What Exactly Are We Supposed To Be Doing?

What Exactly Are We Supposed To Be Doing? June 24, 2010

You’re Not Helping responds to my defense of the Freedom From Religion Foundation:

Camels with Hammers has posted a bit of commentary on the Do Nothings. First and foremost, they cry foul on us for unjustly misrepresenting the goals of the FFRF

Wait, no, first and foremost, I agreed with You’re Not Helping that it is unfair to accuse those actually engaged in relief efforts of not doing anything more than waiting around on God, simply because they included prayer in their approach to the problem.

But moving on to the substance of the disagreement, here is their reply to my argument that Freedom From Religion Foundation’s letter was an important attack on the mixing of religion with what should be secular government:

That sounds good, but the FFRF isn’t attacking unconstitutionality whatsoever – they’re attacking the futility of those who engage in prayer. Constitutionality enjoys a mere, brief mention in their piece,

Wait—are they not whatsoever attacking unconstitutionality or is it only getting “brief mention”?  The unconstitutionality of the measure is explicitly one of about 6 main distinguishable points that the press release addresses.  And it is clear this is a distinct main point because, brief as it may be, it gets its own paragraph that reads, “And it makes the usual unconstitutional exhortation to citizens:  ‘The citizens of Louisiana are urged to pray for a solution to this crisis . . . a crisis that remains unaffected by the efforts of mortal man.'”

You’re Not Helping is correct that the issue of Constitutionality only gets that one explicit mention.  Perhaps it was one of those tricks of the mind where you fill in information you expect to see even if it is not actually there but I saw the question of Constitutionality throughout the piece because I saw the entire piece as addressing the reasons for Constitutional separation of church and state and making it explicit and the recurring motif of the pointlessness of prayer is raised to punctuate those points.  And those points are all ones that I think are legitimate and helpful to make.

What are those points?

1.  They cite that Obama made “17 references to God, prayer, blessings or faith” and yet the oil kept gushing. This is evidence disconfirming the effectiveness of prayer.  Yes, it might sound pedantic to point out the obvious that even nearly all the religious actually probably would have predicted would happen happened, the oil spill didn’t stop just because the nation’s leader humbled himself before God by calling for prayer and the people answered his call to prayer.  No one really expected that to happen.  So it might strike us as a cheap shot for the Freedom From Religion Foundation to point this out.

But they are not being simply jerks, they are trying to counter the effect by which 100 unanswered prayers are forgotten and then one answered prayer is held up as evidence of God’s grace.  The next time there is a natural disaster and we get lucky in some way, people will be all over the media pointing out the successes and falsely claiming they prove something.  As obnoxious as it might be to keep a vocal track record of all the failed national prayers and as much as it might come off as picking on easy targets or beating a dead horse, it serves an important function of reinforcement of a truth.  The more atheists get in the habit of hounding religious people about each and every ineffective prayer, the less the religious can accidentally forget all the unanswered prayers and just focus on the ones they think they see answered.  The more we rub the probabilities in their faces the less naturally they can self-deceive themselves.  Of course, many will still self-deceive themselves and see only the patterns they like and, even more will just redefine prayer to “not being about testing God” or some other such nonsense or say that “God answers all prayers but sometimes the answer is ‘no’.”  But some will get the point that prayers are empty words.

A refrain like “nothing fails like prayer” should be drilled into people’s heads until it becomes a common sense saying that expresses an obvious truth.  Because we are the kinds of creatures who will believe whatever is taken to be common wisdom and take common sayings to be understood truths.  “The Lord works in mysterious ways” is a Scripture verse turned into a saying turned into an easy-at-hand meaningless justification every time a prayer fails.  What if instead, what people had pounded into their heads was “nothing fails like prayer”, would it make them more likely to think the naturalistic, atheistic, rationalistic approach to looking at the world is correct?  I think in its small way, it would.  This is the psychology of ideological warfare in a democracy.  Memes and talking points which drill key phrases and sound-bite-size truths into people’s heads.

