Saturday, April 2, 2011

Angry atheists

This post at Rationally Speaking reminds me of this comments thread at In Living Color. There are some touchy atheists out there, from the defensive to the deranged. I wonder why.

People's being defensive reminds me of this from Chris Rock (being interviewed by SR) in Esquire:
SR: Like many nice Caucasians, I cried the night Barack Obama was elected. It was one of the high points in American history. And all that's happened since the election is just a shitstorm of hatred. You want to weigh in on that?

CR: I actually like it, in the sense that — you got kids? Kids always act up the most before they go to sleep. And when I see the Tea Party and all this stuff, it actually feels like racism's almost over. Because this is the last — this is the act up before the sleep.

I have my doubts about whether Rock is right about this, but he might be. If I wanted to make the case that atheists are defensive for this reason I would quote Nietzsche saying that the religious impulse is on the rise:

Why atheism today? — 'The father' in God is thoroughly refuted; likewise 'the judge', 'the rewarder'. Likewise his 'free will': he does not hear — and if he heard he still would not know how to help. The worst thing is: he seems incapable of making himself clearly understood: is he himself vague about what he means? — These are what, in the course of many conversations, asking and listening, I found to be the causes of the decline of European theism; it seems to me that the religious instinct is indeed in vigorous growth — but that it rejects the theistic answer with profound mistrust.

(According to Wikipedia this is Hollingdale's translation from section 53 of Beyond Good and Evil.)

Atheists often don't seem to like the religious instinct, or else to be incapable of distinguishing it from theism. Maybe when they perceive this instinct in non-theists they sense that religion will not die and react with anger. Or maybe it is religion rather than theism that they really dislike. Perhaps they really are evangelical positivists who value 'reason' and 'intelligence' the way the Tea Party seems to value 'freedom,' i.e. in a fetishistic, non-literal way, so that 'being rational' means rejecting anything as intangible as religion, much as 'freedom,' for some people, means something like 'USA!'.


  1. ...Or perhaps the "positivism" is an expression of a deep, possibly inchoate anger at not (like Freud) having experienced for oneself the "oceanic feeling"...(that's potentially really unfair, and doesn't seem to apply to someone like Sam Harris, but still...)

  2. Could be. And if you haven't had anything like that then it might be annoying to be told you were missing out on something great. What seems odd to me is both the anger (although perhaps it's just that every viewpoint has its trolls) and what seems like defensiveness given that theism does seem to be on the decline on at least some fronts. Why get so mad when you're winning?

  3. Is it only possible to comment on your latest post? I tried to respond on your piece about Roger Crisp, but my comments refuse to go through. Or am I filling up your comments boxes without being aware of it?

    By the way: On Bullshit is recommendable. Meditations on First Philosophy is also a good place to start, I think. I just re-read the book and was struck by Descartes' almost impossible combination of deep and engaging thought and accessible style.

    And if you liked ”Kitchen Stories” you may also enjoy ”Songs From the Second Floor” by the swedish director Roy Andersson. It is very different from Bent Hamer’s film, but still has something in common with it -- perhaps an ineffable scandinavian tone, perhaps a philosophical tone, or perhaps it’s just the very, very, very slow pace. It is funny, though.

  4. ok, here's another: it seems hard to reason theists, or the religious, out of things like those described here:

    —makes religious people seem untrustworthy, even threatening. not much different from being in close proximity to someone crazy and violent.

  5. True, but is 'religion' the right word for this kind of thing? It seems more like tribal hatred and loyalty, which, of course, might be a big part of religion. But even if it is, they aren't the same thing.

    Stirring the pot is not a Christian act. Nor is murdering a policeman in Northern Ireland. The mob's reaction in Afghanistan to the burning of the Qur'an was at least partly a reaction to something to do with religion, but their murderous rampage was surely not a Muslim reaction.

    On the other hand, anyone who is sympathetic toward religion probably does need to keep in mind this side of it. A sense of tribal identity probably is part of what seems valuable in religion. Passion is another. And they certainly have their dark sides.

  6. do people ever say 'people often do terrible things in the name of science, but science itself is something different, better'? or 'what people do in the name of morality isn't the same thing as morality'? if religion always needs that kind of excuse made for it, that seems to be a sign of something wrong.

  7. Yes, I was afraid that I might have gone too far. But think of politics. There are terrible politicians and regimes, but their existence doesn't show that politics itself is a bad thing. I might say something similar about morality (honor killings, murdering abortion doctors, etc.). In religion, politics, and morals there are good and bad. And I think it's at least sometimes reasonable to say that bad morals are not really morals at all, bad religion is not really religion at all, and bad politicians are just crooks, say, rather than genuine politicians.

    I agree with you, though, that there is something wrong in this cluster of cases. Perhaps religion tends towards fundamentalism, bigotry, intolerance, and violence in roughly the way that politics tends towards corruption, tribalism, and lust for power, and roughly the way that morality tends towards moralism, self-righteousness, and so on.

