The Same Differences Argument

My mission over the winter break is to finish a paper I'm writing on using the great apes in medical experiments.  The paper will appear in a forthcoming book about debates in bioethics, and I've agreed to argue the "no" side.  That's certainly my intuition, but what's the best way to make the case?  The "no" view has to deal with pressure from both sides.  Research advocates will want to know how we can allow more people to die from AIDS, cancer, and other diseases, if we can prevent these deaths by doing research on chimpanzees.   Animal advocates will want to know why the great apes should be singled out for protection.  Isn't exempting the most human of animals a bit like freeing the whitest of slaves?  So...interesting project, lots to chew on!

One of the arguments I'm going to make is that the case for protection should not rely on what you might call the "Same Differences Argument."  This argument proceeds from the observation that the same differences that separate humans and animals also separate one human from another.  For example, there are just about the same differences between normal humans and chimpanzees as there are between normal humans and impaired elderly people.  If the differences among humans don't stop them from having the same basic rights, then how can the same differences between humans and chimpanzees make for a difference in basic rights?  (This is usually called the argument from marginal cases, but I hate that "marginal cases" talk, and the "same differences argument" is actually a little broader.  It doesn't have to focus on humans and animals "at the margins," though I'll be doing so here.)

I talk about the same differences argument in Animalkind and I've discussed it before here, but I keep on thinking about it.  It's certainly worth a lot of thought.  On the face of it, our attitudes are inconsistent.  We think intra-human differences are immaterial; they're no bar to equality.  But then we think intra-species differences are a big deal, and a complete bar to equality.  Not only does this seem inconsistent, but it seems like the inconsistency must be due to anti-animal prejudice, or "speciesism."

In fact, I think the SDA is a sleight of hand.  The same sort of argument could be used to show things that are ludicrous, which shows there's got to be something wrong with it.  Take, for example, the right to vote.  Both normal adults and impaired elderly people have the right to vote, despite the differences between them.  Elderly Bob might have no idea what the election is about, but still has the right to enter the voting booth.  He may fill in the circles at random, but that's his right.   So the differences between normal adults and impaired elderly people don't stop them from having the same right to vote.  The same differences distinguish normal adults from Chuck the Chimp.  He too has no idea what the election is about, and might fill in the circles at random.  Surely we will have gone wrong somewhere if we conclude that Chuck has the right to vote. It's not inconsistent, and not speciesist, to say he doesn't.

But why isn't it inconsistent or speciesist? Here's how I think this works.  Rights are "multiply realizable."  In other words, a right doesn't always have exactly the same basis.  The primary basis for the right to vote is a certain set of interests and abilities that are possessed by normal adults.  They have a stake in the running of the country, and they have the ability to rationally reflect on who would be the best leaders, which would be the best policies, etc.  But that's not the only basis, and Elderly Bob doesn't have his right to vote on that basis. He has his right to vote on the basis that there would be all sorts of negative repercussions if intelligence tests were administered to people as they age.  This is because of the way younger people would anticipate the testing, and because of the unreliability of the tests, and the way the system might be abused, etc.  So Elderly Bob's right is based on a a very complicated "big" set of facts, not on the abilities that reside in his own head.

Now, what about Chuck the Chimp?  He doesn't have a right to vote on the narrow basis that normal adults do, because he lacks the relevant abilities.  But he also doesn't have a right to vote on the basis that Elderly Bob does. In short, it takes looking "under the hood" at the multiple bases for rights to see why it makes perfectly good sense for individuals as similar as Chuck the Chimp and Elderly Bob to have different rights.  There's nothing speciesist or inconsistent about saying they differ in their rights.

Now, going back to the original argument, which is supposed to establish only the very most basic rights for animals (like a right to life), the same sort of analysis may apply.  The very most basic rights of normal adults have a basis in certain abilities--fairly sophisticated ones like being aware of yourself and having a notion of your own "good."  But there may be a secondary basis for the same rights that accounts for another group having it--say, babies. There can be a tertiary basis that accounts for yet another group having the right--e.g., the elderly impaired.  There can be a whatever-ary basis that accounts for yet another group having the right.   If all of that is correct, then between-human differences in abilities may not generate differences of rights, because the alternative bases are present in various humans; while between-species differences in abilities do generate differences, because both the relevant abilities and the alternative bases are absent.

