Thursday, December 23, 2010

New Atheism and Accomodationism in conversation, Pt 4

My friend's response:

Re: techno-triumphalism, I am definitely not a Luddite, there is no need to be black and white about these issues. I have the leisure and the insanely amazing technology at my finger tips that allow me to converse with you... it would be silly not be grateful for our situation.

I am just pointing out that our society is facing some complex problems, and we need our best minds to be thinking about them: for example, if the world economy crashes due to peaking oil supplies (which seems possible) there is likely to be a nasty sequence of events... from what I understand we are not coming up with technological solutions for peak oil and natural gas. To point this out is not to say "science is bad", but that there are bigger things going on than acid attacks in Afghanistan (although such things are clearly horrific and deeply depressing).

Re: rationality being a good basis for decision making – I don’t want to get into a language debate but I view rationality as a tool (e.g. you set your goals and then use rational means to achieve them – if you want to climb Everest it is rational to take a Sherpa and oxygen, if you want to keep having all your toes it is probably not rational to climb Everest.... there are lots of goals we have that are not rational (and many rational seeming sub-goals are only rational in context of the larger goal which is irrational).

Is it rational to eat, to try to achieve social dominance, to want to keep living, to be a Communist or a Neo-Liberal? Just saying that human motivation is complex and we should be careful with language.

That is a side point though, re: your main point, I can’t disagree that public decisions, laws etc. should be informed by science and expert opinion.... but let’s not pretend that religion is the only source of “irrationality” or that science/ philosophy can easily resolve moral/ethical quandaries by simply adding more facts.... which is a shame....

Generally I am interested in the reasoning behind the "New Atheist" movement - why does the issue seem so pressing, is it the best use of the time and intellectual energy of the individuals involved?

I have a lot of respect for scientists and work with many highly trained people, MDs etc, but I can't help feeling that the passion that "New Atheists" have for their topic of interest could be better directed by living by what they have decided are the best objective moral values.

By helping poorer societies become more orderly, equitable, and less encumbered by complex issues (many of which we have had a least a small hand in creating) they might actually improve the living conditions of the people who live in these countries.

The point I was making about the details is that it may be a mistake to blame specific passages of religious texts for the bad behaviour of religious people, given that the bad behaviour in question seems to be almost universal. I think that greed and short sightedness may be a better explanation for many issues we face.

From my perspective, it is a fairly short distance between our viewpoints and I want to again remind you that I am a long time Dawkins fan who just thinks his most recent moves have been questionable....

And so I continued:

I don't necessarily agree that science can be characterised as monolithic enough to say that it has its priorities wrong. Green chemistry for instance is a developing field where environmental concerns are weighed equally with traditional chemical concerns of yield and purity.
If we were to discuss this criticism, however, it should be with a view of the economic environment in which science occurs. Science is very slow and expensive, due to the nature of experimental technique and the inevitable difficulties encountered with novel techniques. Greater funding must be acquired if these areas are to be explored: greater funding for non-commercial projects involves political will. Political will for environmental projects will only be enabled by education and the situation getting bad enough to affect people's day-to-day lives.

New atheism is a popular movement. Bertrand Russell was expressing these same views throughout his life as captured on film in 1959 - the American founding fathers were deistic secularists, etc. It is a political position, recognising religious organisations as political entities and balancing their influence. To ask a person like this to justify their involvement would be akin to asking why a Green politician does what they do when they could potentially save more lives making a vaccine- people have rights to their own perspective. Surely a scientific approach to assessing humanitarian costs and benefits would go some way towards resolving these issues if people really needed guidance, but I don't believe that they really do.

I'm not sure what you mean by the statement that bad behaviour seems to be universal. Harris' point about there being different levels of harm from different religions seems to refute it (eg islam vs quakers, baptists vs C of E). If the suggestion is that bad behaviour is evenly spread among all demographics, it would be trivial to refute (ie incidence of murder convictions among Nobel prize winners).

Greed and short-sightedness indeed ARE good explanations for human behaviour. However, religion is anti-psychological. Mental illnesses are not recognised as real by a majority of religions, and recommended treatments for these conditions by churches is usually faith-based rather than medical.

Many Christian faiths have a folk understanding of psychology based upon Paul's doctrine of original sin. The unfortunate corollary is that all good behaviour is then divinely inspired- the idea of 'common grace' supplied by the holy spirit- which I believe disempowers followers to construct their own individual morality.
The ubiquitous morality of the church is then determined in a somewhat autocratic fashion by church leaders, and this subjects the masses to a moral framework which serves primarily the interests of the Church. This is where the greed and short-sightedness can frequently appear, but church leaders are unique among the citizens of the world in their ability to avoid moral scrutiny. Atheism supports the potential establishment of a world in which all individuals can be held accountable in equal measure- where there is potential for the establishment of the rule of law.

