Scientism and fundamentalism (in honour of Jerry Coyne)

Below the fold is a piece I wrote for Zia Sardar’s magazine Critical Muslim. It’s rather long, partly because it contains an insertion on Sam Harris and torture. Although younger readers will not remember the new atheists this is a reminder that they could be quite as nasty and silly as traditionalist Catholics.

The idea of a fundamentalist atheist seems a contradiction in terms. Fundamentalists, at least since the emergence of the term in the early 2oth century, are people committed to a particular interpretation of a text: at least that’s what they claim to be. Atheism has no sacred text, although there are atheist cults. Some people would enlarge the definition of fundamentalist to include dogmatism, and tribalism but I think the defining quality of a fundamentalist is a certain style of the imagination.
Fundamentalism arises from a sense of the self-evident that is out of key with that of the surrounding world. I want to say “self-evident” rather than “sacred” because there is a sense in which disorder and disagreement are threatening to the fundamentalist in ways quite different to those in which blasphemy shocks a believer.
It seems at first that the defining quality of a fundamentalist’s imagination is that they can’t themselves see it as imagination: they are convinced that they deal only with facts and their logically ineluctable consequences. Metaphors are simply decorations – the flower beds around the power station, in Mary Midgley’s phrase – but the central beliefs of the fundamentalist are not to them in the least bit metaphorical.
This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t actually separate out the fundamentalist from the rest of us very well. For we all base our thinking on imaginative constructs and metaphors which have through long use become invisible to us. The only way for most of us ever to notice this is to be immersed in a foreign culture and language where all of a sudden nothing can be taken for granted and the girders of fact are dissolved into the webs of metaphor. It is not surprising that fundamentalism has its greatest appeal to the uprooted.
The fundamentalist starts their journey when they find that the things they take for granted are all of a sudden pointed out as questionably sane and rational by the society around – which is of course pursuing its own equally irrational and arbitrary habits as if those were perfectly normal.
Some people can handle this and some can’t. One shouldn’t pathologise this problem. Fundamentalists in a liberal society don’t necessarily need security more than is psychologically healthy but they are people who find themselves in a situation where this security can’t be achieved in socially acceptable ways –and once you start to feel like that, the consequences are entirely self-reinforcing. The further you get from the assumptions of mainstream culture, the more grotesque they appear, and with that grotesquerie comes and assumption that they are evil too.
In this sense, the New Atheist movement shares some important characteristics with religious fundamentalism. For a start, it was a social rather than an intellectual development. Its critique of religion had no intellectual content that would have surprising in 1914. The two intellectual novelties it did have in the early 2000s have now been quietly forgotten as being too embarrassing to mention but they were really illuminating:
The first was the doctrine that moderate religious believers are actually more wicked and dangerous than the ones who burn witches or blow up children. This was prominent in Sam Harris’ early works, though it seems to have been dropped quite smartly once it was realised what the implications would be for such things as relations with Muslims. After all, if Harris is right. Zia Sardar is a more dangerous figure than the Caliph of Isis, and how then do we justify locking up Abu Hamza when we let that man Sardar roam free?.
The second, of course, was the nonsense of “memes”, which speaks to a deeper or at least more imaginative longing: that the world work according to a few lovely simple and comprehensive explanations – in this case, something supposedly Darwinian. In the late Nineties some very intelligent people spent time trying to understand culture as a selective process; variations on this work are still being done by Dan Sperber and others. But no serious researcher now thinks in terms of fundamental cultural units called “memes” and indeed Sperber himself has completely demolished the concept.
Now, one of the most unattractive characteristics of the New Atheism is actually a protection from the fundamentalist mindset. This is its sheer exuberant nastiness. I find it disgusting, but one has to admit that shared hatred is a wonderful solvent of anxiety and can make all manner of misfits feel at home, as any vicar in a football crowd can tell you. Take the Australian entertainer Tim Minchin. There is a Youtube clip of one of his performances in front of an enthusiastic crowd:
“Fuck the motherfucker.” he sings: “He’s a fucking motherfucker!” and then repeats variations of this for three long minutes while the crowd giggles and the rain comes down. The fucking motherfucker who should be fucked was the Pope, whom Minchin holds guilty of rape – you see: “Rapist/papist” – they rhyme so it must be true. Indeed the whole Roman Catholic church is apparently guilty:
“So fuck the motherfucker and fuck you motherfucker If you’re still a motherfucking papist (fucking motherfucker).”
