Questionable Motives

February 16, 2011

What is the role of New Atheism?

I simply have to re-post a comment because it is so articulately expressed by thephilosophicalprimate that I think nails the role of New Atheism. It involves a responding to a couple of posts by Eric MacDonald over at Choice in Dying – a wonderful new blog that is rich in good writing, interesting commentary, and important topics in need of our consideration – that deal with what’s missing from the New Atheist’s contribution to the world today and responds well to the issues Eric raises:

Here is where I think our prior discussion about the values at the heart of New Atheism has more potential than has yet been explored. New Atheists don’t just agree on a set of conclusions, but on a set of common underlying epistemological values, the norms which both motivate and structurally determine the arguments which we make in support of those conclusions. When I brought this up before, I mentioned in parentheses that I don’t think epistemological values and moral values are entirely separable. What you are talking about in this post, Eric, starts to touch on the territory where I think they intersect and overlap.

So what are those shared values? To rehash a bit: Atheists, for the most part, care a great deal about attempting to discover the truth rather than assuming that we already know it (i.e. fallibilism), and we reject anyone’s insistence that some claims can be or should be off-limits to rigorously applied critical thinking. Atheists care about evidence and reasoning, and think that claims ought to be accepted as true only to the extent that they can be justified. But why do we prize fallibilism and genuine truth-seeking justification so highly, and reject the opposite — faith — so thoroughly?

One answer is pragmatic: These are the epistemic norms that work! That is, consistently following such norms gives us the sort of reliable knowledge that we can use to accomplish our aims in the world, whatever those may be. And that’s fine as far as it goes.

However, a deeper answer points towards core moral values, not just instrumental/pragmatic values. Ultimately, faith almost always consists in relying on or accepting some authority: the authority of a holy book; the authority of the writers of such books who claim to speak for a still higher, divine authority (evidence for which is nonexistent); or, most commonly, the authority of those who claim the right to interpret the meaning of holy books and the wills of gods (but again, offer no evidence to back that claim to authority). Rejecting faith not only manifests epistemic values that treasure authentic truth-seeking over comforting or self-serving delusions, it manifests moral values that treasure human freedom and self-determination over bowing to illegitimate authority*. New Atheists value both intellectual and practical liberty, both freedom of thought (within the limits of legitimate concessions to the universe itself, i.e. epistemic norms such as fallibilism and evidence-driven reasoning) and freedom of action (within the limits of legitimate concessions to the similar freedom enjoyed by others). And when I say “New Atheists value” such and such, I am suggesting both that the extant New Atheists I’ve read and engaged with do in fact demonstrate that they embrace such moral values, but also that these moral values are logically connected to the epistemological values which drive the movement: A New Atheist who rejected such values (if there were such a creature) would be inconsistent in doing so.

Moreover, the pragmatic answer and the moral answer converge, at least by implication. Valuing sound epistemic norms because of their pragmatic value — they give us reliable knowledge useful for accomplishing our ends whatever those ends might be — directly implies that accomplishing our ends is, generally speaking, a good thing. (The “generally speaking” caveat is not trivial: Individually, we each consider accomplishing our own ends to be good, but the actual ends any given person is attempting to accomplish may or not be good in some universalizable moral sense.) However, the disconnection of pragmatic value from any particular end also implies, albeit indirectly, a live-and-let-live attitude towards choosing ones ends. In other words, valuing epistemic norms which let us accomplish our ends (whatever those ends might be) is integrally interrelated with valuing human freedom, for if the word “freedom” has any meaning at all, surely that meaning includes determining and pursuing one’s own ends.

So if you want to understand what moral values underlie New Atheism, I think you need look no further than John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. (Which, coincidentally, was published in 1859, the same year as another book of some considerable importance to New Atheist thought…)

That said, I’m not sure how far Mill’s very individualistic liberal political philosophy responds to the exact concerns you point towards here, which are all tied up with communal identity and activity. Then again, there is nothing in even the most individualistic liberalism which in any way undermines the value of communities and communal identities; it only demands that participation in such communities must always be wholly voluntary for all involved — which is exactly what New Atheists are fighting for. To elaborate a bit, for membership in any community or collective identity to be genuinely and wholly voluntary, no community or shared identity or set of beliefs (or institution formed by the like-minded) can occupy a place of special privilege or power above and beyond the basic freedom of its individual members. Guaranteeing voluntary participation in turn requires that the beliefs and commitments underlying any and every such community must be adopted or rejected by potential community members in a context where there is absolute freedom of thought and discussion, where no ideas or beliefs receive any special protection or privileged status that places them beyond question or criticism. Without freedom of thought and discussion, privileged positions or institutions (i.e. walling off religion from criticism) have an intellectually coercive power over citizens that undermines the very possibility of genuinely and wholly voluntary participation OR rejection of the position.

