The Atheist Evangelist

Punxsutawney Handle 2014 – the groundhog emerges from his hovel of hibernation only briefly to keep his promised appointment and make an appearance for the cameras, and then, upon being filled with a terrifying foreboding by witnessing the spectacle of his own shadow – sign of signs – he slouches back into his dusky den to wait out the last six weeks of winter.

Sam Harris is one of a handful of prominent atheists who have carved out for themselves the latest bit in the old public-intellectual-niche of anti-religion.  He’s got a challenge for you, and if you’re interested in the prize of $2K (guaranteed to go to someone) /$20K (much less likely), then you’ve got a few hours left to submit your own entry.

(AMENDATION: Harris Responds to Haidt (unfortunately selecting a rare example of his changing his views an instance where his beliefs shift in the wrong direction in response to a work of propaganda politicized advocacy, which I think is revealing), and This View of Life gives these four essay submissions, all surprising weak and certainly missing Harris’ point.  Oh well.)

I think answering his challenge ought to be an easy exercise of presenting the many well-known, ancient, and logically air-tight results of countless objective-morality-critical philosophers.

The demonstration is simple.  Any claim, assertion, or statement, moral or otherwise, can be subjected to the inquiry, “Why?”  The question can only be answered in three ways:

  1. As a deduction from other, logically prior claims
  2. I don’t know why, some things just are by necessity.  But it is what we always observe in a way a fair contrarian skeptic could confirm self-persuasively.
  3. Because X Says So.

David Hume’s infamous ‘guillotine‘ is merely the statement that all moral ‘oughts’ can only ever originate in 3 (even if X is yourself) and proceed through 1, but never overlap with 2 (which you could say is whatever forms our current best guess at the fundamental natural and physical laws of the universe.)

But the interesting thing is that while Harris is perfectly familiar with these results, and has had to engage with critics who have repeated them to him ad nauseum, he flatly rejects the validity of those arguments.  The mutually frustrating dialogue proceeds as follows:

H: Human well-being is an empirical phenomenon – a fact deriving from natural 2′s.  We should avoid 3′s because they are unreliable, and anyway, we don’t need them.

C:  Ok, but why should we care about well-being?

H:  What else can rational, objective morality consist of besides concern for the well-being of conscious creatures?  Any other concern can only come from unjustifiable bias or some fictional basis for a 3-like statement.

C:  No, your assertion is just another 3-like statement, with X being Sam Harris.  If a robber asks, “Why should I care about the other guy’s well-being when robbing him improves my own?” your only answer can be, “well, it might hurt his more”, and he’ll ask again, “Why should I care about that”, and in the end the final answer can only be, “Because Sam Harris said so.”

H:  No.  I have no say over the natural fact of well-bring.

C:  Argh! We’re going in circles!  You have to be able to answer why it is moral in a 2-like statement.  It doesn’t matter even if your proposal is the only possible answer to ‘objective morality’.  We can only observe actions and consequences, but we can’t observe your logical leap that we ‘ought’ to be pursuing a certain kind of consequence.

H:  What else can objective morality possibly be about?  If we’re going to have morality, and it’s going to be based on 2-like statements, then my proposed consequence is the only one that makes sense.

C:  And why should we have morality?

H:  Duh!  Because it’s morality, which is good by definition, and I say we should do good.  What are you, some kind of evil person?

C:  I must be.  I want to kill you now, and I don’t think it would be wrong.

So Harris’ challenge now becomes more challenging if you cannot persuasively undermine the very basis of his premises (which tells you a little bit about the difference between proving and convincing).  If there’s still time left then you should give it a shot, and who knows, maybe one of you will win.  I hope so – it would be a bit of an entertaining coup on behalf of our little despised community.  (UPDATE: more submissions than I expected, it turns out)

Anyway, back to Harris.  What is clear is that he genuinely would very much like his own views to become more prevalent and for religious people to abandon their theological beliefs and then convert to his; he’s not just some closet believer cynically playing the part of an atheist in order to win fame and make money.  If he’s a crypto-anything, it is a thing that is hidden also to himself, which is both the most common and also the most powerful kind of human crypto.

“Ironically” (actually not, but that’s another story) Harris shows a lot of evangelical and missionary zeal in his proselytizing.  One can always speculate as to his real, root psychological motivations, where they originate and whether he is aware of them or not, but he embraces the classic anti-religious cover story which is that religion is not merely factually false but that it is on net a force that undermines human happiness and welfare.  There are three general claims the “New Atheists” would make along this line of thinking:

  1. Because humanity does not share one, true, permanent religion (which is inevitable with something as reliably schismatic), the differences in theologies tend to perpetuate and exacerbate our outmoded and suppression-worthy tribal tendencies (indeed, to serve the needs of tribalism in the primitive environment was part of the role religions played), and, yadda yadda [insert logic and evidence here], lots more pointless war and slaughter caused by belief in imaginary myths than would otherwise be the case.  Religion makes us kill each other over nothing, in a way that cannot be resolved by civil debate, and so it is a force for evil.  On the other hand, Science provides us with verifiable, universal truths upon which all humanity could coordinate and live in rationality, peace, and harmony – if only the stubborn clingers would just let go of their pleasant but fraudulent fantasies.
  2. Religions are not even very good at accomplishing the incidental personal and social benefits that they often claim for themselves.  On the individual levels, there are psychological comforts, motivational enhancers, and coping skills.  And at the collective level they provide a societal organizing principle, as well as a stability-enhancing political formula, and there is also the taming of the inborn vacuum of a need for spirituality by filling it with something common (and which leads to reflexive pro-social behavioral tendencies) instead of letting it hallucinate and go berserk in countless varieties.  That is, even if evaluated in a light sympathetic to noble lies, it remains the case that in practice religion tends not to achieve more noble effects for its adherents than would be the case under general belief in Scientific Atheism.  All that religions are really good at, in the end, is making themselves hard to remove from those who are attached to them, and encouraging those adherents to propagate the faith.
  3. Religious people tend to a lot of crazy, wasteful, and harmful things in the name of utterly bizarre notions of ‘the good’.  Their ethical systems cause a lot of needless suffering which is at odds with any common sense view of human flourishing.

