Scientism and snark

I’m always interested in what’s going on in the new atheist movement, and no internal debate is too silly or petty to grab my attention. Massimo Pigliucci, the self-appointed internal critic of the rationalist community and tireless defender of philosophy, wrote a paper, “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement” for the Midwest Studies in Philosophy journal. Although I am a sociologist, I have a strong enough background in science studies and the philosophy of science to roll my eyes when I see the word “scientistic,” especially when it’s in the title of a paper. (Also, can we please stop referring to “turns” in journal articles?).

Late last month, James A. Lindsay wrote a blog response to Pigliucci, which also happens to be a decent summary of some of Pigliucci’s views about the new atheist movement. From a philosophical standpoint, Pigliucci doesn’t think there is much new about the movement. I’m not sure why this is important because I don’t see a heck of a lot of people suggesting that the new atheism is new from a philosophical standpoint. Regardless, Lindsay writes “Most people do not care enough about philosophy to revise their beliefs. In all likelihood, they never will, no matter how many papers like his are published.” Although Lindsay goes on to explain some important differences between philosophy and science, he does a good impression of a sociologist, noting that the new atheist movement has been more successful than previous atheisms in spite of its lack of philosophical novelty.

Jerry Coyne offers his own review of the paper: It’s a nasty piece of work: mean-spirited and misguided. It’s also, I suspect, motivated by Pigliucci’s jealousy of how the New Atheists get more attention and sell more books than he does—and that’s just unfair because people like Sam Harris and Dawkins don’t know any philosophy and ergo shouldn’t have any credibility. In fact, Pigliucci argues, their ignorance of philosophy is deeply injurious to the cause of both science and New Atheism.” I can’t speak to Pigliucci’s intentions, but he does tend to go on a bit too much about the new atheists. I am not suggesting that new atheism could do with less criticism. Not at all. I just think it could do with less of Pigliucci’s brand of criticism.