Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post articulating my perception that New Atheism is a moral movement at its core. Ostensibly, atheists in the movement have been arguing that adherence to a principle of truthfulness is more important, in most cases, than believing false or unsubstantiated things that we might find pleasing, ennobling, or otherwise personally beneficial. While we are highly focused on publicizing the evils religions do and making sure they are accountable for the ways that faith and religiosity themselves are responsible for unique sorts of evil consequences, we are also a movement of people that dismisses the good religions do as irrelevant to the issue of religious truth. In other words, even were the goods brought by faith and religiosity to be on net a greater contribution to humanity than the evils they bring are a detriment, nevertheless we would have reasons to oppose faiths as simply false. And we would have reason to criticize promulgators of faith-based ideas as purveyors of falsehood. Regardless of whether those falsehoods’ effects are on the whole pernicious or positive, we tend to argue lying is simply wrong and living without truth is inherently bad.
So, we are typically, at least as I have interpreted us from what we’ve said, a movement that is more interested in critical reasoning and scrupulous truthfulness than simply any one propositional claim. We are not a movement that exists simply to reject belief in gods. We are a movement that exists to argue there’s something wrong with believing against the evidence or believing propositions with greater strength than the reasons for holding them warrant. We are, in a word, against “faith”.
We are also, I have thought, in principle defined by our opposition to authoritarianism in thought and deed. I have taken us to be saying that there is something pernicious about “because I said so” as a reason for actions, beliefs, and values. All authorities must be able to ground their truth claims and moral commands in rational appeals which are assessable by each unique reasoning individual independently. Moral authority and intellectual authority require “showing your work”. They require explaining to a free mind why that mind must accept your commands and your conclusions. And any who presume to be moral or intellectual authorities must submit themselves to the most unsparing skeptical analysis, and do this repeatedly so that we never believe outdated or otherwise refutable premises simply out of habit or traditionalism.
If you agree with me that these principles are what the movement should be about, then I interpret that as agreeing with me that this should be a rationalist movement. If you think that the meta-declarations of prominent members of the movement have, in the main, indicated that this is already the aspiration of the movement, then I think that means you agree with me that the movement has been proclaiming itself as essentially a rationalist movement already.
The movement focuses on atheism for a specific reason. It is the proponents of religious faith who are explicitly and unabashedly opposed to letting all propositions come under thorough rational scrutiny before being believed. It is they who actively argue that reason is not only limited in its ability to know or prove everything (which even we rationalists accept) but that sometimes we should wholeheartedly embrace that which we want to believe with greater strength and conviction and behavioral commitment than evidence warrants. In fact, they are those who explicitly reject that genuine skepticism should ever be rigorously applied to their core, identity forming beliefs and values.
While there are many more ways to be irrational than merely by adhering to a religious faith, in religious faiths we see irrationalism itself celebrated with the most baldfaced acceptance of unjustified beliefs, moral and social authoritarianism, and traditionalism all as good (and even “holy”!). So the rationalist’s clearest opponent, by which to define herself, is the proponent of faith. And as faith props up theism and theism props up religion, rationalists have grouped together under the banner of atheists and objectors to religion.
As rationalists we reject the widely appealed to premise that “it matters neither what you believe nor how you come to your beliefs as long as you are a good person who makes a net positive contribution to the world”. Of course, we would certainly find it preferable that someone be a good person motivated by their faith rather than that they be a bad person motivated by their faith. But, nonetheless, we think it would be better if they were a good person because of well-formed true beliefs rather than because of beliefs that are ill-formed and/or false. For this reason the existence of good religious people, even were they shown to make up the preponderance of all religious people and even were religion on net to be shown to contribute greater good than evil to the world, is not a basis for us to approve of faith or the religions built upon it.
I consider myself generally a “rationalist” because I have become convinced that matters of both truth and moral values are best resolved through rigorous rational reflection rather than through the often capricious interplay of social and political dynamics. I have been a part of the atheist movement because I have thought of it as a movement of people who want to prove that beliefs and values can and should be both determined and disseminated through reasoning processes rather than through the irrational methods preferred by the religious. When I have stood up against false religious beliefs or homophobia or sexism or racism, etc., I have thought that my activism was not just about the rightness of my position on those issues but my principled commitment to thinking about them scrupulously and arguing for them in a way that relies on reason rather than irrational emotional appeals. I have seen this concern not only to advocate the right conclusions but the right methods of reasoning about them to be what the rationalist atheist movement has to offer activism that other activists, concerned only with outcomes by any means, might not care about.
For example, many feminists or proponents of gay rights don’t care at all whether someone is religious so long as their beliefs and values favor gay rights or a feminist conception of women’s rights. But we New Atheists are the ornery ones who have been demanding not only the right conclusions but the right methods of getting there.
