Monday, June 11, 2007
Why aren't Atheists Republicans?
Richard Dawkins had an interesting article called "Atheists for Jesus" in which he argues that atheists ought to embrace Jesus' moral teachings of "super niceness" (yes, it's a really lame term) even while rejecting Jesus' theistic beliefs. However, at one point he admits that the theory of evolution itself has little room for "super niceness" as a positive evolutionary trait. He says:

The theory of natural selection itself seems calculated to foster selfishness at the expense of public good, violence, callous indifference to suffering, short term greed at the expense of long term foresight. If scientific theories could vote, evolution would surely vote Republican.
I think Dawkins is basically right about the social and moral implications of Darwinism (though I think one could probably point to at least a few evolutionary benefits of social cooperation and at least ordinary "niceness" - which Dawkins himself admits later in the article). But the odd thing for me is that most atheists I know (and atheists, I've found, are exceptionally committed to promoting Evolutionary theory) are not "Republicans". They generally (though not universally of course) tend to be very compassionate and morally progressive people. They are often "super nice".

But the question is, why? If science, and evolution in particular is such a strong commitment for atheists, then why aren't they more "Republican"? Why do they uphold moral standards that even Dawkins admits are "just plain dumb". And why does Dawkins himself advocate that people live by these "super nice" moral standards regardless of their "dumbness"? (He never actually says why in the article.)

I'm not really in a position to answer these questions; and I'm certainly not making any accusations about atheists being immoral people - like I said, most I know are very moral - but I want to know why. Why the disconnect between theory and practice? I'm glad there is one, but how do atheists explain it? Any of my atheist readers want to help me out here?

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posted by Mike Clawson at 9:34 PM | Permalink |


15 Comments:


At 6/12/2007 06:59:00 AM, Anonymous Miko

Scientific theories are inherenetly morally neutral, since the universe itself is. Just because things like evolution or gravity are true isn't a reason that we would want to base our lives on emulating them. Basically, I don't accept that the argument "things are this way" implys "things should be this way."

The fact that the universe was created without regard for morality means that it's up to individuals to be moral if we think that that's a desirable quality in the world. If my life began as a coincidental merging of two strands of DNA instead of being micromanaged by a deity interested in choosing the exact time, place, etc., of my birth, then I could just as easily have been any of the other six billion humans on this planet as have been who I am in fact. Because of this, I choose to treat them as close to myself as I am able.

Ideas don't have physical existence. There's really no such thing as democracy. The only scientific principle of government is that the strong can force the weak to do whatever they want. By agreeing to go by the will of the majority, we're uniting the people who want governance against those who don't and saying that democracy is the will of the strong. We do the same thing with morality: we unite against the universe and say that we're going to impose morality upon it since it didn't take care of the job itself.

I doubt moral Christians would express it that way, but I imagine that they have the same basis for their morality. It's pretty easy to get an interpretation out of the Bible that we're only expected to believe in God and that our acts are of no importance in salvation. Even if you're able to find passages that suggest otherwise, in the end the Bible becomes only morally ambiguous. Choosing to be moral, then, is a personal choice made in the absence of necessity because you think that the world will be better if you do.

 

At 6/12/2007 09:58:00 AM, Blogger Mike Clawson

"It's pretty easy to get an interpretation out of the Bible that we're only expected to believe in God and that our acts are of no importance in salvation."

Actually I don't think it's that easy at all, and yet somehow evangelicals have managed to do it. But that's a long and complicated story.

And anyway, the point of my post was not at all to compare atheist and Christian morality. I already know about the basis for my morality. I want to know about yours. Thanks for sharing.

 

At 6/12/2007 11:20:00 AM, Blogger jazzycat

If scientific theories could vote, evolution would surely vote Republican.

So would aborted babies, especially those that are painfully murdered in the partial birth procedure.......

 

At 6/12/2007 01:31:00 PM, Blogger C. L. Hanson

Dawkins says natural selection favors short-term selfishness over long-term planning and consideration of the interests of others? Is he high?

