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Gnuism: Is it tru? You’re a gnu! February 6, 2011

Posted by shaunphilly in religion, atheism, polyamory, culture.
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(Not to be confused with this GNUism, which is also interesting and new.  As a writer, I may decide to find a way to combine the powers of these two concepts and take over the world….)

In recent months, there has been a lot of talk about ‘gnu atheism’ on much of the atheist blog-o-sphere, particularly by Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, and (of course) Ophelia Benson (among others).  Despite what some recent articles have ridiculously claimed, the title ‘gnu’ is a take on ‘new’ (as in new atheists), and is supposed to show how seriously we take this title (hint: not very).  As has been said by many people, including myself, there is little that is “new” about our atheism, it’s just that now we are getting more attention (and therefore actually being heard, which many people object to). We have always had this “strident and shrill” (as it is seen by some) tone, but in reality we are just after the truth, with kid-gloves off.

I suppose the new/gnu qualifier, while not being ‘new’ per se, allows us to distinguish us from other atheists in one regard.  PZ Myers seems to have encapsulated the distinction best when he said the following:

Gnu atheism is not simply about what isn’t. Our views do find expression in specific criticisms of specific faiths, but those are just the epiphenomena of a deeper set of positive values that [Stephen] Asma completely misses. Certainly I will make moral arguments against religious pathologies — Catholic priests raping children is bad — and I will judge beliefs by the foolishness of their explanations — creationist dogma is utterly absurd. But to say that is the guiding philosophy of atheism is to mistake the actions for the cause. I have one simple question you can ask of any religion, whether it’s animism or Catholicism, that will allow you to determine the Gnu Atheist position on it.

Is it true?

This is the bottom line.  Whether it makes you feel better, makes life feel worth living, or if it has pretty art, music, or rituals we want to know if it is true.  This has been a motivating question throughout my life, one that has alienated me at times.  In fact, this desire for truth is what led me to discover first that I was an atheist (had been all along) and later that I was what was being called a “new/gnu atheist”.  That is, there was no conversion or decision to join the ranks, this term just describe how I thought about the issues at hand.

But this question of “is it true” is relevant for more than religion, but also for many other things (astrology, homeopathy, etc).  And I am finding, as I navigate the world and think about various issues, that this is a strong motivator for me for many things (if not all things).  I find myself asking not so much whether this issue is helpful, pleasant, or even pragmatic, but whether it is true.  And this often causes me to rub against people in the wrong ways, as I’m sure is true for others with similar personalities.

I am hesitant (for once) to site a recent example that acts as the cause for these thoughts, because of the arguments that this example brings up are controversial and I have not clarified my position quite yet.  To reference the issue vaguely and analogously, I will say that my uncertainty of the truth of this question makes my questions appear as if I am trying to take a conservative stance on someone’s rights, when in fact I am asking if the action (and not their right to do that action) is one that even makes sense.  I’ll say that an analogy would be the scene from Life of Brian where Stan declares that he wants to have a baby.  The dialogue continues thus:

Judith: [on Stan’s desire to be a mother] Here! I’ve got an idea: Suppose you agree that he can’t actually have babies, not having a womb – which is nobody’s fault, not even the Romans’ – but that he can have the *right* to have babies.
Francis: Good idea, Judith. We shall fight the oppressors for your right to have babies, brother… sister, sorry.
Reg: What’s the *point*?
Francis: What?
Reg: What’s the point of fighting for his right to have babies, when he can’t have babies?
Francis: It is symbolic of our struggle against oppression.
Reg: It’s symbolic of his struggle against reality.

Now, I love this scene (and this movie), but the comedy here is sort of what I’m getting at at my vaguely referred-to issue.  What does one do when faced with a question of rights when the right might not make sense in the first place?  A question for another time, I think, but I’m going somewhere with that at some point in the future.

For now, what does this have to do with the term ‘gnu’?  Glad you asked, because I was getting off-track there.  I wonder to what extent the distinction between the gnu atheists and other non-gnus might be this preoccupation with the truth.  The desire to find whether something is true or not is certainly not universally shared (perhaps it is not even very common), and it creates a distinction between people who will apply their skepticism to most aspects of their life (perhaps applying universally is an impossible feat) and people who will forgo such skepticism from many aspects of their lives for various reasons, but including the desire to keep it away from things which may not be true but make them comfortable.

