Shadow to Light has published another of its pieces on the view that the author, Michael, believes that ‘New Atheism’ is hypocritical. To do this, Michael has to imply certain premises. As they’re implied, I can’t be certain, but here is what I think the premises are: New Atheism is necessarily anti-religious, New Atheism presents “religious” ideas (as you’ll see, ‘religion’ is poorly defined here), New Atheists are necessarily advocates of ‘scientism’ or Ontological Materialism – thus any moral claim they make is religiously founded. There may be more. Inspired by my conversation with xPrae, and the advice of John Zande and Arkenaten, I have decided to not invest huge amounts of energy into the discussion at Shadow to Light, but instead to invest a little energy so that I can present them as well as possible, but actually have the discussion with an audience that is receptive. (That’s you, by the way.)
I may change my style soon, so that what you read isn’t just an adapted comment (probably just stealing from Makagutu over on Random Thoughts, or of the Sensuous Curmudgeon). However, I think the comment I adapted here is addressing the issue quite clearly.
My initial comment was seven criticisms, which equates to approximately one dismantling of Michael’s argument per written paragraph. To word that differently, I took issue with every single idea he presented. That’s not a good sign. Below are my seven criticisms, as well as a some extra points that came out of the discussion in the comments. It involves some direct questions and challenges to Michael, but I invite all readers to attempt answers if they feel strong enough to do so.
(1) The equivocation in the opening paragraph is hard to swallow for a number of reasons. The jumps are from atheism to political ideas (although, no mention of which ideas), from political ideas to zealous, dogmatic political ideology, and from there to Soviet Communism. Not only are some of these jumps unsupported, others are in direct conflict with the ideas of secularism; arguably the closest political idea to atheism, although still not a fair jump to make. Secularism includes religious liberty on the individual level. Soviet Communism did not.
(2) As for your criticism of the word “evil”, that seems fair enough. I am very uncomfortable using the word “evil” in objective terms. Although I believe one can tell the difference between something that is morally good and morally bad, I think of “evil” as a strictly emotional word. I’m not alone among atheists in that, but I am also not representative. (This is important in understanding one cannot criticise ‘atheism’ as some sort of monolith of ethical and political ideas.) However, the deeper implication you seem to be making is that if one is an atheist one cannot reliably tell the difference between good and bad (morally). That, I think, is untrue. I think we can have human discussion on what is good and what is bad and we can have philosophical ideas that inform moral decisions and I think different philosophies can be said to be better or worse than others. The strawman argument that morality doesn’t fall within ‘scientism’ is irrelevant; there is no onus on atheists to be advocates or scientism or ontological materialism (etc).
As far as the strength of human discussion goes to develop ethics, what about the possibility of an individual who believes morally repugnant things? Surely, just dismissing it as ‘repugnant’ isn’t part of a rational discussion. Kevin, in the comments, asked how a rational discussion to developing ethics might play out when talking to a person who believes in the rights of dominion of men over women, in eugenics and the survival of the fittest. To which, I have an answer.
To say that men are superior to women is a claim that demands some sort of evidence. Thus, you can dismiss it until the evidence based discussion for such superiority can be brought forward: ‘that which can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.’ It is not a part of a rational discussion. Survival of the fittest favours the elite; the top minority; the intelligentsia; the high level athletes. If we’re generous and say such a position favours the top 20%, why would the bottom 80% ever accept the underpinning principle as a brute ethical fact? To run by such an ethic probably involves the ‘elite’ taking control via tyranny, which is a direct contravention of the rational discussion I am advocating. As for eugenics, there is a greater problem: essentialism. To rationally identify what a defect is, one must be able to rationally articulate the concept of an idealised human. In the context of evolution in particular, this is simply impossible. Without the idealised ‘essentialist’ human, one cannot differentiate between a defect and a variation.
All of these are problems with the arguments themselves, and they seem to be pretty fatal in the context of a rational discussion. This hasn’t even begun to address how these ideas would fair in the open economy of ideas against discussion of empathy, compassion, wellbeing and liberty. I think the challenge Kevin presented confuses the possibility of dissenting voices with an ill-intending tyranny.
It is worth applying this method of thinking to American slavery. There is certainly rhetoric surrounding the idea that Americans were saving the ignorant black man from a savage and barbaric existence. If this rhetoric mapped onto reality well, then slavery may have been a good thing. The problem is that black people are not ignorant, existence in Africa was not necessarily barbaric or savage and slavery was incredibly difficult to consider “saving” the African people in any real sense. An open conversation could have revealed these facts very quickly. The defence of slavery would have failed on the intellectual market place of ideas, even before it ever had to compete against argument of compassion and liberty.
