The Necessity of the New Atheists’ Methods

(As an aside, I checked Pharyngula and found that P.Z. Myers posted something similar around the same time I posted this)

One of the criticisms of the methods of people like myself–the so-called new atheists–is that we will cause a kind of backlash from believers and others who are sympathetic to the effect of criticism upon the religious and otherwise theistic worldviews. A fair criticism that I hear from appeasers quite often.

But rather than address the arguments of appeasers, I want to address the importance of being willing to accept challenges to personal views. It is this that makes justifiable the reasons for people to be squeamish about the efforts of people like myself. And while I hold no unjustified delusion that I will be able to change this aspect of human psychology in any significant way, I might at least have an affect on a few people. This is all I can hope for.

I believe in perpetual self-challenge. I think that it is important to keep a level of skepticism and lack of resoluteness in my own ideas, in the hope that they will not crystallize into a kind of creed or stubbornness of my own views. It is this idea, and I share it with many atheists, that makes the claim that atheism is a faith absurd.

Let me stop and address that issue for a moment. I will admit that there are some people that I know and who are atheists for whom the nonexistence of god becomes a point of certitude that I find epistemologically irresponsible. They, understandably, laugh at the mythical nature of religious ideologies, but they sometimes go further and conflate these mythologies with the larger question of whether any god might exist. To conflate specific gods with the general question, in my opinion, is a mistake that is made by many an atheist I have known.

And so the claim that atheism is merely another kind of faith, while absurd when fully analyzed, has a kernel of truth to it on the surface. Thus, I understand that many caricatures of religiosity are not fair in the same way that caricatures of the angry, petulant, and intolerant atheist is based upon some unsavory few who make themselves look foolish.

Let me be clear here. I recognize that religious people are not all unthinking, boorish, ignoramuses who are all making the world a bad place. I recognize the importance of religious traditions in people’s lives, and the positive effects it can have on people. I also recognize that the idea of god is one of great inspiration to people, and that in many cases the idea can be beneficial to some. I recognize these things, and still see room for criticism of these ideas.

Why? Because I actually care about the truth. I would prefer to have true beliefs, ones that can be supported by the best methods and evidence that we have available. I think that this value of mine is important, and I would like it to be shared by people, if possible.

But there are barriers between this ideal world and the one we live in. People are largely pragmatic and are not concerned with the truth so much. They are more concerned with, and I understand why, things like where their food is coming from, raising their children, and simply enjoying their lives. No time for silly questions about truth about religion or deities. Oh, but they believe in them whenever an arrogant person comes along and says that they are an atheist. And suddenly this nonchalance disappears from their lives when someone who actually has thought about this issue comes along and calls it mythology. Then they become defensive.

What? unfair caricature? Sure, but in some cases this is precisely what does happen. And while there are many other caricatures I could have brought out, the bottom line is that there are many people in the world that simply do not think about these things and yet still believe them quite strongly. And to ask them why is apparently some great crime.


The reasons are many, and I simply cannot address this whole issue here. Much of it has to do with the fact that these ideas are generally inculcated during childhood, and therefore they are associated with emotions and relationships of supreme meaning to people. We have to remember that religion is tied to many people’s personalities in ways taht will not be parsed easily. And ultimately it may not be possible to divorce the religion from the person, but we can at least provide a template for keeping their minds sharpened in order to loosen the particular beliefs in the hope of them not blindly passing on the associations to their own children. This is, ultimately, a plan for the future more than the present.

The first thing that we need to realize is that our minds will tend to reject information that does not fit into our worldview. It is actually difficult to understand the idea expressed from a worldview that differs from our own because the idea just does not seem to fit into the model of reality we have created. A few days ago I quoted Soren Kierkegaard as saying the following:

One must not let oneself be deceived by the word ‘deception.’ One can deceive a person for the truth’s sake, and (to recall old Socrates) one can deceive a person into the truth. Indeed, it is only by this means, i.e. by deceiving him, that it is possible to bring into the truth one who is in an illusion.

I think that this notion contains a fair amount of merit. What this means to me is that we need to prepare ourselves to be deceived, at least in the sense Kierkegaard means here, in order to allow ourselves the possibility that we are ourselves subject to some illusion. We need to keep a tentative level of certainty concerning our beliefs and accepted ideas, as they may be shown to be incomplete (if not completely wrong) in the future.

(At this point I’ll link to a very good video)

And this is one reason I respect the scientific method so much. It is a method that encourages people to disprove the hypotheses we generate. It is a method that has incorporated this perpetual self-challenge and has allowed us to accept theories as provisionally true because no better explanation has been presented.

