On Secular Arguments and Conservative Atheists

As you may have heard, David Silverman, President of American Atheists, made a splash by attending the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this past week. The publicity was done for Silverman even before he arrived, since the invitation to American Atheists was revoked after outcry by religious conservatives, resulting in the “atheists unwelcome at CPAC” story he was no doubt expecting. Done and done, right?

Not so much, since Silverman apparently went to CPAC anyway, and gave interviews. He seems to think that there’s a hidden enclave of closet atheists in the halls of conservatism, and he’s just the man to draw them out (and also, presumably, to make them dues-paying members of American Atheists).

On one hand, this shouldn’t be a surprise. American Atheists’ outreach under Silverman has been focused not on convincing people of the atheist position, but on convincing people who are atheist-but-closeted to come out and be public with their disbelief. It’s a laudable goal.

Silverman’s also been vocal about making atheism a big tent, and less willing, on that front, to explicitly exclude some of the more hostile wings of the atheist movement. To Dave, as long as we’re all agreed that religion is generally wrong and bad, we’re all working together (or at least, we’re all willing to donate to American Atheists so they can accomplish tasks that we generally agree are important).
Silverman identifies himself as a conservative:

He describes himself as a “fiscally conservative” voter who “owns several guns. I’m a strong supporter of the military. I think fiscal responsibility is very important. I see that as pretty conservative. And I have my serious suspicions about Obama. I don’t like that he’s spying on us. I don’t like we’ve got drones killing people…” In the final analysis, “the Democrats are too liberal for me,” he says.

And he’s got some particular ideas about what conservatism is and means, and how conservatism and atheism can be compatible:

“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”
[…]
“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”

And looking at all that really makes me want to donate to American Atheists, so that maybe they’ll have enough money to buy Dave a clue.

Let’s start with the “secular argument[s] against abortion.” When I first saw that quote, my response was incredulity. What are these secular arguments for abortion? The ones I could remember hearing were really just the usual religious pro-lifers’ arguments, but with “human DNA” or some other such nonsense copy-pasted where a Catholic might say “soul.” They were as “secular” as Intelligent Design.

But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that most of the arguments I’ve heard from anti-abortion activists have been secular in nature. I was conflating “secular argument against abortion” with “argument against abortion from a secularist.” Sure, there are all the appeals to Mother Teresa and the Pope and that bit of the Bible where God says he knew you before he formed you in the womb, but once you get past that, it’s mostly nonreligious reasons. Those big signs of misleadingly dismembered fetuses aren’t making any kind of religious argument; that “Abortion stops a beating heart” bumper sticker isn’t making a religious argument, “If she wanted to have sex she should accept the consequences” isn’t a religious argument; “just because the father was a rapist is no reason to punish the child” is not only not a religious argument, but it flies in the face of the whole “sins of the father” notion that’s central (in one form or another) to most Christian denominations. Most of the arguments fall into one of those categories: “ewww, icky,” “it’s murder,” “sluts need to learn a lesson,” or “it’s a person!”

The problems there, then, are twofold: one, those arguments are crap, and two, the vast majority of atheists would agree about their crappiness. Now, recruiting some folks from CPAC into American Atheists might skew those numbers a bit, but the movement as it stands now isn’t exactly welcoming to the notion that abortion is some terrible wrong (and for good reason). Saying “there are secular argument[s] against abortion” and then suggesting that those arguments are better than the secular arguments opposing school prayer or supporting right-to-die and gay marriage1, is at best profoundly misleading.

It is, as I argued elsewhere, exactly the same kind of disingenuous misleading that accommodationist skeptics and the NCSE have engaged in with respect to science and religion. They’ll say “skepticism and religion are compatible,” or “you can be a Christian and still believe in evolution,” but both of those statements are misleading to the point of being insulting. The kinds of religion that are compatible with skepticism are either the ones that are so abstracted into deism or pantheism that they hardly resemble “religions” in any sensible use of the term, or the ones that are almost completely compartmentalized from skeptical criticism. The kinds of Christianity that are compatible with evolution are the ones that are so withdrawn into metaphor that they can square a loving and merciful god with a system of biology where progress is primarily driven by death, and that can accept a savior dying to remove a sin committed by people who never existed.

Similarly, the kinds of conservatism that are compatible with atheism are the ones which reject the social conservative platforms (except ones they can support through bad secular arguments), reject the religious right, and are mostly concerned with fiscal responsibility and personal freedoms (except the freedom of women to control their own bodies, because chicks amirite?). In other words, libertarians. Atheism and libertarianism are compatible? Color me shocked.

