Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Is Atheism Just Another Dogma?

I've just finished Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I very much enjoyed the author's oft-noted wit and passion for his subject, but the book still leaves me with one of the nagging questions I had going into this project.

As a skeptic, I am suspicious of dogmatism in all its forms, particularly concerning matters that transcend the world of common experience. As a corollary, I am suspicious of polarization and false dichotomies in public discussion.

The nagging question is this: To what extent is the "new atheism" of Dawkins, Harris, et al., a form of dogmatism? One way to get the measure of this would be to ask: To what extent does the "new atheism" either presuppose or promulgate polarization?

Regarding the main question, the new atheists whose work I've read so far seem prone to very definite and by no means uncontroversial views about the basic nature of reality and about the basis and scope of human knowledge. Dawkins is a scientist and, even though he at one point avows otherwise (p.185), can be read as advocating scientism.

For one thing, Dawkins is an empiricist in practice if not in principle, which entails fairly narrow criteria of what counts as "evidence", and further entails that anything not open to proof or disproof by that narrow range of evidence is not worth considering. The idea that "the God Hypothesis" is necessarily a scientific hypothesis seems a gross oversimplification - but precisely the sort of claim to be expected from a dogmatic empiricist.

For another, Dawkins explicitly embraces philosophical naturalism, particularly the view that reality is basically material. His particular understanding of material reality informs the central claim of his argument against the existence of God: that God would have to be more complex (and hence more improbable) than the world He allegedly created. This is convincing for people who have already bought into philosophical naturalism, perhaps, but not so much for others.

Regarding the subsidiary question of polarization, Dawkins does have an unfortunate tendency to polarize the debate and to "poison the well" for anyone who wants to take a moderate position, though he does not go nearly so far in his well-poisoning as does Sam Harris in Letter to a Christian Nation. Still, the two would give the Bush administration a run for its money in their with-us-or-against-us rhetoric.

Two worlds stand opposed to one another, a world of light and a world of darkness . . . ahem. Where was I? Oh, yes . . .

According to Dawkins and Harris, there are only two sides to the debate. On the one side are rational people who reject superstition and embrace Science. On the other side are those whose minds have been hijacked by the toxic memes of religion - the fundamentalist evangelical Christian gloating over natural disasters, the Catholic priest abusing the minds if not the bodies of children, the Muslim suicide bomber, and the rest of that sorry lot.

What's in between? Nothing viable, they argue. Nothing worthwhile. Besides, moderate and liberal theists, agnostics, skeptics, and a whole of a culture that affords undue deference to religious belief only play into the hands of the fanatics. As Dawkins (p.346) puts it: "The teachings of 'moderate' religion, though not extremist in themselves, are an open invitation to extremism."

There is another, more restricted polarization in both of these books, perhaps stemming from their authors' unsophisticated understanding of moral philosophy, and almost certainly fostered by their adherence to empiricism and naturalism. In treating the question of whether morality can exist without God, both of them fall into a false dichotomy: morality is either absolutist (a matter of duty, following rules) or it is consequentialist (growing out of an empiricist tradition in ethics, since suffering is something we can see and feel). There are no other options, and since theism tends to favor absolutism, it is just obvious that rational people will favor consequentialism (see Harris, p.23-24; Dawkins, pp.335). There are other options.

And yet, it's still not clear to me that a robust, positive atheism requires a prior commitment to empiricism or philosophical naturalism, or that it necessarily entails political polarization. In the interstices of Dawkins' book - though not in Harris' little screed - there is the possibility of a broader and more generous sort of atheism, the primary commitment of which is to pursue open, critical inquiry in whatever form it takes and wherever it leads . . . with a growing conviction that it leads away from any sort of theism.

The basic insight, to which Dawkins himself alludes on occasion (though I can't find the passages just now), is that science is just one, particularly powerful form of intersubjective critical inquiry, its evidence just one kind of evidence, among several. The point is that the inquiry has to be intersubjective and also critical.

I could cast this kind of inquiry in phenomenological terms (playing on "intersubjective"), or in terms set out by the American pragmatists (Peirce, Dewey), or in terms of the theory of deliberative democracy (Rawls, Habermas). In the end, not much may hinge on the distinction.

