'Round the Web

Here's a really nice reading list from philosopher Mary Warnock on godless morality.

Simon Rippon finds fault with the metaethics in The Moral Landscape, meticulously showing where Harris goes wrong. Harris effectively performs a magic trick, like making a rabbit disappear into a hat.  Only he makes ethics disappear into science. Rippon exposes the trick.  I also complained about that here and here.  Harris's likely response is apparent in the last chapter of his book--he says science encompasses all rational thinking.  There are no lines to be drawn.  So if ethics really disappears into philosophy, well, that's to say it disappears into science.  I don't think any philosophers are going to buy this. 

Brian Leiter says it sounds like a silly book.  I think the goal of the book is non-silly: it's good to try to convince the public that ethics does not rest upon the foundation of religion.  The silly part is saying that, instead, ethics is science.  See above.

Here's Jason Rosenhouse (of local fame) defending new atheist outrageousness. It's like with advertising, he says-- atheists need to be ubiquitous.  OK, but do they need to be insulting? Where's the research that shows you can sell Colgate by saying that Crest is vile rubbish?  I don't see it.  Then he switches models--Richard Dawkins is Martin Luther King, not Proctor and Gamble.  Not because of the moral equivalence of the two causes, he hastens to add.  King is just proof that activism has to be bold.  OK again, but there are a lot of ways to be bold.  PETA-style animal activism is bold. I think it's good for animals.  But it makes the public think animal people are nuts.  Do you want the same thing for atheism--a style of activism that makes people think atheists are nuts?  I would think not--because part of the new atheist agenda is winning respectability and acceptance for atheists.

Want to see that Mooney-Myers showdown? It's here.


amos said...

Comparing Dawkins to Martin Luther King seems like the height of bad taste and presumptiousness.

King was arrested, beated, harassed by the FBI, and
finally, assassinated.

Dawkins runs no risks and has run no risks except not appearing in Amazon top 100 list of best-sellers.

One thing that especially gets to me is the new atheists' illusion that they are especially daring or courageous, as Martin Luther King was. Bashing religion these days (in the USA or UK, not in Iran) is about as courageous as complaining about the weather.

(Thanks for the links)

Jean Kazez said...

I keep seeing those kinds of comparisons being made--like at the CfI bash. And sometimes people seriously seem to see a moral similarity between King and Dawkins, or between the movement to end slavery and the movement to end religion. Rosenhouse does quickly clarify though--I think he's only making a point about tactics, not about the underlying cause. No doubt he knows, thought, that rhetorically it's more effective to pick MLK as your example, not Glenn Beck or Ingrid Newkirk. He wants the positive associations that go with MLK to warm people to his point.

By the way, in his book, Sam Harris says atheists are the most maligned minority in the US. By a measure or two, yes, by most measures no, that's absurd.

amos said...

I've seen several comparisons between the gnu atheists and the civil rights movement in a blog, the name of which I will not mention.

Jean Kazez said...

The gnu thing is frightening--what is this, a secret society with a special password? Please...

amos said...

There was a good article in the New Yorker a few weeks ago about the difference between the civil rights movement and online movements by Malcolm (the guy who wrote Outliers, I forget his last name). Later, when I have more time, I'll find the link. The article also describes the fear of those who participated in the first
sit-ins in segregated lunch-counters.

J. J. Ramsey said...

When comparisons between MLK and the New Atheists are made, this passage from "Letter from Birmingham Jail" comes to mind:

"You speak of our activity in Birmingham as extreme. At first I was rather disappointed that fellow clergymen would see my nonviolent efforts as those of an extremist. I began thinking about the fact that I stand in the middle of two opposing forces in the Negro community. One is a force of complacency, made up in part of Negroes who, as a result of long years of oppression, are so drained of self-respect and a sense of 'somebodiness' that they have adjusted to segregation; and in part of a few middle class Negroes who, because of a degree of academic and economic security and because in some ways they profit by segregation, have become insensitive to the problems of the masses. The other force is one of bitterness and hatred, and it comes perilously close to advocating violence. It is expressed in the various black nationalist groups that are springing up across the nation, the largest and best-known being Elijah Muhammad's Muslim movement. Nourished by the Negro's frustration over the continued existence of racial discrimination, this movement is made up of people who have lost faith in America, who have absolutely repudiated Christianity, and who have concluded that the white man is an incorrigible 'devil.'"

