The Secular-Humanist Danger of “Proof, or It Didn’t Happen”

The Secular-Humanist Danger of “Proof, or It Didn’t Happen” July 12, 2019

Bill Oxford, Unsplash.com, CC0

Let’s begin with a story. It can be a delicate matter, even just saying to someone of faith that I don’t believe in a god. If they’re not used to atheists (and I find many are especially surprised by a female-presenting atheist), many tend to take my personal views as an attack on their own. And, well, that’s understandable, because a few times I’ve then been asked what I think of their belief in a god. And… that one’s even trickier to answer.

For me, after all, it’s quite simple: studies show that when people are asked what their god thinks about something, they invoke the same neural processing as when asked what they think about the same issue–which is different from the neural processing used when asked what other people think about it, too. As such, their “God” to me is simply a label they’ve been trained to apply to that strongest formation of their inner voice. If they say they’re speaking to their god, all I hear is that they’re speaking to a version of their inner voice shaped by texts and discussions in their religious communities.

But because that “God” is the same as themselves, of course many are incredulous if I say I’ve never seen or felt or otherwise experienced anything that gives me to believe in the existence of a god. I might as well be saying that I’ve never seen or felt or otherwise experienced anything that gives me to believe in the existence of them. But how can that be? I mean, they’re right in front of me! Isn’t it obvious that they exist?

Now, it helps, sometimes, to point out the examples of my nephews–three lovely critters raised outside of religion, all of whom were confused, around when they developed theory of mind at 3-4, by the idea that some people believed in a god and an afterlife. If there were a real god, if there were a voice above and beyond, surely it wouldn’t need adults explicitly declaring its existence for children to at least be attuned to its presence, to resonate on a deeper level with their first formal introduction to the idea of the divine. For me, then–a lifelong atheist, but always open to new intel–the sheer incredulity of children not trained up in “Jesus loves me this I know” was the final nail in the coffin. Going forward, I doubt even a brain aneurysm would change my mind about divinity.

I don’t tend to go to that extreme, though, because I find it much easier to address the underlying concern of people who ask this question. What they’re really asking, after all, is far more humanistic: Don’t you believe me? Don’t you believe my experience of the cosmos? Don’t you find value in what perceive to be the state of our shared reality?

And yes, I do. As a humanist–but more importantly as a friend–it’s essential.

“Proof, or it didn’t happen”

A more disparaging way to talk about god-as-your-inner-voice, after all, is to say that it’s “just a figment of your imagination.” But when we say that, we’re being disingenuous: treating divinity as an invisible friend, when the neuroscience says something much more fascinating. If “God” is a tool that can enhance our inner convictions–give us a bolt of courage, or clarity, when it comes to our instincts–then there are good reasons for its persistence in our species. It’s not “just a figment”: it’s the believer. It’s the label for personal struggle that helps match inner life with our outer action. It’s… what we all do, really–only, some of us without going any further than saying my inner voice tells me X.

And this is key, because it means that we can so easily dismiss the human along with the divine, which in turn makes the practice of humanism more difficult.

“Proof, or it didn’t happen,” for instance, is a phrase I’m encountering a lot these days, as I try to stay apprised of recent issues in the US. There, if it’s not questions about what their president did or did not do personally to harm other people, it’s questions about what is or is not happening in government detention centres, or in an overall culture of rampant sexual exploitation and abuse.

And yes, a great many people using this phrase–“Proof, or it didn’t happen”–are ostensibly Christian, stumping for 45, or ICE and CBP, or any number of rich and famous figureheads against “the left”. As you can well imagine, too, this contradiction makes for a lot of snarky backtalk among secular humanists–for how utterly hypocritical that people who take the existence of an all-powerful deity on no evidence are now hedging whenever there’s no specific recording of [X] event reported by fellow human beings!

I know. It’s maddening.

However, we secular humanists also have to recognize that we give this ammo away when we, too, practise a complete dismissal of other human beings’ subject-positions. When we act as though the only two possibilities for any event in the cosmos are

a) you can demonstrate [X] to me right now“; or

b) [X] did not happen.

In so doing, we reinforce a cultural standard that says your personal experience does not matter at all unless it can be replicated by me up to the standards that I’ve set.

And that standard then comes to bear on far more than the question of faith.

