Strand 1 Statement 2 by Stephanie Zvan
This is a response by Stephanie Zvan to the Strand 1 Opening Statement by Jack Smith. All of the Opening Statement by Jack Smith is quoted within this response.
JS – The subject of this opening strand, first of 5 strands, is: “How we can work together on core issues on which we broadly agree, including promoting reason, critical thinking, science, skepticism, atheism and secularism in the real world”.
I speak as an individual member of “the atheist/skeptic community” and recognize that other members of that community will not agree with me, or not on every point. What I say here is consistent with my understanding of core features of atheism and skepticism.
The primary purpose of this dialogue is to find common cause on which we can ‘work together’ while accepting diverse political and social beliefs. We first need to identify core areas of agreement and of disagreement. I think the following are core to atheism and skepticism and have served the community well for many years; on which of these do we agree, and on which do we disagree?
1. I agree that this is a fair characterization of the purpose of this portion of the dialog. I think it would be useful to define the term “community” wherever it is used, however, as it is often a source of confusion.
JS - We stand for equality for all. We believe that all humans should be treated equally as people, with no inherent superiority of one over the other, as there is no rational basis for such claims of inherent superiority. Addressing areas of inequality such as seen in religions, cultures, and laws is done on the basis of these principles.
2a. I agree with some reservations. The first reservation is that treating people all the same is not the same thing as treating people equally. This becomes obvious when one sees arguments from opponents of marriage equality who claim that everyone is already treated equally under the law because everyone already has an equal opportunity to marry someone of the opposite sex. Prescriptions for equal treatment that don’t include consideration of how different people want to be treated are not merely meaningless but likely to drive away people who could, and other circumstances would, be happy to work with us.
2b. The second reservation is that treating people equally has–and as far as anthropology and primatology are currently telling us, have always had–exceptions carved out for those people who act in ways that damage the community (at whatever level “community” is defined for the purpose). We in industrialized societies tend to agree that this description should include people who are overly physically aggressive and cheaters. There is less agreement on what other violations of the social contract may also fairly invite sanctions.
JS - We seek to establish real truths from untruths, for without this discernment we end up with religions, dogmas, and demagogues poisoning our society. We establish truth through the application of logic, evidence-based reasoning, critical thinking, skepticism, and scientific inquiry. Our competence in this truth-seeking endeavour is the most valuable asset we have.
3a. I agree and disagree. We don’t only seek truth for reasons that are that dramatic or noble. The basic reason we seek truth is that, without it, we’re flailing ineffectually in the dark. Curiosity drives us to seek truth. The desire to predict and control the world around us drives us to seek truth.
3b. Additionally, “dogma” here seems to be used in a limited sense that may cause confusion later if not unpacked now. On top of the common meaning of “a point of view or tenet put forth as authoritative without adequate grounds“, “dogma” is also that set of common agreements or principles that underlie our work. For example, the Freedom From Religion Foundation treats the desirability of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as dogma. That idea is the foundation of their work, and they don’t devote energy to exploring whether the idea is true. Dogma is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it escapable. Any dogma must be examined on its own to determine whether it is problematic.
3c. I am unwilling to put competence at truth-seeking above other–I’ll call them “virtues” for lack of a better word. It is certainly important, but making it our primary consideration has come to be recognized as a bad idea. Placing the collection of knowledge above all else was the kind of thinking that led to the Tuskegee experiment. Researchers uncovered a great deal of truth about the progression of untreated syphilis, but they did so at the cost of the health and lives of people who did not volunteer to be sacrificed for truth. In response to this and other travesties, we’ve instituted safeguards intended to curb unchecked truth-seeking. Putting truth-seeking above ethics and compassion is deeply troubling.
JS - In our pursuit of truth, we must test our beliefs in the forum of open and free debate. Nothing is left off the table; all claims can — and sometimes must — be fully examined and tested to determine the best evidence, arguments, and explanations. We can do this without rancour or dismissal and it is a key requirement in achieving our objectives: freeing this world of the terrible injustices we see all around us.
4a. I’m not sure who “we” is supposed to represent here. I can’t tell precisely what this is advocating for, so I’ll cover the most likely interpretations. If this is a statement that the scientific process should be as open as possible–given the ethical constraints I’ve already discussed–I generally agree. Where I disagree in that case is that science is supposed to be a cumulative process. Once consensus has been reached on a particular topic through that process, it’s typically time to shelve that topic and move on until we come across information that doesn’t fit the models. Continuing to study geocentric models of planetary and stellar motion at this point would not advance our pursuit of truth. Debate does not go on forever on a topic without the introduction of substantial new information.
