Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Labels - bigotry in disguise?

Recently an Internet friend of mine was being pressed by someone on Facebook to accept the label "atheist" because so many of her posts seemed to be concordant with atheism.  But she demurred, saying she doesn't want that label precisely because it's commonly associated with some things with which she doesn't agree.  Her perception is that people automatically will assume she believes in X or Y because she's in that category.

I run into a similar problem frequently.  If I say something critical of Mitt Romney, it's automatically assumed I'm a fan of Barack Obama.  If I say something favorable about providing help to disadvantaged people, then it's assumed that I match precisely some presumed profile tied to being a "liberal".  If I dislike Faux (Fox) News, it's evident I must watch MSNBC. 

Some people are very familiar with these "default assumptions" - it's commonly assumed that when talking about a medical doctor in casual conversation in the USA, that doctor is male, not female.  It's often assumed that, when encountering a young, black male in some run-down part of a city, he's in a criminal gang, uses cocaine, and likes hip-hop music.  Mexicans are all dirt-poor, ignorant, lazy, and probably in the USA illegally.  Everyone on welfare is a homeless, jobless crack addict with 15 kids all being supported by welfare.  Everyone living in a mobile home is a redneck, stupid white trash.  These are all stereotypes that are demonstrably false, and obviously connected to prejudice - bigotry, that is.

To be sure, examples that fit these stereotypes can be found.  But the proof is all around us that individuals who break those stereotypes also can be found, and they're not necessarily in the minority.  Hence, the prejudice that leads to bigotry is based in a lie.  Pure and simple.  Let me repeat that - based in a lie!  Not everyone that fits in that "category" is the same!!  Prejudice about people is not a viable position.

Frankly, I find default assumptions being made all the time, about me and about people I know.  I dislike and resent those assumptions even more when associated with friends of mine or family than when directed at me.  For the most part, I can shrug off such things - they say more about the person labeling me than about me.  There are times, of course, when such labels are used to discriminate against people, typically in a covert way.  If you speak openly against policies in the company for which you work, you can be labeled a "troublemaker" and blocked from favorable personnel actions or even discharged.  If you wear your hair in a mohawk, you must be some sort of crazed "punk" that can't possibly be an asset to the business.  And so on and on.

We humans seem strongly inclined to push everyone around us into some category or another, concluding they must think and behave in a certain way according to our interpretation of the label we want to pin on them.  Doing so certainly removes the obligation for us to think and learn about who the people really are.  If we've assigned them a label we consider negative, then we can push them out of our lives to whatever extent possible by circumstances.  If we can't push them away physically, we can shut them out personally and socially.

Assigning labels to people is nothing more (or less) than prejudice/bigotry.  I'm not saying that behind every dude wearing a scruffy beard, riding a Harley, wearing a motorcycle jacket, and covered in tatoos is actually a charity-supporting nuclear physicist.  But ought we not reserve our judgments (based only on their appearance) until we know them reasonably well?  Most of the people I call friends have some very different attitudes about some things that matter to me - but I value their friendship nevertheless.  The fact that we disagree on a topic is far less important than the enjoyment I derive from being in their company.  It's not necessary to me that everyone I know has to agree with me on everything!  If we can have a conversation about those issues that divide us, and that conversation doesn't turn into anger and name-calling, then perhaps I can learn a thing or two from their viewpoint (and/or vice-versa).  It's happened many times, actually.

Returning, finally, to my friend refusing to wear the label "atheist" - there are many people who for one reason or another choose not to accept that label.  Some avoid the label for fear of being ostracized, in a way that gays and lesbians understand only too well.  Some avoid it because they harbor misconceptions about what it means to be an atheist.  In fact, being an atheist puts almost no restrictions on what you believe, because the only thing we all have in common is not believing in a deity - otherwise, our opinions and beliefs can be damned near anything!  Atheism has no sacred truths, no doctrine, no common set of beliefs.  You can tag me with that label - it doesn't bother me to wear it because it imposes virtually no restrictions on what I can think and what I can believe.  I wear that one proudly and willingly.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Attack on religion?

