I was catching up on my unread feeds on Google Reader when I came across a blog entry by Michael De Dora J. at the CFI blog titled “The Problems With the Atheistic Approach to the World” in which Michael spells out his arguments against atheism, or more specifically his arguments against atheism as a reliable alternative to religion (so far as I understand).
Michael starts off with giving a very concise, and correct, definition of atheism, one which I have myself proposed as the best definition on various occasions, although not so eloquently.
Firsts: what is atheism? By definition, atheism means the absence of belief in theism or God. Atheism doesn’t imply whether a person believes “God definitely doesn’t exist” or whether he or she is a bit more lenient on the matter. Atheism does not tell us how much one cares about religion; it does not tell us if one is friendly to religion, or hates it. It does not tell us if one is absolutely unreasonable in his or her other beliefs generally. There are terrible atheists. Atheism is not encompassing in any other sense than, because it is so broad, many people might be atheists that do not realize it. As Robert Ingersoll once said, even if God does not exist, humans still have their work cut out for them. Atheism isn’t enough.
Which is of course right on the money. Saying one is an atheist doesn’t tell us anything about that person, except that he lacks belief in gods. From that point on, any atheist is free to choose the path he takes. There is no central doctrine atheists share, no rule-book to follow. The necessary and sufficient requirement to “join the club” is a lack of belief in gods. However, Michael sees that as the first problem with atheism.
This is the first argument against atheism. It is not a philosophy or a worldview, it is a lack of a specific religious belief, and that isn’t enough to carry us forward in any meaningful way.
Which is, strictly speaking, correct, however why are we assuming that atheism ought to be a philosophy or a worldview and be able to carry us forward? There are many other things that people do not believe in, but we do not require those unbeliefs to carry us anywhere specific, so why would we expect atheism to be any different? Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not a worldview; it is not meant to carry us forward. So why criticize it for not being or doing what it isn’t meant to be or do? The answer comes from the second argument against atheism.
This brings us to the second argumen t: atheists tend to view religion as either the problem, or the cause of the problem, even when other problems are apparent. But while theism is a problem, it is not the problem, and while atheism might be correct, atheism is not the answer.
Now I am not very sure what is meant by “the problem” here. Surely religion is a problem, but I don’t think any of the mainstream New Atheists is arguing that religion is the root of all evil (and before someone points me to the Dawkins documentary please be advised that the title ends with a question mark), and if anybody does, she’d be wrong! I find this argument very vague; what is this problem that atheism is supposedly trying but failing to answer? The way I understand it, atheism addresses one question, and one question only: Do you believe in gods?
Atheism is not an alternative to everything that religion offers people, let’s be clear about that. For example, religion has a moral aspect to it that atheism can’t, it isn’t meant, to replace. Atheism has nothing to say about morality; moral philosophy does. The only thing that atheism can imply about morality is that one does not need religion in order to be moral, that one can be moral without god, and that secular moral principles are just as good as the religious ones. However, it doesn’t, it can’t, tell one how to behave. So I don’t believe in gods. Fine, should I steal or not? Atheism is not meant to handle that question. Religion is more than just belief in god; it is a social construct that has many dimensions and atheism is not meant to replace those dimensions. The only thing atheism can do is to address the fundamental assumption about god’s existence. After that other disciplines must step in to fill the void: philosophy, science, skepticism etc.
The thir d argument against the march of organized atheism is it’s tendency toward an angry, uncompassionate line of attack. It is argued that the general approach to the matters taken by, foremost, Dawkins and Hitchens is one of sneering at religious belief, thinking that anyone who believes in God or other religious claims is stupid. In fact, neither of these men believes all religious people are stupid, as they have both written and spoken about how a large problem humanity faces is that very smart people can cordon off certain beliefs — for example accepting all the benefits of the modern life sciences but rejecting the what underwrites it, the theory of evolution.
However, there is something to hearing these men speak, and reading certain of their writing, that sends the message they have a short temper for religious belief (and the occasional believer).
