Jacobins have always been around, and always will be around

By Razib Khan | September 5, 2012 12:46 am

Recently I stumbled onto to something called Atheism+, which seems to have issued out of Freethought Blogs. Here’s an assertion that caught my attention:

“What do you atheists do, besides sitting around not-praying, eh?”

We are…
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

It speaks to those of us who see atheism as more than just a lack of belief in god.danielmchugh summarized how I feel perfectly:

Religion is responsible for generating and sustaining most of the racism, sexism, anti-(insert minority human subgroup here)-isms… it gave a voice to the bigotry, established the privilege, and fed these things from the pulpit for thousands upon thousands of years. What sense does it make to throw out the garbage bag of religion yet keep all the garbage that it contained?

I can’t help but see social justice as a logical consequence of atheism. I’m for getting rid of all the garbage.

As for the next steps on how to get rid of that garbage, I’ll make another post with my ideas soon.

As others have stated Atheism+ seems to be a reemergence and rebranding of an old strand of anti-religious thought (secular humanism updated for the 21st century). More specifically, that element which is strongly attached to cultural radicalism, and seemingly to utopianism. Radical utopians aren’t always wrong. The Jacobins abolished slavery. But in the process of making an omelette they do have a track record of breaking a lot of eggs. I went to an atheist meeting in Berkeley a few years ago where a card-carrying Communist showed up. I don’t agree with Communism (you shall judge them by their fruits), but it’s a forcefully articulated world-view. In contrast many “freethought activists” tend to focus narrowly on church-state issues and what not. There are other ideologies which have mixed atheism with a philosophy of life, such as Objectivism. Atheism+ may be the home for those with a more explicit self-conscious far Left cultural outlook.

And as with most anti-religious ideologies Atheism+ espouses “critical thinking and skepticism.” This didn’t seem to work out too well for Objectivism, and I wish Atheism+ (or New Atheism, or whatever) would really just get off it, because there are some things that are obviously not going to be subject to critique or skepticism. If you do subject those things to critique, you’ll probably be called a “douchebag.” Atheism+, like many of the new atheist movements, seems to be attempting to generate a “thick” system of values to supplement spare anti-religious sentiment. Those values, norms, are outside of the process of critical rationalism. It’s pretty obvious if you are outside of those values, but not so obvious if you’re within those values.

Finally, going back to some of the Greek city-states, Mozi in China, and down to the early modern period with the French Revolution and the assorted Left and Right “political religions” (Marxist-Leninism and Fascism), there have been plenty of attempts to jettison what visionary great minds perceived to be “garbage.” The truth seems to be that one man’s garbage is another man’s fertilizer. Remove the fertilizer and sometimes the flowers don’t grow. Reduction and reconstitution is great in science. I’m not sure that it’s so great as a philosophy of life.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Uncategorized
MORE ABOUT: Atheism
  • Torbjörn Larsson, OM

    Thank you for making me see what I could not perceive. Yes, now tending towards secular humanism.

    I was heretofore just distraught by the very utopianism, and the anecdotal basis (but in this case with a likely real basis) in an analogy to accommodationism concern trolling all over again, in the spurious “atheists are not sexist” program. Yes, and if trolls can stop trolling…

    Sexism is a matter which, btw, should be a concern in all organized activity and is not a problem to work against as such. The whole “garbage” program is something else.

  • bob sykes

    Atheists have not read Nietzsche. All of the ethical values listed are deeply rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, their continued existences depends upon a belief in the Judaeo-Christian God. Without that God, anything goes. This is amply shown by the committed atheist societies of the Twentieth Century, namely Nazi Germany and every one of the Communist countries. Western atheists are merely using up the moral and ethical capital they inherited from their grandparents. It will gradually dissipate leaving us in anarchy.

    Of course, that might not happen. The US is clearly following Europe down the secular humanist path. But because secular humanists don’t have children, in Europe the actual number of secular humanists is declining (or soon will) and they are being replaced by believers. Unfortunately, the believers are largely Muslim who reject the Judaeo-Christian morals and ethics. This bodes ill for European Jews, homosexuals and women. Also for the European arts and literature and science.

  • phanmo

    Was going to leave a comment re. bob sykes but changed my mind…
    Please delete this, Razib! Thanks

  • bob sykes

    Dear phanmo:

    The ultimate source is the UN population data. Nearly all Europeans are secular humanists and the UN data shows that their reproductive rate is about 1.5 children per women life-time, falling to 1.1 in many countries. This is well below replacement levels. The Muslim immigrants in Europe (as well as many believing Christians) generally have much higher birth rates.

    US Census data show similar results. Fundamentalist Christians and Mormons tend to have more babies than do others. Catholics are highly secularized and their birth rates are similar to Protestants, but probably higher than atheists.

    All-in-all, there is Darwinian selection against atheists.

  • http://www.textonthebeach.com Seth

    Religion is responsible for generating and sustaining most of the racism, sexism, anti-(insert minority human subgroup here)-isms… it gave a voice to the bigotry, established the privilege, and fed these things from the pulpit for thousands upon thousands of years. What sense does it make to throw out the garbage bag of religion yet keep all the garbage that it contained?

    Their list of evils for which religion is responsible makes me think that, for them, “religion” specifically means white Protestantism in America circa the 20th century. I wonder, do Atheist+ members call indigenous religions and belief systems “garbage”?

