Why atheists tend to act like creationists in politics

Homer Simpson

So we should base our political model on centralized power? It all makes sense now!

Few biologists give much credence to the idea of a 6,000-year-old universe that was intelligently designed by a personified deity. (When I say “few” I mean practically none.) But a funny thing happens to people on the long road from a metaphysical position to a political one. They tend to forget everything along the way.

Many atheists accept that the theory of evolution is the best explanation for biological diversity on our planet. The earth’s flora and fauna is, biologically speaking, the net result of natural selection over billions of years. Species that exhibited traits that would help them thrive, did so. Groups within each species that exhibited traits that would help them thrive, did so. And so on and so on….

The entire idea of intelligent design – of a centralized source guiding every process – is discarded as naive at best. And yet, and I promise to not take this out of context, let’s look at what bioethicist Richard Dawkins said about politics and ethics:

“Let’s intelligently design our morality rather than trying to read what’s right and wrong in a 3,000-year-old book.” (Richard Dawkins, 4/1/12, addressing a group at Newport High School.)

Now, I completely understand how Dawkins is using this phrase. He is having a bit of fun with it and trying to re-purpose it for the sake of his ethical and political beliefs. In that, I grant him great leeway due to poetic license.

But I wonder if this comment reveals a deeper contradiction in the minds of many atheists?

“It’s a reprehensible and deplorable fact that many people buy into the preposterous idea that you actually need religion in order to be good,” Dawkins went on to say.

Dawkins was, of course, speaking to the metaphysical aspects of religion. Religious fables do poorly in ring matches with sciences on the physical universe. This is why the Catholic Church long threw in the towel on the whole age of the universe/evolution thing. There was simply too much evidence to resist.

But then think about what Dawkins does suggest with his playful use of the word “intelligent design” when it comes to developing ethics (and, by natural consequence, a political system). Is he not guilty of ignoring the model of the natural world – of natural selection – when it comes to being “good?”

He is saying, for billions of years, the earth developed according to random, natural selection, thus producing the rich, healthy, evolved biodiversity we see today. Based on this, is he suggesting for us to go ahead and ignore these principles and act like a theistic god and “intelligently design” our political systems?

What happened to natural selection?

Some people use the term “social Darwinism” as way to poison the well before this question can even be seriously considered. The presumption is that the process of natural selection, applied to ethics and politics, is barbaric. But this logical fallacy is simply an exaggeration of a position. Political groups, such as early Democrats who championed classical liberalism, had a far different take on social Darwinism (though they never would call it that).

Early Democrats believed in a political process that far more resembled Darwin than Dawkins. These classical liberals believed in the wisdom of the universe and applied that to democratic principles. They fought against the elitist view that only a select, few wise people should run the affairs of a nation. Rather, we should – in as much as we can – trust the natural dynamic of group interaction, keeping power in the hands of individuals, not a centralized state controlled by a small number of sages (or one) who intelligently designed its systems and policies.

I'll do whatever POTUS says

One early Democrat was John L. O’Sullivan, the man responsible for the phrase, “The best government is that which governs least.” This wasn’t an anarchist’s position. This was someone who believed in liberal (liberty) democracy. His model wasn’t intelligent design. It was nature itself.

Democrats have changed a lot since the days of Grover Cleveland and John L. O’Sullivan. Today, Libertarians are closest to what Democrats used to be (maximum social freedoms and limited centralized government).

If Richard Dawkins, or any atheist for that matter, really wants to build consensus around their metaphysical viewpoints on the nature of reality, perhaps they should strive toward more consistency. Maybe intelligent design should be ejected from both the science classroom and the civics one.

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About SWIRLosopher

The SWIRLosopher is Sean Trapani, a professor emeritus of advertising who - despite a degree in philosophy - has abandoned all reason and is trying to make a living in the wine business.

24 thoughts on “Why atheists tend to act like creationists in politics

  1. “He is saying, for billions of years, the earth developed according to random, natural selection, thus producing the rich, healthy, evolved biodiversity we see today.”

    The rich biodiversity in which 99% of all species that ever existed are now extinct.

    “What happened to natural selection?”

    It’s a description of how animals (including humans) act in nature. It isn’t a philosophy of how to act in a society.

  2. You’re deeply confused. Atheists have no political philosophy. Atheism isn’t a philosophy at all. There’s only one thing you need to be an atheist, and that’s not believing in God. That’s it. There are all kinds of atheists, because other than that one requirement, they can be anywhere on the political ladder. They can have different beliefs about religion (dislike / apathy / think it’s a good force for the world).

    • Larry, you’re correct. Strictly speaking, I’m guilty of cum hoc ergo proctor hoc (causation/correlation fallacy). However, I was speaking to the broader correllation (not causation) that atheists TEND to be liberal in their politics, as well.

  3. Well we don’t use natural selection in politics because we don’t think it will increase wellbeing. We use it in biology because it gives a splendid explanation with predictive value of how things work. I think you’re confusing atheism with religion here. Basically most people are atheists because of their worldview, it’s a result of. With religion it’s often the other way around it seems, you believe in revelation and you base your world view on this account of revelation. Atheism is an admission that you’ve seen no evidence of revelation, no evidence of god. But an evidence-based worldview and skepticism resulted in atheism not the other way around. Of course this is just my experience and it’s hard not to be simplistic if you want to spend hours on end.

    • Sir Ian, I am curious to know your thoughts. Do you think natural selection in politics will not increased well being, or are you merely describing your sense of the consensus generally? If that is your position and not merely a description, what do you suppose explains why politics is different than the nature from which it rises?

      • What ? Could you give me a concrete example of how you would apply natural selection in politics ? It doesn’t really make sense to be honest. Natural selection formed human nature but isn’t part of it. It’s a theory with predictive value, it has nothing to do with politics.

      • If natural selection formed human nature, and politics results from human nature, wouldn’t it follow that politics derives from the process of natural selection? I’m not suggesting “applying” natural selection to politics. I am wondering what, if any, relationship there is between the process of natural selection that results in human nature being what it is and the result of mankind’s politics being what it is. In other words, if natural selection has the predictive qualities you suggest, why is the nature of mankind exempt from that power. Or is it?

  4. Well the nature of mankind isn’t exempt from it. If you look at all the fallacies we commit, the heuristics and the irrational behavior in general this perfectly reflects what we would predict given evolution. However I have yet to come up with a predictive claim on how human nature will evolve haven’t really booked up on the matter. I don’t see how it’s going to say anything about politics though and I honestly don’t get why you’d bring it up, it’s almost like relating atomic theory to economics. Sure you could do it given you have enough knowledge (which we don’t have and due to the uncertainty principle and computation power probably never will) but it’s just easier to look at a different scale.

    • You should really just book up on sociobiology. There are people more eloquent to deal with this. I’m quite fascinated by it myself but I think the field is to big for me to comprise in a few posts even if I would have had the qualifications.

    • Sir Ian, like a plane dropping flares to defend itself from a missle, it seems as if you’re employing a series of countermeasures in hope of distracting us from the argument, which is rather simple. Does human thought result as a consequence of natural or supernatural processes? If natural, then why would thought, political or otherwise, be considered outside of the realm of natural selection, which describes both why and how species interact and thrive.

  5. Natural processes of course. But how do you go from natural processes to we should use natural selection to describe how we thrive and interact in processes. I may be proven wrong but it look’s like there are better ways to do it. Why would you do it ? What are the practical benefits ?

    • We cannot use “practical benefits” as a metric for seeking truth. There may be “practical benefits” for a society to have a shared belief in a god, but that won’t make the existence of god true. To prescribe moral obligations unto another person assumes that those moral values are true, not simply possessing practical value. And if practical value is the only metric for law, the minority is always going to be in for a rough time – including the minority of one individual.

