Defending The Value of The New Atheist Commitment To Truthfulness For Its Own Sake

A couple days ago I wrote the following:

New Atheists specifically are a morally motivated group of people. Yes, there is some concern for simple advancement of science. But even accommodationists are interested in that. What characteristically distinguishes the New Atheists is that we refuse the moralcompromise with faith-based, authoritarian religions that other atheists are willing to make. We refuse to allow that the only kind of religious beliefs that deserve public criticism are those that infringe on politics in regressive or anti-intellectual ways. We do not want to just let people have their delusions so long as they do not affect us personally, as long as they make people happy. We want to actually argue that it is intrinsically betterto live with truth than without it. We want to argue that even if it does not make people happier they should abandon their faith-based religions on grounds of falseness alone.

This is implicitly an ethical demand. We think that there is a good that people should be exhorted to embrace usually in a way that is indifferent to their proximate pleasures or pains. And we quite often want to argue that ethically were all people to reject faith and superstition and authoritarianism that in the long run both social and individual happiness (and other goods) would increase and that on these grounds it is worth risking incurring on people the short term pain of disillusionment and disorientation that comes with the loss of faith. So both these non-consequentialist and consequentialist attitudes are developed with the good for individual and collective lives in mind.

This is fundamentally an ethical concern. By contrast, it is the live and let live apatheists and the accommodationist atheists who are indifferent to these considerations of what makes the best individual or collective lives and who are only interested in keeping science or politics pure but who will not be so “rude” as to criticize people’s personal beliefs or foreign cultures’ religiously based authoritarian values.

Beth disputes this contention:

I have to disagree with this. You are assuming a motive of indifference. While that’s a legit assumption for apatheists, it is not a reasonable assumption for the those typically referred to as accomodationists.

Accomodationists are not necessary indifferent to the personal beliefs of others. Instead, a variety of objections are possible regarding either your goal or the assumptions behind it.

For example, I feel that for your ethical argument to hold, it requires faith in the proposition that the world would be a better place if everyone believed as you do. I am not convinced of the truth of that proposition. Why do you believe it to be true?

If that isn’t an assumption of your argument, then on what grounds do you claim that:

even if it does not make people happier they should abandon their faith-based religions on grounds of falseness alone

My response is as follows:

If accommodationists dispute the normative judgment that faith-based religions should be abandoned on grounds of falseness alone, then they are saying that people’s personal beliefs are matters of indifference when they have no further negative consequences than their falseness. I have apparently not mischaracterized Beth’s accommodationism. She thinks truth is not important in matters of private beliefs—apparently only happiness is.

And she is also wrong when she contends that for my propositions to be true that the world would have to be a better place if everyone believed as I do. The world would be a better place if human beings were more autonomous and more powerful in their abilities to know the truth and to live with the truth. For all I know, such more truthful humans might disagree with any number of my beliefs. My particular beliefs are quite irrelevant. The issue is whether being truthful is intrinsically better for humans than self-deceiving themselves for the sake of pleasure is. Not everyone need think like me. They only need think truthfully—whatever that is.

And therefore faith is to be disapproved of. Faith is a poor epistemology. Embrace of faith, either implicitly or explicitly, wildly increases likelihood not only of false beliefs but of unreviseddeeply life-affecting false beliefs. It is not only a bad means of finding the truth, it is an obstacle to the truth. Not only is it not an intellectual virtue, it is an intellectual vice that corrupts the mind.

But you might ask, “So what? As long as it makes people happier, why not have faith? Why is being truthful more intrinsically important?”

The human being is a set of constitutive powers. Without basic powers of reason, emotion, sociability, creativity, etc., there is no human being. When all these powers are irretrievably gone, we can essentially be declared dead and have our bodies allowed to die even if our physical powers could go on existing with the aid of life support.

It is therefore not by “faith” or anything so arbitrary that I infer that our basic being is composed of our powers themselves. We are them. When they thrive, logically, we thrive since we are them. To be rational is to fulfill our very being. It is our most intrinsic and foundational and indispensable good. It is far more than the states of pleasurable feeling that people often colloquially mean by the word “happiness”. Being truthful and attaining truth through truthfulness is integral to our maximal realization of our potential as rational beings.

