What Scares The New Atheists

What Scares The New Atheists May 10, 2018

I thought we were only afraid of the burden of proof! What now??

I haven’t read John Gray’s new book Seven Types of Atheism yet, but the British philosopher wrote an article at the Guardian called What Scares the New Atheists that I found compelling. Gray is an atheist himself (which type I guess we’ll have to read his book to find out), and he notes the conventional liberalism of the neo-atheists. He describes their scientism as an attempt to give this liberalism a basis in empirical inquiry. Ultimately, he finds the viewpoint of the Four Horsemen dependent on the same sorts of myths they criticize in their religious foes: myths about superiority, progress and the inevitable triumph of their mode of thought.

The Rise of Civil Rights Atheism

The charge of liberalism is a fair point to make about 21st century movement atheists. Particularly in the USA, atheism has always been associated with communism; leftists conceptualized religion as a consolation for the exploited that will become irrelevant and disappear when class struggles no longer divide society. However, the atheists of the new millennium espouse a liberalism that is nowhere near as radical as communism, focused on individual rights and freedom of speech. They see religion as a conservative force that opposes secularist progress throughout the world, and predict that education and science literacy will weaken the influence and appeal of religion.

According to Gray, the 9/11 attacks were a very momentous wake-up call for people who still believed in this optimistic vision. With the publication of The End of Faith in 2004, Sam Harris made it clear that what troubled him about the world was that people were resisting the call of progress he considered inexorable, and denying the appeal of the liberalism he characterized as self-evidently superior to any other set of beliefs about the good society. Says Harris:

No tribal fictions need be rehearsed for us to realize, one fine day, that we do, in fact, love our neighbors, that our happiness is inextricable from their own, and that our interdependence demands that people everywhere be given the opportunity to flourish. The days of our religious identities are clearly numbered. Whether the days of civilization itself are numbered would seem to depend, rather too much, on how soon we realize this.

This sort of messianic call to a redemptive moral vision. ironically, has religious overtones. Nevertheless, it’s as if the intractability of religious belief itself, and not just the specter of terrorism and the resurgence of reactionary political movements, signifies a repudiation of a worldview that the New Atheists consider the pinnacle of human moral development as well as the only one grounded in scientific evidence. In this, they’re dangerously close to the mindset of 19th century Social Darwinists, who felt that white Westerners were “more evolved” than nonwhites, and that science itself validated their superiority. Gray explains:

The predominant varieties of atheist thinking, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, aimed to show that the secular west is the model for a universal civilisation. The missionary atheism of the present time is a replay of this theme; but the west is in retreat today, and beneath the fervour with which this atheism assaults religion there is an unmistakable mood of fear and anxiety. To a significant extent, the new atheism is the expression of a liberal moral panic.

The Myth of Progress

Atheists like me simply have no use for the concept of God, the Divine Mind from which all creation flows. So why does it make sense to believe in some sort of telos, a purpose toward which society magically progresses? This has more to do with wishful thinking than with following the evidence where it leads. I think we’ve let our understandable outrage at the persistence of things like terrorism, misogyny and war convince us that humanity will get beyond sectarianism and cynicism if it just embraces the values we, as enlightened Westerners, espouse. Gray describes our dilemma like this:

How could all of humankind not want to be as we imagine ourselves to be? To suggest that large numbers hate and despise values such as toleration and personal autonomy is, for many people nowadays, an intolerable slur on the species. This is, in fact, the quintessential illusion of the ruling liberalism: the belief that all human beings are born freedom-loving and peaceful and become anything else only as a result of oppressive conditioning. But there is no hidden liberal struggling to escape from within the killers of the Islamic State and Boko Haram, any more than there was in the torturers who served the Pol Pot regime. To be sure, these are extreme cases. But in the larger sweep of history, faith-based violence and persecution, secular and religious, are hardly uncommon – and they have been widely supported. It is peaceful coexistence and the practice of toleration that are exceptional.

What we seem to fear, then, is that our beliefs about the superiority of our values and our scientific rationality aren’t hard-wired into the human animal. Maybe the degree of religiosity in civilization isn’t ever-decreasing but just fluctuating, and society is no closer to a freethinking utopia than it ever was.

What do you guys think? Does Gray have a point? Are we assuming that everyone, deep down, has the same vision of a good society we do? Doesn’t the Trump debacle represent disconfirming evidence of that assumption?

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  • Dave Maier

    Do you know this guy? He’s been banging that same drum for years, before the New Atheists came along. Some of it is fairly effective Enlightenment-hubris bubble-bursting, but the “ha, I am more skeptical than you self-professed skeptics!” shtick wears thin after a while. Check out Straw Dogs (which I have actually only skimmed, but one gets the idea pretty quickly).

  • Some of it is fairly effective Enlightenment-hubris bubble-bursting, but the “ha, I am more skeptical than you self-professed skeptics!” shtick wears thin after a while.

    Not for nothing, but people around here say the same thing about me.

  • Jeff

    To be sure, these are extreme cases. But in the larger sweep of history, faith-based violence and persecution, secular and religious, are hardly uncommon – and they have been widely supported.

    Yup. I need no faith to hate, or to steal, or cheat my fellow man (or woman). And the quickly-repeated claim that to hate, steal, or cheat exceptionally well requires religion….nope. I’m an extreme misanthrope, so I admit my bias, but it requires no special skills or beliefs to suck at being human.

  • abb3w

    A review gives the Seven Types he identifies as:

    1) Roughly, the “New Atheists” — described in the review as “those typically liberal, generally Anglo-American atheists who think they can cut themselves off from the deep and profound questions that religion addresses by reading The God Delusion”.
    2) “secular humanism”, termed “a hollowed-out version of the Christian belief in salvation in history”;
    3) “scientific atheism”, with its fetishising of evolutionary theory;
    4) “political atheism”, which Gray holds responsible for communism, Nazism and evangelical liberalism;
    5) “God-hating”, an atheism born of witnessing man’s inhumanity to man;
    6) “atheism without progress” – the rejection of the idea of God without deifying humanity;
    7) mystical atheism, claiming “a hallmark of which is acknowledging the limits of language”.

    My superficial glance at this and other reviews suggests it is not completely meritless, as some of these putative categories have what seem interesting correspondences to recent contemporary empirical research by Christopher Silver. (Additionally, both Gray and Silver’s work appear to potentially map to a generalized framework proposed by Dale Cannon.)

    Contrariwise, this work sounds deeply flawed by his personal aversion to particular examples within his “types”. His proposal of empirical categories might be more persuasive without the moral tone. Nohow, it looks as if he may include enough historical scope to help inform someone looking for an overview of some of the various ways atheism has been historically expressed. In so far as Gray has some point, it appears as weak a point as that of a spear made from dried feces. This sounds a book I definitely want to check out from the library — worth taking the time to dissect for allowing fair criticism, but almost certainly not one to send the author money for. (For perspective, I’ve spent money on books by David Kinnaman on Barna group research without regret.)

    That said, there’s some basic questions about “good” and “progress” where many atheists seem to take answers for granted; however, others have raised them better than Gray.

  • Morgan Lefaye

    I’m not commenting on John Gray’s book, since I haven’t read it. However, this article does raise a good point. As a white Westerner, I am guilty of xenophobic and racist bias towards other cultures. Perhaps I can learn to focus more on others and less on myself by studying more collective cultures.. Maybe Islamic societies have something to teach me about decorum and charity. For now, I am striving to take each culture on its own terms without comparing it to white Western culture.

  • That said, there’s some basic questions about “good” and “progress” where many atheists seem to take answers for granted; however, others have raised them better than Gray.

    Do you mind if I ask which others? I appreciate the tips on Silver & Cannon’s work too.

  • This is probably a big reason why a lot of neo-atheists revile “cultural relativism,” because they’re sick of PC pushback whenever they trot out their Je Suis Charlie sloganeering. I think we need to acknowledge that the problems in our own society (and even in our own nonbeliever communities) deserves as much attention as problems in faraway countries.

