Atheist Reductionisms

Last month, I told the Friendly Atheist‘s Richard Wade the following:

Atheists sometimes have an annoying tendency in my experience to be reductionists, especially about matters that are part of the social or moral or psychological world. They often want to say things like we’re all really just a bunch of atoms. There is a tendency to talk like the only level of explanation that is at all meaningful is on the physics level. Now, of course everything in our experience is ultimately physical and made up of atoms, which are further composed of subatomic particles. But that does not mean that atoms are the only level on which true things can be said. Those atoms combine in remarkably complex patterns that give rise to the objects of study in chemistry, biology, psychology, and sociology. Those emergent patterns are real. It’s not like in biology we say, “There’s no such thing as evolution because this organism and its descendants are really still just patterns of atoms”. The differences in the patterns of atoms that make up one organism and its offspring are significant. They are worth saying there is something new evolved in nature when an organism is distinct enough in the patterns of its properties from its ancestors. These are real subjects of study. Real differentiations in nature. It would be stupidity to judge those patterns as somehow artificial simply because there is a way to conceptualize the organisms in purely atomic terms that pay no attention to the features that are interesting on the biological level.

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Last week, Andrew Tripp, of the blog Considered Exclamations, was inspired to build off that discussion to frame a discussion about privilege among atheists:

In my thinking, this sort of reductionism is the kind of belief that leads directly to erasure and marginalization, as Dan briefly mentioned. The reductionist mindset allows one to remove the personal from life; when there are only atoms, why should we worry about anything that make them up? Whether or not this attitude is consciously constructed or not, it is the one that prevails currently in many atheistic circles, and what it has resulted in is yet another reinforcement of the old white male-driven hierarchies.

We haven’t been looking to break down the old ways of knowing; instead, we have coopted them and slapped a secular label on them. We have been trying to create a permanent, ahistorical, neutral set of standards by which all knowledge and worth is to be judged; that of science, atomism, whatever we choose to call it. It’s the same type of framework that has been used by popes, priests, and dictators for centuries; the enemies of freethought, of rationality, the things we have been supposedly fighting for. By inhabiting this reductionist philosophy, we have never looked outside the box; the framework does not allow, epistemologically, for questions of identity to enter our conception as being a worthy aspect of investigation, for it is such a subjective thing; our conceptions of our and others’ being is always in flux, always depending on sense data gained from experience. It resists quantification.

The result of this rejection of identity has been ignorance of the concerns and circumstances of those who do not fit the norm set out by the knowledgeable class who propagate the ways of knowing I have briefly set out; the Dawkinses, Harrises, Krausses, etc., have never to my knowledge ever stopped for a moment to consider the issues and oppressions that their objective mindset, in a way, helps to reinforce; in the former’s case, when he did, he ended up only revealing his ignorance on such matters.

Read the end of the article and over 140 comments at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, where the article was cross-posted as a guest post.

On a personal note, Ed and I met Andrew together at the Reason Rally, so it is cool for me to see him pop up on Ed’s blog, referencing me. If you live in the Chicago area and would like to meet me and Andrew, chime in on this Facebook thread or contact me via e-mail so we know how many people to plan for when we hold the Camels With Hammers Chicago meet up on August 4. Having spent the last 5 days meeting colleagues and readers and other assorted secularists at CONvergence and then the St. Cloud State University Secular Student Alliance, I am super-pumped for this next Midwest meet up!

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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.


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