    But that’s neither here nor there. What’s interesting here is what literary critic Kenneth Burke called “selection and deflection.” Any social ideology selects particular facts about the world and builds itself upon those facts, simultaneously deflecting any facts that may contradict or complicate the facts upon which the ideology rests.

    It seems to me that Atheist+ is the perfect example of “selective selection.” Is religion (western Christianity in particular) responsible for a host of social ills? Absolutely. Are other factors (western and non-western, religious and non-religious) responsible for the same social ills throughout the world, present and past? Absolutely. These atheists ignore the latter and focus on the former, riding it into the ground for no reason that they can give.

    It seems to me that this “selection of reality” is fundamentally at odds with critical, rational thought. To me, critical thinking means recognizing precisely what has been selected AND deflected in the construction of a belief, an idea, a theory. I don’t see that at work here.

  • piccamo

    “This is amply shown by the committed atheist societies of the Twentieth Century, namely Nazi Germany and every one of the Communist countries.”

    Nazi Germany was certainly not atheist. From Hitler’s speech at Stuttgart:
    “Today they say that Christianity is in danger, that the Catholic faith is threatened. My reply to them is: for the time being, Christians and not international atheists are now standing at Germany’s fore. I am not merely talking about Christianity; I confess that I will never ally myself with the parties which aim to destroy Christianity. Fourteen years they have gone arm in arm with atheism. At no time was greater damage ever done to Christianity than in those years when the Christian parties ruled side by side with those who denied the very existence of God. Germany’s entire cultural life was shattered and contaminated in this period. It shall be our task to burn out these manifestations of degeneracy in literature, theater, schools, and the press—that is, in our entire culture—and to eliminate the poison which has been permeating every facet of our lives for these past fourteen years.”

    Pretty clearly anti-atheist.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    2 –

    Your second paragraph is a ridiculous assertion. There is no danger of “Eurabia.” Not only is the Muslim population too small, and the birth rate differential too small, to make a difference for centuries, but in continental Europe Muslims become essentially secular, and have low birth rates, by the second or third generation. Hell, most of North Africa has near sub-replacement fertility already.

    The UK is another matter, because it’s been particularly bad at integrating its Muslim population, where the native-born population tends to be less integrated and more radical. Still, the UK doesn’t have as low of a birth rate as much of continental Europe, and draws on immigrants from many different ethno-religious backgrounds, so it’s unlikely Muslims even there would become predominant.

  • Karl Zimmerman

    More generally, I tend to dislike the “freethought” movement, because most vocal atheists I have dealt with are far dimmer bulbs than the likes of Richard Dawkins. As noted, many define “religion” only within the Judeo-Christian context. I’ve actually had some try to “prove” there is no god to me by disproving the reality of the bible, or pointing out the “guy with a white beard in the sky” is ridiculous. As someone who has spent a lot of time reading about the possibility that the fundamental laws of the universe may be “fine-tuned” for life to occur, it’s entirely plausible that the universe was “created” (albeit only in the sense that we ourselves could create universes with a big enough particle accelerator), so such arguments seem the sophomoric antics of…well, high school sophomores.

    While I think that Atheism+ is a wrong headed idea (shouldn’t the movement be made more inclusive, not less?) I do have to say those commenting upon how the basic morality springs from Christianity miss the point. If I may dip back into my cultural liberal undergraduate education for a second, religion is a discourse which contains many things, often conflicting. Rejecting all the moral teachings of a religion because the theology was bollocks is just as silly as rejecting the concept of law (or money) because it has been used by the powerful to exploit the weak. Those things which are traditions, and seem to work well with no appreciable downside, should be retained as central portions of our culture.

  • Brett

    I’ve always felt dubious about an atheist “movement” aside from just making it possible for atheists to openly be atheistic (and I say that as an atheist). Being an atheist by itself doesn’t imply any sort of social or political values – Bill Maher, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens are/were atheists, but they all had some very different social and political views. It certainly doesn’t have to lead you to any sort of beliefs on social justice.

    @Bob Sykes
    The ultimate source is the UN population data. Nearly all Europeans are secular humanists and the UN data shows that their reproductive rate is about 1.5 children per women life-time, falling to 1.1 in many countries. This is well below replacement levels. The Muslim immigrants in Europe (as well as many believing Christians) generally have much higher birth rates.

    People can and do convert away from devout religious backgrounds – I’m one of them. And most of the muslim population in western Europe is fairly secular (if I remember the polls, something like 70+% of them are “believing but non-practicing”).

    I’ve generally been amused by the “Eurabia” argument and those making it. In order to respond to presumably religiously devout, quick-breeding, conservative muslims, they want Europeans to become . . . religiously devout, quick-breeding, and conservative.

  • Chad

    I find much irony in groups/movements such as this.

    It seems to me nothing more than an attempt to replace God with a new god of the state/party/politician/ideology/etc and for all their talk of the supposed sins of Religion, it seems that they are largely fueled by an extreme bigotry against Religion. Its also ironic that they seem not to know the roots of much of their ideology. Social Justice has its roots in the Jesuits and Catholic Church. The abolition of slavery in most of the Western world was driven primarily by the Religious. The Civil Rights movement in the US was very Religious as well. There is a great deal of revisionism in their historical narrative, where “all that is evil is Religious, but all that is good is Secular” that I find ironic given a supposed dedication to critical thinking and skepticism.

