Wednesday, November 10, 2010

In which our intrepid voyager journeys to Muscovy

[My apologies, first, for the long silence here. I've been busy. Second, to those of you who 'follow' this for my periodic rants about religion, for the fact that this post will be all about my current visit to Moscow, which lies outside the declared scope of this blog. I plan to post something on our recent, disastrous elections sometime soon.]

1. Hail to the Moscow Metro, which is a modern miracle. It is desperately overcrowded, carrying (Wikipedia tells me) over 7 million passengers a day. That makes it the second busiest system in the world. And yet, you never have to run to catch a train, because they come every two minutes. And yet they are still incredibly crowded. That is, enough people come into each Metro station every two minutes to fill all the vacant space on each train that comes through. I've been here a week and still haven't sat down on the Metro. And here's a fun fact: There are two Moscow Metros: the public one, and then the 'secret' one that Stalin had built in the 1930's. I was skeptical about the secrecy of it-- thousands of people had to be involved in building it, right?-- but my host Boris would admit only that "some people guessed" that it existed. That one is still used by the military and the government. Recently, though, one line was made available for public use. You can see it, light blue, on the Metro map, running exactly parallel to a dark blue line. It runs, conveniently enough, directly from the Kremlin to Stalin's home.

2. I'm staying in what is frankly a pretty dingy neighborhood. There are very few restaurants, cafes, or large stores nearby. What the area does have are large numbers of tiny shops, stands, really, most of them specializing in just a few items: toiletries, for example, or fruit, or, most interestingly, dildoes. Within a few hundred yards of my lodgings there are perhaps three places to get a cup of coffee (forget about good coffee!), and exactly five places to buy dildoes. This has sparked some obvious questions in my mind about the private lives of the locals, who presumably provide the demand for these shops. I figure they can't just be using dildoes; they must be finding regular need for quick dildo shopping ("Hold that pose, honey. I'll be right back.") The people here don't look particularly outre or adventurous; quite the opposite. And there's no visible gay presence at all.

3. It is fascinating, as I walk around here, to distinguish the shiny new capitalist overlay from the dingy communist-era bulk that constitutes most of the city. I've posted on Facebook pictures of a 70's vintage Metro station with a Starbucks moved in to the ground floor. Contrasts like this, if less stark, are visible all over the city. In Red Square, Lenin's tomb faces the GUM department store, which now houses a huge selection of very pricey Western shops. Only the very rich can afford to go in; the street outside was blocked off so that customers could park their luxury sedans and SUV's near the side door. Escalades seemed to be particularly popular. There are still monuments and places names for heroes of the Revolution. I'm very near Gagarin Park, named for the 1950's cosmonaut. The park is overlooked by a huge statue of the rocketman himself, looking down Leninski Prospekt, jammed with cars while at least one drunk is passed out on the pedestal below.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Just a few thoughts on De Waal

Frans de Waal spoke today at George Mason on the topic of "Primate Behavior and Human Society." His talk in fact had little to do directly with human society, but instead consisted of summaries of a lot of various interesting research on altruism and cooperation in animals, especially primates. Some of de Waal’s books include discussion of philosophical topics, but that too was omitted from the talk. Nevertheless, it seemed apparent that de Waal’s work is not far removed from that of Sam Harris, the subject of my second most recent post here. With that in mind, I’ll offer a few quick remarks on his presentation.

1. De Waal gave a lot of interesting evidence of altruism in apes and other animals. The implication, I guess, is that we find such empathy in humans as well. This was fascinating, but not, to a student of the history of philosophy, surprising. David Hume postulated more than 250 years ago that human beings have a natural feeling of empathy (he called it sympathy) for others, which he explicated in the same terms as de Waal, as the phenomenon of feelings ‘catching’ from one person to another. Nor would the philosophical naturalist Hume have been at all troubled at the discovery of this commonality between animals and humans.

2. Though the talk today did not touch on moral philosophy, that phrase is in at least one of de Waal’s earlier books. So it is worth noting that the empirical discovery of empathy and altruism in animals, while certainly of interest and importance for moral philosophy, still falls well short of providing an evolutionary basis for morality. As Hume and others have recognized, empathy is an unreliable footing for moral judgment. As de Waal himself pointed out, empathy is felt more intensely for those closest to us, less for those farther away. And yet we all acknowledge that we have moral obligations to very distant people, and possibly to non-people as well. Furthermore, it is possible that one might be held morally accountable for failing to have empathy. Thus slaveowners in the antebellum South failed, in most cases, to feel empathy for suffering human beings in their very midst, and are nevertheless morally accountable for that failure.

