Home > atheism, faith, value theory > In which I guest post…

In which I guest post…

about the connection between epistemic values and moral values in New Atheism,over at Eric McDonald’s blog Choice In Dying.

Eric and I have been having very interesting and mutually enriching conversations (well I can’t speak for him, but I know *I* get a lot out of them) ever since he started his own blog. In fact, some of our great conversations go back a few years to comment threads at Ophelia Benson’s Notes & Comments blog on Butterflies & Wheels, long before either of us started blogs of our own. Eric is very smart and writes very interesting things — but more than that, he’s an all around terrific human being, passionately fighting the good fight. You should be reading his blog regularly, if you’re not already. And Butterflies & Wheels. (Plus, they both post a lot more than I do.)

Categories: atheism, faith, value theory
  1. 2011/02/17 at 10:43 pm

    Just discovered your blog, and am reading it with relish (the figurative kind, of course). Keep up the great work!

  2. hambydammit
    2011/02/18 at 8:22 pm

    That’s a great piece, TPP. I do have a question. (And I know it’s off topic, and I apologize.) One might argue that New Atheism’s omission of “some of the worse aspects of our human nature” is a form of utopianism. We are, it is claimed, blithely glossing over the facts of life. People will follow authority and they will give up their autonomy for perceived security, even when they have real freedom. More importantly, in any resource based society (are there truly any other kinds?) the idea of real equality between and within social groups is a pipe dream.

    The standard answer seems to be something like this: We’ll teach people better. It’ll be awesome. We’ll show them that they can be free, and then they will be free.

    For any readers, TPP and I briefly discussed some gentleman’s thesis that critical thinking is not a “skill” in the traditional sense, and that the evidence points to a sobering conclusion. Critical thinking is something humans do selectively at best, and teaching them otherwise isn’t very effective. While I have issues with the paper on several levels, I do wonder if he’s onto something significant. Is critical thinking the privilege of the privileged? Are we putting the cart before the horse by demanding that people think first and THEN change their lives so that thinking critically is in their best immediate interest?

    While I agree in principle with this article, I wonder if we aren’t glossing over human nature and trying to dictate the way people “should be” while looking down our nose at those who never really had a chance to be that way in the first place. Yes, it’s awesome to talk about what things would be like if everyone was free. And it’s a great value system morally. But how and where does it connect to the world where even among atheists, there is considerable stratification, and peer pressure, and anything but “real freedom”?

  3. 2011/02/18 at 9:24 pm

    Hmm. I think that there are many miles of difference between utopianism and viewing a state of affairs as a goal or regulative ideal (even though that state of affairs may not be fully realizable in practice). Utopian views are those which *presume* that some ideal future is possible; neither the New Atheist values I express in that post, nor the broader classical liberal political views (J.S. Mill) I connect them to, is utopian in that sense. Rather, they are arguments about what is valuable and what we ought to aim towards. The question of HOW best to realize these or any other values — to as great a degree as it is possible to realize them — is logically and practically a separate question from the matter of what it is we value, and why (or what it is that we *ought* to value, and why). Your question isn’t so much off-topic as it is a kind of category error: Obstacles can only be obstacles with respect to some goals or values they stand in the way of, so the values must logically come first.

    Mind you, it’s not always a mistake to bring up pragmatic questions when discussing values, because of the classic “ought implies can” problem: One cannot be morally obligated to do something that is not in one’s power to do. But when discussing big problems and sweeping values, “ought implies can” often works the other way. For example, you personally, Hambydammit, are not morally obligated to solve world-wide poverty, hunger, and injustice — because it is not in your power to do so single-handedly, rather obviously. But most people think that it is good and perhaps even morally obligatory for those with the power to affect such problems, even a little, to contribute. In other words, people *ought* to help alleviate the pressing problems of other humans to the extent that they *can*, even if those problems are not necessarily completely resolvable no matter how many people contribute. (People who deny such moral claims tend to be easily identifiable as amoral asshats who do lots of other bad things besides just denying any and all obligation to relieve the suffering of those less fortunate: sociopaths, Randroids, Republicans, Libertarians, etc.) Surely the same applies to the values I’ve claim are inherent to the New Atheist approach: If we value human autonomy and freedom from illegitimate authority, we should advance that cause as much as possible even if it may not be realizable for some reason — even if, for example, some proportion of humans have inborn inclinations to authoritarian personalities and so not everyone has the capacity to realize such freedom to the same degree.

    Such practical questions should also affect HOW we go about advancing what we take to be valuable… and here, New Atheists have a distinct advantage over their mealy-mouthed “framing” strategy accommodationist opponents. New Atheists generally acknowledge that there are lots of different strategies that we should adopt — sometimes we should be friendly and even somewhat conciliatory, sometimes we should make strong demands, we should mock hypocrisy and blatant illogic, sometimes we should just present the facts and let people judge for themselves — and that we should use strategies appropriate to the context, and even that we should experiment with multiple strategies to see what works where. In contrast, accommodationists want to rule out a whole swathe of strategies in advance — any strategy that points out the basic incompatibility of reason and faith/science and religion, any strategy that’s even remotely forthright about the arguments for atheism and against the existence of gods. Why? Because… because… well, because they say those strategies are bad, that’s why! I’ve never been able to discern an actual argument in their claims, only emotive rhetoric and cheap rationalizations. I suspect that, under their huffing and puffing and rationalizing, those worse elements of human nature I was talking about — “the human instinct to blend in and concede our autonomy to parent-mimicking authorities” — are the only real motivations they have.

  4. Dean Buchanan
    2011/02/19 at 2:16 am


    Such practical questions should also affect HOW we go about advancing what we take to be valuable

    I couldn’t agree more.
    I think one facet of the ‘gnu enlightenment’ (hey did I just coyne a phrase?), is that we are not afraid to speak out. To speak out not in the ‘meanie meanie mean’ way, just in the ‘hey, that…
    [religion, woo, interpersonal weirdness, political philosophy, religion intruding in to politics, et. cetera]
    … sounds very much like bullshit’ to me way.

    The ‘framing’ strategy is utilized by most of us (atheists) in our daily lives and no one owns this. Especially the Colgate-Palmolive Company. But it is best used not to obscure truth, but bring others toward it.

    We can use the force for good.

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