Naturalists, Unite! (modestly and non-self-righteously)

In his December 12, 2004 New York Times op-ed, “Keeping the faith in my doubt,”* science writer John Horgan says he’s “intrigued by the notion of unbelievers banding together to increase their political clout.” But, skeptic that he is, his doubts lead him to reject this possibility as both unworkable and unwise. Below are his doubts and some reassurances, which I offer in order to forestall any pessimism in the freethinking community that Horgan’s piece might have engendered.  I use “naturalist” and “supernaturalist” to capture what I think is the basic difference between the empiricist, skeptical, reality-based forces vs. the traditional religion/new age/faith-based opposition.

* (It’s ironic that the word “faith” keeps cropping up in the titles of Horgan’s contributions to the Times. See comments on his December 31, 2002 piece, “More than good intentions: holding fast to faith in free will”.)

1) Horgan writes: “Isn't the point of being a freethinker to eschew categories like Satanist, Scientologist or Universist?”

Not really. The point of being an empirically-minded, critical thinker is to justify beliefs on the basis of evidence and logic and so achieve reliable knowledge. It’s quite possible that such thinkers might come to see the basic commonality among themselves and band together based on that commonality, especially in times when faith-based beliefs are in ascendance. There is a real, categorical difference between naturalists and supernaturalists and there’s no harm, and much benefit, in acknowledging this distinction.

2) “I'm also disturbed that these areligious groups have exhibited the same sectarian squabbling that they deplore in religious believers.”

Yes, naturalists, being human, will always discover differences among themselves on all sorts of issues, from politics to philosophy. This will lead to competition, squabbling, infighting and the usual jockeying for power and influence. But this hardly undercuts the value and necessity of forming organizations to counter the cultural dominance of faith-based groups.

3) “All this goes to show that even groups founded with the best of intentions - and what groups aren't? - usually become concerned above all with self-perpetuation, often at the expense of other groups with similar aims.”

Again, this isn’t a valid reason to abandon the effort to organize those with a naturalistic world view. If groups weren’t concerned to perpetuate themselves as a first order of business, they wouldn’t survive. Yes, competition among them may come at the expense of some, but that’s no objection to organizing in the first place. We just have to make sure that what’s really at stake, the central commitment to a positive naturalism, isn’t lost in the competition for social acceptance and influence.

4) “My main objection to all these anti-religion, pro-science groups is that they aren't addressing our basic problem, which is ideological self-righteousness of any kind.”

This is a fair warning to naturalists not to fall into the “holier than thou” trap of their faith-based, sometimes absolutist opposition. But it isn’t a valid objection to forming naturalist groups and forging alliances among them. It’s simply to say we should avoid ideological self-righteousness, which we should. As naturalists, its easier for us to avoid this than for some varieties of religionists, given that we’re not as absolutist in how we hold our beliefs.

5) “Moreover, rejection of religion and adherence to a supposedly scientific worldview do not necessarily represent our route to salvation. We should never forget that two of the most vicious regimes in history, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union under Stalin, were inspired by pseudoscientific ideologies, eugenics and Marxism.”

True, no set of beliefs is necessarily a route to salvation. But that doesn’t mean science-based views aren’t superior to faith-based views when it comes to being non-ideological, non-self-righteous, and having a better grasp of how the world actually works. Note that Horgan cites two pseudo-scientific ideologies, not science or naturalism, as the basis for some vicious regimes. It was the abandonment of good science, not a commitment to it, which helped drive ideological communism and Nazism. So Horgan regrettably tars science and the rejection of religion with pseudo-science in this objection.

6) “But we should resist the need to insist or even imply that our views - or anti-views - are better than all others. In fact, we should all be more modest in how we talk about our faith or lack thereof.”

Modesty is fine, and helps us avoid self-righteousness, and indeed a commitment to evidence helps to keep us modest, since evidence-based beliefs remain revisable. But we need not be modest in championing empiricism over faith as the route to justifying belief. After all, it is a better route to reliable knowledge, and it is by its very nature less ideological, so we shouldn’t shrink from making this case publicly. Naturalism, a positive world view that goes well beyond the critique of faith, has much to recommend it. It both depends on and helps to maintain the sort of open, pluralist society that we value so highly.[1]

7) “But skepticism has its pleasures; I like the feeling of traveling lightly through life, unencumbered by beliefs.”

Horgan is perhaps more encumbered by beliefs than he realizes, since skepticism itself rests on a commitment to a way of evaluating beliefs that assumes, at least provisionally, some background beliefs about what counts as reliable knowledge. Horgan is clearly naturalistic in his generally excellent writing on science and religion, which is to say that empirical evidence is his usual guide to belief. At the very least, by calling himself “areligious” in this article, he forswears such things as faith, revelation, and religious texts as the basis for his skepticism. So he hasn’t renounced all “isms” by any stretch, but falls unambiguously on the naturalistic side of the divide he’s writing about.

8) “Instead of banding together, maybe we unbelievers should set an example by going in the opposite direction.”

Horgan suggests that naturalists abjure collective action to counter the influence of faith. Instead, each critical thinker should go his or her own way. This is too bad. Horgan’s commendable distrust of groupthink and ideology has, unfortunately, led him to a counterproductive radical individualism that imagines all collectivities to be equally nefarious. One route to a more tolerant, less ideologically riven world is to modestly, yet firmly, make the case for naturalism, joining forces as best we can. Horgan is welcome to join any time.

TWC, December 2004

[1] As Peter Bienart points out in the New Republic, a shared commitment to at least a modicum of evidence-based discourse and beliefs is necessary for a pluralist, open society. After all, it’s only that sort of discourse which permits communication among otherwise ideologically opposed groups – it’s the language and set of beliefs about this world that they can have in common. Joshua Greene and Jonathan Cohen make a similar point in the first endnote of their forthcoming article on neuroscience and law: “[T]he law in most Western states is a public institution designed to function in a society that respects a wide range of religious and otherwise metaphysical beliefs. The law cannot function in this way if it presupposes controversial and unverifiable metaphysical facts about the nature of human action, or anything else. Thus, the law must restrict itself to the class of intersubjectively verifiable facts, i.e. the facts recognized by science, broadly construed. This practice need not derive from a conviction that the scientifically verifiable facts are necessarily the only facts, but merely from a recognition that verifiable/scientific facts are the only facts upon which public institutions in a pluralistic society can effectively rely.”

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