A few days ago I was over at Jerry Coyne’s blog and got into some conversations that regular readers here might be interested in. In the course of one of his regularly scheduled whinefests about how people are too mean to gnu atheists, Coyne wrote:
we’re not McCarthyites with a secret “list”. Here are some professed atheists who have been unusually (and I’d add unreasonably) critical of Gnu Atheists: Julian Baggini, Jacques Berlinerblau, Andrew Brown, R. Joseph Hoffmann, Jean Kazez, Chris Mooney, Massimo Pigliucci, Josh Rosenau, Michael Ruse, and Jeremy Stangroom.
There were two things that struck me about this comment. First, the problem with McCarthy was not that he kept his list secret, but that he made a list. To the second point, I commented:
Simple fact check: where, exactly, am I supposed to have “professed” to be an “atheist”?
There was an exchange in which people tried to turn the issue around, and have me restate my position rather than have Coyne support his claim about who professed what, but ultimately, Coyne replied:
Okay Josh, I correct myself. You’re not an atheist, but an “apathist agnostic.” I will call you that from now on. â¨
Happy now? Although under my definition of atheism I’d consider your stance “atheism,” I won’t quarrel about semantics. You have the right to be called anything you want, although I suspect that your adopting that pretentious label is simply a way to make your nonbelief look presentable to the public, and to duck the question about whether you believe in god.
I’ll note that the post still asserts that I’m a professed atheist, so the “I correct myself” bit is not what you’d call “true.”
Anyway, I responded with some snark about the propriety of having personal definitions of words, the dubious claim of pretentiousness, and the observation:
Your attempted mindreading notwithstanding, my issue here is not whether my views are “presentable,” it’s about the importance of being accurate, honest, and clear in describing myself and others.â¨
I qualify my agnosticism as “apathist” because I don’t think the question “do you believe in god” is that important. It’s not that I’m dodging the issue of whether I believe in god(s), it’s that I think the question is as relevant as whether I prefer basketball or baseball, and I’d rather people would ask about things that really matter. I’d rather society were focused on things that really matter, too.â¨
You, clearly, think this is a question that really matters. I find your arguments uncompelling (more on that anon). And that’s where things stand.â¨
Commenter Miranda Celeste Hale asked “what do you think ‘really matters’?” and Jeanine suggested that the question of whether someone believes in god(s) or not:â¨
is one of the most important questions of our times. …If there are more of our [atheist] mindsets out there than not, perhaps we have a chance to defend our children’s educations…to defend our personal rights…to defend and demand reason in all political discourse. Whether or not you play basketball has a much different effect on society than if you were to vote against abortion or gay marriage based on what your bible tells you.
And Ophelia Benson called my dismissal of the theism question as “odd, because if you did believe, you would be believing in someone who might torture you for eternity for some trivial action or involuntary belief. Basketball and baseball don’t have consequences of that kind.” I don’t find Pascal’s Wager any more compelling when offered by an atheist than when it’s offered by a theist, so I’m not entirely sure what that’s meant to prove.â¨
I posted a comment in reply, but three days later, it’s still in moderation, so I’ll just post it here:
Miranda: I think what really matters is how people behave. Do they, as Jeanine puts it, “vote against abortion or gay marriage”? Do they stand up for honest science education? Do they look out for their neighbors and raise their children to care for those around them? Do they vote, and take the franchise seriously?
Contra Jeanine, I don’t think it’s important whether someone “were to vote against abortion or gay marriage based on what your bible tells you.” [emphasis added] I don’t think it’s worse that one votes against gay marriage because of a religious motive than that one votes that way from some other source of anti-gay bigotry. Nor would I condemn someone for voting for gay marriage because of their religion’s teachings (as some people do).
Voting against gay marriage or abortion is bad for the same reason that voting to ban particular items of clothing (e.g., the French ban on the niqab) is bad. These are acts that restrict another person’s rights. They are illiberal impositions of one person’s untestable metaphysical beliefs on another. And that authoritarianism is a problem regardless of whether it originates in religion or in some other force. Some religions do feed into authoritarianism, but others drive their followers to oppose such authoritarian acts, to oppose torture and war, to fight for civil rights of members of other religious groups. Why treat the (untestable) religious belief as the problem (even though it isn’t always problematic), rather than focus on the definitely problematic authoritarianism?
Ophelia: If I were to believe, I wouldn’t worship that particular god. Even if such a god exists (which is not a testable claim, so not interesting to me), it wouldn’t strike me as worthy of worship. There are significant numbers of Christians who reject the doctrine of hell, too.
But here’s the issue: would I behave differently if I believed in hell? I don’t think so. I don’t need that particular stick to force me towards good behavior. I try to be a good person now, and if I believed in hell, (I hope) I’d still be a good person. Which is why I say it doesn’t matter.
After I’d posted that (though it never cleared moderation), Hamilton Jacobi wrote to argue:
If you think the question of whether the putative omnipotent ruler of the universe exists or not is as important and relevant as whether you prefer basketball or baseball, you’ve already made your decision. You’re an atheist — you just don’t want to admit it.
