Is There an Atheist Alt-Right Connection?

Is There an Atheist Alt-Right Connection? September 8, 2018

[Update: In the course of this article, I conjecture that the secular humanist blogger I’m engaging with would consider himself a human exceptionalist. Since then, I have found an article where he emphatically rejects this label. I stand corrected and educated, though with no fewer questions for him.]

Recently, I was approached with an invitation to have a dialogue on Justin Brierley’s Unbelievable? radio show with secular humanist James Croft, a Patheos neighbor on the non-religious network. Details are still being worked out, assuming Croft is game, but very broadly speaking, we have been invited to have a discussion of atheism and the alt-right: Is there a connection, and if so, what is its nature? As a rare evangelical humanist who has my ear to the ground on these things, I’m grateful to have been sought out for my opinion. I have long thought it unfortunate that more Christians aren’t speaking into this particular sphere. Since James has written at some length about it from his secular humanist perspective, I thought it only fair to take the opportunity to begin some engagement with his thoughts in writing.

In the first article I read while getting caught up on James’ work, James lays out a series of attributes that he believes have left the atheist movement vulnerable to alt-right propaganda. These include a lack of salient positive values, an unhealthy compulsion to break taboos, a tendency to develop intellectual superiority complexes, and a circling of the wagons around misogynistic men. James also believes that just as men who fall for alt-right propaganda are buying into a false victim narrative, so atheists have an unfortunate habit of constructing exaggerated victim narratives around themselves.

I confess that Croft’s language of social justice and group identity is not my natural tongue. I prefer to view people as individuals. But I still found a number of his observations to be of sociological interest. I have observed many of these characteristics myself, particularly when engaging with atheists on social media. It’s especially amusing to be on the receiving end of misogyny combined with an intellectual superiority complex. (Not that I’m wounded. I just want insecure atheist misogynists to feel they’re doing well.) Happily, this has not so much been my experience in the real world where people live and work and solve problems together instead of loudly shouting their most controversial opinions at each other. In person, my atheist friends and I typically have some other worthwhile task to be doing that makes our religion or lack thereof blessedly irrelevant.

I also share Croft’s alarm at the rise of the alt-right. Trump’s candidacy was an eye-opening experience for me in this respect. Too many conservative friends whose opinions I value failed to recognize the scope of the problem, dismissing it as “a handful of trolls in their parents’ basement,” or “harmless joking.” Croft discusses at some length how the alt-right has built its brand on trolling and meme culture, which has intersected with atheists’ love of provocation as an end in itself. In this subculture, the discussion and weighing of ideas for their positive merit is replaced by “whatever will get a rise out of SJWs.”

This can turn very ugly very fast, and it has gotten so wildly out of hand that people have been caught in the cross-hairs who don’t even answer to the description of “leftist SJW.” Nobody perceived as a “cuck” or a “beta” is safe, including conservatives who are perceived as insufficiently “manly” (read: conservatives whose modus operandi is principled argument versus tribalistic chest-thumping). I have over and over again pointed to the example of David French, who was attacked with an unimaginably vile alt-right social media campaign because of his adopted African daughter. If you have not read his Atlantic piece about raising his daughter, which recaps some of this dark history, I encourage everyone to do so.

Unfortunately, Croft’s analysis is severely weakened by an extraordinary lack of fairness when it comes to certain prominent atheists who have been called an ideological “gateway drug” to the alt-right. Here, I find myself in the odd position of defending Sam Harris. Harris has come under fire from Croft in the past and is again lambasted here. Things like Sam’s anti-Islam rhetoric and willingness to discuss IQ research that could reveal disparate impact on minorities seem to have put him beyond the pale for Croft. In his world, it seems Sam Harris is barely a hop and a skip away from Richard Spencer. This despite the fact that Harris has consistently opposed Trump and explicitly distanced himself from the alt-right. I have heard Harris say in so many words that the kind of people who ask questions about topics like race and IQ “with a gleam in their eye” do not deserve the oxygen of publicity. But apparently, Croft needs more infallible proofs than these that Sam Harris is not a racist.

Jordan Peterson isn’t mentioned in this post, but I doubt Croft would give him a fair shake either. I have to wonder how the Weinstein brothers would come out as well. Would he say Bret Weinstein and his wife deserved to be ostracized from the academy because they didn’t check the social agitation box of the day at Evergreen State? I won’t presume to answer that on James’ behalf, but it’s something I invite him to consider carefully.