Harris’ claim, then, is that the world would be a much better place – not just for him, but that most people would greatly prefer it – if everyone came to believe in the truth he knows.  And that, he claims – and probably also believes -  is why he’s so motivated to play his part to eradicate the nonsense once and for all.  But for some nefarious reason the obstinate idiots just won’t go along!

To Harris – it’s not as if we lack evidence and arguments for Scientific Truth in a way that makes an embarrassing mockery of contradictory religious claims originating in superstition and fabricated fictional mythology.  To him, the verdict has been in – well beyond any reasonable doubt and publicly available – for a very long time: centuries at least.

It’s not as if people lack awareness or that they don’t have cheap, easy access to these facts and arguments in this information age.  It’s not as if these messages aren’t found in the content that permeates their daily lives (at least in all parts of the world sufficiently economically developed to have access to television – which is almost everywhere these days).  Outside the muslim world, it’s not like the State is standing in the way of Harris’ message – quite the contrary.  And the issue is not merely one of inertia and waiting for generational turnover.

So, what’s the problem?  Three things:

  1. Competition: Religious public intellectuals, while admittedly on the defensive against the cultural tide these days, retain a certain degree of influence, even on marginally religious (or “affiliated”) people.  There is always an asymmetric advantage given to the advocate who is arguing in favor of his audience’s existing beliefs and loyalties, especially if it constitutes part of their traditional heritage and self-identity.  Religious intellectuals may be sincere believers, but they are using their cognitive capacity to engage in motivated reasoning and confirmation bias in order to act as committed lawyers to construct the best persuasive case for one particular side of an argument (and one weighing heavily on irrational psychological propensities) instead of as disinterested judges that fairly and rationally weigh all the evidence.  They then transmit this ‘strongest’ case to the members of their audience/jury who are predisposed to embrace and retransmit it, and, anyway, not very good at being either creative lawyers or rational judges.  To honorably combat this asymmetric advantage, New Atheists must go on an offensive (and occasionally militant and obnoxious) crusade to compensate for their disadvantage.
  2. Most people seem to have a religious/spiritual module built-in to their brains by human evolution (though there is clearly some biodiversity in this regard) – they want/need to believe in some magical fairy tale that soothes existential angst and explains everything – and parental encouragement, social conformism, and acculturation provide the desired content ready-made.  ‘Raw’ Science is simply not attractive enough to most people to be emotionally appealing and compelling.  People naturally find the prospect of a meaningless, purposeless, and purely-material existence to be bleak, depressing, or even terrifying.  It’s therefore profoundly hard to make a persuasive case that they should liberate themselves from the pretty lies they’ve allowed themselves to be suckered into believing and overcome their biases in order to embrace the truths they find so ugly and repulsive (this should be a fairly familiar feeling to folks around these parts).  This is especially hard when some people who have embraced the truth confess it makes them feel awful.
  3. Related to 2 is the common belief (or perhaps instinct) that without something like religion and a faithful belief in materially transcendent morality that is both unprovable and denies its own need for proof – or equivalently in a God-like unevaluated ethical evaluator – people will see the logic of moral nihilism and, realizing there is nothing real beyond their own personal preferences, become Machiavellian real-politikers, scheming to maximize their own self-interests in what is bound to be an anti-social manner.  If a poor man finds a rich man’s wallet on the ground and his desire is to keep it – knows that if he keeps it that it will give more pleasure to him than pain to the rich man and also knows he won’t get caught – then why would he ever return it unless he’s been psychologically conditioned to not use his reasoning logically and instead simply believe that he should sacrifice his own interests without justification because ‘it’s just the right thing to do’?  Religion does this, and what’s going to replace it when it’s been eradicated?  Some kind of thought-control apparatus of mass influence?  And who exactly gets to run that?  And why should anyone trust them not to turn into exploitative Machiavellians themselves?

Whatever you think about the merits of 2 and 3, suffice is to say that people like Harris perceive them to be dwindling – yet still successful and so particularly aggravating – sources of remaining psychological resistance to their persuasive goals in the kangaroo court of public opinion.

Countless alternative ethical schemes – rationally reconstructed from plausibly appealing first principles – have been proposed by true geniuses and over many centuries of effort.  But while some have indeed become popular most of their authors were both philosophically sophisticated and honest enough to concede that while these systems may ‘tend to do what we want them to do’, they remained inescapably arbitrary and logically incapable of self-validation.

And while there were brief periods when it was intellectually fashionable to embrace the truth of such arbitrariness (Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche call your office), it never seems to last more than a generation or so before being replaced in one way or another by some new movement propelled by a zealous belief in the objective moral truth of their own new righteous cause.

My view is that, compared with the typical style of the previous generation of writers, current political discourse seems to have regressed into just such a remoralized phase, with such compelling arguments as ‘It’s just wrong!’ becoming increasingly common and brazen with an almost stunning lack of self-awareness or realization of any need for clarification or justification.  Not just, “It is immoral not to follow my policy recommendations because God says so, or according to my preferred system of moral philosophy, with which you may of course differ in a way I cannot possibly prove to be ‘incorrect’” but simply, “It IS immoral.”  Full stop.

UPDATE: Read this latter-day mini-sermon (or this one) for a typical example.

UPDATE2: Now this: “In the blogosphere, is moralizing really that which needs to be raised in relative status?”

