Blackford were to get way famous and start presenting his views to the general public (which he already has, by the way, even if he's not way famous), then atheism will be tarnished. It would hurt atheism in general. The public will think that atheists have no moral compass.

News flash: The public already thinks atheists have no moral compass. People just don't understand these issues, but they think they do. That's the real problem: people are ignorant of their own ignorance. The public needs exposure to what atheists actually think--not in an inaccessible, academic way, but in a clear, practical and relevant way. Right now, they're mostly relying on misinformation when they criticize atheists. Jean says that, if we try to correct them, we're going to do more harm than good. But the harm she says we're going to do is just to reaffirm what they already think, which is that atheists approve of torturing babies.

She is less explicit in what harm might come from discussing the science/religion issue, but it is hard to see how it could be more harmful than or different from the harm already done by the public's misunderstanding of atheism.

Jean's argument ultimately rests on the claim that people cannot learn what many atheists want them to learn, and that, at best, our efforts at education will be fruitless. This is what Coyne seems to be bothered about. It's not just Jean's conclusion. It is her argument that is so upsetting. Atheists like me are less willing to settle for the status quo. We are far less satisfied with the public's current perceptions of atheism. Furthermore, we would rather give the public the benefit of the doubt. We are optimistic that the public can learn a whole lot more than Jean seems to think. Of course, atheists will continue to be misunderstood and misrepresented for a long time to come. But the discourse might move forward nonetheless. It certainly won't help if we stop trying.

P.S. I should mention that, regarding the point about science/religion incompatibility, Jean's view is that we should focus on limited incompatibilities, such as differing views about the age of the earth, and not on sweeping incompatibilities, such as the claim that religion and science are methodologically or fundamentally at odds. For atheists like me, this is akin to treating gunshot wounds with band-aids. Band-aids can do some good, but not nearly enough.