But, you protest that we should be encouraging attention to careful argumentation, not resorting to relentless sloganeering and jeering!  Of course we should, but you need to reach people where they are and where they are is listening to intuitive common sense nuggets.  The insistence that they think through all issues rationally, even ethical and metaphysical and religious ones, has to be repackaged into such easily graspable nuggets if it is to compete with religious propaganda.  Of course, if the rational thinking never follows as it seems the You’re Not Helping folks are worried, then we have just replaced one empty slogan for another.  And in that I agree with You’re Not Helping that acerbic irrationalistic atheism is not much of an improvement over acerbic irrationalistic religion.

But, to the main point, there is a legitimate purpose in calling attention to the emptiness of politicians’ promises and the emptiness of all prayers so that people become so accustomed to hearing such things and keeping track of them themselves.

2.  They complain rightly about the implicit philosophy that state senators in the United States officially adopted. “The resolution made the usual human-as-worms allusion, saying ‘a Statewide Day of Prayer provides each of us with a powerful opportunity to humble ourselves before our Almighty God.'”  Excuse me but of what business is it of the government to tell me to humble myself before the Louisiana senators’ God?  If that is not the demand that I submit to the “God” of a legislative body and consider it “Almighty”, what is?  And I agree with FFRF’s disgust with that conception of humanity and am glad that someone out there is bothering to complain when the government of a state in the United States of America explicitly endorses such a demeaning conception of human nature, one fit for justifying tyrannies, not the Enlightenment ideal of autonomous rational beings who have dignity and who can rule themselves.  It is worth fighting over the conception of humanity that is blithely and reflexively shrugged at by liberals as just religious niceties and that is adamantly insisted upon by the theocratic conservatives of the nation.

It used to be that political theory considered proper conceptions of human nature as integral to developing proper conceptions of government.  These days, the theocratic right wing of the country has a strong conception of human nature—as only free by the grace of God but otherwise sinful and deserving of nothing and as only free from governmental authority to the extent that it is instead subjected to God’s authority.  I think it is much more than whining for the FFRF to challenge this conception of human nature because the conception of human nature endorsed by the Louisiana senate undermines the view of human autonomy which is the conceptual precondition and justification of a secular culture and a truly secular state.  The word “Constitution” wasn’t in that point but I think it is completely in keeping with their organization’s raison detre to bring it up.

3. They make the explicit attack on the unconstitutionality of the measure which I already discussed.

4.  They attack the “primitive and superstitious” character of intercessory prayers. Now the New Atheists are always being told that they should not bother attacking silly superstitious “magical” religion because that’s just the stuff of the most fringe fundamentalists.  Most people’s religion is far more sophisticated that that.  They know that prayer is about something spiritual and meditative, not about primitive propitiations to deities who can be enticed to work as our servants.

But here we have the Louisiana Senate talking about their “awesome and powerful force” to combine prayers with “common effort” to bring an end to the disaster.  They claim that the prayers will have, or at least contribute in some non-trivial way to some kind of, “awesome and powerful” force?  Well, I guess we are not talking about modern, post-superstitious religion in the Louisiana Senate.

I guess we are talking about the kind of religion that is patently foolish and even enlightened pro-religious people are allowed to criticize and which is so obviously false that New Atheists aren’t supposed to attack lest they be burning strawmen or knocking down only the easiest targets, not the deep sophisticated theologians with serious spirituality.  So what’s wrong with pointing out that the Louisiana Senate is in effect suggesting the equivalent of sacrificing some goats and chickens for their power to make the gods see to it that our practical efforts are successful?

What’s “whiny” about demanding that 21st Century governments not act like primitive and superstitious ones in their official proclamations?  What is whiny about accusing them of a theological contradiction and blasphemy in thinking that their God is both Almighty and all Just and yet that something like an “awesome and powerful force” can be summoned to alter his will?  Was something wrong with his will in the first place that he would not do the just thing by the Louisiana Gulf if no one offered intercessory prayers?  Was he justly going to help out all along but wanted to see the people’s faithfulness as one of the stages of what he was going to do?  Well, then why call the prayers an “awesome and powerful force” if they don’t actually make anything happen?