As if to prove my point only a week after I made it, the Blog Title has now changed from “Marginal Revolution – Small Steps Towards A Much Better World” to “REVOLUTION -Big Steps Towards A Much, Much More Moral World”.

And not just as a shortcut rhetorical device either – as if everyone understands the implied qualifications – or even as an appeal to the modal sentiments of an ethically homogenous audience, but instead out of a genuine belief that there is such a thing as a God-less objective and rational morality (which there isn’t) and that enlightened geniuses like Rawls have discovered it.   So they feel they can now skip the disclaimer mumbo jumbo and just make unsubstantiated moral assertions – and without even bothering with pondering the moral calculus of hard cases – as if the answer should be obviously real and true for everybody and there is no possible good-faith disagreement on that score.  And we can feel free to do this without shame even if we have a degree in Philosophy from Harvard where the professors taught us that we are certainly in the wrong about all that.  Their immediate predecessors certainly wrote from the amoral frame as if that were the case, but obviously we’ve made moral progress since then.

Explaining the mystery of the remoralization of our political discourse in this increasing non-theistic age, and exploring the consequences, is a project I’ve been working on.

But the contemporary atheist moralists aren’t the only ones to reject moral nihilism in principle (and not merely pragmatically) of course.  One of the cleverest Christian criticisms of moral nihilism is an argument reminiscent of Marxist Historicism and which claims that, regardless of its truth, due to its intellectual-energy-sapping incompatibility with human nature, nihilism is not self-stabilizing as a general popular – or even elite – belief system, that it is only one phase of a repetitive historical cycle and thus merely sets the stage for events which will inevitably lead to destructive horrors.

A metaphor is that nihilism deals with a problematic garden by converting the weed-picker into a plowman who then plows the garden under in a process which exhausts him to the point where he stops caring about either plowing or weed picking.  Then the noxious and invasive weeds move in and take over, but they eventually choke each other’s roots into mutual annihilation, and then out of the composted rubble of the great weed-war, someone rebuilds a new imperfect garden, and so on.

The way we ‘step outside history’ is to manage social discourse in a way such as to make sure nihilist arguments can never make any meaningful progress, especially amongst the intellectual class.  This isn’t too hard because, as mentioned above, nihilism is already very unappealing.  It’s only real appeal is that it is logically coherent, fully consistent with the evidence scientific observation, and the most parsimonious explanation of a world full of injustice and apparently devoid of miracles.

But that’s pretty weak tea for an intellectual who is motivated in part by the adulation his peers tend to grant to bold and brilliant rebellions from the established fairy tales believed by all the idiot chump rubes, from whom they desperately want to distinguish themselves.  You can’t ever breed that tendency away, but perhaps you can tame it if you can distract your intellectuals with a different mechanism by which they can jockey for status – one that always steers clear of anything with a morally nihilistic aspect.

The problem is that if moral nihilism is true, then your intellectuals will be pursuing something false and thus schismatic, and with religious-like moral fervor.  Which … is exactly the problem Harris et al claim to have with religions.  If this actually happened without the participants even realizing it then that would indeed be ironic.  But more worrying is that it will necessarily generate a conflict between empirical reality and moral imperative.

And – as the New Atheists will be the first to tell you – historically, the loser is usually reality.  The result is intellectual and philosophical stagnation in the face of either a futile impotence or an insane counterproductivity at dealing with social problems that can never be solved without breaking down one’s righteous avoidance and turning off the ideology-protecting / ego-defending cognitive filters and being able to stare a piece of ugly and morally-offensive truth straight in the face.  And so they are indeed never solved, and we also never learn.  And this is mostly because this setup make public constructive criticism impossible.  If you try to tell someone they’re incorrect, they’ll just call you immoral and evil and then ignore or persecute you hysterically for offending their fragile sensibilities and breaching the peace.  Seen any of that around lately?

Let us now return to the question of how Harris dealt with the dilemma posed by atheism resistance-generators 2 and 3 above.

The dilemma is this.  He can’t make any progress in terms of public popularity by taking what I’ll call the Heartiste position and saying:

There is no such thing as morality or spirituality or meaning or purpose or soul or afterlife or God or the supernatural or good and evil or right and wrong.  There is no natural law or human rights or anything like that.  These are all just seductive illusions and mental reflexes, the desire and easy-suggestibility for which was implanted in your genes by evolution for reasons that are no longer operative.

You are all just a bunch of emergent phenomena of an enormous complex arrangement of strange quantum things pointlessly interacting in that weird way they do.  That’s it.  Everything else is make-believe which your mind refuses to accept is make-believe with every last bit of its unlimited power for denial.

Sorry if that upsets you, but that’s the truth.  You should stop craving fantasy land and grow up and be an adult and just accept it and cope.  If you need to talk, I’ll be poolside.  We should just be getting whatever pleasure juice we can squeeze out of this big orange called life and by whatever means optimal.  You should hurry up and join me and get started because there’s not as much time left as you may think to extract some safe fun during these last days of the evaporating civilization that made it possible.

Yes, I admit if this belief spread widely – as opposed to being followed by a tolerable number of free-riding sociopath parasites – that it will accelerate our civilization’s demise.  It wont be a happy day when every babysitter is a Woody Allen.  So what?  There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.

I think you can appreciate that this message doesn’t tend to win many hearts and minds, which is what Harris is trying to do.

Another option could be the brutal honesty of moral subjectivity, “This is merely what I, Sam Harris want.  I prefer to live in a world where people feel compelled (and are occasionally coerced) to obey this principle.  It’s not a universal truth, it’s just the truth of my preference.  It’s not any more significant than my preference for chocolate over vanilla ice cream, but it’s still real.”

