If you made it through high school, there’s a good chance you took a Miller’s Analogies test. It required you to select from a list of pairs of words which bear the best relation to another pair of words. A is to B as X is to _____. For example:
CLUMSY : BOTCH
A. wicked : insinuate
B. strict : pamper
C. willful : heed
D. clever : eradicate
E. lazy : shirk
The answer is E. This is not a test of antonym or synonym recognition. It requires thought, not a mental list of definitions, because it requires an analysis of context, meaning and relationship.
This test came to mind today because I noted that two words which on some levels can be analogous have started to become synonymous and that led me to reflect on ways in which that has occurred in my professional world of animal welfare. The two words were “humanism” and “atheism”. Humanism and atheism are not synonymous one their face, yet they are increasingly so in their expression and perception, even to the point of being able to find contextually vastly different definitions.
Humanism’s most ubiquitous definition is that it is a system or mode of thought or action in which human interests, values, and dignity are taken to be of primary importance and is unrelated and independent of religion or deity. We should do right (or wrong or anything) because of our own choices, thoughts, or ethics, not because of the intervention or edicts of religion or a deity. This is an affirmative belief system which can exist regardless of any other belief system.
However, various other definitions offer a subtle but profound skewing of this and refer to humanism as a denial of the divine. That is, of course, the exact definition of atheism and it is a negative belief system which calls for the negation of any belief in the divine. Atheists seek to deny the undeniable just as deists seeks to affirm the unaffirmable.
This conflating of the two definitions is seen in the advertising campaigns of the American Humanist Association’s advertising campaigns which employ slogans such as “Why believe in God? Just be good for goodness’ sake.” But dragging that conflict into an arena which does not require it is a highjacking the analogous in an effort to create the synonymous.
This is exactly where things started to seem very familiar in an animal context. They do not say, “You don’t have to believe in God to be good,” or “My good is just as good as your good.” They are advocating that the belief in God is in itself a problem, as if the good end has been tainted by the means by which it was attained, even if the attained good ends are identical. This is the perversity of requiring synonymity to define intent. I have on more than one occasion attended fundraising workshops and classes and heard a variation of this question: Does it matter if a donor makes a gift for a tax write off or a because of a deep, true belief in our mission? The answer, if the sole end is the good the donation will do, is that it does not matter at all.
Nevertheless, I can always count on at least one person who will make an agitated case that it does matter and that the pure hearted donation is somehow inherently superior. It even generally possible to steer that person into a corner at which they will actually say a strictly profit motivated donation should be refused. Granted, these are not always deep thinkers. But there is a tendency to suspect motives other than the ones we believe should be driving a decision, even if the result is the same.
I believe this is the reason that so many people very nearly plead with me to say HSBC is “No Kill”. I certainly could- God knows places with much worse save rates than our routinely do. We regularly hit the very qualified target of 90% save rates from month to month. Functionally, we have attained the end sought by “No Kill” acolytes. These same masters of lemma will applaud the “No Kill” intent of agencies which are patently failing at the reaching the end, but which are failing to get there via a preferred theological avenue. Our organization on the other hand tends to be viewed with suspicion for not laying claim to both the end and the means.
Why don’t we? We don’t because in this case we are, if you’ll forgive the cobbling of concepts, “Animal Welfare Humanists”. We are arriving at the desired end not through a religious zeal to get here or by commandment of a prophet, we have made conscious choices based on our values and ethics which can exist outside the narrow constraints of the “No Kill” meme.
As importantly, we know that our success rides on the back of the struggles of others and of others’ choices. We have decreased euthanasia of feral cats by essentially refusing to accept them knowing that we will euthanize them and instead refer the public to feral cat advocacy groups. This limits the options available to the public. It’s good for the cats, but there is more to it than simply saying, “We succeed in not killing feral cats”. Our ability to hold animals for extended periods of time without facing a space crisis is the result of us dropping our dog catching and municipal euthanasia contracts and other groups having made the decision to take them on, along with thousands of animals which used to come to us.
The end result is that we hover right around “No Kill” rates despite not being strictly limited admission. While we can claim more than a little credit for having made strong decisions which are ethically defensible, we must also recognize that some of our good fortune is as much our doing as my fortune to be born white in modern America rather than Cambodian under the Khmer Rouge was due to some cleverness of my own and not sheer luck. Yes, we’ve made the most of the situation and made more of it than most but we started with a leg up. To pretend otherwise is like Donald Trump leaving out the part about being born to a real estate tycoon worth $200,000,000. It’s the little omissions which allow the camel through the eye of the needle with greater ease than us.
We got where we are though a lot of hard work, serious thought, and a little luck. Not because we are “chosen” or followed the hallowed path. And that is where this whole thing ties itself up in a neat little bow. Atheistic Humanism would devalue goodness derived from belief in deity. “No Kill” purists often devalue goodness attained via an animal welfare world view other than their own. The end may be identical and the means similar or analogous- especially to an outsider- but each side places a lower value on the identical results of the other.
“Yes, you may have tended to the sick because you thought it was the right thing to do, but I did it because my Holy book told me so, so I’m going to Heaven and you’re not.” Or, conversely, “I tended the sick of my own free will and you did it because you were compelled by your fake deity, making you a puppet to your faith.” Is it the problem of being compelled which causes the denialism of some?
There is a classic science fiction story, The Giving Plague, about a virus which makes everyone altruistic and the protagonist is a horrible human being who chooses to sacrifice himself to save others, despite being free of the virus, simply to prove he acts of his own free will and has not been compelled by an outside influence. In the end, it only mattered to him.
There is a middle way, they way of saying we don’t care why you do what you do, as long as it’s the right thing. Make a donation for the love of animals, for a tax break, or to curry a date with cute, single Development Director. It might matter to your everlasting soul, if there is one, but the good deed is the same. Hell, we’ll even help you to find whatever reason you need to do that good deed. We’re like philosophical honey badgers: we don’t care.
By the same token, “No Kill” fundamentalist claims which can be explicitly proven to be false, devious, or puerile should be presented as faith, not fact. We know that faith allows for belief in the unbelievable and even the utterly ridiculous. I will allow any Bible literalist to pick and choose which passages they want to accept literally while ignoring the admonitions against eating pork or shellfish or the designation of a man who offers up his daughters for mob rape being deemed “righteous”. Hey, it’s your belief system, think what you want. But don’t expect me to think it too because your book or belief in animals’ rights leads you to embrace not only the unaffirmable but the patently false.
Again, the why doesn’t matter at all. Who really has skin in a game of telling anyone that he can’t do good as well as she can because the good wasn’t done with a pure heart, or was done believing something stupid, or because we used different language or are a different color or a different political party? There are plenty of ways to devalue the good done by others. They are all beside the point. We need to do good because good needs to be done. Ends is to Why as Good is to Who the Hell Cares?
I’m not sure that analogy actually works but please take my intended meaning on faith.