May 18, 2015

A Bleak Future Without Freethought

Massimo Pigliucci
Massimo Pigliucci (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Those of us living in the U.S. received a bit of good news last week in the form of the 2014 U.S. Religious Landscape Study from the Pew Research Center. The number of adults identifying themselves as Christians is in decline, and the number of religiously unaffiliated persons is increasing.

So why do I find myself feeling so pessimistic about the future, especially with regard to the place of atheism and skepticism in the future? I've been doing a bit of reading lately, and I've come across three rather bleak views of where we are and what seems like an almost certain future toward which we are heading.

First up was this post from Liberal Left Behind about how messed up our priorities appear to be. Taking feminist blogger Jessica Valenti to task, the author points out how the pursuit of hits has replaced substance in many circles.
Instead of engaging in honest, open debate, she distorts all criticism to shine a light on a problem that strains the definition of the word to its breaking point. Her lack of introspection prevents her from manning a table in the marketplace of ideas. And what is an article without an idea? Nothing but worthless clickbait.
I'm not familiar with Valenti, but the behavior sure seems familiar. If this is what modern feminism looks like, I can't say I'm surprised that it seems to have fallen out of favor. It seems that some young feminist Internet celebrities have far more in common with Pamela Geller than they might like to admit. After all, they are using the same formula for success. The game isn't about social change; it is about self-promotion. I find this unfortunate because the quest for gender equality isn't yet over. More progress is needed, and this sort of thing makes it less likely to happen.

This post by Liberal Left Behind pointed me to the real gem in the collection, and that would be Nick Cohen's The PC revolution devours its own. If you haven't read this one yet, take the time to do so. It might keep you up at night, but it is worth it. Here's the part that got under my skin:
When I argue for freedom of speech at student unions, I am greeted with incomprehension as much as outrage. It’s not only that they don’t believe in it, they don’t understand how anyone could believe in it unless they were a racist or rapist. The politicians, bureaucrats, chief police officers and corporate leaders of tomorrow are at universities which teach that open debate and persuasion by argument are ideas so dangerous they must be banned as a threat to health and safety. Unless we challenge them in the most robust manner imaginable, whatever kind of country they grow up to preside over is unlikely to be a very free one.
As someone who spends a fair amount of time on a college campus these days, I would love to be able to dismiss this as hyperbole. But doing so would be dishonest. This is the reality. Hurt feelings are widely regarded as something nobody should ever have to experience, and there is open hostility to the very idea of free expression. Ideas which some find offensive are deemed dangerous, and students must be shielded from dangerous ideas even if that means silencing those with unpopular views. I fear that Cohen is correct to suggest that we are all going to pay a steep price for allowing this sort of nonsense to flourish.

And last but not least was Massimo Pigliucci's thought-provoking Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements at Scientia Salon. He expressed what I think many of us have been feeling for some time with regard to the anti-intellectualism, hero worship, hypocrisy, tribalism, groupthink, and love of public shaming that have come to characterize far too much of the atheist and skeptic communities.
The Harris-Chomsky exchange, in my mind, summarizes a lot of what I find unpleasant about SAM: a community who worships celebrities who are often intellectual dilettantes, or at the very least have a tendency to talk about things of which they manifestly know very little; an ugly undertone of in-your-face confrontation and I’m-smarter-than-you-because-I-agree-with [insert your favorite New Atheist or equivalent]; loud proclamations about following reason and evidence wherever they may lead, accompanied by a degree of groupthink and unwillingness to change one’s mind that is trumped only by religious fundamentalists; and, lately, a willingness to engage in public shaming and other vicious social networking practices any time someone says something that doesn’t fit our own opinions, all the while of course claiming to protect “free speech” at all costs.
I cannot claim to agree with everything Pigliucci says in this post, but I'm glad he wrote it and that I had the opportunity to read it. Even though I did not agree with all of it, I found myself without any urge to take to the Internet in order to call him names. Imagine that! I hate to think that he (or other genuine freethinkers) would check out of the atheist and skeptic communities. We need many more voices like this.

If we are going to reduce polarization and tribalism, learn how to have productive rather than destructive conflict, and accomplish something meaningful in a world dominated by religion, we're going to need freethinkers. We're going to need people with the courage to express unpopular opinions and admit that they are often wrong. We are going to need people who eagerly apply skepticism in all domains, including those they find most personally challenging. And we are going to need people who refuse to accept any ideologies uncritically. And since we are going to need people like this, we had better figure out a way to prevent them from becoming disillusioned and walking away.

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