Monday, September 10, 2012

Atheism Plus and the Liberal Conceit of Hyper-Rationality

Jen McCreight is a blogger at Freethought Blogs and recently she stirred the pot of the New Atheistic movement, by arguing that a third wave of atheism is needed to replace the Boy’s Club that currently rules and makes those like McCreight who say they apply skepticism to everything feel uncomfortable. Atheists like McCreight who are politically liberal and thus, as she says, who “care about social justice,” “support women’s rights,” “protest racism,” “fight homophobia and transphobia,” and “use critical thinking and skepticism,” don’t want to be called atheists when atheism is consistent with the opposite of those liberal views. She calls for Atheism Plus, a liberal form of atheism, and Greta Christina, another blogger at Freethought Blogs, distinguishes that form from secular humanism--mostly for strategic reasons: “Atheism Plus” is clearer than “secular humanism,” since “atheism” is currently more familiar to the public, and so forth.
I empathize with liberal atheists who want to belong to a social movement but who feel marginalized or patronized in the New Atheistic one. Personally, being part of a social movement doesn’t interest me, but I can understand why feminist atheists, for example, would want to start a new wave of atheism, assuming they feel that many New Atheists are conservatives or sexists.

However, I suspect that were Atheism Plus to become popular and even to replace New Atheism as the main expression of the atheistic social movement in the US, UK, and elsewhere, this would be due almost entirely to politically correct affirmation of liberal talking points. The problem is the one I’ve taken up repeatedly in this blog: reason is a curse. That is to say that when you apply skepticism to everything, including social issues, you end up not with liberalism but with something like what I’m calling existential cosmicism (until I think of a better label--talk about a social position that needs rebranding!).

I’ve argued this at some length elsewhere in this blog, but I’ll summarize the main points here. Skepticism is epitomized by the scientific methods of inquiry. So what is the scientific picture of human nature? Is it equivalent to or even consistent with the liberal picture? No, liberalism is as Nietzsche and John Gray say, a vestige of theistic morality, an Enlightenment inheritance of Christian attitudes minus the theistic metaphysics that gives those attitudes the appearance of being rationally justified. Granted, Christians borrow their morality, in turn, from our innate, naturally selected inclinations towards social, altruistic behavior. But biology explains only the causes of those inclinations, not their philosophical justifications. That we’re instinctively driven to live together in societies may be a matter of biological fact, but that doesn’t mean that that’s how we ought to live. The normative question of whether Christian or otherwise altruistic morality is best isn’t settled by science, but by philosophy.

Nevertheless, when skeptical philosophers turn to the scientific picture to inform our reasoning, we find unsettling truths. First, we discover that we’re not as free or as rational as we think we are. Second, we find that we’re animals that live under delusions of grandeur, of transcending nature as angels or transhumans. We’re driven to sexually reproduce because our genetic code dictates much of our behavior. We learn also that just as the design of organisms is illusory, what with natural selection doing the work of an intelligent designer, so too much of our normative self-conception is removed from reality. Moral commandments don’t fall from the sky nor are they carved into stone, because we’re not artifacts of a god. In particular, it’s not obvious that we have nearly as many rights as we feel politically entitled to claim. And this is the key point, since liberalism depends on the notion of human rights. Women deserve just as much respect as men, says the liberal, because women and men both have the same human rights. Likewise, gays, lesbians, and heterosexuals are thought to have equal rights, as are the poor and the rich, and the blacks and the whites, and so on. Without the notion of human rights, there’s no reason to be socially liberal.

Liberals like McCreight claim that they merely apply skepticism to social questions, just as atheists apply that rigorous, objective mode of inquiry to religious ones. But when you think objectively about whether we have rights that flow from human nature, you run up against a series of brick walls. First of all, there’s the naturalistic fallacy. Just because we’re special in light of our reason, freedom, and social instinct--even if, again, we’re not as special as we think we are, as cognitive scientists have discovered--doesn’t mean there’s anything right, or normatively correct, about those attributes. Next, there’s the genetic fallacy: just because social values are explained by our evolutionary past and so secured by being normal, doesn’t mean those values are justified; for example, just because we evolved to be sociable, doesn’t mean extroverts are healthier or otherwise better than antisocial introverts. All you’re entitled to conclude from some such evolutionary premise is that outgoing folks are normal and perhaps happier, meaning merely that they’re in the majority and that their lives are more pleasurable. To leap from that premise to the conclusion that the majority are also in the right is to commit a fallacious appeal to popularity. Likewise, to say that because something is pleasurable it’s also right is to commit the naturalistic fallacy.

