Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Same differences: A reply to James Croft's reply to my reply to James Croft

The relevant background can be found





I'll just dive right in...

Bracing the Salty Current – Reason is a Humanist Value!

The title is already a problem! How ridiculous to try to insinuate that I’m unaware that reason is a humanist value.

There are several basic problems with this reply aside from the central argument. First, you’re neglecting the fact that I was responding not to some generic or mainstream “Humanism” that includes any and all variants, but to your statement of your humanistic vision, with its particular emphases and priorities. And let’s be clear: The bone of contention here is specific. The disagreement is about how atheists should view and approach religion as an expression of our positive values. No one’s being accused of not valuing reason.

This is the crux of the matter. You (in part buying into religious ideology) have fallen into the belief that anti-faith activism is both separate from and contrary to our positive values. It doesn’t much matter whether you consider this cluster of values humanistic or not. The focus on this label is a distraction from the basic thrust of your argument, which is that anti-faith activism is not positive, constructive, loving, or oriented toward social justice. You might not make a statement as loathsome and misleading as those Stedman has hosted on his blog, but you concur with the gist of arguments that paint us in our anti-faith work as coming from a place of arrogance, negativity, and hostility.

A while back I got into a back-and-forth regarding Atheism+ (an explicitly social-justice oriented Atheism promoted by blogger Jen McCreight) and its relationship to Humanism. My view, in brief, is that Atheism+, by infusing atheism with a commitment to an explicit set of positive values, is essentially a form of Humanism which, through the name, puts more of an emphasis on atheism than Humanism has traditionally done.

A+ - or, as I’ve been talking about, gnu+ - isn’t “infusing” gnu atheism with anything. It’s simply doing what you note in the first sentence: making the social-justice commitments of the people involved and their centrality explicit. No infusion. Nothing new.

This is the problem. It’s not simply that we haven’t added positive values to our anti-faith activism. It’s that we view our anti-faith activism itself as an expression of our positive values. (This is especially aggravating to me because as an anarchist I often face the same sort of lack of recognition that anarchism is a movement founded in positive values.) I believe you share these values, but you refuse to recognize why or even that we see things this way, much less to engage with our arguments on this subject. At this point, I would be satisfied if you would simply acknowledge that we do see it that way, even if you disagree with our arguments.

As a passionate Humanist I think that’s fantastic: anything which genuinely promotes broadly Humanist values gets a thumbs-up from me.

Then you should have been with us all along, rather than defending your colleagues’ attacks on us, because many of us have been genuinely promoting humanist values, including through our anti-faith efforts, for longer than you have. Do you understand this? Your portrayal of what’s going on paints you as representatives of the causes of social justice and us as humies-come-lately. That is false. We – the people you’re addressing – have long seen our work in terms of social justice. We’ve seen our atheist activism in terms of social justice. It’s disrespectful for you to continue to misrepresent that.

Some atheist bloggers, however, took umbrage at this show of support,

It was a show of condescension. I don’t think you’re intentionally misrepresenting things, but this patronizing and confused “support” is frustrating.

unwilling to accept that the values which A+ activists are now promoting are fundamentally similar to those Humanism has long promoted. [emphasis added]

Try to understand: We are not promoting anything new for us. The bone of contention with your group is that you’ve tried to claim your form of humanism as the humanism – or, labels aside, your activism as the positive activism - while misrepresenting anti-faith activism as rooted in values and goals that are different from or opposed to positive values (whether you or I categorize these as humanist or not is fairly immaterial).

This could all be resolved if you’d simply recognize that there’s a broad range of social justice activism and that we see our atheist anti-faith activism as part of that range. Not apart from it or contrary to it or detrimental to it. Part of it. I view my anti-faith/epist work as an essential part of my social activism. Because I recognize faith as a serious social, political, ethical, and psychological problem, it’s a priority.

Why this is I cannot say, but one such – Salty Current – has written a long explication of what s/he sees to be the differences between A+ and Humanism, directed to me,

No, they’re differences between my views (and those of many gnu/atheists+, as I understand them) and yours.

