Dear reader, it is time for a confession.
I was once a fan of the New Atheists.
In my defense, I was always super critical of their politics (which are ghastly), but I nevertheless found their critiques of religion convincing and compelling. I was unable to see through the smoke and mirrors of their rhetorical appeals to science and rationality. However, over a longer time than I would like to admit, I was eventually able to steer myself out of the philosophical muck of New Atheism by examining their ideas more closely.
Unfortunately, particularly since becoming Muslim, I’ve discovered that a lot of seemingly intelligent people are soaked to their core with this unexamined ideological baggage.
As Slavoj Žižek has argued elsewhere, the dominant ideology often isn’t what it seems – Christianity seems to continue to be the dominant ideology in the West, whereas, in reality, Secular Humanist Scientism is the dominant ideology of the day. We could point to any number of pieces of evidence, but let’s leave it with the fact that Daniel Dennett has already made a similar argument.
This reversal is important to recognize, because it reveals that the New Atheists are not the subversives they claim to be. They aren’t killing sacred cows, they’re flogging their corpses and replacing them with the sacred cows of post-religious modernity – science, reason, and progress.
And what makes Scientism as an ideology so influential is that it is so omnipresent in Western culture that it serves as some sort of common sense. People don’t unpack their own premises, because they don’t even think that there are premises. It’s not ideology – it’s fact. This covers up the huge leaps of faith that are required in order to make Scientistic claims about reality.
What makes this particularly dangerous is when people misidentify or misdiagnose a societal problem and then draw up absurd solutions to said “problem”. Those Secular Humanists (who misidentify the problem as “religion”, “irrationality”, or having any “non-scientific” views about reality) want to stamp out all forms of dissent from the dominant paradigm.
And it just so happens that the dissenters are often Black and Brown People and their “irrational” beliefs about the world.
Is it any surprise that the Secular Humanists tend to be White Men?
This essay (the first of a series covering a defense of why I became a Shi’i Muslim) is aimed at revealing the substantial contradictions at the heart of the dominant ideology in the West. The goal here is to illuminate the weak foundations upon which Secular Humanist Scientism is built and how the ideology itself is not as liberatory as it may appear.
Part 1: Secular Humanist Scientism
Scientism, the underlying outlook of the New Atheist crowd, is critically defined by Thomas Burnett as “a speculative worldview about the ultimate reality of the universe and its meaning.” According to Burnett, this is separate from science, which is merely “an activity that seeks to explore the natural world using well-established, clearly-delineated methods.”
To unpack Scientism a bit, I would like to define it here as: the belief that science as a discipline can account for all meaningful questions, whether natural or philosophical.
Indeed, this belief has even led some, like Stephen Hawking, to declare the death of philosophy.
Apparently, Hawking was unable to see how his own worldview was submerged in the ocean of philosophy. After all, Hawking and his ilk are not even simply science-nerds. They are disciples of a supremacist vision for humanity and bring with them the apparent moral charter for that viewpoint – Secular Humanism.
According to the Center for Inquiry (CFI), a Secular Humanist organization, Secular Humanism “is a nonreligious worldview rooted in science, philosophical naturalism, and humanist ethics.”
This is the working definition that I will be using for this essay.
The Secular Humanist value system, according to the CFI, is based on “integrity, benevolence, fairness, and responsibility, and [Secular Humanists] believe that with reason, goodwill, the free exchange of ideas, and tolerance, we can build a better world for ourselves and for future generations. Secular humanism calls upon humans to develop within the universe values of their own. Further, secular humanism maintains that, through a process of value inquiry informed by scientific and reflective thought, men and women can reach rough agreement concerning values, crafting ethical systems that deliver optimal results for human beings in a broad spectrum of circumstances.”
By that definition, Secular Humanism illustrates its deep connection to Scientism. Scientism offers the epistemological and ontological justification for Secular Humanism and Secular Humanism offers the moral justification for Scientism. You really can’t have one without the other. This is a point on which the New Atheists are consistent – their dominant philosophical trends aren’t explicitly contradictory.
However, this consistency, along with the nearly universal acceptance in the West of both ideologies, masks the enormous holes in their logic.
Part 2: Exposing Scientism
Scientism, as a philosophy, is really a perverted Logical Positivism – or, the idea that “[a] statement is meaningful if and only if it can be proved true or false, at least in principle, by means of the experience.” Logical Positivism, the philosophical movement that drove early 20th century scientific inquiry (and arguably continues to do so), has been thoroughly discredited by scientists, philosophers, and anthropologists, but apparently the New Atheists never got the memo.
In order to believe that science ought to be the privileged methodological framework in all times and places, regarding all subjects of inquiry, one must make enormous assumptions.
