What We Can’t Claim Credit For

In light of the two most recent posts (on atheism’s weakness as philosophical movement and my inability to rebut a Ross Douthat thought experiment), it’s about time I got around to discussing the keynote at the DC Center for Inquiry fundraiser I attended a few weeks back.

The featured speaker was Greta Christina and she spoke on the similarities between New Atheism and the LGBT movement.  I’m sure you can think of plenty of them already: both distrusted groups that are numerically in the minority.  Both movements that put a big emphasis on coming out because if people know us personally, they tend to soften some of their judgments.  Both movements with fierce internal debates about how to engage with the mainstream and prone to worry about accommodationists.

I could guess most of the above, but Greta had another parallel that really caught my attention.  There have been historical periods where being publicly known as queer or atheist could put you in serious danger.  And in some parts of the world, and the United States, that is still the case.  But what Greta chose to focus on was what changes once it’s safe to be queer or to be an atheist.

It used to be that being out, whether as LGBT or as an atheist, was a good proxy variable for having a lot of spunk and for having put a lot of thought into the issue.  But today, being out is low-cost for a lot of people.  I grew up atheist on very secular Long Island and didn’t have to a lot of heavy lifting to defend my beliefs.  Just knowing I’m an atheist doesn’t give you that much help in guessing how smart I am or how well I can defend what I believe.

Greta Christina explained that a strong sense of exceptionalism persisted in the LGBT community, even when many queer folks could exist comfortably within the mainstream.  And in a movement like atheism, where a lot is made of being less wrong than other people, this kind of confidence and complacency can be dangerous.

Atheism isn’t the goal.  The goal is to have a correct-as-possible model of the world to guide our actions, and we believe atheism is one of the components of that map.  But if plenty of people can stumble into atheism, we need to do more to focus on the process of rational inquiry, not just celebrate it’s byproducts.

Someone in the comments section of my response to R. Hoffman asked who my favorite atheists were.  Among living atheists, I’d definitely say Eliezer Yudkowsky fits the bill.

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  • Brandon

    The goal is to have a correct-as-possible model of the world to guide our actions, and we believe atheism is one of the components of that map. But if plenty of people can stumble into atheism, we need to do more to focus on the process of rational inquiry, not just celebrate it’s byproducts.

    I disagree with the framing of atheism as merely a byproduct of rational thinking. I think it’s something of a necessary core for rational thinking; believing in deities opens up magic as an explanation for nearly every observable phenomenon, and results in credulity in many areas of thought. I realize this becomes a bit circular, but not having faith in a deity is both an end-product of thinking rationally and a cornerstone for rational thought. Of course, people are capable of the cognitive dissonance of thinking rationally about almost everything other than their God or gods, but that’s a poor substitute for attempting to pursue rational inquiry in all matters.

    • anodognosic

      Needs more Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality.

      To explain: If magic is real, rationality should lead us to believe in magic. If God is real, rationality should lead us to believe in God. If you don’t believe these propositions, you’re doing rationality wrong.

      • Brandon

        You’re right, in a strictly hypothetical sense. From a pragmatic viewpoint, there’s no evidence of magic (or gods), no plausible mechanism for such, and no rational reason to believe either exists. With our presently available set of facts, magic (and gods) simple aren’t good explanations for anything. If the facts change, the ideas should change with them. At present, naturalism should be seen as the default approach to explaining phenomena.

  • Courtney


    So, because I think it is far more rational that life was created (possibly using evolution as the mechanism), rather than believe that everything just happened to work out absolutely perfectly for life to be as it is today, I am being irrational?

    I personally think that believing that life is just this big coincidence of a million different things working together exactly perfectly takes more faith than simply believing that we were created.

    • Brandon

      Characterizing the naturalistic position as thinking that “everything just happened to work out absolutely perfectly for life to be as it is today” is either irrational, dishonest, or ignorant. I can’t say which it is in your case, but using the canard that things “work perfectly” a couple times suggests that you don’t really have much knowledge of biology. No one in the field would characterize much of anything about how living organisms work as “working perfectly”; instead, they work in the fashion that we’d expect if they were the result of a messy, imperfect process.