Anyway, while sociological analysis is fine, I am more interested in philosophical questions than sociological questions. And I think this question, “Is there an atheist alt-right connection?” invites some pretty interesting philosophical follow-ups.

First, to return to James’ point about taboo-breaking, I would contend this is a function of the atheist conviction that nothing is sacred. I’m old enough to remember P. Z. Myers’s “Crackergate,” his 2008 adventures in consecrated host desecration. Myers took a perverse glee in publishing the subsequent Catholic outrage mail over “the cracker incident” on his blog. I am reminded of nothing so much as the initiation of Mark Studdock in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength. In order to be admitted into the society of N. I. C. E., Mark must prove his mettle by trampling on a crucifix. He refuses. Why? Does he believe? No, he says. He’s refusing because it’s all nonsense. Why is it so important that he trample on this thing? It’s only a random bit of wood, after all. It should be no more meaningful to trample on it than to kiss it.

But it’s not only the body of Christ that is gleefully discarded as non-sacred in the atheist mind. It is our own bodies as well, which are most emphatically our own and most emphatically not bought with a price. Nothing we might dream up to do with them is too degrading. The kinkier, the better. Any new human bodies that might be accidentally formed along the way can be neatly disposed of in equally conscience-free fashion. And once we’ve aborted the fetus, we might as well chuck it in a waste-to-energy incinerator as bury it. There is nothing intrinsically sacred about the human body, because there is nothing intrinsically sacred about anything.

Yet James believes he has something positive to fill the definitional void of atheism: humanism. To which I say: Good luck. But to quote Douglas Murray cleverly re-purposing Christopher Hitchens, all the work still lies before you. As an openly gay atheist, Douglas hardly fits the job description of a Christian apologist. Nevertheless, he forcefully argues it is not at all self-evident that human life would be sacred in an atheist world.

While James is, ironically, a vocal proponent of abortion rights, I presume he still wants to hold onto some form of human exceptionalism. I invite him to show me how this can be extracted from the process of natural selection. Richard Dawkins freely confesses in The God Delusion that he has no logical reason to consider himself any more “special” than his ape cousins. Peter Singer made the same argument when he refused to sign Humanist Manifesto III. As far as he’s concerned, the notion of human exceptionalism is no more than a speciesist holdover from Western society’s dogmatic Christian phase. (As an aside, I note with some interest that unlike Dawkins, Hitchens was less than enamored of Singer while he was alive. In debate with John Lennox, a thought experiment comes up where Singer compared his daughter with his pet rat. Hitchens remarks that he had two thoughts when he read this: First, that he wouldn’t want to be Singer’s daughter, and second, that he wouldn’t much like to be his pet rat either.)

This brings us back to the matter of race and IQ. James is fixated on the mere fact that people like Sam Harris and Charles Murray are having an open discussion of the data. The real problem is that the conversation is taking place in a society where mere membership of species homo sapiens is no longer enough to confer worth or value. To go back to the other Murray, Douglas Murray, this point was made quite well in a conversation he had with Jordan Peterson. Douglas says he has been getting progressively more and more questions about “the IQ question” from the right wing, and it disturbs him because he fears what lies behind them. He fears a society where nothing is sacred. At minute 23, he puts a sharp point on his fears:

If the people who are most interested in it keep pushing it like this, I see some terrible concatenation of nightmares, because of course this isn’t happening in a vacuum…Let me put it this way: The concept of the sanctity of the individual, whether you define that in a religious context or in the kind of ‘secular religious’ context in which some of us currently hold this idea, the time at which the notion of the sanctity of the individual is sort of eroding in the society, the combination of that happening at the same time as an obsession with IQ in the century ahead of us just has the potential for a catastrophe of 20th-century proportions. And that’s the reason why I just fear that if this isn’t dealt with in a reasonable way, it comes at us in the most unreasonable way imaginable somewhere down the line.

Indeed, setting aside race and focusing just on IQ, Iceland has already succeeded in its own little eugenic project of “eliminating” unborn babies with Down Syndrome. They’re not the only country who would like to cross this particular item off its bucket list. Murray has also documented the progressive cheapening of life at the end of life in places like Belgium and the Netherlands, where mentally ill patients are quietly shuffled off via assisted suicide. “Enlightened places,” Dawkins once called them. The sort of place he would like to die.

Is there an atheist alt-right connection? I’ve got some answers to that question. Whether James likes them all, that remains to be seen.

