[irrelig]Today we discuss the New Atheist movement in a wide-ranging conversation with philosopher-in-training Seth, who complains that the loose moral language that is typically used needs to be grounded in rigorous philosophical arguments instead of merely taken for granted. Also, Leighton chimes in with his usual high-brow, professorial commentary.

It’s all in Episode 74.

41 Responses to “74: Atheists and Moral Language”

  1. I get this feeling that we’re losing the debate on terms.

    Emotion and reaction are pretty identifiable. If we reduce the view of morality as a system of behavior that evokes positive emotions such as gratitude, friendship, happiness, etc from others, then we can easily win the debate that those behaviors easily exist independently of God.

  2. Dietrich says:

    Unfortunately it seems that Atheists want to debate with at least some honesty, either emotional or intellectual, and the other side has no qualms over using those qualities to their benefit and the audience’s detriment.

  3. Travis Megee says:

    What is the name of the podcast that your guest recommended? It was difficult to make out.

    Hey Leighton, don’t fret. There are others like you out here.

  4. I don’t like this Wikipedia philosopher.

    His problem is that the definition of morality that “the new atheists” use is not the same as his, and Dawkins and other lads, doesn’t have the authority to define or use in proper sense the term morality. And he said that they should think before they speak, which is really ironic coming from this weird character.

    And what kind of career advice this guy makes for Daneth – to become a comedian. I can imagine Daneth doing the Dave Chapelle’s routine.

    I don’t think that this podcast needs more University of Wikipedia graduates, since Leighton is already in this program.

    One more thing – Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking are among the stupid atheists who believe in UFO existence.

  5. Moggie Magfeline says:

    Loved this episode. I have never heard so many words ending in “-ist” in one discussion before. My cortex is throbbing.

  6. Queen of Hearts says:

    Loved this episode, but why no skunk dick or episode introduction?

  7. Moggie Magfeline says:

    I think next week’s episode should be a catch up “Skunk Dick of the Month Sausage Fest” to make up for all the skunk dick action we have missed recently. Chuck & Leighton, it’ll get your lazy arses out of another week of “in depth” research. Think about it.

  8. (was) somewhere in greece says:

    I am afraid I still do not have internet access outside work (but I am working on the problem). If you would be so kind to email me the episode again I would be most grateful.

  9. (was) somewhere in greece says:

    please ignore my previous post, as I have found a way around the problem. I apologise for any inconvenience

  10. Dietrich says:

    @ Boyko

    “Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking are among the stupid atheists who believe in UFO existence.”

    No no no no no no no no. They believe that life elsewhere EXISTS, not that we’re being visited by UFOs.

    And the rest of your post… what?

  11. I like it when Leighton says incorrect things about women.

  12. I never really got a handle on what exactly the guest’s complaint was. The New Atheists aren’t trained philosophers, so they shouldn’t discuss morality, because… why?

    Richard Dawkins isn’t a scholar of Biblical Hebrew, so I find what he says on the Bible laughable, and he should just keep his mouth shut.

  13. Listening to this episode made me feel smart.

  14. I have a few problems with Seth’s critique of the “New Atheists”:

    1) After you guys (particularly Leighton) tried to define exactly what his problem was, all that surfaced was that “New Atheists” propose some objective morality to counter the religious view that God is the origin of morality.

    – I disagree. They generally state that morality does not and cannot come from God. Then, they generally state several ways in which we derive morality, such as utilitarianism, survival, group survival, etc. I’ve never heard any of then state that there is only one objective morality.

    2) He said atheists should discuss morality in their own terms and come to a definition or consensus of their view of morality and ethics.

    – Then he mentioned that philosophers have failed to do this during several thousands of years. Why does he expect atheists to act as philosophers? There is nothing productive about engaging in mental masturbation about morality and ethics when you’re trying to prove that there is no god or that religion is bad for society. He seems to be upset that the New Atheists aren’t providing the philosopher’s side of the arguments. Well, that’s like complaining about the lack of gunfire and boobs while watching “Driving Ms. Daisy”.

    3) They shouldn’t use moraly charged arguments.

    The atheist’s opposition uses this language. It’s very difficult to refute or provide counter-arguments that don’t rely on the same language.

