Religion Skepticism

Scientism vs. Philosophism?

Earlier this week, Twitter user @fardarter alerted me to a paper recently published by Massimo Pigliucci, in the journal Midwest Studies in Philosophy. The paper isn’t very technical (and, not behind a paywall), so non-philosphers shouldn’t be afraid of taking a look, assuming that you’re interested in its core topic, namely what Pigliucci describes as the “scientistic turn” in the atheist movement.

Pigliucci’s paper has strong words for Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, Stenger and PZ Myers, setting them up as exemplars of a

totalizing attitude that regards science as the ultimate standard and arbiter of all interesting questions; or alternatively that seeks to expand the very definition and scope of science to encompass all aspects of human knowledge and understanding.

As you might expect, the paper has attracted responses from some of its targets. Jerry Coyne’s response is rather ill-tempered, even as he criticises Pigliucci for his “arrogance” and “attack-doggishness”. PZ Myers is characteristically snarky in his dismissal of Pigliucci’s paper, pointing out that Pigliucci needs to cherry-pick examples for his case to have any merit at all.

Before I add my own (slightly tangential) contribution, I’d also want to remind you of 50 Great Myths About Atheism, in which Russell Blackford and Udo Schüklenk address the topic “Atheism implies Scientism” as myth #43. My brief review of “50 Great Myths” is available on that Amazon page, but in brief, this chapter – and the rest of the book – are well-worth reading for a nuanced take on this and other important issues.

And, nuance is precisely the problem with the two responses to Pigliucci highlighted above, as well as with parts of Pigliucci’s paper itself. There’s a world of difference between the “proper”, and unapologetic, scientism of Alex Rosenberg and the strong naturalism of a Coyne or a Myers, just as there’s a world of difference between the out-there philosophising of Nick Bostrom’s “Simulation argument” and the (typically) pragmatic work of a Daniel Dennett, for example.

The fruitful discussions – in my experience at least – have been in the spaces between these caricatures, and I think that a commenter on Myers’ post, Dominik Miketa, gets it right when he says

I think that atheism itself is not a scientific position, but a philosophical position heavily informed by science, the difference arising due to the fact that, as Massimo has noted, it is pretty much impossible to pin down a set of specific ‘God hypotheses’ that we could mechanically verify or falsify. To be more concrete, you say “Why shouldn’t we reject ideas that might be pretty to some people, but contradict reality?” To which I reply: because you can’t actually show that those ideas contradict reality. What you can do is show that given the theories which form our best-supported science and a satisfactory philosophy of science, those ideas ought to be rejected. To say that science itself has done the work is to skip a step, which may seem nitpicky here, but can be crucial when the science is at least a bit hazy and can be perceived by some as ambiguous – in the case of evo psych, say.

Scientific reasoning and philosophy are partners in a truth-seeking endeavour, and it’s precisely because of this intersection (in atheism) that we need to be aware of nuance, because when you have firmly-held beliefs – and when you’re challenging firmly held-beliefs in others – it can be easy to become complacent or dogmatic about our strategies, and even our epistemic habits.

Spending a lot of time with younger atheists, I notice plenty of the smugness (unwittingly, no doubt) captured in the picture below. Here Neil deGrasse Tyson is used to make the point that science is awesome (which it certainly is) – in fact, so awesome that nothing else can make an impact.


In my experience (and a similar point is made at the conclusion of the comment that I quote above), this sort of attitude is contiguous with the attitude that says “religion is universally bad”, and gets in the way of many attempts at cross-cultural understanding, or interfaith work.

And to my mind, this attitude is currently being reinforced by the fact that many of the prominent new atheists are scientific in outlook, even when they are trying to do philosophy (cf. Sam Harris). Now, this isn’t the fault of these new atheists – as Myers points out in his response, for example, it’s not at all plausible to describe him as being hostile to philosophy.

