Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Conditions in Place

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Robert wants to know about “secular humanist” organizations for charity–what he really means, I think, is atheist organizations for charity, and that brings me to part one of my problem.

First, unlike a religion, atheism isn’t really anything in particular–it’s the expression for a lack of something.

Simply not believing that God exists provides an individual with absolutely nothing in the way of concepts in anything.  And I do mean anything.  Some atheists even believe in the supernatural–in ghosts, say, or reincarnation–while not seeing anything to believe in that would qualify as God, or even “a” god.

Christian conservatives like to talk about political ideologies such as Communism or fascism as “atheist organizations,” but the appellation is a little squidgy. 

Christianity, for instance, provides a set of scriptures that can be read to determine what God wants, and once that has been determined, institutions can be built on the premises discovered therein.

And what’s more, the number and kinds of such institutions are not infinitely variable.  Granted that anybody can justify anything he wants to do with any philosophy out there if he’s willing to be either ignorant or dishonest about it, the founding documents of Christianity and the content of its tradition allow some things and disallow others.

But atheism neither allows or disallows.  An atheist can be a Communist or a Fascist, but he can also be a social conservative (see Theodore Dalrymple), a libertarian anarchist, a back-to-the-land vegan, or the kind of person who likes to torture cats.  Just not believing in God does not mandate any political or moral outcome whatsoever. 

It was Dostoyevsky, I think, who said that if God does not exist, then anything is permitted–but you couldn’t find half a dozen atheists who accept that idea.  Atheists sign on to all kinds of moral codes for all kinds of reasons.

When atheists do sign on to such codes, however, they don’t do it “because God does not exist.”  They do it because they’ve committed themselves to further ideas that atheism in itself does not require.

So the American Humanist Association puts forward a rather comprehensive outline of the moral life, but the outline is not based on the atheism of its members but on their commitment to a set of other concepts (human equality, for instance) that not only do not derive from atheism but that are often embraced by religious people as well. 

To the extent that there is organized atheism as atheism–rather than secular groups committed to establishing and promoting ethical codes based on other premises than mere atheism–there are only small groups mostly dedicated to advancing the social and legal position of atheists in a society that is largely religious. 

Atheist organizations therefore lobby to have the Pledge of  Allegiance restored to its original wording (no “under God”), because its present wording implies that those of us who do not believe in God are not actually American citizens.  (And also, it’s annoying to realize that the damned thing was written by an atheist socialist who probably couldn’t take it in its present form.)  They lobby for recognition for unbelievers who are conscientious objectors to war.  They lobby to keep the official recognition of God out of public schools so that they can send their children to them.

But a wide variety of people with a wide variety of political and social beliefs can sign on to the things in that last paragraph.  Pro-capitalist economic conservatives have just as much stake in them as pro-socialist economic leftists or welfare state liberals.

The Humanism of the American Humanist Association and the secular humanism of the Council for Secular Humanism are different, because they are in fact attempts to construct moral and ethical codes that can command widespread support from people who do not believe in God, and also from people who do but who might also see the wisdom of the reasoning they give.

And here is where I have my problem.  The issue, for me, is not the atheism.  I am an atheist because I am.  I didn’t start out religious and become atheist in a fit of rebellion.  I didn’t work out a lot of reasons and arguments.  I don’t believe because I don’t.  My family didn’t, by and large, and on the few occasions when I have tried on religion to see what it is like, it has left me emotionally cold.

Okay, I’ll admit it.  It goes farther than that.  There’s a part of me that just can’t not be flabbergasted at the idea that anybody, anywhere takes God seriously.  Maybe I’m missing some part of my brain that other people have, but the whole thing just seems silly to me.

But my problem with the present state of ethical and moral philosophy is a lot deeper than theism or lack of it.  In fact, I find a lot of Catholic moral philosophy to be intellectually compelling.  God or no God, I understand its conception of the moral status of the human person and the obligation to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the imprisoned, et al, that follows from it. 

Of course, there are parts of that tradition that I do not find intellectually compelling, and others that I find downright wrong.  But if I can start with the conception of the human person and reach the acts of corporal charity, then the acts of corporal charity can in fact be defended on secular grounds.

My problem with the present state of secular moral philosophy is that a lot of it seems to me to be an exercise is crafting a code that will fit what we’ve already decided we want to be true–the exact opposite of the scientific method that secular organizations claim they are the champions of.

This is certainly the problem with the work of Paul Kurtz, the grand old man of American secular humanism.  I’ve complained about him before, so I won’t go into         his ideas at any length here, but I keep running up against his declaration of the validity of the principles of “common human decency,” by which he means moral and ethical principles that exist in some form in all societies.  He keeps dragging in things–the equality of women!  reproductive rights!–that he declares to be “common” that are common only in the fact that most societies reject them.

But what has really started to happen is even more egregious, from my point of view, in that it has a lot more in common with that quote I posted last time than it does with traditional Humanist ethics of any kind.

I’m not saying that what’s his name–I seem to have forgotten it already–is mainstream as of yet, but ideas like his are getting there, and they can be met with among secular people even outside the organizations these days.  “Someday you’re going to find out humans aren’t so special!” a poster on an Internet forum I sometimes participate in once said to me, and there’s a lot of that thing going around.

What’s more interesting is the extent to which such people are willing to use arguments they reject out of hand when those arguments are applied to concepts they don’t like.

The same people who treat with scorn the statement “You may not be able to prove God exists, but you can’t prove He doesn’t exist either!”  counter any attempt to point out that there is no evidence of animals establishing moral philosophies or thinking in abstract concepts with, “but there isn’t any evidence they don’t, either!”

The quotation I posted is extreme, of course, but it is a good example of the nearly complete denial of reality that is more and more becoming the basis for attempts at secular ethics.  Peter Singer is not a marginal figure and he seems to believe pretty much the same thing, and on pretty much the same terms. 