The joke – and there has to be some reason why YouTube comments call Minchin “hilarious” – is that this was all sung at something called “A rally for reason” which was meant to celebrate the superiority of reason over the adolescent fantasies of religion.
I watch the clips and remember George Orwell’s claim that in the end, you cannot be a Christian and be quite grown up. It appears from Minchin that you cannot be an atheist and even in the least bit grown up. The problem is not just that he’s nasty, but that he’s entirely infantile. The mixture of jeering and execration from a position of impregnable self-righteousness is simply a slow-motion tantrum. If toddlers used words better, they would sound just like Minchin, and be every bit as reasonable.
One point to notice is that they are claiming a kind of special privilege for criticism of religion which does not apply in other social contexts. If you were to sing The Pope Song at a football match the world would turn on you as a repulsive thug, and in Scotland you might very well be jailed. Even if you turn it on other religions – “Fuck you, motherfucker, if you’re still a motherfucking raghead” – it still somehow doesn’t sound quite like a hymn to reason.
Minchin’s excuse is that he’s outraged about child abuse. He introduces it by saying “This is a song about choosing where to place your anger”. Well, no: it’s a song about the pleasures of self-righteous posturing. In the cold light of reason, the most shocking thing about the various Catholic child abuse scandals taken in aggregate is that they were not exceptionally ghastly. The few statistics that there are – and the evidence of such things as insurance premium rates in the USA – show that the problem of child abuse is widespread, found in all religions and in entirely secular institutions. There were, it is true, particular hotbeds of clerical sexual abuse, such as the Anglican diocese of Chichester and the Australian RC diocese of Victoria, in which the whole culture tended to support and nourish it. But the same could be said of some music schools.
Nor can you consistently maintain, as many people seem to do without a thought, that secular humanism is a huge moral improvement on religion, and that scandals in secular children’s homes don’t discredit the moral claims of secularism, while scandals in Roman Catholic homes discredit the whole religion.
No: the point of this song, and the pleasure that it gives, is the promotion of hatred and of a smug contempt for the less fortunate. And that is a value in itself for the New Atheists. Here is Richard Dawkins, finishing his speech at the same rally:
“When you meet somebody who claims to be religious, ask them what they really believe. … Mock them! Ridicule them! [applause, whoops] In public! [laughter!] Don’t fall for the convention that we’re all too polite to talk about religion. Religion is not off the table. Religion makes specific claims about the universe which need to be challenged and, if necessary, need to be ridiculed with contempt.”
Now, if you make a mashup of the more respectable bits of Dawkins’ speech with Minchin’s song – and this is not unfair, since Dawkins promoted Minchin in the issue of the New Statesman that he guest-edited – we get a flavour of the peculiar quality of the New Atheism:
“Science makes us see what we could not see before/ Fuck the motherfucker, fuck the motherfucking fucker/ Religion does its best to snuff out even what we can see / Fuck the mother fucker, fuck the motherfucking fucker/ So we’re here to stand up for reason / Fuck the motherfucker fuck the motherfucking fucker/ to stand up for logic/ fuck you motherfucker for a motherfucking papist/ to stand up for the beauty of reality / Fuck you, motherfucker“ da capo
Put together like this, it actually makes more sense than either of the constituent parts on their own. Minchin’s song is the battle hymn of the speccy twats. His whole persona, with eyeshadow and long hair, is that of an adolescent misfit. It fits wonderfully with a comment by one of the regulars at PZ Myers’ site Pharyngula:
“Personally I don’t see what’s uncivil about saying things like “that’s so unbelievably goddamned stupid” when something really is so. Nor is there anything wrong with saying “only an ignoramus can believe crap like that”. If we put up with nonsense and idiots we’ll surely have to suffer more nonsense and idiots, and personally I think there is way to much nonsense and far too many idiots to begin with.”
So what are sophisticated intellectuals like Dawkins doing in front of this crowd? One of the things that Dawkins, and the late Christopher Hitchens contribute to this mix was the same contempt but with an Oxonian gloss. There are some things you can only teach people young, and the easy, unshakeable assumption of superiority that Oxford teaches the British ruling class is impossible to fake. Contempt and ridicule come naturally to these people, and nowadays, of course, they are more urgent because there is no real superiority behind the rhetorical manner.
