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Reflections on the skeptic/atheist movments..

popculturepooka
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5/19/2015 6:53:42 PM
Posted: 1 year ago
I largely agree with Massimo's blog post: https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com...

Many in the SAM movement seem to fit this profile.

"The Harris-Chomsky exchange, in my mind, summarizes a lot of what I find unpleasant about SAM: a community who worships celebrities who are often intellectual dilettantes, or at the very least have a tendency to talk about things of which they manifestly know very little; an ugly undertone of in-your-face confrontation and I"m-smarter-than-you-because-I-agree-with [insert your favorite New Atheist or equivalent]; loud proclamations about following reason and evidence wherever they may lead, accompanied by a degree of groupthink and unwillingness to change one"s mind that is trumped only by religious fundamentalists; and, lately, a willingness to engage in public shaming and other vicious social networking practices any time someone says something that doesn"t fit our own opinions, all the while of course claiming to protect "free speech" at all costs.

Let me give you some examples and name some names of big boys who can take the criticism and who will keep doing what they have been doing regardless of what I write anyway.

I have already mentioned Harris, who writes about ethics with little acknowledgment (or understanding, or both) of just how complex a topic it is, and how much literature there is out there to engage with. As he infamously wrote in the first footnote of chapter 1 of The Moral Landscape, "Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy " [but] I am convinced that every appearance of terms like "metaethics," "deontology," " directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe." Why are we taking such a brazen display of anti-intellectualism as anything more than a clear mark of an overinflated ego? But far from that, Michael Shermer then builds on Harris" point (or perhaps simply restates it, at much greater length), coming out with yet another "revolutionary" book about the science of ethics, predicated on an argument that had so many holes in it that I felt a bit embarrassed having to explain them in a public forum a couple of years ago [15].

Then we have Neil deGrasse Tyson. Great science popularizer, but also prone to anti-intellectualism in the form of dismissing an entire field (philosophy) of which he knows nothing at all [16], not to mention his sometimes questionable behavior when it comes to intellectual fairness, as even my colleague (with whom I often disagree) Jerry Coyne has firmly pointed out [17]. That particular episode had to do with yielding to the whims of yet another physicist/anti-intellectualist who has become a darling of SAM: Lawrence Krauss [18].

And speaking of great science popularizers who are very much adored within SAM: Richard Dawkins has actually trashed yet another field (besides philosophy) of which he knows nothing: epigenetics and the study of its inheritance. Luckily, what he referred to as a "bandwagon" (actually very sound, cutting age biological research) keeps going regardless of Dawkins" opinion, producing thousands of papers every year and securing tens of millions in funding from evidently profoundly misguided federal agencies. And let"s not go (again) into the exceedingly naive approach to religious criticism that has made Dawkins one of the "four horsemen" of the New Atheism.

One can"t talk about either Dawkins or the Horsemen without at least in passing mentioning Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant polemicist, very funny and caustic writer, who however couldn"t make up his mind about his politics, ranging from Trotskyism to neoconservatism, all the while being universally eulogized by SAM as a genius and a saint (both of which he would have laughed at heartily) when he died [19].

(You may have noticed that the only prominent New Atheist I don"t take to task is Dan Dennett. That"s because I honestly think he is a better intellectual than the rest of them combined, and he also happens to be a genuinely pleasant individual. The fact that moreover he is the only philosopher of the group may or may not be coincidental, we don"t have enough data points to make that judgment.)

Last, but certainly not least (dulcis in fundo, as the Romans used to say) one cannot conclude this parade without mentioning P.Z. Myers, who has risen to fame because of a blog where the level of nastiness (both by the host and by his readers) is rarely matched anywhere else on the Internet, and who has lately discovered (together with a number of others that I don"t need to mention here) both social progressivism and feminism (or perhaps he invented them?), and has immediately proceeded to confuse them, somehow, with tenets of atheism.

I hope others equally worthy will not feel too bad about being left out of the above list. These are just examples of what I think has been an obvious general trend in SAM over the last decade or more. Besides, I"m no Dante, exhaustively allocating slots in the Circles of Hell (or, occasionally, Purgatory). My goal isn"t to damn Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or whoever for being wrong (or simply in disagreement with me!) about this or that. We can all disagree, and we are all wrong at least some of the time. My dismay is at the celebrity culture and degree of groupthink that now permeates SAM " both of which, you would think, are exactly antithetical to what skepticism and atheism are supposed to be about."
At 10/3/2016 11:49:13 PM, thett3 wrote:
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RuvDraba
Posts: 6,033
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5/19/2015 7:41:03 PM
Posted: 1 year ago
At 5/19/2015 6:53:42 PM, popculturepooka wrote:
I largely agree with Massimo's blog post: https://scientiasalon.wordpress.com...
Many in the SAM movement seem to fit this profile.