 

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  • ThoughtIntrigue

    It can become much too muddled if we talk about things as just Christian or Atheist; there is an enormous breadth of identities/ideologies/behaviors amongst and between the two to make such a dichotomy helpful in the discussion.

    See for example Pew Research, which yesterday released their latest religious typology results (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/08/29/religious-typology-overview/) which found seven (reasonably distinct) groups of people based on religious practices and beliefs in the US. (Of course the Alt-Right is international, but the US is probably the bulk of the movement.)

    Let’s take their typology—Sunday Stalwarts, God and Country Believers, Diversely Devout, Relaxed Religious, Spiritually Awake, Religion Resisters, and Solidly Secular. In my opinion (un-doubtably under-informed), I might speculate that the God & Country and the Solidly Secular are the likely groups that would contain the bulk of those who might be considered Alt-Right, with maybe a small peppering from the Relaxed Religious. In such case, it would make the picture of religion’s (and irreligion’s) role in opposing (or feeding) racism complicated. Greater numbers (or maybe more importantly—rates) from other groups would make it even more complicated, yet also more accurate.

    It would be great to have real data on this (before your big conversation, if possible): Just what actually are the statistics on the worldview convictions of self-professed members of the Alt-right? And more broadly, what are the worldview convictions of people in society who match a significant number of Alt-Right ideological points?

    Arguing over anecdotes regarding This-Guy-Spencer, Adolf-That, and Another-(Tenuously?)-Related-Ideology won’t get the dialogue nearly as far. That hamster wheel has been trodden to the breaking point.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Don’t worry, if this happens at all Justin will make sure the dialogue doesn’t splinter into anecdotes. Thanks for this study, I’ll pass it on. I did have someone trying to tell me the other day that he thought *I* should consider myself kin with the alt-right (himself being a soft member thereof). I swatted that down real quick like.

  • “It’s only a random bit of wood, after all. It should be no more meaningful to trample on it than to kiss it.”

    Not that I’m a particularly ardent fan of his, but this was precisely the point that Myers was making when he “desecrated” the host. When doing so, he also threw pages from the Qu’ran and The God Delusion into the trash, saying “they are just paper.” He was ridiculing the idea that a bit of baked flour and water would be considered sacred by anyone, not acknowledging the sacredness of them. To contrast Myers with Studdock is to miss the point entirely.

  • ThoughtIntrigue

    I’d also be curious, and find it relevant as well, about similar statistics for those who might be called “Social Justice Warriors” (who are in many ways, the flip-side of the coin regarding modern American extremism). Positing (again naively) their groups, I wouldn’t be surprised if the rates are highest among the Diversely Devout, the Religion Resisters, and the Solidly Secular. (I say this to point out another complication in the topic, since I honestly think the “Solidly Secular” label contains much less information regarding likely political commitments than do the other groups.)

    Let me (us all?) know if you are able to find hard data in either/both direction.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Hey Zachary, neat to have you drop in. So, here’s an interesting question to think about: Would you trample on a photo of your wife, or your mother? It’s just paper, after all.

  • I should point out that I wasn’t commenting necessarily to support Myers’ point of view, merely to correct your mischaracterization of it.

    But since you’ve posed the same question to me (more of a challenge, if we’re being honest), then the answer is it depends. Would I, in the normal course of events in which one typically procures and uses a photograph, even a photograph of my wife or mother, trample upon it? Obviously not, except by accident. Would I, however, when challenged by a blogger to back up my point that items are not objectively sacred, trample upon a photograph, even a photograph of my wife or mother? Obviously I would. As I would encourage anyone else who were challenged to trample upon a photograph of me by someone seeking to make a rhetorical point.

    I’m reminded of the Christian anxiety engendered by the trampling of the fumi-e in the book Silence, which I discussed here: http://apologia-podcast.net/wp/2017/10/01/scriptorium-dan-ray-silence/

  • @EstherOReilly

    Ha! You brought up Silence before I did.

    So the question at hand, the meta-question if you will, is are all symbols MERE symbols? While I can see how your answer is the strictly logical conclusion of materialism, I think one has to overcome a very strong instinct to get there. I am willing to bet there are quite a few non-religious guys out there who would feel *very* uncomfortable stomping on a picture of their mom. Instinct does not equal argument, but it should, I submit, be regarded as a non-trivial clue worth further reflection.