    Thanks for commenting!

  • abb3w

    With the help of Google, I seem to recall Yvonne Burgess and “The Myth of Progress” being one of the better discussions on that from around my college daze. There are other writings on the theme over the last century, and this one isn’t particularly good, mind you. It’s that the reviews suggest Gray’s discussion is particularly bad. Much of the discussion on the Myth of Progress seems the sort of drivel produced by math-averse hand-waving rhetorician philosophers fascinated by the idea that “progress” might not mean “perfection”, or that the path to “progress” may not be monotonic. (I will cheerfully slander them as tending too incapable of or too indolent for grasping the math for stochastic walks that might let them get past the boggling stage.) However, the book by Burgess was not so terrible as to be repeatedly bounced off the wall in the way that I treated some other bits.

    As for as basic questions on “good”, I would foremost point to Hume’s observation on the “is-ought” problem — though he does not give a good answer, and the criticism he raises can even be applied to the work n which he raises it. Both “ought” and “better” (and thus “good”) appear to involve partial ordering relations over sets of options. From thence, Kenneth Arrow would seem the foremost recent figure, particularly for his work on “social choice theory”. In so far as Arrow was a philosopher, he was a far more mathematical sort; he also produced a terrifying large bibliography that I’m not equipped to recommend particulars from.

  • Morgan Lefaye

    You’re welcome! And we can actually do something about the problems in our own communities.

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    It is peaceful coexistence and the practice of toleration that are exceptional.

    This is entirely off-topic, but this is what makes the 20th century so interesting by my estimations as a person who pretends to be historian on the weekends. Around the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century, we saw the rise of nonviolent resistance, and this wasn’t just a western thing. It was global: Well all know about Gandhi and Dr. King Jr., but Te Whiti o Rongomai III, a Maori plowman* who resisted British dominance through nonviolence, influenced Gandhi’s thinking. It was a whole movement of thinkers that spanned the globe, including Thoreau, Tohu Kākahi (another Maori), Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov, Leon Tolstoy, Alice Paul, Václav Havel, Lech Wałęsa, and others.

    I have a half-cocked hypothesis that I’ve never tested and have no idea how to test, but it’s one of those things that seems to make sense to me: there was another significant change in the late 1800s to early 1900s, too — urbanization. More people were moving into cities and urban areas, and in the process, more people were being crammed closer together. And the thing about these urban areas is that your neighbor might not even come from the same place that you do, so you’re exposed to entirely new ideas and concepts beyond your Medieval understanding of the world (that is, my town, and everything within 10 miles of it, is all that matter). Urbanization forced more people of different stripes to live together, and, honestly, I think it’s helping to — and I use this word for lack of any better one — domesticate humanity. We are domesticating ourselves (after all, we’re animals — we think, have self-awareness, and make tools, but that doesn’t mean we suddenly exist outside of Darwin’s universe), and that domestication made non-violence more widely acceptable to people. If that’s the case, then I expect to see more non-violence in the future, since urbanization is only set to continue to grow.

    Of course, I often maintain that the political split in the U.S. isn’t “red state/blue state”, it’s “rural/urban.” After all, a person from Shanghai and a person from New York have more in common than a person from New York has with a person from rural Alabama and a person from Shanghai does from rural Qinghai, so I do have some bias towards the good of urbanization.

    ———————————

    * I am absolutely fascinated that a culture widely renowned as a “warrior culture” like the Maori were the source for much of the ideas concerning nonviolent resistance. I love irony, and this is probably one of the best examples of it.

  • That’s an interesting point about urbanization. I wonder if nowadays people’s proximity to one another isn’t a detriment to mutual understanding. It seems more and more obvious that things like language, religion, dietary customs, and other rituals are not just meant to provide cohesion within a group, but also to maintain division between the group and those on the outside. In the digital age, common ground seems as far away as ever.

    My wife always says that people simply aren’t meant to talk to everyone else. Maybe she just means me.

  • From thence, Kenneth Arrow would seem the foremost recent figure, particularly for his work on “social choice theory”. In so far as Arrow was a philosopher, he was a far more mathematical sort; he also produced a terrifying large bibliography that I’m not equipped to recommend particulars from.

    I would say his greatest contribution was Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem [link:wiki], which is included in his founding-of-social-choice-theory text, Social Choice and Individual Values. It describes, under four criteria that choice or voting systems intended to pick a winner from among a set of possibilities greater than two should satisfy to be considered equitable, the absolute limits to what can be expected from an ordinal voting system. The math behind it is a bit arcane, but the consequences are relevant and apparent in understanding how and for what reasons and under what conditions democratic choice is likely to fail to reflect a stable preference.

    It also suggests that pairwise run-off voting and/or cardinal voting might be better approaches to democratic selection among multiple options than pure ordinal list voting, though Arrow was skeptical of cardinal voting approaches.

  • God Hates Faith

    All valid criticism. Atheism is simply the lack of belief in gods. Nothing more. The idea that society would be better off without religion (a belief I share) is a separate belief, that can become dogmatic if not viewed with skepticism.

  • Excellent post eloquently crafted, Shem. It’s fair criticism of the so-called New Atheists, who CAN be insufferably arrogant and smug, especially Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens (but not Demmett). Most of these guys, in my view, don’t have enough respect for the religious impulse in humans, where it came from and what evolution kept it for this long. It is a fundamental thing that demands more understanding. That said, I think atheist must not be shy in resisting and calling out magical dogma for what it is without making it a personal assault upon every believer. Easier said than done, I know. Oh. … and we really need to keep such nonsense away from kids. How? I suggest teaching critical thinking as if it were math, starting in kindergarten. Thanks for this piece, Shem.

  • Ray Ingles

    So why does it make sense to believe in some sort of telos, a purpose toward which society magically progresses?

    Why does it have to be magic? Or a ‘purpose’?

    Evolution does make progress – progressively more complex organisms develop over time. And it ain’t no magic. Societies, too, can and do develop. Slave societies, for example, are necessarily static because they have to devote a huge amount of their efforts to keeping the slave caste down, and fear any rocking of the boat. More free societies can out-innovate them. A society that wastes half its intellectual capital by keeping women down is going to be at a disadvantage compared to a more egalitarian one.

    That doesn’t mean such progress is inevitable, of course. There are great extinctions in evolutionary history, and dark ages and collapses in societal history. But some arcs and tendencies can be perceived. (Nor, BTW, are the New Atheists as homogenous as Gray appears to imply. Rick Snedeker noted how different Daniel Dennett is, just among the so-called “Four Horsemen”.)

  • I appreciate the props, Rick. The thing is, critical thinking is more than just criticizing other people’s beliefs. I don’t have any problem with Harris or Hitchens being arrogant, but their intellectual laziness is something that should bother so-called freethinkers. Just defining faith or religion in a way that makes it seem like a freakish delusion, and then criticizing people for subscribing to a freakish delusion, is about as impressive as dealing yourself a winning hand.

    And while we’ve spent decades pretending that religious belief is the worst thing in the world, our country has slipped into fascism. Cops and vigilantes hunt black people as if for sport. Corporations have taken over our legislative process and dismantled the social safety net. “Free Speech” has become mere camouflage for right-wing bigotry. I can’t help but think that we feel so powerless to prevent this disgraceful turn of events that we’ve found a convenient way to externalize blame, and now we don’t have to feel responsible for any of it. There’s no faith worse than bad faith.

    Thanks again for stopping by to contribute, Rick!

  • rubaxter

    If you want to find a ‘fault’ with whatever ‘new atheism’ is, I guess you could scare up some strawmen to criticize from somewhere.

    I see these ‘problems’ as merely one Existentialist pissing on the shoes of others, so’s a column can be forwarded for payment-in-full.

    BFD, one Existentialist’s ‘purpose’ is not the same as others.

