In Defense of Appropriate Intellectual Intolerance

In a post a couple of days ago, I examined, defended, celebrated, and gave general precautionary warnings about the various ways that New Atheists are fundamentally motivated by moral commitments and about how much of the substance of what concerns us has to do with issues of morality.

In reply, Beth made the most tired of false equivalences between New Atheists and religious fundamentalists:

This is the same basic argument that true believers in any ism are apt to make. Those who are sincere in their attempts to evangelize others ALWAYS believe that they are spreading truth and combatting falsehoods despite the fact that what they call ‘truth’ is actually an unfalsefiable claim.

Even Dawkins admits that certainty isn’t possible. (For some reason made the headlines this week despite his having said so many times before.) Likewise, when pressed, most religious believers will also agree that certainty about the matter is not possible. This is why I see little difference between the intolerance of the gnu athiests and the intolerance of the more fundamentalist and evangelical religious folks. Despite admitting that it’s possible, however unlikely, that they are mistaken in their belief, they continue to charactorize other people’s sincerely held beliefs as lies, falsehoods or delusions.

This is an absurd comparison. Just because a belief is not 100% certain does not mean that its contrary is automatically rational, rationally justifiable, or deserving of intellectual respect. In Dawkins’s most authoritative characterization of his own uncertainty he says he is as “agnostic” about the existence of any personal gods as he is “agnostic” about whether there are fairies in his garden. This infinitesimal degree of uncertainty is not a rational basis for treating the proposition that there are fairies in his garden as an intellectually respectable proposition. In fact Dawkins should really stop inaccurately using the word “agnostic” except if he means it in a completely tongue-in-cheek way. And he very well might when you look at the comparison he is making! He certainly does not mean Huxley’s austere conception of agnosticism.

That he compares the seriousness of his uncertainty about gods to his uncertainty about fairies and yet people still come away from this thinking not that Dawkins has said belief in gods is ludicrous but that Dawkins has treated belief in gods as a seriously legitimate possibility that needs to be respected is an amazing testimony to people’s willingness to allow religious beliefs a credibility no other beliefs would get. It’s like someone saying, “The day I vote for a Republican for anything is the day the pope converts to Islam” and the person listening coming away thinking, “Wow, I guess this means he might vote for Mitt Romney for President!” It’s about as rationally astute as Jim Carrey in this scene from Dumb and Dumber:

Personally, while I grant the possible philosophical defense of some sort of impersonal ground of all being “god” concept, I would say that the existence of personal gods who intervene in history is about as infinitesimally likely as the true existence of Batman. The same way that Jesus may have risen from the dead is the same way that, unbeknownst to any of us, Bruce Wayne is a real man with a real manor and a real Batman costume and he really fights crime in a real Gotham City that no one has discovered yet for some amazingly improbable reason. It is possible in principle. One can never be certain about anything, you know!

If someone insisted to you that Batman was real because you cannot know with 100% certainty that he is not real, would you be “intolerant as a religious fundamentalist” for saying that that was hogwash? No, you would be as intolerant as a scientist is when that scientist says that some exceedingly unlikely proposition ruled out by all known science is hogwash—even though anything is possible and no one can be absolutely certain about anything. We could be in The Matrix and the whole world around us could an illusion. But if someone fully believes they are in The Matrix and all of us around them are illusions, we do not respect that belief. In fact, if the belief starts affecting the way they live, clinically we would call it a delusion. Rational people can discriminate between beliefs deserving of respect because they meet minimal thresholds of rational warrant, on the one hand, and beliefs which are too minimally rational to warrant any respect, on the other hand. Rational people also proportion the amount of respect they offer a belief to its degree of likelihood of truth. I know there is no Batman. I know we’re not living in The Matrix. I know there are no personal gods. I could be wrong. But that does not mean I don’t know unless we just abandon the word “know” altogether. And that’s wholly unnecessary. (More on this for the unconvinced.)

Now let’s contrast us “intolerant” New Atheists, who abhorrently refuse to treat infinitesimal likelihoods as though they were on a par with realistic probabilities, with religious fundamentalists who assert wholly unsupported fantasy beliefs about wildly implausible, allegedly supernaturally affected historical events. They claim with no evidence that certain books or people are conveyors of unquestionable, divinely revealed truths. They insist that people live their lives according to these unfounded faith posits—many of which were made in different eras and are psychologically destructive and deeply immoral by our contemporary lights. And not only do they believe such nearly certainly false propositions, and not only do they insist that people orient their whole moral, social, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual lives on these nearly certainly false propositions, but they demonize and seek to control all who disbelieve their propositions.

The New Atheists are nothing like that. There are ways that this or that New Atheist can get fundamentalist about this or that particular proposition if a certain habit of thought gets too hardened or becomes treated too much as the sine qua non of atheism. And no one—whether New Atheist, accommodationist, or otherwise—is immune to the temptations of tribalism. And political power is seductive or potentially corruptive to anyone.