  • I’m not sure what is meant by the qualifier, “mere symbol.” A symbol is an item of representation. The dollar bill in your wallet, for example, is a “mere symbol” in the sense that it is not actually a representation of money per se (as would be a promissory note), but the symbol itself (a bit of paper and cloth with ink and magnetic strips) has now been assigned the status of legal tender and now doesn’t symbolize anything other than itself. But even though it may be considered “mere symbol” it still carries the economic weight we all assign to it, and people will break their backs for it, will trade their lives for it, and will sell their souls for it. All for a “mere symbol.”

  • @EstherOReilly

    Now we’re getting somewhere. 😉

  • I’m not sure that we are. I’m still not clear about the distinction you want to make between “symbol” and “mere symbol.” Not that I want you to dig back into your sophomore English notes, of course, but it would be helpful to understand what you mean.

    If there’s a meta-question to be raised, I suppose, it’s whether or not the meaning of the symbol is intrinsic to itself or is imbued therein by human activity. I think in the example of the dollar I gave above, it’s clear that the latter is the case. If the government of the United States were to collapse tomorrow, the pretty bits of paper and cloth we carry might only have value as historical collectibles. Witness as well the effect of human activity on the financial instruments of the Confederate States of America, or the Weimar Republic, or the Republic of Zimbabwe.

    In your article, you say “There is nothing intrinsically sacred about the human body, because there is nothing intrinsically sacred about anything.” And I think obviously you’re right, and this is one of the key points of anxiety that I encounter among those who are still believers. The idea of losing some kind of intrinsic, objective sense of the sacred or the meaningful is often described to me by believers as being absolutely terrifying and incomprehensible. But (and here I think James and I would agree), that fear turns out to be unfounded once you’ve arrived at the other side and discovered that the meaning we humans (and here I would tip my hat to Singer, acknowledging this may be limited) imbue in things like symbols, photographs, and our own bodies are just as fulfilling. In my (and likely James’) experience, Humanism provides a framework whereby we can examine the world, explore our values, and orient ourselves morally in a way that is even more satisfying than what theistic religions seek to provide. I spoke about this at some length here: https://youtu.be/-v9Zdb-6rb4?t=26m47s

  • @EstherOReilly

    But isn’t Douglas Murray a case in point that devout religious believers aren’t the only ones more than a little concerned about this? Look, he’s an atheist, he’s as eager as you are to figure something out. But he’s uneasy, and with good reason. See also: Eric Weinstein. People like you and James are welcome to assure him “This is fine,” but he will look you in the eye and ask you straight-up, “Is it?” Naturalism scares the hell out of him. See this conversation with Ben Shapiro:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=109agvZr1vs

    Couple other links for you to chew on: An old debate between Jordan Peterson and Ronald de Sousa on whether man can live without the sacred:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2zCP9mW0GH4

    And finally, a plug for my friend Paul VanderKlay, who’s been doing some great analysis of Peterson’s recent debate series with Sam Harris. They covered Sam’s moral landscape among (many!) other things. As you know, Sam is another optimistic naturalist like you who wants to make a case that we can still have all the nice things in a closed system, because humanism. The problem is you need to explain logically how you *get* humanism from a purely material substrate. By all means, knock yourself out. But I’m not convinced.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NstJw1YTROs

  • @EstherOReilly

    And to be clear, neither Paul nor I are under any illusions that Jordan Peterson is the new Christian Messiah or the savior of Western Civ. or whatever, we just happen to think he’s pointing up some real flaws in the materialist framework. You may find my own debate recap of interest here. (A few other people seemed to find it helpful.):

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/youngfogey/2018/07/sam-harris-asks-questions-jordan-peterson-cant-answer/

  • Well, this pretty neatly kicks the can a good deal further down the path from where we started with the desecration of the Corpus Christi. Although I am familiar with the quote-unquote Intellectual Dark Web figures, I have yet to hear them espouse critique of Humanism that is distinct from (or not merely a function of) their critique of the Left (deserved or otherwise).

    Moreover, it is not inconsistent to critique Humanism even as one espouses it as a useful framework for moral and meaningful life. The tenets of organized Humanism have been revised more than once, and I’ll note with some historical interest that the seeds of Humanism were planted by those in the Church. That is to say, it is not a rigid structure incapable of adapting to new information or interested in maintaining and protecting an orthodoxy from internal or external assault. So critique (whether in good faith or bad) is welcome.

