Rationalism requires no right turn

It’s a little bit awkward, and a lot frustrating, to be described as what many liberal academics consider an improbable combination: atheist, rationalist, and leftist.

It seems that to some people on the academic and activist left, “atheist” means “New Atheist,” a Muslim-hating warmonger; and “rationalist” means Enlightenment-embracing racist, colonialist, elitist, and all-round Eurocentric bad guy.

I’m not a big fan of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, so the first label doesn’t really faze me — I feel no more need to defend them or their extreme political views than the Dalai Lama does to defend Rick Perry — but I am a fan of the Enlightenment, properly understood, and it does bother me to have my politics assumed — wrongly — to be retrograde, purely on the basis of my disinclination to embrace full frontal cultural relativism.

The prompt that reopens this can of worms is an article on the Butterflies and Wheels website. In his articleOverland versus the ‘new atheism,'” published on September 8th, Bruce Everett takes on Australian leftist Jeff Sparrow’s lament that the Global Atheist Convention will be bringing legions of right-wingers to Melbourne in 2012.

Everett’s rebuttal to Sparrow is really beside the point here — not to mention annoying, rambling, and petulant. Read it if you must, but what I’m interested in isn’t yet another back and forth over whether Sam Harris is a hater or Richard Dawkins is a closet Victorian.

What bothers me is the assumption that there’s something inherently “anti-” about valuing science over semantics, and reason over revelation. And I don’t mean Bible or Koran revelation — there’s as much vitriolic dogma in “anti-judgemental” relativism as there is in the more direct judgements of scriptural literalism.

No, the demand that all acolytes be pure, that all accept not only proper goals but also the tortured and often morally bankrupt theory with which academics encumber them, is not the exclusive property of the political right. Not by a long shot.

In his newly published Fool Me Twice: Fighting the Assault on Science in America,  reviewed here recently, Shawn Otto writes about what he calls the “unholy alliance” of the religious right, corporations, and theory-bound leftists.

In fact, it is highly ironic that Jeff Sparrow considers the New Atheists as the vanguard of the right wing. In the real world, outside the rarefied confines of antipodean radicalism, many of these atheist writers, including Dawkins and Harris, are empirical scientists — the kinds of thinkers that right-wingers (especially Republican presidential candidates) love to hate.

And what are left-leaning activists and academics doing when they use bankrupt theory to attack the rational basis of science? Joining with their political enemies in a strange conflation of dogmatists from right and left, together in their desperate desire to protect their respective universal truths from the threat posed by those who search for the more modest but more achievable contingent truths of science.

The scripture-informed right and the theory-riddled left take opposite positions on most issues, but they share an unholy preference for the unchanging over the emergent, for unassailable truth over the search for knowledge.

I don’t mind very much that the right is mired in its own amber coffin of hardened core beliefs, but it’s constantly depressing to hear otherwise intelligent and caring progressives bark out uncritical silliness in the name of this or that “identity politics.”

One of the most directly judgemental pronouncements on the “evils” of the Enlightenment and the rationalism that spawned it that I’ve found was included in “An unenlightened view of the Enlightenment,” a posting on this blog almost a year ago. It’s so thorough in its rejection of everything produced by reason that it bears requoting some of it here:

Irremediably Eurocentric, the ideas grouped under the rubric of Enlightenment are explicitly or implicitly bound up with imperialism. In its quest for the universal, Enlightenment occludes cultural difference and refuses moral and social relativity … The doctrine of progress, in turn, legitimates imperial conquest under the guise of the civilizing mission, while the celebration of reason disqualifies other belief systems as irrational or superstitious. … [A]ny vestiges of ‘the Enlightenment’ that remain within a theory become a sign of insufficient liberation.

The number and variety of the teleological assumptions, historical distortions, and theory-blind misconstruals in this single paragraph could occupy the space of several books, but I’ll content myself here with the simple reassertion of the observation that there’s as much dogma and intolerance on the academic left as on the religious right.

Rationalism, especially its greatest product, the scientific method, is not a truth set in stone. It’s a tool for examining the stone, looking for any truth it might contain.

It is very frustrating that so much of the academic left, which trumpets context and relativism, so thoroughly misunderstands the one approach to truth which is by design most open to change and growth.

The right rejects science because the findings of science offend its God-given beliefs. The left rejects science because the methods of science offend its theory-derived beliefs.

And those of us who have arrived on the left through the lens of reason — by a route very much humbler than, but methodologically similar to, that of the original Enlightenment thinkers?

We can’t help feeling more than a little misunderstood.

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One thought on “Rationalism requires no right turn

  1. Can definitely sympathize with your frustration about labels. Whenever I critique evolutionary psychology, I find others quick to label me as a creationist or a hard-line cultural relativist. I guess it is easier to see the world in black/white – it seems more predictable that way. My irritation comes from ideologies that are handles as absolutes – I think they contribute to the kind of stereotyping that breaks down rational dialogue. But if reason know its limits, we can use science and rationalism in a way that can avoid having it turn into a belief system. I think this is our only option, but I suspect that is hard to do – Kuhn went so far as to say that this is the norm in science. The problem with Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and others (from my view), is that they seem to ‘forget’ the limits of science and reason… so they unknowingly end up building a belief system (hence the ‘new atheist’ label). Belief systems end up polarizing views and spread dogmatic thinking – not good for anyone interested in approximating some kind of truth or reality. I think more dialogue about the various ‘shades of grey’ or ‘middle grounds’ (e.g. being an unapologetic atheist while denouncing some views of the ‘new atheists’) can maybe help people see through superficial categorization.

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