    4) I don’t think much of the audience of the New Atheists, or any audience for that matter, cares much about whether the morality that compells one to stand up and let a pregnant woman have a seat on a bus is intrinsically and self-contained, or a moral construct. What matters is that both sides understand we’re talking about a moral act.

    Again, complaining that the message isn’t tailored to his specific taste and interests. I’m reminded of a time my gf shut me up after complaining about how stupid an Ad for a cleaning product was. “That Ad wasn’t meant for you”. New Atheists aren’t “New Philosophers”. Will they talk more about the philosophy of morality or how morality is separate from god? Gee that’s a tough one!

    5) Some authors, especially Dawkins, have provided VERY interesting models for constructing morality, like looking at evolutionary psychology for example. Why wasn’t this mentioned? It’s not the typical “but what if we’re all someone else’s dream?” type of thing philosophers like to mentally jerk off to but it’s pretty interesting!


    So yeah, I kept thinking he was whining that he couldn’t blow his load while reading Hitchens because Hitchens doesn’t spend 10 hours talking about morality only to arrive at absolutely nothing.

    Oh, and no skunkdick of the week? WTF?

  15. Forgot:

    6) “Entretainers”? Really? They make pretty good arguments and provide thoughtfull discussion of religion and belief. They talk about things most believers I know have never thought about and probably never will.

    What are other “entretainers” according to this guy?

  16. @ Travis: That would be Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot.

    As far as the lack of Skunk Dicks, that’s something we’ll talk about in the next episode, where we tackle another bunch of inexplicably popular religious podcasts.

    Sorry for the silence, I’ve been working a bunch of 12 and 13 hour days.

  17. mowerdeeb says:

    Are you guys still in contact with the guest? cos I couldn’t really get a handle on what his problem was without some examples. Is there any chance you could get him to provide some examples of what he is complaining about?

    Also Hitchens lost the Sharpton debate?! were we watching the same one? Sharpton retreated to ‘you cannot disprove my personal relationship with god, so there’ blew a raspberry then refused to defend christiananity, the bible, morality or anything, even the moderator and a fair number of the audience were suprised.

  18. I was so proud that I knew what a “Hegelian” was (but I prefer Adorno)
    Awesome podcast. Seth made some valid critiques but maybe he should join the “new atheists” and help them rather than just complaining.
    Can a new age atheist be someone who doesn’t believe in god but does believe in a supernatural presence (ie. people who believe in “The Secret”)?

  19. Foxy McLovin says:

    Your guest kind of sounded like the original McLovin and Chuck did dominate the interview. He may need more practice.
    Fun topic!

  20. I agree with Ed and Mowerdeeb in their comments. it sounded to me like your guest was more about “I have a different view than the main stream atheists and it is cooler!” then actually giving valid points and examples to what his view is. This is why philosophers are not taken serious in the public eye. they seem more interested in defining the technicalities of words and ideas then trying to figure out a solution to a problem.

    Of course any philosophical individual will just stroke their ego in their big leather chair and puff on their pipe while disregarding my opinion on this matter. but o well

  21. @Foxy McLovin
    I DO sound like McLovin! I can’t believe it took me this long to realise that!

    Anyhow, there’s a lot of good objections/comments about my performance (as there often are. That’s what I said, Leighton.), which I will hopefully find time to address after I get some so I can begin giving a fuck.


  22. Oops! some SLEEP, that is. Freudian omission?

  23. I agree with mowerdeeb, I watched the Al Sharpton debate last night. It seemed to me that Al’s strategy for “victory” was abandon religion and make god so small a target that he was the only one that could find it. Honestly, I got the impression that the only part of “God Is Not Great” that Al read was the cover.

    For others, here’s the link:

  24. Sorry I’m a bit behind on this it’s hard to find time to listen to your podcast in between masturbating and making fun of mormon missionaries but I’ve recently discovered I can combine the two.

    This is my problem: [paraphrasing] “aside from Dennet there are no philosophers in the new atheist movement”. Are you shitting me? Even if we exclude lazy fucks who took undergrad philosophy to get into a hard science post graduate degree philosophers are hugely over represented in the new atheist movement. From the top of my head we have Dan Dennet, AC Grayling, Victor Stenger, Robert Carroll and Michael Martin, you could even add Noam Chomsky and Massimo Pigliucci depending on how rigorously you define “new atheist” (they’re both atheists but not as vociferous in the criticism of religion as others).

