Wednesday, May 16, 2012

About tactics and framing

People learn about secular humanism and atheism from their family, local clerics, national clerics, their neighbors, various commercial sources of information, and the like.  In a religious society such as ours the portrayals from such sources will tend to be negative.  People are also taught to adopt a closed, circular mode of belief, where faith in the religious based beliefs is considered to be a high value, where related sets of religious based beliefs are characterized as being true because they are deemed to be necessary for human morality or for an eternal after-life, where self-identity and purpose are deemed to be products of the beliefs. These sets of self-justifying beliefs and negative misunderstandings of the people who reject the beliefs, including its theistic underpinnings, are what I have in mind when I refer to prejudices.

So it shouldn't be surprising that when psychologists examine people's reactions to criticisms of their religious beliefs it is found many people react negatively.  Good people, with the best of intentions, fear losing their beliefs and fear those who don't share their beliefs.    There is an argument that we should avoid arousing these defense mechanisms when communicating to the public. It is argued that we should avoid the topics that promote anxiety, that arouse suspicions, prejudices, disgust, feelings of being under attack. In this view, the new atheists have it all wrong, their plain and direct discussion of taboo subjects, including their rejection of theism, is too radical for the public and counter-productive.   I consider this conclusion to be mistaken and I am going to try explain why here.

There is another way of looking at this psychology.   When trying to treat a phobia, psychologists have concluded that it is usually best to adopt two elements:  1. exposure to the feared situation/object and 2. dealing with the frightening thoughts that are associated with the anxiety.  Prejudice has some of the characteristics of phobia and it is reasonable to think that, at least for adults, exposure to the contexts that arouse the prejudice is often going to part of any process that defeats the prejudice.

Furthermore, prejudice against secular humanism, and against atheism, is a substantial obstacle to promoting more secular government. People who associate only negative concepts to what it means to not share their religious beliefs, including their monotheism, are going to be inclined to judge as bad the policies that they think conflict with those religious beliefs, such as teaching modern knowledge in public schools that describes our universe as functioning without divine intervention. It would be nice if we could frame the policy disputes to hide the conflicts with religious doctrines so that people's prejudices against the non-religious are not aroused.  But even if we could do that, as long as the prejudices against the non-religious persist, secularists will be forever operating in a fire department mode. Furthermore, there are constraints against not arousing the prejudices, such as the opposing institutions that are committed to fighting secularism and inciting against secularism. The prejudices against the non-religious keep igniting and re-igniting the efforts against secular government. This problem is alleviated some by the presence of many liberal religionists within the ranks of secularists, but it is still a problem.

So I think it is a mistake to only focus on the "important" policy issues and to avoid addressing the underlying thinking that constitute the prejudices against the non-religious.  Furthermore, there is no way to do this effectively without confronting those prejudices and thus arousing them.  But instead of being counter-productive, this is actually a necessary step to making progress over the longer term.   It would be nice if we could dissolve, or even just attenuate, the prejudices while avoiding confronting the prejudices without the risk of arousing the prejudices.  But tip-toeing around the tulips isn't a good approach here, it has little chance of being effective.

In my view the "new atheists" are right, we need straight talk that communicates honestly and directly why we don't have, and don't want to have, religious beliefs, or any beliefs more generally that fail to comport with how the world functions.  This is not a negative message, it is more of a mixed message.  It is a message that we are vulnerable to fooling ourselves but also that we can anchor our beliefs so as to more reliably match how the world functions than we do when we follow our imaginations, intuitions, biases, feelings, and historical, tribal, myths.

We don't need to convert many people away from religion to make significant progress.  But we do need to melt away some of that closed-minded over-confidence (or maybe it is as symptom of lack of self-confidence?) by exposing more people to the different, and for many people alien, perspectives of non-theists.  Philosophical naturalists have good arguments and strong justifications for our belief that there is no supernatural realm.  Good enough to make our perspective sufficiently competitive in the minds of more of the public to undermine our isolation.  And that is all we need to achieve.  To get there we have to be willing to express strong convictions while being nuanced, to be judgmental and principled without being harsh, and to be persistent.  But we can't do this if we fear offending people who are too easily offended and if we value avoiding conflict over taking risks to achieve longer term objectives.

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