    That all being said, it is not my intent here to “convince” you to abandon ship and jump on board a vessel following strange wind. As an apostate myself, and especially after having met and gotten to know many other apostates from the Christian faith (and others), I acknowledge that there is no such thing as counter-evangelism. There is no profit in seeking to make Disciples of Dawkins, and indeed that runs rather counter to the best practices I’ve observed. This is precisely why I found the fumi-e scenes in Silence so tragicomic; that such a weighty and serious thing like apostasy could be accomplished by such a superficial act makes a mockery of God Himself.

  • @EstherOReilly

    To clarify what I meant by “mere symbol,” I was referring to a view of things like wedding rings, flags, religious artifacts, etc., etc. that says “These things are all just collections of atoms, therefore the way we handle them doesn’t matter.” When we make rules for how the flag should be folded or disposed of, we’re treating it as more than just a collection of red, white and blue threads. To give a religious example, Baptists don’t believe that Christ is actually present in the sacrament, which is why they call themselves Memorialists as distinguished from Sacramentalists. So in one sense, they would say the bread and wine is “just” bread and wine. However, no Baptist would say therefore communion wafers are something to nom away on carelessly, or that taking communion should be treated as a trivial, no biggie, purely symbolic thing.

    This is not unrelated to the larger conversation about sacred things in the main post. If you read Douglas Murray’s article (which I highly recommend), he begins with a discussion of how fetal bodies should be disposed of. A body is another thing that could be regarded as merely a collection of atoms. But he asks, “Be honest, how do you feel about the idea of dead fetuses being used to warm up a hospital?” He’s probing that question: What is sacred? What does “sacred” mean in a post-Christian world? Should we try to hang onto it?

    That article plus the videos above and indeed the entire four-part discussion with Peterson/Harris get into all these philosophical questions in, IMO, a very rich and engaging way. It seems like your impressions of the IDW up to now have been rather limited in nature. I do encourage you to listen further. It’s generating a lively exchange of ideas much of which has nothing to do with politics at all.

    “It is not my intent here to convince you to abandon ship…”

    I appreciate that, not that it wouldn’t be fun to see you try. 😉

  • @EstherOReilly

    I’ve watched portions of this now. Nice to see Calum there, I forget if I knew he was a pacifist. LOL! Anyhow, I’ll just simply say this to your wrap-up comment in this video that when it comes to the source of our salvation, “we just need to look in the mirror.” I can’t speak for you, but I do *not* like what I see when I look in the mirror. It wouldn’t comfort me in the slightest to be told, “Guess who’s coming to save you… it’s you!” Pretty much nothing would terrify me more, in fact.

  • Lacunaria

    Dinesh D’Souza makes that “flip-side” argument as well: the alt-right is simply ethnic identity politics by white males.

  • Widuran

    The rise of the alt right is solely due to socialism and the liberal elite ignoring the reality of what the peopel are going through.

    Political correctness silencing people.

    The forced gloablisation and power grabs by the large governments

    The rise of Islam.

    Feminism

  • Widuran

    Yes because enforced feminism and the rise of Islam and liberalism is against the man,

    This is why white males are either embracing the evil ideology of Islam or the alt right

  • jflcroft

    Thank you for the interesting engagement with my ideas, and particularly for the edit at the top where you clarify my view re: human exceptionalism. It’s nice to see someone caring about caracterizing differing views accurately and fairly.

    I look forward to our discussion.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Me too. Though unfortunately due to time constraints it looks as if we will have to table the Problem of Humanism and try to narrow our focus just slightly. 😉 In rewatching the Peterson/Harris debate series I realized those discussions were so rich and wide-ranging, including much grappling with some of the points you mention about atheism’s failure to articulate a positive values system/build social structure, that we could probably take the whole hour just analyzing those.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Ugh, looks like I agree with Dinesh D’Souza. Damn.

  • jflcroft

    I suppose we could, but that would require that I watch Sam Harris and Jordan Peterson debate each other. XD

  • @EstherOReilly

    It was actually very geeky and interesting and not really political at all. Essentially philosophical debates. 😉 Probably the unifying theme was “Where do we go from here as a post-Christian society? How do we construct a shared ethic out of the rubble of western Christendom? And how much religious substructure can we afford to lose?” Sam, like you, argues we can do a total replacement. Jordan, like Murray and Bret Weinstein as well, argues it might not be so simple. Read my analysis at any rate to get a flavor of it, I know Justin wants to devote at least part of the show to it. When you look at the attendance numbers it’s clear there is something culturally seismic going on here that goes way beyond politics–serious discussion that merits serious analysis.