    I am Christian, so my views are biased, but unlike a lot of Christians I feel no threat in these “new atheists”. Intellectually as a group they tend to be rather shallow. Replacing a supernatural God with an ideological one doesn’t require deep thinking, it just requires anger, bitterness, and disappointment which becomes evident in the militaristic and revisionist nature of these groups. Give me a good old-fashioned atheist not driven by ideology any day. Those are the ones who are the true critical thinkers and skeptics, but then they also tend to be the least ideological.

  • http://3lbmonkeybrain.blogspot.com/ Mike Keesey (@tmkeesey)

    From #7: “More generally, I tend to dislike the “freethought” movement, because most vocal atheists I have dealt with are far dimmer bulbs than the likes of Richard Dawkins.”

    I submit that the most vocal proponents of *any* movement are not likely to be the brightest ones (allowing for occasional exceptions, usually in extreme circumstances).

    (Excellent point in the second paragraph.)

  • ST

    #2 – and bigots like you have not read Kant.

  • Mark Plus

    Re : #2 bob sykes:

    “Atheists have not read Nietzsche. All of the ethical values listed are deeply rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, their continued existences depends upon a belief in the Judaeo-Christian God. Without that God, anything goes. This is amply shown by the committed atheist societies of the Twentieth Century, namely Nazi Germany and every one of the Communist countries. Western atheists are merely using up the moral and ethical capital they inherited from their grandparents. It will gradually dissipate leaving us in anarchy.”

    Sorry, not buying it. Christians have had 2,000 years to propagandize the culture with the atheism = nihilism idea, along with a lot of other beliefs which we have since discredited, so I immediately become suspicious when an allegedly “atheist” philosopher who grew up in a christian culture says the same thing.

    Notice that chrsitians who criticize the current crop of atheists as shallow thinkers inevitably invoke the authority of so-called secular philosophers who parrot the christian view of atheism, rather like an act of ventriloquism. I say we should disregard this christian propaganda about atheism, especially the second-hand versions like Nietzsche’s, and look at how real atheists behave, as sociologist Phil Zuckerman has:

    http://www.pitzer.edu/academics/faculty/zuckerman/Zuckerman_on_Atheism.pdf

  • Mark Plus

    Atheists who advocate the Atheism+ folly apparently perversely refuse to consider the empirical evidence for patriarchal beliefs – for example, that women’s sexual promiscuity ruins them as wives – and they even equate these beliefs with theistic superstitions.

    But while we can’t observe the gods, men have had to live with women all along. If these beliefs about women arose in our culture organically and without central planning, and if they cast women in an unfavorable light – well, you can’t exactly blame that outcome on gods now, can you?

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    don’t respond to bob. i finally banned him. comment 2 dumb ;-)

    Social Justice has its roots in the Jesuits and Catholic Church. The abolition of slavery in most of the Western world was driven primarily by the Religious. The Civil Rights movement in the US was very Religious as well.

    1) i think the specific term ‘social justice,’ but not the broader liberationist utopianism which is being alluded to above. what atheism+ and catholics mean by ‘social justice’ differs in deep ways (e.g., a revision of gender, etc.)

    2) i think we need to be careful ascribing secular or non-secular causes to the abolition of slavery. many abolitionists in the north were radical freethinkers it turns out. and how many people know that the people that followed john brown were mostly non-christians (e.g., his son was a radical freethinker). and as i note above, the original push to ban slavery in france was by radical irreligious utopians. christians rightly celebrate the role played by evangelicals, but there were more than evangelicals. one primary issue is that until recently most movements were more successful if they advertised christian associations as opposed to more religiously liberal/freethinking ones. e.g., susan b. anthony did not differ that much from elizabeth cady stanton in her personal beliefs re: traditional christianity, but as a matter of marketing she was much more savvy on the need for traditionalists for suffrage to succeed.

    3) the civil rights movement had a strong religious cast. but it also had a secular jewish, and communist, element. the last especially is something americans would like to forget, but the communist party was very early to the game.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    so I immediately become suspicious when an allegedly “atheist” philosopher who grew up in a christian culture says the same thing.

    i’ve said this before, but one reason that nietzsche is a xtian fav is he he operates explicitly within a xtian framework. what do you expect from a pastor’s son? also, the term judeo-christian indicates that you’re stupid, it’s a made up term from the 20th century

    http://secularright.org/SR/wordpress/on-judeo-christian/

  • Chris_T_T

    Yet another attempt to make political liberalism into a religion (with the addition of atheism). *yawn*

    As an attempt to improve the image of atheism, it’s aimed at the wrong audience. Terms like ‘social justice’ (in the sense they’re aiming for) only have any real meaning on the left.

    The other flaw is that a major component of atheism’s image problem is its association with ideas outside its definition (a person who lacks belief in a deity – that’s it). This hardly improves that situation.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #17, i think their position is that atheism entails liberalism. the main practical issue is that the vast majority of liberals don’t think that liberalism entails atheism, and that’s how they’ll perceive this….

  • Chris_T_T

    18 – After visiting the site and reading some of the comments (most of which are so idiotic, it’s actually kind of entertaining), I see that.

    Frankly, I doubt many liberals will ever know about this. Just another self-absorbed group on the internet that thinks it’s discovered something profound.

  • jb

    The Atheism+ people have managed to generate some publicity for themselves recently. (Based on what? They have a web site? Wow, impressive!). But one thing that is obvious right from the outset is that, whatever their claims, true “skepticism” will not be tolerated! :-)

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #20, i think that’s fine for a social-political movement. the major problem i have is that a lot of the atheist/rationalist/skeptic organizations which espouse normative positions which can’t be justified without pointing to priors should drop that schtick.