Again, not very persuasive unless you happen to want what Harris wants.  When’s the last time you verbally convinced someone to change their favorite flavor of ice cream?

The only other option for a moralist Atheist is to contradict the Hume, Leff, and Heartiste positions by means of scientific 2-like statements which any skeptic could verify, and this he cannot do because it is impossible.

Well, the easiest way to end a war is to surrender.  The second easiest way is to stop fighting, declare victory even if you didn’t actually take a single inch of territory, and just pretend you won.  You can hold your triumphal parade to the folks back home who never witnessed the battle.

And this is what Harris has done.  The way to address the questions of morality and spirituality is simply to assert as confidently and unapologetically as possible that there is indeed such a thing as an objective, rational, universal atheist morality (which is something like a natural law of the universe) and that atheists can be ‘spiritual’ too.  Over three years ago, Harris published his “The Moral Landscape” to make the first assertion at length, and in a few months he will release “Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion“.

I don’t know how persuasive these books will turn out to be, but they probably offer some false but genuine comfort to the marginally-loyal atheist who is logically-able and philosophically-sophisticated and who would otherwise be quite bothered by the problems discussed above.  And who do we accuse of dishing out false but genuine comforts – of dispensing opium to the masses?  And now we get self-righteous atheists both as pretty-lies-junkies and as pushers too.  Terrific.

But my assessment is that, so far, Harris is having less success pushing his dope than he had originally hoped for, hence the existence of this publicity stunt essay contest.  It would be hilarious and genius if Harris bought all his press for only one thousand dollars, picks the stupidest submission while claiming it was the ‘best’ (thus enabling the perception which makes all his critics appear even more asinine) and then easily tears it apart.  But I doubt he’s that deviously clever, and I think he’s being completely sincere.

But I don’t detect any ‘trend discontinuity’ of noticeable acceleration in the decline of religious attitudes in the public as a result of Harris’ work – or even all the New Atheists combined.  Of course, it would be silly to expect mere books to accomplish that goal, but that is what the books themselves claim is their purpose.  So why is Harris having any trouble?  The answer, in two words, is ‘Direct Game‘.

And direct game applied to people predisposed to reject your message is usually unsuccessful, often even for the masters.  So maybe what the New Atheists need is a bit more salesman’s subterfuge and indirect game, though that requires a great deal more sophistication and intelligence.

And it is by this path that we come to the so-called Straussians and Neoconservatives.

Paul E. Gottfried has recently published, “Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America“.  (UPDATE: See also Daniel McCarthy’s Review, Gottfried’s Response, and McCarthy’s rejoinder – all excellent), Quick, be like Handle and go buy and read everything Gottfried has published (ok, fine, just the stuff written in English).  Done?  Good.  Well, as you might imagine, the book has come under a great deal of specious criticism from fans of Strauss’ project, and Gottfried recently responded in a post at the impressive “Nomocracy in Politics Site“.

Let me do a great deal of torturous injustice to Gottfried’s work by breaking down the history of the Straussian successful ‘subversion’ of the intellectual commanding heights of the American establishment right; a takeover that was benevolent and enlightened, outright welcomed and invited, or sinister and insidious, depending on your point of view.

  1. Strauss inclined towards the Schopenhauer-Nietzsche tradition early in his philosophic career (see the beginning of ‘the Heartiste position’ above)
  2. Then the Nazis and Soviets, the horrors of WWII, genocide and persecution (for example, of Strauss himself), and the ghastly Communist domination of much of the world’s population.
  3. Which was really, really bad, and promised to get much, much worse with the explosion of technology-enabled state capability.
  4. And, Strauss reasoned, some of that badness can be fairly laid at the feet of the vacuum created by the demise of traditional Christianity and its replacement with alternative sociopolitical-rooted philosophies which, it seemed, were even more likely to go completely berserk in the modern age.  It didn’t matter that they were slightly more in accord with reality than old-time religion, because it is now pretty clear that public truth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, and there are far worse things than spreading noble lies.  Integrity is a value, but so is peace, harmony, and especially, survival.
  5. So what to do?  It’s not like you can (or even want) to bring back old-time religion.  You need something religion-like to take its place which is a more human-friendly societal operating system.  You would need that thing to be positioned against nihilism in general as part of its cultural legacy, and especially its worst excesses of Fascism and Communism, and to possess the actual geopolitical power able to withstand those rivals and crush any potential upstarts.  Because you can’t build it from scratch, you would like to build upon an already existing tradition and just nudge it a little in the direction you’d prefer it to go.
  6. Cut to the chase: It’s America silly – time to grab the reigns of that least worst behemoth.  And that means it’s also time to swallow your pride, suppress your compulsion to tell the truth, and stop making the obvious arguments against the absurdities of democracy, rights, equality, and so on, and instead flatter existing patriotic Americans who love this stuff by doubling down on your extolations.
  7. With two exceptions.  First, that whole ‘isolationism’ thing, the prudent anti-foreign-entanglements view of which was the genuine American tradition that went back to nation’s founding.  Well, you can hardly crush Nazi and Communist nihilists and keep that around, so it’s got to go, replaced with a messianic Palmerstonian interventionism of righteous crusades.  Second, a truly universal civil faith will have to actively divorce itself from it’s particular Christian and Northern-European heritage.  Paleoconservatives who don’t get this will simply have to make way for Neoconservatives.  Or they can be made to make way.  Whatever.
  8. So we get into ‘the uses of history’ clever propaganda territory.  A modernized version of the American classical liberal tradition is now The American Religion (which it has always really been, in truth).
  9. And if anyone tries to criticize you and you can’t silence them, then you can always accuse them of being immoral or unpatriotic.
  10. And, yeah, all this kind of depends on having actual dangerous nihilist enemies to fight.  It would probably all break down and go berserk in its own way if that condition were to disappear.  But it’s not we’re writing a permanent script for all time (though, of course, we have to pretend to be doing exactly that).  It’s just for a generation or so, until the current storm passes.  When it does, hopefully, maybe, people in the future will be able to safely liberate themselves from this concocted, but extremely useful, nonsense – this old and newly-improved secular religion.  But from the point of view of where we stand in the immediate aftermath of the war – the heaps of smoking rubble, mounds of human ash, cold war, and the prospect of nuclear annihilation or Communist domination – (the mugging by reality which has opened the eyes of even those who were once devout Trotskyites) I’ve got to say, I’m willing to take that chance.

