Tuesday, September 11, 2012

On differences: a reply to James Croft

Sometime around my short vacation, I happened upon this post from PZ and the reply from James Croft of the Humanist Chaplaincy of Harvard. Croft, yet again, suggests that they (the Harvard Humanists) and we (atheism+ proponents or sympathizers and the gnus of whom many of the A+ people are a subset – gnus/+?) essentially share the same goals and only differ in terms of tactics and tone and the specific ranking of our priorities. He asks how atheism+ - the label for the subset of atheists who “officially” distinguish themselves in terms of their social justice concerns - differs from his or the HCH’s humanist program.*

This is all a bit frustrating given that I and others have previously carried on extended discussions with Croft and explained quite clearly, in response to his repeated insistence that there are no differences, how our goals and priorities differ fundamentally from theirs. (This has itself been irritating as it’s contradictory for them to insist that we don’t have different goals while at the same time questioning and criticizing our goals. If you want to argue about goals, as I see it, that’s fine, but you first have to acknowledge that we have a different position, and they seem unable to do this consistently.) So really I’m just summarizing what I’ve written in the past in scattered forms here and elsewhere. But it’s a useful exercise, so why not?

So…

Croft asks:

But what is the relationship of Humanism with religion, and are these critics (most of whom are expressing their personal perceptions of the term “Humanism”, to which they are perfectly entitled) giving Humanism a fair shot? Is it really true that there is a signifiant difference in view between Atheism+ people and Humanists like myself in this regard?

As PZ and others have pointed out, already there’s a problem. The criticisms I’ve read are not of humanism – the pompous capitalization still grates – but of the particular flavor practiced by the HCH group. (Croft changed his post to better reflect the fact that he was presenting his own views and not trying to speak for all of humanism. I’m not trying to speak for everyone in the gnu/+ camp, but I will write generally, and people are welcome to tell me if they think I’m inaccurately describing the movement.)

But OK, now we can get into the substance:

In order to try to answer this question I’m going to attempt to make a series of statements regarding how I understand the relationship between Humanism and religion, and I invite self-identified Atheism+ people to come give their views on the same points. Perhaps there is a real difference if view here, but perhaps the differences are overstated.

Humanists I see religion as human-made

Humanists see religion as a human-made phenomenon. Religious texts were written by human hands, religious ideas were generated by human minds, religious practices developed in human communities. There’s not a jot of divine revelation anywhere. We made this.

Humanists I reject all supernatural elements of religious beliefs

Humanism is an explicitly naturalistic worldview which rejects all supernatural elements of religious beliefs. Prayers don’t do anything magic, faith healing doesn’t work, meditation doesn’t alter your consciousness in a wooish way, your spirit doesn’t have an aura, dancing cannot bring the rain.

So far, so good…kind of. Gnu atheists(+) see religion as human-made, but I don’t see much point in specifying “supernatural elements of religious beliefs.” The word “supernatural” is a distraction here. I oppose the holding of beliefs that people don’t have a good reason to believe – faith in any form. I don’t have to worry about isolating the “supernatural” elements of religious beliefs specifically. The defining feature of a religious belief is that it’s held despite (and often because of) the fact that it can’t be defended. That’s what makes it religious. This is what leads to the heart of the difference between me/us and Croft/HCH:

Humanists I believe that many religious beliefs and practices are harmful

Many religious beliefs and practices are inhumane and damaging. Homophobia in the USA is significantly worsened by religious beliefs regarding homosexuality, just as sexism is worsened by religious beliefs about women. People are concretely harmed by religious beliefs regarding vaccination and blood transfusion. Millions have been harmed by the Catholic Church’s stance on the use of condoms. Religious groups can be seen at the forefront of pretty much every regressive social movement around today, from opposition to gay rights and reproductive rights to opposition to proper science education and sex education in schools.

