Friday, November 08, 2019

New Atheists

I recommend the recent article at Slate Star Codex New Atheism: The Godlessness That Failed.  (The title is meant to echo The God That Failed , a post WWII book in which six communist writers describe their disillusionment with and abandonment of that faith.) Scott Alexander is an atheist, and has been deeply involved with the online discussions between atheists/humanists and Christians/theists for  over two decades. He has noticed a dropoff in the discussions, a lack of traffic and interest at the atheist sites, and a split in the group in the last few years. Bethany over at Graph Paper Diaries offers the suggestion  that people became part of the New Atheist movement and online discussions from two broad categories, those who believed that religion was unscientific and unreasonable, and those who believed it was pernicious and dangerous.  I believe it was likely the latter group who converted to a Social Justice liberalism and gradually just left.  If liberalism is a religion, SJW's are the fundies. Alexander is usually very fair-minded.  He read a good deal of C S Lewis and found him “almost convincing,” and could see how someone might embrace a Christian faith in that way.

Two caveats:  Categorising subgroups is always inexact and might even be useless. I reprinted Michael Novak’s types of atheist from No One Sees God a decade ago, and it included seven versions. (The links are all shot now.  So much for the eternity of the internet versus the deterioration of books, eh?)  My own atheist and agnostic readers here looked over the list and didn’t find themselves described very exactly by any of the types. This should be cautionary for all of us drawing conclusions about motivations – and that includes the atheist arguers themselves, who seem to use the word “we,” more than is justified.  Alexander’s discussion is specifically about the online New Atheist intense discussion types, not about the larger population of nonbelievers in general. I suspect those are very different groups, start to finish.

Secondly. I may have been drifting into using the term “Social Justice Warrior” unfairly.  I have been using a definition that is convenient for criticism of them.  If, for example someone actually does act in a racist or sexist way I just think of that as criminal or immoral.  I don’t think of people who call that out as extremists worthy of being mocked. I reserve that for the people I feel are being ridiculous, of over-interpreting the terms and straining at gnats while swallowing camels. Rather circular on my part, and I will try and be more precise going forward. Social justice in the abstract is a very good thing. Excess is not normative, and abuse is not use.

Alexander’s discussion is already too long and doesn’t need me to expand upon it, but I did notice in the graphs on polarization that the engaged Republicans 1994 and 2014 look very similar (the 2004 Republicans had moved a bit to the middle), while the Democrats moved steadily left from 1994-2014.  That isn’t any evidence for who is correct, only of who is moving, but I thought it interesting. It accords with what many observers have written over the last few years, that the left are becoming more so.


james said...

WRT "SJW": since the phrase is meant ironically, I don't think there's any confusion. You have people laboring for what they consider social justice (definitions vary--from one point of view the Tea Party was a grass roots social justice movement). Sometimes they get noisy, but that's a tool and not a goal.

Other people scream for attention, and compete to find the smallest gnats to strain out. "Warriors" they aren't, but I think they like to be thought so.

james said...

Just finished the article. It seems plausible enough, but there's another point he missed. Atheism isn't a good stand-alone principle; it is simply negative. Christians or Hindus can each get together and talk about how good God is (or the gods are). Atheists can't, and patting yourself on the back for being so clever is pretty feeble stuff--especially since everyday experiences conspire to convince you you're _not_ that wise.
So the atheist needs some positive goals, preferably some that focus on what "man" can do cooperatively--hence politics.
I imagine the political goals might have been different in a different culture--"blood and soil" for a recent example.

Donna B. said...

james, that's an interesting thought that atheism is a negative, and one I wouldn't have considered as carefully without having thought about the positive psychology post first.

JMSmith said...

I think the mark of the SJW is that "social justice" is their battle cry, but that they are more interested in the battle than the cry. All good men agree that justice is a virtue, perhaps the greatest secular virtue, although they often disagree on the merit of particular persons, groups and things. I think all good men also agree on the mixed quality of persons, groups and things. If I am being just, for instance, I might say that Bob is a terrible liar but a fine musician and a loving father. I might say that group X was treated badly, but also acted badly. This mix is missing in the "social justice" of the SJW, which really comes down to a kind of inverse bigotry in which the world is divided into the children of darkness and the children of light. A chastising the children of darkness is the war in which they are engaged.

We all recognize the bigot who hates Blacks and thinks every last one of them is a criminal. We all recognize the sexist male who thinks women belong nowhere but the kitchen and the bedroom. The real SJW has the same Manichaean mindset, only different hatreds and sympathies.

An SJW tends to see particular cases as mere instances of a great historic cause, so that when a man and woman come into conflict, the woman is always a martyr in the feminist cause. I once sat on a disciplinary panel that tried a professor on the charge of sexual harassment. I was the only male and all of the women had a very strong prejudice against the male professor. To be honest, so did I. He was unlikable and I presumed the evidence must be strong to bring matters to that stage. It turned out that he was almost certainly innocent and the young woman made the change in retaliation for her poor grade. The evidence was so strong that the women on the panel had to acknowledge, but their rage at having to do so was palpable. They were not pleased that justice was done because "justice" had not been done.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

@ JMSmith - Great last sentence. When I reuse it I am likely to capitalise Justice rather than put it in quotes, but you captured the thought clearly.