{Another thought: If research such as de Waal's were to be used in a moral theory, it might run as follows: Moral judgment requires us to take the perspective of others (PO). PO, however, does not arise from reason, but rather from feeling, namely a feeling of empathy. Therefore moral judgment is based on feeling, not reason. Hume would certainly approve of this. But as de Waal acknowledged in questioning, the feeling of empathy is not necessary for PO; rather, this can be achieved through cognitive means as well. So feeling might be part, even a necessary part of moral judgment, but it is not necessary, at least as far as the talk today showed.}

3. I cannot be the only person to have felt the delicious irony of a guest of our economics department detailing the evidence for the natural unselfishness of human beings. If economics is to be an empirical science, it has to base its predictions on an empirically grounded understanding of economic agents, but research like de Waal’s seems to make a hash of the laissez faire economist’s fiction of a self-interest agent maximizing her interests in the marketplace. What would economics look like if it took account of the real nature of human beings?

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What is (really) the matter with Kansas?

[In the last few years I’ve met a number of people with connections to Kansas—good people all, and most of them Democrats, too. This piece is written with them in mind, with respect and affection.]

What is the matter with Kansas? This question is important, and not just for Kansas, because the political trend that Thomas Frank analyzed in his bestselling book of that title is widely viewed as the most potent force in American politics today. Frank’s view is that Kansas’ staunch social conservatives vote against their interests. In the end, I think he’s right about this, but for the wrong reasons. The idea of voting against one’s interests is more complicated than he acknowledges, and this is what I want to explore here.

Frank is hardly alone in claiming that a large swath of white, working-class Americans vote against their own interests when they select candidates on the basis of cultural and symbolic issues such as gun rights and abortion rather than economic issues such as health care. This assertion rests on a number of questionable assumptions: for example, that voters generally, and these voters in particular, vote with the intention of furthering their interests; that commentators like Frank know what those interests are, even if the voters themselves do not; and that issues such as gun rights do not touch on the foremost interests of those who value them.

The first assumption—that we do or should vote in order to further our interests—is debatable, but lies outside the scope of my present interest. The second claim, that the commentator knows the voters’ interest better than they do themselves, amounts to pointing out a sort of ignorance on the voters’ part, and thus will doubtless strike some readers as condescending. In a previous blog I argued that it is not truly condescending to accuse someone of ignorance. But the nature of this assumption merits a closer look.

When we say that someone has acted against her interest, we are suggesting that either she doesn’t know what her interests are, or she is mistaken about how to achieve those interests. I suspect, but cannot prove, that most liberal commentary in the Frank vein assumes that the overriding interest of American voters is to do as well as possible for themselves materially—to earn money, to live securely, to provide the most comfortable possible life for their children, and so on. The benighted voters of Kansas either a. fail to recognize that these are their interests, or else b. falsely believe that supporting gun control will advance them.

Consider option a. I argue that a person’s interests are not just given, so that we can be mistaken about them in the same way that we can be mistaken about other matters of fact. They are subject to reflection, and this entails an element of choice. As such, it is far more difficult to be mistaken about my interests. I say ‘more difficult’ rather than ‘impossible’ because one might forget what one has chosen as an interest, or be confused about the content or implications of an interest. But the important point is that I am in a better position to know my interests than is Tom Frank, or anyone else, for that matter.

So we should consider the likelihood that social conservatives just have different interests than the ones Frank and others take them to be voting against. Indeed, the fact that they vote so dependably and vehemently against their presumed interests is prima facie evidence that those are not their interests at all. There is nothing inherently irrational about preferring something that does not benefit me materially. As David Hume says, “’Tis not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. ‘Tis as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledge’d lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.”