The old British ruling class, into which both Dawkins and Hitchens were socialised, no longer rules or even administers anything much. But the trauma of that loss is mostly over. In America, things are different. Power is still being transferred there away from the classes most drawn to the new atheism. You can put this politely, as Charles Taylor does,
“It’s very much like the reaction of Victorian bishops to Darwin. There was a certain view among Protestants, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, to the effect that civilisation and democracy were progressing and that they came from Christianity. And then this torpedo [Darwin] comes from the side and they’re very upset by it. Similarly, many of the liberal intelligentsia in the late 20th century thought that we were moving towards a higher civilisation, that religion was disappearing. Then suddenly, it seems to return. So a kind of panic and anger arises. It’s the outlook of an emerging establishment that finds itself destabilised.”
or you can simply say, as I prefer, that in the USA the New Atheism is fundamentalism for the college educated.
Either way, what we have here is a social and emotional movement that officially understands itself as a purely intellectual one.
I see the American movement as a response to the destruction of the old, valued and valuable role for a particular sort of labour: in this case, the labour of the intelligentsia. There once was a dignity to all kinds of work which the progress of capitalism and – if you like – modernity has undermined. Ordinary people could believe that their lives and their work mattered, especially in America – and one way to look at the last forty of fifty years has been one long lesson in just how mistaken they were. Now, of course, this process is moving up the social scale. College-educated intellectuals, scientists as well as humanists of all sorts, are finding that the world no longer needs nor respects them.
Science in particular is threatened by this. And, in the USA, atheism is a class marker. To despise the religious is, as new atheists will endlessly tell you, to despise the poor, the uneducated, and the stupid. The more “the religious”, and their Republican puppetmasters, gain power, the more urgent becomes a class warfare against them.
But because it is pitched as a cultural war, it doesn’t feel as if you’re siding with the rich against the poor: in fact, to the left-wing New Atheists, it seems that they are siding with the poor against their exploiters by tearing down illusions that hold them in bondage. If that feels like a largely religious idea, it’s no coincidence.
This has some interesting consequences when you look at the way in which these people, many of whom would think of themselves with complete sincerity as left-wing, react to contact with the real proletariat. Here, for example, are the instructions that PZ Myers gave his followers when they went off to disrupt a creation museum:
“a) “We shall descend upon them as a horde and sweep through their “museum”, documenting the foolishness and mocking the silly. b) “the Christians running this show, and the Christian attendees, are the delusional victims here. Feel some pity for them. Do not, however, forget that this is an institution dedicated to  promoting lies and ignorance. Do not pull a Michael Ruse and start  admiring what they’ve accomplished.”
c) “you are not a gang of hooligans planning to vandalize the place, you are  skeptical anthropologists there to observe the peculiar and  pathological folkways of a backwards, intellectually impoverished  people.”
This is a remarkably mixed message, but with one constant theme: never for one moment forget that you are superior to these miserable, common, twerps. Real anthropologists, whether skeptical or not, don’t tell themselves, or their grant committees, that they are going to observe “the peculiar and  pathological folkways of a backwards, intellectually impoverished  people.”
Perhaps it is worth mentioning here that Myers claimed once that “My personal image of religion isn’t fundamentalist at all, but the quietly gullible, unquestioning, moderate faith of my mother’s family”
But then many of us regard some of our relatives as backwards and intellectually impoverished. It’s practically part of the definition of a family.
Then mention of Michael Ruse brings out another characteristic of the New Atheists. Although they despise Christian believers, and they are frightened of Muslims, the people they really purely hate are other atheists. One has to be careful here, for they hate as well as fear Muslims. They don’t fear moderate or non-fundamentalist atheists (“Atheists But” in Dan Dennett’s phrase, or “Neville Chamberlain atheists” as Dawkins calls them) but they surely do hate them. There is an interesting parallel here with Christian fundamentalists like Ken Ham, who runs a “Creation Museum” and claims that liberal Christians are much more dangerous to the truth than open atheists.
Ruse has been a particular target of this kind of hatred from fellow atheists (as have I, in a small way: I offer these thoughts in my capacity as “the Guardian’s resident moron” in the phrase of Jerry Coyne).