The point is that any claim I make, any policy I propose, would have to be backed up by argument and evidence that is accessible to and understandable by a wide range of interlocutors, many of whom will likely not share my particular beliefs and values nor even my basic presuppositions. In order to convince anyone, the evidence and argument I offer must be "public," that is, rooted somehow in the world of common experience. I happen to think that the common world is richer and deeper than the empiricists' sensorium.

As a skeptic, I am committed to holding only to those beliefs that can survive robust criticism in the public forum. I am further committed to holding those beliefs only provisionally, open always to the possibility that further public evidence and argument may lead me to revise them or even replace them.

Here is where atheism makes sense, at least if it is understood as the negative of a particular understanding of theism. Dawkins' target is not the broadly spiritual sense of awe and deep meaning experienced by, say, Einstein, but the particular beliefs of theists in the three Abrahamic traditions. He states "the God Hypothesis" as follows, on p.52:
there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.

If that's really what theism is, then it seems the approach to critical inquiry I have outlined is destined push me toward atheism, if not all the way there, for some of the basic reasons Dawkins' cites.

For one thing, claims in a particular religious text are only convincing to those who already accept the literal and compelling truth of a religious text, something that is notably difficult to establish on the basis of public reasons. It is only by the undue deference granted to religious belief that people get away with it at all. Even then, there are all the usual problems of authorship, transmittal, translation, cherry-picking, and so on.

For another, there are other well-established threads in public debate that undermine the God hypothesis or show the particular forms it takes to be utterly contingent and idiosyncratic. Evolutionary biology is one of these threads, the one on which Dawkins hangs much of his argument, along with threads from historians, anthropologists, neurologists, psychologists, and so on and on. There are also lines of inquiry in philosophy that have bearing on the question: I think particularly of Kant, for whom God was at most a regulative idea of judgment, and of the existentialist tradition from Nietzsche on down.

There are a lot of questions I have yet to address: What about "moderate" theism, or broader kinds of spirituality? Is theism okay in private as long as it is not pushed in public? Would this make moderate religion more understandable and more justifiable? (Certainly, even Dawkins acknowledges that atheists and moderate theists can find some common ground and make common cause in practical matters.) In that case, does my take on critical inquiry really push toward atheism in principle or just secularism in practice?


Samuel Skinner said...

Polarization is irrelevant. As a skeptic you should be concerned with truth value.

What you are refering to are naturalism, rationalism and materialism. They happen to be used because they are true.

God is something that exists in relaity, science deals with things in reality... seems like a match. Also, empiricism doesn't mean you dismiss certain evidence- just things that are nonreplicable and antedotale. If magic worked scientists would study it- they want to shoot fire out of their hands as much as the rest of us.

Naturalism is true because supernaturalism is incoherent. There is another plane of existance where logic doesn't apply. And why? Well, you can't disprove it...

Polarization is good in certain cases. See the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, the fight against communism and facism, etc. Being completely uncompromising towards an opposing view is a virtue if theirs is wrong and immoral.

The value of faith by moderates protect extremists... and you completely ignore this.

Theist morality is based in obeying God, while Dawkins is a consequentialist. I fail to see how anything but the overall consequences of your actions can be used for judgement.

Yes- a position about the nature of reality requires an acceptance of evidence and reality iself. Antedotes and magic land don't cut it.

Science is the best form of inquiry. The reason it is is because it borrowed its methods from all the other methods. There is no toolfor finding knowledge science doesn't use.

Deeper and richer than things that can be shown to everyone? Know you are in a box. Empiricism IS the public sphere.

Actually skeptics are people who question all beliefs, not just those questioned by others.

Awe is an emotion. It is NOT a physical creature. It doesn't make claims about the universe.

Moderate theism is only possible by double think. As a skeptic I'd expect you to be against such a... perversion... of logic and reason. I crtainly am.

Doc Nagel said...

Maybe I missed your definition of this distinction, but I'm curious if there's something to the notion of public reasons that I'm not getting. This isn't a familiar term to me. From your use of it, I gather it means something like a set of premises that would be deemed in some public forum to be rational, probative, relevant, and irreducible to faith alone. Is it something like that?

