How Atheists Can Avoid Other Fundamentalisms: By Focusing On Rationalism First And Foremost

How Atheists Can Avoid Other Fundamentalisms: By Focusing On Rationalism First And Foremost July 26, 2009

I agree with this a whole lot (I most recommend the last link to PZ Myers’s assessment of Hitchens on war):

The real-world implications of the “New Atheists” ideas are not insulated from the same dogmatism and intolerance that they decry.

To get back to my original point about rationalism, the religious aspect is only the one most pertinent to today’s issues. Hitler came to power on a wave of nationalism, and the strains of communism have brought about more death than any religious war. But these too were a product of anti-rationalist thinking. Hitler’s ideas on Teutonic supremacy had little basis in reality and in fact stretched back to the mass politics and antisemitism of the late 19th century. North Korea has elevated Kim Jung Il and his father into god-figures, and the Soviet Union famously and most disastrously rejected natural selection and genetics on ideological grounds as a “fascist science” and poured its agricultural resources in furthering bogus Lamarckian Lysenkoism.

Robert Wright pointed at Hitchens’ hawkishness and was in turn pointed to PZ Myers’ dismissal of his ideas, and I would also direct him to this post where Myers, one of the more rhetorically intemperate of the ‘New Atheists,’ takes Hitchens’ war-mongering bellicosity to task. Hitchens zeal on, say, the Iraq war, I would argue is clouded by unwarranted certainty.

All of this true enough and important for atheists to be cognizant of.  No one is immune from cognitive errors, arrogance, and numerous non-religious sources of dogmatism and intolerance.  In fact, I see our brains as inherently drifting in erroneous directions as their natural course. In my case, atheism comes second to philosophy as my motivation.  Atheism is only one set of conclusions out of a much larger philosophical investigation for me and clearly is only part of a much larger project of rational investigation for humanity at large.

Of course, being an atheist does not of itself safeguard you against any of a range of intellectual or character mistakes that are disconnected from belief in God.  This is why it is important to keep clear that atheism of itself implies no specific ethics, politics, economics, or any other theory or collection of them in a “comprehensive worldview.”  Atheism only frees one up to work out the other aspects of one’s take on the world without undue reference to ancient traditional sources and other arbitrary religious claims to knowledge which demand acceptance without supplying adequate reasons for it.

That’s as far as atheism gets you.  It’s why “atheism” is not to blame for the other things bad people who are atheists think and do.  Atheism itself does not inherently lead to much anything else beyond the simple rejection of religious categories.  It is of limited value in itself.

What is possible for atheists to do together is not agree on dogmas about economics or psychology or morality, etc. but rather to debate in common without having to put up with the introduction of dogmas from each other.  And usually this is what atheist thinking is like.  Regardless of the religious beliefs of most academics or scientists, all serious scientific research and most scholarship makes no reference to God or accepts dogmatic claims as evidence, but operates broadly “atheistically” and rationalistically.  Since atheism is not (or at least has not until recently been) a unified movement, atheists do not run typically trumpet every successful argument or field of inquiry as a sign of the power of atheistic approaches to thought—but we’d might as well.  It’s evidence that when one excludes appeals to God there is a diversity and range of possible inquiry that thrives and not a closed “system of atheism.”  The paradox is that atheistic (in the sense of god-excluding) thought is so undogmatic by its nature that it does not get credit for coming from an atheistic mindset (even if it’s only a provisionaly atheistic mindset) which it deserves.

One of my goals on this blog is to highlight both the wealth and diversity of god-excluding or god-indifferent investigations into ethics, specifically in the last 150 years so that atheists can appreciate the resources that fellow non-god-referencers have developed for them to use.  And part of this is encouraging them to appreciate our own potential to do constructive work under a non-monolithic but nonetheless explicitly “atheistic” banner in the future.