That is a perfectly coherent possibility, and if it's true, we'd be able to assert that animals have no rights without being guilty of inconsistency or speciesism.  Obviously, the devil is in the details. You can pretty quickly see the primary and the secondary basis of the right to vote, and how Elderly Bob is enfranchised, but not Chuck the Chimp.  There's nothing speciesist or inconsistent going on there.  But is the primary basis for the right to life really that sophisticated?  And what about the secondary or tertiary (etc.) bases that generate the most basic rights in Elderly Bob and babies (etc.) but not in Chuck the chimp?  What are they?

I think they are "big" facts about the whole human community, and how human earlier selves care about their later selves, and about how humans think about and care about friends and family,  and about how humans imagine themselves in the each others' shoes, etc.  Granted, that's sketchy, but what I find very clear is that rights don't emanate from individual abilities, and just individual abilities.  For the "same differences argument" to go through, they would have to. So the argument is no good. 

Bottom line: I'm not going to make a rights argument why the great apes should be protected.  Stay tuned (in coming weeks) for more on the argument I'm actually making.

12/31 (12:05 pm) -- I made a few changes for clarity soon after posting this.


The Poll... and a Visit to Gnufunland

After pondering for a while... I think I've got to agree with the majority, who say believers get more pleasure out of Handel's Messiah. There were some convincing arguments in the "Christmas Poll" thread, but I would add The Argument from This Land is Your Land.   Surely part of the enjoyment comes from having the thoughts about America the song inspires. Ditto, the Messiah.  Can't exult?  Then there's got to be at least a tad less enjoyment.


I checked in on the "gnus" yesterday and found the question du jour was whether "gnu atheism" is helping (more here today). I attempted to have an opinion, but then I got confused by the terminology. Is the question about open atheism in general--with all its diverse representatives?  Or is the question about the particular brand of atheism espoused by people who refer to themselves as "new atheists," like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett? Or is the question about the even smaller subset of "new atheists" who call themselves "gnu atheists"?

I'll give credit to the entire category--open atheism--for helping atheists come out of the shadows.  I have too much anecdotal evidence of that to ignore it. As for the effects of smaller subsets (the News and the Gnus), and effects besides greater openness...who gnows?


Hope your holiday is proceeding merrily.


If Science and Religion Conflict....

So here's a fun topic to discuss over Christmas dinner.  Does the first amendment prohibit the teaching of science, assuming science and religion are in conflict?  Michael Ruse has been getting the royal treatment in the atheosphere (as in, "off with his head") for making this argument--
Suppose we agree to the conflict thesis throughout, and that if you accept modern science then religion—pretty much all religion, certainly pretty much all religion that Americans want to accept—is false. Is it then constitutional to teach science?

The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution separates science and religion. (Don’t get into arguments about wording. That is how it has been interpreted.) You cannot legally teach religion in state schools, at least not in biology and other science classes. That was the issue in Arkansas and Dover. (I am not talking about current affairs or like courses.) But now ask yourself. If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim? And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want science removed from schools. I want an answer to my question, one which comes up because of the dictates of the Constitution.
My diagnosis: no need for decapitation, but this isn't convincing.  Here's Ruse's argument, step by step...

(1)  Assume science is incompatible with religion in the sense that they make inconsistent claims about the same domain (e.g. "God made humans"/"Unguided evolution made humans").

(2)  Then science implies that God does not exist.

(3)  "God exists" is a religion claim, and so is "God does not exist."  Neither can be taught in public schools, under the first amendment.

(4)  Creationism implies that God exists and therefore can't be taught in public schools.

(5)  Science implies that God doesn't exist in the same way that creationism implies that God exists.

(6)  Science can't be taught in public schools.

Moral of the story (according to Ruse)--think twice before assuming that religion and science are incompatible, because it leads to a very unwelcome conclusion.  (Of course, this isn't proof of compatibility.  It's just supposed to be a nudge in that direction.)

