Sunday, April 15, 2012

Sacking the City of God

It's interesting to contrast PZ Myers upcoming speech, "Sacking the City of God," with timberwraith's recent diatribes against atheism: Agnostic and A Movement of Disappointment.

It's hard to see Myers speech as anything but precisely that which timberwraith finds objectionable about atheism. From the title to the conclusion:
I have a different metaphor for us, my brothers and sisters in atheism. We are not sheep; there are no shepherds here. I look out from this stage and I see 4000 pairs of hunter’s eyes, 4000 hunter’s minds, 4000 pairs of hunter’s hands. I see the primeval primate hunting band grown large and strong. I see us so confident in our strength that we laugh at our enemies. I see a people thinking and planning, fierce and focused, learning and building new tools to conquer new worlds.

You are not sheep. You, my brothers and sisters in atheism, are a fierce, coordinated hunting pack — men and women working together, and those other bastards have cause to fear us. So let’s do it: make them tremble as we demolish the city of god.
Myers exudes confidence, even perhaps arrogance. We are right, we atheists, and we know we're right, and being right gives us power. It's the power to demolish the "City of God," the edifice of superstition, the idea that we can privilege this or that moral or even scientific belief, good or bad, by an appeal to private knowledge of the mind of God.

Instead, we know we can learn about the universe, of which the human mind and the human "spirit" are fully a part, and we can use that knowledge to make a better life, not just for those who hold the same arbitrary superstitions out of tribal identity, but for everyone, for only reason and knowledge are truly universal. And since we can do so, we must do so: to remain silent is to sit idly by while a fellow human being drowns; to protect religion from criticism and, yes, mockery, is block others from rescuing the drowning man.

Contrast this with the core of timberwraith's diatribe:
I am one small person, facing the inscrutable vastness of a universe that is beyond my full comprehension. What I see is nothing more than a window’s breadth of existence. I can not say with certainty that no aspect of this realm is aware in a way that is beyond human understanding. Nor can I claim with certainty that such an awareness exists.
Timberwraith frames her position around certainty, but that's just a cop-out. One does not need certainty to know, and atheists do not claim certainty. We do claim knowledge, so it must be the knowledge she claims we have only pretension to. She accuses us not of unjustified certitude but actual ignorance and blindness. Timberwraith does not seem to like knowledge: "And so, I prefer the unknown. I walk through a land without boundaries. I cast my destiny into the void of formlessness…"

In a sense, she's absolutely correct: what she doesn't like about atheism is not just a few "bad apples" but what atheism (and New Atheism even more so) is all about.

Like the religious, atheism has a moral vision, a vision of things ought to be, not just for ourselves as individuals, but for society as a whole. Like the religious, we claim to know our moral vision is correct. Like the religious, we are willing and able to use social tools to bring about that moral vision. If you want to tell me that there are some deep similarities between the religious and atheists, especially the New Atheists, I will happily admit the similarity.

But similarity is not identity. We are the same in many ways, but there is a crucial difference: when we claim to know, we claim to know not by private faith or authority but by public reason. When we, as humanists, say our moral vision is that everyone ought to be as happy as we can manage to be, we say that because we know by reason that people want to be happy. When we say that men and women, Black people and white people, gay people and straight people, ought to be treated the same, it's because we know by reason that there are no morally relevant differences between these categories. Those who say there are differences rely on either outright lies or unreasonable, irrational bullshit.

Timberwraith has a moral vision too, I think. It's hard to say what it is, but she must have one because she does not say merely that atheism is not her cup of tea; we are wrong and bad. You have to have a moral vision to make that kind of distinction. And she's willing and able to use social tools — mockery, insult, appeals to emotion, a condemnation of ideas that are at the core of many people's identity — to promote her moral vision. Good for her: she is a human being, and having and promoting a moral vision is what people do.

I can't know, but I can speculate, and I suspect timberwraith's moral vision is a deep abhorrence of conflict. What seems to incense the soi-disant "moderate" critics of New Atheism is just that: we have abandoned our bland "why can't we all just get along" secularism and embraced the conflict as a conflict, and we intend to win. We have abandoned the mode of "let us reason together" because we know that religious belief is unreasonable; we would rather embrace conflict than unreason.

If that's not your moral vision, you must, like timberwraith, set yourself at odds with atheism and the New Atheists. If it is, though, if you want a reasonable society, you should join us.

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