Science of Good & Evil

Are the New Atheists “scared” and panicking? Are they “fervently vocal” because they realize that religion is not in retreat and is instead flourishing? I don’t have answers to these questions because I don’t know any New Atheists, don’t read their books, don’t listen to their podcasts, don’t attend their gatherings, and don’t pay them much mind. These don’ts derive from my assessment of New Atheism as a cultural or dialectical response to an historically particular form of western Christian religion. To combat this peculiar form and its Abrahamic relatives, New Atheists fight on a field of theist choosing. Because the parameters of this debate have been established by western theists, evangelical atheists counter with a series of conceptual inversions. Ironically, this forces a mirror substitution of one metaphysics for another. While this may be well and good within the confines of the cultural and philosophical gutter, where New Atheists and their Christian opponents do loud and dirty battle, it offers little to those of us not bound by the sterile binaries of belief/unbelief and theism/atheism.

My understanding of this localized (i.e., the US/Britain) and provincial (i.e., Christians/Atheists) phenomenon owes something to John Gray, who for several  years now has been scourging the New Atheists for their foibles and faults. With his latest crack of the whip over at the Guardian, Gray takes aim at Sam Harris and his dubious arguments for “scientific morality.” While Harris claims that morals can be derived from and founded on science, it seems odd that the morals he deduces match perfectly with liberal values. Surely this is no coincidence and Gray is justly skeptical. He notes that “science” (there is no such reified or unified thing) has historically been deployed on behalf of all manner of morals, many of them odious. Harris, a neuroscientist by training and polemicist by penchant, has not finally discovered the elusive philosopher’s stone which transmutes science into morals:

Following many earlier atheist ideologues, Harris wants a “scientific morality”; but whereas earlier exponents of this sort of atheism used science to prop up values everyone would now agree were illiberal, Harris takes for granted that what he calls a “science of good and evil” cannot be other than liberal in content.

Harris’s militancy in asserting these values seems to be largely a reaction to Islamist terrorism. For secular liberals of his generation, the shock of the 11 September attacks went beyond the atrocious loss of life they entailed. The effect of the attacks was to place a question mark over the belief that their values were spreading – slowly, and at times fitfully, but in the long run irresistibly – throughout the world. As society became ever more reliant on science, they had assumed, religion would inexorably decline. No doubt the process would be bumpy, and pockets of irrationality would linger on the margins of modern life; but religion would dwindle away as a factor in human conflict. The road would be long and winding. But the grand march of secular reason would continue, with more and more societies joining the modern west in marginalising religion. Someday, religious belief would be no more important than personal hobbies or ethnic cuisines.

This progressive march of science and secularism, which was never more than a minority movement found mostly in Europe, has been rudely interrupted:

Today, it’s clear that no grand march is under way. The rise of violent jihadism is only the most obvious example of a rejection of secular life…The resurgence of religion is a worldwide development. Russian Orthodoxy is stronger than it has been for over a century, while China is the scene of a reawakening of its indigenous faiths and of underground movements that could make it the largest Christian country in the world by the end of this century. Despite tentative shifts in opinion that have been hailed as evidence it is becoming less pious, the US remains massively and pervasively religious – it’s inconceivable that a professed unbeliever could become president, for example.

These are the facts, Gray asserts, which have thrown New Atheists into a panic and accounts for their quixotic quest to establish a “science of good and evil.” This is a phrase, coined by Harris, which immediately arouses suspicion for anyone well-versed in Nietzsche, whose Beyond Good and Evil (1886) and Genealogy of Morals (1887) thoroughly historicized and deconstructed the contingent categories of “good” and “evil.” Alert to these issues, Gray brings them the fore:

How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.

The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him…It’s impossible to read much contemporary polemic against religion without the impression that for the “new atheists” the world would be a better place if Jewish and Christian monotheism had never existed. If only the world wasn’t plagued by these troublesome God-botherers, they are always lamenting, liberal values would be so much more secure.

Awkwardly for these atheists, Nietzsche understood that modern liberalism was a secular incarnation of these religious traditions. As a classical scholar, he recognised that a mystical Greek faith in reason had shaped the cultural matrix from which modern liberalism emerged. Some ancient Stoics defended the ideal of a cosmopolitan society; but this was based in the belief that humans share in the Logos, an immortal principle of rationality that was later absorbed into the conception of God with which we are familiar. Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values.

While this is not an entirely accurate, and certainly not complete, rendering of Nietzche’s genealogical project, it’s accurate and complete enough for Gray’s well-taken point. Science, sensu lato, has some enlightening things to say about morals, or what I would call talking primate ethics. History, in my estimation, has even more enlightening things to say about the development of morals. But I’m not sure that anything Sam Harris says about the so-called “science of good and evil” is enlightening; indeed, it may be darkening.


Did you like this? Share it:

Leave a Reply