  • Chris_T_T

    21 – But then how would we identify the serious thinkers? :)

  • Chad

    Razib, I am not saying that there were not “freethinkers” or secular elements in either the abolitionist or civil rights movement. I am also not saying that there are not or wasn’t secular elements of “social justice”. My primary point is that these groups engage in their own revisionism of history, as much as the person who is convinced all the Founders were Christian. Its a simple “us versus them” and all of “them” are and always have been evil and no aspect of “our” beliefs can be traced or attributed to “them”. It would be like me denying the influence of Aristotle on medieval to modern Christianity. The simple fact is that something like the abolitionist was significantly influenced and led by Christians who saw it as their Christian duty to eliminate slavery. Yes there were also free-thinkers, but to deny the role of Religion in something like that is a complete revision of history. SO when athiests+ say it is Religions fault that we have racism and slavery, which plenty of freethinkers also engaged in (Jefferson was a slave holder), if they were truly devoted to critical thinking then they must also allow that it is because of Religion that slavery was abolished. If we are going to be polemic like them and ignore the role of freethinkers in the perpetuation of these evils, then intellectual honesty requires to also ignore the role of freethinkers in the perpetuation of good.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    My primary point is that these groups engage in their own revisionism of history, as much as the person who is convinced all the Founders were Christian.

    i agree with the general thrust of your comment. that being said, i would argue that in any ‘radical’ movement in the 18th and 19th century the religiously heterodox are going to overrepresented. of these heterodox, a large proportion are freethinkers/atheists/etc. you see this within the abolitionist movement. the moderate abolitionists were headed by people like the tappan brothers, who were orthodox christians. in contrast, the radical abolitionists tended to be freethinkers. e.g., frederick douglass and william lloyd garrison. as a converse example which seculars may not find congenial, it seems to me that the heterodox were also overrepresented in scientific racist movements and polygenism.

  • Chris_T_T

    Been reading through more of the comments on the site. Why do I often get the feeling that many in these ‘rationality/skepticism movements’ don’t believe in God because they think he’s sitting in their chair?

    (For the record, I do not believe in deities.)

  • http://qpr.ca/blog/ Alan Cooper

    (Re#18) Why do you think that they think that “atheism entails liberalism”?

    So far as I can see they just want to define a club whose members combine atheism with “socially progressive” politics. I don’t see any evidence that they see right wing economic theories or sexist and racist behaviour as inconsistent with atheism per se.

    They might think that they have arguments showing that their political views are more rational in the sense of being more likely to produce the kind of world they find appealing (and I tend to agree with them on that), and they may even think that belief in gods often supports the politics and behaviours they despise, and so that increasing atheism removes an obstacle to their progress. But that’s not the same as thinking that disbelief in gods actually forces one into progressive attitudes.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #26, did you bother to read the post? i quoted exactly the section: I can’t help but see social justice as a logical consequence of atheism.

    def. vrb (tr) #3, http://www.thefreedictionary.com/entails

    this quote is prefaced by the original author: It speaks to those of us who see atheism as more than just a lack of belief in god.danielmchugh summarized how I feel perfectly:

    is that clear enough for you? not too excited about simply cutting & pasting what’s already in the post.

  • BDoyle

    I have seen a little of what is going on at Freethought Blogs and personally, I don’t much like it. Atheism is a question of fact: either God exists, or he doesn’t. Global warming and evolution are also questions of fact, so it makes some sense to lump them together. Gender and racial equality are political issues, not questions of fact. While I am somewhat liberal myself and agree with a lot of what they are saying, I resent the implication that political issues like these are also questions of fact, and that someone who disagrees with me is ignorant of the truth. Slavery may be morally reprehensible, but it is not “true or “false.” Yes, I think that critical thinking can inform moral values, but I think it is important to keep the distinction between true and false vs right and wrong.

    Religion is not very good at telling the difference between true and false, but it does have a lot to say about right and wrong.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #28, the problem is that when you spend time with people who agree with you on most things it is not easy to avoid mixing is/ought positive/normative. this was an issue at the cfi conference i went to last spring. step #1 was getting my interlocutor to stop arguing against their idea of what i believed, because they were so unfamiliar with people who actually believed something different than themselves.

  • Brian Too

    You know, while there is a fair bit to like in that Freethough Blog posting, I still find myself going “yeah but…”

    I think that any movement that includes the word Atheist in it’s title, is going to find itself largely defined by it’s anti-theism. Seems counter-productive to me. If you want to have a longer lifespan and broader interest, ditch the anti religion angle.

    The problem with religion, IMO, is the people. The great religions, as a general rule, have some pretty decent tenets for how to live life. It’s in the implementations, the leaders, the interpretations, and the organized church apparatus that things can get off base. And it’s in all the followers too, however humble.

    Here’s a thought experiment. Remove religion from human history. It’s gone, it hasn’t been replaced with anything similar, and no one wants religion. It’s metaphysically absent and will always remain so.

    Does anyone seriously believe that racism wouldn’t exist? Sexism? Hate? Propaganda? Child abuse? War? Any of a thousand sins committed in the name of one religion or another?

    No, I suggest to you that all those things would continue to exist, and in more or less the same proportions that they do in our religiously infused world. Their genesis is in humanity far more than in religion. Religions try to teach against those things, though often futilely.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #30, one thing of interest is that a subset of atheists and theists believe that religion is fundamentally and deeply causal in human behavior. i.e., remove religion and all morality would disappear, or all oppression would disappear. i think the majority view, less strongly espoused, is that religion is a facet of human society and culture, not the root of humanity society and culture.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    also, i should say that freethoughtblogs is pretty diverse. though some of the more highly trafficed blogs are pushing this.

