Tuesday, May 12, 2015

A secular philosopher on the skeptic/atheist movements

Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements
by Massimo Pigliucci

The Harris-Chomsky exchange, in my mind, summarizes a lot of what I find unpleasant about SAM: a community who worships celebrities who are often intellectual dilettantes, or at the very least have a tendency to talk about things of which they manifestly know very little; an ugly undertone of in-your-face confrontation and I’m-smarter-than-you-because-I-agree-with [insert your favorite New Atheist or equivalent]; loud proclamations about following reason and evidence wherever they may lead, accompanied by a degree of groupthink and unwillingness to change one’s mind that is trumped only by religious fundamentalists; and, lately, a willingness to engage in public shaming and other vicious social networking practices any time someone says something that doesn’t fit our own opinions, all the while of course claiming to protect “free speech” at all costs.
Let me give you some examples and name some names of big boys who can take the criticism and who will keep doing what they have been doing regardless of what I write anyway.
I have already mentioned Harris, who writes about ethics with little acknowledgment (or understanding, or both) of just how complex a topic it is, and how much literature there is out there to engage with. As he infamously wrote in the first footnote of chapter 1 of The Moral Landscape, “Many of my critics fault me for not engaging more directly with the academic literature on moral philosophy … [but] I am convinced that every appearance of terms like ‘metaethics,’ ‘deontology,’ … directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.”  Why are we taking such a brazen display of anti-intellectualism as anything more than a clear mark of an overinflated ego? But far from that, Michael Shermer then builds on Harris’ point (or perhaps simply restates it, at much greater length), coming out with yet another “revolutionary” book about the science of ethics, predicated on an argument that had so many holes in it that I felt a bit embarrassed having to explain them in a public forum a couple of years ago [15].
Then we have Neil deGrasse Tyson. Great science popularizer, but also prone to anti-intellectualism in the form of dismissing an entire field (philosophy) of which he knows nothing at all [16], not to mention his sometimes questionable behavior when it comes to intellectual fairness, as even my colleague (with whom I often disagree) Jerry Coyne has firmly pointed out [17]. That particular episode had to do with yielding to the whims of yet another physicist/anti-intellectualist who has become a darling of SAM: Lawrence Krauss [18].
And speaking of great science popularizers who are very much adored within SAM: Richard Dawkins has actually gone on record as trashing yet another field (besides philosophy) of which he knows nothing, namely, epigenetics: “I am heartily sick of the ‘epigenetics’ bandwagon and almost look forward to the next one, whatever it turns out to be.” [19] Luckily, that so-called “bandwagon” (actually very sound, cutting age biological research) keeps going regardless of Dawkins’ opinion, producing thousands of papers every year and securing tens of millions in funding from evidently profoundly misguided federal agencies. And let’s not go (again) into the exceedingly naive approach to religious criticism that has made Dawkins one of the “four horsemen” of the New Atheism.
One can’t talk about either Dawkins or the Horsemen without at least in passing mentioning Christopher Hitchens, a brilliant polemicist, very funny and caustic writer, who however couldn’t make up his mind about his politics, ranging from Trotskyism to neoconservatism, all the while being universally eulogized by SAM as a genius and a saint (both of which he would have laughed at heartily) when he died [20].
(You may have noticed that the only prominent New Atheist I don’t take to task is Dan Dennett. That’s because I honestly think he is a better intellectual than the rest of them combined, and he also happens to be a genuinely pleasant individual. The fact that moreover he is the only philosopher of the group may or may not be coincidental, we don’t have enough data points to make that judgment.)
Last, but certainly not least (dulcis in fundo, as the Romans used to say) one cannot conclude this parade without mentioning P.Z. Myers, who has risen to fame because of a blog where the level of nastiness (both by the host and by his readers) is rarely matched anywhere else on the Internet, and who has lately discovered (together with a number of others that I don’t need to mention here) both social progressivism and feminism (or perhaps he invented them?), and has immediately proceeded to confuse them, somehow, with tenets of atheism.
I hope others equally worthy will not feel too bad about being left out of the above list. These are just examples of what I think has been an obvious general trend in SAM over the last decade or more.


  1. If I can paraphrase a popular quote: 99% of atheist profs give the rest a bad name.