Friday Roundup

  • Gray, the wise atheist…
  • More on Gray: Waiting for Godot?
  • And still more on GrayThe atheist’s worldviews (plural)…
  • True: “That leads to the key point I want to make here. The biggest problem we face as a culture isn’t gay marriage or global warming. It’s not abortion funding or the federal debt. These are vital issues, clearly. But the deeper problem, the one that’s crippling us, is that we use words like justice, rights, freedom and dignity without any commonly shared meaning to their content.We speak the same language, but the words don’t mean the same thing. Our public discourse never gets down to what’s true and what isn’t, because it can’t. Our most important debates boil out to who can deploy the best words in the best way to get power.”

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20 Responses to Friday Roundup

  1. Thanks for the link, Darrell.

    The Gray article is very strong, I think. A very balanced and considered voice, or wise, as you put it.

    Bernard

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  2. Burk says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    All very interesting. But doesn't Gray impair his own case with …
    “This is, in fact, the quintessential illusion of the ruling liberalism: the belief that all human beings are born freedom-loving and peaceful and become anything else only as a result of oppressive conditioning.”

    If we are such terrible people, what hope is there at all? And what role does religion play, given that it is as morally malleable as atheism is? Gray goes on to cite ISIS as illiberal. But surely it is also highly religious. The fact is that religions are organized confections by which people solve the existential problems Gray points out, through illusion, false promises, and lots of social activity & hierarchy. Obviously it works to satisfy human nature on an emotional and meaningful level. That makes it neither correct nor good.

    I'll take liberalism any day, frankly. But it does depend on very high-level, intensive education. A humanist education, which exposes people to many perspectives and histories and ways of being, from which they can conclude what is best. Why are less educated people more likely to be religious? Why do better educated cultures have less religion? Why does our primary political party that is allied with religion come off as so idiotic, cynical, compassion-less, thoughtless of our future, and beholden to entrenched interests? And why does it seek to destroy public eduction? It is all part of the same pattern.

    Anyhow, I agree with his basic point that atheism does not determine one or another morality. We have been over that many times. Morality is ultimately subjective, expressing what we want, individually and collectively. What we want can be cultivated to some extent in positive directions, and both religion and more formal, liberal education have been successful in doing so. But one seems better to me than the other. More intellecually sound as well as interesting, and more morally consistent and durable, if less shaped to our particular human defects and vanities.

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  3. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    Good to hear from you.

    Putting aside disparaging remarks of ‘illusion’ and ‘false promises’ and the question-begging rhetoric (whether or not morality is objective or subjective is disputed), with this:

    “What we want can be cultivated to some extent in positive directions, and both religion and more formal, liberal education have been successful in doing so. But one seems better to me than the other. More intellecually sound as well as interesting, and more morally consistent and durable, if less shaped to our particular human defects and vanities.”

    -you run into the problems he notes that Nietzsche pointed out. You must have some standard in mind when you use the word ‘positive’ and ‘morally’ consistent and also when you use the word ‘defects’ and ‘vanities’. And the problem remains as to what that standard consists of and is it an objective one or a personal subjective standard.

    “Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values.”

    “The trouble is that it’s hard to make any sense of the idea of a universal morality without invoking an understanding of what it is to be human that has been borrowed from theism. The belief that the human species is a moral agent struggling to realise its inherent possibilities – the narrative of redemption that sustains secular humanists everywhere – is a hollowed-out version of a theistic myth. The idea that the human species is striving to achieve any purpose or goal – a universal state of freedom or justice, say – presupposes a pre-Darwinian, teleological way of thinking that has no place in science. Empirically speaking, there is no such collective human agent, only different human beings with conflicting goals and values.”

    “Well, anyone who wants their values secured by something beyond the capricious human world had better join an old-fashioned religion. If you set aside any view of humankind that is borrowed from monotheism, you have to deal with human beings as you find them, with their perpetually warring values.”

    So we are left with an appeal to something objective or we are left with ‘perpetually warring values’. Without some standard, your ‘positive’ and ‘morally’ consistent, your ‘defects’ and ‘vanities’ mean something (to you anyway) and nothing all at once.

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  4. Burk says:

    “You must have some standard in mind when you use the word ‘positive’ and ‘morally’ consistent and also when you use the word ‘defects’ and ‘vanities’.”

    No, no .. hold it right there. I have purely my own preferences in mind, cultivated and reasoned out. Moral reasoning does happen here, but not any objective standard. If most people at most times want peace and prosperity, that is not what we get, necessarily, but it forms the ideal of what we want. That is the boat I am in.

