Activism / Atheism / Politics / Religion

On Freethought, Atheism, Politics and Dogma

I came into the skeptical/freethought/atheist community from an already-establishing, somewhat radical left political perspective. For some time I felt most leaders in the community were simplistic and uncritical in their views of political economy. And they are.

But you know what? We all are. Any honest, skeptical starting point should begin here, acknowledging our own ignorance of the near-infinite complexity that is social life. That’s not to say we can’t understand aspects of social reality, culture, history, psychology, human desires, drives, etc. We can and do. That’s also not to say humanity is powerless in its attempts to make the world a better place in the most non-controversial sense. Science has greatly expanded our knowledge of these things. Life has gotten better for more and more people.

Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool

Slavoj Zizek in Liverpool.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The difficulty comes in interpreting the world. There’s something to be said for philosopher Slavoj Žižek‘s reversal of Marx:“Don’t Act. Just Think.” He’s not recommending silence in the face of injustice. He is recognizing the inherent limits of our answers to society’s problems and that we need to think more deeply before confidently establishing doctrines in our efforts to change the world for the better. Finding answers to how, why, and what to do (politics) is a tremendous undertaking fraught with countless, unforeseen problems having real-world consequences.

For example, in the United States, levels of violence have been dropping since a peak in the early 1990s. In trying to solve the violent crime problem at the time, numerous solutions were undertaken, particularly the “tough on crime” movement of many states and municipalities. So we saw increased incarceration rates and harsher sentencing. Lo and behold, violence levels fell. But they fell regardless of policies implemented. Why? (The tough question.)

Well, there is growing evidence that decreased amounts of lead in the environment may have much to do with lessening rates of violence. If true, this is something all the dominant theories of violence spanning the political spectrum failed to account for and are still largely silent in addressing.

Violence in society is obviously a vast topic. And certainly environmental lead is not the only component. I think we all recognize this truism. But in my opinion, when operating within a limited political framework people tend to privilege one or more interpretation, those which reinforce a pre-existing political outlook, while ignoring or denouncing anything that falls outside their limited interpretive perspective.

Political beliefs tend to ossify and resist alternative explanations. Internally their logic is self-apparent to the believer and should therefore be so to everyone else. But that’s not how the world works, whether one is right or wrong. Critics are correct in warning against dogma when it comes to discussions of politics and economics. Even well-meaning, skeptical, intelligent people can easily slip into a type of moralizing that ultimately demonizes opponents, real or perceived.

Let’s continue, humbly aware of our limits, willing to change even the deepest held beliefs if the evidence takes us there. It’s what we expect of others and we should expect the same of ourselves.

**This post was originally a comment left over at FreethoughtBlogs, for which no discussion was had.

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5 thoughts on “On Freethought, Atheism, Politics and Dogma

  1. It’s probably hard to get much of a discussion going by recommending humility regarding the limits of our knowledge. That one of those things that people believe theoretically but rarely practice. It would be interesting to know about an instance in which you, yourself, held a belief and then changed it because the evidence contradicted it. I’m trying to think of an example for myself right now.

    • It’s probably hard to get much of a discussion going by recommending humility regarding the limits of our knowledge.

      Yes, I guess it is. I’m trying to say, before establishing political and economic certainties, we need to step back, take a breath, and try to gain a broader perspective on things before being swallowed by dogma and irrationality. We need to do our best to explore a topic thoroughly, honestly evaluate claims and test any observable evidence if at all possible. No doubt this is a difficult task and too much to expect of most people. Doing so is surely a privilege, and with privilege comes responsibility. But it is worth approximating as best we can, how much we are able to will be determined by too many elements to account for.

      I think the first thing we will notice in our attempts is something we already know: the real world is complex, difficult, and seemingly mysterious. While human knowledge is expanding at a fantastic rate in our technological age, there is still so much yet to be discovered. And I’m not talking mystical. I mean real scientific discovery and enlightenment. The entire universe, from invisible depths to unimaginable distances, with our little planet somewhere between, exists to be discovered.

      Simply put, broaden your perspective if afforded the luxury.

      That one of those things that people believe theoretically but rarely practice.

      People believe it for a reason. And of course practice is difficult. The actual point is to try to challenge yourself. I see it as at least a neutral act and most likely a positive contribution (however great or small) to humanity.

      It would be interesting to know about an instance in which you, yourself, held a belief and then changed it because the evidence contradicted it.

      I’ve changed a great deal on many issues, ideas, conceptions. Usually the change comes from not knowing (ignorance) to knowing, be it a historical event, scientific theory, or anything else. And quite often certain assumptions give way to an acknowledged uncertainty (what I’m pointing to in my post). Also, I’ve been previously skeptical of many things having since changed positions due to evidence. Climate change comes to mind. As do questions of free will and determinism. But in terms of recently, I’d say the example I give in my post concerning environmental lead and its impact on declining violence.

      • Sorry, I didn’t realize from your post that the possible connection between lead in the environment and theories about crime had affected your own views. Crime is one of the subjects that I don’t have a strong opinion on because no theory I’ve read ever seemed to hold water, even the theories which emanated from the portion of the political spectrum I tend to agree with. I read the article about lead in the environment a couple of weeks ago. It sounds convincing, although it wouldn’t necessarily be an explanation to the question of crime, only to the question of the crime wave of a particular period. Since no society has ever been free of crime and there have been crime waves in other eras, there must be other potential causes as well. However, perhaps this might lead to examination of other environmental hazards.

  2. Well, to quote another Zizek passage (in spirit, since my memory is horrible), we do not have to identify, we have to start to fight for the other! So politics requires not merely accepting the limits of the lostness in the left, but also take up the fight with the oppressed.

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