It also, I think, should be expected to lead to greater pleasure. That’s not an arbitrary guess. While much wisdom can bring much sorrow when it brings awareness of ugly truths and a fitting sadness about them, there is nonetheless a deeper natural fulfillment that humans usually feel in performing excellently in their powers that makes it clearly preferable to most intellectually flourishing people that they would rather have the rich satisfactions of knowing the truth than miss out on them but be granted more hits of pleasure as compensation.

What person thriving in her powers—be they intellectual, emotional, social, creative, athletic, etc.—would gladly surrender them in exchange for a kind of brain damage that made them wildly giddy but utterly incapable of mature human powers? Who that has them would want to permanently surrender adult human powers to be an infant that was perpetually drugged to be deliriously ecstatic at all times?

Not only is it illogical to wish to be harmed in our constitutive powers, but I think these thought experiments would have most people agree that the kinds of pleasures that come with being strong and successful in their developed powers are so much better in quality that they would accept a trade off whereby they lost greater quantities of baser pleasures if those pleasures depended on having more debilitated powers.

We New Atheists think, for very good reasons, that if people are free from intellectual, political, and moral forms of authoritarianism, they will be liberated to develop their powers to flourish in ways more fitting to themselves and to be inherently contented in deeper ways. They will not have their own personal experiments in personal flourishing ruled out for baseless reasons like “ancient nomads thought such behaviors were abominable”. Abandoning authoritarian faith-based reasoning and justifications for beliefs helps us figure out truer beliefs which will help us achieve our goals and ward off disasters more efficiently. Abandoning authoritarian faith-based reasoning about practices and goods will help us examine what contributes to human flourishing with no prejudices. Everything of genuine value will be given the chance to prove itself and everything of false value will be subject to the kinds of rigorous interrogation that can expose its inadequacy.

Now, all of this said, I grant that there are some hypothetical scenarios wherein flourishing in truthfulness could have unintended negative consequences for our flourishing in our other powers. And there are many kinds of pain or deprivations of pleasure that make life so miserable that there are net losses to our abilities to flourish as the kinds of beings we are. In these cases, pleasure and pain or other valuable powers besides the ones for detecting and adhering to truth might trump the value of truthful rationality if they actually lead to an overall increase in our overall power.

But at present I see no reason to assume that dispelling people of thousands of year out of date faith-beliefs and values will have this net negative effect on people’s overall flourishing.

Your Thoughts?

 

  • Beth

    Wow, not two but three posts devoted to my one, relatively short, comment. This passes beyond flattery and begins to make me uncomfortable. I am not someone who enjoys being the center of attention. I will answer your third post later, but I make no promises regarding further responses.

    If accommodationists dispute the normative judgment that faith-based religions should be abandoned on grounds of falseness alone, then they are saying that people’s personal beliefs are matters of indifference when they have no further negative consequences than their falseness. I have apparently not mischaracterized Beth’s accommodationism. She thinks truth is not important in matters of private beliefs—apparently only happiness is.

    Not at all true. I think truth is very important in matters of private belief – particularly in my own private beliefs. You claimed a motive of indifference for accomodationists. That is not true. To characterize it as such was and still is incorrect. For me, and I presume for others, it is a prioritization of values, not indifference to truth. Holding other values (not necessarily happiness BTW) of higher importance with regard to religious beliefs is not the same as indifference to truth.

    And she is also wrong when she contends that for my propositions to be true that the world would have to be a better place if everyone believed as I do. The world would be a better place if human beings were more autonomous and more powerful in their abilities to know the truth and to live with the truth.

    Thank you for this clarification as it was not my understanding of your position from the OP I was responding to. I agree with you on this point.

    The issue is whether being truthful is intrinsically better for humans than self-deceiving themselves for the sake of pleasure is.

    I disagree with this statement of the issue. We were speaking of religious beliefs and I do not equate religious belief with self-deception nor do I assume that if self-deception is occurring, the motivation must be pleasure.

    Not everyone need think like me. They only need think truthfully—whatever that is.

    So you don’t have a problem with people believing in god, as long as they are thinking truthfully about it? Because that was not the impression I got from OP.

    Or are you assuming that people who believe in god are not thinking truthfully? If that is the case, I cannot distinguish between what you mean by ‘thinking truthfully’ and ‘thinking like me’.