    In the mean time, some people searching for their own personal ‘purpose’ can try out those that perhaps kindred spirits have tried, and then forge their own.

    Bubblegum Philosopher to me.

  • Curtis Wright

    Some might even argue that we are in one of these societal regressions right now. Here we are, in an age where there are more atheists and less religion than ever before. And yet, Nationalism is on the rise around the world (almost without exception). So, I personally see no clear path to “a better, more secular society”. There may be a path, but it is quite muddied. It would seem the more “enlightened” we become the harder the other side digs in and right now that battle is not going in our favor.

  • You bet, Shem. I agree that just shouting “theist bad” won’t cut it. I see critical thinking first and foremost as the ability to know you have to tamp down your biased intuitions before fairly analyzing problems. Because so many of us aren’t doing that, we’re in the awful situation we now inhabit.

  • abb3w

    Well, “better” gets very complicated — which may have some relation to Arrow’s skepticism.

    Contrarwise, I’d agree his impossibility theorem is the single most noteworthy item in his results.

    Nohow, it’s only a small part of his larger work, most of which is written for a technical audience.

  • Mr. A

    Are we assuming that everyone, deep down, has the same vision of a good society we do?

    Once, but no more. When I first realized that truth, freedom and the capacity to do the right thing was not an ingrained function of humanity, I then manages to understand why the religious cling to thier wishful lies, as I tried to cling to mine. I have since discarded the idea that humans are born good, going to a “tabula rasa” model instead.

    This article does hit one point home for me though: the idea that we atheists fear a resurgence of the oppressive religions. Such a resurgence would mean going back to the days were humans could not admit they didn’t know everything. All answers would be “God”, whichever one suits the current regime. I am genuinely afraid because in reading religious textbooks, I have found that religion is a very potent form of brainwashing. Just look at the central message most religions share: you cannot find answers or meaning by yourself, you must find it in this book. That is step one towards becoming dependent on whoever wrote that book.

    On a side note, that is the only form of religion that scares me. Were the religious constantly churning out paragons of morality then I would have much less of a problem with them. Instead they claim to do so, and then don’t, but no one in thier various tribes will ever question it.

  • Matt G

    A study in the last year or so found that racist views increased with increasing homogeneity. I spend the school year in NYC, and most of the summer in a town with one Asian woman and 599 whites. There, racism is so normal that most don’t even think of themselves as racist.

  • Lausten North

    If peace is not inevitable then why is it used as the justification for war?

  • Richard Sanderson

    “neo-atheists”.

    [giggle]

  • Richard Sanderson

    That could easily be coming out of the mouths of racist frauds such as CJ Werleman, Dan Arel, or Sacha Saeen.

  • aвѕolυт clancy

    Interesting piece by Gray. I had a little trouble with some assertions about halfway through, particularly:

    When they assert that science can bridge fact and value, they overlook the many incompatible value-systems that have been defended in this way. There is no more reason to think science can determine human values today than there was at the time of Haeckel or Huxley. [and] How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science.

    It’s possible that I’m misunderstanding his use of “values” in this section, but it seems he’s applying a lot of overlap to values and morality. Values are not necessarily moral or immoral; I don’t see any reason to assign a connection. He mentions incompatible value systems defended by science, and that has certainly occurred, but it doesn’t mean that no value systems can be defended by science.

    (Later he discusses universal values and universal morality; it may be that he was leading up to these ideas and I didn’t catch the association.)

    My bigger concern with the quoted section was the suggestion that I’ll paraphrase as, “Increased scientific understanding can’t support ideas such as human equality.” More precisely, I would reword his last quoted sentence to, “The sole source of these values is not science.” Science can support values, and it does so precisely by bridging fact and value. Racism is a good example. Just in the last 100 years, major scientific gains (understanding of human genetics, distribution of traits formerly considered “racial,” etc) increasingly support the idea that there is no such thing as race. Race is not a biological reality; it’s cultural and as such has been firmly embedded in our lives – and for that reason is going to take time to disengage from human thinking.

    Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I don’t find it impossible to imagine that some racists will be surprised to learn, for example, that they have some “primitive” DNA from Neanderthals. I won’t assert that the knowledge will change their values overnight, or that some of them won’t instead change their impression of Neanderthals as “primitive.” But some may start to change their thinking that folks other than Europeans and Asians are cave men. Science is aiding this process and in doing so it’s influencing human values.

    Gray’s larger point that, “…the quintessential illusion of the ruling liberalism: the belief that all human beings are born freedom-loving and peaceful and become anything else only as a result of oppressive conditioning” is a fair one, though, and I need to give more thought to this. I’ve implied it myself in what I just wrote, so I may be guilty of some of the same ideas as the “new atheists.” I’ve read very little of the Four Horsemen but have befriended a number of atheists who are influenced by them. Thanks, Shem, another thought-provoking one.

  • Ray Ingles

    Of course it’s not a linear path. But it’s not quite so hopeless as all that. Things have been a lot worse, even in recent history – World War II, the Cold War, for example. For sure egalitarian, open, rational society has suffered some serious setbacks recently – though note, it took kind of a perfect storm of several things going wrong together to elect someone as odious as Trump.

    A bit of shattered complacency seems to actually be rather salutary in the long term – don’t believe the hype this week, for example. Of course there’s no guarantees, but all hope is not lost yet.

  • Bruce Gorton

    4) “political atheism”, which Gray holds responsible for communism, Nazism and evangelical liberalism;

    It makes about as much sense to blame “political atheism” for Nazism, as it does to blame Judaism. The Nazis were very firmly opposed to Germany’s atheist movement, and Hitler boasted of having stamped atheism out.

    If Gray does make this fairly glaring error, then it does not give me much confidence about the rest of his book.

  • MarquisDeMoo

    “Racism is a good example. Just in the last 100 years, major scientific gains (understanding of human genetics, distribution of traits formerly considered “racial,” etc) increasingly support the idea that there is no such thing as race. Race is not a biological reality; it’s cultural.”

    Saying there is no such thing as race is a dangerous line to take, science by refinement is always moving goal posts so you would be basing your fight against racism on shifting sands. It does not make sense that the evolution that brought about the obvious physical and medical (biological) differences between human communities should not also modify behaviour as it does in all other species. For this reason I have little doubt that to say “race is not a biological reality” in any sense is factually wrong and worse may be a product of wishful thinking. Therefore, much as you might rightfully use the science to undermine the racists for their subjective choice or extent of racial differences, by being wrong, and worse digging in despite the evidence, you provide racists with the very ammunition they need to undermine your values. This is very much akin to the damage done by feminists who insisted that gender predispositions are purely cultural.

    I would suggest race is a biological (if gradually diminishing) fact, why the hell it should matter to us and how to overcome our predispositions against differences is where the science can help.

  • Kevin K

    That’s pretty much baked into the definition of existentialism, isn’t it? One creates one’s own purpose and one is responsible for one’s relationship with the universe.

  • Science can support values, and it does so precisely by bridging fact and value. Racism is a good example. Just in the last 100 years, major scientific gains (understanding of human genetics, distribution of traits formerly considered “racial,” etc) increasingly support the idea that there is no such thing as race. Race is not a biological reality; it’s cultural and as such has been firmly embedded in our lives – and for that reason is going to take time to disengage from human thinking.

    I see what you’re saying, and I agree. However, I think there’s a more subtle point at the heart of this matter that I think people miss: science isn’t the appropriate place to be looking for measures of superiority based on race or gender. That is, we may define alleles as better or worse based on their affects on the phenotype; but that’s not how we should be sorting people into categories. Even people with genetic diseases aren’t “inferior,” they just got a bad roll of the genetic dice.

    And just debunking the notion of race on a scientific basis doesn’t make its cultural importance go away. We shouldn’t disengage it from our thinking, we should be aware of the ways our society benefits and advantages people differently along racial lines. We can’t afford to be “color blind” until there’s truly a level playing field in terms of race.

    Thanks for your input!

