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Posted by on Nov 11, 2013 in Uncategorized | 4 comments

…where I worry about sounding like one of those animal rights wackos

I eat meat and support legal abortion. This makes me question how best to go about atheist activism. And it tilts me toward being more understanding and accepting of believers. Here are two, parallel arguments that show why:

The accommodationist argument from vegetarianism:

I eat meat, but the vegetarians have some good arguments. I get that taking a life is not justified by my desire for a certain flavor or protein source in my diet. Or by my desire for convenience or to fit in with my meat-eating friends. I just don’t care enough to change. Vegetarians and animal rights activists simply must accept that most people eat meat and aren’t persuaded by their arguments.

Likewise, it seems atheists must accept that most people consort with various gods who, if they were real, would be grotesquely unfair and brutal. Most believers don’t care enough to change. Comfort, religious experience and fitting in with their believing friends are just more important to them.

We carnivores tolerate vegetarians at our potlucks. We are respectful, and sometimes admiring, of their celibacy from flesh. But that’s all. We’re not going to feel bad about eating meat, or put up with continuous harangues or emotional diatribes about it. If you don’t like eating meat, don’t do it.

This seems to be the attitude liberal believers have toward atheists. “You have some good arguments, but some of us still believe. We don’t feel bad about it, in fact we enjoy our belief. Logic bombs and dead babies have no effect on us. We don’t think you’re wrong, we just don’t care about your arguments. Our belief in God causes no moral or social pinch for us. Leave us alone.”

The accommodationist argument from the pro-life position:

I support abortion rights, but the pro-life people have some good arguments. I get that taking a life is not justified by my desire to avoid pregnancy or the burden of raising a child. Or by my desire for convenience or to fit in with my friends. I just don’t care enough to change. Pro-lifers simply must accept that most people want legal abortion, and aren’t persuaded by their arguments.

Pro-lifers must live in a world with legal abortion. Most abortionists don’t care enough to change. Women’s rights and personal autonomy are just more important to them.

We abortionists tolerate pro-lifers in our society. We are respectful, and sometimes admiring, of their position. But that’s all. We’re not going to feel bad about providing legal abortions, or put up with continuous harangues or emotional diatribes about it. If you don’t like abortion, don’t have one.

This seems to be the attitude abortionists have toward pro-lifers. “You have some good arguments, but some of us still support legal abortion. We don’t feel bad about it, in fact we think it’s a good thing. Dead babies have no effect on us. We don’t think you’re wrong, we just don’t care about your arguments. Our position on abortion causes no moral or social pinch for us. Leave us alone.”

So, there you have it. As a meat-eater and supporter of abortion rights, I know what it’s like to hear good arguments and hold my position anyway. I’m outing myself. When I criticize believers for intransigence and unreason, I must admit that I am not untouched by them.

Of course, there are counter-arguments which give us reasons to speak up anyway:

The counter-argument against accommodationism from vegetarianism:

Look, I’m not a vegetarian because I like the cuisine. I’m not a vegetarian because meat is unhealthy. I’m a vegetarian for a far more important reason. When people eat meat, suffering increases. So, I can’t apply Live and Let Live to carnivores. They don’t Live and Let Live when it comes to animals. So, I can’t just go along to get along.

And, the counter-argument against accommodationism from the pro-life position:

Look, I’m not pro-life because I like birth defects or hate loose women. I’m not pro-life because I think sex is only for procreation. I’m pro-life for a far more important reason. When people get abortions, suffering increases. So, I can’t apply Live and Let Live to abortionists. They don’t Live and Let Live when it comes to fetuses. So, I can’t just go along to get along.
I must conclude by saying that I don’t want the vegetarians and pro-lifers to leave me alone. If I can’t defend my position, then I am willing to put up with their reminders. In fact, I welcome it. Suffering should impact us, and good arguments should irritate us. I may not change my position, but I don’t want to be uninformed about its weaknesses. Perhaps it will eventually wear through, or my values will change. I can honestly say that factory farming and abortion both bother me. Just not enough to change. Yet.

If a person just happens to be an atheist, for reasons of fashion or circumstance, then there’s little reason for that person to speak up. But if a person is an atheist for good reasons, reasons that matter, they shouldn’t be silent. Atheists are stuck living among believers, but we don’t have to stop putting forth our arguments. For many of us, it was argument and evidence that persuaded us away from belief.

