Friday, June 5, 2020

On Medium: Scientism and the Downfall of New Atheism

This article is about how authentic atheism avoids the siren call of scientism and is more pessimistic than secular humanism, for being grounded in the fearlessness of philosophy. 


  1. One of the challanges atheists face as a movement is that we are at least as divided as theists are, probably more so. I read a book a few years back Seven Types of Atheism by John Grey which was very short (less than 200 pages), but really elucidated just how diverse atheism is. What common ground could a 'mystical atheist' (Grey's term) like Arthur Schopenhauer find with a Scientific atheist like Richard Dawkins? Meanwhile, the politically engaged Christians seemn to have put their dogmatic differences aside in their war with secularism.

    I personally don't call myself an atheist anymore. The word has just become too politically charged & loaded with connotions (Scientism, materialism, hard empiricism, hedonism) that are antithetical to my own views. And I doubt I'm the only non-theist who feels this way. It's ironic: I used to laugh at the Christian's odium theologicum, but now I understand it. When I was a Christian, I was embarrassed by other Christians & now that I'm an atheist, nothing's changed.

    1. I actually refer to that book by Gray in another article on atheism I haven't put out yet. That article is serving as the intro to another anthology I might put out on Amazon, one that focuses on religion.

      Yeah, Gray is one of those old atheists who follows philosophy to the bitter end, to Eastern pessimism. He criticizes optimistic secular substitutes for religion, too, so he's not part of the new atheist club.

      "Atheism" is only a technical, negative label, and it's tilted towards theism. "Atheism" shouldn't be anyone's main label; if it is, that person is only hiding their real, positive beliefs. One reason they'd be hidden is if the nonreligious person has adopted them too quickly and even on a faith basis, so that this person wouldn't want to call attention to the fact that her values and ideology amount to a civic religion.

      Those who are steeped in philosophy will be able to clarify what they believe instead of theism, but that clarity will also threaten the intellectual with jadedness and pessimism. The only way to avoid a debilitating outcome along those lines is to put your trust in something.

      New atheists trust in science, technology, individualism, pleasure, money, etc. As I explain in the other article, they're really consumers or neoliberals, for the most part. The question is more or less the one Nietzsche asked: What deserves our faith, after the death of God? Is there an ennobling, honourable post-theistic religion?

  2. I would definitely buy an anthology of your essays on religion whenever you decide to publish it. Even though I'm not a Theist anymore that subject never grows stale for me.

    The interesting thing is that if you remove God from the picture, Christians & new atheists actually share much in common including neoliberalism. In both cases, their belief or unbelief in God seems to be incidental to their neoliberal religion. Belief & disbelief in God seems more or less irrelevant in relation to a person's overall philosophy - there are only tendencies with many exceptions. Socialists tend more towards unbelief while libertarians are typically Christian. In the world of philosophy, most Rationalists have been theists while the Empiricists were, at best, suspicious of religious claims. I suspect the reason for these tendencies are historical, rather than logical.

    I'm not sure if anything could deserve our faith, if by faith you define it as Paul did: the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Faith proves nothing but the desperation & credulity of the one who holds it. Of course, we all believe in certain things without any prior evidence, but I'm assuming by faith you mean trusting in something other than what would be the precondition for our having any knowledge at all such as our sensations or reasoning ability. I trust the latter because if I didn't living would be utterly impossible. Placing one's faith in a religious or political dogma may be consoling & make life more bearable, but it's hardly a precondition for living or knowing anything at all.

    I would say: honor truth however you conceive of it. Truth as it is revealed by science, but even more so the truth of our human condition. Nietzsche would of course scoff at that answer, as would any skeptic, but that kind of radical skepticism is itself a belief, a faith & hence is self-refuting in my opinion. I see a lot of denial among both mainstream theists & atheists (though much more egregious among theists). The rarer kind of atheist like Gray & the even rarer theist who struggles with her faith & acknowledges God's evident absence from this world both have my respect because they aren't afraid to face facts.