In comparison with you, I am a new-school Dawkins fan. Although as a scientist I respect his pop-scientific writing, and the gene's-eye view of evolution was really novel, I don't enjoy these books as much as the God Delusion.
As a polemicist he is astounding, a true Germaine Greer, and just as capable of transforming popular culture. Destroying timid, bullied society's sacred cows is each one's work, but needn't be feared, because these conflicts are long-overdue, and give rise to a more interesting and equitable future.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

New Atheism and Accomodationism in conversation, Pt 3

My friend continued:

You may actually be right regarding the New Atheists, but I tend to assume that they follow a conservative party line with respect to issues other than religion e.g. they tend not to question capitalism and perhaps may tend to moral conservatism? If this is true (I need to do some more research) it puts the lie to the claim of being free thinkers because their views would seem to be determined by their socio-cultural identity.

I also suspect that as scientifically minded individuals they may have an odor of "techno-triumphalism"- an almost religious faith that science will save us (which I personally doubt).

As far as the Abrahamic religions go, you are right that those pesky bits in the bible seem to be co-opted by the more right wing religious folk particularly US Pentecostal churches (and apparently Mormons too). I do know at least one Christian family who are strongly environmentally minded but they are possibly an exception...

I do wonder to what extent intelligent and scientifically minded people get hung-up on the details e.g. God said X, you believe in God, thus your behaviour can be explained by passage X.

There is a hell of a lot of material in the Bible that can be latched on to (as you know) which could be used to put an environmentalist case or indeed many other cases.... most societies, including our own, the Communist countries, even Hindu India have tended to decimate their environments in the last 100 years - is religious justification just icing on the top of a corporate and profit-driven cake?

As an environmentally concerned person it is hard to know if the good fight is at the level of "God does not exist therefore stop justifying your pollution". Politicians have many other justifications such as jobs, competition, trade, "is not a scientific fact" etc. etc.

Also worth noting that apparently the connection between Republicanism and religion is fairly recent and that in the sixties and earlier there was a more of connection between Democrats and the religious (maybe picking up on the "help the poor” stuff rather than the “dominion" bit- if there needs to be a rational explanation for the political allegience at all)

All in all I guess that I tend towards a fairly nihilistic view of humanity's short term future and suspect that fighting religion, while well intentioned, is not likely to make enough change to address more fundamental crises such as the ones I mentioned - and I also worry that religion will become more powerful and ugly when things do go wrong.... damn those Doomer blogs....

Finally a bit of a thought experiment: if we could come up with a "religion" that encouraged "golden rule" type thinking, included rituals and techniques including group pressure that actually got people to behave nicely and sustainably while believing in a benevolent God figure who just popped them on earth for seven decades or so to have a nice time and learn, and then scooped them up again when they died..... would you be for it if it really worked?

(We would be among the elite priest class who know that it is all a helpful fiction :))

...Erm, I think that thought experiment is fairly "Brave New World" now that I look at it.... hmmm

My response:

There are a variety of positions on the political spectrum represented amongst scientists. However the New Atheists are by and large a strongly left-wing, feminist group, and awareness of climate research means that acceptance of AGW is high.

As far as ‘techno-triumphalism’ goes, it's worth assessing what life would be like without these technologies. Higher food costs, existence of smallpox and polio in developed world, no recorded music… There is a basis for some pride in the achievements of our science and technology culture. This does not mean that scientists are complacent- our main information about AGW is scientific, they are the ones raising the alarm. It simply means that policy decisions should be made in light of scientific consensus, something that is hindered by irrational thought of any kind. (We should note that science differs from religion in that it is self-correcting- it does not rely upon dogma or doctrine but competing streams of scepticism).

I don’t see science or rationality as being hung up on details. I think that the world is made up of little details, and there is some objective good in people telling the truth, and trying to explain the details with reference to empirical data. I think that this is the reason I would reject the society outlined in your thought experiment. Kant would say this was using people as a means to an end rather than an end in themselves. I believe that by increasing the profile of rationality and science, by education, we increase social capital and improve a population’s ability to find optimal solutions for themselves.