Although an atheist myself and frequently critical of religion, I've never been convinced there is actually a New Atheism movement, PCP. The phrase 'atheist' in itself is really a theologically-coined term for a grab-bag of disparate thought that rejects theological claims to authority while being skeptical about creationism.

I'm not sure what an 'old atheist' is, but silence and passivity have never been requisites for rejecting the authority of the church. In Europe, critique of religious authority began at least as early as the Protestant movement, predating the Age of Enlightenment by at least two centuries. The 'atheists' of the Enlightenment seem to have largely been Deists -- meaning, they were every bit as strident as 'New Atheists' in embracing rationality and rejecting the authority of the church while (consistent with the science of their day) not being skeptical about creationism. In Protestant critique of clergy and Deist critique of religiosity you can find precursors of many of the arguments now adopted by atheists of the so-called New Atheist movement.

Since then, the science has updated of course: divine intervention is believed a lot less, and theological claims of creation have retreated into the semantically murky domain of the pre-cosmological -- but that's as true among believers as among what the Pew Center calls "religious nones".

But to the best of my understanding the New Atheist movement isn't a philosophical, moral or a political movement. It's rather a series of critiques against religious authority, and a vague (and not always well-researched or well-crafted) appeal to secular humanism.

But oddly enough, New Atheist critique frequently captures the frustrations of parishioners too. Very few criticisms leveled against (say) the Roman Catholic Vhurch by the likes of Hitchens are not also echoed by many current or former Roman Catholics. Few of the criticisms of Evangelism are not shared by other Protestants. Many of the criticisms of Islamicism are felt (though not without mixed feelings) by modern, moderate Muslims, trying to find a path to self-determination between the Scylla of Bronze Age fundamentalism and the Charybdis of a developed world full of xenophobic Christians.

If New Atheism were a movement at all, I'd be inclined to view it as a publicity movement: one where reasonably articulate people who don't have to worry about heresy, blasphemy or religious fellowship voice frustrations accumulating for centuries over the ignorance, corruption, poor accountability and poor transparency of religious institutions.

But the frustrations don't necessarily belong to atheists alone, and neither is atheism a necessary conclusion of that critique.

I'm not sure if hearing an atheist say that is heartening or not, but I hope it might be helpful. :)
RuvDraba
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5/19/2015 10:10:37 PM
Posted: 1 year ago
At 5/19/2015 7:41:03 PM, RuvDraba wrote:
But to the best of my understanding the New Atheist movement isn't a philosophical, moral or a political movement. It's rather a series of critiques against religious authority, and a vague (and not always well-researched or well-crafted) appeal to secular humanism.

Sorry to quote my own post, but I should have added: empirical and philosophical arguments against Creationism. That's definitely part of the list.
Fkkize
Posts: 2,149
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5/19/2015 11:07:33 PM
Posted: 1 year ago
As far as I remember, the new atheists were a counter reaction to the american new theists and as such have a purpose. One engaged in charismatic anti-intellectualism and so did the other.
: At 7/2/2016 3:05:07 PM, Rational_Thinker9119 wrote:
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: space contradicts logic
SNP1
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5/20/2015 9:10:17 AM
Posted: 1 year ago
I do have to agree with some of the points made, one of which is the disregard for philosophy by many of the popular atheists. It does irritate me a bit.

Now, I do regard Hitchens as a genius for one major reason, he seemed to be able to convince anyone of anything. Not all his points were sound, but he (unlike many popular atheists) makes you think about the issue.