The thing is, if Dave Silverman wanted to find those fiscally-conservative-but-socially-liberal(ish) conservative atheists, it seems like CPAC isn’t the place to do it. Sure, they’ll put Rand Paul up on stage, but the rest of the time? This year’s program featured presentations like “Fossil Fuels Improve the Planet,” “Inventing Freedom: How English-Speaking Peoples Made the World Modern,” “More Guns, Less Crime,” and “Healthcare After Obamacare: A Practical Guide for Living When No One Has Insurance and America Runs Out of Doctors”2. Speakers included religious ideologues like pro-school prayer Jim DeMint, anti-gay Ben Carson, and creationist-if-the-money-is-right Ann Coulter. And Michele Bachmann and Ted Cruz, of course. This isn’t a libertarian convention full of Eisenhower Republicans outlining reasonable positions to maximize personal freedom and minimize government spending. It’s a convention of rich ideologues who want to be richer, even and especially if it means gutting programs that help the poor. And also, let’s go to war with anyone and everyone3.

Dave Silverman thinks that there are lots of closet conservative atheists, but he’s engaging in a bit of equivocation there. Dave Silverman’s definition of “conservative”–fiscal conservatism, gun rights, personal freedom, supporting military–is not the definition being employed by the first “C” in “CPAC.” CPAC skews more toward the social conservative theocracy that Silverman No-True-Scotsman’d as not real conservatism.

Which kind of brings us to that particular brand of Silverman cluelessness: where has he been for the last thirty years? How does he square his belief in “economic conservatism” with a party that started two off-the-books wars, wants to start more with Iran and Russia, and has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on meaningless votes to repeal Obamacare, countless anti-abortion bills, and fighting gay marriage? Where is the economic conservatism there? Where is the military support in opposing bills to prosecute rapists in the ranks, or fighting against benefits for veterans? How much personal freedom does a person have when they’re working two jobs and still living below the povery line? When their food stamps benefits get cut over and over because the social safety net, and not corporate welfare, is a drain on the country’s resources? When their right to vote is eroded by classist, racist regulations designed to keep Republicans in office?

We either have to believe that Silverman is so blinkered in his politics that he’s bought into a series of mostly meaningless, mostly traditional buzzwords that the GOP likes to throw around as their platform because they sound better than “consistently trying to screw over 99% of the country,” or we have to believe that he’s a savvy, selfish asshole who thinks his right to own as many guns as he wants and his distaste for taxes trumps other people’s right to a living wage and personal security.

The more I try to think he’s one or the other, the more unconvinced I am by either option. The latter suggests that maybe he’s decided that going after rich donors in the bush is worth alienating the women and minorities already in the hands of American Atheists, but if that’s the case, then surely he recognizes that those donors aren’t both going to take the PR hit of associating with atheists and relinquish the control mechanism provided by fundamentalist religion. But if he really believes that “real conservatives” would support atheist causes, why make the appeal to anti-abortion arguments, which is a socially conservative issue?

The fact that it came as news to Silverman that there are anti-gay atheists makes me think he’s probably just profoundly out of touch. He doesn’t have clue one about most political issues that don’t directly affect him, and he doesn’t understand that by actively courting a group that promotes racist, misogynist, classist, homophobic, transphobic, and xenophobic policies, he’s going to alienate a lot of people who otherwise agree with him. Unless those racist misogynist homophobes are bringing tons of money to the anti-religion organization, then he’d probably be better served by trying to make the movement more welcoming to the people who are actually in it. Pandering to assholes while ignoring the complaints of members makes it look like your priorities are less in fostering community among atheists and more in gaining donations for your organization.

The organization should serve the members, not the other way around.


1. They’re really not, by the way. There are lots of people who argue that government shouldn’t be in the marriage business anyway, and that government shouldn’t be expanding, but reducing, its participation in private relationships. You could argue for school prayer on free speech grounds, or point to the fact that there’s no sharp line between “prayer” and other moment-of-silence type activities, or that there’s not always a clear distinction between student-led and staff-led activities, and that school prayer should be subject to the same equal-time principle as religious displays on public land, or interfaith ceremonial prayers at the beginning of public meetings. Frankly, I don’t see how you can assert bodily rights to make a pro-right-to-die argument and reject them when it comes to abortion. Are these arguments good? No, but they’re no worse than the secular arguments against abortion–and in the right-to-die case, they’re essentially the same. Except, you know, men get terminal illnesses too.

