Posted By Maia Caron on January 14, 2010
I’m hosting an interview series with prominent atheist and skeptic authors called Conversations with Freethinking Authors.
Today, I’m talking to Udo Schuklenk, co-editor with Russell Blackford of 50 Voices of Disbelief, Why We Are Atheists. Udo is also author of The Power of Pills: Social, Ethical and Legal Issues in Drug Development and The Bioethics Reader.
MAIA: Welcome Udo, and I appreciate you taking the time to talk about your and Russell Blackford’s book. I very much enjoyed reading these essays. Not only was it an opportunity to hear favorite atheist authors air recent thoughts on their personal realizations on what it means to be an atheist, but it also introduced me to other areligious authors and their books. It’s a compelling read and a powerful argument for atheism. Thank you for compiling so many excellent essays.
In the introduction to 50 Voices of Disbelief, you and Russell Blackford write that, “Religious dogmas and organizations are legitimate targets for fearless criticism and satire” and “There must not be special treatment for religious ideas of any kind.” I couldn’t agree more. You also mention the importance of Voices of Reason being heard at this point in our history. Why now more than ever?
UDO: I think there are several good but also quite varied reasons for this. One reason is that the religious backlash against humanist thinking is becoming ever more virulent. The UN Human Rights Council has decided to encourage the organisation’s member states to introduce blasphemy laws. I have argued in THE ECONOMIST magazine, ‘freedom of speech “must include the right to ‘defame’ religions” (“The meaning of freedom”, April 4th). The UN Human Rights Council, which adopted a resolution decrying religious defamation as an affront to human dignity, is controlled mostly by countries that are among the most prolific violators of civil rights, including the right to speak one’s mind.
The blasphemy document itself is remarkable in its scope and deliberate vagueness. Notorious civil-rights violators like Iran and Saudi Arabia will now be able to claim with some confidence that the UN is on their side when they clamp down on liberal-minded or secular Muslims. Western countries will also be happy to note that the council thinks the human right to free speech is not violated when they enforce their own, less draconian, blasphemy laws. The UN has firmly established itself as a body that is not even prepared to defend the basic principles enshrined in its Universal Declaration of Human Rights.' This then is the first answer to your question: Religious institutions and the states they control move ever more viciously against freedom of speech to protect themselves from legitimate criticism. We must not allow this to stand. Religious beliefs, ultimately, can only survive if our right to question and criticize them can be efficiently curtailed. If I am right, and we are at some kind of strategic inflection point as far as the influence of organized religions in the Western world is concerned, their fight to maintain their special rights and status will become ever more vicious. Hence, it is important right now for us to speak out and not leave that to very few atheist cheer leaders.
I also happen to think that it is important to demonstrate to the wider public that atheists can think for themselves and that our views about many issues are very diverse. We don’t do ourselves any favors at all by leaving people with the impression that our capacity to think independently is reducible to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. We are not a hierarchical religious outfit after all. Our book, the 50 Voices of Disbelief demonstrates just that beautifully.
MAIA: I couldn’t agree more that atheists and anyone who cares about freedom of speech and human rights must act rather than remain silent. In your introduction, you reference contributing essayists, saying: “… some are even wary of the words atheism and atheist words that can carry unwanted connotations in many social contexts.” This is a theme also picked up in Michael Shermer’s essay in the book. He wrote, “Words matter and labels carry baggage,” going on to say that people associate atheism with “… communism, socialism, or extreme liberalism,” and that “… we can try redefining the word in a more positive direction.” There’s an ongoing debate among atheists/skeptics/agnostics/freethinkers/rationalists as to what an unbeliever should be called. Do you think the word “atheist” is a viable term? Or should a new name be coined that would more accurately represent the areligious?
