Monday, December 17, 2007

A Liberal Society Must Tolerate Proselytizers -- Even if They're Atheists

Matt Ygelsias links to an essay by Damon Linker in the New Republic about the so-called "New Atheists" -- "Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens". Ygelsias links to it with a hearty amen added, saying:
In a raw power struggle between people who, like Harris, want public schools "announce the death of God" and those who want them to indoctrinate us all in the Gospel, the numbers aren't on the side of the non-believers and the outcome is unlikely to be a happy one for anyone. The liberal consensus, by contrast, has served the country well and undermining it from the point of view of ideological atheism is really no better than undermining it from any other direction.
But I think that both Ygelsias and Linker are conflating two different positions here. They are doing so partly because some of the new atheists say things that can be read both ways, or even make the occasional remark which can be read in the more extreme of the two positions. But they might also be doing so partly out of a less admirable motive too (although, given the two, different ones).

There are three basic points of view, I think, that an atheist can take towards the religious majority:

1) They're wrong, but so long as they don't use the government to force their religion on me, who cares?
2) They're wrong, and I'm going to try to convince them of this fact;
3) They're wrong, and I'm going to damn well make them see this -- by any means necessary.

Almost all atheists, in my experience, are in group one -- and as such can join their hands with a great number of religious people who also don't want their beliefs forced on others. This is the all-important coalition of people who believe in a secular government -- and, given the nature of the Republican party right now, it is a coalition that is hardly assured of winning. That is to say, position one is not really a blasé "who cares", but a more stern, "there are theocrats here, they are the main danger -- keep your eye on the ball". Yglesias is clearly in this camp.

But some atheists are genuinely in group two: they want to try to proselytize to believers, and convert them into nonbelievers. In various ways Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens are all in this camp.*

Linker, however, portrays them as in camp three, and therefore has an argument (familiar in the political world from the likes of David Broder) of the "both sides are extremists" category: Huckabee wants to force his religion down our throats, Dawkins wants to force his atheism in the same direction. (Put aside for the moment the obvious (and, indeed, important) retort that Huckabee has a reasonable shot of winning the presidency, whereas atheists can hardly get elected dog-catcher in this country.)

Now, Linker is absolutely right that Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens all say things that blur the line between two and three at times. (I don't think Dennett does; and as I've said before, I think that it's wrong to lump Dennett in with the other three, although Linker is hardly the only one to do so.) Linker begins his essay with a good example here:
"I am persuaded," [Dawkins] explains, "that the phrase 'child abuse' is no exaggeration when used to describe what teachers and priests are doing to children whom they encourage to believe in something like the punishment of unshriven mortal sins in an eternal hell." Why Dawkins refuses to take this idea to its logical conclusion--to say that raising a child in a religious tradition, like other forms of child abuse, should be considered a crime punishable by the state--is a mystery, for it follows directly from the character of his atheism.
Now, it's worth pointing out that Dawkins doesn't take this claim to its logical conclusion; that he doesn't argue for prosecuting religious parents, and in fact argues for greater (secular) religious education in the schools. This is why I think the overall thrust of Dawkins's position -- and the other new atheists' too -- is in the proselytizing, not forcing, category. (I do wish, however, that Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens would be more careful about not stepping over that line; not calling teaching basic religious doctrine to children "child abuse" would be a very good place to start.)

But Linker does not acknowledge the existence of a stable position between one and three: between the "as long as Government stays neutral" category, and the "make Government do our bidding" category. For that matter, neither, really, does Matt Yglesias. Why Linker does not I won't speculate. But I think that Yglesias does it in the interests of keeping the secular coalition strong.

This is a big impulse among some on the left. Given the power of theocratic believers in this country, they argue, we should simply focus on keeping religion out of politics together. And I see their point, I really do: theocracy is a scarily powerful tendency in this country, and it's important to keep atheists aligned with theists of good will, who believe in freedom of conscience and a secular government.