Slavery, which is the common example of morally relativistic societies on account of its existence in the Bible, may have been considered ‘good’ on the back of the initial assumptions, but it was defended through tyrannically excluding black people from the discussion and from education. Not even moral relativism can vindicate the slave owners who suppressed open, free and rational discussion.
There is a deeper question: why does Kevin think his interpretation of morality, which itself is the result of human conversations sparked by a specific Book, is so much better?
(3) I also don’t think the ‘puritan’, anti-theist, ‘Gnu’ Atheist character, which bows to some sort of ‘high priests’ in the pursuit of some mystical utopia, you present is representative. Utopia is a political idea and ‘high priests’ are contrary to many atheists’ underlying values of scepticism and rationality. There is also a difference between treating a person as a high priest and incidentally agreeing with someone. I’ve never seen someone sincerely say something akin to “of course he’s right, he’s Richard Dawkins, for crying out loud!” I, for one, often disagree with Coyne not just on content but also on presentation. Perhaps you could help me out, though. When I first came to Shadow to Light, I asked you to define “New Atheism” and I was told by a commenter that it should be clear by context. I still haven’t found it clear. Could you give me a brief explanation and perhaps an evaluation of whether you think I fit.
It is possible that you are talking in entirely tautological terms: New Atheists are ones that construct (unfounded and implicit) tenets from atheism and treat those religiously. Accusing that group, real or imagined, of being religious in nature is tautological. Although that seems clearly your definition to me, from some contexts, the fact it appears you feel you are addressing ‘atheism’ on a large scale at the same time undermines that. New Atheism (as defined by me just now) represents no one I know personally or online. And a majority of the people I know are atheists (welcome to the UK’s generation Y). If you are talking about New Atheism as I described it, then you are talking about a tiny subset of atheists defined by an entirely irrational relationship to atheism at large.
(4) The Extreme Feminist Atheism vs Hedonist Atheism is a somewhat misrepresented conflict. The real problem there is perhaps better expressed distinct from atheism, as questions not even pertaining to religion best are. But even if we look at it only within atheism, it is better described as ‘regressive left’ atheists vs progressive atheists (which still leaves a great number of atheists in the void between these views). Only looking at this problem within atheism blinds one to the fact this is a much wider discussion.
The regressive leftists are those who think the possibility of causing offence curtails liberties and freedoms, and so wants to censor people and ideas that could be thought of as offensive. The progressives are those who want to expand liberties to people and societies, I suppose with the implicit expectation that people will be mature enough to not be offended. The area of conflict is not just in the hyper-sensitive feminism, but also how we discuss the issues of Jihadism and Islamism.
(5) Sam Harris has explicitly not developed 10 Commandments or anything like it. I say “explicitly” because he, like Hitchens, rejects the idea that morality could even be reduced to ‘commands’ and believes there must be something deeper. The clarity with which I support Harris in this is waning a little, but I basically still think (philosophically, not scientifically) that morality must relate back to wellbeing in some way.
(6) I’m struggling with your conception of what a religion is. Nowhere is this more clear to me than when you describe advocating vegetarianism as being a religious move. I don’t see the spiritual or deistic element to this. Not all philosophy is religion. Not all confident people are dogmatic. Not all dogma is religion. There are good environmental, health and ethical reasons to be vegetarian or vegan and pointing that out (especially from the stance of a ‘philosopher’ who wrote a book an ethics) is not “religious”. (Even if it is dogmatic, which is another discussion.) Given that our choice of diet impacts on many of our common commodities, imploring people to manage it better makes perfect sense.
Michael has gone on to define ‘religion’ as any idea that is considered superior and worthy of convincing others of. As I have discussed before, I agree that dogmatic superiority is a concept to be very wary of. However, one does have to explain how they can tell the difference between someone saying ‘this is the best idea we have at the moment’ and ‘this is an infallible idea’. The ‘best idea we have at the moment’ is worthy of sharing, along with how it was discovered or is discoverable. The ‘infallible idea’ isn’t worthy of much more than the scorn Michael is applying. However, I’m not sure Michael has successfully identified the difference between the ‘best idea we have at the moment’ and an ‘infallible idea’.
(7) I would outright reject sex defined by political correctness, hyper-sensitive regressive feminism and ‘regressive leftism’. I’d much rather sex defined by progressive ideas of consent, security and the appropriateness of sometimes asking people to mind their own damned business.