I must ask: is Dawkins’ or Hitchens’ attitude any more “strident” than that of a preacher that condemns all of us atheists to a painful afterlife in hell? Why should their “line of attack” be compassionate? When Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger was she doing it with compassion vs. the people who were oppressing her? Poll after poll has shown that atheists are the most discriminated against minority in the US, so why would we be expected to be quiet in our revolt? Because that is what it is, a revolt of a group that’s tired of being treated as second-rate citizens. Let us be clear, this is a civil rights issue. There are states in the US that have laws forbidding atheists from holding public office on the books; and even if the laws are repealed no atheist would be chosen for public office if he declared his lack of belief. We use words like “fight for our rights” and “line of attack” yet we expect the fight and the attack to be peaceful?
I guess the idea behind this third argument is that this strategy is not the best to win over converts to atheism; yet let us ask ourselves: is that really the purpose that Hitchens and friends have set up for themselves? I can’t read minds, but I see their work as being more about mobilizing closet atheists to stand tall and proud, rather than converting religious folks to atheism. I think what they are trying to do is, in Dawkins’ words, “raise awareness”, especially within our own atheist community. I think that what they are telling us is that it is not ok to be quiet in a corner; it is not ok to accept discrimination; and that if we don’t stand up for ourselves no one else will. Furthermore, as Michael rightly points out, they are bringing the issue out in the open, making it clear to religious folks as well that atheists are human beings just like them and that we won’t be treated as outcasts anymore. And there really isn’t a peaceful, compassionate way of doing that.
However, it must be said that being steadfast in our beliefs and our demands for equal treatment, should not lead to arrogance; and we’re all guilty of slip ups in that area, especially blog writers, given that a blog entry is an off the cuff thing. I agree that we should not be calling people stupid, but that does not mean that we should shy away from calling nonsensical religious dogma nonsense. Ridiculing religious ideas is not the same as ridiculing people. I think the first is fair and the second not quite so. We should blaspheme, but we should not engage in ad hominems.
This brings us to the fourth argument: this view of the world divides people rather than bringing them together. This is a symptom of the atheist tendency to see the world through religion. It is seemingly as divisive as seeing the world as a Catholic and nothing else. While I am no friend of theistic beliefs, and one could argue dogma and faith are found — and kindled — more in religious circles than anywhere else, focusing mostly or even entirely on theism divides us too cleanly on religious affiliation. Defining oneself as an atheist gives off the impression to those who do not define themselves as atheists that you have nothing in common. There are many good things included in religion (to be sure, they are found elsewhere and many are a product of the evolution of human nature) that cut to the core of human experience — community, fellowship, awe and wonder, a desire to transcend yourself and do collective good. To stand opposed to all religion is to give off the impression you deny these.
Well, actually I disagree; I think the religious worldview divides people with its sectarianism and it’s rules of conduct. The divide has been created by religion and its treatment of “heathens” and “infidels”, not the other way around. Atheism is rejecting the assumption (god) upon which such divide has been built and justified, and if that does not go down well with religious people there isn’t anything atheism can do about it. Religion created the divide and swept atheists under the rug, as if we didn’t exist; all the new atheists are doing now is crawling out from under the rug and saying “excuse me, but I’m still here“.
Those last couple of sentences bother me to no end. Community, fellowship, awe and wonder are not exclusive to religion; in fact most atheists one way or another in their debates with religious people will find themselves justifying how a secular lifestyle does not exclude any of these things. Only very poor communicators will come across standing opposed to such values; and only those that are not willing to listen to what we have to say will maintain this misconception of atheists. But then can we really change the mind of someone who is not willing to listen to us?
The fifth argument against using “atheist” is that atheists already face is that people have the tendency to see the atheist approach as “against” and not “for.” Of course, one cannot debunk or be against anything without really being for something. We are seemingly only able to critique if we have something to weigh the critiqued belief against. When Hitchens rips apart a religious idea, he is surely tearing something down — but he is doing so because he values evidence, reason, critical thinking, science, democracy, and more. The term atheism doesn’t tell others the reasons for critique.