  • abb3w

    Yeah, that raised my eyebrows as well. The Nazis perhaps could be described as “anti-clerical”, but that’s not the same thing as “atheist”.

  • aвѕolυт clancy

    One of the reasons race is not a biological reality is that it’s impossible to define it biologically. Just as a simple example, let’s say one wanted to define a race by one of those evolutionary modifications you correctly refer to – we could pick sickle-cell trait, which provides protection from malaria. Then what happens when one sibling in a family has the trait, another sibling has sickle-cell disease, and yet a third sibling has neither? Are they all now separate races?

    When an attempt is actually made to group people biologically it becomes quickly obvious that it makes no sense scientifically. I understand your point about the refinements of scientific advances, but it’s exactly those refinements and our additional understanding, as opposed to the state of science when “race” was first proposed, that make biological definition of race scientifically unsound.

    Apologies, I’m at work right now so I’m not free to use the internet, but if this is a topic of interest to you, a search on something like “race as a biological construct” pulls up a lot of interesting work.

  • MarquisDeMoo

    “One of the reasons race is not a biological reality is that it’s impossible to define it biologically.” – Sorry but that is a cop-out; indeed there is no clear cut transition between races, as there has been very little islanding and we may only be dealing with predispositions (such as sickle-cell trait) but the same can be said between any recently divergent species that biologists struggle to classify and is why the phylogenetic tree is dynamic.

    There are obvious physical genetic variations and adaptations amongst people from various altitudes, and geographic or climatic regions that your racist is quick to seize upon. Notwithstanding 100 years of globalisation these traits are still pretty clearly defined and they are definitely not cultural (which was your assertion), so if not racial variations how would you classify these variations? You might equivocate and say they are regional variations, but all you have done is turn your racist into a regionalist.

  • aвѕolυт clancy

    these traits are still pretty clearly defined and they are definitely not cultural (which was your assertion), so if not racial variations how would you classify these variations?

    Nonsense. I said nothing about genetic traits being cultural.

  • MarquisDeMoo

    “Race is not a biological reality; it’s cultural” – Ok, there is a possibility I understood you wrong, are you saying here that there is no such thing as ethnic biological differences and that the only differences are cultural or are you saying that the definition of the term ‘race’ is merely a cultural concept (whilst accepting there are biological ethnic differences)?

    PS. Or even that our reactions to perceived race are purely cultural?

  • It’s refreshing when I see atheists other than Shem that are willing to engage with folks that aren’t strictly atheistic.

    It’s hard to even get out of the gate with some of them, even if you’re simply operating under negative theology and not necessarily strictly ontological arguments pinned to the supernatural.

    I also used to think the carve out in psychology around delusional disorders where it concerned religion was based on politics. Now I understand it more completely as at least in part grounded in being careful. Once psychology starts putting a hard line on the possible and impossible instead of well being, we’ll start locking up our visionaries as mad. It’s more of a question of what warrants treatment, rather than “what do they believe is real?” because the alternative is barbarism.

  • i’d argue that Dunbar’s number kind of speaks to this. Whether or not the number (150) is accurate, i believe there’s merit to the notion that there is a finite number of people we can feel communally connected to – and maintain STABLE relationships.

    as our communities get larger, we start losing these connections, humans become more abstract concepts, including our neighbors.

    abstractions are usually easier to harm than people.

    i’m not saying this is the only, or even necessarily a primary factor in social violence, but i’d be lying if i said i don’t think it plays a part.

    The number is really important to social anarchists as well, because it puts a limit on the size of a viable decentralized community

  • That’s a lot of words, Abb3w, to NOT answer the fundamental question for theists: where’s your evidence? Otherwise, it’s all just disingenuous bait and switch. Hint: the Bible, anecdotal salvation experiences that can’t be verified as real, powerful sensations that supernatural beings and realms exist, anything just imagined, impossible stories about people rising from the dead and soaring into the sky don’t count.

  • Thanks, Honey. I think preaching to the choir is kind of useless, although I learn new vantages where others are coming from. Which is good. But to make headway in the battle for hearts and minds, I think we atheists need to get out of the echo chamber of our bubble. Ideally, we should be posting on the religious blog hubs, starting with Progressive Christians. That’s where the fence-sitters are. Where do you blog? Don’t recall seeing you on Patheos, but I’m new-ish. Cheers.

  • i have a little journal over on disqus Lipstick Riot but i haven’t been posting for a bit and all my best stuff right now has gotten swept into the bit bucket because the posts were old.

    i met Shem when i was much more active there, and he was writing at Anti-Science (which wasn’t what it sounded like, and it was one of the reasons it appealed to me)

    I adore Shem because Shem isn’t afraid to not take things on faith. He’s an atheists atheist, in my view, and his content there reflected that, and made room for pieces like my rant against western typeology around human sexuality and gender and how it may have impacted how we even organize ourselves.

    I can talk metaphysical concepts with him, because he has the capacity to cliffhang without getting lost. It’s a kind of thinking that involves running the what ifs and then eliminating possibilities to come up with a spectrum. I don’t know if he does so deliberately but i can tell when someone has the ability.

    It’s a way of approaching logic that’s complementary. Unicorns can exist until something proves they can’t. It’s maddening, because it forces you to think in divisions of the possible across all moments.

    I can do that. Shem can keep up. I don’t even know if he knows he can, because I’ve never discussed this with him.

    I appreciate his brain. =)

  • Well, you oughta blog. You’ve a lot to say that’s a few degrees off the normal plane of atheist thought. I must admit I’m more of a “unicorns don’t exist until proof appears” kind of guy. It strikes me as risky to assume something’s real without anything tangible to reveal it. I feel that way about supernatural religion. I wait, patiently and respectfully, for evidence. One woman once wrote that she stayed in a religion whose doctrines made zero sense to her because she loved the sense of belongng, the grandoiose liturgy, the vision (however improbable) of an afterlife, the history and tradition. That made total sense to me. It was rational because the choice accepted the irrationality of the choice and stayed for very human reasons. I don’t think we have to demonize faith, but we need to insist it accepts its fallacies.

  • > It strikes me as risky to assume something’s real without anything tangible to reveal it.

    you’re absolutely right. it is risky.

    and to do it properly you need a dance, not a stance.

    consider the humble idea. any idea. or an idea as a collection of ideas that form a system of ideas – an ideology.

    obviously we concede that we can’t know anything with 100% certainty, because we don’t have 100% awareness. But, we can approach it to degrees of precision and understanding.

    So it’s tempting to want to believe in whatever is most likely. And it’s not a bad plan overall.

    Because ultimately, it’s kind of a numbers game and even science is ultimately “best current understanding based on recurrable testing” but i mean, one discovery uproots everything. it’s brittle because it’s complicated

    In the same way, statistics are a bastard. life is one of the most improbable things imaginable. You are almost impossible. So am I.

    But here we are, meat covered skeletons made from stardust on a big ball of minerals hurtling through a universe we can only pretend to understand when we’re being totally honest.

    we can’t forget that we’re just fancy apes. we don’t know a damn thing. the standard model is bullshit, but it’s USEFUL bullshit, and therein is the important bit.

    ask a theoretical physicist, but you’ll need to give them time for a rant.

    back to ideas though, including our philosophies of science. we always need room to smash them.

    a mixtec lady that never learned to read or write changed my entire view on folklore and even theory of meaning with a short conversation about the moon landing and my faith in it, and she did it without sounding like a nut.

    i still accept we landed on the moon. i just understand how fragile my assumptions around that really are, however “likely”.

    the question then becomes, how do you navigate the world like this?

    personally, i find kabbalah to be helpful for exploring it, and the laws helpful for making sure i don’t go over the high wall, but that’s for me.

    what people don’t typically understand about it, isn’t just religion or God or stone age fairy tales. it’s more like metaphilosophy that can be used to verify itself and other philosophies for correctness.

    it’s a helpful compass.

    genesis doesn’t contradict evolution. if you want at some point i’ll show you how it describes creation as ex nihilo, and at a moment in time, supports evolution, and describes why we gained dominion over the earth, and the radical idea that people suffer for their mistakes in proportion to the amount of free will they have.

    but it’s expressed in allegory, but allegory is intricate, interlocking and checkable.

    it’s why the nerd in me loves it so much. i can use it to understand the wisdom of nations, rather than police it, and i can also use it to keep myself where i need to be in terms of what i believe.

    because every idea has power over us. idolatry and ideology are nearly synonymous.

    we need formula, not position. everything is situational if we are to master our choices.

    and our awareness.

    it’s kind of a radical way of looking at the world, but it’s profoundly logical.

