Saturday, September 4, 2010

Response to Hemant Mehta's "Outspoken" post

This began as a comment on Hemant's blog in response to Why Aren't You More Outspoken that grew too large to post there. So I brought it here.

There are a unproven presuppositions treated as facts in the post and those can be the mark of zealots if pushed too hard.You've taken a series of beliefs and made them into a credo, like there's some sort of vetting process to be an atheist.

Of the points that stood out to me, the first one was "who nominated you to draw up the list of essential beliefs?"

Anti-vaccination? bad
Sarah Palin? bad
Creationism? bad
Vegetarianism? meh

I'm sure the folks from PETA would love to explain the errors in your thought process in deciding to leave their cherished belief off the list of "essentials".

My time is dedicated to programs to help the underemployed get more skills and training so that they and their families don't have to live below the poverty line. I don't hear so much about that topic from atheist commentators, but instead of spending all my time arguing how "wrong" you are in not making it "essential", I keep working to change it and find common cause on other issues where possible. Many times what I read will cause me to devote more attention to issues that haven't been on my radar in the past or that haven't gotten as much attention. That's good, and it wouldn't have happened if I'd just been blasted for being "wrong".

The "I must always correct every error" mentality is the mentality of the fundamentalist. Google "separation from error" and baptist for an example of what I mean.

Your work has led to to invest significant amounts of time and caring into certain causes-you are passionate about them and respond that way because you've dealt with lots of opposition.

Your doctor friend OTOH likely isn't being picketed by anti-vaccination protesters and depending on her area of practice may come face to face with a self-selected group of vaccine supporters every day. So she isn't moved to respond in the same way-both are conditioned reflexes.

Likewise, my experiences have caused me to focus on other causes, not because some of the one's you've listed aren't important, but because these were the causes I invested in and they became my passion. That's why I don't think a canon of "essentials" is a good idea-it smacks too much of religion and "orthodoxy".

The next issue that caught my attention is that your approach doesn't jibe with the scientific method nontheists like to talk about. There appears to be no mechanism to consider that your belief may need some tweaking even if it is substantially correct.

There have been problems with vaccines, people did complain and improvements were made. Had some of today's vaccine supporters been around at that point, we'd still be using the unsafe practices because they'd view any questioning of results as a call to go into "defender" mode.

Same with the current atheist line on global warming-instead of acknowledging that some of the recent antics in the UK and the UN could raise legitimate doubts in people trying to make up their minds on the issue, there has been no attempt to engage these people and address their concerns just a louder repetition of the party line. These people, not having their concerns addressed remain on the fence. The scientific community disappointed me on this issue just as the moderate muslims disappointed you regarding "Draw Mo".

Lastly, gay marriage. I believe in the rights of gays to get married, but not in gay marriage. Just as the Prop 8 decision showed that the idea of marriage=children is no longer valid, I don't believe that the idea marriage=sex is appropriate either. We should be past the point where we are holding up sheets stained with blood (or other fluids) to show we really care abut someone. So for me heterosexual marriage's time is done-and by definition so would gay marriage.

Anyone who wants to demonstrate their love and commitment through a legal marriage should be able to do so, even if there is no sex involved or implied between them.

It's a position that takes fire from all sides, and again it's a choice to support improvements (such as the Prop 8 decision) rather than denouncing everything that isn't exactly the way I think it should be. It means things move closer to the ideal I hold out even if there is still a ways to go.

Finally we need to cut people some slack because-our brains have lots of built in irrationality that helped us survive in the past, so it's not be surprised that we still cling to lots of it, and don't always use reason.Not everything in your OP was pure reason and certainly my response isn't either.

We need to recognize that some people are opposed and won't listen to anything else while others are opposed because they haven't heard another view or are still undecided on issues. Ted Olson was a huge inspiration to me in this area with his explanation of the Prop 8 decision. He could have gone into "defender" mode, but instead he calmly and clearly explained the excellent reasons for the decision recognizing that he had a platform that would give him access to lots of people whose minds could be changed.

My apologies for taking so long to say what I said-I'm no Ted Olson, but I hope it provides food for thought.


  1. I agree with you. I've been craving a kinder, gentler atheist community that allows a greater diversity of opinion. Maybe it's because my Catholic upbringing was pleasant and unobjectionable and I only left Catholicism because I stopped believing in it, not because I resent it in any way. (My decision predates the recent spate of scandals.) I would like to enjoy a community that is less spiteful and divisive than my old religious community, not more so.

    Half the time atheists are spouting criticism at the religious, I can't relate to what they're talking about. (The other half of the time, the source of outrage is obvious. I don't disagree with criticizing harmful religious acts.)

    I also must add, though, as a parent of a child from a country where vaccines are not as ubiquitous as here, that the anti-vax thing really is bad. My son had no titers and was considered high-risk until we could redo all his vaccines the right way. Aside from his own vulnerability if he'd caught something, he could very well have dumped a disease into an unvaccinated population of children right here in the US. American parents sometimes think they're living in a bubble. Families like mine puncture that bubble just by existing.

  2. It wasn't that I disagreed with Hemant's core premise that people need to stand up for their beliefs and values. Rather it was the idea that there was a "canon" of causes that were "musts" for nontheists.

    As someone later posted on the Friendly Athiest site, such an demand seemed to much like religious activities and requirements to be "good".

    I've had a number of family members who were hurt by the catholic churcb and as a result I have an active dislike for it. That said, while there are a number of issues where I vocally challenge their actions and "truths" (to the chagrin of my devout catholic relatives) I don't believe it is a cause everyone must espouse or respond to in the same way that I choose to respond.

    We all have different experiences and we set priorities according to those experiences and how they affect us. Helping people access education toward a better life is part of my priorities because of experiences I had, while others who were involved with the LGBT, labour or other movements have passion for those causes.

    What I think is great about the nontheistic emphasis on reason is that we can share our priorities and convince one another to at least take some action on our core causes, even if someone else doesn't develop the same passion we have.

    The vaccine issue is interesting. What I was trying to say is that often the approach of the defenders cause more doubt than relieves it.

    Here in Canada during the H1N1 season, a decision was made to use a vaccine that contained adjuvants to boost the effectiveness of the vaccine. When asked about the safety of the vaccine, they provided results for vaccine made without the adjuvant.

    Once this was discovered by the public, it led to a loss of confidence by many, especially when they discovered that many other jurisdictions chose not to permit the adjuvant in their vaccine. In addition, the decision to change its policy and acquire adjuvant-free vaccine for pregnant women and babies further added to the confusion.

    What could have been simply addressed by sharing research results in a transparent manner became a months-long media circus that resulted in significant reductions in the percentage of people who chose to be vaccinated.

    That's why we need to keep in mind that even if our immediate detractors won't consider our answer, there is a good possibility that individuals on the fence will consider what we are saying if it is solid and well-presented.

    Hemant's books played a significant role in my adopting nontheism-I didn't want to be a full-time antitheist and hist book suggests a different path is possible. I respect that a lot.