A return of the gods

I have mentioned Alister McGrath’s The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World several times on this weblog. When I first read this book, about twelve years ago, its overall argument seemed unpersuasive. It was already clear then that the United States was going through a wave of secularization, which has seen a massive expansion in the number of “religious nones” in the past generation. It was during this period that books such as Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion became a cultural phenomenon.

As an empirical matter disbelief has not fallen in the modern world. On the contrary.

But McGrath was getting at something when he exulted in the possibilities for traditional religion in a “post-modern” context, where objective science was no longer privileged. In the middle 2000s, this seemed like a strange contention to be making. Books such as Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science were still on our cultural radar. The “Science Wars” were over. Science had won.

But when one war is won, the seeds for the next are sown. Over at Why Evolution is True, Jerry Coyne has a post up, Princeton’s course on how marginalized scientists can produce “different ways of knowing”. The entire post is a rather predictable product of someone who has a late 20th-century positivist viewpoint on these issues. For Coyne science is fundamentally transcultural and universal. As a paleoliberal Jerry also lacks the semantic nuance to navigate today’s progressivism very well, with its attention to lexical detail and precision. Coyne means well, but he sometimes comes off as a visitor from the 20th century.

It’s hard for me to think that Jerry Coyne would disagree with the idea that science is a cultural product, and so is refracted through cultural considerations. Rather, Coyne likely wants to emphasize the universal and objective nature of the scientific enterprise, at least in the ideal. As such, those who hold this rarified, idealistic, and practically not realized concept of science tend to imagine the scientific worker as a bare ratiocination machine. A contrasting view, more popular today, is to acknowledge that science is a human enterprise which has been subject to bias and distortion due to the particular socio-cultural perspectives brought to the enterprise by scientists.

A decade ago the latter view was not nearly as well articulated within science, among practicing scientists (though it was found outside of science). Therefore, Coyne could easily have expressed such dismissive attitudes and been indulged. But the times have changed. Viewpoint matters more now.

In The Twilight of Atheism McGrath argues that the idea of objective reality as highly attainable gave succor to triumphalist positivism. With its fading away the high tide of positivism will recede…and it does seem that that has occurred since he wrote his book. I am speaking particularly within science, with Jerry Coyne’s type of positivism being viewed suspiciously by many younger and mid-career researchers.

Thirteen years ago a sociologist of science, Steve Fuller, supported the Intelligent Design movement because he argued that scientists were biased by their subjective perspectives. At the time he was laughed out of court (literally). But it does have to be acknowledged that religious conservatives are an extremely underrepresented group within the natural sciences.

To this Jerry Coyne would simply appeal to his very strident transcultural and universalist views on science. Even if a disproportionate number of scientists are atheists and liberals, reality is what it is, and despite the bias objectivity wins out. But what does seem like the majority viewpoint (at least vocally) within science now is that representation of different experiences matters a great deal. This group would have to make a different argument as to why the enormous underrepresentation of religious conservatives within science does not matter in the least in relation to the questions being explored and the theories being proffered. As I do not hold this position (I lean more toward Coyne), I won’t attempt to outline what that argument would be.

Rather, I want to move back to the “twilight of atheism.” Secularization is real. But is it irreversible? Though it might seem glib to contend that the critical rationalism engendered by science erodes away at the authority of religion, the correlation does seem a real one. But if diversity of epistemology becomes the standard position, if sciences’ special and authoritative role within modern society is dethroned, I do wonder if a “reenchantment of the world” might become possible. If what is good and true is a function of feeling and power, of sentiment and moral suasion, then religion clearly is going to be in the game.

Few of the people who wish to pull science off its artificial pedestal would be sympathetic to the resurgence of religion, but that might be irrelevant….

Preference falsification in our time and evermore

One of the main reasons I listen to the Secular Jihadists podcast is that there’s an earnest honesty from the hosts which is fading from our society in public discourse. Though I’m not a “New Atheist” personally (just an atheist), I don’t mind, and even appreciate, people who can discuss the reality that according to the Sunnah, Muhammad, PBUH, was a child rapist and sex slaver by the norms of the current year.

