Mission Drift, Conflation, and Food For Thought
In my last post, I took issue with the a number of problems with a particular straw man complaint that organized skepticism is too narrow. As part of that post, I wrote:
…skepticism, secularism, and atheism are different things. Among them, secularism has the closest ties with liberal ideology, but even secularism is not liberalism.
Shane Brady left a comment which included:
The one panel from last year’s TAM that DJ seemed to take the most criticism for, seemed to be because he resisted an overt support of a particular political idealogy, not a hesitance to attack claims.
The intersection of these two strikes me as important.
That post addressed a specific comment in a much longer piece by Ashley Miller, a comment made my many, so I did not identify the author in order to focus on the issue. However, the broader theme of that piece now comes to mind as I think about this issue: do secularist efforts need to be careful here?
Skeptical activism must ignore ideology in order to maintain its integrity. Science – the method, anyway – is ideally ideology-free. Now, how that works out in practice is another issue. The point is that if we promote scientific skepticism and the idea that science is the best way to find out what’s true about the world, we must follow the rules of science.
Arguing against this is like arguing that some of the Bible is meant to be literal, some of it is symbolic, and that one’s own religion is the single religion which knows which is which.
Most readers know the definition of “secularism”, of course, but humor me. Merriam-Webster defines it thus: “indifference to or rejection or exclusion of religion and religious considerations”.
Secular organizations seek to remove religious influence from public life, mostly through the separation of church and state. In the United States, the separation of church and state is designed to promote freedom of religion and, by extension, freedom from religion. We are free to practice any or no religion because the government does not endorse or favor one or more religions. This, at its core, is a liberal concept. The extreme of this, the eradication of religion, is a conservative one.
Secularism tends to be promoted most by those who subscribe to liberal ideology. However, the terms “liberal” and “conservative” carry a fair amount of baggage and self-contradiction. In this country, for example, self-identified liberals tend to support gay marriage, but also support gun control and welfare and some even oppose capitalism. The most extreme of the self-identified conservatives today have formed the “Tea Party” movement, which opposes what they consider to be excessive taxes. In other words, while the political parties may have formed around a narrow idea of how much involvement government should have in the lives of the governed, they have morphed into something else entirely.
Quite frankly, I find both parties oppressive, just in different ways. Each seems to think that they know what is best for the rest of us and each insist on imposing their platforms on the rest of society. Neither is truly liberal or conservative. Both, in my opinion, are oppressive to those who disagree with them.
One problem we face in both skeptical and secular activism is that the larger the movement, the more pluralistic it is. If an organization does not maintain focus and begins to endorse specific political or social ideology, its stances on complex issues will be less and less internally consistent. In a movement based on the concept that reason is the most valuable tool we have, internal consistency is absolutely vital.
I think that people who find these communities see a ready-made audience – an audience whose members appear to share more values and ideologies than the one around which the community was formed. As I noted in my last post, it is easy to wave the liberal flag of “helping people” and rally this audience around another cause, but where is the line drawn?
If, for example, secular conferences take on gay marriage, why not polygamy? Do all skeptics, secularists, and atheists agree with me that polygamy should be legalized? How about an effort to eradicate marriage altogether? What about government-run health care? How about education? Is privatization the answer? What about charter schools? Education, after all, is a central issue for those who care about social justice, so why should skeptics and secularists talk about it?
I’ll tell you why: we do not agree on the solutions, nor do we agree on what is “fair” or “moral” in these areas. These are issues of values. Skeptics can discuss evidence regarding specific questions (e.g., whether outcomes-based teaching is effective), but skepticism cannot tell us whether or not the education of children should be the responsibility of the government. When groups endorse specific values and conclusions which cannot be empirically supported, they’re endorsing ideologies and, in the case of skepticism at least, rejecting the very methods they claim to promote.
I have already made it clear that failing to understand and apply the differences between skepticism, secularism, and atheism makes one a poor skeptic, but does it also make one a poor secularist? Maybe it does. It appears to me that many secular groups today fail to maintain those fences between themselves and atheist groups or individuals with large audiences (e.g., PZ Myers) who have made it clear that their goals go beyond securing the rights of atheists and eliminating social stigmas attached to atheism. Their goal is to eradicate religion. So, the liberal ideology of “freedom of/from religion” is shifting toward the conservative “my belief system is king”. The oppressed become the oppressors, the victims of bigotry become the bigots.
This is what happens when missions drift. Sometimes the righteous mission becomes the immoral one.
You may think that the direction you want to take it is the best and the most righteous, but everyone thinks that about their own ideology.
Just some food for thought.