First, in order for the scientific method to work, we must assume that cause-and-effect is philosophically stable and metaphysically reliable (even though causality can’t be tested using the scientific method).
Second, in order for science to serve as the prime (or only) modus operandi, one must accept the uniformity of nature (despite the obvious problems with such an idea, as David Hume figured out a long, long time ago).
And third, similarly to religion (and really every other system of knowledge), science is post-metaphysical and contains the problem of induction.
Regardless of the inevitable problem of induction though, Scientism’s adherents present science as a method to something untouchable. Listening to these people talk, one would think that science’s methodology was created by (dare we say it) some perfect, omnipotent being, rather than by a bunch of White European Cis-Men at the peak of colonialism.
Poking holes in Scientism is not as difficult as it may appear. Many have attacked it from different angles and I’m going to present some of these individuals and their arguments to show that, regardless of one’s position, Scientism is not the infallible philosophy that it masquerades as.
Paul Feyerabend, a philosopher who coined the term “epistemological anarchism”, makes a damning critique of the elevation of science as a discipline over other forms of knowing. Describing himself as an epistemological anarchist, Feyerabend writes in his book, Against Method, about the history of Galileo and the Catholic Church and shows how rationalism, not religion, hindered the development of a new scientific revolution and why that was.
Feyerabend was writing as a contemporary of Thomas Kuhn, a physicist and probably my favorite philosopher of science of the 20th century.
Kuhn, by all measures, published perhaps the single greatest wrecking ball to logical positivism with his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. In it, he argues that the history of science is defined by paradigms and paradigm shifts, which are constructed and deconstructed in a variety of ways. Kuhn shows that science hasn’t delineated any objective progress. Instead, paradigms (such as the Copernican Revolution, competing geometries, or Newtonian and Quantum Physics) are simply better at answering some questions, but may be worse at answering others.
Kuhn’s critical stance towards the history of science paved the way for the philosophical death of logical positivism and the birth of a series of arguments about the subjectivities that are inherent in supposedly “objective” science. This post-positivism isn’t a complete rejection of the desire to find some objectivity, but rather an acceptance and deep awareness of subjectivity.
A powerful example of the subjectivity in supposedly “objective” science is exposed by Feminists like Emily Martin, an Anthropologist of Science. In her article The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles, Martin demonstrates that “gender stereotypes [are] hidden within the scientific language of biology.” (p. 486).
Londa Schiebinger shows that Feminism has even changed science (particularly medicine and primatology), by “uncovering sexism in the substance of science”. (p. 1171)
If this is the case, then what do we get when we construct our value systems based on “science”, like the New Atheists claim to? The result is, of course, a feedback loop of our own cultural hang-ups. So our culture speaks back to us, including its racism, sexism, queer/transphobia, ableism, and other oppressive ideologies.
Science, in other words, is not value-neutral.
I would argue that in many cases, we can’t even begin to talk about objectivity, because we don’t even know what objectivity would look like.
Admittedly, at the time that I was leaving New Atheism, I was barely engaging with these Post-Modernist or Feminist critiques. Instead, I was reading a lot of Anarcho-Primitivist literature.
Ahhh, Anarcho-Primitivism – perhaps the cissiest, whitest, and malest of all the anarchos.
A lot of Anarcho-Primitivist literature that was based on a critique of technology and a critique of civilization, but often went further to criticize the scientific project itself.
I find that Anarcho-Primitivism, although no longer resembling anything like my political ideology, nevertheless continues to uphold an unanswered critique by the true believers of Scientism (or even of science itself).
Anarcho-Primitivism very modestly asks, “Who the hell do we think we are?”
If we accept evolution and say that we are nothing but bipedal primates, then why should humans control and dominate nature? We are a part of nature (whatever that means), right? And why on earth are we so convinced that our ape minds can even achieve something like objectivity? How can we possibly think that our understanding is somehow outside of and superior to nature? Our mental faculties are not so special.
That’s a powerful critique if you take it all the way. Jacques Ellul (about whom I posted last month) argued that science had become the sacralized discipline of the West, replacing religion. Ellul’s criticism centered on how technology and science has become the dominant ideology in the West and remain completely unexamined. The opening line of his book Propaganda reads: “True modern propaganda can only function within the context of the modern scientific system.”
Indeed, as I brought up at the beginning of this essay, the faithful followers of Scientism have elevated science to an untouchable level – a level equivalent to the role that God played (and continues to play) in deeply religious societies.
Michel Foucault, in many ways developing Nietzsche’s line of thought, makes another important critique of science on the basis of the relationship between power and knowledge. Foucault advocated using genealogies as a method of tracing the development and diachronic advances of discourses.