It makes a lot more sense to suppose that the voting patterns of white social conservatives reflect in some degree the interests of the voters, and their best understanding of how to pursue those interests. I think that those interests are best understood as relating to a sense of moral community that some Americans feel was lost after the 1960’s. To name just a few major causes, the civil rights movement and the wave of non-European immigration in the 1980’s and 1990’s demolished the picture of America as a monolithically European culture, while feminism and gay rights unsettled gender roles many took for granted. For highly educated voters who can participate in the newly-globalized economy, these are unambiguous steps forward, morally but also materially.

Americans with less education, however, are likely both less able to adapt to a globalized economy and more likely to define their moral community in relation to familiar practices and nearby people. And Frank has argued, persuasively I think, that the voting patterns he points to break down fairly clearly on educational lines. Thus poorer people in places like rural Kansas can see feminism and gay rights as tearing down the moral institutions that give their lives meaning. They are also more likely to see issues in terms of the groups, especially ethnic and religious groups, of which they are members, rather than in terms of humanity in general. So they can feel threatened not just materially but morally by large-scale immigration, and react to terrorist attacks not as affronts to human dignity but as attacks on their community.

So it is hardly surprising that such people have a tendency to vote for political candidates who share these impulses, and who profess to care about the same issues. These candidates tend of course to be Republicans. The Democratic Party is increasingly home to educated people, especially on the coasts—the very group whose boats are lifted by global trade. It is hardly an accident that at the same time the Democrats are less likely than they ever were to emphasize social justice and economic equality, though the recent health care bill is a notable exception to this.

Nevertheless, the eponymous voters of Kansas do, I think, vote against their interests when they support candidates such as Sarah Palin or Mike Huckabee. Their mistake is not that they don’t know their own interests, but that the candidates they vote for do not serve those interests. The economic and social forces that threaten the traditional order in Middle America are well beyond the capacity of any political party to turn back, and in any case the Republican Party has shown no inclination to offer more than lip service to appease social conservatives. The sad fact is that neither major American party shows interest in addressing the real concerns of white working-class Americans.

This brings out a genuine quandary: I see a tension between movements toward freedom and toleration and the legitimate need of many Americans to live in strong communities that provide their members with ethical guidance. For me, at least these movements, such as feminism and the civil rights movement, are clear examples of moral progress. Is it possible to have liberation from the straitjacket of tradition without destroying the communities these traditions sustained? I don't pretend to know the answer.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Philosophy and the Science of Happiness

Influential scientist and author Sam Harris has lately taken up the subject of the application of neuroscience to morality. His claim: that “there are right and wrong answers to moral questions, just as there are right and wrong answers to questions of physics, and such answers may one day fall within reach of the maturing sciences of the mind.” Much of what Harris says is right. For example, most, though not all, philosophers would agree with his rejection of moral relativism, especially the mushy-headed examples of relativism that he cites. I think he is also right to see relevance for brain science to questions of human happiness. But with all due respect to Mr. Harris, I will focus here on what I think he gets wrong.

One mistake is his ad hominem dismissal of the naturalistic fallacy. This is captured in the claim that it is impossible to derive a normative statement from purely factual premises— simply put, you can’t get an ‘ought’ from an ‘is.’ As Harris notes, this view originates in Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature, the argument of which Harris describes as "lazy" and not the "last word on the subject of morality until the end of time."

But while it is true that there is some debate about how to understand the naturalistic fallacy and even whether it is really a fallacy, Hume is hardly the only one to have seen a problem in deriving statements of moral obligation from statements of fact. Intuitively, it is hard to see how we can know anything about how the world ought to be purely from knowledge of how it is. More specifically, study of the mind can show us only what people desire, or what makes them happy. It cannot show us that we ought to strive to help them fulfill their desires, or value their happiness.

[By the way, Hume’s treatment of the basis of moral judgment does not deserve to be so glibly rejected. Hume at his laziest is better than Harris at his best, and more rewarding of careful study, too. But I digress.]

Harris runs together a number of distinct claims. He seems to think that the ‘no-ought-from-is’ claim entails the claim that all ought claims are subjective in the sense of being neither true nor false. It does not. Kant, for example, agrees with the first claim but not the second. Harris furthermore seems to assume without stating that the methods of natural science are the appropriate methods for resolving all questions of fact, and this too is debatable, to put it mildly. One can be a cognitivist in moral theory (this is the view that there are knowable moral facts) without thinking that moral facts can be observed in a laboratory. Harris’ view might be both coherent and true, but this requires more and better argument than he gives.