    1. Instead of saying that theism and atheism are irrelevant to people's "philosophy," I think maybe the point is that they're irrelevant to our behaviour. Philosophy, too, is typically irrelevant for practical purposes. Our behaviour is either reflexive or learned and conditioned. The question, then, is where we spend most of our time. The militant Islamists who are willing to kill and die for their beliefs immerse themselves in the Quran like monks. They're trained to behave as theists and their actions are correspondingly otherworldly (grotesque, from a civilized perspective).

      Compare this with training for an MMA fight. The fighters sequester themselves and train daily for hours on end for a period of several months, so that their techniques will flow automatically without them having to think about it on the day of the fight.

      All we have to do to determine what most people effectively believe or what their operative worldview amounts to is to ask where they spend most of their time. In Europe, North America, Australia, and technologically-advanced countries around the world, most of the populations live and thus effectively train themselves in secular settings--at home or at work or in the local big city. Only a minority are divorced from such civilized secular training, such as those who live in remote rural areas and who spend long hours in a church or at home with their uninformed conspiracy theories.

      What I meant by "faith" was trust in our core values. There doesn't seem any decisive rational justification for the ideals that guide us in our major life choices. Our values reflect our character, experience, upbringing, biological nature, and ongoing social conditioning. Science and philosophy aren't so effective in justifying our values, because of the naturalistic fallacy. At some point, instead of reaching for philosophical excuses, we learn to live with who we are and with what we implicitly most value.

      That acceptance strikes me as a kind of faith in something like Kierkegaard's sense. At least, we trust that our ideals are worthwhile instead of being foolhardy; otherwise, we'd be ashamed of our identity and couldn't go on living. Many of us are wrong to be proud of ourselves, since some ideals are petty, parochial, oppressive, or archaic. Some existential faiths or commitments are inferior to others regardless of the strength of the conviction.

      I believe Kierkegaard equated the two, as though subjective truth were maximized by the fervency of belief. That would mean the 9/11 terrorists experienced deep subjective truth. Maybe they did in the experiential sense of subjectivity, but their ideals were still foolish and hideous, due to the monstrousness of their source (the archaic Quran). So they felt close to God, but their faith and their ideals were at least beneath aesthetic contempt.

    2. Well, in that case it would be a choice of whether or not we accept ourselves, not which values we should choose since those have already been determined by our upbringing or some other factor. I accept myself & my values because I have no choice in the matter, but that doesn't make me feel any less the fool when life ends up mocking the incoherence of those same values. For example: I might value life so much that when I find a spider in my house I choose to pick it up & put it outside rather than crush it under my boot. But that respect for life is still foolish in the face of the fact that the spider itself is a killer who will go on to kill & eat all the insects who might have lived had I not been so squeemish as to not stamp on it the moment I saw it.

      The only authentic response to the world as it is would be uncompromising nihilism but that would be unbearable, so each of us values or places their faith in something. Some people value truth over all else while others prefer to be happy. But whatever values you choose or feel compelled to live by, life eventually steamrolls over them. God doesn't care any more about Truth than he does about our happiness, both would be equally subjective from a God's eye view. The faith of the 9/11 terrorists is indeed foolish & hideous - but only from the perspective of one who places value on human life & humanistic values.

      I saw a book the other day I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max. It's a poorly written chronicle of the author's sexual conquests, drug abuse & overall debasement when he was a frat boy & unlike the Marquis de Sade's novels it doesn't seem to have any aesthetic merit (I'm really astonished it got published). I don't know how the author could show his face in public after publishing that book. If it had been me I'd have committed suicide long ago out of shame. But you know what? I'm pretty sure Tucker Max would feel the same way about me if he were to read an account of my own life. He'd probably dismiss my own life as not worth having lived & recommend that I go to Denmark & get myself euthanized as quickly as possible.