You can go down the list of liberal positions on social issues and ask whether a liberal really has so easy a time with them, given her rational methods. I suspect that while a case can be made for some liberal views, based on a Nietzschean, aesthetic approach to ethics, the notion that liberalism wins the day just on rational grounds is merely a politically correct meme. Reason is largely neutral with respect to normative questions, but when reason is relevant, that is, when we think of how we ought to live given what scientists have shown that we actually are, mainstream liberalism seems a mere conceit. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t help each other--especially minorities who are most desperate. In my view, altruism is justified only by the pain of feeling pity due to empathy with other people’s suffering; we act to alleviate that shared pain. Those with no such empathy have no reason to help others, and so they tend to focus on selfish endeavours and to rise to positions of great power in our dominance hierarchies. Liberals fool themselves with their scientistic quasireligion, when they pretend that their emotional bias follows neutrally from something they call “skepticism,” from the alleged application of Reason to all questions. Are liberals unaware that David Hume, the great skeptic, performed a reductio on rationalism, using reason to show that we’re not so rational? Far from merely thinking logically or looking at the empirical facts, what liberals actually do is suffer from pity on account of how pathetic women, gays, blacks, poor people, and other downtrodden groups seem in their lowly positions in the pecking order.

Nevertheless, modern liberalism is scientistic, and so postmodern liberals earn a cheap pass when they pretend that their social attitudes are in line with Reason. (See Modernism.) Reason doesn’t carry the day for the liberal ideal of equality; instead, people are trained to nod deferentially in the presence of anything associated with the awesome power of technoscience. Postmodern liberalism, which is what liberalism becomes when faith in modern myths of human greatness doesn't survive the death of God, is merely a piece of political correctness, an empty shell of a philosophy, a song stuck in our head because we can’t stand the cosmic silence, the undead god’s dearth of any advice at all on how we should pass our time.

One philosophy that makes sense of the liberal’s aesthetic mode of inference and of the emotional basis of her values is existential cosmicism. According to this philosophy, we should feel embarrassed rather than proud every single time we think logically or empirically about some problem. We should never forget that the cognitive dissonance that permits clever mammals both to rationalize their pity for the weak and to humiliate themselves with sex acts which they must keep private to preserve their dignity, is eminently ripe for satire. We are all pathetic, every one of us. We suffer tragically and absurdly with no one but equally pathetic and deluded mammals to aid us. Liberal saviours of the 99% aren’t flawless superheroes. Their scientism and hyper-rational skepticism are politically correct delusions, nothing more. Reason spells the death of God but also the unraveling of every myth, the bursting of every bubble, the transition from modern naivety to postmodern cynicism.

I don’t trust the liberal's self-conception nor do I admire the interest in seeking a community of like-minded people, in the first place. As is well known, democracy and the internet fragment populations, creating echo chambers the divisions between which are exploitable by demagogues. For example, New Atheists must be divided from Atheism Plussers, who must likewise be divided from secular humanists. Thus, we’re like birds that flock together because of our similar feathers. That’s all perfectly natural but uninspiring, not a mark of progressive transhumanity, of a gnostic revelation of something truly elevated above the grotesque natural order. Still, I wish Atheism Plussers luck. Helping the downtrodden is aesthetically better than dominating them. Liberals act on pity for the other, while conservatives act on disgust for the foreign. Both spin tall tales to rationalize their character, but at least the liberal doesn’t sell us out so thoroughly to the tender mercies of the undead god and to its mechanism of maintaining social order, which is the oligarchic centralization of power.   


  1. A well written, clear and insightful article indeed. I almost completely agree with it.

    You wrote "In my view, altruism is justified only by the distastefulness of feeling pity due to empathy with other people’s suffering."

    What is the difference between pity and kindness? Do you think altruism comes from pity and not from kindness? O.R.

