Sunday, September 11, 2011

Differences of Opinion Among the Freethinking Community

by Gary Berg-Cross

We all get into disagreements and differences of opinion. Its safe to say that no one is right about everything. We don’t have the same experiences or exactly the same tastes and values. People’s knowledge and opinions are like composite structures whose ingredients have been mixed over time from purer substances. Understanding in many areas, including the social world, is limited by the complex nature of subject matters, the boundaries of human rationality, limited time for analysis etc. As a result, to paraphrase Thoreau, it’s important to know what really know and tread more lightly in areas we are less experience with and expert in. Even in the freethinking, secular humanist-atheists may stumble or be on the wrong side of issue. And this can produce some interesting discussions, but also disagreements of opinion that develop into real arguments.

I was thinking about this in the last few weeks perhaps sparked by Penn upcoming talk in the area. He’s one of the atheists stars with his “God, No!,” book, but also of libertarian fame. You can see him talking about is libertarian views on the Glenn Beck show and equating them to the Founder’s philosophy. He’s clearly intelligent and freethinking on a variety of subjects a great deal which he speaks about opening in a humorous way often ending with "I could be wrong.” But he expresses some ideas that I take issue with such as:

“..the fact that the government can't rally everybody to work together. That's to be celebrated. The government being is hamstring and as closed off and as clumsy as possible is exactly what we want. The last thing we want is a government that can get things done. A government that can get things done all they will get done is taking away freedoms. Its been shown over and over again. We want a clunky, sloppy, slow-moving, small, insignificant, weak government there all the time. And that's a government we can love and protect.”

I might have honest disagrees with other notables in the freethinking community. I might agree with Bill Maher most of the time, such as “"The problem is that the people with the most ridiculous ideas are always the people who are most certain of them," but be uncomfortable with other serious points wrapped up in a mix of provocative humor and scathing criticism that leave little room for nuance.

With freethinkers like Dennett, Jacoby, Doerr and Grayling, it might take a micro analysis to find serious disagreements on important topics. Then there are the core of New Atheists, whose prominent figures include scientist Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and author Christopher Hitchens. There is some disagrement in the secular humantist-atheist community on the New Atheists who claim that believers in 'the god hypothesis' should not be tolerated, but should be actively countered and the 'shoddy' arguments supporting their beliefs should be exposed. While we might disagree on strategic and tactical stances many of us are happy to have some vigorous countering, criticism, and exposure of religious to Belief to rational argument and evidence. As Hos notes in a prior posting religions often escape any criticisms. It's not a policy we should apply to ourselves, but be thoughtful about it.Link

Whatever you think of the strategy the 3 central stars, the new atheist giants have fallen afoul of non-religious issues where they may be less certain of the facts and complexities. Christopher Hitchens, a literary powerhouse with a clear prose and scathing style, applied the same rather famously as an aggressive critic of God and his followers. This comes after bringing Mother Teresa to earth in an earlier scree that exposed Mother Teresa's ties to various despots and thieves, and questioned the wisdom of handing out the Nobel Peace Prize to a woman whose famous clinic for the poor had repeatedly been found unsanitary and badly run, refusing, for example, to give painkillers to the dying—maybe because she really did believe, as she once said, that "[t]he suffering of the poor is something very beautiful."

Clearly a freethinker, but he seemingly embraced (believed in?) neoconservative ideology after Sept. 11. In effect he provided a freethinking champion for George W. Bush Iraq war. Always one to paint a vivid image he said that the mere thought of preemptive action gave him an erection. As usual Hitchens comes across as supremely confident of his position. In his new book he says he knows more about the Middle East than simple liberal bumpkins who "weren't there", meaning:

  • he has traveled in and reported extensively on the Middle East,
  • he has access to knowledge denied most of the rest of the world;
  • he knows for sure that those Islamofascists are Evil (shades or religious categories) and need to be pummeled and taught a lesson.

The fact that there were significant others with equally immediate and/or specialized knowledge, Brent Scowcroft comes to mind plus an assortment of generals and diplomats who were also "there," who had adequate security clearances and still opposed the war, goes unvoiced by Hitch. Taken as a whole liberals like Chris Hedges are uncomfortable with a slippery slope for secularists, who ally themselves with unethical people seeking pretexts to bombing "religious" countries. I'm uncomfortable with Hitchen's admiration of Paul Wolfowitz who in one interview he described as a bleeding heart and described neo-conservatism as a:

“distinctively new strain of thought, preached by ex-leftists, who believed in using US power to spread democracy.”

Hedges also crosses some lines with amateur evolutionary psychology and proactive hypotheses about men and women. In a Vanity Fair bit called “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” he argued that men are funnier than women for Darwinian reasons: hapless males need the gift of humor to persuade women to mate with them. Reproduced in his new book (Arguable Essays) we hear that women are not tough enough to master comedy. Because such engineered wit requires a strong stomach and a stoic acceptance of the futility of life. “Whereas women, bless their tender hearts, would prefer that life be fair, and even sweet, rather than the sordid mess it actually is.”

