Monday, October 6, 2014

Short critique of modern atheism

I was recently asked to write a critique of atheism, so here it is.  This post applies to atheism in the Anglophone world.  I don't think I have enough understanding of global atheism to say anything meaningful about it.

There are two major problems with atheism in the English-speaking world that I can see - the first is that it is a club run for and by middle-class white people, mostly men, who are wedded to a very trivial view of scientific reductionism and the second is that there isn't much of a difference in attitude and action between atheists and religious people.

That atheism is a club for middle class white boys is almost transparently obvious.  Almost all the big shot atheist writers - Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens - are well-to-do white men.  When I was in Miami, almost all of the people who belonged to the atheist group I briefly attended were white men - and that's really saying something in Miami - and I saw a grand total of zero non-white people in the seven events I attended in Freethought Dayton.  In Freethought Dayton, seven of the eight board members were white men with one white woman.  It is my understanding this is pretty generally true.

And why not!  All the "serious" atheist thinkers from Diderot forward are well-to-do white men!  It is a culture that was created and has been fostered by the most privileged sector of humans that has ever existed!  While there are other brands of atheism - Marx springs to mind - it is the atheism of white prestige and privilege that is the foundation of modern atheism, I think.

They don't generally think this.  They give lip service to various liberal platitudes, but they are about as serious as the dudes who wrote The Bell Curve.  They are almost entirely wedded to a culture of material acquisition that is shocking in its breadth - but that's the well-to-do white person thing, right?  It's no different than any other group of rich white people from college frats to the World Bank, regardless of religious affiliation.

They also have a kind of profound love of scientific reductionism that rationalizes everything they say and do.  So, in Freethought Dayton, when they were initially writing their statement about inclusion, it was littered with phrases like, "Scientific research shows that racism isn't real" and "Current scientific understanding about gender issues . . ."  I'm pretty sure that kind of language would have made it into the final draft if I hadn't said that I would be against racism even if a bunch of scientists were for it, and ditto discrimination on gender issues.  I also pointed out that scientific racism is totally a thing.

The last meeting I was at in a Freethought Dayton group, likewise, included a long and grueling conversation where people were really digging into me saying "science says this" and "science says that", which seems to me to ignore two of the things about "science" - first is that science does not often speak with one voice.  So what a quantum physicist says about gravity is currently totally different than what an astrophysicist says about gravity.  And what an environmentalist says about the world has little to do with anything either of those other dudes say.  Science is a rambling, often chaotic enterprise and while there is sometimes a unified theory within a field to guide it, often there is not, and there is little to no unification of theories between fields.  No one can really speak for "science" and the field is so vast that I would seriously question anyone's qualifications for doing so.  Yet it is my experience that atheists are very quick to say what "science" says.

Second in this regard is that science speaks about matters of science alone.  Science tells us very little about ethics or beauty, though both are very important to us.  Many very important fields - government and law, for example - are not scientific.  Attempts to jam these fields into scientific reasoning exhibits a faith in science I find frankly religious in dimensions.  It is just as bizarre, to me, as when Bible-believing Christians say that the answers to all questions are found in a book compiled 1600 years ago.  I think that science is a highly productive epistemology, but it doesn't even try to answer all questions and to believe it does is where the religious canard that "science is like religion" becomes true.

(As I have said elsewhere, science isn't much like religion, but I'm not talking about science, here, but the crazy way many atheists believe in science.)

The second big problem with religion is that the attitudes and believes of atheists aren't different than religious people of their race and class, really.  There is this atheist saw: the difference between an atheist and a Christian is that the atheist believes in one fewer god than the Christian.  Yes.  Exactly.  It isn't much of a difference at all!

So the behavior of atheists is almost identical to that of rich white men.  Part of this - and you see it all the time with assholes like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris - is that they feel very free to attack in grotesque terms the same people that Christians in their society attack in the same ways.

So Richard Dawkins is this sexist pig.  Sam Harris can go on a TV show and say, seriously, that Muslims are extra special kinds of murderers and liberals need to really crack down on them.  This gets reflected on down, so at Freethought Dayton they were equally comfortable saying grotesque, racist crap about Muslims - they only study technology to murder Americans, they stopped thinking after 1500, stuff like that.  And going hand-in-hand with the first point, the only thing that mattered was their developments in science and technology.  I can find this kind of talk in after church social in America.

I contend that atheist culture is broadly like this.  They might have rejected the existence of supernatural entities like gods and devils, but their attitudes about many, many things are the exact same as religious people and driven by our culture of religion.  If the only thing you've abandoned is the belief in a supernatural god, that isn't such a big deal if you continue to perpetrate the patterns of thought and behavior created by religion.  I contend that atheists do precisely that.  They don't hate Muslims, all Muslims, for any reason - it is easy to tear apart the idea that Muslims are somehow more irrationally violent than people in the West, as I've done again and again on this very blog - but because people in the Christian West have hated Muslims for 1400 years.  As a result, they do precisely what Christians do - rather than trying to build bridges between the West and the Middle East, they attack them as backwards and needing a brutal lesson in violence for their own good.

Specifically on terms of race, atheists merely perpetrate the cultural misconceptions of our society, and from the same religious sources.  So, for instance, almost all atheists believe in a radical kind of free will - that we are absolutely free.  This isn't scientific.  Almost no one in psychiatry, psychology or neurology believes in a strong free will - many don't believe in free will at all.  Yet, I have met blessed few atheists that don't believe in an extreme form of free will - which has its origins in Christian dogma.  Christianity requires an extreme definition of free will in order to rationalize their beliefs about sin, heaven and hell.  I could go on about this, but I hope to have made my point - much of what atheists believe derives almost entirely from religion.

I also think that atheists who are in groups and sitting next to atheists who say these things are no different than Christians or Muslims who sit next to their coreligionists and tolerate their racist, sexist bullshit in church.  I understand the need to belong to something is very strong, but you're doing exactly what Christopher Hitchens said that moderate Christians do when they don't stand up to their racist and sexist peers - they give tacit support and approval to the atheists who do think and say such things.

One of the net results of this is it makes it very hard for religious people, particularly if they're not rich or white, to take atheism seriously.  If I'm a poor black person and I'm listening to that racist fuckwit Sam Harris talk about how liberals need to attack Muslims more, and I'm looking down at the local mosque and how they spend a bunch of their time improving the self-image of black people, doing community service and creating a safe space for black culture to flourish, I'm not likely to be very impressed.  Wearing a headscarf doesn't seem so unreasonable in the face of all that empowerment.  Harris is going to sound a whole lot like another self-indulgent rich white racist telling non-white people how they should act and behave . . . which is precisely what he is!  So I guess that's okay!

And if I'm some poor white person, it's the same thing!  Rich white people don't give a damn about the social and culture aspects of religion - how when people like Sam Harris either contemptuously dismiss or flatly ignore the poor, it's often the churches that are there to pick up the slack.  A sermon seems a small price to pay for the kind of cultural interconnectedness that churches in poor communities bring!

This isn't me saying that religion is good, broadly speaking.  I think there are a lot of problems with religion.  That teaching children that they'll go to hell unless they behave a certain way is psychological abuse, that religion teaches an inability to correctly determine what is true and what is not that has multifaceted and serious consequences for everyone, everywhere (climate change deniers are at the top of this list).  I think religion normalizes racism and sexism, it creates an us-against-them attitude that is unhealthy for the body politic and a bunch of stuff besides.  Unfortunately, atheists have inherited a lot of that, often wedded to the arrogant superiority of rich white people looking down at everyone else.

None of this is structural in believing there are no gods.  There are plenty of skeptical traditions from antiquity to the modern day that have little or no overlap with modern Anglophone atheism.  I think one of the reasons I'm relatively sympathetic to critique of atheism, for instance, is that I got into it through Marx.  To me, criticism of religion is inextricably bound up with that of class - and the bigger problem is and always has been that a certain group of people have cheated, lied and killed in order to command other people.  To me, that's atheism.  Most Anglophone atheists are far more in tune with Ayn Rand and Adam Smith than Karl Marx, though.  Still, that's where I think this comes from, even though I no longer regard myself as a socialist.  Religion is a way that a certain segment of the ruling class keeps everyone else in line; modern Anglophone atheists are almost uniformly from that class, they just think that neo-liberal capitalist democracy and a scientific bureaucracy are better at it than religion.

I give the caveats that I am not condemning everyone who is an atheist or religious.  Many atheists are good people; so are many religious people.  But insofar as I'm talking about broad cultural trends, I think what I've said is true.

For my own part, while I do not believe in god, I am finding it increasingly hard to call myself an atheist because it identifies me with a social movement I find increasing abhorrent.  And not just some of the talking heads on TV, but that the whole movement - in my experience - does reflect those values.  I prefer secular humanist, these days, with an emphasis on the humanist.  In the end, I'd rather spend time with a Muslim, Christian, Buddhist or whatever that believes in reducing the misery in the world with an bunch of fucking sexist, racist assholes who happen to agree with me that gods don't exist.

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