For readers, philosophy is (or, can be) difficult, so it’s no surprise that we might remember, and have more conversations about, scientifically-framed debunkings of the latest quackery from Deepak Chopra or whomever. That pleasure of finding “the evidence” that destroys some opponent’s case is seductive, to be sure, just as it’s satisfying (mostly for reasons of ego, I’d wager) for Pigliucci, Myers and Coyne to trade insults across their respective bows.

But perhaps, while they are doing so, readers might want to remind themselves, and sometimes be reminded, that this isn’t a zero-sum game. Blog squabbles are just another example of framing things as a contest, a verbal smack-down, where each party defends turf that they’ve either claimed or been pigeonholed into.

In this case, as is so often true, there’s something to be learned from everybody. As Russell Blackford said in a Twitter conversation we were having on this, a few hours ago, “we need patience and doxastic openness all round!”

Amen to that.

Morality Politics

(Reposted): Being Right Doesn’t Guarantee That You’re Not Wrong

Martin Pribble recently asked if I’d be willing to write a guest post for his site. I was, did, and have archived it below. Also of potential interest are two posts in reaction, first from Ophelia Benson, then from Stephanie Zvahn (thanks, both). Many of the comments on those posts are useful in helping to develop further thoughts on this, so thanks to many who weighed in. No thanks for comments like this, which seem generated by one of those PoMo paragraph generators. Sokal would be proud.


It’s not always necessary to be polite. Sometimes, being abrasive or rejecting diplomatic niceties is exactly what’s needed to get a point across. And sometimes, getting a point across is preferable to pleasing the crowd, a subset of the crowd, or even the person you’re talking to. For every person who has been disabused of some fanciful metaphysics by a self-styled “friendly” atheist like Hemant Mehta, you’re likely to find one that’s been persuaded by a firebrand like PZ Myers.

Different approaches work on different audiences. And as so many of us have pointed out over and over again, atheism is not a religion, a cult, an organisation. We’re united in our disbelief in god(s), not in our politics or strategies. So whatever approach one of us takes – no matter how large their blog or Twitter following – it’s a mistake to think that they define atheism, whether old, new, Gnu or one that eschews these categories altogether.

But we (and there, the dangers begin to lurk, as soon as I speak of a “we”) pride ourselves on not believing in the same highly implausible proposition (that gods exist). This means, at the very least, that we share some minimal commitment to reason, in that we want to be guided by the evidence rather than superstition or dogma. And if that is the case, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to suggest that we should apply the same critical mindset to propositions beyond merely the god hypothesis.

So, when we speak of social justice, equality, freedom of speech and so forth, it’s reasonable to expect some similarity in approach, even if not in conclusions reached. To put it plainly, an approach in which we listen to the evidence, in other words to each other, without pre-judging what someone is going to say, what they believe, or what ideological faction they belong to. Their arguments are assessed on their merits, rather than via knowing which websites they frequently comment on.

Nobody can deny that some participants in these conversations are not honest brokers. Some are simply unreconstructed trolls, others trolls of the sly sort, mimicking critical reflection while subtly distracting – and detracting – from the real issues that others are trying to address. Another set of “others” aren’t trolls at all – and it seems to me that the community of sceptical and/or atheist activists and bloggers sometimes have a difficult time of it in distinguishing between these sorts of contributor to the debate.

The trend on the Internet generally – at least according to my anecdata – is for increasing hyperbole and hysteria, perhaps especially so when we can comment anonymously, with no fear of reputational harm. Those who shout the loudest think that they can win, or end up thinking that they’ve won once they have drowned out the opposing view. And even though our community might (hopefully) be more rational than any randomly selected group, we’re not immune to the same trend.

On emotive issues, this can be particularly worrisome, and is also more likely to happen – simply because the stakes are higher. And here’s the thing: I think we forget that a concern for tone does not automatically mean that you are a tone-troll (broadly, someone who is attempting to shut down legitimate criticism on the grounds that it’s expressed in a rude or hostile fashion).

To put it another way: you can grant that Francis Collins (for example) has some pretty confused ideas about which propositions gain epistemic weight via waterfall observations, yet still think that it’s a bad idea to call him some abusive name. You might think it’s a bad idea because you think it rude, or you might think that (on balance) he does more good than harm for science, so let’s not alienate people who we might reach through discussing him politely.

