Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Thoughts on the practical ethics of debunking, Part 1: the failures of gnus and accommodationists

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the ethics of debunking, particularly of debunking those myths that have a central role in people’s lives. (This has become an issue of even more concern to me since I’ve been writing on some nonreligious subjects about which many atheists hold certain ideas dear (I’ll come back to this in a while….) It seems to me that this has really been the central bone of contention between gnu atheists and accommodationists, and that both sides could stand to be more thoughtful about the issue. The terms of this ongoing debate have allowed people on both (or all) sides to avoid the practical, ethical questions associated with debunking.

The gnu atheists have failed in some key ways. First, we’ve too often espoused a commitment to abstract Truth at almost all costs, neglecting the basic fact that this commitment is worthless if it doesn’t serve worthwhile ends – human (and nonhuman) well-being, freedom, fulfillment, and joy. At its worst, skeptical debunking becomes a sterile and pointless truth-for-truth’s-sake game or an exercise in individual ego gratification or group narcissism.

My point here isn’t to try to identify one group as ill-motivated, but to point out that all of us, and anyone who takes up the task of debunking in any area, can easily succumb to this tendency. Nevertheless, I think the evidence shows that many gnu atheists are motivated by genuine, positive social aims. Many of us have discussed several times the political, psychological, and ethical reasons for opposition to faith-religion and for the promotion of non- and anti-faith alternatives

or shown through our actions where our commitments lie. We offer alternative visions that aren’t just weak substitutes for religion, and believe religion is unnecessary (and in many ways counterproductive) to well-being, freedom, fulfillment, and joy. Seen in terms of these humanistic visions, leaving religion behind and embracing a secular-scientific-skeptical approach is highly positive, and urgently necessary, for individuals and for society.

While we’ve sometimes done a passable job describing this positive vision in general, we haven’t always been so thoughtful in our approach to concrete situations. We’ve often conveyed an attitude toward debunking that comes across as cold and unsympathetic – an attitude that says, “We’re adults who can handle the truth. Anyone who talks about emotional pain experienced in challenges to faith or faith-beliefs is silly, sentimental, and condescending. Even if these experiences are real, they’re a small and temporary price to pay for the clear benefits of reality-based thinking.”

This is problematic for two main reasons. First, it gives the impression that we’re unfeeling and uncaring, making our claims that our debunking is rooted in humanistic concerns ring hollow and making exaggerated or wholly invented tales of obnoxious behavior sound plausible. Second, it’s based on a…faith in the inevitable and wholly positive outcomes of debunking that isn’t based on reality.

Moreover, it’s been easy, in view of the obvious damaging effects of religion and religious privilege, to lose sight of the circumstances of people’s lives, their fears, and the variety of ways that questioning and abandoning these beliefs is experienced. And, while it’s easy to focus on religious privilege, there’s a tendency to forget or ignore that this isn’t a particularly meaningful axis of privilege in the lives of every religious person and that its effects can be swamped by other forms of oppression.

Related to this, while gnus have rightfully insisted on the importance of debunking faith-religion, they’ve sometimes paid insufficient attention to the other areas in which activism is needed to realize this goal. I’ve described this interplay of epistemic and social justice activism before, so I won’t dwell on it again here. To reiterate: this is not to say that epistemic activism isn’t legitimate and important on its own, but even if this were our exclusive midrange goal in bettering the world, we couldn’t legitimately ignore the context of that activism or the social forces working against it.

Finally, gnu atheists have been too ready to fall back on the arguments that aggressive debunking is just our style, that the consequences of our words sent out into the anonymous internet aren’t our responsibility, and that we’ve heard from many people for whom our debunking had a salutary effect.

For their part, the accommodationists have made the reverse errors. They’ve largely failed to acknowledge or address the positive ethical dimension of debunking and the arguments for the humanistic necessity of epistemic activism, tending to suggest that all debunking of faith-religion is callous and wrong without making the case for this position. Exploiting the sometimes thoughtless presentation of gnu attitudes, they’ve promoted false tales of gnu meanness and insensitivity, encouraging the belief that such behavior is synonymous with debunking itself – that religious debunking is inherently cruel and unethical. This focus on real or imagined bad behavior has allowed them to avoid clearly staking out a position against epistemic activism or religious debunking itself and so to avoid defending this position against the arguments put forth by the gnus for the necessity and importance of this sort of activism.

Where gnus have sometimes overstated the effects of religious privilege in justifying their actions, accommodationists have tended to ignore or pay lip service to it. Where gnus have at times come across as coldly smug, accommodationists have responded with an attitude of sentimental condescension toward believers that’s fundamentally conservative. Where gnus have sometimes failed to appreciate that we act in a world in which it’s likely that our efforts will cause some short-term harm and in which we can’t guarantee the positive outcomes of our acts, accommodationists have often been short-sighted and tended to divorce immediate psychological-emotional distress from long-term growth and liberation, denying the importance of the latter both in general and in assessing the justification for the former.

If anti-faith activism isn’t seen in terms of projects – short-, medium-, and long-term – to advance well-being, freedom, fulfillment, and joy (both for religious people and nonbelievers), then of course it will appear pointless and gratuitously cruel. If it’s assumed that the result of debunking efforts will overwhelmingly be distress andor a retreat to religion, that this will be a permanent condition, that religion responds to enduring and ineradicable rather than culturally shaped and created needs, and that epistemic activists have no positive and liberating alternatives to offer, then of course anti-faith activism will seem callous and counterproductive. But none these assumptions is valid.

Due to these evasions, accommodationists, too, have equally failed to be upfront in specifying what they consider an ethical and effective approach to debunking faith and faith claims. My next post will discuss how a few thinkers have approached this difficult question.

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