The Plague of Single Issue Propaganda and Scientism

The Plague of Single Issue Propaganda and Scientism January 13, 2016

For a good chunk of 2015 and continuing into 2016, I have dedicated time delving into social issues that affect groups of people typically marginalized and excluded from routine discussion and initiatives within the secular community. Because of this, there have been some who question “where I stand” on certain matters they’re more comfortable with discussing. Or they speculate that I’ve somehow “lost my touch” regarding philosophical demarcation when it comes to what I choose to investigate.

The general tenor of atheist-centered platforms—whether they be groups, organizations, blogs, or podcasts—tend to promote scientific literacy, or stories highlighting religious buffoonery, or instances where government entities blur the line between church and state.

Since this is what people are accustomed to, and since the majority who frequent secular circles are white (straight white men to be more precise), there’s a tendency to diminish the value of issues that don’t represent mainstream concerns. Not surprisingly, what’s perceived as “unconventional” also happens to be matters that don’t directly affect the majority demographic within atheist spaces.

As I’ve said plenty of times before, I’m an avid advocate for scientific literacy both in general and in public education. Violations of church-state separation and religious privilege should be exposed and confronted. Behind closed doors, I’m currently involved in a concerted effort combating an issue directly related to a church-state violation. So I’m not saying these things shouldn’t be investigated.

Here’s the rub: While there’s an abundance of coverage on the mainstream agenda (and I don’t mean “agenda” as a slight), there’s a dearth of analysis regarding social, political, and economic inequalities that beset women, people of color, and the queer community—and there’s plenty of atheists who are also from these communities. Because we’re all made up of an intersection of identities (e.g., age, race, gender, sexuality, disability, etc.), we’re affected by a variety of issues germane to those identities.

So although I find media outlets like The Friendly Atheist informative, and view Justin Schieber’s Real Atheology an exemplary hub for discussing the philosophy of religion (seriously check him out), there’s a void within our community that lacks proper critique of intersectional issues that concern all of us. Therefore, I have chosen to fill that void and spotlight topics not commonly featured through atheist channels as much as they should. This is important, especially when the aforementioned discrepancies and forms of oppression exist within the atheist subculture.

As Audre Lorde powerfully stated, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” When we fail to scrutinize reality through a more nuanced lens that incorporates intersectionality we, for example, end up with people who foolishly believe their single-issue campaign against religion will eradicate racism, which I’ve encountered before.

Likewise, there are those who can’t comprehend how Blacks can be Christian considering the evils this particular religion wreaked on our ancestors. But these criticisms fail to grasp the extent of interpersonal and institutional racism, and so my piece Better Understanding Black Christianity probes the subject from a perspective that stresses the impact of white supremacy and anti-blackness propaganda in the evolution of the Black Church and why it’s a major part of the Black community.

Another consequence of fetishizing the often ill-defined might of “logic and reason” and a narrow comprehension of science is scientism. Since I’m an atheist who appreciates empiricism and naturalistic explanations of phenomena, I obviously don’t use the term scientism in the negative sense a quack who peddles pseudoscience (astrology, numerology, homeopathy, etc.) would or an individual with god beliefs would trying to dismiss the overwhelming evidence supporting evolution. The claims of charlatans and science deniers deserve to be exposed with reasons revealing their untenable nature whenever they arise.

When I use the word scientism, I’m referring to mindsets that either underappreciate, discount, or even denigrate the contributions of philosophy, the context of lived experiences, and the significance of social sciences. Thus, scientism in this context describes attitudes that view natural science as the only meaningful interpretation of life.

An over-commitment to a limited realm of science that disregards philosophy is how we get epistemological distortions by some declaring “I have no beliefs,” a subject I cover in The Peculiar Case of Belief-Disassociation. This is also how we get those who overlook the import of fields like cognitive science, psychology, sociology, and anthropology and conclude the only way people could be religious is because they suffer from mental defect or mental illness. As covered in Why You Sound Ridiculous Claiming Religiosity is a Mental Defect, this belief isn’t only ableist but it underscores a refusal to acknowledge the limitations of the scientific method.

Those who embrace scientism have a habit of erasing the value of sociocultural issues. They’ll also attempt to explain physical, social, cultural, or psychological phenomena through a single scope that exalts the methods of natural sciences above all other forms of human inquiry.

It’s this ideological dimension Friedrich Hayek (social theorist, political philosopher) assessed in The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies on the Abuse of Reason (1952) where he noted the overzealous application of simplistic, reductionist methodology and how it transforms a rational philosophy of science into an irrational dogma.

Professor Susan Haack—atheist, logician, philosopher of science and epistemology—has written at length about scientism. In her 2007 book Defending Science—within Reason: Between Scientism and Cynicism, she emphasizes the need to avoid both underestimating and overestimating the value of science. Speaking about this demarcation, she said:

“What I meant by ‘cynicism’ in this context was a kind of jaundiced and uncritically critical attitude to science, an inability to see or an unwillingness to acknowledge its remarkable intellectual achievements, or to recognize the real benefits it has made possible. What I meant by ‘scientism’ was the opposite failure: a kind of over-enthusiastic and uncritically deferential attitude towards science, an inability to see or an unwillingness to acknowledge its fallibility, its limitations, and its potential dangers.”

For those unfamiliar with this book, Haack also fleshes out her critique of scientism in her accessible paper The Six Signs of Scientism, which she also presented at a conference. I highly recommend either reading or viewing her detailed evaluation of this issue.

I say all that to say this: Within our community, there’s much emphasis placed on issues that specifically pertain to the atheist identity, or matters that directly affect that sole identity. As a supplement to the copious nature of these kinds of reports, I try to inject commentary regarding the intersection of race and religion, or underline the importance of other issues that also affect atheists that don’t directly relate to their atheist identity.

In “What I Am,” my first-ever blog post for Patheos, I broach my approach to social justice. The term “social justice” tends to garner aversion or pushback, but it’s a philosophical idea that has merits. Among other things, I noted the following:

Philosopher John Rawls had a theory of social justice that posited “justice as fairness” [1]. His theory branched out from a social contract notion, one that affirmed social justice as being a mutual agreement between individuals (pieces) to follow certain rules for the betterment of all (whole). Said rules “specify the basic rights and duties to be assigned by the main political and social institutions, and they regulate the division of benefits arising from social cooperation and allot the burdens necessary to sustain it” (Rawls, 2001: pg. 7).

Dr. Matthew Robinson summed up a key to Rawls’ philosophical system of social justice as being “The Equal Liberties Principle,” which he defines as “Each person has the same indefensible claim to a fully adequate scheme of equal basic liberties, which scheme is compatible with the same scheme of liberties for all.” [2]

I try to reflect this morality in interactions with others. For this reason, I find myself compelled to promote an egalitarian society while confronting injustice that exists both flagrantly and also embedded in the more subtle expressions of privilege granted to some and withheld from others.

This way of thinking frames my dedication to addressing specific forms of bigotry and discrimination that are too often snubbed or denied. We cannot delegitimize social concerns just because they don’t all relate to popularized single issues, or because they can’t be understood, or observed, or experienced the same way we comprehend reality within the realm of natural sciences.

I’ll end this with a thought from analytic philosopher and mathematician Hilary Putnam. It isn’t meant to takeaway anything from the rigors of science. However, it draws attention to its inadequacy when it comes to domains of reality that scientific procedure simply has little to no bearing on.

The idea that the concepts of truth, falsity, explanation, and even understanding are all concepts which belong exclusively to science seems to me to be a perversion.” (Philosophical Papers: Vol. 1, Mathematics, Matter and Method, Science As Approximation To Truth)

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