Thursday, September 1, 2011

Comforting Noises and Status Contests

An interesting observation on some of unexpected underpinnings of the atheist movement by Robin Hanson. Emphases mine, and I don't agree with his conclusion, but it's worth thinking about in these terms.

Atheists want to apply relatively uniform standards of interpretation and evaluation across wide ranges of intellectual claims. Such uniform standards should allow intellectuals to draw more reliable inferences combining insights from many diverse topic areas....Religious folks understand that treating their religious claims as crazy would detract from the many complex functions that these claims serve within the complex religious experience. So they would rather apply different intellectual standards to these claims. They’d rather say "Don't take this so literally, don’t be so reductionist; this kind of talk is just different."

Of course defenders of religion also don’t want to say that they are just making comforting noises that have no intellectual meaning; a sense that their words are somewhat like intellectual claims is part of what lets those noises be comforting. And they don’t want to clarify in much detail just what exactly they are saying, in the usual intellectual terms.

It seems to me that religion will handily win this contest for a long time to come. The social support that can be mustered by a few intellectuals hoping for more uniform standards of interpretation and evaluation across diverse topics seems quite weak compared to strong interests others have in the usual complex religious processes. Even if many broad-thinking intellectuals decide to pick a noisy fight over this, most of society will just shrug their shoulders and ignore it. Surely this fact is known to most atheists, so this can’t really be about inducing a social change to a new less objectionable religion substitute. So it is probably mostly about other things, such as status contests within the smaller world of intellectuals.


dbonfitto said...

The short game is stacked against us, so we have to play the long game. Long games are hard.

You kind of skip out on the libertarian first third of that article which sets the stage, in my opinion, for the dim outlook in the middle. I feel like there's a background track whispering, "But what's in it for me?" through the whole rest of the article.

Why are atheists vocal in the face of insurmountable numbers and almost certain short term defeat? Because the vocal ones aren't looking at the political/social situation in 4-year chunks. No social change happens that quickly. Slavery has been out for 150 years and we finally have a black president, but we're a long way from from being done solving race issues.

There is very, very little short term gain in being a vocal atheist. The gains come from shifting the social inertia of the species over towards a progressive, secular, rational vector. Our kids' kids' ... kids' kids get to leave the planet before the sun turns into a red giant instead of wallowing in a long dark age.

Michael Caton said...

I do actually think that over the long haul religion as such as a politically powerful force is doomed. But humans' irrational thought habits that put us in groups and make us do things for bad reasons aren't going away.

dbonfitto said...

Yes, but wouldn't it be nice if those groups weren't given special 'sacred' shelter from criticism, taxes, and responsibility?