2. In case it’s not clear, let me outline briefly the problems that the generally science- and fact-friendly atheist community might have with these presentations. 1) Not according to all climate science; 2) Historians are likely to disagree, and even if true, it happened on the back of slavery and genocide; 3) Not according to all the evidence from the rest of the world; 4) How will an insurance mandate result in fewer people having insurance, and where are doctors going to go to find a more conservative healthcare system?

3. The one exception to all this seems to be that the attendance at CPAC leans more personal-freedom-libertarian than the leadership and speakership, based on the polling results that CPAC has on their main page. But given the stark contrast between what those people cite as priorities (drug decriminalization, isolationism) and what the party’s actual priorities are (attacking abortion, starting wars wherever possible), they look an awful lot like useful idiots, prized by party establishment for their votes and their unwillingness to take said votes to any particular third party, despite not being served by this one. But then, getting people to vote against their own interests has been the GOP platform for decades.

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Bumper Crop

“Simple Living Saves Lives.”

So proclaimed the window sticker I saw on a car today, the words written around an old-school windmill. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the naturalistic fallacy stated so succinctly and so wrongly.

Yes, Simple Living Saves Lives. Unless you’re an infant. Or a premature birth. Or deformed. Or exposed to common viruses and bacteria as a child. Or injured in accidents with “simple” technology. Or injured by animals. Or ingesting parasites from insufficiently sanitized food and cooking utensils. Or infected through unsanitary living conditions. Or infected with one of many dangerous STIs from insufficiently-protected/informed sexual encounters. Or pregnant. Or infected with a disease that’s only treatable by modern medicine. Or requiring modern surgery. Or a cancer patient. Or a person with a heart condition. Or someone with a propensity for strokes. Or an elderly person. Or a myriad of other things that endanger people’s lives, and that are only correctable through modern, “complicated” living.

The sentiment is naïve pastoral nonsense, and what’s more, we’ve known it for at least four hundred years. Sure, technology causes new problems, but the whole reason we have it in the first place is because it solves problems as well. Pastoralists forget that, which means they also implicitly forget an important part of that: in the past, we still had problems.

So, yes, there are lives that would have been saved if we all still lived in agrarian societies with limited technology. You wouldn’t see people dying due to radiation poisoning or plane crashes or air pollution due to car exhausts. But you’d probably see a lot more people dying of heatstroke or injuries from domesticated animals or ergot poisoning. The increasing world population, the increasing number of healthy elderly and the decreasing infant and child mortality rate in the developed world are testaments to the point that the complexities of modern life save more lives than they end.

And no lives are saved by forgetting history and idealizing the past.

Not Sold on the Solstice

I realize that it’s a week or three too late, but this thought has been rolling around my head for a few days: I have some serious misgivings about the winter solstice.

On one hand–specifically, the hand that was getting frostbitten, scraped, and sore as I spent December 21st packing up and moving out of my apartment–ultimately a four-day job that I did in three–I frigging hate it. It’s cold, it gets dark way too early, and damn it, I like sunlight. A day with less sunlight than any other all year? I might as well just sleep through it.

As a reason for celebration, though, I like it. It’s a rational, physical justification for celebrating at this time of year. The worst part of the winter is over; from this point on, it’s a general trend of increasing warmth and daylight. The sun has once again been unconquered, and so we celebrate its rebirth with feasts and signifiers of the coming spring–evergreen trees, holly leaves, and so forth. In some fashion, the religious festivals of wintertime trace back to this reasoning. It’s nice to skip over all the magic and mysticism, celebrating something that has both objective physical reality and a history that predates the modern religious celebrations. Sure, in these days of heating and insulation and preservatives and refrigeration, there’s too not much chance of people freezing or starving to death en masse. Modern medicine and sanitation even mitigate the problem of disease devastating populations of largely cooped-up people. Winter doesn’t generally represent the sort of existential uncertainty and lethal foreboding that it once did. Like an abominable snowman after meeting a polar elf with orthodontic aspirations, winter has been rendered largely toothless. Still, it’s a decent tradition with a rational, if somewhat arbitrary, justification.

But then people start talking about it, and this is where I cringe. See, it seems there are two groups of people who celebrate the solstice: Pagans and atheists*. The latter do it as a secular alternative to the ubiquitous religious winter celebrations; the former do it as their own religious celebration, laden with the touchy-feely newage woo-woo of neo-Paganism. In general, I think, the word is more associated with the neo-Pagans, since, after all, the Solstice was a Pagan holiday. Where it gets messy, I think, is when atheists celebrate the solstice and talk about the way Christians co-opted the holiday from earlier Pagan festivals. For instance, this statement by Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Dan Barker, on a news station in Washington:

It’s to remind people that the month of December is a natural holiday. It’s not a Christian holiday; Christians basically co-opted–or some would say stole–the, uh, the Pagan symbols for the Christian religion.

