Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

Leftists vs. New Atheists

So here’s a ferocious attack on new atheist Sam Harris from the Nation, our country’s leading leftist publication.  The conclusion:

Harris is oblivious to this moral crisis [of selfish individualism]. His self-confidence is surpassed only by his ignorance, and his writings are the best argument against a scientific morality—or at least one based on his positivist version of science and ex cathedra pronouncements on politics, ethics and the future of humanity. In The Moral Landscape he observes that people (presumably including scientists) often acquire beliefs about the world for emotional and social rather than cognitive reasons: “It is also true that the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for.” The description fits Harris all too aptly, as he wanders from neuroscience into ethics and politics. He may well be a fine neuroscientist. He might consider spending more time in his lab.

Although it sort of goes without saying that I disagree with parts of this article, I completely agree that the new atheism of Harris is a lot less than meets the eye.  It really is a combination of arrogance and ignorance that points the direction of the complacent tyranny of social engineers.  This guy would rule us with the impersonal authority of what scientific studies show, forgetting that the scientists who promulgate the moral implications of these studies are hardly pure brains or objectively orbiting over merely human reality.  This guy doesn’t know the first thing about personal reality, because he’s dismissed without serious investigation philosphic, theological, and poetic sources of truth.  He probably is, as our author says, a fine neuroscientist; he only becomes foolish and despotic when he dogmatically moves away from his sphere of competence.

The old atheists (even or especially Marx and Nietzsche) took philosophy most seriously, because they saw it as the deepest sources of what we can really know  Marx, mistakenly, believed that religion, the state, and all that could wither away as communism emerged, because human life could become unalienated and unobsessive. He mistakenly believed that human beings would become wise and otherwise satisfied at History’s end.  The best case against Marx, from one view, is that serious philosophers like Marx would become superfluous at History’s end.  So the impossibility of communism turns out to be good news: Philosophy and religion can’t wither away as long as we remain self-conscious and mortal, as long as we face the questions of who we are and what we’re supposed to do in a world where time is scarce and the being of each of us remains (at least biologically) contingent.

Nietzsche knew that God being dead was the source of a world without purpose or full of “last men,” beings without deep longing or any sense of greatness. The rule of self-forgetful scientists would be “last men” legislating for “last men.”  Human happiness would be redefined as nothing but comfort and security, and human eros would be extinguished as nothing but illusory trouble (see the book The Brave New World).

So we conservatives, in a limited way, can side with Left against what amounts to techno-despotism.


Up Next