  • abb3w

    That’s a lot of words, Abb3w, to NOT answer the fundamental question for theists: where’s your evidence?

    Your inquiry appears to involve at least one mistaken premise that renders it too incoherent for substantive response. Your question is “for theists”. John Gray is an atheist. So am I. As such, neither he nor I should have been expected to respond to it in the first place.

    (I’ll also note that anecdotes and other hearsay technically are forms of evidence. The difficulty for theists is that alternative hypotheses may more parsimoniously describe such evidence, like “Peter is lying in an attempt to gain social status” or “John includes hallucinogenic mushrooms in his omelets, and thus makes an unreliable eyewitness”.)

  • Yes, I believe an open mind is a good thing. But that doesn’t mean so open that you give benefit of doubt to virtually everything. Our senses evolved to help us place ourselves in our physical enviroment and, from there, sustain and protect ourselves. Anything “metaphysical,” so to speak, doesn’t exist in ways that we can confirm in the reality we inhabit. This is solely a reflection of mind. For example, people can choose to think evolution is very very contingent and that divinities only slightly more so, but there’s some solid confirmation for one and none for the other. To keep the mind open for things that we can’t verify to exist is, to me, a fool’s game. And if we go down that path, we leave ourselves just open enough for complete flim flam. Heaven’s Gate and that ilk. So, material evidence is the thing. It’s fair to want more evidence that humans walked on the moon, and certainly frauds have been perpetuated, but the enormously grand and interconnected fraud this would have required fairly beggars belief. That’s where I land on these things. There is such a thing as being too open-minded. However, it’s always fun to talk about conspiracy theories, alien abductions and the like. It’s just not serious or productive. And leaving ourselves too susceptible to the sheer inventions of humankind makes us terribly vulnerable. Or so I think.

  • aвѕolυт clancy

    Probably closer to the first option. Biological differences exist, but they can’t be used to classify people by race or by ethnicity.

    To try to clarify I’ll refer to my previous example: three siblings, all with the same parents. One child has sickle cell trait, one has the disease, and one is genetically normal. They’re obviously different biologically, but it makes no sense to say that the biological difference classifies each sibling as a different race or a different ethnicity.

  • > I believe an open mind is a good thing. But that doesn’t mean so open that you give benefit of doubt to virtually everything

    using kabbalah keeps me focused, and i can afford benefit of the doubt without getting lost.

    it helps me use those evolved senses, and my reason, and use knowledge and wisdom to approach understanding and master choices.

    it’s a discipline.

  • I was responding to your post that begins: “A review gives the Seven Types he identifies as:”
    Apologies if I came in a mid-stream and missed necessary context.
    I just see lists like that and it seems to complicate atheism well beyond what is helpful or useful, a kind of inpractical academic exercise. In my view, what matters is what atheism fundamentally is: full acceptance of the nonexistence of divine beings and realms. Period. Over-parsing the term or how individuals may minutely think about it only seems to create the sense of a lot of quasi-atheistic attitudes. The definitions in the “Seven Types” list seem political cant, really, not philosohically useful. I wish we could focus on bringing to mass audiences some clear, simple explanations for the rationality of atheism, rather than wasting time going down these rabbit holes that lead nowhere. Rather, for instance, let’s discuss exactly how we might insert really rigorous critical-thinking curricula into our elementary and secondary schools, and how we get religious ideas completely out.

  • Rick, skeptic alarms go off around here whenever someone uses the word evidence. Though I don’t think there’s evidence to support belief in the Big G, I also think these online slapfights are less about evidence and more about rigging the standards of justification so that the evidence simply leads to the conclusion we prefer. I always make the joke: “Evidence is whatever supports what I believe. If it supports what you believe, it’s not evidence.”

    I don’t think making religion seem like a failed scientific hypothesis is anything more than com-box sophistry. But just to play devil’s advocate for a moment, how many scientific theories do amateurs like you and I affirm because we’ve made a comprehensive review of the evidence thereof? There’s a very good reason for appealing to authority when we’re not equipped to assess hard data or the validity of expert testimony, but that’s something very different than affirming belief in something because of evidence.

    If that’s not a double standard, what is?

  • Fair enough, Honey. I respect our thoughtfulness and sensitivity to nuance, and I believe your intelligence and discipline keeps you from feeling — and being — lost. Whatever works and keeps us from going completely off the rails. I suspect you enjoy barreling along at far greater speed and on shakier tracks than I do, but I bet we ofentimes end up at very nearly the same place. You probably have way more fun, though. 😉

  • i love how you ended that comment.

    believe what is beautiful, check your work.

    you’ll get to the same place, in the end.

    we all do.

  • Hey, Shem! When I use the word “evidence,” I mean the difference between a rock and an epiphany. An epiphany comes from a material organ (the brain), of course, but but the reality of its assumptions can only be confirmed with material “evidence” outside the brain. Whereas a rock is a rock is a rock, always existant and not a reflection of something unseen. I believe it’s a very slippery slope to make material evidence contingent. Yes, what evidence proves may change as knowledge grows and understandings change, but the evidence will always remain. Not so with epiphanies. The feeling someone may have of being in the presence of God is simply nonconfirmable in the sensory reality we inhabit. To make the truth of that sense contingent on things we can never know is dangerous in my mind. It metastasizes into everything and perpetuates everything from religion to belief in crop cirlces created by aliens. Science can be wrong, of course, but it’s solid, testable and verifiable. Epiphanies, on the other hand, are merely emotion we give divine interpretation to without corroborating “evidence.” When people try to poo-poo evidence, I’m reminded of that probably apocryphal quote from Hume, where he suggested that if people don’t believe in the realities of physics, they are free to jump off a tall building to test it. Nice to hear from you, as always. You get a lot of comment action. Like a guru. 🙂

  • Exactly. “Check your work” (and ideas) is actually a profound idea. Thanks, Honey.

  • abb3w

    In my view, what matters is what atheism fundamentally is: full acceptance of the nonexistence of divine beings and realms. Period.

    That may matter some. However, considering that the only thing that matters neglects that there can be considerable differences among atheists. Randite Atheists tend to have relatively little in common with Marxist/Communist Atheists, for an easy example. A subsequent harder example may have more practical implications for your efforts.

    The definitions in the “Seven Types” list seem political cant, really, not philosohically useful.

    They’re pretty much crap, yes; I think I expressly made such a comparison previously. However, in so far as sociology and anthropology are branches of philosophy, and in so far it appears his taxa may loosely correspond to several other taxa, it may not be completely worthless. (Just mostly; his biases seem to leave his observations of minimal marginal value given the others.)

    I wish we could focus on bringing to mass audiences some clear, simple explanations for the rationality of atheism, rather than wasting time going down these rabbit holes that lead nowhere.

    Of course, this goal trips on the rabbit hole of defining “rationality”….

    More seriously, these discussions can serve as a proving ground for ideas. With any luck, more correct ideas persist and spread. With even more luck, variants that are also simple and clear can spread to wider audiences.

    You might be able to help with that latter step, by pushing for clearer explanations of the ideas.

    Rather, for instance, let’s discuss exactly how we might insert really rigorous critical-thinking curricula into our elementary and secondary schools, and how we get religious ideas completely out.

