Atheist Pride

by Luke Muehlhauser on April 8, 2010 in Ethics,Guest Post

proud atheist

The ethical theory I currently defend is desirism. But I mostly write about moraltheory, so I rarely discuss the implications of desirism for everyday moral questions about global warming, free speech, politics, and so on. Today’s guest post applies desirism to one such everyday moral question. It is written by desirism’s first defender, Alonzo Fyfe of Atheist Ethicist. (Keep in mind that questions of applied ethics are complicated and I do not necessarily agree with Fyfe’s moral calculations.)

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I have made the claim that atheists are made substantially passive and submissive in the face of anti-atheist insults written into the Pledge and the National Motto.

In response, a commenter asked:

Still, if we were to agree that atheists hold deep-seated shame and feelings of inferiority because their views run counter to their deeply indoctrinated and unconscious desires for a proud godly nation, what are they to do about these desires? If the tools of praise and condemnation are as powerful as you seem to believe, isn’t this a lost battle? Certainly there are tools of equal or greater power that can destroy what praise and condemnation have tried to build up? And haven’t we already proven adept at using these tools to rid ourselves of the various superstitions instilled in us at an early age?

Desirism holds that praise and condemnation, among other social forces, are used to manipulate malleable deisres, particularly in childhood, as a way of influencing the types of behavior that people engage in. If you have reasons to prevent people from taking your property on a whim, then you have reason to promote in them an aversion to taking your property. This aversion will then influence his actions, making your property secure, even when others are not being watched. They do not take your property, not because they fear possible retribution, but because they have an aversion to taking it.

The Pledge of Allegiance and the National Motto exposed on our currency, and increasingly on the walls of government buildings and repeated in school classrooms, are instances of praise. The Pledge of Allegiance praises support for “one nation under God,” just as it praises union, liberty, and justice. The National Motto says that the one quality that best defines the difference between good Americans from everybody else is trust in God. “WE” trust in God. Those who do not trust in God are not “WE”.

This praise of support for “one nation under God” and “trust in God,” particularly when told to young children, generates a desire to support “one nation under God” and to trust in God, while creating in children an aversion to those who do not support a nation under God or trust in God. These desires and aversions last through adulthood, influencing behavior, in the same way that the condemnation of theft or of lying is planted in children and carried through adulthood.

We are dealing here with matters of emotion, not of belief. As such, we are dealing with psychological states that are immune to reason. There is no set of facts or sound logical syllogism that can “persuade” a person out of these attitudes any more than there is a set of facts or sound logical syllogism that will “persuade” a person out of a desire for cigarettes or alcohol.

The statement that this represents “shame etc.” seems quite a bit more elaborate than what I am claiming here. I am saying that the aversion to standing up against “under God” or “In God We Trust” is on the same pychological footing as the aversion to theft and lying, which was also planted in our brains as children using substantially similar methods. We are made to feel uncomfortable at the very thought of this type of opposition, so we don’t do it.

There is an important difference between the Pledge and the Motto and theft in that we deny that there is good reason to promote an aversion to the Pledge and Motto, whereas (I suspect) a great many of hold that there is good reason to promote an aversion to theft. The psychological aversions are relevantly similar. However, the aversion of theft, for most of us, accompanies an attitude of endorsement or approval that the aversion to the theocratic sentiments of the Pledge and the Motto does not.

Yet, the existence of a desire and its effects on our behavior does not depend on our endorsement. The desire to smoke or to eat excessively will influence one’s behavior even in the face of recognizing that the desires that motivate this behavior are desires that one would be wise to get rid of, if one could.

The first thing we should do in order to confront this inappropriate aversion is to admit that it exists and that it has power over us. And that a change in beliefs alone will not rid us of this desire. What we need to do is to find something more important – a stronger set of desires that can use as a counter-weight to this one and, thus, motivate us to act (or refrain from acting) in the ways that this bad desire would otherwise motivate us to act.

Other organizations who have faced this type of problem have addressed it through activities in which one shows pride in their membership in this socially disfavored group. Gay pride parades and black pride movements had and have a useful social function. They help to undo the damage that has been done – to weaken the aversions placed in individuals who were taught as children that they do not belong or are not good enough.

Atheist Pride events where the purpose is to celebrate atheism would be one tool to be used in confronting these effects.

“It’s OK to be an Atheist” should be a dominant theme of these types of events. It is not a claim that atheists are inherently superior to others (they are not). However, it is a denial of the claim planted in our brains as children that atheists are inferior to others and that the best thing an atheist can do is simply sit down and shut up. “I am not sitting down, and I am not shutting up.”

Specifically with respect to the Pledge and the Motto, these events should be plastered with representations of the much better motto, “E Pluribus Unum” and (in America) contain a superior substitute to the Pledge or some similar activity whereby atheists can express their support for truth, liberty, justice, and any country devoted to those values. A visible ‘Pledge of Allegiance’ without God should be effective in countering the impression created by our current system that links support for “under God” to support for the United States.

If anybody objects to such a pledge, they should be told that we should be planting a desire for truth, liberty, and justice in children, and planting in them an aversion to deception, tyranny, and injustice. There are many and strong reasons to fill our fellow citizens with these particular desires and aversions – not only for our own sake, but for the sake of our children and their future. It is not a bad thing to wish for them, and to take steps to secure, a life of liberty and justice and without civil war.

We find these types of activities in any civic movement that is successful. This is because those who have lead such a movement have realized that one of the first and most important thing they must accomplish is to break the thought habits that have lead to the current situation. They need to break the target group – be they women, blacks, or homosexuals – out of the habit of being passive and submissive members of society, and teach them to be assertive of their rights.

