Contra-Steinhart: Why We Should Not Identify As "Evolutionists"

While I agree with Eric Steinhart’s claims that atheists need to take metaphysics seriously and while I would be open to considering evolutionary models for answering metaphysical, ethical, and cosmological questions if they are promising, below I am going to briefly surmise several serious reservations I have to Eric’s suggestions that we ditch the term “atheism” for “evolvers” and that we make concerted efforts to intentionally model every speculative theory off of evolution in an attempt to understand everything from the origin of life to ethics “evolutionarily”.

First, I want to stress, contra-Eric, that “atheism” is the best and most accurate general term we have for non-theists.

Eric complains that “atheism” characterizes him negatively in terms of what he does not believe (as though that were more important than the many positive things he does believe). He also worries that the term atheism has too much baggage which leads people to make misleading assumptions about his metaphysics (e.g. that he is a materialist when he is not).

What this ignores is that a concerted and potentially successful effort is underway to make clear that the only thing atheism itself strictly means is that one lacks belief in any personal gods and that it need not mean anything else.

This most stripped down, strictly negative, “dictionary” meaning for atheism is the one we should emphasize for several reasons.

First of all, it is accurate. Regardless of whether previous atheists all got lumped in with materialism or nihilism or existentialism or communism or any other questionable “-ism”, the term is the clearest, broadest, most natural, and most familiar candidate available for contrasting our shared position with theism. While the word is taboo in many places, it is a more natural catch-all than other words with more content that would divide people too much for a true classification scheme. I am perfectly fine with the proliferation of atheist metaphysics and atheist ethical groups and political groups, etc. But on the most general level of categorization, an atheist is an atheist if she simply lacks belief in, or worship of, personal gods.

This bareness and simplicity of “Dictionary Atheism” unifies us as a competing bloc against the large contingent of theists, while also being empty enough to not constrain different atheists from having different particular views about epistemology, ethics, metaphysics, politics, etc. (just as theists do). If agnostic atheists, gnostic atheists, and deists can all find common cause as opponents of theism–i.e., as atheists–then there is a unified front against theism that comes in handy on a central issue, even if particular kinds of atheists diverge from each other in any number of particulars from there.

Eric also complains about going to atheist meetings where

everybody was mainly there just to be hostile towards religion (by which they pretty much all seemed to mean the conservative Christianity of the American religious right). I don’t see how hostility is ever helpful. I dislike hostility from atheists as much as I dislike it from religious fundamentalists. I have no interest in participating in a group whose primary purpose is the hatred of some other group. I’d prefer to build positive bridges and to expand the rational community of hope.

While I agree that it is dangerous for atheists only to be associated with the negative and to only organize as an opposition group and never as people who do anything positive, there is nonetheless still room for a level of organization on which we are an opposition group. The hegemony of irrationalistic, faith-based thinking and institutions is real. And it requires not only positive alternatives but some degree of hostile (but always non-violent) opposition to faith’s damaging ethical and political consequences.

Atheists have been treated with an enormous amount of hostility over the ages. A good part of atheists’ reputations as generally angry and hostile is actually due to religious projection of these traits into us as part of their vilification of us. Where atheists are angry and focused on their anger, often it is either a phase of getting out pent up and repressed frustrations based on cultural, familial, and ecclesiastical abuse over their personal dissent from religion. They deserve this outlet, even if they should then be steered into constructive channels from there.

Other times atheist anger is a proper and calibrated response to injustices, including the unfairness of manifestly unqualified religious leaders and institutions being held up as authorities to the detriment of morality and knowledge.

Do angry atheists sometimes go over the top? Yes, regularly activist atheists are as unnecessarily intemperate in their rhetoric as activist liberals or activist conservatives or activist environmentalists or activist feminists or Tea Party activists or members of any other activist groups. But does that mean they should never organize specifically around their opposition to unwarranted religious power over hearts, minds, and governments? No way. We can encourage activist atheists to temper their rhetoric without counter-productively conflating the whole endeavor of being an opposition movement with being a hate group. Conflict is part of life. We should be as respectful as possible but that does not mean treating conflict as an inherent evil to be avoided at all costs.

An atheist opposition movement is very necessary. Atheists (and other God-ignoring scientists and academics) have for a couple of centuries now been doing the positive, constructive science, metaphysics, ethics, cosmology, etc. that Eric wants us to focus on. And yet all the positive advances in god-indifferent ideas have not by themselves been able to supplant numerous theistic and superstitious ideas or institutions in the cultural mainstream.

Countless natural and social scientists and philosophers have advanced our knowledge in ways which de facto undermine theism and religious beliefs and institutions and should naturally have made them irrelevant and obsolete. And yet, those institutions chug on (and often even grow) because all the positive alternatives in the world make no difference to the mainstream culture as long as they only exist in the parallel universe of academia and science labs.

And even if we were able to mainstream knowledge about alternatives to theism and theistic religion, this will not by itself win over people who feel no compunction to abandon their existing beliefs. So what if there would be an evolutionary metaphysics on the market that some philosopher says for some arcane reason is better than theism? If someone has deep personal, cultural, familial ties to her theism that go unchallenged, she feels as though she has no reason to ever seriously consider this new alternative. A negative attack on theism is important for people to understand why they need to leave what is comfortable to them to begin with.

