Secular fundamentalism

A few years ago, a woman in the US, Rachel Dolezal, who had been a senior member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, resigned when her claim to be a person of colour turned out to be a lie. Richard Dawkins tweeted earlier this month:
“In 2015, Rachel Dolezal, a white chapter president of NAACP, was vilified for identifying as black. Some men choose to identify as women, and some women choose to identify as men. You will be vilified if you deny that they literally are what they identify as. Discuss.”
I imagine that Dawkins finds incoherence in pressure groups’ statements to be annoying. I sympathise. The American Humanist Association, however, said his statements on transgender rights “demean marginalised groups” and so withdrew the ‘Humanist of the Year’ award they had given to him in 1996.  The AHA said that he was no longer “an exemplar of humanist values” because his tweets appeared to question whether people could choose their gender. After the tweet led to criticism, he followed it with another.
“I do not intend to disparage trans people. I see that my academic ‘Discuss’ question has been misconstrued as such and I deplore this. It was also not my intent to ally in any way with Republican bigots in US now exploiting this issue.”
The AHA said this was not enough. “Regrettably, Richard Dawkins has over the past several years accumulated a history of making statements that use the guise of scientific discourse to demean marginalised groups, an approach antithetical to humanist values,” they said. “His latest statement implies that the identities of transgender individuals are fraudulent, while also simultaneously attacking black identity as one that can be assumed when convenient. His subsequent attempts at clarification are inadequate and convey neither sensitivity nor sincerity.”

Numerous religions have split as a result of accusations of heresy, followed by excommunications, all nicely satirised in the Life of Brian, with the fighting between ‘The People's Front of Judea’ and ‘The Judean People's Front’. The denunciation of Dawkins by people who nominally have similar views reminds us, rather depressingly, of those splits. We have discussed before the question of so-called humanist values. I’m still not sure where they come from, and in this latest spat we see an excellent example of the result when values are plucked out of thin air. The American Humanist Association tells us in all seriousness:

“Humanism is a progressive philosophy of life that, without theism or other supernatural beliefs, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment that aspire to the greater good.”
So then I suppose that covers pretty much everything you might want to support or condemn. We have ‘progressive’, implying, I think, a socialist, and so anti-capitalist view of life. We have the appearance out of nowhere of a ‘responsibility’ to lead an ethical life. And although ‘ethical life’ is not defined or explained, I suppose that we have to assume it aspires to the ‘greater good’. Unfortunately, the greater good tends to lie in the eye of the beholder, as Dawkins has found out.

The censure by the Humanists has now also been welcomed by another unlikely group. Alison Gill, vice-president for legal and policy at ‘American Atheists’ and a trans woman, said that it was not enough for Dawkins to claim he was just asking questions. “Trans people are under constant attack across our country,” she said. “Implying that our identities are somehow fraudulent and questioning whether we even exist dehumanises us and helps justify this violence.” Her own organisation though tells us:
“All atheists are different. The only common thread that ties all atheists together is a lack of belief in gods. Some of the best debates we have ever had have been with fellow atheists. This is because atheists do not have a common belief system... This means atheists often disagree on many issues and ideas. Atheists come in a variety of shapes, colors, beliefs, convictions, and backgrounds...Atheists exist across the political spectrum. We are members of every race. We are members of the LGBTQ* community...”
So then quite why, in her capacity as a leader of American Atheists, she presumes to speak for the organisation by having her statement published on the American Atheists website, I do not know. Is it perhaps because atheists are members of the so-called ‘LGBTQ* community’, and so American Atheists must adhere to the latest crowd-sourced beliefs of the ‘T’ part of that community? Or is it that what they say about themselves and other atheists as being free spirits can only be taken so far without upsetting their funders. This is so, even though the staff – yes, paid full-time staff - have just one very clearly defined job - they have to oppose all attempts to breach the constitutional requirement for the separation of religion and the State. Why, therefore, as an organisation, they have to make moral statements at all is a little unclear.

But what was Rachel Dolezal thinking about when she decided to adopt a different racial identity? What were the many others who have been found out in similar deceptions trying to achieve? One interesting possibility is that it is an over-reaction to guilt, by adopting the personality of the disparaged group of people and then working on its behalf from the inside to try to change things. 

Is guilt though really the explanation for society’s general wish to act morally? Perhaps instead it is actually that AHA desire for the greater good. Even though it is a vague concept, if we limited its scope, we could probably see ideas that would be generally acceptable. At a minimum, in my view it should mean that there shouldn’t be a significantly disadvantaged underclass of people and that we should therefore try to raise living standards for the poorest. It has practical benefits for the rest of us.

The growth of crime, for instance, is encouraged by the conditions found in slum areas, which is to no-one’s advantage. We have also seen the disproportionate spread of Covid amongst those living in poverty, here and in the rest of the world, which presents a danger to the rest of us as well. And for the very rich to be seen to be engaged in philanthropy, as wisely encouraged by the Sage of Omaha, could mean that they avoid losing their heads in a repeat of the French Revolution.

But much as I would like to believe that our moral positions are mainly utilitarian, and therefore susceptible to reason, clearly they are not. This is obvious when even associations that are theoretically dedicated to rationality ostentatiously adopt moral positions (with little practical value for humanity), which they feel the need to enforce with all the fervour of fundamentalist religions. The only explanation which seems to make sense of this is that fundamentalist fervour is not actually motivated by religion, but the other way around. It implies that we have an underlying desire, to a greater or lesser extent, to impose our views on the people around us. Everyone has one or more opinions that they want others to accept, whether about footy or the meaning of life (which for some is footy).

If this is so, then it ought to have an evolutionary benefit. The hypothesised benefit would be that it will knit society together, enabling it to function more smoothly and efficiently and so enhance our survival. Much government effort, for example, was expended during the second world war in sending out messages intended to encourage people to act in the common good. The same has been true during our year beset by Covid.

As we know, however, in a perversion of this tendency to bind society together, dictators ‘encourage’ a single view of how their citizens, whether adults or children, should think and act, one favourable to those in power. So then, assuming there to be a net benefit from our ‘morality’, then it would have to take into account the obvious evolutionary disadvantage to our survival caused by the fighting between opposing factions to promote their respective views of morality and also the regional and sometimes global disasters unleashed from time to time by dictatorships. Evolutionary pressure can be very messy. Fortunately my efforts to persuade others of the manifest wisdom of my views do not have much effect.

Paul Buckingham

26 April 2021

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