Razib Khan One-stop-shopping for all of my content

January 11, 2018

Why I am not a New Atheist

Filed under: atheism,Atheist,New Atheism — Razib Khan @ 9:32 pm

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.

April 16, 2017

Treasure your exceptions, progress is real but not universal

Filed under: Apostasy,Atheist,Culture — Razib Khan @ 12:41 am

The beginning of How the Scots Invented the Modern World describes the execution of a man for the crime of atheism around 1700 in Scotland. More precisely, this individual was rather loud about their heresy, and that is always the problem. Silent dissent is usually tolerated. This is the last time someone was executed for this particular crime in the British Isles.

In the United Kingdom the book was more accurately titled The Scottish Enlightenment. A relatively moderate and low fuss affair, the Scottish Enlightenment gave us Adam Smith and David Hume, to name two. The point of the book is that in it one can see many of the seeds of the liberal Enlightenment more broadly in Scotland, while in the beginning of the 18th century was arguably more backward and medieval than its southern neighbor.

But the “modern world” means many different things. Mobile phone technology is ubiquitous, to the point that even the poor in developing nations have it. But a broader consumer affluence is out of reach for many. And the rights and liberties of a liberal democratic order are more an ideal than concrete existence for much of the world’s population (and you have cases such as Saudi Arabia where illiberal norms and politics merge with consumer affluence).

As you may know a young man was killed by his fellow students in Pakistan for the crime of blasphemy a few days ago. Whether he was an atheist or a free thinker, or a skeptic more generally, can be hard to ascertain. But the critical aspect is that he was killed in broad daylight by a mob. He was lynched. This being 2017, you can watch a video of the killing, and hear his screams as he is murdered in front of a crowd.

One aspect people have been noticing is that this was a killing enabled by majority and consensus opinion. Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan is a public university, not a cloistered madrassa or a branch of the Red Mosque network. You can’t blame ISIS or some crazy jihadi network. These were university students.

Pakistan has a population of 182 million. The United States around 300 million. I understand that Americans believe we are the future. That the rest of the world is the exception. But how long will that be? Perhaps the arrow of history is more a circle?

Powered by WordPress