And so one strategy should be to make sure that people understand what the scientific method is and how it works. One pervasive idea I run into is that the opinions of science and religion are on equal epistemological grounding. They believe that there really is a controversy between evolution and intelligent design. They don’t understand that these two ideas arose via opposing methods, and exactly what this implies.

How will you know what you believe is true is justifiable if you do not submit them to the criticism they may deserve? How strong is your ‘faith” if it goes unchallenged? And what kind of challenge is it if you only pursue the argument from the side which you already accept? I just love how, when challenged, creationists will appeal to Answers in Genesis( or, ICR or some other similar source), but almost never have even heard of TalkOrigins or can even define evolution correctly .

And as the understanding of this method, it will give a new tool in understanding how we understand, and it will allow people not just to use the resulting technologies of science, but to understand how it works. We should, in terms of our own beliefs, become so inspired by this method. We should become the “new philosophers” (as Nietzsche called them) that are willing to experiment and test our views against the world and to allow ourselves to transcend humanity so that we may one day become better, the ubermenschen.

We cannot simply crawl along in the hope that progress with just happen. The change begins with our own willingness to challenge ourselves. For if everyone is challenging themselves, then nobody has to do it for you, right. Actually, I’m not even sure of that. I still think that there will always be a need for others to challenge us as we do have blind-spots where others can see. Even the most ardent and honest attempt to be self-challenging can be supplemented with help from others.

And since I want active challenging of my own views, I feel comfortable in challenging others myself. And the first thing I will try to challenge is the defensiveness that arises in being challenged. The question, of course, is how. I don’t know completely. I only know that it must be attempted if we actually care about the people and the world around us. And along the way, make sure to pay attention to what others say, as the challenging process is two-way. Any good teacher will tell you that they learn from their students

There are people out there that will always resist criticism. Perhaps nothing can be done for them. But for those that may be willing to hear, but who are not being challenged, we must press on. I will continue to encourage people to challenge their beliefs, their worldviews, and their culture. If you have a better way–a better hypothesis–for how to deal with rampant irrational and ignorant beliefs, then by all means get to work.

So, that being said, bring on the challenges.

3 thoughts on “The Necessity of the New Atheists’ Methods

  1. Challenging worldviews, culture, political views, etc are all things that I agree should be challenged and questioned and whatever else. Religion, though, seems to have fallen off the table for me.

    Largely I realize this is because I simply no longer care anymore. I view religion and/or spirituality as an intensely personal thing that should be entered into for personal reasons. I don’t care what religion any given person is or is not (with one notable exception, but anyway). It doesn’t matter to me if anyone agrees or disagrees with me religiously, provided they allow me the freedom to do as I wish with my own. As such, I am quite unlikely to challenge anyone’s raw religious belief. (talk about them, certainly. I still enjoy such conversations. just not particularly challenge)

    The rub, for me, comes in when religion becomes inextricably intertwined with everything else in one’s life. When religion is the rationalization, when one’s spiritual beliefs dictate all else and there is no room for change or reason or difference. That I view as a problem, and that deserves to be challenged.

  2. I think you overlook the fact that religion and spirituality have substantial social and cultural effects that go beyond what we simply believe. If religion were merely a matter of philosophical opinion about the nature of the universe, your decision to put religion aside from politics and so forth would be understandable.

    However, religious views inform things like political views in ways, on large scales, that effect our world. It is poissible that your religious views do not effect how you vote, who you spend time with, etc, but I sincerely doubt it. The question is whether these effects are benign or harmful. In many cases they are harmful.

    And so I agree with your last paragraph, but would point out that I think that the spaces where religion effect our lives are more prevalent than most people realize.

    And further, it comes down to, for me that the truth actually matters. Thus, not only do I enjoy the conversation, I think the conversation actually matters. So while I would not try to prevent beliefs I find ridiculous (this would be impossible anyway), and in fact I will fight for people’s freedom of conscience, I will continue to challenge the beliefs of people when I think that their ideas are unjustified. Not all the time, just when it is either pressing or welcomed.

    Thanks for your comments.

  3. This was a more balanced post than usual but it still contains a number of logical fallacies, baseless/questionable assumptions, and a misrepresentation of facts.

    First, a word on “appeasers”. Those of us that believe your approach is wrong or pointless should not be described as such. We don’t view religion as that harmful or relevant, ergo we are not ‘appeasing’ it by failing to challenge it. When a child tells me they are excited about Santa Claus I don’t feel I’m “appeasing” the kid by refusing to tell him Santa isn’t real. I never believed in Santa because I always knew it was a ruse and when I myself was a child I used to enjoy spoiling Christmas for other kids and laughing at their stupidity. I hope I’ve grown up a little.

