In five previous posts, I have discussed with the Friendly Atheist’s advice columnist Richard Wade the origins of his “Ask Richard” column, the nature of family conflicts over atheism, the problems with forming one’s identity based on one’s beliefs (or non-beliefs), how atheists should respond to the possibly religious dimensions of Alcoholics Anonymous, and the ethics of advising people to lie about their atheism out of concern for their material or physical security.
In that last context, Richard finished his final answer by saying, “In short, on rare occasions, some people do not deserve being told the truth, because they do not respond to that truthfulness and candor honorably. There’s also the idea of it not being anyone’s damn business. Keeping private the details of our sex lives, bowel habits, and religious views is not being “dishonest,” it’s being prudent, and I think that prudence is a very legitimate principle that must be considered along with the principle of honesty.” The installment of our interview below picks up right there.
Daniel Fincke: You compared the forthright airing of religious views to oversharing about sex or bathroom matters. I suspect it’s the fact that religious ideas are inherently faith-based, unsupportable, and incommensurable that makes people feel frustrated. These inherently divisive and rationally insoluble features of religion make it logically impossible that religious adherents from opposing traditions can ever come to agreement with each other (unless they start abandoning what the most devout typically take to be the most foundational and non-negotiable beliefs). In that context, discussion is doomed from the start and only ends with frustration and conflict.
And so the secularist compromise has, understandably, been to allow people their private beliefs to be whatever they want as long as they keep them from the public sphere where their logical sectarianism can only create irresolvable divides. And that’s fine as a compromise for containing the influence of religion’s divisiveness. But the unfortunate side effect of this approach is that it turns people against philosophical discussion itself. All inconclusive (or just philosophically difficult) questions get a bad name. All debate about ideas is assumed to be as inherently emotionalistic and irresolvable through reason as religious debates are.
And to me that is a disastrous over-correction. I cringe when I hear even outspoken atheists say they don’t care what other people think, that they just want to be left alone, etc., as though philosophical debate in general and discussion of issues related to gods and religion in particular are matters that can only lead to conflict and never productive advance and agreement and learning.
Do you think I’m wrong about this? Do you think all atheists should be concerned with is political and cultural respect and equality and secularism in government? Do we not also have a responsibility to be modeling how people can talk about ideas in ways that are actually reason based, rather than faith-based (and so actually resolution oriented, rather than conflict perpetuating)? Do you think we should take an active interest in dissuading people of their religious beliefs, out of our concern for truthful living?
Richard Wade: Firstly, I never use the phrase, “All atheists should…”
Daniel Fincke: I don’t mean every atheist, I just mean, the only thing atheists should be worried about, in case that’s not clear.
Richard Wade: Atheists are people who are unconvinced of gods. Beyond that, their interests, their politics, their hopes, fears and needs can be very disparate. At this point in time, I’m very leery about seeing atheism as a cohesive ideology. It is for some, and their ideology includes many of the principles and aspirations that you have mentioned in your question. But what is important to those atheists may not be important to others. If from that ideology we build a dogma around ourselves, and then disapprove of other atheists who don’t live up to that, then it seems to me that we’ve built ourselves a new prison similar to the dogma that many of us struggled so hard to escape.
There is nothing intrinsically and universally virtuous about being earnest about philosophical questions, or being philosophically mature. That is a value shared by those who share that value, and not shared by those who don’t. Who is to say as if in a higher level of authority that one is superior to the other? Some atheists really do just want to be left alone, and while you and I might prefer that they be more engaged with their neighbors in critical thinking and discussion, I think it would be very arrogant and self-centered of us if we were to dismissively characterize as somehow “inferior” their honest desire to live simple lives and be left in peace.
As I said in a recent comment on Friendly Atheist, Calling oneself an atheist does not bring with it any obligation to follow some kind of atheist creed, dogma or precepts written by… who? No one owes any allegiance to such a creed, or ideology, or to any “cause,” just because they don’t believe in spooks in the sky.
I prefer atheists to be engaged in the on-going maturing of our civilization in any way they can, and any way that works for them. They may have an interest and a talent for that on a political level, but not on an interpersonal, one-to-one level. Others may have a better personal touch, and may have more interest in encouraging skepticism and critical thinking in face-to-face discussions over coffee, but they feel lost or overwhelmed or beyond their depth in bigger arenas. I encourage everyone to do whatever they are good at, and to be open to discovering that they might be good at more than what they originally thought.
Daniel Fincke: I agree of course that philosophical virtues are not the only important ones, and that not every one need have them or be much focused in life on the task of promoting them. And I am not suggesting we should be dogmatic or have narrow understandings of what all atheists should think about any particular issue (at least by virtue of their being atheists).
My concern was that you might want to banish such questions into the realm of the private too strongly, but I see you didn’t mean so strong a connotation. I think that it’s important that there be atheists out there challenging the hegemony of the major religions in matters of ethics and spirituality, and certain areas of philosophy, etc. This is not like just any other non-belief. This is a non-belief that leads to both disengagement with and challenge to massively overly influential authoritarian, regressive institutions that actively perpetuate bad thinking and some bad moral codes and attitudes.