Ruse is asking science-religion "incompatibilists" to worry about conservative religious folk who might try to drive science out of schools, if (1) is assumed. But I don't think these folks are going to reason from (1) to (6)...at least, not if they're consistent.  This sort of reasoning would lead them places they don't want to go. To wit...

Just as some secularists believe in science-religion incompatibility, many conservative religious folk believe in values-irreligion incompatibility.  So similar reasoning would force them them to think all the values have to be drained out of public education.  There goes teachers being able to talk about virtues like honesty and integrity, the value of literature and art, and good or bad historical events or people.

Reasoning from things like (1) to things like (6) gets you in hot water, pretty fast.  But never fear, nobody really should reason from (1) to (6), even if (1) is true. That's because (5) is false.  "God exists" is a proposition right there in the body of Creationism.  By contrast, "God does not exist" is not a proposition in the body of any science.  To get to it from science, you need to add philosophical premises, and you have to deliberately direct attention away from normal science topics and to clearly religious topics.

Teaching X, where X may indirectly and covertly (and only via philosophical premises) lead to a religious claim, (whether "God exists" or "God doesn't exist")  is surely not prohibited under the first amendment.  Secularists and religious people have reason to agree to that--the first because they care so much about science education, and may think science implies "God doesn't exist.  The second because they care so much about values education, and may think values imply "God exists."

Bottom line...Science-religion incompatibility may be false, but it doesn't have to be false to ensure that public schools keep covering what they ought to cover.


Christmas Poll

Recently I read Paul Bloom's book How Pleasure WorksThe book offers ample evidence that pleasure is not just a question of nerve endings, but of background beliefs. What you believe can alter how something feels, tastes, sounds. For example, believing that you're hearing a million dollar Stradivarius played by a top violinist will make most people enjoy the music more.  So this occurs to me (and occurred to me many times before I read Bloom).  Take music like Handel's Messiah.  Is it more enjoyable for believers, considering that they really do exult in the Messiah's birth, and non-believers don't?  Or do believers and non-believers enjoy it equally?  Take the poll, top right.

Evidence of Relativism?

I'm inclined to think most people believe there are truths about morality.  Students may mouth moral relativism, but if I flipped a coin to assign them grades, they'd say that was really wrong, not just wrong by some personal or cultural standard.  Grades should be awarded for work, not randomly. 

But Joshua Knobe & Co have been studying the question experimentally, and they claim to have found evidence that the folk really do incline toward relativism.

Here’s how one of their studies worked.  Subjects were told about a moral disagreement between X and Y about this incident: Dylan buys an expensive new knife and tests its sharpness by randomly stabbing a passerby on the street.   X thought that was impermissible, and Y thought it was permissible. The subjects were asked to agree (7) or disagree (1) (or somewhere in between) with the statement "at least one [X or Y]  had to be wrong." 

When the subjects were told X and Y were both classmates, the average score was 5--so they leaned toward the view that at least one had to be wrong. Next they were told X and Y were a classmate and a “Mamilon”—a member of a warlike Amazonian tribe.   Subjects were told the classmate thought Dylan’s action was impermissible and the Mamilon thought Dylan’s action was permissible.  Now the average score dropped down to 4. They were more reluctant to think at least one had to be wrong.  When Y was made even more exotic--an alien, the average score dropped down even further, to 3.

Knobe & Co. read this as showing that subjects assess a disagreement between X and Y relative to the standards X and Y bring to the table, instead of by some absolute, objective standard.  When X and Y are culturally similar, there's one standard, so one of them has to be wrong if they disagree.  When X and Y are culturally dissimilar, there can be two standards, so they can both be right if they disagree.  This is a bit like how if two people are in Texas and disagree about the time, one must be wrong, but if two people are in Texas and Iceland and disagree about the time, then they can both be right.

