Friday 2 January 2015

Reductionist Treaties

Some disagreements aren't disagreements at all but are illusions of tone and emphasis. Rhys Southan writes a blog called Let Them Eat Meat that rebuttals the arguments for ethical veganism. An ex-vegan himself, he believes that factory farming is really, really horrible and that people should instead feed from lower-exploitation methods of meat production. I think Rhys's position is more closely aligned with veganism than it is with the status quo. But I wouldn't pick up on that from a passive reading of his blog, which is really heavily focused on refuting ethical veganism.

I think these disagreements often come from expectations that others are tribal about their beliefs. If I'm a vegan and someone disagrees with me, I'd go straight to assuming that they see no ethical problems with eating meat. It's an all or nothing way of thinking - either they're with me or against me.

When it comes to complicated subjects where there are many possible defensible positions, all or nothing thinking brews a lot of tension between people whose opinions are pretty similar. It can be hard to tell who your allies are because people rarely break their views down into sub-views, allowing their opponents to identify exactly which sub-views they agree and disagree on. I imagine resolving this problem by clearly stating your sub-views, along with your broader view. In the end, your opinion should look something like a treaty.

So in the case of contemporary debates on the effects of religion, where there's a lot of hostility between people that probably agree on most relevant sub-views, I would offer a treaty of exactly what I accept and reject. My opponent would then be able to pinpoint which parts of my treaty are the points of disagreement and need to be compromised.

My Atheism-Religion Treaty:
  • None of the world's religions are literally true and none of their holy books are factual.
  • Religion is not needed for people to act morally.
  • The current rate of religion in the world is too high and we should hope for rates of religion to lower over time.
  • Religious ideas currently have too much power in politics and we should hope for this power to lessen over time.
  • An atheist should be able to get elected as president of the United States.
  • Supernatural claims require extraordinary evidence.
  • Religion should not be taught in science textbooks or classrooms.
  • When religious claims clash with scientific claims, we should side with science.
  • Religion is sometimes a motivating force for positive actions and it is sometimes a motivating force for negative actions.
  • We shouldn't be too hard on religious people - it isn't a good persuasion tactic anyway.
  • Holding religious views doesn't make you stupid or immoral. 

I think if Sam Harris, Johnathan Haidt, and Reza Aslan outlined their views like this, instead of signalling themselves as either enemies or friends of religion, they would find that they only disagree on one or two sub-views.


  1. I agree with most of the points in your Atheism-Religion Treaty. The one that stands out to me for possible disagreement is this one: "There is no good reason to believe in anything supernatural."

    From a utilitarian perspective, I don't think there's a reason to definitively rule out the possibility of improving utility by accepting a false belief. A false belief would only be harmful if it has harmful effects, and there might be instances in which having some sort of supernatural belief mostly has positive effects. You suggest that possibility with this other point in your treaty: "Religion is sometimes a motivating force for positive actions and it is sometimes a motivating force for negative actions."

    If religion on the whole inspires more negative actions than positive actions, you'd still want there to be much less religion (or none at all), but there might be individual false beliefs that it's good for people to have.

    1. True. I'll rephrase that point to something like: "Supernatural beliefs are unlikely to be true" or maybe even just delete it.

      Did you have a problem with how I characterized your viewpoint?

    2. No, I agree with how you characterized my viewpoint.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.