Atheist Groupthink?

Atheist Groupthink? July 25, 2009


Replying to a blog post at End Hereditary Religion, 0ne of the commenters spoke out against the “scarlet A.”  The scarlet A serves as the rallying symbol for Richard Dawkins’s “Out Campaign”, which is designed to encourage atheists to own up to their atheism more publicly and vocally, and to support one another as fellow atheists in a predominantly religious world.

Here was the commenter’s objection:

I’m disappointed in the red A. this will attract and encourage the development of the (worst) human tendencies to group together in like-mindedness when ideas are challenged. Isn’t this what is wrong with the world now?

Humans are social creatures and social creatures group together and have means of identifying themselves as members of groups, means of establishing group norms, and means of perpetuating group goals.  This is called being human.  It’s not what’s wrong with the world right now, it’s the precondition of every human social interaction.

But your objection is a bit more specific than this.  You are saying that grouping together in like-mindedness when ideas are challenged is the problem.  But the issue is that groups are already like-minded before the ideas are challenged.  And every group shares some ideas or values or goals, etc. in common—again before any specific challenge from outside.  So, banding together around like-mindedness is, again, the precondition of having groups, and being in groups is an irremovable feature of human life.

So, what is the real problem, is it sticking with the group when the group’s ideas are challenged rather than breaking away straight away?  That seems too imprecise again.  We are not solitary knowers—we learn and we think in community.  Sciences and other academic disciplines are collaborative endeavors and their investigations require a high degree of agreement even as they also keep a vigilant lookout for the necessary places to disagree.

Within any realm of human life from the most ordinary to the most refined expert discussions, people are obliged to rely on a degree of authority and on shared paradigms for analysis.  And when one’s authorities and reigning paradigms are challenged, it is not always just group-think to insist on deferring to, or trying to defend, those authorities and paradigms rather than immediately abandon them.  Because you are not thinking by yourself, there are things you think and should think for which you nonetheless do not possess all the adequate evidence or understanding yourself.  And in some cases, this is because it is a practical impossibility for you to have adequate reasons given the limitations of your own training or your own alternate specialization.  This is the nature of expertise, we have to stand behind credible experts even when we personally cannot ourselves discern the difference between what makes their claims better than alternative ones which sound fine to our untrained ears.  This is humility and deference to legitimate authority.

Now, what is vital is that specialists take extra pains to reexamine the paradigms they share, that experts take under advisement the legitimate external challenges to their paradigms, that experts test and police each other, and finally that they earn their credibility with the public through demonstrable authority in whatever ways that educated people will be able to recognize.

The problem with religious thinking is not that it involves deference to authorities per se but rather that the alleged authorities in “theology” have no credentials to speak with any knowledge about the things theology claims to address.  The Scripture writers of all traditions have no more access to knowledge about supernatural schemes of justice requiring propitiation of sins than you or I have.   They have no more access to know the thoughts of “God”, let alone anything about the existence of such a being, than you or I do.

Authority and community of like-mindedness are corrupted when the alleged authorities cannot demonstrate their sufficiency to speak with authority and when community of like-mindedness is preserved by policing against dissent, is based on authorities who are in principle unquestionable, is based on unsubstantiated claims that no experts could justifiably defend, etc.  This is why religious faith in particular is a corruption of reason, it is structurally an unjustified commitment to undeserving authorities as a deliberate choice.

So, what are the pros and cons of atheists ourselves branding ourselves with the “scarlet A”?  (1) It is a means of providing political solidarity since regardless of whether we disagree with each other on any of a number of other issues, we share at least one particular philosophical position which has political consequences for us and it is valuable for us to be in touch with each other insofar as we have a common practical interest.

(2) Sharing that single philosophical position does not necessarily entail any other specific ones, but it often does make us more likely to agree on at least several others.  And it also means that a whole set of other positions will be rejected in common as part of our coming to our philosophical conclusion (that there is no adequate reason to believe in God) in the first place.  As a result, dialoguing with others who share this philosophical position promises to be fruitful in particular ways that discussion with those who disagree with us is not.  We can bracket all sorts of questions where there is disagreement and both (a) explore the implications of what we agree on and (b) find the places where even we disagree with each other.  It is valuable both to argue with your enemies AND your friends, and your arguments in each case will be potentially fruitful in differing ways.

(3) As a group with a shared philosophical position, we can rely on each other’s complementary areas of expertise to aid us in filling out the implications of what we already think (for our own good reasons) and to be a resource for each other against counter-evidence that we cannot address within our own means.

Now, the danger is that we hide behind group membership or each other’s authority even when there is some compelling evidence that we are substantially wrong and our authorities do not have sufficiently better answers than competitor authorities do.  But that danger is inherent in any thought endeavor that is communal and nearly all successful human thinking happens communally in the ways I described above.  So, this good thing—thinking in tandem with other people—requires a vigilance against its possible vices, e.g., protection of the group or the group’s cherished ideas as a dogma which becomes unassailable.

I want to say that atheists are inherently skeptics and so not as prone to this group-think as others are, but unfortunately there enough Marxists in the world to prove that thesis false!  Yes, we atheists if less scrupulous about the rest of our beliefs than we are about matters related to gods, may get snookered by bad economics, bad psychology, bad politics, etc., just like any one else.  And, even worse, we may compromise our intellects out of rabid allegiances to group identities just like any one else.  That’s a universal and unavoidable human temptation that comes hand in hand with the group identities which are so integral to human life.

So, we, like all other holders of common philosophical positions and members of politically identifiable communities (from the ordinary to the intellectual kinds) must scrupulously hold ourselves to rigorous standards of evidence and critical reexamination of our beliefs which we take as settled.

So is the “scarlet A” a poison to atheist thinking or is it a bridge to connect currently isolated people who would make for a productive political and philosophical force in the culture if only they could start finding each other and constructively interacting together with each other?  My suspicion is that it’s the latter, given the disorganized and alienated state of atheists in America today.

And if it makes you feel any better, even as I (quite excitedly) adopted the A for my website, I simultaneously adapted it to fit my own site’s aesthetic by making it orange.  So at least in my own case, I can attest that my own gesture of like-mindedness expressly asserted my rights non-conformity at the same time.  And I imagine Dawkins would be proud.

Scarlet Atheist in Orange

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