UDO: That’s a very good question. I hold it with Karl Popper on labels really. It’s unimportant to me what label we use as long as it is clearly defined (and packs a punch in the public arena). To me it matters not at all what label it is, but it would be nice to have not too many competing such labels about as they only distract from the main messages and are indicative of sectarian scheming and territory marking. You might recall in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, there is this scene where our would-be liberationists sit in an arena introducing themselves to each other. They all follow pretty much closely aligned (albeit not exactly aligned) agendas and have nearly all the same name bar some small difference in labeling. They go on arguing forever about their small differences and miss the bigger picture as a result of that. I think we would be well advised to go about this more professionally by surveying which label the wider public would be most comfortable with, take that label and move on from there. A good example of how successful this is is the self-labeling of anti-choice campaigners in the context of reproductive rights. They call themselves ‘pro-life’ which clearly sounds much better than ‘we-don’t-care-about women’, or ‘we decide for pregnant women’ or ‘anti-choice’, which is what they really are. Marketing in this context clearly matters, unless we think that our agenda is entirely theoretical and inconsequential.
MAIA: I’ll have to watch Life of Brian again for that scene you descsribe. Good analogy for what goes on in the many-labelled freethinking/atheist community. In your introduction you also write, “It is high time we took charge of, and responsibility for, our own destinies without God, or God’s priestly interpreters, coming between us and our decision-making.” It’s a theme that Ophelia Benson picks up in her essay when she writes: “I refuse to consider a God ‘good’ that expects us to ignore our own best judgment and reasoning faculties.” Do you see more people taking responsibility for their own destinies? And what is the danger when they do not?
UDO: The fact that the number of people clearly affiliated with mainstream religions has been decreasing in the West for more than a decade by now indicates that more and more people have begun thinking for themselves. I suspect, ironically, this is even true for many religious people who confronted the atheist challenge, and on reflection decided to remain with their God. Reflecting on these issues is a good thing. We can only truly live our own lives if we make a considered choice as to the values (and basis of those values) that guide our lives. If we don’t, if we follow religious (or other authority) blindly, we live an other-directed life, and in that sense we don’t actually live our own lives. The ongoing public exchanges between non-religious people and people believing in some kind of higher being actually serve that purpose.
MAIA: “Other-directed life” is an excellent way of putting it. I couldn’t agree more that ”otherness” is a foundational problem, and many individuals don’t realize how thoroughly they are plugged into “they” and “we.” In 50 Voices of Disbelief, a common recurring theme among the atheist contributors (yourself included) is an early questioning of the status quo of the religion you were brought up believing. Why do you think some people believe willingly, accepting without question their entire lives, and others question early, and reject the façade of belief?
UDO: You are asking an empirical as opposed to a philosophical or ethical question. I’m not trained to address this question as a professional. I can think of only one good reason for why someone might decide (unconsciously, if there is such a thing as an unconscious decision), and that is that there is quite a lot of comfort one can take from believing in a higher being. This comfort might be mistaken if there is no such being, as we atheists happen to think, but surely one got to acknowledge that confidence in an afterlife will make it easier for many religious people to cope with miserable lives. This is especially true for miserable lives that seem to have no end. I have always thought, call it arrogant, that those who are stronger willed or stronger minded are more likely to question this comfort and its pseudo-answers than people who are psychologically weaker. Surely there is comfort in knowing that a good, all-knowing entity is watching over you. It’s delusional, no doubt, but believing this must give you a warm and fuzzy feeling, and possibly the strength to deal with life’s adversity.
MAIA: In your own contribution to the book, an essay titled Human Self-Determination, Biomedical Progress, and God, you raise what I think is a very important issue, writing, “Political correctness today seems to demand that progressive intellectuals pretend that the barbarism that pervades many Islamic countries is not happening.” Political Correctness has become pervasive. Do you think that in general, atheists should be more aggressive in criticizing Islam?and exposing harmful religious ideologies?
UDO: Oh, absolutely. As writers like Henryk Broder have rightly pointed out, what we see across the Western world is the political left and political liberals continuing their arguments with Christians, but not with the arguably much greater threat to secular multi-cultural societies, that is conservative Islam. The UN Human Rights Council has already decided to deliberately muddy the waters by claiming that Islamophobia is a form of racism. How offensive is that to anyone who has ever been attacked or otherwise discriminated against because of their ethnicity? People choose these religious ideologies, you don’t choose the color of your skin. – As an aside, if these people argue that they have not even consciously made the choice to be Muslim (or Christian, or Scientologist or Aquarian for that matter), there is even less reason to take their religious convictions seriously, because they’re not meaningfully their own. – I think the conflation of such issues is deliberate.
