Michael Lackey – Science, Postmodernism, and the Varieties of Black Humanism

October 03, 2008

Michael Lackey teaches courses in twentieth-century American and African American literature at the University of Minnesota, Morris. A recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Fellowship, he has published articles in many journals, including Philosophy and Literature, Journal of the History of Ideas, and the Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History. University Press of Florida has recently published his book, African American Atheists and Political Liberation: A Study of the Socio-Cultural Dynamics of Faith, which was named a “Choice Outstanding Academic Title” for 2007. He is currently working on his second book, which is tentatively titled: Modernist God States: A Literary Study of the Theological Origins of Totalitarianism.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Michael Lackey talks about black liberation atheism, and the view among certain black intellectuals that belief in God results in racial inequality. He explores the black intellectual critique of the Enlightenment and of humanism, and how this has played out in post-modernist skepticism of humanism, science and reason in the academy. Focusing on Richard Wright, he explains the view that the real value of science is how it is democratic, not necessarily that it leads to “the truth”. And he talks about the correspondence theory of truth and why he rejects it.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, October 3rd, 2008. 

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My guest this week is Michael Lacky, an English professor at the University of Minnesota, Maurice, where he teaches courses in 20th century American and African-American literature. A recipient of the Alexander phone Humboldt Fellowship, he’s published articles in a number of journals, including Philosophy and Literature and the Journal of the History of Ideas. He’s the author of African American Atheists and Political Liberation A Study of the Socio Cultural Dynamics of Faith. 

This book was named A Choice outstanding academic title for 2007. He’s currently working on a second book entitled Modernist God States, a literary study of the Theological Origins of Totalitarianism. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, Professor Michael Lacky. Thank you for having me. First off, Professor. Why, as a white academic, why did you start writing about black atheists? 

Well, you know, it started initially with the project, about 80 of them in the late 19th and early 20th century. And I was really just going to try to lay out the varieties of atheists, you know, nihilism in absurdism that, you know, a kind of positive escapism. It’s I was taking a look at the different types of ageism, and I ended up reading Richard Wright. I started to notice that there was something very different about his kind of 80s when I read Works by Rupert Brooke. I always noticed that there’s this overwhelming sense of despair. Thomas Hardy’s 80s, I’m like, God is dead. Oh, this is terrible. This is awful. But I noticed among black writers, I started off with Richard Wright, but I moved to know the last James Bond or Neale Hurston that these writers were responding very differently and they were saying, God is dead. Yay! This is the best thing that could ever happen to us. And this made me ask the question, what’s going on here? Why is there such a radical difference between, you know, a number of these white atheists and these black atheists? And so I ended up trying to pursue this line as far as I could. And what I what I discovered was that a number of your white atheists were thinking about God in relationship to morality, God in relationship to systems of knowledge. And they were generally concluding, if there is no God, then there can be no morality. So this is awful. This is terrible. Whereas black writers, by contrast, were saying there is no God gay. This is great because now the legitimizing concept that the white community is used to justify atrocities against blacks is now gone. 

So rather than liberation theology, it was liberation Athie ism? 

Yeah, that’s exactly right. And so, no, these writers saw this as a movement and as a possibility for liberating the black community. And in two different ways, though. On the one hand, a number of the black atheists were really angry that people in the black community were not taking up arms against the white community. And they thought that religion was leading to a kind of passive response in the black community. And so they were really angry that black people were not taking up the mantle of freedom. But they were also angry about the way the white community was using the God concept to justify violating black people. So there are two components to this, which explains why they were not upset when God dies. I mean, they were really happy about this. 

So the argument was something like believing in God and his chosen people. It led to a belief in superiority and inferiority. So if that’s pushed on the black community, seeing the antebellum south and you’re kind of told this is your place, slaves obey your slave owners, that’s coming right out of the Bible or Matthew 633, you know, think he on the things the kingdom of heaven. Don’t worry about this world religion was used to oppress. But there was more than that going on. There was a criticism of the black community saying, yes, you’re partly responsible for this because your God belief is allowing this to happen. 