    3. There's a difference between automatically applying certain values, without understanding them, and honouring them explicitly after much introspection. Faith in the existential sense is ultimate concern, but we're often confused about what we really want because we don't know ourselves well or we pretend we're something we're not. So the issue for secularists is to get clear on what we truly value and why. Having faith in our ideals would be a sign that we've discovered what they are in the first place.

      I doubt it follows from the world's amorality that we must be equally amoral or indifferent, to be authentic. You're assuming authenticity is like the correspondence theory of truth, so that we have to mirror nature to be true. The question is: True to what? To nature or to ourselves? I've written a lot about our antinatural tendencies. Being true to ourselves would require that we oppose the wilderness on every level. If nature is mindless, indifferent, and absurd, we should be mindful, empathetic, and purposeful. We should replace nature's monstrousness with intelligent deigns as guided by our ideals. So being a person would require having such ideals/values, contrary to nihilism.

      Those ideals wouldn't be made true or justified by natural facts, precisely because they're intended to replace or transform those facts.

    4. Being clear on what we value seems practical, it's the 'why' part that bothers me. I might value ideals like life or truth, but to ask why I value them is almost rhetorical. Why value life when all life thrives on death? Why value truth when, in seeking it, we only learn how ignorant we have been & always will be?

      If you are talking about morality, then I agree that it shouldn't be based on how the world really is, since morality - if it means anything - is based on how the world should be. But is morality itself authentic if, to practice it, one must indulge in illusions? Most people justify their practice of morality with transparent sophistries like karma or post-mortem rewards & punishments. In this, they not only delude themselves but undermine the moral status of their actions by seeking to make them appear practical. And even those who reject any possibility of being rewarded for virtue are still deluded insofar as they don't see (or refuse to see) how incoherent their virtues are. If I want to save that spider because I value life, then I must pretend that saving the life of a predator isn't tantamount to taking the lives of its future victims. If I want to enlighten people by sharing my knowledge with them because I value truth, I have to ignore the fact that by disillusioning them, I'm not doing them any favors - that instead of being some compassionate Bodhisattva, I'm really more like the guy who walks around malls during Christmas screaming at children that there is no Santa Claus; it's unlikely anyone is going to listen anyways.

      The only way I see out of this dilemma is to totally reject consequences as having any moral relevance to our actions. But if consequences are unimportant, as neo-Kanteans assert, then what's the point of doing anything at all? They can talk about categorical imperatives 'till their faces turn blue, but the fact is that every action has a consequence & it is the anticipation of a particular outcome that motivates everything we do. That's not a petitio principii fallacy, it's a psychological fact.

    5. Of course, these are difficult questions. In my writings I've argued that illusions, myths, and ideals aren't all equally dishonourable. If we think of morality in aesthetic terms, we're more likely to be personally authentic (or at least unembarrassing), because aesthetics isn't so grandiose; we can come clean on the literary or illusory (tragically heroic) nature of our values and life plans.

      This came up in my dialogue with the eliminativist Scott Bakker. He said freewill, consciousness, beliefs, desires, and all the other elements of folk psychology are illusions based on our ignorance of what our brain is actually doing at the fine-grained level. My response was that even if that's so, illusions are real, in a sense. If you hallucinate in the desert, the hallucination can cause you to keep looking for water. If we see ourselves as free, conscious, rational minds (for roughly Kantian reasons), even if at some level of analysis we're identical with our physical bodies, that self-understanding can be efficacious and can bootstrap us into behaving as autonomous, anti-natural creatures. So the illusion becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      This is also my view of the relation between archaic myths and technology; the former foreshadowed the coming of technoscientific mastery whereby we fashion ourselves into the very gods that fascinated us in our historic infancy.

