Nonbelief and mainstream values

There is a lot of prejudice toward religious nonbelievers in many parts of the United States; indeed, throughout much of the world. We’re not trusted. One of the first questions we face is whether we can be moral — after all, even if perchance we might behave decently, what possible basis can we have for such behavior? What keeps us from cheating if no one else, not even the gods, are watching? Open skepticism brings a burden of social mistrust.

So we get pissed off. It’s bad enough that devout believers live in a dreamworld overshadowed by gods and demons, heaven and hell. We then endure the much more consequential irrationality of people thinking that refraining from rape and murder, paying your taxes, and being a decent and trustworthy person is tied up with the world of prayer, attending services, and public acknowledgment of supernatural beliefs.

One way to respond is to insist that the nonreligious are as committed to mainstream values as anyone: that we uphold hard work, charity, responsibility, families, and community as much as churchgoers and Quran-reciters. David Niose reviews a Ralph Nader book in the latest Humanist, saying

If progressives and humanists have have failed to connect with mainstream America’s traditional values, Nader shows that it isn’t because progressive and humanist values are inconsistent with Main Street. On the contrary, it’s because progressives and humanists have failed to demonstrate the consistency between their values and the mainstream.

I’m not sure about this. This “consistency” seems to me to overlook much that I would consider small-minded, tribalistic, and socially conservative that is as integral to mainstream values as anything “progressive.” Do we really want to perceived as so mainstream as to include all that?

Sometimes arguments that nonbelievers should not be socially excluded paint a picture of religious skeptics as being virtually identical to their average devout neighbor in all social respects, except that they happen not to attend weekly services. And especially in a religiously pluralist society where people attend different services, it should be especially clear that non-participation in all religion is as morally irrelevant as non-attachment to any particular congregation. Fair enough, but are nonbelievers, statistically speaking, really so similar to the devout in relevant respects? And again, do we want to be so similar? After all, religious skeptics often approach moral questions from a different perspective compared to that of a believer. We might have some broad areas of agreement — no one is debating rape and murder here — but being free of supernaturalism may well lead nonbelievers to think and behave differently in many respects. Indeed, it seems obvious that this is so. Moreover, a prime reason for skeptics to criticize supernatural religion outside of narrow intellectual circles is the conviction that a more secular approach to morality would be socially desirable. In that case, what we want is not bland acceptance into mainstream society but more: also to be recognized as people who bring a legitimate point of view to wider social negotiations about moral matters.

There is a parallel here to the struggle over gay rights. One common argument for wider social tolerance of homosexuality is that sexual orientation is not a morally relevant trait, and therefore, for example, a gay couple should be able to marry and hold down a job and attain suburban respectability as well as their heterosexual counterparts. Indeed, some advocates of gay rights take care to present themselves as mainstream as possible and even resent more flamboyant representatives of gay culture. Finding acceptance, they think, will be helped by limiting seuxal radicalism, emphasizing monogamy and the ability of gays to be socially non-threatening. But a serious argument against such assimilation to mainstream values points out that homosexuals are trying to achieve liberation. The point is to retain dangerous notions such as sexuality oriented toward pleasure and not confined to conservative and reproductive concerns. Flamboyant gay pride parades assert one’s presence and voice as people with little in common with mainstream sexual culture, demanding that such sexual radicalism can take its place in the sun without GLBTetc people being subjected to beatings, job loss, harrassment, etc. etc.

I think there are some parallels here with the debate over religion and mainstream values. Right now, religiosity is very often part of the mainstream conception of morality. Displays of costly supernatural commitments is an important aspect of how people signal that they are integrated into a moral community and are trustworthy in general. This is a problem. If we are skeptical about the supernatural, at a minimum we want to be able to find other ways to signal that we merit trust. At the very least, we do not want to be treated as pariahs. But we should not, I think, be compelled to do this at the cost of sacrificing our distinct moral perspectives.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University


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