Monday, May 09, 2011

Serious business

Stephanie Zvan points us to a few articles criticizing the Gnu Atheists. These articles, by Michael Ruse, Jacques Berlinerblau, and R. Joseph Hoffmann chide the Gnu Atheists for ignoring serious issues of serious philosophy. All right, that's a fair issue to raise. If we really are ignoring serious philosophy that has substantial implications on our position, it's absolutely necessary to call this serious philosophy to our attention.

Michael Ruse embeds a couple of paragraphs of argument in a dozen paragraphs consisting of bitching and moaning that no one likes him, and gratuitous insults directed at the New Atheists:
won’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions about the conflict between science and religion. ... I don’t think philosophy is something to be ignored or done after a day’s work in the lab over a few beers in the faculty club.

He finally does mention an argument:
I think if you want to show that science and religion are inherently in contradiction, then you should show why people like Kuhn (and indeed Foucault) are wrong about the nature of science. That I think is morally wrong, namely taking positions with major political and social implications, without doing your serious homework. Just mentioning Galileo’s troubles with the Church or Thomas Henry Huxley’s debate with the Bishop of Oxford is no true substitute for hard thinking.
Strong words indeed. But what, precisely, do Kuhn and Foucault say? In what specific way must we prove them wrong? Ruse at least mentions Kuhn's
insistence that scientific thinking is deeply and necessarily metaphorical (something he thought was equivalent to his claims about paradigms). What Kuhn pointed out is that while metaphorical thinking is very powerful, in both explanatory and heuristic senses, it succeeds in major part by ignoring certain questions, ruling them off limits.
Ruse concludes that
If I say my love is a red, red rose, I am saying nothing about her mathematical abilities, and if I say (as today’s scientists do say) that the world is a whacking big machine, I am saying nothing about such questions as why there is something rather than nothing, why morality, or (and this is more controversial) why computers made of meat (aka brains) produce sentience.

I think science leaves these questions open, and if religion wants to try to answer them, it is perfectly legitimate for it to do so. It doesn’t mean that we have to accept the answers of the religious, and it doesn’t mean that religion cannot be criticized—I have said that for me personally the problem of evil is beyond solution—but I don’t think it can be criticized by science.

That's it. That's the "serious" philosophy. Good grief.

First, why must we prove Kuhn wrong? Suppose Kuhn is exactly correct: science really is deeply and necessarily metaphorical. and to answer some questions we must ignore others. Why must we believe, however, that science deeply and necessarily must ignore questions about morality or why "computers made of meat ... produce sentience"? But perhaps Ruse is correct, perhaps science really does exclude such questions; what does he mean that it is "legitimate" for religion to answer these questions? Why does he believe (or, without citations expect us to believe) that the New Atheists try to criticize the Problem of Evil by science?

The Problem of Evil is an especially weird point because it has been so thoroughly demolished by philosophers amateur and professional (Epicurus fundamentally rebutted it twenty-five centuries ago) that it really doesn't need to be taken very seriously by anyone today. The religious "defenses" against the Problem of Evil save God by denying morality: God is sovereign, and if it pleases Him to be indifferent to or actively inflict suffering, who are we to object? Alternatively, God is mysterious, we just don't know what good or evil is, so we have no way of judging God's actions. These are excuses, not defenses.

Of course, real scientific facts do play a part in moral discourse. People justify slavery and racism by asserting that black people are objectively, scientifically inferior to white people. People justify misogyny and the oppression of women by asserting that women are objectively inferior to men. People justify homophobia by asserting that gay people are objectively inferior to straights. People justify laissez faire capitalism by asserting that poor people are objectively inferior to rich people.

These questions are dead center in the domain of science. And, of course, religious clergy justify their special privilege and authority to make moral pronouncements on a purely scientific basis: they know what God has to say about blacks, women, gays, politics, war, fiscal policy, and the operating hours of liquor stores. If they're claiming an epistemic basis for their moral beliefs, why should we not compare these claims to those of science, the best epistemic basis we know?

I dunno. Maybe there's an actual case underneath Ruse's complaints. But he doesn't actually make his case. The sine qua non of serious philosophy is that you have to make your case every time. You can't just point to Kuhn (or Foucault) and say, "Rebut that!" Serious philosophy is hard work; if Ruse doesn't want to do the hard work himself, he has no business making vague, uncited (and so completely inaccurate as to raise suspicion of mendacity; see any number of atheist philosophers, e.g. Michael Martin, Antony Flew, Stephen Law, Russell Blackford) accusations that the New Atheists are avoiding this hard work.

Jacques Berlinerblau doesn't start off any better than Ruse, beginning by poisoning the well with an obvious straw man (again uncited):
Unless you as an atheist are willing to disparage all religious people, describe them all as imbeciles and creeps, mock every text and thinker they have ever produced, then you must be some sort of deluded, self-hating, sellout, subverting the rise of the Mighty Atheist Political Juggernaut (about which more anon).
Good grief. But he promises an argument:
So permit me to rehearse my concerns about that movement—concerns that lead me to conclude that Professor Ruse is on to something.
(We will assume he's speaking metaphorically; his own concerns are, by themselves, hardly probative of anything.)

In fact, atheism is still trying to dig out from the self-inflicted damage caused by its mid-century embrace of American communism. That was followed by Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s carnivalesque and tragic reign of error. New Atheism is just the latest bad idea to grab the steering wheel
Huh. Not really an argument. All right, not an argument at all. It's a free country, though, and Jacques is entitled to his opinion. Let's push on.

