Stephen Woodford Paints Himself Into a Corner

Stephen Woodford of Rationality Rules has a new video out where he discusses “Thoughts on Atheist Cancel Culture”. I’m going to examine the relevant portions.

In a recent video, I expressed what I consider to be the three biggest mistakes made by atheists, and towards the end I revealed a potenital mistake that I had to drop upon considering counter arguments… and especially a specific reductio. The alleged mistake was “Moralising and politicising secular activism” – that is, more that less, gatekeeping atheism; or put yet another way, ostracising secularists and atheists who don’t also endorse certain moral and political positions.

Why would you drop this? When Dawkins moralizes on the goodness of government, it makes all of his arguments against theism weaker. When twats like Steve Shives spout the cult-like doctrines of so-called ‘progressivism’, they must perform mental gymnastics to do so while still proclaiming themselves skeptics in any way.

Consider veganism, a predominately ethical position that in recent years has seen in a boost in prominence among secular circles, due to such things as Sam Harris endorsing it (though not practising it), Alex O’Connor and Drew McCoy both endorsing and practising it, and, I’d argue most crucially, many countries significantly improving their vegan cuisine.

There’s nothing particularly ethical in being a vegan. Vegitarians may claim that killing animals for food is morally wrong. In the case of animals raised for food, I disagree that it is. They may correctly condemn the needless suffering of said animals. But the idea that fish or even krill cannot be morally killed and eaten seems pretty difficult to defend. The best argument for vegetarianism is a practical one: meat has an enormous environmental cost.

Now at first glance, veganism appears completely irrelevant to atheism, and certainly secularism, but on closer inspection it’s highly compatible with both.

Is it any more compatible with atheism than a traditional meat based diet?

Abrahamic theism asserts that there is god (a creator) who has … ordained [that] we are given dominion over all other animals.

Our unique position as the only conscious creatures on the planet gives us dominion. It is not by right but by ability that we are the current masters of the Earth.

Indeed, the holy books clearly permit the commodification of other creatures. We can’t kill other humans for taste, yet we can kill other animals for taste. But what occurs when the illusion of divine favouritism subsides? When we no longer consider ourselves universe’s crown jewel, how, then, can we maintain the subordination our sentient kin?

Where do you stop? Can one not eat krill (the tiny shrimp that are made into artificial crab meat by the Japanese)? What about yeast and other single celled animals? If not them, why are plants fair to eat? Personally, I have no moral problem with farmers raising meat for human consumption. Convince me that I should.

As Marc Bekoff puts is, “Although other animals may be different from us, this does not make them LESS than us”. In short, we need a new symmetry breaker – a reason, a justification, as to why we are alone are worthy of rights, respect and love.

No other animal is conscious in the way that we are, though apes seem to come close. This does make them less than us. That doesn’t mean they aren’t valuable. The assumption that rights are all or nothing is a black and white fallacy. Animals can have rights (for example, the right to freedom from cruelty) without having to have all the rights that we have. Why do animals need property rights, the right to free speech, or the right to bear arms?

If well-being is the measure of morality, then dogs really are our best friend. In the absence of divine favouritism, the mistreatment of other animals is very difficult to maintain, and so the philosophy of veganism lends itself very comfortably to secularism.

When a dead animal is eaten for food, its well being is no longer relevant. Therefore, if you want to claim that animals eaten for food lack well being, you need to show it. In the case of hunting and fishing, the animal lives its natural life until the moment it is killed. In the case of domesticated animals, as long as they are well treated, they arguably have a better life than their wild cousins, being protected from predators, sheltered from bad weather, and provided food. You could argue that many animals that are farmed are mistreated, but that is not the argument vegans are making. They are against eating meat of any kind, even meat raised humanely.

Consider for a moment that just twenty years ago Richard Dawkins was the face of atheism, secularism and humanism, with him winning the Humanist of the Year, no less. Today, however, he has fallen in the estimates of some segments as to warrant the retroactive rescinding of his reward. He is still the face of atheism, yes, but as things have changed, so too has his standing.

