Ralph Dumain on atheism, irreligion, and rationality:
statement for a panel discussion at the Fireplace Mansion, Washington DC, 19 May 2007

“Fascism has awakened a sleeping world to the realities of the irrational, mystical character structure of the people of the world.”—Wilhelm Reich

I do not consider a debate between theism and atheism as abstract positions a pressing priority of public concern.  The debate that matters socially and politically is the debate between religion and irreligion. A debate between atheism and religion is actually two debates in one, because the God-advocates are not advocates for theism alone but for religions and for faith—the surrender of rational autonomy, the submission to unreason and illegitimate authority.

At one pole of the debate we have the abstract question of atheism vs. theism.  The existence of an Uncaused Cause or abstract intelligence or nebulous spiritual agent can be debated, but that matters as a public issue primarily when it serves to further other bogus knowledge claims, for example to turn science into pseudoscience. A personal God that cares, judges, and lays down taboos, customs, rules, rewards, punishments, and social hierarchies is a monstrous imposture and absurdity from everything we know now about the cosmos and human history. A vague, distant belief in a personal God may be relatively harmless if detached from other beliefs.

At the other pole is the case for the separation of church and state, that is, religion and government.  Close to this pole is the question of secularism in social life.  I hold that only reason in combination with empirical evidence is a legitimate basis for the deliberations and decision-making processes of public life.

My overall outlook is as follows:

(1) "Atheism" is, in my view, a minimalist position: no gods, hence no basis for a divine order based on gods or any supernatural entities, and no metaphysical, moral, social or political authority based on same.

(2) A complete world view demands more. The two main departments of philosophy are ontology, or what there is, and epistemology, or how we know what we know. Atheists do not all fall within the same philosophical camp, and agnostics complicate the terrain even further. Naturalism and materialism are the most straightforward philosophical candidates for atheism, though there is nothing simple about any philosophical position. Skepticism and agnosticism, which I reject, involve more complicated world view issues and a consideration of the relevant intellectual traditions. The skepticism and agnosticism associated with the irreligious David Hume and T.H. Huxley, reflecting the dominant British intellectual tradition, stand in historical philosophical conflict with the atheism and materialism of the French Enlightenment.

(3) Theologians fudge the boundaries between fact and fiction in attempting to justify old superstitions in the modern world. Religion thrives on symbolism, but in the course of history, symbolism has been secularized along with everything else. Modern attempts to either liberalize outmoded superstitions, dogmas, and practices, or rationalize them by reinterpreting them to accommodate contemporary needs, are duplicitous and must be repudiated. Symbolic expression consciously recognized as such must be distinguished from mythical consciousness, and waffling, fudging, and double-dealing equivocation must be ruthlessly exposed.

(4) Paranormal, spiritual, religious, mystical, and other peak experiences and altered states of consciousness are important subjects for investigation, but we must differentiate the intensity of these experiences from knowledge claims associated with them. Reason, experience, perception, empirical knowledge, intuition, belief, and faith all raise epistemological issues tied to claims of what there is. Faith must be rejected as it constitutes the destruction of the autonomous rational individual, surrendering to unreason, arbitrariness, unaccountability, and authoritarianism. Intuition as a justification for knowledge claims rather than as a starting point for the pursuit of knowledge belongs to the irrationalist tradition.  The mystical experience is of special interest because it always courts heresy in the monotheistic religions and in practice conflicts with a theistic orientation. However, mystics characteristically make all kinds of bogus knowledge claims. As some participants and investigators of the phenomenon have concluded, the nature of the experience does not justify any knowledge claims about the order of things.

(5) A fuller ethical and political commitment than what is contained in a minimalist conception of "atheism" (or even a full-bodied philosophical position such as materialism) is better expressed by the term "secular humanism".  Humanists may be hard-core atheists or not, their belief systems make be quirky in various ways, but they share a commitment to the rational autonomy of individuals and a society free of rule by religious and other irrational authority.

(6) The priority of atheists, beyond the political fight for the separation of religion and government shared with a multitude of religionists, should be to whittle down the domain of irrationality, superstition, and bad metaphysics, and quarantine vague god-conceptions to a location of the brain where they cannot interfere with rational processes.  Atheism, while an intuitively obvious position to many of us, is also a principled philosophical position arrived at through a process of conscious conceptual deliberation pursued to the end by only a fraction of the irreligious. Folk irreligion spans a continuum: from anti-clericalism, to opposition to organized religion, to the rejection of religious belief systems and religion per se, to a basically agnostic position on a supreme being, or maybe a rejection of a personal God, perhaps to a deist or pantheistic position, to full-out atheism. The priorities of atheists in engaging the public should follow this trajectory.

(7) The path from other superstitions to a consistent naturalistic, materialist, or scientific world view is not for the folk a straight and uncomplicated one, but here the priority is to shrink the realm of ignorant, mystifying, and harmful superstitions to a minimum.  Usually what survives among otherwise rational individuals are sympathies for pseudoscientific systems like astrology or belief in metaphysical concepts such as fate.

