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.

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