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.


January 10, 2010

Is John Stewart Mill’s essay On Liberty still valid?

Filed under: Argument,JS Mills,Liberty,Review — tildeb @ 1:07 am

It can be said of only a very few texts that they are touchstones for important discussions across many generations. John Stuart Mill produced such a text in 1859, and friends of freedom would do well to celebrate the sesquicentennial of On Liberty. At a time when challenges to human rights and freedom of expression continue around the world, the message of this relatively short work remains a clarion-call for liberty and the supreme dignity of the individual. Mill himself was insightful and modest enough to realise that the 19th century liberalism he virtually incarnated was but a progressive stepping-stone to a future in which, he hoped, the dignity and liberty of the individual citizen would develop to new heights. For all of its at times long-winded exposition and brevity of justification on certain key points, its style is consistently clear and even moving. Most importantly, its ideas reverberate still.

Furthermore, Mill’s related belief that even countering false opinions is a valuable exercise in logical debate may have its limits in dealing with such extreme cases. Some views are so clearly pernicious and illiberal that at the very least, their unimpeded circulation can be seen as a threat to liberalism itself. In an era when we are confronted with ongoing threats from fanatical extremists and recalcitrant authoritarians, defenders of liberty cannot afford to be too complacent about the truth prevailing in the end, as Mill believed it likely would. In our public and business dealings, we accept wisely the need for standards and laws regulating truth in many areas. These include upholding transparency in bargaining, as well as advertising standards, and laws against slander and fraud. Also, the legitimate persistence of laws in liberal democracies related to sedition and conspiracy are an institutional testament to the real need for a liberalism that can defend itself against both external and internal threats. Balancing this with the equally real need to defend civil liberties at home and abroad will require great resolve and sensitivity. For all of its limitations, On Liberty remains one of the best touchstones for this important philosophical debate.

From the excellent review by Eric Litwack here or download the entire essay here.

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