But where it really counts—in terms of basic motivations and ideological orientations of the movements themselves—New Atheism is diametrically opposed to religious fundamentalism. Where the religious fundamentalists explicitly celebrate believing on faith, the New Atheists explicitly promote critical thinking, and explicitly admit their beliefs are in principle revisable and must be subject to rational scrutiny. Where the religious fundamentalists explicitly want to impose entire moral codes on entire societies (often through governmental means), the New Atheists’ moral concerns are specifically about promoting autonomy and ethical pluralism in matters where individuals will objectively flourish better through diverse ways of life that authoritarian religions threaten to squash. The moral fervor of the New Atheists is explicitly hostile to institutional, traditional authorities being respected for tradition’s sake whereas the religious fundamentalists fetishize adherence to tradition for tradition’s sake. On and on, the values are simply opposite.

Again, I grant freely that individual New Atheists have personal and intellectual vices like anyone else. We’re all only human. Here or there we may individually or collectively have a vice that overlaps with those of fundamentalists. Here or there we may be overly obnoxious or prone to demonizing our enemies excessively. Here or there we may err on the side of underestimating some particular ability of faith-based religion to serve a valuable purpose or underestimate the logistical challenges of replacing some positive function it serves with a secular alternative.

But at its core this is not a fundamentalist movement. It is not a faith-based movement. It is a movement advancing the eminently rationally defensible principles that matters of belief should be decided rationally and that in matters of morality our goals should be to increase human autonomy, evidence-based pragmatism, and maximal flourishing in all the human powers and types of pleasure for the maximum number of people. We oppose the existing, faith-based religions because of the numerous ways they restrict and repress rational questioning and investigation into values for no good reason.

Beth says much more in her comment. I have written two more posts to deal with more of what she says, both in the portion quoted above and in the rest of it. I will roll out those posts this afternoon and evening respectively.

In the meantime, for more of my thoughts on the theme of Atheist Fundamentalism, read the post Atheist Fundamentalism?.

 

  • Enkidum

    Yup. As I’ve said before (here, and recently), I know there is no god in precisely the same way that I know there is no Loch Ness Monster. Which is to say that there is the possibility of being wrong, just a really vanishing one that I ascribe 0 credence to in actual life.

  • John Horstman

    This is an absurd comparison. Just because a belief is not 100% certain does not mean that its contrary is automatically rational, rationally justifiable, or deserving of intellectual respect.

    Exactly this. Certainty is certainly relative, and never 100%, but for us to function at all (and not jump out of windows because we’re not 100% certain that we can’t fly, for example), we can round probabilities in the high 90′s up to Certainly True (and those in the low 00′s down to Certainly False, depending on the matter in question, of course – for example, despite the numerous possible ways in which it could happen, I’m quite certain it’s not going to start raining frogs outside of my window in the next five minutes). Not all opinions are created equal, and most of them can be evaluated to a degree of certainty from a stable multi-subjective position (True Objectivity is impossible, but we can be relatively sure that something is ‘objective’ in the most important ways by sampling from a large and diverse enough set of subjective perceptions – this is the basis of the principle of peer review in scientific discourse, for example, and it’s why one should never take a single study, even if it’s very well-designed and -executed, as new scientific ‘fact’).

    …I would say that the existence of personal gods who intervene in history is about as infinitesimally likely as the true existence of Batman.

    I AM Batman! :-)

    Nice post with good analogies. I’m not sure a more-thorough refutation of ridiculous false equivalences is really necessary, though I’ll likely enjoy them.

    P.S. No frogs; it turns out I did a pretty good job of evaluating the probabilities involved, despite my heavy reliance on heuristics and simplifying assumptions.

  • Beth

    Wow, two posts in response to my one comment. I’m flattered you found it worth that much of a response. I’ll try to respond to your other post later tonight or tomorrow.

    In reply, Beth made the most tired of false equivalences between New Atheists and religious fundamentalists:

    You may consider the comparison a false equivalency, but I do not. The characterization of ‘lies, falsehoods or delusions’ is, at least as near as I can tell, commonly applied to all theists, regardless of the actual content of their belief. It makes no distinction between biblical literalists and those with progressive beliefs who do not believe in such things as the virgin birth.

    It is this lack of willingness to accept the diversity of belief among believers that I find so similar to the fundamentalists. It seems strikingly similar to the way many of them refuse to acknowledge the diversity of moral stances among non-believers, preferring to regard all atheists and agnostics as simply immoral or evil.

    Personally, while I grant the possible philosophical defense of some sort of impersonal ground of all being “god” concept, I would say that the existence of personal gods who intervene in history is about as infinitesimally likely as the true existence of Batman. .