    There is no need for an objective standard, and indeed, there is no objective standard. Everything raised as such is actually a creation of people, with no -zero- objectivity about it. What god wants is entirely unknown to us, since there is not secure, certain evidence for anything of the kind. (And a great deal of evidence to the contrary that very human speakers took the role of god, quite conveniently.) There is no standard that comes from elsewhere. No one came down from Mars to tell us that morality is actually X=Y, etc. It is something we make up as we go along. The agonies of the Catholic church should make this clear, for example.

    Even so, you paint a false dichotomy with “So we are left with an appeal to something objective or we are left with ‘perpetually warring values’.” War is not the only way, but values are perpetually in competition and evolution. That is why the wayward drift of half of our population, as expressed by our current crop of Republicans, is so alarming. What kind of community are we living in? And they are the religious ones! Objectivity, my eye!

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  5. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    You are just begging the question here. Most of this was covered back in the posts regarding Nietzsche and I would refer you to those—no need to repeat all that here.

    “Even so, you paint a false dichotomy with “So we are left with an appeal to something objective or we are left with ‘perpetually warring values’.””

    I don’t believe it is a false dichotomy and neither did Nietzsche nor Gray. What peace and prosperity looked like for the Nazis was different than what it looked like for the Jews. What it looks like for Corporate American is probably different than what it looks like to you. But with nothing to appeal to beyond our internal emoting and personal psychology, there is nothing left but power to decide the differences. This isn't a dichotomy—it is logic.

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  6. Burk says:

    If by power you mean the power of example, of thought, of empathy, and of idealism, ideological attractiveness, etc… then the word is totally drained of the shock value you are relying on here. Many things move us aside from, say, terrorism, as religions know so well. Indeed, the competition between religions themselves are battles of power, by this reasoning, descending so often into actual warfare. So your whole construct is without merit.

    The true dichotomy is between illusory objective morals claimed by whoever has an interest or inspiration to do so, hashed out by way of their relative social power, or morals without such illusory claims behind them, as we make them and philosophically justify them on their merits, likewise in competition. The distinction is tiny indeed, but at least we could be honest about it.

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  7. Darrell says:

    I mean by ‘power’ what most philosophers, cultural analysts, sociologists, political scientists, and other cultural analysts’ mean, which is violence and coercion no matter how subtle or hidden, of course, even up to actual physical violence or threat of violence or loss of one’s freedoms or rights. Again, you are using words (‘idealism’) you assume have a universal objective meaning and content, but by your own admission, they are words (literally just sounds) they could mean whatever you want them to mean for you personally and subjectively, but, this is ground well covered.

    You are confusing the disagreements two people may have regarding which objective standard we should follow, to none at all other than what two parties feel or emote and thus must settle by who is more powerful. The ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of what either is emoting or projecting psychologically is irrelevant in such a scheme—thus power is all that is left to mediate. This is just logic.

    As noted, this was all hashed out in the previous posts on Nietzsche and in the comments. And, by the way, Hitler led by the ‘power’ of his example and he ‘empathized’ with the German people and he was very idealistic.

    Again, all the talk of what you think ‘illusory’ is question-begging and pointless since we already know what your beliefs are.

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  8. Burk says:

    Hi, Darrell-

    How about this. Suppose I were to argue that liberal humanist values are objectively true. They are based in nature, are popular, effective, and obviously the right way to do things. What would you say about that? Would you say they may be objective, but wrong, or would you argue that they are not objective at all?

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  9. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    I have followed your previous exchange with Bernard and I don't think you have shown that belief in objective morality helps negotiating a common ground. Consider the following:

    You believe in objective in objective moral facts. Moreover, you claim to know what they are. But, say, Christian fundamentalists and Talibans, just like you, also believe in these facts. And, just like you, they believe they got them right. Presumably, there would be significant differences between what each of you believe to be morally true.

    Then, how would you go about settling a dispute amongst you three? For one thing, are you ready to concede that you may be wrong and, say, the Tabibans are right? I don't think so, and neither are they.

    Would any of you be ready to make a compromise? Does not make much sense to compromise on what you “know” to be true, does it? Likewise, in an argument with a flat-earther, it would not do to compromise and say the earth is shaped like half a sphere.

    Do you expect you would be able to convert the fundamentalist or the Taliban to your views? Would the Taliban be able to convert you? Doesn't look promising either.