  • Kiwiguy

    ***The UK is another matter, because it’s been particularly bad at integrating its Muslim population, where the native-born population tends to be less integrated and more radical.***

    #7, @ Karl Zimmerman,

    A previous GNXP post “Admissions of Illiberalism” noted this had more to do with the particular cultural background of the UK muslim population, compared to other diaspora populations.

    “Generalizations about cultures can be useful. For example, it seems likely that Britain will continue to have many more problems with their Muslim population than any other European nation. This is because nearly half of British Muslims are Pakistani, while the substantial number of the remainder are Bangladeshi, and so culturally similar if not as extreme. This is simply amongst the least assimilable segment of Muslims to liberal Western values. In contrast French Muslims are disproportionately from Algeria, which is amongst the more secular of Muslim nations (and France is historically more aggressive about integration than Britain). Sweden has a much larger Muslim population than Norway, but Norway has a larger contingent of Pakistanis. Swedish Iranians for example, who often fled from the Shah, tend to be very secular.”

  • Philoponus

    I don’t much apprise myself of the goings-on of atheist circles, but that Richard Carrier post (and his posts in the comments) really impressed me. This guy sounds one step away from readying the guillotines.

    I’ve always heard tell of “the Atheist Community” tending toward ideological thought, but I suppose if it marries itself to various notoriously dogmatic egalitarian philosophies, it’s bound to become *extremely* ideological. And boy oh boy, does Carrier exemplify this! His rhetoric almost seems like a parody of the consummate Party True Believer.

    I’m honestly a little shocked that a hardheaded Hate-Watcher such as he could have a reputation as being a “freethinker” and a “skeptic”. Numerous comments point out that he’s being a bullying, fanatical ideologue, and they’d rather not associate with bullying ideological fanaticism, even though they generally agree with his values. And he comes along to reply to each one with a version of “He who says A, must say B”, i.e., anyone who disagrees with him must not actually care about compassion and justice and rationality and is thus the sort of [insert utterly non-compassionate invective] he has denounced in the first place. He doesn’t grasp that people are turned off not by his “values”, but by the fact that he’s so *damn unreasonable*. But, being neither an atheist nor an egalitarian, I can’t say I have much stock in the outcome of this particular Glorious Struggle.

    As to the question of the Christian roots of “social justice” and human rights (throwaway thoughts here), I think Nietzsche is largely correct. Obviously the conceptual roots of so much dear to secular humanism are a product of Christian theology, particularly of the Christian-derived idea of “the person”, but it seems more of a framework without which the discussion couldn’t take place rather than a direct causal link. Divorced from a secure theological ground, the ideals derived from Christianity seem to me to lead to either egalitarian totalitarianism (see: inklings in Carrier), or spiritually and culturally stultifying worship of “niceness”.

    .02$

  • http://qpr.ca/blog/ Alan Cooper

    Re#27 Yes, I read it but apparently not carefully enough. Thanks for pointing out my error in your usual kindly and forgiving manner.

    But even after seeing and actually absorbing the quote, I suspect that only a small proportion of those who think of themselves as “socially progressive atheists” imagine any logical link from the latter to the former.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    As to the question of the Christian roots of “social justice” and human rights (throwaway thoughts here), I think Nietzsche is largely correct. Obviously the conceptual roots of so much dear to secular humanism are a product of Christian theology, particularly of the Christian-derived idea of “the person”, but it seems more of a framework without which the discussion couldn’t take place rather than a direct causal link. Divorced from a secure theological ground, the ideals derived from Christianity seem to me to lead to either egalitarian totalitarianism (see: inklings in Carrier), or spiritually and culturally stultifying worship of “niceness”.

    some separate issues

    – christian thought is pretty impossible to comprehend without non-christian (i.e., hellenistic) thought. this is one reason that some heretical christians have exhibited skepticism toward orthodox christianity, because they see it is ‘contaminated’ by greek ideas. newton was one of these, and some mormons and radical protestants have expressed these same views. that being said, i think it is true but trivial to point this out. so what? if you presume the truth of christianity, and if jesus was born an aboriginal in australia, one assumes that some of the exoteric language of the religion would be very different. similarly, it stands to reason that atheism in christian societies will partake of the same general stream of culture as christianity, which preceded it as a universal monopoly. so what? this is like saying that carvaka materialism is incomprehensible without hinduism. yes. but it is still carvaka materialism in the fundamental.

    – a major problem is that most people who are well versed in western cultural history are totally ignorant of non-western cultural history.* nietzsche lived at a time when there was some interest in eastern religion, but that interpretation was still highly inflected by western presuppositions (schopenhauer funnily enough has actually influenced, indirectly, many forms of elite revivalist buddhism!). to speak of the christian influence on atheist materialism one must have some understanding of different cultures, and how materialism intersects with its own substrate. almost no one who has posted on this weblog on this topic EVER has impressed me in this domain (i.e., you know more than me in the aggregate across the cultural domains). and i’m frankly fucking sick of it. if i wanted opinions about the singularness of christianity/hinduism/judaism you better show some knowledge across these knowledge areas, because otherwise you opinion doesn’t mean shit to me. but as it is, people don’t feel they need to do this. i would ban people, but literally no one is held to a high standard in this area. sad situation.