That’s exactly right. And there’s this really good novel by none of our thing called Quicksand. And the main character in the novel, her name is held a crane. And he has this really interesting moment when she finally comes to realization that there is no God. And she starts looking around, Terry, to try to figure out how did I get sucked into belief. And then she looks, she says, and 10 million black folk have also got sucked into this belief that he begins to realize that what’s going on here, at least in this novel, it’s more than just one individual having done a lot of damage to herself through religious belief. But it’s the whole black community. And so, no, Larssen as a black woman was really trying to understand how the black community could adopt religious belief, even if it was really debilitating, that even if it was really hurting them and this was her agenda to try to figure this out in the novel, I have to recommend it. It’s really brilliant. Tries to explain, I think, why so many prominent black intellectuals became atheist. 

This is a little like the role of Athie ism in the feminist movement. There’s Margaret Sanger’s motto, No Gods, No Masters. So you’re saying these black intellectuals argue that Athie ism was necessary in order to achieve a kind of social justice? But how successful was this black liberation, Athie? You look at the black community these days. Look, it’s very religious. Religion played a central role in the civil rights movement. So it kind of seems like these black intellectual atheists were just talking to themselves about Athie ism. They didn’t really have you know, they didn’t have much sway in the black community. 

You know, there are two people that have a really interesting response to this. One of them is Chromite Anthony Appiah. He’s a contemporary black scholar. And Richard Wright and both of them make a similar argument. They say, look, you know, Athie, Islam, agnosticism, skepticism. These are things that really take hold among intellectuals. And Richard Wright in his novel, The Outsider, actually makes a really clever argument. He says God is dead, but he’s dead only among intellectuals. He says if you look at the masses, the masses, by and large believe and it doesn’t matter whether the black masses are white masses, by and large, then the majority of the culture are believers. And so I think Richard Wright would say that among black intellectuals, yes, there has been quite a few, quite a few atheists, quite a few atheist agnostic humanism, lumping them all into one category, even though there are clear distinctions between them. Right. But, you know, I give lectures all over the country, even over in Europe, and I run into black intellectuals who are atheists everywhere. But I teach a lot of students, blacks and whites. And very few of them, very few of them are skeptics. These agnostics, I most of them come from very traditional religious backgrounds. And they and they continue to believe. And so I would make a distinction between the intellectuals and the masses. 

Slightly off topic, Professor. But do you think it’s your role as a professor to get students to question their God belief? 

The way I would phrase that is this. You know, I want people to be critical of all concepts. How did they originate? Where are they coming from? And so, in a sense, yes. I mean, I don’t see myself as some sort of evangelical humanist or evangelical atheist where I need to get my students to adopt a system of belief or even to abandon their own system of belief. But I do see myself as trying to get them to think critically. I mean, we see certain groups of people coopting the God concept for one purpose and then they do it for another purpose. I mean, the God concept is ultimately an empty signifier. It basically is going to justify, you know, subjugating women. But then, on the other hand, it’s just find liberating women. We meet in the gay community now, even though it’s been used against gays. I mean, I think everybody recognized that’s used against gays. But we also see a lot of gay people now saying their fate is intertwined with their own sense of their sexual selves. 

Right. This is how God made me. Right. 

But this begs the question, I mean, you’ve got all these contradictory concepts swirling around you. And so you have to start asking the question, is this really some sort of got out or is this just a projection of my own imagination? And so I try to get my students to really think critically about all concepts. But I really want to emphasize, I don’t see myself as having some sort of evangelical role within the classroom. I think that’s kind of irresponsible. I’m an investor. 

I see you point out in your work that certain certain of these atheistic black intellectuals were actually critics of humanism almost as much as they were critics of religion. So let’s backtrack a bit. Define for me what you mean by humanism when you’re talking about them being critics of humanism. Is this is the rationalist humanism coming out of the Enlightenment that they argued what actually led or helped lead to the oppression of nonwhites? 