    Getting back to some earlier points I alluded to… Dale Cannon defines the religious “Way of Right Action” as “The concerted effort to bring all of life, individual and communal, into conformity with the way things are ultimately supposed to be (however understood)-that is, to realize and fulfill the sacred intendedness of life –that promises individual fulfillment, social justice, and the embodiment of divine ideality in the midst of the mundane, this worldly life.” (Of course, for the particular case of atheists/humanists, “ultimate” seems a better word than either “sacred” or “divine”. However, Cannon makes clear in his book that all three of those are intended as non-specific pointers that will be radically different in object depending on the tradition group.) Correspondingly, Christopher Silver noted among his six types the Activist Atheist/Agnostics, who are “not content with the placidity of simply holding a non-belief position; they seek to be both vocal and proactive regarding current issues in the atheist and/or agnostic socio-political sphere”.

    This looks roughly like the sort of atheist you are.

    Gray’s “political atheism” may also have a loose correspondence here. Recognizing this might help you be less surprised when you get called a Nazi or Commie by idiot ignoramus theists; and more importantly, suggest ways in which you might be able to broaden their conceptual categories to be a little less ignorant.

    More likely to be of practical use, grasping these differences this may help with better understanding how and why you are opposed by members of other religious traditions, and why some other atheists express their atheism differently (ignoring or even opposing your efforts). EG — and serving as the “harder example” alluded to earlier — some atheists are more concerned with something like “A rational, dialectical struggle to transcend conventional patterns of thinking in the effort attain understanding of, and consciousness-transforming insight into, what is taken to be the ultimate what, how, and why of things” — what Cannon refers to generally as “The Way of Right Action” and probably corresponding to at least part of the group that Silver refers to as the “Intellectual Atheist/Agnostic” type.

    (My fast suggestion on “how” would be “push math”.)

  • Holy Moley, you guys like to go deep in the weeds with this stuff! Me, I’m always trying to simplify. I appreciate the effort you take to discuss these things. You’re not lazy or stupid, that’s for sure. I think, for me, atheism is simply what its definition says (“lack of belief or strong disbelief” in the supernatural). To have variations of atheism seems like the 400 Inuit words for “snow.” It’s still a rose by any other name. I’m sure you guys who love the philosophical complexities of these things and see value in peeling the onion and identifying the layers, but I don’t see how it will make any difference to the average Joe we’re trying to transform with reason. In fact, such a blizzard of ideas would be counter-productive with them. Still, adults are mostly stuck in place, which is why I see children as leading to a future promised land. But, while adults believe or not, and discuss the many nuances of their existential theories, if we teach simple, straight-forward, real-world thinking to kids, the game may change. Otherwise, it’s just a lot of talk going nowhere fast. And Christianity (et al) will continue to grow and prosper. Best to you Abb3w.

  • Like I said, Rick, all you seem to be doing is defining evidence as exactly what you know the believer can’t provide: peer-reviewed empirical research. Rhetorically you’re all set, but in the grand scheme of things, you’re just dealing yourself a winning hand. It’s like saying that carpentry is better than astronomy, because astronomy doesn’t build houses.

    Thanks for contributing!

  • Gosh, what else is there besides material evidence to corroborate anything as existing in reality? This arbitrary redefining of “evidence” feels like a false distinction without a difference. I’m new to this very granular style. Maybe I missed the post that explains how another kind of “evidence” can disprove supernaturality, rather than the only kind I know of. I’d like to read it. Thanks for helping the newbie, Shem.

  • I’m not talking about “supernaturality,” whatever that is. What I’m talking about is that things exist in reality that simply inhabit different frames of relevance. You don’t use the same tools to establish the existence of the moon on one hand and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts on the other. The same process of inquiry through which we affirm the existence of a retrovirus doesn’t help us when it comes to the Siege of Vicksburgh. Physics doesn’t help us understand the meaning of words. We have to acknowledge the different ontological domains to which various categories of facts belong, and the tools of inquiry that apply to each.

    I’m not impressed with scientific realism, the idea that nothing exists unless science can detect it. There are plenty of things that exist in what we call reality, that all of us can acknowledge, but that simply aren’t empirical in nature. That kind of thinking seems just as doctrinaire, closed-minded, and fearful of ambiguity as the most benighted religious fundamentalism.

  • > I mean the difference between a rock and an epiphany.

    You do realize that naive realism isn’t workable, right?

    Math fails your test.

    Real isn’t just material.

    Real means what is meaningful.

    and we each operate under various different theories of meaning depending on circumstance.

  • per my last reply, it occurred to me that “naive realism” might sound like a value judgment or even a slam.

    it’s not.

    it’s a technical term – it’s a specific sub-form of philosophical realism.

    i come off as prickly enough as it is without accidentally insulting someone. i meant no harm in using that term, and i wanted to make sure i was clear.

  • where does math fit in?

    i think you need to expand your idea of what is meaningful/valuable/useful/real/valid or you’re going to put yourself in a box pretty quickly.

    Is language real?

    it’s not physical.

    but where would we be without it?

  • yes yes yes

  • Honey and Shem, I feel like a kind of Rip Van Winkle (I’m 67, so it’s not much of a stretch), waking up after 50 years (or whatever it was) and discovering that new, fluid definitions for heretofore concrete words, like “evidence,” had been ratified during my absence. Bear with me as I navigate this brave new world. If I sound prickly, ignore it. I do want to understand the thing I’m surely missing here. From your reply, Honey, I understand that my understanding of “real” didn’t survive the rennovation surgery and now can mean things that are just “meaningful” and don’t even have to be materially based. My understanding of the meaning of real is that it is “actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed.” That seems to me to leave out “meaningful” as an element of material reality — real-ness — in at least the two primary definitions in the Oxford Dictionary. I understand people “operate under different theories of meaning depending,” but not different theories of fact and matter, at least as I understand life. It’s like they taught us in journalism school back in the day, “People are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts.” So, widely shared definitions seem essential to me, and this new sense of “real” seems destabilizing to shared meaning. It’s certainly destabilizing to my mood. 🙂 So that’s where I’m coming from and why this linguistic flexibility is a bit disquieting. Could be I’m just a cantankerous old fart who won’t open his mind. No problem. But I need a more substantive key. Or I’m, as Princess Diana once described herself: “Thick as a plank.” BTW, I didn’t take your reply as a snub. I can tell you are a kind-hearted person. Thanks for humoring me with all this typinig.

  • > “actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed.”

    that’s naive realism.

    this isn’t new. if you’re 67 this predates you by centuries.

    Is 2+2=4 a fact?

    there’s nothing material about it.

    is it true?

    i don’t know anyone who would say algebra isn’t real.

    or language isn’t real.

    are they all material? no.

    but can they be factual? are they within the purview of existence?

    yes!

    and this isn’t a new concept.

    Descartes even tackled this.