Well, Michael provides the answer to the fifth argument himself. Hitchens does value evidence, reason, science and critical thinking, and he makes it very clear whenever he is debating folks, as do most atheists I know or whose works I’ve read. What Michael is hitting upon here is the popular misconceptions about atheists. Now the options are to either come up with a different label (anyone remember the Brights fiasco?) or correct the misconceptions. I think it is best to correct the misconceptions, because regardless what label you choose for yourself, the moment you answer “no” to the question “Do you believe in god” people will immediately in their minds say “Ah, he’s an atheist” and attribute to you all the negative connotations they attribute to atheism. As such it is better to fight to educate the public and change the misperceptions than try to coin new labels.
We need to move beyond and above atheism. I am not arguing we ought to avoid admitting who we are. I am also not arguing all atheists want to organize their lives around atheism (11). But many do, and given what I have said, it seems to be a mistake: it is too empty, too narrow-minded, and too divisive. Instead, it would seem smarter to develop something more comprehensive (12).
But we do have everything in place. We have science, skepticism, moral philosophy (humanism for example). Atheism is only a small part of what we are. Michael said it himself, all atheism can tell us is that a given person does not believe in gods. Everything else has to come from other places, and we have these other places already set up; we just have to popularize them. But we will not be able to do that until we’ve first established our existence, that we are here to stay and that we’re not going to accept the second-rate citizen treatment anymore.
For a variety of reasons, some Christians erroneously insist that atheism entails absolute certainty that no gods exist. This reflects either a misconception about the meaning of atheism or another less innocent motive. In fact, atheism does not require any particular level of certainty. All it requires is the failure to affirm belief in some sort of god(s).
Consider each of the following two questions for a moment, and notice the important difference between them?
- Do you believe in some sort of god or gods?
- Are you absolutely certain of your answer to question #1 to the degree that you have no doubt whatsoever that your answer is correct?
Only one of these questions is relevant to atheism. I’ll give you a hint: it isn’t the second one. Okay, that is not really fair. Both are relevant, but only the first is necessary to classify someone into the mutually exclusive categories of theist and atheist.
Well this is quite an amusing story, so I thought I’d share it with you. Earlier this month, I received a message on Facebook from a girl named Jennie.
I just have to thank you. In ways you may never understand, you helped me to become a Christian.
I used to be very much like yourself. Then, two weeks ago, as a result of reading your blog, I became one of those people you hate. Thank you so much. You are probably at least a little offended by this, but I felt I needed to let you know.
Obviously I was a little confused (and concerned) about her predicament. Confused because she seemed to think I hated Christians, and concerned because she had become one. I asked her to explain, and we sent a few messages to each other. She said I came across as very angry in some of my posts; I said I was only angry at justifiable things (like parents murdering children, or newspapers lying about students). She even prophesied this blog post, saying, “I’m sure you’ll be making fun of me on your blog eventually”. Of course such a prophecy was self-fulfilling, because her final response to me, where she finally explained how I was responsible for her Christianity, was just too funny not to post.
Clearly, atheism is not a religion, but there has been much talk in the comments about whether or not atheism is a “worldview.”
So, let’s check the definitions of “atheism” and of “worldview” and see if one might be a species of the other.
disbelief in the existence of a god or gods
I do not see how atheism can be a worldview.
I have compared atheism to a-unicornism: disbelief in the existence of unicorns. How is a-unicornism a “worldview”? It’s not. Atheism and a-unicornism are each a single belief about one thing. Neither of these positions tell you anything else about the person who holds them: their morals values, their political views, their driving purpose, their explanations for life or the universe, their beliefs about magic or ghosts or elves, their rationality or their intelligence.
But, Bobmo wrote:
In other words, if there is no God, then x must be true (e.g. matter is eternal, or a multiverse exists; there is no absolute morality, etc.) The same cannot be said for A-unicornism, since the non-existence of unicorns carries no serious implications.
I deny that atheism has such implications. None of Bobmo’s examples follow from the non-existence of gods. They may be true, but they are not entailed by atheism. As toweltowel replied: “Supposing that theism implies p, and that atheism is the denial of theism, it obviously does not follow that atheism implies [not-p].”
Neither an atheist nor an a-unicornist must believe in eternal matter, a multiverse, or moral relativism. And in fact, I’d bet millions of them don’t.
