While perusing Moldbug’s blog, I came across an essay titled How Dawkins Got Pwned (links to all parts of that in this index). The essay is a response to the book The God Delusion, in which Richard Dawkins argues that religion is a parasitic meme complex centering on one central flaw, an irrational belief in the existence of a god (or gods) and the further belief that one can know god’s will. In the book, Dawkins claims to believe in “Einsteinian [or Spinozan] religion”, which is non-theistic (or trivially pantheistic). As Dawkins describes:
Let me sum up Einsteinian religion in one more quotation from Einstein himself: “To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is a something that our mind cannot grasp and whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly and as a feeble reflection, this is religiousness. In this sense I am religious.”
Moldbug argues that Dawkins is mistaken in thinking that ditching “the God delusion” brings him into the realm of pure rationality. Rather, Dawkins is a follower of the progressive tradition, which in Moldbug’s view is basically a liberal sect of Christianity that has jettisoned a few bits of theological baggage:
So: Professor Dawkins is an atheist. But – as his writing makes plain – atheism is not the only theme in his personal kernel. Professor Dawkins believes in many other things. He labels the tradition to which he subscribes as Einsteinian religion. Since no one else has used this label, he is entitled to define Einsteinian religion – perhaps we can just call it Einsteinism – as whatever he wants. And he has.
My observation is that Einsteinism exhibits many synapomorphies with Christianity. For example, it appears that Professor Dawkins believes in the fair distribution of goods, the futility of violence, the universal brotherhood of man, and the reification of community. These might be labeled as the themes of Rawlsianism, pacifism, fraternism and communalism. [ed: Taking for granted for now that Moldbug’s assertion that Dawkins holds these specific beliefs is correct. It certainly seems that he believes something along those lines.]
My belief is that Professor Dawkins is not just a Christian atheist. He is a Protestant atheist. And he is not just a Protestant atheist. He is a Calvinist atheist. And he is not just a Calvinist atheist. He is an Anglo-Calvinist atheist. In other words, he can be also be described as a Puritan atheist, a Dissenter atheist, a Nonconformist atheist, an Evangelical atheist, etc, etc.
Moldbug, throughout his blog, often refers to this liberal-Christian progressive tradition as “Universalism”, due to, among other things, its relation to Unitarian Universalism.
Now, as it happens, one of my major influences is a sermon by a Unitarian Universalist. About Richard Dawkins. The sermon is in response to an essay Dawkins wrote entitled Is Science a Religion? (For the sake of chronology, note that these was published in 1997, The God Delusion in 2006.) In that essay, Dawkins argues that science has “many of religion’s virtues, […] none of its vices”. He asserts: “Science is based upon verifiable evidence. Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops.” Before reading the sermon, I would have agreed wholeheartedly with Dawkins, and insisted that I was by no means religious. After reading the sermon, I still thought that Dawkins was technically correct on whether science is a religion per se, but missing a more significant point. And I would have hardly quibbled with the assertion that I was a Universalist (even though that long predates my awareness of Moldbug’s use of the term).
The sermon, which I found via a search for the titular question, argues:
Dawkins complains that religion bears no relationship to this way of approaching human knowledge and understanding. The line with which he opens the second paragraph of his article is: Faith, being belief that isn’t based on evidence, is the principal vice of religion.
Is that, in fact, what faith is? Oh, I agree with him that this notion of faith is a major feature of bad religion. However, in science, would we let the common understanding of science of the populace at large define what the enterprise of science shall be? Of course not. Yet we have done precisely this with religion and Dawkins buys into it hook, line and sinker. […]
For Dawkins, the notion that science is a religion is unacceptable because he has bought the narrow and wrong popular notion of what religion is about. […]
In other words, if Dawkins was aware of (Unitarian) Universalism, he’d understand the religious nature of his belief system!
Let’s bring this back to Moldbug. First Rev. Young:
Dawkins goes on in the article to rehearse, among other things, what it would be like if all religious education were done from the point of view of science. It’s an interesting section of the article because what he is essentially doing is rehearsing the Unitarian Universalist religious education curriculum, as if somehow this never had occurred to anybody before. […]
Looking now at the various things that religious education might be expected to accomplish, one of its aims could be to encourage children to reflect upon the deep questions of existence, to invite them to rise above the humdrum preoccupations of ordinary life and think sub specie aeternitatis.
Science can offer a vision of life and the universe which, as I’ve already remarked, for humbling poetic inspiration far outclasses any of the mutually contradictory faiths and disappointingly recent traditions of the world’s religions.
When the religious education class turns to ethics, I don’t think science actually has a lot to say, and I would replace it with rational moral philosophy.
