Jen McCreight is a blogger at Freethought Blogs and recently she stirred the pot of the New Atheistic movement, by arguing that a third wave of atheism is needed to replace the Boy’s Club that currently rules and makes those like McCreight who say they apply skepticism to everything feel uncomfortable. Atheists like McCreight who are politically liberal and thus, as she says, who “care about social justice,” “support women’s rights,” “protest racism,” “fight homophobia and transphobia,” and “use critical thinking and skepticism,” don’t want to be called atheists when atheism is consistent with the opposite of those liberal views. She calls for Atheism Plus, a liberal form of atheism, and Greta Christina, another blogger at Freethought Blogs, distinguishes that form from secular humanism--mostly for strategic reasons: “Atheism Plus” is clearer than “secular humanism,” since “atheism” is currently more familiar to the public, and so forth.
I empathize with liberal atheists who want to belong to a social movement but who feel marginalized or patronized in the New Atheistic one. Personally, being part of a social movement doesn’t interest me, but I can understand why feminist atheists, for example, would want to start a new wave of atheism, assuming they feel that many New Atheists are conservatives or sexists.
However, I suspect that were Atheism Plus to become popular and even to replace New Atheism as the main expression of the atheistic social movement in the US, UK, and elsewhere, this would be due almost entirely to politically correct affirmation of liberal talking points. The problem is the one I’ve taken up repeatedly in this blog: reason is a curse. That is to say that when you apply skepticism to everything, including social issues, you end up not with liberalism but with something like what I’m calling existential cosmicism (until I think of a better label--talk about a social position that needs rebranding!).
I’ve argued this at some length elsewhere in this blog, but I’ll summarize the main points here. Skepticism is epitomized by the scientific methods of inquiry. So what is the scientific picture of human nature? Is it equivalent to or even consistent with the liberal picture? No, liberalism is as Nietzsche and John Gray say, a vestige of theistic morality, an Enlightenment inheritance of Christian attitudes minus the theistic metaphysics that gives those attitudes the appearance of being rationally justified. Granted, Christians borrow their morality, in turn, from our innate, naturally selected inclinations towards social, altruistic behavior. But biology explains only the causes of those inclinations, not their philosophical justifications. That we’re instinctively driven to live together in societies may be a matter of biological fact, but that doesn’t mean that that’s how we ought to live. The normative question of whether Christian or otherwise altruistic morality is best isn’t settled by science, but by philosophy.
Nevertheless, when skeptical philosophers turn to the scientific picture to inform our reasoning, we find unsettling truths. First, we discover that we’re not as free or as rational as we think we are. Second, we find that we’re animals that live under delusions of grandeur, of transcending nature as angels or transhumans. We’re driven to sexually reproduce because our genetic code dictates much of our behavior. We learn also that just as the design of organisms is illusory, what with natural selection doing the work of an intelligent designer, so too much of our normative self-conception is removed from reality. Moral commandments don’t fall from the sky nor are they carved into stone, because we’re not artifacts of a god. In particular, it’s not obvious that we have nearly as many rights as we feel politically entitled to claim. And this is the key point, since liberalism depends on the notion of human rights. Women deserve just as much respect as men, says the liberal, because women and men both have the same human rights. Likewise, gays, lesbians, and heterosexuals are thought to have equal rights, as are the poor and the rich, and the blacks and the whites, and so on. Without the notion of human rights, there’s no reason to be socially liberal.
Liberals like McCreight claim that they merely apply skepticism to social questions, just as atheists apply that rigorous, objective mode of inquiry to religious ones. But when you think objectively about whether we have rights that flow from human nature, you run up against a series of brick walls. First of all, there’s the naturalistic fallacy. Just because we’re special in light of our reason, freedom, and social instinct--even if, again, we’re not as special as we think we are, as cognitive scientists have discovered--doesn’t mean there’s anything right, or normatively correct, about those attributes. Next, there’s the genetic fallacy: just because social values are explained by our evolutionary past and so secured by being normal, doesn’t mean those values are justified; for example, just because we evolved to be sociable, doesn’t mean extroverts are healthier or otherwise better than antisocial introverts. All you’re entitled to conclude from some such evolutionary premise is that outgoing folks are normal and perhaps happier, meaning merely that they’re in the majority and that their lives are more pleasurable. To leap from that premise to the conclusion that the majority are also in the right is to commit a fallacious appeal to popularity. Likewise, to say that because something is pleasurable it’s also right is to commit the naturalistic fallacy.
