MARCH 30, 2012 7:23PM

Effective Politics Are Coalition Politics

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Back to Basics #29

            A fair number of people are familiar with the idea that you really can't have a useful argument over tastes ("De gustibus non est disputandum"), and a quick check of what people think neat to put up on YouTube — or a quicker check of YouTube's pornographic spawn — will point to the truth of that assertion.

            Less well known in the injunction from the Hebrew Fathers to, not surprisingly, "Be diligent in the study of Torah, and," relevant here, "know how to answer an Epicurean."

            That is, at least for my purposes, the old rabbis enjoined knowing one's own tradition and premises and being able to argue with someone with very different ideas. A religious follower of Scriptures, the rabbis taught, should know how to argue with — the rabbis would want you to defeat — a materialist philosopher.

            In arguing with an "Epicurean," a religious person could not use the final formulation of more recent rabbis and their more authoritarian followers: "Er steht!" — "It's written"; "It's a commandment!"

            The obvious response to that would be, "So what?" To answer effectively a materialist, a secularist — then and now — one would have to argue from premises you can both agree on.

            And, more important in our time, vice versa, adding what we might call "some philosophical work-arounds," at least for the sake of argument.

            For a secularist to argue effectively with a religious person, the secular person must know "Torah": i.e., what the religious person at least claims to hold authoritative.

            It's nice that Protestants and Catholics are no longer burning one another at the stake nor taking turns burning Baptists and flogging Quakers. And it's nice that atheists are coming out of the closet and arguing for their position.

            The danger to my beliefs, though, is an alliance of Believers against not just strident atheists but secularists in general, and against those of us who want to follow a religious tradition in a society that welcomes us and (aiding that welcome) runs a thoroughly secular state.

            The danger to my political positions, and that of many, is a Left that becomes increasingly militant in its secularism and (therefore) increasingly politically marginalized among an American public composed largely of various kinds of cooperating Believers.

            So, my atheist friends: a bit of advice. Recall the great principle of Occam's Razor and the story of the mathematician-astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace and Napoleon. When Napoleon asked Laplace how he, Laplace, could write a substantial book "on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator," Laplace replied that he "had no need of that hypothesis." So American atheists, when an argument comes up about God, just say, "I have no need of that hypothesis" — and let it go at that.

            More generally on the Left: gals and guys, "Know how to work with religious people" — including at times with religious people with whom you have profound disagreements.

            If some apocalyptically-minded Christians are right, it's important to get Jews in control of all of what was ancient Israel and Judea and (even) Samaria to bring on the End of Days, at which time those Jews will either submit to Jesus or burn forever in the Lake of Fire. No Jews like that idea, but if they're Likudnik Jews or even further to the Right, they can ally with Right-wing Christians on Zionist issues. And they have allied, and not just regarding Israel.

            So it shouldn't be so goddamn difficult for today's secular Leftists to learn the history of effective political movements in the USA, bone up on the more radical teachings of Jesus and the Hebrew prophets, and renew the old alliances for peace, social justice, and the equitable distribution of the world's resources and wealth.

            "The Earth is the Lord's / and the fullness thereof, / The sea and all that in them is" saith the 24th Psalm, and the psalmist goes on to justify God's ownership by a labor theory of property: "for he founded [the world] upon the seas / And established it upon the waters." If you're trying to get people to make the US economy more fair, that's a good place to start — and you can omit arguing that the true story of creation is Big-Bang Cosmology.

            Et bloody cetera for the divinity of Jesus if you want allies against militarism and against coddling the rich. You, my Liberal-Leftist-Peacenik friend want a more humble US foreign policy; Jesus enjoined downright pacificism. Use that!

            And if anyone accuses you, correctly, of "cherry-picking" teachings, point out that there are not ten commandments in Torah but, by traditional count, 613 — and Moses was just a beginning. Selecting, emphasizing, de-emphasizing, rationalizing, modifying, allegorizing, and sensibly gentling religious doctrines has been the name of the game since the old rabbis decided that "an eye for an eye" meant equitable compensation, Jesus healed chronic medical problems on the Sabbath, and St. Paul said a guy could be a saved follower of Messiah without circumcision and that nobody needed to follow all those finicky Jewish food regulations.

            So, devout religious folk, "Know how to answer" us materialists — or at least talk with us politely. My fellow Leftist-pinko-peacenik sorts (including small "b" believers): If you want to effect change, learn how to talk to and with religious people.

            Effective politics are coalition politics, and as of now the Right is kicking our asses at it.

