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Ch. 2 - What's the big deal? 
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Post Ch. 2 - What's the big deal?
Please use this thread to discuss Ch. 2 - What's the big deal? :013




Wed Jul 25, 2007 11:03 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 2 - What's the big deal?
Author's note

The purpose of this chapter is to address the notion that atheists should keep it to themselves or, as some in the popular media have said fairly recently, "just shut up." I make the case that there are reasons for atheists to speak out about their nonbelief, and most of those reasons have to do with the actions of the advocates of religious orthodoxy, especially those who are trying to coopt our public institutions in the United States. I also note that nonbelievers who refuse to speak out play into the hands of those who would marginalize them and trivialize their concerns. I argue that the Religious Right has so poisoned the well of public discourse that it has become nearly impossible to have a rational public dialogue on many issues. As a case in point, I spend some time talking about the debate over the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research.

George

http://www.godlessinamerica.com

"Godlessness is not about denying the existence of nonsensical beings. It is the starting point for living life without them."

Godless in America by George A. Ricker

Edited by: garicker  at: 8/10/07 10:53 am



Fri Aug 10, 2007 9:52 am
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Post Chapter 2: What's the Big Deal
For the most part, I find myself in agreement with what you've written in chapter two. Here are a few finer points on which we might depart.

1. For my part, I'm not sure how to classify the Religious Right. At times, it looks to me as though their goals were essentially political in nature, and that they're using a religious cover to facilitate those goals. That said, I'm sure that a great many in the organization are no more clear as to how to sort out the religious and political motivations in what they do -- which is to say, I'm sure at least some members of the Religious Right think they are, in some oblique way, "doing God's work." That said, it looks to me as though there is at least a core of influential people in the group for whom the fundamentalist religious association is a cynical mask for a more overtly economic and political end.

2. I've had a hard time convincing some people that the voices of fundamentalism are actually a minority in our culture (I'd say in most cultures), but one that makes itself heard out of all proportion to its numbers, so it's nice to see that we're on agreement on that point. What I haven't noticed in your writing on the subject is any indication that we ought to be looking to correct that disparity by addressing the political system that makes it possible. That any group -- religious or otherwise -- is able to leverage political gains by the application of wealth or disproportionate influence is symptomatic of a flaw in our democratic system. address that, and you at least force special interest groups of this sort to devise a new, hopefully less effective strategy.

3. As for the use of taxpayer money in support of programs that taxpayers themselves may find immoral, I actually agree with the idea in principle, although, more from Libertarian motives than religious ones. (I shoud clarify, I don't identify myself as Libertarian -- I just see their point on this particular issue.) The best justification for taxation, so far as I can tell, is its use to support work done in the public's interest that would be difficult to organize otherwise. On the whole, the U.S. government seems to have stretched that concept beyond its logical boundaries. Particularly in a democratic society, the public's interest should be determined in large measure by that public's values and according to how broadly the benefits are likely to be shared. Taxation is legitimate when it's used for roadwork because a) our road systems are crucial to the way our society functions, b) everyone directly or indirectly shares in the benefits of that system, and c) very few people could justifiably object that they're not getting something they paid for. So if a person objects to being taxed to pay for something that they object to -- on moral grounds or otherwise -- and which they're not likely to share in the benefit of -- either by chance or because they'd elect not to -- then I'm not sure that a democratic-republican government is justified in compelling them to render payment for it. That principle, of course, extends to other programs as well; for example, much though I love the arts, I'm not sure it's entirely consistent with our political philosophy to make people pay more in taxes to support specific artists.

4. I'm also a little disappointed that you've reduced the abortion debate to a blanket statement that a fetus "is not a human being at the moment of conception." That ignores, it seems to me, that how we define human being is something of a fluid matter. Ultimately, I'm not sure that the debate can be resolved by reference to any given set of definitions, for the simple reason that the opposing sides of the debate have yet to settle on a mutually agreeable set of criteria for determining those definitions. Until they can, that each side has continued as though their criteria were the only reasonable one on which to found a moral judgement has only served to entrench their respective positions and ensure that no constructive discussion will take place.