    • Kogo

      *…rather than believe that everything just happened to work out absolutely perfectly for life to be as it is today, I am being irrational?*

      Yeah but no. Everything *didn’t* work out absolutely perfectly for life. Just to pick one out of an infinity of examples: Why do our skin cells mutate when exposed to mere ultraviolet radiation? I had to have painful surgery as a child to deal with this specific *imperfection* in the conditions of earthly life.

      So no: No miraculous coincidences NOR any Creator need be posited.

    • t e whalen

      I’m pretty sure this is a reference to the anthropic principle and not a postulation that the human body is in any way perfect. (Other than Jack LaLanne, obviously.)

  • Kogo

    *But if plenty of people can stumble into atheism, we need to do more to focus on the process of rational inquiry, not just celebrate it’s byproducts.*

    Um, what?

    • Kogo

      Just to answer my own question based what I *think* you’re saying here Leah: No. No high-bar, small-tent, narrow-gate atheism, thanks. I’ve said this before but I’m not really interested in sparkling intellectual dialogs. My atheism is A.) intuitive (this doesn’t *feel* like a world created or ruled by god) and B.) political (this world will be better when it’s less spiritual). I don’t really care about the chain of logic that led people to atheism, myself least of all.

      I’ll take the byproducts, thanks.

      • Intuition and politics can work fine for you living out your life as an individual, those methods just don’t help humankind with stockpiling reliable knowledge of the here-and-now to improve the lives of future generations.

        • Kogo

          I don’t want my life “improved”, thanks.

  • t e whalen

    The goal is to have a correct-as-possible model of the world to guide our actions, and we believe atheism is one of the components of that map.

    Why is that the goal? Isn’t the goal human flourishing? Or maximal happiness? Or avoiding harming others?

    • Brandon

      Great question, and I don’t think it’s one that’s easily answered. Some would say that minimizing human suffering is more important than understanding objective truths about the world; that’s certainly a reasonable position, and I’d have a tough time arguing against it. Others either value truth exceptionally highly as a value, or argue that we’re more likely to have positive outcomes, including minimization of harm and maximization of happiness by understanding truths than having pleasant falsehoods. I don’t think that’s settled with any measure of certainty, either empirically or philosophically, but I could be wrong. In the meantime, I personally place a high enough value on truth and am sufficiently skeptical of the idea that we can mold good behavior around mistruths that I would agree with Leah that goal is to have as correct-as-possible model of the world. I don’t think disagreeing is unreasonable though.

    • I agree that’s a great question. I think truth must be the goal, otherwise, well, it’s false. And then you get points marked off! Well, kidding aside, in the absence of certainty about truth (and I think there is no shortage of absence of certainty, despite my theism), the next best discriminator is flourishing. A belief system that produces flourishing is at least getting the practice part of reality right, even if it might not have the theory part right.

      • A belief system that produces flourishing

        Even better: “A correct-as-possible model of the world that produces flourishing”

        If your tempted to choose happiness over cold hard facts, you might try Nozick’s Experience Machine thought-experiment

        • In the absence of certainty about truth the next best discriminator is flourishing. If you have certainty, by all means follow it. But if we must choose to plug into a worldview matrix, and we all do, and there are no better discriminators for decision making, choose the one which doesn’t suck. Simple.

    • Having a correct-as-possible model of the world makes all those other things — human flourishing, maximal happiness, avoiding harming others — much more likely, and more attainable.

  • Of course it has to be said that just because someone is an atheist, doesn’t mean that they are rational. I know plenty of non-ration, uncritical atheists. Even if all “mainstream” religion goes away, even if the New Atheists are successful in getting everyone to see that religion is bunk, there will always be irrational beliefs. Like psi or other pseudoscience. It’s my (uninformed!) prediction that the religion(s) of the next few centuries of humanity, after Christianity, Islam, etc. are dead, will be in those forms of pseudoscience.