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Interesting article. I think the so called "strident" or "militant" atheism is not all that militant or strident. It only seems that way because of the social norms that have so long assumed a religious milieu that completely matter of fact overt statements of atheist ideas sound rude, radical, insensitive, offensive and hostile to the religious ear. But they are not any more so than overt statements about faith in God; they are merely less familiar. In some senses the so called "New Atheism" is like the gay pride movement: a long silent and oppressed group is using a strategy of loud positive assertive attention getting tactics in order to defamiliarize the invisible limiting assumptions of a long religious cultural history, of refusal to shrink into the background but to stand out and be seen and heard for once, and to merely claim the legitimate ground it is entitled to and has long been denied.

But a point worth noting, the important point that I think is your focus here, is that this struggle of the Godless to achieve normal status does not need to impact political organizing and coalition building; there is room for a middle ground where the liberal faithful and the rational ethical utilitarians can meet in support of the compassion espoused by Christ: his emphasis on charity and feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, defending the defenseless, and healing the sick, respecting and protecting the weak and the outcast, regardless of whether his message was founded upon holiness or rational non-zero sum cooperation. There is no need to speak the thought that belief in God is a stupid unfounded superstition when organizing for health care or women's rights or gay rights or the rights of racial minorities and immigrants or investment in research, clean energy, education or a progressive tax base to fund a compassionate social safety net and make the opportunities available to all that will encourage broad prosperity and enable the pride of being stakeholders for every citizen.

The atheist can intellectually grasp the temptation that is offered by the illusion of design, and the temptation offered by belief that a powerful intelligence willed reality into being for some reason, akin to how humans imagine, plan, and create, even though such beliefs are clearly based on narrow anthropomorphic assumptions that have virtually no probability of having any epistemological or metaphysical validity.

The atheist should remember that pursuit of knowledge and truth never offers absolute certainty, only probability and models that can be verified as reasonable working approximations of reality. And so in the same way that atheists can love and work with children who joyfully believe in Santa Clause and the Easter Bunny, there is no reason why atheists cannot hold their tongues and find common goals and purposes with liberal believers, who are not stupid for their beliefs, but perhaps just more childlike, romantic, and poetic in their metaphysical longings.

Secularism should indeed be the protector of religious freedom, which includes the believers and the non-believers. Secularism should be the neutral respecter of intellectual liberty to believe or not believe in God. To assert prayer in schools, to insert "under God" into pledge of allegiance, and to print "In God We Trust" on our currency are violations of the neutral ground of truce that secularism offers. The narrow minded religious conservative regards this as an attack on their beliefs; they are naive; it is an attack on their attempt to control and dominate society with their beliefs. An attack on their beliefs would be the assertion of the right to teach positively in our schools that God does not exist, it would be insisting on the statement that we are one nation liberated from all delusions of God be included in our flag salute, and it would be demanding that we print affirmatively "God Does Not Exist" on every unit of American currency, and it would be the revision of history to exclude any role for Christians, to emphasize a history that was an explicit rejection of all religion and especially the religious totalitarianism of the churches and monarchies of Europe.

That is what an attack on religion would really look like. That is the mirror image of the religious violation of the establishment clause that religious conservatives are fighting aggressively to impose on all Americans today.

Neutral, secular respect for free individual belief should teach in our schools knowledge accepted by professional experts in a chosen academic field; secular respect for individual belief should not mention God, nor Thor, nor Zeus, nor Quetzalcoatl, nor the non-existence of any god in our flag salute, or on our currency, or in any other publicly sponsored and funded forum or arena. The question of whether God is good and benevolent, or whether he is a negligent non-existent invention of human culture can be excluded from political debates, in favor of deciding on what policies best accomplish the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for free human beings endowed by nature with inalienable rights (or as the Deist Jefferson put it, Nature's God or our Creator, which could either be a theistic God or evolution and the laws of a materialistic Universe, according to personal intellectual choice).
Hi, Jeff; thanks.

In THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, Ursula K. Le Guin invents a culture with a saying more or less, "You don't have to be kemmerings to pull a sledge together": i.e., you don't have to be committed lovers of people to work with them. Having grown up in the warm, slightly corrupt heart of the Chicago Democratic Organization, I'd put it that you don't even have to like people to work with them.

And, indeed, that's the practical upshot here.

Sorry about "strident," but I'd just heard a guy on NPR who was strident. (Trust me on this; I taught rhetoric; I know from tone.) For your correct analogy: Gay pride, Yes!; calling potential allies "breeders" — bad politics. I think we agree here: Religious views should be subject to critique, same as all other views. I just like to keep the discussion vigorous and robust, but polite. Part of the tradition of Chicago and other political places — misunderstood by some critics of B. Obama — is that people of power don't raise their voices and that people with strong arguments make them firmly but courteously. (With exceptions: e.g., satire, which is supposed to get nasty.)

Thanks again.