by Jason Stotts
I’ve long had a problem with atheists; or, at least with some atheists. And the problem is not that they don’t believe in the irrationality that is religion, because I don’t believe in that nonsense either. No, the problem is that so many atheists spend countless hours arguing against the irrationality of others in an attempt to get them to move beyond their irrational beliefs. Why is that a problem? Atheism isn’t a belief, it’s the lack of a belief. People do no have a belief in atheism; rather, they lack a belief in a particular kind of nonsense. But people cannot hold negatives as beliefs. A lack of belief in something important creates a cognitive vacuum that will be filled (“Shattered Illusions”). This is why some people go from religion, to atheism, and back. They never answered the real question and that void had to be filled, so they filled it the only way they knew.
If you focus simply on destroying your opponent’s arguments, even if you win, then what? You need to give people something positive to believe in. A vacuum will be filled by something.
I have the same problem with how some people handle the “pro-choice, anti-choice” debate about abortion. Some people focus only on the negatives of the debate: they deny the religious arguments (on which all arguments against abortion are based), they deny the government’s right to control our lives, they argue against a woman being forced to carry a child to term she has no desire to keep, etc. But what they don’t do is frame the argument positively and talk about how abortion can be a real value in a woman’s life. They don’t make the positive argument that a woman’s long-term happiness can sometimes be best served by having an abortion. By framing the arguments completely in the negative, they give the moral high-ground to the religion and save for themselves only that it might be “practical.” But by ceding the moral high-ground, they are doomed to ultimately lose the debate.
If we don’t take a positive tack, if we don’t take the moral high-ground and argue on moral terms, if we merely attack and never build, then we lose. In order to win, to truly win, an argument or a culture, you must present positive reasons why your course of action is the better one, how it is the moral one, and give people something to believe in and to fight for.
In order to win the world, you must give people a morality worth living for: you must help them find meaning.
I’ve long held these thoughts and problems with the way people were arguing, but I had never connected the various issues on which we were forced to fight defensively (religion, abortion, oil, global warming, ad nauseum) as all suffering from the same problem: we couldn’t win until we reframed the arguments and stopped fighting to only tear down and never build up.
I preamble so much to set the stage for what I think is one of the best ideas that I’ve seen recently, Alex Epstein’s “The Power of Aspirational Activism,” which I’m going to quote selectively below.
The Power of Aspirational Advocacy
By Alex Epstein, Founder of the Center for Industrial Progress
I have been writing about environmental and industrial issues for over a decade now. For most of that decade, my approach was essentially to focus on what was wrong with the “green” movement. For example, I would make the point that “green energy” policies, by forcing Americans to use expensive, unreliable solar and wind power, would be economically devastating.
But even though this point was true, and even though I could argue it articulately, I noticed that I had very limited success in inspiring audiences to fight for better policies.[…]
And then I realized why: people only really care about energy policy, good or bad, to the extent they understand there’s a crucial, positive value at stake. […] Thus priority number one needs to be: present a compelling, positive vision of the right values and policies.
There is a lot to learn on this topic from the “green” movement, even though they advocate all the wrong policies. They are able to gain a huge amount of enthusiasm for “green” policies because they connect those policies to crucial values…and they are able to gain the moral high ground against industrial freedom by portraying it as the source of short- and long-term environmental destruction–that is, the destruction of crucial values.
There is no reason that advocates of industrial capitalism can’t do the same thing, but much better and much more honestly.
When we offer an ideal, we can set the terms of the debate.
By contrast, if we focus our efforts on arguing against environmentalism, without offering a clear, defined, illustrated, inspiring alternative, then our best-case scenario is to get from bad to zero–from embracing “green” policies to disagreeing with them. But we want to get them from bad to good–to embracing industrial progress and industrial freedom.
I call this approach Aspirational Advocacy, because it means connecting our political policies to our audience’s deepest values and aspirations. […]
[Find out more about Alex Epstein by visiting www.industrialprogress.net]
Alex does a great job of capturing the essence of the problem: “When we offer an ideal, we can set the terms of the debate.” And when we don’t, we can’t and we are forced to fight on the ground our enemies have picked for us.
When we inspire our audience by showing them how to make their lives better, we give them a reason to act and knowledge of why they are acting. This is important in any debate we might wish to win, in any arena in which real values are threatened by false values or where human life is being attacked for the sake of non-humans (whether mythical, imaginary, animal, whatever). We can’t win by being on the defensive. We can’t win by fighting a battle that was stacked against us at the beginning. We can’t win by merely destroying: we must create. We must show the value of a life lived well and the value doing so.
If we want to win the world, then we have to inspire people to our moral ideal and show them why our way is the only way.