As I am not Muslim and I don’t wish to emulate Muhammad I don’t have to reconcile traditional Islam’s understanding of him with modern norms (not that Muhammad is special, Moses was a child slaughterer). But I am also not sure that airing the reality of Muhammad’s life is productive, or forwards any broader conversation. But the fact of the traditions of his life is trueIf facts are never aired, then facts fade from comprehension, and people may confuse polite ommissions with reality.

Because attitudes toward Islam have been ideologized honesty about the religion in public is dangerous, as the truth is a weapon in partisan games. For example, a few months ago I noticed Jerry Coyne had linked to an old post of mine on why being Muslim is not a racial thing on Twitter. Curiously, Twitter flagged the post as sensitive.

So what did I say? You can see….

Obviously, I didn’t say anything too crazy. Rather, the text flagger probably saw “race” and “Islam” and wondered if I this was frog-nazi talk. But more generally there has been heightened sensitivity around Islam and Muslims over the past 17 years, and frank discussion of the religion is now difficult. I recall watching the PBS’ To the Contrary in the 1990s and at one point there was a discussion about Muslim women and their plight. The most stridently Left on the regular panel, Julianne Malveaux, stated plainly that there was perhaps something about Islam which was constitutively anti-woman.

I happen to disagree with the idea that there is anything constitutively anti-woman about Islam, but that’s because I take a very dim view of religious essentialism. But it’s not an unreasonable assertion given the huge body of shariah where women are given inferior status in relation to men. Malveaux wasn’t crazy. And none of her fellow panelists said much in relation to her observation about the essential anti-feminism of Islam. It was the 1990s and anti-religious outbursts by a very Left-wing person wasn’t surprising. Islam was a religion, ergo….

Today the situation is different. I doubt Malveaux would say something similar in public. And I assume that her panelists, especially the conventional liberals, would come to the defense of Islam if she did. This despite the fact that privately many liberals will admit that Islam and women’s rights do not exactly correlate too well. I have a friend who chides Islamophobes on Facebook who will state it is a “fucked up religion” in personal conversation (and to be entirely frank, this is really common from non-Muslim South Asians in the West, who tend to come from Islamo-skeptic backgrounds and yet cultivate strong SJW public personas).

What I’m alluding to here is the ubiquity of preference falsification. The term was popularized in Timur Kuran’s Private Truths, Public Lies: The Social Consequences of Preference Falsification. Chinese “Communism” today is arguably just one huge game of preference falsification. Late stage Soviet Communism was also preference falsification writ large.

The Secular Jihadists don’t engage in preference falsification, and I find that refreshing because it’s so rare. I don’t agree with their New Atheist beliefs on a lot of the details, nor do I share their liberal politics, but I know where I agree and disagree. There’s no reading between the lines. They say what they mean and mean what they say.

While listening to podcasts and viewing YouTubes one thing I’ve come to realize is that Far Left and Far Right views are more interesting because the two groups are so marginal they don’t have an incentive to preference falsify. I disagree with both perspectives, but it’s honest disagreement. When I listen to mainstream Center Left and Center Right folks it’s generally much more boring. They are keen on telling truths that won’t rock the boat and will make the fewest waves. They will lie, omit, and manipulate, to also minimize rocking the boat.

Back in the 2000s Andrew Sullivan came up with the “Yglesias Award”, named after Matt Yglesias, now of Vox. From the page about the award: “This award…is for writers, politicians, columnists or pundits who actually criticize their own side, make enemies among political allies, and generally risk something for the sake of saying what they believe.” Can anyone imagine him criticizing his own side today? Vox and its coterie of writers have become well-off on cozying up to establishment power. They are now the system. Or at least one of the two primary systems (the Right and Left).