  • Hey, again, Shem. Just stop replying when this gets tiresome. But I’m fascinated. It’s like finding a lost tribe with, from my vantage, a very unique view of reality. For one thing, its really disorienting to hear clearly intelligent, thoughtful people who find the words “rationality” and “evidence” alarming. That is like Greek to me. Rationality and evidence are the bedrocks of my cosmic view, and a whole lot of visionary folks who came before. What the heck happened while I was away having a career? BTW, I coined the word “supernaturality” to refer to the wholly imagined realms and beings fully disconnected from the verifiable aspects of reality, which I call “reality.” You talk of things in reality “that inhabit different frames of reference.” What might those frames of reference be? You say different “tools” are required to “establish the existence” of realities like the moon, Massachusetts, the Seige of Vicksburg and retroviruses, etc. I disagree that physics — materiality — “doesn’t help us understand the meaning of words.” Physics is the basis of all understanding. Take the word “love.” It’s meaning derives from its physical representations. The meaning of love that is actually lust, is derived from the physical quality of the emotions we feel and the physical behavior we exhibit when we say we are “in love.” Without those, “love” is fully abstract, without any robust meaning, except that having emotions means we’re human. And the reality of love that grows over many decades between two compatible people has a very different quality than that of lust, but its rooted in their shared behavioral connections and the trust that engenders. Love and love are really physical in basis and can be tested. And take the retrovirus you mentioned. I see us using that same skills to prove the existence of both the virus and love. We watch what happens and listen to what the lovers tell us to determine as close as we can what is going on. But the real “evidence,” as it were of what they’re feeling is what they’re doing. We also watch the retrovirus very carefully to make sure our technological tools don’t deceive us that it’s actually there, and convinced, we study its qualities, properties and behaviors to give its existence meaning in the grand scheme of things (in general, we find the meaning of viruses is they just want to kill us in the end, but there are much more complex things going on as well, many of which are too obscure probably for us to fathem, yet). So, that’s my problem with all this arbitrary flexibility. I see materiality and physics as the basis for everything actually in existence. Meaning comes from what the various formulations of matter do. I sense many of you guys have a deep distrust of science, which I don’t share, except to note that scientists like all people can be vain and dishonest and wrong, meaning we always have to be skeptical. And that’s all I’m doing in pushing back against some of these ideas. I know I can be wrong. I have often changed my beliefs. But it always requires substance. I would be thrilled if someone can clarify what I’m missing. Odd being an odd man out among atheists. That’s just irrational. 😉

  • Rick, engaging with intelligent people never gets tiresome for me. You and I have very different perspectives (and our friend HC here, if you hadn’t already noticed, is on a wavelength of his own), but I think it’s important that you understand what I’m saying even if you don’t agree with it at all.

    I see materiality and physics as the basis for everything actually in existence. Meaning comes from what the various formulations of matter do.

    I run into this attitude a lot here in the atheist blogosphere, and I reject it in no uncertain terms. It’s not like I think there’s anything about human endeavor that violates the laws of physics or anything. But physics has no explanatory power when it comes to complex cultural matters; it does jack to help us understand Hamlet, or establish the basis of a good society, or determine the best course of action to take in combating terrorism, or any of the myriad problems that confront us as humans and as citizens of the world. We impose meaning on phenomena; it’s not like the meaning is just there waiting to be detected.

    I sense many of you guys have a deep distrust of science

    I’ll admit that science fandom is a real problem in our culture. I don’t dispute any mainstream scientific theory. But I have a problem with scientism, the bias that makes us think that complex cultural phenomena can be reduced to simple interactions of atoms, outcomes of selective processes, or squirts of neurochemicals. I think a lot of formerly religious people have just traded the certainty they once derived from religious dogma for an equally simplistic and self-validating certainty that they dress up in the trappings of empirical inquiry.

    Being an odd man out among atheists is my stock and trade. I hope it doesn’t seem glib when I say that nothing could be less compelling than the God-is-God-ain’t debates here on Patheos. My motto when I was on the Secular Spectrum was There’s no God, let’s move on. I like examining the folkloric aspects of things like religion and literature, but everybody else could only judge these things by whether they represented the literal truth, defined by science. Aren’t there plenty of things about science that are basically folkloric, like the way we talk about bringing civilization out of the “Dark Ages” with the “light of reason”? Don’t the persecution of Galileo and his eventual redemption constitute a sort of a Christ-like saga? Isn’t Darwin’s voyage of discovery on the Beagle kind of a hero-myth that echoes the heroic voyages of Aeneas and Odysseus? Don’t we apply virtues to objective, rational Science that we find appealing in ourselves or our society?

    Like I said, i don’t expect you to agree with me, but I’d like it if you at least understood where I’m coming from. I don’t see these God-is-God-ain’t slapfights as battles between stupid fundies and open-minded, objective, rational people. I see them as futile battles between people who want everyone to conform to their standard of truth; people who have created elaborate self-validating systems to make humans objects and deny the chaotic nature of reality; people who are comfortable with easy answers for extremely complex problems.

    Thanks again for your participation.

  • “Existence precedes essence.”

  • “If you’re looking for a moral perspective that fits in with today’s neoliberal economics, you owe it to yourself to try this refreshingly consumer-based approach to meaning and purpose!”

  • awesomeness0616

    Could you please follow me?

  • abb3w

    Holy Moley, you guys like to go deep in the weeds with this stuff!

    Intellectual atheists and agnostics? It’s not uncommon.
    Among other sorts of atheist, it seems to tend rarer.

    To have variations of atheism seems like the 400 Inuit words for “snow.”

    I’d say it’s more exactly like how there are variations of theism.

    I don’t see how it will make any difference to the average Joe we’re trying to transform with reason.

    It may or may not.

    Contrariwise, for those who are trying to transform the allegedly average Joe, understanding these differences may be like a civil engineer recognizing that while granite and talc may both be “rock”, they have radically different properties — some of which properties are possible relevant to the goals their efforts are seeking to achieve. In the case of building a house, using talc does not work as well as building one from granite, For what you seem to be attempting, understanding that there are different varieties of atheists might lead to first focusing on recruiting other Activist sorts, and secondarily passing off to the Intellectual sorts the empirical questions of what causes people to tend to express themselves in these Ways, and what (if anything) causes people to change the Ways they express themselves.

    And in so far as it makes the transformative efforts more effective, it will certainly make an indirect impact on the Joes.

    Still, adults are mostly stuck in place

    Mostly true.

    Contrariwise, the Intellectual atheist might be able to point you to some research related to what leads people to stop being stuck in place — such as Altemeyer and Hunsberger’s Amazing Conversions study, and Ebaugh’s Becoming an Ex.

    Which in turn may help you to make those conditions more prevalent.

    And Christianity (et al) will continue to grow and prosper.

    In the US, exceedingly unlikely. Since at least 1970, and probably since WWII, Christianity has been in decline relative to the religiously Unaffiliated. The number of Unaffiliated in a generational cohort fits a logistic curve (percentage versus birth year) with a time constant of approximately 28 years and a midpoint about 2007.

    Christianity isn’t on the rise. Rather, it looks to be starting to have death spasms.

  • Thanks for your effort in going through all these points, Abb3w. But my continuing confusion regards the apparently very flexible “definitions” used by a number of respondents to Shem’s posts and various comments. As a starting point, I think of atheism, evidence and rationality as words with very specific meanings, and I cleave to those. When people say there are different “kinds” of atheists, I’m unconvinced unless they all share allegiance to the core meaning and unless you’re talking about other peripheral nuances.Same with the other two terms. I continue to argue that when talking about supernatural things, the deciding factor in their existence is whether they have manifest objective materiality, not that they cause material things like books (Bible, Torah, Quran, etc.). Ideas and imaginings by themselves have no reality other than as sensations within our physical brains. So I remain greatly perplexed by, for example, the concept of “different realities.” In my view, there is only one monolithic reality; only interpretations differ — and they should require “extraordinary evidence” (Carl Sagan’s words) to be compelling. But non-material interpretations are just baseless speculations as far as can be determined im the real world. Here are the Oxford Dictionary’s definitions of three of these concepts:
    Rationality: the quality of being based on or in accordance with reason or logic.
    Atheist: a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.
    Evidence: the available body of facts or information indicating whether a belief or proposition is true or valid.
    As I see it, base materiality is essential to each.
    Am missing something?

  • rubaxter

    Yeppers, and that’s why Gray’s brain fart is so banal.

    In this case it IS a feature and not a bug.

  • islandbrewer

    I snorted coffee up my nose because of you.

  • abb3w

    I think of atheism, evidence and rationality as words with very specific meanings, and I cleave to those.

    I refer you to Chapter Six of Carroll’s “Through the Looking Glass”, and note that not everyone feels any obligation to accept your preference for definitions of words.

    I continue to argue that when talking about supernatural things, the deciding factor in their existence is whether they have manifest objective materiality

    I would suggest to the contrary that anything that actually contributes to our sensory perceptions is something that I would consider “natural” — although this does not mean that anything attributed as so contributing actually exists.

