The Truthiests

Edited 12:00
So, the debates.  Chris Mooney and  Eugenie Scott vs. PZ Myers and Victor Stenger; then Robert Wright vs. Sam Harris; then a Point of Inquiry rematch of Mooney and Myers.  All coming out of the Center for Inquiry bash in LA last weekend.

There were basically two areas of debate--what should secularists be fighting for--what's the goal?  And is belligerence counterproductive?

Mooney, Scott, and Wright are for modest goals--promoting the teaching of evolution, cultivating science literacy in the US so that the electorate can take informed stands on pressing issues like stem cell research and climate change; keeping church separate from state; challenging those religious ideas that cause people to do morally despicable things.   All these battles are worth fighting, but not some colossal war for atheism. 

From Myers, Harris, and Stenger:  the war for atheism itself is worth fighting. Why?  Because atheism is the truth.  You can't acquiesce to the idea that science and religion are compatible, to validate your liberal religious allies, because it isn't true.  Truth, truth truth.

So what about this war for religious truth, as opposed to the specific battles?  I don't think Myers & Co. made the case that it's worth fighting.   Suppose you could win all the specific battles.  So people stopped having the sorts of religious beliefs that interfere with science and cause people to do morally despicable things. Would it make sense to keep going and work toward universal atheism?

Well, theism is false (let's assume), and it's bad to have false beliefs. Then it's obviously worth waging a campaign against all forms of theism, right? No, not necessarily.  It could be that some false beliefs increase well-being, on the whole, so there's a tricky judgment to be made.  Truth is valuable, but it's not the only valuable thing.  It may be worth giving up a little truth to get more of the other good things.

Moreover, it's not obvious that it's my business how other people deal with those issues and strike that balance.  It might make sense for me to hope one day they see the truth, but not make sense for me to work toward that day. Surely the problem with missionaries is not simply that they're selling something false--it's the selling, the intrusion into other people's private business, the arrogance of thinking you know what's best for people.  On that score, evangelical atheism is just as problematic as evangelical anything else.

Clarification: by all means, the case for atheism should be made.  People will keep writing books and articles debating religion, and all positions are welcome. But I can't see why the secular movement should aim for universal atheism instead of just at winning specific battles.  Despite the glory of the word "truth", a war to make everyone believe the truth about God isn't one with any clear moral imperative behind it. 

On strategy, Mooney & Co. say atheists should make alliances with liberal religious people who are fighting the same battles. And they say belligerence is counterproductive.  Wright was excellent on the topic of anti-Islamic zeal (see Sunday's NYT article about Pamela Geller, for example)--obviously not productive.  He thinks new atheists sound far too much like that, and sometimes they do.

The other side: If you're speaking the truth, it can't be bad to speak plainly.

Well, maybe not bad if the goal is universal atheism, and that's way in the distance.  But yes bad, if you're involved in specific real-world battles, and it's morally important to win them sooner, rather than later.


amos said...

I learned very little from my days in Hebrew school so many years ago, but I do recall a phrase from a text: "Judaism is not a proselytic religion," perhaps because the word "proselytic" was new to me then.

Perhaps because of my upbringing, perhaps because I've been the object of too much proselytism, from the door-to-door peddlars of Jehovah and Mormonism to the ideological barrage of the media about the wonders of the free world, free markets, of I-phones and of certain overly produced and overly retouched sex symbols, proselytism has never appeared to me to be a virtue.

Questioning things and established truths on one's own and nudging others towards such questioning (because one can only nudge them towards questioning, never overwhelm them) are virtues.

Besides, proselytism is in bad taste. Socrates does not proselytize; Moses, Paul and Mohammed do. Each is free to adopt his or her role models.

Hamilton Jacobi said...

I don't think Myers, Harris, and Stenger are fighting for universal atheism. I think they are fighting for universal acceptance of, or at least universal acquiescence to, the idea that evidence, reason, critical thinking, and intellectual honesty should be the criteria by which decisions are made in the public arena. They don't want to force everyone to stop believing in God, but they do think it would be good for society to change in such a way that statements such as "Gay marriage is wrong because God disapproves of it" are viewed by almost everyone as inappropriate and unacceptable in a political debate. People should even feel guilty about casting a private ballot with such poor justification.

Of course, if the core values of society were to change in such a way, very few people would be able to justify to themselves adhering to a traditional religion. Widespread atheism, or at least deism, would therefore be a highly probable outcome of such a change. But that is a side effect, not the main objective.

Jean Kazez said...

I'm not saying they want to force anything on anybody--they just think truth is an ultimate, "trumping" value. Atheism is true (we all agree on that), so they want to see people come to accept it. I really don't think they want atheism accepted for other reasons--to get religion out of politics, to stop people disapproving of gay marriage, etc. Truth is an ultimate value, as they see it. That's my impression from this debate and from the PoI Myers did with Mooney. Myers continually talks about truth--not well being, not rationality. Truth itself. I have to assume he means what he says.

amos said...

I used to be a truthiest myself.

About 20 years ago when I had psychtherapy, my therapist would call me a "truth-terrorist". I came to see that my uncompromising trutheism did a lot of damage to other people's lives, even if their lives were often based on what I considered and consider to be lies or stupid conventions and to see that my trutheism was a mask or rationalization for aggressive aspects of myself, which I did not want to acknowledge.

However, I had more fun in life as a trutheist or truth-terrorist.
So, my advice to any trutheists who may be reading is: don't change unless you're prepared for the party to end.

Hamilton Jacobi said...

I think PZ's focus on truth for its own sake is in the context of education; I don't see any way of arguing against that. And he frequently reiterates that he does not teach atheism in the classroom, and has no interest in doing so.

And, frankly, I don't think it's possible to separate well-being from truth. If you do, you get people focusing on imaginary hell rather than real life, and on the needs of a few cells rather than sentient animals (including human children and adults). Morality arguments that don't include objective evidence as a core criterion will, over time, almost inevitably be sidetracked into irrelevant or even harmful tangents.

Hamilton Jacobi said...

Another remark: When PZ asks the question "But is it true?", this is always in the context of other people trying to teach things (e.g., intelligent design creationism) that are false. He is saying he wants to prevent other people from proselytizing about things that are not supported by evidence (and that, in fact, place a high social value on open defiance of evidence). He is not saying we must spend every minute of every day cramming all of the things we know to be true down the throats of all the people we encounter.

Jean Kazez said...

Hmm...I definitely agree that in a school setting, truth does have to be the objective. But at the CfI bash it seems like the debate was about what the secular movement as a whole should be aiming for. So the issue was not narrowly about schools or classrooms.

It seemed to me that one side was worried about making sure you have scientifically informed people making decisions about stem cell research, global warming, and the like. I think it's clear that sort of stuff is Chris Mooney's concern--you can see that in his books and blog. That's important because otherwise you're going to have more death and disease. So the ultimate concern there is not truth.

The other side kept on talking about truth as the secular movement's goal. I can't really substantiate my sense of the difference without listening again and taking notes, so I won't insist.