When the space for saying that (“that” being something like “Collins is wrong, but it’s not helpful to call him a moron”) disappears, we’re not having a rational conversation anymore. Yes, I did use the phrase “not helpful” – sorry, but it fits. And what it means is “not helpful to a certain strategic goal”. You might not share that goal, or you might share it, but think it should be achieved through different means. All of which are questions that we can discuss, if we’re still listening to each other.

We’re not, though – at least not consistently. And right now, the debate on misogyny in the sceptical community has escalated to such an extent that there’s a lot that can’t be heard over the screaming. Yes, there is certainly plenty that doesn’t need to be heard because it genuinely is sexist, or excuses sexism. But simply labelling someone a “rape apologist”, for example, doesn’t magically transform someone into actually being a rape apologist.

A problem here is that we could mean different things by a phrase like “rape apologist”. Coming from a position of privilege, most men might well be unaware of how that privilege biases them against seeing various threats, insults or instances of being demeaned or trivialised that women experience. This blindness might make them too tolerant (in other words, at all tolerant) of sexist language, or stereotypes around what it means when a woman dresses in a particular way.

To be clear, this blindness is bad, and needs correction. It’s certainly bad if we create, endorse, or fail to combat a climate of hostility to any poorly defined (and heterogeneous) group like “women”. And the fact that some women believe that such a climate currently exists is a problem in itself, whether or not you’re complicit in creating that climate. In fact, it’s a problem whether or not such hostility even exists – unless you want to claim it’s a complete fabrication, the perception most likely finds inspiration in some forms of behaviour or speech that we could modify at little or no cost.

Furthermore (and obviously, one would hope), rape jokes and stereotypes about women (or about any hypothetical “group”) are bad things. But there’s still a significant difference of degree between a man who says that a woman who was raped was “asking for it” and someone who asks the question whether, empirically, there is any correlation between what women wear and whether that correlates with sexual violence in any way. That difference rests in part with their attitudes, and in part with how easy it might be to change their views.

The former sort of man can perhaps never be persuaded that he has Neanderthal attitudes. The latter one could perhaps be persuaded that that’s the wrong question to ask. But once he’s driven out of a comment thread by name-calling, we lose our chance to persuade. And this is a key thing: it’s not PZ (or whoever’s) job to control the people who comment on their posts. But we all need to be aware that we set the tone at our websites not only by what we write, but also by how we respond to those who leave comments.

So if someone doesn’t give someone else a chance to explain what might be an honest mistake, rather than an attempt at trolling or rape apologetics, before descending on them with abuse, that abusive reaction is also antithetical to the skeptical cause, and should also be called out by the blog owner or other commenters. If it’s not called out, we quickly become gangs who have chosen a side, and chosen our authorities or leaders, and who then defend our turf by whatever means necessary – whether principled or not.

This tribalism, and defending of a cause, comes naturally to most of us. What also comes naturally is to double-down when challenged, especially when others question your integrity or motives. This complicates the reactions that people have to being called out for language that appears – or is – sexist or insensitive to the pervasive misogyny debate. Being defensive in light of such accusations is normal, and it’s perhaps uncharitable to use this defensiveness as further evidence of the commenter’s ignorance, prejudice or malice.

Here in South Africa everyone will know what I’m talking about if I were to use the phrase “playing the race card”, and hopefully you do too. In case you don’t, it refers to a tactic that’s sadly common here, and is used for avoiding uncomfortable discussions and not allowing any facts to interfere with your prejudices. If a white man such as myself says something about South African culture or politics, it is often dismissed simply on the grounds that I can’t understand what it’s like to be black.

What this crude form of identity politics misses is that blackness or whiteness or whatever-ness is only one feature of identity. Sometimes a powerful one, to be sure, but nevertheless, I might have far more features in common with a randomly selected black South African than she does with another randomly selected black South African. The same principle applies with gender, and just as we shouldn’t use the race card, but instead look at the arguments and evidence, we should avoid using the gender card.

Yet, we have to make distinctions between well-meaning interlocutors and trolls, and we all want to keep our websites and blogs free of trollish pestilence. So patience cannot be infinite. But when the current tensions started escalating to the point of an apparent civil war, it started to appear as if – increasingly – some members of this community started making judgements before hearing any arguments.

If all we want is to feel self-righteous, and right, that’s fine. It is indeed good to know who the enemy is. But it’s also good to change the enemy’s mind, where possible, and it’s good to discover that someone you thought of as an enemy is actually simply a confused friend. Let’s be wary of making the latter two sorts of interaction impossible.

P.S. I apologise for the generality in this post. It’s a difficult thing to write about, for various reasons, and that accounts for the evasiveness. First, the vociferous responses to interventions in this area do play a censoring role (or did, in this post). Second, I have friends and “friends” (in the Facebook/Twitter sense) on both sides of the civil war, which serves an inhibiting role. Third, and most important, specifics might detract from the general and primary point I’m trying to make – that we should be careful to keep listening to each other, because the thing we (as skeptics) are arguably best at is remembering  that we can be wrong, and recognising when that’s the case.


An unstoppable tide of trolls

If you’re even occasionally dipping in to the skeptic/atheist/whatever blogosphere, you’d no doubt know that there’s plenty of lines in the sand being drawn. Much of it is rather embarrassing, in that some folk seem so desperate to cast their vote in favour of one camp or another that any pretence of looking at evidence, and making careful judgement, is completely out of the question. Because this round of infighting dates back to Elevatorgate (arguably before, in that elements of previous internal conflicts have also resurfaced), I’m not going to even try to get you up to speed if you haven’t been keeping up.

Here are some examples, though. After the Lehrer resignation, Sam Harris decided to give away free copies of Lying, seeing as that book expressed much of what he’d have otherwise liked to say. PZ Myers announced this on his blog. If you look at the comments on PZ’s blog, it’s only from comment 31 onwards that anyone tries to avoid caricature of Harris’s arguments (on issues unrelated to Lying, note – the fact that he said or didn’t say various things about torture and profiling are treated as relevant to lying).

Russell Blackford then tries to express a few thoughts in defence of Harris, which make it back to PZ’s post in the comments. The comment deals with appropriate and inappropriate uses of the word “racist”, and – whether wrong or right – is expressed in a measured tone. But the immediate response to the comment is: “Incidentally, citing the misogynist shitbag Russell Blackford isn’t going to impress many people here.” There’s a history there too, of course, which you can find out about if you choose to. The only reason I mention it here is to draw attention to the fact that commenter A, who linked to Russell’s post, might have had no idea what commenter B was referring to. Commenter A can’t be assumed to be a veteran of these “debates”, and was perhaps referring to Russell’s post in isolation.

But now, of course, commenter A might never read or comment on Pharyngula (PZ site’s) again. Or, s/he might forever be known as being part of camp X or faction Y. Perhaps, s/he is now a “rape apologist”, and will get shouted down the next time they try to say anything (if they ever do) on any site that is on PZ’s side of these squabbles. In other words, commenter A has perhaps been exiled from a certain community, on the basis of no good reason at all.

I’ll be saying more about tone and the slur of “tone-trolling” in a guest post at Martin’s place (on August 13), so won’t get into that much today either. Suffice it to say that when abuse and insult take the place of debate, nobody wins. I’ve dared to comment on Pharyngula three times, and twice been shouted down for reasons I couldn’t fully comprehend. That’s fine – perhaps I was being dim on those days. But sometimes you’d like to know why, and the problem is that a mob quickly forms, and it seems pointless to try and engage unless you’re already an insider. Clubs, cliques or orthodoxy are inimical to skepticism, and there’s certainly the feel of one there, and on other sites.

