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Beyond "new atheism": Where do people alienated by the movement's obnoxious tendencies go from here?

If the "new atheist" movement has been conquered by misogyny and racism, we need rational inquiry more than ever


Phil Torres
August 7, 2017 8:59AM (UTC)

I recently published an article on Salon in which I criticize the “new atheist” movement. By this term, I mean the community that has accumulated around figures like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Jerry Coyne and Peter Boghossian. My criticism focused on two general issues: First, new atheism’s increasing willingness to ignore empirical facts and scientific evidence; and second, a long series of avoidable gaffes by prominent figures (followed by appalling defenses rather than apologies) that have alienated women and people of color while simultaneously attracting alt-right folks with morally noxious anti-feminist, anti-social justice views.

I awaited an onslaught of internet trolling but instead received, to my surprise, literally thousands of messages saying that the article articulated many of the epistemic and ethical concerns people who once identified as “new atheist” have about their former community.

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One of the most common questions that people asked is what atheists who value science, facts, and moral thoughtfulness should do. Are there communities that rational folks could migrate to? One I would recommend is the effective altruist (EA) community. Although not focused on religion, it is founded upon a deep commitment to rationality — e.g., it places huge emphasis on things like Bayesian inference and decision theory — and doing as much moral good in the world as humanly possible. The EA community, so far as I can tell, not only talks about being rational but actually puts it into practice, which distinguishes it, I would argue, from the contemporary new atheist movement.

Others suggested that rather than retreating from the “new atheist” label, one should say: “I’m not going anywhere — I’m here to reform the movement.” There’s something to this idea. After all, I decided not to move to Amsterdam after Donald Trump’s election but to stay in the United States and fight the Zeitgeist of anti-intellectualism and bigotry that Trump represents.

So in that spirit, I thought it might be helpful to outline some values that I think our society desperately needs to reaffirm — values that led me away from new atheism in its current manifestation.

Avoid overconfidence. The overconfidence effect is well-known in psychology. It refers to situations in which one’s subjective confidence in a belief exceeds the belief’s objective accuracy. As Wesleyan psychologist Scott Plous notes, it is one of the most “pervasive and potentially catastrophic” cognitive biases to which the human mind is susceptible.

I believe the United States in general is suffering from a devastating, society-wide epidemic of overconfidence. One result is the idea that the opinions of non-experts are just as valid as those of experts. Thus, people who know nothing about climate science feel perfectly comfortable dismissing the assertions of climatologists who warn that ongoing carbon dioxide emissions will have catastrophic consequences. Similarly, Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay have argued that they don’t need to understand the field of gender studies to level substantive criticisms of it — an anti-intellectual view endorsed my other new atheists as well as, apparently, Skeptic magazine itself.

A particularly egregious form of overconfidence is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which describes how individuals of lower mental abilities are even more prone to overconfidence. As some political commentators have pointed out, Donald Trump and his team of anti-science extremists appear to exemplify this cognitive bias. The result is an especially dangerous situation in which they are not only unjustifiably sure about their views, but their views have a higher probability of being wrong.

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Embrace nuance. The lack of nuance in conversations about “the left” or “the regressive left” is one of the most annoying things about the current new atheist narrative. (While the new atheist movement used to focus on religion, it is today largely focused on undercutting feminism and social justice movements.) There are far too many examples to list in this article, so just consider one: the bugaboo of many new atheist figures, “identity politics.” On my reading of criticisms directed toward identity politics, there’s a marked failed to distinguish between identity politics as a reaction and it as a prescription.

For many left-leaning folks — including the so-called “regressive leftists” — embracing identity politics is seen as the most appropriate response to identity-based discrimination and inequality in society. If society didn’t unevenly distribute harms according to gender, race and other social categories, there would be no need for identity politics! In contrast, someone like the neo-Nazi Richard Spencer believes that different races should be treated differently, separated, or whatever. Identity politics lies at the heart of a perfect world for Spencer, whereas it constitutes a mere tool for social justice leftists to fight injustice in our highly imperfect world configuration.

Be curious. This ties into the issue of overconfidence. Indeed, it is the antidote to (falsely) believing that one knows everything one needs to know about a topic. I myself make a habit of reading articles each week on Breitbart and Fox News — a habit consistent with surveys showing that liberals tend to get their news from a wide variety of sources, whereas conservatives get their news from only a few media outlets. Although I’m typically appalled by the sexism, racism and anti-intellectualism of these websites, I do occasionally stumble upon an article that makes me think — or even leads me to change a belief I previously held. The point is that beliefs should never be the points of departure but the destinations of an intellectual journey guided by the evidence, and the vehicle that moves one forward on this journey is none other than curiosity.

One of my biggest complaints about the new atheist community concerns its lack, generally speaking, of curiosity. For example, whereas people associated with Skeptic magazine have given Milo Yiannopoulos—perhaps the most gleefully immoral public figure today — a fair hearing, my sense, which could be wrong, is that few have actually taken the time to study gender studies or intersectional feminism, or to read the “feminist glaciology” paper that resulted in one author receiving some of the most vile personal threats imaginable.

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Sure, there is a lot of bad feminist scholarship — but so too is there a lot of absurd scientific research, which is why Marc Abrahams invented the Ig Noble prize! Just a modicum of curiosity can lead one to discover an oceanic literature of brilliant, insightful feminist scholarship. When I read the feminist glaciology paper, I decided to embrace the “principle of charity” and open my mind to what it had to say. To my surprise, I came away with a much more thoughtful and subtle understanding of the topics it discusses.

Another failure of curiosity (and nuance) can be seen in the constant mocking of the concept of micro-aggressions—  not coincidentally, almost entirely by white men. While there are indeed ridiculous instances of unjustified micro-aggressions, anyone who takes the time to understand this phenomenon will see, I believe, that it is not only real but can be pernicious. Indeed, the result of such acts is what some scholars have called “racial exhaustion” or “racial battle fatigue.”

This arises from minor but repeated derogatory statements or actions that accumulate over time. As one study puts it, the result is “that students of African descent constantly worry, have trouble concentrating, become fatigued, and develop headaches when navigating personal and professional spaces that have historically favored white people.” As with “stereotype threat,” it further marginalizes already marginalized people.

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As a white man, I have never experienced a micro-aggression. Nor have I experienced racism, so I don’t know what it’s like. I am extremely privileged: I don’t have to worry about being late for a meeting and having it blamed on my race. I don’t have to worry about saying something “dumb” and havingf it being blamed on the color of my skin. No one would ever say to me, “Wow, really? You got into Harvard?” with just a tinge of racial surprise. No one would ever doubt my abilities because they believe, secretly and perhaps only tacitly, that white people are smarter than black people, as leading new atheist Sam Harris recently suggested.

In the spirit of curiosity and nuance, one can both accept that micro-aggressions are a real and harmful phenomenon while also pushing back against the concept’s more haphazard uses on college campuses. The world isn’t black and white; it’s mostly gray.

Put epistemology before ideology. This means caring more about the truth, as best we know it, than one’s prejudices and preferred beliefs. It means changing one’s beliefs as new evidence is introduced, even when doing so is psychologically uncomfortable. Good thinkers aren’t those who never make mistakes; rather, we should say that bad thinkers are those who make mistakes and then refuse to change their minds when those mistakes are pointed out to them.

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Religious people often offer a paradigm case of putting what they want to believe before what is actually warranted by the best available evidence. This is one reason I jettisoned religion in my late teens, subsequently adopting a form of atheism that assigns a high-percent probability to God’s nonexistence. And it’s why I find myself no longer aligned with the new atheist movement, with its increasingly alt-rightish political leanings that have led it, for example, to promote factually flawed “hoaxes” because they confirm an ideological anti-feminist narrative. As one person commented on Twitter, it’s oh so easy to be skeptical of other people’s beliefs, but hard to be skeptical of one’s own. It was only once I became more skeptical of my own preferred views — such as that the new atheist movement constitutes, on the whole, a force for good in the world — that I recognized how inimical it has become.