      • You are arguing besides the point. I am not saying we should do this, I am saying that if describing something doesn’t make sense we shouldn’t do it. We shouldn’t try to describe politics with natural selection unless we have good reason too, we shouldn’t try to describe economics using atomic theory and so on. If a model does not further our understanding then there is no point in using it and until we can prove it does further this understanding we should assume it doesn’t. That being said I don’t think I get what you’ve been trying to get at the whole time and vice versa. Have a nice day.

      • Sorry to frustrate you. Not my point, and I apologize. I completely understand what you’re saying. You’re saying, I believe, why use natural selection (as a model) to describe politics (as a model). My point is, why would we not? Group behavior that leads to the fitness of the individual animal and group is part of natural selection. Politics is the name given to what humans do (via their thought and behavior) to manage the fitness of the group (society). The burden of proof lies on those claiming that the political action of a human is somehow outside of the Darwinian process.

      • While I am deeply fascinated by the question I still don’t get how we’ve come to it 😛 I am sorry but I feel like I am yet unqualified to answer that question. I’m going to assume it is part of sociobiology ? I’m going to book up on that matter (was already going too) any suggestions ?

      • That’s by O welles, I’ve read on human nature. Check that out too. I’m really geeky about that book tbh, It’s ma fav so far, I’s just awesome in so many ways.

    • I’m not looking for the universal constant (well, I am, but not here). My only point is to concur with the thesis of the blog post, that non-theists cannot insist upon treating politics as if it is above the very system their logic claims produced it. If natural selection begat ethics, and ethics begets politics, then one cannot object to the notion that politics is a product of natural selection. Which begs the question why the term “social Darwinism” is a term of derision.

      Not to stray from the topic, but I would go even further in agreeing that collectivists, especially those of an atheist stripe, tend to try to have it both ways. They veer toward statist politics that tend toward collectivist (read, coerced) solutions, while claiming that nature must be free to grow into its most productive genetic coding. I see an unholy alliance here between the theistic and atheistic collectivists. But I digress from the central point…

      There is a profound practicality to understanding the nature of ethics and politics. The most immediate example would be being able to spot a politician who is trying to get away with having it both ways–claim a non-theistic ethic, but use a non-natural system to explain (or impose) his politics or ethics. Theists have it pretty easy here. They just point to their book, or what not, and they’re pretty much done. Atheists bear an immense burden, which I think is assisted in knowing the nature of their ethical impulses and imperatives.

      • Well I think I’m starting to get what you’re getting at. Well yeah, we can discover our human nature. And natural selection and evolution does predict many cognitive biases and fallacy’s. But are you suggesting that we should apply natural selection to our policies ? How would you do that in practical terms. Give 1 or 2 examples please.

      • The larger point of Sean’s blog post (he can speak for himself) was to point out that when atheists suggest that “society” and how we act in it somehow stands above and distinct from nature and how animals act in it, they are acting no different from theists. I would cite as an example Larry’s post above. Larry suggests that natural selection “is an explanation of how animals act in nature…it is not a philosophy of how to act in a society”. To make that claim, Larry (whose position is common among atheists and theistic collectivists) must hold that society is not from nature, i.e. is supernatural. He would not admit that, of course, but that is where his position leads–which is the same end point of theism, politically. Hence my allusion to the unholy alliance between them. This explains Sean’s description of the migration of “liberals” from a political philosophy of liberty to one of statism.

      • As I see it, it’s not so much about “applying” natural selection to politics. It’s about understanding that there isn’t a distinction between that which produces our ethics and that which produces our politics. The most concrete I can get (which goes well beyond the blog post) is the basic approach of applying liberty as a fundamental principle to politics, just as we do with ethics. For example, it is a fundamental tenet of ethics that freedom of choice is a necessary precondition of any moral act. It is nonsensical to refer to a compelled act as a moral one. I would see no reason not to extend that ethical rule into the realm of politics. Since a compelled act cannot be moral, and the whole point of government is to be the monopoly of force, govt is therefore not a moral actor, as such. It merely compels (or restrains) action. So it’s role should be to ensure the maximum personal autonomy sphere necessary for moral actors (the individual) to make choices. It’s role should not be to compel moral action, for that is nonesensical.

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