(I’m a woman. I’m amazed that at this late date you don’t know that.)

First, to clear up an inaccuracy:

The criticisms I’ve read are not of humanism – the pompous capitalization still grates – but of the particular flavor practiced by the HCH group.

This is false. Numerous A+ bloggers, including Greta Christina and Jen McCreight herself, expressed views regarding what Humanism is… which did not specifically address HCH.

Then you can take those issues up with them. I was responding specifically to your post and your statement of your position specifically as it related to an approach to religion. And of course, you don’t speak for humanism.

(the capitalization is essential to distinguish the modern lifestance of Humanism from historical “humanism” which means something different)

I would accept that from someone other than one of you. I believe you’ve capitalized, so to speak, on that justification, because it suits your purposes. You want to align yourselves with religions – Humanism is but another faith in the interfaith world. Referring to secular humanism or even lower-case humanism in context would I think be enough. This is all entirely tangential in any case.

And I have no idea what a “lifestance” is.

I was responding to what I saw as broad misconceptions regarding Humanism itself – not any particular version of it – in much of the Freethought blogosphere.

This is where these discussions get annoying. You’re like soap in a bath. You responded to comments that you could not speak for all of humanism (apparently – I didn’t see your post until it had been changed) but only your own version by changing your post to reflect that you were speaking for yourself. I replied to your very plain statement of where you stand – your humanism. My arguments were with your humanism (particularly as it pertains to religion), not with every variety of humanism in existence.

I found those misconceptions troubling and surprising as Humanism has been the driving force of the Freethought movement in the USA for decades. I was frankly shocked to see well-respected bloggers demonstrate basic misconceptions.

Again, take that up with them. Given your response here, however, I’m not confident you’re following their arguments.

To the argument.


SC makes a lot of the fact that I

This is good. You should stick with the first-person singular in this conversation.

single-out the “supernatural” aspects of religious belief for criticism, and points out that s/he has a problem with any belief which is held without solid foundation. Agreed: there’s no difference of view here.

Well, there’s already a problem with your reading of what I’m saying. What’s of primary importance to me in this context is not individual beliefs but the epistemic practices through which beliefs are formed and maintained.

As I noted in the post to which s/he is responding, the list of Humanist values I offered is not exhaustive,

Of course it wasn’t. As I understood it, it was a statement of your humanistic vision, with its particular understandings and priorities, and you were specifically talking about your approach to religion. My vision as it pertains to faith differs from yours. I resent the suggestion that my choice is between your Humanism and something that is outside of and perhaps even hostile to positive, social-justice values. What I’m saying is that I have a substantially different vision from yours, and to the extent that the points on which we disagree make your vision more humanistic than mine, I’m not a humanist. The label isn’t all that important to me. What does concern me is the suggestion that my epistemic commitments are not positive, ethical, social-justice commitments. I resent that very much.

This is the crux of the matter, really. I recognize that you view your “interfaith” and religion-friendly work as an expression of your positive values, even when I disagree with it, but you don’t extend to us the same understanding. You, and Stedman even more so, persist in characterizing our anti-faith activism as something aside from our ethical and social commitments, and often something hostile to them. If this weren’t the case, Stedman wouldn’t present his cartoonish picture of gnu atheists, and you wouldn’t talk about “infusing” atheism with more laudable goals.

(The significance of your response to A+ is in what it reveals about your negative view of gnu atheism. The emergence of A+ is useful here in that it allows us to revisit this and get it out in the open.)

and a commitment to right-belief is a core Humanist value – one of the most central. There is no difference of view here.

It’s one thing to say something is amongst your core values in this abstract way. The discussion as I understand it was about different approaches to faith and whether these are or are not expressions of or consistent with positive values. You don’t view our anti-faith activism as an expression of or entirely consistent with our positive values. To be clear: I don’t think you’re saying that we lack positive values. The problem is that you fail to appreciate that we regard our anti-faith efforts as an expression of and means of promoting those values.