If so, I sure smell the Habermas on your breath, and I wonder if public reasons isn't an appropriation of his account of what characterizes rational discourse in the ideal speech situation. Are public reasons those kinds of statements?

For, if this is Habermasian in that sense, the criticisms that come out of Lyotard (I'm thinking of The Differend, mainly) might be relevant, if extremely weird and kinky. Could these be language games that simply do not admit of any sort of commensurability?

But I'm just a guitar player, really.

[Irrelevant side note: sometimes it's fun to imagine that the "word verification" series of letters is actually a word. Right now it's "oamyfvj."]

Robert Kirkman said...


I suppose it can be said that science is all about "reality". The real question is whether the domain covered by empiricism and naturalism (narrowly conceived) exhausts the whole of the real. I'm not talking about a metaphysical beyond, just the possibility of a richer (phenomenological, pragmatic, whatever) understanding of what experience is, of which the sciences squint in a particular (and particularly effective) way.

As for ethics, I think there's good reason to say that our moral experience is also much richer the domain covered by consequentialism. I consider myself a humanist, concerned for the autonomy and dignity of my fellow humans. And, I suspect, so are you . . . but I think that can't be reduced to something as one-dimensional as the avoidance of pain.

Beyond that, I would just point out that your comment is written in the tropes of dogmatism ("I fail to see . . .").

Robert Kirkman said...


Yes, I have in fact been chewing on Habermas . . . gristly old bird. If you have the palate for it, you'll catch a suspicion of Rawls, as well. But then, who has the palate for Rawls?

I'm planning to write more about this soon, in connection to the question of whether atheists should proselytize. Is the point to rid the world of theism, or simply to ensure that deliberation on matters of public policy is not hijacked by any one particular "comprehensive view".

I need to work on my understanding of "public reasons", and the limits of that idea, but I think it fair to say that quoting a favorite Bible verse or invoking the innermost thoughts of the Flying Spaghetti Monster wouldn't count . . .

Samuel Skinner said...

Empiricalism covers things that are testable. Naturalism covers things that are repeatable. However, given to be able to test things we need to interact with them... yeah, things that fail this criteria are irrelevant. You wouldn't be able to see them (we can measure light).

But why are autonomy and dignity important? Becuase people value them! Sorry if I sound like a complete and total reductionist... but it sort of does do a good job of covering everything. Completely useless for reality, but a good explaner

DaisyDeadhead said...

For one thing, claims in a particular religious text are only convincing to those who already accept the literal and compelling truth of a religious text, something that is notably difficult to establish on the basis of public reasons.

No, no, no! Claims in a religious text are most convincing to those in a certain EMOTIONAL, QUESTING frame of mind. (William James, Varieties of Religious Experience) This is why AA/12 Step groups became so wildly popular 60 yrs after they were invented--they appealed to an EMOTIONAL STATE and EMOTIONAL REALITY that the 70s made especially ripe.

This is why all the arguments about reason and rationality tend to fail, religion is about emotions and attendant human choices based on those emotions, not rationality. Of course it isn't rational, and constant criticisms that it isn't... well, big snooze. (The believers response: So? And?)

Should I marry him or not? Have a baby or not? Is this person really my friend? Will I be satisfied if I take this job? How do I quit smoking weed/lose weight/get motivated? Am I depressed? --These are the kinds of questions 'rationality' can NOT truly answer because the questions themselves are about emotional states. And people look to religion and higher powers and such, for those particular types of answers.

And as an ex-communist, this:

Being completely uncompromising towards an opposing view is a virtue if theirs is wrong and immoral.

...is what finally resulted in Stalin dynamiting some of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world.

If that's okay with you, be as "uncompromising" as you wanna be, but just understand the REAL LIFE, EMOTIONAL results of such claims.

Humans are NOT rational and Dawkins' "rationality" assumes we are. (while he simultaneous sneers at religious believers in a most IRRATIONAL, GLOATING fashion... you SURE you are as "rational" as you claim you are, dude?)

Anyway, that's the problem as I see it. Or as one of my patron saints, Philip K Dick, might say:

How does Dawkins know he doesn't have an irrational attachment to rationality?

word verification: kingsto

(One assumes this has nothing to do with Toots and the Maytals, Funky Kingston. Not rational AT ALL! :P)