Just look at what that (Bushite Republican) strategy has done for the success and interests of the US for an obvious counterexample.

If that's the caliber of Dawkins' analysis, I'm glad I haven't bothered to read his book.

 

At 6/12/2007 02:49:00 PM, Anonymous miller

I think that not many atheists are republican because of all the anti-secular positions held by Republicans. Also, most atheists are socially liberal (supporting gay rights, pro-choice, etc.). Another reason would be that many atheists are scientists and academics, who are already biased towards the left for other reasons.

Another possibility is that conservative atheists tend to hang out in different places, or use different labels. I think that the reason that polls have such wide-ranging results when it comes to numbers of non-theists is because there are so many labels and definitions flying around. If you only limit yourself to people who self-identify as atheists, you will have a severe underestimate of the diversity of non-theists.

Hey, this is completely off topic, but since I'm on your blog... You know how I said something about common ground between skepticism and postmodernism? I just found a great example of why scientists seem to dislike postmodernism. Are they even using the same definition as you?

http://scienceblogs.com/interactions/2007/06/in_which_i_bag_on_postmodernis_1.php

-miller

 

At 6/12/2007 03:36:00 PM, Blogger Robin

Actually I am a registered Republican and atheist. Albeit a far left republican.

Then again, I was also a level 6 sinner, if you recall.

At this point in time neither are anything to brag about!

 

At 6/12/2007 05:38:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

I hope you guys do realize that "Republican" is just a metaphor (Dawkins metaphor, not mine) for an ethic that promotes "selfishness at the expense of public good, violence, callous indifference to suffering, short term greed at the expense of long term foresight." As such I'm not really interested so much in how you vote as why you don't hold to that kind of ethic, even though, according to Dawkins at least, this is the ethic promoted by evolution.

 

At 6/12/2007 09:11:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

Mike C: I hope you guys do realize that "Republican" is just a metaphor (Dawkins metaphor, not mine) for an ethic that promotes "selfishness at the expense of public good, violence, callous indifference to suffering, short term greed at the expense of long term foresight."

Reminds me of:

"The modern conservative is engaged in one of man's oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness."

- John Kenneth Galbraith

Just promise you'll keep using the word that way: if the word means that often enough in "print," we can get the OED to add it as an 'official' definition. ;-)

Miller: Also, most atheists are socially liberal (supporting gay rights, pro-choice, etc.).

Ah, but the real question is why we are. I suppose the fact that these are default positions may have something to do with it (since there's no good reason not to allow them), but it seems like there must be more to it than that. But since I can only speak for myself, I have no idea what that reason is.

 

At 6/13/2007 12:44:00 AM, Blogger C. L. Hanson

A couple more points:

Even if short-sighted selfishness were an adaptive strategy (which it isn't always), that's not a reason for atheists to gravitate towards it more than anyone else. The same selection forces that shape an atheist's sense of ethics (and general life strategies) work on the entire species in the same way. Not believing in natural selection doesn't make you exempt from it. ;^)

Secondly, the current Republican trend is largely based on a desire for social conformity and keeping wealth and power in the hands of the wealthy and powerful. Authoritarianism is the opposite of a typical atheist's worldview (eg. "I'm going to trust my own senses and my own brain over any claims anyone makes."). The times when atheists favor a philosophy of short-sighted selfishness, all of the examples I've seen have been a type of Ayn Rand libertarianism, not Bushite "follow the leader, right or wrong."

 

At 6/13/2007 11:49:00 AM, Blogger Robin

Mike said:

for an ethic that promotes "selfishness at the expense of public good, violence, callous indifference to suffering, short term greed at the expense of long term foresight." As such I'm not really interested so much in how you vote as why you don't hold to that kind of ethic, even though, according to Dawkins at least, this is the ethic promoted by evolution.

Robin says:

Because its not all about *me*.

I was brought up in an atmosphere that I was important but not that important that other people don't matter. Violence is not justification for anything. To have compassion for other peoples plights in life. That it is more satisfying to work for something than to have it handed to you. In other words it would be respect, responsibility, accountability and throw in compassion.