The Really Difficult Comparative Examples

Because, let’s be blunt: the secular problem we’re currently facing is that we have one standard for evidence when it comes to rejecting religious evangelism… and another standard when it comes to social justice. To many atheists, especially those who pride themselves on their adherence to logic and empirical evidence, this is deeply counterproductive, for surely encouraging subjectivity as capital-T truth will only lead to a society predicated on all manner of frivolous, self-declared beliefs!

After all, an evangelical telling you to accept his god because he has seen and spoken to it would be absurd. Right? Right!

But… now that same atheist is being told to accept that “just because” someone said they were raped by a person in power, they were? Or that “just because” someone identifies with [X] gender, you need to accommodate said belief in your own speech? Or that “just because” someone from another political party claims there’s active neglect and abuse in your country’s concentration camps detention centres, the neglect and abuse is real?

Now, obviously, there are deeper variables at work in these examples, because a) we don’t see that same level of knee-jerk suspicion when someone says that their house was broken into over the weekend; b) we accept people’s adjusted names all the time without declaring it a sign of societal sickness to be forced to use anything but the name on their birth certificate; and c) even official reports for detention centres concentration camps support the general thrust of individual statements about the conditions at said facilities.

So, yes, there’s quite a bit of tribalist ugliness behind the specific battles we find ourselves fighting in the secular realm. Nevertheless, even if the battlegrounds differed, there would still be a coherent criticism underpinning the (predominantly white-male) atheistic resistance to them. We would still be accepting another’s words at face value in one realm, when all our secular conditioning tells us to refuse it vehemently in another.

An Alternative Approach

What I’m going to propose as an alternative, of course, is empathetic in nature–and not everyone is keen on being empathetic, especially when empathy is sold as something that has to exist outside of anger. (Hint: It does not.)

Hell, I have problems with empathy myself, when it comes to certain demographics. I seethe when thinking of those who regard other human beings as commodities. I have furious bathroom-mirror conversations with people who regard other human beings as disposable. But perhaps more than any other group right now, I rail against people who have gradually permitted a resurgence of xenophobic, racist, dogwhistle politics under the banner of economic anxiety, yet still think themselves generally “good”. People who are “just trying to protect their own.” People who would have voted for something other than a dogwhistling populist strongman, except that [Y] “wasn’t perfect” either.

With these folks, it takes longer to remember that a) they were all babies once, thereafter shaped by many factors outside their control; b) it’s easy for a tribalist species to buy into the rhetoric of scarcity; c) it’s all too common to believe that power is finite, rather than something that grows when shared; and d) once fear–even from a position of power in society–starts to dictate our decision-making, it’s difficult to switch back.

So, absolutely, I agree that anger is important. It’s both a coping mechanism, and a useful motivator for political action. However, if it’s not paired with the capacity to empathize, it risks leaving us complicit in future injustice, too.

From a base in empathy, then, here’s my humanistic elevator pitch:

What if we shifted battlegrounds, from individual beliefs to the systems around them?

Proselytizing about Faith and “Believing Women”

Well that’s bloody-well enigmatic, isn’t it? So let’s take it for a test spin with perhaps the most contentious secular comparison: an evangelical telling you that you should convert because they’ve seen “God”, versus a feminized person (we’ll use “woman” from here on out, though you know my personal quibbles therein) saying believe me, I was raped by [X]. [X] being, say, someone you adore.

Now, more straight talk, folks: I have known women who lied. I even saw one woman threaten to lie to the police to ensure that her boyfriend was taken in and lost his job if he didn’t do what she wanted. (She followed through, and he was, and he did.) I also had to attend a mini-tribunal in my undergrad dormitory because a disturbed homophobic woman who couldn’t so much as bear to see men shirtless and refused to shower because she though it a sin to touch herself… made up a fantasy of me assaulting her, after she saw me kiss a woman on stage for a talent show. (No, that wasn’t the talent we were, ah, demonstrating.) During that humiliating episode, I was fortunate I had a corroborating witness for the time of the supposed attack, so the dons could clear me quickly.