To which I say: hmm.  There's another way to read the shift from 5 to 4 to 3.  It might just show that the subjects feel a duty to be "nice" about exotic people.  They judge what their classmate says, and suspend judgment about the exotic Mamilon.  And he sure is exotic.  Not only is he a member of a primitive, war-like tribe, but the very bizarreness of his judgment about Dylan attests to his exoticism. The alien is even more exotic. That immediately gets us in our non-bullying, high sensitivity, “I better be tolerant” mood. 

That sort of tolerance is explicitly taught in schools.  I distinctly remember the first time I encountered words like "ethnocentrism" and "cultural chauvinism" in 9th grade.   Even more vividly, I remember a big lecture about tolerance on the first day of a college anthropology class.  These days I think children receive massive amounts of tolerance education starting in elementary school.  The more exotic a view is, the more we're supposed to be nice and not judge people who have it.  The studies done by Knobe & Co. don't seem to tease apart relativism about moral truth and a tolerance reaction that increases as the difference between X and Y gets greater.

Just as we are encouraged to be non-judgmental if people think and behave differently, we are also encouraged not to think about exotic victims.  If people are getting stabbed as people try out their knives, so....what?  So I think it would help if the incident weren't quite so bizarre.  That would quiet down our inner anthropologist.  Plus, it would help to increase subjects' concern for victims.  So here goes--an alternative incident and pair of judges.

The incident is that you (dear subject) are studying abroad in Strangeland. You work very hard all semester, and at the end of the semester Professor Strange flips a coin. Heads, A, tails, C.  When you complain about your C, you discover that in that culture, they believe everything happens for a reason.  So the coin wouldn't have come up heads if you hadn't deserved a C.  It saves time, too.

That's the incident. Now here's the disagreement.  A student from that culture says that way of grading is permissible; on the other hand, your classmate back home says it's impermissible.  Suppose subjects are asked about this Stranger vs. classmate disagreement.  Must at least one be wrong? My prediction: no slide from 5 to 4 to 3.  It's going to be all 5 (or 6 or 7).

I could be wrong, of course (ain't armchair X-Phi fun, and easy too!), but I don't think I have to be convinced by these studies, as done so far. They awaken our inner anthropologist too much and do too little to direct attention to victims.


On further thought, my example needs more work. As it stands, the Strangers just have a strange belief about the facts. They think everything happens for a reason, so they think coin flips reveal which grade students deserve. I should have set it up so the Strangers have a strange moral belief about grading. Maybe they see grading as "degrading" (for the Professor). So they admire the coin-flipping procedure for its dignity. Details needed...but the point remains the same.

Read, Heard, Saw

Everybody's making top 10 lists, so I will too.  Here goes--what I read, heard, and saw in 2010 and really, really liked.

(1)  Ian McEwen, Solar.  A brilliant Nobel-prize winning womanizer and glutton gets involved in a project that's supposed to solve the problem of global warming.  Beautifully written, hilarious, and thought-provoking.  Must we become virtuous for global warming to be dealt with?

(2)  Margaret Atwood, After the Flood.  In the not too far future, environmentalism-cum-religion are set against rampant technology, genetic engineering, and all sorts of toxicity.  The end of the world is very, very nigh.  Unpredictable, complex, lush, poetic, challenging.  Oryx and Crake, the first part of the trilogy, is great too.  Can't wait for book III.

(3)  Jumpha Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth. Short stories about Indian immigrants in college towns. Her writing never calls attention to itself, but quickly evokes a world, a state of mind, a scene.  Your are gripped by the third sentence. So good I read her other two books this year as well--The Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake.

(4)  Keith Richards, Life.  I don't know why Keith told me all his secrets, but he did, and I really enjoyed it.  Subject of my next TPM column.

(5)  Steig Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Crime thrillers aren't usually my thing, but this is unique, atmospheric, and pleasingly strange.  The Julian Assange story will seem like a sequel, to anyone who's read Larsson's three bestsellers.

(6)  Arcade Fire, Suburbia.  Big rock sound, with complexity like a symphony.  Subtle lyrics, interesting emotional range, a cool Neil Young-ish voice.  So good...

(7)  Eminem, Recovery, and other albums.  Rap is constantly blaring in my house. Don't know if this is Stockholm syndrome, but I've become a fan.  For skeptics:  try this or this or this.

