Monday, April 30, 2012

Why all the bad philosophy?

The article in Psychology Today, which I'm informed, perhaps unreliably, hardly stands as a bastion of careful, logical thought. So perhaps that might explain why Dr. Steven Reiss's article, "Why All the Atheists?," displays such a profound misunderstanding of atheism.

Reiss starts by previewing his upcoming book, How God Inspires Us: Religion, Personality, and the Contradictions of Human Nature. In this book, Reiss promises that he will "suggest that religion's sacred role in society is to help people experience their life as meaningful." Because Reiss sees religion in this way, however, he goes on to assume that atheism, in setting itself up in opposition to religion, must therefore take the opposite view. "Meaning arises from purpose," Reiss asserts, and a "true" atheist, according to Reiss, is one who rejects any meaning or purpose for life: "Is the meaning of life real or an illusion? Does your life have meaning? If you say 'yes,' you are a believer. If you say 'no,' you are a true atheist."

Curiously, however, Reiss undermines his own point. Instead of showing us how atheists actually do reject real meaning, he makes two dubious criticisms of atheism. First, he claims, without support, that atheists oppose a straw man, and fail to explain mysticism. "Many atheists think the word 'god' refers to a grandfather in the sky looking down on us. They then reject this god. What they do not do is explain mystical experience, which many serious scholars take as the true origin of religion."

He then goes on to complain he does not understand why the atheist agenda promotes some sort of intuitive/analytical dichotomy. "It is claimed that religious people are presumably not analytical. I don't understand the point." He even quotes (without attribution) the claim that "smart people are atheists." Reiss does not believe that claiming a positive correlation between intelligence and atheism is insulting and does not provide insight.

While these might be interesting claims, even if they were precisely true, they utterly fail to support his thesis, that the debate really is between meaningfulness and meaninglessness. But are these points true?

First, it is ever the claim of atheists that large numbers of theists define a god as what is in essence a "grandfather in the sky," indeed what often seems a malevolent and sometimes insane grandfather. We atheists are simply responding to that conception of a god. If Reiss wants to dismiss this claim as a misreading of any kind of religious thought, then let him do more than simply mention that it fails to address how he himself views religious thought.

Second, I vaguely recall reading about some study that measured analytical and intuitive thought compared between religious and nonreligious people. Since I have not examined this study at all, much less in detail, I'm unable to offer an opinion about its conclusions or the quality of its methodology. But so what? If Reiss refers to this study, it is incompetent and dishonest to attribute the opinions of specific individuals to a group; it is proper to name the individuals and criticize them directly. If Reiss is not referring to that study, then his charge without support is reprehensible.

Finally, Reiss charges that atheists fail to explain mysticism. But what, precisely, is to be explained? Yay, William James was "a Harvard professor and a brilliant observer of human behavior." So what? Brilliant people are wrong, albeit brilliantly wrong, perhaps more often than mundane people. To see the world in a new way requires genius; to determine whether that new way is accurate, or to understand what that "new way" actually means requires more mundane critical thought. Simply accepting statements of truth at face value ignores half the intellectual work that always needs to be done.

Furthermore, there's a curious contradiction in Reiss's piece. On the one hand, he makes a sharp distinction between theism, which is about meaning, and science, which is about cause and effect: "The theist holds that life has meaning, and that science, based as it is on cause and effect, cannot explain meaning." Yet he charges that atheists have failed to explain something other than meaning; we have failed to explain "mystical experience." If Reiss does not believe that mystical experience provides scientific support for a theistic meaning, then atheists would not fail to explain mystical experience; we would simply fail to include meaning in our explanation. After all, Reiss does not say that atheists (scientists) have failed to explain mundane experiences, such as seeing things fall, even though we have not included any sort of "meaning" in our explanations. If Reiss does believe that mystical experience provides scientific support for theistic meaning, then he would not draw the sharp dichotomy between theism and science. Reiss seems to be trying to have his cake and eat it too.

Of course, atheists do not deny meaning; we merely deny that meaning is supernatural. Meaning and purpose are definitely present, but they are entirely human. The project of humanity is not to discover some meaning that is "out there", presumably in Reiss's opinion in the mind of a god. Our project, rather, is to create meaning, create purpose. Yes, science cannot discuss meaning, because every particular conception meaning is neither "true" nor "false"; it is neither an accurate nor an inaccurate description of objective reality. But just because it a particular meaning is not a representation of the world as it is does not make it without value.

Indeed, the atheist project is not against meaning, but against the claims that specific, particular meanings are supernaturally privileged. We are against the idea that, "My idea of meaning is better than yours because God says so," and we are against the "because God says so" part. (We do support the idea that some ideas of meaning are better than others, but on the basis of how well they conform to our scientific, sociological, political, and (ironically) psychological understanding of human minds.

If Reiss wants to promulgate a particular theory of religion, then do so: he should expect that criticism be addressed to him discuss his theory of religion. But by making the implicit claim that anyone criticizing religion in any way is necessarily criticizing his particular kind of religion, and by writing unsourced, straw-man slanders against atheists as a class, Reiss displays himself as incompetent and dishonest.


  1. BB--

    I've been having a dodgy discussion elsewhere over the'futility' of materialism (seems materialism can't explain 'justice.') As you've presented it, Reiss seems to make the same sort of conflation: that truth is equivalent to value or meaning. Atheism in one regard rejects (or hacks) traditional value and meaning in a way that seems offensive or disingenuous to him; because his meaning is 'true,' because it has historical and cultural validation, any other meaning cannot be true.

    Am I reading this correctly?


  2. theObserver5/3/12, 8:52 AM

    I'm happy to predict that :-

    1) The 16 goals are overly generalized and mostly pulled out of his ass (my bullshit detector always starts flashing a warning yellow whenever I hear "common to us all" or "human nature").
    2) He doesn't bother attempting a rigous definition of what he means by 'religion'.
    3) He doesn't explain what 'God' is or what he means by the term.
    4) He doesn't argue, let alone establish, that only religion can meet his 16 goals.
    5) He will forget 'that science, based as it is on cause and effect, cannot explain meaning' and claim his work explaining meaning is scientifically rigorous.

  3. "The article in Psychology Today, which I'm informed, perhaps unreliably, hardly stands as a bastion of careful, logical thought."

    Personally I don't think you've been misinformed:

  4. Personally I've always found that the nature of reality is quite divine and motivating enough without superimposing deism, theism, or any other abstraction on it.

    Thanks for posting.

    Joel, author

  5. Lamont: Sorry to take so long to respond.

    I don't think Reiss conflates truth with value or meaning. I think he defines religion as value or meaning. Therefore, since atheists are against religion, they are against value or meaning.

    As I note in the essay, Reiss starts off with this interpretation, but then immediately undermines it. By invoking mysticism, he's defending the basis, not the domain.

    Atheists do not define religion as value or meaning. Instead, we define religion as supporting truth claims by appeal to the supernatural; some of those truth claims are claims about value and meaning. Billions of religious believers seem to share this definition.

    We can deny the basis of truth claims without necessarily denying the actual truth of those claims. We can deny that that life has value or meaning because God says so without necessarily denying that life has value or meaning.


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