Atheism and the Public Sphere

Religious liberals and conservative moderates often recoil in the face of hard atheism. To them, atheism represents a sort callous disdain for an inoffensive source of succor and support. Why, they wonder, are people subjected to such rancorous ridicule for believing in something that brings them comfort?

Doubtless this reaction springs from a place of authenticity. There are plenty of atheists who scorn religion wholesale and excoriate its practitioners as frail imbeciles. And there are plenty of others who take no real offense at private religiosity but opportunistically assail believers with similar barbs. Why not? It’s good fun at the expense of an easy target. A bit of lazy recreation can go a long way. It’s shooting tin cans in the desert.

Because of this confusion, it’s worth making efforts to advance a more nuanced position. Naturally, I can’t speak for the entire population of atheists. The atheist community is diverse. Some, like me, disavow religious belief because it is contrary to a worldview built around reason and evidence. Faith is a childish epistemology. It can’t be reconciled with science and careful reasoning. Others disdain religion for emotional reasons.

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Tradition and Progress

Some have attributed the resurgence of right-wing populism as a reaction to the abrogation of traditional values. It’s easy to see the truth of this. However, it is not immediately obvious that it is distinctly right-wing phenomenon. Modern conservatism traces its intellectual roots to thinkers like Edmund Burke, who assigned traditional values and norms an important role in the maintenance of social order. Around the same time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was laying down the groundwork for the myth of the noble-savage, romanticizing tribal societies as somehow purer and more natural than those in the intensely hierarchical, increasingly market-oriented West.

In both cases, we see a peculiar reverence for traditional order, just differently construed. For Burke, inter-generational change is worthy of resistance. But for Rousseau, it is Western civilization’s centuries long fall from grace that we ought to eye with suspicion. On the right, you can see these views reflected in elderly men and women who hearken back the idealized simplicity of their childhood or a romanticized picture of the world inhabited by their recent forebears as a model for what society ought to be like. Meanwhile, staunch lefties esteem fantasies about the dietary wisdom and delicate conservationism of indigenous and preindustrial societies. What both views have in common is a fallacious tendency to equate antiquity with efficacy.

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The Proper Route to Progress

Reflecting on my previous post, I wonder if the problem with certain strains of modern progressivism is that people are so eager to live in a society marked by equal access to justice and prosperity that they are willing to take a hazardous shortcut. They want progress to be a guided a process. This, unfortunately, is not the way things work – nor should it be. Limiting speech that doesn’t perfectly mirror our most lofty ideals does not result in progress. It produces a stultified atmosphere in which the safest ideas that appeal to the lowest common denominator – the boring, if admirable, ideas that every moderately intelligent and empathetic person can agree on – are promoted at the expense of ideas that are more risky or transgressive. Yes, we want a more equal and just society, in which people are not persecuted for their sexual preferences or identity, receive equal pay for equal work, and don’t die of preventable causes. But we absolutely cannot build that society in a vacuum of political correctness. Progress, whatever form it takes, must be an emergent product of a free and fair competition among ideas. The surest way to build a better society that is sufficiently resilient is to put our best ideas into the sometimes rotten stew of public discourse and see how they perform. Only after ideas have been vetted against the cold filter of empirical reality, in a world rife with unsavory and ill-informed opinions, will we know how good they really are.