Friday, August 6, 2010

Sun Tzu and The Challenge of Atheists

We atheists are a minority, in the U.S. and in most countries in the world. As such, we have to do more to convince others that we're every bit as moral and worthy as they are. This is an unfortunate reality of the way humans behave.

But it presents us with a challenge. At a Brights meeting in a restaurant in San Francisco a few years ago, the noted cosmologist Benjamin Weaver thought that I was being less than generous with the tip I was leaving.* "You don't want them to think atheists are selfish rotten tippers, do you?" No, I didn't. So I gave a better tip. As much as I might sound like your mother, what we do, especially in groups, gets taken as representative of the whole. So if we're a minority, let's be a model minority. In many respects I think we already are; let's keep up the good work.

And here's the upside: it's great motivation. Every time I'm tempted to get fast food instead of eating my fruits and veggies, I think "Somewhere a Christian is thinking that Jesus wants her to eat healthy, and avoiding fast food. I can't let her beat me and be convinced that atheists have no discipline!" Every time I get impatient with someone, or put off doing something difficult that I know has to be done, or avoid my chores, I think "Somewhere a theist is being more moral/disciplined/productive than me!" Reason is a better way to live your life, right? So prove it! While this sort of oppositional thinking might turn some people off, it's really a positive kind of contest. Most of us believe that theists are basically good people trying to live good lives. The competition is really a friendly one about who can lead a better life, and make the world a better place. Now that's the kind of contest I'm glad to be in!

You've probably been wondering about the Sun Tzu reference, so here's the connection: Sun Tzu famously said the battle is won or lost before it begins, because of the preparations the armies have made beforehand. And so go discussions between atheists and theists: your biggest advantage in that discussion is not your clever rhetorical tricks - though those don't hurt - it's being someone that theists will have a hard time putting down. Yes, there are many theists whose definition of a good person is fully circular, and nothing you do will convince them that you're a productive and moral atheist. There are people who think that way about every minority. But for those open-minded, on-the-fence-theists, and there are lots of them, living a good and happy and productive life will go much further toward enlightening them than a few one-liners.

*Note the phrasing. He thought I was tipping badly. But to be sure, I left a more generous tip. He's a bit prodigal I have to say.


Darlene said...

It is the nature of privilege that one's actions do not reflect on their race or gender or religion as a whole.

Which puts us firmly in our place, since we are not so privileged. However, I have a hard time with the arguement "be good (individual) so that others will think of us (group) as good."

It smacks of the same rational for being good to get into heaven: an extrinsic rather than intrinsic reward.

I tip well because I've worked for tips, have friends who worked for tips, and I know how sucky the job is and how good it feels to get a nice tip. I reward good service because it is the right thing to do.

Also, I would never tell someone else to tip more just to make "us" look good; instead I would throw a few more of my own dollars on the table to adjust up, (the exception being someone who just didn't know what the tip etiquette was).

How is doing good deeds for the benefit of atheism different than doing good deeds for the glory of god? Shouldn't we do good because we are good? Or does morality not come from us, but from the group?

Michael Caton said...

Good point Darlene. The post is meant as one motivation to be good. Most of us have days where we're irritable, tired, and otherwise not at our best, and *one* motivation to try to rise above that is "for the good of other atheists". But my concern about being good for the practical impact of the rest of the world's perception of atheists is because I want happiness to exist for its own sake, and I think atheism is a better way to that, and if the perception of atheism improves then there tend to will be more people producing more happiness.

TGP said...

If other groups weren't constantly making the argument that morality and good works can only come from a supernatural origin, I'd say that Darlene is right on.

Doing good has nothing to do with atheism. It also has nothing to do with belief in a deity.

Taking credit for being good is a way of setting the record straight.