Humanists believe that it is their responsibility to challenge these beliefs and practices in order to prevent the harm they cause. Humanists have been staunch religious critics since the start of modern Humanism, and many of the most widely recognized religious critics of the 21st Century identify as Humanists: Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, for example. [my emphasis]

Here, as I’ve noted in the past, is where we get to the crux of the matter. As I said above, we – and there’s nothing particularly new about this, either – are not only interested in challenging the most plainly harmful beliefs, but bad belief. (That’s why I’ve long thought that we’re more of an epistemic movement, although this doesn’t seem to lend itself well to a catchy name. …epists? epists+?) The idea that our criticism of religion is criticism of specific damaging, bigoted beliefs assumes – mistakenly and dangerously – that belief itself is neutral. Believing is not a neutral act: not ethically, not psychologically, and not socially or politically. My position, and the gnu position as I understand it, is that all faith, all believing which isn’t empirically supported/supportable or defended/defensible, all manner of arriving at beliefs that isn’t reason/evidence-based, is inherently harmful. (Perhaps it would help to lose the distinction between beliefs and practices and approach faith as a defining religious practice….)

Ethically, as I’ve discussed on many occasions, citing Allen Wood at every possible opportunity, faith can’t be justified. We have, as Wood says, an ethical duty to believe according to the evidence. (I’ve also written about the contradiction between the two attempted evasions of Wood’s argument.) I’m not going to recreate that argument again; just read his piece.

Regarding our own development, I wrote a series recently in part about some of the little-recognized psychological effects of faith: how it damages our relationships with – alienates us from - others and the world around us by interfering with our ability to respect and to know them. Faith is harmful to our psychological well-being and our actualization as people. This sort of believing is narcissistic, allowing and even encouraging us to project ourselves, our desires, and our prejudices onto other entities. It’s profoundly disrespectful and can lead us to act toward other beings in harmful ways (often with a clear conscience), but it’s also psychologically harmful to us ourselves in that our failing to understand them on their own terms means our knowledge of ourselves, and thus our psychological development, remains shallow and circumscribed.

This is why I argued in that series that science, approached correctly and with humility, is one form or element of love. Faith masquerades as loving, but it can’t really be love or form the basis for love because it disrespects that which it treats and subverts genuine knowledge. In order to appreciate this, you need to understand science and faith as distinct and incompatible forms of relationships we have with others and the rest of the world. Faith is an alienated relationship which proves destructive in many ways. Whatever apparent solace faith offers comes at the expense of our relationships, our knowledge, our capacity to act effectively, and our human development.

I’ve also talked at some length before about the political effects of faith, citing for example Alan Sokal. Sokal, who unfortunately is often embraced and misrepresented by people on the Right, is very clear that faith – that promoted by religion and even more so that promoted by governments and corporations – is a central political problem. You can see the talk at my link, but why faith is a tool of conservatives should be fairly obvious.

People don’t develop their own idiosyncratic faithy notions about gods and politics. They form their faith-beliefs based on what they’re told by religious and political authorities. So faith is part and parcel of authoritarian social arrangements, and authoritarian institutions, although sometimes bitter competitors, work together to promote these practices. Given this, it should also be obvious why science and a genuinely scientific approach to the world are essential to social justice movements of all stripes. Encouraging people to evaluate claims and beliefs empirically, and even more important teaching them how to do it, is incredibly dangerous to authoritarian systems. This has been appreciated by humanists for some time. It’s also long been understood by those whose power rests on faith, as the Republican opposition to critical-thinking programs in schools demonstrates with shocking candor.

By the time Croft gets to the next item, then, he’s already missed the boat, because when the political implications of faith as a sociopolitical practice and relation are taken into account, we see that, just as harmful and harmless faith-beliefs can’t really be distinguished, neither can forms of oppression be cleanly isolated. Faith practices and relationships are integral to oppression in every realm:

Humanists I recognize that there are forms of oppression and sources of harm which are not religious

As strong as the Humanist commitment to religious skepticism and criticism is, Humanists recognize that there are other forms of oppression in the world which demand our attention. In our desire to promote human welfare we may sometimes prioritize critique of religious forms of harm, while at other times concerning ourselves with other matters. Religion is not always the problem, and there are forms of injustice and harm which are not most closely caused by religion. Humanists have a responsibility to balance our commitment to religious skepticism against other moral commitments in an intelligent way, such that religious criticism does not become the only form of social activism we engage in.

