Saturday, May 23, 2009

Beliefs Are Important

Regular readers will notice immediately that I have not titled this one up to my usual punnish standards, and there's a couple of reasons for that. The first is that I'm too irritated to be clever, having just re-read (I can't imagine why I subjected myself to a second inspection) Charlotte Allen's piece in the LA Times in which she decries what she sees as atheism's "extraordinary vitriol," "tired sarcasm," and - most outrageously - "boo-hoo victimhood." Atheists, she claims, are getting nowhere with "tired self-pity," and would be better off "engaging believers seriously." I'd usually place a disclaimer here about really being an agnostic, since the nonexistence of God is not tenable as a scientific hypothesis and uncertainty is valuable, but screw that - no semantics today. Smart people are under fire from strutting fools, and I'm not going to throw them under the bus for choosing an angrier title than me.

Now, I'd like to be clear - it's not Allen's disdain for arguments against God's existence that I find so irritating, though what little case she makes for faith is rather juvenile for a supposed scholar of the Historical Jesus. It is her fundamental question, which is really quite simple: What are atheists so mad about?

My answer is equally simple: Beliefs Are Important.

Atheists operate on the incontrovertible principle that people are strongly motivated by the things they believe. People make (or are given) assumptions about the world, assumptions upon which they then feel empowered to act. Where those assumptions are faulty, and where those assumptions are given undue authority, the results range from mediocre to catastrophic. Religion is a set of all-encompassing assumptions given limitless authority, and the results have been - and continue to be - negative in the extreme. That's it. That's the entire atheist position.

Now, is that position a result of failure on atheists' part to "engage believers seriously?" Quite the opposite - we are, in fact, the only group in human history to engage believers seriously. We have subjected religious beliefs to critical analysis of the sort adherents almost always omit - analysis which demands proof for every premise, requires that every dictum be drawn to its logical conclusion, and suggests that tradition and authority are inadequate reasons to rest on one's laurels. Most critically of all, we have done away with the indefensible notion that religions (whatever those are - no one can quite say, though everyone is certain theirs qualifies) are in some way distinct from all other systems of belief, and necessarily subject to a "global gag rule" - free from serious scrutiny by anyone who doesn't want to come off as a prick.

Our overwhelming, inescapable conclusion is that religious beliefs have a dramatic impact on human behavior - far too dramatic to be treated as some kind of private issue, when their public ramifications have been so abundantly clear. This, really, is Sam Harris' point, about which he has been deliberately provocative (and therefore vulnerable to relentless quote-mining): your religious beliefs are probably not private. They are hugely pertinent to your behavior, and therefore of fundamental importance to anyone with a vested interest in your future actions. If you're a schizophrenic who believes that the creators of the universe speak to you and tell you to kill all the gays, you will almost certainly be institutionalized, and any gay acquaintances of yours are well within their rights to take out a restraining order. If you're a Christian who believes the exact same thing, you will walk the streets freely, your beliefs a private matter - between you and your God. Then you'll kill a gay man and everyone will say my goodness, he seemed so stable, an ordained minister, a lifelong church volunteer.

Wouldn't it be great if someone had been willing to engage your beliefs seriously? Wouldn't it be wonderful if someone had read your book, and thought about what you might do if you believed what was in it?

And don't tell me I've chosen an over-the-top example, because this happens every single day - people are killed for beliefs enshrined in books everyone has read. You can argue, as theists always do, that I am drawing on overzealous fundamentalists who are doing religion wrong - well, wrong or not, they are doing religion as it has always been done. Those of you who believe in a private sphere of religious faith, separate from and unaffected by things like scientific rationalism and day-to-day reality, are something entirely new to the modern era - theists born in a post-Enlightenment culture of secularism and anti-religiosity. Rational ecumenism is the exception; dogmatic fundamentalism is the norm. They are following the God they claim to follow, they are doing the things they claim to believe they should do, and when you defend religion you're defending them.

And don't you dare - don't you dare - claim that in so doing, you're not persecuting the non-believers. The fact is that Allen and people like her are so deeply immersed in theism that they can't even recognize persecution when they see it. Oh, goodness, Charlotte - only six state constitutions bar atheists from holding public office? Why in the name of all that's good should it be any? Why should a nation so clearly and conclusively founded with no religious intent include God in its public oaths and court proceedings? Why should courts be able to order alcohol offenders to seek treatment with a proselytizing religious organization like Alcoholics Anonymous? Why should so much ambient religiosity be taken for granted, and why are we whiners for pointing it out when you clearly never think about it?