And the rest, as they say, is history.  The paleoconservatives got a bad shake from all this, but even they admit that it was worked like a charm – at least in terms of its success in conquering the intellectual right and creating lots of brilliant disciples (some witting, some not) to further the project along. I think even Strauss would be surprised with the way much of this work has shifted from Historians, Philosophers, and Political Theorists to Economists, Journalists, and Foreign-Policy players.

If Sam Harris wants us to follow his own prescriptions for morality and spirituality, then he could definitely learn a thing or two from old Master Leo about how to gradually and stealthily replace an old religion with a new one.

Unfortunately, the Straussian-American religion is now well past its sell date, and the Atheist Evangelist Religion will never be ready for prime-time because it can never overcome its own self-contradictions.  Traditional religion is everywhere on the ropes, and the pool-sides are getting increasingly crowded.  To some of us who have particular preferences, this – and a whole host of many other social issues – looks like a big problem in need of some radically new solutions.  But no one can get anywhere if those solutions can’t get past the firewall that someone implanted in your brain and had the nerve to name ‘morality’ when, in the end, it was nothing more than ‘politics’, which is to say, ‘power’.

Human being are naturally power-seekers, of course, and our brains are made to help us rationalize our selfish motives away in the name of something we can justify as the greater good.  The second most dangerous psychological vulnerability is the tendency for unconscious-hypocrisy to hijack the moral sense and put self-interest firmly in the driver’s seat.  The most dangerous one is the tendency to accept someone’s else’s elucidation of their own power-driven-morality as accurate, driven by the reflexive instinct for morality as an adaptive social coordination mechanism.

The original critical-mass of publically prominent atheists emerging from the enlightenment made exactly this claim in their criticism of old-time religion.  That is was merely a system created (or which perhaps emerged spontaneously) to organize and justify social and political power through thought-control.  And that we wouldn’t be able to make certain kinds of progress unless we liberated our minds from that thought-prison.

Our problem today is just the same because the human mind is made to be institutionalized, and like the old prisoner, can’t handle life on the outside for long.  As we enter a pathetic parody of an increasingly remoralizing phase of our contemporary ‘intellectual’ life, we witness a long line of new wardens.  They all live in their own cozy jails, naturally, and are all in full agreement as to the benefits of mass incarceration – eagerly jousting with each other and salivating over the prospects of the lucrative commissions should the line of new prisoners be persuaded to select their particular cell-block.

The real moral landscape challenge, then, is to recognize the efforts of Sam Harris for what they really are, even if he won’t.  And, of course, and even if propelled by necessity rather than nobility, to summon the courage to face life on the outside.

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24 Responses to The Atheist Evangelist

  1. Pingback: Outside in - Involvements with reality » Blog Archive » Quote notes (#58)

  2. Nick Lanmd says:

    Another masterpiece. One for the ages.

  3. spandrell says:

    Of course most Harris readers don’t know, but the new atheist street utilitarianism has been thoroughly tarnished by the fellas at LessWrong. When you get the harm principle and give it to a smart prog to develop, you necessarily become a vegan, transexual climate scientist arguing that yogurt is evil because bacteria know pain too, and monkeys should be given the right to vote.

  4. peppermint says:

    okay. Taking down smug utilitarians is fun, but as Sir Henry Maine said, that philosophy has resulted in “nothing worse than a certain amount of disappointment”.

    But upholding religion is not a good idea.

    Catholicism is mostly run by beta males and faggots who are willing to put up with celibacy; because during the Middle Ages when the Church could get anyone because it was very high status, the Church didn’t want clerics passing down dioceses hereditarily. The Church is unwilling to recognize the different situation today and allow married priests; they’ll take womanpriests first.

    Protestantism is run by hucksters telling people exactly what they want to hear, because people will seek out a pastor to tell them what they want to hear.

    Current forms of organized religion will not lift a finger to uphold Western civilization.

    I think that historically, the Church was a reaction to the decadence problem with civilization. It is not the only possible reaction; and it is clear that it did not succeed long term. Part of the neoreactionary research program is a theory of decadence, which should lead to either a better religion or some other mechanisms.

    • I am perpetually amused by those who claim that the Church was not a long-term solution. How long of a term do you want? It worked for a good 1,500 years (if we count from Constantine to the 19th century, which seem like good boundary posts), and thought it no longer rules the Western world, it and its ideas have never gone away. Is your plan for civilization going to last for 15 centuries?

      (None of which is to deny that Christendom, as a civilizational programme, is kaput, but that doesn’t remove it from the ranks of the top 2 or 3 civilizations ever.)

      • Handle says:

        You can call it the top civilization ever if you want to. But you’re right, it doesn’t matter; it didn’t survive its clash with the renaissance, reformation, enlightenment and modernity. And modernity isn’t going away, so whatever replaces the Church will have to be able to deal with it in a way the Church couldn’t – or at least didn’t – manage.

  5. Lesser Bull says:

    This whole essay breathes an “ought”–one “ought” to follow the dictates of reason and so on and so on. The ending line is also an “ought”-the author cheats and calls it ‘necessity,’ but in fact there is no actual necessity to disbelieve in morality or follow the dictates of reason, or to reason about metaphysics at all. Nothing makes you.