    * and by interest, i’m not talking about the post-colonial crap. i’m talking about reading sankara if you want to get some sense of the philosophical gibberish that is elite hinduism. you can get a free copy and put it on your kindle and waste your time so that you at least know firsthand. i do.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    , I suspect that only a small proportion of those who think of themselves as “socially progressive atheists” imagine any logical link from the latter to the former.

    yes. there’s a reason why some people are making fun of the splintering of new atheism/atheism+/gnu atheism.

  • Philoponus

    I don’t really have much to quibble with in the above post, Razib (and you’d certainly never find me arguing anything resembling the “singularness” of world religions: what an intolerable modern concept), but consider, say, the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Would you consider the assured tone with which the ‘self-evidence’ is proclaimed to not be *to a significant extent* the unique product of Christendom-emergent cultures? And I am not speaking of atheistic materialism specifically, but rather of any number of humanistic political programs reliant on anthropologies entailing, e.g., absolute equality or inherent individual worth, in an a priori fashion. I actually don’t think there is any interior connection between atheism and humanistic values, so atheistic materialism “in the fundamental” could stand outside my purview.

    But perhaps you are right, and the historical etiology of humanism merits a mere shrug. I am not so certain, however, as I do wonder (with many others) about the fate of modern ideologies which drew and draw from the wellspring of Christian theology, after the theology has all but dried up; especially since we are still fairly early in this process.

  • Chad

    Razib #29 “the problem is that when you spend time with people who agree with you on most things it is not easy to avoid mixing is/ought positive/normative. this was an issue at the cfi conference i went to last spring. step #1 was getting my interlocutor to stop arguing against their idea of what i believed, because they were so unfamiliar with people who actually believed something different than themselves.”

    Couldn’t agree more. I am an Christian, Republican, combat vet in Academic Science……sometimes it feels like I am a spy or an anthropologist studying a new culture, but I see exactly this mixture of “is/ought positive/normative”. They often forget or do not know my true opinions, so its fun to throw a wrench into their group think every now and then and watch the shock.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    Would you consider the assured tone with which the ‘self-evidence’ is proclaimed to not be *to a significant extent* the unique product of Christendom-emergent cultures?

    it is the unique product of christian-emergent cultures. the question is: is christianity necessary or sufficient, or either? a materialist narrative might be that the necessary condition is economic growth, which was particular in western europe in the late 18th century. the arrows of causality are all mixed up.

    in any case, reading the founders confidence in nature’s god, the christian antecedents are clear. but, so is the voice of the ancient confucians, or the calm pronouncements within the gita, or the logic of the islamic rationalists. ethical monotheism is not singularly special, it is one of a variety of fusions of pre-axial religion, philosophy, and politics. to a great extent i also think this ‘stage’ is inevitable, and may be terminal, insofar as secular replacements seem to be relatively temporary.

    my main gripe with people who claim the specialness of their own tradition is that upon further exploration they don’t know much with any depth of other traditions. if you think you have a particular revelation or intuition about the truth of your tradition, that’s fine, i’m not going to argue with you because i think that’s frankly bullshit on an priori basis. but most people are trying to convince on reasoned grounds.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    Couldn’t agree more. I am an Christian, Republican, combat vet in Academic Science……sometimes it feels like I am a spy or an anthropologist studying a new culture, but I see exactly this mixture of “is/ought positive/normative”. They often forget or do not know my true opinions, so its fun to throw a wrench into their group think every now and then and watch the shock.

    i’m with you.

  • bad Jim

    My understanding of Atheism + is that it’s a symbol for people who identify as atheists first but are also avowedly feminist, not racist and not libertarian.

    The initial impetus for the drawing of this distinction was the disturbing lack of interest in women’s concerns at conventions and in commentary, an issue so deeply rooted in tradition that until recently it typically escaped notice: boys will be boys.

    Forgive me for not digging up links, but there was a discussion about ICANN at Crooked Timber and another about DefCon at Schneier’s, and nearly every woman in an academic position has at least one horrifying anecdote, it seems. Unfortunately for some, women are now part of what used to be boy’s clubs, and behavior that used to draw an indulgent chuckle is now acknowledged as abuse.

    It’s a short step from feminism to rejecting racism. As for selfishness, much of libertarianism is sheer ignorance of economics (the gold standard? gold currency?) Environmentalism is nothing but a comprehensive embrace of reality, with a fairly wide reach and a longing look into the future.

    The difference between Atheism Plus and Humanism seems to be a matter of emphasis: atheism is edgier. It’s silly to suppose that religion is the only source of sexism, racism or selfishness when we’re confronting the same tendencies within our own ranks, but it’s still true that religion remains a stalwart buttress of the traditions that block human progress.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    It’s a short step from feminism to rejecting racism.

    how? since it’s short you can be succinct :-) on a side note:

    Forgive me for not digging up links, but there was a discussion about ICANN at Crooked Timber and another about DefCon at Schneier’s, and nearly every woman in an academic position has at least one horrifying anecdote, it seems. Unfortunately for some, women are now part of what used to be boy’s clubs, and behavior that used to draw an indulgent chuckle is now acknowledged as abuse.

    this is not a problem for bloggers and academic women. it’s a general problem for women, especially where there is anonymity for the harassers. i don’t grant that feminism is necessarily the only answer. not too interested in arguing about this, just want to enter into the record that people can be horrified by the way women are harassed by trolls online without accepting all the propositions of feminists.