One of my favorite thinkers Richard Dawkins recently got on an uneasy side of the discussion about sexual harassment. During the informal after-hours socializing time at an atheist conference Feminist Rebecca Watson was talking with colleagues about her presentation and other issues. At 4 AM, she said she was tired & left the bar heading back to her room to sleep. But in the elevator ride to her floor, she was with a male only identified now as the “Elevator Guy.”

Rebeca was aghast at being asked by the “Elevator Guy to continue discussion in his room. She expressed her later ideas to the atheist community this way:

"Um, just a word to wise here, guys, uh, don't do that. You know, I don't really know how else to explain how this makes me incredibly uncomfortable, but I'll just sort of lay it out that I was a single woman, you know, in a foreign country, at 4:00 am, in a hotel elevator, with you, just you, and—don't invite me back to your hotel room right after I finish talking about how it creeps me out and makes me uncomfortable when men sexualize me in that manner."

Richard Dawkins got himself into hot water by commenting that she was overreacting by comparing her situation with more serious ones. Using the dangerous form of a sarcastic letter to a Muslim woman, he suggested that Watson's experience in the elevator was trivial compared to the abuses that Muslim women deal with daily:

"Stop whining will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and...yawn...don't tell
me again,.."

The exchange escalated with postings on PZ Myers Pharyngula website where he noted that, "Richard did make the valid point that there are much more serious abuses of women's rights around the world, and the Islam is a particularly horrendous offender."

But he went on to argue that:

"the existence of greater crimes does not excuse lesser crimes, and no one has even tried to equate this incident to any of the horrors above. What these situations demand is an appropriate level of response: a man who beats a woman to death has clearly committed an immensely greater crime than a man who harasses a woman in an elevator; let us fit the punishment to the crime."

A final, arguable mis-step is Sam Harris who I agree with on a vast swath of topics. I'm more than a little uncomfortable with his critical words on Islam appearing in his “The End of Faith,” (pages 128-129). Normally a cool, clear thinker Harris seems here to be considering if seriously not advocated a future pre-emptive nuclear strike against a nation based on its religious views. Part of what Harris said to give this impression is:

"It should be of particular concern to us that the beliefs of Muslims pose a special problem for nuclear deterrence. There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. A cold war requires that the parties be mutually deterred by the threat of death. Notions of martyrdom and jihad run roughshod over the logic that allowed the United States and the Soviet Union to pass half a century perched, more or less stably, on the brink of Armageddon. What will we do if an Islamist regime, which grows dewy-eyed at the mere mention of paradise, ever acquires long-range nuclear weaponry? If history is any guide, we will not be sure about where the offending warheads are or what their state of readiness is, and so we will be unable to rely on targeted, conventional weapons to destroy them. In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe."
from sam_harris_responds_to_chris_hedges_fundamentalism_kills_column_20110726/

Liberal thinker Chris Hedges was astonished by Sam Harris hubris to advocate taking millions of innocent lives - since nuclear weapons don’t only kill the bad people). Hedges is very familiar with terrorist and totalitarian regimes, having spent two decades covering Central America, the Balkans, the Middle East, & Africa and is concerned with our reaction to it and vulnerability to intolerance on all sides. There has been a great running debate by Hedges and Harris on this which your can read on Truthdig. It's too rich a discussion to do justice here but the core point is that Harris' position seems to some a dangerous idea related to beliefs on the part of Harris. One must consider carefully claims of whether or not whole populations are dangerous. Who has the right to determine which people get to live and which to die? Like Hitchens and the idea of pre-emptive attack, it is not something that can mitigate by using apologetic language and saying you were just weighing the options.

It's always a humbling experience to realize that 3 pioneering thinkers and personal heroes may get into tricky situations. In some cases the disagreement might be modest on topics of limited importance. But in other cases it may be important. Fallibility remains a core part of the human experience. Something that freethinkers know and appreciate more than most and we can be proud of being able to discuss the phenomena is constructive ways.


Michael R said...

Some truths are uncomfortable. Sam Harris is on solid theological ground in believing that Islam could inspire a nuclear suicide attack.

Ahmadinejad believes the 12th Imam's return will be hastened by the creation of chaos on earth. Mutually assured destruction is thus no deterrent. Rather, chaos is desired by him.

Obviously a pre-emptive nuclear strike would be an absolute last option. But given Ahmadinejad's apocalyptic eschatology, drastic counter-measures have to be at the ready if it comes down to us and them.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Equating some apocalyptic eschatology you attribute to Ahmadinejad with the whole of Islam seems too big a generalization.

Strong claims with huge consequences such as condemning millions of innocent people to harm requires strong and compelling evidence.

Edd.Doerr said...

Gary's column is right on target. As a humanist activist for many years, I have come to regard it as obvious that endless confrontation can never take the place of carefully thought out strategy. One horrible example of totally UNstrategic thinking that has just come to my attention is the start-up of the National Atheist Party, an idea guaranteed to cause us grief and aid the various right wing and fundamentalist extremisms. Pat Robertson, David Barton and all the other wackos could not have dreamed up a better device for spreading their brand of manure.

