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Old leftist zings new atheist

It builds on you because he makes his key point last.

In “Same Old New Atheism: On Sam Harris,” (The Nation May18, 2011), Jackson Lears critiques new atheist Sam Harris’s view of morality, beginning with an account of evolutionary psychology that could have come from this desk,  and then… 

During the past several decades, there has been a revival of positivism alongside the resurgence of laissez-faire economics and other remnants of late-nineteenth-century social thought. E.O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975) launched pop-evolutionary biologism on the way to producing “evolutionary psychology”—a parascience that reduces complex human social interactions to adaptive behaviors inherited from our Pleistocene ancestors. Absence of evidence from the Pleistocene did not deter evolutionary psychologists from telling Darwinian stories about the origins of contemporary social life.
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Within the wider culture, however, reductionism reigned. Hardly a day went by without journalists producing another just-so story about primitive life on the savanna thousands of years ago, purporting to show why things as they are have to be the way they are. In these stories, the parched fruits of a mirthless and minor imagination, all sorts of behavior, from generals’ exaggerations of their armies’ strength to the promiscuity of powerful men, could be viewed as an adaptive strategy, embedded in a gene that would be passed on to subsequent generations. In the late twentieth century, as in the late nineteenth, positivism’s account of human behavior centered on the idea that the relentless assertion of advantage by the strong serves the evolutionary interests of the species. Positivism remained a mighty weapon of the status quo, ratifying existing arrangements of wealth, power and prestige.

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But Harris is not interested in religious experience. He displays an astonishing lack of knowledge or even curiosity about the actual content of religious belief or practice, announcing that “most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as though they were primordial truths.”

It’s interesting to hear it proceeding from a far left perspective, and puts one in mind of Steve and Hilary Rose’s much-pilloried Alas Poor Darwin, a collection of essays against evolutionary psychology, written from a moderate left perspective, and all the stronger for that.

But, amid a laundry list of causes and stereotypes that may be unfamiliar to those not used to this sort of literature, Lears goes on to illuminate the profoundly illiberal aspects of the new atheist movement better than most:

Nowhere is this clearer, or more chilling, than in his one extended example of a specific social change that could be effected by scientific ethics. Convinced that brain science has located the biological sources of “bias”—the areas of the brain that cause us to deviate from the norms of factual and moral reasoning—Harris predicts that this research will lead to the creation of foolproof lie detectors. He does not say how these devices will be deployed. Will they be worn on the body, implanted in the brain, concealed in public locations? What he does say is that they will be a great leap forward to a world without deception—which, we must understand, is one of the chief sources of evil. “Whether or not we ever crack the neural code, enabling us to download a person’s private thoughts, memories, and perceptions without distortion,” he declares, the detectors will “surely be able to determine, to a moral certainty, whether a person is representing his thoughts, memories, and perceptions honestly in conversation.” (As always, the question arises, who are “we”?) … Rarely in all his oeuvre has Harris’s indifference to power and its potential abuse been more apparent or more abominable.

Lears links the new atheists to the old logical positivists, which sounds, to my ears, unfair to the latter. The logical positivists were honourably wrong about a philosophical matter; no one can be honourably wrong who talks and behaves as the new atheists do.

And here Lears makes his critical point:

His self-confidence is surpassed only by his ignorance, and his writings are the best argument against a scientific morality—or at least one based on his positivist version of science and ex cathedra pronouncements on politics, ethics and the future of humanity.

Yes, precisely. There is no evidence from the behaviour of new atheists that we would all be much improved if we adopted their beliefs and ways.

It’s interesting that in the Catholic Christian tradition with which I am familiar, to play an important teaching role one must be morally good oneself, not simply have clever or great ideas. That’s one reason humility is considered such an important virtue in that tradition. In Harris’s world, it wouldn’t be important at all, except for conferring an apparent order on relationships.

Denyse O’Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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