One of the peripheral strands in the ropy debate about framing is the question of how and whether religion ought to be part of the debate. PZ Myers advances an analogy by Larry Moran between atheists now and feminists back at some point in history. He quotes Larry saying:

Do you realize that women used to march in the streets with placards demanding that they be allowed to vote? At the time the suffragettes were criticized for hurting the cause. Their radical stance was driving off the men who might have been sympathetic to women’s right to vote if only those women had stayed in their proper place.

Here’s a related historical tidbit. Women tried to modify one particular passage of the 14th Amendment during Congressional debate, this line:

But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of any State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any male inhabitants of such state, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

Women hoped to strike one particular word from two occurrences there, and to add one word to the 15th amendment, which reads:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

By the mere expedient of adding “sex” to that list, and removing “male” from the 14th amendment, women would have been allowed to vote a full 50 years before the 19th amendment passed.

i-6e5a945a36377589ac32c2de7a7055cf-_history-pictures_anthonystanton.jpgWomen’s rights activists like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton pushed hard for those changes, but such paragons of virtue, voices of freedom and supporters of women’s suffrage as Frederick Douglass asked them to back off. Civil rights activists figured that the amendments could pass on the basis of race, given that a war had just been fought over those issues, but that tacking women’s suffrage on might just lose them critical votes.

Because the amendments didn’t go far enough, some in the female suffrage movement wound up working against passage of the 15th amendment.

It’s difficult to count noses in Congress and state legislatures 137 years after the fact, so I don’t know if the amendments could pass with women’s suffrage in the mix. In the 50 years after the 13-15th amendments passed, many states voluntarily granted women the vote, preparing the ground for the street protests that Larry and PZ are describing, and without that intervening effort on a state level, it’s hard to imagine a more comprehensive 15th amendment passing.

In modern terms, getting women the vote required an aspect of framing referred to as shifting the Overton window. The idea is that you have to stake out positions that are extreme (but not too extreme) to make what is politically unimaginable today part of tomorrow’s conventional political discourse. Here’s a handy discussion from of how this played out regarding school vouchers. By using the right strategic framing and advocating a position outside of conventional thought, Joe Overton of Michigan’s Mackinac Center was able to move legal homeschooling into the mainstream and the idea of vouchers into the public debate. The ultimate goal is to privatize the school system entirely, but Overton saw the importance of taking small steps, as did those advocating against mixing women’s suffrage into the 15th amendment.

What does this say about atheism today?


That’s a harder question, in part because I don’t know what the particular policy or social agenda of PZ and Moran is. Suffrage is a nicely packaged item, and it’s possible to see how one might compromise by dealing with race and then with sex. Atheists have the vote, they have the legal protections the first amendment affords all citizens, they speak openly and get elected to Congress.

I’m not suggesting that things are rosy, merely that it’s difficult to see what the path is that PZ and Larry and Dawkins and so forth want to see happen. They’d like to reduce the role and acceptance of religious belief in society, but even that is a lot less concrete than a vote for women.

Bear in mind that Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and indeed Frederick Douglass were not interested in getting the vote for women and then going home. They wanted true social equality, and saw the vote as an important first step. Advocating for that small step was controversial, but advocating for an amendment guaranteeing equal rights for women remains controversial today. Had they tried to take one giant step, who can say whether women would be voting in every state yet.

The Overton window is a powerful concept, and a useful one. You can’t move that window all the way to the end at once. Indeed, part of the reason that vouchers haven’t caught on is that people know it is just one small step towards an ultimate goal of a Balkanized private school system. If Overton had simply insisted that the government stop funding schools, I wouldn’t be writing about him right now.

Some people say that PZ and Larry are, by their vigorous stance on religion in the science debate, shifting the Overton window. I myself do not see it, but I am not entirely clear on what window they are trying to shift. The Window requires a range of policy views, some within accepted realms of discourse and several outside it. The Window-shifter operates incrementally. The Window-shifter has to construct a new frame and get people to see the debate through that new frame rather than the old one. By successive movements, the debate shifts and with it, the median acceptable policy.