  • @EstherOReilly

    One direct intersection with your ideas is that they discuss the need to have “non-embarrassing” alternatives to religious ritual. Sam says atheists need to up their game here because people still have trouble getting married, coming of age, burying loved ones, et cetera, without borrowing from religion.

    On Jordan’s side, he is concerned that Sam isn’t talking enough about *how* to act out a positive ethic because so much of his energy is spent telling people what not to believe. Jordan comes along and says “Great, but you can’t hand people pure negation and nothing else. What are you offering to fill the void?” That seems to be a concern of yours as well. Also, you and Jordan actually seem to have a shared pragmatic understanding of truth.

    We can discuss all of this by email more, but definitely let’s make sure we’re on the same page as far as discussion–I wrote this particular response before I had a great idea myself, just throwing ideas out there. 😉

  • I tend to agree that it would be interesting to spectate myself engaged in counter-evangelism, and very likely amusing to many, most of all me. I can only hypothesize of course, since I haven’t ever done so, not even to myself; my experience is that apostasy is a function of one’s own internal processes, and the extent to which they are willing to follow Truth where it leads.

    I think I’m grasping what you mean by “mere symbol,” although the way that you’re using the term it seems like a better (or more accurate) term is “mere matter.” This would explain why your use of the term has been so confusing and self-contradictory, because for something to be a symbol means that it by definition adds a conceptual representation of another thing or concept onto the material itself. So by logical exclusion, a thing cannot be “mere matter” (or “mere symbol” as you say) and symbol simultaneously.

    Now, a proper view of symbols is that the material of the symbol is merely a representation of the thing being symbolized, it is not actually that thing. So it is also true that a wedding ring is a collection of gold atoms, no different or special than gold atoms that might be found a mile underground or in an asteroid orbiting in a neighboring galaxy. The symbolic content, however, makes the particular gold atoms in that particular ring more important than other gold atoms in the Cosmos. But (and this is a critical point), that importance exists only for those who assign it. That is to say, my wedding ring is important to me (and my wife), because it symbolizes the vows of marriage that I’ve (we’ve) made, and it’s a memorial of my (our) wedding day. But if I happened to lose it at the bottom of a river, and it sat there undisturbed for a thousand years only to be discovered by an errant fisherman, I have no expectation that they would imbue it with the same kind of symbolic importance that I have. And for very good reason: the ring has no intrinsic symbolic importance. Neither does any other symbol. And if by carelessness or circumstance, something happened to destroy my ring entirely, I think that I (and my wife) would be disappointed, but I also think it wouldn’t take very long to find a replacement item in which to imbue the same kind of symbolic importance.

    As to Murray’s question about dead bodies being used for thermogenic purposes, I’ll simply note that cremation is an increasingly popular method that people are choosing to dispose of their corpse, although the process generally requires more energy than it produces. But given that some people are also choosing to have their remains buried inside a tree-fertilizing pod (e.g., Capsula Mundi), I suppose that we might find some people willing to cast their mortal remnant into an eco-friendly generator to warm a hospital (or any building). But the real question isn’t about burning babies (that’s just a psychological priming technique to engender feelings of revulsion and distrust), it’s about the importance with which we regard the dignity of a person, the “sacredness” as he puts it. And I think we can see where that lies, if we consider what makes the difference between being thrown in an oven to burn, and having one’s body placed in an oven to burn. To wit: the agency of the person involved. And if personal agency makes the difference between a horrific situation and a dignified one, from whence can we derive personal agency? To get to that point, we need only those few characteristics that we all share in common, and must grant a priori to even engage the question: existence, sentience, reason, perception, and volition. From thence follows a long discussion on ethics; you may consult your local liberal arts college for more on that subject.

    As for future exploration of the quote-unquote Intellectual Dark Web (perhaps the most unearned and inaccurate self-applied label since “The New Atheists”), you have my assurance that I’m operating on more than mere “impressions.” Please don’t confuse disagreement with unfamiliarity (or for that matter, confuse disinterest for disagreement). It’s nice to hear that you don’t view Peterson as the new savior of Christianity (though it would seem that you are in the minority among Christians on that point, particularly the laity), I don’t see him as much of anything really. Bear in mind, my apostasy derived more intellectual energy from Joseph Campbell than Bertrand Russell, so overbaked Jungianism doesn’t have the novelty for me that it perhaps does for others. That being said, the most vociferous support of Peterson I’ve seen has been from both Christians and members of the Alt-Right, so perhaps there’s another connection worth writing about.