5. It think it is "remarkable that many of the people who rant and rave about the potential destruction of a handful of human embryos... are among the most strident supporters of corporal and capital punishment..." and "are among the first to urge the military option in any international confrontation." It's so remarkable that I think it's worth reconsidering our received wisdom as to why they support the policies they do. It seems to me that those particular sets of perspectives are more indicative of a social/nationalist motivation than anything inherently religious -- which is probably why they're the same group that applies "God Bless America" decals to their cars. The anti-abortion stance assures the growth of a specifically American population; corporal punishment serves to compel the adoption of American cultural assumptions; capital punishment disposes of the elements that are intractable in their resistence to those assumptions; and casual exercise of the military option seems intended to minimize threats to American dominance while increasingly expanding the scope of American activity worldwide. All of which is to say that there may very well be some consistent thread running through these apparantly disparate policies, but it's easy to lose sight of if you take at face value what the Religious Right claims are its motives.

6. Another suggestion if you issue a second edition of the book: I think this chapter would benefit from a paragraph or two explaining precisely what is meant by the Religious Right. It would clarify a lot if you devoted a little space to situating the organization in a historical and cultural context.



Thu Sep 20, 2007 5:55 pm
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Hmm. While I agreed with a lot of this chapter, I found it flawed, mostly because it seemed to confuse different issues. Religion, or to be more percise a particular version of a particular religion, may well have poisoned public debate in the US to the point where rational discussion about abortion and reproductive rights, sex education, homosexuality, stem cell research and so on, but if that is true, it seems that you George have been a victim of this contamination! [I have no idea how exactly to comment on the book without addressing you directly George, so apologies if any of this comes across as a personal attack] There are secular arguments against all of the above that do not require a belief in a god. For instance, there's an Atheist/Agnostic Pro Life League in the US, and it seems to me that it is only a tiny minority of those who oppose your points of view on the above subjects who attempt to promote their arguments using "God says so" arguments.



Sun Sep 23, 2007 11:32 am
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Niall: I'm responding to you first since yours was the shorter of the two entries awaiting my attention. And don't worry, I'm not so thin-skinned that I think any disgreement (or in this case, correction) is a personal attack.

It is certainly true that there are non-religious arguments to be made on both sides of most of the hot-button issues I mention. It's also worth noting, just to expand on your point, there are also religious arguments made on both sides of most of these issues as well. For example, there is a "Religious Coaltion for Reproductive Choice" that comes down on the pro-choice side of the abortion debate.

However, I have to say that, when it comes to the public dialogue here in the United States, it seems to be the Religious Right's positions that generate the most heat and consequently "poison the well" of public dialogue. Far from being a "tiny minority," the folks who populate this group include quite a number of prominent politicians, some of whom are recently departed from the halls of Congress. They are certainly a minority of the American people, and of religious believers, but they are a minority that has received attention and influence far out of proportion to its numbers. Because of the noise they (the Religious Right) make, politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to feel the need to appease them, even though they may not share their views on some issues. In my home state of Florida, there is currently agitation to add an amendment to the state constitution banning civil unions for same-sex couples (gay marriage is already legally prohibited and there are no civil unions currently being formed so the legislation is aimed at preventing something that really doesn't happen here much, if at all, right now). The stalwarts in that fight seem almost exclusively to come from the Religious Right.

Mad: I think the Religious Right is made up of very dogmatic clergy and believers who want, in their own minds at least, to restore religion to its "rightful" place in American society, and the various political entities and individuals who are part of that cause. They are aided and abetted by others who play on their sensibilities for various reason. They constantly agitate about the hot-button issues I've mentioned in this chapter. They are mostly Protestant, with some Catholics and Jews also in the mix. They have generally aligned their fortunes with the Republican Party.

Since this book isn't a political treatise, I didn't address ways to correct the disparities. If you want to look at some more political writings, you might take a look at two essays on my web site. One is called "Mythic lies," and the other is "See no evil." Although neither one solves the problem, I think they do suggest some possible ways to find solutions.

There might be merit to some sort of subscription service in which taxpayers pick and choose the programs they will support. However, absent such an approach my objection to the claim stands. It can't be applied in just one area, such as stem-cell research, and then ignored in all the others.