Of course this whole theological debate is a bunch of nonsense, but if state officials are going to make theological claims as part of official state proclamations, then they should be treated as propositions intending to state the truth and should be scrutinized critically.  Many people will believe the pious contradictions.  I see a legitimate place to take them on their face and answer them with the kind of respect that is willing to show why they are on their own terms false and should be abandoned.

And it is valuable to point out, to all those who claim that religion is a valuable 21st Century good to retain, that the Louisiana Senate is incorporating not enlightened progressive religion but a superstitious and primeval form.  This strikes me as completely legitimate thing to criticize.  If every theological claim a government put forth was abandoned after its falsehood was exposed, we would have a secular government in no time.  And, again, that is this organization’s stated goal, not pelican scrubbing.

5. They show proper contempt for the absurdity that the Louisiana Senate is calling for praise and thanks to the all-good, all-powerful, all-knowing God who used none of his goodness, power, or knowledge to prevent the oil spill in the first place.  Again, they are calling attention to public officials’ incoherence in their viewpoints.

If the Louisiana Senate had an incoherent position about how to plug the oil leak, would there be anything wrong with criticizing it?  Is it only wrong to criticize their policies but not their religious views that they explicitly seek to impose upon their citizenry when demanding their citizens humble themselves and petition and thank the God they describe?  Why the exception for religious contradictions?  Why shouldn’t FFRF point those out without being accused of whining?  Is it because no one really believes in prayer anyway?  That’s unacceptable.

We cannot have politicians advancing theological doctrines to an overwhelmingly religious populace and then have those who challenge the coherence of those doctrines attacked for pettiness towards merely pious words that no one really believes anyway.  That’s just absurd. Every place a theological doctrine is asserted as literally true, it is fair game to attack it and one does not have to scrub one pelican clean to earn the right to defend the truth in such a manner.

6. FFRF points out that instead of pointless intercessory prayers, reexamination of our foolishness that got us into trouble is important and proposes that we take seriously the limits of our technological capacities for safe deep sea drilling and not make the mistake of trying it again.  So that’s a sixth point, five on top of the “prayer is futile” refrain and it is probably as deep a practical, rational suggestion as an advocacy group for secular government is going to provide.  And I don’t think they need to provide engineering advice that they are not qualified to offer in order to speak up about the issues they are qualified to address and are organized to address.

Quickly returning to the rest of You’re Not Helping’s complaint with FFRF:

Constitutionality enjoys a mere, brief mention in their piece, which instead attacks the very notion of prayer itself and the mindlessness of those engaged in it… which supports our original piece. The FFRF even makes the implicit assumption that, if you’re praying, you can’t help things by any other actions – they actively pretend that those who pray can’t do anything else at the same time (or they ignore what those people are doing). In other words, they erect a false dilemma of what those who pray are capable of doing, and this forms the criticism of their piece:

“Prayer is what politicians fall back on when they don’t want to offer true leadership. Are we prepared to learn anything from this environmental disaster? Or are we just going to pray about it?”

I’m not sure if that’s a literal attack on the ability of the government to do both things so much as a rhetorical stab at a speech filled with empty gestures like Obama’s speech which was long on vague abstract promises and short on concrete solutions.   This critique was echoed all over the place including by the Keith Olbermann and Chris Matthews on the left.

Obama’s plea for prayer sounded to many like just more pandering piousness when what we need is clear leadership.  The Freedom From Religion Foundation are not engineers, they’re not specialists on oil rigs or drilling.  They offer a pretty clear practical proposal which is probably the best you can expect from such an organization, and that is to stop doing things which require you to go beyond the limits of your technology and so risk catastrophic natural damage.