4b. If this is intended to suggest that individuals must test all their beliefs through debate and that this process will lead to understanding the truth, I strongly disagree. When people who are taught to debate are taught to be equally comfortable taking either side of an argument, we are looking at a process designed for winning, not truth. If we want to arrive at truth through give-and-take, we need a more collaborative process in which the goal is not to win.
4c. Additionally, we have long since passed the point at which every person could be well educated on every topic for which we have accumulated evidence, if such a time ever existed. I could debate with someone on whether a call made in a hockey game was a good one, but since I don’t know much about the rules of hockey, debate would not be productive. What would be productive is listening to expert consensus (or disagreement) on the topic or pursuing a course of education. When discussion is used as a pedagogical tool, it is guided by someone who is educated on the topic.
4d. It is also frequently reasonable to expect that the uninformed opinion will be dismissed. When the crank sends their “theory of everything” letter to physics departments at universities around the world, we do not expect the physicists there to suspend their research and/or their teaching in order to carefully rebut the letter. We expect them to throw it away or keep it to laugh over. The presence of an idea is not enough to compel debate on that idea.
JS - We recognize that personal feelings have limited utility when determining objective reality. However, this does not ignore the fact that emotion and personal experiences are crucial components of being human and determining values. Further, these are important components in supporting cohesion and unity within our community.
5. I agree.
JS - We believe that ethics is a valid area for discussion and debate While morality is an important part of our lives, by its nature it is highly subjective and dependent on values. We therefore feel, in the interests of mutual cooperation, that it is appropriate to consider the best in others, give the benefit of the doubt, and assume others are acting in good faith.
6a. I agree with reservations. I’m not sure what the last sentence has to do with the first two, so I’ll treat it as unrelated for the purposes of this reply. My reservation on debating ethics is that, as with any other sort of debate or discussion, will generally be most productive if done, or at least led, by people trained to debate ethics. This is a field that has experts. We should make use of them.
6b. I agree that making immediate judgments about those we are dealing with is not helpful. I agree that when one can, one should generally err on the side of charity in judgment. At the same time, however, not everyone is in the same position to risk that kind of error. Sometimes the consequences to trusting and having that trust betrayed are too much. Given this, it also behooves those who desire to be trusted to create an environment in which risks are reduced.
JS - We believe that in order for us to be effective we should strive to avoid:
Imposing political or social beliefs on others. We can of course form our own social and political groups within the movement but they have no inherent right to impose those beliefs on others.
7. I am confused by this statement. I don’t understand how people are able to impose their beliefs on others in this context.
JS - Attributing motives or character traits on others. Ad Hominem fallacies serve no good purpose in reasonable dialogue.
8a. I agree with reservations. The more interactions we have with people, the more information we have about how they behave. Granting some charity and proceeding cautiously in how we interpret this knowledge is one thing. Declining to draw any conclusions from it is quite another and not productive in our search to understand and be effective in the world around us.
8b. Additionally, I have some concerns that ad hominem argumentation not be confused with insults or observations relevant to an argument, but that can be discussed later if necessary.
JS - Dismissing others in a dialogue if they do not follow our own beliefs. Our strength is in our diversity. We should try to work together, irrespective of differences of opinion, as long as equality for all remains a core principle.
9. I generally disagree with this. I do agree that diversity is a strength, but that is not the same thing as claiming that we all must work closely enough together that we are in dialog. To borrow an aphorism, sometimes good fences do make good neighbors. Sometimes we simply accomplish more by limiting the amount of time we spend in conflict with each other.
JS - Commenting on others without accepting a right of reply. The right of reply is fundamental to any open society. If we criticise others then others have the right to respond to that without being personally attacked for doing so.
10. I agree with reservations. This is more generally covered under free speech and, thus, is subject to the same restrictions that other speech is. I’m not sure what “personally attacked” is meant to mean here, but I will note that a stipulated “right of reply” would not be a right to have one’s reply be the last word in a discussion or a right to not be criticized for the form or content of the reply.
JS - Ignoring the feelings of others. However we should not use our feelings to shut down valid and genuine debate and discussion. How many times have we heard theists say we should never attack their beliefs as it hurts their feelings? Allowing this would put us into a position where we are hostages of our own making.