And if atheists are not as passionate about defending rationalism itself—not any fine philosophical point in particular but the more general and basic primacy of reason in thought and practice—then we are not living up to a responsibility to be a counter-weight and a voice against injustice. Of course, though, not every atheist has to be focused on this any more than every environmentally concerned person needs to be primarily engaged on those issues, etc. But in general some atheists do need to orient around that. And I think that, without becoming dogmatic, we need to find a way to create alternative means for religious people to meet the needs they presently turn to religion for. What are your thoughts on how we might do that in order to make religion feel less necessary for people?
Richard Wade: I didn’t think that an atheist dogma was where you were going with your first question about philosophical thinking. I just have been very aware of this issue lately, and I tend to jump onto a soap box when I think about it. As you say, “avoiding the vices of religion” in ourselves first is what I’m talking about.
Daniel Fincke: Okay. Is there any way we can be constructive and offer people substance without letting a paralyzing fear of rigidifying and dogmatizing prevent all positive advance “as atheists”?
Richard Wade: Many, if not most, atheists are capable of good, if simple, logical and rational thinking. But not that many are articulate. They are able to think clearly, but communicating those thoughts clearly to others is a very different, and much rarer ability. So we will always have far more atheists who agree with us, but are not going to be actively engaged in any kind of debate or dialogue on any level.
However, I think we are definitely in a very big historical trend, where with our newly found voices, the articulate ones will become engaged in the maturing of our civilization at the level at which they are proficient. Every one of them who eloquently speaks for rationalism wakes up several others who thought about it but never spoke about it before. A voice calling in the wilderness IS heard by others who thought they were alone. I think as a species we are reaching a kind of critical mass, where rational thinking will no longer be only a philosophical stance, but will become a constantly growing norm.
I think I’m more patient about this than many others. It’s funny how older people, who have less time left are often more patient than younger people who have plenty of time. I look at this in terms of the next 100 to 200 years. So seeing it in the short term, like say, the next election cycle, it can be very frustrating to see many of us not being responsible for countering irrationality and superstition by being passive or apathetic, or by our inaction supporting that “hands off religious ideas” double standard. I tend to say “Take a deep, slow breath, do your part as well as you can, but this is for the long haul.” You get to cut your one stone for the gigantic edifice of a better civilization, and many others yet unborn will add theirs on top of yours. So while each of our contributions may be small, each one supports what is added on later.
As to your earlier question, “I think that, without becoming dogmatic, we need to find a way to create alternativfreethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers/e means for religious people to meet the needs they presently turn to religion for. What are your thoughts on how we might do that in order to make religion feel less necessary for people?”
I think in an earlier installment of this interview, I used an analogy about a civilization where everyone is addicted to heroin and no one knows what it is like to be without it. Referring to that again, we need to first step back from what we are assuming are actual “needs” and see if they really exist in people intrinsically and are not just created by their use of religion. It could be that much of what we “need” will become irrelevant once our civilization gets over the withdrawals. Then we can sort out what needs are truly built into human beings. Again, I’m speaking about the next couple of centuries.
Daniel Fincke: At least some of what people get out of religion is needed though. I’m talking about the numerous parents who feel anxiety and enormous responsibility at having a kid and feel compelled to bring them to the holy man and the congregation to make sure they “learn values”. If there is no other institution to fill that kind of void, you continue to have people lured back to religion out of insecurity about their own ability to instill values without institutional guidance.
Or the numerous people who use church as a vehicle for their desire for community, for their metaphysical curiosity and wonder, for their feelings of deep gratitude, their interest in meditation, their desire to be charitable. Obviously there already exist some secular outlets for some of these needs but the packaging of all these things together is what religion offers and some of those things do not have strong secular alternatives at all.
I don’t think those sorts of goods can be dismissed as only religious fictions the way, say, people’s desire to be “saved” is. Of course people could just find secular alternatives without an “atheist” banner. But I guess what I’m interested in is how we can decouple the association people have in their minds whereby these things go hand-in-hand with religion (or indispensably require it even) unless we develop alternatives that show explicitly that they can be achieved in secular, rationalist ways. Does that make sense?
Richard Wade: Well, we won’t really know for certain until we have very large numbers of people who are not mainlining on religion. People are remarkably inventive. We will invent solutions as we go along that we had not even envisioned we’d need just a short time before. Most importantly, we really should try to see the assumptions built into our very questions. For instance, you asked if there is not an alternative institution for parents to use to instill values into their children, they might be lured back to religion to fulfill that need.
Stop and look at that assumption framed in your question: Why an “institution”? That is a whole paradigm that might be not only unnecessary, but actually growing obsolete. Why must we have some building called something like the Ministry of Values, filled with specialists who do some special value-instilling service? Why not, perhaps a culture of values? We already have that anyway. When we build institutions to things, in other words, when we centralize something, we immediately invite rival institutions to be built, and the whole divisive process starts again. When values are learned from a culture that is rich with them, we have dialogues about the differences and nuances, and we can improve on them. When we put them into an institution that is separate from the rest of the culture, and identified as the “source” of these values, we stop the dialogue and devolve into diatribe.
Read the other 7 parts of the interview, in which I ask Richard about: