Friday, September 19, 2014

New Atheism's New Problems

After a period of pop-culture bullying on its part, there appears to be a growing backlash against the bluster of what is often called New Atheism.  At a recent conference called TAM, one of the leading skeptics in the movement was accused of getting one girl drunk and raping her. This long article at Buzzfeed tells the story and then expands its focus to talk about a broader culture of abuse within the movement. A family friendly version of the account can be found here at ENV. In part it states,

The reality of sexism in freethought is not limited to a few famous leaders; it has implications throughout the small but quickly growing movement. Thanks to the internet, and to popular authors like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Sam Harris, atheism has greater visibility than at any time since the 18th-century Enlightenment. Yet it is now cannibalizing itself. For the past several years, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, and online forums have become hostile places for women who identify as feminists or express concern about widely circulated tales of sexism in the movement. Some women say they are now harassed or mocked at conventions, and the online attacks — which include Jew-baiting... — are so vicious that two activists I spoke with have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. One of these women has been bedridden for two years.

Add to that the more recent tumbling of another New Atheist hero, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who has been caught in various untruths and misattributions. When called on the carpet for these mounting untruths, his response has been decidedly unscientific.  What matters is the theater of the moment, not the facts.

Even more disturbing is the defense you hear from Tyson himself and from his legions of fans: that the accuracy of the quotes doesn’t really matter, they’re just convenient illustrations to get attention, get people thinking, and promote his pro-science message.
 But there’s the rub, isn’t it? How do you promote a pro-science message by saying that the facts don’t really matter?

I think two issues stick out as a result of these accusations.

First, much of what has passed for science and the supposed rational superiority of atheism/naturalism has largely been the result of public force and intimidation, not reasoned argument. The perceived strength of New Atheism is a classic case of the emperor having no clothes. Dawkins' books are used in college philosophy classes as examples of bad argumentation. Reading Hitchens' books is an exercise in listening to someone espouse and believe in attacks on the Christian faith that were exposed as empty one hundred years ago. Engage an ardent atheist and 99 times out of 100 you will uncover argumentative fallacies, emotional aggravation, intimidation, and belittling.  It is a bitter fact of public atheism today - very little of it is philosophically reasoned.

That is not to say there is not any philosophically robust atheist thought out there. It just doesn't see the light of day among New Atheists right now. Anyone can still read Russell or the pre-conversion Antony Flew, but apparently not many of the new-fangled apologists for metaphysical naturalism do.

Second, does atheism have the moral chops necessary to correct these problems? Will the atheist community even see them as problems?  And here is the deeper philosophical question. Atheism lacks an objective moral standard. So it will not, in the long run, be able to condemn immorality in any kind of substantive fashion. For example, a worldview cannot simultaneously mock and politic against the Christian values of chastity and marriage and condemn sexual misadventure. In the short run it sure seems they can, because in many instances they try very hard to do so.  But once the dust settles from the accusations and the emotions of the moment, a question remains. Says who?

Every atheist attempt at grounding moral judgment fails to find solid ground outside of subjective human judgment or cultural consensus. This is, by nature of the worldview, necessarily true. Kant, who felt the unflinching reality of moral realities, worked hard to develop an utterly rationalistic morality. But even his Categorical Imperative fails its own test. The Utilitarianism of Mill and Rousseau’s nature - these and many more are valiant yet failed attempts at grounding morality without appealing to a personal being beyond our cultural conventions.

So the new atheist relies often on current political notions of "progress" and moral ideas that are easy to enforce via propaganda and sitcoms in our cultural atmosphere. But all those things are intellectual sand castles and it takes almost no time and effort to rationally disagree. And by virtue of the nature of relativism, the very act of disagreeing renders them impotent. So I disagree. Atheism does not have a rational standard that allows it to call chastity prudish, celebrate sexual liberation, and at the same time condemn sexual abuse. It also apparently does not have the philosophical courage to claim a scientific “just the facts, ma’am” stance and call out its hero de jour for propagandistic falsehoods.

New Atheism has a growing problem, and it isn’t recalcitrant Christians. It is its lack of firm footing for its own belief system and lifestyle.

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