Here is one possible continuum which I suppose might represent how PZ and Larry see things:

  • religious reasoning must guide any and all policy decisions
  • religious reasoning beats non-religious arguments, but religion is not obligatory
  • religious reasoning is weighted more heavily than non-religious arguments
  • religious reasoning is given equal weight with non-religious arguments
  • religious reasoning gets less weight than non-religious arguments
  • religious reasoning can only break ties when non-religious arguments are balanced
  • religious reasoning has no formal role but may be freely expressed
  • religious reasoning is banned

I don’t know if this is the continuum PZ and Larry are trying to move us along, and I personally don’t know that it’s even a sensible continuum to talk about (I think it conflates several factors, especially if you change “non-religious arguments” to “science,” as it seems like PZ or Larry might).

I also am not suggesting that PZ or Larry or Dawkins sees the last item as the ultimate goal, though again, it isn’t easy to tell always.

For what it’s worth, I think the penultimate item is compatible with several earlier items, in part because it can be difficult to sort out the line between personal values and religion in every instance, and personal values are an essential part of the political process. PZ and Larry may see it as a final stage while I might put it right after the third or fourth item. In any event, I think that the penultimate item is what we are guaranteed by the 1st amendment, and we are roughly there.

Personally, I’m not interested in motion along that axis. I don’t see it as problematic that we live in a society where religious values figure alongside other personal ethical evaluations in the process of setting policy, and in how we translate from data to normative judgments about policy.

I see a few related axes where I’d like to move the axis. One is how uncertainty is evaluated. Right now, people see uncertainty as a basis for ignoring what we do actually know. Statistical techniques let us place limits on our uncertainty, and give us tools for evaluating not only what we know to be true, but what we know is not true, or at least what is unlikely to be true. I’d like to see people shift from dismissing estimates with uncertainty, or assumptions that error only falls on their preferred side of the best estimate, and start thinking about measurement with error the way that scientists do.

The other, bigger shift I’d like to see is in how people perceive science. Science tends to be seen (framed) in terms of knowledge, what I call science-as-encyclopedia. This feeds people’s trouble with scientific uncertainty, and it makes it hard for people to know why some knowledge ? uncertain, hypothetical and inferential knowledge especially ? belongs in that encyclopedia, while knowledge they consider certain ? including especially deeply held personal beliefs and social traditions ? do not.

The answer lies in what science really is ? a process. People who understand science-as-process know why we don’t invoke untestable supernatural hypotheses. They understand that uncertainty is inherent to science, and understand how to evaluate uncertainty given what we do know about experimental results and their theoretical underpinnings. They know that inference and hypotheses are integral parts of what we know because they can be tested, while tradition and belief are only scientific to the extent they can be tested, and are only useful to the extent they have been tested.

That shift means reframing science, as I’ve described. It also means providing education about basic tools of science, including hypothesis testing and statistical concepts like means and standard errors.

Once we have that understanding, we can reframe a number of public debates. Evolution ? currently framed as an issue of adjudicating the ontology of morals. Needless to say, this is a debate well beyond science and the empirical evidence of biology (though biology can certainly help inform that philosophical debate). In that debate, I rely more on courses I took on Kant and on the Problem of Evil in Jewish Thought than I do on the courses in Biogeography, Evolutionary Ecology or Biodiversity I took at the same time. I’d rather be discussing the content of the latter courses than the former ones.

I’d also rather be hearing a more thoughtful discussion of the content I’ve learned and taught in my statistics courses. The argument over the Lancet studies of excess mortality in Iraq have been especially egregious, though the same sorts of errors are constant elements of the global warming debates and discussion of species conservation. If a population viability estimate, or a epidemiological study, or a climate model, predicts a substantial likely effect but a range that gets pretty low also, the discussion tends to focus on whether that low estimate is tolerable or not. This is as reasonable as a debate focused on the highest likely effect ? not at all reasonable. The right discussion should begin by noting that zero is outside the likely range of options, and then focus on the most likely value, the central estimate generated by the analysis.