I don't say anything about fetuses. The organism created at the moment of conception isn't regarded, as far as I know, as a fetus. It isn't properly even an embryo at that point. I don't regard that organism as a human being for the same reason I don't regard a hen's egg as a chicken. I just think it's problematic to use such a phrase as "human being" to describe something that, at that point in time, has a long way to go before it becomes one. To be sure, our conception of what constitutes a human being is fluid. I just don't think it's that fluid.

The is unquestionably a marriage between the Religious Right and other conservative factions, some of whom aren't particularly religious, in American society. Whether it's social/nationalist concerns playing on religious sentiments or the other way around is hard to tell. Again, since this book was more about my atheism and my concerns about religion, I didn't spend any time on it. Either way, my concern is the impact of these attitudes on public policy and on the intellectual climate.

You keep suggesting a second edition of the book, which lead me to think you must see some merit in it. Unfortunately, that's unlikely to happen unless some mainline publisher takes a likeing to it and wants to publish it. I certainly think your suggestion of a graph or two detailing what I mean by the Religious Right would be a good idea though. It's a phrase that has made it into the lexicon and, like many other words and phrases, not everyone means the same thing when they use it.


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[i][b]mere atheism: no gods


Mon Sep 24, 2007 10:47 am
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garicker wrote:
However, I have to say that, when it comes to the public dialogue here in the United States, it seems to be the Religious Right's positions that generate the most heat and consequently "poison the well" of public dialogue.


In general, I'd say that's less because they seem the most persuasive or germaine, and more because they're the positions that get the most airtime. As such, their prominance is as indicative of the level of debate to which America is willing to aspire as it is of anything inherent in religion.

Quote:
They are certainly a minority of the American people, and of religious believers, but they are a minority that has received attention and influence far out of proportion to its numbers.


Agreed; but I'd take that a step further and say that, rather than attempting to argue those positions, concerned citizens would be better served by examining how that minority has come to wield so much influence, and address their efforts towards levelling that platform. Is a news media premised on the superiority of the five-second sound byte predisposed to report only the most simply stated positions? Is a legislative system propped up by private interest lobbies and private campaign contributions likely to give due consideration to the weight of public debate? Meeting the arguing points of a fundamentalist minority with opposed arguing points seems misguided. Ensuring that their positions receive only the attention accorded to any other offered position would seem like a better strategy for making certain that the public knows the alternatives.

Quote:
I think the Religious Right is made up of very dogmatic clergy and believers who want, in their own minds at least, to restore religion to its "rightful" place in American society, and the various political entities and individuals who are part of that cause.


Building on what you've written in the post for the first chapter, I don't see why we shouldn't suspect that the Religious Right isn't made up by just as many politicos who see a religious soapbox as the best way to consolidate support for their political agendas -- that is, as a way of gaining and holding onto power. I'm skeptical of the notion that so powerful and driven a political influence is motivated primarily by religious zeal. And it's interesting to me that so many secularists aren't as skeptical, despite the fact that most of them would be skeptical of the motives of the same people if, instead of running a special interest lobby, they were running a faith-healing sideshow.

Quote:
I don't regard that organism as a human being for the same reason I don't regard a hen's egg as a chicken.


Maybe the reason is the same for you. For most people, though, I'd say the reason they don't consider an egg as a chicken is that you can't make an omelette out of a chicken.

Quote:
To be sure, our conception of what constitutes a human being is fluid. I just don't think it's that fluid.


The only way to sort out that question, it seems, is to be more specific about what you mean by "us". Clearly there are some people who are willing to treat the concept "human" so fluidly as to suppose that we're human at the moment of conception.

Quote:
You keep suggesting a second edition of the book, which lead me to think you must see some merit in it.


Of course I do. And to say that I see some merit in the idea of a second edition ought to suggest that I see some merit in the first. I just think that it would benefit from a little more clarity, and some occasional changes in perspective.



Tue Sep 25, 2007 8:42 pm
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Mad: Clearly there are some people who are willing to treat the concept "human" so fluidly as to suppose that we're human at the moment of conception.

I don't doubt that. I would agree that the organism created at the moment of conception represents the beginning of a human life. I just think it's a stretch to call it a "human being." I also reject the notion of fetal personhood.

George


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"Nothing about atheism prevents me from thinking about any idea. It is the very epitome of freethought. Atheism imposes no dogma and seeks no power over others."

[i][b]mere atheism: no gods


Wed Oct 03, 2007 12:47 pm
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