Monday, October 18, 2010

Once more, in English

The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

An important Gnu Atheist position is that religion is bad at least in some sense. Personally, I think religion is bad like most of McDonald's food is unhealthy.

If you eat at McDonald's often, it's going to be bad for your health. On the one hand, I think I have some obligation to tell you that Big Macs are harming your health: you're a fellow human being and I care about your well-being. On the other hand, it's your body, and it's inappropriate for me to force you not to eat Big Macs. Furthermore, I know many people really enjoy McDonald's (I've been known to indulge myself), but I'm not going to go to the mat to keep McDonald's in business.

However, I have a different attitude towards people who say that McDonald's isn't bad for you, or worse actually good for you, or even worse necessary to survival. Such people are not just harming themselves, they're harming others. True, they're harming others in a way that the people being harmed should be able to protect themselves from, but still, they are indeed harming others. And I get a little more militant when I think people are harming others.

There are free speech issues, and I won't say that people publicly advocating the health benefits of McDonald's food should actually go to jail or be subject to other direct coercion. On the other hand, they're liars and assholes — in a sense that individuals who choose themselves to eat at McDonald's aren't assholes — and I don't mind saying so.

And then there are people who feed their children a lot of McDonald's food. Children cannot protect themselves, and such parents are in fact abusing their children. I have a social obligation to protect everyone's children, not just my own: that's why I gladly pay for police and prisons to arrest and imprison all child molesters. I don't know if jail would be the correct solution in this specific case, but I have no problem in principle with direct coercive measures.

(Let me also say that independently of how I feel about some particular act, the imposition of coercion is subject to a social and political process. As flawed and dominated by the capitalist ruling class as our current process is, almost any social process is better than none. There are only very rare circumstances where I would take the law in my own hands, bypassing the social process for legitimatizing coercion. Actually imposing coercion is very different from advocating coercion within the process.)

Substitute "religion" for "McDonald's" and you have a pretty good sense of my feelings. I think religion is unhealthy, but if you yourself want to be religious, I'm not going to stop you. I wouldn't be at all unhappy if religion were to disappear completely, but I'm not holding my breath. And I think people who tell others that religion is good or necessary are lying assholes and I'm happy to say so, at considerable length. And I think people who impose religion on their children are actually harming those children. (That there is presently no social consensus for protecting children from religion doesn't stop me from saying there should be such protection.)

Of course, I might be mistaken: religion might not be bad. I'm always open to hearing arguments that I'm mistaken. I've heard a lot of them, and so far I'm entirely unimpressed, but who knows?

But there are certain positions that really piss me off. The most notable is that even though religion is indeed bad we shouldn't actually say so, because there are "bigger" problems, which we need the cooperation of the religious to solve. But the issue, at least as I see it, is that these "bigger" problems (i.e. fundamentalism) are problems precisely because fundamentalism is a religious belief. Take out the prop of God and the problems of fundamentalism are relegated to the pitiful lunatic fringe.

To switch back to the fast food analogy, suppose that Taco Bell was way more unhealthy than McDonald's (which is probably literally untrue). Obviously, our first goal is to shut down Taco Bell (in a socially appropriate way, of course). But on what basis should we confront Taco Bell? The most obvious approach is to argue that fast food with a lot of fat, salt and preservatives is bad for you. The problem is that some argue we need the cooperation of McDonald's customers to shut down Taco Bell. So we can't actually say that shitty fast food is bad for you, because McDonald's customers are not completely stupid; they're going to realize that an argument against shitty fast food applies just as much to their own preferred food as to Taco Bell.

But on what basis can we "cooperate" with McDonald's customers to shut down the ex hypothesi more egregiously unhealthy Taco Bell? Do we talk only about how unhealthy Chalupas are, and just not mention how unhealthy Big Macs are? Do we pick some peripheral point: do we say we want to shut down Taco Bell because they exploit their workers more egregiously than McDonald's? Because they use too many wrappers and boxes and create more pollution? Do we descend into pure bullshit and argue Taco Bell is bad they're "Mexican" themed instead of American themed? How far out of our way do we go to avoid the inconvenient truth that if we're against Taco Bell because they serve unhealthy food, we have to be against McDonald's because they too serve unhealthy food?

The problem is even more direct when it comes to religion. The underlying problem with fundamentalism is not that they come to the "wrong" conclusions, but that they use the wrong method to come to conclusions. The moderate religious also use the wrong method — indeed the exact same wrong method — but they come to (more or less) the "right" conclusions.

The problem with wrong methods is not that they always lead to the wrong conclusions. If they did, a "wrong" method would be trivially convertible to the "right" method: just invert the findings of the method. The problem with wrong methods is that they lead to some wrong and some right conclusions.

I can only imagine the frustration of a moderate talking to a fundamentalist about, say, homosexuality:
Moderate: There's nothing wrong with homosexuality!

Fundamentalist: What are you talking about?! Homosexuality is a sin, just like adultery or theft.

M: No, no! Homosexuality is just ordinary human love; homosexuals should be sexually active inside marriage just like anyone else!

F: That's crazy! You might as well say that adultery is ordinary human love and we should encourage it!

M: No! Homosexuality is nothing at all like adultery!

F: How do you know?

M: Because God tells me that homosexuality is acceptable.

F: What the fuck? God tells me — very plainly, thank you very much — that homosexuality is a grievous sin.
The problem, of course, is making your moral judgments on what God tells you. "God" apparently tells each person what they want (at some level) to hear.

Take God out of the picture and the conversation is a lot different:
Atheist: There's nothing wrong with homosexuality.

Fundamentalist: What are you talking about?! Homosexuality is a sin, just like adultery or theft.

A: What do you mean? Why should homosexuality be a sin?

F: Because God tells me so.

A: Who cares what God tells you?

F: Well, I care.

A: Good for you. Taking your God out of the picture, what's wrong with homosexuality?

F: Well, I just don't like homosexuality.

A: OK, you don't like it. Good for you. Is you personally not liking something a good reason by itself to deny ordinary civil rights to homosexuals?

F: What if it is?

A: Well, if I personally don't like religion, would that be a good reason by itself to deny civil rights to religious people?

F: No way!

A: I agree. We need a better reason than just your personal dislike by itself. Do you have a better reason? Does, for example, homosexuality hurt other people? Does it "pick my pocket or break my leg?"

F: Well, I guess not.

A: Anything else?

F: No, not really.

A: No one is asking you to be homosexual. Maybe this is a case where you should just mind your own business.

That's really the position that moderates have: It's OK to believe that what God tells you is good really is good, but only if God tells you only that things that really are good are good; if God is telling that something that's really bad is good, then God isn't telling you that. Stripped of the obfuscation and bullshit of "sophisticated theology", the circularity is obvious. The atheist position is that it's stupid to bring God into it in the first place, because there is no God. Ethical and political debates are complicated enough; "God" just serves to block one's ears from rational discourse and fellow-feeling, to justify and preserve one's prejudices in the face of rational argument and others' suffering.

If you're an "accommodationist" or "moderate" and you want to argue that I'm mistaken, that there really is nothing wrong (or enough right) with religion, that God actually does exist, I'll listen respectfully. (Son long as you don't bring in all the egregiously bad arguments I've heard a thousand times.)

But if you're saying that religion really is bad, but you're telling me to shut up and not say that it's bad, you're just going to get the digitus impudicus.

1 comment:

  1. Awesome post. Very well-written and persuasive; great use of analogy and dialogue.


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