This is why I’m a bit disappointed by the wide disconnect between many members of the movement and me over my call for us to argue with people in ways that respect their intellectual consciences rather than personally abuse and shame them. As far as I had always thought, this morally principled commitment to freedom of conscience, rigorous skeptical analysis, and reliance on reason to come to the right conclusions was the very raison d’être of the movement. We didn’t just want people to stop believing in gods. We wanted people to stop believing dogmatically. We wanted to stop people from being persuaded through emotionalistic appeals and authoritarian bullying. We wanted people to genuinely and openendedly think for themselves and come to agree with us out of their commitment to critical thinking.
Essentially, if they persist in not recognizing the force of our reason, we are supposed to feel entitled to try to coerce them emotionally with the threat of demonization, denigration, and shunning. In essence we are supposed to feel entitled to presume to reduce them to mental children who need to be emotionally twisted into a fearful obedience. And not only this but we are to see our paternalistic role as their emotional trainers as best fulfilled through verbal abuse, rather than through firm but respectful moral arguments and moral charges capable of rational substantiation. So not only are we to see fit to act as people’s parents, we are encouraged to act like abusive, authoritarian parents who use threats and shaming and verbal denigration to train their children.
I have been accused of being moralistic and condescending for advocating passionately for certain moral suggestions and trying to devise a pledge that could serve as a basic blueprint for what genuine rationalistic arguments would be like. But I have not tried to twist anyone’s emotions out of frustration with their reason. I have made moral arguments, pitched to people’s reason, their sense of fairness and their responsibility to recognize the dignity, rationality, and freedom of intellectual conscience of their interlocutors. I have been calling for the rationalist community to live up to its purported belief that beliefs and values should be determined rationally and that rigorous skepticism should always be welcome, regardless of the alleged sacredness of the propositions under consideration.
In return, I find a lot of people who will abandon commitment to rationalism out of an apparent fear that it will not win every argument. I am afraid people are signaling to me that they are more committed to winning a political and social war using whatever tactics necessary than committed to reexamining their beliefs and values. I am afraid they are unwilling to embrace the annoyance of their opponents’ free consciences to disagree by demanding ever more arguments before fully capitulating. I am afraid they do not see those with deep disagreements as a welcome challenge to constantly reassess, refine, and prove their beliefs anew. I am afraid they do not have much confidence in reason at all after all to be persuasive and would gladly use the full repertoire of socially and emotionally manipulative religious tactics to inculcate and enforce their beliefs and insulate them from criticism. I also am afraid that they are not willing at all to accept the numerous minor victories one can accomplish in a given argument but rather, like absolutists, they demand a wholly unrealistic (and probably irrational) capitulation from their ideological enemies in any given conversation. I am afraid they have no patience at all with letting people end an argument having made a few concessions and then going off to think for themselves before finally agreeing to more. I am afraid, at least from what they are saying, that that is not enough for many people. They want to lash out and vent at their intellectual opponent for the audacity of not surrendering completely or of arguing with equal force to their own.
I hope I am wrong. But these are the impression I am getting from those who want to morally legitimize routinized abusive discourse.
Please disuade me of the impression if it is false, if it misrepresents your position. Please explain to me how verbal abuse, insults, refusal to find common ground and argue from common beliefs and values with people, refusal to charitably interpret their words but instead seize on their worst possible implications and hastily make the most serious moral charges against them, etc. are all compatible with rationalism, intellectual humility, skepticism, and non-paternalistic, non-authoritarian respect for freedom of conscience. Please explain to me how eschewing the commitment to those practices is a matter of promoting critical thinking and rationalism. Because I don’t see how it is possible.
I don’t think I was asking anything extraordinary in my civility pledge beyond writing out what it would take for us to ethically live up to all our endless talk about the value of critical reason and truthfulness above all things and all our purported disdain for religions’ appallingly manipulative irrationalism and authoritarianism. I understand that emotions have to be a part of values arguments to some extent. But there are ways to appeal to emotions that are rational and respectful of people’s freedom of conscience and ways that are outright irrational and abusive. That a supposedly rationalistic movement is so filled with people who not only do not see this distinction but are outright hostile to it is, to say the least, disillusioning to me. I am, honestly, flabbergasted that many of my suggestions are being treated as unbelievable burdens, handicaps, obstacles to persuasiveness, and requiring moral sainthood to pull off when most of them are, essentially, the minimum expectation understood by scholars in the academy for how to carry out a genuinely rational discourse. A community of self-professed (and not to mention self-congratulatory, “more-rational-than-thou”) “critical thinkers” should not see it as a presumptuous and alien request to be asked to live up to them. This should already be what we freely do.
If you outright believe that reason is impotent to adjudicate between values claims, and that they are at their core rationally unjustifiable but rather so emotional in character that we really need to use whatever emotional tactics we can to bash them into people’s heads around all their rational resistances, then are you really against faith in principle or just against those with different faiths than your own? Are you only against faiths rooted in different values? If so, why oppose members of religious faiths who share your values simply because of the falsehood of their beliefs, if all that ultimately matters to you is whether people’s behaviors lead to positive outcomes and not whether they form their beliefs in a way that involves an increase in their critical thinking abilities?