These are not concepts that will seem strange, or appear to need much explanation for readers here. At the same time, this book is about assumptions, and Niose challenges many of them here. He will challenge some of yours just as he challenged some of mine.
That is why this is such an important book.
While we have seen evidence of the country’s shift to the left in recent polling figures, Niose points out that many on the liberal/progressive side are still stuck in the twentieth century.
He is talking not simply about views of atheists, but of assumptions many of us carry with us: “the role of government, education, the environment, and foreign policy,” he says, “are also rooted in paradigms that should have faded long ago.”
The result, he tells us, is that conservative assumptions rule the day. Rather than a “rational, human-centered public policy” we have the promotion of “antireason” which comes at us from “in a variety of forms” – and as we have here, he points to the corporate agenda as well as “certain governmental and religious interests.”
These are collectively “the Right,” that is, the conservative end of the political spectrum. The defining characteristics of the right, as he explains them, are:
- Sympathetic to Entanglement of Religion in Government
Niose does not make the distinction between liberal and progressive of Timothy Ferris in The Science of Liberty (2010). Niose is not looking at classical liberalism, but lumps progressives and liberals together. He is not looking at Ferris’ distinctions (those who stress liberty vs those who stress equality) but rather what ties modern liberals and progressives together: a devotion to reason and human-centered policy (Interestingly, you will find neither “liberal” nor “progressive” in the index of Niose’s book).
The defining characteristics of the left are:
- Human centered
- Promote Reason
- Sensible egalitarianism
- Individual autonomy
- Critical thinking
Much of this book deals with terms, and how we define and understand the world. Some of these may seem strange to readers, not accustomed to thinking about the world (or ourselves) in these ways.
David Niose is, of course, President of the American Humanist Association, as well as the Secular Coalition of America. The theme of his book revolves very much around the idea of freethought, a Enlightenment term which is not the same thing as open-minded, but, as he reminds us, thinking that is free from “dogma, superstition, and other irrational authority.”
Likewise, as he points out, freethought is not synonymous with secular. Saying you are a freethinker, he explains, makes a “broader declaration” about your thinking. Being a freethinker means you reject “unsupported claims of authority” and hold “a belief that reason and empiricism are the best means of attaining truth.”
Right there is the difference between the left and right in American politics today, and this is the most important distinction to be made in the book: the left operates out of an evidence-based world while the right clings to beliefs about what the world should be, or what they want it to be. The Bush administration admitted to creating their own reality and changing that faster than we could catch up, and conservatives haven’t stopped since.
If some of this book retreads familiar ground, it is eye-opening in many ways. It is meant to challenge your assumptions, and if there is one thing a freethinker should be able to do, it is to challenge his or her assumptions about the world.
I grew up in a very conservative household, and I began to have my assumptions challenged very early on, all the way into college and beyond. We don’t realize sometimes how locked into certain ways of thinking we can be. And this again is one of the themes of Niose’s book, that we are not always as forward-thinking as we assume.
As a Heathen, I don’t fit neatly into any of the niches Niose defines here. I am religious, but I am a secularist. Like John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, I have my religious beliefs which do not affect my acceptance of science and its role. Niose speaks of this as the ability to compartmentalize our thinking. I understand the proper roles of science and religion, and government and religion. I am, says Niose, I suspect because we define “religion” differently, a part-time freethinker.
Niose wants to make the terms “progressive” and “freethinker” generally synonymous, and here again I think he differs from Ferris, who has a far less wholesome view of progressivism. I suspect part of the problem here is that attempts at neat definitions escape us.
We use definitions to define and understand our world, but few of us fit neatly into our created categories. We are not all one thing or another, but there are many shades in between, where we are part one thing and part another. Despite conservatism’s slavish devotion to the Religious Right, I know Heathens who have no problem at all defining themselves as conservatives, or aligning themselves with corporate anti-government propaganda.
But one does not have to be in complete agreement with Niose with regard to his use of terms to agree with him that the essential problem facing us today is antireason. However Niose defines us, and however much his definition of you may vary from your understanding of yourself, we can agree that conservative devotion to antireason is a threat to us all. We are all in this together.
Niose is writing this book because, as he says, he believes “we can reverse the onslaught of antireason that has overtaken the country.” This onslaught is directed by nonhuman people – corporations – and liberating ourselves from antireason means returning control of our systems over to humans.
I think we on the left are sometimes confused by what we are facing. We are dealing with rampant corporatism, the elite 1 percent who control most of the wealth in our country (and the world) and religious conservatives, all functioning as an unholy alliance bent on our destruction.
It is important that we understand this bewildering array of foes, and Niose breaks down for us what precisely we are facing in terms of enemies, and how we can hope to defeat them. If the liberal era came to an end with Reagan, events have proven that change can come. What has changed for the worse can change for the better.
Niose gives us hope. This is not an epistle of despair, but more of a secular gospel of hope, and a plan for positive change. A revolution that can come about only through a revolution in thinking. As he puts it, a serious discussion about our values as a society.
We have options.
Much of the change we have seen since World War II and the closing of our society centers around conservative religious thought: the addition of “God Bless America” to our vocabulary (1938), the National Day of Prayer (1952), “One Nation under God” (1954) and “In God We Trust” (1956), and the first president to “God Bless America” (1973). Noise calls this the “fence of piety” surrounding American politics.
But a fence built can be torn down and Niose’s appeal to a “secular emergence” is not unreasonable. There is hope in recent polling to suggest that it is not even unrealistic in our lifetimes. Here, Niose lays out a plan to affect that change.
It is change we need not only in culture war terms, because as we watch our world collapse around us in drought and wildfire and other natural disasters, rising sea levels and water shortages, and see the dearth of pragmatism directed at the dangers of global warming, we realize that without a change in our own thinking, no effective answers will be forthcoming.
In reading Niose’s book, I can’t help but think back to Carl Sagan’s magnum opus, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (1997). Science is our last line of defense as a species against people who think a god or demons are the major threat facing us. Science is what shows us that our biggest enemy on this planet is ourselves.
This makes David Niose’s Fighting Back the Right more important than ever. Read it. Challenge your assumptions, and help reclaim America from the attack on reason.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.