A “pseudo-intellectual trifle”

Scott Stephens has an article on the ABC’s Religion and Ethics website called “The Poverty of the New Atheism“.

PZ Myers has a go at this (and he’s seen it all before). Stephens’ article resembles the Courtier’s Reply, another of Myers’ illuminations. Theologians seem to object to atheist arguments not because they’re wrong – they hardly even mention the issue of correctness – but because atheists pay insufficient attention and reverence to the details of theological discourse. In this case, Stephens objects to “New Atheism” not because it makes errors but because it doesn’t go far enough into his other pet interests.

Many of Stephens’ remarks are just empty put-downs, like this:

But is there not is a kind of implicit acknowledgement of inferiority in the tone so many of the “New Atheists” have adopted? The air of contemptuous flippancy reduces atheism to a form of light entertainment and petit bourgeois chic.

New Atheists might adopt contemptuous flippancy towards the more extreme and fantastical religious imaginings floating around, but it’s not atheism that this reduces to light entertainment – it’s religion. Their tone might convey arrogance (which is the usual accusation), but Stephens does this quite well himself, as you can see.

Stephens use of “bourgeois” might be telling, considering that his next dozen paragraphs lead us on a wild adventure into Marxist philosophy. Stephens is strangely enamored with Marx, who he promotes above the New Atheists. I was torn between two possible reasons for this. Either –

  1. Stephens wants to laugh at his contemporary adversaries by comparing them unfavourably to a long-vanquished foe; or
  2. Stephens does see a redeeming quality in Marx, and is disdainful of New Atheism for not also being New Communism.

I lean towards the latter interpretation, because Stephens wraps up his Marxist adventure as follows:

And here the “New Atheists” fall tragically short.

By failing to pursue the critique of religion into the sanctum of global capitalism itself, by reducing discussion of morality to a vapid form of well-being and personal security, and by failing to advocate alternate forms of virtuous community – all in the name of “reason” – they end up providing the pathologies of capitalism with a veneer of “commonsense” rationality.

I think Stephens displays a profound misunderstanding of the terms of reference, so to speak, of atheism. It is silly to chastise atheism (or agnosticism, or secularism) for what it doesn’t do. Atheism is not supposed to be a holistic solution for all your philosophical needs; it is only one aspect of philosophy.

In particular, if you want to hear atheists make passionate moral arguments, tell them to take off their atheist hats and put on their secular humanist ones. It is humanism that (typically) drives morality for atheists, not atheism. Atheism is concerned with the non-existence of God. That’s not just where it happens to be focused at the moment; that’s what it is. New Atheism is merely a modern-day expression of this.

It’s even sillier to accuse New Atheism of legitimising “the pathologies of capitalism”, simply by having nothing to do with it. Atheists span the entire political spectrum. As many atheists would argue for capitalism as against it. As many theists would argue for capitalism as against it. We can debate the existence of God without invoking economics. We can debate the relative merits of capitalism without invoking the supernatural. The two issues are completely independent, and it serves no purpose to conflate them.

However, Stephens finally uses the capitalism theme to launch into the unlikeliest of proposals:

Ayaan Hirsi Ali has recognized as much and has thus proposed – though not unproblematically – an alliance between atheism and Catholic Christianity.

“Not unproblematically” is something of an understatement, you might think. Atheism would not be atheism if it made an “alliance” with religion – the idea is self-contradictory. Secular humanism might make an alliance with religion (in some hypothetical context) – and that might even entail atheists, but not atheism per se.

Finally, we have this:

By continuing to ignore its debt to the Christian intellectual and moral revolution, and by severing itself from the profoundest insights of its own tradition, the “New Atheism” will find it impossible to avoid becoming a fad, a pseudo-intellectual trifle.

That’s the thing about atheism, Stephens – it has no debt to the past. Atheism is merely the rejection of religious mythology. Every one of us is born with the capacity for such reason. We don’t need cues from those living decades, centuries or millennia ago – we can work it out for ourselves. And that’s why it will endure.

Climate: ‘mission accomplished’

I read with ever growing fascination the comments that continue to flood into climate-related blogs. Deltoid has collected a few truly astounding ones. I’ve also discovered the UK’s very own James Delingpole, who’s a riot. As mentioned in my previous post, there seem to be a veritable army of those convinced that the climate sceptics are not merely right (and righteous), but that this time they’ve actually, truly won. This, based on an assortment of stolen email.

In the long run, reading these comments is probably a recipe for the development of psychological issues, but for the moment it’s like a spectator sport. While ignorance regarding the climate change science is merely frustrating, the euphoric surety of ultimate victory that so many commenters share is hilarous. As a general rule, I don’t like laughing at other people, but when so many start running at full pelt toward the cliff edge, convinced that it is they who are to inherit the Earth, I cannot help but anticipate schadenfreude. I can’t do anything about it, after all, so why not laugh?

(Doubtless, to someone not familiar with the issue, I myself might be sounding a little overconfident. To assuage such doubts, you would do well to remember that the reality of climate change is propounded by the world’s scientific community, which is constantly engaged in critical self-examination. By contrast, the opponents of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have very few actual scientific results to draw from in support of their arguments. Having long since been consigned to scientific irrelevance, they resort to reading other people’s email in search of conspiracies.)