Most importantly, this is a project that has to focus on changing desires, not beliefs. The beliefs are already there. The problem rests with a set of desires and aversions created by living in a society that constantly brands one as inferior. These types of changes do not require formal logical arguments in support of a conclusion. They require that people be given an opportunity to take place in activities that, ultimately, change the way they feel about things.

The last thing to do is to try to measure the success of such a project on whether we are able to generate a pat on the head and a smile of approval from theists. The only way we are going to get the pat on the head and the smile is if we are good little puppies who do what we are told and not get in the way of their comfortable lives. When their approval no longer matters, when you quit asking for their approval and begin demanding their respect, they are going to get angry. They like the current situation, and they have no interest in seeing it change.

It is not, and never will be, a valid criticism of such a movement to say that “They will not approve.”

- Alonzo Fyfe

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

cl April 8, 2010 at 6:48 am

As a theist, I am opposed to the motto “In God we trust” stamped on our currency. I’m also opposed to “under God” in the pledge, but in neither case is an alleged constitutional violation my reason.

There is no set of facts or sound logical syllogism that can “persuade” a person out of these attitudes any more than there is a set of facts or sound logical syllogism that will “persuade” a person out of a desire for cigarettes or alcohol.

That statement appears to be rhetorical, because people persuaded by facts and syllogisms quit smoking [and leave religion] every day.

Specifically with respect to the Pledge and the Motto, these events should be plastered with representations of the much better motto, “E Pluribus Unum” and (in America) contain a superior substitute to the Pledge or some similar activity whereby atheists can express their support for truth, liberty, justice, and any country devoted to those values.

I tend to agree that the original “E Pluribus Unum” is more inclusive. I also agree that atheists should be able to feel the same love of country as anyone else. However, I find the whole “atheist pride” thing annoying, just as I find pride for race, country, creed, sexuality, etc. to be annoying.

If anything, what we need is unity, not more artificial lines of division. This is why I argue that these efforts should not be cast in exclusively atheist light. Such is tantamount to a sectarian solution to a sectarian problem. A coalition of theists and atheists would make a stronger impression. Then, they can’t say, “Why should we listen to a bunch of whiny atheists?”

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lukeprog April 8, 2010 at 6:53 am

cl,

Alonzo specifically writes that by ‘atheist pride’ he does not mean atheists should say they are better than others. Is that the kind of ‘pride for race, country, creed, secuality, etc.’ you find to be annoying? Or do you really think the kind of pride Alonzo actually advocates – that of ‘Atheists can be patriots and citizens, and are not inherently evil as most people in the USA believe’ – is annoying?

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cl April 8, 2010 at 7:26 am

..do you really think the kind of pride Alonzo actually advocates – that of ‘Atheists can be patriots and citizens, and are not inherently evil as most people in the USA believe’ – is annoying?

Didn’t I write,

I also agree that atheists should be able to feel the same love of country as anyone else[?]

Only an individual who felt atheists can be patriots and citizens would write such a thing.

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lukeprog April 8, 2010 at 7:57 am

cl,

I’m just not clear on what you do mean, then, by saying that atheist pride is annoying like national pride.

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cl April 8, 2010 at 8:20 am

I pretty much conveyed everything I meant in the closing paragraph from the first comment:

If anything, what we need is unity, not more artificial lines of division. This is why I argue that these efforts should not be cast in exclusively atheist light. Such is tantamount to a sectarian solution to a sectarian problem. A coalition of theists and atheists would make a stronger impression.

Consider this blog’s headline: “When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.”

What does yourself or any other atheist find annoying about Christian fish? Insulting Christian bumper stickers? Offensive displays? Trumped-up arguments? How lame is Christian pride to you? The phrase itself is quite the paradox.

IOW, the things we do need [in this case, a Pledge and National Motto that everyone can get behind] don’t need a bunch of disparate groups with disparate interests running around influencing policy accordingly. If what we are really advocating here is “one from many” [E Pluribus Unum], then we have reasons for action to promote a “one from many” approach to critical issues in religion, politics, law, etc.

I’m not against minorities or oppressed groups organizing to educate themselves or further their particular interests by any means.

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othereric April 8, 2010 at 10:29 am

thanks alonzo, for giving this a part two.
i still disagree with your assessment of the level of success of the pledge on our atheist desires. i said the pledge and the lord’s prayer every morning for most of grade school and i can’t admit to any desire for “one nation under god”or for “thy kingdom come.” nor can i admit to an aversion to opposing these things. only a reticence to act politically at all because of an (obviously self-defeating) sense of disillusionment with the political process. i can suggest that perhaps this deeper desire was built up more successfully in my youth because it came from people i respected (my peers), rather than those i did not (the school faculty), and it had a catchy slogan: fuck the man.

that aside, i’m pleased with the notion of atheist pride, and agree that more community involvement is needed. community is not the man.

cl: If anything, what we need is unity, not more artificial lines of division.

unity is certainly the end goal, but pride in self is an important first step towards that goal for any put-upon group. the gay community spent decades working to feel good about themselves before any other section of society would admit to anything other than disgust for them.

my only concern is that it acknowledges atheism as a minority, where the theists seem to think that we’re EVERYWHERE. will they still be scared of us if we come out of the closet and they see how few of us there really are?

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Charles April 8, 2010 at 11:07 am

I think we need to be careful. There are really two very different classes of people out there. There are those who overcame serious god-belief, and there are those for whom religion wasn’t a big deal. I don’t imagine the Pledge holds much sway over the first group.

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