We know enough about human psychology to know that argument is not the only thing that causes us to believe as we do, or even the dominant thing. I can’t explain why human suffering has caused me to reject God (even if he were real), while animal suffering has little effect. And I’ve had countless conversations about God and religion where the other person completely understands my objections to God, but just can’t muster the same outrage I have. Once I saw this in myself, I began to give stubborn believers a break.

But argument has a way of sticking under the surface, reminding us that something doesn’t fit. Faith, at its worst, is a way of smoothing over or denying these irritants. But even atheists like myself smooth over some things, as long as our values let us.

206390-animal-rights-protests-in-2011With this in mind, my aim as an atheist activist is to outline the issues, and to show the costs and benefits of holding various positions, including atheism. To be credible, I have to be even-handed and try to apply the same standards to my positions in other areas.

  • JasonTorpy

    First, kudos for pointing out that we aren’t strictly rational. I like to remind people that being ‘right’ is overrated. It’s not sufficient to simply have all the answers. People are very likely to set that aside in favor of doing whatever they feel like. Also kudos for setting ‘suffering’ is a meaningful metric for ethical decision-making. That having been said, I don’t see your comparison between animals and fetuses in terms of suffering. Maybe I misunderstood… Abortion doesn’t increase suffering. The whole point is that it decreases suffering 1) because fetuses simply don’t have the capacity to suffer in any real way and 2) because the mother definitely has the capacity to suffer in a greater way than the fetus. Animals absolutely do suffer, yes even if you ‘just’ kill them and yes even if you eat their flesh after killing them. You need to add some clear ‘fences’ to that suffering fetus – birth, 26 weeks, 4 weeks, and the earlier you push that fence the harder it will be to show any capacity for suffering.

    • enoughsenough

      Sure. I support legal abortion for exactly the reasons you stated: it can decrease net suffering. In the piece, I changed voices several times, putting forth various positions. My own position is pro-choice.

    • donsevers

      Sure. I support legal abortion for exactly the reasons you stated: it can decrease net suffering. In the piece, I changed voices several times, putting forth various positions. My own position is pro-choice.

  • Pingback: Atheism, vegetarianism and pro-life | Avant Garde()

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  • Steve

    Why would you ‘need to hold your position anyway’ on abortion?

    Imagine a guy comes along and chains a ton of dirt to your back, and then I tell you you aren’t allowed to cut those chains just because there is potential for that big bag of dirt to spring forth life, such as a fruit tree.
    Yes there is the potential for that fruit tree to grow, to become a large beautiful tree that shades you in the summer, acts as a wind break in winter, and provides delicious and nutritious fruit and otherwise has worth and value.
    But that’s all it is, potential.
    A human foetus is just that; potential.
    The pregnant woman in this scenario is however alive right now, and her potential is more fully realised. She is a thinking, feeling, distinct mind with her own present issues, and future of even more potential.
    A foetus is just a possibility. It could become a thinknig feeling human being in it’s own right, maybe…one day…

    But right there and then it is just an issue of the pregnant woman’s own body and health. It is about her and her life and her future. If aborted that foetus will pass without so much as an inkling of thought or feeling. it is no worse than removing a tumour or problematic body part. Do we lament the loss of a tumour or dysfunctional limb because it is ‘alive’?

    That is why I found it odd to concede “pro-lifers have good points and are right in some sense” but “hold onto abortionist position anyway”.

    We all have things we hold onto regardless of logic or reason but on the important stuff I;d like to think people should only hold an opinion so long as it’s practical. Pro-lifers might hold onto their position for social means (to fit in with their group who have deemed abortion to be undesirable) but it certainly carries no genuine purely logical merit.

    I personally don’t argue with people because I think my positions are weak but screw it anyway, I don’t argue because it serves no purpose to argue a position I’ve thoroughly researched and determined reasonably and thus concluded, and the futility of convincing those set in their own ways.

    The position itself might be weak, but people have usually some understandable reasons for holding them (mostly socio-economic safety and inclusion, rarely a genuine fear of mortality and even more rarely honest and sincerely held belief in some greater power/purpose).

    Good article though!