The Course of Reason

Priorities: Ideals and People

May 24, 2013

Hands in sandAs most of you probably know, the atheist and secular movements are having some…hiccups lately. There has been arguing and arguing about the status of women and minorities in the movement, about priorities, about harassment. Most recently, there was a lot of upset flung back and forth at the Women in Secularism conference. I see a lot of arguing about the details of who said what and this issue vs. that issue, but I think that at its root some of the differences is something a lot deeper. I think that in order to get at our differences we need to have a theoretical heart-to-heart about where our priorities lie. I’d like to propose that the divide is as follows: ideas vs. people.

For many of the people who don’t see feminism/race relations/etc as a top priority, they are more interested in the purity of secularism and atheism as ideas. They want to prioritize the concept of hard, scientific truth over everything else. Anything that falls outside the purview of this (sociological issues, racial and gender issues, etc.), is considered outside the scope of atheism and detracting from the main point: getting at the truth of the world around us. Generally, I see people who prioritize this pushing for legislation to get religion out of schools and out of government, trying to argue against theists, trying to educate others about woo, and generally debunking dumb stuff. All good things!

Now I don’t think that any of us are going to deny that one of the central values of the atheist and skeptical movements is truth. Obviously one of the things that brings us together is the idea that there are many wrong-headed beliefs in the world and that the world would be a better place if people did more things based on true facts rather than false ideals. 

However, I think that there are other factions of the atheist/skeptical movements that see something as more important than truth: people. Many atheists would argue that they would rather have the truth than be happy, however for those atheists and skeptics who do want to focus on things like women’s rights, race relations, and mental health, I think this stems from the belief that lies won’t make us happy. These people are willing to try and widen the scope of truth, or even look beyond questions about “truth” and simply look at the facts of the way the world are and try to figure out how to improve that world for the people in it. The end question is how we can create a better world for all people. Instead of prioritizing an a priori, theoretical value like truth, these people tend to prioritize the lived experiences of individuals around them and use the things that crop up there as a jumping off point for what we should focus on.

Obviously both of these groups feel that what they’re doing will lead to positive outcomes. But they take radically different approaches, and these different approaches can lead to a lot of hostility between the groups, because each sees the other as actively working against them: if one group is concerned with truth, and another wants to focus on human issues that may or may not be directly related to “truth”, then there is sure to be some clash. But instead of focusing on these very deep concerns of what our absolute basic priority should be, we spend a lot of time fighting about surface level issues. It’s time to engage the philosophical question of what we truly value.



About the Author: Olivia James

Olivia James's photo

Olivia James is a recent graduate from St. Olaf College who is now navigating the post-college pre-grad school waters. She was a philosophy and religion major and was a member of St. Olaf's SSA. She is also an avid swing dancer, voracious reader, and all around nutjob. 




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