They attack a style of government which offers people pious platitudes but no serious environmental protection or curb on corporate plunder of the environment. I don’t think that only people who are scrubbing pelicans can point all this out.  That’s a false dilemma.  I don’t think that critiquing the style of government and the propositions in an official state proclamation which is tantamount to an endorsement of governmental superstitiousness is “not helping” just because it is not also coupled with a magical solution of its own for the oil spill.  I do not see where the same organization must do all good things to have the right to do any one good thing.

There were six legitimate points they made in their press release in addition to their rhetorical false dilemma.  You are right, it is not literally true that the government is only praying and not doing anything tangible.  FFRF overreached rhetorically.  You got them.

But their other six points are true and they are helpful.

The fact that the FFRF talks so highly of taking action instead of prayer to fix the oil spill – while notably offering no options or recommendations to actually do so whatsoever- is precisely the kind of hypocrisy that makes Do Nothingism so detestable. They’ll tell you what you should be doing with a high sense of superiority, while not even thinking about doing it for themselves, proving that they’re able to talk the talk but as incapable of walking it as the most deluded believer. Action is nothing more than a buzzword to the Do Nothings, something important to talk about and something to make them look like the good guys, but not important enough for them to follow through on. Perception is the only outcome they’re focused on, you see.

It’s amazing.  This is coming from a blog that does a lopsided job of relentlessly nitpicking the New Atheists’ thousands and thousands of weekly generated words attacking religion and providing all these abstract platitudes about the right way to do it and yet never puts in a full week in the trenches demonstrating this perfectly toned, perfectly helpful way of actually helping defeat religion.  To listen to you guys judge every other blogger, you’d think that with just one week of your pitch perfect criticisms of religion, the pope would realize the true errors of his thinking since it’s now been pointed out to him so so helpfully for once.

And no one would ever accuse atheists of stridency again, seeing as how the non-strident atheists would have obliterated all validity to the charge.  And of course the charge of excessive hostility from atheists must come because it’s completely true and not at all because religious people are projecting their own insecurity at having their fundamental beliefs attacked into perceptions of the atheists attacking them as willfully malicious.  If only atheists were more helpful in the ways I’m sure you could demonstrate for us for at least a week, religious people would not find atheists hostile at all.  It’s really all our fault.

Now, obviously I’m being sarcastic.  I think you bat around .300 in your criticisms, which in baseball and in blogging is not bad.  And the discussion about tone you’ve started is an excellent one and some of your criticisms (especially of the use of violent language and unhelpful ad hominems) are extremely vital. Overall I support your efforts and intentions even when I disagree with you and think you are nitpicking or being really self-righteous (which is a lot).  But my point is that you guys are a blog that insists you don’t need to be part of the positive mission, you can just play self-appointed watch dogs without actually showing us how the mission is supposed to be carried out by leading by example.

And so it is really surreal and hypocritical that you demand that the FFRF, which is simply a self-appointed watch dog for the separation of church and state, give engineering advice or organize a relief effort in order to be allowed to speak.  You do very little to even try to endear yourself to your fellow atheists and yet demand people’s good faith trust in your intentions.  So, here’s an idea, why don’t you “do nothings” of the atheist blogosphere do something for the cause of fighting religion for a week and then you can earn the right to return to your watchdog role.  Why don’t you go get an unconstitutional governmentally sponsored day of prayer struck down before you criticize the FFRF and put the word press release in scare quotes when referring to their, uh, press releases.  Once you’ve done that, maybe we can criticize FFRF for only being about church and state issues and not also about clean up efforts.  Or we can just say that this distinction you are forcing that the same atheist organizations must perform all valuable functions society needs or they have no right to speak up about anything is an invalid one.

The actual problem, like the oil spill, is nothing more than a PR moment. Cleaning it up – the action they’re falsely whining about others not taking  – can take a backseat to pushing a perception. And that’s why they do atheism a disservice: they paint us as a superior force capable of good that, for whatever reason, doesn’t want to do that good when people look at our actions. That’s a major problem, not just with the FFRF but with the bloggers we mentioned originally….and it doesn’t just apply to the oil spill.