In fact, Moldbug argues, just this sort of “religious education” is a big part of how Universalism thrives (we’re back to that first link again):
Fundamentalist Christianity – I prefer the term “salvationism,” because the belief that only those who are born again in Christ will be saved is essential to almost all “fundamentalist” sects – certainly matches some of the above descriptions. […]
In the contagion department, however, salvationism is curiously lacking. Compared to other successful memetic parasites of the past – for example, Catholicism before the Reformation – its presence in educational institutions is negligible. In fact, under present law, salvationism is entirely barred from the entire mainstream educational system. […] [emphasis mine]
Given that America enforces a separation of church and state that excludes explicitly theological ideas from the public educational system, a meme complex that includes most of the religious beliefs of many teachers minus any religious beliefs that are explicitly theological has a huge advantage in transmission. Liberal religious sects are far more likely to generate that sort of meme complex for several reasons:
- Liberals are willing to revise philosophical frameworks piece-wise. Hence liberal religions are more likely to be coherent piece-wise as opposed to all-or-nothing, so they’re easier to revise further.
- Actually revising a religious meme complex is the sort of thing that’s more likely to occur in the mind of a liberal. The whole point of being a conservative is not to revise your traditional beliefs.
- Conservative emphasis on liturgical traditions makes it harder to separate theology from anything else.
So while I’m not so quick to buy that liberalism (up to and including the basic concepts of democracy) is a bad idea that leads to complete bureaucratic stagnation, anarcho-tyranny, or worse, I can see Moldbug’s point on the transmission aspect. It’s extremely plausible that many of the religious ideas from mainstream American Protestantism are transmitted frequently and effectively by the public school system.
Of course, my initial reaction to that agreement was, “so what?” But I would think that, wouldn’t I.
After all, the process that Moldbug argues happened to Dawkins certainly happened to me. I had little trouble (though the process took some time) discarding the liturgical elements of Judaism, a process undoubtedly made easier by that fact that my parents, despite their membership in a Conservative synagogue, had beliefs which more closely matched with the Reform movement (which Moldbug would describe as “Protestant Judaism”, mere theological window-dressing away from secular “Universalism”, and I myself described as “the Unitarian Universalists of Judaism”, years before I’d heard of Moldbug). But the same anti-religious-bias intellectual defenses, quite easily inflamed by Christian “salvationism” or Jewish fundamentalism, were (as far as I can tell) barely activated at all when learning about the causes of the American Revolution. Or singing “Simple Gifts” in music class.
As Moldbug puts it in part of his Open Letter, imagining an optical device that makes the theological atheological and vice-versa:
[…] More to the point, it [the First Amendment] does not say “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, until that religion manages to sneak God under the carpet, at which point go ahead, dudes.” Rather, the obvious spirit of the law is that Congress shall be neutral with respect to the theological disputes of its citizens, such as that described by Professor Hayes. Um, has it been?
In the Fundamentalens, Harvard and Stanford and Yale are fundamentalist seminaries. It may not be official, but there is no doubt about it at all. They emit Jesus-freak codewords, secret Mormon handshakes, and miscellaneous Bible baloney the way a baby emits fermented milk. Meanwhile, Bob Jones and Oral Roberts and Patrick Henry are diverse, progressive, socially and environmentally conscious centers of learning – their entire freshman class lines up to sing “Imagine” every morning.
Would it creep you out, dear open-minded progressive, to live in this country?
Imagine a Harvard that, as the Harvard of old, primarily emitted Unitarian and Congregationalist ministers. Imagine that these graduates, as graduates of the Harvard of today, went by the scores into government and NGOs and the educational system. (And what applies to Harvard generalizes pretty well to Princeton, Yale…) Such ministers are scrupulously careful about leaving out the god-talk when performing their secular jobs, of course.
Now, modern Harvard is not (for the most part) training ministers, and I assure you the world in that imagining is nothing like the real one. But what an odd afterimage the Fundamentalens leaves on the back of your retina! Especially when you look at the public schools.
(This post is reaching Moldbuggian length (note: actually not even close), so I’ll leave it there for now and pick up this thread at a later time. And hopefully move this blog back away from being the All Moldbug All the Time channel. But anything that’s taking up far too much of my mental time is an excellent candidate for discussion here.)
One thought on “How I Got Pwned”
The libertarian/ex-progressive might look at this and say, "Hey, academia/public schooling is an illegal state religion. We should work towards its abolition/separation from state". But perhaps the proper outlook is that the founding fathers got it wrong. State religions are inevitable. Therefore the goal should be to make it work well and be a decent, enlightened responsible religion rather than a dogmatic, stagnant one.