They played it on an episode of Freethought Radio that was all about the Solstice, but that bit toward the beginning was the first thing to set my teeth on edge. I’m having a hard time verbalizing my discomfort, but I think my reasoning goes like this: when atheists celebrate Solstice and talk about how Solstice is a pagan holiday, it makes a connection between atheists and Pagans**. To me, it makes it sound like atheists and Pagans share some common belief system, or at the very least some kind of newage nature worship. I don’t think this is a good thing.

Atheists are already misunderstood. There’s a large class of people who think we worship Satan. I don’t think it’s a good idea to contribute to the confusion by making it sound like we worship Mother Nature. Nature’s beautiful and vast and astounding, but it’s not much for those motherly qualities like compassion and warmth***, and while healthy reverence is deserved, worship seems a few steps too far.

The solstice provides a secular justification for celebration, but citing the Pagans doesn’t say anything about that secular justification. The Pagans celebrate for religious reasons just as the Christians and Jews do–or at least, quasi-religious reasons. If atheists are going to reclaim the Solstice, let’s be explicit about the reasons. It has nothing to do with the Pagans or other religions, and everything to do with a real-life event and an excuse to be with real-life families and friends. The only commonality is that we all share the same ultimate justification–recognizing that the worst of winter is over, and it’s all downhill and up-temperature from here. They dress it up with god-men and candlesticks, but the root is the same; if you’re going to justify celebrating the solstice, refer to that, and not just some other solstice-celebrating religious group.


*This is an oversimplification, I know, since I’m sure plenty of those Pagans are technically atheists. Here, I’m using the term atheist in the more specific sense of the atheist community and movement, which the newagers tend not to consider themselves a part of.
**Which, technically, is true, since “pagan” is just a catch-all term for non-Christians. But, again, I’m talking more specifically about the neo-Pagan groups, who self-identify as “Pagan” or some more vague nature-oriented quasi-religion.
***Except, of course, in the most literal sense of the term.

Have you found Jesus?

If only the search for Jesus was accompanied by Rockapella...So, I recently got this comment from Heng on my post about a different stupid Christian film, Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ.

Lee Strobel has been a born again Christian since 1981, so any attempt to masquerade as a skeptic is an obvious farce. But what interests me about your blog Tom, is why you believe Jesus existed. You aren’t the only skeptic or atheist to (Dawkins is another), but on what evidence is this based on? There are no contemporary references to Jesus, and outside of the Bible, which we know to be unreliable anyway, there is very scant record of him at all. This for a guy who was famous (even if you discount all miracles). No one who met him bothered to write anything down at the time? Did they run out of ink or feathers?

I was going to respond to it in the comments, but my response would have been really long, and it’s good post fodder. So, why do I believe in Jesus?

Well, the short answer is that I don’t. That’s also an inaccurate answer. Jesus is a fairly complicated question.

If we’re talking about the Jesus of the Bible–a god-man who traveled around performing miracles, healing people, and killing innocent fig trees, until his death (but he got better)–then I absolutely disbelieve that. That’s an incredibly extraordinary claim, and it would take incredibly extraordinary evidence to justify belief in that.

And then there’s the problem of all the contradictions, both internal and external, in the Biblical account of Jesus. The Gospels can’t seem to agree on even the broad details, including where and when he was born. The massacre of infants under Herod almost certainly didn’t happen; we have fairly detailed biographies of Herod’s life, written by his critics, and yet no one mentions a campaign to slaughter babies. The various actions of Pilate and the Pharisees seem to be at odds with reality, from what I understand, as well.

But a historical Jesus? The idea that there was an itinerant preacher in the first century who got a bunch of Jewish followers to believe that he was the Messiah, well, that’s not such an extraordinary claim. In fact, it’s a downright ordinary claim. We know that such preachers and cults were fairly common at the time. We know from both the past and the present how easy it is for cults to develop, especially as off-shoots of established religions (FLDS, anyone?). It wouldn’t take much evidence for me to believe that there was a Jesus.

And what about that evidence? Well, it’s a good thing that it wouldn’t take much, because there isn’t much. Josephus, as we all know, is garbage. What little there is on Jesus is almost certainly forged. What’s left is more about the Christians and what they believed, not what actually happened. And even that was written at least a century after the events it purportedly chronicles. The Gospels are no better, with their vague, obviously-slanted stories, written decades after the fact. That pretty much leaves some of the Pauline epistles, which really don’t talk much about Jesus at all. In fact, about the best evidence anyone has for the existence of Jesus is that Paul casually mentions meeting James, Jesus’s brother, in Galatians. Here’s the relevant passage, from Galatians 1:16-19:

1:16 To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood:
1:17 Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus.
1:18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days.
1:19 But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother.

