Surely New Scientist’s terrible choice in creating the “Darwin Was Wrong” cover happened not so long ago that the skeptical community has forgotten the sturm und drang that rightly came after it. And yet, here we are.
To explain: the science rag’s cover was designed to tease an article wherein the phylogenetic “tree” shape is explained to be less accurate than the more web-like structure with speciation and cross-pollination that we now understand to be the case today. So, Darwin was wrong, yes — but he was not wrong about evolution. And yet to this day, you will find creationists who use that misleading cover to suggest that evolution did not happen, therefore God. Despite being technically correct, the messaging was so poor as to cause splash damage, and atheists and skeptics were pretty mad despite the right-on-a-technicality nature of the problem.
So it’s honestly surprising to me that so many people are so bent out of shape over David Silverman’s poor messaging very recently at CPAC — no, not the people who are upset that what he said caused splash damage to women and was worth criticizing. I mean, the people who are bent out of shape over the CRITICISMS of such.
Silverman recently attended CPAC, after attempting to reserve and being denied a table, as an outreach effort for American Atheists.
Looking around the web, you’ll find any number of people who are making terrible arguments — assuming that Silverman is personally anti-choice because of his words at CPAC, for instance. You’ll also find any number of people who are misconstruing the arguments and criticisms against him as a “witch-hunt”, as well.* So there’s a lot of wrong to go around here. But not all of it is made equal.
Silverman’s actual words, to put this in the proper context, were:
“I came with the message that Christianity and conservatism are not inextricably linked,” he told me, “and that social conservatives are holding down the real conservatives — social conservatism isn’t real conservatism, it’s actually big government, it’s theocracy. I’m talking about gay rights, right to die, abortion rights –”
Hold on, I said, I think the Right to Life guys who have a booth here, and have had every year since CPAC started, would disagree that they’re not real conservatives.
“I will admit there is a secular argument against abortion,” said Silverman. “You can’t deny that it’s there, and it’s maybe not as clean cut as school prayer, right to die, and gay marriage.”
People are upset about this, and I strongly feel, rightly so. I’m pretty upset about it too. Not that Silverman is explicitly anti-choice, because he’s later apparently multiple times clarified that he’s not personally convinced by those arguments. I’m mostly upset that he raised the issue of secular arguments for conservative social causes, thus painting himself into a corner where he could be trapped into having to weasel out of a specific counterpoint that easily undermined what he was saying. I’m further upset that by hedging on this issue, he gives cover to people who think he means there’s a valid, cogent argument against the right of a mother to choose whether to be pregnant.
He did not say that there was a valid, cogent argument against abortion. Only that there’s a secular one. I’m willing to wager that the reason he elided that the secular argument against abortion is bad, thanks to being emotive and contrafactual, is because he was right there, at CPAC, and could not be seen taking a strong stand against something that “values voters” would consider polarizing. And since the only such argument that I’ve seen generally goes “science says life begins at conception because science”, “because nerves”, “because heartbeat”, et cetera, without much backing, it’s a pretty shaky argument to begin with, and thus given far more credibility than it deserves here. (I’d like to see someone steel-man that sometime, actually. I bet it could make a compelling and eminently linkable post.)
I will admit that it is entirely possible that he DID say he’s not convinced by those arguments because they’re awful, but then asked the reporter not to print it — though this requires assumptions not in evidence. I will also admit that he may have elided that fact because he IS convinced, but that would require him being a liar later. There are lots of things one can assume about this situation to mitigate or damn him. But my criticisms are entirely predicated on the face value of what he said, without reading anything extra into it.
First, he shouldn’t have taken that particular tack to begin with. I know, it’s a very convenient argument to suggest that most right-wing values are religiously-motivated or predicated on entirely religious values. It’s actually very true that most of the things that right-wingers claim as their “side” of social issues, they believe to come directly from their religion. However, we also know that most of these values don’t actually come from the Bible.
Frankly, even if they had biblical provenance it wouldn’t give them any extra value — but first they have to be in the Bible to begin with, and with questions like gay marriage and abortion, they don’t even rate a word! Not a parable, nor law, nor proscription, nor assigned tariff for having done. In fact, even the Old Testament has a mitzvot against putting to death your children — and yet other laws explicitly demand putting to death your children. (With 613 commandments, the Old Testament really did have the ability to argue every side of a case.)
Beyond it being incorrect on its face, it’s also incorrect on another level. There are, in fact, secular (meaning, non-religious, worldly, no-deities-involved) arguments for and against everything.
Yeah, that’s right. There’s even a secular argument for prayer in schools. But first you have to have a secular prayer, to eliminate the religion from the context of the consequence as well as the argument. When you do that, you’re left with, essentially, arguments for the American Pledge of Allegiance, which is still said in most states. It’s a vocal exhortation to an entity that is not a deity, said mostly to remind yourself and others around you that you are affiliated with that entity. Only in this case, it’s a country, not a god.