But Ruse … a quick Google of the Myers site brings us posts headed “Michael Ruse: incoherent and annoying”; “I am so good at making Michael Ruse cry “; and “Waaaah, Michael Ruse, waaah waaaah waaaaaah …”
Myers is admittedly a man with an almost Trotksyite capacity for invective and splittism. An Irish blogpost announcing with all the solemnity of the popular people’s liberation front of Judea that “Atheists Ireland” would no longer associate with him listed some of his rhetorical charms:
“He has said that ‘the scum rose to the top of the atheist movement’, that it is ‘burdened by cretinous reactionaries’, that ‘sexist and misogynistic scumbags’ are ‘not a fringe phenomenon’, and that if you don’t agree with Atheism Plus, you are an ‘Asshole Atheist’. He agreed that science fetishism reproduces the ‘white supremacist logic of the New Atheist Movement.’ He said ‘I officially divorce myself from the skeptic movement,’ which ‘has attracted way too many thuggish jerks, especially in the leadership’. “He said Richard Dawkins ‘seems to have developed a callous indifference to the sexual abuse of children’ and ‘has been eaten by brain parasites’, Michael Nugent is ‘the Irish wanker’ and a ‘demented fuckwit’, Ann Marie Waters is a ‘nutter’, Russell Blackford is a ‘lying fuckhead’, Bill Maher’s date at an event was ‘candy to decorate [her sugar daddy’s] arm in public’, Ben Radford is a ‘revolting narcissistic scumbag’ and his lawyer is ‘J Noble Dogshit’, Rosetta scientist Matt Taylor and Bill Maher are ‘assholes’, and Abbie Smith and her ‘coterie of slimy acolytes’ are ‘virtual non-entities’. He called Irish blogger ZenBuffy a ‘narcissistic wanker,’ after she said she has experienced mental illness.”
One need not have heard of many, or any, of these people to understand the way in which movement Atheists love one another.
But I don’t think this is fundamentalism, exactly. For one thing both Myers and his enemies are far too exuberant, and far too open about their hatreds, to catch the particular spirit of fundamentalism, which appears from the inside as entirely rational. Fundamentalism in this sense is a phenomenon of the twentieth century. It is part of the modernity that it rebels against, and it shares the belief in the prestige of science, and of reason. For truly fundamentalist atheist reasoning you have to go back to something like Sam Harris’ first book, The End of Faith, and consider his justifications of torture.
He now claims to have been misunderstood in that book, and quotation is an activity by its nature selective. People say what they don’t really mean, and they even write what they don’t really mean. In the end, there is a judgement call involved; there must be.
Here are the relevant passages, from TheEnd of Faith , with page numbers drawn from the British paperback.
I believe that I have successfully argued for the use of torture in any circumstance in which we would be willing to cause collateral damage (p198) Given what many of us believe about the exigencies of our war on terrorism, the practice of torture, in certain circumstances, would seem to be not only permissible, but necessary. (p199)
Is this enthusiasm? And does he think that the circumstance are such that torture is justified today? As to whether it’s enthusiasm, he admits that we may feel a certain squeamishness at the results of his reasoning; he says he does so himself. But – and this rather more important – he thinks this squeamishness, this ethical revulsion, is misplaced and mistaken.
I believe that here we come across an ethical illusion of sorts, analogous to the perceptual illusions that are of such abiding interest to scientists who study the visual pathways in the brain. The full moon appearing on the horizon is no bigger than the full moon when it appears overhead, but it looks bigger, for reasons that are still obscure to neuroscientists. A ruler held up to the sky reveals something that we are otherwise incapable of seeing, even when we understand that our eyes are deceiving us … (p198)
(p199) … the reasons for [our inability to understand that torture is necessary] are, I trust, every bit as neurological as those that give rise to the moon illusion … Clearly, these intuitions are fallible … It may be time to take out our rulers and hold them up to the sky.
It simply won’t do to say that this has been misunderstood. It is entirely unambiguous. Harris believes that there are scientific (“neurological”) grounds for supposing that his moral reasoning is correct and that we ought to be torturing people.
The second defence that has been made of him is the claim that he’s not really talking about real torture at all. The circumstances under which he talks about it being justified: the ticking bomb, the villain who knows where the kidnapped child has been hidden, will never arise. So it is all theoretical, and it’s quite wrong to claim that he wants it done in the real world. There are two reasons to reject this view. The first is that these kind of arguments are never made in a vacuum. They gain currency only when there is real torturing to be done. The second is that Harris himself rejects it, first implicitly and then explicitly.