But why are so many stampeding over the edge all at once? My theory is that so little motivation or desire exists for critical thought that commenters feed on each other ad infinitum. They come to believe, for instance, that there has indeed been widespread scientific fraud, based on existing angry comments, which themselves were derived from still older comments, etc. Eventually we find ourselves back at the source of the allegations – the use of the phase hide the decline in one of the emails (which in reality has a much more innocent explanation*). The newer commenters aren’t aware that these three little words are the entire basis of the supposed fraud. They think their arguments are much more solidly grounded, simply because everyone is talking about it.

The other piece of the puzzle is the ideology of those who spread the word in the first place. Opposition to action on climate change – as put forth by Andrew Bolt, and of course many others around the world – starts to make some kind of twisted sense if you accept the following fact. There are people out there for whom the greatest and most insideous evil in the world is not war, poverty, disease, starvation or tyranny, but simply the fact that you are required to help fund public services. This is their antichrist – taxation – the worse imaginable horror that the universe could bestow on us. My intuition fails me here, but however untenable the premise, the logic thereafter seems to hold. It is an article of faith that none of the consequences of climate change can outweigh the evil of taxation. Indeed the proposition that we should deal with climate change by introducing emissions trading schemes – seen by some as a form of tax – must place the issue firmly in the socialists-taking-over-the-world basket.

I sense that this deeply-held belief serves to justify intellectual dishonesty in the minds of climate change deniers. This might be analogous to the obligation felt by creationist pundits to argue against evolution, not because they feel the evidence is in their favour (as their followers do), but because they perceive the science to be a moral challenge to their beliefs.

* The “hide the decline” hysteria is one of my favourite pieces, actually. I shall attempt to summarise, based on some very patient explanations by Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA. The “decline” refers to the “divergence problem”, where temperature reconstructions based on tree-ring data show a spurious decline after about 1960. This needs to be “hidden” simply because it’s not real. Several important points to note are:

  1. The comment cannot possibly be connected to the fabled “cooling” of temperatures this decade, since the email was sent in 1999.
  2. The collection of tree-ring data is a relatively peripheral issue to climate change, since other data sources are available (including actual temperature measurements).
  3. We know that the tree-ring data is reasonably accurate before 1960 and inaccurate after 1960, because we can compare it to other sources of data. Actual temperature measurements, for instance, certainly do not show a “decline”. The reasons for the divergence are the subject of debate, but may be a result of climate change itself.

Update (7 December 2009) – A couple more points, for the sake of completeness:

  1. Nothing has actually been “hidden”, in the lay sense, anyway. All the data is out in the open and the problem has been discussed in the peer-reviewed literature over a decade ago.
  2. According to the email (which you can Google for yourself), the only action taken was the addition to the data of real temperature values. The sources of these values are even described in the email.

Stimulated by Kevin

It appears that, in the coming weeks, most of us will be receiving $900 from The Man, with which we must do our patriotic duty as consumers and… well, consume. I suppose we should all be buying Australian goods and services as much as possible, though that line always sounds a little parochial to me. It’s a global crisis, after all.

However, it’s nice to have a Senate that isn’t just a rubber stamp for the Government’s every whim. The Greens managed to wrangle a few improvements to the package without appearing to play games, which is a neat trick in our consummately adversarial political system. On the other hand, Senator Nick Xenophon’s brinkmanship over funding for the Murray-Darling probably isn’t how the democratic process is supposed to work. When interviewed on Insiders, he reassured everyone that he would indeed have scuttled the whole thing had he not gotten his way. Malcolm Turnbull still isn’t having any of it, of course, but I just can’t get fired up over arguments concerning tax cuts vs. handouts, and he looks like he was just fishing around for some arbitrary way to differentiate Liberal policy from Labor policy.

For my own part, I am considering various options for disposing of $900. I’m so unused to spending that kind of money that it might take me a while to work out how to do it. Upgrading my computer and acquiring saddle bags for my bike could make a substantial dent. I could, of course, blow the whole lot on chocolate. For $900 I could get 300 250g blocks, amounting to slightly more than my (current) body weight. Hurrah for capitalism.

What matters in this election?

There’s an online poll on the ABC’s 4 Corners website regarding the election. The first question asks “In the last two weeks of the campaign what do you see as the SINGLE most important issue?” You are given a choice between “Economy/Interest rates”, “Climate change”, “Industrial relations”, “Education” and “Health”.

Important for whom? Us or the politicians?

But what’s really missing from this picture? After the intervention in the Northern Territory to impose the Libs’ ideals of capitalism and individualism by force on the Aboriginal people, after the ongoing mandatory detention of people whose only “crime” is trying to escape their wartorn homelands for a better life in Australia, after the “Pacific solution” in which these people suddenly became so unimaginably dangerous that they were not even allowed to set foot on Australian soil, after our continuing support for the catastrophic war in Iraq, after the two-faced bribery of Saddam Hussein to the tune of $300 million, after the detention and even deportation of Australian citizens for being unable to produce a passport, after the introduction of terrorism legislation that bulldozes some of our most basic legal rights, after witnessing the opacity and unaccountability of ASIO and the AFP in their roles under that legislation, after the introduction of “control orders” to bypass the legal system and impose sanctions on people for whom there is no evidence of guilt…

Can we not, just once, put aside the ridiculous charade of deciding who can manage the economy better and focus on the real world?