Massimo Pigliucci’s Critique of New Atheism: Is it a Call to Move Beyond Atheism?

The Blog of Nathan Bupp
February 6, 2015

I am pleased to feature this guest post by Mark David Dietz. Mark has been a company commander in the US Army’s 101st Airborne, a corporate training manager and management consultant, a teacher of ethics at the University of Texas at Austin, and he is now the Vice President of research and development at a small company. He is the author of An Awkward Echo: Matthew Arnold and John Dewey (IAP, 2010). -- Nathan Bupp

Massimo Pigliucci

The following is a a response to “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement” by Massimo Pigliucci published in Midwest Studies in Philosophy 37 (1):142-153 (2013).

We tend today to have a belief that all academic disciplines are isolated from each other.  As undergraduates we came to this belief by simply noting that the different discipline-based departments tended to be housed in different buildings on campus.  Well, that’s not entirely fair, we had many additional clues to go by.  If we asked a professor a simple question about another discipline we usually received a careful, even simpering answer, or, worse, a rather bold display of ignorance.  Now and then, a professor would grow expansive in thought and offer a program for understanding the separation of the different disciplines into their respective nomenclature – all too often revealing in the process an almost sentimental desire for order and simplicity and an inability to appreciate the complexity of all but that discipline in which he had been raised.

Unfortunately, this academic pigeon-holing probably accounts to a large degree for why we have come to believe in the sanctity of each discipline and beyond that to believe that the categories as we have received them, or as they have evolved, are the only possible categories.  When Massimo says, for example, that New Atheists have trouble “recognizing philosophy as a distinct (and, I maintain, useful) academic discipline from science,” I have no trouble agreeing with him.  But because this is a serious thought paper, I look for him to recognize the subtle down side of that belief, and, in truth, I  am somewhat disappointed that he does not address it. 

While Massimo does not seem to have reified the categories of academic disciplines in the same way that so many others have, his comments on the demarcation problem suggest that for him the determining of academic disciplines has a positive solution – and, I suspect I may be reading this into what he says, nonetheless, it feels to me that in doing so he wishes to banish ambiguity.  For me some ambiguity is necessary, some overlap inevitable; can a scientist talk about the scientific process without invading the realms of philosophy?  Are not induction, deduction, warrant, even testing, all ideas that require something more than a purely empirical understanding of the world?  But scientists do have a right, or perhaps better a necessity, to talk about, discuss, understand, teach, research the scientific process – and they do, even the less than fully-educated ones who think philosophy is somehow a bad thing – unaware, apparently, that they have been doing philosophy all along.  The scientific process is not a product of science, but philosophy – and yet it is a product of science, because like most such fundamental ideas we learn it abstractly and practically at the same time.  That ambiguity is not a bad thing; in fact, it is really quite wonderful.

Now I want to be careful here because I do very much like Massimo’s general solution that “what the atheist movement needs, therefore, is not a brute force turn toward science at the expense of everything else, but rather a more nuanced, comprehensive embracing of all the varied ways—intellectual as well as experiential—in which human beings acquire knowledge and develop understanding of their world.”  Although I will come back to this in a minute and ask why this would be relevant only to the atheist movement, let me comment first on the sentence that follows this one.
Massimo goes on to say, “A healthy respect for, and cooperation with, other disciplines should be the hallmark of the twenty-first century atheist…”  Earlier in his essays Massimo offered a cutting remark about “serious theology,” which might lead one to doubt if he really is interested in such an all embracing entendent amongst academic disciplines.  But reading this sentence, my sense is that he sees disciplines as physical, external things, almost tribes, with respect and cooperation carefully worked via comprehensive treaties.  I have over the years been somewhat disillusioned when listening to academics talk about interdisciplinary studies.  I had always thought that that would be a space in which boundaries would loosen, not go away altogether, but become more porous making clear not only how different disciplines can offer separate resources upon common questions, but how disciplines interact and overlap, how, indeed, to a great extent they really depend upon each other – but for most academics that last, which I have found to be exceedingly true, is an absurd falsehood.  In our modern world we love our isolations, fictional though most of them are.

All that aside, I do not want anyone to think that my concerns in anyway suggest that I would side with the new atheists on this issue.  Harris, in particular, and the rest of that crew are clearly operating at an intellectual level that is – well, let’s just call it embarrassing.  Enough on that.

However, without realizing it, I think Massimo raised a whole new problem.  I said I would revisit his solution statement, so here it is again: “What the atheist movement needs, therefore, is not a brute force turn toward science at the expense of everything else, but rather a more nuanced, comprehensive embracing of all the varied ways—intellectual as well as experiential—in which human beings acquire knowledge and develop understanding of their world.”

Now the problem I am having here is the opening phrase.  The rest of it I love: yes, let’s turn away from the brute force of science alone (but without losing science from our comprehensive embrace) and let’s study the “varied ways—intellectual as well as experiential—in which human beings acquire knowledge and develop understanding of the world,”— well, now that’s exciting, – well, at least I find it exciting.  But how does this relate to the atheist movement?

Let’s take the common reductive understanding of atheism as no more than the question is there or is there not a God?  Well, Massimo has already told us, and I tend to agree, that philosophy has a healthy set of arguments on this question to which science, and again I agree, offers little additional advantage.  But setting aside the reductive notion that God equals religion, philosophy may have had much to say about God, but it has had very little to say on religion, at least in the form of a critique.  Indeed, many significant aspects of religion are relatively well-supported by philosophy.  For most of religion, however, we really need to turn to sociology, psychology, anthropology, theology, philology, history, etc.  The nature of ritual, for example, is much better addressed in sociology and anthropology than in philosophy. Moreover, in addressing things like ritual, researchers in the social sciences tend to be comfortable in turning to other studies: psychology, history, linguistics, theology, even science.  One more point, I recently went out to the on-line Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, a source for which I have a great deal of respect.  The article on Philosophy of Religion is rather peculiar: half the article is devoted to the question of whether or not god exists.  That should suggest to you how myopic philosophy is on this issue.

Now, let me point out another curious thing in Massimo’s essay: he devotes a lot of space to a discussion of Sam Harris’s concerns about morality.  The whole of Massimo’s argument with Harris is that philosophy does this better than science and that, indeed, science will need to turn to philosophy in order to clarify its findings and develop its recommendations (he fails, I should note, to recognize that the scientist will also need to turn to the social sciences and the humanities, but this is an error that philosophy itself has been making for many, many years now).  Nowhere in Massimo’s argument, or in that which he pulls from Harris, is atheism shown to be relevant to this question. 

So I’m wondering how to interpret this.  When I go back to Massimo’s solution and read his injunction to explore “a more nuanced, comprehensive embracing of all the varied ways—intellectual as well as experiential—in which human beings acquire knowledge and develop understanding of their world,” I wonder now, what does this have to do with atheism?  Would only atheists benefit from such a project?  And since philosophers already have a good handle, and they do, on the God question, but such a poor handle on the religion question, and have already manifested too great a tendency to want to go it alone on the morality question, I cannot help but think that Massimo has really just given us a good reason for setting aside the atheist movement and turning instead to more valuable, more broadly human efforts.


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