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.