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In defense of atheism

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on March 19, 2010

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.

The skeptic’s dilemma: to be or not to be…

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on March 2, 2010

An atheist that is. Welcome to my whateverth stab at the good old skepticism vs. atheism issue. Actually, this entry is not meant to be a long rehashing of older arguments (which I have laid out here, here, here, here, here and here), but a comment on Daniel Loxton’s latest entry, on Skepticblog, that touches on this subject. Daniel recently published a book, called Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be, a children’s evolution book that has been getting great reviews in the skeptic/scientific circles, except for a few paragraphs that is. Some big names, PZ Myers for example, have taken exception at Daniel’s take on the old religion vs. science debate.

What about religion?

This is a question people often ask when wondering about evolution. They want to connect the discoveries of science to their religious understanding.

Unfortunately, this isn’t something science can help with. Individual scientists may have personal opinions about religious matters, but science as a whole has nothing to say about religion.

Science is our most reliable method for sorting out how the natural world functions, but it can’t tell us what those discoveries mean in a spiritual sense. Your family, friends and community leaders are the best people to ask about religious questions.

We’ll leave to scientists to debate between themselves if science has anything to say about religion. I do not intend to get involved in that discussion as I am not a scientist by training. Some of these critiquers (I know the correct word is critics ok, just having some fun, dont’ bother me about this in the comments) seem to be making an unwarranted assumption though about Daniel’s reasons for including the paragraphs above in his book. Here is what a reviewer said:

Loxton’s inadequate reply was unavoidable, given the unwritten social rule that religion has a special role in our society. That we are not allowed to criticise religion. Any properly adequate reply would have lead to people being “offended” and campaigns to exclude the book for schools.

Now how someone can proclaim to know that Loxton really means to come down hard on religion, but doesn’t because of these “unwritten social rule” escapes me. I for one do not profess to have the ability to read minds. From what I’ve read of Daniel’s writings before, this seems to be a very consistent position that he has always maintained, not a new one he adopted for the book release. It appears to me that when Daniel says that science has nothing to say about religion, he really means it. I have nothing to say to that. It also appears to me that when he says skepticism is a “different project than atheism” he also means it. I have had plenty to say about that in the past, and my position has not changed.

I do agree with Daniel, that much of what religion peddles out cannot be evaluated scientifically. The afterlife promises for example are so set up as to be unassailable from a scientific point of view; but on the other hand we have done experiments to test NDEs, and those haven’t turned out so good for the religious claims. Furthermore, I don’t think we can hide behind the “we can’t evaluate something therefore we don’t have to worry about it” argument. A staple of critical thought is the idea of the burden of proof. The burden of proof falls upon those that make the claims. Religion claims Gods exist; they have provided not one shred of acceptable evidence to support this claim.

Let us be clear, the god hypothesis is an existence claim; it is different from moral/ethical claims. An existence claim that is so set up as to make it impossible for us to test said existence, might as well not been made at all. Also I want to point out the real beef I have here: an existence claim has to be supported by evidence, that we all agree on. However, if someone says “X exists” but I can never provide you with evidence that X exists, that should make the claim rubbish in the eyes of the skeptic, not a claim to be placed in a special bucket, as is being done with the god hypothesis. The special treatment is not warranted. Imagine if someone came out tomorrow, as will invariably be the case just maybe not tomorrow literally, with a claim that they’ve seen a new cryptozoological creature but they have no proof, not even a grainy video or an out of focus photograph. Would we as skeptics say “well let’s put this claim on the side until later” or would we say “sorry no evidence, your claim is not accepted”? That what it really comes down to, are we willing to relax the burden of proof requirement when it comes to god? If yes, why?

Daniel will agree with me on these points: that the religious have made a claim, and that they have nor provided adequate evidence to support the claim; where we go next from here is where we part ways. From this point on Daniel maintains that (someone please correct me if I am making a bad assumption) since the idea of God has evolved to the point that he/she/it has been almost completely shielded from scientific inquiry, skeptics cannot take a position on god’s existence. I maintain that since the burden of proof falls on the religious, and they haven’t provided any proof, that skeptics ought to reject the claim until better evidence is provided, thus leading to atheism (defined appropriately as just lack of belief). So I still maintain that skepticism, properly applied, ought to lead to atheism; Daniel still maintains it doesn’t.

The second question that seems to come out of Daniel’s writings is this: Should skepticism make atheism one of its branches?  In other words, should skeptics even bother to fight the atheist fight, or is it something that they shouldn’t bother with. The answers to this will vary, even within camps that agree on the whole skepticism->atheism issue. I can see how people on my side of the argument can go with either yes or no on that one,  for various reasons, one of which is the fear of not wanting to break the unwritten rules that society does have about critiquing religion. However, in order to have that fear one must be on my side of the argument, and Daniel clearly isn’t, as such accusing  him of taking the expedient solution, and thus indirectly accusing him of intellectual dishonesty, is unfair and unwarranted. We may disagree with him on the issue itself, but we should be careful not to arrogantly think we know why he did what he did, better than Daniel himself!

