Friday, April 13, 2007

Upgrading the intellectual culture of atheism

My original entry on my Freethought Forum blog includes a number of responses.

Written 27 December 2006:

While I’ve been put off by the intellectual limitations of the atheist/freethought/humanist movement for years, nay decades, my irritation has now achieved critical mass. Ironically, the tipping point is a development that should have induced approval—what has been dubbed the ‘new atheism’.

The Crusade Against Religion” by Gary Wolf, Wired News, Oct. 23, 2006

The New Atheism is spearheaded by the triumvirs Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett. While their groupies ooh and aah over their every public appearance, I find them all severely deficient in one or more ways, and I find Harris positively reprehensible.

In subsequent entries I will outline my dissatisfactions with these characters, and others who are supposed to be our heroes, like Michael Shermer. For now, I’ll limit myself to general observations.

I cannot assess the situation in non-English-speaking countries, but it is possible that different historical configurations of intellectual life and political forces have bequeathed intellectual cultures of their freethought traditions different from ours. My remarks are addressed to the intellectual culture of the USA and what I have seen of recent offerings originating in other English-speaking (anglophone) countries.

Let me begin by listing key factors of the problem:

(1) political constrictions (more severe in the USA than in West European democracies)

(2) historical amnesia (the permanent effects of McCarthyism)

(3) the dominant philosophical trends of Anglo-American thought

(4) intellectual specialization

(5) the intellectual monopolization of atheist/humanist agitation by natural scientists and their groupies.

Now I’ll elaborate just a little on each factor.

(1) To function at all in the public sphere, close adherence to its restricted political options and its sacred cows must be maintained: the existing liberal institutions of society and its legal instruments must remain sanctified (especially now when they are in severe peril)—the First Amendment, the Founding Fathers, etc. Any political or sociological analysis going beyond liberal (in the sense of liberal democracy, not social liberalism or social democracy) nostrums is taboo. Capitalism as a system can under no circumstances be criticized, and even criticisms of social inequality must be muted. This is not only a limitation due to fear of reprisals on the part of the general population or the government, but due also to the composition of the atheist/secular movement itself and especially the orientation of its leaders.

(2) There is a historical link between atheism/freethought/secularism and the working class movement and working class autodidacticism—a tradition largely wiped out by McCarthyism. Some of the left-leaning freethought agitators are still remembered—Emmanuel Haldeman-Julius, for example—but the tradition as a whole has been swept under the rug, with the collusion of certain gatekeepers of the secular humanist movement. (Oh yeah, I’ll elaborate.)

(3) Anglo-American philosophy was for the greater part of the twentieth century dominated by what is called ‘analytical philosophy’, correlated to a dominant interest in technocracy and the hard sciences, to the exclusion of the most sophisticated of social and cultural theory, which emanates from Germany and the germanophone sphere. While an opening has been forced in recent decades (mostly outside of philosophy departments), American philosophers remain rather narrow, as evidenced by Dennett, a Dawkins groupie who is ill-equipped to grapple with the explanation of social phenomena.

(4) Narrow specialization combined with narrow intellectual culture virtually guarantees that scientists (for example) almost invariably make fools of themselves beyond their specific area of expertise.

(5) Rational inquiry is equated to the ‘scientific method’, or more generally, the values associated with the scientific method. But what methods are appropriate and adequate to the grasping of social, cultural, and ideological phenomena? Not a one of the most prominent atheist scientists has the tools or demonstrates a whit of intellectual sophistication in explaining social phenomena. Dawkins has learned nothing new in 30 years. Harris is an imbecile and a menace. Schermer is worthless. (Details to follow.)

Scientists with a conscience at best make good liberals, but few advance a jot further. These people simply do not have what it takes to grapple with the social crisis we face now at the depth required. If they did and spoke openly, their access to the media would likely be cut off, but their minds are even more limited than their scope of action.

Unlike many of my fellow atheists, I don’t salivate every time Dawkins or Dennett or Harris or Schermer makes an appearance or publishes a book. I find the atheist and secular humanist intellectual culture quite tedious, even if it is necessary.

If the centerpiece of one’s intellectual life is Darwin vs. the Bible, one is going to be diverted from exploring other areas of inquiry just as important. Those of us who dismissed the Bible as a piece of tawdry pulp literature from early childhood just don’t feel the burn to devote much energy to arguments over it, and don’t even want to waste our time debating ignorant Bible-humpers, eager though we be to remove the obstacle to human progress they represent.

In any case, the current censorship of the class question, coupled with a defensive bolstering of the crumbling institutions of secular democracy, squeezes ideology-critique for the masses into a very small corner, and hence the culture industry makes room only for the likes of Dawkins and Harris.

Lacking the necessary intellectual sophistication to grapple with the full range of social and ideological phenomena, the atheist and secular humanist community is as hamstrung as the Democratic Party. It has to scale back its ambitions just to keep liberal democracy from being swallowed up by irrational, theocratic fascism, but its scope of discourse and action is so limited it can’t approach the root causes of our social problems, though of necessity it’s driven to be more political the closer this nation is driven to fascism.

