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Critique of pure Reasoner

Essays and commentary related to topics in Tom Reasoner's "Truth and Beauty" blog

Saturday, November 20, 2004

More on freedom and secularism

MaxedOutMama exercises altogether too much modesty in her eloquent and insightful latest post, though her flattery of Lancelot and myself left me preening uncontrollably. She also comments on my previous post. The most important bit:

I'd argue, I think in agreement with Lancelot Finn, that by tossing out older belief systems it becomes necessary for secularist democracies to develop and impose by legislation another belief system. The US model has been more one of prohibiting acts rather than mandating beliefs, and thereby leaving the evolution of the concept of good to private churches and secular philosophers. The tension between people's varying beliefs has created a sort of official public-policy vacuum, and freedom has existed in that no-man's land.

On one hand I'd say that secularism consists of exactly the bracketing of belief systems that she describes, but it is also incontestable that the government can and does underwrite the activities of secular philosophers while the jurisprudence considers that the constitution prohibits the government from likewise funding of churches and their official exponents. Can I wriggle out of this formulation of the issue in which the status quo is obviously unfair without being tendentious? Perhaps.

One argument I can make is that no rule, legislated or judicially decreed, prohibits, say, philosophers of religion from holding professorships in secular universities. That holders of theistic viewpoints may suffer disadvantage at the hands of the largely independent administrations of those institutions remains a matter of real concern, but of a kind beyond the scope of this post.

Another is that, though funding of churches is prohibited while secular institutions advocating counter-doctrinal views may receive state funds with impunity, government-funded organizations are enjoined from targeting any given religious group for criticism or persecution*. Lest this seem like a distinction without a difference, note that even in a perfect world the public will as implemented by the government will invariably conflict with some religious doctrine or another. In the case of rules created to protect minorities, first-order analysis of any exercise thereof will conclude it to contravene the public will itself.

Is the above sufficient to claim that religions are not disadvantaged in any unnecessary way? I think it’s at least plausible, given my caveats.

In a side note that harkens back to a much earlier post serving as my coda to an earlier debate about Christ's moral technology, I must address the side issue MaxedOutMama raises with a parenthetical caveat:

unless, of course, society at the moment has itself embarked on a destructive course

Because my particular (secular) formulation of normative truth (including personal ethics, morality, political economy, and so on) suffers all the drawbacks of heuristic searches of problem spaces, my "answers" to normative questions tend toward the messy and inelegant. Simply put, though I believe there to be only one best answer, I also believe it to be a)computationally inaccessible to finite beings and b)usually in the theoretically impure middle somewhere. Doubtless some questions have simple global answers, but I suspect none of them are very interesting.

*With the usual exception of those sects whose central doctrines require their members to substantially break important laws. I don’t think anyone worries about the government’s persecution of the Manson "Family".

Saturday, November 13, 2004

Boiling some more blood

My last post didn't play very well to Lancelot's eyes:

His post makes my blood boil, but it's not his fault really: he's just voicing the condescendion towards religion that characterizes broad swaths of the general culure.

After restating his belief that tolerance in Christian countries is due to Christian arguments*, he moves on to my 'condescension':

And of course, failing to control the message the children of the faithful receive is rightly perceived as a threat. Lancelot Finn, for example, worries that merely "conveying a vague sense that the whole world can be explained without reference to God" is sufficient to "turn my son into an atheist".

Failing to control the message? Earth to Nato: no one is proposing to pull scientific books off the shelves, to prohibit atheists from speaking on the radio and television, or even to bar atheists from teaching in the schools. It is not Christians who feel the need for message control here. But we need the resources-- children's time, facilities, personnel, and so on-- to positively instill the message. Christianity may be faith in part but it also involves a tremendous amount of learning.

At this point, I'm wondering if he thinks atheists are attempting to prohibit theists from speaking on the radio, teaching in schools and etc. But moving on, he continues:

"we are afraid that the vast amount of tax dollars and of our children's time that is devoted to constructing this rival, secularist synthesis will leave us without the space to instill a knowledge of what the Christian faith is in our children."