Sam Harris pointed this out last night, and PZ has subsequently responded. The comments are again what you’d expect, or have come to expect – you either mock Sam Harris, or you ask a question that’s critical of Harris-mockery. And then you get mocked. Those are by and large the only two options, and as far as I can tell, there’s little room for debate. If you instead want to read a comment thread that encourages debate, go back to the Blackford post in defence of Harris – there’s plenty of deliberate reasoning there, and also telling of people that they aren’t contributing usefully when they resort to insult. Now, both Blackford and Stangroom are philosophers, as am I, so of course I could be expected to have a bias in favour of a certain kind of discussion. The thing is, I’d think – and hope – that all of us in the skeptical community have a bias in favour of communication, and against caricature.

There was a post on Pharyngula a couple of days ago, billed as an open thread wherein people could speak openly to PZ, and make suggestions as to possible changes to the site, comment policies, and so forth. The thread was always going to be deleted after 24 hours (I think it was 24 hours). There were many thoughtful posts there, and one that I wanted to capture  for posterity is at the bottom of this post. You can guess for yourselves what happened to this commenter for daring to question the right of the horde to be abusive. And the thing is – why would the horde not feel they have the right (obligation?) to be abusive when a) PZ very seldom tells them to stop and b) sometimes creates threads where that sort of thing is encouraged.

My column in Daily Maverick today addresses some of these issues, in that it raises the question of how we can adapt to a word in which the immediacy of online communication amplifies the inanity, and makes it that much easier for a like-minded collective to protect their prejudices against any form of challenge. Besides the (very real) issues that have been rending the community (mostly around misogyny), it remains true that there are many thoughtful people on both “sides”, and there is still value in listening to each other. Instead, I suspect that more and more, people will feel compelled to pick sides, and also to stop listening – perhaps in part through measures like eliminating comments altogether.

I’m not ready to do that yet myself, though certainly understand the impulse. Instead, I mostly choose to not respond. But there’s very little reward in that option, both in that I still feel the frustration when an idiotic comment lands, and also because the dialogue can sometimes be very rewarding. Our online engagements with each other are unfortunately tending, at least as far as I can tell, to a victory for those who drown the others out by shouting. They get to stay prejudiced, self-righteous and so forth. And sometimes, perhaps, so do we.

Edit: I wrote a guest post for Martin Pribble’s site, dealing with related themes – read it here if interested.

Morality Religion

Alain de Botton’s Atheism 2.0

Alain de Botton’s talk at the TED Global event last year (Edinburgh, July) spoke of some of the themes explored in his most recent book, Religion for Atheists. The book “suggests that rather than mocking religions, agnostics and atheists should instead steal from them – because they’re packed with good ideas on how we might live and arrange our societies”. I haven’t read the book yet, so can’t comment on whatever virtues it might possess (Terry Eagleton has, and thinks it has few – if any – virtues). But if the TED talk is an accurate reflection of the book’s thesis, I suspect I’d end up agreeing with Eagleton.

The first concern this talk raises is that it starts from a presumption that so-called “new atheism” is the only game in town. It sets up a false dichotomy between “living in a spiritual wasteland” and being a churchgoing zombie, which allows de Botton to swoop in and propose “atheism 2.0” to fill the gap between those extremes. In atheism 2.0, we would develop secular mechanisms akin to religion’s “giant machines, organisations, directed to managing our inner life“. But the “new atheism” trope can quite plausibly be described as a caricature, especially if put in the terms de Botton begins with in the TED talk. Yes, there are lighting-rod type atheists, just as you’ll find more vocal proponents of any contested view. This sort of engagement isn’t compulsory, and it’s to my mind not even typical – it’s simply one element of a strategic interaction with religious believers, in an attempt to persuade them of the wrongness of their views.

