A place for new ideas to settle.

20 October 2014

Atheism doesn't mean you're smart

Now I've gone and done it. This week I've found myself in tiresome social-media sparring matches not once, but twice, over matters I thought were relatively uncontroversial. I should have learned that lesson a long time ago, perhaps, but in this case it was strange: my interlocutors this time were atheists, and we were debating philosophical points. And yet, for all that they were nominally in my own "tribe," they weren't, and in the end I found them more distasteful than the far-left social justice crusaders of yesteryear.


I'll start with one that didn't actually involve me, except on the side. Michael Luciano, a staff writer at The Daily Banter, wrote a piece called Atheists Don't Owe Your Social Justice Agenda a Damn Thing, criticizing social-justice-oriented atheists for presuming to speak for all atheists. I think he was only partially right: it does seem a bit presumptuous to say that one can only be a "good atheist" (or the favorite passive-aggressive title, "decent human being") if one signs on to a whole slate of political views, since nothing about atheism (read: not believing that a god exists) implies a particular politics—except for being against theocracy, probably.

To the extent that there exists a movement to help and support atheists and people recovering from religion, that movement should recognize that "being atheist" means different things in practice for different kinds of people, because of what community they've become alienated from.

Basically, if there's a group promoting social justice for atheists per se, they need to make sure they meet the needs of all atheists and not just white upper-middle-class atheists. That just makes sense, and that's exactly the problem being addressed at conferences like Moving Social Justice (a Washington Post article on which Luciano's piece linked to). Moreover, atheism in practice and experience is often quite anti-religion—really, anti-religious-privilege: it's not just convincing people that it's okay to give up belief in a god they were probably forced to believe in as a kid, it's more about convincing people that churches are not the Last Bastion of Social Welfare and Moral Values in their communities.

On the other hand, there are people who try to emotionally blackmail every atheist into jumping on board with the "social justice agenda," and while they're perfectly valid in wanting more support, their tactics are just stupid. Not everyone is willing or able to volunteer for charity.


The first run-in was in a skeptics' meetup group on Facebook, with respect to a Skepchick blog post on the above-mentioned spat: Decent Human Beings Owe Our Social Justice Agenda Everything. The headline is approaching the Platonic ideal of trollsy clickbait—excellent buzzword-to-emotional-blackmail ratio—and the content itself is heavy on the condescension of one who simply cannot be proven wrong. But I was more concerned about what the Facebook user posted as an addendum to the link:
Sometimes people ask why we as skeptics or as atheists also emphasize social justice issues. This article does a good job of addressing that question.

It's true that a person can be a skeptic or an atheist without sharing progressive or pro-social values such as feminism, anti-racism, etc., but it's also the case that we're under no obligation to identify, associate, or ally with people who don't share our values just because they happen to be skeptics or atheists.

I care about promoting skepticism and science as a way of reducing the harm of false beliefs for everyone, not just as a way of getting the benefits of more accurate beliefs for myself. This [...] group has always been a place for like-minded science enthusiasts to socialize, but I think one key to the group's success is that our like-mindedness extends beyond our shared knowledge about pseudoscience and logical fallacies, and includes humanist values such as equality, justice, and fairness. If that excludes or annoys some skeptics and atheists who don't share those values, I'm okay with that.
This struck me as potentially problematic, because it's trivially true that even people who share humanist values might disagree on political means for realizing those values in society. So I was worried that this was an admission of a sort of "shun the nonbeliever" policy, and voiced that concern. He responded with this:
I'm not saying there's a black-or-white distinction or litmus test, but I know that some people who initially disagreed with some of our progressive views later came around to agree with us after discussing them, while others tried and failed to make effective counterarguments, and eventually left the group. We don't have a purity test for membership here, though.
And that's fine. There's still the possibility that "others tried and failed" could mean "others had criticisms but were browbeaten until they left" but that's a judgment that I can't pass, having not met up with anyone from the group in public.

Then another group member challenged my motives in asking the question, insinuating that I really meant to ask something else. I tried to convey my seemingly-trivial thought—that moral philosophy is sufficiently non-obvious that even reasonable people can disagree without one being a moral asshole—but he decided that I just hadn't read enough philosophy:

For additional context, he recommended that I read Plato, John Stuart Mill, and John Rawls by way of background material. As it turns out, and as I had said in the fist post of that screenshot, I read Michael Sandel's Justice: What's the Right Thing To Do? which provides and excellent primer on the Greeks, Mill, and Rawls, and I don't know what a "pre-Socratic" position is. It just seemed really uncharitable.

Then he blocked me, because there's no better way to demonstrate one's intellectual superiority than flouncing, especially when flouncing from an argument one started oneself. Moral of the story: an atheist with a bachelor's degree in philosophy is a very dangerous beast.