  2. Thanks for reading. I think that innate emotional reactions, like pity (empathy) or disgust are fundamental to most social relations. We then rationalize them with arguments. Arguments alone don't motivate behaviour; they need to be rooted in emotions. So what would kindness be without pity? An interesting question. Pity is when you act kindly towards someone who's either worse off than you or is in as bad a position as are you.

    Suppose you meet someone who's very well off, though, and who can't easily be pitied. In that case, the dynamic would be roughly of the sadomasochistic variety between master and slave. The very well-off person would assume the role of a god or an overlord, and the person lower in the dominance hierarchy would defer as though he were the master's servant. So how do slaves treat their masters? Not with pity or kindness exactly, but with a sort of facade of politeness, right? When you go into a store and the salesperson is so eager to please, with a phony smile and a sing-songy voice? The servile, phony politeness is the root of much kindness, I suspect. This is off the top of my head, but I'd say that altruism depends on pity or on that servant's fake politeness, depending on the power dynamic, and that what looks like kindness reduces to the latter in some cases.

    Then there's the case of Christian charity, which Nietzsche explained in terms of a slave's resentment. When a well-off person acts selflessly towards a less well-off person, I'd say pity is a major motivating force. But different sorts of moral acts require different analyses, since there are many subtle variations between emotions. If you look up the definition of "kind," you find all sorts of related motives (compassion, indulgence, gentleness, humaneness, affection, and so on).

    If your question is whether altruism is motivated simply by liking someone else and wanting to do a favour or offer a gift, I'm sure this is so. Still, whenever you act altruistically, you give someone something she doesn't already have, which means there's room for pity. If the person has more than you and you still act altruistically, you're acting like a servant. So pity or phony politeness still enter the picture. It's an interesting question, though.

  3. But, at its absolute core, altruism/selflessness is just one more biological knee-jerk reaction, straight out of the evolutionary soup. Maybe all human behavior boils down to a constant push-pull between the interests of the individual vs. the community, which seems to be embedded in our genetic structure.

    1. The question of freewill is relevant here. See the freewill section in my article, Jerry Coyne on Scientism and Freewill (Aug, 2012). I'll check out your links.

  4. Excellent article! You expressed my sentiments very closely. Liberals are also "hidden priests". The Church of Liberalism is, as you say, no less supported by irrational drives than religion. The "reasons" come after the fact, if at all, just as with religion. The democratic morality of our time passes for rationally grounded the same way Mormonism passes as rational in Utah.

    But I think there is more wrong with the Liberal paradigm. Within religion there is also an element of incoherence, which indicates its utter dependence on psychological factors for the origin and maintenance of the belief. Though I am a great fan of Nietzsche, I think the evaluation of belief-systems also invovles looking into its logic, and liberalism strikes me as irrational in the sense of subscribing to logically inconsistent tenets. For example, the Church of Liberalism affirms that people own their own bodies when it comes to sexual practices and abortion (You're probably familiar with Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous article on this.); but the church also holds that the state can impose its will on the bodies of its citizens through compulsory labor (taxation) directed toward liberal causes rooted in pity. I know this is not a Nietzschean objection; it is just that I think unbelief in God or the State relates both to psychology and to logic. When we disbelieve in Santa, it occurs in part because the social-psychological factors inducing belief fade as we age AND that Santa fails some practical rationality tests that an unimpeded mind when reality testing.

    Another general Nietzschean critique of this A+ movement would be that liberals tend to be statists. Nietzsche is anti-state because he thinks the state poses as "the people", while undermining the development of value creators and the actual peoples that grow from these overman types (See "The New Idol" in *Thus Spoke Zarathustra*).

    Again, great article.

    1. Thanks, Alex! I've written a lot on liberalism in this blog. Check out those articles through the Liberalism tag in the list of tags on the right.

      I agree that we should check to see if our worldview is rational. I think a liberal would reply to your example of inconsistency, by talking about the social contract: we voluntarily submit to the state when we choose to live in society rather than in the wilderness; we compromise to escape the terrors we'd face in a pure anarchy. So we need to balance individual freedoms with the common good. Should the state be able to legislate morality and religion by preventing abortions, given that the state can force people to pay taxes? I'm not so sure. Then again, I'm pretty critical of sexuality, but for different reasons. See my article, Embarrassment by Sexual Ecstasy (Nov, 2011). And regarding abortion, see Case Studies of Aesthetic Morality (June, 2012).