  • To me for the out campaign to liken itself to the LGBT community is sincere and meaningful.

    Certain differences I also find interesting. For example, LGBT issues have drawn increasing support from straight folk. Whereas the issues coming out of the Atheist corner are yet to garner a critical mass of believers.

    I suspect this is because the public mindset has come to appreciate non-religious teachings about sexuality, but hasn’t yet wrapped its mind around non-religious teachings about religion.

  • Another similarity undoubtedly includes: exaggerating their numbers through fuzzily-defined terms as a show of solidarity, with particular major historical figures by a combination of scant historical evidence blown out of proportion and model-based history.

    This is a human temptation — the Aeneid springs to mind, as do Protestant models of history which leapfrog from heretic to heretic through the ages — and by no means something only found in these movements, but it constitutes so very much of the rhetoric it seems more a feature than a bug.

    • Brandon

      Care to provide any examples of either gays or atheists doing that? I don’t pay near as much attention to the LGBT movement, but every time I see atheists represent their numbers, they’re careful to caveat that “non-believer” or “none” doesn’t strictly represent atheism, but falls somewhere in the same family and has some of the same concerns. Without any actual examples of atheists doing what you claim they are, your post amounts to concern trolling.

      • I would imagine that the claims that Shakespeare was homosexual is a fairly good example. While there absolutely is something queer going on in his writing, there’s nothing concrete enough to warrant a claim that the man himself as homosexual (especially since such a category did not exist in early modern thought). The claim that Marlowe was an atheist (rather than a skeptic or agnostic, for instance, which seem much more probable) might be an analogue–it was probably impossible for him to be an atheist, or at least in the way we think of the category. He wasn’t Christian or any other category offered at the time, but that does not mean he automatically became an atheist. Despite this, almost any collection of Marlowe’s plays will peg him as one. And the same goes for all sorts of literary and philosophical figures.

      • Trolling, you know, is deliberate. If what I have said amounts to trolling know that it is despite my intentions. (For whatever that’s worth.)

        One aspect of what I’ve said some have seemed to missed: Including as many as possible to bolster your numbers.

        Atheists, similarly, cite and/or blow out of proportion figures in history who were not atheists. Judging again by Wikipedia — what better source of what people think than the encyclopedia anyone can edit? — the history of atheism, though it started in the 18th century, started much earlier. There is even the preposterous claim that “logically” belief in atheism is as old as theism, forgetting that we fleshy masses are not wholly logical. It is not logic but ideology to state that our first contemplation of the numinous necessarily included weighing the possibility that the numinous does not exist. Suppose, say, the numinous were really present and irrefutable for thousands of years before the sin of men enabled abstraction from reality? Disbelieve in Eden if you must, but even that is a rejection.

        As for the LGBT community, consider their ever-expanding acronym. Judging by the Wikipedia article, if you really want to include everyone, you’ll have LGBTTQ?UCI2APO. If it were not so unwieldly it would be used — the principles which required the inclusion of L and B and T back in the day do not exclude the longest version. Kinsey, modern-day Mathus that he is, is nonetheless frequently cited to support the claim of “1 in 10.” Kinsey did not even make the claim, from what I’ve heard — even his (very high) figure of 1 in 10 includes a very many subtle gradations and borderline cases.

        Again, that groups of people do this do this is not astounding. When asking any group with a human component to justify themselves, the first response is an appeal to history — “we’ve always been around.” Perhaps the strident, popular labelings of history by the atheist and the LGBT movements are only so intense because, as they at best represent maybe a percent or three of the population in America — atheists higher elsewhere — their case for legitimization must come earlier and more often.

        • Brandon

          That’s a pretty long way to say, “no, I do not have any examples of atheists exaggerating their numbers”. If the best you can say is that a statement made on Wiki about the origin of atheism might (not definitely, but might be) wrong, I’m unimpressed.

          • Deists come to mind.

          • Upon reflection, deism being an obviously modern heresy, I retract the specific point and rephrase more broadly.