This throwaway casual reference of meeting his alleged relative is about as good as it gets for proving that Jesus really existed. The Pauline epistles aren’t quite contemporary–Wikipedia puts the date of authorship somewhere between 49 and 58 C.E.–but that’s about as close as it gets for sources that mention Jesus.

But is that enough to justify believing in the guy? It’s certainly possible that Paul is lying, or had been lied to, and that’s something to consider. It’s also possible that he met up with the brother of Jesus. Which side of that question I tended to believe was the subject of a lot of personal consideration a few months back, after Bart Ehrman was interviewed on Reginald Finley’s “Infidel Guy” podcast.

Up until then, I’d been listening for months to Robert M. Price’s “Bible Geek” shows, which Reggie also had a hand in making. Bob’s a very knowledgeable guy about a great many things, and despite my initial skepticism at the conclusions of “The God Who Wasn’t There,” he had me passively convinced that Jesus was a purely mythical construction. If I’d thought about it hard, or if I’d been asked, I would have expressed my skeptical position; but I pretty much accepted everything Bob said.

I was psyched when I saw that Ehrman was going to be on IG, since I’d absolutely loved “Misquoting Jesus,” enough that I bought two more of his books (which I still haven’t gotten around to reading). Bart’s the one who brought up the quote in Galatians, which I’d never heard about before. I paused the podcast halfway through his argument with Reggie, and didn’t pick it up again for weeks.

My initial inclination was that Ehrman was wrong, and I was disappointed that I’d thought so highly of him. Thinking a little more critically about the situation, however, led me to recall why I thought so highly of him (because he’s clearly the type of person who knows the evidence and follows it), and why I had come to accept Price’s assessment of the situation (he was the only scholar I was exposed to). I think Ehrman was a little casual in dismissing the credibility of the Jesus Myth proponents, but I was equally cavalier in accepting uncritically their position.

At the very least, that bit in Galatians amounts to an anomaly which deserves further examination, and would be explained in any good theory about Jesus’s existence. I think the most parsimonious explanation, in this case, is that Paul wrote accurately, and met James, who claimed to be the brother of Jesus, who was the leader of a moderately apocalyptic Jewish messianic cult. That, I think requires the fewest unexplained quantities.

I think, beyond that, the story is wildly exaggerated, that much (if not all) of what is attributed to Jesus was probably not done or said by him, that he clearly wasn’t as important at the time as his followers would have liked to believe (hence his exclusion from the contemporary records–his followers, after all, would have been almost universally illiterate, and who else would have cared to mention him?), and that the whole tale is (clearly) written to conform to a commonplace hero archetype and common messianic prophecies.

That seems to be the most likely chain of events, but I’m certainly willing to entertain other hypotheses and evidence. It’s not so much that I believe he existed, that I actually spend any effort on positive belief, but I accept the “Jesus existed” hypothesis as, from my perspective, the one which best satisfies Occam’s Razor. I accept the claim of Jesus’s existence, based on its utter ordinariness and the (scant, circumstantial) evidence to support it. If better evidence or a better hypothesis rolls along, I’ll accept that instead. And as far as I see, none of this lends any credibility to the Christian account of things.

I really wish there were some decent evidence one way or another; either way, I think it would actually make things less complicated.

In which we plumb the depths of my academic geekery

So, the word demon (or more precisely, “daimon“) in Greek originally meant “knowledge,” “divine power,” or something along those lines. Now, I was doing my Latin homework last week, and when translating a brief Cicero passage about the battle of Thermopylae, I noticed that the Latin word for Sparta was LacedaemonLakedaimon in the Greek. With the word “daimon” in there, I have to wonder what the rest of the town’s name translates to. I haven’t been able to find anywhere online where people discuss what the prefix “Lake-” means in ancient Greek. Something about the Spartans or Sparta itself gained it an appellation with the word “knowledge” or “divine power” in it, and I’m curious to know what the rest of the name means.

Apparently the mythological Lakedaimon was one of Zeus’s many sons, but I’m not sure whether he was devised to explain the origins of Sparta, or that the Spartans named their town after his legend. In either case, does anyone know what “Lake-” means?

First person to say “a body of water surrounded by land on all sides” gets smacked. As we all know, “knowledge of lakes” is the meaning of the word “Minnesotan,” not “Lakedaimonian.”