The musings of a previously unemployed Jewish Freemason. I write about the job search, about Judaism, and about Freemasonry.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Two things about the New Atheism that annoy me

I've been trying to figure out I find so annoying about the New Atheism (a la Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, et al), and I think it boils down to two things. The first is the naive assumption promoted by New Atheism that reason is inherently superior to gnosis, that reason is inherently good and inherently improves the morality of its adherents, and that a profession of the supremacy of reason somehow trumps the irrational stirrings of the Unconscious and Subconscious minds. There is a certain assumption I'm going to label as the Psychoanalytic Assumption, not because it's only found in psychoanalysis, but because it's inherent in the psychoanalytical model of the psyche. The Psychoanalytic Assumption is that humans in their natural state are possessed with irrational neuroses, urges, presuppositions and prejudices, totally irrational and totally out of control of the individual. Consciousness, in this assumption, is a glimmer of sunlight on the surface of a very deep lake, most of which is too deep to receive much sunlight, and depths are stirred by consciousness roughly as much as the sunlight stirs the water.

The New Atheists propose that a profession of the supremacy of reason somehow obliterates the deep irrationality that drives each of us. In the past, there have been those who have made a similar profession who have devoted themselves to the study of logic and its fallacies, with a deep commitment to root out illogical presuppositions in their thoughts and behavior. The New Atheists promote no such study among themselves nor among those whom they would choose to persuade. While some of the authors I have noted above might have made such a study, their followers never claim to. Those in the past who have made such a study have never managed to persuade whole masses of people to initiate a similar study, and a bland profession of "I believe in science and the power of reason over the forces of superstition" does nothing to combat the inner irrationality at the core of each human being.

In the Jewish tradition, there is a model of the human psyche that contains a yetzer ha-ra or evil advisor, and a yetzer ha-tov or good advisor, who battle each other for your soul using your actions as their battlefield. When you compromise your ethical standards, the yetzer ha-ra scores a victory, and when you stick to your ethical standards in the face of temptation, the yetzer ha-tov scores a victory. Total victory for the yetzer ha-ra is a degenerate sinner totally lacking in self-control, dignity, or moral purpose. Total victory for the yetzer ha-tov is a saint, a tzaddik.

In the Christian tradition, one struggles with sin, and uses Christ as a lifeline to be delivered from sin. In Islam, the internal jihad is a lifelong struggle to do good and reject evil (as opposed to the blasphemous interpretation of the word jihad among militants). In Buddhism, one rejects maya and embraces dharma. It is an assumption of mine that this sort of selection process can be done without invoking deity, although in my own practice, I need to have my Deity in the model. In all such models, there is a methodology for coming to terms with the dangerous and irrational stirrings within the soul, and a method for choosing, of one's one free will (with or without Divine assistance) to embrace virtue and reject vice. There is nothing inherently theistic about this model, although those who choose a theistic version often find that adding Deity to their model assists them more than leaving Deity out.

But New Atheists, as far as I'm aware, don't even try to address the lifelong struggle to live a virtuous life. They just assume that evil comes from faith and superstition, and rejecting both, and professing the supremacy of reason is sufficient to lead a virtuous life.

The other thing about New Atheism that annoys me is the blanket assumption that ideology, and all of the toxic things that come with ideology, is only toxic if it comes with a religious core, and that, conversely, all professions of faith are among the most pernicious manifestations of ideology. It is the classic Straw Man argument, where they despise the harm that ideology can cause, but instead of combating ideology, they combat religion, and create a new ideology to do it. Their ideology is just as pernicious as the ideologies they reject. The irony is that by pushing their ideology, they increase the number and toxicity of ideologues in the world. They would do better to recognize that toxic ideology is their enemy, and attack bad ideologies rather than all professions of religion everywhere in the world. Should they insist on limiting themselves to anti-clerical activism, they would be considerably more effective if they were to attack the ideologies within religions, rather than the religions themselves and thereby tarring everyone with the same brush, regardless of how pernicious the ideology of the individual religious adherent.

1 comment:

  1. A third thing that annoys me is how sloppy the reasoning is of many of the New Atheists. For those who claim that Reason is supreme, it does Reason no justice to define Reason prima facie as a rejection of God. Reason is a discipline that requires a lifetime of study and self-control. Being self-righteous about claiming Reason, while committing a dicto simpliciter in the very act of claiming is asinine. If Reason is so sacred, practice it.