Now I wonder about what secularist synthesis are we talking. A carefully crafted "vague sense that the whole world can be explained without reference to God" that somehow takes up hours and hours and bajillions of dollars? Are we talking about the theory of evolution, the majority of which is accepted even by the likes of Behe? If you cut out only those portions that Behe rejects, you don't save much time or money. Or do we need to cut out more from the secular curriculum? Maybe a little less math, science, history and English? Surely not.

It seems very much that it's the rival "secularist synthesis" itself that's threatening, and the "vast amount of tax dollars and of our children's time" is merely an excuse. Which is fair enough - atheists are operating under the same logic when they complain government funding of religous schooling. The loss of one cent out of our personal budget that ends up funding the opposing message is not the issue so much as we can use the constitutional argument to complain about how the other guys have an advantage and to make it harder for them. I mean, if some atheist parent sends her child to a school and it "makes" her child a theist, then perhaps the child found the school's case for theism more convincing than the parent's case against it. The marketplace of ideas doesn't always spread the truth, but it's the best mechanism we've got.

Really, atheists have a sort of unfair advantage that the founders never really foresaw. By requiring the government to take no positive position, they essentially made the government atheist in the same way private citizens are. Since the government never advises children about God, a child might get the idea that there's no God about which to be advised: the classic null case. Advertisers vie to market their brand of ceareal, but the government must stay out of it, so it avoids showing children eating breakfast. Result: the cereal industry declines altogether and non-breakfast eaters win by default.

Lancelot also links to an article in which the "secularization hypothesis" is "discredited." Unfortunately, it seems to start from the highly tendentious assumption that "human beings are unalterably religious." Well, if that is the given from which the argument starts, then yeah, it's going to be pretty tough to maintain that secularity is growing.

Finally he ends up with what is largely a mirror image of my own discussion in which I claimed that the backlash against fundamentalist resurgence might well prove to be the event that vitalizes the secularist minority. I called one of his posts "preposterous and insulting" and thereafter wrote a post expressing "condescension" that made his blood boil. We have now both predicted eventual victory for our own side. If only both of us could claim God was on our side, it'd be perfectly classic parity.

*One wonders whence comes tolerance in non-Christian countries. Also, one wonders, if Christianity is so good at tolerance, why Europe wasn't more tolerant back when Christianity had much greater relative power.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Atheism and the authoritarian state

Authoritarian states repress. That's what makes them authoritarian. The degree to which a state represses is therefor the degree to which it is authoritarian. Further, one can say that a state that represses religion must be an authoritarian state. For a state to declare itself explicitly atheistic (more than merely secular) is to repress religion at least somewhat, so it's pretty much logically impossible for an atheist state to not be authoritarian.

So, saying that atheist states have a history of authoritarianism is something of a tautology, and applies to any state expressing any positive position on religion. As with most such pat chains of reasoning, of course, it elides some important distinctions. Norway is nominally Lutheran, for example, but it's difficult to really call it authoritarian, as the state works hard to avoid enabling Lutheran domination. Meanwhile the repression of any ideology that might conflict with "communism" in Poland was both brutal and onerous. The degree of interference with civil rights makes a big difference. In the very history of explicitly atheist states, of course, there are few examples of Norway equivalents and many Polands.

Is this because atheists naturally gravitate toward authoritarian states? Considering that most of the atheistic states in question were clients of the Soviet Union, it's hardly surprising that they were all avowed socialist/communist states, which cannot operate except on an authoritarian basis. There's really no example of an atheist state coming about without demagogue-orchestrated communist populism borrowing directly from Marx and his heirs. Lenin's elitist stamp on all of 20th century communism certainly didn't help.

So the closest thing we have to naturally occurring atheist states are countries like Japan and perhaps the Netherlands. Since abandoning the ambulatory phase of Shinto/Buddhism that gave rise to early 20th century nationalism, they've not been particularly authoritarian, especially compared to far more religious neighbors like Taiwan and South Korea. The Netherlands is only incrementally more atheist (55% describe themselves as Secular Humanists as opposed to 25-40% in the rest of Western Europe) than its neighbors, but it's also incrementally more libertarian than its continental neighbors - especially socially, but also economically. The UK's economy is considerably more economically libertarian, of course, but England's entire industrial-age experience has been radically different from the rest of Europe's.