    Nihilistic writing is almost always self-contradictory.

    • Handle says:

      Sigh, I expected more from you than oblique-hinting-but-cant-bother-to-specify trolling. What part of ‘To some of us who have particular preferences…’ did you not understand?

      Actually you missed quite a bit more, because this essay is neither nihilist in itself nor a proponent thereof. My point is precisely the same as Leff’s, to put the lie to those Atheists who go about pretending they have an ethical system that is both God-less and non-arbitrary like used car salesmen trying to sell lemons. And, it is hardly fetishizing rationality to find some entertainment in showing the self-proclaimed champions of truth and reason to be delusional and irrational swindlers.

      Feel free to try again if you’ve got some particular phrase to nitpick, or better yet, a famous piece of some of that self-contradictory nihilist writing you claimed was so common.

    • Seems like the NR approach is to reject morality in a similar way to which the early Christians rejected gods – that is to say, they were officially regarded as atheists. In blue and orange morality situations, the ‘alien’ moral system when in contact with the ‘normal’ moral system is functionally immoral.

      To exit, one must go outside.

      • Handle says:

        Not exactly.

        First, it’s important to unpack ‘morality’ a bit. There is a spectrum of moral sentiments – some are strong and almost universal reflexive intuitions implanted by genetics – ‘don’t eat your baby’ level stuff. At the other end are extremely malleable, arbitrary, and culturally-conditioned sociopolitical beliefs. The problem is that we tend to feel and experience these notions of right and wrong in the same visceral way, regardless of which part of the spectrum they come from.

        People aren’t able to think about arbitrary morals in the same way they are able to accept the subjectivity of ‘taste’. Morals are about social coordination problems, and so there has to be an instinct, even hypocritical, to ‘extend’ these ‘rules’ (cosmically true for everyone, everywhere, always) – and I think this is the origin of the common inclination (or perhaps easy-suggestibility) towards Universalism.

        Second, it’s not really about the rejection of morals, or blue or orange moral, but the appreciation of a human psychological weakness and vulnerability. Or you could use comp-sci terms and call it an exploit or a hack. If you can get people to accept your politics as something grander than ‘mere’ politics – as enlightened morality and right and wrong – then you can get them to do what you what them to do not through crude coercion but through genuine belief. Indeed, you recruit the new recruiters. I believe there is a self-delusion mechanism whereby intelligent people convince themselves that their political beliefs are in fact morality, which makes them very persuasive proselytizers.

        When Neoreactionaries, for example Foseti, call progressivism a ‘religion’ – this is the kind of phenomenon they are talking about. The deep-seated and genuine emotional attachment to political platforms as if they are cosmically good and anything else is cosmically evil; and that includes all the rigid recalcitrance, emotional hysteria, and social lynch-mob behavior, whenever their core premises or desires are challenged.

        So, recognizing the problem of this mind-hack – that the confusion between politics and morality is one of the great obstacles to philosophical and sociopolitical innovation, NR’s also realize that one has to deal with that problem head on. Moldbug’s strategy was that by calling progressivism out as ‘religious’, and having descended without interruption from genuinely religious ancestors – the Calvinist Puritans; the only group on Earth with a continuous legacy which has not been conquered in 400 years – he could create a red-pill, awakening-epiphany moment in some progressives, and certainly make some people on the right open their eyes and realize the adamantine nature of the beast with which they are contending (and why they keep losing).

        But … for all of Moldbug’s brilliance, this strategy seems – to me at least – to be a failure. Progressives don’t accept it because they can’t. Perhaps it’s too much of a leap, but when even people like Sailer (who should know better), react, “That’s preposterous! Crypto-Puritans? Did you notice all the socialist, atheist Jews on the left with an American-heritage only a generation or two deep? Even as a long shot, there’s just been too much water under the bridge since the colonial period.”

        And, in a way, maybe there has been. Birds descend from dinosaurs, but even though the evolutionary chain of countless links of tiny adaptive mutations is unbroken – to call a goose a crypto-reptile is just too absurd to accept. Or if not absurd, then at the very least not very useful.

        Instead of focusing on the Puritan legacy then, I propose we look at the root cause: the same human exploit that as a disease has infected every generation of Americans from the founding until today – and that is political-moralization. With the collapse of traditional religion, there is a void in the soul, and human nature abhors a vacuum, and so someone is going to fill it, and in our day it has been filled with progressivism. Even if served no other positive purpose, traditional religion is like the King in Chess; it doesn’t do much, but so long as it occupies its space, no other piece can take it. Kill the King, Game Over, you’re the new King.

        But the progressives proclaim themselves to be atheists, yet demonstrate all the attachment to their version of morality as any religious zealot. The error of mistaking arbitrary humanism for cosmic good gets made and remade, over and over, and Harris is just the latest iteration. Guess who’s ‘king’ now? The trick is to get the new king to leave the space he’s occupied.

        So, no, of course, there’s nothing wrong with morality per se. Every society requires some form of pro-social moral conditioning and a narrative to go along with it. Certain morals are intuitive and it would be unwise for any society to set itself up in too much opposition to human nature.

        But there is this awful danger that politics and morals become confused (indeed, that politics become morals themselves). And that is what has happened in our generation.

        The only way to get the new king to give up his space is to make him realize he is nothing but a sham-king. The sham was so good even he fell for it, chump that he is. If you can get rid of sham-king, you can (hopefully) replace him with a multiplicity of genuine Kings, or, who knows, maybe even the King of Kings.

  6. Eris Guy says:

    “creating lots of disciplines (some witting, some not)”

    Should that be “disciples?”

  7. asdf says:

    I don’t have a lot of time on this and will be away awhile.