Monday, December 20, 2010

New Atheism and Accomodationism in conversation, Pt 2

My friend continued:

I am pretty sure that ethics is a part of everybody's lives on a day to day basis e.g. making decisions about whether to cheat at cards or taxes, or contribute money to cause x, and that in a predominantly non-religious society like ours people make these decisions without consulting God, clergy, ethicists, neurobiologists or psychologists...

I'm not totally sure how they make these decisions except that is clearly driven by that innate moral sense which is also steered and possibly co-opted by early learning, exposure to religion, peers, mood, what they saw on TV last night... a long and arbitrary list.

The newspapers are filled with ethical dilemmas and debates – and in addition, many policy questions involve an efficiency vs. equity trade-off that has to be viewed in both economic and ethical terms. These type of issues are generally resolved without involvement of professional ethicists of any stripe.

There are some issues where clergy clearly seem to get the floor – maybe euthanasia for example, but I don’t know if they have the floor exclusively, with op-eds and 60 Minutes type shows usually putting both sides (if only to make things more juicy!)

It seems that the point is at least in part around who has "voice" in our culture and our media around tricky issues such as genetic testing of embryos, abortion, gay marriage etc.

My hope is to find Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris or many of the other thinkers that I admire in many ways taking on more controversial topics: current wars the West is involved in, peak oil, excessive consumption, and third world debt.

These are all more complex issues than whether or not God says you can marry a 12 year old against her will, and the underlying ideologies, while not religious (except possibly the Iraq war) deserve to be unpacked and attacked in the same way these religious questions are attacked. That is, if the real concern is a more moral society and not just a knee jerk response to a bearded dude who claims to know God's will.

I responded:

As you say, ours is a secular society, but non-religious people are still a minority. The "religious issues" such as genetic testing of embryos, abortion, and gay marriage actually affect all of the population- and I believe that the imposition of majority views upon minority rights make these civil rights issues. I think that the complex issues that you raise are important, but we should begin with these simple "low-hanging fruit" issues first.

As far as the other issues are concerned, I believe that those are religious/atheist issues too. I don’t know if you have met many religious environmentalists, but in Genesis it says that man was given dominion over the earth- and it has been found that biblical literalism has a negative correlation with willingness for environmental spending (Greeley 1993).

This indicates that faith in God’s provenance is often used as a solution to problems of this kind. Utah’s house of representatives has passed a bill saying that AGW is a hoax, and many religious groups claim that environmentalism is a destructive new religion.

It is important to realise that the New Atheists are rational and mainly liberal, and are likely to hold progressive views, but are focusing their efforts on what they see to be the root of the problem. I’m inclined to follow their lead, having had many unproductive debates on the complex issues- usually with people who have a limited willingness to listen to evidence.

Your model of the innate moral sense seems to illustrate the importance of the moral influences that we are exposed to. If this is true, then the matter of religion having ‘the voice’ becomes an important one, especially if we can argue that they unfairly claim authority for their stances.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

New Atheism and Accomodationism in conversation, Pt 1

A good friend of mine had just returned from six month’s travel in India. Although an atheist, he pursued his interest in spirituality by visiting temples and yogis during his travels. Home may have seemed mundane in comparison. We were having a catch-up, playing frisbee in the park with another friend, when the conversation turned to the New Atheists.

I had read the God Delusion and broadly agreed with it, possibly as a result of becoming focused on science as a career, and had been following a number of atheist blogs. My friend was unaware of this, and I’m sure he wouldn’t have expressed his opinion so strongly had he known my nascent anti-theism.

‘Richard Dawkins is a good biologist, but when it comes to religion, he is a big wally’.

He also brought up the other canard regarding the God Delusion- ‘Dawkins doesn’t know anything about theology’. I had to ask whether he had read the God Delusion, because Dawkins explains why theology is a red herring and not at all an area of expertise in the book. My friend admitted that despite having been given a copy, he had not read it. Dawkins' tone, or his image, had turned off the philosophical enquiry that was a big part of my friend's personality.

I reacted in the manner of a New Atheist stereotype. When I was told that religion helps people to be humble I had to laugh- look at all the mullahs and cardinals who presume to tell everyone how to live- humble? I told my friend that at least it was helping him take an intellectually humble position.

The conversation became quite barbed and emotional. How great was it to be a smart asshole? I did feel like one, and I had been quite cavalier with the company of my friends. We sensibly moved on to less touchy subjects.