[Originally posted at: Times Online]
The faithless are a growing force as the churches duck the challenges of the age
There is one thing that is not allowed in American national politics – and that is atheism. “In God We Trust” is on the currency; and the number of congressional members who avow no faith at all are about as plentiful as those who are openly gay (none in the Senate; five in the House).
Under the last president, religious faith – evangelical Christianity or Benedict-style Catholicism – was a prerequisite for real access to the inner circle. But the requirement is not just Republican. Among the more excruciating campaign events of last year was a faith summit for the Democrats in which candidates vied with one another to express the most piety. Barack Obama’s Christianity – educated, nuanced, social – is in many ways more striking than that of, say, Nixon, Truman or Eisenhower.
Americans are losing faith, though; and those who have it are moving out of established churches. The nonreligious are now the third biggest grouping in the US, after Catholics and Baptists, according to the just-released American Religious Identification Survey. The bulk of this shift occurred in the 1990s, when they jumped from 8% to 14% of the population – but they have consolidated in the past decade to 15%.
As elsewhere in the West, mainline Protestantism has had the biggest drop – from 19% to 13%. Despite heavy Latino immigration, the proportion of Catholics has drifted down since 1990, and their numbers have shifted dramatically from the northeast and the rust belt to the south and west. Take South Carolina, a state you might associate with hardcore Protestant evangelicalism. It certainly does exist there – but in that southern state, the percentage of Catholics has almost doubled since 1990 and the percentage of atheists has tripled.
[Read the rest of this post at: Times Online]
[Originally posted at: Greta Christina’s Blog]
There’s something I’ve been noticing lately in theists’ arguments against atheists. When you start paying attention, you notice how many of them aren’t really arguments. And no, I’m not even talking about the “I feel it in my heart” or “‘Cause the Bible tells me so” non-arguments.
I’m talking about the “Shut up, that’s why” arguments. I’m talking about the arguments that are meant to stop the discussion entirely. I’m talking about the arguments whose main purpose is to try to get atheists to stop making their arguments.
[Read the rest of this post at: Greta Christina’s Blog]
No, this isn’t a headline from the Onion, it’s the latest turn in the “atheist buses” controversy in England. As you probably know, the British Humanist Association has endorsed an idea by comedian Ariane Sherine, who was annoyed by Christian advertisements on British public transport that threatened eternal damnation. Sherine thought it would be nice to give people a bit of metaphysical relief by writing on buses and subways that “There probably is no God, now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”
To Sherine’s utter surprise, her campaign quickly raised £140,000, which has made it possible to run the advertisement on 800 buses across England. Not at all unexpectedly, this has generated an angry response by some religionists, despite the fact that church attendance in that country is one of the lowest in the world. And here is the kicker: Christian campaigner Stephen Green and others have actually filed formal complaints with the British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on the ground that the atheists are violating “guidelines on taste and decency.” According to Green “If you’re going to put out what appears to be a factual statement then you have to be able to back it up. They’ve got to substantiate this proposition that in all probability, God doesn’t exist.”
Oh really? Talk about a spectacular example of the pot calling the kettle black! Let me get this straight: a statement that supernatural entities probably do not exist is, in Green’s and his loony friends’ mind, less obviously substantiated than a statement that there is such a thing as everlasting punishment in hell? To put it another, perfectly parallel, way: claiming that Santa Clause (probably) doesn’t exist would also be less “tasteful, decent, and factual” than to claim that he really does deliver presents to the world’s (Christian) children every 24th of December. If you think I’m joking, you should read the excellent “Santa Lives! Five Conclusive Arguments for the Existence of Santa Claus” by Ellis Weiner (the arguments are: ontological, causal, from design, experiential, and moral — sounds familiar?).
Now this hilarious insanity has put the ASA in the rather awkward position of having to rule on a long standing metaphysical dispute. If the agency lets the atheist campaign go on, it will implicitly be saying to the British public that it is in fact reasonable to state that god probably doesn’t exist; if, on the other hand, Sherine’s and the British humanists are found to be at fault, the ASA would in effect taking the position that there is sufficient evidence for the existence of hell, so that Christian groups are not violating its advertising standards. Philosophers and theologians the world over will surely be following this one with utmost interest!
