But this is a post about politics and why, despite all my inclinations to ignore it, there is, actually, a huge problem with the ideology of atheism that could lead a reasonable person to wonder if they should vote for an atheist. And it is what many atheists, themselves, say that provides the reasonable reservation.
Now, having pointed out that atheists are a covered class under U.S. civil rights laws, and that they have been since the mid 1960s, one of the favorite whines of the new atheists are surveys which show that a majority of people questioned say they wouldn't vote for an atheist for president. That issue was the one I wrote about the first time I ever wrote a critique of the new atheists, before I started using that phrase. I pointed out several things, among those that atheists were hardly alone, identifying other groups which would not be able to win the presidency, including members of a number of other, religious minorities. I also pointed out that voters were not bound by the constitutional "no religious test" clause and could and did vote on the basis of a religious test quite often. I also pointed out that if atheists wanted to change their situation it depended on the opinion of the religious majority and that blanket ridicule was hardly a proven method of winning friends, not to mention the votes of strangers. I'll note in passing that I've read atheists who have said they'd never vote for a Biblical fundamentalist to absolutely no objection. I'm not sure I would either. Needless to say, these points were hardly well accepted among the atheists in the audience.
Since then I've gained more and more experience with the new atheism and the scientism and materialism that, in fact, comprise the secular religion of just about all atheists I'm aware of. While I still stand by the points I first made more than five years ago, I think there is something more basic to the ideology of modern atheism that might reasonably make people in a democracy reluctant to vote for anyone holding those ideas.
In each and every case, when materialism considers questions of free will and related concepts, the result is, inevitably, the assertion that they are delusions, the products of imagination. For a bunch who typically consider themselves to be "free thinkers" the belief in the biological determinism of our thinking is remarkably freely expressed among materialists. Their belief in their own ability to transcend their biological programming in their thought is, apparently, the result of compartmentalization, making an exemption for themselves and their beliefs that have been noted by others before now*. And, as is true with free will, there are frequent denials of the existence of inherent rights, the right to justice (in its biblical sense), equality and a host of other ideas which, while science is incompetent to find them, history and the first and most basic of all sources of evidence, our experience, are more than adequate to locate them and defend them. I'll say again, those are not things that these materialists are generally willing to do without themselves, even as they deny their reality.
Of course, these atheists "know" that free will doesn't exist because "science" tells them so. Their "science" which is, as the product of their very biologically programmed brains, presumably as subject to the conditions of that determination as the belief in free will or God, for that matter, cannot escape the same impeachment of its reality as the belief in free will, inherent rights and other, presumed, mental products of biological chemistry. Though that doesn't seem to enter into it for the materialist mind, yet another carved out exception**. Which brings us back to Jerry Coyne and one of his recent posts about these issues.
Almost all of us agree that we’re meat automatons in the sense that all our actions are predetermined by the laws of physics as mediated through our genes and environments and expressed in brains. We differ in how we interpret that fact vis-à-vis “free will and “moral responsibility,” though many of us seem to think that the truth of determinism should be quietly shelved for the good of the masses.
Considering the central place that the belief in determinism holds in the blood baths of the 20th century, genocide, racial enslavement, gender oppression ... the belief in biological determinism should not be merely shelved out of niceness, it should be subject to THE HIGHEST level of skepticism. Any alleged science which leads to determinism should be subject to the very highest levels of review, by DISINTERESTED scientists, possible. In fact, that history makes the consideration of these issues far too important to leave to the scientists. When we mere lay folk have been the victims of scientific assertions of biological determinism, that gives us the right to make a direct critique of the idea on the basis of our experience.
If free will exists, as I freely say it does, there is an aspect of it that would make any scientist purporting to say anything about it on the basis of science, open to that highest skepticism. The claim to have discovered anything about it, even its non-existence with science is fundamentally irrational. Free will, in order to be free, would have to exist independent of causality. If it was the product of causation it would be determined and not free. Despite that concept being repugnant to materialism as well as scientism, the concept of free will requires its independence of causality to be taken into account in the fantastic claims about it made by scientists. Science, being absolutely dependent on casual relationships, it could not find free will if it searched for it for an eternity.
Fortunately there are far superior methods of determining the truth and reality of free will available. The history of societies and countries which assume the existence of free will and other ideas that give these materialists the screaming fantods, their relative freedom of oppression and freedom from violence, as opposed to those which assume that human beings are "meat robots", as a far more impressive and far more definitive experiment in the existence of free will and rights than plugging a tiny number of subjects into an fMRI machine could produce. One of the foremost assertions of the validity of science is that "science works", meaning that science produces useful things of benefit to the world. Well, in human experience, free will, inherent rights, etc. have a far more certain validity because they work and determinism doesn't. The enormous differences in real world results of the belief in determinism and the belief in free will constitute far more powerful evidence than the products of contemporary science which produces the denial of free will.
