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Sunday, March 9, 2014

Rambling diatribe about atheism, politics, and the word "secular"

I don't know American Atheists president David Silverman, but he strikes me as kind of a brash guy. The kind of person who thinks that atheist activism means pissing off religious people, and if you haven't succeeded in that then you're doing it wrong.

But apparently he's now trying to get along with religious people, or at least with America's political party most known for being religious, because he tried to get a booth for American Atheists at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. The booth was denied, because it turns out (who knew?) that CPAC feels threatened by atheists. Silverman decided to attend the conference on his own anyway, where he was interviewed by The Raw Story's Roy Edroso.

It's not a long interview at all, so read the whole thing. If you do, you'll see that Silverman initially characterized the positions that social conservatives commonly take on "gay rights, right to die, and abortion rights" as "theocratic" which means that they're not "real conservatives" (real conservatives aren't theocratic?) before being interrupted by Edroso, who said that the "Right to Life guys" would object to being told they aren't real conservatives. At which point Silverman replied:
I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion. 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.
 ...which seems to have annoyed a few atheists into temporarily forgetting what "secular" means. At Skepchick, Sarah Moglia writes:
If by “secular argument,” you mean “a belief based on personal feelings,” then, sure, there’s a secular argument against abortion. There could be a “secular” argument against puppies, in that case. If you’re using “secular” to mean “a logical, science-based, or rational” belief, then no, there is no “secular argument” against abortion. The supposed “secular arguments” against abortion are rooted in misogyny, a lack of understanding of science, and religious overtones.
Which PZ Myers read and replied to with his own blog post entitled There's a secular argument for wearing underpants on your head. So?  in which he says "I'm trying to figure out what this secular argument is."

Really? Actually there are a lot of secular arguments against abortion. They include, among others:
  • A fetus is a human. It's wrong to kill any human. 
  • A fetus is the property of the man whose sperm helped to create it as much as it is of the woman who carries it. Therefore no woman should be able to abort without the permission of the man who inseminated her.
  • Fetal pain
  • Abortions are expensive and hard on a woman's body, therefore wrong. Something to be avoided if at all possible. 
Note: I didn't say they were good arguments. 

This is because all that is required for an argument to be secular is that it not be based in religion. That's it. It has nothing to do with "personal feelings," which could be religious feelings just as easily as they could be non-religious, and a secular argument is by no means necessarily logical, science-based, or rational, let alone moral. So yeah, you could make a secular argument for wearing underpants on your head, which is why it's sort of baffling not to be able to grok secular arguments against abortion. 

Something which, as we saw, Silverman only "admitted" when pressed. He clearly is not pro-life himself, so isn't it a little odd to make a big deal about him acknowledging that secular arguments against abortion exist when he's not even the one who brought it up? 

Maybe not too terribly odd. See, there are some other important things to consider.

The first is that of course, arguments that are phrased to be secular often come from non-secular motivations. See, for example, the entire Intelligent Design movement. There is no shortage of people on the religious right who see the strategic advantage in trying to Lemon Test their beliefs into law and classrooms by expunging all religious terminology from it, and "Fetuses are people" is the clearest example of that when it comes to abortion. "Person" is a legal category, but the notion of fetal personhood is generally endorsed by people who think God is the one who makes people, therefore when God puts a person in a woman's uterus she has no business trying to get rid of it. 

You don't have to believe in souls or even God to make this argument (that is, you can put it in secular terms), but people who make this argument almost inevitably believe in God and souls. The same is true for people who argue against gay marriage by complaining that it's an aberration of "traditional" marriage, when "tradition" is merely code for "that's the way God wants it" (and never mind that the Bible is absolutely brimming with nontraditional marriages if that's what "tradition" means). 