Well, the way their argument goes like this. First of all, the shift in the Enlightenment, we go from, you know, faith and religion to science and reason. What we’re using in order to make sense of our world prior to the Enlightenment, it was basically faith and religion. This is where we got our sense of morality. This is where we got our sense of the cosmos. The Enlightenment is going to bring in a new methodology based on science and reason. And the problem was this. Did did the rationalist actually change the whole concept of truth? And I’m talking about truth, metaphysical truth, truth with a capital T.. And what a lot of these writers, Richard Wright’s very clear about this. What they ended up doing is they brought into this notion that there’s an absolute truth out there and that what happens is now we get absolute truth through science and reason. The problem is this, that these models like a can’t. When he was developing one of his models, he was able to say, hey, look, humans are governed by reason and that reason is necessary in order to act as a moral agent. Now, the problem is that women. Blacks and Native Americans do not behave as reasonable agents. They act more like infants or children, and they’re governed by emotion. And so he actually develops a rationalist model that’s going to justify the biological inferiority. All right. Let’s just say the inferiority of black people, women, and then this model was going to be used to justify, let’s say, a period of colonization. I mean, just for comment. In the next century. And so a lot of the black writers were starting to realize, look, Christians are religious people have whose really offer arguments to, you know, they’re buying revelation to justify their crimes against all kinds of people. Now, humanists are starting to use the same kind of similar arguments. And what happened is, is this is where I think a number of humanists now, Richard. Right. I mean, there are a lot of these black writers maybe critical of humanism. But they they make a distinction. They say, look, we have to be kind of humble humanists. We have to recognize that truth is a construct that instead of going from a religious model that says divine revelation gives us truth to science, giving us apples. In truth, we need to get rid of the whole notion of an absolute truth altogether and have more humility about the whole construct of truth. 

So there was this criticism of humanism coming from black humans, from black atheists. You mentioned Richard Wright a number of times. He’s he’s one of these humanists criticizing humanism. Give our listeners some more background on him as as a thinker in the American intellectual tradition, where he where he fits in this account. 

This is really interesting because right on the one hand said that humanism was such a huge problem. But on the other hand, he was going to insist throughout his career that he was a humanist. And the question is, how was he able to reconcile this dilemma? And in the way I think he does it is he says, look, if you are a humanist who thinks that you are by nature is being with reason, then you really have failed to understand the logical implications of humanism. His argument is that the human it is a concept that we have created and as a concept, it has been used in many ways to justify a really horrible thing. So, for instance, are black people strictly human? And he says if you just look at both the religious writers and at the humanist writers, they ultimately conclude, based on the model that they use, that blacks are not quite human in the strict sense of the word. And he says, look, we need to have some critical distance from these concepts and recognize that instead of discovering the truth about blacks were creating discourses about blacks. And once we start to acknowledge that what we’re doing is creating that humanism in itself is an invention. It’s a human invention. Then we can start having more critical distance about it. And so he would make this distinction. If you think of humanism as a metaphysical reality, then you probably are going to be prone to doing some of the same kinds of thing that religious people are Christians have done. But if you understand that humanism is this invention and that it’s an invention that is democratically accessible to everyone, then you will be able to have a life affirming form of humanism. And so is humanism superior to religion, according to Richard Wright? He would say absolutely. But but he would make a distinction is superior because it gives us more. We have a more empirical method to get the truth. He would say, no, that’s not the reason why it’s a theory. It’s a period because we have a democratically accessible system of truth that what we can do is all people can access this truth through them constructed methods of science and reason. So they know humanists like Richard Wright sees science as an invention, but it’s very different from the invention of religion, which is a closed system of knowledge. It blocks people off. 

It’s an invention. It’s a it’s a testable human enterprise. It’s not coming from on high. And some enlightenment rationalists kind of think that there’s this absolute truth that they can uncover through through their reason and that that’s exactly right. 