More differences. First, comparatively speaking, when HCH people talk about confronting oppression, it seems clear that they’re placing themselves towards the charitable-service rather than the radical-social-change end of the spectrum. This isn’t particularly relevant to this discussion except in that whatever complications arise for them are likely to be distinct from those encountered by people engaged in very different forms of activism. Second, I’ll note that the people forming and sympathetic to gnu/+ are not new to engagement with other forms of social activism. I’m not sure if that is what’s being implied here, but it would be silly even to suggest that A+ is just now coming around to HCH’s priorities, having previously focused exclusively on religion. Just not true.

Third, I think I’ve been frank that from my perspective their “commitment to religious skepticism and criticism” isn’t all that strong. Religious groups aren't alone in promoting faith-belief - faith as an epistemic practice intersects across various spheres and institutions - but they’re especially harmful in that they make it a virtue to believe things you have no good reason to. Doing so, I’ve argued, is contrary to morality, psychological well-being and development, democracy, and social justice, in addition of course to the advance of scientific knowledge and thus our capacity for effective positive action.

This is why epistemic practices and specifically faith itself have to be priorities for A+ or any humanistic or social justice movement. Sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, all forms of political-economic conservatism, speciesism, anti-environmentalism, imperialism, and all forms and institutions of oppression have long relied on faith-belief. Further, addressing today’s problems – e.g., AGW, resource depletion, pandemics - requires a humble, respectful scientific approach that isn’t distorted by our projections and is thus anti-faith. This necessarily alters the calculus. If you recognize faith itself as a moral, psychological, and political problem inherent in but not limited to religion, your priorities are different. Opposing faith itself and promoting and teaching critical, scientific practices are urgent goals, not just in any individual sphere but comprehensively.

Humanists I believe in secular government

Humanists believe in democratic governance and a secular society in which religious arguments are not privileged in any way above nonreligious ones. We do not believe that religious perspectives should be entirely excluded from the public square – that would be an unacceptable infringement on the right of free speech – but we do believe that public policy should be based on secular reasoning accessible, in principle, to all people regardless of their religious perspective. “Because my religion says so” is insufficient reason to impose one’s view on others.

I agree with this. See above, though, about faith-belief and politics. The fact that faith is inherently authoritarian, even when it appears superficially or immediately to be working in the service of social justice, makes it an important priority for humanist social-justice and democratic activists.

Humanists I believe that people can derive experiences of real value from religious communities

Humanists recognize that some religious communities can provide valuable and life-enhancing experiences for their congregants, even though those experiences are surrounded by a metaphysical framework we consider to be inaccurate. Since religion is human-created it is not surprising that some aspects of religious practice respond effectively to real human needs. These needs do not necessary disappear once people give up the religious beliefs which grew up around them.

Some people find truly welcoming communities in religious spaces, when they have been rejected elsewhere (this is true of many LGBTQ people I know, for instance). Some people value the opportunity to explore moral questions which a weekly sermon provides. Some use their religious community as a base for activism and social change. Others simply enjoy the experience of a weekly set of practices which take them out of their work and home life.

While Humanists need not embrace the exact nature or justification of these practices, we recognize that some people do derive legitimate satisfaction and value from them. This does not mean we should withhold principled criticism, but it does mean that we should recognize that there is some value for some people in certain religious practices. If there are ways of secularizing the practices of religion which people find value, extracting any Inhumane elements while maintaining pieces of value, then Humanists recognize this as a legitimate choice for some. We also understand that many will not wish to do this, which is also a legitimate choice.