Two counties are at best anecdotes and I don't really see any reason to believe (naturally) atheistic countries would be any more libertarian than theistic ones, but the reason I see for the obverse doesn't really pay organized theism any compliments.

Essentially, powerful churches see the addition of powerful non-sectarian states like the addition of a second tiger to a hill (and vice-versa in the former communist countries). Churches (and other reified religious structures) are by their nature methods of centralizing authority (except in cases like the Quakers). One need only read the newsletters of old-line churches bemoaning the rise of "interfaith" churches to see desire to monopolize their control on their congregations. Another excellent example is Orthodox accusations against the Vatican of "poaching" their congregations. These are not people interested in competing openly in the marketplace of ideas, and libertarianism is a way to prevent state competition therein.

And of course, failing to control the message the children of the faithful receive is rightly perceived as a threat. Lancelot Finn, for example, worries that merely "conveying a vague sense that the whole world can be explained without reference to God" is sufficient to "turn my son into an atheist". Well, he's right. My grandfather, who is a very religious man as well as a chemist, accidentally triggered my "conversion" to atheism simply by explaining to me Occam's Razor. As time has passed, the percentage of atheists in the world has grown despite the much lower birth rates among the secular, showing that despite the lack of any missionary apparatus, atheism has been easily the most successful religious stance in the world as measured by conversion.

Now, many want to explain this in terms of the government acting as a missionary proxy for secular humanism, but it seems religious belief has actually fared worse in industrialized states with official religions. Really it seems to be most closely related to the degree of higher education in the general populace, whether religious or otherwise. Likely this has something to do with the much greater pedagogical weight the atheistic elite wield in academia. If one wants to find examples of secularists intimidating theists, that's certainly the place to look. Even granted that such intimidation is widespread and overwhelming (which I only do for the purposes of this essay) I very much doubt that intimidation-based conversion lasts very long after one leaves the intimidating environment, if one's earlier upbringing was notably religious. As the Jesuits (or Loyola) were once reputed to say "give me the first six years of a child's life and you can have the rest."

I think the persecution complex evinced by so many Christians is really an excuse explaining away the long-term decline of their faith. Ditto the Islamic fantasy that the entire Western world is arrayed against them.

Of course, with traditionalist Christianity in the ascendancy in the US, the fundamentalists risk radicalizing formerly-moderate secularists that have so far taken for granted that whatever aggravating things religious conservatives might say, their fundamental rights were not in real jeopardy. Believe it or not, I think criticism of the religious right has so far been relatively muted. Witness Andrew Sullivan's about-face as a public example of what I hear expressed more and more by my personal friends. My brother was once disgusted by the Log Cabin Republicans because he felt they were too liberal, but has become a committed enemy of the GOP because it's no longer possible to deny how much control the religious right has over it and how ambitious their goals are. Another libertarian friend of mine who used to weight economic freedoms much more heavily than social ones has also changed her mind and is now voting a straight Dem ticket. All in all, the percentage of "soft secularists" will still be much smaller than the evangelical legions, but look for it to become a more organized, outspoken and important force as former moderates begin to speak up and drown out the lunatic fringe of the left that has always been our embarrassment.

And then what happens? Will the US mirror Europe's religious decline? It depends on how authoritarian the US becomes about legislating religious morality on the nonreligious. Personally, I'd rather that *not* be the path, as the intervening time will be painful for everyone. I'd much rather traditional religion decline slowly with everyone's freedoms intact than be discredited by destructive interference in government.

None of which is amenable to the viewpoint of the traditionally religious, but it's how I see things. Now, for the nontraditionally religious, it need not be very scary, as most of them are quite happy to let people arrive at their various beliefs about the metaphysical universe independently.