    It’s only really Harris who is making bad moral arguments and I think it’s the fact that he has an undergrad degree in philosophy is making him overconfident in his abilities in this area. Dawkins and Hitchens really do focus more on attacking the religious justification for morals. You can’t however avoid atheist morals completely and they generally do an OK job, they give examples of specific cases and emphasise the importance of reason when making moral decisions. I think that’s alright, we can’t avoid the debate completely without seeding ground to the religious or at the very least making it seem like there are no answers. We can never know metaphysical “Truth” whether we are asking a science question or a morality question but some answers are better than others and I think that we do need to say that with philosophy, science and reason we can give better answers to moral questions than we can with religious dogma. The only thing we can really complain about is Harris and his “science can answer moral questions” argument. If you haven’t watched the TED talk don’t, if you are a fan of Harris it will only make you sad.

  25. goodthink says:

    Not sure which Harris talk you’ve been referencing. IIRC, Harris made the point morality is not a problem for religion, but one in which science (and I believe he was referencing the epistemology of science) will ultimately provide the answers for.

    I am fairly confident in saying Harris does not believe we can grow morality in test tubes. His was an argument for a methodology and study of something long neglected and too often just handed over to religion.

    In this I wholly agree with Harris. And as Harris pointed out, we need a place to start, one we can reason from. I don’t mind his starting point (suffering), in fact I think it is a rather novel place to start since religious morality is detached from the quality of human life and is anchored merely in control.

    As for Dawkins, I hope you guys know he sends all his arguments to Dennet for revision and criticism. A Dawkins argument is essentially a revised Dennet position. So putting down Dawkins and praising Dennet seems shortsighted and ill conceived.

    Hitchens uses the arguments of Hume a lot. I see no problem there, and no need to whine about the quality or age of the arguments presented since every single theist apologetic is at least 400 years old.

    Hitchens has never lost a debate that I have seen. When he talked to Sharpton, Sharpton retreated and took his god with him. And that’s one thing that Hitchens has to be praised for and praised copiously. He does not abide fools, he does not concede that a particular god must exist, nor will he passively let anyone equivocate their god into a debate by magically transforming them into some abstract principal such as love, then suddenly re-assemble their deity as a bearded man in the sky once the talk of logic subsides.

    You can critisize the “Four Horsemen” in many ways. Dennet’s positions tend to be accomodating and he isn’t blunt enough. Hitchens is sometimes too coarse and blunt. Harris oftens takes it for granted that those listening understand him (I had a friend who believed Harris advocated killing religious people, others who stopped liking Harris because he wasn’t an atheist anymore). And Dawkins can be both tactless and naive.

    That said, this whole “new atheist” stuff is bullshit. Atheism has just started to have a collective voice. Voices in the past were just as vehement, just as relentless, perhaps more so. Or shall we also throw Shaw in as a “NEW” atheist?

    And I personally find the idea that philosophy should be left to philosophers a distasteful idea. The philosopher is the essential Solipsist, always ready to take matters into the absurd and often at extreme odds with a-posteri reasoning and pragmatics.

    Science is the study of an naturalized phenomena, Dawkins is correct when he points out religious claims are scientific claims. It doesn’t matter how many philosophers you can fit on the head of a pin who say his argument is shallow or crude, his point remains.

    Harris is correct when he points out religious answers to morality over the last 5,000 years have yielded no insight into what morality is, let alone what the basis is, or how to improve our lives – fundamentally the answers will come from science as we study what makes us act moral.

    I really don’t see the point in attacking the more progressive thinkers within the skeptical community who are actually making headway, are actually contributing more then ephemeral notions of the absurd to solve the novel.

  26. I have to comment on the Hitchens/Sharpton debate as well. I couldn’t listen to this guy after he said that Sharpton won. Sharpton didn’t even defend the bible or his religion.
    Just read through the reviews on Fora.tv. They seem to disagree with this philosopher-in-training. Its possible that Hitchens had some flaws in his philosophical arguments, but Sharpton was a joke and an embarrassment to his religion.
    Chuck and Leighton: I’m curious about your opinion on this debate.

  27. Harris’ argument has to be one of the finest examples of circular reasoning I have ever seen, and it’s embarrassing for such a blatant logical fallacy to come from someone who’s whole mantra is about logic, reason and evidence. Harris’ argument is that science can provide us with he answers to good and evil, morality and ethics. He says that consciousness is the key and that science can tell us how to maximise happiness and minimise suffering. The problem is that you have assumed as your premise that it is better to maximise happiness and minimise suffering, science isn’t answering the moral question the answer is already assumed. Yes it’s a reasonable assumption and most people would agree but that doesn’t make it science. The main thing most philosophers and most new atheists say is that science can allow you to fully explore all the consequences, all the aspects of any moral decision but we still have to decide which is the best outcome. He then went on to claim that atheists don’t believe there is a right and wrong (that’s a false dichotomy) and inferred that science has nothing to do with evidence and is just the opinion of experts (that hurt, especially when he used string theory to illustrate the point). Chuck was right when he talked about the difficulties dealing with lies (if your goal is to maximise happiness minimise suffering then you are justified in lying to someone in order to do so) and also there are difficulties answering the trolley problems. Science can’t answer moral questions, science and philosophy together gets you the best answer we can currently come up.

  28. (was) somewhere in greece says:

    My objections about this podcast were pretty much covered by Ed (thank you).

    Also re: New Atheists using moral language: Philosophers in Ancient Greece used moral language so they have the copyright and today’s defenders of religion should stop being such whiny little brats (apologies to actual whiny brats, as they have the capacity to grow into competent adults).

    Also, the one thing you could have a valid argument against the language of New Atheists you failed to mention. That is “The Brights” movement. I have read both ‘Breaking the spell” and “The God Delusion” and while Dawkins seems to be espousing the term “Brights” because creationists pissing all over science and evidence is too much for him, Dennett, the philosopher of the two, has completely failed to convince me. I can site examples when an atheist is also way back with the times, with Bill Maher being the most recognizable name. Why was there no discussion about “The Brights” movement? I get into debates with religious friends of mine, and while they recognise my valid points against religion, they trump me with “oh, people treat science as a religion, look at ‘The Brights’ movement”.

    In any case, this was a successful podcast as far as I am concerned, since it has generated so much discourse and re-visiting of ideas and arguments.

  29. goodthink says:

    “The main thing most philosophers and most new atheists say is that science can allow you to fully explore all the consequences, all the aspects of any moral decision but we still have to decide which is the best outcome”

    That’s pretty much Harris’ point. Harris is arguing that the basis for moral claims be founded on scientific knowledge. Harris seems to be following more in the steps of Skinner, that is, he wants to treat man not as a ‘moral animal’ with some magic/divine spark that emanates morality, but as a animal whose actions and needs create morality as a byproduct of existence.

    I don’t really see that as circular since there hasn’t been any real, or prolonged studies on morality rooted in biological causation. There has to be a reason why morality exists, it’s a costly thing. I don’t think it tautological to assume the foundation has to be biological, only that before leaving the biology of it, the biology has to be falsified. There is no reason for anything to think of morality as being more than biological, or that it’s theorized origins in biology reductionist.

    I will have to watch Harris’ TED talk again. I don’t recall Harris making the claim that science itself would create morals, or that scientific method would allow us to make better moral claims. From what I recall his entire argument was basically, “Religons don’t care how much people suffer, it is only concerned with control. A foundation in science can let us know how much people suffer, or the possible toll our decisions will have in terms of overall suffering, allowing us to make better informed decisions”.

    Which would be a rational way of doing things.

    *goes off to watch TED*

  30. @Markus

    I think you hit the nail on the proverbial head. Of course, Sharpon himself is a THEIST, and yet he argued from the position of the DEIST, making his “argument” that much tougher to obliterate. Of course it seems that he read only the title; but nevertheless, Hitchens failed to satisfactorily engage with the objections that Sharpton (Deist edition(TM)) provided.