(8)  "The Social Network"  Fascinating movie, interesting question:  can you cut a few moral corners, but still be (basically) a good guy?  The movie made me think the answer is yes.  Perfect movie for discussing Susan Wolf's well-known article "Moral Saints."

(9)  "The Hereafter"  Being able to communicate with the dead sure makes life complicated.  This movie would be irksome if it were really trying to make the case, but it isn't.  It's a "what if?" character study. Engrossing and entertaining.

(10)  "Inception" It took seeing it twice to make me a fan. Maybe that's because I hate being confused. The second time I realized it really wasn't just another virtual reality movie. It's about being powerfully drawn into unreality, not about how we can('t) tell the real from the unreal. 

What did you read, hear, see in 2010?


Health Care for 9/11 First Responders

One of the great mysteries of the universe--how can Republicans in the Senate say no to funding medical care for 9/11 first responders?  Second great mystery:  why are they getting away with it?  Where's the outrage?  

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God Debate, Texas Style

In defiance of the authorities, who have prohibited non-Saturday blogging, I'm sneaking in a quick post here.  Over yonder in Fort Worth, you can hop on a "(Millions of Americans are) Good without God" bus and get trailed by an "I still love you.  -God" bus.  LOL.   What non-DFW folk may not know:  those kinds of messages (the one from God, that is) are on lots of billboards in Texas and (I think) further east.

Is this a great country or what?


Sarah Palin's Killing Spree

If you haven't been watching Sarah Palin's Alaska, you're missing something!  It's fascinating on a lot of levels. Turns out Sarah is quite likeable and appealing, up close and personal.  It's amusing the way her kids talk back to her just  a bit.  Bristol makes fun of her prom hair, the youngest daughter disses her hunting prowess.  I like her get up and go, and I mean it.  I kinda do strongly suspecting gallavanting all over Alaska isn't standard procedure for this tireless family, but look--she's gutsy. Must give her credit.

Part of the show's fascination is that it makes you think (constantly)--This is a prelude to a presidential run?  This woman (whatever her personal qualities) sees herself as suited to the job?  It's mind-boggling.  For which reason I do not apologize for the fact that we have Sarah Palin magnets on our refrigerator (brought to you by The Unemployed Philosophers Guild, no less).

We all enjoy dressing up Sarah and giving her suitable accessories. I keep saying: if she just stops the business about becoming president, we will take it down and say nothing but nice things about her...but this is our way of coping for the time being.

Now about all the killing on the show.  It really is relentless.  She blows away a "young cow" (her Dad's description) in one show, bashes halibut to death in another. There's shooting practice every other minute.  Which raises a very interesting question.  Surely (surely!) everything on this show is meant to enhance Sarah Palin's prospects as a presidential candidate.  But what about all the killing?  You'd think that would hurt her image, but apparently someone's making the calculation that it helps. Why?

 Maureen Dowd was contemplating the same question this week, and writes (in a column called "Pass the Caribou Stew"):
The poor caribou in the Arctic Circle, a cousin to Santa’s reindeer, had to die so Palin could show off her toughness to voters and try to boost ratings on her show that have slipped since its premiere. (Next Sunday, she’s dragging up nine Gosselins to go shooting and camping.)

Sarah’s view of America is primitive. You’re either a pointy-headed graduate of Harvard Law School or you’re eviscerating animals for fun, which she presents as somehow more authentic.
In movies with animals, they often have a line in the credits assuring that no animals were harmed. In “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” they should have a line at the end assuring that “almost every living creature involved in this show was harmed.”

The caribou that waited too pliantly in the cross hairs is doomed to become stew for Palin and an allegory for politics. The elegant animal standing above the fray, dithering rather than charging at his foes or outmaneuvering them, is Obambi. Even with a rifle aimed at him, he’s trying to be the most reasonable mammal in the scene, mammalian bipartisan, and rise above what he sees as empty distinctions between the species so that we can all unite at a higher level of being.
Great stuff, but I'm not 100% satisfied. It's one thing to be tough--like Sarah was when she was climbing in Denali National Park on the first show.  But killing is just a bit troubling, even to people who don't officially disapprove.  How then, does it get to be a political plus that Sarah's doing so much killing up there in Alaska?