    The account in Exodus 3 of a bush burning without being consumed may, of course, be sheer fiction. Alternately, it might be a subjectively accurate eyewitness account. If the latter, the eyewitness may have been falling for an optical illusion and/or hallucinating, or there may have been a bush undergoing combustion-like phenomenon with Poincaré recurrence, or it may have been produced by some entity having personality-like traits — which entity by virtue of producing perceivable effects would therefore be in the category I term “Natural”.

    Of course, other people might term the entity “supernatural” and not “natural”; but in that case, they’re defining “natural” (and “supernatural”) in a different way than I am.

    Rationality: the quality of being based on or in accordance with reason or logic.

    And it defines “reason” in part as “the capacity for rational thought”, which effectively makes for a circular definition.

    “Logic” also gets tricky — propositional, predicate, modal….

    Atheist: a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods.

    This is useful for philosophy, provided we can agree to a definition of what is a “god”. If someone insists that cheddar cheese is a member of the class of “gods”, I would be inclined to concede that I believe that exists, but note this is a somewhat unusual definition.

    However, in sociology this definition becomes less useful, as there are people who self-identify as “atheist” who do believe in some manner of “god”, and some who identify as (EG) “Christian” who do not. Furthermore, even leaving aside both such oddball cases, not all who identify as “atheist” and who do not believe in any manner of “god” (as the term is usually defined) do not all behave in the same manner; and depending on the set of interests, some of these behavior differences are essential rather than peripheral.

    And if you’re engaged in activism, you’re attempting to engage in applied sociology.

  • Speaking of “Through the Looking Glass,” giving credence of any kind to events that have no reproducible reality in the material world just sends us down a rabbit hole. To argue about what “God” means is useless. A common definition exists, defining “God” as any being that can’t be manifest in any sensory realm. So, whither Gods in the real world? Absent. To talk of a biblical “burning bush” as though its a perception problem misses the point. The point is that the perceiver saw God in it, which doesn’t happen in the real, sane world. If an invisible omnipoent being is perceived in a bush, that’s a mental health not philosophical problem. To parse atheists is also a dodge. When you say some self-identified “atheists” do “believe in some manner of ‘god'”, they are mistaken in thinking they are atheists and in how they define “gods.” The point in all this is, every time someone tries to step from reality to surreality, they are moving from what exists to what doesn’t (except in mind). Hair-splitting philosophy is not only unnecessariy confusing, it’s on some level disingenuous. Reality is reality is reality. When we run into something unprecedented, instead of seeing a divinity in the waving grass at dusk, we remember the effect of wind.

  • Hair-splitting philosophy is not only unnecessariy confusing, it’s on some level disingenuous. Reality is reality is reality.

    Jeez, Rick, didn’t you notice that my little blog here is all about the hair-splitting?

    I have no problem when you call out the creationists and science deniers for anti-intellectualism; but you can’t just turn around and complain that we’re overthinking things. If we’re going to talk about reality, we’re opening up a big ol’ can of worms. And we have to deal with all the facets of how we experience, define, and interpret reality, even if our formerly firm foundations start to look pretty shaky in the process.

  • abb3w

    To argue about what “God” means is useless. A common definition exists, defining “God” as any being that can’t be manifest in any sensory realm.

    Nicely simple, except that they the category no longer includes the Christian deity. And if you’re talking about “god” in a way that excludes how a majority of the US population use the term, that seems well into the Humpty-Dumpty realm.

    The OED starts with “superhuman person regarded as having power over nature and human fortunes” — but that hides a further lot of philosophical assumptions.

    To talk of a biblical “burning bush” as though its a perception problem misses the point.

    You seem to have missed that was merely one of several explanations I gave for the account.

    The point is that the perceiver saw God in it, which doesn’t happen in the real, sane world.

    That appears to be assuming the conclusion in a way that I find unnecessary.

    Neither of us have personally observed such a phenomenon. However, I don’t consider it a philosophical impossibility; rather, I consider the account to be less likely to be explained by a “superhuman person” as cause, and more likely explained by several other patterns of phenomena.

    To parse atheists is also a dodge. When you say some self-identified “atheists” do “believe in some manner of ‘god'”, they are mistaken in thinking they are atheists and in how they define “gods.”

    It’s not a dodge; it’s recognizing that in different fields (and more generally, different contexts), words can be assigned to correspond to different concepts.

    Hair-splitting philosophy is not only unnecessariy confusing, it’s on some level disingenuous.

    Not really. Some of the hair-splitting philosophy allows quite ingenius results; EG, deriving why two plus three equals five, or resolving Hume’s problem of induction.

  • abb3w

    And we have to deal with all the facets of how we experience, define, and interpret reality, even if our formerly firm foundations start to look pretty shaky in the process.

    The Robbins Axioms seem quite firm, as do the Zermelo-Fraenkel axioms. “Useful” isn’t so clear to most folk, but primarily because the path to “useful” implications tends to be considered exceedingly tedious.

  • Right, sorry Shem. I don’t mean to diss your followers’ fascination with the minutae of things. I will be more relevant to your purposes in future. It’s just a pet peeve of mine (did you notice?) that gratuitous overthinking really just seems to lead us farther and farther afield from what I call “reality.” In this “fake news” and “post-truth” environment it seems increasingly important to call a spade a spade and not let ourselves be dragged too far into the weeds or down rabbit holes with peripheral details. But that’s just me. Some really smart people commentors on your site, and I do enjoy reading viewpoints that differ (sometimes starkly) from mine. I’ll try very hard to not be like someone who accidentally walks into an orgy (I can only imagine!) then can’ stop being morally judgmental while everybody else is totally guilt-free and enjoying themselves. 😉 Thanks for what you do, Shem. Sorry I have a pole up my butt about certain things and can be a downer for what you guys are down with. Going forward, you won’t even know I’m here. Cheers.

  • Rick, by no means was I trying to discourage your participation here. I’d love to see you continue making your points in an intelligent and civil way, like you’ve been doing all along.

    All I meant to say was that there’s no magic point where we don’t have to critically examine our thought processes anymore. If skepticism is a good thing, we need to question everything, even things like truth and science and reality.

  • Perhaps I’m a bit of a Luddite with this nitty-gritty stuff (ya think?), but I personally find it almost impossible to discuss things usefully without some shared definitions of the basic parameters involved. But I see that you guys view it like situational ethics, where context can change everything. Fair enough. I’ll need some time to wrap my head around that. Thanks Abb3w. I’m impressed how much energy you guys put into responding to everyone, even numbskulls, Luddites and intractables. Not that I know any. 😉

  • abb3w

    I personally find it almost impossible to discuss things usefully without some shared definitions of the basic parameters involved.

    It’s sometimes sufficient for some discussion when “sharing” means I understand how the other person uses a word; I can then consider it as they use it in the context of their statements. Of course, it’s easier when the definitions are based on mutually accepted premises. Thus, it’s sometimes helpful to examine some of those basic parameters like “what is a ‘god’?”

  • Fair enough, abb3w. I’m game, but I fear you’re more flexible with definitions in various contexts than I am. But, hey, it’s a big world, right? We need to be as open-minded as possible.

  • I agree with most of what the Gray, and you wrote.

    > So why does it make sense to believe in some sort of telos, a purpose toward which society magically progresses? This has more to do with wishful thinking than with following the evidence where it leads.

    This however, while deeply understandable, because it’s so common a sentiment, would be naive to take on faith, as it were.

    Thy mystics believe in telos because it’s useful to hang on to focus.

    Regardless of theology. You’ll find the attitude more among the studious and reflective religious than you will among the blind** religious.

    The people that explore rather than simply cling (people do this** with many ideologies and beliefs, even atheism)

    It’s past the veil of the cargo cult, when you start to understand the martial art / discipline to faith.

    You don’t get it from sunday school though. Most people stop there.