Tuesday, January 13, 2009

As An Example...

In this post over at The Agitator, a libertarian blog that I agree with more often than Volokh Conspiracy but still disagree with about half the time, the author takes "evangelical" atheists to task:

I’ve never really understood the evangelical atheists’ obsession with removing the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance.
Seems to me that the real problem here—whether you’re atheist, agnostic, or devout—is the idea that we’re forcing school kids to take a loyalty oath to a swatch of cloth.
I won't get into the whole issue of why the phrase "evangelical atheist" is nonsensical and focus on the issue I want to use this as an example of: how often I notice criticism leveled at a particular person or group's opinion or position because it isn't the position those leveling the criticism would take. Instead of actually pointing out a flaw of position X, this form of argumentation seems to assert that those who voiced position X really should have taken position Y, and so position X is wrong or inadequate. We aren't told why, of course, position Y is better, of course. It's so obvious! Anyone can see it. Simply by pointing out the existence of position Y, it seems, those leveling the criticism seem to think we will see how it superior and agree.

The Agitator asks, "Why are atheists appalled by forcing school kids to utter the phrase 'under God,' but seemingly unbothered by requiring them to pledge a loyalty oath to their government?" Why wouldn't they be? What do the two things have to do with each other? The Agitator, whose bailiwick is libertarianism and anti-statism, is quite naturally bothered by a loyalty pledge to the state whose excesses and encroachments into the liberties of the people he chronicles on a daily basis. He's an agnostic, not an atheist, and religious liberty doesn't seem to be one of his major focuses. On the other hand, an atheist (or a theist) whose main focus is on religious liberty is naturally going to be more concerned with the "under God" part of the pledge and its infringement on religious liberty, and its indoctrination of kids into unthinking religosity, then the loyalty oath part of the pledge.

There was a sketch on "Mr. Show" once where that was about white people appropriating and profiting from black culture. It was pretty funny. A friend of mine, at the time, said of the sketch, "Yeah, that's great, but they didn't have the balls to point out all the ways black people appropriate and profit from white culture, did they? No, that might get them into trouble." I didn't follow up on that comment, because I didn't want to get into an argument about racism with him at that moment, but the point is that he acted as if, because the show could have done some other sketch he thought they should have done that would have reflected his opinion, that somehow the opinion in the sketch they did put on was automatically invalidated. Without him having to make an argument, just like The Agitator didn't actually make an argument why we should be more bothered by kids being forced to make a loyalty oath to the state than one to an invisible magical friend. Neat trick, that.

Taken a bit further, that rhetorical trick can invalidate almost anyone's opinion on anything. Go to a protest about gay rights and ask everyone why they don't care about breast cancer and women's health. Go to a Komen walk for breast cancer and ask them why they don't care about genocide in Darfur. Go up to the people who volunteer at the pet shelter and ask them why they don't care about homeless people. No matter what good people try to do, you can always point out they could be doing some other good. No matter what someone cares about, you can always point out they could care about something else.

It's sort of ironic, in this particular case, that a libertarian is making the implicit argument that everyone else should, by default, I guess, care about the same issues he does. He may not want goverment telling us all how to think, but he certainly doesn't show a lot of respect for others' right to think for themselves and not think like him, does he? Especially when he uses derogatory terms like "evangelical" atheist.



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