But -- if you'll forgive me for putting it this way, tongue at least half in cheek -- if atheists can't proselytize for their beliefs (even if just out of fear of religious backlash), then the theocrats have already won.

No one says to believers that they shouldn't go out and try to convince people that they're right. Believers of nearly every faith try, in various ways, to convince others that they're right. From Chabadniks trying to get secular Jews to do mitzvahs to missionaries who go door-to-door to people who hand out Chick tracts, believers try to convert non-believers a lot. And as long as they don't make the government take sides -- whether with their own particular beliefs or with belief in general against non-belief -- that's just fine and dandy, precisely what you'd want to see in a free society.

And at their best, that's all that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens are doing from the point of view of atheism. I grant, as I said already, that some of the statements of some of them can slide into the implication that the Government should get involved. But for the most part they are simply the proselytizers on the other side.

Linker writes:
To be liberal in the classical sense is to accept intellectual variety--and the social complexity that goes with it--as the ineradicable condition of a free society. It is to accept, in other words, that, although I may settle the question of God to my personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all of my fellow citizens will settle it in the same way--that differences in life experience, social class, intelligence, and the capacity for introspection will invariably prevent a free community from reaching unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Liberal atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists do not. That, in the end, is what separates the atheism of Socrates from the atheism of the French Revolution.
But Linker is conflating two issues here -- acceptance in intellectual debate, versus acceptance in a social/political sense -- and ignoring a crucial intermediate position. He is ignoring the point of view that one might be a forceful, even domineering, proponent of a position in intellectual life, while still supporting whole-heartedly the liberal consensus in a political sense. Yglesias, too, is scaring us with nonsense about atheists who "want public schools "announce the death of God"" in order to keep our eye on the preservation of a secular society -- or, really, a secular government.

The issue here is not the French Revolutionaries, but Voltaire, who both mocked religion and famously said "I disagree with what he says, but I will defend to the death his right to say it." In a baby-and-bathwater move, Linker seems to be lumping Voltaire in with the French Revolutionaries, and ruling them all out of bounds. (To be sure, some say that Voltaire led to the French Revolution; but that's like saying that Christianity leads to Crusades. Both can; neither must; we must simply keep the one from becoming the other.)

Or would Linker and Yglesias argue that any vigorous proselytizing -- which inevitably includes scorn for other positions -- is out of bounds in a free society? I find this hard to believe; rather, a society which sees vigorous proselytizing as out of bounds can't in any reasonable way be called free.

Which is to say: while I don't share what Linker characterizes as a "visceral contempt for the personal faith of others", I don't see this as a problem so long as it remains in the realm of ideas. After all, a great many believers think that nonbelievers are Satan's minions, or at the very least going to be tortured for all eternity for their beliefs. It's hard to get more contemptuous than that! Now, again, I don't claim (as DH&H might, at least in their more careless moments) that all religious beliefs are that contemptuous -- but some are. Just as not all atheists are -- but some are. And if the former isn't seen as harming a liberal, secular society, the latter shouldn't be seen as doing so either.

Linker (and Yglesias) are correct that people are right to be "nervous about the future of secular liberalism, to perceive that it needs passionate, eloquent defenders". But being one of the "passionate defenders" of secular liberalism's not what DDH&H are trying to do (at least primarily). They are trying to do something else -- to actively advocate for their own (metaphysical, not political) position. The freedom to do so (as Linker hints (in what could be uncharitably read as a veiled threat)) is dependent upon the existence of a secular, liberal society. But it is unreasonable to squash their advocacy in the name of not frightening those who are ambivalent about such a society.

I see Linker and Ygelsias's position as the equivalent of those who used to say to Jews: don't stand out, don't look too Jewish in public, or take too many Jewish holidays -- it might stir up antisemitism! Those people might, at times, have been right. But the necessity of their saying so was a sign of the weakness of liberal society -- and, ultimately, their saying it was also a weakening of it.

