Monday, February 01, 2016

The New Atheism

A question has come up as to whether I would be included in the category called "New Atheists".

I believe that I would not qualify - for reasons I will discuss below.

However, I also do not fit in with what might be understood as the "old atheist" - who is content to sit at the back of the social bus and be looked down upon and sneered at by a world of - literally - "holier than thou" theists.

The "new atheist" movement came after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Its first expression was in the book "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris, which expressed the view that faith itself is a moral failing. People are taking absurd and harmful beliefs, shielding them in a blanket of "faith", and going out and doing horrible deeds.

This was followed by Richard Dawkins, "The God Delusion" and Christopher Hitchens, "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything".  All of these share the belief that religious belief is bad for us. It holds us back scientifically, culturally, and morally - and it should be abandoned.

So, would I qualify as a "New Atheist"?

I argue that false beliefs generally are bad. We have many and strong reasons to promote not only a preference for truth over fiction, but also a degree of intellectual responsibility. When it comes to beliefs that impact the quality of life of others, one has an obligation to put those beliefs on a secure footing, and religion does not provide a secure footing.

I hold that the issue of intellectual integrity is one of the greatest moral failings in our culture today, and one responsible for a huge amount of suffering.

On the other hand, I hold that we all have false beliefs. If believing something that happens to be false is a moral crime, then we are all evil. Furthermore, we all believe things on the basis of weak evidence or in the fact of evidence that it is false.

The reason for this universal epistemic failure is because none of us have the time or resources to hold all of our beliefs up to the light of reason and examine them. We must take shortcuts. These shortcuts are ways of acquiring beliefs that are imperfect but generally efficient.

An example of this is, as a young child, to adopt without question the beliefs of those in one's community. New potential beliefs are then held up against this set of core cultural beliefs to determine if they are true or false, with the cultural beliefs having a privileged status. Though it sometimes happens that an individual reaches a point where they conclude that their core cultural beliefs are not as secure as was originally assumed.

Because of these limitations and shortcuts, I suggest that, in a community that was 85% atheist, many of those atheists would be atheists for exactly the same reason that many people are theists today. They would adopt without question the common beliefs of the community they lived in and would believe them for that reason alone. They would then devote their intellectual energies to other concerns.

This does not justify the level of intellectual recklessness we see in the world today.

Given our limited resources, when it comes to challenging false beliefs we should devote those resources to correcting those false beliefs responsible for the greatest harm first. False beliefs that are responsible for no harm can be set aside.

The false beliefs responsible for the greatest harm are not religious. At this point, they include such things as the denial that humans are changing the climate (which risks the destruction of whole cities and whole nations), the denial of the benefits of genetically modified foods that have a chance of improving the quality of life for countless people around the world, and a set of false beliefs regarding vaccinations and the use of antibiotics that is threatening humanity with superbugs that we, in our own recklessness, are making.

I can put the whole question of the existence of a god aside for now while we work on these other issues.

With respect to these issues, there are those who believe that we do not need to worry about these things because there is a God who created the Earth who will not allow anything terrible to happen to us. That is a dangerous belief that invites us to continue to engage in reckless behavior that threatens significant harms.

In fact, we live in a universe that does not care one iota about our survival - that can see us wiped out entirely without even the thought of a tear of regret. It is up to us to try to understand the world and avoid these harsh consequences to the best of our ability.

This means that, at least, the belief that there is a god that will not allow anything bad to happen to us regardless of how recklessly we behave is one belief is a seriously irresponsible belief that has to be challenged - for the good of us all.
The same applies to any belief that a rapture or second coming means that we can behave recklessly - that there is no long-term future for us to worry about.

Because I do not give religious belief a special status as something needing to be opposed in itself, I do not think that I would qualify as a "new atheist".

I do agree that beliefs that impact the well-being of others need a firmer foundation than "faith". If "faith" is all a person has for a policy that is harmful to others, then they are morally obligated to keep that faith to themselves.

Faith justifies no harmful act.

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