I don’t know, and don’t care, whether you have a 1976 bicentennial quarter in your pocket. You might, you might not. Saying I don’t know and don’t care does not imply that I think you haven’t got one.â¨
For the same reasons, saying I don’t know and don’t care whether god(s) exist doesn’t mean I think gods(s) don’t exist.â¨
Ultimately, claims about whether a god exists are untestable. The universe is as it is. The parts that are measurable and observable and about which claims can be tested are as they are. If certain other, untestable claims are also true, that doesn’t change any of the observable, testable parts. A deity might have created a world of the sort we see around us (omnipotent beings can, after all, do anything, including make a universe exactly like ours). But I gain nothing by tacking on assumptions about whether or not various untestable things are or aren’t there, and I don’t think anyone else really gains much by tacking those assumptions on, either.â¨
If people like making those assumptions, they’re naturally free to do so, as long as in doing so they don’t infringe on the rights of other people to assume other things, or to ignore the question entirely. â¨
When y’all folks insist that I have to have some opinion, I feel like you cross that line, and I object. Not as much as I object when some jagoff knocks on my door and asks if I’ve found Jesus, but the important thing is that everyone, even you, stop crossing the line.
Commenter Wowbagger objected to the claim that existence claims about a god are untestable: “Are they? Why, exactly? I know this is asserted by the religious (and their sympathisers), but I’ve never heard any particularly good explanation — as opposed to it being as a rather transparent goalpost-shifting tactic to justify why they’ve never found any evidence to support the existence of any gods — for why that’s the case.
I tried to post a reply, but it got eaten by the system:
Wowbagger: Are you counting Karl Popper as a religious sympathizer now? The falsifiability criterion was his baby, and has served philosophy of science pretty well over the years.
Heck, are you counting Jerry Coyne circa 2007 as a religious sympathizer? He wrote: “Science simply doesn’t deal with hypotheses about … supernatural phenomena like miracles, because science is the search for rational explanations of natural phenomena. … Where are faith’s testable predictions or falsifiable hypotheses about human origins?”
I’m sure this isn’t the end of the discussion, but I didn’t want that discussion to be arbitrarily cut off by Jerry Coyne’s questionable moderation decisions. The discussion drew out some important points about the different way I view the relevance of religion to our society and how this subset of gnu/New atheists view it. I’m guessing that other people on the “accommodationist” side of this squabble would not agree with me, but I’d be interested in hearing a wider set of responses.
Nothing above is meant to suggest that these questions should not be important to individuals. If someone personally believes in god(s) or personally finds the idea offensive, that’s certainly their right. I just don’t think it has any relevance to public discourse. And I don’t think, at the end of the day, that those beliefs have much impact on how people actually behave and interact, and that’s what I really care about.
But how can we tell whether it really matters? Coyne offered one angle on the question earlier this month, asking “What does it take to blame faith?” The standard Coyne offers is: “Would those acts have still been committed had there been no religion?,” or more succinctly “Would the amount of evil in the world be reduced if there were no religion?”
He notes that we can’t “rewind the tape of history, and … do controlled experiments in which we can insert or remove religion like a chemical in a test tube,” and so leaves us with no particular procedure for assessing these questions. Coyne acknowledges “other factors, like politics, personality disorders, civil strife, and so on, that are ’causes’ in the same way,” but gives no suggestion about how to separate those out. But that’s exactly the challenge, because removing religion wouldn’t remove those other causes, and so wouldn’t necessarily prevent wars on the scale of the Crusades, or suicide attacks on the scale of what we see in Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, or the Palestinian territories.
Under those circumstances, Coyne’s attribution of various historical events to religion strikes me as a set of untestable claims, and the attitude that religion must be to blame is (for the moment) as unfalsifiable as Marx’s attribution of historical events to class warfare and Freud’s attribution of all behavior to the repressed unconscious.
It turns out, there are ways you can do this sort of work. A while back, I noted work by Coyne’s University of Chicago colleague Robert Pape, who assembled a dataset of every suicide attack since the early 1980s, and determined that neither religion nor mental illness are adequate to explain them, but that political factors ‑Â foreign troops in the bomber’s native land — were.
Similarly, Tom Rees at Epiphenom recently discussed research into the factors that make people willing to help a stranger. He describes an experiment where researchers told students one of two stories about a female classmate whose class notes were stolen. One group of students was told that the woman is a feminist (a way of marking her as an outsider to fundamentalists and right-wing authoritarians), while the other group wasn’t told anything else about her. Then both groups were asked a series of questions to gauge how willing they’d be to help the woman.
Before the story, the students were all asked about their own religious views (including an assessment of their fundamentalism), and given a questionnaire that assesses right-wing authoritarian tendencies. More religious students were more willing to help a stranger in need, but not when she was described as a feminist. Fundamentalists showed the same pattern, with no more and no less generosity than seen for comparably religious non-fundamentalists. Authoritarianism, which generally correlates closely with fundamentalism, but can be teased apart with enough data, was not associated with any increased generosity in general, or any decreased generosity toward a feminist.
Rees adds that according to the researchers:
what this means is that religious fundamentalism is not simply right-wing authoritarianism in religious clothing. Fundamentalists, unlike right-wing authoritarians, are more pro-social to friends and non-threatening people who could be considered members of their own group.
Blogowska and Saroglou also found another interesting gem. They asked their students straight out whether they practised universal love — whether they were willing to help all people, regardless of who they were. Of course, both the ordinary religious and the fundamentalists were more likely to say that they did.
Even though they had just given the game away in the answers they gave just moments before!
It’s a fascinating bit of research that does let us assess whether religion or authoritarianism is more important in shaping people’s social behavior. And in this case, religion matters more (though it’s always possible there’s some confounding factor driving religiosity and lack of generosity towards an outsider that the study didn’t consider). With enough similar studies, we could start to make sensible generalizations, even about historical events. But starting with grand historical events, or broad social phenomena before we’ve developed a more detailed understanding of how religiosity influences people’s behavior just seems like putting the cart before the horse, privileging assumptions over data. Maybe, when the data are gathered and analyzed, it’ll be fair to say that certain conflicts would not have happened, or certain social problems wouldn’t have developed, but for religion.