Where there might be a difference is when SC offers the following:

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 not how I would define “religious belief”.

You’re confused. I can see how that sentence out of context might be confusing, but, well, since you read it in context there’s really no excuse. My argument was not about individual beliefs, but about belief. About faith, specifically, as an epistemic practice and form of relationship we have with other beings and with the rest of reality. The defining feature of religion is faith: the practice of forming and accepting beliefs on a non-evidentiary basis. As I argued very clearly, faith as a practice is not exclusive to religion, but it is the defining feature of religion, and often claimed by the religious as a virtue.

I was taking issue with your focus on specific beliefs, and arguing that your humanism takes issue with “supernatural” beliefs and with what seem the more dangerous and harmful beliefs. While we of course distinguish amongst beliefs in terms of content and immediate harm, that isn’t all there is to my anti-faith writing. (I feel like I’m rewriting the entire post, and I’m sure I said it better the first time. Alas.)

There are lots of beliefs which cannot be defended which I do not think are properly termed “religious”: birthersim, for instance, or conspiracy theories regarding the moon landings.

And these are among the less dangerous! But that’s exactly what I was arguing. Faith is a practice that’s not the exclusive province of religion, but is religion’s defining feature. Religions are based on faith, defend faith as a practice, and often promote faith as a virtue. In a context in which this is accepted, it’s all the easier for (other) authoritarian and oppressive institutions to capitalize on that. That’s one of the reasons faith, and therefore necessarily religion, has to be opposed.

There are also beliefs which are central to religions which are perfectly tenable: the Mormon belief that their religion was founded by Joseph Smith, for example. Very important to Mormons, also true – as far as it goes.

I think we might be getting to the heart of the matter. Again, my emphasis on faith is not about specific beliefs. It’s about practices of believing. If people believe something for good evidentiary reasons, it’s not (a) faith belief. It might be related to their religion, but it isn’t the problem. If people believe something, and to the extent that they believe something, for non-evidentiary reasons, or contrary to the evidence, that is a faith-belief. Faith-beliefs are the defining feature of religion. Of course, some might be incidentally true, but a positive vision is not one that includes, much less encourages, bad, unethical, alienating practices of belief, regardless of whether some small portion might happen to be true (and of course, as Allen Wood notes, beliefs not founded on the evidence are far less likely, highly unlikely in fact, to turn out to be true).

That’s what I’m saying is the problem we’re trying to address. Not supernatural beliefs. Not bigoted beliefs. FAITH, as a practice of forming and holding beliefs and as a form of relationship we have with others and the world.

You could also trawl religious texts and find, I am certain, numerous ethical and aesthetic precepts which are defensible.

When speaking of ethical and aesthetic precepts, we’re using a different meaning of defensible. But any ethics has to be formed on the basis of reality, and this gives me a chance to explain my thinking in more depth, so I’ll talk about this a bit.

So for example, I recently started reading Dominion by Matthew Scully, former Bush and Palin speechwriter. So far every page, as could be predicted from the title, contains a faith claim (we know this because there’s no evidence we were created by a god who gave us “dominion” over other animals or has some plan for or loves any of us, etc., and we know the source of these beliefs). Many animal rights activists who aren’t believers nevertheless mention his book in glowing terms, and often celebrate various alleged religious traditions of animal care.

And, you could argue, why not? If some people believe in ethical precepts rooted in their religion or are (allegedly) motivated by their religion to fight for the welfare of nonhuman animals, shouldn’t atheist animal rights activists support and join with them, or at least not openly criticize those beliefs? On the surface, we share the same positive values, and together face a huge fight against powerful interests, so why would we want to alienate religious people by pointing out the problems with faith or their specific beliefs about animals? It seems counterproductive for the animals, and viewed naively it appears to be gratuitous and malicious to go after those with defensible ethical precepts, whatever their source.

