Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Atheism and Dogmatism

Reading an issue of Smithsonian magazine the other day, I came across a strange article on an artist (Barbara Kruger) bringing some important message to our politicians in Washington. Apparently an artist was going to fix our broken political system by bringing a one-word message to our politicians (appropriately contextualized in some visual image). Here’s the first paragraph:

Barbara Kruger is heading to Washington bearing the single word that has the power to shake the seat of government to its roots and cleave its sclerotic, deep-frozen deadlock.

It’s hard to imagine a more pompous, even delusional, idea than that one word can change the reasoning of our elected representatives without, presumably, changing their various interests and incentives. So, what is this magic word? I had to read all the way to the end of the article to find out, but you, dear reader, get the answer immediately:

The magic word with the secret power that is like garlic to Dracula in a town full of partisans. The word is “DOUBT”.

To this I reply with William Butler Yeats’, The Second Coming:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

I realize the point of this article is to advertise some museum’s artistic installation (the Hirschhorn in Washington, D.C.; I recommend avoiding it), and that no rational being could actually believe that one word could change the world. There was adequate reason to doubt the seriousness of the author when he/she describes part of the installation:

It was up there, dominating the top of the work, a line written in the biggest, boldest, baddest letters. The central stack of words is superimposed over the brooding eyes and the advancing shoes of a man in what looks like a black-and-white movie still. His head is exploding into what looks like a blank white mushroom cloud, and on the cloud is written: “If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a human face forever.”

The author (Ron Rosenbaum) asks Kruger, the artist: “Where’d you get that quote?”

Let us get this straight, the Smithsonian glossy advertisement for various allegedly publicly funded museums hires someone who does not remember, or never knew, the most famous quotation from 1984? And the artist so awes him that we will rush to be told that that George Orwell fella was really onto something there. It’s obvious that we’re not going to get an informed and intelligent description of how art can change the world. Nonetheless, the article slouches towards its ending:

With the absence of doubt, each side clings to its values, devaluing the other side’s values, making any cooperation an act of betrayal.

But do they revalue their own values in devaluing the other side’s valuation of its own values? This is false equivalence and “both-sides-do-it-ism”. The Democrats and Republicans are each equally certain of their own beliefs and each equal in refusing to compromise with the other.

Quickly, then, why is it stupid to think that this one-word art exhibit will completely alter partisanship in Washington, D.C.?

• It’s not true that both sides do refuse to cooperate. Obama borrowed virtually every major public policy that Republicans espoused just a few short years or even months before, and yet somehow the Republicans managed to vehemently oppose their own ideas (both individually and collectively). The refusal to cooperate is almost entirely on one side.

• There is absolutely no reason to think that any change in politicians’ level of certainty will materially affect their behavior. Even if they are not absolutely sure they are correct, they might still oppose each other in just as partisan manner as before they were less certain.

• It is unrealistic to think that people’s behavior will change without some change in their underlying system of beliefs, their interests and allegiances, the interests and allegiances of their constituents, and the incentives for their behavior. It doesn’t matter much how certain politicians are that they are correct, they will still act the same way if they will get voted out of office for not acting that way.

• Less certainty on the part of the Democrats, assuming that is even possible, especially might lead them to give in even more to the Republicans. The best lacking all conviction is as much a part of the problem as the worst being full of passionate intensity. Excessive uncertainty can lead to paralysis just as much as partisanship can.

It is nothing more than a fantasy that politicians will change their behavior based on a single word no matter how artistically presented.

But all of that is not my present point. My point is to critique the final absurdity of the article:

The conversation about doubt turned to agnosticism, the ultimate doubt.
She made clear there’s an important distinction between being an atheist and being an agnostic, as she is: Atheists don’t doubt! “Atheists have the ferociousness [what, ferocity ain’t a word no more?] of true believers – which sort of undermines their position!” she said.

“In this country,” she added, “it’s easier to be a pedophile than an agnostic.”