Really, what underlies this reaction to Silverman simply acknowledging that there are secular arguments against abortion is anger at him for trying to market atheism to conservatives in the first place. For being rather conservative himself, albeit not your typical conservative, and then-- here's the kicker-- claiming that he's a true  conservative whereas abortion opponents, opponents of gay marriage-- social conservatives-- are not. Sorry Dave, but it comes off as a little ridiculous to play No True Conservative when the people you're saying aren't True Conservatives (TM) just got done booting your booth from their conference because they felt threatened by you. Surely he should be reserving these comparisons for when CPAC feels threatened by pro-lifers and homophobes. That is, ironically, when it's no longer actually very conservative at all.

The Raw Story article goes on: 
But why is this his battle? Why not let conservatives be conservatives and just vote for the candidates he likes? “Because I want a choice,” said Silverman. “I don’t get a choice at the voting booth, ever.” 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.
It's not unusual for libertarians-- which is what Silverman actually is, so far as I can tell-- to talk this way. Not at all. And it's not so much that they're wrong per se, as completely unaware that someone listening has no idea what they're talking about. I don't, for example, know what the words "fiscal conservative" mean when coming from the mouth of someone who just called himself a "strong supporter of the military." There is nothing fiscally conservative about having a defense budget larger than that of the next ten most militarily spendy countries in the world combined.

The term "fiscal conservative" is a libertarian dog whistle, or actually I suppose just a whistle because everybody knows that's what it means. Is supposed to mean. The problem, of course, is that nobody who calls him or herself a fiscal conservative actually is one, which makes it an even more aggravating theft of terminology than Republicans claiming ownership of the word "family." Liberals don't speak up about this more often because they don't believe that government spending is bad by default and taxation is theft (nor should they; that's quite sensible of them), but they also recognize that when someone calls him/herself a fiscal conservative what he/she generally means is that he/she is anti-welfare. Anti-government spending, when it might help out minorities, women, and the poor. And liberals don't think it's so gosh darned important to be fiscally conservative in the first place, so they rarely point out that ending the drug war, legalizing sex work, cutting back on the military campaigning, even giving out birth control for free (literally, as opposed to mandating that health insurance cover it), you know, the things that make conservatives scream? Would actually save the government boatloads of cash.

The existence of libertarian atheists is, you might say, vexing to liberal atheists. It's vexing to me as well because libertarians are often morons, prone to doing things like complaining that a sexual harassment policy for a skeptical/atheist conference is a violation of their rights, said rights apparently entailing the freedom to be a sexist boor at a conference without repercussions. Discussions about topics like sexual harassment shouldn't have to begin with explaining, for the 9,000th time, what's wrong with sexual harassment in the first place, or how freedom of speech doesn't apply to private venues where other people have spent good money to get together and exchange ideas and "Sleep with me or you're a bitch" is not generally one of the ideas they have in mind.

So I can absolutely-- totally-- understand why someone who has worked for years to connect skeptical/atheist activism with social justice issues, actually improve the world instead of sitting around arguing about whether God does or doesn't exist, would be infuriated by the notion of the president of American Atheists trying to, in effect, pour some white paint into the enormous black pool of "theocracy" that Silverman even acknowledges is "holding down" a brand of political conservatism that doesn't involve stepping all over minorities and the poor and taking ownership of their reproductive capacities (since I seriously mixed metaphors there, just imagine the black pool holding things down is the goop that killed Tasha Yar in TNG).

However, differences of political opinion amongst atheists and skeptics also makes me very happy, because it forces us to confront some often inconvenient facts. Like the fact that "secular" only means "without a religious basis." Like the fact that being right about some very important things does not make you right about everything, and conversely that being very wrong about some things doesn't make you wrong about others. Like the fact that when you find yourself on the same side as someone you normally disagree with, there's nothing wrong with acknowledging that and counting them as an ally to the extent that they're willing to be one. Like that refusing to do this comes off as petulant and tribalistic, because it often is.

I want everyone who claims to be skeptical to actually be  skeptical. To make good arguments. To be civil, analytical, and willing to work together for the greater good. Needless to say, I don't always get what I want. But come on, people...we can do better than this.

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