Sunday, March 9, 2008

Communities and Line-Drawing

John Wilkins commented to my earlier piece on community among nonbelievers. I started a reply in the comments but decided to turn it into a post. John W's comment:

We're already in a community: the regional population, the nation, and the secular society, and nobody wants to prevent associations of likeminded folk within it. What I rejected, as neither you nor PZ noted, is the fact that we are seeing Dawkins trying to form a community by making believers out to be less than worthy people, as irrational. That's bullshit, and I call it.
To make a community is inescapably to create in-groups and out-groups. This is both the promise and the peril of community-building.

I tried to stress that the values by which this line is drawn make all the difference. A good community is one that wisely -- constructively, humanely, sensibly, reasonably, etc. -- demarcates in-group from out-group.

I agree that Dawkins would relegate believers to the out-group. He defines the believers he means and goes into great depth on what he sees wrong with their way of belief.

The argument, then, is whether this is a good, useful, constructive, and defensible place to draw the line. You seem to be saying it is not, but I'm not convinced.

I'm not convinced twice: 1) I'm not convinced you've made the case that it is a bad line; 2) I'm not even convinced you've actually drawn a different line.

You said believers should be included among the in-group "so long as they accept the importance of science and the need for a secular society."

Regarding accepting the importance of science: it's well and good for creationists, climate change denialists, and assorted other cranks to accept the science behind weather satellites and the next suspension bridge they drive across. There is a considerable swath of worldwide humanity, consisting mostly of Christians and Muslims, that is content to "accept the importance of science" so long as it doesn't impugn the alleged sanctity and infallibility of their religious beliefs. When these come into conflict, they gleefully drop-kick the scientific method and the primacy of evidence, and call it a virtue to do so. Dawkins sees this, rightly, as a failure to "accept the importance of science." You don't? Why not?

Regarding the need for a secular society: Dawkins doesn't talk much about secularism, but I think it's never far from what he does prioritize, which is the grounding for beliefs about the world. The opponents of secularism are, again and again, the self-same people who believe god has given instructions on how to conduct human affairs. The faith-based thinking that selectively rejects science also selectively rejects secular government -- sure, they'll accept a secular DMV and patent office, but on a wide range of matters they want their particular faith informing what is legal and illegal, who counts as citizens (if not humans), etc. Again, Dawkins doesn't talk at length about secularism, but I think he would agree that faith-based thinking (as distinct from skepical, evidence-driven, science-based thinking) tends to threaten secularism. You don't? Why not?

Dawkins has drawn a line between in-group and out-group. It may not be the best possible version of the line; it certainly isn't tailored for mass appeal in the short term, which is only to say there are a lot of people in the world who are wedded to their, yes, irrational superstitions.

Once the line between in-group and out-group has been drawn, there are good ways and bad ways to reinforce the community, good ways and bad ways to "reach out." I think Dawkins and the other "new atheists" go to great lengths to make a positive case. Dawkins has spent decades singing the praises of science, begging people to see the astonishing beauty, awe, and elegance; meanwhile, Sam Harris has presented a vision of positive, twaddle-free spirituality; even Christopher Hitchens, as acerbic as he can be, does have a positive vision to promote, one centered on human rights, veneration of mankind's humanistic heritage, and liberation from tyranny. They're given little credit for the decidedly non-demonizing aspects of their work. Their critics can't get over the fact that they speak doubtfully of groundless beliefs.

If you have a better line to draw -- a gentler, more appealing (or whatever) separation of in-group from out-group in the arena of belief and nonbelief, science and faith, secularism and religion-government intermingling -- please draw it. The world needs the best possible version of that line. That it won't include everyone and make everyone smile in the near term is not a reason to avoid the line.

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