In other words, the fight New Atheists are already fighting springs from the same set of interrelated epistemic and moral values that I’ve been discussing here. The persistent and insistent claims that “something is missing” from the New Atheist world view is true; what is missing is the siren call of easy assent to illegitimate authority — the human instinct to blend in and concede our autonomy to parent-mimicking authorities who, unlike actual (good) parents, do not have our genuine best interests at heart. What is missing are some of the worse aspects of our human nature, not the better ones. Humanity is well and truly better off being rid of what is “missing” from the New Atheist value system, and I have yet to see any argument or evidence that the genuinely worthwhile value of community and collective identity are in any way excluded or undermined by our value system. Instead, serious commitment to human intellectual and practical freedom offers us the means to strip away the coercive and exclusive** components that make community and collective identity such a mixed blessing.

—–
* What constitutes legitimate authority? I think the most basic answer — the conception of legitimate authority settled on by everyone who thinks seriously about it, and the one that appears to have risen to the top on the tide of history — is some form of democratic authority. Authority is legitimated by the consent of those governed by the authority, and authority in the absence of consent is illegitimate by its very nature. Genuine consent, of course, cannot be produced by force or deception — and faith is the ultimate form of deception, since the deceived are persuaded to actively deceive themselves for the most part. (Although religious authorities engage in lots and lots of plain old deception as well as encouraging self-deception; you don’t think those statues *really* weep by themselves, do you?) Therefore, the authority of religion is always and forever illegitimate authority. It is no coincidence that religious traditions which place the least emphasis on faith — Buddhism, Unitarian Universalism and other broadly ecumenical traditions — are also the least authoritarian, and vice versa. And notice that this discussion of illegitimate authority and the coercive nature of privileged positions connects very closely to the discussion of the role of freedom of thought and discussion above.

** By “exclusive components,” I mean all the potential for communities and communal identities to manifest ugly in-group/out-group, us/them dynamics that undermine basic respect for the rights and basic worth of those outside the group — the foundation of genocides, religious wars, and simple bigotry. How does attention to human freedom strip out the exclusive elements of community? Because it is rooted in the fundamental recognition of all other humans as beings with the right to think for themselves, to decide what they think is worthwhile and to pursue what is worthwhile with the greatest freedom consistent with a similar freedom for all. Such a live-and-let live, individualistic morality undermines bigotry in all its forms, whereas more authoritarian values actively encourage it.

Advertisements

4 Comments »

  1. TPP’s comments are often excellent, but here he uses very many words to say that atheists hold in common a high value on fallibilism, truth-seeking, and freedom. Can you explain how you see this describing a role, or, how it addresses Eric’s question?

    “I want to raise the question of where the movement of nonbelief goes from here, and how it can provide for people ways of marking the significances of their lives within community.”

    Comment by Uzza — February 18, 2011 @ 10:08 am | Reply

    • The movement of non belief called New Atheism is to promote this set of interrelated epistemic and moral values, that the role of people operating under these values is to think for themselves, to decide what they think is worthwhile and to pursue what is worthwhile with the greatest freedom consistent with a similar freedom for all. People who make up this community can mark the significance of their lives in exactly the same way: by demonstrating respect for these values no matter what the specifics may look like. In other words, one removes impediments to these values and doesn’t ‘replace’ it with anything. People will find replacements that are appropriate for them.

      Comment by tildeb — February 18, 2011 @ 3:21 pm | Reply

  2. I still want very much to know on what you base your allegiance to the golden rule, the greatest freedom consistent with a similar freedom for all (i.e. the interdiction of violating another’s freedom according to my set of convictions), and generally the idea of equal rights of those who share your values (but not those you deem intolerant or hallucinatory.)

    What arguments are there for someone who isn’t yet converted to “respect these values”?

    Comment by FreeFox — February 22, 2011 @ 11:40 am | Reply

    • The argument that seems most appropriate is this one from Eric MacDonald who explain how his faith-based beliefs were undermined so effectively and completely by reading and understanding Darwin’s Origin of Species and the character of the world (and our place in it) that evolution reveals in its stunning waste and glory and the contingencies of how survival happens:

      The completely contingent character of the world is fully revealed, and it’s hard to understand how one did not see this before. It should have been obvious! But not only is contingency obvious; it becomes obvious that, if the way the world is is contingent, then knowledge itself, if not contingent, must be a fully human project, the product of millennia of trial and error. And then, it becomes pellucidly clear that morality itself is human, that goodness is a purely human product, and very fragile, not something simply built into the process by which we came to be, but an extrapolation from that process, and, to the extent possible, a determination to bend the process to ensure better outcomes.

      The argument is really one of respecting what’s true, respecting how we can determine what’s true, and respecting the reasoning that informs our understandings we extrapolate from knowledge.

      Comment by tildeb — February 22, 2011 @ 12:06 pm | Reply


RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: