Tuesday, March 18, 2008

What's wrong with the new atheism

Great analysis of Dawkins, Hitchins et al a couple of days ago in the Guardian by John Gray. It's quite long, but worth a read. Here's a snippet:

The problem with the secular narrative is not that it assumes progress is inevitable (in many versions, it does not). It is the belief that the sort of advance that has been achieved in science can be reproduced in ethics and politics. In fact, while scientific knowledge increases cumulatively, nothing of the kind happens in society. Slavery was abolished in much of the world during the 19th century, but it returned on a vast scale in nazism and communism, and still exists today. Torture was prohibited in international conventions after the second world war, only to be adopted as an instrument of policy by the world's pre-eminent liberal regime at the beginning of the 21st century. Wealth has increased, but it has been repeatedly destroyed in wars and revolutions. People live longer and kill one another in larger numbers. Knowledge grows, but human beings remain much the same.

HT Jonny Baker


  1. A comment came in from the ominpresent 'anonymous' addressed to Samuel Skinner. Since I'm not he, and it seemed to belong to a different argument, I've deleted it. If you are 'anonymous' and you wanted to comment, please have another go.

  2. No, I am Samuel Skinner!

    I put my name under anonymous so that I can have conversations. Why don't I use something else? I'm not very tech proficient.

    For the record the end result of your argument is that society doesn't imporve over time. However they obviously get do, so you are wrong. Evidence- longer life expectancy (including war) and less wars. There is more, but it is a pathetically stupid argument. Obviously societies differ in the same time period- the Nazis and the Allies are a good example (we were much better- we didn't rape, pillage and exterminate). Why is itsuch a leap to follow that through time? What about civil rights? What about pennicillian?

  3. Sorry Samuel! Mislaid my brain.

    The point Gray is making is that of course societies improve scientifically and technically - hence penicillin and life expectancy - but moral and ethical improvements don't follow an evolutionary graph. As Gray says, slavery, war etc. don't fade out of history and disappear, they keep cropping up.

    Civil rights are an encouraging counter-trend, and yes I would much rather be living in the UK now than at any other time in history, though most of that is because we have stuff like central heating and televised cricket. Other Christian apologists might point out that modern science and civil rights have both arisen against the backdrop of the Christian culture in Europe, and have in their genealogy a Christian understanding of people created equal in God's image, and a good world ordered by God and put under human stewardship.

    I also wonder how you scientifically prove that people are getting better, and evolving? Given that physical evolution takes so long, how can we hope to have a sensible time frame to drawn any conclusions about moral evolution?

  4. Samuel Skinner
    Actually the rate for wars and murders is decreasing. Slavery is a tough one because of scaling for population, and the fact its underground now, but it is reasonable to assume it is as bad now as any other time in history.
    Civil rights is something that has definately improved, as well as human rights. Take a look at more tribal and primative cultures- people have little to no rights. We are definately freer. For example I was researching the Mossi and they have to have permission to move! In soviet russia home moves YOU!

    Trust me, Christianity isn't responsible for the improvement in morality. The best counter example is the fact that the church tended to be on both sides of every moral debate. Indian eradication, slavery, abortion, women's sufferage... you had christians on both sides using the bible to justify their positions.

    Not to mention that Greeks and Romans managed to improve some with Judeo-Christian ideals (although to be fair abolishing slavery and replacing in with serfdom- at least in Europe appears to have been due to the Church).

    As for people evolving... well, there is significantly less selection pressure on humans now, so we are experiencing less natural selectiona and more genetic drift. Or to be more precise, humans aren't much different than they were ten milenia ago and they won't be much different in the future- barring gene engineering (first on the list- being able to make vitamin C).

    Moral evolution is different from physical evolution- the civil rights movement is a great example. The time it would take for white and black people to blend is many, many generations (there would be holdouts- especially with social bans). The time for social change was 100 years since the end of slavery. So you can observe moral progress- just look at the Gay rights movement or the attempts to improve the third world and end barbaric tribal practices.

  5. Samuel

    I don't really know enough about tribal culture, though I guess you have to take any culture as a package. We have more rights and more money, but higher rates of depression and family breakdown, so there's probably a trade-off in most societies. Quite a few Iraqis are working that through at the moment.

    My question would be whether moral progress is simply progress, or is it evolution? To call it 'evolution' puts it under the label of a grand historical process which has been going for billions of years. Or is evolution a metaphor which we use for 'progress to something better'. And to come back to John Gray, if it is evolution, then does that mean that moral progress is inevitable?

    It's also difficult to take a biological theory developed by studying millions of years of history, and then applying it to real time. Even the last 2000 years are a drop in the ocean, and if the human species blows itself off the face of the planet (still a possible scenario) then the verdict of history will be a different one. It all depends when you take the snapshot.

  6. Tribal culture is like the Israeli's in the bible, but worse. In fact some people believe the reason organize religion developed was to prevent unrelated people from killing each other.

    Progress. Evolution is a blind undirected force. Moral progress isn't inevitable, just favored- it works better than the alternatives. For example, democracy spread because it drives out despotism, and emancipation spread for the same reason. Caring for foreigners doesn't have the same imputus and is thus rarer.