There is also this continuing stuff about how peace loving Islam and its adherents are, yet most acts of religiously motivated violence we have seen across the world during the last decade or two were motivated by the ideology of Islam. We have all seen time and again on TV how adherents to this ideology have burned effigies of leaders of Western countries where cartoonists ridicule their God. What makes them think that their strongly held beliefs, baseless as they clearly are, deserve special respect? What makes them think that there is some divine right of Muslims not to be offended by people who disagree with their beliefs? I am offended all the time by their views on a lot of normative issues. Do I go out and burn effigies of Islamic countries’ leaders or prominent religious figures? No. Do I bomb Iran’s airline? No. There is no special moral entitlement of Muslim or other religious folks not to be offended by someone who disagrees with the ideology they hold dear to their heart. Protecting religious ideologies from the same acerbic wit that other ideologies (communism, capitalism, liberalism etc etc) have to endure is mistaken. This is what the rough and tumble of liberal democracies is all about. It is important for us as atheists to protect these freedoms against the onslaught of religious (and other) ideologies.
MAIA: I agree with you whole-heartedly on that. In your essay, you also bring up a very important point about the special rights that health care professionals have under “conscientious objection,” that if they “strongly hold personal religious beliefs that are in conflict with what would normally be required of them as a health care professional, they can “legitimately object to providing such professional services on grounds of personal conscience.” This practice is reprehensible and as you write, “It is arguable that, if individuals abuse that privilege by discriminating against particular patients because of their personal convictions, they violate basic standards of professional conduct.” This sort of thing goes on, and yet atheism is considered the unethical force. As you say, “religious consciences are reaching arbitrary conclusions about what is right and what is wrong.” Do you see the need for atheists to organize a more united front and demand that this kind of unfair practice be controlled by government legislation?
UDO: I have written on this issue on my blog and various articles during the last few years. I do believe we should do away with the right to conscientious objection in medicine altogether. Here are my reasons for this: Usually in the context of the abortion controversy, religiously motivated health care professionals claim the moral (and often legal) right to conscientious objection to the provision of certain health care services. The basic idea is that if, say, Christian doctors and nurses object for religious (conscience) reasons to abortion they should not be forced to provide such services. On the face of it this seems uncontroversial. I think both accepting such conscience based refusals to provide health care services as well as assuming that such decisions are uncontroversial is mistaken. Let me explain why.
First things first: health care professionals such as doctors and nurses are first and foremost called upon by us as members of society as professionals and not as members of the Communist Party, the Klu Klux Clan, the local chess club, or a particular church. They provide a public service. In return for this we as society grant them a monopoly on the provision of such services (eg doctors have a monopoly on the provision of many health delivery services, including the prescription of drugs). We as society also invest substantial amounts of public funds into their training.
In many countries abortion is legal to some extent or other. In other words, societies have decided that it is ethically acceptable for women to make such choices (usually within certain well-defined limits). In societies providing public health care, women are entitled to receive abortion services through health care professionals that are publicly funded. These professionals are seen by pregnant women for the purpose of having an abortion. They are sought out as professionals and not at all as private individuals with their own private views on the morality or otherwise of abortion. I think it is preposterous to suggest that such professionals could kind of opt-out of the provision of some services because they feel strongly about such services. Religious provisions are more or less arbitrary. Some make sense, others don’t, and among religions there is little consensus on what is and isn’t ethical. To permit the delivery of health care to be controlled by what amounts essentially to a lottery is unacceptable.
