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.


  1. If the issue is social change, I'll echo the now-common refrain that it takes both firebrands and diplomats (which aren't the same as accommodationists, in my book). We need to throw rocks at the clay feet of religion while also building bridges with theists in those areas where we can be allies. The two are not mutually exclusive. It's okay if some or even many people are "turned off" by the firebrands; all that matters is that enough people begin to question the usefulness of religion and the veracity of its claims.

    It is equally important for existing atheists to cohere as a social unit, rather than living in the shadows, as it were. We are a despised and mistrusted group, and by coming together as a cultural force we can begin to show that we are humans who love their children, too. In the face of the disregard that exists towards us, it takes strong voices to bring us together, and Dawkins, Harris, et al have served that purpose very effectively.

    Finally, moral relativism is dying a well-deserved death. The idea is neither beneficial nor reflective of how humans actually work. For everyone who says, "If you were born a woman in Iran, you'd think burkas were just fine," I counter with, "So slavery is okay if the slaves are okay with it, despite having no other options?" As Harris says, there may be many peaks on the moral landscape, but there are an infinite number of troughs.

  2. Fully agree :) thanks for the comments...