  • Yes, fear is a powerful motivator. It’s an unfortunate circumstance of human psychology that fear needs little to grow beyond ignorance, and it finds the ground well-tilled and fertilized with that amendment throughout our society. Fear can save your life, but it can also profoundly limit it. The challenge of humanity is to look fear in the eyes and say, “Despite this, I will seek truth.”

  • @EstherOReilly

    Well, I don’t go for the half-baked Jungianism either so we’re in agreement there. But I do think that he has some good instincts about, say, the difficulty of deriving values from facts, as Harris argues we can. He also points out how Sam’s moral landscape fails to account sufficiently for evil/malevolence.

    Harris and Peterson also discuss the imbuing of physical objects with value, whether that be Elvis’s guitar or a bit of land in Israel. I think Peterson wants to make an argument against materialism by saying the value assigned to such things is immaterial, yet real. Sam counters that it’s still subjective because not everyone values an object to the same degree. I think he makes a good point there, but Peterson’s argument has promise and could be developed into something stronger.

  • As above, I’m not a fan of Sam Harris, but that doesn’t accurately represent what he has argued in The Moral Landscape. Harris doesn’t derive an ought from an is, he seeks to describe a set of normative values and then operate from that framework. That is to say, he short-circuits the entire process of deriving values in favor of developing a hypothetical imperative. Whether that’s because he doesn’t have the philosophical chops to handle the challenge of deriving values (though, it could be asked, who does), or because he simply didn’t recognize the importance of doing so (which would be no less infuriating to moral philosophers), I can’t say. But regardless, The Moral Landscape is not a comprehensive moral philosophy, so whether or not it “accounts” for anything is irrelevant.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Yes, but what if I, myself, am my own worst fear? I think this is something we need to consider seriously. As Solzhenitsyn says, that line runs down the center of every human heart. Evil is very much not just “out there.”

  • @EstherOReilly

    It seems like Sam certainly wants to make the case that he has accounted for everything. That seems like his whole point: You don’t need a religious foundation, look, I can get you everything you want without it. In any case, doesn’t a hypothetical imperative constitute an “ought,” by definition? He wants to say we should work to alleviate suffering because suffering is bad. This implies we have a duty to alleviate suffering.

  • It sounds like you’re ready for the new season of The Walking Dead, then. 😉

    But seriously, this is a question as old as human civilization itself. Look at the Epic of Gilgamesh, how the divine nature and the animal nature are pitted against each other in literal combat. Or in the Book of Job, where the highest aspirations of holiness are brought to low desperation by circumstance. Or even in the Return of the Jedi, where redemption is kept a hair’s breadth from corruption. Obviously we need to start with ourselves: we are the heroes of the tale we tell.

  • A hypothetical imperative gives you an “ought,” but not from an “is.” It’s an “ought” from an “if.”

    Yes, Harris wants to believe that The Moral Landscape is all you need to live ethically, but that’s a far cry from being a comprehensive moral philosophy. It’s only satisfying if you accept as he does the hypothetical values he proposes (which, to be fair, I think pretty much everyone does).

  • @EstherOReilly

    Where I come from television is called books. 😉

    Boy, if I’m the hero of my own story I need to find a new hero stat. Obviously yes, we are moral beings, and as T. S. Eliot says, any action we take is “a step to the block, to the fire,” etc. We have the capacity to choose good, and our choices have eternal weight. But just because we can doesn’t mean we will.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Well, either way, it seems he is trying to will the “ought” rabbit into existence by fiat. As for his base values, I don’t think they really deal with the fact that there is more to human flourishing than physical well-being. You could be living an idylically comfortable life and not be a morally fulfilled individual, whereas people who are suffering in dire circumstances might have considerably more strength of character. That’s not to say it’s unimportant to work to relieve physical suffering, simply to say the well-being of the soul is just as important, if not more important, than the well-being of the body.

  • While it’s rather cheeky to quote a filmed adaptation of a book deriding the visual medium, I’ll give points for the source.

    Ah yes. The typical Refusal of the Call. You’re more hero than you think, but of course that is true of all heroes. 😉

  • Not by fiat, by hypothesis. There is a great deal of difference in saying, “Because this is so, that follows” and “If this is so, that follows.” Although I will grant that Harris is so convinced of the truth of his own hypothesis that he often (usually? always?) acts as if it is a settled question.