To do that, we can’t be in the first few categories of the religion axis I described above, but we don’t need to be in the last categories either, provided the conditions of the penultimate category hold. As such, I find it foreign when Larry Moran says that “I think religion is the problem and I’ll continue to make the case against religion and superstition,” or when PZ Myers says “I’m not arguing for everyone to be a scientist, I’m arguing against the corrupting influence of religion.” It’s a different language, and a different set of frames to worry about.

Comments

  1. #1 razib
    April 22, 2007

    voices of freedom and supporters of women’s suffrage as Frederick Douglass asked them to back off

    and i believe that later on when anthony was trying to gain southern women’s support she deemphasized her association with frederick douglas, which was a major point for ida b. wells. later on some progressive women argued for the suffrage of their sex precisely because they could be a counterweight toward immigrant men who were naturalized and so changing the nature of ‘america’ (they were of course ‘progressives’ in the classic WASP model).

    the past is complex and social-political movements by their nature are singular shifts along a narrow and righteous line. pz & larry tend to depict the world in manichaean terms, but the suffrage movement was broad based with a great deal of diversity of opinion & interest focusing on one particular goal (though some like stanton & anthony argued for a broader social agenda of equality in more than a legal sense). analogies are supposed to important information, but i don’t see this doing that, rather, it’s a ploy to depict yourself on the side on history. i can agree with pz & larry on certain points, but not on others, it isn’t either you are for them or against them.

  2. #2 razib
    April 22, 2007

    are singular shifts along a narrow and righteous line.

    insert not into that.

  3. #3 andy
    April 22, 2007

    Y’know, this “religion is the root of all evil” business is really bugging me. I wanna know this:

    Stalin imprisoned, tortured and murdered thousands of Orthodox priests.

    Mao and his successors have imprisoned, tortured and murdered thousands of Buddhist monks, and have all but destroyed Tibetan culture.

    In the name of “science” and to “wipe out religion”.

    PZ and Larry: Do you approve? After all, Stalin and Mao are doing exactly waht you want: destroy religion.

    I’m only a lurker, and am not going to respond to the 10^500 (string landscape) responses I’m sure this post will get. I don’t have the time. I read lots of blogs, and might not look at this one again for a several days.

  4. #4 Pseudonym
    April 22, 2007

    Do you realize that women used to march in the streets with placards demanding that they be allowed to vote?

    Do you realise that a small minority of them chained themselves to railings and set fire to letterboxes, and those who were opposed to universal suffrage used that to frame the debate against the movement?

  5. #5 Tyler DiPietro
    April 22, 2007

    I would agree with those who say that the analogy to the suffragettes provides a misleading picture of the “New Atheist” movement. I can’t speak for everyone, but I personally understand the current conglomeration of “radical” atheism advocacy to be a movement of intellectual confrontation, not equal rights. It’s more analogous to the Enlightenment than any civil rights struggle.

    As for where the “Overton window” is being shifted, I think that one has to understand that the whole movement itself is in response to the political empowerment of the Abrahamic religions. While secularists have been more keen on challenging the political empowerment, there has been very little intellectual challenge to the claims on which the assertion of political legitimacy is based.

    And btw:

    “PZ and Larry: Do you approve? After all, Stalin and Mao are doing exactly waht you want: destroy religion.”

    I would suggest reading a bit more of PZ and Larry before posting something this silly. Legitimate criticisms are always welcome, but this is a particularly egregious strawman.

  6. #6 Tyler DiPietro
    April 22, 2007

    That second paragraph should say that the movement has sprung up “primarily” in response to the political empowerment of the Abrahamic religions. I find it hard to believe that we’d have the public momentum we currently have without the current uptick (or at least increased visibility) of Islamic radicalism and the dangerous level of political influence recently gained by the Christian right in America, to name the two big ones.

  7. #7 Trinifar
    April 22, 2007

    Tyler: I find it hard to believe that we’d have the public momentum we currently have…

    If you are referring to atheism, it’s not clear there is much public momentum. Evolution in the science class is doing better.

    Joshua: Overton saw the importance of taking small steps

    A key point and I like your list of steps (continuum) to stimulate PZ and Larry to say something reasonable about their vision. I just tried to something do in that same spirit — tenderly called Hugs for Atheists.