As Foucault argues in his Two Lectures: “genealogies are therefore not positivistic returns to a more careful or exact form of science. They are precisely anti-sciences. Not that they vindicate a lyrical right to ignorance or non-knowledge: it is not that they are concerned to deny knowledge or that they esteem the virtues of direct cognition and base their practice upon an immediate experience that escapes encapsulation in knowledge. It is not that with which we are concerned. We are concerned, rather, with the insurrection of knowledges that are opposed primarily not to the contents, methods or concepts of a science, but to the effects of the centralizing powers which are linked to the institution and functioning of an organised scientific discourse within a society such as ours.” (pp. 83-84)
In other words, science and Scientism are not universals.
Science is embedded in institutional (and cultural) power.
And only when we recognize its embeddedness can we extract its usefulness.
Those acolytes of Scientism who insist on science’s universality cover up exactly what the rest of us seek to lay bare, that science is now (and has always been) dependent on Western institutions. When Richard Dawkins castigates Muslims for not having enough Nobel Prizes, he does so without acknowledging the limited resources, brutalities of colonialism and imperialism, and the cultural divides between England and, say, Somalia.
We could also mention here that there is no objective (scientific) reason to value Western knowledges over non-Western knowledges and that, in reality, the frameworks of thought of people in Nicaragua, Burundi, or Sri Lanka are not any less valuable than the frameworks of thought of White People living in the First World.
How can someone think about earning a Nobel Prize if they have to worry about war and famine?
And why are the people who worry about war and famine not valued equally?
Scientific “evidence” for a proposition exists only insofar as it is observed and interpreted. We interpret phenomena as we interpret everything else – culturally.
In other words, there is no objective, a priori, non-ideological lens. After all, if we accept (dubiously) that the scientific method works as we are told, then we must recognize that the first step of the scientific method – the hypothesis – is already colored through a cultural lens. We construct questions within (not without) our cultural frameworks.
And these frameworks establish, to parrot Kuhn, our paradigms. Science, in other words, is not culturally neutral.
And, of course, we know that science is often anything but morally neutral. This leads us to the moral system that is supposed to guide humanity to a supposedly better future.
Part 3: Deconstructing Secular Humanism
The assumption made by the New Atheists and many other Secular Humanists is that if someone is religious and she then ceases to be religious, then she will “naturally” become a Secular Humanist.
As though this was the default moral and philosophical foundation embedded in human biology.
The fact that this is essentially the case made by an evolutionary biologist of Dawkins’s caliber is a joke that should be lost on no one.
After all, why should we be Secular Humanists simply if we cease to believe in God? Why not Nihilists? Why not Existentialists? Why not (perhaps most frighteningly for the White Bourgeoisie) Marxist-Leninists?
Louis Althusser correctly identifies Marx’s anti-humanism in his 1964 article Marxism and Humanism. Althusser points out that there is an ideological component to humanism that masks the realities of capitalism. Althusser draws our attention to the relationship between the base and the superstructural element to ideology.
As Althusser concludes, the focus on the human subject’s emancipation (or, as the CFI elaborates “men and women can reach rough agreement concerning values, crafting ethical systems that deliver optimal results for human beings in a broad spectrum of circumstances.”) is a product of the material conditions of capitalism. Instead of a focus on humanism and attempting to achieve emancipation under capitalism, the only way to truly attain human emancipation is by accomplishing communism and overcoming class struggle.
Indeed, there’s a reason that none of the New Atheists are communists. Secular Humanism and Communism are competing ideologies – and only one can serve as the dominant ideology of neoliberal capitalism.
We don’t need to take a strict Marxist perspective to see the failures of Secular Humanism.
Alternatively, we could follow the path of the Post-Colonialists and the Post-Structuralists who questioned the validity of the subject.
Frantz Fanon saw the “subject” as the figure of the colonialist, specifically the White Man, who established the “subject” as diametrically opposed to the “object” of the colonized person. Foucault saw the “subject” as the discursive creation of the Enlightenment. We could, for example, take Foucault’s critique of science mentioned above and see the extension in his critique of humanism. Indeed, in The Humanism Effect, one of the best articles on the subject, Anthony Alessandrini argues that both Franz Fanon and Michel Foucault were engaging in a “movement towards a critical ontology of ourselves, a critical ontology that they both suspect to be impossible.” (p. 74)
As a side note, there are plenty of solid Feminist and Third Worldist critiques of this process of de-centering the “subject” in philosophy that I won’t go into right now. And certainly anyone who has spent any amount of time reading this blog will notice very quickly that I have no problem with meta-narratives.
