Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Are there only ten myths about atheism?

by Drek

It seems that, over a somewhat short career of guest-posting here at Marginal Utility, I have acquired something of a reputation as the resident militant atheist. Well, really, "militant," is probably an exaggeration since I am at best lightly armed. Regardless, if I have become known as the local vocal atheist I really can't object. I have written more frequently about atheism over here than any other subject, so I guess you could say that the shoe fits and I am wearing it.

I suppose this is why Ken so nicely brought an interesting op-ed piece to my attention. This piece is titled: "10 myths-- and 10 truths-- about atheism." It begins as follows:

SEVERAL POLLS indicate that the term "atheism" has acquired such an extraordinary stigma in the United States that being an atheist is now a perfect impediment to a career in politics (in a way that being black, Muslim or homosexual is not). According to a recent Newsweek poll, only 37% of Americans would vote for an otherwise qualified atheist for president.

Atheists are often imagined to be intolerant, immoral, depressed, blind to the beauty of nature and dogmatically closed to evidence of the supernatural.

Indeed, an interesting introduction, but nothing particularly remarkable until we get to the real meat of the author's intention:

Given that we know that atheists are often among the most intelligent and scientifically literate people in any society, it seems important to deflate the myths that prevent them from playing a larger role in our national discourse.

So, Sam Harris, the author of this little piece, is trying to reduce the stigma attached to atheists so that our above average intelligence can finally be fully utilized. Well, leaving aside my hesitation at framing it quite like that,* I do appreciate the attempt. Atheists are not well-liked, and it would be nice if there weren't quite so many misconceptions about us.

Since this article was given to me as something of a command performance, I suppose I should say something about it. Specifically, I think that I will recount Harris' points and then add a little commentary of my own. Is this necessary? Absolutely not but, what can I say? When Ken asks for a post, I hate to disappoint him.

1) Atheists believe that life is meaningless.

On the contrary, religious people often worry that life is meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise of eternal happiness beyond the grave. Atheists tend to be quite sure that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists tend to find this fear of meaninglessness … well … meaningless.

I largely agree with Harris here, but I think that there's something else that needs to be pointed out: atheists believe that meaning is produced by human beings, not supplied by an external force. Thus, if there is no god it does not mean that the universe is meaningless- that isn't where meaning comes from in the first place. If we were to reverse things, we might well say that theists believe in a universe where human potential is limited and constrained. It doesn't sound very good when I put it that way but, hey, if your idea of the future is a specific endpoint provided by a higher power, then I've pretty much said just that. Sometimes the difference between one person's truth and another person's truth are their perspectives on the facts.

2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history.

People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma; they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable.

An interesting point, and likely one of the strongest arguments against extremism of any sort that I have ever seen. Ultimately, religion is not responsible for most "religious wars," it simply serves as a convenient justification for what people wanted to do anyway. Religion may serve to lower the threshold for violence and atrocity, but if religion were absent something else would suffice. This is not, of course, to say that religion is entirely blameless- in dogmatism we find the seeds of extremism- but rather that neither atheism nor religion can be held wholly accountable for horror. I think the whole "excess of reasonableness" bit is a problem, however. It's a pleasing fiction among atheists that we are more reasonable than theists, but this isn't necessarily true. There are plenty of unreasoning, thoughtless atheists out there** and there's nothing about atheism per se that discourages unreasonableness. In the final analysis, I'd rather deal with a reasonable person who disagrees with me than a dogmatist who is, for the moment, on the same side.

3) Atheism is dogmatic.

Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures are so prescient of humanity's needs that they could only have been written under the direction of an omniscient deity. An atheist is simply a person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the claim to be ridiculous. One doesn't have to take anything on faith, or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified religious beliefs. As the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: "I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours."

I am sympathetic to this argument but, in truth, merely rejecting religious claims would make one an agnostic, not an atheist. An atheist is a person who adopts a faith position that there is no such thing as a god. Since this positive position cannot be demonstrated- for the same reason that the idea of a god cannot be falsified- it is an equal faith position to that of a theist. It is, therefore, probably much more legitimate to say that if atheists are dogmatic, they certainly are no more so than any theist. All that said, however, Stephen Roberts is right- all of us are atheists, it's just that some of us are more thorough than others.

4) Atheists think everything in the universe arose by chance.

No one knows why the universe came into being. In fact, it is not entirely clear that we can coherently speak about the "beginning" or "creation" of the universe at all, as these ideas invoke the concept of time, and here we are talking about the origin of space-time itself.