The second major mistake Harris makes is his too-hasty embrace of the idea that moral statements can be analyzed exhaustively into statements about human conscious states, specifically statements about human well-being. Curiously, he does not argue for the identification of well-being with conscious states. It seems entirely possible to me that my well-being might be increased by something of which I am not aware. Nor am I clear on his reasons for thinking that only conscious states can be of value. The act of valuing might be said to be a conscious state (though I can think of counterarguments to that, too), but it doesn’t follow from that that conscious states themselves are what is valued. One can (I would say should) value the health of the planet, and my valuing might be reducible to a conscious state of mine, but the thing valued is not at all describable as a conscious state.

But even if we give Harris a pass on these points, there is still the bigger issue of the relation between moral obligation and human well-being or happiness. On this at least Harris does offer an argument of sorts. Here it is:
Imagine some genius comes forward and says, "I have found a source of value/morality that has absolutely nothing to do with the (actual or potential) experience of conscious beings." Take a moment to think about what this claim actually means. Here's the problem: whatever this person has found cannot, by definition, be of interest to anyone (in this life or in any other). Put this thing in a box, and what you have in that box is -- again, by definition -- the least interesting thing in the universe.
Well… OK. This establishes at most that we cannot be interested in something of which we cannot be conscious—a claim that I’ve never heard disputed. But if we are to take this as showing that moral claims have only to do with human well-being, let alone conscious well-being, then clearly Harris is making the mistake I just described, confusing the act of valuing with the thing being valued. (For a vastly better, though still problematic argument for roughly the same point, see Chap. III of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism.)

The issue Harris claims to have solved at a stroke is one that goes back to Plato: On the one hand, in order to have motivation to act morally, our moral beliefs must speak to some desire in us; on the other hand, if that is all that they speak to, then our moral theory risks becoming mere egotism. Socrates argues at length in the Republic that justice is a “benefit.” The moral philosophers of the early modern era wrestled with how to ground an account of moral action in human nature while nevertheless providing a robust account of moral obligation. Perhaps Harris has found something that all these earlier philosophers have missed—but I doubt it.

[Mr. Harris will apparently be coming out with a book soon, under the title The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. The material discussed in this post, however, is taken from a longish piece in the Huffington Post, linked above.]

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Kant and condescension

The Washington Post recently published a rather remarkable op-ed piece under the title, Why are Liberals so Condescending? The author, Gerard Alexander, took it as a given that liberals are condescending to average voters while conservatives are not (well, OK, maybe they are sometimes). Within three days the online version received nearly 3000 comments, most of them aiming more vituperation at each other than argument toward the original article. Alexander’s piece itself was notable not only for its forest of unexamined assumptions and specious claims, but also for its failure to explain two basic things, namely, what is condescension and what is so wrong with it? But of course it’s futile to scan the editorial page of the Post for answers on this, or anything else, for that matter. Immanuel Kant, underappreciated as a philosopher of liberalism, got this one right more than 200 years ago.

Kant was what in German is called an Aufklärer, or ‘Enlightener.’ He was an intellectual-- a university professor, even— who saw it as his task to help common people clear away their ignorance, exercise their reason, and change the world accordingly. He was thus a ripe target for charges of condescension, and if he were alive today he’d no doubt be squarely in the sights of Prof. Alexander. In a famous short essay Kant considered the question, What is Enlightenment? His answer was that enlightment is “man's emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” and immaturity, in turn, is “the inability to use one's own understanding without the guidance of another.”

The key word here is ‘self-incurred’: The unenlightened are responsible for their own ignorance. What could be more ‘condescending’ than this? In fact, this charge was soon leveled at Kant, by his acquaintance and intellectual sparring partner, J.G. Hamann. In a private letter Hamann mocked Kant’s definition, accusing him of putting himself and other self-important Enlighteners in the role of schoolteachers to the common person. But Kant, unlike Mr. Alexander, is clear about the difference between condescending to someone and saying that they have a false belief. The former can be justified as an attitude toward someone only if they are incapable of thinking rationally, and thus is incompatible with the calling of the ‘enlightener.’ The latter, however, is the very essence of respect between reasonable people.

