(Fair warning: this will spiral a bit, in getting where it’s going, and so I feel I should warn you of this, if you’re really interested in following the whole thing. But I think there are times for that.)
So Patrick Madden had a recent conversation with Eduardo Galeano, about, among other things, oddly enough, the Newtown school massacre, and the current government of Uruguay.
It’s a very humanist conversation, seems to me. Few answers, sure. But some very good questions. I hereby recommend it for reading.
… me, however, I’m going to take from it as jumping off point (somewhat artifically) one nice little observation in there:
… given certain large-scale conditions, a society will produce its garbage pickers or mass murderers.
This, I think is fair enough to say. Something that safe and general usually is, granted.
But, now, jumping (initially, apparently) sideways from that:
There’s been some back and forth in the blogs and in the fora (I am fond of understatement) about whether being an atheist should imply some sort of social role, some sort of progressive social activism, what should or could be the roles of atheist and skeptical groups in social causes.
Some of these questions, I think, at the broadest level, are incredibly easy to answer. Should an atheist be against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation? Should an atheist be for the equality of women?
Well, sure, I think they should. The same way I think an atheist should oppose slavery.
But then, of course, I also think everyone should. On all of those things. And if their religion gets in the way of their doing so, they should get rid of that, too. (And also, of course, I think everyone should just be an atheist, anyway. I mean, let’s not mess around, here.)
There’s a more focused version of the question, however. That being: whether you bear some particular responsibility, having been one of those who’s already grasped that gods are fairy tales, for standing up for some of this stuff, speaking on this stuff, thinking about this stuff.
And, okay, that gets more complicated.
But do let’s get into it, all the same. I like complicated.
So, toward discussing that question: religions have traditionally claimed various social roles that weigh upon how these things are resolved in our societies. And, obviously, many of their pressures haven’t exactly been what we’d call in progressive directions. Ditching the religion alone, you might like to think, might be positive enough a step all on its own. At least you’re no longer a part of that problem, right?
But, really, the truth is, that’s at best ‘might be’. There are many confounding factors. First, while there’s no question that religions have been central in holding in place traditional hierarchies–and this has been a key formula from the earliest states we know anything about–from the royal cults of pharonic Egypt, through the monarchies of Europe, down to the surviving theocratic monarchies of the middle East, not to mention the continuing role religion plays in Western states now to various degrees formally secularized but in which certain of the more stone age priests do continue to try to get their oars in on such issues as NRTs and abortion and even wars and so on–anyway, while there’s no question that religions have been central in holding in place traditional hierarchies, we know very well societies can be made authoritarian miseries by other mechanisms. Absent religion, you can still have brutal and rigid hierarchies, and you can still have absolute rule, and you can still have police states, and you can still have dictators, and even minus all those, you can almost certainly still have deep inequalities and injustices.
And more relevant to most of our societies: wherever they came from, it looks very much to me as though certain notions about power and control and equality can probably fly a long way on their own quite without a priesthood insisting they’re supported by divine writ. There might still be men convinced they are the natural masters of women, I expect, centuries after there were pulpits left from which to proclaim this as a holy notion. We have seen all manner of not-explicitly religious excuses for the mistreatment of minorities. If not religious, they tend more to the pseudoscientific in character. And we have seen various peculiar not-explicitly-religious arguments for why homosexuality will corrupt the species, and so on, none of which seem like especially well-thought-through briefs on public health policy, nor is the population genetics work particularly clearly added up…
And this, of course, you’ll note, does already sound a bit like the purview of skeptics. Pseudoscience, right? That’s supposed to be what such groups eat noisily and messily for breakfast.
But it’s a funny thing, about all that: it often appears to me people are happiest to be vocally skeptical about the things that have the least actual direct impact upon their society. Talking people out of believing in Bigfoot, for example, might straighten out a few of the minds in which that specific and peculiar delusion exists, and, perhaps, if you’re lucky, might teach them the value of skeptical thinking in general, but beyond this, you get to suspecting all it really shifts is which books and videos they spend their money upon, and whether or not they waste a lot of weekends traipsing about the bushes with video cameras looking for vaguely bipedal, hairy blurs to film. Astrology, it’s much the same deal. Working out that it’s bunkum, it’s good as an exercise, straightens that one thing out, and, sure, has implications, if people think them through, get in the habit of thinking about, say, the psychology of a cold read and so on. But how directly and heavily the hammer of insight there is likely to fall upon society and behaviour, again, it’s not a guaranteed huge yield.
