My belief, the “new” atheism, and philosophy: partially examined life podcast (2011)

I have written on Sam Harris before in both his claims about Buddhism, which Meera Nanda has covered better than I, and his claims about objective morality, which Rationally Speaking has covered better than I, his arrogance at avoiding meta-ethics, and his veiled advocacy of pre-emptive violence in The End of Faith, which I have written about at length. On the later, I have been told time and again that Harris doesn’t believe this, but here’s the quote: “Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. . . . There is, in fact, no talking to some people. … We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.” (Sam Harris, The End of Faith). Notice how Harris keeps plausible deniability by the use of “may,” which is rhetorically cowardly to boot.

But, before I can called a theist or a religious apologist or some such nonsense, my problems with Harris are largely that I see him as dangerous to science and philosophy. Philosophy because, while he has an Undergraduate Degree in it from Stanford, he seems to not truly understand a quite a bit of the history of philosophy nor does he seem to be able to make a logical argument. What most of my “skeptical” friends say about Harris is that he “sounds” reasonable, and always speaks calmly. They also dislike relativists and post-modernists. I often, however, get the distinct feeling they actually have never read the philosophers they are arguing against. It is almost always a straw-man argument. Few of the words are quoted or addressed directly, which is telling. Why I see Harris as dangerous to science is that he doesn’t seem to respect most accepted notions of a demarcation line. In many ways, I think Harris is making category errors and also trying to more morality into a scientific category: this seems like a slapdash move to confuse correlation/causation on Harris’s part and to confuse descriptive/normative. To put this in logical terms: this is two category errors. Or, to put in my cultural Marxist language, he is trying to committing trying in a process of rectification to support an ideological complex.

So I have been following what Partially Examined Life guys have said on Harris (here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), and I was excited that they finally did their New Atheist Episode.

This episode is excellent, but not so much when they deal with Sam Harris who they can barely find a philosophical argument in to actually reject. Points where the Partially Examined Life Crew point out that there are philosophical errors in Dawkin’s, particularly a equivocation on different forms of the antropic principle and pointing out that the “Tea Pot” argument which has always seem to me be flippant actually also contains an error. Furthermore, it seems like the “principle of sufficient reason” is a problem for physics in either a theistic or an atheistic frame work. It may be that the “principle of sufficient reason” itself is not applicable to things that happen before motion in our universe gave us some sense of time. This seems like a major problem in physics right now, but it has major philosophical implications.

Still, I wish they have discussed Dennett more and maybe a more philosophically inclined New Atheist like Victor Stinger instead of Christopher Hitchens, who is admittedly a charming and robust polemicist. Dennett’s concept of memes has been problematic to me. I am not the only one who finds problematic either on the skeptical/atheist spectrum. Rationally Speaking has been exploring the problems of the concept for a while (here and here). The problems with meme and memeplexes is that even as an analogy they are incredibly imperfect: they have no physical or material implantation mechanism, they seem to treat ideas has have no sociological or material context, and almost seems like a (pseudo-)biological dualism as it treats ideas as almost self-existing.

Anyway, I am going to quote Julian Baggini, one of my favorite professional atheists:

This is most evident when you consider the poverty of the new atheism’s “error theory”, which is needed to explain why, if atheism is indeed the view evidence and reason demands, so many very bright people are still religious. The usual answers given to this are not good enough. They tend to stress psychological blind-spots and wishful thinking. For instance, Dawkins says “the meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.”

But if very intelligent people are so easily led astray by such things, then shouldn’t the new atheists themselves be more sceptical about the role reason plays in their own belief formation? You cannot, on the one hand, put forward a view that says great intelligence is easily over-ridden by psychological delusions and, on the other, claim that one unique group of people can see clearly what reason demands and free themselves from such grips. Either many religious people are not as irrational as they seem, or atheists are not entitled to assume they are as rational as they seem to themselves.

I also think the new atheism tends to get religion wrong. The focus is always on the out-dated metaphysics of religion, its belief in personal creator gods, miracles, souls and so forth. I have no doubt that the vast majority of the religious do indeed believe in such things. Indeed, I’m on the record as accusing liberal theologians of hiding behind their less literalist interpretations, and pretending that matters of creed don’t really matter at all.

However, there is much more to religion to the metaphysics. To give a non-exhaustive list, religion is also about trying to live sub specie aeternitatis; orienting oneself to the transcendent rather than the immanent; living in a moral community of shared practice or as part of a valuable tradition; cultivating certain attitudes, such as gratitude and humility; and so on. To say, as Sam Harris does, that “religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time” misses all this. The practices of religion may be more important then the narratives, even if people believe those narratives to be true.

The new atheism has also, I think, created an unhelpful climate for atheism to flourish. When people think of atheists now, they think about men who look only to science for answers, are dismissive of religion and over-confident in their own rightness.


One thought on “My belief, the “new” atheism, and philosophy: partially examined life podcast (2011)

  1. We really aren’t that far apart here. I’m still somewhat more convinced of the rational content of theism, which draws me towards naturalistic pantheism. Also, the human tendency towards moral realism generates a drive towards projecting objective ethical norms, easily personified as deities. Add to that community, desire for ritual (beauty/aesthetics), and other things you identify and you get a justification for religious naturalism.

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