Massimo Pigliucci on the Skeptic and Atheist Movements

Massimo Pigliucci on the Skeptic and Atheist Movements May 13, 2015

Massimo Pigliucci has a rather scathing essay about what he sees has happened to the skeptic and atheist movements (which he refers to as SAM for short), which disappoints him greatly. I don’t agree with everything he says, but a lot of it certainly hits the mark in my view.

The Harris-Chomsky exchange, in my mind, summarizes a lot of what I find unpleasant about SAM: a community who worships celebrities who are often intellectual dilettantes, or at the very least have a tendency to talk about things of which they manifestly know very little; an ugly undertone of in-your-face confrontation and I’m-smarter-than-you-because-I-agree-with [insert your favorite New Atheist or equivalent]; loud proclamations about following reason and evidence wherever they may lead, accompanied by a degree of groupthink and unwillingness to change one’s mind that is trumped only by religious fundamentalists; and, lately, a willingness to engage in public shaming and other vicious social networking practices any time someone says something that doesn’t fit our own opinions, all the while of course claiming to protect “free speech” at all costs.

Let me give you some examples and name some names of big boys who can take the criticism and who will keep doing what they have been doing regardless of what I write anyway.

I have already mentioned Harris, who writes about ethics with little acknowledgment (or understanding, or both) of just how complex a topic it is, and how much literature there is out there to engage with. As he infamously wrote in the first footnote of chapter 1 of The Moral Landscape, “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … [but] I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.” Why are we taking such a brazen display of anti-intellectualism as anything more than a clear mark of an overinflated ego? But far from that, Michael Shermer then builds on Harris’ point (or perhaps simply restates it, at much greater length), coming out with yet another “revolutionary” book about the science of ethics, predicated on an argument that had so many holes in it that I felt a bit embarrassed having to explain them in a public forum a couple of years ago [15].

Then we have Neil deGrasse Tyson. Great science popularizer, but also prone to anti-intellectualism in the form of dismissing an entire field (philosophy) of which he knows nothing at all [16], not to mention his sometimes questionable behavior when it comes to intellectual fairness, as even my colleague (with whom I often disagree) Jerry Coyne has firmly pointed out [17]. That particular episode had to do with yielding to the whims of yet another physicist/anti-intellectualist who has become a darling of SAM: Lawrence Krauss [18].

And speaking of great science popularizers who are very much adored within SAM: Richard Dawkins has actually gone on record as trashing yet another field (besides philosophy) of which he knows nothing, namely, epigenetics: “I am heartily sick of the ‘epigenetics’ bandwagon and almost look forward to the next one, whatever it turns out to be.” [19] Luckily, that so-called “bandwagon” (actually very sound, cutting age biological research) keeps going regardless of Dawkins’ opinion, producing thousands of papers every year and securing tens of millions in funding from evidently profoundly misguided federal agencies. And let’s not go (again) into the exceedingly naive approach to religious criticism that has made Dawkins one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism.

It’s hard to disagree with most of that. I feel the same way much of the time. I strongly disagree with another point he made in the article, about the alleged confusion of progressivism and social justice activism as “tenets of atheism,” but that is a topic for another time. But the SAM could do with a great deal less hero worship (including of me, to whatever tiny degree that may operate among a small group of people; I am made profoundly uncomfortable when people lavish me with praise) and simpleminded tribalism.

Unlike Pigliucci, I am not willing to withdraw from the movement, but I have changed the way I engage with it and the priorities I hold. Much more of my energy and time goes into community building and putting humanist principles to work than it used to. And I’ve grown much more critical of my fellow atheists for what I believe are overly simplistic or just plain dishonest criticisms of religious belief and practice. I will continue to do so. For all its flaws, I’m not ready to give up on SAM.

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