Being Clear About Our Objectives

March 14, 2012

Moving Secularism Forward, the joint conference of CFI and the Council for Secular Humanism, took place in Orlando a little over a week ago. The presentations at the conferences have generated a fair amount of commentary (for examples, see here and here). This is a good thing. One of the purposes of our conferences is to get people to think, to debate, and, in some cases, to look at issues from a different perspective.

Without exaggerating or boasting, I can honestly state that MSF was rich in substance. Almost any of the presentations could provide the basis for an extended discussion, let alone a blog post, but I’m going to comment briefly on observations made by PZ Myers and Vic Stenger during the closing panel discussion regarding the objectives of secular humanism.

Both Stenger and Myers made various recommendations about objectives on which secularists should concentrate, but they both agreed on one point: they both asserted we should aim to eliminate or eradicate religious belief. The audience broke into applause both times these observations were made—perhaps not surprisingly, since this was not exactly a religion-friendly crowd.

I’m not keen on religion either, and, all other things being equal, it’s better for people to have true beliefs rather than false beliefs. There are no gods, spirits, or other supernatural entities, so one is mistaken if one believes in the reality of such beings, and at least arguably one is not making good use of one’s time if one engages in ceremonies demonstrating commitment to such beings.

Moreover, in many cases the false beliefs of religion have serious harmful effects. The harm they cause is most evident in the policies and practices some of the religious seek to impose on those who don’t share their mistaken views. Examples abound, but one thinks immediately of such things as attempts to ban abortion and stem-cell research, opposition to same-sex marriage, suppression of women, and punishment of blasphemers and apostates.

But not all religious individuals seek to impose their religious doctrines on others. Moreover, some religious don’t see their beliefs as implying any particular code of conduct, other than some nebulous injunction to respect or love others—a notion with which secularists can hardly quarrel. And, of course, many people are just nominally religious. They may accept some vague notion of a deity and attend the occasional religious service, but religion has no significant influence on their lives.

As I have argued at greater length elsewhere, our primary objective as secularists should be to bring about a secular society, that is, one in which public policy is free of religious influence and discussions and decisions about public policy are based entirely on secular considerations. This is an achievable goal, at least in the developed world. Furthermore, it’s a goal that does not require us to convert all or even most of the religious. We only have to ensure that a critical mass of people support the concept of a secular society, whether they are religious or not.

If religion were truly a private matter—well, then, it would be a private matter. I don’t think we should be that concerned about people having beliefs or engaging in practices that are not rationally grounded, if in fact those beliefs or practices do not result in conduct harmful to others.

People have false beliefs about many things; people have commitments that cannot be rationally justified; people spend their time in activities that to others may seem a waste of time. In most cases, this is not a cause for concern.

This brings me to spectator sports, in particular baseball. After the conference, I took a two-day mini vacation, taking advantage of being in Florida to catch a couple of spring training games of the team I follow, the Philadelphia Phillies. But while watching the games I thought about the observations made by Myers and Stenger. (Yes, even while on vacation, I’m working for you.) This is what occurred to me: For most fans of a particular professional sports team, there is no good reason for them to root for that particular team. The notion that a professional sports team somehow “represents” the inhabitants of particular city is just nonsense. It always was so, but the absurdity of this notion is even more apparent in an era of free agency, when players jump from team-to-team in search of the biggest paycheck. Unless one obtains some economic benefit from a team (for example, you may make money selling hot dogs), there is no good reason to support a particular team. A win by your team is not somehow a vicarious victory for you. (And full disclosure: I do not have any special connection to the city of Philadelphia, so in my case, my support for the Phillies can’t even make use of the “home town” pretense.)

But many people do support particular teams in the absence of any good reason to do so, and their dedication to the team is no less real despite the absence for any rational justification. Trust me, I’m a fan; I know.

So does this non-rational devotion, which is usually accompanied by a number of false beliefs and unwarranted hopes (“This year we will win the pennant!”), make any difference to those who are not fans? Does being a sports fan result in any harmful conduct? Generally, no. There are fans who become fanatics, so we hear the occasional story about deadly soccer riots, but for the most part the fact that someone is a sports fan has little to no impact on others. Presumably, this is one reason there’s no concerted effort to eradicate or eliminate the rationally unwarranted devotion that possesses sports fans.

Now I’m not going to try to force the analogy between religion and ardent support for sports teams. People do get wrapped up in following their team, but being a fan is—typically—much less influential in shaping one’s outlook and behavior than being a believer in a particular religion, and fans may entertain fantasies, but their commitment to such fantasies isn’t really comparable to belief in supernatural entities. In short, there are far more differences between being a religious believer and being a sports fan than there are similarities. However, they do share at least this one connection. There’s no rational justification for either stance. And if this lack of a rational justification by itself does not supply a reason for persuading people to stop being fans, similarly it may not supply a reason for persuading the religious to abandon their commitment to the supernatural.

