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Tuesday, September 12, 2006


Ed Brayton is Reading My Mind

There's no other explanation. How else could he have written a post on his blog that so clearly echoes my own thoughts? He knew I was ruminating on the recent brouhaha going on at The Panda's Thumb regarding Ken Miller and PZ Myers (see his relevant blog posts here, here, here, here, and here), and that I was planning to comment on the whole thing. He just had to put his well-written post up before I got a chance to type those thoughts out on my own blog. What a jerk!

Or, it's all just a coincidence and we just reached the same conclusions from similar viewpoints about the futility of ideological battles. OK, so I was wrong about there being no other explanation, but I like my theory better (which probably means it's wrong).

Ed's post has generated a large amount of comments, and it seems some folks are misunderstanding Ed's arguments, at least as I see them. A few points that I would focus on had I actually gotten to write my essay on this topic:

You don't have to respect someone's religious beliefs, the religion they subscribe to, or even them as a person. You do have to (at least under the 1st Amendment in the US Constitution, but I think it's a good general rule for non-Americans as well) tolerate their right to hold a religious view (or any other view or opinion) and express it freely, just as they have to tolerate your right to call their belief ludicrous.

It's counterproductive to label people who may have differing religious views/opinions than yours, but the same views/opinions on liberty, freedom of thought and expression, science, and separation of church and state, as enemies that should be excluded, ostracized and ridiculed. Unfortunately creationists, theocrats, and neo-conservatives have largely learned this lesson and put it into action with their "big tent" strategy. Of course their goal is not to encourage freedom of thought but rather to limit everyone's civil liberties and force us all to adhere to their particular moral code and religious viewpoint. They frame their struggle as one of good religious folk versus the evil atheists/secularists to somewhat successful political and cultural gain, despite the fact that all those different religious sects disagree on lots of points. As long as you subscribe to any religion, you're with us, and you're against those bad atheists. When over 80% of the US population claims to be religious, this strategy can create real political power.

We need to reframe the struggle as one of those who believe in freedom, liberty, and fairness, regardless of religious views, versus those who seek to impose the authoritarian hierarchy of their particular doctrine on everyone else. I'd be willing to wager that if the battle lines were drawn this way, the folks on the side of liberty and freedom would be the vast majority.

So I think it's unhelpful when some atheists don't distinguish between making fun of religion or the religous, and painting all people with religious beliefs as the enemies of reason, or at best, stooges or patsies of the theocrats. So it's perfectly reasonable for PZ Myers to criticize Ken Miller's views on how he blends his religious beliefs with science and rationality, even to mock it and call it ridiculous. But I think it's a mistake for Myers to label Ken Miller as a creationist and a stooge of the religious right (Myers has since backed off from his original characterization of Miller's views; good for him!).

Conversely, it is also unhelpful for some liberals to admonish their liberal atheist allies to stop attacking religion on the grounds that it hurts their efforts to get other Christians to the accept liberal values and join our own version of the "big tent". Freedom of expression is a fundamental principal, not just a liberal talking point that can be expediently discarded for short-term political gain. Atheists (and everyone else) have a right to criticize, mock, and insult any idea or person they choose. And it's hardly atheists' penchant for pointing out the absurdity, contradictions, and harmful effects of religious belief that makes them the most reviled minority group in America. Unscrupulous religious and political leaders have been demonizing atheists, and the media has been dutifully echoing their attacks, for years. Atheists and "secularists" are evil, selfish people who want to destroy your religion, steal Christmas, and remove all restrictions of morality on human behavior. This false and dishonest rhetoric is the major cause of people's distrust of atheists, not the actual views of atheists themselves.

I realize people might read the two paragraphs above and conclude that I have just made a glaring self-contradiction. How can I simultaneously complain about atheists demonizing religious people and then turn around and chastize liberal Christians for complaining about the same thing? Well, here's where I see the fundamental difference:

My position is that atheists (and anyone else) have a right to freely express their criticisms and dislike for religious views and to call out religious people on the contradictions in their religious views, even to the point of outright mockery. However, it is counterproductive for some atheists to label religious people who agree with you on issues of freedom of thought and expression, liberty, and fairness as either enemies of reason, rationality, and liberty or the unwilling patsies of those enemies. To build a "big tent" we should focus on the common ground we share. We do not ignore the places where we have fundamental disagreements, nor do we shy away from expressing those disagreements. However, we recognize that those disagreements about religion are less important than our agreements on freedom and liberty.

The position I perceive some liberal Christians taking is that we should tell our liberal atheist colleagues to shut up about their dislike of religion, and stop attacking religious views and people, so we can molify the religious folk who may have some liberal views but are wary of joining us in the "big tent." Atheists merely expressing their opinions about religion is toxic, and they should be "seen but not heard" until the Democrats win the next few elections.

I think my position is a reasonable request for a modicum of civility (that applies equally towards atheists who demonize all religious believers as well as religious people who demonize all atheists) towards building a broad coalition, while the second position is an unreasonable demand on limiting one group's freedom of expression. The goal of building a coalition is the same, but the strategy is based on a faulty premise.

Having said all that, let be me clear in stating that the problem of a very few atheists demonizing reasonable people with religious views is infinitesimal compared to the widespread demonization of atheists by religious and political leaders and the general negative attitude towards atheists in the United States. Claiming that this negative view is derived from atheists being too "militant" in stating their views seems to me like blaming the victim.

Everyone who believes in liberty and freedom, regardless of whether you are religious or not, should be willing to avow that most atheists, like most any other group of human beings, are decent, honest, moral people who contribute to society like everyone else. Liberals who want to hide atheists away as their "dirty little secret," by showing how they are "ashamed" of the atheists who support them, tacitly accept the way the Religious Right has framed the struggle of religious (good) versus secular (bad).

We need to reject this framework entirely, and form our own "big tent" around the ideas of freedom of expression, liberty, fairness, and scietific integrity. The real struggle is between those who believe in these ideas, and those who would pay lip service to those ideas but would replace them with their authoritarian doctrine as soon as they gained enough power.

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