I’ve been asked by various believers on occasion if I felt that the world would be a better place if religious belief could be eliminated and my knee-jerk response is usually to agree that I think it would indeed be better. What I often fail to point out, however, is that this isn’t the same as saying I think all conflicts would cease. I am reminded of this simple truth by an inter-blog flame war that appears to be heating up between two atheists blogs I read daily. It all started with a post on “God is for Suckers!” about reclaiming the word “Liberal”:
One of the things I am completely SICK OF is the bashing of the word “liberalism.” It’s been going on for 20-odd years in the U.S.A. and is completely just fucking WRONG. Liberalism is actually quite a rational and legitimate worldview, no matter your politics or religion. Liberalism practically epitomizes the idea of freedom.
If you’re an SEB regular then you already know I consider myself to be a Liberal and I have no real problem with the statement above in itself, but it appears to have set off a fellow by the name of Francois Tremblay at “Goosing the Antithesis” which I also read daily. His response in an entry titled Politics is for Suckers! actually surprised me:
With such rhetoric, is it any wonder that atheism is painted as an ally of political coercion, when they see atheists calling a strong ruling class whose goal it is to impose their value system on all of society by force “the idea of freedom”? Liberals go against centuries of civil disobedience and our constant attempt to take down the power of kings and tyrants.
Atheist liberals are especially hypocrite, since they praise the ruling class that marginalizes them, and they praise the democracy that gives the religious majority power to oppress them. To be an atheist liberal makes about as much sense as being a gay Christian.
In the name of all atheist libertarians and anarchists, who actually care about the freedom of everyone to live the way they want and the freedom from political power, permit me to politely say “go fuck yourselves”.
Again, if you are an SEB regular then you already know that I have a major Libertarian streak in my Liberalism—in fact I often refer to myself as a Liberal-Libertarian.
Needless to say I’ve been following the escalating flame war with interest. On GifS the argument has kept itself limited to the one entry whereas Tremblay seems intent on trying to fan the flames as much as possible. He’s left a few short and abrasive comments on the original GifS thread while over on “Goosing” he’s gone on to declare “open season on the Atheist Liberals,” put up a “Imagine No Liberals” graphic on the site, and has made the subject of liberal atheists the most recent Question of the Day:
Why are there so many “liberal atheists”, when liberalism encourages majority rule and therefore marginalizes atheists? Doesn’t that make as little sense as “gay Christians”?
Note that it’s simply a condensed version of his original rant. It seems to me Tremblay is doing his best to make an ass of himself, but that’s not why I’m writing about all of this. I’m writing because it reminds me of the true cause of so many of the world’s conflicts: Tribalism and the type of thinking it engenders. Back in May of 2004 I wrote a big entry on the problem of tribalism in response to the beheading of Nick Berg. The short of it is that tribalism is a part of human nature, indeed it may have been key to our early survival as a species, and it permeates a lot of how we think about ourselves and our relation to other people. Most commonly it manifests itself as the classic “Us vs. Them” line of reasoning and a lot of the time—such as with fans of rival sports teams—it’s relatively harmless. However, when it’s taken to the extreme it not only allows for open warfare, but makes the unthinkable not only possible but acceptable.
Now I’m not suggesting that the “libertarian atheists” of Goosing the Antithesis are gearing up to start beheading the “liberal atheists” of God is for Suckers (well, Tremblay himself might be gearing up). I am pointing out that, even without religion in the world, there will still be plenty of other reasons for folks to divide themselves up into different groups and throw stones—metaphorical or literal—at each other. Religion is (to borrow an analogy from Alonzo Fyfe) just another “flag” for people to rally around and assume fighting positions over and if we didn’t have the various religions to use as a focus then we’d come up with something else be it Republican vs. Democrat, Americans vs. Europe, or Liberals vs Conservatives vs Libertarians and so on ad nauseam. So while I do think the world would be better without religion in it, I don’t for a second think that it would be the end to all conflict.
Speaking of Alonzo, he chimes in on the GifS entry as well. It’s his post that reminded me of what I’d written earlier. Here’s a sample:
Though the current conflicts seem to be between different religious camps for the most part, I see no real reason to believe that if we put an end of these religious wars (by putting an end to faith), that secular camps will not spring up and conflicts between secular views will not rise to take the place of conflicts over religious views.
There are those who would blame faith for much of the conflict in the world today. I would like to suggest that the culprit in this case is not faith, but arrogance. Faith may well feed arrogance in that there is no better sign of arrogance than that of a person who believes that he serves as the one and only right-hand God and is His personal messenger on earth. However, faith is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for arrogance.
Yet, a person does not have to have faith to be arrogant. The post about reclaiming the word ‘liberal’, and many of the comments made in response to this post, support this thesis. Atheists can rally around a flag where they feed on a diet of mutual contempt for some ‘enemy’ that flies a different flag. Under different circumstances, it is not at all difficult to see these camps going to war, and for the world to witness a level of secular vs. secular violence comparable to any sectarian conflict.
Alonzo is taking the folks at GifS to task in his entry, but it’s worth noting that the flame fanning by Tremblay is quite illustrative of the point Alonzo is making. Tremblay is obviously spoiling for a fight over a difference in political viewpoint and neither side seems all that willing to discuss their point of view in a reasonable manner or with an eye to compromise. As a whole the situation is an example of how the world wouldn’t necessarily be all that much improved if everyone were an atheist.
Tribalism, as said previously, is a part of human nature and thusly isn’t going to go away anytime soon. It’s also not entirely a bad thing so even if we could eliminate it that wouldn’t mean it would be a good idea to do so. So what do we do about it?
We learn to live with it. We try to recognize when we’re letting it override our ability to reason. We do our best to try and avoid letting other people manipulate us with it. We endeavor to find ways of looking at the world as to make the “us” as inclusive as we possibly can because if there’s no “them” to fight against then there’s no reason to fight. It won’t always work, but even small successes can avoid a lot of unnecessary turmoil.