            Atheists, like the LGBT movement, resort to wildly inaccurate mythologies without basis in fact to explain the way the world works, relying almost wholly on model-based propaganda. I realize this is the same accusation made against Christians by atheists. Thing is, our eschatology and theology are not disprovable. Typical atheist accounts of history are.

            It’s easy to support such a claim: Spend enough time on an atheist forum we have wild just-so fables about the noble Hypatia, about whom Gibbons and Sagan are woefully wrong, not to mention Galileo. Human history is told as a story between the enlightened forces of esoteric knowledge against the mass of humanity. Rhetoric often concludes with the proclamation that they are best snapped out of their delusion by any means necessary, but atheists having all the structure of Protestantism and many of the same Biblical hermeneutics, it’s very difficult to speak for the group. Note, for example, that the first refutation of Hypatia hysterics is from a self-avowed atheist. (My favorite, in fact, until I found another with more depth.)

            Now, these comments apply to the Dawkins-ite atheist one sees on YouTube and the like. I propose this regarding their proportions in the broader population: While they’re the squeaky wheel among practicing atheists, they’re also the majority of self-avowed atheists.

          • I’ve retracted somewhat; a better reply is stuck in moderation. (Leah: Please delete this comment when the other comment surfaces.)

          • Brandon

            Well, at least that’s a much shorter way of not actually providing an example of an atheist doing what you claim they do.

          • Until the other comment clears, enjoy a handy refutation of a particular point of atheist mythology: Witch trials. Perhaps a balm: the reason my other comment took so long — 40-something minutes — and is stuck in moderation is because of all the links provided.

    • I’ve never heard of “model-based history,” and a quick Google isn’t very enlightening. Could you elaborate, please?

      • It’s a reference I picked up from TOF Spot. It sounded good when I read it there, so I appropriated it. It perhaps doesn’t strictly apply as well as it did for Mike Flynn and so I might in retrospect rephrase, but editing comments even if I could would be rude. Flynn has another good post about SCIENCE!TM I enjoy.

    • Hmm. I have to disagree. I think the “so-and-so was gay/atheist” is more due to the effect of wide-spread curiosity, rather than being a key feature of actual “group” rhetoric.

      Because these beliefs or orientations were dangerous to admit back then, now that we are able to freely discuss them, people are probably mostly curious to know who “was” or “wasn’t.” This especially seems likely, because “Marlowe was an atheist” does not advance the discussion in any way. On the other hand, “How do Marlowe’s works address an atheist discourse?” might be a pretty useful question…and he doesn’t necessarily have to be an atheist in order for his works to do just that.

      • Perhaps I’m misinterpreting the arguments for legitimacy as arguments from antiquity, but it seems that there is often an explicit “spin” on accounts history to bring out the speaker’s pet political-social cause.

  • “The goal is to have a correct-as-possible model of the world to guide our actions.”

    “I disagree with the framing of atheism as merely a byproduct of rational thinking. I think it’s something of a necessary core for rational thinking.”

    Here’s my issue. I love the scientific, positivist approach. Stephen Hawking nailed it on the head when he said that it is the single best way to approach our understanding of the physical world. That is its purview, and it is unmatched in its fitness for physical enquiry. BUT, the purely positivist approach is simply not suited to the metaphysical. Now, there are two possible responses to this crisis. We can (a) enter into some other kind of discussion based on the possibility that there may be more to the world than can be measured by our physical instruments, or (b) assume that because the positivist approach does not cover the metaphysical, the metaphysical therefore *cannot* exist. I can’t answer for the effectiveness of “a” (nor can I even begin to suggest what type of discussion might be desirable in such a case), but I can immediately dismiss “b” as unsatisfactory. Science is a process with limitations. It cannot disprove what it cannot even address. And so, to believe or not-believe in God requires exiting the positivist and scientific approach. To remain entirely within the scientific method (which I doubt the wisdom of always doing), one cannot claim religion OR atheism – one can only say “insufficient data.”