Monday, July 30, 2012

all the benefits of voting for Gary Johnson without actually pulling the lever

Conor Friedersdorf offers strategic advice to voters dissatisfied with the candidates the American political duopoly has thrown up for the presidency.
But what if third-party-curious Americans who stop themselves because they're averse to "throwing away their vote" took a more strategic approach to their role as voters? If you aren't crazy about the Republican or Democrat, but think of your vote from a utilitarian perspective and are uninterested in purely symbolic gestures, here's how to impact presidential elections in two easy steps:
1) Postpone your calculated support for someone you don't like until you're standing in the election booth. Before then, support the third-party nominee you'd like to see win. If a pollster asks who you support give their name, not the major-party candidate you may wind up voting for in the end. Doing so doesn't squander your vote on someone who won't win, but could be the difference between a Libertarian or Green Party candidate being included or excluded from TV debates.
2) Think about whether or not you live in a swing state. If so, maybe it makes more sense to vote Republican or Democrat. But if you live in a state like California, where the Democrat will obviously win, or a state like Utah where the Republican is obviously going to win, your vote is going to have a lot more impact if you're part of a third-party surge that signals disaffection to others.
These two strategies make sense partly because a third-party needn't win or even swing an election to make a difference. Neither the Green nor the Libertarian parties are likely to ever win the presidency. But that needn't be the goal. If Republicans or Democrats notice a third party getting traction -- that is to say, 8 or 10 or 15 percent of the vote -- they'll start co-opting its issues.
I think this is a splendid idea, and I'm surprised I never thought of it this way. I am definitely in favor of strategic voting. Of course, I think anything that might wreak any kind of havoc on the two entrenched parties is a thing worth doing. I've said this before, but it bears repeating: even if you don't want to vote for Gary Johnson because of some goofy libertarian position he might hold (I'm not happy about his mild gold-buggery, for example), there is only upside to getting Johnson on the national debate stage if you care about the ever-expanding national security state and extrajudicial drone assassinations and warrantless wiretapping and endless undeclared foreign wars and all those other things liberals loved to complain about when it wasn't their guy perpetrating them. And if you smoke weed or know anyone who does, Johnson is your best shot at getting drug war reform some national air time.

There's no downside because you know he won't win regardless. And besides that, Johnson will not be a repeat of previous substantive third party runs because the votes he siphons off will likely not come overwhelmingly from just one candidate. This is like having your ideological protest cake and eating it too.

And just ask yourself if the USA would be a better or worse place if television ads like the following were beamed into millions of American homes in the coming months.

Monday, July 23, 2012

But for the grace of Ayn Rand ...

But for the grace of God, I might have been Christian. As a wee lad, I was raised in a non-denominational Christian household, but most forms of Christianity in Oklahoma are quite conservative by default. I was rarely made to go to church until I deconverted, after which I was forced to go every week to a conservative evangelical church, so perhaps the brainwashing wasn't thorough enough. But the following could easily have happened:

My parents were more involved in the church, such that all my social life growing up all occurred through church activities. And in junior high school I never met the non-Christian friend who teased out of me all the contradictions and absurdities of the Bible and Christian faith. In Bizarro World, I never even met a nontheist until university. But there I found a dozen student organizations centered around more theologically liberal Christianities that were accommodating enough to allow the salvation of even the hot, goth atheist chick who was goodly enough to sleep with me freshman year, as well as the other kind-hearted and interesting folks of non-Christian beliefs who crossed my path at university. Hell, I even wrote a term paper on Origen in an honors course on early Christianity. By the time I started reading a bunch of uppity non-fiction social science literature that plausibly accounted for religion in natural ways, it hardly mattered. As my real life (non-Bizarro) religious friend said, "Religion is something you do, not something you believe."

But for an accident of fate, I might have been a communist. For a while at least, during my impressionable high school and college years. Before I read Atlas Shrugged, I was beginning to settle into your common or garden variety socially tolerant liberalism, with economic ideas following the suit of social issues. Atlas Shrugged turned me into a hardcore natural rights libertarian, and in college I followed the logic of natural rights to Rothbardian anarchocapitalism, reading a lot of essays by the folks at the Mises Institute.