I have no recommendations for improving the efficacy of our activism based on my perspective. Perhaps there is no remedy. But I do want to pose a question or two: is it necessary for our minds to be as limited as our scope of action? Are we prevented from upgrading our own intellectual culture just because we have to keep it simple when talking to the rest of society?

But if our minds are limited because our society is limited and because our practical possibilities are limited, then what does that say about our much-touted capacity for rational thought?


Ralph Dumain said...

From my response of 29 December 2006:

While I could fault Dawkins for his philosophical shortcomings, he is not a professional philosopher and perhaps a lack of nuance really doesn’t matter much for the practical impact of his intervention in the public sphere. Either way, I’ll leave this aside for now. The real issue is the pseudoscientific drivel about memes he’s been peddling for decades, and his lack of intellectual growth over this time, not only his smug refusal to learn anything from the sociobiology debates of the ‘70s, but from his provincialism not to learn anything new in areas he must investigate to speak more competently about the sociocultural transmission of ideas in relation to history and social structure. There is a reason he has learned nothing, and it’s not just because a specialist can’t know everything about everything. He’s had the same opportunity I have, probably more, to read what I’ve read over the past 30 years, but he’s learned nothing new, rather ironic as it is the hallmark of science that knowledge expands and accumulates. No, there is a more serious deficiency at work, which I will detail as time permits.

Harris wrote The End of Faith not primarily to combat the Christian right, but as a hysterical reaction to 9/11. His complete and utter ignorance of the motivations of behavior in the Islamic world and his idiotic attributions of causality is very dangerous, and he is one of those scared liberals who can easily be led into goose-stepping behind the right-wing. More later.

The fact that we accept and even applaud such mediocrity because these people are supposed to be spokesmen for our cause actually reinforces our ghettoization, for self-limitation is one of the depressing consequences of exclusion by others.

Ralph Dumain said...

From my 2nd response of 29 December 2006:

It seems things have changed in recent years while I was away from the scene, but my more remote experience can be crudely summarized thusly. I perceived a notable difference between ‘secular humanism’ as represented by Paul Kurtz and co., and ‘atheism’ represented by American Atheists. The former seemed to be elitist and politically questionable and not at all representative of a full range of anything, though arguably more intellectually sophisticated precisely because of it social composition.

American Atheists was more down and dirty and attracted more of the average person who suffered under a religious upbringing and or environment and had no interest in being polished or diplomatic in fighting back. Madelyn O’Hair unfortunately encouraged the worst tendencies of such people, and while I am closer to the unpolished approach to human relations than slick upper middle class professionalism, I experienced some of the worst examples of misanthropic sectarianism among the ranks of AA. I consider both groupings—as they were when I was exposed to them—rather narrow and limited. My exposure to atheists in the DC area now, as compared to ... say 1990, gives me a rather different impression. I have met only one obvious social misfit so far.

An intellectual judgment is more difficult to make, but in all the discussions I’ve been privy to, there is a lack there, and the excessive approbation of people like Dawkins and Harris is part of it. It goes hand in hand with a lack of sophisticated social analysis and the very narrow range of discourse generally allowed in the public sphere. It means that the embrace of the scientific ideal completely ignores the big issues surrounding what ‘science’ actually implies for the analysis of social, cultural, and ideological behavior. This narrowness is neither accidental on the production (writing and speaking) end or on the consumption (readers, listeners, viewers) end of the deal—a point to be elaborated on later. And then there is the relation of both producers and consumers of ideas to the media of communication—publishing contracts, book tours, TV spots, etc. Who gets how much exposure to the public and who are the audiences that are attracted to what topics or thinkers? Sure, you can go into Borders and there are no ideas censored out of existence these days—there’s something of everything. But practically, the formation of interests, and the fragmentation of the literate reading public, is a social phenomenon that needs to be analyzed. Coincidentally, I attended a session today on this topic, but the philosophers presenting could not even generalize their own problem of reaching a public, since their own profession reflects the fragmentation that exists everywhere else, and they can’t get a birds-eye view of their own situation, in spite of their guilty self-consciousness about class, race, gender, etc.

I do not see a huge spread of intellectual diversity in atheist circles, which could well be partly the fault of other people who should be there but are not. I say this because so many humanistic intellectuals these days, including a fair number on the so-called left, are themselves committed to anti-scientific obscurantism, and if they defend reason on a popular level at all, it ain’t scientific rationality they’re defending, and they are the spokesmen for other causes altogether. I experienced some exasperating instances of this today—all too characteristic of my experience, sadly: whenever the topics of race, gender, or postmodernism are invoked by philosophers, especially among those with radical pretensions, you are bound to be subject to about 60–90% unadulterated bullshit, on a good day.

Ralph Dumain said...