I do also agree that quite a few of the popular atheists talk about subjects that they have little understanding about, but I do think that many of them are trying to learn the subject and are open to criticism (but not bashing).
#TheApatheticNihilistPartyofAmerica
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Harikrish
Posts: 11,011
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5/20/2015 10:14:54 AM
Posted: 1 year ago
What is certain is SAM and the New Atheists aren't going to change the minds of the billions of religious nuts still clinging on to Bronze Age beliefs of people long dead. But they do create a platform that demonstrates how far we have come despite being hampered by the majority's nostalgia for the dark ages where a single candle was all the light a community needed.
It isn't easy carving out the place God occupied in the human psyche without finding something equally preposterous to fill the void created. Atheists by their very integrity of purpose have not offered good alternatives to the bibles preponderance of guilt, afterlife, salvation and justification by faith nor have they attempted to replace one form of superstition with another.
One would expect enough relief could be found in the misguided believers to just hear the atheist reassure them "It ain't so, what is written in the bible just ain't so." Next they have to deal with the Quran and an illiterate prophet with 800 million illiterate Muslim followers who do not take kindly to the brevity of wit and 'it ain't so' becomes a jihadist code word for 'take care of the infidels doubts'.
But the writing is on the wall. The New Atheists are stripping away the layers of ignorance piled on by successive generations of anti-intellectualism and obscene servitude to delusional leaps of faith into the absurd, without repeating the mistakes of the past by avoiding the theological mind traps.
EtrnlVw
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5/20/2015 10:29:15 AM
Posted: 1 year ago
At 5/20/2015 10:14:54 AM, Harikrish wrote:
What is certain is SAM and the New Atheists aren't going to change the minds of the billions of religious nuts still clinging on to Bronze Age beliefs of people long dead. But they do create a platform that demonstrates how far we have come despite being hampered by the majority's nostalgia for the dark ages where a single candle was all the light a community needed.
It isn't easy carving out the place God occupied in the human psyche without finding something equally preposterous to fill the void created. Atheists by their very integrity of purpose have not offered good alternatives to the bibles preponderance of guilt, afterlife, salvation and justification by faith nor have they attempted to replace one form of superstition with another.
One would expect enough relief could be found in the misguided believers to just hear the atheist reassure them "It ain't so, what is written in the bible just ain't so." Next they have to deal with the Quran and an illiterate prophet with 800 million illiterate Muslim followers who do not take kindly to the brevity of wit and 'it ain't so' becomes a jihadist code word for 'take care of the infidels doubts'.
But the writing is on the wall. The New Atheists are stripping away the layers of ignorance piled on by successive generations of anti-intellectualism and obscene servitude to delusional leaps of faith into the absurd, without repeating the mistakes of the past by avoiding the theological mind traps.

Are your family traditions and scriptures bronze aged? If so why do you adhere to them. I'd like to know how you justify your hypocrisy....
RuvDraba
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5/20/2015 1:56:52 PM
Posted: 1 year ago
At 5/20/2015 9:10:17 AM, SNP1 wrote:
I do have to agree with some of the points made, one of which is the disregard for philosophy by many of the popular atheists. It does irritate me a bit.
In fairness, philosophy -- the formal sort produced by academics and delivered from a lectern -- is not the centrepiece of conversation any more.

While philosophical ideas continue to underpin questions of politics, ethics, reason and social identity, they're more woven into those ideas than standing apart to be admired as academic product in their own right.

Education, science and communications have democratised discussions of traditionally philosophical subjects to the point where at the kitchen table, people will 'reinvent' Bundle theory, say, even if they've never heard of David Hume.

So I don't think Harris has said any more than most people think. Genetics, cosmology, global warming and multiculturalism are all kitchen-table conversations, and none of these concepts is lowbrow. So if philosophers want to put deontics and metaethics onto the kitchen table too, they'll need more than an aggrieved sense of entitlement to do so. :)

Whether Harris himself should have read more philosophy -- possibly. But whether a professional philosopher couldawouldashoulda done better than Harris exploring the same issues, nobody's stopping them trying to do so.

And regarding whether Harris is a thinker who communicates, or a self-promoting communicator who occasionally thinks, I found his conversation with Chomsky revealing.
Raisor
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5/20/2015 7:46:41 PM
Posted: 1 year ago
I agree with a lot of this (PZ is seriously the worst), but is it really surprising that writers and thinkers aimed at a public audience aren't "engaging with academic literature?" These guys are popularizing certain philosophical and intellectual positions, their fame is derived from their popular appeal not their academic rigor. Still, I do find most of Dawkins et al to be grating and in my mind I roll my eyes whenever someone talks about the God Delusion. But really doesn't that just show I'm just as condescending as the New Atheists?

Its always pointed out that the abrasiveness of the movement can be attributed to the religious repression many atheists had to endure, but it is a fair point. I know plenty of people who don't believe in God but would never say so to their family or in public discussions. The "egotistical" side of the movement is just a psychological reaction to being marginalized.

At risk of "tu quoque," most religious movements suffer the same problems. Christian figureheads (at least in America) are just as, I'd argue much more, guilty of saying ridiculous things about foreign policy, science, philosophy, and promoting anti-intellectualism.