The notion that atheists believe that everything was created by chance is also regularly thrown up as a criticism of Darwinian evolution. As Richard Dawkins explains in his marvelous book, "The God Delusion," this represents an utter misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Although we don't know precisely how the Earth's early chemistry begat biology, we know that the diversity and complexity we see in the living world is not a product of mere chance. Evolution is a combination of chance mutation and natural selection. Darwin arrived at the phrase "natural selection" by analogy to the "artificial selection" performed by breeders of livestock. In both cases, selection exerts a highly non-random effect on the development of any species.

While Harris is right, "chance" is too simple a word to describe the emergence of life and the universe, I think he misses the point. Why does it matter if the universe is here by chance? If our existence is unintended, does pain feel less horrible? Is love less wonderful? Does a sunset look less beautiful? Of course not. Whether a child was planned or an accident, their life may be as wonderful, and whether the universe was deliberate or simply something that happened, it remains just as wondrous. To speak of chance is to return to the question of meaning, and an unplanned universe is no more meaningless than is the life of an unplanned child. To claim otherwise is simply to be small-minded.

5) Atheism has no connection to science.

Although it is possible to be a scientist and still believe in God — as some scientists seem to manage it — there is no question that an engagement with scientific thinking tends to erode, rather than support, religious faith. Taking the U.S. population as an example: Most polls show that about 90% of the general public believes in a personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences do not. This suggests that there are few modes of thinking less congenial to religious faith than science is.

This argument gives me the shivers. We have a correlation, to be sure, but that does not mean that there is a causal relationship. More Indians than caucasians are Hindu, but that doesn't mean that darker skin causes Hinduism. It is, instead, quite possible that scientists compose a sub-culture in which atheism is more prominent. Leaving that aside, however, I think I might speculate that science and reason don't cause atheism- but they do make it a lot easier to be an atheist. Being an atheist in a time before science provided valid alternatives to religious just-so stories must have been quite difficult. Now it seems to me to be much easier.

6) Atheists are arrogant.

When scientists don't know something — like why the universe came into being or how the first self-replicating molecules formed — they admit it. Pretending to know things one doesn't know is a profound liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology, chemistry and biology that no scientist knows. When considering questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it, atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn't arrogance; it is intellectual honesty.

Much as it pains me to say it, here I think the myth is partly true. Atheists make up a tiny minority of the world's population and are in the unenviable position of, effectively, believing that the remainder of the Human race is indulging in a consenual delusion. It is as though a world full of adults persists in believing in the tooth fairy. To honestly adhere to such a belief- that most of the world's population is wrong and that you are right- does indeed imply a certain self-confidence that might well cross over into arrogance or egotism. Yes, we are probably a little arrogant. That said, however, we are no different from any other religion- all of which believe that everyone else in the world is wrong. Perhaps we are arrogant, but no more so than the millions of other people who believe that their god calls upon them to make everyone else think as they do.

On the plus side, however, we don't have much of a history of suicide bombing when people disagree with us.***

7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.

There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love, ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and seek them regularly. What atheists don't tend to do is make unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists regularly have similar experiences. There is, in fact, not a Christian on this Earth who can be certain that Jesus even wore a beard, much less that he was born of a virgin or rose from the dead. These are just not the sort of claims that spiritual experience can authenticate.

A silly objection to atheism indeed. If by "spiritual" you mean "deeply moving," then atheists are as spiritual as they come. And if by "spiritual" you mean "religious," then you are simply defining the debate to suit your needs. One might as well point out that the Pope is closed to experiencing the Buddha. Perhaps he is but, after all, he is the Pope.

8) Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human understanding.

Atheists are free to admit the limits of human understanding in a way that religious people are not. It is obvious that we do not fully understand the universe; but it is even more obvious that neither the Bible nor the Koran reflects our best understanding of it. We do not know whether there is complex life elsewhere in the cosmos, but there might be. If there is, such beings could have developed an understanding of nature's laws that vastly exceeds our own. Atheists can freely entertain such possibilities. They also can admit that if brilliant extraterrestrials exist, the contents of the Bible and the Koran will be even less impressive to them than they are to human atheists.

From the atheist point of view, the world's religions utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe. One doesn't have to accept anything on insufficient evidence to make such an observation.

And here I could not agree more. When faced with a great unknown, to say simply that "God did it," is not to produce an explanation, but instead to give a name to our ignorance. We know no more about that mystery, but we make ourselves feel better and, in feeling better, feel no need to grow. Perhaps humans are not capable of understanding everything, but that is surely not a justification for never trying to learn anything.

9) Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to society.

Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as "wishful thinking" and "self-deception." There is a profound distinction between a consoling delusion and the truth.