Now, merely pointing out there’s no god, I think that’s likely to be far more useful than either of those, all on its own. That tends to promise to do a lot more, I think, just because of the social roles religions have filled. You’re a step ahead of debunking Bigfoot, when you’re debunking Yahweh. Bigfoot doesn’t have a position on capital punishment.
But then leaving it at that, saying, well, listen, there’s no god, that’s all I’ve got to say about that, you figure out the rest, I dunno. Seems a bit arbitrary, stopping at that. Theological hokum did not exist in a vaccuum. It’s been deeply entrenched within–and had impacts upon–our cultures for millenia. So that there are no gods, this has consequences.
I say it seems a bit arbitrary. But I think it’s far from inexplicable. And as a big part of it, I think what people are happy publicly to call out as nonsense largely comes down to social risk, social cost, social capital. It’s generally just easier to say astrology is silly, versus telling someone their god is a fiction. This having a lot to do with the relative impacts of those two insights, and the dominance of the institutions defending those notions. And then, saying just ‘I don’t believe in your god’ versus saying ‘I don’t believe in your god and I think you’re dead wrong on these sixty different points of public policy and it’s very likely that many of these disagreements are deeply confounded by your insistence on holding to your religion’, the former is a lot less work to argue, too, at least. And, finally, and most trivially: it isn’t really that difficult working out that gods are fictions–with due respect to the capabilities of those who’ve done it on their own, I think getting there is really more about courage than about intellectual acumen. These were never particularly clever fictions, after all, and they were largely held in place by the social dominance of the institutions that promulgated them. As that erodes, people get there, and as those institutions’ power to silence this insight erodes, people say what they’ve worked out. But working out what are the larger implications of this, this is far more challenging.
Getting now to a piece of why this matters: several of the bigger troublemakers among the modern religions were, at various times, state and imperial religions, and what they teach is, unsurprisingly, reflective of that. They get along haltingly and awkwardly at best with democratic states because they served for millenia as critical comoponents of states that were not at all democratic. You get bizarre contempt for reason and rights and a deeply authoritarian, top-down view of power and control because kings and feudal systems get along with those kinds of notions pretty well.
Now–and yes, I’m going somewhere with this–hierarchies are interesting things. The trick is to try to keep each level stable, by trading power around. The baron orders the baronet orders the knight, and so on down to the serf… You get orders, you get to give orders; you’re given your reason to keep the whole thing together in the power and prestige you have. You gotta listen to the guys above, but you get to boss those below, lucky you.
Something interesting and obviously significant to this discussion happens at the level of the serf, especially, however. When you’re getting down close to that broad base of the hierarchy, you’re running out of options, in terms of who else you can put them in charge of. So it’s almost a forced move to tell the poor bastard tilling the field and serving in the army at the sovereign’s whim: you, you there, I know you’re thinking you’re kind of on the bottom of this thing, but actually, hey, at least you’re in charge of your household. This woman must do as you say, as will your children. God wills it… And we have the priests, here, as the feudal version of the secret police, to keep an eye on how you do and how you play in the larger order. So congrats, man, you too are now a middle manager, in this great, cosmic order. Go now, and have fun with this thing…
This being a slightly flip 101 level of the discussion, of course. But anyway, it’s always seemed a bit like quitting the job at morning break, to me, just saying ‘work it out for yourself how it all should work now that you know none of this comes from any god; me, I’ve no opinion’. That there are implications, that families, too, can be democracies, that, actually, power can be shared around just fine even within those, and how this is to be done, all of this matters pretty intensely, at the end of the day, in real lives. Just saying, look, I staked your god through the heart, I’m done, leave me out of it, I don’t want to have to think about it beyond this, it’s a bit of a cop out.
Nor, in fairness, is it at all surprising, as the old hierarchies begin to upend, that people start biting and binding on the immediate implications for their own lives. Especially those poor bastards in the fields, if they’re really not seeing a whole hell of a lot of real immediate benefit yet from the freedoms they’re theoretically enjoying, telling them, now, actually, one part of that, it’s over, guy… Your wife is no longer your chattel. Live with it, will ya? I expect it’s a bit much to take. You weren’t master of much, but we gave you this. Now that’s gone. The reaction, unsurprisingly, I think, is naturally a mite uneven.
And see also that one observation of Galeano’s up there: there are things in need of fixing, and things causing them. As some of them probably do come, to a degree, out of social messes left by religions and their related hierarchies (or, more rigourously, now out of the larger context left as they confusedly retreat and rally and grudgingly give ground, and in a rapidly changing context into which technological progress also regularly throws new and peculiar curve balls), I tend to look to those of you who’ve worked some of this stuff out on your own for some sense, here. And you may have to get used to it. I can’t so much ask the churches, thing is.