So his criticism was of that then. You’re right. 

You mentioned earlier how you don’t see it, your role to evangelize for Athie ism or I guess also humanism on the religious right. Well organized activists make the claim that the universities are, in fact, bastions of humanism, of secular humanism. You actually see, rather than a promotion of humanism in the universities, you see an assault on humanism in the universities. In some ways, similar to this assault on humanism from black intellectuals. 

That’s correct. And I think part of the reason is that in the academy, what happened is it started in the 1940s and 1950s. And with these black humanists, we started to realize, look, yes, we got rid of religion among intellectuals and divine revelation. We became skeptical of that and rightly so. But what happened is a lot of humanists adopted this mentality that was also going to be equally oppressive. And so in the. 40S and 50s, mainly, Martin Heidegger developed this critique in his letter on Humanism, where he tried to explain why humanism is extremely limited. But black intellectuals actually tried to argue how humanism was being used by many white humanists to justify violations of black people. They started this critique and that kind of took off in the post-modern community. Postmodern is really viciously antihuman. 

It’s okay to define that term for me. Just quickly postmodern. 

You know, they don’t believe in it. You know, they believe the truth is totally constructed. 

Right. Radical skeptics of all knowledge. The truth is just kind of a compliment you give to an idea that you like. 

So that’s not all. I mean, there’s there’s various branches of postmodernism. I mean, the main definition which we get from some France, while the articles like this, it’s incredulity toward metanarrative radical skeptics of all knowledge. Yes, I would say that they I think I would even frame it differently. I would say that they think that all knowledge is human constructs. And so I think that they would say that, which is a slightly different claim. But here’s the thing is, even though writers like Richard Wright, I mean, since they’re France beknown, they all became very skeptical. I mean, they started to point out how humans have contributed to these really terrible crimes against black people. They also came back and said, look, humanism is the best thing we have. It’s the best invention we have. But they did not think it was the best invention because it gave us access to some sort of truth. They thought it was the best invention because it leads to democracy and that religion is anti-democratic because it sets up a closed system of knowledge, which is really crucial to their whole mission. I mean, they believe that if you if you understand that knowledge is constructed, even the whole thing of the human being a construct, then what we can do is start constructing new systems. But we do so with humility now because we recognize that whatever system and knowledge we come up with, it’s limited by virtue of our human biases. 

Mm hmm. So the the black intellectuals critique of humanism, it’s not rejection of humanism. Ultimately, they’re affirming humanism, but not in the same way that kind of an enlightenment rationalist would have a complete and utter faith, kind of, um, an unshakable faith in human reason. 

That’s exactly right. Because these people all have profound respect for human reason. But they see human reason as an invention, but probably the best invention we’ve had in a very long time. Mm hmm. 

You see yourself, Professor Larkey, as a kind of humanist, a secular humanist, maybe, despite what my colleague Norm Allen says in the pages of free inquiry. It’s just that you’re a humanist and more of a this postmodernist since this academic tradition. You know, you could draw a line maybe from SA to or you’re closer to Edward Saïd. In other words, you buy the argument that a lot of bad stuff came out of the Enlightenment and that we need to be humble in in addressing it. 

I think that’s right. You know, and I you know, I mean, I think in my own estimation, humanism has provided us with huge advance. I mean, it’s it’s created a possibility for huge advancements because, you know, even though I’m an English professor and even though I do see science as a fiction, I genuinely see science as a fiction. I see it as probably one of the most important fictions we created. 

Okay, let’s unpack that a bit, because that will I think that a rub some of our listeners the wrong way. Fiction to a lot of people seems fiction to a lot of people means something untrue. But you seem to, you know, credit science with being able to tell us the truth about the world and in many domains of knowledge. 

But, you know, here here’s one of the key things, and it’s kind of a caricature of postmodernism. They say that postmodern is reject truth, and that’s not really true. But we do say in the postmodern tradition is the truth is constructed. 