Of course it’s true that religions have been very effective in inculcating certain beliefs, habits and dispositions. But they have done so partly by dissuading thought – by creating an impression that certain propositions have the strongest possible truth value, because “God” says they are true, and you can’t argue with that. Any attempt at creating an organised – but secular – form of religion should immediately make atheists wary, because part of the point of a reason-motivated life is that groupthink is in general a poor guide to truth. I can agree with part of what de Botton says, in that he points out the dangers of a potential lack of “moral mentorship” once one escapes from whatever doctrinal understanding of morality your religion brings, or brought. Even here, though, we have all sorts of competing grand narratives already – things like human equality, justice, rights and free speech – which are arguably already as or more entrenched in human minds than any moral notion that results directly from a religion. For better or worse, those sorts of concepts already constitute a kind of groupthink – and if “atheism 2.0” is meant to encourage them, de Botton is offering us an empty box with pretty wrapping.

But that’s not all “atheism 2.0” is good for – we should, according to de Botton, borrow elements of religion to improve things like education, and to find sources of consolation. Listen to the talk yourself – he describes various ways in which elements of religion can be deployed in order to help us to understand “how to live”. Again, the stuff that works has either already been secularised or will be, or was never “owned” by religion in the first place. As for education, PZ Myers is right in dismissing de Botton’s claims that our educational practices can benefit through using sermonising techniques such as repetition. And of course we can be more effective public speakers – but that’s something we can learn through experience, or Toastmasters. We don’t need to study the techniques of the person behind the pulpit.

As for meaning, art, and sources of consolation: Of course we might all get value from ritual, ceremony, community and so forth. Most of us do this already in celebrating birthdays or anniversaries, and even in those regular social interactions with people we know, trust and love. This doesn’t need a label, and doesn’t need any formalising through inventing a new way of being secular.

In summary, here’s the thing: of course we can learn from religion. We can learn from anything, and already do so. But it’s not true – at least in my experience – that there are “so many gaps in secular life”, as de Botton claims. It’s only if you grant that premise, and furthermore claim that religion provides opportunities for learning that aren’t available elsewhere, that religion can be granted any form of privileged status as a source of meaning. The status that it might have is already accommodated in good old-fashioned atheism, and atheism 2.0 seems to be little more than the theme for a book-tour. Which is fine – I wish I could make as much profit from saying so little – but let’s not imagine there’s anything particularly interesting in the idea.


John Gray’s accommodationist waffle

In a lengthy post for the BBC magazine, John Gray tells us that “what we believe doesn’t in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live”. The post is titled “A Point of View: Can religion tell us more than science?” – and while he certainly expresses a point of view, I don’t think it a particularly good one.


Devils in the City of Angels

I was planning to write up the first day of the Council for Secular Humanism conference, which I’m pleased to be attending in LA. But events (in the form of a late night, and Johnnie Walker) intervened. It was, however, a very good day. The afternoon session was particularly interesting, as Chris Mooney confirmed that he’s somewhat smug and superficial, Eugenie Scott showed how it’s possible to make accommodationist politics sound sensible (to audiences who aren’t paying attention), while PZ Myers and and Victor Stenger demonstrated saintly patience in the face of serious provocation. Those of you (South Africans) planning to be awake at 05h30 tomorrow can watch what’s sure to be one of the highlights live, when Sam Harris and Robert Wright debate where secular folk should stand on questions of religion and belief.

After the afternoon session we lurked in a courtyard for 90 minutes or so, before the “Gala Banquet”. The food was pretty good for a buffet, although no beverages were served (besides water and coffee). What was impressive, though, was the spectacle of Americans eating. I’ve seen it plenty of times, but it never ceases to impress. Food is there to be dominated, as if it might leap off the plate and escape if you don’t show it who’s boss. At my table of 8, three of the contestants wielded their cutlery as if engaged in mortal combat – forks and knives held in fists, and food hacked at in savage intent, before being deposited in mid-sentence mouths. All very strange, and slightly unsettling. Another thing (that two of them did) was to place their side-plates containing dessert onto their dinner plates, with food remnants in place, before re-commencing battle.

Once this refuelling was complete, Dawkins took the stage to accept an award (a $45 000 contribution to the Dawkins Foundation), and gave a wonderful speech. Funny, eloquent and insightful – will post a link when it hits the intertubes.