    This is the problem I see here. If none of the above can work, what have you left? Raw power? What else?

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  10. Darrell says:

    Hi Burk,

    “…Suppose I were to argue that liberal humanist values are objectively true. They are based in nature, are popular, effective, and obviously the right way to do things. What would you say about that? Would you say they may be objective, but wrong, or would you argue that they are not objective at all?”

    Well your questions go to many of the things Gray’s essay was about, right? I would agree with both Nietzsche and Gray—that liberal humanist values are the ‘secular incarnation’ of the Judeo-Christian narrative and derivative.

    “Awkwardly for these atheists, Nietzsche understood that modern liberalism was a secular incarnation of these religious traditions.”

    “Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values.”

    “The trouble is that it’s hard to make any sense of the idea of a universal morality without invoking an understanding of what it is to be human that has been borrowed from theism. The belief that the human species is a moral agent struggling to realise its inherent possibilities – the narrative of redemption that sustains secular humanists everywhere – is a hollowed-out version of a theistic myth.”

    So I would say that they are objective and ‘right’ when understood as finding their final justification and source in the Judeo-Christian narrative. They are certainly not based in ‘nature’ and objectivity is not found in popularity or pragmatism. Even if a majority asserted slavery to be ‘right’ and pragmatic for economic reasons, such would not make it right or ethical. Once shorn of being connected to those narratives, they become ‘hollowed out’ gloss, and are pretenses for power alone.

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  11. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    Good to hear from you. I’m not a Christian fundamentalist. I don’t believe in moral facts—or I wouldn't put it that way at least. I believe morality has an objective referent, which is God as displayed in the life of Jesus. I also don’t claim to know with any sort of infallibility what the ethical or moral path to take is always. I leave a lot of space in that regard. I do believe that love, grace, and peace are always to be sought and I fail to do that all the time. Still, there it is, that is what I believe and strive toward.

    I’m happy you followed that previous conversation, and that would have probably been the time to throw in your comments. Regardless, I think this part of my post goes to the kernel of your comments here, which I will have to put into another comment section due to length.

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  12. Darrell says:

    “Now, what is the difference between this scenario and a conflict between two people who believe in an objective morality? First of all, if the morality is basically the same, then each side can feel that no matter what happens, it wasn't just one person’s will or power over the other that decided the issue. In other words, a poor person in a dispute with a wealthier person could feel equal and that he was not going to lose simply because the other person had more money (power). Or, as already noted by my civil rights movement example here in America and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.

    Second, if the morality is different, then the dialogue can be toward the opposing moralities, their sources, and not the persons themselves, as persons. Rather than opposing people or attacking people personally, they can direct their arguments at the moralities, at the arguments, at the source of the morality, the lines of thought and their support—the overall narrative. Otherwise, we are left with opposing the weather reports inside the heads of each other and that can only be seen as a personal attack (because it is). We are left with accusing the other person of either being mentally impaired, illogical/irrational, or of having invalid feelings or emotions and thus we are entitled to use violence against them. Wow.

    Now, what happens when two parties who believe in an objective morality (say, for instance, the Taliban and the U.S.) cannot come to an agreement regarding something? One would assume, in the absence of peaceful dialogue and negotiation, after everything has been exhausted, violence may ensue. Does believing in an objective morality mean violence never happens? Of course not, and no one claims such—that doesn't even follow. Violence is possible whether one believes in an objective morality or a subjective morality—it’s irrelevant to the discussion—no one is arguing otherwise (We can put aside an argument for pacifism for now). The huge, and glaring, difference however, between violence used in such a situation and where it is arbitrary, or as a bully would use it, just to get his way, or because he can, he is more powerful, is that in one case, there is a greater principle or objective referent appealed to, rather, than in the opposing case, the two sides are simply pointing toward their inner personal subjective weather reports that happen to vary at the moment. In this scenario, we have people threatening violence because the other person does not emote or “feel” or think the way the other does. I can’t imagine a more unreliable, unreasonable, irrational, irresponsible, or immoral reason to justify using violence. It is the rational of the bully.”

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  13. Darrell says:

    JP,

    You may also wish to review the last 3-4 comments in the Nietzsche post–I think they also go to your comments here. However, I don't wish to re-hash all that again presently–I would like to keep to Gray's essay and my post regarding it–any thoughts there? Bernard seems to think him wise too.

    http://byzantinedream.blogspot.com/2014/12/final-postscript-we-hope-on-nietzsche.html

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  14. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    You are right that your previous post would have been a better place to engage this issue. So, I will just point out that what you say the objectivists may do is also available to non-objectivists: engage in moral reasoning, consider their value systems (within their narrative), and so on. None of this requires a belief in objective values. Certainly moral reasoning doesn't. Moral philosophy doesn't. It won't do to reduce all non-objectivist moral philosophy to power games.

