December 15, 2020

Just before the US presidential election, several major scientific journals endorsed Joe Biden over Donald Trump. And I thought it was a bad thing. Since I wanted Biden to win, that might seem strange. In order to explain, I’m going to start by talking about New Atheism.

New Atheism was a big thing for a while, in the first decade or so of the 21st century. Then — suddenly, some time around 2012 — it stopped being a big thing. The whole internet seemed to be about evolution vs creationism, science vs the Bible, Dawkins vs God; then, almost overnight, it wasn’t.

I don’t know exactly what happened (although I think this explanation is very plausible). But around that time, something else happened. New Atheism — or at least the brand of New Atheism — morphed, or perhaps splintered, forming a new New Atheism called “Atheism+”.

In its original manifesto, written on the then-huge New Atheism portal FreeThought Blogs, Atheism+ defined itself like this:

We are:
Atheists plus we care about social justice,
Atheists plus we support women’s rights,
Atheists plus we protest racism,
Atheists plus we fight homophobia and transphobia,
Atheists plus we use critical thinking and skepticism.

The blogpost argued that this was simply a natural progression of the atheism movement: religion stoked racism, sexism and homophobia. In the act of throwing out religion, atheists ought naturally to want to throw out the “bigotry” that goes with it: “I can’t help but see social justice as a logical consequence of atheism.”

This idea spread around. Another part of FreeThought Blogs hived off to become “The Orbit”, which described itself as “a diverse collective of atheist and nonreligious bloggers committed to social justice, within and outside the secular community”. They declared: “Our site is feminist and progressive. We know black lives matter and that no one is illegal, we know trans women are women and that sex work is work, and we support a socially conscious atheist movement. As atheists, we believe criticism of religion must fall within this framework.” 

Other atheist bloggers joined in. For instance, PZ Myers, previously a New Atheist so firebreathing that he once nailed a eucharist wafer to some pages from the Koran and then threw them in the bin, changed tack to argue that “atheists ought to fight for equality for all, economic security for all, and universally available health and education services”. If you weren’t keen on Atheism+, he said, you could set up your own movement, called “Asshole Atheists”.

Equality for all, universally available healthcare, women’s rights, an end to homophobia and racism, social justice; these are all, surely, good things. Arguing against any attempts to promote them always feels like sticking a big label on yourself saying “Bad person here, please kick me (or call me an Asshole Atheist).” But the Atheism+ movement made me uncomfortable, for the exact same reasons that the Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine endorsing Joe Biden made me uncomfortable.

In my mind — perhaps naively — the atheist movement was about questions concerning the underlying truths of the universe: Does God exist, or not? Yes, it descended into flame wars and silliness, shouting about “invisible sky fairies” and the Flying Spaghetti Monster, but that was the flag it marched under. 

And truth-seeking is separate from social justice. The call to treat all humans equally should not depend on any material facts about the universe; it is a moral claim, not an empirical one. I believe that all humans have the same moral value, and that does not depend on whether the Earth orbits the Sun or the Sun orbits the Earth. 

Or, perhaps more relevant: I think women who want to pursue STEM careers should have exactly the same opportunity to do so as men who want to pursue STEM careers. That does not depend on whether or not women are, on average, less interested in STEM careers than men; nor does it depend on whether any such difference, if it exists, is “innate” or “socialised”. The two questions are orthogonal to one another.

Finding out whether the Earth revolves around the Sun is a different kind of question from asking whether humans have equal moral value. One is a question of fact about the world as it is; to answer it, you have to go out into the world and look. The other is a question of our moral system, and the answer comes from within. The same is true of women in STEM. The empirical question “are there differences in the average level of interest in STEM careers between men and women?” is entirely separate from the moral question “should a woman who is interested in STEM be able to pursue it exactly as easily as a man?”

Similarly, atheism is about a question of fact — whether or not God exists — and a set of subsidiary facts, such as whether He made the world, judges our souls, cares which particular religion we follow, etc. Social justice is a set of moral questions, about how we ought to treat different groups in society. It is informed by the answers to empirical questions — we need to know which groups are treated worse, if we want to promote equality — but the fundamental idea, that there should be justice (howsoever defined) between groups, is not an empirical one but moral, or political.

You can, presumably, see the analogy with the Biden endorsements. Whether Joe Biden’s policy goals were superior to Donald Trump’s is a moral, political question — one with, to me, a pretty obvious answer, but still. However, the Lancet’s job is to enable people to answer empirical questions, such as “What role does ubiquitin play in the cell?” or “Is the opioid crisis behind America’s falling life expectancy?” And I would prefer to keep those questions as separate as possible from the political issues that divide our culture.