Perhaps, as a kind of coining of a term, one can detach the ‘gnu’ from the atheism and view this qualifier as an independent term which would imply a priority of truth.  As Matt Dillahunty has said on the Atheist Experience (and elsewhere), he wants to believe as many true things (and as few false things) as possible.  I agree with him, and this is a personality trait that Matt and I share, which is why I life listening to him so much…because he reminds me of myself, or something (not that I am totally self-absorbed).  And I think that those people who identify as Gnu atheists share this quality; it may be what distinguishes the gnus from the non-gnus.  And since this attribute is applied to more than their views on gods or religions, they are ‘gnu’ in more than a religious sense.  They are gnus generally.  They are, perhaps, Gnuists.

Now, one might say that this coinage is stretching a little, and I can see that.  Others might point out that this term is superfluous because the proper application of skepticism (which does indeed lead to atheism) is equivalent to this term in many ways.  I agree, but I sort of like the term used in this way for the single purpose that it acts to pull out this very issue of applying skepticism properly to all things (or at least trying to), rather than leaving it aside for some things (such as religion) as many in the skeptical community do.

A gnu is a person who wants to ask “is it true” about all things.  They are not accommodating any issue simply because it might avoid controversy or offend someone.  It will imply that they are an atheist (unless, of course, it can somehow be demonstrated that a god actually exists), but it also implies that they are asking “is it true?” to more than just gods.

Here’s a handy mnemonic device:  “Is it true?”, you’re a gnu!

Perhaps I should start a church of Gnuism.  It would be similar to my old idea to start a temple of Gnosis Dionysus, but with less Dionysian hedonism and more questions.  OK, you are right, let’s keep the hedonism.

 

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Comments»

1. Larry Granroth - December 21, 2011

It sounds like a gnu atheist is essentially a citizen scientist.

It occurred to me some time ago that atheists spend a lot of time pointing out the silliness of religion but little time considering reasonable alternatives. We offer parodies of religion, but have we ever considered that it may well be possible to offer an alternative to “believers” that provides many of the features that make religion attractive to them? Certainly the beauty and grandeur of nature and the discovery of its truth is as awe inspiring as any mythology, but is the “welling of spirit” enough? What are the primary allures of religion?

I venture that one of the strongest allures of religion is the promise of an afterlife. As atheists, we realize that a possible eternity of non-existence after we die is unlikely to be any more uncomfortable than the billions of years of non-existence before we were conscious. But consider what it would take to provide an afterlife: If we postulate that all information in the universe is conserved, then it would seem inevitable that at some point in the future our descendents or some other sentient beings in the universe would discover how to access that information. But there’s no need to speculate about the frontiers of theoretical physics – we probably only need to preserve a sufficiently detailed description of a neural network. It’s reasonable to hypothesize that our being, our “soul”, is completely encoded by the physical organ that is our brain. If so, then a sufficiently detailed brain scan or a properly preserved organ should be sufficient information to reproduce us, say in a computer simulation, at some point in the future. Voila! Afterlife.

(I was thinking this would make for a great episode of “Big Bang Theory” with Sheldon inventing a religion that provided all of the requisite features of his mother’s fanatical Christianity, but based only on the reasonable extrapolation of current knowledge. I googled “sheldonism” but got a whole zoo of alternatives, so the next term I tried was “gnuism” and landed here. Gnu as in the Free Software Foundation, original champions of the open source movement. I’m a computer geek also.)

I’m sure that a whole shopping cart of religious goodies could be provided by an alternative science-based “religion”. Faith is of course necessary, but not blind faith, but rather faith based on reason and knowledge – faith in the potential of the human race to evolve and improve, faith made stronger by continued and serious skepticism, faith in the scientific method. Ancestor worship would be one handy way to keep our descendents interested in us. Of course we might also simply provide a source of entertainment or research material. There’s plenty of potential for future judgment, which seems to be required by some people to behave themselves. Those that eventually grant us afterlife may judge some to be more deserving than others, and, yes, there’s even the potential of torment and suffering. God would be that future society, hopefully our descendents, that develop the capability of granting us our afterlife.

Idle speculation. However I note that it’s just now approaching the time of the Solstice, and that would be an auspicious time, and convenient holiday, to mark this beginning of the Gnu great religion. ;^)

2. shaunphilly - December 24, 2011

Well, I thank you for your thoughts, but I have to respond to some of this because I find many flaws here.

“It sounds like a gnu atheist is essentially a citizen scientist.”

OK, sure. I can agree to that

“It occurred to me some time ago that atheists spend a lot of time pointing out the silliness of religion but little time considering reasonable alternatives. We offer parodies of religion, but have we ever considered that it may well be possible to offer an alternative to “believers” that provides many of the features that make religion attractive to them?”

