Philosophy, Film, Politics, Etc.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Politics of Atheism

What I want to get into here are the political underpinnings and consequences of atheism. The challenge I will attempt to overcome is that of the "philosophically sophisticated" moral relativism expounded by many, perhaps even most, liberals.

But first, a little background.

It all began when I went to college and took some courses in cultural studies. I entered my university as something between a liberal and a libertarian pursuing a dual-degree in mathematics and philosophy. Surprisingly, I found the cultural theory professors far more stimulating and intriguing. They helped me understand that everything is political.

There is a politics of meat, a politics of sex, a politics of gender, a queer politics, a politics of . . . well, anything you could possible want. It might be fair to say that the point of a cultural studies education is to think about how everything we do is subject to the principles of influence and power.

"Culture", one of my professors wrote on the board, "is the process of negotiating differences."

That made an impression.

Meaning, truth, justice, beauty . . . all of the most abstract and important categories which rule our intellectual lives--all of the ideas philosophers try so hard to understand--these are all understandable in political terms, as aspects of (or modes of) negotiation.

Thus I earned my B.A. in Literary and Cultural Studies. (I did end up going to graduate school for philosophy, though that was a horror story, and going into it will only weigh down the present discussion.) I also came away from my university with a strong sense of moral relativism.

And my political leanings? I don't think they ever really changed. I was always more sympathetic to liberalism, partly because of the influence of my parents (both loyal democrats), but mainly because of my atheism (which was not inherited--at least, not from my parents). I was an atheist before I even began thinking about going to college, and I don't recall ever being receptive to the religiously motivated right.

But, thanks to my indoctrination into the moral abyss of cultural theory, I began to think that all political (and philosophical) views, even my own, were utterly without foundation. It was all politics, even my own understanding of politics. So how could I justify being a libertarian, or a liberal, or anything at all?

I thus had to learn the utility of not worrying so much about trying to justify my own beliefs. "Live and let live" was my motto, and anyone who disagreed with it was simply wrong. Certainly I didn't have to justify that.

Looking back, I don't think it's that I was brainwashed by liberalism. Rather, it's that I was only taught part of the picture. My cultural theory professors were partly right, and herein lies their philosophical sophistication: everything we do and think is political.

What they failed to emphasize is that not all political perspectives or methods are equally valid.

Cultural theorists want to understand morality, culture, philosophy, religion--the whole deal--in historical terms, as products of convention and negotiation. And that's all good. But we cannot leave behind the basic rules and requirements of intellectual integrity.

To be consistent with their historicism and cultural relativism, liberals must properly regard the tentative nature of our claims to truth, power, right, and so on. It's not enough to say that they're tentative or arbitrary. It's not enough to say that it's all politics. We must follow through with the consequences of that understanding.

Ultimately, what it means is that a philosophically sophisticated political view cannot endorse fascism, which is the negation of all principles of negotiation. Fascism is authority that does not admit of questioning or criticism. Because it claims to be beyond the need for justification, unquestionable authority is unjustifiable.

The opposite of fascism is egalitarianism, where every truth, right or power exercised between individuals, institutions or ideas is subject to justification. Justifiability means rational scrutability.

Intellectual integrity requires that all of our rules, claims and positions be subject to rational criticism.

Rationality is opposed to fascism, and implies only the consistent and coherent pursuit of a shared understanding. It is directly opposed to a dictatorial mode of politics.

Scientific discourse, despite what some radical liberals suggest, is not an authoritarian regime. It is the embodiment of egalitarian politics, where anybody can get involved by simply documenting what they see and explaining it in terms of testable hypotheses. What makes something scientific is simply this requirement, that other people will be able to subject the ideas to clearly defined and repeatable testing. Scientific theories are those which are adopted, not by virtue of unjustified or unjustifiable authority, but because they work, and because their ability to work is clearly documented (or capable of being documented) in a public and open way.

A consistent liberal politics cannot disparage science in any way. It cannot regard science simply as one "belief system" among many. To do that would be to contradict the very principles which ground our philosophical sophistication.

Religious belief, like everything else, is a political affair, and must be understood in terms of influence and power. Religious belief is thus understandable in terms of religious authority, just as scientific belief is defined in terms of scientific authority, which involves the entire peer-review process and egalitarian principle of repeatable testing. Religious authority, unlike scientific authority, is defined in terms of the undefinable, in terms of a "supernatural God" which is somehow in charge, and yet which is beyond human comprehension.

In the politics of religion, the word "God" functions as an alibi for accountability. Religious authority requires that people pledge allegiance to the incomprehensible and inexplicable, and so cannot be endorsed or tolerated as a principle of power and influence. There is simply no possible hope of justifying authority in the name of religion.

Curiously, religious liberals tend to agree that the word "God" is no justification for power or right, and that religion and politics should thus be kept separate. Yet, they still want to adhere to a pluralistic principle which respects religious authority. This is not just dangerous; it is hypocritical.

The failure of moral relativism here is profound. The only consistent and robust liberalism is absolutely and radically secular. Religious beliefs and institutions are unjustifiable, because they would seek to establish a mode of truth, right, or power that is beyond accountability.

What sustains atheism and its critique of religion is not morally relative. It is not simply one among many equally valid perspectives. It is the very possibility of intellectual integrity. Nothing can be more philosophically sophisticated than that.