Thursday, 14 May 2015

Massimo Pigliucci disengages from the sceptic and atheist movement

Massimo Pigliucci, a biologist and atheist who is currently Professor of Philosophy at CUNY-City College has long expressed his disagreement with movement atheism. In his May 11 2015 column "Reflections on the skeptic and atheist movements", he writes how he has been progressively disengaging from the community, due to changing professional interests. Six years ago he moved from biology to philosophy, and as Pigliucci notes, the sceptic and atheist community "has become a somewhat inhospitable environment for philosophical dialogue", something which has helped to accelerate his move from the community.

His current post was catalysed by a recent e-mail exchange between Noam Chomsky and Sam Harris. Pigliucci notes:
The Harris-Chomsky exchange, in my mind, summarizes a lot of what I find unpleasant about SAM: a community who worships celebrities who are often intellectual dilettantes, or at the very least have a tendency to talk about things of which they manifestly know very little; an ugly undertone of in-your-face confrontation and I’m-smarter-than-you-because-I-agree-with [insert your favorite New Atheist or equivalent]; loud proclamations about following reason and evidence wherever they may lead, accompanied by a degree of groupthink and unwillingness to change one’s mind that is trumped only by religious fundamentalists; and, lately, a willingness to engage in public shaming and other vicious social networking practices any time someone says something that doesn’t fit our own opinions, all the while of course claiming to protect “free speech” at all costs.
Pigliucci's list of culprits includes the usual suspects such as Dawkins, deGrasse Tyson, Hitchens, as well as Harris. He also refers to PZ Myers "who has risen to fame because of a blog where the level of nastiness (both by the host and by his readers) is rarely matched anywhere else on the Internet". Anyone who has followed that blog will be aware that this is a reasonably accurate description of an environment where the right to offend has been confused with being gratuitously offensive.

Any group that is defined by what it does not believe will always have difficulty in maintaining unity without a positive cause to unite it, which is why secular humanism is likely to outlast movement atheism. Therefore, the schism and fragmenting of the atheist community is hardly surprising. Being a member of that community when as Pigliucci remarks it is permeated with celebrity culture and groupthink is hardly pleasant or productive, and given that atheism is no longer a fringe viewpoint as Pigliucci observes, is in fact undesirable and counter-productive when his goal is to move:
"[t]oward a true integration and a dialogue (as opposed to a shouting match) with the rest of society, when we will not need special organizations and dedicated meetings, because secularism, skepticism, and political progressivism (including feminism) will be part of the normal cultural landscape, embedded by default in ongoing discussions on how to make this a better world. That’s where my target audience is now: I’d rather have a productive conversation with an intelligent Christian than a frustrating one with an obtuse atheist, and believe me, there is plenty of both out there."
While our presuppositions are completely different, there are some areas of common ground such as the desire not just for a better world in the future, but for one now, even though given our size and influence our ability to do this at more than a small-scale local level will be negligible. However, in terms of being better believers, part of that is to maintain the life of the mind, and to paraphrase Pigliucci, I would rather have a productive conversation with an intelligent atheist than a frustrating one with an obtuse theist. Pigliucci, even if by proxy, is definitely the sort of person with which one can have a productive conversation.

This post first appeared here and is reproduced with permission of the author.