There is a sort-of stock reply to a lot of what you said, especially about finding an alternative, or something to replace religion with. It is to say that what do you replace cancer with when you get rid of it?

Religion has some good aspects to it (they are human things appropriated by religion. No, usurped is better), but where it is unique it is poisonous and unnecessary. Instead of replacing those things, we need to outgrow them. We need to grow up as a species.

You said:

“If we postulate that all information in the universe is conserved, then it would seem inevitable that at some point in the future our descendents or some other sentient beings in the universe would discover how to access that information….”

No, information is not conserved. Energy is conserved (it is equivalent to matter), but the information is lost.

We may be able to find technological ways to store that information and upload it. This is, in fact, the dream of many transhumanists who look forward to a much longer life lived either in some sort of Matrix world or even in some technological bodies which won’t get sick, can be fixed easier, etc.

To me this is no different, philosophically, from looking forward to a heaven that follows this broken, sinful, world. It says that this life is not only insufficient, but essentially worthless. It de-values human life, and makes us overlook it in the hopes for something better. It is precisely what is wrong with religion, not what we should save from it.

Until such technological feats are a reality, this is dreaming away our lives. Sure, let’s research the possibilities, but please enjoy this life because it is almost certainly all that we will have.

“Faith is of course necessary, but not blind faith, but rather faith based on reason and knowledge – faith in the potential of the human race to evolve and improve, faith made stronger by continued and serious skepticism, faith in the scientific method.”

No. A thousand times no.

Faith is poisonous. It is the rotten center of all that is not rational or scientific. Faith is the exact opposite of skepticism and science.

What you seek is reasonable expectations based upon empirical study. Faith is the vileness of insisting that something is true in the face of all that demands that it is a lie. It is the assertion of truth where no justification can be found. It is believing in what has not been shown to be the case.

“Ancestor worship would be one handy way to keep our descendents interested in us. Of course we might also simply provide a source of entertainment or research material. There’s plenty of potential for future judgment, which seems to be required by some people to behave themselves. Those that eventually grant us afterlife may judge some to be more deserving than others, and, yes, there’s even the potential of torment and suffering. God would be that future society, hopefully our descendents, that develop the capability of granting us our afterlife.”

A millions times, no. Worship nothing. To worship is to place it where it cannot be reached, probed, questioned. If anything is worthy of reverence, it is that nothing is beyond question. Do not elevate any aspect of reality to a place beyond question, for that is where we lose ourselves to mental slavery.

“Idle speculation. However I note that it’s just now approaching the time of the Solstice, and that would be an auspicious time, and convenient holiday, to mark this beginning of the Gnu great religion. ;^)>”

Religion is to be outgrown; plain and simple. I want no part of any “gnu religion.”

3. “Gnu Religion”? « The atheist, polyamorous, skeptic - December 24, 2011

[…] while back I wrote this piece about gnu atheism, and the other day I received this response.  By all means go and look at it for full context, but […]

4. collin237 - October 8, 2013

The problem is that from what I’ve seen written by gnus, they deviate from truth in one specific way: they insult people. An insult is never true. Indeed, any statement ceases to be true once an insult is incorporated into it.

So an actual concern for speaking only truth would automatically take care of civility, which I’ve seen gnus specifically denouncing. However, if it were instituted on a large scale, it would stop the progress of science. In order for a research program to be scientific, it must start with a hypothesis. As originally stated, a hypothesis cannot be true. There is a time when truth must be spoken, which is when each study is summarized. And when a theory finally emerges beyond reasonable doubt, it is a truth that follows from the hypothesis, although it may be quite different.

Also, art cannot be true. A statement that is beautified by art is just as untrue as a statement that is uglified by insult. Religion contains both, and if an alternative would be something with art only, I would agree with Larry that it would be very nice. And indeed, mainstream religion seems headed that way as insults become less fashionable.

However, the gnu movement, which could logically be supposed to avoid both art and insult, is using them quite a lot, with the emphasis on insult. Since P. Z. Myers, who seems to be a leader of the gnus, has already denounced the very definition of atheism, this similar disregard for the claim to hew to truth is on par.

And the entire fight between gnus and the rest of the world (including other atheists) turns on a claim that is not only untrue but actually false: that it is impossible to refute something without insulting it.

And the distinction between insulting a belief and insulting people is just a smokescreen. For if explaining why a claim is wrong is not a sufficient way of calling it wrong, what else could be lacking except an indictment against the people spreading the claim? And speaking of indictment, Tatarize is a good example of this.


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