    Deciding what is morals vs taste is in itself a moral act. If we want an extreme example of this lets go back to Sam Harris in your link:


    I should note in passing, however, that I don’t think the distinction between morality and something like taste is as clear or as categorical as we might suppose. If, for instance, a preference for chocolate ice cream allowed for the most rewarding experience a human being could have, while a preference for vanilla did not, we would deem it morally important to help people overcome any defect in their sense of taste that caused them to prefer vanilla—in the same way that we currently treat people for curable forms of blindness. It seems to me that the boundary between mere aesthetics and moral imperative—the difference between not liking Matisse and not liking the Golden Rule—is more a matter of there being higher stakes, and consequences that reach into the lives of others, than of there being distinct classes of facts regarding the nature of human experience.

    Take that mother fucker. Once we figure out what ice cream flavor is objectively better all these vanilla lovers (probably racists what with their white ice cream lovin) will need to be re-adjusted by the state. Maybe in our glorious eugenic future we can eliminate the scourge of vanilla ice cream loving.

    Contrast that to:
    Here are ten simple commandments. And if you fuck them up I’ll forgive you as long as your genuinely sorry and promise to do better.

    I’m not sure how you make this distinction between morals and taste without reference to God. I also think “moral sentiments – some are strong and almost universal reflexive intuitions implanted by genetics ” isn’t really good enough. Surely you’ve noticed that people can, by habit and effort, alter even these in some pretty perverse and terrible ways. Moreover, man will never be able to regard a random genetic relic as something that he should obey when it requires sacrifice. When morals become mere pro-social conditioning they cease to have any function. They become things people say in public but don’t believe, and they cheat them whenever they get the chance behind closed doors. In fact, people believing in such a thing will probably one day eliminate moral sentiments at a genetic level through eugenics. Can you not imagine the couple in the doctors office, “give the embryo a little more psychopathy, it will help him get ahead.”

    Though this is perhaps not even necessary. It seems to me this all fails the Brave New World test. If morals are mere pro-social conditioning, if the point of it all is happiness/utility, and if we can one day alter the human mind as we would alter the mechanics in a watch, why not the Brave New World? It seems to me that pro-social conditioning became the most important part of that world, its driving force. And people believed it not because it was true, but because they were designed and conditioned that way.

    • Handle says:

      1. Harris’ ‘taste vs. morals’ is different. A moral nihilist would say that, without God or some extra-personal moral-authority that commands respect, individualized morals can only be as significant as mere taste – deriving from personal preference but nothing more compelling.

      But Harris is saying something distinct. He is saying that there is a true, objective morality, but that people can be mistaken as to this, perhaps misled by something like preference or biased and blinded by personal interest. For example, here’s a post of his from two years ago – and apt example on a day like today – about the immorality of burning wood in your fireplace, and the difficulty of convincing people – even ones highly sympathetic to Harris’ viewpoint – of that moral truth when they desperately want to believe wood-fires are good. Harris is saying this taste for wood-fires is immoral and dangerous and should be changed, and the underlying moral judgment that wood-fires are fine is mistaken and ought also to be changed to the correct view (his).

      2. I think most men would grow up with some common instinctive moral sentiments if they were raised in a very primitive state. There is also childhood moral education which occurs during a very suggestible, ‘neuroplastic’ period, and with the added bonus of being reinforced by parents, teachers, priests, community, media, peers, etc. with authority to reward and punish to reinforce those standards. And then there are adult influences and even, for some people, the power of independent reason, reflective contemplation, and introspective insight. You can probably change anything at any stage with enough effort, but the question is how plastic is this particular sentiment / how much effort does it require to alter it? I see a spectrum of instincts, reflexes, and culturally- acquired values varying in a rigidity which itself varies markedly with age and circumstances.

      3. ‘When morals become mere pro-social conditioning they cease to have any function. They become things people say in public but don’t believe, and they cheat them whenever they get the chance behind closed doors’ – I agree. That’s the grand puzzle of ‘Statecraft is Soulcraft’. ‘Morality is a manipulative crock believed only by chumps, I’m going to grab whatever I can’ is not something you want most people to believe.

      There are only a few ways around it.

      (A) Keep the ‘truth’ secret, or perhaps restricted to a certain elite, and ride the wave of your population’s instinct to believe there is in fact one true morality, and just tell people you are giving it to them, pay constant lip-service to it out of a sense of noblesse-oblige, and suppress to whatever extent necessary any boat-rocker trying to say otherwise.

      (B) Get rid of the ‘secret elite’ altogether and find a way or system (by design or evolved discovery) for the sense of the one-true morality to self-sustain and self-propagate with fidelity in subsequent generations, where even the system-managers are convinced of it (i.e. ‘religion’)

      (C) Have a social agreement to make any skepticism of the society’s prevalent system of morality a kind of ‘adult truth’ (like ‘adult films’) that everyone agrees to keep away from the kids, especially the littlest ones, around whom everyone agrees that it’s cruel and socially taboo to not play along – something like a super Santa Claus. The kids learn their moral religion until it is fully ingrained and ‘conditioned’ into them, and it becomes so instinctive and habitual that, even if as adults they lose their faith, they just can’t help falling back into the reflexive patterns and acting in pro-social and moral ways ‘doing the right thing by other people when no one is looking even if you won’t get caught’ out of sheer inertia and lack of social discouragement if nothing else.

      All three of these systems require something like I. Moral Homogeneity, II. Effective suppression of boat-rockers. Which is to say ‘theocracy’ as we usually define it. The point is – we happen to live in one that also denies what it is.