DH&H (I'm not so sure about Dennett) aren't working to preserve a liberal, secular society -- at least not primarily -- although I don't have any doubt that they all are in favor of one. They are trying to convert others. As an atheist, that isn't something I'm particularly interested in doing. But as a believer in a liberal, secular society, I think that it's something that we ought to see -- just as we ought to see Christians and Jews and Muslims and Scientologists and Hindus and what-have-you trying to convince people that they are right. It's all in the marketplace of ideas -- which, sometimes, involves calling other people names.

I think politeness is always a good idea (which is one reason I wouldn't say some things that DDH&H say). But I think that politeness can't be enforced in a liberal society -- and it certainly can't be enforced, as Linker seems to want, against atheists but not against theists.

Linker seems to think that a liberal, secular society requires that atheists shut up -- not argue their position forcefully to believers. I think that any liberal society that requires advocates of any intellectual position, argued simply as such, -- religious or atheist or anything else -- to shut up for fear of the consequences, hardly deserves the name. If that's where we are, then the battle's already lost.

I don't agree with a lot of what DDH&H say -- I don't think that religion is always a negative thing (although I agree with DH&H that it is, on the merits, false); I wouldn't use their rhetoric to describe it, and think that they often attack only the simplest versions of religion out there (albeit with some justification). But we have to fight for their right to say it, without fear of a political backlash, as part of the fight for a society we would wish to live in -- all of us, believers and nonbelievers alike.

* Disclosure time: I haven't actually read Hitchens's book, where as I have read Dawkins's God Delusion, Dennett's Breaking the Spell, and Harris's two books, The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation. I don't intend to read Hitchens's book for a wide variety of reasons, but I've read enough of his articles and interviews that I feel like I know where he comes from. But I suppose you should take my characterizations of Hitchens with more salt than my characterizations of the other three writers on that list.


NathanS said...

"Now, it's worth pointing out that Dawkins doesn't take this claim to its logical conclusion..."

This does not make his position any better. If I said: "Atheists are like Nazis, not that I'm saying we should take legal action against them." I'd be rightly called out for it the intellectually bankrupt ad hominem nature of the statement.

Nothing Dawkins says changes that he called people who are religious around kids to child molesters! An underhanded tactic as bad as any religion has done.

If his concern is simply kids having beliefs forced on them before their old enough to make their own decisions then are not Atheists that declare the non-existince of G-d to their kids, or parents who make their political beliefs knowen to their kids just as bad?

"No one says to believers that they shouldn't go out and try to convince people that they're right. Believers of nearly every faith try, in various ways, to convince others that they're right."

Whats your definition of "...nearly every faith..."? Christianity, Isalm, and some segments of Judaism? Most other faiths in history haven't bothered.

I recall reading about a new religion that had sprung up amongst some Native American groups. The reaction of a beliver of an belif? That well he could go out and preach to them but, in the end he'd only convince one or two. And in the end what people belive is their business, even if he felt that it would destroy their souls.

But you are right: "A Liberal Society Must Tolerate Proselytizers..." But I don't think we should trust them. It often takes the belif that one has a monopoly on truth to become a proselytizer, a belif that is poison to free thinking.

Holly said...

I've tried to find a single point to question in your analysis here. I can't. This is a really thoughtful critique.

I am not quite an atheist, and I have been a missionary, working to bring people to christ. But one way in which I have always felt that atheists are morally superior to devoutly proselytizing people of faith is that atheists don't imagine some big figure in the sky smiling on their beliefs and frowning on everyone else. That's not just a tautology--I'm not just pointing out that atheists don't believe in God and people who believe in God do. It's that even when I was a believer I found it fairly arrogant to imagine that there was some great authority in the universe, some big sky daddy, who endorsed your actions and beliefs and condemned everyone who didn't think and act like you. And having been on the inside of the "let's convert the sinners so they don't burn in hell" camp, I really believe that the "visceral contempt" atheists feel for believers is not as deadly and vicious, to individuals or society, as the contempt many believers imagine God feels for atheists or adherents of other faiths, and so feel entitled to express and enact themselves.