Is giving hope a good thing?

Posted in Skepdude by Skepdude on April 14, 2009

One of the arguments that believers use to support their faith is that their religion gives hope. What hope, they ask, does atheism give people? This question carries a major unstated premise, which is the idea that giving hope is good, admirable, and of course the other unstated premise that if it is good it must be true. Nevertheless, I will concentrate on the first  unstated premise here.

Religion does give hope to people, I don’t think that can be denied. It comes with lots of other baggage to be sure, but hope is one thing many religious people derive, and this is used as an argument by some religious people in an effort to either prove that there is a God, or to show that faith is superior to atheism.

Nevertheless, there is one major issue that the religious people overlook when advancing the Hope Argument, and that is the distinction between False Hope and Real Hope. Say for example that your father is going in surgery and the doctor tells you that there are great chances for a successful operation and that everything will be ok. The doctor is giving you hope. However, we must ask ourselves, is it true? What if the doctor is solely saying that to make you feel better? What if the odds of your father coming out alive are only at about 20%? Would you think that what the doctor is doing is to be considered good? No, providing false hope cannot be considered good.

Are there situations in which you must lie and provide false hope and it would be justifiable? Yes, of course. If a person is in his/her dying moments I grant that we are allowed to say whatever would make them feel better in those last moments, provide whatever hope we possibly can. I am sure readers can come up with other similar cases, but those scenarios are the exceptions to the rule, and they are done with the understanding that we are misleading the other person.

In order to make the Hope Argument, one must be able to show that the hope they are providing is true and not false, that the hope of the eternal afterlife and the rewards of heaven are true, and not figments of one’s imagination. And just how can a religious person even start about doing that? How can they assert that the story they are using is not a myth? That they are not propagating a lie? That they are not providing people with false hope? Even more importantly how can they deny the Hope Argument to the other religions, which they must, lest they are willing to accept the other religions also to be valid, because they too offer hope!

So, what hope does atheism provide people with? It doesn’t have to. Something does not have to provide hope in order to be true. In fact, anytime you as a non-believer are asked the Hope Questio you should turn it around on the believers and ask them, how do they know that they are not providing false hope?  Do they even care?

Atheists should be allowed to argue their case

Posted in News by Skepdude on April 3, 2009

Julian Baggini’s recent opinion piece, “The New Atheist Movement is Destructive”, strings together a series of flimsy claims and a general eschewal of the requirements of accuracy and relevance in criticizing the new atheists, to lead to a conclusion that, while truly extraordinary given the briefest glance at history, is unfortunately all-too-typical of such criticism.

First, a methodological quibble. Pointing out that he has not read the books of the new atheists, Mr. Baggini argues that this does not disqualify him from opining about them. He need not read the books, he claims, since they would only tell him what he already believes and could only be addressed to agnostics and open-minded believers. I confess to doing much the same thing, though not for the same reasons. For something like a text book or an introduction to atheism, I feel confident in passing over them, not because I expect to believe everything in them but because I expect they will provide no new information to me. But that is based on having looked at dozens of them and found them to be much of a piece.

The books by Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris are not just freshman texts in philosophy of religion though, something Mr. Baggini cannot know without at least cracking a cover. I can vouch for two of the books, Dennett’s and Dawkins’ – I haven’t read the other two, so I couldn’t say, and will hereafter confine my remarks (tacitly) to the two new atheists mentioned. Neither Dennett’s book nor Dawkins’ contains an atheist manifesto, listing only things every atheist believes, or a Cole’s Notes summary for philosophy of religion.

Still, I wouldn’t force Mr. Baggini to read anything he regards as a waste of time. And fortunately, when he turns to justifying his right to an opinion, it turns out the books he has not read are not actually the subject of his critique anyway. After a brief reference to Bayard’s book to support his claims – a book I find in the Humour section of my bookstore, by the way – he redirects his criticisms to “the general tone and direction [of] the new atheism”, “how [the new atheists] are perceived” and “the kind of comments the four horsemen make in newspaper articles and interviews”.

I am uncertain whether I should bother to point out that criticising ‘general impressions’ of such phenomena is inevitably superficial and highly questionable, unless one can comment on their accuracy and relevance, which would require Mr. Baggini to have better information than simple ‘perceptions’. Surely this seems too obvious a concern.

However, I would not prevent Mr. Baggini from discussing these general perceptions and impressions all he likes. Had the rest of his article been this scrupulous, there would be no issue between us. For he quickly moves on from these, to attribute faults to the new atheists themselves, attributions which his admitted information cannot support. If he had stuck with criticising perceptions, his apparent point, that the perception of the new atheism, not the new atheism itself, is counter-productive, would be indisputable, in my view.

No such scruples. He proposes to combat the misunderstanding that atheism is “a negative attack on religious belief”, and so, is ‘parasitic’ upon religion. The new atheists are at fault, he says, for lending credence to this myth.