      I should say that while my view is influenced by Nietzsche, I don't follow him on everything he says. As you'll know, he wrote aphoristically and wasn't s systematic writer; he meant to challenge his reader by pushing points as far as they can go, to swing the social pendulum in another direction. I agree with Nietzsche on some key points, but I disagree with him on others. I especially like to contrast Nietzsche's more pessimistic atheism, though, with the New Atheist variety.

  5. But one could argue for a social justice by default. That is, the application of reason to the various ideologies propping up the world's different hierarchies will most likely find them self-serving for the ruling classes; therefore there is no legitimate reason for the exclusion of other groups outside the norm established by these classes from participating in the decisions and the life of their societies. For instance, there is no good reason to deny a Saudi woman the right to drive; all reasons to be cited rely upon extreme interpretations of religious prescriptions or prohibitions and appeal to stereotypes and prejudices of the majority. Apply skepticism to them and they fall apart quickly.

    It is not as if privileged classes are acting with greater rationality in defending their powers and privileges. Yet there is a good reason to pick up a social justice oriented approach to skepticism: one's own self interest. The powers that oppress others can easily oppress you, too.

    1. You make some interesting points, Kevin Moore. Remember, though, I'm not arguing here against liberalism as much as I'm arguing against a rationalist oversimplification of liberal social positions.

      Now, I think you're arguing that all illiberal social philosophies are irrational (nakedly self-serving to an elite class), and that therefore the opposite, progressive philosophy must be rational. Moreover, the correctness of liberalism can thus be deduced (by reductio ad absurdum or the principle of the excluded middle). There are a few problems with this, but the one that's most relevant here is that you've got to show that the illiberal ideologies are illogical or unscientific. If you bring in something other than logic or science to refute those ideologies, your case for liberalism is no longer purely a matter of applying skepticism to politics.

      See my writings in this blog on oligarchy and dominance hierarchies (e.g. "Oligarchy: Nature's Inhumanity to Humans," Aug 2011). Illiberal, sexist societies with vast inequalities in wealth are actually the most natural, which is why the Age of Reason was so revolutionary. I interpret an oligarchy as just the human form of the dominance hierarchy (pecking order) found throughout social species.

      So you've got to show that Reason (logic or science) dictates that we should revolt against natural norms. That seems a tall order, given the naturalistic fallacy. And again, I'm not arguing that we should follow primitive biological norms; instead, I'm arguing that when we revolt against them, we're doing something other than performing a logical calculation or conducting a scientific experiment. For example, there might be a creative act of will or an arrogant leap of faith involved in trusting than we can govern ourselves better than can Mother Nature. In "Existential Cosmicism and Technology" (Aug 2012), I compare this act of will to the theistic delusion, as we anthropomorphize the world to avoid having to confront nature's alien indifference towards us. At any rate, existentialists can better explain the revolt against nature than can skepticism or scientism.

      You say a defender of oligarchy doesn't have reason on his side. But what reason is there to believe that humans are sufficiently supernatural to be able to sustain a social order that doesn't reduce eventually to a natural dominance hierarchy (with alpha, beta, and omega males, for example)? I look at the transition from modernity to postmodernity as a case of growing disenchantment with the modern myth of our godhood. If we're animals, as science shows, we might be rather skeptical and pessimistic about the prospect of a liberal society in which equal rights are maintained. After all, look what happened to communist societies: they collapsed into oligarchies. And look what's happened to the US, to the leader of the free world: arguably, it's a plutocracy, or what I call a stealth oligarchy, using democracy as a cover to avoid something like another French Revolution.

      True, American women have mostly equal rights with men, but they won those rights only several decades ago, so we'll have to see how long that relatively liberal society lasts as such; African-Americans still form something like an underclass in the US. Reason reports that a dominance hierarchy is the most stable social order, which is why evolutionary forces tend to select for it.

