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Monday, July 16, 2012

Further Points on Reductionism

So, following my post on privilege that went up over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, the major sticking point for most critics, at least those who aren't pissed that I included a very slight jibe at the Pharyngula comments section, has been the assertion of myself and Dan Fincke that reductionism as a viewpoint is in large part responsible for the inability of many atheists to see beyond science, separation of church of state, having "In God We Trust" on the money, and other such "typical" secular issues, and adopt anti-racist, anti-sexist, queer positive viewpoints that would help the movement grow and actually make it relevant to groups outside of white male academics. Most of these responses, particularly the one of Mike Mei, the former treasurer of the Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago, have been massive exercises in missing the point.

For instance, Mr. Mei seems to hold the belief that at some point that I said reductionism, namely the understanding that everyone and everything is made up of atoms, is a horrible evil viewpoint that causes children to have nightmares. Or something.

I would love, LOVE for him or anyone else to show me where I said that.

To quote again from Dan Fincke (emphasis mine):

Atheists sometimes have an annoying tendency in my experience to be reductionists, especially about matters that are part of the social or moral or psychological world. They often want to say things like we’re all really just a bunch of atoms. There is a tendency to talk like the only level of explanation that is at all meaningful is on the physics level. Now, of course everything in our experience is ultimately physical and made up of atoms, which are further composed of subatomic particles. But that does not mean that atoms are the only level on which true things can be said.

I have highlighted here what I believe to be the most important statements involved in my critique of atheist reductionists. I never said, as Mei seems to insinuate in his first point, that I do not accept reductionism; in fact, while I did not go into it further in the post for Dispatches, I pointed out explicitly in my talks at the Center for Inquiry and Secular Student Alliance conferences that I know it's true we're all atoms. I would be a fool not to believe so; it makes me wonder what kind of a mad postmodernist some people think I am (hint: not).

Mei's second point interests me most of all:

2) Reductionism isn’t a normative claim.Being a reductionist doesn’t mean you should or shouldn’t be a liberal or a conservative. It doesn’t say if religion is good or bad (although it suggests that most religions are untrue). It doesn’t say anything about how you should or shouldn’t treat other people. So claims about reductionism leading to social ills are in the same approximate category as claims about atheism leading to the Holocaust or claims about Darwinism leading to eugenics.

I would think that Mei would understand by now, being a fellow veteran of many a Facebook rant thread, that invoking anything Nazi-related on the internet is instant disqualification, but I digress. This paragraph is the main area where he Misses The Point.

It is true, as he claims, that nothing about reductionism insinuates a political bias; it does not say anything about racism or ignorance of the issues of marginalized groups or anything overtly. This is the key word here. See, since Civil Rights, the United States has existed in a state of what is termed by sociologists as "color-blind racism;" in essence, it has been well documented, by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva and Ashley Doane amongst others, that at the end of the Civil Rights movement racism became far less overt as things like Jim Crow laws and legal segregation became no more. However, despite what the whitewashers of the world would have you believe (i.e. the people who probably taught your high school history classes, and maybe even your college ones; the richer your school, the more likely, it seems, this is to happen), racism did not die. Instead, it has gone underground, and exists a form we all should know well, namely, the virulent resistance on the behalf of most people to avoid talking about race at all costs, for to talk about it would be to admit that it exists. This happy lie has existed for too long, this notion that ignoring a thing makes it disappear; in racism's case, it has only allowed it to continue.

How does this work with reductionism, then? Well, take that viewpoint and mix it with the sorts of upper-crust white academics who sit at the top of the atheist movement; the sorts of scientists who work directly on things that prove the reductionist assertion; Lawrence Krauss is a particularly good example of this type. While Krauss is undoubtedly a brilliant physicist, the man does not exactly have a background of oppression; he grew up in lovely circumstances and attended Yale. He and Richard Dawkins have no idea of what happens on a daily basis outside their golden-spoon circles. They're not versed in the language or circumstances of institutional oppression against people of color, women, and those of non-conforming genders; for the umpteenth time, I will point to Sikivu Hutchinson's work.

