Dr. Myers, after noting that a mere 1% of Americans things God is a chick (compared to 36% who think he’s a dude), writes about Muriel Gray’s idea to rebrand what once were called freethinkers (or Brights, or …) as Enlightenists:
Enlightenists believe in the awe-inspiring, wonder, beauty and complexity of the universe, and aspire to unpick its mysteries by reason, constant questioning, observation, experiment, and analysis of evidence. The bedrock of our morality is empathy, from which logically springs love, forgiveness, tolerance and a profound desire to make a just, egalitarian society and reduce suffering. The more knowledge a person has, the more they question and understand the real world, and the more they are required to analyse what is true then the greater the increase in empathy. Enlightenists care and wish to do good not because a vengeful God tells them to, but because intelligence suggests it is the only and the right thing to do.
Indeed, a better name for this approach might be Pragmatists, were the name not already taken by a philosophical movement with the same basic principles. The fact that Gray is apparently unaware of (or uninterested in mentioning) the intellectual history of the idea she’s propounding is, perhaps, merely a sign of the times. Richard Dawkins managed to write an entire book about the limits (or lack thereof) of science without mentioning Karl Popper.
I think that Dewey’s approach would be substantially more helpful than the more tit-for-tat approach being advanced. The Pragmatic (or instrumentalist) approach advanced by Dewey, Henry James and others in the early 20th century made a distinction between two types of knowledge (I’m relying in part here on an excellent lecture that Barbara Forrest gave last spring at KU about ID creationism and her own research in Pragmatist Sidney Hook). On one hand we have share experiential knowledge, of which science is but one example. For instance, our understanding of a novel may be individual, but the novel itself is empirical, and can be discussed on that empirical basis.
On the other hand lies individual knowledge, including religious knowledge obtained through personal revelation. That knowledge is not empirical and cannot be shared between people. This is part of why the reaction to Dawkins’ book has been so polarized. Some people just agree, and others just don’t. Empirical evidence alone cannot tell us which camp is right and which is wrong.
Dewey’s solution was to say that policy, especially educational policy, ought to be built around our shared experiences. Whether or not our political views draw on personal revelations, the policy ought to rest on a firm empirical foundation. Of course, the distribution of beliefs in society is empirically testable, and values shared across a society certainly enter into good policymaking.
In educational policy, this led to Dewey’s advocacy (and experiments at the U. of Chicago Lab School) in teaching approaches that relied on direct experimentation, rather than dogmatic memorization. This contrasts neatly with religious education, but unfortunately also with almost all public and private school classrooms. Dewey was a supporter of public education in part because he wanted to encourage these sorts of shared experiences, to ground everyone in society in our shared reality. Balkanizing schools limits those opportunities.
(Click through to find out how The Simpsons figures into this).
And that is why Dr. Myers is right to object to further Balkanizing the public schools by creating “Enlightenist” schools. Create pragmatist schools, and help people understand the world we all share, don’t further divide society. Dr. Myers writes:
I’m not enthused about that—anything that takes resources away from the public schools is not a good thing in my book—but the idea that we freethinkers ought to be lobbying more is a good one.
Again, I agree, but for different reasons.
To understand, let’s explore a different debate. Let’s begin with a Simpson’s moment. Kang, dressed as Bob Dole, addresses a crowd:
Abortions for all. [crowd boos]
Very well, no abortions for anyone. [crowd boos]
Hmm… Abortions for some, miniature American flags for others.
And everyone is happy.
In modern political life, no one adopts the first position (genocide), but people do adopt the second (“pro-life”). This makes it seem like the third position (pro-choice) is extreme, since it represents the extreme of political discussion. If there were people adopting position 1, it might make it easier to find a satisfactory compromise.
But no one would (or should) advocate abortions for all. It’s foolish. The pro-choice position is that the government shouldn’t be making arbitrary decisions about complex moral issues that people have genuine disagreements about. They no more support forced abortion than they support forbidding abortion.
I see religion the same way. If your beef is that religious groups are too aggressive in pushing their dogma into public policy, then the solution is not to increase the amount of dogma in that debate. The solution is to fight for non-dogmatic policies, policies that protect everyone’s right to believe what they choose, and to root those policies in rational analysis of empirical data and our shared values as a society.
And it just so happens that there already are groups established to lobby for those ideals. Yes, it means adopting a nuanced position, and rejecting the framing of the fight as one between religion and anti-religion. It means constantly explaining that the problem is with public policies that interfere with anyone’s right to believe (or not). That this is an approach that aims to protect atheists, agnostics, apathists, animists, deists, theists, unitarians, trinitarians, Taoists, Muslims, Jews, Christians, Christian Scientists, Christian scientists, and everyone else. That isn’t how people see the fight, so it won’t be an easy project.
But it can succeed. While abortion policy remains a hot topic, the number of people who identify themselves as pro-choice has been steadily rising. There are disagreements among the pro-choice about what limits should be placed on abortion, about the acceptability of certain procedures and notification regimes. Despite that, there is a growing consensus that the basic question of whether a woman can have an abortion is one that is hers to make in consultation with a medical professional. It isn’t what Kodos would say, but it can work.