I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.
Once the sin against God was the greatest sin; but God died, and these sinners died with him. To sin against the earth is now the most dreadful thing, and to esteem the entrails of the unknowable higher than the meaning of the earth…
What is the greatest experience you can have? It is the hour of the great contempt. The hour when your happiness, too, arouses your disgust, and even your reason and your virtue. – Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue, 3
For starters, check out the new sticker on the left sidebar, courtesy of Razib. After yesterday’s post, I’m pretty sure the Dawkinsians would place me firmly within Dawkins’ “Neville Chamberlain ‘appeasement’ school,” as opposed to his “Churchill school,” because I don’t think Dawkins has the mind for the difficult issues associated with religion and faith, and I don’t think being religious automatically makes you irrational in any way. In the Dawkinsian universe, that probably means that I’m trying to appease non-fundamentalist religious folk. I can’t imagine this post will make them feel any better about my atheist credentials.
You see, while I don’t really buy the Chamberlain-Churchill distinction, I do recognize an even more fundamental one: suspicion vs. skepticism (see this article by Merold Westphal, via Prosthesis, via Siris; see, I’m even linking the Christians!). I’m an atheist of suspicion, and the Dawkinsians are atheists of skepticism. What’s the difference? Here’s a description of the “school of suspicion,” represented by Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, from the Westphal article:
What unites [Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud] in spite of important and possibly irreconcilable differences is their joint practice of the hermeneutics of suspicion, the deliberate attempt to expose the self-deceptions involved in hiding our actual operative motives from ourselves, individually or collectively, in order not to notice how and how much our behavior and our beliefs are shaped by values we profess to disown.
Here is how Westphal describes the distinction between the two schools:
This suspicion is to be distinguished from skepticism, which gives rise to evidential atheism. Skepticism is directed toward the elusiveness of things, while suspicion is directed toward the evasiveness of consciousness. Skepticism seeks to overcome the opacity of facts, while suspicion seeks to uncover the duplicity of persons. Skepticism addresses itself directly to the propositions believed and asks whether there is sufficient evidence to make belief rational. Suspicion addresses itself to the persons who believe and only indirectly to the propositions believed. It seeks to discredit the believing soul by asking what motives lead people to belief and what functions their beliefs play, looking for precisely those motives and functions that love darkness rather than light and therefore hide themselves. Where Hume and Kant challenge the soundness of the arguments for the existence of God, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud seek to show how theistic belief functions both to mask and to fulfill forms of self-interest that cannot be acknowledged.
Skeptical atheists tend to adhere to some sort of rationalism (in their Dawkinsian forms, they’re almost always adherents of hard-core scientism, too). Their rigid reliance on particular types of reasoning can lead them to see the world in stark either-or contrast: you either approach the world scientifically (i.e., through what science considers evidence and argument, in an ideal version of science that exists, primarily, in the skeptic’s head), or you are irrational. It’s not surprising, then, that these skeptics, at least the militant ones, are incapable of seeing, much less accepting, that religious faith might have its own form of reason and evidence.
Suspicious atheists, on the other hand, question the scientist’s reason as strongly and openly as they question religious faith. Here’s one of my favorite passages from Nietzsche, to illustrate the suspicious position:
What provokes one to look at all philosophers half suspiciously, half mockingly, is not that one discovers again and again how innocent they are–how often and how easily they make mistakes and go astray, in short, their childishness and childlikeness–but that they are not honest enough in their work: although they make a lot of virtuous noise when the problem of truthfulness is touched even remotely. They all pose as if they had discovered and reached their real opinions through the self-development of a cold, pure, divinely unconcerned dialectic (as opposed to the mystics of every rank, who are more honest and doltish–they talk about “inspiration”–): while at bottom it is an assumption, a hunch, indeed a kind of “inspiration”, most often a desire of the heart that has been filtered and made abstract that they defend with reasons they have sought after the fact:–they are all advocates who resent that name, and for the most part even wily spokesmen for their prejudices which they baptize “truths”–and very far from having the courage of the conscience that admits this, precisely this, to itself; very far from having the good taste of the courage which also lets this be known, whether to warn an enemy or friend, or, from exuberance, to mock itself. Beyond Good and Evil, Part 1, 5
One could rewrite that passage and substitute “scientist” (especially those scientists who step outside of science, intellectually) or “atheist” for each instance of the word “philosopher,” and it would be just as insightful. The problem with skeptical atheism, from the view of the suspicious, is the same as that of religious faith. The skeptical atheist assumes that the causes of his or her beliefs are transparent, or at least discoverable through (ironically) introspection, and that when he or she looks for those causes, the skeptical atheist will inevitably find the rational arguments that the or she already believes to be the impetus for his or her atheism. As a someone who studies the human mind, I can’t help but find this position naive (hey, at least I didn’t say “childlike”). Perhaps ironically, my own experience in science has led me to atheism of suspicion. I’ll give you two reasons for this.