So, they don't know what's up in the real world, in short. What they certainly do know, however, as all of us raised in the color-blind West know, is that race is a social construct. There is nothing biological that makes one race inherently different, or more superior, than another. Its importance is entirely based on social notions. Hence, my claim is that it is not too far a leap to make in order for such people to believe, based on the fact that we're all just atoms, the same old canard that race does not matter in the grand scheme of things. Thus, we have the movement's near-total lack of engagement with issues of race, gender, and institutional violence.

This is what I refer to when I criticize over-the-top reductionism. Not reductionism itself, but the ability of it to intersect with old notions of color-blindness to allow otherwise rational atheists to ignore issues affecting marginalized communities. This is the main crux that Mei missed, and frankly, I understand why, given our nation's propensity to ignore critical race and gender theory entirely as fields worthy of study; after all, were enough people to realize or care enough about the kinds of things I have talked and written about this summer that happen, the rampant violence by the state and others against people based on their race or gender presentation, then something might actually change, and the old guard of capitalist economists might quake a bit.

In short, the basic premise of reductionism is true. That doesn't mean bad things can't be done with it. And for fuck's sake, Internet, lose the straw-manning. It's getting really, really old.


  1. Agreed, but to be clear, Mike's definition was actually quoting one of my blogathon posts and I was intentionally being silly and strawmanning-y.

  2. You failed, once again, to make any link between reductionism and social problems in the US. You start by asserting the fact that yes, we're made of atoms. You then tangent off onto color-blind-racism and Dr. Krauss, but make no link between reductionism and Krauss' privilege, or reductionism and color-blind-racism.

    You ask the internet to stop straw-manning, I humbly ask you return the favor. You seem to have taken the mentality of a fundamentalist and use, almost word for word, the same rhetoric. (to paraphrase): If we're all just bunches of atoms, who cares what happens, it has no meaning. And to save you the trouble of saying "I never said that", here's where you did : "The reductionist mindset allows one to remove the personal from life; when there are only atoms, why should we worry about anything that make them up?"

    It's my favorite thing I hear from fundis, you know? The entire story they'll give you about being sacks of chemicals, life having no meaning, etc. etc. We call it a strawman, because obviously they're missing the point. We go into this rant about Nihilism and explain "Of course, it's the natural world- it's all neutral; as conscious beings we have the ability to bestow meaning to something that is otherwise meaningless."

    So here's the part where I say you're missing the point. Mike is correct in saying accepting reductionism contains no political (social or otherwise) bias. It's simply an acknowledgement of fact that we are a combination of atoms. But here's the cool part, because of the very special way our atoms are put together, we have the privilege of giving life meaning. And how awesome is it that no matter the differences, as people, we're connected through this. Through "race", religion, country, creed, we're all connected as physical beings made of these atoms! Seeing this connection and accepting that we're all the same stuff can lead to far more equality than this divisive privilege argument which points out the differences rather than the similarities. Or maybe you don't like reductionism because it's inconvenient to the privilege argument. After all, I mean, people get treated differently because we see them as "different" (be it sexual orientation or race). But hey, here's a solution, highlight that, at our core, we're all very similar and made of the same carbon. How about we highlight similarities and find connections rather than stand up at a podium and be a self-loathing white male.

    1. You must have a very narrow definition of atheism if you just want to reduce the entire movement to the discussion of atoms. Oppression doesn't only happen at an individual level, it's systemic, societal and it's pervasive.

      Also, why did you put race in scare quotes? xx

    2. We agree that oppression happens, systematically, and it's pervasive.

      I never said I want to reduce the movement to a discussion of atoms. What I did say is that andrew's argument blaming opression on reductionism is entirely wrong and makes no sense, at all... ever.

      Also, I put race in quotes because race does not exist. There is one race of humans. The human race. As soon as we accept this fact, we can drop this oppression bullshit, because its human equivalent is complaining that we don't like this a because it's black, or orange, or white, or grey.