Friday, April 29, 2011

Gnu atheism as prefigurative politics

Paul W. has a nice comment up about the differences between accommodationists and gnu atheists. There are a few missing elements that I won’t bother to bring up as I know he’s discussed them at length in the past (and this is just a comment, after all). But there is one point on which the anarchist movement perhaps has some thoughts to contribute.

Accommodationists generally seek to frame their criticisms of gnu atheists in strategic political terms. As Paul notes, their claims about our political ignorance are wrong, and their boundless confidence in their own rightness is baseless. As he shows, accommodationists’ arguments can certainly be countered in the terms they themselves favor.

A purely principled response also makes sense. The point PZ made several months ago about simply needing to live and speak honestly regardless of the political consequences is important both in terms of the underlying moral obligation and in that it calls attention, as I noted at the time, to the revolutionary potential of living within the truth, particularly in systems in which power operates through the concerted theater of submission and living in the lie.

But the gnu insistence on living and making decisions on the basis of reason and evidence (and challenging actions based on irrationality and faith) can also be seen from an anarchist point of view, as a form of prefigurative politics. Anarchism has historically emphasized the need for “building a new world in the shell of the old” – developing the sort of society you want to see within the movements for change themselves.*

The Marxists’ failure to appreciate this was the basis of anarchist criticism from the early days: Centralized, hierarchical organizations, anarchists argued presciently, were not leading and would not lead to equality or local control. States, made stronger, would not wither away. Party discipline and barracks-style social relations would not produce, even in the distant future, self-actualized people or a blossoming of free cooperation. An instrumental approach to the rest of the natural world would simply encourage further alienation from it….

In short, practices and forms of social organization would not magically transform into their opposites “after the revolution.” In precisely the same way, habits of deference and institutionalized patterns of irrationality can’t be expected to magically dissipate “after the acceptance of science.”** If we want a culture that actively values reason, science, and critical thinking, we won’t create it through promoting its opposite. We need to construct this society within the shell of the old - encouraging independent, vocal skepticism, reason, and epistemic responsibility and discouraging deference to irrationality and epistemic abdication.

I believe this understanding, though not always made explicitly, underlies much of the gnu approach. Importantly, it contrasts with the false image put forth of gnus as naively thinking that if religion were to vanish a wonderful society would magically appear (similar to the false notion that anarchists are millenarians who irrationally hold that the destruction of governments would alone magically usher in a perfect era). A reasoning culture is acquired and built through practice and embodiment in organizations and institutions. Gnu atheism prefigures a reasoning culture within the shell of an irrational one, and fighting religion is an aspect of this constructive, prefigurative work.

The gnu atheist project and its rejection of accommodationism therefore have at least three substantial justifications: as movement strategy (including in attaining goals shared with accommodationists); as principled, honest living (with potentially transformative effects; and as the necessary foundation for a freer, more reasonable world.

*I should note that atheism and popular science promotion have been central to anarchist projects from the beginning. (Indeed, these are inseparable from the larger anarchist project: participatory democracy and resisting authoritarian culture and social organization require broad scientific understanding and the rejection of the sacred and religious “authority.”) I don’t mean to imply that I’m the first to draw these connections.

**The anarchist argument that the Marxist revolutionary program was wholly inadequate – would not work to eliminate significant institutions of oppression but rather would expand and reinforce them - parallels the gnu atheist point that the accommodationist vision of science “acceptance” is meager and insufficient and would merely replace one form of epistemically-ungrounded “knowledge” and authority, and one form of unthinking awe, with another.


  1. I'd never heard the term "prefigurative politics" before. what a thoroughly useful concept, and the best argument against the "why are you whining about X when other people elsewhere have it worse" and "other groups are even worse at X, therefore you shouldn't complain" whines

  2. Yes, it is. Thanks for reading my old post!

  3. yeah, I don't know how I randomly happened upon it this morning, but it's kind of timely :-p