But religious beliefs about nonhuman animals and our relationship to them, as I’ll be arguing much more extensively in the coming months (you’ve been warned), well illustrate the problems with faith-belief and faith-based ethics that I summarized in my previous reply. A faith approach to animals is alienating, as I’ve argued previously. Maintaining unevidenced beliefs about them and us and our relationship interferes with the formation of a genuinely respectful, objective (to the extent possible) understanding of all of these. This harms us as humans because we can’t have real relationships with them as they are and we are or learn about ourselves through learning about them. This serious problem isn’t captured by an abstract discussion about valuing truth, science, or reason or respect for reality, but I think it’s implicit when many anti-faith atheists speak in those abstract terms.

A faith approach to animals is unethical, because a faith approach to any ethical question is unethical. We all - not just atheists or humanists, but everyone - have a duty to believe according to the evidence. We’re not going to make the best ethical decisions possible if we’re doing so on the basis of faith-beliefs, which are extremely likely to be false. In this case, the beliefs underlying the ethical claims are clearly false. We can’t be complacent or silent about unethical approaches to ethics.

A faith approach to our relationship with animals is authoritarian, as is a faith approach to any question of ethics. People aren’t idiosyncratically forming these ideas about creation and our relationship to other animals. They’re coming to hold and maintain those beliefs on the basis of religious authorities and holy books. This is true regardless of whether they put their own spin on them: the fundamental beliefs underlying the ethical idea are accepted on faith. This contributes to relations of oppression, regardless of the particular content of the beliefs. It heightens the power of religious and all authorities, and supports not just bad epistemic practices but specifically the acceptance of beliefs based on what authorities say. That is not compatible with any position or approach that truly values practices of “right-belief” or seeks to subvert oppressive relations.

Respecting any faith-belief as a foundation for ethics, and celebrating faith as a motivation for ethics generally, of course bolsters the power of any faith-based ethics, including those we wouldn’t find even superficially “defensible.” And in this case the people who hold similar faith-beliefs which they see as justifying their cruel exploitation of nonhuman animals are far more numerous and far more powerful. If atheists/epists avoid aggressively criticizing the faith basis of ethical positions that are closer to ours in practice, we have no foundation for challenging the people who understand “dominion” to mean cruel exploitation. We also have no foundation for challenging faith-beliefs that aren’t religious. Respecting any faith beliefs disarms you against all of them.

This sort of respect in action additionally carries the implicit suggestion that powerful and convincing ethical arguments for ethical relationships with our fellow animals can’t be found outside of faith. It’s a backhanded rejection of the very humanist tradition of ethics and social justice activism you claim as your own.

All of these problems are independent of the specific content of the faith-beliefs in question, but in this case the content would appear to support a positive ethical idea: that we have a sacred obligation to treat nonhuman animals kindly. But the underlying belief - that we are unique, separated from all of the other animals by the possession of some special “human dignity,” that we’re in a hierarchical position above all other animals with divinely-ordained power over their lives - is profoundly arrogant. It alienates us from animal life, including our own, by seeing it and its value in terms of the interests of a fabricated deity. They and we, in our “brute materiality,” have no value outside of this divine fiction’s desires. Given that our brute materiality is reality, that’s the opposite of real humanism.

Furthermore, these beliefs about essential differences and hierarchies have contributed to virtually every other form of oppression (including prejudice against nonbelievers, who are seen as lesser or incomplete humans to the extent that we refuse to recognize our semi-transcendent status and reject our call to mastery). Again, religion doesn’t have a monopoly on arrogant and conservative beliefs like “human dignity” and human mastery, and it’s not the primary source of their persistence. But the set of oppressive beliefs can’t be challenged meaningfully unless faith itself is challenged.