And please don't insult my intelligence by pretending an open atheist could be elected to public office in this country. I write under a pseudonym so that my future career is not undone by what I'm writing right now. I attend Catholic mass on Christmas and Easter so that members of my (liberal, Democrat, college-educated) extended family don't disown me. Polls show atheists are about half as likely to be elected as gay men. We don't have to look at antique legal documents to know we're being persecuted, and neither would you if you were paying the slightest attention.

Which is really the bottom line: mainstream theists aren't paying attention, so atheists have to. Mainstream theists aren't asking questions of themselves, or of their religions, so atheists have to. Mainstream theists aren't associating belief with action, and atheists know they have to - because Beliefs Are Important. And if we're the only ones willing to point that out, so be it.

Edit: This is what I'm talking about. Why the special treatment?

"I wish to propose for the reader's favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true."
-Bertrand Russell

"With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion."
Steven Weinberg

Friday, May 15, 2009

Rough Draft

So I was watching the West Wing the other night, and I found myself beginning to consider the unthinkable.

The situation is this: a genocide has just begun in a little African nation called Blawanda between the Flootus and the Dutsis. Okay, it's not that obvious, but you see what I'm getting at. Rather than twiddle his thumbs as the international community did during the 1994 Genocide, the President of the United States decides he's going to author a new doctrine for the use of force: one that applies when only humanitarian interests are at stake. Naturally (because everyone sucks) he faces heavy criticism from more or less the entire country, which resents his sending US troops to fight and possibly die where no US interests were at risk. The first troops die, the President sends an aide to inform a Senator that one of his constituents has been killed, and the Senator notifies the aide that he's going to propose legislation reinstating the draft.

Ensuring that the military recruits from all sectors of the population (and not just his poorer, blacker constituents), he argues, will change the way the United States enters wars; he cynically suggests that then, and only then, will valuable lives be at stake. So let's do it, he says - let's reinstate the draft.

I was aghast to find myself tentatively nodding along.

Certainly economic and race issues are not my primary concern. It is certainly unfortunate that the overwhelming majority of modern military recruits come from poor families with few other options, but it's not my primary concern. My primary concern would be to transform the armed forces, and I think reinstating the draft might be one way to accomplish that.

First of all, the military is in DIRE need of an infusion of new blood. I'm not going to get into details on this, since my friend Zero Radius has expressed interest in writing on the topic, but the United States Armed Forces have been for some years in the absolute vice-grip of evangelical Christian conservatives. This hasn't been terribly-well publicized, because what about the military ever is, but you will at least recall the recent incident in which US soldiers were caught carrying Bibles in Afghanistan, under orders to "hunt people for Jesus." This is a maddeningly typical example. Soldiers are being punished for not attending church, passed over for promotion due to's gotten out of hand. Perhaps my distinguished colleague will elaborate.

In any event, the near-absence of liberals from the Army seems to have been what's led us here, and to a certain degree that was inevitable after Vietnam and the left's disenchantment with foreign wars. This has a number of short and long-term effects, however. First, it's a simple matter of public record that Democratic politicans served and Republicans didn't, and that's in part an effect of the draft. Republican politicians by and large come from money, and money let you dodge the draft in Vietnam; old money is somewhat rarer in the Democratic party, and so therefore is draft deferment. You can argue that a lot of Democrats enlisted, probably quite a few more than were drafted, but enlistment made more sense when you might get drafted anyway.

Anyway, I'm wandering slightly. The fact is that when the next generation of politicians comes of age, there will be essentially no liberal Democrats with military records. There isn't a draft, and I can tell you I know no liberals who enlisted in Iraq. It just doesn't happen anymore. By contrast, there might be dozens of Republicans with military records. And they're not going to be civilized, moderate Republicans like John McCain or Colin Powell - men I can respect, even where we disagree. Men whose military experience I value, because I know that they know war, and that they know the stakes of starting one. Those men are products of a more moderate, rational army. These are going to be raving evangelical psychopaths raised in an atmosphere of fear and hate, and they're going to advocate application of the Coulter Doctrine - invade all non-Christian nations, murder their leaders, convert their populations. They'll have the experience to lend their words weight, and we won't. They'll have allies in the military, and we won't.

