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ss triple helix - winter 2015,  Atheism, science and liberal values

Atheism, science and liberal values

Why new atheists need to know more of atheism's history

Review by John Martin CMF Head of Communications

We owe a great debt to the philosopher John Gray, (1) a former professor of European Thought at LSE and himself an atheist. Gray wants this generation to learn lessons of history. He confronts us with the disturbing reality that several atheists of the early decades of the twentieth century, notably Julian Huxley and HG Wells as well as Friedrich Nietzsche, publically associated themselves with eugenics and the belief that some races were superior.

In 1931, Huxley wrote that there was 'a certain amount of evidence that the Negro is an earlier product of human evolution than the Mongolian or the European, and as such might be expected to have advanced less, both in body and mind'. This was no isolated statement. It was commonplace among members of the secularist intelligentsia to look forward to an epoch when 'backward' peoples 'would be remade in a western mould or else vanish from the world' (as Gray puts it). Huxley, says Gray, admitted that the concept of race was 'hardly definable in scientific terms'.

He never renounced eugenics but his tone changed. This was not because his science changed but because the application in Germany gradually became known.

Of course, present-day new atheists would recoil if confronted with the charge that they support racial superiority. Gray points out that secular thinkers look to science for a foundation for their values. The new atheists 'have not renounced the conviction that human values must be based in science'. This position is philosophically flawed, buying into what is termed 'the naturalistic fallacy' - deriving 'ought' from 'is'. 'There are no reliable connections - whether in logic or history - between atheism, science and liberal values,' Gray insists.

But this is not just an abstract argument. Where political systems have attempted to assert they have a basis in science, the results have been disastrous, producing oppressive, authoritarian regimes. As we know all too well, the Soviet Union, driven by this logic, perpetrated a legion of abuses as it imposed its will on citizens.

Atheist movements of today have still not learnt their lesson. As Gray says, 'it's probably just as well that the current generation of atheists seems to know so little of the longer history of atheist movements. When they assert that science can bridge fact and value, they overlook the many incompatible value-systems that have been defended in this way.'

  1. Gray J. What scares the new atheists. Guardian, 3 March 2015 - all quotes cited there
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