    And therefore faith is to be disapproved of. Faith is a poor epistemology. Embrace of faith, either implicitly or explicitly, wildly increases likelihood not only of false beliefs but of unrevised, deeply life-affecting false beliefs. It is not only a bad means of finding the truth, it is an obstacle to the truth. Not only is it not an intellectual virtue, it is an intellectual vice that corrupts the mind.

    I disagree with this characterization of faith. There is considerable evidence that faith in certain sets of propositions, such as faith in the literal truth of a sacred book, leads to many problems including those you mentioned above. I do not dispute that.

    What disturbs me is the denigration of all faith as an intellectual vice. Is faith in things such as justice, mercy, and equality necessarily a bad thing? Do you really consider belief in various ideals an intellectual vice? My guess is that you do not consider belief in such ideals to be ‘faith’. I do. If you want to convince me that ‘faith’ is an intellectual vice regardless of the content of the belief, you will first have to convince me that the term ‘faith’ should not be applied to beliefs about things other than religions and gods.

    But you might ask, “So what? As long as it makes people happier, why not have faith? Why is being truthful more intrinsically important?”

    Being truthful and attaining truth through truthfulness is integral to our maximal realization of our potential as rational beings.

    This statement I agree with. I differ in that I feel it is better to try to attain the optimal realization of our potential as human beings, which also includes, as you mentioned, being emotional, sociable, and creative. These different aspects of our humanity are often in tension. Maximizing one may lead to a less optimal overall realization of our potential. Thus, I don’t find it necessary or even desirable to elevate rationality above all the others. I would like to point out that this does NOT mean I don’t value rationality. I do. I simply don’t grant it supreme importance in my personal value scheme.
    My point is that while your answer to the question, Why is being truthful more intrinsically important?” , is insufficient to convince me of the truth of your assertion regarding the superiority of truth or rationality as being intrinsically more important than other values, such as kindness or creativity.

    We New Atheists think, for very good reasons, that if people are free from intellectual, political, and moral forms of authoritarianism, they will be liberated to develop their powers to flourish in ways more fitting to themselves and to be inherently contented in deeper ways.

    If you wish to battle authoritarianism, I will wholeheartedly support you. So will many religious groups. Why are you conflating authoritarianism with religious beliefs and disassociating atheistic philosophies with authoritarianism? Some of the most authoritarian governments have been explicitly atheistic.

    Now, all of this said, I grant that there are some hypothetical scenarios wherein flourishing in truthfulness could have unintended negative consequences for our flourishing in our other powers. And there are many kinds of pain or deprivations of pleasure that make life so miserable that there are net losses to our abilities to flourish as the kinds of beings we are. In these cases, pleasure and pain or other valuable powers besides the ones for detecting and adhering to truth might trump the value of truthful rationality if they actually lead to an overall increase in our overall power.

    This echoes what I said above, so perhaps our opinions are not so discordant.

    But at present I see no reason to assume that dispelling people of thousands of year out of date faith-beliefs and values will have this net negative effect on people’s overall flourishing.

    I agree with this, but it is a more nuanced and targeted statement than you were originally making. I agree that certain religious beliefs, particularly literal interpretations of stone-age mythology in our modern society, have a net negative effective on people’s flourishing. But my understanding is that you are not arguing against a particular set of religious beliefs, but against ANY and ALL faith-based religious beliefs.
    I see no reason to assume that ridding the world of religious beliefs will have a net positive effect on people’s overall flourishing. Religion may be something that predates homo sapiens if certain speculations about Neanderthals are correct. I don’t know, but I am reluctant to accept the wholesale condemnation of a practice that is as ancient and integral a part of human societies as religion. I require far more evidence than is currently available to believe the contention that humanity would be better off without it.

  • Sastra

    Bth wrote:

    If you want to convince me that ‘faith’ is an intellectual vice regardless of the content of the belief, you will first have to convince me that the term ‘faith’ should not be applied to beliefs about things other than religions and gods.

    I don’t think you’d have to be convinced: somebody just has to stipulate that, for the purposes of the present discussion, the term “faith” is not going to mean a watered-down secular equivalent of hope, trust, confidence, pragmatic reliance, provisional conclusion, or working theory. Nor is it being used to represent the sort of commitment we might apply to principles, standards, values, or friends. That is not what we mean, nor is it what we’re objecting to.