Torture, remember, is to be justified – sorry, necessary – wherever we would accept collateral damage from bombs and other modern weaponry. That covers any war that the US might possibly be involved in. And he believes these wars are necessary and we should not recoil from them:
Fearing that the above reflection on torture may offer a potent argument for pacifism, I would like to briefly state why I believe we must accept the fact that violence (or its threat) is often an ethical necessity. (p199)
Has he any particular war in mind? As it happens, yes: the war that the US was just then starting, with British help, in Iraq:
We are at war with Islam. It may not serve our immediate foreign policy objectives for our political leaders to openly acknowledge this fact, but it is unambiguously so. It is not merely that we are at war with an otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists. We are at war with precisely the vision of life that is prescribed to all Muslims in the Koran. (p 109) … No amount of casuistry can disguise the fact that the outer of “lesser” jihad – war against infidels and apostates – is a central feature of the faith. Armed conflict “in the defence of Islam” is a religious obligation for every Muslim man (p111) Islam, more than any religion humans have ever devised, has the makings of a thoroughgoing cult of death (p123)
And, in case you hadn’t quite got the point,
Is Islam compatible with a civil society? Is it possible to believe what you must believe to be a good Muslim, to have military and economic power, and not to pose an unconscionable threat to the civil societies of others? I believe that the answer to this question is no. (p152)
In other words, we are at war, we must be at war; and in this war we must accept collateral damage, because that’s the way wars are; and if we accept collateral damage, we must also accept, and practice torture (see above).
But he doesn’t stop with the general case. On page 197-8 of the End of Faith, Harris specifically demands the torture of one named person.
Enter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: our most valuable capture in our war on terror … his membership in Al Qaeda more or less rules out his “innocence” in any important sense, and his rank in the organisation suggests that his knowledge of planned atrocities must be extensive. The bomb is ticking. Given the damage we were willing to cause to the bodies and minds of innocent children in Afghanistan and Iraq, our disavowal of torture in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed seems perverse. If there is even one chance in a million that he will tell use something under torture that will lead to the further dismantling of Al Qaeda, it seems that we should use ever means at our disposal to get him talking. (p198)
So, yes. I do rather think that Sam Harris can reasonably be described as a defender and advocate of torture, at least when it is practised on Muslims.
Plenty of people share his views: a majority of American evangelicals favour torture; the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld gang followed Harris’s prescription exactly in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was at one stage waterboarded 185 times in two months. But what is shocking is that people who denounce American Evangelical Christianity as a threat comparable to the Taliban, aren’t shocked at all when Sam Harris reproduces the same reasoning. They care much more about his attitude to imaginary gods than about his attitude to real torture victims. This is nothing I can understand as humanism. But it is, I think, entirely characteristic of the mindset, shared with the religious fundamentalist, that says the maintenance of a particular imaginative picture of the world, and the consistency of reasoning within that imaginative frame, is much more important than anything in the messy world outside: the screams and smells aren’t nearly as real as ideas.
This is connected to the widespread view that there is an absolute divide between “facts”, which are real, and accessible to third parties, and “values”, judgements, morals, all that squishy stuff, which are ultimately matters of personal preference and meaningless.
That is also the view that connects scientism to the wider culture and gives it plausibility. It was crystallised for me by a comment quite early in the history of Cif belief, when a Christian was trying to explain herself and someone interrupted – discusions online consist almost entirely of interruptions – with the phrase “But this is an appeal to personal experience. Personal experience can’t explain anything”. The words personal experience were italicised to underline the contempt and incredulity that anyone in this day and age should believe their personal experience proved, or could prove, anything.
To discount personal experience absolutely is a fairly radical form of nihilism. Modern science is of course based on the discovery that the readings of instruments can be more reliable and more sensitive than the impressions of our senses. It also demands reproducibility. But reproducible results aren’t just impersonal. They’re also interpersonal. Other people must reproduce them. Science is a social activity.
To pretend that nothing is real except the position of the instruments on the dial and that all our feelings are just frothy swells of emotion beating against these rocks of truth is not to eliminate value judgements but to make the oxymoronic judgment that they are valueless.
It’s actually very hard to live as a nihilist and all but the most determined will end up concluding that other people’s lives and loves are notably more meaningless than their own. And then, of course, they will act out every horror of which they are themselves so frightened.
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