Scientism in the atheist movement

Larry Hamelin pointed me to a recent Existential Comic which criticizes Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for scientism. The explanatory text below the comic goes on to criticize the New Atheist movement as a whole. It argues:

The real goal [of scientism] is often just to draw a border around what we should or shouldn’t question, because they don’t want any of the fundamental aspects of society to change.

Larry Hamelin has a couple good posts responding to the comic commentary, and looking back on the New Atheist movement as a whole. Partially following Larry, these are my critiques:

  • Harris and Dawkins don’t represent the atheist movement. Harris and Dawkins are widely criticized within the movement, and many (myself included) are positively disposed to philosophy.
  • To the extent that scientism is or was present in New Atheism, it was not motivated by an attempt to maintain status quo. I believe that scientism was primarily a reaction to the way people would hide behind the authority of philosophy, insisting that there exists a complex and subtle defense of religion or belief in God. Of course, the complex and subtle defense did not materialize, and failed to address religion or belief in God as they are popularly practiced.
  • Of all the strengths of philosophy, I do not think effecting social change is one. Certainly academic philosophy is not a force for change. And though my writing is often infused with philosophy, that just makes me a more effective thinker, not a more effective activist.

This might be a bad idea, but let’s read the comments on this comic to see what other people are saying.

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If you think there’s no atheist movement, tell me why

One of my pet peeves is when people say that there is no atheist movement. At many times, I’ve reacted angrily to the suggestion. I don’t understand how anyone could believe that, especially when I hear it from people who are involved in, or interact with atheist organizations.

Dear readers, help me understand. If you don’t believe there is an atheist movement, please explain your thinking in the comments. I will listen, and as long as you are polite to me I will be polite to you, setting pet peeves aside.

Here are some questions which you may use to guide your responses:

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Three views on social justice in atheism

Previously, I wrote a post framing social justice as a meta-movement, a movement which seeks to change how all other movements are run. Here I’ll talk about how that applies to atheism.

Why should the atheist community pay attention to social justice? The reasoning is quite elementary: The atheist community is a community. All communities should pay some attention to social justice. Therefore the atheist community should pay some attention to social justice.

Some atheists like to argue that social justice is beyond the scope of atheism. The argument goes that the community should take a neutral position, thus being inclusive of people with various relationships to social justice. However, this is missing the point. The “scope” of the community doesn’t really matter for the argument. All that matters is that it’s a community. As I said before, the same argument applies to the physics community, despite it being obvious that social justice is outside the scope of physics. The “neutral” position is not really neutral, but directly in opposition to the goals of social justice.

However, there are various degrees of “pay attention to social justice” which I describe below.

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Practical advice for struggling atheist clubs

Following my bitter retrospective on 9 years of participation in atheist university groups, here are some concrete tips for how you can do better than what we did. They are roughly in order from high priority to low priority.

1. Have a mailing list and a Facebook group. Announce every meeting and event through both channels.  Don’t have more than one.

2. Register your group with the university, and keep it registered every year.

3. Reserve room space for regular meetings. Weekly meetings in the evening are common practice. This must be done far in advance.

4. Know the dates of the activities fairs at your university. You probably need to register for them far in advance, so look it up immediately. The minimum requirement for the activities fair is a large sign and a sign-up sheet for your mailing list.

5. Make a good impression at the first meeting of the year. The first meeting is often the one with the most people, so make sure you know how to run discussions for various group sizes (see below). You may think that it will be exciting to discuss your upcoming plans for the year, but it usually comes across as sharing boring administrative details, so don’t do it unless it’s absolutely necessary. Your main objective is that students should meet each other and make positive social connections. That means that each person should learn, and remember, the name of one or two people who are not in the leadership.

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Are atheist clubs dying?

I’m now saying my last goodbyes to the local atheist student group. This is a significant event. I’ve been atheist student groups since 2008.  I first joined the UCLA skeptical group as an undergraduate, and then I participated in the UC Berkeley atheist group for the entirety of my PhD.

As I reflect back on 9 years, how do I justify my participation?  I don’t think I can.  Even when the leadership has been good, I have never felt they produced any sort of effective activism.  I was resigned to using the group just to have a few interesting discussions and meet a few new people.  Even so, I spent a lot of time being dissatisfied or angry with them.  This last semester, I skipped a lot of meetings (since an origami group competes for the same time slot), and I mostly felt it improved my life.

I’m saying goodbye because I intend to graduate before fall semester.  But also, the club is dying.  Right now, there is nobody to lead the group in the fall.  After years of struggling, maybe it will finally disappear.

This is a post where I present no evidence, and instead brazenly generalize my personal experiences.  Our atheist club is dying.  Are all atheist clubs dying?  Clearly not.  I’ve always heard that atheist groups in the southern US are more active than their counterparts on the coasts.  And lots of local non-student atheist organizations are still active as far as I know.  Even so, if the atheist group at UC Berkeley dies, it feels like an indicator of a broader decline, and a herald for the death of other atheist groups that now prosper.

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Plantinga’s private language

One of the great things about arguments for gods and the supernatural, is that you can always look back at them and find new problems. Alvin Plantinga’s arguments are especially lovely in this regard. Having been recently been thinking of Wittgenstein’s private language arguments, it occurred to me that somewhere in there is a rebuttal to Plantinga’s evolutionary argument against naturalism.

The evolutionary argument against naturalism argues that if both evolution and naturalism are true, then we cannot trust our own rational faculties, and therefore cannot trust our belief that evolution and naturalism are true.  The reasoning goes that naturalistic evolution does not specifically produce true beliefs, but rather produces adaptive beliefs. An adaptive belief does not need to be true, it just needs to produce adaptive behavior. For example, rather than believing that you should run away from a tiger because it will eat you, you might believe that you should run away from a tiger because that’s the best way to pet the tiger (Plantinga’s example). The number of false beliefs that produce adaptive behavior is much larger than the number of true beliefs that produce adaptive behavior. Therefore, most beliefs are probably false.

There are numerous issues with this argument, a few of which you might be shouting at the screen. From a scientist’s perspective, Plantinga appears to be ignorant of how evolution actually works. Evolution does not necessarily produce the most adaptive traits, certainly not immediately. If you have false but adaptive beliefs at one point in time, it is questionable whether those beliefs would continue to be adaptive when your descendants find themselves in slightly different environments. Also, Plantinga ignores that brain efficiency is an adaptive trait. I would imagine that a brain which produces true beliefs via reasoning is far more efficient than a brain that produces false but adaptive beliefs via some mysterious yet reliable process.
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My issues with queer-positive atheism

Following my big rant on queer-positive Christianity, I have a much shorter rant on queer-positive atheism. There are fewer things to unpack, but even the smaller issues are important to me, because I interact more frequently with atheists than I do with religious people.

So you’re not a fundamentalist Christian

The number one criticism I have about atheist attitudes towards queer people is that they’re very self-satisfied about it. Yes, we all know you’re way ahead of fundamentalist Christians. We all know you were in favor of same-sex marriage (or opposed to all marriage) before it was cool. Good for you?

As I previously said, one of my major issues with queer-positive Christianity is that they’re starting from very low standards, the standards of Christianity. Atheists have the advantage of being able to scrap Christian standards entirely and build something better. But you’re tossing out your advantage if you’re always comparing your attitudes to those of very religious people.

And I’m not even saying that we as atheists need to be more ashamed of [insert prominent anti-SJ atheist here]. Shame is not what I’m going for at all. It’s just that, even when we’re all on the same page about social justice, social justice is still a thing that takes work and not just lip service.
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