    If the characterization of belief as being “lies, falsehoods and delustions” was limited to those theists who hold such beliefs, then I would find the New Atheists (which seem to me more like anti-theists than simply atheists) to be far less like the religious fundamentalists and far more tolerant of religious believers.

    While some atheists are willing to make that distinction (just as some Christians are quite willing to accept that atheists can be moral individuals), the New Atheists that I see quoted in the news, writing blog posts, and contributing to comment threads on forums like this do not seem to bother with such nuance. Hence, they come across to me as being just as intolerant as the fundamentalists do when they disparage atheism and atheists.

    If someone insisted to you that Batman was real because you cannot know with 100% certainty that he is not real, would you be “intolerant as a religious fundamentalist” for saying that that was hogwash?

    No. I was talking about assumptions that are made because someone is religious (or because they are atheist) rather than a situation discussing a specific belief with an individual who is claiming and arguing for that belief.

    What I find to be intolerant is assuming that because someone is a Christian they must either believe that Jesus was resurrected from death and are therefore delusional or they are lying about their belief. Although fundamentalist Christians will require such a belief, not all denominations do.

    There are ways that this or that New Atheist can get fundamentalist about this or that particular proposition if a certain habit of thought gets too hardened or becomes treated too much as the sine qua non of atheism. And no one—whether New Atheist, accommodationist, or otherwise—is immune to the temptations of tribalism. And political power is seductive or potentially corruptive to anyone.
    But where it really counts—in terms of basic motivations and ideological orientations of the movements themselves—New Atheism is diametrically opposed to religious fundamentalism.

    I don’t see it that way. I look at the response of the New Atheists to people like Chris Mooney and Chris Stedman and find the reactions of the New Atheists to be remarkable similar to the way heretics are treated by the religious fundamentalists. Just as progressive liberal Christians are condemned by the fundamentalist Christians, the Atheist Accomodationists are condemned by the New Atheists.

    The similarlity in their responses to dissent matter far more to me that the differences in their espoused values.

    The moral fervor of the New Atheists is explicitly hostile to institutional, traditional authorities being respected for tradition’s sake whereas the religious fundamentalists fetishize adherence to tradition for tradition’s sake. On and on, the values are simply opposite.

    I agree that the values are opposite of those of fundamentalist/literalist religious denominations. It is not the espoused values that I find similar, but the responses to dissent within the group and the casual denigration of all those not in the group that I find similar. Whether the trope is that atheists are immoral or that believers are delusional, the disrespect of those considered ‘other’ is similar.

    When I examine the responses of New Atheists to those atheists they label as Accomodationists to be quite similar to the way the fundamentalists treat Progressive Christians. They are treated as traitors, demeaned and denigrated, and generally despised even more than those who actually disagree with them on the question of the existence of god.

    We oppose the existing, faith-based religions because of the numerous ways they restrict and repress rational questioning and investigation into values for no good reason.

    It seems to me that, here at least, you are eschewing discrimination of the nuances of the individuals and individual churches which subscribe to vastly differing beliefs and value systems in favor of a broad brush condemnation and opposition of all religion. Like the fundamentalist who assumes all atheists are evil or immoral, you are assuming that all faith-based religions restrict and repress rational questioning and investigation into values. That simply isn’t true.

    It’s this lumping of all ‘others’ into one category and then assuming that all members of that category share some despised trait that I find so similar to the fundamentalists and their intolerance of those who disagree with their precepts about the world.

    If you want to convince me that the New Atheists are not a group as intolerant of those who disagree as the fundamentalist Christians, you need to establish that their behavior towards those who disagree is not only different, but more tolerant of dissent and more respectful to the dissenters than the fundamentalists.

    • http://purl.org/NET/JesseW/SundryStuff/ JesseW

      “you are assuming that all faith-based religions restrict and repress rational questioning and investigation into values. That simply isn’t true.”

      Daniel (and others) have written numerous posts explaining why faith itself “restrict[s] and repress[es] rational questioning and investigation into values”. If you wish to dispute this claim, great — we can have that discussion; but it’s NOT an assumption; it’s the conclusion of a great deal of argument.

      I look forward to your acknowledgment that you mis-described this conclusion (which is widely held by Gnu Atheists) as if it were something they merely assumed.

    • consciousness razor

      You may consider the comparison a false equivalency, but I do not. The characterization of ‘lies, falsehoods or delusions’ is, at least as near as I can tell, commonly applied to all theists, regardless of the actual content of their belief. It makes no distinction between biblical literalists and those with progressive beliefs who do not believe in such things as the virgin birth.

      If one believes in a deity of any kind, one is committed to believing lies, falsehoods or delusions. Do you dispute this? If someone also believes in a virgin birth, that is also irrational, but it’s irrelevant to the issue with theistic religion in general. For one so concerned about making careful distinctions, you ought to be concerned about which argument you’re making — that is, assuming you aren’t just trying to flail and whine incoherently in the vague direction of GNUs.