  31. (was) somewhere in greece says:

    Seth, I just finished watching the Hitchens-Sharpton debate and all I can say is “Sharpton won? Srlsly?” The guy was more evasive than Sean! Hitchens was even prepared to answer questions regarding his dick! Unless I am mistaken, the lady who asked the question before last was Ayaan Hirsi Ali and everyone knows how justified she is in being against organised religion but the answer Sharpton gave her would have made me reject organised religion even at my most devout and I do not have personal grievances against Christianity even today.

    Answer me this: if Rev. Sharpton is a theist, how can defending God from the position of a Deist make him relevant in this debate? or the winning party in it? He is in a superior rank in a belief system than threatens with punishment of supernatural source those who stray away from the teaching of the Bible and how rejecting Jesus as your Lord and Saviour is a one-way ticket to eternal damnation AND may also cause you suffering in this life on this Earth, and yet he was equally prepared to defend generalised belief in a God on behalf of religions and faithful members that have radically different ideas of what constitutes a sin and what constitutes a life in faith. If he here my Reverent, I would have asked for my money back the very next Sunday.

  32. I haven’t seen the Hitchens-Sharpton debate but from what I gather from the comments it seems Seth is not distinguishing between winning a debate by using the debate’s structure against your opponent, from winning by presenting superior arguments. It seems that Sharpton kept cowering back and Hitchens had problems playing catchup with an increasingly reduced and irrelevant target. That’s winning by not losing, not winning.

  33. mowerdeeb says:

    Sharpton’s response in the whole debate boils down to “I have a personal relationship with god that you cannot disprove so you can’t say that that god is not great because he exist solely as a personal relationship between me and him that you cannot comment on and you can’t say any other god is not great because you cannot prove any other god exists” how this works out as either a logically tenable position or an argument for deism is a bit beyond me let alone how anyone thinks he won the debate with this pile of dumfuckittude.

  34. what happened to Ewa? did Leighton make one to many sexist jokes?

  35. @Ed

    Fair enough. I won’t deny that he hijacked the topic. I personally blame the title of Hitchens’ book (which was polemical for polemics’ sake) more than anything for unwittingly providing a modicum of credence to such overly-broad objections as those of Sharpton’s. Of course, the “New Atheists” thrive on polemics, don’t they?

  36. @Tort

    Sure, there are A LOT of actual philosophers doing a lot of important things for atheism, but they would hardly qualify as being part of the “New Atheist” movement. When I say “New Atheist”, I am referring to the largely non-academic, pop-culture phenomenon as exemplified by (obviously) Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris and the like. I hate to sound like an elitist, but if we atheists truly want to assert superiority of reason over theists, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. Logical argumentation may not be as visceral or immediately satisfying as the sort of caustic rhetoric utilized by the “New Atheists”, but I think that we ought to hold ourselves to a higher standard than we have been thus far.

  37. @Tort (P.S.)

    Cheers for mentioning Pigliucci! Am I correct in assuming that you’re doing something in the philosophy of science?

  38. @Boyko

    ………never mind.

  39. My advice to Seth:

    – Your whiny complaints about “new atheists” basically amount to: They’re not philosophers, therefore they can’t talk about morality objectively, therefore they shouldn’t talk about morality. Do you seriously think atheists, when debating theists, would concede a whole subject matter simply because of a shitty, semantic criticism such as yours?

    – Stop using the words “won a debate” or “lost a debate”, especially when you fail to specify the conditions that quantify a win or loss.

    – Stop using the names of other philosophers in your discussions. This sort of philosopher-speak is annoying and conveys no information to the 99.95% of the listening audience that have not studied philosophy in-depth.

    – For fuck’s sake, stop using the term “new atheists.”

  40. Duffman: Could Ewa really get enough of sexist jokes? That woman can’t get rid of me now. I remodeled her kitchen and because of this time around there I brought out the sexist in her man.

    Nah, she’ll be on soon. She dropped off a rather fascinating book which once I have Charley read it to me we’ll have her back on to discuss it.

  41. Universally Preferable Behaviour: A Rational Proof of Secular Ethics by Stefan Molyneux (available for print purchase or free download at http://www.freedomainradio.com/FreeBooks/UniversallyPreferableBehaviourEthics.aspx) might be what Seth is looking for.