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The Failure Of New Atheism

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MichaelS

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I have to pronounce New Atheism dead. Honestly I wonder whether it ever was truly alive, so it may be dead only in the sense that a rock is, namely, something that never lived. However, it is hard to see the viscious debate that has raged over sexism in the New Atheist community (for several years now), without realizing that there is something deeply wrong with the New Atheist paradigm. If New Atheists can't solve an argument about the differences in the biology of the human species (or at least gloss over differences and work towards something better), we have a bit of a problem. Wasn't our embrace of evidence and reason supposed to arbiter our differences, and offer common ground with which to solve our problems? What happened?

 

The answer is there is a fundamental problem with the rationalist/empiricist paradigm: humans are not just about rationality or evidence. We have values and motivations, and these motivations and values are not rational, nor are they always neatly validated by the evidence. We have a preference for life over death, for pleasure over pain, for happiness over sadness, for social membership over exclusion, for distinction over irrelevance, and stability over instability, and these desires are not rational. They are a part of us, as surely as we have five fingers or a heart and lungs, and they are known by each of us, but they are not rational in and of themselves. Desires vary from person to person, and identities are forged around different totems. These totems are not just religious in nature, they can be biological organs (penises and vaginas), abstract ideas like "reason" and "evidence," locations, sports teams, spouses, races, genders, presidents, kings, and, yes, gods, goddesses, scriptures, and religious leaders, institutions, and imagery. These often start out as rational pursuits, but they take on a life of their own, as our biology kicks in, and we start to feel good about the distinction and membership these totems bestow upon us. The lines get blurred between our thoughts and feelings, and our reason gets subverted to our values and our identity. Battle lines are drawn, flags are raised, and people start engaging, using reason not to discover the truth, but to influence and manipulate the outsiders to become a part of the in-group.

 

Virtually everything I say here has been backed up by mountains of evidence accumulated by psychologists and social scientists over the years. Yet since the times of Plato, rationalists have insisted that we simply pursue what is "rational" and what can be justified by logic. It's always been a problematic exercise. There are axioms: things that can't be logically justified, even if they can't even be coherently denied. There are ideas like love or compassion that often offer little evolutionary benefit, but are pursued regardless. And there is the simple fact that often we get along best, not when we consciously try to arbiter our differences using some supposed common ground, but when we recognize that there often is no common ground on which to arbitrate our differences at all, and we simply suppress those differences and emphasize our commonalities instead.

 

The New Atheists are not the first people to make this very fundamental mistake, but I doubt the philosophers of old have crashed and burned as spectacularly as the New Atheists have. As much as the people on this website have suffered at the hands of flawed religious doctrine, New Atheism and the Skeptic community is not the answer.

 

Of course we need community, but not a community whose sole purpose is to cast dispersons upon other people. That is a recipe not for arbitration of differences, but stagnation, lack of accountability, hatred, strife, and division. In short, religion at it's worst. I love reason, evidence, and the search for truth more than anything else in the world, but I recognize them as my totems, and the use of them as my religion, and try to maintain a humility and devotion about them comparable to what I regard religion at it's best is. I respect my Catholic wife, have started attending a Unitarian church with her, and am as ravenous in my quest for knowledge and truth as ever. But I have found happiness in not saying that reason is my sole guide, but that simply that, in the words of an ancient roman playright, "I am human, and nothing about being human is alien to me."

 

Lastly, I don't regret for a second my stint as a New Atheist, and I understand the cathartic tendencies we as former Christians have to watch the latest NonStampCollector video, refute the arguments of Christian apologetics, and decry the hypocrisy and barbarism of fundamentalist Christianity. I am so grateful to Christopher Hitchens for shepherding me out of the erroneous dogmas that I had becomed accustomed to, and unleashed a ravenous curiosity that will never be quenched, though it may be stifled by death. As such, I fully understand if you're still mad at Christianity for being wrong (I still am too from time to time) and need a community where you can vent, laugh, and cry your way out of your pain. But the way forward is, I believe, grounded in understanding ourselves and our fundamentally non-rational tendencies, not so we can correct them (although that will often still be necessary) but so we can humble ourselves before them, and learn to love those with different totems and non-rational tendencies. That is, I believe, the most reasonable way forward.

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To separate the influence of ego from our thinking process will never be successful. To err is human, to err with pleasure is ego, and to continue erring while knowing you are being an ass is showing confidence about being who you are. (Even if it is shitty to do so) Today's cultures celebrate being the individual and being unapologetic for being a dick. See the YOLO shirts out there lately? That is the mind set people have when continuing on with what they are comfortable.

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To bad YOLO is just another word for I am not responsible for my ill thought actions...people that invoke it need to be beaten. It is an insult not a affirmation of life. It insults all those who will fight for it strive for it and suffer for it.

 

Hey YOLO generation watch your asses because I promise you are drawing the plans for your own reckoning with your actions.

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