So that’s what you mean by science is a fiction. It’s a it’s a it’s constructed. It’s a human enterprise. 

That’s right. And if there were no human beings, there would be no concepts out there. There would be no scientific method out there. Scientific method. Scientists are artists who have created this unbelievably sophisticated method that enables us to make sense of the world in which we live. 

But does it match with the world in which you live? Some people would hear you say science is a fiction and think that that means that you’re saying it doesn’t gel with the world we live in. 

See, but to even say that. Talk in terms of joining the world in the world in which we live. Richard Wright tries to explain why the whole correspondence theory of truth, which is what you’re presupposing. Right, is somehow legitimate. We talking. But I would say is, look, you know, we’re constructing new fictions to make sense of the world, the correspondence theory of truth. I don’t buy into it all, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have profound respect for scientific truth, because, in fact, you know, I’m not one of these people who’s been a trust in an angel before a doctor when it comes to my own body. I mean, I. I thought a doctor had to believe in doctors. And I have profound respect for scientists and I love what scientists are doing. 

You don’t think that gravity is just a construct, so you’re not going to jump off a building thinking that it’s just a fiction? 

That’s nonsense. But the thing is, would if there were no human beings. Would there be a concept of gravity out there? And the answer, I think, would be not because there are no human beings. I mean, this is where Richard Redding’s work becomes really important because he’s trying to break down the correspondence very me not in order to legitimize an anything goes philosophy, which is just put into perspective how human sentences get formed and how artists and scientists are one and the same. And we respect scientists because they have provided us with empirical methods for verifying the kind of systems that they’ve created. 

I, I find all that kind of interesting. But in the end, even though Rorty was a fellow of our International Academy of Humanism, I think that the critique of a correspondence theory of truth only goes so far. It’s kind of not too profound to say that if there weren’t people, there wouldn’t be concepts. Why isn’t that profound? 

Maybe I should say that I don’t think it really goes very far, but doesn’t doesn’t change the way we think of the way language is formed. I mean, because now, instead of thinking that we have some sort of idea out of a platonic heaven of ideas, we now have to realize that our concepts and our conceptual systems we have have been formed by people. And as such, they’re limited, biased, and they’re going to be subject to change. 

Well, I think any scientist worth his salt. Worth Herzel would agree with what you just said. You know, we’re chock full of biases. We should be open to changing our minds in the light of new evidence, et cetera, et cetera. But just phrasing, that’s the all science is a fiction and and leaving it at that, you know, putting a period on the end of that sentence, I think it just opens up a lot of room for people to think, oh, those postmodernists, they’re they’re silly. They’re radical skeptics of all knowledge who don’t believe in any truth or any knowledge. 

You know, the way I would phrase it is that we have profound respect for the value of constructing systems that make sense of human living. You know what I mean? What they’re thinking of, you know, like me to have this really interesting claim when he says, look, truth is an illusion, which we have forgotten as an illusion. Now, there are two ways of taking them. On the one hand, you could say, okay, you just saying there is no such thing is true. But the other way is to say that truth is an illusion. It’s a temporary conceptual formation that we need in order to make sense of our world. But because we recognize that it’s a temporary conceptual formation, we can see that we’re going to alter it in light of the new information that comes in front of us. And so the postmodernists don’t admit to, in fact, that we need truth, even though we do recognize it doesn’t exist. Mm hmm. And so I think the postmodernists I mean, I think the caricature of postmodernism is that these people are a bunch of nihilists who really reject any kind of knowledge for me. 

And there are some postmodernists. Who are that extreme? 

Yeah. And I mean, I think that skepticism until we are kind of nihilism, which, you know, I just find that just offensive but incoherent. Right. 

But I think the other form of it is that we can see conceptual systems is really very important to our human living. But we have to be able to subject them to critique ad infinitum into the future. And that they’re never going to be stabilized. Right. 