I think I get it, thanks to reading Jonathan Haidt a lot in the last few weeks, and seeing a TED speech of his from 2008. You can watch from 4:30 to 10:30 and get the main idea--

Haidt's account of the "moral minds" of liberals and conservatives explains both why liberals are likely to find the killing spree morally unappealing, and conservatives are likely to find it morally attractive. A liberal like me will tend to react negatively because I live (for the most part) in a 2-dimensional moral space, defined by concepts of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.  Sarah's harming animals, not caring about them; and it doesn't seem fair to sneak up on an unsuspecting "young cow" and blow her away.

Conservatives live (more, anyway) in a 5-dimensional moral space, defined by those already mentioned, but also by authority/respect, ingroup/loyalty, and purity/pollution.  I suspect killing animals is morally attractive to them because of the authority/respect dimension.  Sarah's killing spree confirms her belief in the hierarchy that places humans over animals.  This also explains the bizarre (to a liberal like me) coupling of guns and God, in the conservative mind-set.  What, huh?  No mystery after all.  It's all about two hierarchies.  Humans over animals (that's the guns part), and God over humans.

Now wait, wait, wait.  There's something to what Maureen Dowd says about Sarah shooting Obambi.  If you're big on hierarchical thinking, shouldn't you show a lot of respect for the president?  So why the conservative disrespect for Obama?  Look away, if you're a conservative who's easily offended.  But I think one factor here is racism.  Remember, the conservative lives in a moral space partly defined by purity/pollution. I think they're none too happy about a (gasp!) black man in the White House, and sad to say, that's what their anti-immigrant fervor is all about too.

And the point is?  Haidt is, as somebody used to say, a uniter, not a divider. He's not actually trying to make liberals and conservatives see each other as foreign, but just the opposite.  On his view, we are all  born stocked with all five "dimensions" of moral thought, but our environments emphasize some dimensions, and de-emphasize others. I see this in my own household, and the way it compares to other people's.  My husband and I have a hard time caring about the authority/respect thing.  When the kids are disrespectful, we don't like it, but we have a hard time working up a big authoritative fit about it.  We know other parents who (believe it or not) even expect their kids to respond to parental commands by saying "yes, ma'am" and "yes sir."

So underneath it all (the idea is) we are all really the same. Plus, Haidt is asking liberals to stop seeing conservative attitudes as anti-moral--blowing away animals, refusing to respect Obama, and keeping out immigrants all do strike me that way.  Rather, we are to see conservatives as seeing morality in more colors than we two-color liberals do. Sarah's killing spree fits into a certain sort of morality that I don't favor, and others do.  And seeing it that way helps us see her less as an alien, and more as a fellow human being.

Good--it's better to understand one another, not demonize other people as utterly anti-moral.  But surely we shouldn't stop there.  Next, we should broach the question of truth.  Is all that authority/respect and purity/pollution stuff really just rubbish?   Should Sarah really be doing all that killing?  Should she (or people like her) really have political power?  Hell no. But it's a fine thing to understand her way of thinking better.



It turns out I've been leaving all comments (on old posts) in moderation for a month or two without knowing it.  So if you left a comment and it never appeared, that's why.  Very sorry. I just discovered the problem today and found some good comments in there (along with all the weird spam...which is why I moderate comments on older posts).

Saturday I plan on writing a post about "Sarah Palin's Alaska."  Oh come on, don't tell me you aren't watching!  The big puzzle:  why is it a political asset to do all that killing on camera?  We'll try to figure it out....


"The Atheist Agenda"

Yesterday I attempted to do some shopping while listening to Point of Inquiry on my ipod--the result being that I lost my shopping cart in Target several times, the episodes were so interesting.  I listened to two shows--one a debate between Chris Mooney, Hemant Mehta ("The Friendly Atheist") and David Silverman (president of American Atheists) and the other an interview Robert Price did with John Shook, author of the new book The God Debates.  Right, that's a lot of time in Target.