I can't speak on behalf of all those who don't believe in a deity of the sort hypothesized in Abrahamic religions, so these comments necessarily only reflect on what I'm saying and doing and don't necessarily apply to anyone other than me.  So, with that disclaimer over, I've been informed recently by some folks that by being a vocal, "aggressive" atheist (instead of a "closet" atheist), I'm attacking the believers.  As I often like to do, let's begin with the definition of the verb "attack":

  1. to set upon in a forceful, violent, hostile, or aggressive way, with or without a weapon; begin fighting with
  2. to begin hostilities against; start an offensive against: to attack the enemy.
  3. to blame or abuse violently or bitterly.
  4. to direct unfavorable criticism against; criticize severely; argue with strongly
  5. to try to destroy, especially with verbal abuse

Let's consider these alternative definitions in order.

#1 - my criticisms of religious dogma certainly can be seen as forceful, distinctly not violent, not even hostile or threatening, definitely without a weapon (other than words), and my intention is not to stir up a fight, but rather to inform and perhaps to discuss topics in a forceful but not hostile way.  A believer recently asked me if I was truly seeking for truth, or was I simply aiming to contradict all religious teachings.  The answer is definitely a search for truth, but apparently for some believers, just to question religious teachings is to take a hostile stance.  Unfortunately, I can't control how some people react to a discussion where I might disagree with them on points of substance.  Does not a rational search for truth involve asking questions and trying to understand the putative answers using logic and empirical evidence?

#2 - my comments are not a provocation meant to begin hostilities, but certainly are aimed at representing my viewpoint, clarifying my position, and responding to criticisms from others.  I always try to avoid ad hominem responses.  In many cases, we end up simply agreeing to disagree, which to me is a satisfactory outcome.  Unfortunately, in some examples, my interlocutor indulges in ad hominem remarks (i.e., directed toward me or someone who believes as I do), which almost always will result in me responding in such a way as to terminate any discussion immediately, for my part.

#3 - in some cases, my critiques of religion attempt to establish a connection between religion and such negative things as sectarian violence, religious terrorism, and religion-inspired violence of all sorts.  I don't dispute that this can be seen as "blaming" religion - religion is inherently prone to stimulate extremist violence because of two primary enabling factors:  
  • religious believers often consider what they believe to be religious "truths" to be absolute truth, which strikes me as potentially dangerous to begin with, and
  • they conclude that their deity is sanctioning any means by which that truth can be advanced (e.g., by murdering unbelievers);  the allegedly "sacred" documents of all the abrahamic religions (i.e., christianity, islam, and judaism) do in fact call upon believers to perpetrate violence on those who would oppose them or violate their doctrine.
Based on this, I conclude that extremism in the name of religion is to be expected by the very nature of those beliefs.  Religion inevitably gives birth to extremists, who may be disavowed by most believers but who are definitely committing violence in the name of religion.  It would certainly be wrong to accuse all religious believers of extremism, but it seems evident to me that any religion (even the non-Abrahamic ones) can become the wellspring of religious violence.

On the other hand, atheism makes no claims to absolute truth and there are no sacred documents in atheism to cite that condone violence.  [Please don't bring up Communist atheism!]

#4 - this one I claim fully.  I'm criticizing religions unfavorably, especially the Abrahamic religions.  Can I not do so without being faulted simply for doing so?  What makes religion immune from criticism?  In a world of logic and evidence, there should be nothing that's above criticism.  I certainly make no such claim (i.e., to be above criticism) for myself, but if you're going to criticize me, let it be on on the basis of logic and evidence, not mythology, hearsay, and belief in the absence of evidence. 

#5 - If I ever thought I could destroy religion, I might wish to do so, since so much violence and obstruction of human goals has been done in the name of religion.  The simple fact is I'm not going to eradicate religion with my words, and I have no intention of trying to do so by violent actions.  Religion isn't going away just because I wish it would.

At the very best, I can hope perhaps to stimulate a few to think and act upon the questions they have in their minds about the propaganda they've been forced to absorb, perhaps eventually choosing to throw off the cloak of mythology and superstition in favor of a secular humanist worldview.  And I hope to offer some new insights to the discussion.

In conclusion, my criticisms can be interpreted as "attacks" in a limited way, but they do nothing to restrict the rights of anyone to believe as they choose.  If I'm mystified about how otherwise intelligent humans can embrace irrationality and illogic, that's my problem, not theirs.  My criticisms aren't "forcing" my beliefs on anyone.  Just don't force religious beliefs on me by imposing your dogma onto all us via governmental actions (like laws banning liquor sales on Sunday).  