      A nihilist or fatalist would need to show not just that morality and spirituality/existentially-noble mindframes are cosmicially-insignificant illusions. The real question is whether all illusions, myths (stories or other artistic expressions), and so forth are equally ignoble. I doubt that could be shown. What matters is that certain artworks are gripping, stirring, and inspiring while others become outdated, cliched, insipid and inert.

      Delusion isn't the same as suspending disbelief for the sake of learning from or being entertained by a story or some other artwork. The postmodern or hypermodern state is to realize that our metanarratives aren't objectively true (or even that our so-called objective theories have only pragmatic merit), but to soldier on and avoid the worst pitfalls of jadedness.

      A better reason for saving spiders, I think, is that spiders need to eat too, so let them live to take care of smaller insects. The food chain is horrific as a whole, but the scale of the horror is awesome and sublime, since the evolution of species has gone on in a continuous stream of frenzied killing for hundreds of millions of years.

  3. To be atheist at priori doesn't translate automatically to be rational. Lots of atheist people who don't follow factual evidence and/or are fanatics/biased ones. Atheism itself its a rational enlightment, one of existential truths (the most important truths), nonexistence of metaphysical dimensions or of metaphysical entities. But its common a ordinary person recognize lots of truths, half truths and lies during its (intellectual) life, included majority of atheists.

  4. ''Whether they’ve known it or not, when scientists or theologians have pondered those questions — as they have for centuries — they were doing philosophy, not practicing science''

    I find difficult to delineate the borders of philosophy and Science if science has as its foundation philosophical principles/approach.

    Religion is irrational because its based on falsification of existential truths, specially the supposed existence of the metaphysics.

    Religion or mythology is the domination of arts/literature/metaphorical language over literal/ precise language.

    My main criticism of modern Science is that its used by Whatever ideologies instead by philosophy itself. Then we have significantly antiethical use of Science to immoral purposes, mostly related with capitalism and conservatism ends.

    Secular humanism OR neoliberalism?? What is it??

    Here in my Brasil, neoliberalism is understood as anarchy of market over society and not as secular humanism.

    ''The point of new atheistic optimism, such as that captured by the atheist bus slogan promoted by Richard Dawkins was that “there’s probably no God so you should stop worrying and enjoy your life,” and that was an allusion to neoliberalism. ''

    You are seems trying to glue en masse consumerism with philosophical enlightment of only-one-life-to-live. Carpe diem, seems. One thing doesn't necessarily implies in another. I agree about the problem of secularism and mindless consumerism but i don't think It's intrinsically related with new atheism itself Whatever it is. They go together but lots of mindless consumerists are not genuinely atheists. Specially in US where "capitalistic sucess" has been associated with religious faith.

    ''Judaism is more Eastern in this respect, as shown in Ecclesiastes, the Book of Job, and the secularization of most Jews.''

    There are many jews who are biggest consumerists/capitalists...

    1. I'd say monotheistic religion is irrational, because it's usually based on faith rather than reason; the religious beliefs are held in spite of contrary evidence or because of assumptions about the limits of reason. Philosophy and science may be limited in the questions they can answer, but in that case the responsible option is agnosticism or an admission of ignorance. We don't have to leap to an elaborate myth when we can just admit we don't know, for example, what caused the Big Bang or how life got started.

      Right, secular humanism isn't the same as neoliberalism. I wrote about this as a response to an interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson (link below). Secular humanism is a philosophy that has much respect for human nature and especially for human reason and freedom, whereas neoliberalism is the view in economics that everything should be thought of in market-oriented terms. The free market is supposed to give us what we want and deserve, but it ends up creating monopolies and plutocracies that degrade and enslave the majority, thus falsifying secular humanism to the extent that the latter makes excuses for capitalism.

      I agree that not all consumers are atheists and that not all Jews are enlightened. My point was that new atheism served as a defense of America against militant Islam and thus ended up justifying American-style free markets and consumerism. Also, I was saying Judaism is more secular, pragmatic, and Eastern compared to Christianity and Islam.