As such, I do have compassion for the genuine fear, among many who conflate anecdotes with statistics (a bias I had to work past, myself, in subsequent years), that we will have a society framed by vicious, false accusations if we continue to foster adjudication of criminal matters outside the formal court system, and if we flip the script to say that in a he-said/she-said (or she-said/she-said?) case, what the presumed victim said should automatically hold greater sway. I do feel for folks–usually men–who are afraid of what our horribly adversarial legal system would become if we were to convict (more often than we already do) on the weight of individual statements alone.

Where I differ, though, is in the practice of empathy after this assertion of compassion. Because such worriers are darned right: the courts are adversarial. Retributive approaches to justice thrive in all our discourse about wrongdoing, such that there’s no effective throughline from criminal trespass to corrective punishment to gradual re-immersion into society as a contributing member. (Relatedly, a friend and I recently racked our brains trying to come up with films that naturalize rehabilitative justice–Le fils, The Woodsman, and elements of Shawshank Redemption being about the best we could do. We are not telling the stories we need in a culture with such a high incarceration rate!)

But also–where have we atheists seen this behaviour before? Ah, yes, in fire-and-brimstone evangelicals. The people who thrive on black-and-white thinking; who recognize that a certain kind of social power is easily won by compelling fear of terrible consequences. Innocent or guilty! Be saved or be damned!

And, oh, we do love taking an evangelical up on his premise, don’t we? We adore the battle-of-wits that comes with flinging biblical, philosophical, historical, and scientific know-how in his face. If he wants to play for all the marbles, oh, we’ll play for all the marbles!

In so doing, though, he wins something far more vital.

He’s got us secular folk playing on his turf–his nihilistic turf–instead of maintaining a humanistic outlook overall.

The Road that Leads to Less Exciting Criminal Dramas This Fall on NBC

The stronger answer, even if it isn’t as fun or as ego-boosting, is simply not to engage, and certainly not to escalate on his rigid terms. Not to give him the added power that comes with suggesting his faith is legitimate enough to be a threat.

“Yeah, well, that’s just, like, your opinion, man,” sayeth The Dude. And how utterly deflating that is for someone who’s been revving themselves up for the adrenaline rush of verbal combat. Where’s the positive reinforcement for the righteousness of his cause, when you greet the full regalia of his Holy Crusade with a bland, indifferent “meh”?

“Okay, fine,” you might now be wondering. “I get how that works for religious argument, but what’s the equivalent in this other sphere? If someone’s been raped, that’s serious. You can’t just pull a Dude on someone who tells you they’ve been raped.”

And, no… no, you really shouldn’t ever do that.

But in the secular realm, it’s not the person claiming assault who’s creating these extreme potential outcomes. If they were assaulted, the perpetrator has set that awfulness in motion–but even if, say, the claimant is among the small-but-non-zero number of people who file false reports out of vindictiveness, their violence only exists because of how our whole culture handles crime. It’s the presence of adversarial justice, which has us well-trained to regard such cases as being about “winners and losers”, that creates these starkly punitive and retributive outcomes, including the legal pressure-points that can be exploited by just about anyone in a domestic dispute.

Meanwhile, there’s no “black-and-white” about the overall effect of all this judicial trauma: our society as a whole is ruptured whenever someone reports a crime. (I wish I could say, “whenever a crime is committed”, but sadly society as a whole doesn’t always feel the impact of that crime until it’s reported–which is another major reason for this “blame the messenger” phenomenon of castigating anyone who comes forward, even if they are indeed the victim in [X] event.) Suffice it to say, we’re all “losers” whenever there’s a rift in our collective peace.

As humanists, then, our path towards a more coherent response to subjective experience lies with recognizing where the claims-without-external-evidence begin.

Atheists already know where these claims begin when it comes to proselytizing believers: their communities, their families, the people who told them these stories and trained them to be missionary in their outlook towards nonbelievers.

And in the case of rape, they begin with two simple facts:

  1. that human beings routinely spend time in groupings (pairs, mainly) isolated from the rest of society; and
  2. during these periods of isolation we can enact terrible harm upon each another without external evidence.

As such, our justice system is never going to be a perfect truth-seeking engine. Even worse, when we treat it like one, we exacerbate the problems it’s supposed to be solving. After all, if our justice system can only provide any restitution for trespass when presented with viable evidence of wrongdoing, then of course people are going to exploit periods of inevitable isolation from the collective. Of course we’re going to have some of our most pervasive criminal behaviours happening outside the structural purview of the State and its constituent parts.

