New Atheism, Meet Existential Risk Studies

Mar 22, 2016

Photo credit: TheHumanist.com

By Phil Torres

While the New Atheist movement isn’t, and has never been, a monolithic phenomenon, its primary motivating idea can be reduced to a single statement, namely that religion is not merely wrong, but dangerous. In fact, religion is dangerous precisely because it’s wrong: it commands believers to act according to “moral” precepts and guidelines that are ultimately based on private revelations had by ancient prophets claiming special access to the supernatural. Put differently, religion is our very best instance of institutionalized bad epistemology, and this is what makes it unreasonable to accept. And when its doctrinal systems are put into practice, they often compromise our well-being and prosperity.

Copious evidence substantiates this contention. On the one hand, history is overflowing with bloody conflicts driven by antagonistic religious dogmas held by fanatics who cared more about the otherworldly than the worldly. And, as the 2014 Global Terrorism Index affirms, religious extremism constitutes the primary driver of terrorism around the world today. Even more, numerous empirical studies have shown that, to quote the sociologist Phil Zuckerman, secular people are “markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less close-minded, and less authoritarian” than religious people. And the most secularized countries tend to be the happiest, the most peaceable (according to the Global Peace Index), and, as reported by the Economist’s think tank several years ago, the “best places to be born.” While Christopher Hitchens’ declaration that “religion poisons everything” might be somewhat exaggerated, religious belief is consistently associated with diminished levels of human flourishing.

But I believe that the New Atheist’s position is even more compelling than the New Atheists themselves have previously realized. Concomitant with the rise of the New Atheist movement about a decade ago, another field took shape in some of the top universities around the world, most notably Oxford and Cambridge. This field, called existential risk studies (or existential riskology), grew out of the innovative work of thinkers like John Leslie, Sir Martin Rees, Richard Posner, and Nick Bostrom. Its focus is a special kind of tragedy known as an existential risk, or a catastrophe resulting in either our extinction or a state of permanent and severe deprivation.

While humanity has always been haunted by a small number of improbable threats to our survival, such as asteroid/comet impacts, supervolcanoes, and pandemics (call these our “cosmic risk background”), advanced technologies are introducing a constellation of brand-new existential risks that humanity has never before encountered—and therefore has no track record of surviving. These risks stem largely from technologies like nuclear weapons, biotechnology, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and even artificial superintelligence, which a growing number of scholars identify as the greatest (known) threat to the long-term survival of humanity. Add to this the ongoing slow-motion catastrophes of climate change and biodiversity loss that threaten our planetary spaceship with environmental ruination. While these two risks could genuinely bring about our extinction, they’re probably best described as “conflict multipliers” that will nontrivially raise the probability of other risk scenarios being realized, as state and non-state actors compete for land and dwindling resources.

Taking all of this into account, many riskologists believe that the probability of an existential catastrophe occurring in the foreseeable future is unsettlingly high. For example, last year the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the minute hand of its Doomsday Clock (a metaphorical clock according to which midnight represents doom) from five minutes before midnight to a mere three minutes. And in January, Bulletin board members (including 2015 Humanist of the Year Lawrence Krauss) held a press conference to announce that despite the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, the hands of the clock would not move from their perilous position in 2016. As a point of reference, the furthest away from midnight that we’ve been since the Doomsday Clock was created in 1947 is seventeen minutes, at the close of the Cold War. And only once before, at the height of the Cold War, has the hand been closer than it currently is today.


Source: http://thehumanist.com/magazine/march-april-2016/features/new-atheism-meet-existential-risk-studies

6 comments on “New Atheism, Meet Existential Risk Studies

  • One of the really worrying features, is that faith-thinkers: – be they religious fundamentalists, AGW deniers, anti-vaxers, New-Age Woosters, or anti-scientists in general; – are numerous on this planet, and most are utterly oblivious to, and in denial of, real catastrophic risks, even the ones who have their own fictitious “end-time” beliefs, are blind to actual evidenced risks!