    I’ll agree that “flourishing” is more complicated than simple physical security. There’s a long discussion underneath the concept, although I tend to think Maslow’s views pretty much match mine.

  • Lacunaria

    Haha, yeah he gave a decent interview on C-SPAN not too long ago.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Yeah, he has some decent ideas, it would just be nice if had some decent ideas and also wasn’t kind of a hack.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Hey, I’m a film critic and certified film nerd, so you won’t see me deriding the visual medium. 😉 But I did in fact grow up without cable. Also I read Goldman in tandem with watching him. Darker and more bitter than the movie, but in some ways funnier. Bears some striking resemblances to Jordan Peterson’s philosophy, come to think of it. “Life isn’t fair, life will never be fair, so pick up your damn suffering and walk up the damn hill with it.”

    I don’t think of it as Refusal of the Call in the sense that I think “Phew! Good to know I have zero responsibility to act properly and speak truthfully with my words and actions now that Jesus took care of everything. *brushes hands*” See aforementioned Eliot quote.

  • @EstherOReilly

    SOLELY? That seems exaggerated.

  • Bears some striking resemblances to the philosophy of the Stoics, of which Peterson is (at times) a pale and foggy reflection. Consider the writing of Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius on the vicissitudes of Providence, both of which were surely found in the cabin quarters of the Dread Pirate.

    I’m sure you don’t leap at the abrogation of responsibility (although one wonders how commonly that sentiment is shared), but I don’t read Eliot as being quite so bleak. Even in the acknowledgment of mortality, there is great capacity for significance and meaning. Consider Tolkien on that point:

    “They have seen Death and ultimate defeat,
    and yet they would not in despair retreat,
    but oft to victory have turned the lyre
    and kindled hearts with legendary fire.”

  • @EstherOReilly

    Yes, I’m aware Peterson is repackaging old philosophy in new wrapping, I’m just Jordan-juking you. 😉

    I don’t read Eliot as bleak either in that context, though sometimes he can be. In fact, “Little Gidding” contains the promise of resurrection. I quoted it just to demonstrate how shallow it is of people like Harris to say that Christians don’t think what we do in the here and now matters very much because heaven is what really counts. In fact, it was the example of a man like Thomas More, who considered the action of putting his hand on an old black book and telling a white lie so significant he lost his life for not doing it, which inspired freethinkers like Robert Bolt.

  • Indeed, and I admire More all the more for it (I recently replaced my copy of Utopia after gifting it to my nephew). If freethinkers had saints, he would certainly be in that pantheon along with Galileo, Bruno, and Voltaire. “A Man For All Seasons” is one of the few films that can reliably move me to tears; the others being “The Last Temptation of Christ” and “Con Air.”

    But I would be careful again in painting Harris with too indelicate a brush. He is not so inexperienced with Christians to suggest that, as a group, they “don’t think what [they] do in the here and now matters very much.” He would perhaps criticize the theology of the afterlife for making that a potential conclusion, and would also harangue extreme fundamentalists for operationalizing that conclusion (but here, more likely Muslim than Christian). His principal criticism of moderate and progressive Christians is that they attenuate their religion to the extent that it fails to inoculate enough people in society to the predations of truly extreme views. I don’t know that he’s right about this, but he at least can’t be faulted for failing to recognize the difference between the varieties of Christian experience.

  • jflcroft

    I’m certainly concerned with how to respond to the needs religion has attempted to address in a nontheistic manner. I do see Harris as having some interest in that question as well. Part of my job is marrying people, doing funerals, coming of age ceremonies etc which provide for some of our community- and life-stage-oriented needs without reference to god or the supernatural.

    I’m not sure Peterson and I share an epistemic approach. I don’t feel his understanding of Pragmatism is very clearly articulated.

  • jflcroft

    I think having statistics like that would be very valuable. Sadly, as far as I can tell, there are very few available. In terms of the slow speed of social science research, the alt-right is a fairly new phenomenon. There may not be much research to draw from.

  • @EstherOReilly

    Perhaps pragmatism is so intrinsically unclear that it’s impossible to articulate a clear understanding of it. 😀

  • Freespirit

    DEFINITION of ATHEISM According to the 1968 Version of Random House Dictionary
    ATHEIST: ” Persons who deny the existence or belief of Divine Beings or Deities”.

    It’s Simple as that, although opponents would like to add their own Biases, just as when they attempt to define,or should I say MALIGN, Islam.

    NO, I am not a Mulsim