The same topic arose in a later conversation- after I had seen Sam Harris' TED talk on 'the Moral Landscape'. I was railing against moral relativism- saying that no matter what, some things (honour killings, acid attacks and so on) can never be justified, and illustrate that religion can erode morality. My friend suggested that if I had grown up in a highly religious society that I would share these shortcomings- 'if you were a Muslim you would think it was ok'.

In daylight I would have been sure to concede this possibility and examine the sociological variables, but at 2 am and 0.2% blood alcohol I couldn’t entertain this affront to my new values, and left rapidly. The conversation continued in a facebook message thread where I apologized for my messiness and passed on a link to the TED talk and an extended article by Sam Harris.

My friend's response follows:

As far as I can tell he is saying that actions that maximise individual and collective happiness are objectively better than other actions - a reasonable expression of a moral intuition that most humans share, however unjustifiable from the abstract perspective of a philosopher (I think Peter Singer's book "How are we to Live?" is excellent on this subject....)

The difference between Singer and Harris (for example) is that Singer manages to make his case without referring to anybody as an imbecile, or trotting out over the top graphic examples about Ted Bundy raping and murdering young women.... so from my perspective it is the tone that I object to as much as anything else, as it seems to mirror the worst excesses of religion.

There are some Buddhist principles that are consistent with some of his views (e.g. everybody is trying to be happy and to minimise suffering) and these form the basis for Buddhist meditative techniques that try to encourage more moral behaviour e.g. being kind and seeing others as equals. Although Buddhists also believe some very weird stuff, I do find it interesting that they are skilled in efficient psychological transformation.

My question would have to be: are atheists coming up with good ways of changing peoples behaviour in order to bring about a more happy and moral society? Maybe attacking the harmful elements of religion is the first step but what is the second step? How many members of Destiny's Church would or could sit down and read that article? Could it be put it to music, sung by a fresh faced rock band?

From an evolutionary perspective the moral sense was clearly applied to our kin group primarily, given that we lived in small groups and wandered around a lot. Based on what we know of primitive peoples today the moral sense was not so equally applied to other groups/tribes (lots of cannibalism, possible "rape instinct", genocide of Neanderthals etc.)

Can we build a world on any foundation that will not ultimately revert to 'us and them' in some form? See the South Park episode (parodying Buck Rogers) in which the future comprises of three different atheist societies which disagree over the spelling of Richard Dawkins' name and have bloody wars....

I have a strong reaction to the "I know best" approach because you can always pick holes in a persons own morality - is the speaker a renowned donator to charities? How does he feel about the connection between the willingness of western women to dress in high heels and their success in corporations? Is he a vegetarian? Does he wear clothing made in sweat shops? etc. etc. etc. This is why I like Singer, because he is known for his own commitment to living a personally moral lifestyle....


P.S. I think we can all agree that acid in the face is horrific, and it is clearly a challenge for an extreme academic relativist.... lets talk on....

I responded:

Harris' may be guilty of sensationalism, but I think it is forgivable in an attempt to demystify and popularise ethics. As it stands, religious figures without any non-denominational ethics training are trotted out as ethical experts in media. Even as we speak Christian groups in Australia are fighting to prevent ethics teaching in schools as an alternative to religious education.

I would argue that religions have cornered the market on ethics, to the point that many people see ethics as a religious issue only. Only with the ability to criticise one another's ethical stance can we make ethics a part of everyday life, and not just something that is between religious people and god.

Perhaps this monopoly on ethics exists because many ethicists write in an abstract tone, and fail to capture the emotions commonly associated with our moral senses. I'm sure Peter Singer has difficulty convincing a mass audience as well as Harris.

But I think that extremely qualified individuals are marginalised because they are unwilling to go and fight for their beliefs in the same way that religious figures do. Harris contends that this is seen as unfashionable or dangerous to one's academic career.

Ted Bundy is used as an exemplar to illustrate the silliness of moral relativism. His crimes show that not every individual has a good sense of morality, in the same way that Harris is not qualified in astrophysics (personally, I found the line 'I am the Ted Bundy of astrophysics' quite funny- maybe too long on atheist blogs).

As far as I know the talk was not to promote a particular brand of ethics. You will note the idea was proposed of a moral landscape with numerous local maxima representing valuable ethical systems (I believe Peter Singer's approach would be one of these maxima although I personally find his idea of speciesism quite strange).

I believe that Sam Harris wants to direct people to listen to the ethicists and psychologists, neuroscientists etc that are qualified to speak about these matters. The doctrine of moral relativism stipulates that such people are no more correct on moral issues than Ted Bundy or the Taliban, which is patently ridiculous, and a real hindrance to promoting moral and ethical debate.