All this being said- a movement that tries to claim intellectual high ground should be held to a higher standard. IMHO the solution is instead for the skeptic movement to relinquish its pretensions of intellectual superiority.

Also if you think Chomsky is a great foreign policy theorist you aren't in a great position to be criticizing a movement for idolizing people who speak outside their areas of expertise.

TLDR: A lot of these criticisms are applicable to all popular "movements," but atheists should learn the virtue of humility. Chomsky isn't a great political philosopher.
Illegalcombatant
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5/20/2015 8:32:40 PM
Posted: 1 year ago
You seem to be complaining about a cult of personality. You know where people just accept that dear leader can do no wrong.

One word for ya pop......................JESUS.

So tell me again about your concerns about Sam Harris in this regards say vs Jesus or Muhammad.
"Seems like another attempt to insert God into areas our knowledge has yet to penetrate. You figure God would be bigger than the gaps of our ignorance." Drafterman 19/5/12
Raisor
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5/20/2015 9:12:45 PM
Posted: 1 year ago
At 5/20/2015 8:32:40 PM, Illegalcombatant wrote:
You seem to be complaining about a cult of personality. You know where people just accept that dear leader can do no wrong.

One word for ya pop......................JESUS.

So tell me again about your concerns about Sam Harris in this regards say vs Jesus or Muhammad.

That's beyond apples and oranges.

The article/blog post is criticizing specific attitudes and positions common to a movement and specifically how the prominent figures in the movement fail to embody a certain intellectual ideal. The cult of personality is certainly part of his complaint, but not the entirety.

Not sure how Jesus has any parallels here. At any rate Jesus has done more for Western philosophy than Sam Harris, so I guess that's one point of comparison.
popculturepooka
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5/21/2015 11:06:32 AM
Posted: 1 year ago
At 5/19/2015 11:07:33 PM, Fkkize wrote:
As far as I remember, the new atheists were a counter reaction to the american new theists and as such have a purpose. One engaged in charismatic anti-intellectualism and so did the other.

That's fine. But New Atheists also are constantly claiming the intellectual high ground.
At 10/3/2016 11:49:13 PM, thett3 wrote:
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popculturepooka
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5/21/2015 11:07:49 AM
Posted: 1 year ago
At 5/20/2015 8:32:40 PM, Illegalcombatant wrote:
You seem to be complaining about a cult of personality. You know where people just accept that dear leader can do no wrong.

One word for ya pop......................JESUS.

So tell me again about your concerns about Sam Harris in this regards say vs Jesus or Muhammad.

See Raisor's post.
At 10/3/2016 11:49:13 PM, thett3 wrote:
BLACK LIVES MATTER!
popculturepooka
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5/21/2015 11:11:47 AM
Posted: 1 year ago
At 5/20/2015 7:46:41 PM, Raisor wrote:
I agree with a lot of this (PZ is seriously the worst), but is it really surprising that writers and thinkers aimed at a public audience aren't "engaging with academic literature?" These guys are popularizing certain philosophical and intellectual positions, their fame is derived from their popular appeal not their academic rigor. Still, I do find most of Dawkins et al to be grating and in my mind I roll my eyes whenever someone talks about the God Delusion. But really doesn't that just show I'm just as condescending as the New Atheists?

Its always pointed out that the abrasiveness of the movement can be attributed to the religious repression many atheists had to endure, but it is a fair point. I know plenty of people who don't believe in God but would never say so to their family or in public discussions. The "egotistical" side of the movement is just a psychological reaction to being marginalized.

At risk of "tu quoque," most religious movements suffer the same problems. Christian figureheads (at least in America) are just as, I'd argue much more, guilty of saying ridiculous things about foreign policy, science, philosophy, and promoting anti-intellectualism.


I agree. And that is constantly pointed out as it should. But when there's a significant part of a movement that goes around parading it's intellectual superiority ("brights", anyone?) , rationality, skepticism, etc it's more than a bit ironic. I see religious fundamentalists and New Atheists as two sides of the same coin, anyhow.

All this being said- a movement that tries to claim intellectual high ground should be held to a higher standard. IMHO the solution is instead for the skeptic movement to relinquish its pretensions of intellectual superiority.

Also if you think Chomsky is a great foreign policy theorist you aren't in a great position to be criticizing a movement for idolizing people who speak outside their areas of expertise.

TLDR: A lot of these criticisms are applicable to all popular "movements," but atheists should learn the virtue of humility. Chomsky isn't a great political philosopher.
At 10/3/2016 11:49:13 PM, thett3 wrote:
BLACK LIVES MATTER!