      • Candide III says:

        Trouble is, (A) and (C) are not stable, because true believers are more persuasive and better at following their beliefs. Thus they will tend to outcompete conscious pseudo-believers, first by being better at proselytism, second by claiming higher moral status than the conscious pseudo-believers (hypocrisy being seldom found among the virtues) and third through their greater effectiveness at suppression of boat-rockers. Thus (A) and (C) either evolve into (B) or, if the impetus is insufficient, degrade until some other elite moves to the front stage.

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  9. Hugh says:

    The main problem for Harris comes strong-form Darwinism. Let Dawkins explain: “The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at the bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference . . .DNA neither cares nor knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music” (River Out of Eden, 133).

    I am not a believer in this form of Darwinism, but I consider it an insuperable hurdle for new atheists looking for a new morality.

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  11. James G says:

    From that Woody Allen link:

    And what is reality? That “at best the universe is indifferent” to our lives and our various ways of construing right and wrong. This indifference is so awful that many of us feel driven to “create a fake world for ourselves, and we exist within that fake world.”

    On a lesser level you see it in sports. They create a world of football, for example. You get lost in that world and you care about meaningless things… People by the thousands watch it, thinking it’s very important who wins. But, in fact, if you step back for a second, it’s utterly unimportant who wins. It means nothing. In the same way we create for ourselves a world that, in fact, means nothing at all, when you step back. It’s meaningless.

    This is true of Woody Allen himself; he isn’t an efficient nihilist. Woody is a progressive with a chaotic personal life. He made some good screwball comedy until he got embarrassed and started to make boring pseudo-art films, and when he compares himself to Fellini he is falsely modest. The neurotic characters in “Annie Hall” and Manhattan, with their wild flings, are based closely on Allen’s real social milieu.

    I find Tarkovsky’s “Solaris” to be a good depiction of the nihilist psychology that is mandatory for everyone who thinks about society–whether accurate and benevolent or not–without comforting phantasms. Many of these people have their contained, inner depravity, which they cannot finally dispose of without becoming insane; but unlike Woody Allen and his creations, I think Sartorius reasons within the real world. I would prefer my babysitter not to have visited the space station, but someone has to.

  12. Dan says:

    Old time religion is still the only game in town. Just look at the resurgence of old time religion in Russia, in Eastern Europe, in China where Communism supposedly cleared out the vestiges of primitive religion by eliminating everyone who was religious, by teaching kids that religion is an opiate from an early age. With the resurgence of religion in most places not part of the West, it is likely that globally the world is more religious than it was a generation ago.

    I find this post and thread to be completely Aspergery. It misses the number one point of religion: dealing with suffering and loss and death. We have family friends whose handsome and promising son, age 17 was struck by a car on his bicycle two weeks ago. He is paralyzed from the neck down, he hasn’t yet emerged from his coma, and his prognosis, if he lives, is obviously very poor.

    The church community has been amazing in uplifting the family and giving them hope and the promise that there is much more to their John than his body and that whatever happens he (John) will be okay where it count.

    When the rubber hit the road, that is, when tragedy strikes or someone dies, atheism is just a zero. It has nothing to offer. The account hasn’t got within it so much as a single penny.

    If our friends were atheists, they would be destroyed, and might have a hard time ever recovering from this. Or they would become religious. As it is, they are well on the road to emotional recovery and wholeness.

    • Pierre Habumuremyi says:

      And yet, it’s not necessarily the case that religion is comforting in that situation.

      Imagine if you will that the son had succumbed to social pressure and joined the fedora set instead of the church. And imagine that he died in the accident.

      His parents would be doubly devastated. Not only is he dead, he’s burning in hell because of his failure to accept so and so as his personal savior. In this all too common situation, religion has made the parent’s grief worse.

      By contrast, atheism offers a comforting narrative of the afterlife, no matter how wayward your son may be. His suffering is over and he will finally know peace. No worrying about the fate of his soul for years. If anything, the atheist conception of the afterlife is a little bit too comforting.

      Regardless, I’m not aware of any stats indicating that atheists are more likely than theists to fail to get over their grief after an appropriate time and go on with their lives. And we see that many religions do not offer a particularly comforting narrative of what happens to the dead. Grief seems to be a very baseline, animal level emotion, I’m not sure if it responds to the stories we tell ourselves.

      Instead, I’d look to motivation as the key factor. One of the principles of the Dark Enlightenment is that our brains don’t work as well as we think they do. We’re not really rational. But even if we were, the trade offs involved in following an optimal evolutionary strategy are iffy. The closer you push to your optimum number of kids in terms of reproductive fitness, the more suffering you’ll need to endure and the more difficult your life will be. Sure, kids are fun, but you can get the idea after two or three, pushing on to eight borders on the masochistic, even if you can technically support that many and find them places where they’ll be able to have kids of their own. Doubly true in the days of high infant mortality and Malthusian conditions. But from the point of view of reproductive fitness, you really should go for eight if you can afford it.

      Religiosity is correlated with greater fertility.

      “Compared to non-religious women, who intend two children on average, women for whom religion is somewhat important intend 0.31 additional children and women for whom religion is very important in daily life intend 0.69 additional children.”

      The advantage for the religious hominids is quite significant (far more than most beneficial mutations) and it operates exponentially as religiosity shows significant heritability.

      As our brains got more powerful, hominids eventually evolved a weakness that plagues us to the current day: not really caring if we optimize our evolutionary success. Doing alright tends to be good enough for most of us, if left to our own devices. Some of us don’t even care about it at all.

      But religious memes give us a push, added motivation to behave in a manner which is closer to the optimum from an evolutionary point of view, even though it makes us less comfortable. Perhaps you’re worried about “the next life”, but evolution is more concerned about the next life…ie: the next generation which is .69 kids larger than that of the competition.

      High IQ non-religious hominids appear to be an evolutionary dead end, unless an equivalent meme arises that can dramatically alter their behavior towards the evolutionary optimum.

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