Light: An essay on third wave atheism

I wrote a long facebook post yesterday that got a lot of positive feedback, so I’ve edited and fleshed it out into a fuller essay, on the history of atheism, as I understand it, and some thoughts about the future. I gave it a title, “Light.” Here it is:

Today I rise to a young spring morning, the air both cool and bright — the world somehow at odds with itself. The view from my window is clearer than it has been for some time, and as I brew myself a pot of coffee and listen to the birds, my mind slowly comes online. I find myself wondering about my beliefs — or, rather, my lack of a particular belief. Today, I am thinking about how I can best not believe in God.

Atheism — like feminism, anti-racism, socialism, and all other liberatory philosophical/political/social movements — travels through history in waves. The first wave in the West was championed perhaps most strongly by the late 19th century German scholar, critic, and philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche. A search through Western history for “mad geniuses” would reliably turn up Nietzsche’s crusty, hirsute visage; after revolutionizing and revitalizing ethics, epistemology, and metaphysics — all three major branches of Western philosophy — he succumbed later in life to torturous and debilitating mental illness. But Nietzsche’s work permanently reoriented Western thought. The moody German’s famous proclamation, “God is dead,” turned out to be not so much a claim or a description, but a marching order, as generations of thinkers, from Anglophone authors like Aldous Huxley and Bertrand Russell to French intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre and Michel Foucault and feminists like Simone de Beauvoir, carried out a meticulous, systematic assassination of the traditional conception of God. Nietzsche’s project of “transvaluation of all values” — that, rather than prioritize and cherish false ideals of rationality or the divine, we should find the root of all value in the murky, complex, actual world in which we find ourselves; that, rather than live for the promise of eternity, we should live as if our every conscious moment would eternally recur; in other words, that we should exalt life, not death — was thus something of a theological atomic bomb, obliterating centuries-old moral truisms and devastating millennia-long modes of thought in a tidal wake that rushed outward along every line of thought for nearly 200 years, unabated. And while theology has since regrouped and rebuilt around the damage, the landscape has been transformed. It’s no coincidence that, for most of the history of Western philosophy, almost every philosopher was a theist, of one sort or another, and that now, less than 15% describe themselves as such. Conversely, as of 2014, over three quarters of professional philosophers, worldwide, are atheists.

mushroomcloud

If the first wave of atheism resulted from a sort of explosive intellectual annihilation, the second wave emanated from carnage and devastation somewhat more literal: the miles-high dust cloud, visible from space, was still settling in lower Manhattan, around approximately 3,000 bodies and two tangled masses of twisted steel, when philosopher and writer Sam Harris began work on “The End of Faith.” Published in 2004, Harris’s manifesto opened the gates for a flood of “New Atheist” writings that sparked and stoked a heated dialogue over the role of religion in modern, public life. Harris, followed closely by biologist Richard Dawkins and writer Christopher Hitchens, had nothing particularly novel to offer, philosophically, but this second wave of atheism was not a philosophical movement; it was social. These and other authors sold best-selling books written at a high school level that pulled no punches in laying out a basic point: religion was, more often than not — or often enough — a force for evil, not enlightenment. These “Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” as the national press dubbed them, marshaled incontrovertible evidence that, from funeral protesters to suicide bombers, ordinary people could be made to do extraordinarily heinous, reprehensible things they would never otherwise do by offering false promises of eternal rewards (or threats of unending torture) in a world that is separate from and better than the real one. Harris characterized faith as “belief without sufficient evidence.” Hitchens called Yahweh a “cosmic dictator.” They blasted religion as “dangerous bullshit,” and millions of Americans said, “damn right.” And their words had an impact. There are now hundreds of highly active college and community non-religious groups in every state in the country (I helped organize such a group at the University of Alabama), and proud, outspoken non-believers occupy almost every position in our society. More and more people are discovering that “none at all” is a perfectly acceptable faith. Billboards have popped up, encouraging people to “Skip church, and just be good for goodness’ sake.” The president of American Atheists, an organization that has existed since 1963 and is devoted to “fighting for the civil liberties of atheists and the total, absolute separation of government and religion,” is routinely invited on cable news talk shows, and thousands attend the group’s annual convention. Red-state Satanists brazenly delight in political tricks and mischief, calling out our continued, unconstitutional preference for Christian culture in the public sphere. And this year, for the first time in my life, we have a serious contender for President who makes no attempt to pander to theocrats, telling applauding crowds that his “spirituality” is about “people helping each other” — and so far no one has batted an eye. For these reasons, people of all beliefs should thank the second wave atheists for advancing the cause of religious freedom in this country. They expanded the social space, and one need not agree with the ends of their labor to enjoy its fruits.

But the second wave has crested. The reality of American imperialism, anti-Arab racism, and Islamophobia complicates the narrative and compromises the position of wealthy white Western men telling us that religion is the sole source of our worldly woes (and specifically the religion of those brown people whose region we have, for lack of a more apt, appropriately brutal term, raped). Second wave atheism was a vital rising up against an oppressive social paradigm, but it becomes harder — untenable — to argue that professional blowhards like comedian Bill Maher (a second wave-riding, derivative, inconsequential charlatan of the most refined vintage) are “punching up” anymore, as Mosques are burned and women in hijabs harassed, as college students are gunned down in their own homes, and as Obama’s drones routinely murder the innocent and teach young children, a world away, to fear the sky. Yes, the second wave atheists offered a necessary critique of the world. But the world has replied, and the conversation continues to evolve.

So, what’s the third wave? Like every social movement today, from the push for climate justice to calls to address LGBT youth homelessness, the latest iteration of atheism must be intersectional. (If you don’t know what intersectionality is, open a Richard Dawkins book to any page to find an example of what it isn’t.) Intersectionality seeks to understand phenomena in the appropriate and relevant context and is wary of reductive, simplistic solutions for complex problems. For instance, it’s sloppy, indefensible thinking to talk about the violence commanded in the Quran without mentioning the blood-soaked Torah. It’s naive — and, to take a page out of the second wave playbook, dangerous — to invoke the West’s centuries-long secularist project of moderating and mitigating scriptural violence while ignoring our even longer-standing project of colonizing the world, seizing capital, and enslaving and subjugating peoples. Is there any doubt that Sean Hannity and Mike Huckabee would be rigging car bombs right now if world history were flipped? Our religious liberalism is a direct function of our history of power; the Enlightenment cannot be neatly partitioned off from Colonialism. So we can only congratulate ourselves for being the biggest monkey, not the most sophisticated theologians or most tolerant, rational people, in the room. I’m not rushing to pat myself on my big hairy back over that.

Third wave atheism need not back down, philosophically. Nietzsche is still right. Darwinism is still true. The 9/11 hijackers really did believe in jihad and paradise — as they understood the terms — and wouldn’t have acted as they did otherwise. And as the fight for marriage equality shamefully drags on in some corners of the country, a shocking percentage of American Christians and the Lord they worship really do, still, “hate fags.” But we must condemn the eliminativist — frankly, exterminist — tenor, historical naivety, and self-satisfied snark that saturates every sentence of second wave polemics. I recall seeing Sam Harris say onstage, some time ago, that the best single change that could occur in the world would be for Islam to disappear. That’s a shocking and deeply concerning sentiment. Contrary to Harris’ and other second wavers’ assertions that religion is reducible to a set of claims and commandments, Islam is in fact a central component of the lives of human beings — 1.6 billion of them — a strand woven into the deepest core of a person, not some after-the-fact abstract add-on. Islam, simply put, is not separable from Muslims. In fact, substitute the word “Muslims” for “Islam” and then read Harris’s plan for global betterment again. And then go take a cold shower. The idea that an entire religion — its texts, its traditions, its people, its art — could or should somehow be made to “disappear” displays stunning and perhaps willful ignorance of the entanglement of individual personhood, social systems, and meaning. The insistence that theological conceptions can be neatly skimmed off the top of a churning cultural milieu is naive and unserious. And while Harris has more recently made more effort to acknowledge other factors that drive human behavior, and his most recent book, a dialogue with author and activist Maajid Nawaz, seems to moderate some of his earlier, peak second wave sentiments,  his enduring prioritization of religious belief, above all else, seems to give short shrift to myriad other deep structural forces — like ecological forces, economic forces, geopolitical forces — that manage knowledge, motivate behavior, and sometimes, in crisis, give rise to violence. Yes, jihad can be a problematic concept, just like heaven, or hell, or any other theological notion that invokes a supernatural realm and prioritizes it over the real world, but history has shown that humans, driven to violence, tend to reach for whatever tools are handy, like, for instance, secular political concepts that invoke utopian futures or pristine pasts or ideal order. The twentieth century saw its share of violence done in the name of the State. There are many ways to look when we turn our backs on the real.

mosqueceiling

Second wave atheists argued that religion, simply, is the problem, thus implying that the solution is, simply, to burn it down. But what would be lost in the blaze? Some of the most stunning art I have witnessed (only in pictures, and I hope I’m lucky enough to one day see these in person) are the mesmerizing mosaics in the geometrically vaunted ceilings in the ancient Mosques of Iran and Pakistan. What would my musical world be without the Cantatas and Fugues of that Lutheran Kapellmeister from Leipzig, J.S. Bach? Yes, Protestant thought was deployed to justify American slavery, but it’s also constituted the communal hymn sung in time with every step on the long walk to freedom. And what of the countless millions of people who have reached out — perhaps past intellectual justification — grasped for hope and found it, in private moments of otherwise insurmountable darkness, desperation, and despair? I’m unwilling to throw these immaculate babes out with the bathwater, no matter how rancid. I was a card carrying second wave atheist my entire adult, thinking life, but I, and many like me, have moved on. We are no longer interested in erasing the real beauty that has not only been funded but inspired, deeply, by a profound faith, even as we cannot countenance the philosophical foundations of that faith. We can’t argue against hope — genuine, life-sustaining hope — in any of its forms. We shouldn’t tolerate arguments that don’t acknowledge the undeniable truth that religion, for better and worse, is an institutional expression of deep, indelible needs of the fragile and hopeful human heart. Atheists today should focus on reform, not elimination. We should work to decouple all that is good, beautiful, and important, even necessary, in religious traditions from wretched Iron Age myth, outmoded anti-modern philosophy, and rank, manifest misogyny. Can’t we all agree on that?

Third wave atheists recognize that, while God is an unacceptable answer, pressing questions still remain. The Cosmic King was shackled and sent to the guillotine, but his throne still sits empty, waiting to be filled. We need third wave atheism and a sophisticated, modern theism to meet, not in the middle but on the other shore (so to speak), as a sort of ecological humanism. We need not only a theology that takes the objective world seriously but also a philosophical materialism that takes the subjective world seriously. We need to live in the wide space between the false poles of Fact and Value until we cultivate a new and fertile center. We need a spiritual practice that acknowledges — celebrates — Darwin’s insights and all their implications: that we are brothers and sisters of all life; that we have no special claim to transcendence; that our fate is forever entwined with the fabric of all that is real. We still do not understand how consciousness — qualitative, subjective awareness, that greatest of mysteries — can possibly arise in an unconscious, physical world. It remains unclear whether human agency, free will, is real and meaningful. I wonder whether — and how — one can ever truly justify existence, which seems to necessitate in every instance occupying space, seizing control, and exerting power. I want to learn how to let go, accept death, and embrace life.

Our time is genuinely urgent. From renewed nuclear stockpiling to the spiralling climate crisis, humanity has never before faced a more serious existential threat: ourselves. Our technologies (nuclear weapons, fossil fuels) and institutions (nation states, corporations) are to blame, but they are driven, at bottom, by our beliefs, and a profound reassessment of humanity’s place in the world is our only hope and prospect for designing a just, sustainable future. Theists and atheists must call a ceasefire in our contemporary intellectual culture war and affirm our common material and spiritual needs. We must recognize ourselves as neighbors and friends on an unlikely, tiny, “pale, blue dot,” as astronomer Carl Sagan movingly described our planet, “suspended in a sunbeam… the only home we’ve ever known.” Our resources are finite; may our imagination, creativity, and empathy never be. For the Universe so loved the Earth, It gave us our one and only Sun. May we live, together, in Light.

earthrise

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I have too many things going on right now…

Team!

It’s been a while. Things are good? Perfect.

At your leisure, please check out this new blog to which I will be a regular contributor. It’s called The Fly Bottle, and I’m writing it with my friend and co-conspirator, Sam Arnold. I wrote the most recent column, which is about brainless chickens. Intended audience is brainy humans.

Sloan out.

“Is God?” – The Problem of Evil

Greetings, friends, enemies, and ambivalent subscribers!

Please enjoy the latest upload from the recent “Beer and Difficult Music” concert, my musical take on David Hume’s “The Problem of Evil.”

Words about the music:

The Problem of Evil was composed in fall 2010. The text for the work is taken from Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, in which he paraphrases Ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus’ original statement of the oldest and strongest argument against the existence of a theistic God.

Hume writes:

“Is God willing to prevent evil but not able?
Then He is impotent.

Is He able but not willing?
Then He is malevolent.

Is He both able and willing?
Whence then is evil?

Is He neither able nor willing?
Then why call Him ‘God’?”

The form of the music is supportive of the form of the text, divided into four parallel sections. The first three sections begin with a piano ostinato of six notes, pre-figuring the vocal melody, while the fourth begins with a condensed chordal presentation of the same material. Each ostinato (and thus each vocal phrase) begins with a rising perfect fifth, which I hear as a yearning motive befitting the profound questioning of the text. The vocal melody in section one is reminiscent of early church modes, but, just as Epicurus slowly spins his syllogism, so does the music unravel and dissolve into less stable places. The piece ends with a deconstruction of the ostinato material, ending quietly with the familiar rising fifth motive ringing and important questions unanswered.

Over 9,000 thanks to Perry Davis Harper (tenor), Alex Volobuev (violin), Johnny Moc (cello), Rose McDowell (flute), Brad Baker (piano), Eric Scott (sound), Joe Parmer (event hosting, filming), and Colin Brogan (filming, editing). What a team!

Joe Paterno, and the moral vs. the legal

The Daily Beast publishes a compelling personal case that Joe Paterno should incur legal ramifications for his involvement with the child abuse scandal recently in the news (“Joe Paterno Should Rot In Jail”).

Final two paragraphs:

I am amazed and sickened, but not surprised, at the support for Paterno. People seem to care more about the fact that he coached a team for X years and scored Y number of wins. Who cares if a few boys had their lives ruined because he didn’t have enough character to say “Jerry, sit down. I heard you had some type of sexual encounter with a child in our showers. The police are on their way, and I will testify about what I have been told. I hope you rot in prison.”

That is what he should have done. Instead, he “met his legal obligation” and kept winning football games. Because isn’t that what’s important?

I haven’t been following this carefully, but I’m under the impression that the Paterno camp is arguing that he met his “legal obligation” in reporting the behavior to his superior. The author here is suggesting that he’s still a disgusting creep for not having done more (I agree) and that he should therefore be punished legally (I disagree).

I am not saying I don’t agree that the scenario described in the penultimate paragraph isn’t preferable. I am saying that if you are asking for legal ramifications, there should have been a breach in the *law*.

Free will libertarianism in Obama email

As a philosophy major, I am deeply troubled when I come across such disregard for the literature. What follows is my response to an email from the Obama campaign received today, and below that the email itself.

——–

Hello “Info,”

I am generally strongly in favor of your mailings and read them with zeal. Further, I campaigned for Obama in 2008 and intend to vote for him next November. However, I have major reservations regarding the content of this recent mailing. My difficulties are not political or tactical, but rather philosophical. Let me elaborate.

In your mailing, you present an argument that, upon analysis, works like this:

1) A mathematical model has been published in a reputable newspaper suggesting Obama will not win the coming election.

2) The reliability of predictive models depends upon a deterministic universe in which each state causally necessitates one and only one proceeding state.

3) We do not like the results of the model.

4) Therefore, we live in an indeterministic universe and the model is unreliable.

I hope it is apparent that the introduction of premise (3), and thus the move to the conclusion (4), the acceptance of which requires far-reaching metaphysical commitments strongly at odds with our current best picture of our world, is disreputable. The body of scientific research to date strongly suggests a deterministic universe, and the philosophical consensus is that even the admission of quantum relativity does not seem to offer much hope for free will. If we accept science and value consistency in our beliefs, we must define free will in a way that is compatible with determinism (a conceptual project with many distinguished proponents).

There is, of course, the possibility that the published model, now part of the deterministic system, will spur Obama’s campaign and its supporters to action, rendering itself inaccurate. This, however, is all in principle explicable through the lens of determinism. There are myriad subtleties to unravel here, but I found your mailing to disregard them with a wanton frivolity and reckless unseriousness.

For further elucidation on these and other matters, please refer at your convenience to the following resources, courtesy of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Wikipedia:

Free will

Causal determinism

Laplace’s demon

Thank you for your work in service of our nation. I am confident you will make every attempt to refine your language to meet the standards of rationality maintained by your supporters.

Best,

Peter Sloan

On Mon, Nov 7, 2011 at 3:24 PM, Jim Messina, BarackObama.com <info@barackobama.com> wrote:

2012
Peter —This weekend, The New York Times Magazine ran a long analysis of the 2012 election headlined, “Is Obama toast?”It uses a mathematical formula to conclude who will win this race.In other words, it says neither you nor Barack Obama has a role to play in this election, because the outcome is essentially predetermined.We disagree.The outcome will depend on what we do every single day between now and November 6th, 2012. And I want to give you an idea of how we know that.Our Republican opponents, from Mitt Romney and Herman Cain to Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann, have endorsed the same set of Tea Party policies that drive the Republicans in Washington: letting Wall Street write its own rules again and giving special treatment to millionaires and billionaires while asking seniors and middle-class families to pay for it.All of them would return to the failed economic policies that led us into recession.

Yet the Times piece assigns each of them a score on an ideological scale, ignoring the obvious reality that there has been virtually no difference among the GOP candidates — or between them and the Republican congressional leaders who refuse to do anything to restore economic security for the middle class.

Whoever wins the nomination will no doubt try to appear more “moderate” as they compete for undecided voters in the general election. But they have all made their positions clear. And we will hold them accountable for that.

The only true difference in this race is between their agenda and President Obama’s. Facing historic challenges when he came into office, he has fought every day for a fairer economy where everybody who does their fair share gets a fair shake.

He’s stood up to credit card companies to ensure they can’t target consumers with hidden fees. He’s stood up to insurance companies, who can no longer deny health care coverage on the basis of a pre-existing condition. He’s stood up to Wall Street to end taxpayer bailouts and rein in the kind of risky financial behavior that nearly toppled our economy.

These dramatic differences between the Republican nominee and President Obama will be crystal clear to Americans as the 2012 election approaches, because our grassroots organization in all 50 states will be having conversations every single day with their friends, families, co-workers, and neighbors.

That grassroots organizational advantage is a critical factor in this election that the Times’ “formula” doesn’t consider at all.

More than 1 million people have already taken ownership of this campaign. Millions more are organizing their communities on behalf of the President, online and off. This weekend, we had our single biggest day of action of the campaign — more than 2,000 volunteer events took place across the country, and more than 10,000 volunteers participated.

This work is already having an impact across the country.

We expanded the electoral map in the last election, fighting hard for — and winning — states like North Carolina, Colorado, and Virginia so that the entire election didn’t hinge on the results in a single state, as it had in 2000 and 2004.

We have no intention of returning to the old electoral map. And the organizing you’re doing means we won’t have to. Today, we are showing signs of strength in states we didn’t win even in the watershed election of 2008 — states like Georgia and Arizona, where a recent poll had President Obama beating every potential Republican nominee.

The map isn’t as friendly to our opponents, who won’t be able to compete in traditionally Democratic states because their organization won’t compare to ours. Whether you measure donors giving or doors knocked, there’s grassroots enthusiasm for President Obama that the other side can’t match — but that theTimes doesn’t consider relevant.

The truth is this isn’t the first time you’ve been written out of the story by many in Washington and the media — and it’s not the first time they’ve been completely wrong about that.

In the 2007 and 2008 campaign, almost everyone in professional politics said it wasn’t Barack Obama’s “turn” to be president. But millions of people like you took responsibility for the campaign — knocking on doors, making phone calls, and donating whenever you could.

You proved everyone wrong — not just about who was going to win the election, but about the ability of everyday Americans to come together and change the course of history.

The entire premise of the Times article is that you won’t — and can’t — do it in 2012.