Explicit Atheist said...

I agree that we shouldn't want an atheist party but how i get to that conclusion is different than Edd Doerr. I consider political parties to be about governing and I don't consider atheism/theisms to be a proper focus of government policy. Governing is about economics and related infrastructure, its about taxes, housing, agriculture, crime, civil rights, foreign policy, and the like.

Mr. Doerr is focused on not provoking intolerant anti-secularists, but I see little merit in that focus. Not provoking those who are intolerant, prejudiced, bigoted, dogmatic, and therefore far too easily provoked without good reason, isn't anything that I aspire to, it isn't a value, it isn't a goal, it doesn't move us forward.

Explicit Atheist said...

Lets say, for the sake of argument, that there are lots of people who, if they get their hands on a weapon of mass destruction, will be provoked into deploying the weapon by the presence of an atheist. What is the proper response?

The proper response, and I do mean THE proper response, is to prevent such people from obtaining, or deploying after they obtain, such a weapon, by any means necessary, as soon as possible. In my view, the wrong response is to insist that all atheists hide their atheism from public view. We are not here to be intimidated, blackmailed, threatened, by intolerance, bigotry, hatred, or anything like that, into silence. Period. And it is unethical for you, Edd Doerr, to go around insisting that atheists shut up or stop being public atheists to appease hateful bigots. This appeasement of ugly intolerance that you, Edd Doerr, are apparently advocating here is transparently unethical and foolish.

Explicit Atheist said...

As a negro rights activist for many years, I have come to regard it as obvious that endless confrontation can never take the place of carefully thought out strategy. One horrible example of totally UNstrategic thinking that has just come to my attention is the movement to be dark-skinned in public (without painting the skin light tan before exposing oneself to the public), an idea guaranteed to cause us grief and aid the various right wing and racist extremisms. Virgil Griffin, and all the other wackos, could not have dreamed up a better device for spreading their brand of manure.

Explicit Atheist said...

Let me put it this way: If we are not provoking anti-atheist bigots then, ipso-facto, we are doing something wrong, If we are provoking anti-atheist bigots then we are probably doing something right. I think those of use who assert that if we provoke anti-atheist bigots then we are therefore doing something wrong are getting this strategy thing inside-out, upside-down, and backwards, not just ethically, but also pragmatically. There is no easy way around bigotry, it has to be dealt with head on, a clash here is unavoidable. And its not the fault of the atheists for being atheists and expressing their atheism, its the fault of the intolerant anti-atheist bigots, so we shouldn't adopt a blame the victim approach on the grounds that would be a better strategy. Such self-censorship is not a good strategy at all, its just appeasement, its siding with the anti-atheist bigotry. There is very little that atheists can say that is worth saying and that won't provoke anti-atheist bigots. So as a strategy that is a non-starter and it is self-defeating.

lucette said...

Gary, Your extremely long post covers too many issues to be answered within a reasonable time.
But it is important to clarify that, although this blog is supported by WASH (Washington Area Secular Humanists), the opinions expressed here do not represent WASH' position. And I am glad about it because I would have to leave WASH if you were its spokesman. Even Don Wharton, WASH' vice president and "owner" of this blog, does not represent WASH when he writes here.
The title of your post is not quite appropriate, because it is a caricature of the atheists who are not hiding in the closet.

lucette said...

Another thing, Gary: You say that the "elevator guy" is a an atheist blogger. I have followed Rebecca Watson's comedy rather closely, but nobody has ever claimed that he was either a blogger or an atheist. May I ask you what is your evidence?
For more information and a great discussion of Rebecca's drama, see the facebook page: "Support Richard Dawkins - Skepchick overreacted"

Gary Berg-Cross said...


I think you're right on the elevator guy not being identified as a male atheist blogger. That was probably a mis-place fragment where I was identifying Watson as a feminist atheist blogger.
I've removed that phrase from the post.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

I slight reformulation and challenge on per-emptive strikes against US citizens by Chris Hitchens in "Assassination is the best option"

Slow and sidelong cultural erosions of this kind can do incalculable harm. And they can also be horribly and cheaply self-replicating: Some people will "overreact" to a spectre of Islamism however slight, and this will offend the man who is only trying to meet his prayer obligations, and then a whole machinery of supposed grievance and redress clanks into action. Meanwhile, those who orchestrate this little carnival of mayhem and social corrosion are able to do so from areas that are beyond our legal jurisdiction but within our military reach, and to taunt us while doing so.

As we engage with the horrible idea that our government claims the right to add its own citizens to a death list that is compiled by methods and standards unknown, we must concede that no government on Earth faces such a temptation to invoke what I suppose we could call a doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence. Those who share my alarm at the prospect of this, and of the ways in which it could be abused, are under a heavy obligation to say what they would do instead."