Consider this paragraph from Coyne's post:
Second, I don’t see why on Earth he uses the word “free”? Why are people “free” if their actions are determined? The phrase “Brains are automatic, but people are free” may sound appealing, but it seems to lack content. We can consider them free if somehow helps us psychologically in assigning responsibility, but we can also assign responsibility if we consider ourselves “unfree” in the deterministic sense. If you committed a crime, you are responsible for that crime, whether or not you had a choice to do it. You have to be punished for societal protection and deterrence of yourself and others.
You would have to be either entirely ignorant of recent history or an irrationally credulous member of a scientistic cult for that to not raise all kinds of red flags. Of course, Coyne, given his faith in determinism, would question the existence of freedom, every determinist eventually does when these questions are pressed. Determinism is nothing less than the complete denial of the basis of democracy, egalitarian democracy and the once strong ideology of liberalism***.
The more genteel of determinists will come up with some artificial substitute, utilitarianism or aesthetic preference or something merely to be preferred to mitigate the real meaning of their denial of freedom. But these stop gaps will always have the same quality, of being merely something that they "help us psychologically", as if that will prevent the bloodshed and the horrible oppression that have characterized every single officially materialist, officially atheistic government that has existed. Not one of their proposed substitutes is any less vulnerable to denial than any religious assertions of morality and their preceding ideological basis will lead towards nihilism because science can't produce morality.
It is especially telling that Coyne chooses to focus on the desire to punish crime "for societal protection" instead of some more benign aspect of government for the creation of what he obviously believes is merely a necessary, what I assert would be very easily rejected, myth. Presumably the crimes that Coyne would care about and which will incur punishment, could be no less arbitrary based in nothing more solid than his necessary myth, temporary preference. How can science devise a code of civil law? Scientism would have to hold that those laws would be without real existence or meaning. Given his deep hatred of religion, I wouldn't expect the expression suspected as betraying religiosity could escape being criminal, eventually, in a government ruled by his preferences. Of course, it would be "for societal protection". That frequently mythical virtue is always given as an excuse for official depravity. It must be noted that, as bad as other governments have been at consistent application of legal codes, officially atheist governments have shown far less interest in abiding by their own laws.
Atheism, when based in materialism, has a history of denying freedom and with that comes a denial of rights, a denial of equality, and eventually risks the whole host of historical and political evils that come with the denial of those moral concepts. The major backing that racial, sexual, class and other forms of societal and political oppression have in the modern period taken on the form of science. It took the witness to the biologically based genocides of Hitler to shock Western socieites out of the deterministic "science" of eugenics. And, as the memory of that fades, eugenics, by other names, is reemerging and has gained a strong foothold among people with greater influence****. Science - for "science" is what is commonly taken to be science at any given time - has more than matched primitive excuses for the objectification of people, removed inhibitions to people being used and disposed of that are found in religions and philosophies. The very habit of science treats what it looks in that way, it objectifies even the organisms it looks at. Science can assert the reliability of its objectification with the prestige and authority it has, on the absolute foundation of materialism. It can assert knowledge instead of mere belief, in the popular imagination of certain knowledge. And it matches the resulting brutality of that objectification with increased efficiency in methodology. Science is efficacious in achieving ends.
I have not encountered many atheists who were not materialists, whether conscious of that or not, I have never met one who was not a true believer in scientism. If anyone has examples of atheists who are not infected with those anti-liberal, anti-democratic ideologies I'd like to read them. If some materialist has come up with a plausible argument for the real existence of freedom and inherent rights and equality I'd like to read them because I don't believe that valid materialist explanations of them can exist. I've looked and haven't found any who come up with something strong enough to counter the very strong force of selfishness.
I have no faith in the political or social efficacy of utilitarianism or the other proposed imaginary or post-post modern style arguments for the mitigation of the brutality of materialist scientism. I think people believing that other people are "meat automatons" or bags of chemical reactions, or any other form of objectification is an open invitation for them to try to use people as brutally as they do animals. And that they can do so with impunity if they are not stopped. That has been the history of atheism with political power, those experiments have been run. I believe that much of the crime and brutality of life in the United States is based in that kind of objectification, even among those who profess religion.
If I'm skeptical of the good intentions of someone who begins by professing a belief that people are imbued with a spark of divinity, that they are endowed by their Creator with inherent rights, having looked closely at the history and contemporary culture of atheism for the past five years, I'm far more skeptical of people who believe that people are merely objects, I don't believe that they are inclined, by their ideology, to see it as absolutely wrong to exploit, hurt or even kill human beings on the basis or utility or in furtherance of their personal (or ideological) desires. I absolutely believe that any society which regards people as "meat automatons" will eventually turn into a horrific, oppressive blood bath such as those which history provides as the clearest and most soberly real warnings.