Seemingly because his politics (classic liberalism) were deemed too conservative by the “atheist plus” crowd. This is why you shouldn’t mix politics with atheism. When we see Dawkins, whose views are significantly more favourable to big government than our own, attacked for mocking a radical feminist for being hateful, we conclude that these people are complete idiots.

The typical 17th century Enlightenment, humanist views of Jews, for instance, is today considered utterly deplorable.

Such views are not atheist. In fact, anti-semitism was due in large part to the fact that Christians came into conflict with Jews in the first few centuries after the death of Jesus. You can hardly claim that those who based their hatred of the Jews on the fact that they had “killed God” to be atheists.

Due to Abrahamic influence, in the West we tend to think of of religious people as people who believe in god, but this isn’t technically the case. One can be religious, endorsing a supernatural world and an afterlife, etc., without necessarily believing in gods.

The term “atheist” literally means ‘believing in no god’. In it’s Zen form, Buddhism is damn close to not believing in the supernatural. On the other hand, Jung believed in the collective unconscious. Does that make him a theist?

Secularism is “the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions”, and so, strictly speaking, so long as one aims to prevent religions from enforcing dogma through governmental control, theists and atheists are equally welcome as activists.

Whoa! When did activism come into this conversation?

In reality, of course, the rate of secular endorsement among theists and atheists is weighted towards the latter, and it’s chiefly for this reason that secularism is often conflated with atheism.

America is a secular country founded by Christians and still majority Christian. Secularism has nothing to do with atheism.

[Secularism is] also largely fused with humanism – a stance that considers humans the starting point of philosophical and moral inquiry – and since humanism doesn’t presuppose divine or religious axioms, it’s easy to see why it so often goes hand in hand with secularism.

When humanists use the government to impose their political world view on the populous, they are being anti-secular. When humanists say that parents do not have the right to raise their children as they wish, and turn to the government to impose their will on the religious, forcing them to send their children to state schools which indoctrinate them into humanism.

Empirical evidence of, say, complete androgen insensitivity syndrome causes us to reconsider gender.

Is it common? The concept of gender is useful because it’s the norm, not because it’s universal. Unlike sex, adoption of gender roles exists on a spectrum. Most females want to bear children. Most males want to mate with females. These are the broad concepts of the genders, woman and man, that apply to most people. Denying this makes you seem as crazy as a flat earther.

And to confuse things even further, each countries’ humanism isn’t necessarily the same. Different countries inherit different environments and face different challenges. For instance, in the U.S. humanism, and indeed secularism, are deeply in bed with politics, since (1) the U.S. has a relatively high population of evangelicals, and (2) the U.S. only has two competitive parties, with one being significantly religious. Thus, if you want secularism or humanism in the U.S., you’ve got one choice.

Both US ‘competitive’ parties are oligarchical, militaristic, and despotic. If you are a true humanist, like Jimmy Dore, you might choose to vote Green. Humanists don’t usually condone endless war, and both major parties do.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau once remarked that “Those people who treat politics and morality separately will never understand either of them”.

Who is trying to do that?

The U.S. might be secular on paper, but god damn those evangelicals are trying their best to overturn this.

Separation of church and state is encoded in their constitution, which is defended by the Republicans and is constantly under attack by the Democrats (e.g. the second amendment). So its the more humanist (in name) party that is actually the danger, not the evangelicals.

Before making my prior video, I was very sympathetic to removing the gates imposed on secularism, since, I reasoned, if secularism is the goal, then baring allies out because they are not allies in regards to other moral positions is an act of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face. It’s counterproductive, and when practised by a community that opposes religion, it comes across as extremely hypocritical.

Yes, it does. Censorious ‘progressives’ are about as hypocritical as militaristic Christians.

Excommunication is, after all, one of religion’s favourite responses, and I couldn’t, and still can’t, knock the fact that when atheist and secularist communities essentially excommunicate people for not maintaining, or worse, questioning the current set of humanist values, the ironic tribalism renders me quite frankly embarrassed.

Kind of like the Pharisees who applied their purity tests and found Jesus lacking. Like Jesus, I say to them “let he who is without sin cast the first stone”.

