Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Religion, Labels, and Predictability

(Originally posted by Ryen in 3/2012)

Why don't people trust atheists? Clearly, you might say, they have some mistaken notion that only the fear of God can be a foundation of good behavior. Atheists, as a whole, are about as trustworthy as any other group of people (perhaps more so). Surely it's just ignorance of the facts? But I submit that the situation is more complex.
It is not the case that the religious only trust people of their own "in-group" and distrust equally atheists and people who practice other religions. In general, the religious trust the religious, (almost) regardless of which religion. Just so long as you have a religion and a God, you are deemed trustworthy. (Islam may be the exception in the US). Think of what not-so-bright ultraconservatives sometimes say about freedom of religion: "You are free to practice whatever religion you want, so long as you have a religion. We are one nation under God, after all. You can believe in whatever God you want, but atheists are not welcome." The point is that anyone who labels himself with a religion of some sort, regardless of which religion, is more trusted by other people of any religion. It seems that specific doctrines of belief are secondary to the fact of belief itself. ("Belief in belief," as Daniel Dennett calls it).
So what is it about people who identify as atheists that makes the religious (and possibly even other atheists) wary? I have a theory. It's all about information transfer and predictability. Consider the following two statements: "I am a Christian." "I am an atheist." They sound quite similar, but there is, in fact, a great asymmetry between them. The former statement packs a lot of information into one label: "Christian". This one word conveys a long list of doctrines about God and morality, which are supposedly believed and committed to. When you know that a person is Christian, in other words, you have a better chance at predicting their behavior (or at least you think you do). You can say to yourself, "would this man steal from me when I'm not looking? Nah, probably not - he is Christian, after all! He has made a commitment to the moral doctrines of the Bible; out of his love for God, I don't expect him to steal anything." But what does the latter statement convey? Nothing more than a lack of belief in a deity. There is no list of doctrines that comes with being an atheist, and as a result, the term conveys very little information. "So this man is an atheist. Would he steal from me? Well, it seems very possible. After all, he could be a nihilist, or a hedonist, a moral relativist ... perhaps he doesn't have any morals at all!"
Imagine that you have a dangerous disease. Do you try to cure yourself with the FDA-approved drug or the new, untested, highly experimental drug? Most people would go for the former - the FDA label ensures, in your mind, that the drug is trustworthy. You are given a list of things that you can expect to happen when you take it. The drug is predictable: no need for anxiety. Label yourself with a religion, and you bear an authoritative stamp of trustworthiness; label yourself as an atheist, and people don't know what they're getting into. It is a natural reaction to fear the unknown and the unpredictable. I submit that some sort of conscious or subconscious consideration of these facts contributes to why the religious so mistrust us nonbelievers.
So what can we do about this? Perhaps call ourselves something with more conveying power, and begin defining ourselves more in terms of what we affirm to be true, rather than what we disbelieve. How about the term "humanist"? This is better, but it is still not yet nearly as cohesive or well-defined (in the public mindset) as any religion. (Another idea, also from Dan Dennett, is to use the term "bright" instead of "atheist", but I'm not going to get into that here). "Humanist" presupposes only a vague set of propositions about morality and the goals of humanity. It does not have set-in-stone commandments that can be paraded around as assurance of right belief and good behavior. But perhaps it should (to a very small extent), so that the term thereby conveys more information and is more well-received by the public.
No, we should not have our own "ten commandments." I'm saying that we should be more assertive about the basic, thoroughly-verified values we hold to be true. Humanists come from all walks of life, but at some point, in order to be humanists, we must all agree on a few basic ideas. We attack the dogma of religion, but the fact is, some measure of "dogma" is unavoidable. We despise excessive, unjustified dogma - but there are some things which cannot be doubted away. Is it wrong to kidnap, rape, torture, and murder a ten-year-old girl for your own pleasure? I think we can be dogmatic and that yes, this is unequivocally wrong. Shall we say to ourselves, "maybe, but I might be wrong, and it might be morally acceptable"? This is about as productive as doubting the existence of the chair you are sitting on. It might be true that in some extraordinary universe, a situation could arise in which an act like this is the most ethical option. But until we find ourselves in that universe, we can off-handedly dismiss the act as wrong, without much, if any, further justification. (Perhaps "dogma" is the wrong word here - but it is something very similar).
We ought not to have our own "commandments", per se, but I think that we humanists out to write out and agree on, explicitly, three or four strong (and minimal) guiding principles that we all hold to be true. Perhaps then we can begin to gain more respectability among the religious - they may not agree with our philosophy, but at least they'll know what sort of behaviors they can expect from a humanist.
Has anyone tried something like this before? Yes, to some extent. According to the Wikipedia article on "Secular Humanism",
Humanism rejects dogma, and imposes no creed upon its adherents except the International Humanist and Ethical Union's Minimum Statement on Humanism. All member organisations of the IHEU are required by bylaw 5.1 to accept the Minimum Statement on Humanism:
