Saturday, May 01, 2004

Essay about "The Brights" and their goals

Essay about "The Brights" and their goals ...

Originally posted at Ektopos

I'm simultaneously fascinated and disturbed that two issues are so closely linked in our discussions: (1) freedom of speech for atheists, and (2) the value of religious practices and institutions to human life.

The first is the stated goal of the Brights movement, and I can wholeheartedly agree with it. Whether you consider atheism as the lack of religion, a quasi-religion, or modern secular religion, and whether it may be partisan speech in some sense notwithstanding, it is speech deserving of protection, often made by very knowledgeable people deserving of our attention.

That's the critical issue of freedom of philosophical speech. I would argue should include reasoning from secularist traditions and religious ones. I don't think that all speech or all reasoning is equal on merit, but it does seem to me unavoidable that there is more than one rational tradition of value to political and social issues. Either side of an issues like abortion or euthanasia can be argued from progressive/secularist or orthodox religious traditions, in spite of our tendency to associate progressive reasoning with one side (e.g. pro-choice, pro-euthanasia, "pro-death"), and the orthodox reasoning with the other (e.g. "pro-life", anti-euthanasia).

The second issue, raised by Dawkins especially, seems to be linked by Brights to their justification for the first issue: atheists need their speech protected partly because they are right, and partly because people who think differently are not only wrong, but often dangerously wrong. I'm referring to Dawkins' anti-religionism. We all know that atheists are not always anti-religious, but there is a dark side anti-religionism just as there is a dark side to religion. For one thing, it denies the aspect of our nature that makes us think of ourselves as spiritual beings.

This comes very close to presenting a paradox to the humanistic values espoused by the Brights. We probably don't need to escape naturalism entirely in order to value a human spirit and share an optimistic and egalitarian ethos, that's the central point made by atheist philosophers. However, we do need to frame naturalism in a way that doesn't preclude or discourage the very values we are trying to promote.

That is, Brights have to be careful not to let their argument for free speech get in the way of their core humanistic values, the way we find left liberal political activism sometimes gets in the way of liberalist values, and the way conservative activism against their perceived enemies of social order sometimes gets in the way of their core values as well.

My claim is that thinking of ourselves as spiritual beings is not simply a matter of being superstitious, it is also a way of thinking about persons that supports the reasoning that lies behind some of the core values of humanism.

The rational challenge for Brights seems to me to be separating out the value of a spiritual view of the human person from the specific traditions of theistic reasoning, and moving toward the Enlightenment goal of universal reason in its support. That is, finding a way to incorporate humanity into what are supposed to in principle be non-sectarian traditions of reasoning such as science. That, and recognizing the legitimacy of orthodox religious reasoning, while seeing through its unfortunate frequent dependence on sectarian assumptions.

For the opponents of the Brights, the challenge is recognizing the legitimacy of secular tradition of reasoning. and separating it from its unfortunate frequent dependence on its own sectarian assumptions.

We can argue for atheist speech, which seems important in the current conservative climate in the U.S., while also having a a productive dialog about the roles religion plays in human life, and arguing for some kind of legitimacy of both progressive and orthodox traditions of reasoning. This limited pluralism seems to me a very worthwhile thing to promote in both philosophy of politics. Atheist speech merits protection not because it tells the whole story, but because it often tells an important part, and I would argue that the same is true of some religious speech.

I would argue that the presence or absence of a religious background of assumptions does not determine the value of the reasoning.

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