    As for selfishness, much of libertarianism is sheer ignorance of economics (the gold standard? gold currency?) Environmentalism is nothing but a comprehensive embrace of reality, with a fairly wide reach and a longing look into the future

    since you are a big fan of facts, gold-buggery is a minority position within libertarianism (e.g., milton friedman and libertarian economists invariably oppose it). it’s VERY vocal though. second, environmentalism is a normative framework. you admit that in the second section, where you assert that it looks into the future, implying low time preference. valuing low time preference over high time preference is a judgment of norms. not a statement of fact.

    good luck on atheism+ i don’t begrudge you whatever movement you or anyone happens to espouse for whatever reason. but your comment kind of struck me as the same superior ignorance on display which kind of irritates me about ‘movements’ (sorry, but you didn’t really accurately characterize the positions of those whom you disagree with, though you were pretty accurate about yourself. that’s a tell)

  • bad Jim

    Thanks for responding. My concern is mostly about how women are treated in real life. Two people who attend the same conference may have much different experiences. One will be asked “So what do you think about (some technical issue)” and the other “Nice rack! Want to come back to my place?” and so have very different impressions of the event. This is not a trivial problem.

    I apologize for bringing up environmentalism, which might not actually be part of this tendency. The science is clear, though widely denied by self-described skeptics, but policy is of course a political issue, and at best we’ll wander through a series of approximations to the right thing to do. I expect we will actually do much worse.

    I’m one of your daily readers, and should have known to avoid mentioning libertarianism, but it’s an affiliation often claimed by sexists, racists and anti-environmentalists, and some variations serve as quasi-religious alternatives to economics. It’s certainly not synonymous with gold-buggery, but few of its loudest contemporary advocates are willing to disavow it.

    As for sex and race, note that, while male and female brains are physically distinct, adults are difficult to distinguish sexually when clues are obscured, for example when musicians perform behind a screen or when writers publish under a pseudonym. On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog. It’s an ongoing Turing test. The point, of course, is that we have now become used to enjoying social intercourse with other people without first knowing their race or sex.

    This is kind of a big deal.

  • http://shinbounomatsuri.wordpress.com Spike Gomes

    44:
    I think the same can be accomplished by adhering to the standard of “Don’t be a rude dick to others” without having to buy into a whole bunch of shaky ideologies. Some people are just presumptuous assholes. Some to nearly everyone, some to just women, some to just guys, some to adherents of a religion, some to people who have no religion, some to people that look different than them, what have you.

    Until science identifies and isolates the asshole gene, we’re stuck with ‘em. The best we can hope for is to channel these unfortunates into avenues where their strengths become valued assets for society, like stand up comedians, reality show judges and mall cops.

  • http://greylining.com franc

    All this talk about Nietzsche. Here’s a fairly readable and very A+ relevant article that extends on some of what’s mentioned above –

    http://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/genealogyofmorals/section3.rhtml

  • Chad

    @bad Jim

    “It’s a short step from feminism to rejecting racism. As for selfishness, much of libertarianism is sheer ignorance of economics (the gold standard? gold currency?) Environmentalism is nothing but a comprehensive embrace of reality, with a fairly wide reach and a longing look into the future.”

    This is written with exactly the sort of implied assumption that Razib and I were discussing in posts #29, 39, & 41.

    These assertions, though brief assume so much that to actually examine them in a point by point way would require one to deconstruct all of feminism, racism, libertarianism, economics, and environmentalism. A task alone requiring many books and many authors.

    Had I’ve not spent the last decade in academics, I would simply look at this and say WTF, this makes no sense. But this is exactly the sort of statement I have become all to familiar with. Someone makes a broad, assumed, and meaningless assertion with the expectation that everyone else will simply nod their heads in agreement as they have all themselves bought into it and no real defense, argument, or reason is needed to to proclaim it as true. It would be like me proclaiming amongst the Tea Party “government is the problem”. There is a lot of inherent assumptions in that statement and its filled with qualifications, being nothing more than a generalization. Its also something I would never expect to pass as valid except amongst those I assume to already understand and agree with me.

    If you’re knowledge of Libertarianism extends to the assumption that they all believe in the Gold Standard, then to anyone who has does not already think exactly like you, this comes across as simply ignorant. This is further evidenced in comparisons to it being “quasi-religious” or the implication that its a hideout for bigots, without any bother to address the actual arguments of Libertarianism. When someone makes arguments like this assuming that nothing further or more substantive need be said, it is obvious that, that individual probably doesn’t have much experience actual Libertarians or the intellectual background of Libertarianism.

    Like the assumption of Environmentalism being an embrace of reality…..what reality? Much of what is considered “environmentalism” is hog wash. Anti-GMO movements and organic farming being two examples that come to mind. I come from 3 generations of working farmers. I have studied organic farming and its practices in depth. Time and again I am amazed by liberals, even scientists, who spend 2 or more times the price on organic products because they believe it to be more environmentally friendly. Meanwhile I am thinking about the increased erosion due to increased tillage, lower yields requiring more acreage to produce the same amount of food, increased fuel usage and overall lower efficiency, the host of far more toxic chemicals (like copper sulfates) that are allowed because they “natural” rather than “synthetic”. This is just barely scraping the bottom of the absurdities found in Environmentalism. I do not want to rape and pillage the Earth, I believe sustainable solutions are needed, but I do not buy into the fanciful and quasi-religious solutions that passes as modern day Environmentalism. But this just goes to show the degree of group think that exists even in groups supposedly dedicated to critical thinking and skepticism, that one can make blanket statements about how Environmentalism is an embrace of reality without qualification.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    Two people who attend the same conference may have much different experiences. One will be asked “So what do you think about (some technical issue)” and the other “Nice rack! Want to come back to my place?” and so have very different impressions of the event. This is not a trivial problem.