    There are differences too. Morality in some sense seems straightforwardly good to me. Politics seems less good, but necessary. Religion might be neither good nor necessary, but I think it is at least capable of being good. It played a good role in the civil rights movement, I think. (No doubt it was also used by opponents of that movement too.) And perhaps we need something like it to avoid being shallow or going crazy. But I'm far from sure about that.

  8. i think one of the main arguments in john dunn's 'the cunning of unreason' might be (i only looked at it a bit) that politics is actually good—implying that the prevailing view was that it's at best necessary.

    honor killing seems to be an interesting case. i wonder if other cases where morality permits abuse might be ones where religion has a characteristically good role to play (forgiveness, e.g.).

  9. Politics could be good, if everyone involved were sane and genuinely wanted the best for their country or community or whatever (and not at the expense of the rest of the world). But that doesn't seem to be the way in every country.

    Honor killing is tricky because I don't know whether to call it moral or religious or cultural. But that shows, I think, how hard it is to separate the three. The ideal of forgiveness does seem to be both religious and good. I suppose you could have a secular version, but the idea of loving your enemies seems too strange (or counterintuitive) to be anything but religious. I'll have to think about this.

  10. DR, I must say that I think you let j off the hook too easily. The Nazis did some terrible things in the name of science. But I would defend science against anyone who rejected science by pointing to the Nazis and saying--"see what can happen"? Similarly, I imagine that some would try to defend "morality" (or certain conceptions of it or certain principles) against moral vigilantes--who aren't always (traditionally) religious--e.g. radical animal rights or environmental activists who engage in some morally dubious means.

  11. That's true--I forgot about the Nazis. I think that probably violates some law of blogging.

  12. Ha ha. Well, if the Nazis are too cliche, I'm sure we could cook up other examples.

  13. you could also point to the tuskeegee experiment, or to the long history of medical/research treatment of babies (thinking that they didn't feel pain). but i think an important word in my question was 'often'. it seems closer to routine that religion serves as a cover, or as the auspices, for horrible behavior. would even these examples make that true of science?

  14. you could say of honor killing that it's a practice characteristic of societies where the different spheres are relatively undifferentiated. (would that be different from one where 'vengeance' was an obligatory thing?) which seems to be part of the offense of certain ways of acting for religious reasons in our society: they don't observe the boundaries history has brought us to accept/tolerate/begrudge/be dissatisfied with between morality, politics, education, religion, etc.

  15. I wonder whether religion serves as a cover in just the same way that patriotism does. Love of America caused Newt Gingrich to cheat on his wife. Can love of God cause people to do bad things in the same way? It's easier to see through Gingrich's dishonesty (easier for him and for others), but the idea that it is love of God that leads people to attack those who don't share their beliefs might be equally misguided (just better hidden). I don't know.

    The boundaries separating religion from other spheres might be part of the so-called death of God. And where these boundaries do not exist there appears to be a lot of unreasonableness. So reasonable people (if this is right) should welcome the death of God and reject theism. But something like Buddhism (I mean this in a very broad sense) might still be all right.

    Or is even that too much? It's not as if I'm in favor of Buddhism itself, after all. But perhaps this is all way too obscure. What seems good to me is somewhere that is neither the position occupied by Dawkins nor that occupied by wacko fundamentalists. And if I had to choose one of those, I would choose Dawkins. But I suspect he rejects too much. And that leads me to try to defend some form of religion.

  16. I thought it was the hippies that made Gingrich cheat on his wife.

    On the question of whether bad things have been done in the name of science -- the Nazis are all you can think of? Scientific racism predates the Nazis by half a century or so, and survives them. The eugenics laws mandating the sterilization of the "unfit" that the Nazis borrowed and expanded originated in England the US. As Andre Pichot wrote in his very fine book The Pure Society, Germany would probably have passed such laws even if the Nazis never came to power, because they were generally considered sound; if not for the Nazis they'd probably never have been discredited. And women in the US, at least, were still being sterilized without their consent on scientific grounds through the 1970s. Scientific racism is still very much with us.

    Add to that the development of psychosurgery, the use of electroshock treatment on gender and sexual deviants, the persistence of "change" therapy for homosexuals, and the acceptability of selling inadequately tested medications so as to test them on the general population -- the high doses of estrogens in the birth control pill, for example, which it's now acknowledged wasn't such a good idea -- and you've got quite a bit more to take into account, with very widespread bad effects on innocent people in the name of science.

    Speaking of women, they were systematically excluded from Western science until fairly recently, and that struggle isn't over yet either. See Julie Des Jardin's The Madame Curie Complex for some significant recent cases, and Margaret Wertheim's Pythagoras' Trousers and David F. Noble's A World Without Women: The Christian Clerical Roots of Western Science for a longer historical view.

    I don't know if I'd count as an angry atheist, but I don't think there is a clear dividing religion between science and religion. I reject Nietzsche's notion of a religious instinct; I don't see any good reason to believe there's such a thing, though he might not have been using "instinct" with the meaning it has in later biology. The first thing I'd need is a workable definition of religion as distinct from other human projects, and people have been trying and failing to come up with one for a long time. Didn't Wittgenstein say not to look for the meaning but rather the use? Following that, I think it's absurd to speak of religion as if it were some distinct, unitary thing. My fellow atheists are often an embarrassment to me.

