UPDATE: Important note: This post has a different comment policy than the standard one on this blog. Comment policy is at the end of this post.
SECOND UPDATE: Pigliucci has now updated his post, from saying that abortion should always be a very difficult and emotional step, to saying that “certain types of abortion (say, last trimester)” should always be a very difficult and emotional step. He has now transparently noted in the post itself that he has made this change, although he had not done so at the time the post was written. It’s still a bullshit argument — it’s incredibly patronizing to tell women how to feel about their own abortions — but it’s a somewhat different bullshit argument.
The point is: so what? What does any of the above, including abortion, fiscal conservativeness (or not), support for the military (or not), owning guns (or not), and liking or disliking Obama have to do with atheism? Nothing, absolutely nothing.
-Massimo Pigliucci, “David Silverman and the scope of atheism,” Rationally Speaking blog
Dear Massimo Pigliucci:
You seriously think abortion has nothing to do with atheism?
Actually, let’s get a couple of quick things out of the way first. Thank you so much for dismissing the issue of the basic right to bodily autonomy of half the human race as a “tempest in a teapot.” Thank you for referring to the recent controversy about it as “the meat of the matter — such as it is“ (emphasis mine). What a great way to make women in the atheist movement, and women who are considering joining the atheist movement, think that our issues are taken seriously by the movement’s leaders. As I said in my original post on this topic: By all means, let’s treat the right to abortion as a philosophical exercise in which both sides should be thoughtfully considered and given intellectual validity — as opposed to a serious, real-world battle in which women’s right to bodily autonomy is being chipped away at and in which women are literally dying. And then, perhaps, we can have yet another panel at another atheist conference about why there aren’t more women in the atheist movement.
Stephanie Zvan has already masterfully taken apart your whole thing about how abortion should always be a very difficult and emotional step.* I assume someone else will take apart your troubling mischaracterization of David Silverman’s original remarks (the ones that started this latest firestorm). And I assume someone else will take apart your insistence that your previous support of abortion and other women’s rights should somehow give you a “get out of criticism free” card for screwing this one up so massively. So here’s what I want to say to you:
Do you seriously think abortion has nothing to do with atheism?
Are you aware that the fight against abortion rights has been waged, almost entirely, by the Religious Right? Are you aware that the case against abortion rights is almost entirely centered in religion?
Of course atheism has something to say about abortion. What atheism has to say about abortion is, “There are no gods. You have no evidence that your god exists — and you certainly have no evidence that your god shares your political opinions. So stop trying to make laws and public policy based on what you think your god wants. If you can’t make a good secular argument for why some people’s basic right to bodily autonomy is trivial and they should be forced by law to lend their organs to a zygote/ embryo/ fetus for nine months — and not a craptastic, laughable-if-it-weren’t-such-an-important-issue retread of the religious arguments, but an actual solid secular argument — then get the hell out of the way, and let people make their own decisions about their own bodies.”
Abortion rights are supported by over 98% of atheists. Do you think that’s a coincidence? Do you really not get how deeply connected this issue is with religion?
You say that “pretty much the only social issues that ought to unite every atheist are the separation of Church and State and the right of unbelievers.” First, and very importantly: Abortion access is a church-state separation issue. Again: The anti-choice agenda is almost entirely driven by the Religious Right, and the arguments against is are almost entirely centered on religion. Yes, there is a whisper-thin veneer of secularism painted over these laws — just like there’s a whisper-thin veneer of secularism painted over intelligent design being taught in public schools. It’s still, obviously, an issue of secularism. Getting religion out of government doesn’t just mean things like getting the “under God” part of the Pledge of Allegiance out of public schools. It also means getting laws based on religion, laws overwhelmingly or entirely motivated by religion, out of our government. It means getting religion out of our laws about abortion, birth control, same-sex marriage, LGBT employment rights, public funding of charitable organizations, sex education in public schools, parental responsibilities to provide medical care to their children, licensing of day care centers, licensing of hospitals that don’t follow standards of medical care, and more.