    i didn’t say it was. i’m only suggesting that people can agree it is a major problem without making recourse to feminism as the only solution. i.e., B does not follow from A necessarily. social conservatives for example, to name one, have a solution to the way women are harassed. it’s just very different.

    but it’s an affiliation often claimed by sexists, racists and anti-environmentalists, and some variations serve as quasi-religious alternatives to economics. It’s certainly not synonymous with gold-buggery, but few of its loudest contemporary advocates are willing to disavow it.

    the conditional here is not symmetric. most libertarians are not sexists or racists. though most self-avowed sexists and racists may be (the issue here is that libertarian attracts a type of personality which WOULD espouse these; normal social conservatives wouldn’t admit to being these things even if you assert that they, because they’re more psychologically normal). the same token, the majority of american white supremacists are not christian. but most christians are not white supremacists.

    As for sex and race, note that, while male and female brains are physically distinct, adults are difficult to distinguish sexually when clues are obscured, for example when musicians perform behind a screen or when writers publish under a pseudonym. On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog. It’s an ongoing Turing test. The point, of course, is that we have now become used to enjoying social intercourse with other people without first knowing their race or sex.

    you think people don’t know? my personal experience is that people want to drag personal details out of you. in general i try not to, but sometimes it gets tiresome when people make assumptions.

  • Chris_T_T

    Ideological environmentalism (as opposed to pragmatic) is another movement that has completely confused normative values with objective facts. It’s also a group that thinks it’s a break from Western culture when it actually makes no sense outside of a Western framework (concepts like original sin, fall of man, or redemption in particular).

    you think people don’t know?

    I’ve noticed that writers often tend towards particular stylistic choices or tones depending on whether they’re male or female. It’s not definitive (and rather difficult to clearly define), but it does seem to be there.

  • Evan Guiney

    @ Razib #29 and everyone else using instances of is/ought confusion as a cudgel: you do realize that

    “the problem is that when you spend time with people who agree with you on most things it is not easy to avoid mixing is/ought positive/normative. ”

    is itself an explicit conflation of is and ought?

    There’s nothing wrong with this, and I’d go out on a limb and agree that its better (normative!) to avoid unconsciously confusing is and ought. But to condemn any domain of thought that doesn’t magically keep them entirely separate is muddle headed! I’d like to see someone seriously defend the proposition that science, for example, is entirely devoid of normativity. Why, for instance, should we attempt to make our models consistent with those in other well established domains? Or why should we try so hard to fit our models to the data? (because if we don’t our gizmos wont work… but why care about that? You see the regress)

    I agree with some of the criticism of atheism+, although I broadly share its values, and I particularly value these rare political posts as a good forum to do exactly what Razib counsels: familiarize myself with the actual arguments of the other side. But the condescension on this normativity point seriously puts me off.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    #50, i’m an instrumentalist. and we all have unjustified priors IMO. that’s why i don’t call myself a ‘rationalist’ and have put up a series of posts to be careful about claiming reason über alles. in a deep sense physics and art aren’t too different. but i don’t care much about deep senses of things ;-) render unto plato what is plato’s….

  • http://noseenohearnospeak.blogspot.com AndrewV

    For anyone interested, the sequence of events that lead to the formation of Atheism Plus may be traced to the “Elevatorgate” incident which occurred around a year ago. This was the start of the polarization in the atheist “community” with one side on the FreeThoughtBlogs and the other side on the Slymepit.

    The people involved, have been a source of amusement for me for pretty much a year. I will caution anyone who is tempted to click on the link that there is a potential if you have any sort of addictive personality, for you to become hooked on this ongoing drama.

    In my case, the resulting addiction has severely curtailed the amount of time I spend playing WOW and EQ2, and reading science blogs such as this one. Every time I think I have kicked the habit, I find myself sucked back in.

    You have been warned.

    http://freethoughtkampala.wordpress.com/2011/09/11/elevatorgate/

    During the months of July and August 2011, the atheist-skeptic blogosphere was ablaze with accusations, counter-accusations, verbal fights, moral declarations and insults as hundreds of bloggers and millions thousands of their readers tried to determine whose assessment of the events narrated by Watson best represented the facts at hand.

    What also came under much discussion, and perhaps the crux of Elevatorgate, was Watson’s conduct after posting the initial video, particularly her treatment of a female student called Stef McGraw – and the manner in which dissenting opinions were dismissed as being products of misogyny and sexism.

  • Rashid

    I don’t like the choice of the neologism ‘transphobia’ – fear of change. Really? I”m fairly transphobic in certain situations and transphylic in others.

    Is this the new order of the day – pick any group and slap phobia on as a suffix? Its progress by linguistic train wreck.

NEW ON DISCOVER
OPEN
CITIZEN SCIENCE
ADVERTISEMENT

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

ADVERTISEMENT

See More

ADVERTISEMENT

RSS Razib’s Pinboard

Edifying books

Collapse bottom bar
+

Login to your Account

X
E-mail address:
Password:
Remember me
Forgot your password?
No problem. Click here to have it e-mailed to you.

Not Registered Yet?

Register now for FREE. Registration only takes a few minutes to complete. Register now »