Saturday, September 11, 2010

Example 2: Having Opinions

Activism, or even just strong opinion, provides the same set of problems, in a variety of ways. First off is a rethinking of the classic firebrand/diplomat dynamic, about which Greta Christina has written fantastically. The problem is that a brilliant analysis doesn’t make the issue go away, and also, I think she may be oversimplifying. Most social movements aren’t a one-dimensional spectrum; they are way more complicated than that. That’s fine, of course, but when you get people who are not only in conflict but not even addressing the same points, it’s much harder to realize we’re all on the same side.

Any movement can serve as an example, but I’m going to talk about religion. In everyday parlance, it’s easy to squish all of the nuances of thought about the metaphysics of existence, the ontology of the universe, the teleology of life, epistemological concerns about faith and reason into a religious on one side, atheist on the other, agnostic in the middle line. That’s ridiculous. It matters to me whether someone believes in god because they couldn’t imagine a meaningful life without one or because god is a source of morality. It matter whether they oppose religion on principle because of its false teachings or simply because of the disaster it’s wrought. It matters whether religious traditions are important culturally or accomodationist cop-outs. Also, it obviously matters to me whether secularist organizations care more about religious tolerance than they do about exterminating religion. They’re important distinctions, and they really should be talked about. At every moment though, we should be clear about what’s being discussed.

It’s really hard, you know. I just watched this video by TheAmazingAtheist, who I normally think yells more than he thinks. But this happened to be a justifiably angry response to idiotic bigotry, and a surprisingly fervent pro-American ideals stance. I liked it a lot, and I posted it on facebook. The worry, of course, is that my friends who are more in the liberal, tolerant camp will be frustrated that I’ve thrown in my lot with someone who makes a point in his video to discuss how much he hates Islam. It’s certainly problematic, but it’s not a conflict. It’s orthogonal; they have little to do with each other. This is addressing Pat Connell’s remarks about the Islamic Cultural Center and how it relates to the First Amendment. I support the First Amendment, quite a bit, in fact, and it makes me happy to see it defended to vehemently. It’s also great to see an adamantly asshole-ish atheist not take the cowardly stance of opposing the building just because “they don’t like any religious buildings.” The fact that he hates Islam as an ideological system makes his argument all the more powerful. In a video about religious tolerance in general, it might very well detract, but we need to recognize that these lie on non-overlapping categories, and I think it’s important to have people like him, just like him, not like him without the bitchiness, on our side.

On the other hand, PZ Meyers, who is a self-proclaimed dick, but who I admire and like on an intellectual and personal level (I met him! :D) recently responded in what I think is very poor taste to a writer. This commenter, with the moniker of EvolutionSkeptic, told PZ that he has recognized, after much research and self-reflection, the truth of evolution and the lack of evidence for god. He asked, earnestly, how to construct a morality without god. Now, this isn’t, objectively speaking, difficult. In fact, it’s hard to do just the opposite, as this video shows. There’s a wealth of options: Bertrand Russell has some things to say, as does Sam Harris. The classics, of course, are rule or act utilitarianism, virtue ethics and deontology, but there are more. Furthermore, our innate, evolutionarily designed moral senses tend to serve us just fine. But this person just came out of a long relationship with themselves and that moral compass, and PZ decided to start bitching about how the church isn’t moral at all, given its pedophilic priests and Inquisition and WBC, completely missing the point. Greta Christina has written about how we need to make atheism a more comfortable place to land, and I completely agree. PZ has taken a step in the wrong direction; when you’ve finally convinced someone is not the time to be a dick. Giving them praise, encouragement and some valuable links and resources is. So much as I may agree with the specifics of what were said, it goes contrary to my humanist values to agree with the method, tone and choice of strategy.

It’s not that I need a label, but it can be difficult to navigate the enormous number of choices and spectra in a consistent way, especially when, in the case of orthogonal issues (belief and god and appreciation for religion come to mind), a position on one doesn’t actually necessarily help with a decision on another. The sex industry vis a vis feminism poses many of the same problems.
On an intellectual level, it can feel like getting battered around, fighting off the internet idiots claiming that I’m going to hell on one level, engaging on very hard to follow moral philosophy on another, discussing science and religion while having Francis Collins in the back of my head, getting mad at fellow atheists for forgetting that they’re not actually better than everyone else, taking action on what I believe in while making sure that I’m open to changing my mind at any time, worrying that I’m being too accomodationist in the privacy of my mind while fighting off accusations that I’m overly militant from people who know me. My about me is a good set of examples.

There are just too many positions on too many spectra on too many intellectual levels in too many different contexts to keep track of.

What to do?

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