    Instead, by “faith” we mean the “substance of things hoped for, the evidence of what is not seen,” applied to a claim of empirical fact, in order to bypass the need for reason, argument, and evidence. When used in a religious context, it represents a ‘way of knowing’ something, and a commitment to keep trying to believe not only in spite of sufficient evidence, but even in the teeth of contrary evidence, if need be. You are not impartial; you see a change of mind as a threat.

    I think the problems with ‘any and all’ faith-based beliefs are many. As I pointed out on one of the other threads, the difference between a belief which is derived from rational analysis and a belief which is based on faith is not just in the method used: it’s in how one regards the status of the believer — and the doubter. Truths known only through acts of faith create a group of enlightened Insiders and a group of benighted Outsiders who cannot, by definition, be persuaded to change their mind or their status by any rational demonstration or persuasion. This is divisive. It’s divisive in a very bad and intractable way, assuming that the differences between people are essential, critical, intractable, and undemonstrable to outsiders.

    I am also very skeptical that people who believe things by “faith” don’t value truth-seeking above other things, such as the comfort or community being a ‘believer’ provides. Or, rather, I doubt that they know and accept this.

    On the contrary, I think they themselves would agree that this would be a valid objection to faith. IF the act of faith causes the believer to care more about the benefits of belief than to help them recognize what is real and true — THEN faith ought to be rejected.

    A good way to find this out might be to ask them. “Do you care whether God exists or not — or is religion really about something else to you, like finding a useful way to live?” See how they answer.

    And see if they want you to answer for them.

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    On the Xtra story: I don’t have a problem with doing a story about the intersection of the butch lesbian and straight trans man communities. I’ve known a couple butch lesbians who went through this sort of questioning, but this wasn’t proper coverage. Buck Angel (a mostly-gay trans man) was their only interviewee who talked about butch lesbians and trans men being definitely distinct, but he never identified as lesbian and could only speculate about how said lesbians conceive of their identity. If I had to guess, I’d say he only thought butch lesbians were disappearing because the reporter told him so off-camera and asked him for his reaction. I don’t see how this makes him a misogynist, but he really should know better.

    Would it have been too much trouble to find some butch to talk about how she definitely is not a man? Kimberly Peirce is fairly well known and happy to talk to people about this. Plus, I’m sure there were dozens of such unfamous people in their pride parade shots. They tried to make the leap from “a large number of trans women previously identified as butch lesbians,” which is true and can make for an interesting story about how they relate to the lesbian community now, to “all butch lesbians are being pushed to be men.” This is ridiculous without a hell of a lot of evidence.

    If it were true, maybe you could find someone to talk about the outside pressure she felt to be a man instead of speculating about the pressure other people feel. That would have at least given some circumstantial evidence. Of course, there are few, if any, such people because the claim isn’t true.

    I’m guessing this isn’t going over well with a lot of the butch lesbian community, either. Does anyone know where I can find coverage?

    • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

      Oops, wrong thread.

  • http://nathandst.blogspot.com NathanDST

    Who that has them would want to permanently surrender adult human powers to be an infant that was perpetually drugged to be deliriously ecstatic at all times?

    In one of my college philosophy courses (low level), we were presented with a thought experiment regarding hedonism as a philosophy (I don’t recall who came up with this). As best I recall, the thought was to imagine that society developed a technology by which anyone could be sustained in a blissed out stupor, with the pleasure being constantly higher than anything you could possibly experience in normal life. Imagine further that society had set this up as a form of retirement available to everyone who chose it at or around the 3rd decade of life, and that there was no need to be concerned about not helping society because society was designed with the idea that people were doing this (it’s a thought experiment, don’t sweat the irrelevant details). And of course, imagine that the technology would let you live out your full life span, so you would literally spend decades experiencing the greatest pleasure ever known, every minute of every day, with your boredom circuits turned off. The question was: would you choose it? The person who came up with the experiment thought that it was obvious that everyone would choose the pleasure.

    So, it seems there was at least one person that would raise there hand to the above quoted question of yours. What response can there be to such a person? If they value their adult human powers so very little, then what can possibly be said to persuade them otherwise? For me, the answer to the thought experiment was easy; I didn’t even have to think about it. Reality is preferred, however annoying it might be.