Thursday, February 12, 2015

new atheism, progress, rationality

The new atheist view of human history is progressive. Unthinking violent religious fundamentalists belong somewhere on the left of the page and rational nonviolent atheists over on the right. Any good progressive can tell you that history moves from left to right on a line that represents time, and the future is better than the past because, duh, science. On the new atheist view, some religions are more primitive than others. Way the hell over on the left (not the political left; that's a different model) is Islam, for example. Beheadings, supposedly a Muslim thing, are primitive. And barbaric.

Which makes a nice segue to another new atheist model that goes hand-in-hand with the progressive one. There's an inner circle, a glorious heavenly space mostly free from irrationality and other impurities (other forms of barbarism), populated by true atheists. Next circle out is nice, reformed religions like Judaism and Christianity. On the way-outside are the super-barbaric Muslims. Does that look to you like the standard white supremacist scheme repurposed to match current geopolitical power arrangements? Hey man, alligators look like crocodiles but they're not the same! Not the same!

A third model combines the first two to put "now" in an inner circle along with atheism. The whole thing is rolling left to right towards gloriousness. You might be tempted to call it a redemption narrative but atheism is no religion, dammit! It's in the word. "A" means "not" while theism means "god-belief." How could that possibly be a religion?! How could something be different than the thing it claims to be? "Impossible!," says a millionaire preacher. Anyhow, the pure center is already more glorious than anything that's ever been but it will become purer and purer still and its white light will some day -- if we, the good guys (hey, how did we get in here and why are there so many Calvinists in here with us?), do it just right -- kill off the dark influence of the barbarism that surrounds it/us. And then we'll have heaven on earth. Heaven in heaven is for religionists. Heaven on earth is for atheists.

Sarcasm aside, this is the inside/outside structure at the foundation of cognition itself. As such, I don't have a great answer for it. I try to be more aware of it and avoid its worst pitfalls. That's all. Like the new atheists, I try to be better tomorrow than today, aim to win, aim for perfection, consider myself to have won the Magical Belief Lottery, and think negative thoughts about people who disagree with me. I also think I'm a ridiculous bastard. Which makes me better than people who don't realize they are. Which makes me more ridiculous. And back. And forth. (Though tu quoque "saves" me. My hypocrisy is beside the point.)

Speaking of back, back to the thing about atheism and rationality. I started writing this post because I saw a story about three Muslims who were killed by an atheist yesterday. Should I click on the story? Do I owe the victims my sorrow? A series of unanswerable questions that expose me as an asshole (impure!) later, I move to an easier line of thinking: don't expect any Dawkins tweets to the effect that liberals need to stand up to atheism and the violence intrinsic to it. Classic ingrouper that he is, Dawkins and friends use anecdotes as support where convenient, as exceptions otherwise.

From there, a recurring observation that Japan is as atheist as any country you can name, arguably as rational/sciencey as any, and also, though I'm admittedly going off anecdotes, quite possibly the least critically thinking population of humans ever. The easy point is that atheism doesn't cure stupid. Or that atheism is a new form of that. See above. Beyond that, what's fascinating is the way a certain kind of stupidity dovetails so perfectly with a certain kind of rationality. Call it constricted rationality. "Robotic" also comes to mind. This rationality takes the easiest path. Questions that challenge authority are punished so routinely, so severely, that they fade to the background as non-questions. There's an unspoken consensus that the way things are is natural and unchangeable, even as it changes, even as the human is in the process of being shrink-wrapped. The game is pushed to the outside, becomes the frame. The possibility space shrinks. The answers to questions such as "how do we not drive ourselves to extinction?" exclude the only solutions that might work, the solutions that walk back the presuppositions to the point where we're not making trolley dilemma choices between well-intended shitty-consequence-having action A and well-intended shitty-consequence-having action B. If you're opposed to killing civilians for empire, don't become president, in other words.

From a broader human perspective, 21st century technopower is stupid. It will let you have your stupid beliefs about blood type determining personality. It loves when you go to power spots. It has no problem with your lucky charms. It does not love when you use your brain to question its frame. It will drive you into the ground and the humans to extinction, because it's not selecting for your well-being or for long-term human survival. It's selecting for short-term, narrow-frame, localized gains millions and millions of times. What we're seeing is the cumulative effect.

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