    Report abuse

  • This struck me-

    As a matter of fact, a 2015 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that one can draw a fairly straight line of causation from anthropogenic climate change through the record-breaking 2007-2010 Syrian drought, the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, and the rise of the Islamic State circa 2014.



    Report abuse

  • If it does nothing but consume and reproduce, what is it? A virus, a bacteria, and schizophrenic people, that think they’re intelligent. Global Economy, is the leading cause of Global Warming and Climate Change. Global Economy, is reliant on exponential human population growth to work. The exponential increase in one country’s population, equals an increase in another country’s GDP, or Gross Domestic Product. Thus creating and sustaining the Global Economy.
    Problem, Human population growth in the last 24 hours, 200 000, that means you the human race birth and build a city, the size of Rochester New York, EVERYDAY. Human population growth in the year 2015, 82 million, that means, you the human race birth and build a country, the size of Germany, EVERY YEAR. This, is how the Global Economy works, YOU, are psychologically reliant on that Global Economy, so are 7.410 billion other people, that, consume and reproduce, faster than any virus or bacteria known to man.
    The greatest risk to man, is man, not asteroids, nuclear bombs, and other worldly phenomenon of uncontrollable circumstance. You ALL believe, in four words, written 2000 years ago, theists, atheist, agnostics doesn’t matter, you all believe “Thou Shalt Not Kill” is an absolute truth, as it pertains to human behavior on earth. This, is where you’re ALL wrong, for as long as man has recorded his history, he’s recorded his violence, it is a quite natural and normal human behavior, contrary to popular belief. Evolution is: A perpetual state of natural selection in an uncontrolled environment, adapt and survive, or die trying. Natural Selection, not National Election. Bibles, Qurans, Constitutions, Universal Declarations, Justice systems, ALL designed by man, to control the environment, so he doesn’t have to adapt to survive.
    This, is earth, did God put dinosaur bones in the earth, just to test your faith, or question your intelligence? YOU, are in fact, a very small part, in a billion or more years of EVOLUTION, on a sphere of life, that’s been here for billions of years, in the middle of that which is galactically infinite, there is nothing you can do to change that, and for 40 000 years, mankind has repeated the same mistake, with a 100% failure rate, name one empire, in the history of manmade empires, that didn’t fail? What did they all have in common?, They all thought they were intelligent, and could design a controlled environment, so you, how did he say it “Even more, numerous empirical studies have shown that, to quote the sociologist Phil Zuckerman, secular people are “markedly less nationalistic, less prejudiced, less anti-Semitic, less racist, less dogmatic, less ethnocentric, less close-minded, and less authoritarian” than religious people. And the most secularized countries tend to be the happiest, the most peaceable (according to the Global Peace Index), and, as reported by the Economist’s think tank several years ago, the “best places to be born.” While Christopher Hitchens’ declaration that “religion poisons everything” might be somewhat exaggerated, religious belief is consistently associated with diminished levels of human flourishing.
    “Flourishing” is in fact the problem, the quest for Global Peace, is the problem, and this guy (Phil Torres) is just claiming (he’s possibly an atheist), but yet still defends the religious ideals of “peace”, as you can see, this person cutting up religion, still believes in religious values, and it’s those values, that create the real problem, Global Overpopulation, to sustain the psychological reality, you have ALL been designing, for the last 2000 years. A complete psychological thesis of, history (40 000 years), psychology and human behavior, Mathematics, Law, and biology, (viruses) can be seen here, every human being on this planet believes in a controlled environment, whereas, the natural evolutionary process that created you, is anything but.

    [Link to blog removed by moderator.]



    Report abuse

  • Climate change will gradually reduce the quality of life in wealthy countries and cause massive displacement and suffering in some poor countries (Bangladesh springs to mind). The reduction in biodiversity due to habitat loss will be significant and make the Earth a far less interesting place to live.