New Atheism is the least intellectually rigorous form of atheism out there, much in the way Tea Party platforms are like the Non-Thinking Man’s form of libertarianism or anti-federalism.
Ah, the neutral, unbiased thesis, the sine qua non of intellectual rigor. Refreshing! </sarcasm> Evidence of this lack of intellectual rigor:
In fact, what is fascinating about the New Atheists is their almost complete lack of interest in the history and philosophical development of atheism. ...

The least curious of them all is Christopher Hitchens.
Wait, the least curious? If Jacques wants to draw a generalization, shouldn't he be talking about the most curious? Oh wait, he's got that "intellectual rigor" thing going for him.

Must we, to understand biology with "intellectual rigor", understand the complete history of the development of biology, even before Pasteur and Darwin? Perhaps we must, but again, if he's going to be intellectually rigorous, perhaps Jacques might actually make the case that the history of atheism is so critically important.

But the real disaster set in when the New Atheists started speaking in the name of secularism. This* created an equation between anti-theism and secularism which is as ungrounded as it is catastrophic.
*When I was a junior in high school, my English teacher would have students broken on the wheel for using an unqualified "this". What my college Freshman Composition professor would do cannot be spoken of in civilized society.

Now Jacques does not claim that New Atheists are themselves asserting an equation between anti-theism and secularism. Merely that self-identified atheists are "speaking in the name of secularism" (whatever the fuck that means) creates this equation. Why atheists? Do Christians "speaking in the name of secularism" create an equation between Christianity and secularism? Oh, wait... "The roots of the political ideology of secularism, as any graduate student in the field can tell you, are profoundly and unambiguously Christian." Ah. So secularism is Christianity. We must be Christians... or at least submissive to Christians, to be secular. "Of course, if you read some of the scholarly works cited above you will learn that atheism too is a product of religious thought." No! Whoda thunk it!?

Unbelievable Amounts of White Dudes
Yeah, it's an issue. There are lots of complicated underlying causes, though. Atheists are not, like the Tea Party, chock full o' explicitly racist and sexist assholes. Whatever racism and sexism exists in the New Atheist movement is pretty soft. The softness is not an excuse, but it really looks like Jacques (presumably an academic, and academia has its own problems with racism and sexism) is reaching here.

Culture of Incivility
Incivility. Yeah, about that, Jacques:
... predictable snark of New Atheist trolls ... Mighty Atheist Political Juggernaut ... the New Atheists are a disaster and a danger ... Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s carnivalesque and tragic reign of error ... New Atheism is the least intellectually rigorous form of atheism out there, much in the way Tea Party platforms are like the Non-Thinking Man’s form of libertarianism or anti-federalism ... inexplicably unserious ... crude hyper-empiricism, hyper-materialism, and an undiscriminating anti-theism ... least curious ... [New Atheists'] dogma forces them at every turn to discredit anything produced within religious systems of thought ... I fear this may be too much for the New Atheists to digest in one sitting ... a smackdown of Islam that could just as well come from the Tea Party Training Manual ... know-nothing approach ...
I'm sorry, were you saying something about incivility?

The Whole Tolerance Thing
See above.

Political Accomplishments
Indeed. Being elected to office is always strong evidence of intellectual rigor. As Jacques himself mentions, the "Tea Party ... get themselves elected to office." Impressive evidence of intellectual rigor.

Maybe we'll get to an actual argument...
That’s enough for now.
Perhaps not.

R Joseph Hoffman is just too depressing to bother to critique. Yes, a lot of atheists like low humor. A lot of religious people like low humor too, and there's a lot burning stupidity in religion as well. A whole post calling people "jerks" and "fuckwits" seems pretty jerky to me. Not that I have any objection to being a "jerk" (if that means calling stupid people stupid), but if you're criticizing people for being jerks, you might want to avoid the behavior yourself.


  1. Another interesting and well written article. I must admit I truly enjoy reading these. While neither an atheist nor communist myself (I enjoy the violence inherent in the opposite systems too much) its always a refreshing jaunt through the mind of someone else. Keep up the good work good sophist.

  2. Funny that Berlinerblau singled out Christopher Hitchens as the "least curious" of the 'new' atheists regarding the history of atheism. I happen to have a copy of The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever, an anthology of atheist/deist/skeptical writings that goes back to Lucretius and was selected and edited by none other than Christopher Hitchens. I guess not reading Hitchens' writings before bellowing about them is part of that "intellectual rigor" I've heard so much about.

    The only way I can reconcile it with what I know of Hitchens' genuinely expansive knowledge of atheistic writings is that perhaps it was uttered as a threat. Maybe Berlinerblau is attempting to subtly point out how much of the history of atheism is filled with people being jailed, exiled, or burnt at the stake, and thus we atheists shouldn't be as vocal as we are these days. Or maybe Berlinerblau is just an ignorant fool.

    Although I have to credit his somewhat deeper knowledge in one respect: I never knew I was required to pour scorn on all theists and reject all their writings and thinkers. Now I feel a little foolish for having invested in a copy of Ian McKellen reading The Odyssey. And aside from having bought that book, I'm currently reading The Aeneid (Dryden's translation) and The Death of the Gods, the historical novel about Julian the Apostate by the Russian Christian mystic and author Dmitri Merezhkovsky. I suppose I'll have to throw them all over and content myself with reading The God Delusion again.

  3. The "dude" problem is exacerbated by characterisation of stupid complaints as "bitching"


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