Why I am not a New Atheist

Since this comes up now and then I thought I’d put up a quick and short post why I am not a “New Atheist.”

I am an atheist. But I have two major disagreements with the New Atheist tendency. One of them is descriptive and the other is prescriptive.

For the past fifteen years or so I have been strongly convinced that the cognitive anthropology of religion has a lot to say in explaining why most people have historically been religious. The thesis, outlined in books such as In Gods We Trust and Religion Explained, is that humans have strong innate cognitive dispositions which often synthesize together to produce intuitions that dispose them toward belief in the supernatural.

In contrast, a caricature of the New Atheist position would be that religion was written down in a book, and is a meme copied into human brains. As such, it is a meme which can be undone with enough social and cultural suasion. New Atheists, like the village atheists of yore, seem to think one can argue others out of their religiosity.

Fundamentally I do not think this is correct. Nor do I think that religious beliefs have much to do with logic or reason. Religion is a complex phenomenon which is rooted in supernatural intuitions and then evolves further in a cultural context, with some possible functional utility as a group-marker.

Second, I do not think religion is the “root of all evil”, and so see no need to convert the world to atheism. Obviously, the horror of Communism illustrates that removing supernatural religion does not remove the human impulse to atrocity.

More recently, I have been convinced that truth and knowledge is a minor value to most humans, including elites. Lying is pretty ubiquitous, and most people are rather satisfied with big lies girding social norms and conventions. One may try to avoid “living by lies” in private, but actually promoting this viewpoint in public is ridiculously self-destructive. Most people could care less about the truth,* while elites simply manipulate facts to buttress their social positions and engage in control.

In other words, the New Atheists seem to think that it’s a worthy to aim to enlighten humanity toward views which they believe align with reality.

At this point, I care about converting the common man to a true understanding of reality as much as I care about a cow grokking trigonometry. I don’t.

Note: I am not anti-New Atheist either! I think they play a role in the ecology of ideas. Also, I don’t really care if people get their feelings hurt. I hurt feelings all the time. To paraphrase George Constantza, you get a few New Atheists running around, and I’m not looking so bad.

* This includes journalists and scientists. And by “care,” I mean in revealed preferences. Not what people claim privately.

14 thoughts on “Why I am not a New Atheist

  1. “At this point, I care about converting the common man to a true understanding of reality as much as I care about a cow grokking trigonometry. I don’t.”

    Have the post modernists won?

  2. One thing I always remind myself is that even knowing the truth may not change anything anyway. For example, if a PETA person reminds me that factory farming tortures animals or an activist reminds me that I’m destroying the planet with my carbon footprint I would agree but there’s not much I can do about that so we continue to muddle along… sometimes the Truth doesn’t matter, I guess, so I try not to be too high and mighty when I feel that my truth is truthier than others.

  3. Would you apply similar considerations as in your first reason to the less wrong folks?

    what do you mean? i’ve told plenty in person (at parties) that their fixation rationality is abnormal and they themselves have their own arational priors.

  4. “…A few generations ago the clergy, or to speak more accurately, large sections of the clergy were standing examples of obscurantism. Today their place has been taken by scientists

    – ‘By merit raised to that bad eminence.’

    The obscurantists of any generation are in the main constituted by the greater part of the practitioners of the dominant methodology. Today scientific methods are dominant, and scientists are the obscurantists…”

    Whitehead, ‘The Function Of Reason’, 1922

  5. While I respect the people who have hypothesized that agency detection is the main basis of religious psychology, I don’t think that it actually is the major factor behind being religious.

    The largest correlation with any psychological trait is with Conscientiousness, particularly the Orderliness aspect, while attempts to correlate how religious you are with agency detection directly have been underwhelming. And, according to my conversation with Jordan Peterson, one of the creators of the Big Five Aspects Scale, you have to see the potential order that is there first to be an orderly person.

    There is also a lesser, but still significant correlation of religion with Agreeableness, which doubtless is a significant part of social cognition. There may be some link there to agency detection, but it doesn’t seem like the two concepts are directly interchangable.

    Of course, you have long said that religion likely taps into a large number of different cognitive systems.

    Short version: Future research on the psychological basis of religion should take more seriously the link between religion and Conscientiousness, particularly Orderliness.

  6. The largest correlation with any psychological trait is with Conscientiousness, particularly the Orderliness aspect, while attempts to correlate how religious you are with agency detection directly have been underwhelming. And, according to my conversation with Jordan Peterson, one of the creators of the Big Five Aspects Scale, you have to see the potential order that is there first to be an orderly person.

    correlations need variance in the trait. not sure that there is that much variance in the trait (there a small % of people on the autistic end of spectrum).

  7. The truth will not set us free. However, I think that there are very harmful untruths that should be fought to insignificance. For example literal and fundamentalist belief in Islam or Biblical Christianity. They are real totalitarian threats. I think the West at the end of 20th century roughly got it right, relegating religion to private sphere but also allow different communities to function within broad parameters of individual rights. However, trying to eliminate it will be counterproductive. A homogeneous, rational, global society may be the ultimate dystopia.

  8. “with some possible functional utility as a group-marker.”

    I would argue that religion is first and foremost about the rituals that bind a social group (community, tribe, congregation) together. Theology is a set of narratives that sanction those rituals and orient the community. E.g. we could treat marriage as a civil contract that is the same in every respect as a partnership agreement among a firm of accountants. But, Most of us don’t. We treat it as a religious ritual and use narratives like the Wedding at Cana and texts like Song of Songs to shape it.

    Abstracting theology from its social context renders it ridiculous. Which has been a major trope of the the New Atheists. But, it cuts no ice with the relevant communities, they see the theology in context, and because they are bound to the community they do not care that it looks ridiculous to outsiders.

  9. “Have the post modernists won?”

    No. The post modernists begin with an epistemological proposition that the evidence of the senses is the only input into our mental processes, and there is a radical disjunction between reality and what we can know of it or think about it.

    This is not a new or original insight. David Hume and the Medieval Muslim Philosopher Al-Ghazali held that position. And, it is intellectually defensible.

    The problem is that once you have said that, there is no logically required next step. Hume is content to go to the tavern and play backgammon with his friends. He confesses to a preference for the existing order of Hanoverian Britain. Al-Ghazali, OTOH retreats to rigid Islamic orthodoxy.

    The contemporary po-mos landing spot is Gramiscian Marxism, combined with a kabbalistic belief in the power of language that has morphed into a gnostic dualism (I am a woman because my spirit believes I am a woman, biology be damned). I know that the description is an intellectual farrago, but they are not deep thinkers and when pushed they are reduced to name calling.

    Like our political and economic elites, our intellectual elites are pathetic failures.

  10. Another great post. Religion (at least post-protestant theology) historically has played a big part in our progressive politics such as universal education, abolition of slavery, existentialism and the notion of egalitarianism. Promoting atheism may not produce the kind of results as expected.

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