So why do we treat the justice system otherwise? (Besides the obvious: that it’s easier for some parts of society to pretend that, if a given breach can’t be solved legally, it’s not worth addressing at all.)

The humanist alternative–for religious and social-justice issues–is to set different targets.

Because humanism is not congruent with phrases like “Proof, or it didn’t happen.” It’s not about arguing with others on the strength of evidence until the other party caves and agrees that we are right and they are wrong.

It’s about rallying our scientific and cultural know-how, our empathy and our reason, to improve the human condition.

The Take-Away

So when someone says “I have spoken to God and He has told me that your immortal soul is in peril,” they are trying to escalate the stakes of your exchange for any number of reasons: attention-seeking behaviour, personal insecurity, power-plays, or maybe even genuine fear for you, if they truly believe in such a god as that. No matter what the cause, though, the answer is the same: Do not play into binary thinking. Do not let them set the framework for how a just society should function, by letting them drag you into individuated confrontation. Not one-on-one, and especially not in the realm of public policy. Change the conversation. Focus on the humanistic topics that matter more. Make them catch up to your compassion, your empathy, your concerns instead.

Likewise, when someone you know says, “I’ve been assaulted. The person who did this to me is [X]”, thank them for feeling safe enough to share this with you… and then do the hard work of deciding if you are the right person for them to be talking to.

Ask them, for instance, what they need from you; if there is anything you can do to help. For some, it’s enough simply to be heard, and to know they’re safe telling someone what happened. For others, the desire to protect still others from a similar experience may compel them to seek out criminal justice, even if it means being lambasted in public–and so you might be tasked with listening and being supportive for far longer.

Either way, these acts don’t ask anything of you more than that you are a present friend. Can you do that? Or is your disagreement with their reality so strong that you know you wouldn’t be able to resist arguing with them about the basis for their (maybe non-empirically evidenced) claims–and in so doing cause them further distress?

Hopefully the situation is cut-and-dry, but if your friend asks you to do things that require you to accept their reality as capital-T truth–like stop hanging out with [X], because they’ve just told you [X] is a rapist–and you’re not sure you can do that… if you’re not sure you believe them enough to take them at face-value… then you need to be a good empiricist, and pay attention to what this new intel is telling you about yourself. You have to recognize what this response is telling you about your friendship, too.

Because it means you don’t trust your friend’s inner voice. You don’t trust their experience of the cosmos. You don’t trust them.

And maybe there’s good reason for that. Maybe they have a history of somewhat disoriented thinking, or have a history of making false statements about mutual friends. Or maybe it’s just you. Maybe you have a serious hang-up that makes you regard anyone who comes to you with such a claim as a drama seeker. Maybe you don’t want to think about [X] as the kind of person who would do such a thing. Maybe you’re feeling knee-jerk defensiveness because what your friend tells you was done to them is something that cuts a little too close to something you’ve done in the past, and you can’t handle the idea that maybe that was assault, too.

There are many reasons, in other words. But the justification is not as important as the sheer fact that a friend is asking you if you believe… and you don’t. And they deserve to know this about your friendship. Not in dramatic and combative ways! Not arming yourself to the teeth with devil’s-advocacy as in any old online-atheist debate. No–in the most neutral terms possible (and ideally with numbers on hand for them to call instead), you need to let them know, now that you have this new evidence about yourself, that you’re not a person they can turn to for matters pertaining to sexual assault.

It might be the end of your friendship, granted.

It will certainly grieve them to hear this from you, too.

But if that’s where all the evidence points… if, when push comes to shove, you cannot act as though their subjective experience is valuable enough for you to accommodate in your own words and actions, then… well, critical thinker that you are… it’s imperative that you not let irrational, spiritual-society-engendering frivolities like “but I otherwise enjoy my friendship with this person” and “I’m more comfortable having this person in my life” get in the way of reality.

Because only when we give up our illusions–all of them: of a perfect justice system, of clean divides between religious and atheistic experience, and of living in a world where firsthand data is always available when we make decisions that affect the well-being of people in our lives–can we develop a coherent enough response to subjective experience to keep us all focussed on the real goal here, as humanists:

The construction, that is, of a better secular society for all.

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