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?.


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