“Atheism” is not itself to blame for the pitfalls of some atheists who despite excluding god related dogma fell into alternate dogmas like those of the Marxists.  Atheism does not lead monolithically in any one direction like that and that’s it’s strength. It is not a rigid “worldview” which determines conclusions in advance or which itself resists reexamination of ideas when they are failing to prove their truth, whether in abstraction or in practice.

Atheism is a first philosophical conclusion which preconditions further sufficiently scrupulous and open-ended rationalism but is not in itself either the whole of rationalism itself or something that provides us with assurance that rationalism will follow on its heals unless our atheism is the result of a prior ethic of rigorous cognitive introspection.  And it is important that we atheists do not become especially blind to the temptation of other dogmas because we so proudly reject the most flagrant and easily recognizable dogmatic errors of the species by eschewing religious ones.  But all we have to do is keep in mind the need to oppose fundamentalism and that atheism, while not itself a fundamentalism, is not itself sufficient to prevent the other threats of fundamentalism out there.

In light of these considerations, here is The Economist dismantling the misleading meme that atheism somehow is inherently a fundamentalism because of the fundamental actions of some notorious atheists:


as Oxford’s Tim Garton Ash writes, “there are no al-Darwinia brigades making bombs in secret laboratories in north Oxford.” Yes, sigh, many atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennet are just as convinced that there is no God as Osama bin Laden is convinced that there is no god but God and Muhammad is his messenger. On one hand you have faith that makes people fly planes into buildings, genitally mutilate young girls, murder abortion doctors (in church), stone adultresses, outlaw certain forms of consensual sex or even just make it impossible to buy beer on Sunday in some states. On the other hand there is the atheist “faith” that makes people write smug op-eds, put ads on buses (see photo), file frivolous lawsuits against nativity scenes on public property, and the like. Show me what harm in the world a prominent atheist intellectual has done.

Ah, but Stalin and Hitler and Mao! Give me a break. Sure, they were atheists. But they did not kill because they were atheists. Hitler was a fanatical racist and Mao and Stalin fanatical communists, and they killed in the name of those fundamentalist philosophies. If atheism somehow correlated with fanaticism, Denmark would be the most violently radical place on earth. Instead, as Daniel Dennett notes, it is one of the safest, richest and happiest.

Finally, there is the bogus equivalent with atheist certainty and religious certainty. Yes, Answers in Genesis is certain that the world is 6,000 years old, and Richard Dawkins is certain that it isn’t. The fact is that only one of them is right, and I’m going to say it right here: it’s Mr Dawkins. There is a difference—call it a fundamental one—between being certain and wrong and being certain and right.

Of course it goes without saying I completely agree with this.  And this comment is also helpful:

Hitler wasn’t an atheist, he was nominally a Catholic, a view he never repudiated, and he believed in God and divine providence, the authority of Jesus, and the immortality of the soul. In Hitler’s “Table Talk” there are some statements critical of Christianity in the Stevens and Cameron translation, which appear to be mistranslations and possible editorial interpolations from Francois Genoud’s French translation (see Richard Carrier’s “Hitler’s Table Talk: Troubling Finds,” German Studies Review, vol. 26, no. 3, October 2003, pp. 561-576).

And on that point it is also worth remembering the major role that Christianity played in creating German hatred of Jews.  Not to mention the intertwining of Aryanism and Christianity in the proto-Nazi movements against which Nietzsche wrote.

And finally, from The Plank, as part of pushing back against challenges to Ash comes these points:

Whether or not Lenin and Mao (and it is of interest that Gray deploys Lenin rather than Stalin here) were “avowed” disciples of an Enlightenment ideology is beside the point. The real question is whether they practiced what Gray calls “Enlightenment values.” And the clear answer to that question is no. But Gray makes the leap from one to the other–while admitting that perhaps they “misapplied” the values of the Enlightenment–without seeming to realize that this renders his argument moot. (Also, the opposite of religious fundamentalism in this case is not secularism, but atheism. Mao was not a early version of Richard Dawkins. And more importantly, Mao did not kill in the name of atheism).

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