And while I agree with Eric that atheists should engage in philosophical speculation and develop robust alternative accounts about metaphysics and ethics, there are dangers in defining ourselves as primarily “evolutionists” and “evolvers” as he suggests.

First and foremost, in the popular mind there are few rules if any constraining speculative thinking. People think that when it comes to speculation, we are free to believe whatever we want as our “faith-based choice”. Atheists who center themselves not on a call for more epistemological rigor but rather on a speculative metaphysics would be to the average person “Just another speculative, faith-based belief system, only as valid as any other, including theism”. Even worse, we would be cast as “just another religion” which can be waved away as easily as one waves away a foreign culture’s beliefs as “maybe good for that culture but not at all a challenge to my own religion”.

We would be “just another faith” since we are no longer just speculating metaphysically but defining and identifying ourselves by a metaphysical hypothesis that is insufficiently grounded in evidence to justify the strength of our commitments.

I think an atheist metaphysician may feel well enough justified in believing in cosmological evolution to qualifiedly believe in it and hypothesize about it. But to make it a defining feature of one’s identity and a foundational belief that influences one’s entire way of thinking in a controlling way risks being formally identical enough to other, irrationalistic faiths for the other faiths to see an opening and say, “See ‘Evoluitonism’ is just another faith—no more justified than ours—and therefore there is no need to abandon the faith you already are attached to for something that is only another faith.”

And not only this, but the preexisting faiths already cozy up nicely to people’s anthropomorphizing, superstitious brains in a more naturally intuitive way than evolutionary thinking does. In the competition among leaps of faith, faith in a purposeful person in the sky offering love and eternal life would likely trounce a vague, indifferent, counter-intuitive, unguided process like cosmic evolution which still leaves the question open “where did the first thing come from since it could not have evolved out of any prior thing?” I think if it was faith in personal gods vs. faith in all-encompassing metaphysical evolution, a populace which already will not even accept the scientifically sure evolution by natural selection (but constantly demands either creationism or personalistic theistic evolution) will certainly choose the personal gods over the impersonal evolution principle. It’s a losing proposition.

And not only would evolutionary metaphysics persuade hardly anyone in the cultural mainstream, there would be a much worse consequence: advocating it and centralizing our identities based on it would lose us the moral high ground. We would no longer credibly be able to define ourselves as those who stand for rational scrupulousness and against faith. I am for speculation but not for the elevation of speculative beliefs to a greater role and influence than their degree of sureness warrants. This is what separates me first and foremost from the faith-based thinker and I want to keep it that way.

And, finally, the worst consequence of defining ourselves as “evolutionists” is that it would play right into the fundamentalists’ hands. They desperately want to drag down the theory of evolution to the status of “mere, faith-based speculation” and a “prejudicing worldview”.

By trumpeting speculative metaphysical evolutionary theories as foundational to our thinking and identifying as “evolvers”, we would be actively helping them in their efforts to confuse all evolutionary thinking with “just another unscientific, faith-based worldview”. We would be undermining the crucial effort to establish in the public mind the truth that evolution by natural selection is a scientific theory that should be rationally compelling to all people regardless of faith commitments and that should be capable of undermining many religious beliefs which its objective truth objectively falsifies.

Publicly equivocating in our use of the concept of evolution and extending it liberally and ideologically to solve every other cosmological, metaphysical, and ethical problem—and doing all of this as part of building an inevitably partisan community identity—would add all sorts of counter-productive baggage to the theory of evolution that it does not need and which fundamentalists have been working hard to saddle it with for decades.

Evolution’s primary association should only be with scientific neutrality, not with any one community, not with wishful speculation, and not with overreaching, all encompassing accounts of everything in existence.

The worst consequence to fear from Eric’s suggestion is that fundamentalists are able to disingenuously claim that evolution by natural selection is not the outcome of the best, most objective science, but is only supported by a metaphysical prejudice towards an evolutionary cosmos. If evolution becomes a matter of faith, a dogma we are caught looking to sneak under every nook and cranny of existence, then we give ammunition to the lie that even biological evolution is only believed in because of that preexisting dogmatic faith that evolution is everything.

And once evolution is tied up with faith, then it loses any standing to challenge people’s existing faiths. And, again, when given the choice between their own, preexisting arbitrary faith attachments on the one hand and an alternative set of arbitrary faith attachments on the other, the vast majority feel justified in sticking with their own arbitrary beliefs and ignoring the alternatives.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Mary C. Young

    “We would be undermining the crucial effort to establish in the public mind the truth that evolution by natural selection is a scientific theory that should be rationally compelling to all people regardless of faith commitments”

    That was my big issue when I read the post about atheists wanting to be called “evolutionists.” It risks alienating religious people who acknowledge evolution as a scientific truth and then turns a scientific theory into a faith-based affirmation – as if you just have to “know it in your gut” to believe it. It’s not only risky for evolution but also for science as a whole.

  • David E

    I’d as soon call myself an “evolutionist” as I would a “gravitationist”.

  • stevarious

    I want to be a “continentaldriftist”.

  • http://evolvingthoughts.net John S. Wilkins

    I don’t want to self-promote, but I have a series discussing the taxonomy of atheism and agnosticism here:

    OneTwoThreeFour, Five and Six.


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