    People who understand science-as-process know why we don’t invoke untestable supernatural hypotheses.

    Another good focused goal. It’s a lot like — if not exactly like — breaking down a high-level set of customer requirements for a piece of software in to pieces that can be understood and implemented.

  8. #8 Tyler DiPietro
    April 23, 2007

    “If you are referring to atheism, it’s not clear there is much public momentum. Evolution in the science class is doing better.”

    I consider the increase in public attention to be a good sign of increased momentum, at least.

  9. #9 Josh Rosenau
    April 23, 2007

    I don’t agree with the dictum that all news is good news. It would be nice to see polling or other attempts to assess how the best-selling books about atheism are changing public views.

    And I agree that andy’s questions miss the point. There’s a bright line between trying to persuade people with logical argument and using force. I’m aware of no one suggesting the latter (though Richard Dawkins sometimes seems to get worryingly close to that line).

  10. #10 Baratos
    April 23, 2007

    PZ and Larry: Do you approve? After all, Stalin and Mao are doing exactly waht you want: destroy religion.

    I fail to see how they could, seeing how both Mao and Stalin replaced the local religions with a cult of personality. I only know the details on Stalin, but people thought he was an almost omnipotent demigod. As far I as can tell, dictators take two views on religion:

    1. Claim that God, Shiva, whatever declared the dicator is supposed to rule.
    2. Purge all traces of indigenous religions. Build a religion from scratch that depicts the dicator as almost a god.

  11. #11 Corkscrew
    April 23, 2007

    but we don’t need to be in the last categories either, provided the conditions of the penultimate category hold.

    But if no-one is in the penultimate category, that precondition may not continue to hold. PZ and Larry would probably argue that it already doesn’t.

  12. #12 Josh Rosenau
    April 23, 2007

    I think we are already there, at least roughly. There are border skirmishes here and there, and it may not be a stable equilibrium, but it is an equilibrium. And it holds. Creationists try to install religion as an official aspect of the decisionmaking process, but they lose in court and in the polls.

    I’m not convinced that pushing past some sort of official agnosticism would be wise or even practical. How do we distinguish between religious belief and belief in the importance of the natural world, or in the importance of efficient markets, or of economic growth. Is it even worth trying?

  13. #13 Eamon Knight
    April 25, 2007

    Andy writes:

    In the name of “science” and to “wipe out religion”.
    PZ and Larry: Do you approve? After all, Stalin and Mao are doing exactly waht you want: destroy religion.
    I’m only a lurker, and am not going to respond to the 10^500 (string landscape) responses I’m sure this post will get. I don’t have the time. I read lots of blogs, and might not look at this one again for a several days.

    Well, that last paragraph is tantamount to an admission of troll-hood, which makes me hesitate to bother responding at all, but:

    Whatever Stalinism and Maoism may have claimed for themselves, one thing they were not was “science”. They were in practice a combination of socio-economic speculation raised to the status of dogma, cult of personality, and raw power-grab. To that extent, they resembled historical manifestations of religion far more than the defeasible pursuit of understanding of the nature of things which constitutes science (though I think simply labelling them as “religion” without qualification stretches the definition). Doctrinaire systems — whether spiritual or earthly — are the antithesis of the kind of rationality that PZ and Larry wish to promote.

    Tyler:

    I would agree with those who say that the analogy to the suffragettes provides a misleading picture of the “New Atheist” movement. I can’t speak for everyone, but I personally understand the current conglomeration of “radical” atheism advocacy to be a movement of intellectual confrontation, not equal rights.

    I think the analogy to feminist/black/gay movements is primarily as object lessons in how social change can be achieved. I dispute that atheists today can claim to be oppressed to anything like the same extent, or in the same way, as any of those groups (though I can think of some analogy to gays).

    As I read PZ, however, he has an equal rights angle as well. Despite the legal guarantee of equal rights, atheists are not de facto equal in areas like electability, and incidents of physical and legal persecution (not common, but not absent either). So the intellectual confrontation, by weakening the assumption of religious correctness, serves to break down the Christian cultural hegemony, and promotes de facto rights for non-believers.