More than even that, though, I'm concerned that the fictional Senator was right - that our view of war really DOES change when there's no chance we will have to be involved. Don't get me wrong, I protested Iraq - I attended a couple rallies, I marched a couple times. For me, at the time, this was zealous political involvement. But I don't see anything in this country like the Vietnam Peace Movement, and our continued presence in Iraq renders me disillusioned about the ability of small, committed movements to affect that kind of change. It might be that if we had to go, things would be different - that if there was a chance we ourselves might die, we would let them know what we thought about that. It might be that the next greedy, rapacious, misguided war our government attempts to wage would be met with something more like revolution.

I'm not sure that's such a bad thing. I'm not sure mandatory service is either. I'm as surprised as you are, but I think it's worth discussing.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Room For One More?

"Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?" - Abraham Lincoln

A little while ago, Colin Powell criticized Rush Limbaugh for "a kind of nastiness we would be better to do without." Limbaugh responded by calling Powell "just another liberal," and suggested that he do what Arlen Specter did, leave the GOP, and join the Democratic Party.

To which I say...we'll take him!

Let's look at the facts. Powell is pro-choice. He favors moderate gun control, but is not a Second Amendment wingnut. Most importantly, he has apparently opposed the Iraq War from the start and made repeated attempts to dissuade the Bush Administration from invading. In fact, until his stint as W's Secretary of State, he was best known to scholars of International Relations for his authorship of the Powell Doctrine, which states that the United States should under no circumstances initiate a foreign conflict unless a) clear and vital US interests are at stake, b) risk to US troops is minimal, and c) public opinion was firmly in favor of the foreign intervention. Partial application of this doctrine (under Powell's supervision, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs) led to a First Gulf War that was short, decisive and concluded with very few American casualties (and certainly few civilian casualties compared to the Second Gulf War). This doctrine was hand-tailored to guarantee that the United States would never, under any circumstances, enter into another conflict that could be gainfully compared to Vietnam, in which Powell served. Cue violins.

(A brief digression: anyone who hasn't should watch this clip of Cheney explaining in 1994 why the US was right to avoid an invasion of Iraq after we'd swept up in Kuwait. He uses the word Quagmire. It is tragically priceless.)

The point I suppose I'm making is that I thought Rush Limbaugh was a better strategist than this. I thought he understood that we live in a republic, with a representative government, where the ferocity and zeal of your followers count for nothing unless you have more followers than the other guy. I thought he understood that the extreme poles of the political spectrum cannot hold a majority by definition, or they wouldn't be the extreme poles - that every modern election is essentially decided by moderates who need to be told, there's a place for you here.

Most of all, I thought he understood what started this country down the road to where it is now - the election of 1980, in which moderate (anti-torture, pro-compromise tax-and-spender) Republican Ronald Reagan took power with the help of his Big Tent concept: the notion that Reagan's Republican Party would take your moderates, your wishy-washers, the ones put off by the loopy fringe of the "loony left." Moderates are who he recruited to serve as the foot soldiers of his revolution. That's why he was able to win so handily in 1984. That's why he was able to create an America that would take twelve years to elect another Democrat, only to realize it had made a mistake and elect a Republican Congress to go after him. That's why he was able to create an America where "liberal" was an obscenity for almost thirty years, an America in which conservatives were powerful enough to drag the entire country to the right.

Well, guess what. Republicans think they're the party of Reagan, but the Democrats have his playbook. The Republicans have created a rallying image of Reagan - the folksy, fundamentalist Anti-Communist crusader - and forgotten the reality: the canny, intelligent, well-advised moderate who knew how to speak to the right and play to the middle, who believed in compromise when it would broaden his appeal and who had mastered the rhetoric of optimism. He told the majority that things were good, they could be great, and this was still the shining city on the hill, and the majority believed him.

Obama's speaking to the majority now; he's acting smart, taking good advice, and mastering the rhetoric of optimism. He'll take your moderates and anyone else he thinks he can work with, and worry later about dragging them to the left. Rush Limbaugh and the Republicans can burn all the bridges they want, throw out all the so-called "liberals" they want, and create the purest conservative movement the country has ever seen. The fringe is the fringe for a reason, and it might be our turn to make "conservative" a bad word for a while.