Though Kant doesn’t explain his decision to say that ignorance is self-incurred, the logic behind it is pretty clear: The essay as a whole is about the obstacles to the free use of human reason, and how to overcome those barriers. The unenlightened have to be responsible for their own ignorance, because enlightenment requires that they be responsible for their own enlightenment. The goal is that people will reason on their own, and reason well, and this requires that they are capable of reasoning. If they are not reasoning well, then whatever external problems might make rational thought more difficult, the failure to think is the fault of the thinker, too.

This means that when a liberal (or anyone) says that the American voters are wrong about something, this is neither arrogant nor condescending. As long as the assumption is that they are capable of correcting their false beliefs, ordinary respect requires that we give people some responsibility for their own ignorance. This touches on one area where Alexander has a valid point. The left has often devoted too much intellectual energy to theories of the mass deception of the public. Alexander cites Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, but he might also have mentioned many others, such as Noam Chomsky. I don’t want to say that anything these people say is mistaken—sadly, too often they are right on target. But the obsession with this sort of thinking can lead progressives to forget that their goals for a just and peaceful society depend on the ability of people to think for themselves despite all the deception that admittedly is all around us.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Why American professors are so darn liberal: Take #873,231

The seemingly intermittent but seemingly unending debate about the “liberal bias” of American university professors is one that, despite my better judgment, I just can’t get enough of. The debate about professorial leftism interests me not only because it hits so close to home but also because views on this subject reflect important assumptions about the place of universities in American society, and also about that society itself. Consider the phrase in scare quotes above: The word ‘bias’ is obviously loaded, and it implicitly frames the question in terms of why the views of professors diverge from those of other Americans. But I submit that the question ought to be turned around: Why do the views of Americans diverge so widely from the rest of the world? For the views of American professors (surveys on this often focus more narrowly on faculty in the humanities and social sciences, and so will I) are really not extreme in comparison with the opinions of educated people in the larger world. If left-wingers are concentrated in academia, it is because repression, both violent and implicit, has made this the only corner of our extremely right-wing society where otherwise unremarkable views can be uttered freely.

Consider, as an example, your humble blogger. I truly am The Liberal Professor. I am an atheist and a democratic socialist. I believe that the death penalty is immoral, that U.S. foreign policy is aggressive and militaristic, and that American abhorrence of sex underlies many of our social problems. I’m embarrassed to see people sleeping in boxes within sight of the White House, and to hear our President launch a war with the words “God bless America.” In short, I’m everything your conservative dad warned you about when you left for college.
These views of mine make it impossible (in case there were any question about this!) for me to run for national political office. In only a few isolated pockets of the country could a candidate with views like mine have a chance at elective office— and most of those pockets contain large universities. In Germany, on the other hand, where I have lived and whose culture I have studied, my views make me the most boring sort of centrist. And Germany, it should be noted, is a solidly capitalist, democratic Western country.
The comparison with world opinion is the relevant one, because in addition to having advanced degrees and tolerant attitudes toward controversial ideas, university faculty are generally like me in having studied practices and ideas of distant places and times. More simply, they know about the whole world, or at least not just the small sliver of it in North America. It is thus not surprising that their opinions correspond most closely to those of the whole world, or, more precisely, to the opinions of other educated people in the industrialized world.

Belief in God is a good illustration of this. Statistics on belief in God are not very reliable, because much depends on what questions are asked (for example, whether agnosticism and belief in a ‘higher power’ are offered as options); on how terms are understood (such as the meaning of ‘belief in God’); and on social pressures that can distort responses (in a highly religious society, for example, it might be embarrassing to confess to doubts about God). Still, there seems to be strong evidence that on the whole the religious views of American college professors resemble those of their colleagues in other Western nations but not those of their pious countrymen. If, as I suspect, college professors are also more likely than other Americans to favor a significant role for government in the economy, in that respect too their views are extreme only in relation to other Americans, who are themselves, from a global perspective, “outside the mainstream.”

