11 May 2011

The Positivist Evil: Another leftist attack on atheism

Does anyone else have the impression that there's been more hostility toward the "militant atheists" over the past decade on the "left" than on the "right." You wouldn't think it'd work out that way, but I expect that the "religious" part of the "right" especially just takes atheists and their inevitable damnation for granted, or at least sees the current wave of atheist best-sellers as nothing new under the sun. They survived H. L. Mencken, after all, and in his day Mencken probably had more cultural influence than Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens combined today. But 21st century atheism really seems to scandalize a lot of people who otherwise think of themselves as "progressives," including the American historian Jackson Lears. He graces the current Nation with a vast polemic against Sam Harris. In this, Lears teaches us that Harris and his atheist ilk are guilty of the sin of positivism. "More a habit of mind than a rigorous philosophy, positivism depends on the reductionist belief that the entire universe, including all human conduct, can be explained with reference to precisely measurable, deterministic physical processes," Lears explains. This sort of positivism (there are others, Lears clarifies) was in vogue about 100 years ago, a period Lears regards as a dark age of American history. By extension, the neo-positivism of 21st century atheism, in the reviewer's view, is intellectual kin to social darwinism, imperialism and totalitarianism. It's also related by marriage to American neoconservatism, wedded by common enmity to Islamism, and that seems to be almost enough to damn atheism in Lears's eyes. In his view, the enemy of your enemy must be your friend; therefore Harris, as an open Islamophobe, is in a state of "comfortable cohabitation with imperial power."

Lears is only implicitly an apologist for religion. He does not attempt here a defense of faith or theology, except to take the by-now standard line that most believers aren't the literalist yahoos atheists assume them to be. Here's a sample:

[Harris's] critique of religion is a stew of sophomoric simplifications: he reduces all belief to a fundamentalist interpretation of sacred texts, projecting his literalism and simple-mindedness onto believers whose faith may foster an epistemology far more subtle than his positivist convictions. Belief in scriptural inerrancy is Harris’s only criterion for true religious faith. This eliminates a wide range of religious experience, from pain and guilt to the exaltation of communal worship, the ecstasy of mystical union with the cosmos and the ambivalent coexistence of faith and doubt.

On the specific question of Islam, Lears is at pains to absolve Islam of responsibility for Islamism, which he sees as the misguided expression of legitimate grievances against imperialism and oppressive governments. "Radical Islam often provides an idiom for their anger, but its centrality has been exaggerated," Lears insists. Likewise, he absolves Christianity of responsibility for the Christian Right, portraying the American movement as "the work of seasoned political players" designed to distract voters from "issues of justice and equality" and make the land safe for plutocrats. This sort of analysis shouldn't be dismissed automatically, but it should be applied universally. Lears wants to give Christianity and religion in general credit for progressive movements in American history, from the abolition of slavery to the resistance against the Vietnam war, but he can't give religion an amount of credit for good things equal to the amount of blame he refuses to assign to religion for the bad things. But it's been part of the left attack on atheism to argue that faith gives people hope, on the assumption that a more godless public will be a more hopeless public, and presumably more passive, selfish, etc. as well. This argument is often made by people who aren't especially religious themselves, and there's a note of condescension in it, an acknowledgment of the need for a "noble lie" to motivate the masses, as opposed to the enlightened elite.

What seems to irk Lears the most about Harris and the other atheists is their alleged "absolutist cast of mind," their oppressive "longing for clarity and certainty," and Harris's particular disdain for "relativism." Lears is an unrepentant postmodernist, affirming "the provisionality of scientific truth" and even, however carefully stated, the social construction of reality. Assertive certitude is not merely offensive to Lears; it's downright oppressive, not to mention, insofar as it rejects relativism, "perfectly consistent with the aims of the national security state." While the libertarian and many to his right cry, "Don't tell me what to do!" the postmodernist and many to his left cry "Don't tell that poor animist tribal person what to do!" Both sides share a visceral hostility to the idea that verifiable expertise might actually compel some degree of deference or emulation from others, or even that there are some questions so indisputably settled that further debate can only be counterproductive. They seek meaning from life either on exclusively individual terms or through a democratic consensus independent of if not hostile to objective considerations. The idea of objectivity itself is widely suspect in our age of bad faith. Lears's attack on Harris is an exemplary text of bad faith, ironically written in defense of "good" faith. I might agree with Lears on many "progressive" secular issues, foreign and domestic, but I'm left wondering whether Lears is really progressive at all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So, rather than tell the dirtclods "what to do", we should simply allow them, in their greed, selfishness and ignorance, to continue the cycle of pollution, exploitation, violence and war after war after war? NO! If a child is playing with matches, you, as an adult, are quite within your rights to slap his hand, take those matches away and say "no". It has nothing to do with "totalitarianism" anymore than a good parent is a dictator.

As an atheist and a socialist I have never claimed to have "all the answers". What I do claim is that it is quite apparent that religion has none of the answers. In the roughly 2,000 years of its existence, Christianity has not been able to end poverty, disease, suffering, war, etc. In fact it has only added to the problem, as have both Islam and Judaism.
Religion may give the dirtclods "hope", but it is the same "hope" the heroin addict feels when injecting a fix. It may make you feel better for the moment, but it does not make your life any better in any real sense.