The election is now less than one year away. No one thinks it will be easy. But there can be no doubt its outcome depends on how hard you and I work over the next 364 days. Right now, we’re opening field offices in key states, hiring organizers, recruiting volunteers, registering voters, and getting ready for what’s going to be one hell of a fight.

So, is Obama toast? It’s up to you.

– Messina

Jim Messina
Campaign Manager
Obama for America

Hello, again, and one or two questions

Hello, again, world! Starting today, I will be writing some longer form posts weekly, to be published Wednesdays at 5PM or damn near it. In these posts, I aim to process and refine my thoughts about the world and get some feedback from my friends, family, colleagues, and the broader interweb community. Topics will vary with my mood, but expect themes of art, philosophy, and current news events to permeate.

To start us off, I’ll offer some small initial musings on the nature of art and the role of the artist. I am very interested to hear what my fellow creative friends have to say about all this, drawing both from your own experiences as well as anything you may have studied formally, so please, don’t be shy!

I have two questions: what is art? and who are artists? (Actually, I may jump to such numerical conclusions too eagerly, as I’m not convinced they aren’t simply two surface variants on the same more general question, the answers to which depend upon each other. We’ll return to this possibility soon.)

But let’s say, for now, our two questions are independent. We’ll start with the first. What is art? I think we have three possible starting points: Either everything is art, nothing is art, or some things are art. We get to define the term any way we like, so any of the above three are possible, but the last seems obviously preferable. Consider the first two. If we define the term so broadly that it encompasses all things, or even all human-made things, then to my mind it loses all meaning. “Art” may as well mean “stuff,” an unnecessary addition that, while not only carrying no new information, also rudely violates our intuitions. “You’re telling me this pile of lumber is art? The tree from which it came was art? The idea ‘Wednesday afternoon’ is art?” Obviously wrong. On the other extreme, if we constrict the definition such that the term refers to no actual things in the world, then I think we again violate our intuitions. “Surely Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and Beethoven’s Eroica are art! Surely!” So, from the above it seems we should be able to offer a definition of art that divides the world along a clean line, with art on one side and everything else on the other. To put it one final way, for any given thing T, T is either art or not art, but not neither or both. I’m not sure one can coherently disagree with that much, though I’d love to see it tried!

The problem, of course, is the drafting of any particular such definition. I divide definitions into two categories: intrinsic or extrinsic, with an intrinsic definition telling us something absolute about the thing and an extrinsic definition relating the thing to the world. For example, an intrinsic definition of a sphere would be “all points equidistant from a single point in three dimensions,” while an extrinsic definition would be “the geometric shape approximated by baseballs, basketballs, and very recently constructed sno-cones.” Employing this distinction, an intrinsic definition of “art” would give us some sense of a universal essence, shared by all art objects and lacking in all non-art objects. An extrinsic definition of “art” would tell us something about how art interacts with the world. In my experience, extrinsic definitions are easier to come by.

Extrinsic definitions of “art” include: things made by artists. things art collectors purchase. things displayed in art galleries and museums. things written about on art blogs. and so forth. These are helpful only in so far as they help us assemble art objects into a pile for closer inspection. Once gathered, however, we still need to find the common thread that links everything. That common thread will be the intrinsic definition of “art.” I don’t know that that common thread is.

I’ll leave that for now and turn to our second question: who are artists? Again, an extrinsic definition is obvious: people who make art. But I’m not convinced this tells us anything of substance, especially considering that the best I can do for an extrinsic definition of “art” seems to depend upon a workable intrinsic definition of “artist.” And here is my impasse. Identifying art and artists in the world seems to be a fairly easy and intuitive process, but defining either without reference to the other (i.e. offering an intrinsic definition) seems much more complicated. And why should we seek an intrinsic definition of art? Why not be satisfied with a kind of 2nd-order looping definition, connecting art and artists in a closed system? The problem I see is that the system becomes too generalizable and thus translatable onto other analogous but not equivalent pairings of creators and creations. By this I mean, what makes the artist:art pairing different from the engineer:bridge pairing? The difference, if there is one, will tell us something about the intrinsic definition of art.

I’ll leave it at that for tonight (I promised questions, not answers! and anyway I’m about an hour behind my self-imposed deadline). Any thoughts?

-Peter