    I suppose I too could "defend some form of religion." But what form, and defend it against what toward what end?

  17. Thanks, Promiscuous Reader.

    Oh yes, all kinds of bad things have been done in the name of science.

    There is some agreement, I think, that religion is a family resemblance concept. This together with the good point you make about instinct makes it very hard to know what Nietzsche meant.

    As for defending religion, the form I would be inclined to defend is the non-fundamentalist kind that emphasizes loving one's neighbor. I would defend it against attacks by the likes of Dawkins, and to the end of pointing out that not all religion is either the same or as bad as he thinks it is. I realize that's vague though. Perhaps what I mean is: My fellow atheists are often an embarrassment to me. That plus: not all religious people are bad, you know. And probably something else about nature that I can't put my finger on.

  18. Oh, I definitely agree: "My fellow atheists are often an embarrassment to me" is one of my catchphrases.

    But I'd still have to ask: what is "non-fundamentalist" about emphasizing love of the neighbor? Even more: what constitutes emphasizing love of neighbor? It's arguably peripheral in the teaching of Jesus, for example, and according to the gospels was a point of agreement between him and his Jewish contemporaries. What is central in the teaching of Jesus is the immanence of the Kingdom and judgment of Yahweh. According to the gospels he was a faith healer, an exorcist, and a preacher of the near end of the world, not a huggyface kissybear teacher of Love.

    Loving one's neighbor is a nice platitude that atheists can agree with, though it's very hard to figure out how to apply it, so I don't think you can build a religion on it; certainly no one does. "Not all religious people are bad, you know" is a truism; but what about when a religious person quotes Gandhi's "I do not like your Christians, they are so unlike your Christ", thereby stereotyping all or most Christians? (I disagree with Gandhi, by the way, and would reverse his sentiment.) I think it's as mistaken to judge Christianity by, say, Martin Luther King Jr. as it is to judge it by Fred Phelps. It's both of them, and much else besides.

    In another post you wrote that when you think of Christianity you first think of today's right-wing fundamentalists. That's odd to me, because my first thought is the historical phenomenon of Christianity in as much of its complexity as possible; second is nice respectable moderate Christians (who aren't as nice as they like to think), and "fundamentalists" come in third at best. Maybe your problem is that you need a more realistic conception of Christianity? I don't believe I stereotype Christians; I've known too many of them.

    Somewhere else you acknowledged that it's not for you, as an atheist, to decide what "real" Christianity is. I agree, but then I don't think there is a "real" Christianity. There are many Christianities, all of them real. That's separate from the very difficult question of who Jesus was and what he taught.

    I don't dislike the idea of a religious instinct; I just insist that anyone who wants to appeal to it must establish its existence and what it does. I don't see any reason to believe there is such an instinct, but I'm open to argument.

  19. When I said "My fellow atheists are often an embarrassment to me," I was quoting you, so I'm not surprised you agree!

    what is "non-fundamentalist" about emphasizing love of the neighbor?

    Nothing particularly. I meant that the kind of religion I might defend (up to a point) would be both non-fundamentalist and would emphasize loving one's neighbor (rather than, say, collecting money for the church roof or opposing same-sex marriage).

    Loving one's neighbor is a nice platitude that atheists can agree with, though it's very hard to figure out how to apply it

    Yes, but some people seem to try harder to apply it than others.

    In another post you wrote that when you think of Christianity you first think of today's right-wing fundamentalists. That's odd to me

    I live in the Bible belt, not very far from Liberty University. Pat Robertson was born in the town were I live. The college where I teach has a chaplain who, I believe, is conservative and not a member of any of the main denominations. Quite a few of my students might be described as right-wing fundamentalists too. I think this explains it. On the other hand, several of my friends are Christians (of a different kind), my mother was a Christian, and I used to be one myself (I preferred the sermon on the mount to the stories of exorcism, etc., but I know they are part of it too). It just isn't these people or their kind of belief that first comes to my mind when I think of Christianity.

    There are many Christianities, all of them real.

    Agreed. Although some do strike me as more internally consistent than others.

    I don't dislike the idea of a religious instinct; I just insist that anyone who wants to appeal to it must establish its existence and what it does.

    Fair enough. "Spiritual tendency" might be less misleading, but I doubt you would like that much better. It's a vague idea, referring to the kind of thing that has historically been expressed in religious terms. I suppose there is a desire to be able to express similar feelings or attitudes without religious commitment. Or a desire to fill what Salman Rushdie called a God-shaped hole in one's life. It's one of the things that pushes people to listen to Wagner and Beethoven, or to read Wordsworth or Larkin (I'm thinking of "Church Going" in particular), or to take Nietzsche and Heidegger (or certain versions of them anyway) seriously. I don't think I want to argue that it exists or to appeal to it in any argument. But a lot of people who might be called post-religious talk as if something of the sort exists, and I feel as though I can relate.