Or, say, any argument against marriage as a whole could very easily be made against gay marriage specifically, without invoking any gods. You could make an argument that gay folks have other contracts available to them to delineate all the marriage rights and that the word “marriage” has special meaning to religious folks, so you should let those babies have their pacifiers and just use another word. These aren’t GOOD arguments, but they’re certainly GODLESS.
And it’s not like I’ve never heard these arguments before, in the wild! So, you can make an argument for or against anything without invoking a deity. Thus, when the reporter pinned him down on the fact that there’s some argument against abortion that doesn’t involve religion, he was right, and Silverman was forced to acquiesce. By giving special privilege to the arguments against abortion, letting them slide as “existing” when directly questioned on that point, Silverman did splash damage to women, because women are disproportionately affected negatively by arguments against choice.
At this point, he could have mitigated that splash damage from his already derailed messaging, by saying, “oh, yes, those arguments do exist, though I don’t find them particularly convincing.” However, he did not, because as I’ve suggested, he likely felt he COULD not. He was there, after all, to attempt to peel atheist conservatives away from the unending religious circle-jerk that is the right-wing political sphere. And some of those conservatives might actually believe in pro-life as a plank value, despite not believing in the Christian religions that have chosen in recent memory to side against abortion. But those people might also be anti-gay, despite not believing in the religions that tell them it’s a sin — not because they’re religious, but because the culture they were brought up in said so. And that culture, I’ll remind you, is expressly conservative.
So because he was there to cozen to conservatives, to attempt to win them over despite fundamental disagreements, it’s no wonder many women generally see this framing of the topic as dishonourable and as them being thrown under the bus. If Silverman had the courage of his pro-choice convictions and was still caught witlessly in the same trap, he would have, then and there, saved us all a lot of grief by simply stating that these arguments — while extant — are not good.
If you claim an argument exists, this is the equivalent of “some people say”. It is implied to have more weight than it might actually have. Claiming an argument exists is insufficient to determine whether or not an argument is good — and if someone tries to use “an argument exists” and you don’t challenge the validity of the argument, you’ve allowed people to presume that the argument is valid enough for general use. It’s well possible, even, to have a wholly valid argument in the sense of it logically following from all premises, that still turns out to fail because these premises depend on a fact that turns out to be false.
Every time from now on that you hear a conservative say “even Dave Silverman admits that an argument against abortion exists!”, we’re all on the hook to refute what they say now — just like we still are to this day with that “Darwin Was Wrong” cover. All because Silverman was given an opportunity to craft his message in such a way that he didn’t inadvertently throw women — who are affected primarily by that argument — under the bus, and he failed to do so out of what might easily be interpreted as cowardice or misprioritizing.
He may not have intended it to be this way, and he may (and probably does) regret what he said and how. But without acknowledging his error, admitting that the way he phrased it was a mistake and that he should have cut down the argument there despite the potential fall-out to his efforts to woo away the conservatives present at CPAC, he’s continuing to do damage. And with all the skeptics banding together to attack people criticizing him for what he actually said by strawmanning those criticisms, the damage is being redoubled, because now there’s a sense that anyone daring to criticize the man over his efforts are obviously feminazis who are drama-blogging.
There were at least two opportunities for him not to screw up the conversation with that reporter: first, by not suggesting that no secular arguments exist for conservative values, and second, by not tossing aside the abortion argument when it became inconvenient to him without at least challenging the actual argument. There is at least one easy way he can save a lot of face here, likewise, and curtail the damage that continues to be done to women by these anti-abortion arguments foisted by the conservatives he was cozening to earlier: challenge them NOW. Do so in a loud enough and splashy enough and evidence-based way such that you’ve set the record straight with all those people who maybe came away from the article thinking they now have an “in” with the atheist community that already has a problem with women, so that you make inextricable the atheist movement with abortion rights.
After all, the religious arguments against abortion are all based on the idea of a soul, and even if you remove the belief in religions and souls, the rest of the arguments that remain against abortion are simply justifications, artificially created scaffolding to attempt to retain arguments that were previously held aloft on the skyhook that is God. So burn that scaffolding down. It’s made of cardboard tubes and bailing twine anyway — should be easy enough for anyone with the courage of their convictions, right?
This criticism is easily enough rectified by Silverman simply making an appropriate effort right now. But it’s amazing how little of this actual criticism is reaching him, or the skeptics and atheists rallying to his defense.
* Pro-tip: don’t refer to women being upset about something a man said which directly hurts them as a “witch-hunt”. You probably also shouldn’t call black people being upset about a white person’s actions a “lynching”, or a Jew criticizing someone a “nazi”, for much the same reasons.