The first reason comes from two sources: in philosphy, the phenomenological school, and in psychology, the ecological school of J.J. Gibson. These two schools arrive at similar conclusions for similar reasons. In both, the human mind does not encounter the world from an objective position. Instead, it is instantly invested in the world. Speaking scientifically, our brains and bodies evolved to help us survive in the world, not so that we could discover its immutable truths. The best illustration of this that I know comes from another animal: the frog. In a classic paper titled “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” Lettvin, Maturana, McCulloch, and Pitts argue that the frog’s visual system has four basic types of detectors that it uses to interpret incoming sense data. Three of these detectors are designed to detect large objects (i.e., “not food”), mostly through changes in luminance and contrast. The fourth detector is, in essence, a bug detector (i.e., “food”). It picks out small, curved objects, like flies. That’s what the frog sees: “not food” and “food,” and it’s all the fly really needs to see to get by in the world. Our visual (and other sensory) systems are clearly much more complex than the frog’s, but that doesn’t change the fact that they evolved to allow us to see what we need to see to get by. In ecological psychology, the theory of “affordances” nicely captures this insight. According to this theory, perception is designed to serve action. When we see a chair, we don’t just see its physical dimensions. We also perceive that it “affords” sitting, or in other contexts, that it “affords” standing on its seat to reach light bulbs that need changing. It is because our sensory systems evolved for purposes other than presenting us with a veridical representation of the world that they’re so easily fooled. One need only read a review of the literature on visual illusions, top-down (i.e., cognitive) influences on perception, or change and inattentional blindness, to see just how profoundly “off” from a veridical representation of the world our perceptions can be, and generally are.
The second reason concerns the relative importance of unconscious/automatic and conscious processes in reasoning, motivation, and belief (if you watched Session 7 of the “Beyond Belief” series, this was the topic of Banaji’s talk). The lion’s share of what our brains do is done below the level of awareness. This is because our brain’s are lazy, and conscious thought uses up an inordinate amount of the brain’s scarce resources. As a result of our brain’s laziness, our representations, goals and motivations, as well as their influences on our conscious reasoning, preferences, etc., are largely unknown to us. As one author put it, we are in a very real sense “strangers to ourselves.” Much of what we believe is likely the product of those unconscious representations, goals, and motivations, as well as the automatic, unconscious processing of them, and the reasons for our beliefs of which we are consciously aware have probably been developed post hoc (see, for example, the research on motivated reasoning).
This becomes even more apparent when you look at patterns of belief. Razib, for example, has discussed the heritability of religion, and other research has shown that many attitudes show surprisingly high levels of heritability as well. There are reasons why red states are full of Republicans and blue states are full of Democrats; why Europe is more secular, for the most part, while the United States is more religious, and they have little if anything to do with the exposure to or penchant for reasoning; and why just about everything in Western philosophy went through Christian theology in the 17th century, and through science in the 21st century, and those reasons have little to do with exposure to or penchant for rational argumentation. They have to do with the largely unconscious representational and motivational lenses that people see the world through, and over which they have very little control.
So that’s my atheism of suspicion. It might be tempting to call this position wishy-washy, or even inconsistent, because it says that all positions are irrational at their base, even its own. The only answer I can give to that is, all the more reason to be suspicious. Instead of naively arguing that one is right because the evidence is on one’s side (or because one uses evidence, whereas all of the other positions do not), we should instead do our best to live in a way that is consistent with the values we’ve chosen (for whatever reason) to hold dear. For me, acting on that principle leads me to atheism.
It might also be tempting to say that this sort of atheism is too soft on religion, because it places it on the same footing as science epistemologically (hence my placement in the Chamberlain school). I hope the quote with which I began this post shows that this is not the case. I have a healthy respect for religion, and I am often in awe of its symbolism, and even its arguments (read Leibniz, and tell me you’re not in awe!). But as Nietzsche, the most militant member of the school of suspicion notes, shows, one can criticize religion on other grounds. In my view, the religious, and Christians in particular, are hostile to the values that I have willed. As Nietzsche put it: “despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.” If that’s being soft on religion, then I don’t know how to be hard. I worry, though, that the Dawkinsians, and others of the ilk, have substituted their concept reason and science for God, and that their use of those will ultimately leave them “decaying and poisoned themselves,” so that the world will eventually become weary of them as well.