About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Thursday, August 30, 2007
Chatting with atheists
The first question was: “What's wrong with the New Atheism?” The term “new atheism” has been used by some mainstream media outlets during the last year or so to label the spate of recent books in open (some would say defiant) defense of atheism: Daniel Dennett's “Breaking the Spell,” Sam Harris' “Letter to a Christian Nation,” Richard Dawkins' “The God Delusion,” and Christopher Hitchens' “God is not Great.” Naturally, a group of atheists could not be expected to see much wrong with a significant output of books defending their philosophical position, but there were in fact doubts expressed by some about whether the specific arguments (e.g., in Dawkins' claim that the “God hypothesis” is scientifically testable) or general tone (especially Harris' and Hitchens') were on target or helpful to the movement in general. More broadly, there doesn't seem to be much radically or qualitatively “new” about the new atheism: while surely the science bearing on debunking specific religious claims (such as those advanced by creationists or supporters of Intelligent Design) is in fact more sophisticated than it was in the time of, say, Voltaire, the basic philosophical and moral reasons for rejecting religion remain the same – and they are as justified as ever.
The second question I posed to the members of New York City Atheists was: “Does science inform your meaning of life?” The philosophically sophisticated among the readers of this blog will immediately smell an objection to the question itself, raised originally by David Hume and known today as the naturalistic fallacy. The idea, Hume said, is that one cannot logically derive an “ought” (i.e., a conclusion about values) from an “is” (i.e., a matter of fact). Yet, in recent decades philosophers themselves (e.g. Quine) have begun to question the rigidity of the fact/value distinction, and one could reasonably argue that knowledge of the world may well influence the way we see ourselves, and therefore the meaning we attach to what we do. Indeed, the classic example – which turned out to be a common experience among the discussants – is the sort of scientific revolution that Copernicus and Galilei brought about: by showing convincingly that, as a matter of fact, the earth is not the center of the universe and that human beings are not the pinnacle of creation, these two scientists have profoundly altered our value systems. As a result of their discoveries, Copernicus and Galilei have helped us to develop a slightly more humble view of ourselves and a better sense of respect for the rest of the biosphere. After all, if science really had no influence on questions of meaning, one would have to wonder what all the fuss is about when creationists get so upset at the mention that the earth is billions, not thousands, of years old.
The final question was: “So, you are an atheist: what happened?” It turned out that my own experience was similar to that of many people present there, in that we have all encountered some well-meaning Christian who assumed beyond doubt and without a shred of evidence (as they are prone to do in a variety of circumstances) that there must have been some major trauma in the life of someone who has decided to abandon God. Besides the obvious observation that we are, in fact, all born atheists and become religious only after a culturally and historically specific process of early indoctrination, there is actual sociological research that illuminates the question. In “Amazing Conversions,” Altemeyer and Hunsberger show that typically it is the transition from non-religious (which doesn't necessarily mean atheist) to born-again that is catalyzed by a traumatic event. Apparently, people's emotions are overrun by the impact of the event and they seek solace in some sort of new belief, no matter how improbable it may be. The transition from believer to atheist, on the other hand, usually takes years, and is characterized by a much more deliberate process of inquiry, often including the reading of a variety of books on science and philosophy.
Needless to say (but I will say it anyway), I am keenly interested in reading the opinions of readers of this blog on any or all of the three questions. Anyone out there?