Friday, December 28, 2007

Damon Linker's rant against advocating atheism.

At least three arguments and a definition are found in "Atheism's Wrong Turn: Mindless argument found in godless" by Damon Linker published in The New Republic, December 10, 2007. As a classical liberal I am dismayed by Damon Linker's article because, by declaring liberalism to be incompatible with promotion of atheism, he is actually legitimizing the illiberal sentiments expressed by some atheists that he claims to oppose. Before proceeding with the criticism of his thesis I will first quickly summarize his three arguments and one definition to spare you the need to read his article.

His guilt by association argument divides atheists into illiberal, "bellicose", "combative", "unremittingly hostile", "strident", etc., atheists, currently exemplified by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, and liberal, "thoughtful", "cautious", "generous", "intellectual", etc. atheists, such as Socrates, who don't act as "missionaries for atheism". Historically, the illiberal, ideological atheism emerged in the late, fanatical phases of the French Revolution and was embraced by Auguste Comte, Ludwig Feuerbach, and Karl Marx on the far left and Friedrich Nietzsche on the far right.

His don't criticize argument cites as representative of the liberal attitude "pragmatist" atheist Sidney Hook, who said religious views such as theism should "fall in an area of choice in which rational criticism may be suspended."

His false dichotomy argument characterizes liberal atheists as those who confine their advocacy to defending "the secular politics favored by the American Constitutional framers". It is only the illiberal atheists who "have the much more radical goal of producing a secular society--a society in which the American people, as a whole and individually, have abandoned religion."

Damon Linker ties all three aforementioned fallacious arguments together with the following misdefinition of liberalism:
It is to accept, in other words, that, although I may settle the question of God to my personal satisfaction, it is highly unlikely that all of my fellow citizens will settle it in the same way--that differences in life experience, social class, intelligence, and the capacity for introspection will invariably prevent a free community from reaching unanimity about the fundamental mysteries of human existence, including God. Liberal atheists accept this situation; ideological atheists do not. That, in the end, is what separates the atheism of Socrates from the atheism of the French Revolution.

He concludes as follows:
The problem is that the rhetoric of Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens will undermine liberalism, not bolster it: Far from shoring up the secular political tradition, their arguments are likely to produce a country poised precariously between opposite forms of illiberalism.

The first problem here is that the claim that theism is outside the sphere of "rational criticism" is false. Theism is a fact claim. The central claims of atheism that theism is unjustified because it is a pseudo-explanation, lacks supporting evidence, and is contradicted by evidence, are certainly within the realm of rational criticism.

His definition of liberalism wrongly asserts that reaching a popular unanimity regarding theisms and atheism is illiberal. Nothing could be further from the truth. Liberalism is not about any particular fixed outcome, it is about process. The liberal process is open, vigorous, debate. If the outcome of this process is less diversity of belief then that is a success of liberalism, not a failure of liberalism. Respecting diversity of belief is not the same as respecting an unjustified belief. Turning an unjustified belief into some kind of holy writ that renders it beyond rational criticism for no other apparant reason then it is entangled with religious dogmas is illiberal, not liberal.

Furthermore, the liberal goal of secular government is not in contradiction to or incompatible with the goal of secular society. On the contrary, popular antagonism against atheism is rooted in widespread ignorance of atheism and this is one of the biggest obstacles to eliminating government establishment of Christian compatible monotheism. Ultimately, the only way to attack the anti-atheist stereotypes, prejudice, and ignorance that blocks the liberal goal of secular government vis-a-vis theism is to explain atheism to the public and maybe convert more people to atheism in the process. It is not possible to try convince people that atheism is a reasonable belief without also asserting that atheism merits more widespread adoption. There is nothing at all illiberal about advocating atheism.

Finally, it is certainly not the case that everyone who actively and vigorously advocates for atheism is doing so because of "furious certainty" or because of other illiberal sentiments or goals. On the contrary, actively and vigorously advocating for atheism makes a positive contribution to the intellectual environment of civil society in and of itself and should be encouraged by everyone who values liberalism. If some advocates of atheism have linked their advocacy with illiberal sentiments then that reflects those particular individual's illiberal tendencies. That is not an illiberalism inherent to atheism advocacy as Damon Linker falsely claims. It is illogical and unfair to label all atheism advocates as illiberal on the basis of a few marginally illiberal sentiments expressed by some advocates of atheism.

I share Damon Linker's strong preference for liberalism and agree with some of his criticism of some mildly illiberal sentiments that have occasionally been expressed by some of the "new atheists". But he goes too far by unreasonably labeling the new atheism illiberal despite the overall liberal orientation of the new atheists he criticizes and by perversely advocating censoring public advocacy of atheism in the name of "liberalism". Damon Linker's insistence that atheists respect theistic beliefs in the name of "liberalism" is not liberalism. Genuine liberalism supports open debate regarding the truth of dubious and debatable fact claims regardless of whether those fact claims are made under the banner of religion or not. Damon Linker's essay misrepresents liberalism, the new atheists, and atheism. The New Republic did a disservice to the cause liberalism and to its readership by publishing his atheism-phobic rant instead of more sober, balanced and sensible critical analysis of some illiberal tendencies exhibited by some of the new atheists.