One of the bones of contention between Mooney and David Silverman was whether today's vocal atheists "want to convert people."  Or perhaps "deconvert people," as John Shook likes to say.   Silverman insisted nobody was going door to door.   Yet Mooney pointed to Silverman's excitement over statistics showing that "none" was the fastest growing religion in the US.  At the very least, energetic atheists do want to see religion vanish from the world, however the change comes about.  Mooney said he didn't especially want that, since some people are better off with religion than they'd be without it.

I think it's too often assumed that atheism is not just a belief--that there is no god--but some set of desires.  Atheism automatically comes with an agenda.  That's what John Shook seems to be assuming in this passage from his blog--"Primatologist and ethnologist [sic] Frans de Waal has recently stated his opposition to atheism’s agenda, unable to imagine a world with no religion."    Atheism's agenda.   Surely there's no such thing.  Atheism is a belief, not a desire or set of desires.

But wait, if you believe something, how could you not want everyone else to believe it too?  Actually, pretty easily.  When I think about free will, I (often) reach the conclusion that there isn't any.  But no, I don't want everyone else to believe that too.  Life probably goes much better if people keep believing in free will.  A different sort of example:  I believe that Tolstoy is the greatest novelist ever.  But I have no particular desire for everyone to believe that.  In fact, the world's probably a better place for the fact that people have different beliefs about what's good literature. Sometimes you want others to share your beliefs, sometimes you don't care, sometimes you do. Having beliefs is one thing, having preferences about who shares them is another.

I think some of the negative charge of the word "atheism" stems from the connotation of an agenda. That's why many atheists don't use the word, or use it, but say "I'm an atheist, but..." (to Richard Dawkins' chagrin).  What they're trying to emphasize is that atheism, for them, is a matter of belief, not of desire.  It's a needed clarification, the more that people like Silverman and Shook take it for granted that there's such a thing as "atheism's agenda."


Elevation and Disgust

So...I'm wrapping up teaching Jonathan Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis.  By a fun coincidence, my class read the chapter about religion (Chapter 9) on a day when I headed for some religion myself.  Last night we went to the annual Hanukah celebration at my temple.

Haidt has an interesting theory about the emotions involved in religion.  Religion fosters experience along a dimension he calls "divinity."  If I understand him right, his view is that the "divine" and the "disgusting" are opposite ends of a single continuum.  In fact, religion deals with both ends--its job is to keep the disgusting at bay, and cultivate the experience of divinity.

Anybody, religious or not, can experience divinity.  It involves having a sense of elevation--possible within religious settings, and also outside of them. In fact, one study of elevation focused on subjects (lactating women, actually) watching people express gratitude on the Oprah show.  The study showed that the emotion of elevation correlates strongly with surging oxytocin.  It's not really surprising that elevation has a hormonal basis, since it has lots of physical manifestations--goose bumps, spine tingling pleasure, tears of joy.

At the service, I was on the look out for feelings of elevation.  Do I have them, despite being a total skeptic? I do indeed.  Starting about 10 years ago, when my kids were going to the temple's pre-school, I started attending kiddie services with them.  I was practically  dragged kicking and screaming, so I wasn't looking for elevation.  I was actually looking to guard them against indoctrination.  Surprise, surprise.  I loved these services.  I think Haidt captures what I felt and still feel: elevation.  What are the the triggers? I think it's the sheer feeling of being part of a group, but also perceived virtues in the group--like perseverance, reverence, and humility. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum (says Haidt) there's disgust.  Conservative religions imagine there's a lot to be disgusted by--menstruating women, mixing meat and milk, homosexuality, etc. Liberal religion is "all elevation, no disgust." Or rather, just ordinary disgust.  I was amused to find out what my students find disgusting (top secret!), but one example of mine is being seated right next to the bathroom in a restaurant. Let's do keep eating separate from excreting.

What I'm trying to figure out is why we ought to think the very same psychological system outputs both feelings of disgust and feelings of elevation.  Why see it that way?  What sort of evidence would show it was one system, not two?  Is it really?