    As for Gray's article, there are so many points in there that I can't really give you an overall assessment.

    Concerning the idea that religion is flourishing, this may very well be true (I don't have numbers on this). Whether this is “frightening” or not depends on the type of religion that is gaining popularity. Wouldn't you agree that the rise of fundamentalism should be of concern to all of us?

    It is also certainly true that atheism is neutral with regard to morality. Atheism is not a world-view.

    Generally speaking, the article is rather dismissive of new atheists. But then, it's not clear who he's talking about. Is it mostly the handful of the most popular new atheists? If so, he may on occasion misrepresents them to some degree. To say, for instance, that “new atheism is the expression of a liberal moral panic” seems a little overboard. This certainly doesn't fit someone like Dennett.

    Gray seems also to be saying that the new atheists believe that science can be the source of moral values. While this may be true of some (Harris?), I don't see that Dennett or Dawkins or Hitchens have ever claimed this.

    If there's a specific point in the article you'd like me to comment, I'll be glad to do it.

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  15. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    I've never said that those who believe their morality or any morality is subjective, not objective or universal- do not reason or have reasons for their arguments. I was speaking to our justifications for the use of violence. So, I’m not sure what your point has to do with anything I've written in the Nietzsche post or in my responses to Burk within this thread.

    Anyway, as to Gray, no, I just meant in general. Bernard seemed to find Gray’s thoughts mostly wise, and I wondered if you did too—in general? Do you think Gray's voice here is something other atheists need to hear?

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  16. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    The point is that objectivists and non-objectivists are faced with the same issues when trying to reach common ground and the same methods are available to both. Moreover, circumstances leading to violence will be also very similar.

    As for Gray… While he may have some valid points to make, he is also very dismissive of modern atheists and, frankly, some of what he says strikes me as rather bizarre.

    For example, he writes that “today’s most influential atheists […] have not renounced the conviction that human values must be based in science”. Not sure what he means by “based in” but, in any case, this is not how I read these modern atheists, with the exception of Harris.

    Following this, he adds “For 21st century atheist missionaries, being liberal and scientific in outlook are one and the same”. This is dismissive and, it seems to me, false.

    One more: “But pretty well all secular thinkers now take for granted that modern societies must in the end converge on some version of liberalism”. Where does that come from? Pretty well all secular thinkers? Really?

    And so on.

    So, to answer your question, perhaps Gray has something of value to say to other atheists but the very dismissive tone of his article, and the many misrepresentations, make sure that his message will not get through. But those who despise the new atheists will love this text.

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  17. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    I just re-read those three paragraphs I gave you from the post on Nietzsche and still don't see your point in reference to anything I write there (or the entire post for that matter), but, oh well–thanks for the in-put.

    “But those who despise the new atheists will love this text.”

    Now that is interesting because I've never thought of Bernard “despising” the new atheists. Still, he thought Gray “very balanced” “considered” and “wise” so it is interesting what we each “hear” in Gray's essay.

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  18. JP says:

    Hi Darrell,

    I wrote that those who despise new atheists will love the text. I didn't write that those who like the text must despise the new atheists. These are two completely different things.

    The point is that if Gray had wanted to reach out to these atheists he should have adopted a different tone. His dismissive, often condescending, tone and his overboard generalizations will have the opposite effect.

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  19. Darrell says:

    Hi JP,

    “I didn't write that those who like the text must despise the new atheists.”

    And I never said that was what you were suggesting. My point was that Bernard “read” or “heard” Gray very differently than you did, clearly. And you are both agnostics, correct? Why do you suppose this difference then in what was “heard” in Gray's essay?

    And I don’t think Gray was trying to “reach out” to the new atheists. I think he was rather trying to point out that they do not have a monopoly on what all atheists think, now or historically, and that there is a problem of assuming one’s views are grounded in “science” when it could be they are just a cultural norm—and one, ironically, borrowed from narratives long dismissed.

    I’m sure you agree, as far as his point regarding the different views atheists have held historically, the plurality of opinion, that such is a good thing, right? Was there any point Gray made where you would agree with Bernard, that it was wise?

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