    You also misrepresent the “new atheism” as if mockery and childish insults were an aberration from its usual respectful, rational discourse. This is just nonsense. Of the public faces of NA, Hitchens is ALWAYS drunkenly insulting (and I love Hitch), Dawkins makes outrageous claims that any religious instruction of children is tantamount to child abuse & that Tony Blair is an idiot for becoming Catholic, Harris praises Eastern mysticism while denigrating the Western Tradition & even moderate belief, then there’s the TOK, and that stupid plaque in Seattle etc. You yourself not only deliberately mocked Easter but even made up a story to stress a silly point. An overview of the myspace pages of the rational responders and similar groups exposes the lie you are perpetuating. I suppose of the “Four-Horsemen” (christ how stupid) Dennet has the most rational approach.

    In short, while the NA’s are almost certainly more intelligent on average than the believers, they are not more mature or morally compelling. I would like to add though that the only two individuals I’ve met or had a correspondence with that I believe are more intelligent than I are both believers. One is a pseudo-spinozist that believes in ID the other is a Baha’i.

    Second you make the baseless assertion (I should say implication) that the effects of religious beliefs on political ones are more harmful than good. There is not one shred of evidence for this. You, Joe H., JP and I are all scientifically-minded atheists yet we have very different political views, with JP’s being far more poisonous and destructive than those of most biblical literalists. Look at all the communist societies that attempted to establish godless Nation-States, they were all nightmares. In fact I very rarely find a thoughtful atheist that has any clue when it comes to public policy (you certainly don’t). Sam Harris points out that Christian Fundamentalists understand the real threat posed by their Muslim counterparts in a way liberals don’t. I’m glad at least one voting block in this country does, but he falsely concludes we should fear them.

    Even among “the Four-Horsemen” there is wide political dissent. Hitchens was vehemently pro-Iraq and Bush whilst Dawkins, Harris, and Dennet were vehemently anti. Harris supports torture whilst Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet are resolutely opposed to it. Dennet is for race-based selections, the others oppose it. Hitchens is pro-life, not-so the others. These are not hair-splitting issues. They are all completely inconsistent on Israel, i.e. there is no way that anyone can be as alarmed/terrified by Muslim extremism as these guys are and not look at Israel with more sympathy. I won’t even venture into Chomsky and his anti-porn crusade.

    You see you’ve made an enormous error in assuming that if people only knew the cosmological fact that there isn’t some Grand Designer they will behave more rationally in other ways. You like hockey right? Why? Its irrational to find pleasure in obsolete competitive hunting exercises predicated on the xenophobia written into our genes. Now that you are aware of this I command you to no longer watch hockey. I firmly believe spectatorship is both more irrational & socially harmful than religion. Are are you being an ‘appeaser’ when someone says to you “how bout them Eagles?” and you refuse to say “well you’re kind of an idiot for caring about the Eagles at all”?

    I have a group of theses for you to consider:

    1. What is best for one may not be best for all, in fact it may not even be best for most. Its also possible what seems best for the one may not be best for that one.

    2. At least 50% of the human species is beneath the threshold of intellect where rational thought of abstract matters like morality, teleology etc. is fruitful.

    3. Unless there is clear empirical evidence that conflicts with a particular tradition AND said tradition is clearly harmful to the individual or group it is immoral to convince others to abandon said tradition without first determining whether the alternatives are likely better for at least the group.

    In short Shaun: Would we better off if we recycled our dead for food?

    I myself have no idea, we might expose ourselves to new prionic diseases or it may help solve the food shortage. Either way I’m not going to criticize the waste of space that is burial (if it is a waste, I like the park like nature of cemeteries) or the waste food/fuel that is cremation unless I have a “better” plan.

    You “new atheists” remind me of the first kids that I told Santa wasn’t real. and who where barely older and no smarter than the other kids but couldn’t wait to tell them ha ha Santa’s not real! Yet they didn’t figure it out for themselves I was the one who did. And I almost regret never experiencing that wonder and I was certainly wrong to spoil it for others.

    I already said in another thread I dressed as Zombie/Jesus in the 80’s. When I was a teen the band Negativland put out a T-Shirt that said “Christianity is Stupid” to commemorate the album of the same name. I liked wearing it and starting arguments, civil and otherwise. I was a “New Atheist” in 1993, I hope I’ve grown up a little.

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