Positivists: Atheists for Science
June 23, 2011
Are you a Positivist? If you place your trust in science, and avoid believing in untestable things, you might well be.
Realists believe in only one reality, and for Positivists that reality is only reliably reported by empirical processes – by science, whatever in practice that may mean. Everything untestable can largely be ignored, except perhaps for personal emotions and those stories that are taken as fact – and even these must seem physically plausible and have trustworthy credentials. As Realists working with one clearly defined model of how things are, anything that deviates from that model draws a lot of attention to itself.
The beliefs of traditional religions inevitably look strange from a Positivist perspective. Some Positivists respond with curiosity towards traditional beliefs – it is a wild myth that all people of this ilk hate religion. Some even find ways to participate with religion on their terms, perhaps as metaphor or ethical wisdom. Some, however, find faith and mysticism so antithetical to their knowledge of reality that it becomes abhorrent, disgusting, or at least profoundly disappointing.
(There are other kinds of Realist, including Realists who have faith in something other than science, but these need not concern us for now).
Few if any actually identify as Positivists, although many people who call themselves ‘atheists’ could just as easily call themselves ‘positivists’. There are other similar terms as well – scientific materialist, perhaps, or E.O. Wilson’s scientific humanist (“the only worldview compatible with science's growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature”) but the use of ‘scientific’ in the description of a belief system risks being misleading since the term usually refers to adherence to certain procedural guidelines, and doesn’t make much sense outside of this context. Besides, ‘Positivist’ can stake a claim to being the oldest term for this kind of belief, having originated with Auguste Comte in the early nineteenth century, and having an unbroken connection with scientific practice ever since.
Positivism is not a religion, as such – certainly not to its diehard representatives – although like Marxism the temptation is always there for people to say that it might as well be. ‘Nonreligion’ seems a fair compromise as a term for the sort of belief system in question. If someone insists no part of their beliefs constitutes a religion it seems only polite to avoid using the term ‘religion’ to describe their way of life. ‘Worldview’, the other obvious contender, has the advantage of taking in both religions and nonreligions, but the disadvantage of blurring distinctions that both Positivists and the religiously minded tend to consider important.
Like a religion, a nonreligion can be practiced with differing degrees of vigour. The seventeenth century names for “dangerous” religions are apposite to considering the extremes of Positivism: Superstition for techno-fantasies like the Singularity, Enthusiasm for people who have attained strident certainty on some-issue-or-another, Fanaticism for those willing to act beyond the accepted bounds of polite society. There are, of course, also a lot of moderate Positivists, who are embarrassed by such excesses, but moderates are always invisible when your primary sources of information are looking for interesting things to report. Extreme people are a lot more interesting precisely because of their intemperance.
The “New Atheists” are not, as is sometimes claimed, fanatics, but they are enthusiastic Positivists. Dawkins, Dennett, Ayer and their chums know what they think and they’re not shy of sharing their point of view. Really, there's are plenty of things being said in the world more shocking than anything this bunch says. In a quirkily self-defeating fashion, however, they ardently believe evolution should be taught to children, yet tell people evolution proves there is no God. It's scarcely surprising this causes conflict with people for whom faith in God is a cornerstone of their lives, nor that it makes teaching evolution into an uphill battle.
Positivists have various views with respect to their enthusiastic brethren. Those that want evolution taught in schools have little reason to thank them, but most seem to see them as not a big deal, or as fundamentally sound people, despite their occasionally injudicious remarks. Quite a few are sympathetic to their views. However, if Positivists want to be accepted as part of global society, they might do well to thank their enthusiastic friends for helping to build a new community of like-minded individuals, and then push firmly for moving the discussion along more productive matters, rather than continuing to tub-thump anti-religious messages bordering on racism. Perhaps it is time to focus on the values and ideals that Positivists uphold, rather than fighting an ill-considered crusade against those who believe differently.
This piece is a terminological experiment; thoughts welcome.
The opening image is Essence by Jaison Cianelli, which I found here on the Cianelli Studios website. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended and I will take the image down if asked.
"If someone insists no part of their beliefs constitutes a religion it seems only polite to avoid using the term ‘religion’ to describe their way of life."
That's a change for you, Chris - a couple of years ago you were very keen to label such people as religious ;-).
Thanks for the description; I find it clear and a very close match for my own world-vi... erm, belie... er... reli... oh, whatever. The stuff wot I fink, anyway.
Posted by: Peter Crowther | June 25, 2011 at 03:43 PM
Peter: Yes, this is a significant change for me. I've come to the conclusion that the goal should be reconciliation, and that requires more flexibility in how terms are used.
I think calling Dawkins et al "enthusiastic positivists" makes the point I want to make *far* better than suggesting they are religious, so this feels to me an improvement in terminology.
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | June 27, 2011 at 11:39 AM