(8) Historically, the fight against irrationality and illegitimate authority emerged as the fight against religion, because magical thinking, superstition, religion, scientific knowledge, and political and economic institutions are not clearly differentiable in pre-modern societies. But with the differentiation of domains of knowledge and institutions in the modern world comes the differentiation of legitimating ideologies and the differentiation of the manifestations of irrationality. Religion should be considered a subset of ideology and irrationalism, not the opposite as some people, Sam Harris among them, are wont to argue. The hackneyed, disingenuous objections from religionists who whine “what about the misdeeds of Mussolini, Stalin, Mao, etc.?” implicate a whole spectrum of irrationality not limited to religion per se. There is the irrationality of nationalist, racialist, and other political ideologies, and of occult and pseudoscientific ideologies. There is even an irrationalism of rational systems of thought internalized and institutionalized to function irrationally. Irrationality after all is not just the product of doctrines but of social institutions and of social and psychological factors.

Postscript

Marx concluded in 1844 that the criticism of religion ("the basis of all criticism") had just been completed (by his colleagues among the Young Hegelians, specifically Ludwig Feuerbach), and it was time to move on not only to other sources of ideology, but to an analysis of the structures of the societies that generate ideologies.  But all the old issues as well as the new are still with us, and the struggles that should have been concluded in the 19th century in advanced Western societies are still with us, and in the USA we have been careening backwards since the rise of the New Right in the late '70s. Activist atheists in the USA (and in the British Commonwealth—to a lesser extent?), like their opposition, tend to be intellectually confined within the battles of a past era, and while they do keep up with developments in the natural sciences, they tend not to be quite so sophisticated in the realm of social thought. This is true of scientists and philosophers in general in our neck of the woods.

While it is necessary to dumb down to the level of the average American in order to fight once again the battles of the 19th and early 20th centuries, it is also necessary for us to develop a more sophisticated understanding of philosophy, ideology, and social theory in order to grapple with the contemporary world at the necessary depth.  Public atheism in the Anglo-American world—including the so-called "new atheism" of Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris, whose intellectual content is not new at all—remains behind the curve. Since we have an international audience, I ask you to tell us whether public debates in your home countries are perceptibly different from ours due to differences in intellectual life and the permissible range of public opinion.

My atheism web guide & blog

Atheism / Freethought / Humanism / Rationalism / Skepticism / Unbelief / Secularism / Church-State Separation Web Links

Reason & Society (Blog by Ralph Dumain)

Some web pages of special interest on this site

"Spinoza, the First Secular Jew?" by Yirmiyahu Yovel

Bruno Bauer on Christianity, Alienation, and the Dialectics of Religious Consciousness

M. Bakunin on Materialism and Idealism

Marx & Engels on Skepticism & Praxis

Engels on the British Ideology: Empiricism, Agnosticism, & “Shamefaced Materialism”

Red Jacket vs. Christianity: The Native American as Rationalist

Adolph L. Reed, Jr. on Organicism, Authoritarianism, Clericalism, & Black Politics

Swami Agehananda Bharati on Hindu Fascism & Western Infatuation

John Horgan’s Rational Mysticism (Dumain blog "Studies in a Dying Culture")

Arthur Danto on Mysticism and Morality (Dumain blog "Studies in a Dying Culture")

Web pages of special interest on other sites

The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach, 1841

Introduction to A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right by Karl Marx, 1844

Lectures and Essays by Thomas Henry Huxley

Secularism, science and the Right (Review of Meera Nanda, The Wrongs of the Religious Right: Reflections on Science, Secularism and Hindutva) by Ralph Dumain, 2006

Recent books

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.

Dennett, Daniel C. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York: Viking, 2006.

Harris, Sam. The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2004.

Harris, Sam. Letter to a Christian Nation. New York: Knopf, 2006.

Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Hirsi Ali, Ayaan. Infidel. New York: Free Press, 2007.

Hitchens, Christopher. God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. New York: Warner Twelve, 2007.

Martin, Michael, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Atheism. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Martin, Michael;  Monnier, Ricki; eds. The Improbability of God. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2006.

Mills, David. Atheist Universe: The Thinking Person’s Answer to Christian Fundamentalism. Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 2006.

Onfray, Michel. Atheist Manifesto: The Case Against Christianity, Judaism, and Islam; translated from the French by Jeremy Leggatt. New York: Arcade Pub., distributed by Hackette Book Group, 2007.

Saxton, Alexander. Religion and the Human Prospect. New York: Monthly Review Press, 2006.

Stenger, Victor J. God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007.

Other books of general interest

Baggini, Julian. Atheism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Bronner, Stephen Eric. Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.

Cohen, Edmund D. The Mind of the Bible-Believer. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1986.

Everitt, Nicholas. The Non-Existence of God. London; New York: Routledge, 2004.

Hecht, Jennifer Michael. Doubt: A History: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation, from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. New York: Harper San Francisco, 2003.

Jacoby, Susan. Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2004.

Martin, Michael;  Monnier, Ricki; eds. The Impossibility of God. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003.

Smith, George H. Atheism: The Case Against God. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1989. [original publication 1979]

Freethought from special perspectives

Allen, Norm R., Jr. African-American Humanism: An Anthology. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1991.

Allen, Norm R., Jr., ed. The Black Humanist Experience: An Alternative to Religion. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2003.

Barbera, Donald R. Black and Not Baptist: Nonbelief and Freethought in the Black Community. Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2003.

Gaylor, Annie Laurie, ed. Women Without Superstition: "No Gods—No Masters": The Collected Writings of Women Freethinkers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Madison, WI: Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1997.

Pinn, Anthony B. By These Hands: A Documentary History of African American Humanism. New York: New York University Press, 2001.


See my report on this discussion on my Reason & Society blog.


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Uploaded 18 May 2007
Updated 22 May 2007

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