As should be clear, I’m not advocating an “accommodationist” position. I’m not suggesting we should tone down our criticisms of religious beliefs. Integrity demands we be candid in our criticism of religion whenever the occasion for such criticism arises. Instead, I’m merely suggesting that we be clear about our goals. To paraphrase Jefferson, it doesn’t pick my pocket if a person believes in one god or twenty gods, so beliefs by themselves shouldn’t concern us. Religious beliefs should concern us only to the extent that they cause harm, in particular, the extent to which they prevent achievement of a secular society. What efforts we expend on disabusing people of their religious beliefs is a pragmatic question, to be answered by determining what is necessary to obtain a secular society—for that should be our primary objective.




#1 dougsmith on Thursday March 15, 2012 at 4:15am

Excellent post, Ron. The problem is really more the conservative attempt to infuse religion into politics; it isn’t so much religion per se. After all, strange, supernaturalist or unfounded beliefs abound in society, and religion has no monopoly. Is it really worse for someone to have a vague belief that Jesus died for them rather than a firm belief that global warming is a hoax, that crystal healing is more effective than standard medical treatment or that 9/11 was a US conspiracy? It’s not at all clear.

#2 Ronald A. Lindsay on Thursday March 15, 2012 at 10:33am

Good points, Doug.

By the way, someone has alerted me to the fact that much of Vic Stenger’s talk at MSF has been posted on HuffPo.

#3 Ophelia Benson on Saturday March 17, 2012 at 4:52pm

I understood both to mean “eradicate” (not that I remember if they actually used that word) to mean gradually diminish via education and argument and the like. Do you really object to that (or have reservations about it)? Aren’t there good democratic civic reasons for wanting more and more fellow-citizens to be free of baseless beliefs?

Also, I think shrinking religious beliefs (perhaps eventually to the vanishing point) is good risk management. Today’s harmless woolly belief can become tomorrow’s theocratic agenda.

#4 Ophelia Benson on Saturday March 17, 2012 at 4:56pm


I could probably agree with you about smaller, more fanciful beliefs - fairies in the garden type of thing. That would be closer to the baseball loyalty analogy, I think. But belief in a single omni god is inherently dangerous, for the reasons I tried to point out in my contribution to that panel - it’s a Big Boss and it’s one that can’t be bargained with or appealed to in any way. I think that’s too unsafe to leave alone.

#5 Ronald A. Lindsay on Saturday March 17, 2012 at 6:50pm

CFI is an educational nonprofit and many of our programs here at CFI are designed to promote critical thinking, so, no, as a general matter, I certainly don’t object to disabusing people of their false beliefs. And as my post makes clear, I also agree that for many people their false religious beliefs result in seriously harmful conduct, in particular, these beliefs motivate them to impose their religious doctrines on others. That is something we must stop. That is, we must aim for and achieve a secular society.

But it’s not clear to me we must have the elimination of religion as an objective. (If so, we have our work cut out.) It’s not that I’d shed a tear for the evaporation of religion; it’s that I don’t think it’s necessary to eliminate religion to obtain a secular society. According to Zuckerman and others, Denmark and Sweden are effectively secular societies. Yet, although many in these countries reject belief in gods, substantial numbers of their inhabitants still identify themselves as religious. Some do this because of cultural or emotional motivations; some do this because they have vague spiritual beliefs; some maintain some semblance of traditional beliefs, but are firmly committed to the view that these beliefs are private matters. None of these individuals poses a significant threat to a secular society. Of course, there are also still some in these countries who would like to see their religious views govern the lives of others, but they are a small minority.

Obviously, the religious composition of the United States (let alone other countries, such as Pakistan) is not similar to that found in Scandinavia, and we arguably will not be able to achieve a secular society until it is, and one way to reduce the level of fundamentalism is to keep up our critique of religion. So changing minds through criticism of religion is important as a tactic (and also important as a matter of intellectual integrity), but that doesn’t make it our ultimate objective.

Compare it to the presidential contest. Obama’s objective is to be elected president. Period. It’s not to score points against Romney or whoever the GOP candidate is. Of course, making the people see Romney as a dangerous social conservative or a hypocrite (or both) may help Obama achieve his objective, but that’s not his goal.

#6 Ophelia Benson on Sunday March 18, 2012 at 9:28am

But it wasn’t religion tout court, it was religious belief.

“...they both agreed on one point: they both asserted we should aim to eliminate or eradicate religious belief.”

There’s already a good deal (nobody knows exactly how much, as Dennett pointed out in his talk) more religion than religious belief - a good deal of religious gathering and “community” and so on without actual belief. It seems to me it’s not a batty goal to erode religious belief first and let the replacement of social-religion catch up at its own pace. (With the stipulation that more coercive social-religion is a more urgent matter.)