      It is this lack of willingness to accept the diversity of belief among believers that I find so similar to the fundamentalists.

      What lack of willingness? You may bring up any number of superficial differences, but as I said those (like believing or disbelieving in a virgin giving birth) are irrelevant. Concerning the differences which actually count, with respect to why one should believe a deity exists, many GNUs are very careful to examine lots of different arguments honestly and without confusing them with others. So I think your claim is false.

      I don’t see it that way. I look at the response of the New Atheists to people like Chris Mooney and Chris Stedman and find the reactions of the New Atheists to be remarkable similar to the way heretics are treated by the religious fundamentalists. Just as progressive liberal Christians are condemned by the fundamentalist Christians, the Atheist Accomodationists are condemned by the New Atheists.

      Sorry to disappoint, but I’ve got no hellfire or brimstone to offer. I don’t believe in condemnation, so accommodationists get none of it from me.

      This is also making the charitable assumption that you were comparing our reactions to their treatment of heretics today*, rather than to religious reactions in general, including past events like the Inquisition. I wouldn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition, but you may have it if you want to make your case even less credible than it already is. I suggest you mention us feeding faitheists to the lions for general amusement — you know, not because it’s true, but because it can be a persuasive metaphor.

      *Their treatment today in some culture or another, I would assume, because those differ; and I’d hate to paint fundamentalists with such a broad brush as you seem to be doing here.

      The similarlity in their responses to dissent matter far more to me that the differences in their espoused values.

      Just how similar are the responses? Given your apparent inclination to distort the issue, I’m not actually asking you personally for an answer, unless you’ll try to do it fairly without using such loaded and exaggerated language.

      When I examine the responses of New Atheists to those atheists they label as Accomodationists to be quite similar to the way the fundamentalists treat Progressive Christians. They are treated as traitors, demeaned and denigrated, and generally despised even more than those who actually disagree with them on the question of the existence of god.

      If someone acts treacherously, they should be treated as a traitor (which is not to say inhumanely). How you would know that, among GNUs, accommodationists are “generally despised” more than the religious, I have no idea.

      It is in any case irrelevant, because we should treat religious people just as fairly as nonreligious people. We shouldn’t give the nonreligious a pass for promoting bullshit, even if it is nonreligious bullshit. If that’s your position as well, then this kind of comparison between our alleged treatment of the groups is pointless.

    • John Morales

      [meta]

      Wow, two posts in response to my one comment. I’m flattered you found it worth that much of a response.

      You are very easily flattered, then.

      (Are you flattered I’m responding to you, now?)

  • http://eulercycle.wordpress.com nick euler

    If you want to convince me that the New Atheists are not a group as intolerant of those who disagree as the fundamentalist Christians, you need to establish that their behavior towards those who disagree is not only different, but more tolerant of dissent and more respectful to the dissenters than the fundamentalists.

    When it comes down to it, the worst I’ve heard New Atheists do is some serious name-calling and slur-slinging. But religious fundamentalists have told me that I deserve to burn in hell for all eternity, that I will burn in hell for all eternity, that my sexual orientation is unnatural and makes me the equivalent of a pedophile.

    Sure, there are New Atheists out there who are terrible people. But I first engaged in this movement as a moderate theist, and then an agnostic, and I had my intelligence denigrated and I was put through some terribly taxing debates — and not all of it was justified or deserved, but it is a whole level different from the behavior of religious fundamentalists.

    The fact that we can frame the question in terms of respect — are New Atheists respectful — says enough. To me, the question with religious fundamentalists is not one of whether they respect me, but whether they can possibly hold off on dehumanizing and threatening me until I’m out of the room.

  • http://www.withinthismind.com WithinThisMind

    There is a chance that I could step out into my driveway and be struck by lightning. It’s around 1 in 1,000,000

    There is a chance my house could be hit by cannon fire. Happened to somebody in California recently.

    There is a chance I could find the winning lottery ticket along a fence while walking into down. Not sure what it is, but it is less than zero.

    All of these are more likely than the chance god exists, and yet, I see no reason to let any of the above control my life or even alter my behavior.

    I mean, if we want to get right down to the nitty gritty, can you actually prove that satellite dishes aren’t beaming radio frequencies to control your brain waves, or is that just what they want you to think?

    You aren’t putting on a tin foil hat. And I’m not going to church. I’d say these actions are both equally reasonable.

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

    On that note:

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

    I think it is legit to say some atheist are as bad as religious fundamentalists so long as you aren’t talking about anti-theists in general, but specifically mean people who value feeling like they are rational (and thus better than irrational people) over actually being rational. TheAmazingAtheist is a good example.