    That being said, there is no way that climate change is as dangerous to humanity as the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cold War. The world could have been rendered unlivable in under an hour. Even if the very worst-case global warming scenario comes to pass, humans could still live in large numbers away from the coasts. Sea level rise will happen slowly enough that cities can be abandoned without significant loss of life in poor countries, and protected by sea walls in wealthy countries.

    This assumes that no new technological breakthroughs happen in the mean time. In reality, 40-50 years from now we will likely have robots helping us build structures 10x faster than we do today. We may be able to deploy clouds of intelligent nano-mirrors to shield us from excessive heat or at least inject sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere (obviously, prevention would be preferable, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards).

    Again, climate change will likely be a huge disaster, but more on the scale of a WWI than a WWIII.



    Report abuse

  • Jim Price #4
    Mar 26, 2016 at 11:43 pm

    While I agree with much that you say, I think you have these issues out of proportion.

    That being said, there is no way that climate change is as dangerous to humanity as the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cold War.

    The evidence from past history, is that climate change is many times more dangerous that nuclear bombs. In Hiroshema and Chernobyl, wildlife has recovered relatively quickly, even though radiation related illnesses affect a higher proportion of individuals.

    The world could have been rendered unlivable in under an hour.

    There would have been mass human slaughter and starvation in the aftermath, but many pockets of humanity would have survived.

    Even if the very worst-case global warming scenario comes to pass, humans could still live in large numbers away from the coasts.

    While the loss of land surface is serious, that is not one of the top issues.

    Sea level rise will happen slowly enough that cities can be abandoned without significant loss of life in poor countries, and protected by sea walls in wealthy countries.

    If there is a near total melt-down of ice caps, there is no way that sea wall will hold back a 200foot+ rise in sea-level.

    This assumes that no new technological breakthroughs happen in the mean time. In reality, 40-50 years from now we will likely have robots helping us build structures 10x faster than we do today. We may be able to deploy clouds of intelligent nano-mirrors to shield us from excessive heat or at least inject sulfur dioxide into the upper atmosphere

    Sulphur dioxide would just make ocean acidification much worse!

    http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/04/ocean-acidification/liittschwager-photography

    (obviously, prevention would be preferable, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards).

    It is certainly late, but as the costs of pollution and rising temperatures wind up floods, droughts, storms and expanding deserts, the message will start to be taken seriously.
    As the smart money, disinvestment in carbon polluters builds, the money for denial campaigns will dry up.

    Again, climate change will likely be a huge disaster, but more on the scale of a WWI than a WWIII.

    These wars are trivial in comparison to the damage and time-scale of climate change.
    If strong feed-back effects (some of which are already happening) kick in, the disaster (for humans and complex life) will be on the scale of the Permian-Triassic and Cretaceous-Tertiary Extinctions.

    https://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permian%E2%80%93Triassic_extinction_event



    Report abuse

  • I see a threat from the medical disinformation charlatans has had a set-back!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-35906470

    New York’s Tribeca Film Festival will not show Vaxxed, a controversial film about the MMR vaccine, its founder Robert De Niro says.

    As recently as Friday, Mr De Niro stood by his decision to include the film by anti-vaccination activist Andrew Wakefield in next month’s festival.

    The link the film makes between the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine and autism has been widely discredited.

    “We have concerns with certain things in this film,” said Mr De Niro.

    Robert De Niro, who has a child with autism, said he had hoped the film would provide the opportunity for discussion of the issue.

    But after reviewing the film with festival organisers and scientists, he said: “We do not believe it contributes to or furthers the discussion I had hoped for.”

    Clear thinking has prevailed, – but just wait for the howls from crooks and anti-science nuts!

    Mr Wakefield was subsequently found guilty of fraud by the General Medical Council and struck off the medical register.

    Wakefield was struck off the medical register for dishonest and disreputable conduct, in the UK, but has been given a warm welcome by US quackery where he loves to play the victim!



    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.