Many people who read this will be deeply offended and angry. I am sorry that that will be the case. If I didn't believe that I was morally required to regard their feelings I probably would have said much of this in that original post linked to above. I don't see how any scientistic materialists could complain that, in response to one of their own, I have now said it. They don't have a right to my silence on these issues, especially when Coyne and many others makes these arguments in the very real, very dangerous realm of politics.
I am sure many will point to this or that atheist who demonstrated great benevolence and kindness. And I acknowledge that such individuals are there. Though I don't believe that their benevolence and kindness are the products of their materialism or their scientism. That isn't possible because neither provides the moral compass necessary to stick to those inclinations. I could speculate on where they developed the habits of thought and action that allow them to overcome, at least sometimes, the brutality of materialism but that's something they might best tell us, just as a religious scientist is the only reliable source of information as to their mental habits. But I have no faith in the abilities of large numbers of materialists to compartmentalize their materialist faith from the selfish desires we all have. History gives overwhelming evidence that selfish desire is only sometimes overcome by societies. And, as said, the history of atheistic governments gives overwhelming reasons to suspect that a country governed by materialism will always revert to brutality, it will deny the basic rights of other living beings as desired. Most brutally of all, those societies have been able to commit enormous slaughters on the basis of managerial efficiency. There is no evidence in the history of atheistic governments and groups that reason is anything like an adequate deterrent to committing evil. In their most developed forms, scientistic materialism will deny that moral categories are more than illusions.
The litany of crimes of that kind by Christian governments are undeniably a part of history, though, these days they are often exaggerated in anti-religious invective. Of course any crimes that were committed are an undeniable evil and must be remembered and condemned. But those crimes are of a distinctly different character from those of atheistic governments. The Gospel of Jesus forbids the violence and pillage that has often been done in his name, whereas materialism and science do not provide that kind of legal prohibition. Materialism and science can't tell that it is immoral to attempt a genocide. The resultant lack of hypocrisy by atheistic governments in their slaughter and oppression, due to that lack of discrepancy between profession and act, though, is hardly to be praised.
I believe that it is only a morality which absolutely holds all people as being inherently endowed with rights and free will and which explicitly holds that fact requires justice be done is an absolute moral obligation ON PAIN OF REAL CONSEQUENCES, which will keep individuals, alone or in groups, from treating other people as animals are universally treated by people. Without that moral force people will consider themselves as allowed to exploit and destroy without considering the questions of equal rights. Nothing short of that will work, it is hardly guaranteed to work even when it is present. And one of the most important of all those moral positions is the absolute belief in equality. It is also an absolute moral duty of government to not selectively shield some favored members of society from the consequences of their actions, making others pay and suffer the consequences of their greed and folly. People have equal, inherent rights. That is an idea you could never derive from materialism or science, Coyne provides no convincing case for holding powerful people responsible for their "crimes" without it, no materialistic system of thought could.
I believe that the history of peoples' treatment of other people and animals are far superior ways of knowing the fact that people have free will and rights than the highly vague, very poorly founded and very conveniently asserted "findings" of "brain science" in this matter. But that's an issue for another day.
*To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one has already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connecting spiritual values in general with determinate sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our DIS-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of its possessor's body at the time.
In the opinion of many thinkers, human freedom is closely connected with human rationality. If we were deterministic beings, what would validate the claim that our utterance constituted rational discourse? Would not the sounds issuing from our mouths, or the marks we made on paper, be simply the actions of automata? All proponents of deterministic theories, whether social and economic (Marx), or sexual(Freud), or genetic (Dawkins and E.O. Wilson), need a covert disclaimer on their own behalf, excepting their own contribution from reductive dismissal.
John Polkinghorne: Science and Religion
** The existence of these exceptions to what is taken as rigidly established reality is remarkable in itself as they would seem to be first degree relatives of the religiously proposed "exceptions" such as miracles which are rejected as an unallowable exception of "physical law". I've wondered about the relationship of the existence of routinely allowed outliers in scientific data to proposed miraculous events, but these huge exceptions in materialist scientism, automatically asserted according to subject matter and the individuals holding ideologies, are far more serious violations of their assertions of "law".
*** Marilynne Robinson has made a very persuasive argument that, despite widespread current belief, liberalism was a development from religion and not the so-called enlightenment.
**** It was, in fact, The New Republic, the pseudo-liberal magazine, which infamously promoted The Bell Curve. Coyne frequently writes anti-religious invective for it, these days. Though somewhat more decorously than he does for his blog.