I do think erosion of religious belief can be a reasonable ultimate objective, provided of course that it’s done via argument rather than coercion. It’s already shrinking in some places (while, alas, growing in others) and I doubt that you view that with unease. We want it to shrink more. That implies eventual shrinkage to nothing. That’s not so unreasonable, is it?

#7 Ophelia Benson on Sunday March 18, 2012 at 9:32am

I’ll just add that I energetically agree that we don’t have to wait for a secular society until religious belief has eroded to nothing. We can have it right now! US Conference of Catholic bishops please note. Ditto Supreme Court.

#8 James Croft on Sunday March 18, 2012 at 11:05pm

I rather think Ophelia is right on this one, to the extent to which there is any disagreement at all. There are clearly benefits,  both to individuals and to society as a whole, to promoting truly reasonable thinking, and ultimately that clashes with religious belief. Of course Ron is right when he says it will be far easier to secure true secularism than to prepare everyone to think reasonable (and therefore relinquish their faith), but that doesn’t mean the further objective is not ultimately desirable.

#9 Ronald A. Lindsay on Monday March 19, 2012 at 6:06am

Sure, James, as a general matter, rational thinking is a good thing and should be promoted, and undoubtedly many believers adhere to their views because of poor reasoning as well as ignorance. Moreover, in the actual situation in which we find ourselves, at least in the US, there may be only a difference in emphasis between my position and the position advanced by you and Ophelia. We’re probably not going to achieve a secular society in the US unless substantially more people become nonreligious.

That said, we should entertain a hypothetical to determine whether there may be a clearer contrast between my view and the position backed by you and Ophelia. Let’s say that in 2050 in the US we have a secular society, with a thoroughgoing secularism firmly supported by 90% of the population. In terms of the actual religious composition, about 60% of the population rejects belief in any spiritual entities, 20% are deists, and 18% call themselves theists, but evidence indicates that for most of these theists their continuing commitment to theism is based on emotional fulfillment as opposed to any sort of reasoning, good or bad. Then you have a few scattered fundies, who long for a return to “the good ol’ days,” but take no action harmful to others. Under these circumstances, would we have the elimination of religion (in the US) as an objective? If so, why? Because there remain people mistaken in their views? Well, people are mistaken about a lot of things. Because there are people who have non-rational commitments? As my baseball example illustrates, harmless non-rational commitments abound.

It seems to me that the principal reason to be concerned about religious institutions and religious beliefs is the harm they cause. Were the influence of religious institutions and religious beliefs reduced to the point where they had negligible impact on conduct, apart from inducing people to engage in certain ceremonies others find pointless and to make statements others find meaningless or irrelevant, then to say we should have the elimination of religion as a goal is equivalent to saying we should have the elimination of the British monarchy as a goal.

Of course, that’s not our actual situation. Religious institutions and religious beliefs remain stubbornly pernicious in their influence and we must work vigorously to change that situation. But it’s the harms caused by the pernicious influence of religion and religious belief that represent our enemy, and our primary objective should be to eliminate that influence and those harms.

#10 Ophelia Benson on Monday March 19, 2012 at 9:02am

Ron - People are mistaken about a lot of things, as you say, but then, much of social activity is dedicated to fixing that. Education, journalism (when it’s working properly as opposed to mistaking itself for a branch of entertainment), scholarship, research, forensics, and on and on. It really is a social value - widely agreed - that it’s better to purvey the truth to people than it is to purvey mistakes. Given your job, you’re a good deal more familiar with this fact than I am!

Granted, if religious beliefs had retreated and diminished a good deal, as in your scenario, it would probably be less urgent to erode them further, but doing so would still be a branch of education (broadly defined) like any other.

#11 Ronald A. Lindsay on Monday March 19, 2012 at 7:01pm

Ophelia, no question that education is a worthwhile activity, and one presumably that will never come to an end. Also, I completely agree that “it’s better to purvey the truth to people than it is to purvey mistakes.” However, if and when religion is defanged (and I acknowledge this is an outcome that is neither easy to achieve nor inevitable), the errors that result in religious belief may not require any special attention beyond what we give to other errors in reasoning.

#12 Bob Stevenson (Guest) on Tuesday March 20, 2012 at 5:57am

AMEN !!! to your article.

#13 Ophelia Benson on Tuesday March 20, 2012 at 9:35am

Ron: agreed! [Gets misty-eyed at the thought of such a happy arrangement.]

#14 James Croft on Tuesday March 20, 2012 at 1:16pm

I think everyone agrees! Hurrah! What I’d be interested in now, Ron, is hearing your talk from the conference. I was intrigued to read what others took to be your priorities for Secular Humanism…

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