But I could just as easily have read the Communist Manifesto, or something more modern (Anyone know any good, halfway sane reformed Marxist literature?). In this parallel world, I spent my evenings reading essays from the World Socialist Website. I wrote controversial essays for the University's student newspaper, animatedly explaining all the issues of the day within a Marxist framework. Just so. By the time graduate school rolled around, it was just taking too much energy to jam Socialist Calculation Problem-shaped objects into Labor Theory of Value-shaped holes. After gradually shifting from to, I finally became brave enough to read Popper, causing me to finally give up the Marxist label entirely. I became a technocratic progressive with the odd taste for Marxian narratives.

Back to our reality. I can imagine both the scenarios above vividly, but it would be harder for me to imagine alternative timelines where I trod more conservative paths. Going out on a limb, I speculate this is because liberalism (or the moral sentiments supporting liberalism) is just in my bones, while the particular ways liberalism manifested in my worldview are just the die casts of fate. This speculation is backed up by UVA psychologist Jonathan Haidt's new book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. The book is about a lot of things, including how we intuit moral judgments before we reason about them, how morality evolved, and tribalism (one of my favorite bugbears). But the biggest takeaway for me was the notion that we are genetically predisposed to our political worldviews. Two identical twins separated at birth are likely to have similar politics later in life even if they were raised by politically opposite families. For a quick rundown, see Haidt's essay Born This Way? (adapted from the book) in Reason Magazine.
But then came the studies of twins. In the 1980s, when scientists began analyzing large databases that allowed them to compare identical twins (who share all of the same genes, plus, usually, their prenatal and childhood environments) to same-sex fraternal twins (who share half of their genes, plus their prenatal and childhood environments), they found that the identical twins were more similar on just about everything. What’s more, identical twins reared in separate households (because of adoption) usually turn out to be very similar, whereas unrelated children reared together (because of adoption) rarely turn out similar to each other, or to their adoptive parents; they tend to be more similar to their genetic parents. Genes contribute, somehow, to just about every aspect of our personalities.

We’re not just talking about IQ, mental illness, and basic personality traits such as shyness. We’re talking about the degree to which you like jazz, spicy foods, and abstract art; your likelihood of getting a divorce or dying in a car crash; your religiosity; and your political orientation as an adult. Whether you end up on the right or the left of the political spectrum turns out to be just as heritable as most other traits: Genetics explains between one-third and one-half of the variability among people in their political attitudes. Being raised in a liberal or conservative household accounts for much less.
This is rather troubling, and not only for those who have a tendency to think that the opposing political tribe consists of evil people intent on controlling our uteri or taking away Christmas or whatever. Politics and policy just seem like the kind of things where, if we all had wholesome, pro-social intentions and (crucially) agreed on all the facts, we could all engage in rational debate and figure out socially optimal policies. It seems like there ought to be a "right answer" to many of the problems of public life, at least in principle. We certainly like to feel that we have arrived at our beliefs by objectively assessing facts and arguments. It's humbling to realize that we're really only justifying arbitrary gut instincts when we debate the fine points of our belief systems with our fellows. While this could mean that some people are simply born to be wrong, à la Calvin, it seems to me (and Haidt) far more likely that our ideological diversity reflects different requirements for living in a successful group.

I take two lessons from all this. First, if we really are "born this way", it means that being Muslim or liberal is just a bit like being straight or autistic, which is to say it's normal and not fully volitional. Without wandering off into the wilderness of cultural relativism, I think this implies that we should treat people with other ideologies like we treat people of different nationalities or skin colors. Or at least we should make an effort to perceive partisans in this fashion more so than we do now. There is a limit to this, of course, as people do from time to time change their views of the world while it's impossible to change your skin color. And we should hold people to account for bad or dangerous ideas. But genetic prior dispositions are powerful and no one benefits when we're demonized for innate differences.

Haidt argues in the book that, in light of all this, if you really want to persuade someone of something, you have to make them feel that you are part of the same tribe, and that you have similar moral values and concerns. This leads to the second lesson. If you want to get the most bang for your persuasive buck, you should focus on the people who are most likely to give your arguments a fair shake. This is of course your own tribe. As comfortable as it is to just nod along to the sloppy arguments of your ideological fellow travelers or cheer on their uncharitable characterizations of the folks on the other side of the debate, it doesn't do anyone, including your own team, any good. If we actually want good ideas to win out over bad ones instead of just gratifying our tribal lusts, we should spend more calories than we presently do on sharpening our own ideas and blunting our own biases.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

weaselly arguments about atheists and atrocities

Update: Blogger has been screwing up my formatting in random ways lately, so if you're reading this on Google Reader, click through to the actual post, where I think the post looks okay. I may have to go to a white background ...