I think several other people have dealt with this already. I’ll just point out there have long been secular versions of all of the worthwhile practices of religion, and we can and should draw from the widest range of practices and activities that have existed. Further, I think the best practices, and those that really meet people’s needs, are those that local groups develop organically over time by chance or based on the specific interests of those involved. Let creativity run free.

Humanists I approach collaboration with the religious in a way consistent with other Humanist values

Humanists do not take a one-size-fits-all approach to collaboration with the religious. Rather we assess each situation on its merits, understanding that on some occasions it may advance Humanist aims to collaborate with religious people or organizations, while on others it will not. If Humanists can collaborate in ways which promote compassion – marching together in a gay pride rally, for instance – it makes sense to do so. If collaboration would traduce Humanist principles, however, we would not seek to participate.

I don’t disagree with this (and I doubt many do).

In sum, yes, there are differences. If this conversation is to proceed and if there's going to be a possibility of collaborative efforts, the anti-faith position has to be fully recognized and treated respectfully (which doesn’t mean uncritically). It has to be engaged. If you continue to ignore the various arguments about the ethical, psychological, and sociopolitical aspects of faith and the arguments for why, even when the specific content of a particular belief seems harmless or positive, faith itself is inherently harmful, we can’t really have a conversation.

As we’ve seen in action recently, there are certainly atheists, including many gnus, who view the promotion of atheism and skeptical thinking and the criticism of religion as largely a means to polish their superior self-image and to sneer at others. But there’s also a large group of people who have solid reasons for prioritizing faith (and religion, which is defined by and champions it) and science generally and for considering this struggle to be significant in all compassionate social justice activism. If you refuse to recognize this, you’ll continue to misrepresent us and you’ll continue to fail to understand why we don’t confine ourselves and our “But is it true? How do you know?” demands to only the most plainly oppressive and harmful claims, why we regard even liberal faith as complicit with fanaticism in an important sense, why we reject the promotion of faith (e.g., by referring to themselves as a faith tradition or a part of interfaith coalitions) by groups ostensibly aligned with us, and why we reject the idea that it’s generally more ethical and compassionate to leave seemingly psychologically comforting faith-belief unchallenged.

The question of the relationship between epist activism and other forms of social justice work (including the most radical movements for social change), to the extent that these can even be disentangled, has always been and continues to be huge and complex. It’s naturally not the case that one can be reduced to the other, such that if people just adopt a scientific worldview oppression will fade away or that if social justice movements are successful faith will be abandoned. But the relationship is clearly a positive one, and neither can succeed without the other. The matter has to be worked out in discussions and action as these movements go forward, but it can’t and shouldn’t be denied.

*It’s not the case that A+ is a new set of atheists distinct from gnu atheists who’ve come around to thinking about these issues. On the contrary, these matters have long been important within the gnu community, and there’s significant – though not perfect - overlap between the set of gnus and the A+ supporters and sympathizers. So much so that I think it’s valid to talk about differences between Croft’s views and those of gnu atheism+ generally. If that’s not too confusing. Which it might be. But I do want to head off the suggestion that Croft might be making (especially in addressing his questions to A+ people specifically) that A+ is an attempt to break off from gnu atheism and come closer to HCH-style humanism. If that’s not too confusing. Which it might be. But the HCH group has had a tendency to use issues like this for self-promotion, in the course of which they tend to misrepresent gnu atheists as uniformly fixated on religion and unconcerned with allegedly non-religious oppression or exploitation. One last note: I consider myself, and I know that I’m speaking for very few others in the gnu/+ camp, a post-humanist or post-speciesist humanist, so already there’s a considerable difference between my views and those – at least those I’ve encountered – of the HCH. But I recognize that on this matter I’m, unfortunately, not representative. And I pretty much agree with Crommunist.

1 comment:

  1. I very much appreciated this post. Thanks for the effort!

    ReplyDelete