"Humanism is a democratic and ethical life stance, which affirms that human beings have the right and responsibility to give meaning and shape to their own lives. It stands for the building of a more humane society through an ethic based on human and other natural values in the spirit of reason and free inquiry through human capabilities. It is not theistic, and it does not accept supernatural views of reality."
The IHEU has also devised some broad statements about the humanist outlook:
  • Need to test beliefs – A conviction that dogmas, ideologies and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested by each individual and not simply accepted by faith.
  • Reason, evidence, scientific method – A commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence and scientific methods of inquiry in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions.
  • Fulfillment, growth, creativity – A primary concern with fulfillment, growth and creativity for both the individual and humankind in general.
  • Search for truth – A constant search for objective truth, with the understanding that new knowledge and experience constantly alter our imperfect perception of it.
  • This life – A concern for this life (as opposed to an afterlife) and a commitment to making it meaningful through better understanding of ourselves, our history, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the outlooks of those who differ from us.
  • Ethics – A search for viable individual, social and political principles of ethical conduct, judging them on their ability to enhance human well-being and individual responsibility.
  • Building a better world – A conviction that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.
All well and good, but this still seems rather vague, unparsimonious, and not widely known. I've drafted my own "minimum statement on humanism", consisting of three propositions (subject to peer review), which I have tried to make as concise and precise as possible. We ought to wear them on our sleeves, almost like Christians proclaim the ten commandments, instead of leaving it neglected in some Wikipedia article.
1. The Ethical Imperative. A desire for maximal human well-being is the foundation of morality. Murder, torture, rape, theft, lying, fraud, and other similar deeds are simply wrong, in and of themselves, because in essentially all cases they reduce overall human well-being. A good deed done for fear of consequences is merely a rational expedient, but a good deed done because of love and empathy for the other is a righteous act. A moral system which depends on faith and punishment is bankrupt. We shall be good to others because we care about others.
2. The Justificatory Imperative. Any new proposition shall be judged in accordance with the amount and credibility of evidence that supports it. We shall not be quick to adopt positions of great consequence. The scientific method and peer-review shall be thoroughly applied wherever they can be applied. And we must not let our beliefs be set in stone - we must tread humbly down the path, continually questioning ourselves, "Is this right? Is this true? Why?" By this method, those beliefs for which there is overwhelming evidence will quickly pass this test; others, we may find, must be discarded.
The above two principles should be fairly uncontroversial. It's the third principle that separates the humanists from the boys.
3. The Liberal Imperative. We shall not impose our beliefs on others by force, except as an absolutely last resort when under threat. Anyone is allowed to openly criticize our position. Personal liberty under law shall be maximized as much as possible, so long as that person's liberty does not (noticeably) interfere with someone else's. Moreover, we must agree on a certain core of social issues. We must agree that the government should not be a dictator of the social contracts and private activities of consenting adults, that it should not dictate the sorts of substances a person chooses to put in their body (unless this will greatly detriment others, which, in some cases, it might), that a woman has the right to privacy to make reproductive decisions, that any able-bodied and able-minded citizen shall be able to volunteer for military service (without discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or religion), and that government shall not affiliate itself with any religion.
This is essentially a set of doctrines from secularist, liberal political philosophy. Why have I done this? It seems as if I've gone too far, adding too much dogma to an allegedly non-dogmatic belief system. Why make believing these things necessary in order to be a humanist, excluding so many people? And can't all of these just be reduced to a function of the first two principles? By principle (2), I must try to justify myself.
Principles (1) and (2) are still somewhat trivial - they are more methods of thinking, rather than results of thinking. They still don't convey exactly what a person believes. It is important to explicitly spell out a certain set of nontrivial but evidentially-well-established ground rules (more subject to future alteration, of course, than the first two principles). We must thoroughly define the ways that we, and government, should interact with other people, even and especially the people we dislike. Principle (3) carries a lot of weight, but this also means that when you meet a self-identified humanist on the street, you know immediately whether or not he agrees with you on a certain set of very important issues. You may not know what else he believes, but you will know that you can be comfortable around him.
Note that these three principles don't necessarily exclude theists from being humanists, as the IHEU does. I think this is step in the right direction. Could a Christian be a humanist? I would say yes, potentially. (If that sounds too oxymoronic to you, then perhaps the above three principles can go under a different label - "humanist" was just my suggestion). I envision a day when people can say, "Hi, I'm a humanist and a Christian. You?" "Me? I'm a humanist and an atheist." The previous asymmetry of information between the two statements is gone, and an important gap is bridged, allowing those of vastly different religious belief to unite on earth under one goal.

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