(I beg of you, though, not to get hung up on the short discussion of content in the two paragraphs above. I’m well aware that there are other faith-beliefs about nonhuman animals, us, and our relationships. They all have their problems. But they all, as faith, share the generic problems I talked about in the previous paragraphs. Pointing to the diversity of faith-beliefs on this subject or any other would not be an argument against those points. The reason I raise the subject of the content of these beliefs in this context is that I think an estimation of the harmfulness of specific faith-beliefs has to go beyond the superficial. This is a case in which faith-beliefs might appear on the surface to be harmless and even positive, but when examined more rigorously they’re shown to be substantially harmful. Again – this is largely aside from the arguments about faith.)

These effects are real and consequential regardless of whether the people who follow or respect the faith approach are being jerks or not. They could be as polite and civil as can be, though they’re often not, and faith would still do this. Faith would still be alienating and unethical (in itself and as a basis for ethical decisions) and interfere with our genuine understanding of nonhuman animals, of ourselves, and of our relationship with and to them. It would still be inherently authoritarian, and justify and support authoritarian relations. Respecting faith-belief would still disarm opposition to the most malignant faith-beliefs and -actions. It would still promote the incorrect idea that defensible and motivating ethical arguments can’t be developed without faith. It would still carry an implicit suggestion that nonfaith understandings and approaches to ethics (and those who champion them) are lesser or incomplete, and that overt challenges to faith are therefore harmful to the cause. These beliefs would still be based on arrogant and false ideas that buttress ideologies of oppression.

This is just one example. I want it to be clear that I’m making a general argument about the inherent problems with faith. They’re why I see faith as a key social justice issue, and why I regard anti-faith activism (and not simply a vague commitment to science or reason) as essential to the realization of other positive social goals. You can disagree with any or all of the points I’ve made about faith or the importance I attach to anti-faith work as a part of social-justice activism. But you need to recognize, explicitly, that I’ve made this argument. The points on which you explicitly disagree with me in your reply are important ones, and acknowledging this means that you have to stop asserting that our positions on this are the same.

So I think we need a more sophisticated definition of both what makes something indefensible and what makes a belief “religious”. Being indefensible is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition of religious belief.

I expect I’ve clarified this sufficiently above. If you still don’t understand, I’m not sure what to say.

No disagreement here either.

I hope you understand the source of the disagreement. We are saying different things, James. They don’t reduce to one another.

The Humanist commitment to reason is broader than a mere commitment to challenge beliefs which harm others: it is a full-bore devotion to seeking truth. That’s why Humanists are so often scientists and philosophers, working in are which don’t directly tackle harmful religious beliefs but any unwarranted belief at all. That’s why I gave a talk called “Lust for Truth: Reason as a Moral Value” at the “Skeptics of Oz” conference this year, and why I go on radio and debate apologists. The truth matters for its own sake.

That’s all quite fine. (Well, not exactly. "The truth" doesn't have a sake. It isn't a being or entity with which we can have a relationship, but an abstraction representing the set of individual, concrete truths about real beings and entities, including ourselves. It's important to understand this as it pertains to faith's alienating, unethical, and psychologically harmful qualities.)

SC seems to think I don’t believe this. Where s/he gets that view I cannot tell – s/he certainly doesn’t tell us. When s/he says “we have…an ethical duty to believe according to the evidence” s/he could be quoting both my talk and my dissertation, which is on the importance of Free Thinking and tackles the ethical necessity of truth-seeking.

A commitment to science and reason as a route to truth is unequivocally-stated in all three Humanist Manifestos (the crispest way to determine the consensus of Humanist thought on a given matter at a given time):

No one is disputing this. (OK, I'd dispute that any manifesto is going to encompass humanist thought in a way that I could say, “Yes, I identify completely with that program.”) But the difference on which this turns is not about having or lacking such a general commitment. It’s how we view faith from the perspective of having that commitment, what that commitment means in practice, and how we address religion – characterized by epistemic practices some of us consider bad, alienating, unethical, and authoritarian – within that framework.

Humanist Manifesto i

..."Religion must formulate its hopes and plans in the light of the scientific spirit and method."

“Religion” can’t, because it’s not a being. Religious people and institutions as such obviously can’t in any meaningful way.

