Archive for April, 2010

While trundling around Usenet, I stumbled over a piece of spam by a religionist with the subject “What have atheists ever done for humanity?”  The question struck me as interesting, not because of its contents but because of the way it frames the conflict between the religious and non-religious worldviews.  The poster wants to provoke the following line of thought: ‘What have atheists done for humanity?  Well, let me think of some famous atheists… hmm, nobody really comes to mind.  I guess there were the Communists, and Madeline Murray O’Hare.  Gee, I guess all we’ve gotten from atheism is mass slaughter.  Wow, I guess religion really must be a good thing!”  And, indeed, he is correct that overt atheists are pretty sparse on the list of great benefactors of humanity.  But does his conclusion follow?

The problem comes from the way the distinction is framed: religion versus atheism.  But is this the right way to think of the dispute?  Atheism, per se, is a purely negative doctrine.  It indicates the lack of a specific kind of belief.  But men act on the basis of what they do believe, not what they don’t.  I’m an atheist, but that isn’t the essential defining characteristic of my beliefs.  Fundamentally, I’m an advocate of reason.  Atheism is a derivative consequence, not a primary.  I don’t believe in God because there is no rational basis for doing so.

If you reframe the question in terms of reason and faith, the entire playing field changes.  What has reason ever done for humanity?  In a modern industrial society it’s difficult to identify a concrete value that doesn’t flow from reason.  Science, technology, medicine, industry, political freedom — all are children of the age of reason.  (Stephen Hicks has a nifty diagram of the connections in his book Explaining Post-Modernism; on-line version available here.)  Now consider the contrary question: What has faith ever done for humanity?  The era of history in which faith was most dominant is aptly named the Dark Ages — a time when the average lifespan was approximately 30 years and everyone existed in what we would today consider grinding poverty.  Disease ran rampant, literacy was extremely rare.  Heretics were burned at the stake.  Men who took their faith the most seriously, like Saint Francis, would use rocks as pillows, drink laundry water, and sprinkle sand on their food to dull the taste.

Reason is man’s basic means of survival.  In essence, the answer to the question “What has reason ever done for humanity?” is “Allowed it to live and prosper.”  The answer to the question “What has faith ever done for humanity?” is “Led it to suffer and die.”  The religious men whose actions benefited humanity created those benefits to the extent that they acted rationally, i.e. to the extent that their faith did not interfere with their reason.

Attempting to think about this issue in the terms laid out by the religionist is futile.  The setup leads down a blind alley to a false conclusion.  The lesson is that one should never uncritically accept the terms in which an intellectual opponent wants to frame a debate.  Concepts matter.  Don’t let your enemies pick the ones you use.

Anyone paying attention to the news knows that 2010 is shaping up to be a Republican year.  A growing grass-roots backlash against the Democrats is reflected in both election results and polls.  But one should never underestimate the ability of the GOP to blow an advantage, and here’s an example of why — they don’t understand the power of narrative.  The left is expert at setting up narrative lines that provide the structure for media coverage of events.  Facts that play into the narrative get picked up, repeated, elaborated.  Facts that run counter to the narrative are ignored, suppressed, abandoned.  And the narratives are almost always ones that benefit the left and damage the right.

One of the narratives the left has been setting up recently is the classic “conservatives are just a bunch of racist rednecks”.  They’ve been particularly anxious to set this frame up around the Tea Party movement in the hopes of scaring off and/or driving away the independent voters who have been attracted by the Tea Party’s message of fiscal responsibility, but they’ll use it on mainstream Republicans too.  It never gets old.  Now, if you want to fight a narrative line, you must not do anything that feeds into it and gives it credibility.  Any fact that even seems to support the narrative may be seized upon, repeated endlessly as ‘proof’ of its accuracy, and used to cement its power in the upcoming news cycle.

In light of the above, I now present to you Bob McDonnell, the recently-elected governor of Virginia.


Rick Moran writes, of the Tea Parties, that he has “been very critical of those in the tea party movement who seek to use anger and fear as a wedge to gain support for their cause.”  The implicit assumption here is that anger is somehow an inappropriate response to recent political events.  Excuse me?  Let’s take one example: ObamaCare.  In my judgment, the Democrats passed a bill which was:

  • Profoundly immoral.
  • Ruinously impractical.
  • Defended mendaciously.
  • Supported corruptly.
  • Enacted through procedural abuse, in the face of strong public opposition.

Exactly which of these things should I not be angry about?  Anger is a response to perceived injustice.  Condemning anger means one of two things: either the object of the anger is not in fact an injustice, or we should be emotionally indifferent to questions of right and wrong.

Moran goes on to note that “that reason wins a lot more converts than screaming” — which is true.  But reason and anger are not mutually exclusive.  The appropriate response to our current political situation is anger, rationally grounded. It is the rational identification of the facts which gives rise to the anger, and the anger provides the motivation to act to correct the injustice.  This is not an academic exercise.  Our lives are, quite literally, at stake.  If we’re not allowed to get emotional about that, when is anger appropriate?