As a teenager, I saw no contradiction in following the tenets of both Marxism and the ‘New Atheists’. Both perspectives provide simple black and white answers to the problems of the world, and are mutually compatible in other ways.
Both can be seen as very ‘modernist’ ideologies.
The ‘New Atheist’ movement has emerged after the downfall of modernism, however.
Let’s be clear here and lay out a definition of modernism and postmodernism. I don’t really care if you have a different definition of the terms. Art, architecture and so on will undoubtedly have their own versions. Either accept my terminology or substitute the words for more suitable alternatives.
So, modernism is the belief that human society is an ordered affair with recurring patterns which can be identified. It is faith in the human power to comprehend such structures, and that understanding and knowledge is a fundamentally good thing.
We now live in an age of postmodernism, in which all human concepts are considered to be social constructs which can and should be rearranged for political purposes. This age is characterised by a denial of universality, an embrace of emotion over reason and scorn for any claims of objective knowledge.
Postmodernism emerged in the 60s as a response to the failures of modernism. The belief was that science and reason had only led to war and death, and the rigidity of Communist ideology resulted in the stagnant authoritarianism of the Soviet Union.
This shift in attitudes among the left gradually allowed the right to claim the language of the Enlightenment. Freedom, democracy, reason and rationality all became buzzwords in the service of individual egos. The right uses formal logic and philosophy to help justify pre-existing assumptions and prejudices. By starting with a false premise, they build an entire structure which seems reasonable on the surface but has rotten foundations. Many such individuals and movements claim to be rationalists, but could more accurately be considered rationalisers.
It was at least partially the terrorist attacks of September the 11th which pulled a number of left wingers out of the post-modern perspective and spawned New Atheism. Suddenly, religion went from being a harmless if annoying form of philosophy to a real and present danger in the eyes of many who had already rejected it.
I was never particularly concerned about Islam as a teenager myself. My enemy was the Christian fundamentalism which denied evolution and condemned homosexuality, which had a foothold amongst my peers and whose messengers were allowed access into my high school.
It was surprising, then, when I discovered the Marxists at university largely considered New Atheism to be a hostile phenomenon, a tool of the powers that be to justify their new crusades in the Middle East. Despite the persistence of Marxism itself, I found the left to have thoroughly embraced postmodern concepts.
In time, I too embraced, if not postmodernism directly, then the philosophical products of postmodernism. I spent a good few years embedded in modern ‘social justice’ as the evidence piled up around me that there was something deeply wrong with the ideology. Without a rigid structure, without a solid foundation, terminology constantly shifted, nobody could really make sense of anything, and anyone who tried would be shouted down. The loudest, most aggressive and authoritarian voices held sway.
When a correct interpretation of the world is said to follow not from reason but from experience, those without experience can do nothing and trust nobody, because for every experience there is another which contradicts it. At best, people will use their own judgement to pick the voices of experience they wish to follow, and use that voice as a weapon to fend off any opposition. At worst, it will not be reason but fear and guilt instead.
Postmodernism, as an approach to life, is inherently open to abuse. By denying human reason, it leaves people in a state of perpetual uncertainty which can be taken advantage of.
Modernism has the opposite problem. By elevating human reason, it serves to hide the role of emotions in decision making, and leads its adherents to a dangerous level of certainty. This certainty spawns authoritarian attitudes and a close minded unwillingness to consider alternative perspective.
Even worse emerges when modernist and post-modernist philosophy mingles and combines in random and unfocused ways. People become rigidly inflexible about wishy-washy beliefs, or render themselves incapable of doing anything.
It is, therefore, necessary to solidify a positive approach beyond both modernism and postmodernism. Despite modern usage, the term ‘meta’ in Greek means ‘beyond’. Metamodernism is a term we can use for a new approach, the response to the failings of both modernism and postmodernism.
There are other approaches and interpretations of metamodernism, which I encourage you to google if you are interested. In this article I will be outlining my own interpretation.
Metamodernism accepts the universal truth of an existence external to ourselves. The world is more than mere human perception. However, it recognises the limitations of the human mind. Although external reality exists, we can only understand this reality through ‘models’ or ‘simulations’. We make assumptions and draw parallels to similar things in order to short-cut our way to understanding.
The task of the metamodern analyst, scientist or philosopher is not to reveal a fundamental truth about the universe, but to improve upon the models we use. By understanding and overcoming prejudices, for example, we help people understand the world and enable them to navigate it more efficiently.
Metamodernism recognises that not all ideas are equal – that the wrong idea whispered to the wrong person can lead to negative outcomes. However, it also recognises that the alternative to free speech and free expression is tyranny. Because metamodernism understands the role emotions play in decision making, it recommends sharing and dialogue rather than antagonistic debates.
Metamodernism acknowledges that categorisation is a human behaviour which is necessary to understand a complicated world, and thus rejects a simple dichotomy between what is real and what is a social construct. Everything is a social construct, the only question is how accurate and useful the concept is. Depending on the level of detail required, a category cannot be founded on broad stereotypes, or rejected because of a few exceptions.
To a metamodernist, truth is a direction, not a destination. Rationality begins with recognising the inherent irrationality of the human mind. Instead of suppressing emotions or obeying them, the metamodernist considers emotions something to be aware of, which should be a tool of the thinking being’s arsenal as a motivator and source of information.
Metamodernism recognises the patterns and systems which govern the movements and behaviours of people, but also understands that the individual is far more complex than the sum of interactions between a few of these systems. Attempting to make judgements and pick sides on a personal level, without understanding anything more than the social groups into which these individuals fall, is a deeply flawed and dangerous approach.
Metamodernism seeks to rehabilitate the Enlightenment. Rather than seeing it as a project of the Western elites, Metamodernism takes a wider view of ‘Enlightenment’ as a global, millennia long struggle for truth and justice which the 18th century movement was a very small and deeply connected part of.
For a straightforward definition: Metamodernism is the belief that human reason is inherently flawed, and that complete knowledge about the universe is impossible, but that reason and knowledge are still worth striving for all the same.
As usual I am only touching upon a much deeper subject. There may be deeper levels of analysis, more accurate ways to consider a rejection of postmodernism. I encourage everyone to voice their own opinions, in a constructive manner, no matter how ignorant we perceive ourselves to be. Postmodernism restricts our ability to act decisively, while modernism makes it too easy. Have confidence in your current opinions. It is only through putting them into practice, testing them in the real world and in conversations with others, that we can see where we have made a mistake. Do not be ashamed to be wrong publicly and get corrected. Be ashamed to be wrong in secret and never learn.