You can go down the list of liberal positions on social issues and ask whether a liberal really has so easy a time with them, given her rational methods. I suspect that while a case can be made for some liberal views, based on a Nietzschean, aesthetic approach to ethics, the notion that liberalism wins the day just on rational grounds is merely a politically correct meme. Reason is largely neutral with respect to normative questions, but when reason is relevant, that is, when we think of how we ought to live given what scientists have shown that we actually are, mainstream liberalism seems a mere conceit. This isn’t to say we shouldn’t help each other--especially minorities who are most desperate. In my view, altruism is justified only by the pain of feeling pity due to empathy with other people’s suffering; we act to alleviate that shared pain. Those with no such empathy have no reason to help others, and so they tend to focus on selfish endeavours and to rise to positions of great power in our dominance hierarchies. Liberals fool themselves with their scientistic quasireligion, when they pretend that their emotional bias follows neutrally from something they call “skepticism,” from the alleged application of Reason to all questions. Are liberals unaware that David Hume, the great skeptic, performed a reductio on rationalism, using reason to show that we’re not so rational? Far from merely thinking logically or looking at the empirical facts, what liberals actually do is suffer from pity on account of how pathetic women, gays, blacks, poor people, and other downtrodden groups seem in their lowly positions in the pecking order.
Nevertheless, modern liberalism is scientistic, and so postmodern liberals earn a cheap pass when they pretend that their social attitudes are in line with Reason. (See Modernism.) Reason doesn’t carry the day for the liberal ideal of equality; instead, people are trained to nod deferentially in the presence of anything associated with the awesome power of technoscience. Postmodern liberalism, which is what liberalism becomes when faith in modern myths of human greatness doesn't survive the death of God, is merely a piece of political correctness, an empty shell of a philosophy, a song stuck in our head because we can’t stand the cosmic silence, the undead god’s dearth of any advice at all on how we should pass our time.
One philosophy that makes sense of the liberal’s aesthetic mode of inference and of the emotional basis of her values is existential cosmicism. According to this philosophy, we should feel embarrassed rather than proud every single time we think logically or empirically about some problem. We should never forget that the cognitive dissonance that permits clever mammals both to rationalize their pity for the weak and to humiliate themselves with sex acts which they must keep private to preserve their dignity, is eminently ripe for satire. We are all pathetic, every one of us. We suffer tragically and absurdly with no one but equally pathetic and deluded mammals to aid us. Liberal saviours of the 99% aren’t flawless superheroes. Their scientism and hyper-rational skepticism are politically correct delusions, nothing more. Reason spells the death of God but also the unraveling of every myth, the bursting of every bubble, the transition from modern naivety to postmodern cynicism.
I don’t trust the liberal's self-conception nor do I admire the interest in seeking a community of like-minded people, in the first place. As is well known, democracy and the internet fragment populations, creating echo chambers the divisions between which are exploitable by demagogues. For example, New Atheists must be divided from Atheism Plussers, who must likewise be divided from secular humanists. Thus, we’re like birds that flock together because of our similar feathers. That’s all perfectly natural but uninspiring, not a mark of progressive transhumanity, of a gnostic revelation of something truly elevated above the grotesque natural order. Still, I wish Atheism Plussers luck. Helping the downtrodden is aesthetically better than dominating them. Liberals act on pity for the other, while conservatives act on disgust for the foreign. Both spin tall tales to rationalize their character, but at least the liberal doesn’t sell us out so thoroughly to the tender mercies of the undead god and to its mechanism of maintaining social order, which is the oligarchic centralization of power.