The second time was me getting sucked into a Twitter argument against @SecularOutpost, whence this selectively-edited Storify story in which user @toxicpath doesn't understand jokey metaphorical language. In case anyone was concerned, I wasn't actually side-eying my computer screen, and my eye was nowhere near ready to pop out.
Hey look! That's me!
Here @toxicpath reveals his agenda, which is 100% not aimed at the truth, but at politics and "winning." If this was Reddit, he'd be all about pwning fundies. An agenda that centralizes the presupposition that all theists are bullshitting—that is, making statements with no regard or care for the truth of those statements—denies the agency of theists who are genuinely concerned about the truth. Of course, one hopes that this concern for what's really true will lead them away from theism, but that's a long road.

It also creates needless tension and fractiousness on political issues. For example, if there is a Biblical precedent for some welfare program, I'm not going to fight about it if the program is sound. And obviously that means it has other, non-Biblical reasons for being a good policy.

But what did @SecularOutpost get on about? Simply put, it's that if Theism (as a philosophical proposition) includes the detail that "God would desire to create conscious creatures," then the fact that conscious creatures exist (that'd be us!) is some evidence for Theism. (I'm capitalizing "Theism" for the purposes of this post; I have perhaps a clearer distinction saved for later.) Naturalism (the metaphysical position that there is no "supernatural" reality, it's just the universe and its natural laws) does not necessarily imply that consciousness will arise in anything. (Indeed, the seeming uniformity of natural laws together with the seeming rarity of conscious creatures in our universe would imply that consciousness is highly unlikely on Naturalism.)

For the wonks out there: When I say "x is evidence for a hypothesis H," I mean that the existence of observation x increases the likelihood that H accurately describes reality. Given that "conscious creatures exist" is logically baked in to that particular formulation of Theism, Pr(conscious creatures | Theism) = 1 whereas Pr(conscious creatures | Naturalism) ≤ 1, in fact probably strictly less.

It's about as trivial as saying "the fact that the sky kinda looks like a dome is evidence for the hypothesis that the sky is literally a glass dome"—if the sky didn't look like a dome, then the Glass-Dome-Sky hypothesis would be even more unlikely than it already is a priori. And that's where @toxicpath and his fellow too-political atheist Twitterers went astray: every hypothesis has a prior probability, that is, how likely you think it is before any additional evidence comes your way. This probability then gets smacked around by observations in accordance with Bayes' theorem. We do this naturally quite often: start with an assumption based on your prior experience and expectations, then update based on new observations. Human brains aren't great at Bayesian epistemology, but it's good to try.

For a basic formulation of Theism—there exists a supernatural agent that can intervene in the natural world by temporarily suspending the known laws of physics—the prior probability is, well, exceedingly small. Even if you start at a modest or high likelihood of this Theism being true, you run into lots of apparent contradictory observations in the real world that demand apologetics or special pleading (this Being is special, it's the only thing that can intervene in this way, etc. etc.). Special pleading should be considered a heavy tax on the likelihood of a proposition. And note that this Theism doesn't include a specific plan, chosen people, interventions, morality, etc. etc. all of which would heavily tax the likelihood of the claim.

Personally I have several very strong reasons for not buying into religion, that go beyond mere epistemological stuff—though I set the likelihood of (e.g.) Christian Theism at epsilon. But that's for a later post.


The common thread here, as I see it, was a refusal by both parties that weren't me (natch) to engage in a little principle of charity—in the first case, the guy assumed I was like any number of previous posters who had been disingenuous, and called me out for something I (thought I) wasn't; in the second case, the guy seemed to operate under the definition "evidence for hypothesis H == reason to believe H" which I thought was needlessly political, but moreover kept dismissing these sorts of thought experiments as "fantasy." As if that would make us change our minds!

@toxicpath also made some rather interesting philosophical assertions, like:
"Know for sure" even! Of course, I do think that consciousness can arise perfectly naturally—in fact, that consciousness itself is nothing else but a natural process, however complex and beautiful—but it doesn't really help to claim certainty.

It all comes down to something my friend Caitlyn was fond of saying: "Atheism isn't codeword for smart." Matt Dillahunty of The Atheist Experience calls atheism "Answering the easiest question in the universe." And yet, because of the vast majority of people out there who believe in some higher power, atheists tend to think very highly of their intellectual powers. These mantras serve as helpful correctives: Atheism doesn't mean you're smart. Skepticism doesn't mean you're smart. Rationalism doesn't mean you're smart. Being smart doesn't mean you're more likely to be right—in fact, there might be a slight bias towards the negative, since smart people are better at rationalizing motivated beliefs.

I don't even claim to be an exemplar of good discourse in either of these, though of course I'd like to believe that I did a good job. I just want to share my astonishment that even metaphysics and metaethics can be politicized.