I also can’t help feeling that the “moral codes” derived from this particular understanding of the human person haven’t got a hope in Hell of ever being adopted by any society anywhere, and that their proponents know this. 

Which brings me to a question:  if the people advocating this sort of thing know that they aren’t going to get it accepted by society at large, why are they advocating it?  What is it they hope to get from making these ideas mainstream, even if they’re not accepted? 

I find myself defending the Catholic Church not because I’m a Catholic, or could ever be one, and not because I think they’re a paragon of institutional virtue, but because I  at least understand how they see human beings and how they define human beings, and it actually accords with both reality and an ethic I could commit myself to.

What scares me about the secular codes of thinkers like the one I posted last time is that their concept of the human person ends up seeping its way into our politics and practice, both professional and otherwise, without our even realizing they’ve done it.

And by now I’m probably making no sense, so I’ll try to make this less abstract and more clear tomorrow, and go off and have some more tea.

Written by janeh

January 4th, 2010 at 8:43 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Conditions in Place'

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  1. People want their world to make sense, they want to be right and they want to belong to and contribute to something bigger and better than themselves. The traditional outlets for these sorts of feelings – nationalism, religion, family, work – are all very obviously under attack and/or unfamiliar and/or discredited to a lot of people today. We know their flaws intimately, and treat even their strengths as further examples of their corruption. Our countries, acting on our behalf, do things we don’t like or understand; religions are full of hypocrites and abusers; families divide, or wither due to distance and indifference; and work is often for some big business which may be as corrupt as the rest, and fire you or go into bankruptcy as well.

    So, what do you do, particularly if you are youngish and just setting your course in life, and lack both the experience to deal with moral ambiguity and the educational and critical thinking skills to analyse alternatives? You don’t start reading philosophy to find some new view of human existance to try to use to guide your life. You have to rely on yourself. It hurts you to think of or see animals suffer, so you pick up the first argument you can think of to explain why torturing animals is wrong. You find like-minded thinkers on the Internet who support you and help you expand your ideas without any reference to reality or even to other views on the subject, and sometimes you end up sending death threats to medical researchers because they’re not recognizing the rights of lab rats.

    Reality is messy and complicated and there are all those other people who have explained how it works in ways you can’t understand. But your ideas are as good as anyone else’s (after all, you have no real idea of how to compare or evaluate ideas), so you are right, and you’ve got a movement to belong to, and something worthwhile to do.

    And, yes, these ideas are becoming more and more mainstream. Ideas don’t have to be part of a rational framework to use in viewing humanity or even connected that closely to reality to become part of popular culture.


    4 Jan 10 at 10:13 am

  2. I agree with Jane about the Catholic church. I don’t accept their basic premises but I can usually follow the logic. I suspect Orthodox Judaism is at least as logical but its not as widely known.

    What bothers me about Singer etc is that they seem to have a random collection of “feel good” ideas which are only accepted in Western Society. As Jane points out, equality of women and reproductive rights are rejected in most societies.

    One of the fundamental results of logic is that an inconsistent set of premises allows anything to be proven. Let me try some examples.

    I was recently in the hospital with a severe infection of the abdomen. Treatment was massive dosage of antibiotics. If all biological species are equal, isn’t that genocide? How do you combine that with a moral obligation to treat sick people?

    You can object to treating bacteria as equal to humans, but what about the moral obligation to prevent illnesses and the need to control rats, mice, cockroaches, mosquitoes and other disease bearing organisms.

    How about the claim that we should prevent starvation? That requires moving large amounts of food from one place to another. And that requires roads and railroads which are bad for the ecosystem.

    I don’t believe in God but at least religions try to be consistent. The present substitute seems to be a semi-random collection of “feel good” ideas which appear hopelessly inconsistent.


    4 Jan 10 at 4:21 pm

  3. You know, in many ways I agree with Jane on this one. (I know! What I was trying to point out earlier was that institutional charity was the common heritage of the Abrahamic faiths–of other people and other religions, not so much.)

    No, atheism isn’t a religion. But the absence of a belief an immortal soul and in a God capable of prescribing a code of conduct makes certain behaviors harder to rationalize, and others easier. Because many atheists disagree with Dostoyevsky doesn’t make him wrong.

    There is building, though, something I would call a secular religion–a common set of beliefs, and a shared set of compulsory and forbidden behaviors, and little regard for logic or for scientific and historical facts if they stand in the way of the program. It’s the sort of gestalt which says that if you eat organic food you have to be in favor of single-payer health care, and if you’re pro-abortion rights, you have to be anti-capital punishment. Call it The Movement, for short.

    This is, I suspect, what Jane is alluding to with Paul Kurtz and “common human decency”–though I haven’t noticed human decency to be all that common myself. It hasn’t quite jelled yet, but it’s getting there. Some of the adherents are and will be nominally religious, but as in her example of the Catholic abortionist, it will religion as a hobby, like building ships in bottles.

    And I don’t think I’d care much for a Movement-run hospital. It would be far too close to Jane’s description of a post or two back.


    4 Jan 10 at 6:21 pm

  4. OK, and one other thing needs to be said, The “lack of something” does have consequences. If you put 10 Jews or 10 Sunni, 10 Methodists or 10 Mormons in a community, they will form a community. They’ll meet, and not long after meeting they’ll form some sort of self-help group. Then, unless they’re a tiny minority of the surrounding dommunity, they’ll start opening clinics and hospitals, soup kitchens and food banks. Within the Abrahamic traditions, ethical debates are about the margins and methods. Outside that tradition, things are more open. A lot more open.

    Which does not make either group right, but it’s worth keeping in mind.


    5 Jan 10 at 6:10 am

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