Humanist Manifesto ii

"...critical intelligence, infused by a sense of human caring, is the best method that humanity has for resolving problems…"

This is problematic. The rest is fine and vague and not really relevant to our specific dispute.

The thinking behind that use of “infused,” as I’ve discussed above, is the problem. Human caring is at the core of my critical intelligence, including my anti-faith writing. I think others have made the same point to you, and I’m at a loss as to why you’re continuing to present things in these terms.

Humanist Manifesto iii

"...We also recognize the value of new departures in thought, the arts, and inner experience—each subject to analysis by critical intelligence."


It’s very difficult to claim that Humanists don’t have a problem with unwarranted belief in the face of such explicit statements.

That was not my claim, although some don’t prioritize faith as I do. (Whether this is due to ignorance of the arguments in favor of prioritizing it or disagreement with them I don’t know, since the people criticizing anti-faith activism, including you, don’t seem to acknowledge them.)

I was responding to your explicit statement of your principles. You’ve made the same arguments here, so I’m fairly confident they’re yours. Don’t try to bring in various humanist thinkers separate from your arguments. To the extent that they’ve influenced you, it should come through in your thinking and priorities.

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.

Why does this seem clear? Why does SC make this assumption (for assumption it must be – no evidence is offered to support it). In actuality, while Humanism is compatible with many political outlooks, it has always had a radical aspect to it.

Humanists have played a significant role in both progressive and radical social movements, and Humanists thinkers come in radical and progressive stripes….

What the hell? Look, James, I’m an anarchist and consider many if not all of the anarchists I read to be humanists. Erich Fromm, about whom I’ve been writing extensively, was a humanist. I’m not saying anything about the incompatibility of humanism and radicalism. I was making a tangential observation about your group’s priorities and activities as I’ve seen them. It might be biased – I probably do tend to see “interfaith” charitable projects predominantly – but even if it’s wrong, it’s, as I pointed out, tangential. And you really have to stop expanding the discussion to the entirety of the humanist tradition, especially when you’re responding to a statement that is explicitly about you and/or the HCH group.

In sum, yes, there are differences. If this conversation is to proceed, the anti-faith position has to be fully recognized and treated respectfully (which doesn’t mean uncritically).

To reiterate and conclude, there is no argument here.

To reiterate, yes, there is.

A commitment to tackle what SC calls “faith” is central to Humanist thought and practice, and has been for many decades.

Oh, for the love of…

It is central to my work as an educator, philosopher, and activist.

It isn’t central to your group’s thought and practice. In translating an epistemic commitment into practice, we diverge, and I think quite early on. Your personal manifesto to which I was responding in fact tries to make a case against prioritizing the epistemic question.

You make a series of points in that post, and they’re consistent with your views as I’ve seen them expressed elsewhere. My views differ rather fundamentally on some important points. These differences make for different practical agendas marked by different priorities. I hope you’ll come eventually to agree with my arguments, but for the time being I’d be satisfied if you could merely appreciate our differences.


  1. Not sure where to go from here. You have completely and utterly misunderstood me, taking precisely the opposite meaning from my post to that which I intended to convey. You say:

    "the basic thrust of your argument...is that anti-faith activism is not positive, constructive, loving, or oriented toward social justice."

    No, no, and THRICE NO! My point is that Humanism has ALWAYS been committed to anti-faith activism AS PART of its broader commitment to social justice and to claim that it has not been (as some bloggers, to whom I was responding, had done) is WRONG.

    Is that sufficiently clear?

  2. Oh - and before you respond "I was addressing the HCH not Humanism in general", two things:

    1) The initial bloggers to whom I was responding were NOT - and my initial responses were to them and not to you.

    2) HCH explicitly endorses Humanist values, such that there is no difference in fundamental values between Humanism as a lifestance and HCH as an organization. We exist to promote Humanism and to provide a community of Humanists. We plan our community and our events around those core values. That includes what you call "anti-faith" activism as part of a suite of things that we do.