While I'm in the atheist-bashing mood, here's another area where I think we are often less than charitable toward our religious interlocutors. It's what I call the Argument of Atheist Atrocities (AAA), and I actually think we owe it to our selves and religionists to take a little more seriously than we normally do. AAA goes something like this:
(1) Some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century were carried out by atheists, so
(2) atheism must be inconsistent with a morality that values human life; therefore
(3) atheists cannot be trusted with political power and atheism should be minimized.
Now, as any atheist worth her salt will point out, this argument is logically flawed because it conflates correlation with causation. Atheists further make the following points, (Here are examples) where the structure I'm using loosely follows the first link.

Usually even before addressing the correlation=/=causation issue, atheists will quickly and proudly point out that Hitler wasn't actually an atheist, (because religionists applying the AAA almost always include him as an atheist.)

Next, the atheist will say that, while the mass murderers Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were atheists, they didn't slaughter anyone because of their atheism. Instead, they rigidly enforced unscientific or irrational dogmas like communism, and furthermore most or all of those regimes involved cults of personality. So really they were more like religionists, because religion is irrational, unscientific, and often dogmatic. Meanwhile religious people have often killed in the explicit name of their faiths, citing scripture while they're at it. This would seem to imply that atheism itself cannot be held accountable for just about anything, since atheism is strictly speaking only the lack of belief in any gods and makes no claims about morality or politics.

Sometimes the atheist will even say that none of the above even matters in a debate about God's existence, because even if atheism did somehow cause a deterioration of morals and lead people to commit atrocities, it would have no bearing on the question of whether God exists. While this is trivially true, it's a hell of a bullet to bite. While I may not actually be mentally capable of believing in God even if I wanted to, learning that widespread atheism led (somehow) to the ascension of murderous totalitarian regimes would certainly cause me to rethink arguing the case for atheism.

I find most defenses against the AAA, at least as they are commonly presented, arrogant and a little weaselly. So I'd like to try to capture what this line of argument sounds like to a reasonable religious person.

Yes, a reasonable Christian might say, the AAA is a fallacy as commonly constructed, but maybe it can be recast to reflect the concerns charitable religionists really have. Maybe something like this:
(1) Some of the worst atrocities in the 20th century were carried out by atheistic regimes;
(2) while this implies nothing about the moral character of individual atheists,
(3) it is consistent with concerns that religion, among other societal institutions, plays a pivotal role in maintaining social order and forging bonds within a community,
(4) This raises the question of whether societies that reject religion are, by some as-yet-not-well-understood mechanism, more likely to fall victim to violent pogroms than religious societies.
(5) This question is admittedly different from the question of God's existence, but it is still relevant to debates about the practical, utilitarian value of atheism.
At the very least, this possibility should give a responsible atheist a moment's pause. Evidence from the natural and social sciences that religion is an evolutionary adaptation suggests that eliminating religion from society in a top-down manner could have unintended consequences. And the 20th century was not the first time an atheistic regime proved murderous; elements of the French Revolution were explicitly anti-theistic.

At the end of the day, I do think the AAA falls short of convicting atheism, but it succeeds in knocking the wind out of arrogant atheism. Atheists are right that it's not the atheism per se that caused all the bloodshed of communism or the French Revolution. In each case there was a utopian vision that human nature could be radically and suddenly changed and the structure of society could be restructured according to that vision. Steven Pinker describes in the Better Angels of Our Nature how utopianism can lead to mass murder:
One [way utopian ideologies invite genocide] is that they set up a pernicious utilitarian calculus. In a utopia, everyone is happy forever, so its moral value is infinite. Most of us agree that it is ethically permissible to divert a runaway trolley that threatens to kill five people onto a side track where it would kill only one. But suppose it were a hundred million lives one could save by diverting the trolley, or a billion, or--projecting into the indefinite future--infinitely many. How many people would it be permissible to sacrifice to attain that infinite good? A few million can seem like a pretty good bargain.