By the way, I have to note that the only atheist who has (partially) objected to the campaign is our good old lovable curmudgeon, Richard Dawkins. He doesn’t like the word “probably” in the ad. This is because Dawkins, as I have pointed out before, insists on maintaining the indefensible position that science can disprove the existence of (all) gods, though he is a bit wishy washy about this even in his “The God Delusion”, where he says both that he is not absolutely certain of god’s nonexistence and that science can disprove such a ridiculous notion anyway. The reality is that science cannot disprove the supernatural, but that a philosophical argument informed by sound science can, in fact, reduce the likelihood of the supernatural to the very, very improbable indeed. That’s why Sherine and the British Humanist Association got it exactly right in the wording of their campaign. So now go on and enjoy your day without fear, there (probably) is no hell.
It is a common topic in skeptic circles. Where should we stand in matters of religion? Does skepticism imply atheism? Or is it the other way around? What is the connection? Is there one? Should we even bother? Do we mention this at all?
I am going to share my thoughts on the issue. I don’t suppose I’ll be changing anyone’s mind, but that’s not the purpose of this entry anyway.
What this boils down to is to a person’s conception of what skepticism and atheism are. It is a matter of definitions and using different definitions you could reach various answers to the above questions. Therefore, before I proceed I want to give broad definitions of what atheism and skepticism mean to me. The ensuing discussion is based solely on such definitions.
Atheism – Lack of belief in God/Gods.
Skepticism – A method of acquiring and interpreting information based on the scientific method, which includes a requirement of scientifically acceptable evidence to back up any claims and which categorically excludes all and any fallacious arguments.
So, starting with the above two definitions let us examine the relationship, if any between the two.
Does Atheism lead to Skepticism? - Not necessarily. There are many reasons why a person may lack belief in God. A devotion to facts and evidence is only one such reason. Other reasons include personal tragedy, dogma, or simply lack of exposure to religious beliefs. None of these necessarily imply or lead to a skeptical worldview. It is very possible for a person to be an atheist and at the same time believe wholeheartedly in astrology and homeopathy. Lack of belief in one supernatural phenomenon does not necessarily imply lack of belief in all supernatural phenomenons, let alons lack of belief due to lack of evidence.
Does Skepticism lead to or imply Atheism? - It must. If one is bound to evidence and the scientific method as a skeptic, there is no real scenario under which a skeptic could also be theistic or even agnostic. Each of these two positions requires a temporary suspension of one’s skepticism. There is as much evidence of God’s existence as there is for Bigfoot’s existence. The lack of evidence must necessarily lead to rejection of the claim under the skeptical worldview as defined above, regardless of the claim. Unless one is willing to call themselves a skeptic who believes in Bigfoot or is agnostic about Bigfoot’s existence, one cannot call themselves a skeptic and believe in God or be agnostic about God’s existence.
Honestly that would amount to nothing less than special treatment for the God Hypothesis, treatment that is not extended to any of the other hypotheses the skeptic usually investigates. I find this position indefensible from a logical standpoint, and dare I say hypocritical.
Should we identify ourselves as atheists as well as skeptics, or should we keep quiet on the issue? This is more of a personal choice each one of us must make. It is well known that atheist as a group are not very well liked especially in the US. So from a marketing point of view I can understand why one may shy away from professing their atheism while wearing their skeptic hat. I mean, one bad rap is bad enough without having to complicate it with a second bad rap right?
Nevertheless, I think that we must be true to ourselves and fight every injustice in every front. Just like a black gay does not have to choose if he should fight for equal rights for gays or blacks, we shouldn’t have to choose if we’re gonna fight the skeptic fight or the atheist fight. We can, and we should, fight both to the best of our abilities. That is not to say that people shouldn’t specialize in one or another, and spend most of their time in one area, in order to be more effective. It simply means that we should not shy away from a religious/atheist argument solely because we don’t want that to interfere with our skeptical agenda.
A real skeptic is also an atheist (as defined above), or he’s not a real skeptic. What’s your take on this whole thing?