There is an equivalent on the Right. Back in the 2000s The Weekly Standard wrote some positive pieces on Intelligent Design. This was strange because The Weekly Standard was a flagship journal of neoconservatism, and so decidedly secular and urban, with a large contingent of Jewish writers and editors. In contrast, Intelligent Design was being pushed forward by evangelical Protestants, and to a lesser extent a small number of conservative Catholics. At the time most people understood that The Weekly Standard was engaged in coalition building. Privately no one there probably found Intelligent Design creditable, but they were part of a coalition of people who took these ideas seriously and sincerely. Though on some level everyone understood what The Weekly Standard was doing, the important thing was that it did what it did in public, and expended some of its capital among secular intellectuals to support religious conservatives as a costly signal to its commitment to the Right.

One reason that Heather Mac Donald began to speak out about atheism and the Right in the 2000s is that she’s a sincere person and was aggravated by the juxtaposition in public respect for religion that conservative intellectuals were prone toward, despite many of them privately having little use for faith.

There’s another dynamic where preference falsification and revealed preferences are connected. I recently observed that Joe Kennedy III seems to be evidence of the royal family of the Democratic party getting whiter while the party gets browner. Joseph P. Kennedy and Rose Kennedy now have many great-grandchildren, such as Joe Kennedy III. Most are no doubt liberal Democrats who think diversity is great and good. But take a look at who these Kennedys are marrying. Since they’re a prominent family, their weddings are noted in the public record. Though the Kennedy’s of the current generation say the correct thing for liberals about racial diversity in public, their private choices are more in alignment with being in sympathy with a white ethnostate.

Why does any of this matter? As I said above, if the public lying is ubiquitous enough, people begin to confuse polite ommissions or accepted public distortions with reality. Eventually the public and private come into alignment. An analogy to religion is appropriate. All of the living descendants of Moses Mendelssohn descend from Christian branches of his lineage. The conversion in the early 19th century of prominent German Jews to Christianity was often a conscious act of assimilation, or a means toward professional advancement. There is evidence that some of these individuals were never sincere Christians in a deep theological sense, and many people understood this. But over time the preference falsification in these families faded, and they became sincere Christians in public and private.

Now consider the case of sex differences. One of the reasons I post on sex differences on strength is to remind people who de facto preference falsify about the truth, and expose newbies to the truth who might otherwise confuse falsification-by-omission with the truth. By this, I mean that over the past generation sex differences are not an issue that many among the cultural elite (on the Left) want to talk about in depth. Most people know that there are differences in strength, though they may be fuzzy on the details. But some younger people actually confuse the lack of attention to sex differences with the fact of no sex differences, and take maximal gender social constructionism at face value!

Because the truth is not fashionable preference falsification will become more and more common. Demands for politeness by omission will become more strident and all-encompassing.  Old-fashioned positivists and empiricists who naively make testable truth claims will still exist, but their prestige will be low. Instead of truth being telos, an ends, it will become purely techne, a means or artifice.

Truth, positivism, scientism. All these are the affectations of a small cult. Over time this cult needs to recede out of public view because they are inconvenient to power. The flourishing of truth in the dark and hidden corners of the world must occur through the cult’s service of power. The destruction of falsehood must occur not through argumentation, which falsehood will always win, but through fiat. Falsehood always bends more quickly to fiat.

Going back to where this post started, “ex-Muslims” are a particular affront to the modern order of things. Their existence is an offense, and uncomfortable to most Muslims. Their witness as to Islam’s illiberality is highly inconvenient for the modern Western Left, which maintains a public alliance with Islam. And yet most of these individuals are committed to Left social progress in all areas outside of Islam.

My prediction is that Left critics of ex-Muslims will become more and more vociferous. Not because they believe in their case. Rather, they know that marginalizing this one group despite the injustice of that course of action is an excellent “hard-to-fake” signal of their sincerity and commitment to their Muslim allies. They will destroy this small group not because it is right, but specifically because it is wrong. Innocence is not a defense.