Friday, July 27, 2012

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Coming of the Horde

Oh, my aching head:

As he notes, we’ve got a problem with people who are furious that atheists dare to consider sexism and racism to be serious issues that we should deal with now. He takes the side that I knew he would, that these are problems we should address, because secular thinkers should be best equipped to deal with them.

As skeptics we should objectively examine the impacts of social discrimination, and identify the best ways to promote diversity and inclusiveness. By definition, prejudice depends on not having all relevant information, and as skeptics we are ideally suited to develop and promote arguments for inclusiveness and human rights, based on the evidence of the benefits to individuals and society. We could use this research to tackle the emotional and irrational thinking behind racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudices and discriminations. It’s at least as interesting a topic as many we discuss, and a more useful topic than most.

I am fully in agreement. This is the necessary job of this generation of atheists and skeptics, to extend our principles to embrace topics of wider social import... So on one side we have smug jerks who hate the idea of being progressive, but on the other, on my side, we’re quite ready to cut the troglodytes loose, and we’re quite ready to move on without them... Michael has stepped into the no-man’s land between the raging forces, and it’s a gallant effort. But judging by the comments already on his article, he hasn’t convinced the smug anti-progressives that maybe they should embrace a wider scope for atheism, and he really hasn’t tried yet to convince the people on the other side that maybe the angry sexists and racists and sneering self-satisfied libertarians are worth bringing on board. I’m inclined to say they’re not, until they grow up and change.

All right, go ahead and pluck that low-hanging irony fruit. I know you want to. Yes, PZ is actually calling other people smug, sneering, self-satisfied jerks. I know, I know. Get it out of your system.

Now, then. Right away, in the first excerpted paragraph, we encounter his amazingly sloppy conflation of atheism and secularism. As we should all be aware, they are not synonyms, and it does not follow that being either atheist or secularist gives you an intellectual head start in the attempt to end sexism and racism. The Founding Fathers were mostly secular intellectuals; do we want to use their views on race and women's rights as guidelines? Of course, he likely knows better. This is probably just an example of what happens when you form a clique where your ideas are always being reinforced (especially one that takes immense pride in its hostile stance toward outsiders); you tend to assume everyone already knows what you mean, you start using shorthand for convenience rather than carefully spelling out your ideas, which allows misunderstandings, mistaken assumptions and lazy thinking to spread, and whoa, whaddaya know, turns out that even comrades can end up having intense emotional disagreements over who's more deserving of carrying the banner for the cause of rationalism.

Maybe there's a lesson in there about how group dynamics can influence psychology and undermine intellectual rigor and communication. Eh, we can come back to that another time.

You wouldn't know it from the professor's insistence that he's already punched Social Justice into his Progressivist History GPS, so let's go, let's go, we're gonna be late, come on, you irrational reactionary troglodytes, honk honk hooonnnnnkkk, but there's a, uh, rational case to be made that atheism and/or skepticism already have an enormous task in front of them just trying to reduce religiosity and magical thinking, and therefore activist efforts will be more effective with a tighter focus. Too much mission creep, and you end up becoming a vague protest against "everything bad" while accomplishing nothing in particular. There is no clearly right or wrong strategy here. The quickest way to achieve anything like your social justice goals might involve putting atheist agitation on hold and partnering with progressive religious groups to combat sexism, racism, homophobia, militarism, etc. Value pluralism, you know.

Getting back to that startlingly blithe assumption that atheists would make great philosopher-kings, it is obviously a complete non-sequitur that a particular constellation of left-wing political beliefs necessarily follows from one's conviction of the nonexistence of something called God. Having accomplished the relatively unremarkable task of reasoning your way to disbelief in a monotheistic deity, you're not necessarily qualified thereby to design an ideal society, explain how it would operate in practice, or organize all the necessary maneuvers leading to it, even leaving aside the immense problem of accounting for all the variables that could possibly produce a different result than the one intended. Jacobins, Bolsheviks and Maoists all started from rational Enlightenment principles. The fact that they ended where they did should, if nothing else, make one suspect that people too, uh, smugly enamored of how "ideally suited" they are to resolving social problems with their superior reasoning may eventually end up simply rationalizing their behavior in any event.

No, I'm not saying that the FTB crowd is going to eventually seize power and start executing whomever they don't imprison in labor camps. I'm just saying that my 19 year-old asshole know-it-all self could be just as supercilious about all those morons who can't see how obvious it is blah blah blah, and hindsight has shown me what a fucking idiot that guy was.