It is because science as an enterprise puts epistemology before ideology that it is such an immensely powerful engine of knowledge about the nature and workings of reality. In science, the one and only thing that matters when it comes to deciding what to believe is the extent to which the known evidence, as a whole, supports a given hypothesis. The result is a self-correcting enterprise that homes in on “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” like a heat-seeking missile blazing toward its target.

Prioritize causes. I mentioned this in my previous article. Examples include, first of all, spending a larger amount of time on unprecedented global challenges like climate change, the sixth mass extinction, nuclear proliferation, the rise of Christian dominionism, the rise of Islamic extremism and so on. Even the most cursory glance of the social media feeds of many new atheists reveals a fixation on the “regressive left,” a community that poses a far smaller danger to civilization than the alt-right and its political leaders.

Beyond this, one should be more worried about the damage that President Trump could do to free speech than the damage small groups of politically powerless college kids might do — yet the new atheist movement, generally speaking, is obsessed with the latter. Furthermore, I would urge people to worry more about rape culture and racial/transgender discrimination than “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces,” since rape culture and discrimination are the reasons why trigger warnings and safe spaces exixt. Surely it’s smarter to focus on the root causes than the symptomatic effects!

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And finally …

Be morally thoughtful. The moral philosophers Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu identity empathy, sympathetic concern and the sense of justice (or fairness) as our “core moral dispositions.” Whereas being smart can help you get what you want, being wise — which involves putting one’s moral beliefs into action — is crucial for determining what you should want in the first place. The point is that humanity can’t simply wield science like a machete. We need the moral wisdom and foresight to figure out which goals we should pursue through collective action.

This gets at one of two criticisms I had of Sam Harris giving Charles Murray and his unfounded, inflammatory claims about race and intelligence a national platform. If we think about what sort of society we want, and if we agree that a good society is one without racism, then voluntarily platforming Murray isn’t a thoughtful or effective way to achieve that end. Does Harris have a right to do it? Yes, of course. But it's counterproductive to the goal of creating a society marked by social harmony and human flourishing. Similarly, if we think that sexual assault is morally abhorrent, then we should make extra sure it doesn’t happen, ever, at atheist conferences. And if we care about not alienating women — a huge demographic of potential intellectual allies — then we should do better than booking nearly all men on one’s podcast.

A community that embraces science, facts and evidence must also embrace a moral framework to guide it forward. We must not forget that true progress requires both movement (provided by science) and a direction (provided by morality). While moral beliefs cannot be confirmed or disconfirmed the way scientific beliefs can, one can still rely upon rational argumentation to determine a set of ethical norms and commitments. I would argue that the incursion of alt-right-leaning folks — people who statistically value empathy, sympathetic concern, and fairness less than do people on the left — suggests an unfortunate deterioration of moral standards within the new atheist community.

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Society needs rational, evidence-minded, thoughtful people more than ever. As Stephen Hawking recently affirmed, our species has never before lived in more dangerous times. I once thought that the new atheist movement, insofar as it is a movement, offered a compelling path through the obstacle course of human ignorance and religious fanaticism. Now, I am optimistic only to the extent that people accept the above ideas. Perhaps the formation of a newer atheist movement that both talks the talk and walks the walk will turn me, once more, in to the optimist that I want to be.

 

 


Phil Torres

Phil Torres is the founding director of the X-Risks Institute and the author of "Morality, Foresight, and Human Flourishing: An Introduction to Existential Risks." He’s on Twitter @xriskology.

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Atheism Jerry Coyne New Atheism Peter Boghossian Richard Dawkins Sam Harris Science




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