"I have tried to stand between these two forces, saying that we need emulate neither the 'do-nothingism' of the complacent nor the hatred and despair of the black nationalist. For there is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I am grateful to God that, through the influence of the Negro church, the way of nonviolence became an integral part of our struggle."

MLK made a point of avoiding bitterness and hatred, and that's a pretty stark contrast with what we see from the New Atheists, where nastiness is either tacitly accepted or encouraged.

Gerard Stocker said...

@Amos: Gladwell.

I like Mary Warnock's contention that the ancient Jews' morality preceeded its being cast as a myth/religious duty in the Moses/ Mt. Sinai scenario. I like it while being nervous of its historical accuracy -- it smacks too much of modernity.

The Good Samaritan fable is exactly the sort of scenario which confounds Utilitarianism's "statistical" morality, which is presumably the only kind of morality of which positive science could treat. (Ivan Illich's "The Rivers North of the Future" is a great meditation on the The Good Samaritan and the corruption of religious institutions -- Philip Pullman's book sounds very (suspiciously, even) similar.)

While fables like the GS are not necessarily religious per se, clearly (Judeo-Xtian) religion, by gathering these kinds of stories together into its holy book, fosters a certain interest in the kind of "perverse" moral gestures that I should think science would have a hard time explaining. These kinds of narratives/scenarios are now also the purview of art (in its Frye-ian "secular scripture" mode).

While morality certainly *can* be detached from religion, it seems to me foolish to ignore the work of organizations that have dedicated a fair amount of thought to the idea of what is good. Science, after all, can't go measuring good without some kind of workable concept of what it is. It seems the height of hubris to suggest that you're starting from zero when so many have expended so much energy on working the ground before you.

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, MLK is arguing against complacency there, but not for just in any kind of "bold" activism--no calling the white man a "devil" for example. I can't really imagine the chief NAs, like Hitchens, would take this analogy seriously. He's too smart for that.

Faust said...

I'm guessing whatever we take from MLK we are not supposed to take this:

"This has also led to a wiedespread belief that there is a conflict between science and religion. But this is not true...Their respective worlds are different and their methods are dissimilar. Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man widowm which is control. Science deals mainly with fact; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. They are complementary. Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscuratism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism."

Filthy dirty bad accomodationist lover imo.

Jean Kazez said...


amos said...


Malcolm Gladwell's article.

amos said...



Maybe the whole link will appear now.

Jean Kazez said...

This is fun and relevant--


amos said...

Quite relevant.

Faust said...

Isn't Nisbet a hated accomodationist that inspired/corrupted Mooney?

amos said...

I guess that Nisbet is such a wimpish, sell-out accomodationist that he is trying (shame on him!) to accomodate accomodationism and anti-accomodationism.

Matthew Pianalto said...

Different topic: does the following remark from Warnock's interviewer strike anyone else as bizarre?

"And yet, with Nazism and Communism, and if you think about the Grand Inquisitor chapters in The Brothers Karamazov, or Freud’s Civilization and its Discontents, it’s clear that people do tend not to be moral without religion."

How do you get empirical confirmation from those two books? (I like those two books, but still...wtf?)

Jean Kazez said...

Yes, good books of course, but hardly evidence! I didn't really read the interview over there--just thought the reading suggestions were interesting. Some of that stuff is going on my reading list.

Matthew Pianalto said...

The Holloway book is good.

Aeolus said...

Here's a good piece by Frans de Waal on godless morality:

I agree with de Waal's concluding idea that getting rid of religion is impossible. Humans have a deep need to believe that there is meaning and moral order in the universe. Many/most people will not rest content with a Darwinian/naturalistic justification of morality.

Jean Kazez said...

Yeah, really interesting. The bloggingheads discussion between him and Robert Wright is good too.