Defending The Value of The New Atheist Commitment To Truthfulness For Its Own Sake

Defending The Value of The New Atheist Commitment To Truthfulness For Its Own Sake February 29, 2012

A couple days ago I wrote the following:

New Atheists specifically are a morally motivated group of people. Yes, there is some concern for simple advancement of science. But even accommodationists are interested in that. What characteristically distinguishes the New Atheists is that we refuse the moralcompromise with faith-based, authoritarian religions that other atheists are willing to make. We refuse to allow that the only kind of religious beliefs that deserve public criticism are those that infringe on politics in regressive or anti-intellectual ways. We do not want to just let people have their delusions so long as they do not affect us personally, as long as they make people happy. We want to actually argue that it is intrinsically betterto live with truth than without it. We want to argue that even if it does not make people happier they should abandon their faith-based religions on grounds of falseness alone.

This is implicitly an ethical demand. We think that there is a good that people should be exhorted to embrace usually in a way that is indifferent to their proximate pleasures or pains. And we quite often want to argue that ethically were all people to reject faith and superstition and authoritarianism that in the long run both social and individual happiness (and other goods) would increase and that on these grounds it is worth risking incurring on people the short term pain of disillusionment and disorientation that comes with the loss of faith. So both these non-consequentialist and consequentialist attitudes are developed with the good for individual and collective lives in mind.

This is fundamentally an ethical concern. By contrast, it is the live and let live apatheists and the accommodationist atheists who are indifferent to these considerations of what makes the best individual or collective lives and who are only interested in keeping science or politics pure but who will not be so “rude” as to criticize people’s personal beliefs or foreign cultures’ religiously based authoritarian values.

Beth disputes this contention:

I have to disagree with this. You are assuming a motive of indifference. While that’s a legit assumption for apatheists, it is not a reasonable assumption for the those typically referred to as accomodationists.

Accomodationists are not necessary indifferent to the personal beliefs of others. Instead, a variety of objections are possible regarding either your goal or the assumptions behind it.

For example, I feel that for your ethical argument to hold, it requires faith in the proposition that the world would be a better place if everyone believed as you do. I am not convinced of the truth of that proposition. Why do you believe it to be true?

If that isn’t an assumption of your argument, then on what grounds do you claim that:

even if it does not make people happier they should abandon their faith-based religions on grounds of falseness alone

My response is as follows:

If accommodationists dispute the normative judgment that faith-based religions should be abandoned on grounds of falseness alone, then they are saying that people’s personal beliefs are matters of indifference when they have no further negative consequences than their falseness. I have apparently not mischaracterized Beth’s accommodationism. She thinks truth is not important in matters of private beliefs—apparently only happiness is.

And she is also wrong when she contends that for my propositions to be true that the world would have to be a better place if everyone believed as I do. The world would be a better place if human beings were more autonomous and more powerful in their abilities to know the truth and to live with the truth. For all I know, such more truthful humans might disagree with any number of my beliefs. My particular beliefs are quite irrelevant. The issue is whether being truthful is intrinsically better for humans than self-deceiving themselves for the sake of pleasure is. Not everyone need think like me. They only need think truthfully—whatever that is.

And therefore faith is to be disapproved of. Faith is a poor epistemology. Embrace of faith, either implicitly or explicitly, wildly increases likelihood not only of false beliefs but of unreviseddeeply life-affecting false beliefs. It is not only a bad means of finding the truth, it is an obstacle to the truth. Not only is it not an intellectual virtue, it is an intellectual vice that corrupts the mind.

But you might ask, “So what? As long as it makes people happier, why not have faith? Why is being truthful more intrinsically important?”

The human being is a set of constitutive powers. Without basic powers of reason, emotion, sociability, creativity, etc., there is no human being. When all these powers are irretrievably gone, we can essentially be declared dead and have our bodies allowed to die even if our physical powers could go on existing with the aid of life support.

It is therefore not by “faith” or anything so arbitrary that I infer that our basic being is composed of our powers themselves. We are them. When they thrive, logically, we thrive since we are them. To be rational is to fulfill our very being. It is our most intrinsic and foundational and indispensable good. It is far more than the states of pleasurable feeling that people often colloquially mean by the word “happiness”. Being truthful and attaining truth through truthfulness is integral to our maximal realization of our potential as rational beings.

It also, I think, should be expected to lead to greater pleasure. That’s not an arbitrary guess. While much wisdom can bring much sorrow when it brings awareness of ugly truths and a fitting sadness about them, there is nonetheless a deeper natural fulfillment that humans usually feel in performing excellently in their powers that makes it clearly preferable to most intellectually flourishing people that they would rather have the rich satisfactions of knowing the truth than miss out on them but be granted more hits of pleasure as compensation.

What person thriving in her powers—be they intellectual, emotional, social, creative, athletic, etc.—would gladly surrender them in exchange for a kind of brain damage that made them wildly giddy but utterly incapable of mature human powers? Who that has them would want to permanently surrender adult human powers to be an infant that was perpetually drugged to be deliriously ecstatic at all times?

Not only is it illogical to wish to be harmed in our constitutive powers, but I think these thought experiments would have most people agree that the kinds of pleasures that come with being strong and successful in their developed powers are so much better in quality that they would accept a trade off whereby they lost greater quantities of baser pleasures if those pleasures depended on having more debilitated powers.

We New Atheists think, for very good reasons, that if people are free from intellectual, political, and moral forms of authoritarianism, they will be liberated to develop their powers to flourish in ways more fitting to themselves and to be inherently contented in deeper ways. They will not have their own personal experiments in personal flourishing ruled out for baseless reasons like “ancient nomads thought such behaviors were abominable”. Abandoning authoritarian faith-based reasoning and justifications for beliefs helps us figure out truer beliefs which will help us achieve our goals and ward off disasters more efficiently. Abandoning authoritarian faith-based reasoning about practices and goods will help us examine what contributes to human flourishing with no prejudices. Everything of genuine value will be given the chance to prove itself and everything of false value will be subject to the kinds of rigorous interrogation that can expose its inadequacy.

Now, all of this said, I grant that there are some hypothetical scenarios wherein flourishing in truthfulness could have unintended negative consequences for our flourishing in our other powers. And there are many kinds of pain or deprivations of pleasure that make life so miserable that there are net losses to our abilities to flourish as the kinds of beings we are. In these cases, pleasure and pain or other valuable powers besides the ones for detecting and adhering to truth might trump the value of truthful rationality if they actually lead to an overall increase in our overall power.

But at present I see no reason to assume that dispelling people of thousands of year out of date faith-beliefs and values will have this net negative effect on people’s overall flourishing.

Your Thoughts?


Browse Our Archives