Greatest Hits

This blog's most popular (or at least most commented upon) posts in 2009 were about topics as far apart as atheism and animal rights, yet were in a way about the same thing. On both subjects, I have an attitude that's sometimes derided as "accommodationist." I think there's such a thing as too boldly challenging religion, or doing so at the wrong time or in the wrong place or in the wrong tone, and unnecessarily alienating potential allies in important battles. In the sphere of animal rights, animal advocates must sometimes settle for reform instead of revolution, working toward the possible, and not just toward the ideal. They need to take a broad view of who's a friend and who's an enemy.

This sort of pragmatism is so obviously right to my mind that I've spent a lot of time pondering why it makes people mad. In the case of atheism, perhaps it all comes down to the fact that in the last five years, the new atheists have made it easier to openly talk about non-belief. I do "get" that it's annoying to be "hushed" when (admittedly) nobody has hard data to support the claim that science advocacy is more effective when it isn't married to rambunctious atheism.

I'm far, far more baffled by the hostility toward pragmatism about animal rights and wrongs. Without getting into all the ins and outs of this stuff, here's what I'm starting to think. If you are involved in a movement that wants basic change, you've got to ask yourself "what time is it?" in that moment. If the hour is very, very early--the practice is ubiquitous, entrenched, and widely accepted--then it's downright irrational (and even immoral) not to work toward both reform and revolution. If it's the eve of revolution, and much can be gained by insisting on that and that alone, then activism may have to take another form.

It's a very, very early hour in the movement to change the status of animals. The vast majority of animal advocates and organizations (of many different ideological stripes) know that, and so act accordingly--looking to build a broad based moment that focuses on a wide range of goals, from the very possible to the very ideal. They're not corrupt for doing so, and their pragmatism says nothing about what kind of change they would like to see in the long run.

So much for that...maybe.


Peter said...

"In the case of atheism, perhaps it all comes down to the fact that in the last five years, the new atheists have made it easier to openly talk about non-belief"

I admit, I can't talk about the USA, but with regards Britain this is a laughable claim. Before the new atheists wrote their stuff, it was very very easy to openly talk about non-belief. After they've wrote their stuff, it is still ridiculously easy to talk openly about non-belief (by "ridiculously easy" I do not mean to imply that it should be harder).

Jean Kazez said...

Well OK, in my own milieu (academia, philosophy) it's never been hard to talk about atheism, but maybe in the greater community these things have changed a bit. Where I live (in Dallas) it really isn't a good idea to go around using the word "atheist." People literally get offended--like it's an insult to them if you don't believe in God. Maybe, just maybe, it's helped the way the word's been visible on bestseller lists in the last 5 years, though I could be imagining things. Once upon a time you rarely heard the word used in public, and now you do.

s. wallerstein said...

Animal rights, at least the issue of factory farming, seems to me to be a far more pressing moral imperative than the status of atheists. Nowhere that I know of are atheists singled out for persecution: in Muslim countries atheists are persecuted, but along with Jews, Buddhists, agnostics, deists and pantheists. In the New Year spirit let me list what I feel to be the most pressing moral imperatives: climate change, the oppression of women, lack of democracy, unequal distribution of wealth, unequal access to education, unequal access to healthcare, religious intolerance, factory-farming.

The persecution of atheists in some societies would go under the heading of religious intolerance. However, the fact that atheists feel that they cannot declare their lack of belief in PTA meetings in the Bible Belt, while unfortunate, does not qualify as serious religious persecution nor does should it be included among major evils such as climate change or the lack of access to healthcare, etc.

Jean Kazez said...

In western countries it's very easy to hide atheism, since we are all taught that religion is a private matter. We don't have to make public avowals of faith or show up in church, or anything of the sort. So there's a limit to how miserable it can be to be an atheist. Then again, maybe all the hiding makes atheists want to speak up, when possible.

It does fascinate me that disbelief should be taboo and belief should be regarded as a civic virtue. It's especially weird considering that the content of the belief doesn't seem to matter. You can believe in the most bizarre tenets of any religion, and still that's take to be better than atheism.

Well anyway...even if atheism isn't one of the world's most pressing problems, I'll probably get back to the topic in 2010. I think the underlying interesting issue is how people can live together with mutual respect despite profoundly disagreeing about ultimate matters.

s. wallerstein said...

That is strange, that you can be a Mormon or belong to whatever weird sect or that rates higher than being an atheist. I'll play the instant psychoanalyst and suggest that atheism is everyone's dirty secret, so to speak, that everyone, at least in Western countries, is a closet atheist and that an out of the closet atheist threatens people's hidden inner atheist (as a friend always says, if they really believe in an after-life, why are they so afraid of dying?), much as an out of the closet gay threatens to make explicit the bisexual tendencies and/or fantasies that everyone or almost everyone has
from time to time.

s. wallerstein said...

Let me put it another way. God is dead, whether He exists or not. Atheism makes most believers very uncomfortable because it makes the fact that God is dead all too clear. I take Nietzsche phrase, "God is dead" to signify that God is increasingly irrelevant in contemporary society, except for an hour on Sunday.

Jean Kazez said...

I think people have the idea that there are two realms--

(1) Material, commercial, short-term, dog-eats-dog, greedy, pragmatic, body-focused, etc.

(2) Divine, meaningful, good, lofty, idealistic, long-lasting, altruistic, soul-focused etc.

There's a very widespread notion that atheists are stuck in realm (1) and so can't be trusted.

s. wallerstein said...

You're probably right. Your theory makes more sense than mine. (I bet you never thought you'd read that in a blog.)

Melissa said...

Another brilliant post, Jean!I couldn't agree more.

The behavior and attitudes of many vegans -- the zealotry, intolerance, and so on -- would make for an interesting psychological study. Could it be argued that veganism is a religion?

Jean Kazez said...

Amos--I think there are folks out there like you describe, but on the whole it just seems like people equate God and Good. So atheists must be bad people, because they don't believe in God/Good.


I actually never even knew these intolerant vegans existed until I encountered them here during Gary Days back in November. All the vegans I've had in my Animal Rights class (not many) have been perfectly reasonable folks without any contempt for latte-addicted vegetarians like myself. So I am very, very intrigued by the super-zealous crowd. They say the damnedest things...even attacking other vegans if they aren't utterly fastidious about reading packages. One of the commenters here said he'd love to see vegetarian animal activists get the hell out of Dodge...

Honestly, I'm amazed. You may be right that super-veganism is like a religion... complete with high priests who are not to be questioned or criticized.