No one, including us, is saying that going after violations of constitutionality isn’t worthwhile or is doing nothing. But again, the argument by the Do Nothings (including the FFRF) is that if religious people were smart, they’d be doing the right things – the right things that the Do Nothings apparently find not important enough to do themselves. If they really want to be doing something, the letter-writing and griping is perfectly fine…but they need to own up to the other, more highly touted portion of their bargain, too. This is something Camels with Hammers agrees with us on:

“Is You’re Not Helping correct that atheists need also to coordinate concerted charitable efforts and not only criticize infringements on the separation of church and state? Of course. But the two endeavors are not mutually exclusive by any means. The larger atheist movement should be able to both chip in to the Gulf Disaster relief effort with tangible resources and stand up against religious government. “

Exactly. But the Do Nothings aren’t doing that, are they?

No, they’re not. And that’s precisely their problem.

But my point was that the broader atheist movement needs better institutionalized charity.  That has not been there because until recently atheists were passive about being a cultural influence.  There are countless secular charities which are de facto atheist in that they recognize no god formally.  And they do wonderful work.  In those organizations are both religious people and secular people and no group gets praised and none called non-contributory.  But when a religious organization runs a charity, even if it is staffed with some secular people, all the glory goes to God and none to secular ethics.

So, there has long been an imbalance where many secular charities don’t get put up on the chalkboard for atheists even though they demonstrate that godless charity works as well or better than religious kinds, while on the other hand religious charities are sure to make sure that their charitable contributions are points in favor of the moral superiority of faith.

Finally, as you must know, there is the organization “Non-Believers Giving Aid” set to rectify this misleading situation.  You must know that the prominent atheist blogs rallied around it during the Haiti crisis.  You must realize that if you want to complain that the atheist movement needs to show its charitable responsiveness that that’s the organization to ask about, not the FFRF.  When the Haiti crisis hit, people went to the Red Cross and UNICEF websites.  They didn’t write angry web posts about how the ACLU was doing nothing.

Finally, I resent the implication that by “only complaining” about government’s theological proclamations in times of ecological and corporatist disaster I am “doing nothing.”  In 2008, for the first time in my life I got out and campaigned for a politician.  I stood on street corners, I knocked on doors, I made phone calls, I gave money I couldn’t really afford on my graduate student teacher’s pay.  I supported the guy who was against torture, who was against compromising our values for the Holy Grail of perfect security, who promised to take climate change seriously, and who promised to be a fierce champion of gay rights.

And, most relevantly to current events, I supported the ticket which opposed off shore drilling and not the ticket of “drill baby drill”.  I supported the party that at least promised to put the environment before the corporations, the candidate who boldly promised to “heal the planet”.  I’m sorry I wasn’t able to fix the EPA so that it actually regulated corporations.  I’m sorry I wasn’t able to commandeer Haliburton and insist it fix its broken equipment.  I’m sorry I have my own professional obligations and plans that preclude a trip to clean pelicans.  I’m sorry I’m only a philosopher and not an engineer.

But I voted for the people who explicitly promised to rely on science and to make tough choices for the sake of a cleaner planet and against a party that clearly had no interest in either of those ends.  I have earned my goddamned right to complain when what I got in return was off shore drilling that destroyed one of the most important ecosystems in the country.  I have earned my goddamned right to complain when I’m pandered to with pious platitudes and told to humble myself before an Almighty God I don’t believe in.  I have earned my goddamned right to insist my president promise scientifically guaranteed technology before there is ever another attempt to drill off our shores.  I have earned my goddamned right to a government that is committed to reason and science and not to telling me to pray.

I studied issues, I campaigned, I pay my taxes, I vote, I fulfill my own professional duties, I volunteer my time to the cause of education about important issues.  I’m not a “do-nothing” because I’m not doing somebody else’s job.

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