Monday, September 17, 2007

Rational Atheism

In the September issue of Scientific American, ardent sceptic Michael Shermer writes an open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens, which I reproduce in full here:

Since the turn of the millennium, a new militancy has arisen among religious skeptics in response to three threats to science and freedom: (1) attacks against evolution education and stem cell research; (2) breaks in the barrier separating church and state leading to political preferences for some faiths over others; and (3) fundamentalist terrorism here and abroad. Among many metrics available to track this skeptical movement is the ascension of four books to the august heights of the New York Times best-seller list—Sam Harris's Letter to a Christian Nation (Knopf, 2006), Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell (Viking, 2006), Christopher Hitchens's God Is Not Great (Hachette Book Group, 2007) and Richard Dawkins's The God Delusion (Houghton Mifflin, 2006)—that together, in Dawkins's always poignant prose, "raise consciousness to the fact that to be an atheist is a realistic aspiration, and a brave and splendid one. You can be an atheist who is happy, balanced, moral and intellectually fulfilled." Amen, brother.

Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance. I suggest that we raise our consciousness one tier higher for the following reasons.

1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail. Atheists cannot simply define themselves by what they do not believe. As Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises warned his anti-Communist colleagues in the 1950s: "An anti-something movement displays a purely negative attitude. It has no chance whatever to succeed. Its passionate diatribes virtually advertise the program they attack. People must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be."

2. Positive assertions are necessary. Champion science and reason, as Charles Darwin suggested: "It appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds which follow[s] from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science."

3. Rational is as rational does. If it is our goal to raise people's consciousness to the wonders of science and the power of reason, then we must apply science and reason to our own actions. It is irrational to take a hostile or condescending attitude toward religion because by doing so we virtually guarantee that religious people will respond in kind. As Carl Sagan cautioned in "The Burden of Skepticism," a 1987 lecture, "You can get into a habit of thought in which you enjoy making fun of all those other people who don't see things as clearly as you do. We have to guard carefully against it."

4. The golden rule is symmetrical. In the words of the greatest conscious ness raiser of the 20th century, Mart in Luther King, Jr., in his epic "I Have a Dream" speech: "In the process of gaining our rightful place, we must not be guilty of wrong ful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred. We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline." If atheists do not want theists to prejudge them in a negative light, then they must not do unto theists the same.

5. Promote freedom of belief and disbelief. A higher moral principle that encompasses both science and religion is the freedom to think, believe and act as we choose, so long as our thoughts, beliefs and actions do not infringe on the equal freedom of others. As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful and tolerant because our freedom to disbelieve is inextricably bound to the freedom of others to believe.

As King, in addition, noted: "The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom."

Rational atheism values the truths of science and the power of reason, but the principle of freedom stands above both science and religion.

This is pretty good stuff, but I suspect that Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens would agree with most, if not all of it. The key proposition is that "As long as religion does not threaten science and freedom, we should be respectful." Messrs Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens would simply point out that in most parts of the world, for most of human history, religion has threatened and restricted human freedom. At the present time, religious belief in the United States threatens science and freedom, and in the Islamic regions of the world, there is egregious intolerance towards science and freedom. The problem with religion is that its intolerance towards science and freedom is wholly typical of it.


Susan's Husband said...

"At the present time, religious belief in the United States threatens science and freedom"

As an atheist living the USA, I am just not seeing that. I find George Soros far more threatening than … heck, I can't even think of any religious person in the USA who's as big a name and political player as that. Senator Hillary Clinton, perhaps?

Gordon McCabe said...

Nobel Laureate David Baltimore writes "In the United States, there is an increasingly pervasive assumption that Christianity is our state religion. In fact, the tolerance of other religions that was so much a part of American politics, at least in the post-World War II era, is giving way to an increasing focus on Christianity as the only true belief. Atheism has never had a strong position in the United States, and it is hard to imagine a politician today publicly admitting to such views."

Susan's Husband said...

When has it ever not been "hard to imagine a politician today publicly admitting to such [atheist] views" in the USA? His claims of lessening religious tolerance are bizarre, given that President Bush, who is alledgedly one of the leading lights of the new theocracy, goes so far out of his way to accomodate Islam.

Moreover, nothing in that quote supports your original contention. If I had to name one "religious" threat to science, I would call out the global warming hysteria. Regardless of whether AGW is true, the attitude displayed by its proponents seems an excellent example of Baltimore's statement of "scientific evidence is ignored when it leads to politically unacceptable conclusions, logic is tossed aside when faith is involved, and tolerance for minority opinions is simply out of political fashion". How better could you describe the attitude that AGW skeptics are "deniers", that the science is "settled". That's not very tolerating of minority opinions, is it? Not to mention that the science is never "settled" (heck, people still argue about whether Newtonian gravity is true). When people feel free to fake / conceal data, that's involving faith and ignoring scientific evidence when it leads to politically unacceptable conclusions.

You might consider the hypothesis that humans are religious because they're irrational, instead of humans being irrational because they're religious. The history of the great atheistic political movements of the 20th Century would seem to favor the former over the latter. But that never seems to figure in to people like Dawkins' and Baltimore's views of why voters don't like atheists. Wouldn't rational truth seekers address such a significant issue?