Second: You’re arguing that organized atheism should only work on issues that logically and directly descend from atheism itself. If we take this argument to its logical conclusion, there are literally no atheist issues. There are literally no issues that logically ought to unite every atheist. Being an atheist doesn’t automatically lead to the logical conclusion that church and state should be separated — you could be an atheist and still think religion is good for most people and therefore should be entrenched in law. And you can certainly be an atheist and still think pursuing church/state separation is sometimes a bad idea — look at all the atheists pushing back against the American Humanist Association fighting memorial crosses on public land, or against American Atheists pursuing the court case about the 9/11 cross. You could even be an atheist and not support the rights of unbelievers — again, you could regret your atheism, and think that religion on the whole is better for most people, and therefore think that atheists should be treated as second-class citizens so more people will stick with religion.
Almost no atheists take those positions, of course. (Apart from the “Do we really have to fight public crosses that people are emotionally attached to?” ones.) But almost no atheists are anti-choice, either. Almost no atheists are against same-sex marriage. And for many atheists, these and other issues are every bit as entwined with our atheism as atheists’ rights and traditional church/state separation issues — with every bit as much logical support for that entwining.
So what you’re saying is not, in fact, that organized atheism should only work on issues that logically descend from atheism itself.
What you’re saying is that organized atheism should only work on issues that it has traditionally worked on in the past.
What you’re saying is that the people who have traditionally been running organized atheism, the people who have been setting the agenda of organized atheism for decades, are the people who should continue to set the agenda.
What you’re saying is that the old guard should get to keep running the show.
For many people, the things that led them to begin questioning religion are real-world issues that affect real people, ways that religion screws up people’s lives by the millions: abortion, birth control, LGBT rights, religious frauds preying on poor neighborhoods, religious interference with HIV prevention and education, abstinence-only sex education, religion inspiring people to disown their gay children and even sentence gay people to death. That’s not what ultimately got them to disbelieve (usually) — but it’s often a huge part of the process. What you’re saying to these people is, “It’s great that you stopped believing in your god or gods. It’s great that your passion to stop pointless suffering caused by religion helped drive you out of it. Now, let’s get to work. But you don’t get to help decide what we work on. The issues you care most about, the issues that drove you out of religion, shouldn’t have anything to do with your atheist activism. And I will fight tooth and nail to keep you from changing our agenda. Work on the issues I think of as atheist issues, the issues we’ve always worked on — or get out.”
If we take your argument to its logical conclusion, atheists shouldn’t even be forming supportive local communities that do anything at all other than sit around and discuss the fact that God doesn’t exist. After all, what do pub nights or family picnics have to do with atheism? Is that the atheism you want? It’s not the one I want. It’s not the one thousands of atheists want. And you don’t get to set the agenda for all of us. If you want to keep working on rights for non-believers and traditional issues of church/ state separation — that is awesome. If you even want to start or support an organization specifically dedicated to those issues — that is awesome. Those are important, relevant issues. But you apparently want atheists who care more about other issues — issues that are every bit as relevant to atheism as yours are — to stop doing the atheist activism they care about… simply because it isn’t what you think of as atheist activism.
At best, at the most charitable interpretation of your words, you’re making the argument from tradition — one of the worst, least rational arguments around. At an only slightly less charitable interpretation, you’re making the argument from privilege. You’re making the argument that the people currently running things should continue to run things. In fact, the argument from tradition is an argument from privilege.
Knock it off.
The face of atheism is changing. It’s expanding. It’s getting larger, younger, more diverse, with new ideas about what atheism is and what its priorities and values should be. And this is a good thing. This is a necessary thing if organized atheism is going to continue to grow. Why are you trying to get in the way?
*Note: Pigliucci’s piece, as originally written, said that abortion should always be a very difficult and emotional step. He has since revised it, as he notes in the comment section, to say that “certain types of abortion (say, last trimester)” should always be a very difficult and emotional step — although he has not, as of this writing, transparently noted in the post itself that he has made this change. (UPDATE: Pigliucci has now transparently noted the change in the piece.)
UPDATE: Comment policy for this post: I am not willing to host a debate about abortion in this blog. I am willing to host a meta-debate about the controversy this issue has stirred in the atheist community, and the things various people in the community have said about it. But I am not going to host a debate about the basic right to abortion — any more than I would host a debate about whether gay people should be locked up in prisons or mental institutions for being gay. There are plenty of places on the Internet where you can debate the question of whether people with working uteruses have the basic right of bodily autonomy. This is not one of them. Violators will be put into comment moderation (or banned, if their comments are sufficiently vile), and their comments will be disemvoweled. Thank you.