Orthodoxy and Atheism

Over at The Atlantic, Emma Green bemoans the “intellectual snobbery” of New Atheists. While evangelical atheists certainly have their issues, including overconfidence and myopia, snobbery is not so damning. When viewed from certain perspectives, intellectualism often comes off as snobbish. Green’s critique would have been more apt had she properly diagnosed the issue as “intellectual banality.” This is the primary affliction of New Atheism.

Because New Atheists are locked into discursive binaries of belief/unbelief and wage their culture wars inside a Christian or theist box, they have an unfortunate penchant for dogmatism and orthodoxy. When your opponents define the terms of the debate, you play on their field. When your opponents are dogmatic, you become like them. The two sides are distorting mirrors in this confined dialectic.

If you play these dogmatic games long enough, there will likely be a spillover effect. There is indeed evidence of such an effect and in this case “snobbery” is the correct term. Back in December, science writer David Dobbs published an Aeon essay (“Die, Selfish Gene, Die”) interrogating Richard Dawkins’ famous metaphor and asking whether it should be modified or retired. It was a provocative essay, and while I did not agree with all or even most of it, I shared it with several anthropologists and scientists who also enjoyed it. It proved well worthy of a several-beer discussion.

There things stood until I recently learned that Dobbs’ essay was savaged by some who see themselves as “Third Culture” enforcers of scientific orthodoxy. That they see themselves this way is not surprising, given that the savagers (Pinker-Coyne-Dawkins) are prime New Atheist players. It’s unfortunate when their dogmatism spills over and devolves into science snobbery. Dobbs, a well-respected writer who has done much for popular science, deserves better.

What we are witnessing here is an ironic inversion of the ressentiment which Nietzsche saw as a character defect, or psychological weakness, giving rise to metaphysical yearnings and moral absolutism. It’s not surprising, and indeed is a predictable consequence, that some New Atheists should take on these characteristics. When you wrestle with smelly theist monsters, the dogmatic stink will slough onto you.



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6 thoughts on “Orthodoxy and Atheism

  1. winner1

    Thanks for another insightful post on New Atheist/theist discourse. Could you expand on your statement that Nietzsche’s ressentiment is a “a character defect giving rise to metaphysical yearnings”? The linked text does not seem to address this point in relation to metaphysics.

  2. Cris Post author

    I’ve slightly altered the original sentence and changed the link to a different source. If that does not help, I recommend doing a Google scholar search using “Nietzsche” and “ressentiment.” It’s a polyvalent concept which he develops over many years and several books, most prominently in Genealogy of Morals.

  3. Uzza

    Well, well. Just stumbled over this blog,(via triangulations) and found you here saying very well what I have been attempting to say for years. 21 gun salute to you!

  4. jayarava

    I quite like Mary Midgley’s 1979 attack on Dawkins’ metaphysics, ‘Gene-juggling’ in Philosophy 54(210): 439-458.

    “Dawkins, however, simply has a weakness for the old game of Brocken-spectre moralizing–the one where the player strikes attitudes on a peak at sunrise, gazes awe-struck at his gigantic shadow on the clouds, and reports his observations as cosmic truths. He is an uncritical philosophical egoist in the first place, and merely feeds the egoist assumption into his a priori biological speculations, only rarely glancing at the relevant facts of animal behaviour and genetics, and ignoring their failure to support him.”

    And that’s only a small taste of the first paragraph! The backlash against Midgley from NeoDarwinists was vicious, but I think she nailed the weakness of his philosophy. Having since read quite a bit of Lynn Margulis on evolution I’m quite convinced that NeoDarwinists are wrong about evolution – that rather than being about selfish individual units, it is actually driven by cooperating communities at every level. Symbiosis is more important than competition. As Lynn said “evolution is community ecology over time”.

    A great quote from Midgley is “There is now no safer occupation than talking bad science to philosophers, except talking bad philosophy to scientists.” (458)

    However the fight with theists is mostly an American phenomenon in an environment where fundamentalists are themselves becoming increasingly militant and trying to, for example, have biology replaced with bible studies in schools. What we get over here is mostly overspill from that battle going on over the pond. Since fundamentalists were drawn into politics by the Republicans in the late 1970s they have become vocal opponents of teaching kids about evolution.

    The recent Attitudes to Science Survey suggests that only 41% of Brits believe in evolution without god being involved. 26% accept evolution if god plays hand. And 19% are out and out Young Earth Creationists. So scientists are failing to effectively communicate evolution even in our relatively unpolarised environment.

  5. Larry Stout

    How many thousands of epistemological tracts have been written? But the ultimate simplifying principle of epistemology was enunciated by someone (I wish could make the due attribution, but I can’t!) who wrote, “There is no such thing as knowledge, just belief.” Neither religion nor science provides ultimate answers or certainties, despite almost universal beliefs to the contrary among both religious and secular people. I believe many, many things, but I make to claims to certainties.

    What a great site this is, Cris!

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