Patients treated by a public sector doctor belonging to Jehova’s Witnesses wouldn’t get blood transfusions, those falling into the hands of an adherent to the Scientology Church won’t receive antidepressants, the list is endless. It’s easily imaginable that a racist doctor belonging to a suitably racist church could refuse to provide life-preserving services to patients from ethnicities other than her own. The conscientious objection to abortion crowd might not like to hear this, but there is no in-principle difference between their objection and that of the medic belonging to the Aryan Nation Church of Jesus Christ Christian. They will, of course, claim that they have ‘better’ reasons and that the competing church (ie the smallish racist outfit) is either not a ‘real’ church or that the racists are ‘wrong’ etc. The thing is, strictly speaking, none of this can be shown to be true, because, as it happens all monotheistic religions depend on untestable claims about the existence of ‘God’.
A reliable delivery of health services (and this includes equitable access) depends on guaranteeing timely access based on health need. Conscientious objections are a serious threat to precisely that. If you are a pregnant woman living in a rural area with a limited number of predominantly conservative Christian or Muslim doctors you might well not be able to execute your legal right to have an abortion at a certain point in time, if respect for conscientious objections was considered to be of greater importance than your access to services.
This argument is very powerful indeed, when you consider the dearth of health care professionals serving the public sector in developing countries. So, the sooner we get rid of the right to conscientious objection, the better for us, the public. And to be clear, if health care professionals feel strongly enough about this matter, they should be invited to leave the profession and do something else with their lives. We cannot reasonably permit a pick-and-choose type interpretation of professionalism to become the norm. As someone who has taught for many years in medical schools, I can testify to quite a number of people who have chosen dentistry over medicine, for instance, because they did not wish to ever have to face the moral conflicts that come into play in the abortion controversy or end-of-life decision-making. In all honesty, these professionals deserve our respect for what I think is a grown-up understanding of what it means to be a professional. I think a strong case can be made for atheists targeting this serious problem policy wise.
MAIA: In Michael Tooley’s essay, he writes, “Most people in the world accept the religious beliefs of their parents with relatively minor changes, and never think critically about those beliefs.” He asks an important question: “Can anything be done to enable ordinary people to step back from their religious beliefs and to consider whether those beliefs are really true?” This question is echoed by many other atheist contributors, among them: Julian Baggini: “Why do intelligent people continue to believe?” Susan Blackmore: “God and the paranormal …. inspire deeply held beliefs and have spawned highly evolved memeplexes that are very infectious and difficult to root out once they are installed in the human mind,” Dale McGowan: “How do we go on, century after century, skating on the thin ice of a system so self-evidently false and self-contradictory?” and Ophelia Benson: “A lot of people think they know things about God which seem to be contradicted by everything we see around us. It’s odd that the discrepancies don’t interfere with the knowledge.” Because the theme of questioning is prevalent in my own book, I’d like to hear what you think can be done to turn the penchant of humans to believe rather than question. Is it possible?
UDO: Another empirical question. I suspect as atheists we probably need to offer an alternative to the needs ‘God’ satisfies (well, doesn’t satisfy in reality, but psychologically – you know, the afterlife, redemption for wrong-doing, some good all powerful big guy watching over you, that kinda stuff). We need to show that a life without ‘God’ can be meaningful and satisfying. I think humanist groups presiding over non-religious weddings and funerals have made a good and quite successful start in many countries on this front. Beyond that, it’s up to each of us individually to provoke believers into explaining themselves and their beliefs. After all, as Dawkins (yes, Dawkins) said once, ‘There is more to vicars than giving tea parties, there are evil consequences.’ US evangelicals were by and large behind attempts to introduce the death penalty for certain homosexual sex acts in Uganda.
I think it might well be worth re-focusing humanist efforts, like the religious organizations have done for many many decades, on developing countries, supporting free speech and liberal causes and their supporters there more pro-actively. The fights humanists have on their hands in places like Nigeria, India and other such countries is arguably of much greater significance than the skirmishing we engage in with Christians in the developed world.
MAIA: Thanks for joining me today, Udo. I appreciate the time you’ve taken to address these topics. If you’d like to know more about Udo Schuklenk, please visit his website. And if you haven’t read 50 Voices of Disbelief, I highly recommend it. Let’s raise our disbelieving voices and be heard.