Consider this reductio: If we cease gatekeeping secularism, then, when promoting secularism, I ought to be willing to positively share the stage with the likes of Stefan Molyneux. That is, I ought to be willing to sit next to him in a non-combative way (in fact, an endorsing way) as we both promote the virtues of secularism – because, strictly speaking, when it comes to secularism, we are allies.

Being on stage with someone and being non-combative does not in any way imply that you endorse all of their positions. Anyone who says otherwise is promoting guilt by association. You have discussed Molyneux’s book on atheist morality, Universally Preferable Behavior, in the past. Does this mean you agree with him on race realism? Of course not.

But here’s the thing: I wouldn’t do this. I wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing a stage with him unless I was in obvious opposition, and the reason is because I find many of his non-secular views deplorable.

We have freedom of association. If you don’t want to associate with him, you don’t have to.

There’s a somewhat common sentiment that debating someone equates to endorsing them, and people have said this of me when I debated Molyneux, and to a lesser extent Sargon, but this sentiment ignores the very obvious context. Engaging in publicised debate in order to criticise someone’s views is the opposite of endorsement – it’s explicit opposition.

Not necessarily. One can criticize without opposing. In other words, I could be completely against the idea that there is a God and still endorse freedom of religion.

Yes, there are right and wrong ways to engage with people like Molyneux – but the notion that any association is endorsement is fanatic.

True. While it’s imperfect, I recommend UPB as worth reading. I don’t agree with everything that Stefan says, but plenty of it is sensible. If, because of this, you call me names, I’ll simply delete your comments. I wouldn’t want to be in a club that didn’t let me think for myself.

Absent adequate rebuttal, the narrative that “the left just can’t handle the truth” gets validated, and thus the rotten views are left to perpetuate.

And when you become insular, your own rotten views are amplified in an echo chamber of ignorance.

Not gatekeeping secularism would mean associating with people who hold all sorts of views that I find unpalatable, to put it mildly, and thus I’m not in favour of removing the gates entirely.

What gates? Sure, you can block comments on your videos, but you can’t stop people from responding to them. You can choose to ignore the responses, but if you do, you won’t learn where your rhetoric is weak, and your walled garden will cease growing, sicken, and die.

But likewise, I’m also not in favour of raising the gates in accordance to strictly irrelevant views – since the reductio of this position is complete isolation, wherein nobody can associate with anyone else, since no two people share the same views on everything.

These cult-like social justice types don’t require that you share the same views, only that you never public espouse wrong-think.

A consistent framework that doesn’t entail unacceptable consequences… is based on subjective, personal preference – as this way one can conduct a utilitarian analysis of a potential collaboration and estimate whether it will overall serve their collective goals (which includes those that are strictly irrelevant to the specific event). But this analysis is compounded by so many factors as to make a truly objective analysis near-impossible.

I.e. you choose who you want to associate with. If you choose to shy away from criticism of dogmatically held views of the left, take care not to box yourself in to having to defending them. If you do, you will become exactly what you have criticized in the past: someone who espouses irrational beliefs.

Suppose that someone holds the goal of veganism with such priority as to not want to associate with anyone who promotes a meat-only diet. Well, if the organisers want the vegan, then just like that *click*, they’ll erect the gates as to bar out those who don’t hold this strictly irrelevant view.

And *click*, they will lose a percentage of their audience. If I were planning to attend an event at which Richard Dawkins was giving the keynote, and he was removed from the program, I’d certainly reconsider going.

I know of a lot of people outside of the atheist niche who despite holding secular and humanist values, can’t stand internet atheism – and especially U.S. internet atheism.

What the hell is “internet atheism”? Do you mean Youtubers like you who focus on atheism? Of course there are people who hold secular or humanist values who dislike such Youtubers.

I don’t see a consistent solution that doesn’t entail unwanted consequences.

Holding an opinion entails consequences, and some you won’t want. Are you going to ignore the facts because someone may kick you out of their group? If you claim to be skeptical about religion, but refuse to take a stand on progressive dogma when you believe it to be false, why should anyone care what you have to say?

About jimbelton

I'm a software developer, and a writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and I blog about movies, books, and philosophy. My interest in religious philosophy and the search for the truth inspires much of my writing.
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