  6. You state that "Moral commandments don’t fall from the sky nor are they carved into stone, because we’re not artifacts of a god." I agree. A skeptic naturally must assume that the universe is (most likely) agnostic to human actions, and if those actions can be said to be "right" or "wrong" it is not because they have some cosmically intrinsic evil or good properties. Rather we label actions "right" or "wrong" in relation to values that we humans, being the only ones available to judge our own actions, adopt. The question is then, "what values shall we adopt." To me, the most obvious answer to this question is "those values that maximize human happiness (however we, as humans, decide to measure happiness)." Of course, there is no cosmic, objective reason why we should attempt to maximize human happiness - we do it simply because, well, it makes us happy.

    I get the sense that you disagree with this proposition, since you say "All you’re entitled to conclude from some such evolutionary premise is that outgoing folks are normal and perhaps happier, meaning merely that they’re in the majority and that their lives are more pleasurable. To leap from that premise to the conclusion that the majority are also in the right is to commit a fallacious appeal to popularity." In this very statement, you assume that there is a "right" way to be, independent from our human perceptions of happiness. (Of course, not everyone is "happy" to be an extrovert, but that's beside the point). In essence, you are saying, 'it is not right to say that social codes should stem from maximizing happiness, because it is not clear that maximizing happiness is the right thing to do.' Of course, if there is no God, there's no reason to believe in a 'right thing to do' inherent in the universe, only a 'most effective thing to do if you want to accomplish x, y or z.' Science can and does often reveal what that 'best thing to do' is.

    Of course, you must start with an x,y or z you want to accomplish. If you ask the people in the A+ movement what that starting goal is, they'd probably indicate things like maximizing overall human happiness, maximizing their own happiness, reducing suffering, ending unnecessary death and disease etc. They would not deny that they choose these goals for emotional, irrational reasons. That's not the point - the point is that applying reason, one can deduce easily that, for these purposes, equality is better than inequality, science literacy better than non-literacy and so on and so on.

    1. Thanks for your comments. I think you have a sophisticated understanding of where liberals stand. You grasp that they adopt instrumental imperatives, which means they assume some goals or values and then use science only as the best means of achieving those goals or applying those values. I'd have no problem with that use of science, and I'm not attacking liberals goals themselves in this article. Instead, I'm attacking the hyper-rationalistic view of liberalism, according to which science or reason in general, all by itself, can justify not just the means of achieving your goals but those goals themselves.

      After all, if the liberal concedes that her goals of happiness, equality, and so on, are not simply the most rational ones available, she's left with a big open question about whether other goals are preferable. In that case, she can't pretend that merely applying the atheist's methods of rationality (logic and science) to moral questions leads you to liberalism. That's the scientistic contention I'm criticizing here; there's still the initial choice of ideals, values, or goals, which reason alone doesn't settle.

      As for which goals I'd prefer, I do question whether happiness in the sense of personal contentment ought to be our overriding goal. See my early article in this blog, "Happiness is Unbecoming" (Aug 2011). I defend a more reserved, ascetic lifestyle as the best way of coping with existential angst. See, for example, "Inkling of an Unembarrassing Postmodern Religion" (Jan 2011) and "Defending Existential Cosmicism" (July 2012).

  7. The A+'ers and the like (FtB, Skepchicks, etc), were never generally skeptical, it seems to me.

    They are atheists that are politically liberal. They apply skepticism to god claims and conservative political stances. They were never skeptical of themselves nor of the political stances they take. They use "skeptic" as some hipster, smarter-than-thou label. It is painful to watch.

    1. Yes, in my view, liberals nowadays are skeptical of nearly everything, but only out of postmodern political correctness, not out of a genuine feel for skepticism. They're highly educated, which is the source of their atheism, and they're much appreciative of science and technology for sustaining their secular materialistic and hedonistic culture.

      As I say in my writings here about liberalism, the problem is that liberalism is itself just a dubious metanarrative, and so "skeptical liberal" is a sort of oxymoron. Nietzsche was a genuine skeptic and he was no liberal. Certain ascetics also follow reason all the way (to undermining reason). Skepticism/rationalism is an accursed viewpoint (figuratively speaking), and so the upbeat, New Atheistic variety is just for show, for the political purpose of attracting moderates away from religion.