Now there’s a reasonable question about that line of thinking, granted. Religions tended to offer moral prescriptions about behaviour they explicitly attach to their purloined authority. Do this because our god says so, trust us, he really does…
The fair question is: just because you’re kicking the religion out, do you need to offer answers to the same questions? Do you need to fill the same role? Do you even want to? Is there even a role that needs filling?
The answers to all of those are complicated. And, in fact, I think, about the responsibility for working through moral and ethical questions and prescriptions, it’s both yes and no.
Let’s start with the no: it seems to me that religions may not make rules for quite the same reasons secular societies have interests in making them. Religions have somewhat different drivers, somewhat different considerations, and rather different constraints.
Specifically: religions probably do make and preserve and attempt to enforce entirely gratuitous rules essentially as badges of belonging, or proof of group membership. Peculiar things setting them apart, like prohibitions on certain foodstuffs and mandatory rituals, and these can be quite arbitrary, potentially even quite draconian, as a follower who sacrifices a sufficiently significant earthly pleasure commits themselves thereby. I think any secular organization that starts getting in the habit of doing that kind of thing should be rethinking things, obviously. And, of course, religions frequently answer questions (and insist upon their answer as doctrinal and mandatory), that, outside the assumptions of the religion, aren’t even questions. It really isn’t terribly important to anyone, to take the classic example, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
But outside that problem, I think, as a practical matter, we’re going to have to step up, take some responsibility, to some degree, for working out what’s right, what’s fair, what’s allowed, how you treat people, what are the social mores, if we expect to see religions entirely out of that business. Because religions have taken on and intruded within the role of law making and moral code making, in the past; it hasn’t all been about badges of belonging and bizarrely abtruse theology. Even beyond the simple fact that, formally, if you’re a citizen of a modern democracy, you already effectively bear some responsibility for that, anyway. As, at the Civics 101 level, now, theoretically, there’s a process for the forming of law, and the government you elect is to follow that, sure, but that probably only covers so much of the ground that needs attention.
… and note also: the role of an unbeliever and the way they’re going to do it is going to be (or sure as hell should be) very different than, say, was the role of the clergy and of the laity below them. We obviously can’t just say ‘the god so orders’, nor is it generally going to be convenient nor responsible simply to sign off on a ready-made moral code. Our reasoning, it’s going to have to be more multifaceted, more open ended, more wedded to the process of taking the read of everyone involved, looking at results, asking ourselves: what do we want, what’s the best we can do, how do we get along? How’s it working so far?1
The larger point, I think though, is: religions have been embedded within our societies for thousands of years. They’ve insinuated themselves into the social fabric in a myriad of ways. They’ve attempted to dictate those social mores and conventions and beyond, some coopted and absorbed from mostly universal codes, some more peculiar to the given religion.
To take a nice, easy, illustrative parallel, I see it like this: religious insititutions once were responsible for a lot of hospitals and universities. Sure, there are no gods, and religions are complicated and frequently rather toxic tapestries woven around what’s essentially a socially transmitted fiction, but we still need hospitals and universities. Oh, and by the way, if you want those to work better, it so happens disentangling them from the religion is generally a good move, as Savita Halappanavar might also suggest, were she still alive to do so.
Softer, more nebulous, less formal things, those social mores, those customs, they’re a similar problem. As are laws, and formal principles around what are the individuals’ rights within the national group, and what are their obligations toward it. Religions have tended to get their fingers into those, yes, but just because they didn’t do it quite the way a secular democratic society might prefer doesn’t mean this doesn’t need to be done at all.
So this, necessarily, is still someone’s responsibility. And as an unbeliever or not, you do have a certain chunk of that on your plate–a certain civic responsibility to think these things through, have some idea where you stand on this stuff. And I think–given especially that there are still sects around that try to push things their way, and a lot of conventions and attitudes coasting through from former eras when they held more sway–unbelievers especially also need to be ready to push, to say: it’s being done wrong, now, and this is how I think it should be.
I’m going to try take a hint from Galeano and Madden, and try not to answer this too finally, here, still. It’s a big order. But it does seem to me: there’s much still needs upending, much still upending itself on its own whether or not we’re even the ones doing the shoving, and there’s evidently work still to be done. And democracy is about all of us doing our bit, putting something in, trying to work out what’s fair, doing our bit to work it out, say how it should be…
And I think also a lot of those old notions we’ve had around a very long time about the subjugation of women, and tribal attitudes about the ‘different’ in society, these are not easy things to handle, nor things that are necessarily just going to wither if we stop watering them. Call them the shadows of superstition, though that, too, is shorthand, and oversimplified, as their roots may well go deeper. Still, the point is: just saying ‘there are no gods; haven’t you noticed?’ and calling that your contribution seems a bit lazy, and not especially wise, given this.
