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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

"Smug Atheists" Should Read More SF Counsels io9

God, what with the Dumb Daily Dvorsky peddling his futurological hogwash incessantly and Charlie Jane Anders complaining yesterday about "smug atheists," the often smart and splendid fandom of io9 lately seems at real risk of jumping the shark.

I have no quibble with Anders' welcome point that a sense of wonder (whether the Aristotelian prompt of proper philosophy or the sfnal sensawunda) often, even usually, involves a sense of humility. But I find it appalling that faith-traditions are identified in this formulation with humility (endless fundamentalist fulminations to the contrary notwithstanding) while atheism is tarred with a lack of humility. Anders complains at the outset of her piece:
You can't be on Twitter these days without being bombarded with atheistic smugness. You know what I mean. People who can't just profess that they don't believe in God -- they have to taunt religious people for believing in "fairy tales." Or the Tooth Fairy. Most of the time, these are geeks who have immense respect for science... and yet, they won't recognize a situation where they simply have no data, one way or the other.
As it happens, I am on twitter and have never once experienced this bombardment. Perhaps Anders needs to prune her twitter feed? As an atheist queer and secular democratic socialist-feminist I must say that I find more frustrating the bombardment by anti-gay bigots and anti-abortion patriarchal pricks and greedhead climate change denialists waving their Bibles in my face.

As for the tired claim of the "middle-way" agnostic that atheism is a kind of faith, let me just point out that the word atheist means, simply a-theist, "without-god." I personally do without god (and have done, cheerfully, for nearly thirty years now) and see no reason to do otherwise -- and from that vantage, Anders' observation about the lack of data strongly conduces to the benefit of my comfortable disbelief over contrary claims made without cause by the variously faithful for theirs. It is simply wrong to equate "Young Earth Creationism" and atheism as ascriptions of faith as Anders does, and then distinguish them only by saying the first has been disproved and the second not, yet: Atheism isn't a positive assertion, so much as a clearing away of such assertions made in the absence of reasons to open the way for positive assertions made for good reason.

When Anders says "Contemplating space and time in all of their massive strangeness is much like gazing into the naked face of God" this seems to me little different from a little child telling me that God is an old man with a grey beard in a big stone chair. Concretizing metaphorizations of the incomprehensible always only miscomprehend it -- isn't that what faith is supposed to be about? To the extent that god is a presumably omni-predicated originary being, we cannot actually attribute what we mean by "being" to god, since no known being is omni-predicated or originary. In Kantian parlance, one has to deny knowledge to make room for faith.

Proposing that all subjective experience is equally valid is, of course, either a vacuity or outright nonsense and Anders surely doesn't even mean what she is saying for a moment: A purely subjective experience that one keeps to oneself is at once "valid" but also immaterial in a way that almost inevitably provokes it into public testimony. And once I submit a claim as a candidate for warranted belief -- say, in the service of prediction and control -- it is subject to public scrutiny on the terms such claims are warranted as such. William James defined the true as the good in the way of belief, and added -- as people who quote James often fail to remember -- good for assignable reasons. The reasons are what matter here: It is the reasons that make experience reasonable. Although the criteria change, there are always such criteria -- whether the belief is a matter of moral, political, or aesthetic distinction.

Now, I quite sympathize with those who disdain the reduction of truth or value to only one of the many domains in which truths can be made and values affirmed -- scientific, legal, moral, aesthetic, political, and so on -- but I have never yet heard a good argument in which reasonable pluralism or anti-reductionism supports positive claims made by believers in divinities or other supernatural phenomenon. When Anders starts quibbling about hallucinations it is only because she grasps the adjudicable distinction between hallucination and perception that she tries to make hay by muddying them. (She is in venerable company playing such games, look at the mischief Descartes made with his demon.)

As an atheist and a freethinker and a champion of consensus science who does not believe science has all the answers, I personally take exception to the suggestion that people who profess a belief in some god or other have more of a sense of wonder about existence than I do. As a lifelong reader of science fiction authors, I protest in the name of the endlessly many of them who were atheists, freethinkers, and skeptics like me that science fiction would be commandeered in the service of a defense of the superior sensibilities of people of religious faith.

If saying so reeks of "smugness" to apologists for organized religions at a time when organized religion is demonstrably one of the most pernicious forces in the world, I don't know if there is anything I can do to assuage their discomfort. May I recommend a good stiff drink, some nineteenth century poetry, or perhaps an appointment with a therapist (or hairdresser)? I can also recommend some good science fiction, as it happens. You see, I try to be helpful.

9 comments:

Herr Hear-Hear said...

Bits and pieces of this are as beautiful and good as
anything I've ever read. (Granted, I'm not especially
well read.) In particular, I want

A purely subjective experience that one keeps to
oneself is at once "valid" but also immaterial in a way
that almost inevitably provokes it into public
testimony. And once I submit a claim as a candidate
for warranted belief -- say, in the service of
prediction and control -- it is subject to public
scrutiny on the terms such claims are warranted as
such.


on a bumper sticker. And I don't even drive!

Dale Carrico said...

Thanks!

wetwiring said...

If you don't like t'internet, don't be on it. And as Science said to God re:Twitter, "You didn't build this".

jimf said...

> I find it appalling that faith-traditions are identified
> in this formulation with humility. . .

A kind of "humility" in which I am encouraged to think
that the Creator of the Universe worries about what I do
with my wee-wee.

jollyspaniard said...

I've been taken plenty of time from creationists giving me an earful for my heretical ways. I can't witnessing similar behavour in the other direction.

What's really ruffling these feathers is that offence is being taken to is people holding they don't like and are willing to express it publicly.

jollyspaniard said...

As to good stiff drink I reccomend a 4 shot gin cocktail. Gin is a good solvent when you're dealing with uncomfortable realities.

Jay said...

A continuous sense of wonder is usually only seen in very small children. Adults generally have some idea of what's going on in any common circumstance.

Anonymous said...

William James also said:

"No account of the universe in its totality can be final which leaves those other forms of consciousness quite disregarded."

And:

"Everything in this universe is the smell of burnt almonds."

May I recommend a good stiff drink, Dale...ayahuasca. Please do so, and post to your blog of your experience.

Dale Carrico said...

As a pragmatist, I would say that no account of the universe should be taken as final, let alone total. To do so is to mistake what such accounts are good for. And as a pluralist, I regard reasonableness as not only a matter of believing where belief is warranted but also knowing which criteria of warrant are the ones relevant to the belief. Faithful claims that pretend to scientific warrant unreasonably (or fraudulently) might become perfectly reasonably warranted if they are understood instead as moral or aesthetic beliefs, say. I have written about this extensively, archived under the sidebar under the topic Pragmatism and Pluralism. This fancy, also inspired by a Charlie Jane Anders post is one you might find more congenial.