My friend Sarah is an excellent example. She's quite religious in her way, but she combines a wide variety of different traditions together after trying them out and seeing how they fit her life. She certainly believes in a higher power of some sort, but neither would does the prospect of a secular education at all worry her. After all, it didn't turn her into an atheist automaton. Meanwhile, I went to a Protestant preschool, said grace before every family meal and so on, yet my theism died before I was ten. Now, had I continued to a sectarian primary school, the story might have gone differently, but speculation doesn't count as evidence.

All of which leads one to the suggestion that secularists are somewhat overafraid of the rise of religious schools. Sarah didn't become an atheist automaton and neither do parochial school students necessarily become theist clones. Stifling the marketplace of ideas typically only slows improvement; it doesn't easily stop or reverse it in the long term. We are not headed toward Margaret Atwood's theocratic dystopia.

That doesn't mean I look forward to the slowing of progress or the painful continuing conflict between champions of tradition and progress. I also hope to make some use of the advocacy by the religious of libertarian principles to counterbalance the socialist tendencies in my own set. Perhaps in some far future, atheism will hold the kind of demographic dominance that religious belief has enjoyed for most of human history, but mostly I just wish for the dismantling of all sorts of authoritarianism. If everyone became like Sarah, that would work just as well.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Taking off the 'irate atheist' hat

Or at least shrinking it to a less obtrustive yamaka-type thing.

Lancelot Finn, always a good sport and, I think, quite willing to stretch his thesis in order to provoke a good exchange, has responded to my rather hotly-worded commentary.

Nathanael points out that Christianity has within it messages of tolerance meant to counteract the impulse to squash differing opinions, contra atheism, for which I supply no equivalent. This is, of course, absolutely true. There's nothing about atheism qua atheism that requires it to tolerate anyone. There's nothing in atheism that indicts mass murder, torture, rape, pillage, sophistry, or poor government, for the very simple reason that atheism is not an integrated world view, but rather consists entirely of the lack of any theistic belief. It prohibits nothing morally, and only obliquely indicts theistic belief on epistemic grounds.

Of course this is not really new information, but sometimes one must be reminded that atheism doesn't equate to secular humanism, which which it is usually associated. Of course, sometimes it's associated with communism, or Naziism, or Mormonism, but I generally regard those as mistakes. I lost faith in technocracy and other top-down management ideologies somewhat before I became an actual atheist.

Does secular humanism have within it an explicit antidote to the totalizing impulse? A quick quote for context:

Why should you tolerate a belief system you think is absurd, and which will lead people to do things that you feel endanger the Republic, like vote for George Bush/John Kerry? What if you really hate it that people think that way, and you just know that they're wrong? Maybe you can't actually force them to change their beliefs, but can't you make them shut up about it and keep them to themselves? Christians have an answer to this: it violates the Christian religion to impose one's beliefs on anyone. That's not to say that many Christians haven't violated their religion in this way (and in many other ways) over the years, but the antidote to Christian intolerance is contained in the Christian faith itself.

In the Council for Secular Humanism's Statement of Principles, #4 is:

We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.

and #6

We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding.

The Council for Secular Humanism by no means represents all secular humanists - not even me, though I stole their little logo for my orginal livejournal. However, they are a fairly typical example of organized secular humanist belief, and they have dictates of tolerance in their short list of principles. It's true that, since this list was not composed by Ultimate Authority, it is always subject to revision, but there was a time when the New Testament didn't exist as well. Both before it was written at all and before the Council of Nicea. And if you're a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, then there were times before the Pearl of Great Price and the Book of Mormon, both of which, if they contradict the Old and New Testament, are regarded by the LDS as more authoritative. The LDS, for the record, consider themselves Christians, though plenty of other Christians disagree.

On to another item:

Is it an "anecdote" that millions of religious parents are taxed in order to have their children compulsorily sent to schools where the curriculum contradicts their beliefs?

Actually, they can send their children to religious schools if they have the cash. The issue is that they nevertheless get taxed to pay for public education in which curriculum is decided by the state, which is explicitly secular. Not explicitly atheist, but explicitly secular. Of course, since atheism is a negative position and so is secularism, there's a lot of similarity, but the secularlism consists in bracketing religious belief while atheist is a rejection of them.