How deeply any activism gets attached to any movement or organization, this, I guess, is another matter. And I’ve really no problem if people want to run clubs in which they focus entirely upon enthusiastically debunking belief in Bigfoot, and nothing more. I’m sure those have their place. I’m not likely to spend a lot of time at their meetings, sure, but they have their place.
But, tentatively trying to answer this in part, all the same: around fixing things, working out the right sides of things, pushing against what’s broken, and what’s been broken a long time, and broken partly because society was once built very differently than we now aim to do–or even can now do, if we are to try to hew to intellectual honesty and stop falsely selling laws as following from unimpeachable holy writ: should atheists have additional responsibility for this?
This depends, actually. But, sometimes, yes. Or rather: I think it would be lovely if they’d make a point of trying to take some, anyway.
But about that ‘depends’…
From my point of view, the first complicating thing is: people stop believing in gods for all kinds of reasons, some of them pretty sensible, some of them less so. Just because you say you’ve no gods doesn’t necessarily recommend you to me as someone whose judgement I’m necessarily going to treasure deeply. So, for me, at least, if we’re asking if I’m particularly interested in a given unbeliever weighing in on this stuff, a lot depends on how they got where they did. ‘Atheist’ covers a lot of ground. It doesn’t necessarily also mean ‘thoughtful’.
And beyond this, people are busy. And it’s a big, complicated world. And, honestly, some of us, just getting to the point where we can stand apart and say here I am, this is what I believe (and don’t), that’s been a bit of an uphill struggle, and one with, occasionally, some steep costs. Expecting more, it seems to me, there can be overtones approaching sadism in that. And if you’ve really no time for thinking something through, I guess the world is better off with no answer at all from you, than the first stupid notion that pops into your head.
Still, if you’ve left your religion behind, or never darkened the door of a religious congregation in the first place, it gives me some hope you may not fall back upon the old formulae those have been flogging for centuries and millenia, and that you’re theoretically, at least, free to work this out for yourself, and discuss it on the open playing field of what is likely to work, what we can get together and agree upon, as opposed to appealing to a deity or an ancient code or this tradition or that. You’re starting from the right direction, seems to me. This being the twenty-first century, and us trying to get secular societies to work and disentangle themselves from certain attitudes that seem to shamble on, like zombies from the bronze age, this may well prove a useful property.
So I think my rough guide would be: if you demonstrate a working mind, and a little courage, and got and stood here for reasons I respect as sensible, I might be more minded to flatter you for this achievement of yours by being a bit of a bastard and asking to hear a little more from you, still. And on things a little more concrete and with more impact on your society than the abstract points of epistemology and theology.
Partly because: I think the world needs you. As mentioned above: there are still lots of people still reading holy writ, intoning that woman shall submit to her husband, that stoning gays is the will of some astral patriarch. It’s useful, with people like that around, having people like you who can point out just how cracked are the very foundations of their doctrine.
And partly just because you got this far, and I figure it may well be in you, is all.
1 I have to add, here: religions in post-Enlightenment societies, especially, and since their de facto separation from state power, have tended to soften some of their own stances on this, becoming, even, with some regularity, progressive forces in their own right. Even on the critical broadening of suffrage and opposition to slavery, we’ve seen religious groups pushing the way you’d like to think anyone of conscience would. And, generally, non-state religions and minority religions have more complicated records in this stuff, occasionally even serving as rallying points around which opposition to authoritarian rulers has coalesced (and there is some peculiar cosmic irony in the fact that some later state religions seem to have begun in groups of this character, though this is going the other direction). I’ve no hard and fast principle on working with them, though I have previously said I’m a bit nervous taking down answers from anyone whose method of reaching them seems so very suspect. It’s one of those curiosities of religion: they’re endlessly adaptable, and if in the previous generation the god had apparently been for war, and there was even a verse that explicitly seems to say as much, you can find a theologian in this generation to argue that what he really meant by that was that peace would be lovely.And here, of course, is one of the differences: the secular ethicist doesn’t need to go through the peculiar step of explaining why that verse seems so at odds with the god’s mood today: they can just say, rather, y’know, that idea we had then, that seems pretty stupid, now, and wasn’t working; let’s try this other thing. I find this vastly preferable, anyway. It’s just so much less complicated. And, again, critically, I think, far more honest.