Indeed, I sh*t not upon thee, good reader. This is Kruger’s claim, and most self-evidently true it is. Pedophiles frequently announce their pedophilia proudly during interviews with national magazines. It is also obvious that agnostics are thrown in prison for decades, cast out of decent society (assuming they are no longer pursuing successful football coaching careers or being on uncomfortably close terms with those who are), labeled as child predators and sometimes rendered homeless by virtue of restrictions on living within a given distance of anything that might conceivably ever attract a child. And, finally, we know that agnostics in prison are highly likely to be killed or assaulted by other prisoners who were agnosticized as children. Nothing really compares to the ostracism of an agnostic in American society. It’s worse than the Bataan death march! [This is a private joke based on a This Modern World cartoon by Tom Tomorrow that I have never been able to find online.]

Unless she’s talking about being a Catholic priest, in which case being agnostic would be problematic.

Overlooking the absurd persecution complex, we note that Kruger is making a category mistake. She thinks that our society continually demands certainty of us when, in reality, no certainty is possible on this issue. She thinks that atheists, by claiming to believe that there is no god, must be dogmatic in their adherence to their belief, and the only way to maintain the proper humble attitude towards our lack of knowledge is to remain agnostic. Let’s use the term ‘Dogmatism’ for the attitude of certainty, closed-mindedness, unwillingness to countenance evidence against one’s position or revise one’s belief given evidence, and willingness to force one’s beliefs on others (by, for example, legislating public displays of fealty to one’s belief system as fundamentalist Christians tend to do). But dogmatism is not a part of atheism any more or less than it is part of theism or agnosticism. Dogmatism is not a belief, or even a system of belief, but an attitude toward belief and so it is logically independent of whatever belief one has. One can be a dogmatic theist, atheist, or, even, agnostic.

People who become atheists (or ‘deconvert’) have often done so precisely because they were open-minded and willing to revise their beliefs when they realized the evidence did not support them. It’s a stretch to imagine that once this deconversion occurred, atheists suddenly became closed-minded. Saying one does not (and perhaps cannot) know that God exists does evince uncertainty about the existence of God, but one might also feel subjectively so certain that we cannot know that God exists that one does not consider counterevidence (that we do know that God exists or that God does not). Contrariwise, we could be perfectly undogmatic in our theism or atheism. A theist who was willing to revise her believe in light of evidence could be much less dogmatic than Kruger, who appears happy to generalize about all who disagree with her on the basis of no evidence at all. Who then is the dogmatist—the atheist or the agnostic who vilifies her without evidence?

This story would be funny were it not so commonplace a view. Some months ago my mother-in-law announced during a discussion of religion that she “could stand to have an agnostic in the family but never an atheist.” Since I thought I’d made it fairly clear that I was an atheist, I found this a bit disconcerting. I have even harbored suspicions that her husband was an atheist. So why did she say this? (Was I being excommunicated?) I never found out precisely, but I think it was for the same reasons Kruger gives. She thinks that atheists are just as dogmatic as the most fundamentalist Christian, and, possibly based on stereotypes of atheists one finds in the press (especially among the Fox-newsians), that atheists are contemptuous of ordinary Americans.

In short, it’s not just an artist with an inflated ego and a penchant for inappropriate analogies who thinks atheists are all dogmatic. It appears to be one of the common, and undeserved, pictures of us, and that image provokes significant dislike among even thoughtful people. Indeed, dogmatism is so contrary to ideals of tolerance and understanding in the liberal mind that considering atheism to exemplify that dogmatism provides reason enough to reject it for those among us who most value tolerance and pluralism. I do not see a solution to this problem when few mainstream figures are free to make the case for atheism, to show that atheists are reasonable and rational people, and, generally, to provide living counterexamples to the stereotype of the close-minded atheist. Those, such as Richard Dawkins, whose main public role is to argue for atheism are easily caricatured as strident, anti-religious fundamentalists simply because they only appear in public in the role of atheists. Many public figures are atheists, but, aside from youtube videos, they never get much chance to talk about it on television—bad for ratings, no doubt—and thus the atheist struggle for recognition proceeds without much in the way of a mainstream media voice and with little opportunity for the ordinary people to see atheists as reasonable people much like themselves.

1 comment:

  1. "Unless she’s talking about being a Catholic priest, in which case being agnostic would be problematic."