There is so much going on in the whole skepticism versus religious debate, which is what I really take this article to be about, the lens focused mainly on the skeptic side of things. Personally, I am someone who resonates with skepticism. But one has to ask whether I mean skepticism the ideology, or skepticism the culture. If you listened to some skeptics, they would have you believe that they don’t have a culture, or at the very least that their reasoning isn’t affected by it. This strikes close to the heart of the most damning flaw of skeptic culture as I see it, and which I believe this author, and his subject matter, Nagel, are also trying to pick apart.
Weiseltier seems to dance around, poking holes at it from different angles, but not quite put a name to it. I think I can help him out.
We will go out into the world and save them with science, enlightenment, democracy and “free” markets. In this case it’s mainly the science and rationality that are glommed onto.
In past iterations they were called positivists whose definition seems very close to that of “scientific naturalist”. They even tried to re-label themselves as “brights”, which is also very telling of what really drives the less seemly behaviour displayed by the culture.
I am not familiar with Nagel at all, so I don’t know his intentions, but I have to wonder if his phrase “Darwinist imperialism” was meant as more than just a instigating jab. On the one hand I see some very unenlightened, regurgitated, blind stabs made by the religious against skeptics: oversimplified associations of them with social Darwinism as though anyone but themselves couldn’t possibly have a scruple without god. Yet, I also notice that skeptics are far, far too quick dismiss this inconvenient and embarrassing history, as future generations will likely (hopefully) be embarrassed of us.
The sad fact is that there really was not merely a small, powerful cabal that praised the so-called science of racial superiority and eugenics, but it in fact was widely accepted by the society, including many now still considered to be great minds of the time, and it was the science that rationalized it. It is of course absurd to suppose that rejection of god puts one firmly in that camp, but what they do in fact share with the scientific minds of that time is the same hubris.
I don’t mean the hubris that they are often accused of for daring to be good enough without a deity, or for seeking knowledge once thought to be off limits. No, I mean the hubris that says “now is the enlightenment”. Oh, yes, we were ignorant before, but that all changed now. Yet more horrendous is the wistful ease with which skeptics often dismiss the idea that they could possibly be affected by politics, social contexts of our time, or especially (ack!) emotions. They believe in rationality after all.
Such is the blindness of every age, and rarely is it more exemplified for us than with this element of skeptical culture. It’s easy to miss the meaning of an interaction for the mere subject matter when that’s all you’ve allowed yourself to recognize. To be this kind of skeptic is to believe only in “facts”. The “how” doesn’t matter, only the “what”, and we are the “who” that owns it. To be right is so irrevocably tied to the angry dismissal to which they feel compelled, that it’s not even questioned. Maybe this is part of what he means when he says that they are not self-skeptical.
Thinking again about the history of racism and it’s connection to the science of its day, our present context seems more clear. The rhetoric of the day was that it was their duty to save the hapless, heathen wretches from themselves. After all, what are we bringing them but enlightenment? What horrors have been committed throughout the ages with such “good intentions” as these?
I will never say that all ideas are equal, for what would even be the point of thinking. There are things that can be known, and things that are clearly more likely. The point is, that I have seen many good people, and many unspeakable cads on both side of this divide and I can unequivocally say that it is not god-belief, atheism, or something else in between determines where they fall, but empathy.