My 3rd response of 29 December 2006:

"Are you, indeed, claiming that postmodernism is necessarily synonymous with obscurantism?"
Hell, yes! It really is the royal road to irrationalism. There’s just no question about its hostility to objective knowledge claims, including universalist scientific rationally. In decades past, such an orientation was the province of the Right. But, in combination with feminism and black nationalism, the attack on rationality is given a radical gloss. And, incidentally, Intelligent Design was part of the discussion this evening. And the objectivity of scientific knowledge was attacked by those most committed to a combination of postmodernism, feminism, and black militancy. This is one of the unfortunate legacies of the ‘60s. But actually, this combination solidified only some years after the academic consolidation of the remnants of the social movements of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. These people will sell reason down the river at every opportunity. They cannot be trusted as intellectuals. And often not in other respects, either.

As to who can and can’t be trusted in other respects, I cannot say as far as these specific individuals are concerned. I think, though, that the need for political alliances, esp. now when the university is under a neo-McCarthyite right-wing assault, compromises the intellectual integrity of people who are very collegial with one another when someone should come out and tell them how full of shit they are, as I did to one speaker who reduced physics to an arbitrary language game, which he immediately bolstered with a rant about racism and imperialism. The more I pushed him on his intellectual dishonesty, the more he revealed his true irrationalist colors in defending his position, hitherto covered up by the bullshit jargon of his talk, which began when he invoked Foucault. The fact is, people like this are intellectually confused and dishonest, and I consider them my intellectual enemies.

This humanistic obscurantism is the reverse of the shallow scientism and sociological illiteracy of Dawkins and his groupies. It’s the “two cultures” all over again, but the political alignments are askew.

This intellectual fragmentation is a curse that hangs over the mental life—such as it is—of our society. Perhaps that’s why the more courageous natural science types predominant as public reps of atheism, though their social interests in doing so are limited, and thus their analysis of the irrationalism in society is skin deep.

There are other voices out there, but they’re not going to gain the prominence that Dawkins & co. have. I’ll give references when I get a chance.

And the smart ones out there will also be denied a public voice that others who pretend to be radical have gained—pretentious gasbags like Cornel West, for example, a sound-bite intellectual, a preacher with footnotes, who is no friend of scientific rationality and is good for nothing as a philosopher.

The situation is bleak. Those few of us trying to combat this dismal scene have no way of breaking through the wall.

Ralph Dumain said...

My response of 31 December 2006:

I don't think anyone should pretend to speak for everyone. The only way this could happen is if they limited their discourse to topics and viewpoints we could all agree on. There is something like a common core, the reason we are all here when we probably don't have many other views in common.

There are some things that can be done and some that probably cannot. If, for example, Harris and Dawkins limited themselves to their areas of competence, they would be OK. Dawkins could continue to explain evolutionary theory and explain how in light of the knowledgte we have of the physical universe, and of the principles of rational understanding, it is illegitimate to maintain certain beliefs. If he could appropriately refine some of his arguments, he could make some better philosophical statements remaining within these parameters. While it’s one thing to list all the evils associated with religious belife, practice, and indoctrination, it’s quite another to venture explanations for social phenomena he lacks the tools to analyze, and worse, fills the void with pseudoscience. People should flock to see him for his popular explanations of evolution, and perhaps his vigorous denunciation of religious delusions, but he shgould not venture beyond his competence (he’s not much of a philosopher, either) and his fans should not be so grateful for having him as a spokesmen, they overvalue his contributions. There is no good reason anyone but a newcomer to freethought would want to buy or read The God Delusion. It serves a place in the scheme of things, except for the chapter on memes, but it’s not a book for anyone who already knows this stuff.

If Sam Harris had limited himself to his eloquent attacks on the spurious foundations of religious supersititions, he would have been terrific. His argument that moderates effectively serve the interests of extremists is also a good one. But he simply has no conception of social causation, history, or politics, and he has no business pushing New Age crapola.

These people are trying to fill a gap they are too small to fill. Instead of a god of the gaps, we have atheism of the gaps.

Dennett as a professional philosopher ought to do better, but then the English-speaking world tends to encourage intellectual narrowness.

Now what can’t a better representative of atheism do? There are actually better people out there. I’ll forward references. But they cannot represent us all, partly because of our collective political and ideological limitations, and partly because of the severely restricted nature of public discourse. This means that anyone with a more profound analysis of how religion and superstition fit into the current social scene will probably have a smaller, more narrowly targeted audience, will probably operate with publishers and promotions that can’t garner quite so much media attention, in the USA at least.

A further complication is that only a fraction of the progressive political community is committed to rational, pro-scientific, thought. Certain irrationalist tendencies were unleashed during the 1960s that remain and have been intensified by the nation’s political and social degeneration. Part of this is related to coalition politics, both within and between various social causes and with respect to the nation at large.

However, the fundamental basis of the social crisis cannot remain condemned to silence forever. Therfore, it is necessary to expand the base of expertise to draw upon to make those of us inclined to become more sophisticated and either to speak and act more wisely or suffer with greater understanding of the obstacles.

There should be more social scientists and cultural theorists and so forth in the fray. Why are there not? Why are most of the skeptics and secular humanists in the public eye people in the natural sciences with no clue as to how to approach social phenomena? It may be that this pattern is not accidental, in which case we are in deep doo-doo.