  8. I understand what you mean. I know I still have to justify my wants for equality. I am going to work on it. Your feedback is good, it feels fine to unlift some veils from social issues, even if it is feels uncomfortable. But how do we get to either be liberals or conservatives? My whole family is on the right wing on social issues, disgust for the foreign is the norm, I have found myself asking all those whys of their behavior all my life. Why should we need that enemy to make us feel superior. It seemed a construction to me, it just felt fake and delusional, I felt it was their need to be above others. Also, would such a social stance on those issues, the nietzchean one I mean, perhaps give rise to certain dangers for people belonging to excluded groups? I would not stand by this, I would rebel against it, even if I were considered irrational myself.

    I highly believe that church and the state are in the root of social injustice, and that they combine forces according when it comes to groups the unthinking majority points her dirty finger on as "belowers".

    Could the postmodern liberalism come as an evolutionary bonus since our brains have evolved, now we can exceed our mere skin and think of humanity as a biggger self? I wonder. Thank u very much for the philosophical rants on the issue.

    1. Thanks! I've actually written several articles here on liberalism and conservatism. I'll give you some links at the bottom, but first here's a summary. I distinguish between modern and postmodern liberals. Modern liberals were moved to scientism because they were so impressed by the Scientific Revolution. So they became ultrarationalists (including communists and technocrats), thinking that reason could and should control society just as it controls nature with technology. Because of the wars and failures of communism in the 20th C., liberals have become disenchanted with the modern myths, and so have moved to their nihilistic, postmodern phase in which they still pretend to believe in liberal rights but they lack any grand narrative to justify them. They rely on political correctness and end up being easily manipulated bureaucrats and system managers, defenders of the status quo which usually favours conservatives.

      Conservatives defend and prefer the default social arrangement, which is that of the dominance hierarchy or pecking order (symbolized by the pyramid, with a few oligarchs at the top and mostly peasants at the bottom, following the Iron Law of Oligarchy). There are secular (libertarian and elitist) and religious conservatives, but they both want to destroy any institution that can challenge the power of oligarchs by artificially empowering those at the bottom end of the pecking order. After all, the dominance hierarchy is nature's way of stabilizing most animal species.

      For more detail, see:

  9. Atheism`s problems today are the mainstream and the dissident oppozition.
    They are "against" the believers so they are for: "equality" for everything and "freedom" for everything.So we have the atheists of the contrary.Imagine their free-thinking!

    1. Interesting. I think you're saying that free-thinking is just an excuse to sin. I see this connection more between libertarianism and modern, atheistic Satanism. See my recent article "Is the Devil a Hero?" for more on this. But I don't think atheists generally aren't interested in morality. For example, I'm an atheist who even thinks that morality is largely a matter of taste, but I take aesthetic principles to be more stringent standards for behaviour than the Bible. (See my articles on aesthetic morality.) Even with a divine command theory of morality, you've got the problem of subjectivity, because the Bible can be interpreted in many different ways and the reader has to choose a hermeneutic principle.

      Ultimately, we're ethically responsible for our actions only if we choose or at least voluntarily affirm our ideals. And when that element of choice enters the picture, so does the person's character and personal character is subject to aesthetic evaluation (in terms of its originality/creativity or ugliness due to weakness in responding to our existential obligation not to delude ourselves).

  10. May I suggest.....Tragicosmicism??

    A feast with Cthulu, The Hour is fast upon us ,
    Life is a full loo, our souls are autocthonous

    Thanks for the commenting I'm not supposed to be here, but I was googling during my off-internet time, and you were the ONLY relevant entry in 3 pages of results. Wicked. pps I dunno if u take driveby literature advice but try out peter zapffer's last messiah, it ties in with the 'death of god' theme you started off with in book 1, and ru(uuuuuuu)ns with it.

  11. I'm not sure how much longer I'm going to keep this commenting format, since it has some issues.

    Are you suggesting another name for "existential cosmicism"? "Tragicosmicism" nicely plays on "tragicomedy," but "tragedy" and "cosmicism" are arguably redundant. That's also the main problem I have with "existential cosmicism": there's some overlap between them, at a minimum.

    I've read Zapffe's Last Messiah, I think. It's an article rather than a book, right?