There's a lesson to be learned here. Just because atheism isn't directly responsible for violence doesn't let atheists off the hook. Atheists rightly pride themselves on their rationality and the ethical advantages of being free from scripture-based morality, and they criticize religion not just for being wrong about the facts, but also on the utilitarian grounds that religious dogma often demonstrably leads to repression and suffering. But atheistic rationalism and humanism clearly offer no special protection from deadly ideology. Ice-cold rationalism can be made consistent with torture, and the French Revolution was built out of a humanistic Declaration of the Rights of Man. 

The point isn't that atheism should be avoided, but that we all need to practice a little more humility and charity. A better response to questions about atheist atrocities is to acknowledge that, yes, atheists as well as religious people can fall under the influence of dangerous ideologies. Then we can point out that widespread atheism is perfectly compatible with peace, prosperity, and humanist values, as exemplified so capably by the secular countries of northern Europe.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

I swear I'm not a self-loathing atheist

but it seems that way lately. It's just that I've concluded we all belong to our chosen groups for non-rational reasons. And we have strong cognitive biases that spur us to circle the wagons 'round our tribal fellows. Obvious right? More on all this later. But if it's next to impossible to change minds in the other camp through rational argument because of the tribal barrier, then the best way to improve public discourse is through cleaning up our own houses and fostering friendlier relations with those Other folks.

Via Hemant Mehta, here's a Christian example of what I'd love to see more of from nonbelievers. This Christian, Christian Piatt, troubleth his own house, enumerating the ways his coreligionists make asses of themselves.
We Christians have a remarkable talent for sticking our feet in our mouths. When searching the words most commonly associated with “Christian,” the list ain’t pretty. I think part of this can be attributed to a handful of phrases that, if stricken from our vocabulary, might make us a little more tolerable. Yes, these things may mean something to you, but trust me, non-Christians don’t share your love for these tried-and-true cliches.
“Everything happens for a reason.” 
    I’ve heard this said more times than I care to. I’m not sure where it came from either, but it’s definitely not in the Bible. The closest thing I can come up with is “To everything, there is a season,” but that’s not exactly the same. The fact is that faith, by definition, is not reasonable. If it could be empirically verified with facts or by using the scientific method, it wouldn’t be faith. It would be a theory. Also, consider how such a pithy phrase sounds to someone who was raped. Do you really mean to tell them there’s a reason that happened? Better to be quiet, listen and if appropriate, mourn alongside them. But don’t dismiss grief or tragedy with such a meaningless phrase.
    “If you died today, do you know where you’d spend the rest of eternity?” 
    No, I don’t, and neither do you. So stop asking such a presumptuous question as this that implies you have some insider knowledge that the rest of us don’t. And seriously, if your faith is entirely founded upon the notion of eternal fire insurance, you’re not sharing testimony; you’re peddling propaganda.
    “He/she is in a better place.” 
    This may or may not be true. Again, we have no real way of knowing. We may believe it, but to speak with such authority about something we don’t actually know is arrogant. Plus, focusing on the passing of a loved one minimizes the grief of the people they left behind.

I would love it if more atheists were a little more critical of the sloppy or uncharitable arguments of their fellows.