You're welcome to try to persuade me I'm wrong, and if you can find convincing evidence, I'm willing to be persuaded.  Are you equally willing to be persuaded not to believe? 

Monday, August 6, 2012

Priorities - a brutally honest mirror

Years ago, I first heard what has become an often-used aphorism for me:  "What you say speaks so loudly, I can't hear what you're saying!"  Of course, this is simply a re-statement of an older aphorism:  "Actions speak louder than words."

The media, including the print media, broadcast media, and the Internet, have flooded us with a tsunami of words.  This very blog contributes, albeit modestly, to that overwhelming flood, so I don't want to come off here as somehow above all that.  The words on this page do not, by themselves, testify to the substance of what I'm about to say here.  Only by my actions can you reach a meaningful judgment of my words.  If you think there's a huge discrepancy between my words and my deeds, then you can brand me a hypocrite with justification, wherever such discrepancies might exist.  As my friend, RJ Evans says, "The hypocrisy always reveals the lie."  The existence of a disconnect between my talk and my actions is an obvious indicator of a falsehood.  The hypocrite says one thing and does the opposite.  The hypocrite says, "Do as I say, not as I do."

But this blog isn't about hypocrisy.  Rather, it's about the statement we make by our actions and priorities.  I'm not talking about individuals here, but rather our collectively-owned, beloved United States of America.  Yes, I truly love the USA, for many reasons.  Which is why I find it painful to find so many disconnects between our ideals and what we actually are doing.  You are free to disagree, naturally.

About $40 billion annually is spent in "the Americas" on cosmetics.  It seems likely the majority of that is in North America, and particularly the USA.  The four major sports in the USA (NFL football, major league baseball, the NBA, and the NHL), according to Wikipedia, generate about $25 billion annually in revenues - most other sports are relatively small by comparison, except perhaps college football, which generates $1.6 billion in TV revenues alone.  The music industry in the USA accounts for about $11.5 billion annually.  TV advertising revenues (excluding political ads and the Olympics) are at about $170 billion annually.  USA consumer electronics revenues are approaching $200 billion annually.

We in the USA account for a rapidly declining proportion of world manufacturing, as we "outsource" our manufacturing to China and elsewhere to reduce labor costs.  Individual state support of education is declining, and universities have become more like businesses than education institutions in order to make up the shortfalls.  Federal support for science has been declining in the face of budget pressure.

Agriculture is no longer dominated by individual farming families, as the land is increasingly owned by absentee owners, including large agricultural corporations.  As the family farm disappears, the small towns that grew up to support those families are dying for lack of revenue.  The infrastructure that supports our whole society (roads, bridges, dams, buildings, etc.) is falling into disrepair owing to a lack of maintenance that is, in turn, attributed to governmental budget shortfalls.  I could go on and on.  We have a lot of issues to deal with, and it seems we can't afford to do them all, so many of them are simply not being addressed anymore.  Our military "superpower" status has inflicted a high price on us since the end of World War II.   No one in the world comes close to what we spend on "defense".

Where we spend our money, and where we choose to cut back our budgets (as individuals and as governmental entities) to deal with financial downturns, says a lot about us.  But that isn't the only issue that concerns me.

We've revealed, time and time again, that our notion of human rights is, to say the least, rather more flexible than the Constitution says it should be.  In times of perceived "emergencies", we've suspended habeas corpus, the right to a speedy trial, and even the right to legal representation.  We love to crow about our freedoms, but the 4th Amendment to the Constitution has been trampled into near non-existence.  We call ourselves the world's guardians of freedom, even as we invade nations simply because we don't like their leadership.  We see ourselves as a shining beacon of hope for equality of opportunity, even as we discriminate against minorities within and impose state-sponsored icons and doctrines of our majority religion (christianity) on everyone.  And we're dumbfounded when we learn that many people around the world despise us.  We're blind to our own failings at living up to our ideals, preferring instead the notion of American "exceptionalism" - the notion of "Noblesse oblige" comes to mind.  It pains me to see those failings, because at our best, we are what we think we are - at our best.  At our worst, well ...

Our priorities, as revealed by our actions, are not where we think they are in our self-deluded state, bombarded with meaningless slogans and empty rhetoric from all sides.  Those priorities are a necessarily accurate mirror of who we really are, and many of us find the image in that mirror to be profoundly discomforting.