11. I agree that it will not help us to work together to ignore the feelings of those with whom we’re working. I am confused as to what “valid and genuine debate and discussion” is intended to describe. I don’t think this can be discussed until we agree on the circumstances in which debate is useful (see #4 above).
JS - Shutting down all forms of criticism. Criticism has been a mainstay of free debate for hundreds of years. Satire, caricature and critical commentary are a valid human response to any issue and have been for millennia. it’s even on the walls of ancient Pompeii. While everyone has the right to their own protected spaces that does not provide the right to censor others outside those spaces.
12a. As with imposing beliefs, I am confused as how this censorship is supposed to be accomplished. I don’t know of anyone in our overlapping movements with the power and reach to shut down “all forms of criticism”.
12b. I agree that satire, caricature, and critical commentary are common human responses. I am unsure, however, what “valid” is meant to convey in this context. All these things can be illuminating or can serve to obscure the truth. They can be proportional, productive, reasonable–or none of those things. They are all simply means of communication. Talking about them collectively tells us nothing about their content, and this is the important part of any communication.
JS - We see the issues as a clash of ideas between those who wish to impose a particular political and social ideology, and those who wish to maintain the rationalist principles that have served us well for so many years. This kind of imposition will necessarily divide the movement and weaken it. It will set up an ‘us vs. them’ mentality which distracts from our core aims. It will alienate our friends and allies who would otherwise wish to support us, but will be discouraged if they do not hold the same political beliefs. It will impose unelected political leaders and encourage schisms.
13a. I have a number of problems with this point. Above, it was suggested that attributing motives is unhelpful, yet this entire view of the conflict is predicated upon ascribing motives to others. Additionally, even if anyone wished to impose any ideology, it has not been demonstrated that this could be done. I don’t see anything to be gained in opposing a hypothetical that is also, as far as I can tell, impossible.
13b. The extent to which any fundamental disagreement can distract from a movement’s work is the extent to which the parties involved insist that the issue must be continually debated. The secular and skeptical movements already contain several fundamental disagreements that were successfully resolved by schism. Working apart much of the time allows us to work toward common goals even when we have conflicts, as I noted in my opening statement. Beyond that, not insisting that there be constant friction let’s us more easily work in concert when the need for numbers arises.
13c. I am also unclear on how this idea of “unelected political leaders” is supposed to happen. Is this intended to refer to being persuasive? If so, I fail to see the problem, particularly in movements that value skepticism and rationality.
JS - People with similar interests will tend to congregate and should have spaces in which they can communicate and work together cooperatively. We do not seek to control anyone’s space, the policies in others’ spaces, or their expression of their beliefs and values. However, when people in one such space criticize or challenge other people, we feel it’s important for them to accept rebuttal or presentation of counter-evidence in accordance with the core principles outlined above.
14. I disagree. Accepting rebuttal in the same space that a criticism was made is at most a courtesy. It is neither an ethical imperative in our world of easy access to publishing nor a universal practice. As a courtesy, it is expected that it will be taken away when abused. When we criticize creationists, we are not required to host a Gish Gallop in return. Those who write about antisemitism should be under no pressure to publish racist comments. When we criticize a climate change denialist, we are not required to allow them to spread their astroturfed disinformation in our space. No less than the blogs editor for Scientific American routinely deletes comments from denialists of multiple stripes. These are extreme examples, but they do illustrate the general point.
JS - Failure to reach a common ground on these issues puts at risk our efforts in achieving our common goals.
15. I disagree. Again, we do not have to work closely together to work on common goals.
JS - We can work together by following the principles core to atheism/skepticism and remembering we are each and all fallible humans, each with one life to live and with an equal right to self-determination. We owe it to those who are hurting, suffering, and dying in this big wide world of ours.
16a. I agree that we should follow our principles. I agree that we should remember we are each fallible. I agree that we have an equal right to self-determination. I am unsure how having just one life fits into this list or how most of these fit in with working together. I would request further elaboration.
16b. Promoting reason, critical thinking, science, skepticism, atheism, and secularism is worthwhile, necessary work. I would disagree that any individual owes it to anyone to do specifically this work. There is other humanitarian work that is just as necessary and just as worthwhile. One of our challenges going forward is making people feel that ours is the worthwhile, necessary work on which they want to spend their time.
JS - I welcome your comments about this statement and your efforts to help the atheist/skeptic community identify and hopefully expand our “common ground”.
17. I welcome your comments in return.
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