on extending charity in religious dialogue

If you prick Greta Christina, she bleeds, and she asks you why you would do such a thing. This is true even though Christina is atheist. The proximate source of her frustration is this rumination on grief by Anglican minister Gavin Dunbar, who takes a swipe at atheists from out of left field. If you're a nonbeliever and you clicked on the second link, you'll find plenty to get you frothing at the mouth, including blatant misunderstanding (one hopes not willful misrepresentation) of both scientific and atheistic claims.
The grieving atheist cannot provide any reason why he grieves, or why he (rightly) respects the grief of others. For to grieve the death of such a young man is implicitly to affirm the reality of the soul. Man is embodied, to be sure; but what is embodied is a soul, capable of memory, reason, and love. To grieve the loss of anyone then is to lament the departure of a unique being, whose mind and heart have touched our lives in spontaneously beautiful and inimitable ways. To grieve is to travel even beyond the lost life of a loved one to the origin and source of the love we have known, and there to register our gratitude. To grieve, therefore, is to affirm that there is a higher source of value than 'the selfish gene' - there is a God, who is absolute truth and goodness, the very possibility of knowledge and love.
It's interesting that you can see the glimmer of understanding that atheists are just folks much the same as everyone else. At least Dunbar acknowledges atheists do grieve and respect the grieving of our fellows, even if he thinks they have no reason to. This is a far cry better than refusing to acknowledge atheists have the same feelings as believers. Christina's response is almost perfect because it is so emotional and not coolly rational.
My first reaction… well, to be honest, my first reaction was pretty close to blind rage. As an atheist, I’ve been targeted before with bigotry, with hostility, even with hatred and threats of violence. But rarely have I encountered a critic of atheism who was so ready to deny even my basic humanity, who was so ready to tell me — and tell the world — that because I am an atheist, I see not only morality and virtue, but love and friendship and grief, as an illusion. I actually agree with Dunbar that grief is one of the things that makes us human… and it filled me with rage to be told that, because I don’t believe in a magical soul animating my body, because I don’t think I’m going to see my dead loved ones in an invisible forever happy place, I am somehow incapable of experiencing this essential humanity. My first reaction on reading this piece was pretty much to scream “Fuck you” at my computer screen, and be done with it.
My second reaction was a desire to carefully, painstakingly, as patiently as possible, explain to Dunbar exactly how and why atheists value life and experience grief, and to go through his piece with a fine-toothed comb taking apart every ridiculous myth and piece of misinformed ignorance. That project might take weeks, though, since this piece is so full of it. So I’ll just touch on the worst of it.
The most crucial point: Saying that life and morality and reason and virtue and emotions such as grief are physical processes – this is not the same as saying they are illusions.
When I read this I wondered if anyone actually had written a book about atheism intended for a Christian audience, not in order to deconvert the reader but to explain the way an atheist deals with the kinds of things the believer consults religion for. Most books about atheism I'm aware of are combative and spell out the case for atheism. Nothing wrong with that. But for atheists to get the kind of respect they seek in society (e.g., increasing the proportion of non-atheists who would be willing to vote for an atheist candidate for public office if she was otherwise tall, attractive, and pandered prettily), they need to convince people they are not a threat to the tribe, but that they belong to the tribe.
But after I’d thought about all this for a while, my urges to both blind rage and line-by-line demolition gave way… to a baffled irritation, focusing on one big question: 
Couldn’t he have asked us? 
Couldn’t Dunbar have gone down to his local atheist organization and asked them, “You know, I don’t get it about atheist grief — if you don’t believe in God or the soul, why do you value life and grieve over death?”
What I think Christina really wants here is greater charity of interpretation from religious people. Instead of using atheists as straw figures onto which he can hang whatever bizarre notions have inhabited his head, Dunbar should assume he doesn't understand what atheists think about grief if he can't articulate atheist beliefs in a way that sounds sensible. If he can't make sense of an atheist's grief, basic charity demands he do more research until he can either defend atheistic grief as Devil's advocate or until he has an argument (citations would be nice!) that, say, an agnostic might find plausible. Here he appears only to be taking potshots at the Other, which serves no purpose other than collective ego stroking.

This brings me to my only minor quibble with Christina's otherwise fantastic piece. She acknowledges charity is a two-way street, but she is soft on her own tribe. She writes
Now, I’m sure some believers will read all this and say, “But atheists do the same thing! They live in their atheist bubble, they imagine what believers think and feel, and they don’t ever talk to us to find out!” And sometimes, that’s true. But not usually. According to the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, atheists, on average, are better informed about religion and religious believers than believers are. In fact, atheists are generally better informed about the specifics of given religions than the believers in those very religions. We know a lot more about them than they do about us. 
It’s important to remember that most atheists were once believers. We’re familiar with religion because we’ve believed it ourselves. And it’s important to remember that, in most of the world, religious belief is the dominant culture. Atheists have to be familiar with it. It’s shoved in our face on a regular basis. Our friends believe it, our families believe it, our co-workers believe it, it’s all over the media. We can’t be ignorant of religion. We’re soaking in it.
Atheists do the same thing, full stop. Many atheists no doubt know quite a lot of technical facts about scriptures and the histories of different faiths, but in my experience vocal atheists rarely use their knowledge to try to understand or sympathize with believers. More commonly knowledge of the Bible is used to hammer believers into the shapes of religious caricature. Repeatedly quoting Biblical verses about stoning adulterers and disobedient children etc does nothing to illuminate the nuances of a religion as it is actually practiced by our contemporaries. An important exception is highlighting absurd verses when they're parallel to verses under discussion, like verses against homosexuality. But too often atheist scripture quoting is used to shut down dialogue instead of facilitating it.