One can argue about the concept of education being funded by income taxes instead of user fees, but complaining that the curriculum contradicts one's beliefs is not in any way unique to religious questions. In science where the best-supported theories are usually in at least a little controversy, the practice of giving the majority opinion of scientists is merely a best guess method of choosing what to teach.

I mean, I had to sit through classes in my public high school in which it was taught that fiscal policy is an effective way of regulating the economy despite that I thought that only monetary policy had a non-illusory affect*. Does it follow that monetarists who also have to pay for those classes are being oppressed by Keynsians? Or anyone?

Moving on to Lancelot's ideas about Europe... well, I tend to agree. Though I still think the EU should at least put Turkey's admission up for review.

*I'm no longer the Austrian-school purist I was at the time, but I think the argument still carries.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Up on my high horse

Preposterous and insulting

What do you mean, Atheists don't have an answer to "Why let a belief system you think is absurd continue to exist..."? It seems clear that one need not be a theist to support the right to have differing opinions. As for "secularized culture," the very term implies something forced and invasive - something that can only happen under authoritarian regimes. Secular states, on the other hand, are very much associated with democratic freedom. The US Constitution does not and never has mentioned the word "God," so I don't see how the failure to include the word in the European Constitution somehow qualifies as some sort of awful anti-Christian discrimination. Contra the "secular elites are oppressing the Christian masses" meme sit facts like the addition (owing largely to the lobbying of the Knights of Columbus) of the word "God" to both the Pledge of Allegiance and the official US motto in the 1950s as a blow against "communism" - despite the fact that the large scientific corps frantically maintaining US miliary parity failed to believe in God at least half the time.

As for the "people" of Europe overturning an elite-imposed cultural secularism, one should note that the level of belief in Europe is much lower at the same time as many states there maintain official churches. As general belief has declined rapidly in the last 3-4 decades, the religious sinecures and offices have come under attack by a populace that no longer believes they are relevant. I'm admittedly not sure I'm comfortable with Parris' treatment of Mr Buttiglione, but neither am I sure it was inappropriate. I'm just not familiar enough with the post to have a solid opinion. I will say, however, that western European popular opinion is assuredly closer to Mr Parris' side than Mr Buttiglione's.

The narrative in which Christians are somehow being put at a disadvantage (outside of anecdotes) in the modern America by secular elites is so absurd from my perspective that it beggars the mind. For example, 37% of Americans would refuse to vote for a gay president, but 48% would be unwilling to support an atheist. All sorts of well-meaning people feel free to tell me that since I’m an atheist, I have no morals. That I was allowed to join the military frequently astonishes those around me. When I was filling out the forms for my military ID tags, I was told I could not have “none” or “atheist” printed in the customary religion slot - I would only be “no-rel-pref.” I am by no means the only enlisted atheist I know who has encountered that particular circumstance. I was not allowed into the Boy Scouts because I was an atheist. I could go on and on with the statistics and anecdotes, but I think I’ve made my point.

That’s not to say that I feel particularly disadvantaged by my atheism. I mean, I’m an educated, employed heterosexual caucasian male from a wealthy family who doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t do any other drugs and is more or less celibate. I personally have little to fear from even the most arch-conservative Christian society. Well, I wouldn’t have been born if my mother hadn’t been able to abort a baby that would have become my brother’s sibling instead of me, but that’s water well under the bridge. However, my brother would like to adopt children with his partner some day, I hope to have children free of preconceived notions about how they must be to fit their gender, I’d like my friends to be able to conduct their sexual lives in safe ways they see fit, and I’d like to be able to honor my grandfather’s fervent and long-standing demand that should he ever become mentally incapacitated that we not keep him alive artificially. None of these actions require anything of Christians, yet it seems a great number of said Christians (as well as Muslims, etc) feel the need to impose laws against them. Frustrating the desire to impose theistic moral dictates on non-theists does not strike me as “oppressing” the theist. Taking “God” back out of the Pledge of Allegiance doesn’t seem like elitist domination.