In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering, or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not doing it?

Another good point. As children we behave because our parents force us. As adults, we behave because we know it to be right. Why, then, must the unassailable morality of religion be rooted in infantilizing the human race?

10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.

If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human happiness.

We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination. Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down to us by the creator of the universe.

And, indeed, neither does religion. Morality is always consensual and contingent upon a particular society and a particular time. What is right for one civilization may not be right for another. Moreover, this is a truth that, ultimately, holds for both the theists and the atheists. To pretend otherwise is to take refuge behind reassuring falsehoods.

And so, in the end, we hay ave ten myths but there are considerably more than ten alternative perspectives. I suspect that in a dozen atheists you might find a dozen different answers to each of the above myths and, while many or more of them would share features, each would have its own unique approach to the problem. In its lack of a formal structure or doctrine, atheism gives rise to a bewildering, maddening number of alternative perspectives. Confusing? Yes. Frustrating? Absolutely. Beautfiul? Unquestionably.

Whether there are myths or not doesn't matter. We have always been here. We will always be here. Wanted or not, we will always be working for a better future.

And when you get right down to it, that's the only truth that matters.

* Because the whole "We're smarter than you," argument has worked so well in the past.

** I do think that atheists more often have a solid grip on WHY they believe as they do, but this comes from large amounts of time spent defending themselves from conversion-minded theists. In other words, if atheism were a majority view, I doubt its pracitioners would be unusually thoughtful about it.

*** Yeah, I know: cheap shot.
But would there be any atheists if theists did not exist? Why do atheists even care about their beliefs? Why would they not say 'How nice. Next subject.' Do atheists feel the need to be convinced? Do they feel the need to convince others?
Lord, from what I understand, there are as many different types of atheists as there are theists. Just as Quakers do not proselytize, neither do some atheists. Just as Jehovah's Witnesses proselytize, so do some atheists. Additionally, I think it is a deep human need in all of us to understand the world and our place in it. Some turn to the Bible, or the Quran, or the Tao Te Ching for such answers. Others turn to those sources, find them lacking, and continue on their path. What they are all doing is searching for belief. It doesn't matter the source of that belief, what's of paramount importance is the belief itself. Without meaning/belief, individuals do not tend to flourish. I'm not an atheist, but I am infinitely more likely to take people seriously (theist or atheist alike) when they have thought about why they believe what they believe and can express those beliefs in a cogent manner.
Man, I'm going to have to ask for pieces from you more often. (Nicely, of course.)

I've never understood the reasoning behind #7. If you know that it's going to be ca. threescore and ten and out, don't you naturally incline to carpe diem (defined by the Buffy character once as "fish of the day?") in all its glory?

I glory in stem cells being abundant and available and having the promise of a new day freer from diseases of the day before. I celebrate that my children and their children are unlikely to become victims of polio or smallpox (and while I rue that thalidomide and malaria are both making a comeback, it will at least be on a smaller scale).

I believe in the process by which we and our G-d "suffer/And recreate each other" (though if pressed I would probably have to admit that the G-d is optional, except as our [re]Creation).

But I can't envision a teleology in which such a G-d would put on this earth those unable to comprehend the wonders of this world, even as they eschew the possibility of the next. Such would be a very crippled G-d, and rather difficult to praise, let alone worship.

At any rate, you've saved me from having to post about Louisville where Janelle can see it.
Lord: I think Practicing Idealist has more or less covered my response here fairly effectively. Would there be atheists without theists? I'm sure there would be, but as my second footnote states, I doubt they'd be as reflective about their atheism. Would a theist be any less a theist if atheists didn't exist? Certainly not- if the historical record is any indication, they'd be too busy arguing with each other to miss the rest of us.

Some of us feel the need to convince others, some don't. Most of us don't, however, feel the need to be convinced that our atheism is correct. For the most part, we just feel the need to resist the incessant efforts of others to convince us that we're wrong.

Ken: I'll be happy to honor most reasonable requests for posts, although I may retaliate in kind every now and then.

More importantly, however, I have absolutely no idea what you're trying to say here:

"I've never understood the reasoning behind #7. If you know that it's going to be ca. threescore and ten and out, don't you naturally incline to carpe diem (defined by the Buffy character once as "fish of the day?") in all its glory?"

Specifically, I think there's a sports metaphor in there. As my Sainted Fiancee can tell you, I have a crippling deficiency when it comes to sports metaphors. This is a result of the simple fact that the only sports I enjoy are rugby, fencing, and rock climbing. Only the last of those three has any particular popularity in the U.S.

And as a random aside: wow is my spelling crummy in this post. What was I thinking?
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