Monday, April 23, 2007

"It's the Rhetoric, Stupid"

The following initially appeared as a comment to a thoughtful and entertaining post by Michael Bérubé highlighting polling results showing that the American public is less willing to vote for someone who is an atheist than for just about any other category descriptor (humorously including the "GEICO caveman" and a "zombie"). In his post, he noted that some on the left side of the spectrum have been calling on atheists to show more respect for religious viewpoints in the political arena and questioned what motivates such critics. As always, he participated extensively in the comment threads of his post which make for good additional reading and, in particular, here is his generous response to my comment.

"It's the rhetoric, stupid"
I never imagined myself as a DLC apologist, but here goes:

I think that the sort of respect that some on the "left" would like us atheists to pay to religion in the public marketplace [of ideas] is illustrated, in its absence, by noted atheist author Sam Harris in an ongoing discussion with Andrew Sullivan, where Harris writes:

Where I think we disagree is on the nature of faith itself. I think that faith is, in principle, in conflict with reason (and, therefore, that religion is necessarily in conflict with science), while you do not. Perhaps I should acknowledge at the outset that people use the term "faith" in a variety of ways. My use of the word is meant to capture belief in specific religious propositions without sufficient evidence-prayer can heal the sick, there is a supreme Being listening to our thoughts, we will be reunited with our loved ones after death, etc. I am not criticizing faith as a positive attitude in the face of uncertainty, of the sort indicated by phrases like, "have faith in yourself." There's nothing wrong with that type of "faith."

Given my view of faith, I think that religious "moderation" is basically an elaborate exercise in self-deception, while you seem to think it is a legitimate and intellectually defensible alternative to fundamentalism.

By construing religious faith as not merely separate from, but also "in conflict" with, reason, not to mention distinguishing it from the kind of faith "[t]here's nothing wrong with," Harris demands devaluing faith by anyone who claims to value reason, which, given the poll data you presented, poses a bit of a problem in the electoral arena. Must we really force people to choose between faith, on the one hand, and reason and science on the other? People also do not generally respond well to arguments that they are engaging in "self-deception," and I expect they will not be thrilled to discover that atheists think that moderation in the opposition of fundamentalism is no virtue.

All well and good, so we shouldn't overtly invalidate the role of faith in moral reasoning or liken belief in a particular religion to false consciousness, but how does one respond to the conversation-stopping religious argumentation in your examples? I suggest that we merely and politely acknowledge the incommensurability of our systems of evaluating the validity of faith-based arguments, leave them our literature on why we support, e.g., abortion rights, shake hands and part ways on those issues while still making use of the valuable, religious concepts we can reach via secular reasoning, such as caritas and agape, of which you have written elsewhere.

Is this the respect that adherents of religion themselves want? No. As Stanley Fish has recently written (from behind the NYT subscription wall), "But religion’s truth claims don’t want your respect. They want your belief and, finally, your soul. They are jealous claims." We cannot give the religious right any respect that it will value. As for our leftward of the religious right friends who want us to grant religious claims more respect in the political marketplace, I suspect that they have little interest in our souls or even the souls of swing voters, unless souls get votes in addition to the ones bodies get. They just want us atheists to stop offending the rather large number of voters who value both faith and reason--ours is not to reason how--while conceding the hopeless cavemen and zombie voters. For example, if we don't force people to choose between their Catholic faith and supporting access to birth control for all the rational reasons, they might somehow find a way to choose both of the above, and, somehow, they did just that.

I think you may have underestimated the appeal of, and need for repeating, the "usual arguments about competing for swing voters and trying not to piss people off unnecessarily." While trying to gain the votes of the religious right is a hopeless prospect, not losing the votes of the religious middle seems like a valuable goal.

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