This post was inspired by a recent article in the New York Times, which in turn reported the findings of a sociological study of the American professoriate, and I cannot refrain from making one remark about both the Times piece and its source. The chief finding of the study is that American professors are liberal because they are perceived as being liberal, and thus the profession attracts young people who identify themselves as liberal. More specifically, professors are more liberal than other Americans “because a higher proportion possess advanced educational credentials, exhibit a disparity between their levels of education and income, identify as Jewish, non-religious, or non-theologically conservative Protestant, and express greater tolerance for controversial ideas.”

My only quarrel is with the first word: ‘because.’ It comes as no great surprise that professors and liberals tend to share these traits, but pointing this out surely doesn’t tell anyone why professors are liberal, only that they are so, with some instructive detail added. Even if it is true that students choose academic careers in large part because of their political views and their perceptions of the profession, we still need an explanation why this particular part of our society has proven so attractive to people with left-of-center views.

Though I do not have rigorous empirical data to back this up, it seems to me that part of the answer has to have something to do with the inhospitability of most of America toward anything remotely tainted with ‘socialism.’ Of course, a river of ink has been spilled on the topic of why socialism never succeeded in America. But the story on that subject, as on the one at issue here, has to make mention of the history of straightforward repression of left-wing views in this country. Since at least 1919 the specter of Communism has been used to drive leftists out many of the niches they occupy in other industrialized countries, chiefly the labor movement but also journalism and the entertainment industry. In the process, careers have been ruined and innocent people imprisoned and even killed. In short, one main reason why even moderate leftists (like yours truly) are drawn to academia is because it is one of the few roles in American society from which their views do not disqualify them.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

In defense of Pat Robertson

Poor Pat Robertson. Yeah, you read that right: Poor Pat Robertson. He’s being criticized once again for his claim that the devastation of the Haiti earthquake was brought on by a “pact with the Devil” that Haitian slaves entered into in 1794 in order to win their independence from France. Monstrous? Sure. Delusional. Of course. But perfectly consistent with his worldview, and, more importantly, not to be dismissed by anyone of any political persuasion who professes to believe in the God of theism.

The logic of Robertson’s view is pretty simple. His most fundamental intellectual commitment is to the existence of a good and all-powerful God. A good God cannot want people to suffer undeservedly, and an all-powerful God would not allow people to suffer undeservedly. Therefore any undeserved suffering is evidence that there is no such God. But since (he presumes) there is such a God, all human suffering must be deserved. The same logic famously led Jerry Falwell to say that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were deserved— though he did not follow this through consistently enough to say that the actual victims deserved what they got, only that America had earned this collectively by “throwing God out of the public square.” Similarly, Robertson didn’t claim that the Haitians suffering from this earthquake had bargained with Satan, only that their forebears in the 18th century had. Both he and Falwell thus clearly presuppose some form of collective responsibility. After all, among the victims of 9/11 there must have been at least one dues-paying member of the Moral Majority, who could presumably not be held individually responsible for America’s moral corruption.

The move both Falwell and Robertson make is not hard to understand. So-called ‘natural evil,’ such as an earthquake, has always seemed harder than human evil to reconcile with God’s goodness. Human evil, after all, presupposes our free will, which is understood as a little bit of God’s creative power that He has bequeathed unto us. But even if we suppose (quite dubiously) that we have free will, and that it is better that we have free will than that we don’t, this really does nothing to ease the problem of evil. If God created us with our power of undetermined choice, then He is responsible for the consequences of that gift. An infinitely powerful God could have created us so that we always use our free will for the good, and a perfectly good God would have wanted to do this.

A complete discussion of the problem of evil lies far beyond the scope of this little post. And plenty of well-meaning people (i.e. not people like Robertson) believe in God as a healer rather than a cause of the world’s pain. But I’ll briefly consider one possible response to the problem, equally as unsatisfactory as any other, namely the idea that suffering can be justified as a way of helping us reach God. Perhaps, as a psychological matter, this helps people to cope with what might otherwise seem overwhelming. But it does not stand up to any intellectual scrutiny, for once again this way of thinking is incompatible with God’s (alleged) infinite goodness. If reaching God is a matter of choice, how can someone reach God whose life is snuffed out in an instant? If one person’s suffering is taken to help someone else to their redemption, doesn’t this make the sufferer a means to an end in which they cannot share? And why should so much suffering be necessary, and distributed so unequally? Even if a perfectly good and powerful God cannot find a way for me to reach Him except through, say, my child’s illness, why does that require that my child slowly waste away and die in intense pain? Wouldn't a severe but curable stomach bug do the trick?

