Difficult solutions to simple problems: debating in an inefficient democracy

The reason I reblogged the Scientia Salon article on the American Atheist billboards is because, in posting my final comments to it, I finally found focus to two issues that have been gnawing at the back of my mind recently.

One (and the trigger of this was somewhat oblique, and probably due, on reflection, to a misreading of the comments by phoffman56) has to do with the growing sense that those who support the trend of ‘scientism’ – the position that science should be the final determination of all knowledge (hence making philosophy irrelevant) – may be moving toward the assumption that only scientists should be the judges of all knowledge. If so, there’s an implicit political hope embedded in this position – that the best form of government would be one dominated by an elite of scientists. After all, if ‘knowledge is power,’ shouldn’t knowledge have power? (This is becoming more clear in the arguments for incompatibilist determinism, which have an openly political component of arguing for a reconstruction of the justice system to eliminate elements of retribution or blame.) This is a complex issue I’ll set aside for later discussion.

Here I want to discuss the other issue that I am now more clear on.

From my response to another commentator:

” It seems to me that some have moved beyond advocating for less negative attitudes towards atheists, or that they should enjoy equal rights, and are arguing theists should stop being theists because theism is fundamentally worse than atheism.”

That’s right; the issue has two components, and they get confused (by theists as well as atheists, it should be noted). Atheists do have a right to argue that theists should adopt an atheist position; but that is very different from arguing that those who are already atheists should enjoy equal rights and respect. And certainly much atheist discourse today confuses these issues. (But, again, much theist discourse does as well.)

Here’s the problem. Democratic forms of government require tolerance for a wide variety of opposing philosophies, and should only intervene when a efforts to realize a given philosophy endanger the peace of the society (not just talking about violence but engaging it). In an efficiently working democracy, debates between opposing philosophies ought to constitute an intellectual discourse directed towards changing people’s minds. The hoped for outcome would be the election of representatives whose positions on government policy are consistent with those of the majority of the electorate, while maintaining the rights of the minority to carry on the conversation.

In such a society, debates between theists and non-theists should occur in many fields, but each field of discourse would be clearly distinguished. We can see that even in many public debates we do have in this conflict: Is it reasonable to believe in god given the status of knowledge in the sciences? Should any religion be taught in publicly funded schools? Are atheist politicians to be trusted?

I include this last because, although obviously reason dictates that politicians who are atheists ought to be trusted, the majority of Americans are clearly unpersuaded to the notion. So something is wrong.

One problem is that we don’t have a particularly efficient democracy in the US right now. An efficient democracy requires an informed electorate thinking reasonably about their own best interests, and the best interests of their communities. The political atmosphere would be one of pointed but polite discourse, which would allow and support such reasoned thought to be engaged. But – that’s not the case in America right now.

Consequently, a great number of people – on all sides – are thinking with their hormones. This has debilitating consequences on the social fabric. It dis-empowers many in the majority, who fail to perceive what their real best interests are. It closes off the centers of power from the interests and will of the public. It fragments the national community into pockets of resistance – occasionally this is resistance to the economic or political status quo, but frequently it is simply resistance to ‘others-not-like-ourselves.’

In the theism/atheism debate, what has finely come into focus is that many are confusing strictly political issues with what are strictly philosophic issues. One can have a reasoned discussion about whether one should believe in god; one can have a reasoned discussion about whether government should support or privilege any religion.

But when we begin moving such a discussion into such issues as ‘religion should have no place in politics at all because nobody should believe in god,’ or ‘government should be dominated by a given religion because everybody should believe in god,’ the hormones begin flooding our systems and spew forth in all kinds of nastiness and sophistic rhetoric. It’s just sloppy thinking and sloppy speech.

Now, I suggested in my comments to Dr. Pigliucci’s article, that I think the nature of political discourse in this country makes the safest path the development of the social skills needed to speak in one way with those of like mind, and in another way with those of opposing points of view. I still lean this way, not simply because of the nature of the limited public sphere in which I participate in writing this blog and commenting on others; but because of the everyday experience of having to work among people, most of whom are on the opposite end of the political spectrum from me on many issues.

However, now that the the problem I’ve noted has finally come into focus, my thoughts right now are that both theists and atheists should step back from their political agendas and rethink them more clearly, and in a manner more congruent with political reality.

No form of democracy can be a theocracy; some form or another of that actually has been tried in some countries, and such experiments always lead to a secular state; so religionists ought just accept the notion that when the majority of the people need to come together on community matters, they will inevitably accept secular solutions to social problems since social issues are secular by nature. There is no religious solution to an economic recession, or to the building of highways for improved transportation.

On the other hand, I think atheists should also take a closer look at the agenda that developed with the rising public profile of the discourse of the New Atheists. It’s hard enough electing a politician who happens to be an avowed atheist; do we want to endanger such efforts by insisting, effectively, that all politicians should be atheists (which would be one way to accomplish a politics free of religion)? How can we reconstruct an efficient democracy here if we are telling opponent philosophies that they have no place in it?

Well, this sounds like a simple solution to a complex problem; actually I think it is a complex solution to a simple problem. The simple problem is that religionists and anti-religionists are snarking at each other, and letting their hormones speak. The complex solution is determining what of our own speech is hormone-driven, and what is an honest expression of real emotion; and what is finally a reasonable attempt to address shared reality in a manner that respects others while maintaining one’s own position.

So, as I noted in my comment to my reblog of the Scientia Salon article, deeper thinking needs to be undertaken here. I certainly don’t intend to stop slamming theism where theism needs slamming. However, I don’t wish to be uncharitable to the people who find comfort in religion; that game gets lost before it’s played.

Murky waters to be swimming in to be sure; and not the optimal moment of history in which to find one’s self in this bath.


2 thoughts on “Difficult solutions to simple problems: debating in an inefficient democracy

  1. If so, there’s an implicit political hope embedded in this position – that the best form of government would be one dominated by an elite of scientists.

    As best I can tell, most of the scientists that I know are not at all interested in dominating government. They would rather spend their time on the science, and have others take care of policy questions.

    What they would like, however, are politicians who take note of scientific knowledge and use that in their policy making.

    You see this in the global warming debates. Most scientists want to see policy decisions that are informed by knowledge of the problem, but they don’t want to make those policy decisions themselves. They understand that public policy involves a lot of compromise, and they understand that scientists are mostly not given to negotiating compromise.


    • Actually, I suspect the number of those supporting what I describe as ‘scientism’ is quite small; but they are very vocal, and tend to write or speak in phrases like, ‘all scientists should know…’ or ‘no scientist would disagree…’ etc. By taking such a position they may be making more difficult the work of other scientists attempting to inform public policy.


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