I didn’t have you on to talk about postmodernism, but heck, I find it interesting. So we’ll just continue with this a bit and then kind of tie it back to Black Liberation Athie ism. And then if the postmodernist critique of the Enlightenment wasn’t this perfectly reasonable thing that some humanists imagined that it was. I mean, at the Center for Inquiry, we talk about, you know, bringing about a new enlightenment. It doesn’t follow to me that that if bad things resulted from the Enlightenment, that we should throw the baby out with the bath. You mentioned that there are some nihilistic postmodernists that are incoherent to you, but some leftist academics are postmodernists, whatever. They seem to weirdly support things like anti science or creationism, since they argue that Western science itself is wholly a product of patriarchal biases, that there is no no correspondence to the real world whatsoever, and that what science has its own faith claims just like religion. You don’t seem to be going that far. 

Not at all. Because because I think we can make a very clear distinction between the systems that rational humanists have set up in the systems that were given to us by religion. For instance, the systems that are given to us by religion are totally closed off. I mean, people talk in a religious way when even they mentioned the word God. That is a word that is calculated to block me out because I have no idea what they’re talking about. 

Well, there are some people who say the same thing about postmodernism, you know, that it’s just a bunch of gobbledygook language. People say back and forth and you read some of the journals. 

You know, there I’m actually there’s some truth to that. I mean, what happened is, I think a lot of postmodernists guts. It’s almost like intellectual masturbation. They really got into the kind of discourse of playing games with true right. Then they lost sight of some of the values that could come out of the postmodernism. 

Right. Alan, Sokol’s kind of what prank on the post-modernist community a while back. 

Right. But, you know, I mean, you can play that prank on anybody. I mean, because all journalists have. And you can’t really condemn one whole movie because one journalist did something really stupid. 

But the point is, you don’t go as far as some of these nihilistic postmodernists who say that, you know, science is just like a religion, that that, you know, it doesn’t track at all to reality. It’s just, you know, one mythic narrative. Like so many others. 

No, I don’t get on it, but I have a different motivation. You know, my colleague here at the University of Minnesota, Morris Peevey Myers, and I talk about this all the time. We have very different motivations for accepting science. I reference science. I respect it because. It is a democratic discourse. It makes for democracy because the whole system of science is predicated on this notion that we have empirically verifiable methods. If we do the method over and over, we can test the truth of our claims. And that is a method that I have that I have deep respect for, whereas religion seems to me to be an incoherent proposition. It’s actually calculated to block me off if I don’t subscribe to the premises of their system. And so that’s why I think that religion and humanism are so different. You can’t even you can’t even compare them. The only thing is when humanism became an absolute truth system, you know, the whole kind of Cartesian model or even the Kantian model who I know is a total skeptic. But he made some of these same arguments to justify really horrible things about black people. And those models make me very uncomfortable. And I think if there’s a way to save humanism while weeding out some of its more unfortunate tendencies. 

And do you think that the Black Liberation Athie ism is not only a step in that direction, but what’s successful at that project? 

You know, the way I conclude my book, as I said, I tried to explain why understanding African-American ageism and humanism is so important. And I try to say, look, they have been working through the arguments that the religious community has been using against black people for so long that they figured out the arguments that are going to be used against Jews. They figured out the arguments are going to be used against gays, against women, against agnostic, against interracial couples. And I said that once you understand how the black community was able to figure this out, we can see how those same arguments are going to be used against so many other groups. And I think what’s happening to the gay community in the United States right now is a perfect case in point. I mean, hopefully we’re going to reverse this trend, but we can see the structure of the arguments are and that’s the black liberation. Atheists were then able to expose the way they work in a political sense. 

I feel like we just scratched the surface. But your book was really thought provoking, fun conversation. I appreciate your taking the time for this discussion with me. Professor Michael Lacky, thank you so much. 

I really enjoyed being a part of the show. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnelly and recorded from St. Louis, Missouri. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael. 

Contributors to today’s show included Sarah Jordan and Debbie Goddard. I’m your host DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.