I can see various objections here, so let me try to head them off. First: yes, of course it is naive to think that scientific questions are in reality separate from moral or political ones. I’ve written too often about how we believe convenient facts not to realise that. Right-wingers and Left-wingers tend to give different answers to questions such as “is the climate warming dangerously, and if so is it due to human influence?”, and that’s because Right-wingers and Left-wingers have different political beliefs and influences, and tend to believe the empirical claims that are most convenient for those political beliefs.

But most of us would agree that there is an underlying reality, a true answer to the question, which does not depend on whether or not people believe it. The question “Should we do something about climate change?”, on the other hand, is a question that doesn’t have a correct answer that we can establish by checking out in the world. 

Even if we could prove that it would literally kill every human on Earth, some people might say: “That’s fine! Humanity doesn’t deserve to live.” (People say this to me surprisingly often when I write about existential risks.) You can’t prove them wrong by showing them graphs of sea-level rise or atmospheric CO2 concentrations. Yes, humans struggle to keep empirical questions separate from moral/political ones — but they are, nonetheless, separate. You can’t get an “ought” from an “is”.

A second potential objection is more subtle. Sure, moral questions are separate from factual questions. But promoting the right moral answers is still good, yes? “Does God exist?” might be a different kind of question from “Should you be racist?”, but I think the answer to the latter is still “no”, and campaigning for more people to realise that is a good thing.

I’ve got two responses to that. One is about demarcation. If you’re the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, your job is to protect birds. Protecting old buildings is someone else’s job: maybe English Heritage or the National Trust. If the RSPB changed their name to RSPB+, and started campaigning to protect Battle Abbey and Stonehenge from developers, then I suspect that would not be good news for birds — even if we agree that old buildings are very important. Similarly, there are organisations set up to promote social justice, and newspaper comment sections set up to argue political questions; if the atheist movement pivots to do that as well as ask questions like “Does God exist?”, or the Lancet pivots to political commentary as well as publishing scientific papers, then I would imagine they would become less effective at their original remit.

The second response is about recruitment. If I want to maximise the number of people joining the RSPB, I don’t want to tell them that they have to care about architecture as well as birds: the set “people who care about birds and about architecture” is, almost by logical necessity, smaller than the set “people who care about birds”. Similarly, if I want to maximise the number of people joining my atheism movement, or reading my scientific journal, it seems counterproductive to say “and you have to agree with me on these political principles”.

In fact, I would go further than that. It is specifically bad, in these cases, to attach progressive ideals to the central truth-seeking core, because — for both atheism and science — the movements are already very progressive. For all the occasional talk of “sciencebros” and the arguments (prominent during the founding of Atheism+) about sexists and racists in the skepticism-with-a-K movement, both academic scientists and self-described atheists are overwhelmingly left-liberal. (Yes, it is possible for left-liberal people to be racist and sexist; but there is a part of the Left that considers the Right to be almost axiomatically bigoted.)

As we discussed earlier, it is already a problem that the Left and the Right disagree over empirical facts, such as whether man-made climate change is real. We may or may not agree on the right place to get to, the best moral and political outcomes, but we will have a more productive discussion about them if we agree where we are.

Tying truth-seeking organisations — the atheism movement; scientific journals — to progressive politics seems an amazingly good way of pushing right-wing people away from those organisations. I would rather more people were non-racist, and I would rather people voted for Biden than Trump; but I would also rather more people understood how science works, and when to trust its findings. If “neutral”, truth-seeking groups become associated with one side of the political divide, then I think that will make it harder for people on the other side to trust those groups, and it will make our global conversations that bit harder to base on commonly understood facts.

It’s one thing, in the case of Atheism+, to say that you are only against racist, sexist, homophobic people — although we should be honest with ourselves, and say that those words are often defined in quite broad ways which include large parts of the political mainstream. But something like 30% of adult Americans voted for Trump. I would like to do everything we can to make sure that, when the New England Journal of Medicine declares that a vaccine works, or that masks slow the spread of Covid, it’s not just Biden voters who believe them.

Maybe it wouldn’t have much effect — but then I don’t think the endorsement will have much effect either. As we’ve seen, most scientists vote Democrat anyway; a scientific journal endorsing Biden simply tells people to do the thing they were going to do anyway. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but it does feel like progressive people signalling how progressive they are to each other, rather than making any serious efforts to find people who disagree with them, and to persuade them to change their mind.

Of course science is political: its findings have political implications; its practitioners have political beliefs. But its questions are fundamentally different from moral and political questions: What is real? vs What do we want?