Suffice it to say that the Post-Modernist attempt at attacking the “subject” isn’t full-proof, but nevertheless it is an extremely powerful critique of Secular Humanism.
Furthermore, even if we accept the value system of the Secular Humanist paradigm, it has largely failed as a project in achieving its own goals. Secular Humanism and the Enlightenment project more generally contain the trappings of those problems which they sought to solve.
As Shabbir Akhtar writes in The Qur’an and the Secular Mind, “Secular humanism was intended to aggrandize humanity but ironically, in a secular industrialized society, no one needs to reduce the self to size since society does it for us – automatically, decisively, casually. As people jostle for places on an underground train or queue to receive unemployment benefit, they know they are nothing. No religion has negated the self, in all its pride, as effortlessly as modern mass society.” (p. 115)
But doesn’t Secular Humanism have some liberatory potential?
For example, doesn’t Secular Humanism save women suffering under religious tyranny? After all, as the CFI feels comfortable arguing, “Religion in general and Islam in particular are women’s enemy.”
Lila Abu-Lughod responds to such claims in her seminal article Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving?:
“Projects of saving other women depend on and reinforce a sense of superiority by Westerners, a form of arrogance that deserves to be challenged. All one needs to do to appreciate the patronizing quality of the rhetoric of saving women is to imagine using it today in the United States about disadvantaged groups such as African American women or working-class women. We now understand them as suffering from structural violence. We have become politicized about race and class, but not culture.” (p. 489)
So, it turns out that the language of science is infused with misogyny, as demonstrated by Emily Martin, and the language of Secular Humanism is similarly infused with misogyny and imperialism. If we become politicized about culture, as Abu-Lughod says we should, then we can also become politicized about the consequences of that culture – like science, reason, and progress, which are not neutral concepts.
What can we see here then? Secular Humanism can’t save Muslim women or, indeed, any women, which is not even its primary intention.
In the end, there is absolutely no reason to accept Secular Humanism if one becomes an atheist (as Nietzsche pointed out over a century ago). However, if one accepts Scientism (and all of its flaws), then Secular Humanism (and all of its flaws) seems far more appealing.
What kind of value system is this anyway?
Look at how joyfully the New Atheists cheer when Western countries drop bombs on Muslims. We can clearly see that the discourse of Secular Humanist Scientism is intertwined with the discourses of neoliberal capitalism and Western imperialism.
To pretend otherwise is not only to ignore history, but also to ignore the voices of real living (predominantly Black and Brown) people around the world.
Scientism and Secular Humanism feed into each other. Science provides the basis of Secular Humanism and Secular Humanism powers science in liberal democratic capitalism.
Because of the material conditions upon which this ideology has formed, Secular Humanist Scientism inevitably accompanies a whole set of troubling implications about the world, including the depraved arguments made by individuals like Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris (who correctly take their premise to its logical conclusion) when they support imperialist projects to bomb Black and Brown People into accepting the Western order.
Do these conclusions require us to reject science and all pursuits of objectivity? I certainly don’t think so. However, they do require us to reject Scientism, to reject the belief that science is the only means of gathering information about the world and developing some moral system based off of that false belief.
It also should lead us to take the Post-Modernists seriously when they encourage us to hold a general skepticism towards meta-narratives. Unfortunately, the New Atheists who claim to uphold skepticism fail to turn that skeptical gaze toward their own presuppositions.
The idea that Secular Humanism is somehow philosophically neutral or objective is self-evidently ridiculous. Just as science is infused with subjectivities, Secular Humanism can often lead a person to be wrong.
And we should never forget that Sam Harris is wrong about everything.
Listening to the voices of women, people of color, queer people, and people from the Third World requires a more sophisticated consideration of the questions of knowledge and power. Feminists, Post-Colonial Theorists, Marxists, and Post-Structuralists all have demonstrated the decrepit foundations upon which the New Atheists have chosen to build their homes.
After all, what do we mean when we talk about science, reason, and progress?
In the end, the many critiques of Secular Humanist Scientism demonstrate that it is important that we scrutinize any claims to truth made by Straight White Cis-Men (including myself and those cited in this text) with immediate suspicion. By echoing the voices of these men, the adherents of the True Faith of Secular Humanist Scientism effectively silence the voices of most of the world.
This is what I had failed to do when I was a fan of the New Atheists and their apparently “common-sensical value system” and “objective” truth claims.
As part of my confession here, in good Roman Catholic tradition, I would like to atone for my sins.
Please forgive me for ever having subscribed to such a worldview and thinking that I had found the “Truth” as preached by these Straight Cis-White Men from the First World.
“Truth” and claims to it will be discussed more thoroughly in the next post.