I do, however, think that Dawkins is correct in his assumption. If we take a serious look around we can see that society has become much of what he describes. For me to explain why I think this has happened, I would have to write a book.

In short I would have to say that the books of discipline, self control and respect were thrown out over the generations. And we can thank the psycholigists of the '70's' for starting that trend. Add in the drug world where the impoverished were given a way to make more money selling drugs than working a minimum wage job, which enhanced the idea of a quick and easy buck. Now it has evolved into a sue happy nation. In some respects, too much available media. It used to be the most you knew about was your community. With cable and satellite, you see the world. All things (except drugs) have value if tempered in small doses mixed with reason and rational. Unfortunately people have that tendancy to take things to the extreme. Over time we have developed into very selfish people. Most children are left alone to fend for themselves. They get their values most times through the television. I would explain my thoughts further but as I said it would take up too much room. This is the short version and of course just my opinion.

 

At 6/13/2007 12:10:00 PM, Blogger Robin

I have to add one other thought to this "super niceness". Some of the christians I know play this role of martyr or doormat. It appears to me that they think they must be this way and even if its to the extent of their own true happiness or contentment because Jesus suffered on the cross for them, so this now is their suffering for God. That turn your other cheek idea. They continue to turn the other cheek time and time again until they become that doormat. And I think that is what Dawkins means by "stupidity." In the end they lose respectability of themselves and others.

I think that most people know that there are times you do have to give up something for the sake of someone else. Or even for your own sake.

But a line has to be drawn eventually.

 

At 6/13/2007 12:40:00 PM, Anonymous Miko

Even if short-sighted selfishness were an adaptive strategy (which it isn't always), that's not a reason for atheists to gravitate towards it more than anyone else. ... Not believing in natural selection doesn't make you exempt from it. ;^)

That's a good point: The Origin of Species isn't a holy book, so there's no reason to value its truth above any other true statements or to mine it for moral guidance. Honestly, the only reason I care about evolution at all is because I can't fathom why people would fight against it. If evolution were accepted, it'd fade into background knowledge like the theory of gravity is. Ironically, the only reason that evolution is such a big deal (to non-biologists) is that people are trying to fight it. :-)

 

At 6/13/2007 12:57:00 PM, Anonymous miller

What?! Republican as a metaphor for "selfishness at the expense of public good, violence, callous indifference to suffering, short term greed at the expense of long term foresight."? I was going to criticize you for using such an insensitive "metaphor," but since you're crediting it to Dawkins, I guess he deserves the blame.

It reminds me of how Dawkins often says that he only sounds offensive because people are not accustomed to seeing the same sort of debate in religion as they see in politics. The problem with this is that the political debate is not exactly ideal itself.

 

At 6/13/2007 04:21:00 PM, Blogger Mike Clawson

Re: Robin's comment about superniceness and being a doormat - I have seen what you mean about some Christians who let themselves be walked all over or tolerate abuse because they think it's "turning the other cheek". However, I don't think that's what Jesus really meant when he called us to be peacemakers. True peacemaking is not a passive thing, it's an active thing - it's actively resisting violence & oppression but without using more of the same. Truthfully (and I've studied this passage in some depth), when Jesus told people to turn the other cheek, walk the second mile, or give people the shirt off your back, he wasn't just telling them to let themselves be taken advantage of - in the historical/cultural context those suggestions would have been highly subversive ways for the Jews to resist their Roman oppressors and restore dignity to themselves without resorting to violence. In other words, Jesus is more about overcoming evil with good than just letting evil walk all over you.

That's why I think Dawkins term "superniceness" is rather lame. Jesus wasn't just about being "supernice". He was about radical, subversive, world changing love. And love is way harder and more active than simply being "nice" - even "supernice".

 

At 6/15/2007 09:56:00 AM, Blogger Paul

Greetings fellow "Pensees" blogger! This is my first comment here.

Regarding your post, this question is actually one I attempted to explore in a rather provocative way in my most recent blog post. The ensuing comments and dialog have been exceptionally rich (well, after the initial offense was smoothed over).

 

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