A believer will say, This shows that God’s ways are mysterious, beyond what mere mortals can comprehend. Someone like me, on the other hand, will say, This shows that the idea of God makes no sense.

[By the way, this is not an atheism blog, although you might get that impression from the first two posts. Among future topics expect to see one on “CNN in our Moral Life” and “Kant on the Ignorance of the American Voter.” Let me know if you have a preference about which should come first.]

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

What should an atheist think about religion?

One of the more prominent debates in what passes for American public intellectual life is the emergence of a “New Atheism,” which is new, apparently, for its derision of religious belief and its unwillingness to acknowledge the possibility of reasonable theism. As a lifelong atheist myself, I suppose I ought to welcome this development. Since I was quite young I have been aware of both my utter lack of religious belief and the distance this created between me and most of the rest of America. When I was about 13, my parents urged me to enroll in a confirmation course at the Congregational Church our family attended. The plan was that at the end of the process I would be confirmed and baptized (I had been spared this rite as a baby) in one fell swoop. First, though, I had to meet with the youth minister. I admitted to him that I had misgivings about the process because, as I put it then, I was an agnostic. He smiled, nodded, and said with true liberal Protestant equanimity, “That’s great. We’ll rap about that.” Ah, the 70’s.
And yet my soul is troubled by all this—or rather, it would be if I had a soul, or if there were such a thing as ‘souls.’ The case for atheism is best made if it is not confused with the entirely separate issue of what to make of religion. Take away the latter question, and the strongest case for nonbelief in God is simply to refuse to accept the burden of proof. The theist, after all, professes not only to believe in a being that is utterly insensible and insusceptible to proof, but also maintains that this belief is the most important one could ever have. Let them prove it to me, I say—and no one has ever come close.
So, what ought an atheist to believe about religion? Strictly speaking, denying the existence of God entails nothing at all about religion, except for the obvious consequence that it can have nothing to do with God. Religion is a human institution, and as such is neither better nor worse than the human beings who practice it. Seen from this perspective, the hostility toward religion shown by the New Atheists is really misanthropy: hostility toward human beings themselves. Hardly a good thing for an erstwhile secular humanist.
Broadly speaking, religion has served to offer human beings certainty where they have none. Long ago, this certainty included certainty about matters of fact, for example the change of seasons, earthquakes, comets, and the like. The rise of science has largely destroyed this basis for religious belief, though the debate in American society about evolution shows that this motivation is not entirely dead. This is why Michael Shermer is entirely wrong to insist that evolution does not threaten religion. It does, because it removes one of the last little shreds of physical reality that religion could claim to make sense of: the unique place of human beings in the physical world. The Theory of Evolution entails that we have no such unique place, and fundamentalists are therefore right to see this as a threat.
What has survived is the religious offering of moral certainty—that kings rule with divine right; that the lives of nonbelievers count for less than believers; that the poor are blessed and shall inherit the earth. Religion in this capacity helped French peasants to build great cathedrals, for American blacks to challenge segregation, and for Crusaders to slaughter Arab civilians. We must ask whether, without the illusion of God’s moral commands, human beings would act in better or worse fashion. Perhaps, if they were less sure that God was on their side, civil rights activists would have found it harder to face the violence of white resistance. Similarly, if the soldiers of the Crusades had been prepared to ask critical questions about their mission, they would have been more likely to recognize the humanity in their victims. It is difficult to know where the balance lies, though in the end it may make no difference at all: There is no conclusive evidence that religious people act more ethically than the nonreligious. I’m inclined to think that, on balance, we’d all be better off nurturing our rational than our religious souls. But really, that’s far from obvious.

Monday, January 4, 2010


I teach philosophy at George Mason University. A recurring feature of my job is being asked by students, colleagues, and administrators what philosophy has to do with “the real world.” This is endlessly frustrating for me, because I know that my own experience of the world is constantly informed and enriched by my philosophical training. This blog will be an occasional demonstration of that: Neither a philosophy blog, of which there are plenty already, nor a policy blog, “The Attached Observer” will offer a philosopher’s perspective on current events in politics and culture. And, occasionally, on football.