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An Atheist’s Perspective: The Religion Question Pt. 1

March 25, 2014 Leave a comment

Atheists hear the claim quite frequently, that atheism is a religion just like the very religions the atheists rail against. The claim is made in order to imply that the non-believers are hypocrites. Even worse than that, is that the atheist is ignorant of their own status as a follower of a religion at the very best. At the very worst they are lying but in either case, the hypocrisy accusation is the point. One of the problems with this accusation is that it is made by religious extremists postulating some kind of hidden conspiracy which seeks to destroy Christianity (at least in the U.S. or in any other predominantly Christian country). 

However just because the lunatic fringe is saying something doesn’t make it false. It’s usually a good indicator that something isn’t true but it doesn’t affect the truth of a statement that would be slipping into the fallacy of ad hominem. This accusation though isn’t just made by the lunatics a good indicator would be to do an internet search for the question “is atheism a religion?” and answers from both sides of the answer will come out. Most of the results from Christian blogs and op-ed pieces are those that are desperately trying to make the case that atheism is indeed a religion, just like Christianity. We have, at the very least a debate topic. 

Aside from some clever rejoinders such as, “if atheism is a religion then bald is a hair color” the points that are brought up must at least be addressed. I’m not going to go through every single point that is made, but only the most popular points. I should note that I have not conducted a statistical survey of the top responses, but rather I have perused several sites (and I mean “peruse” in the correct sense) to sift out what they must feel are the strongest points. 

1] “Atheists have faith too…” and “It take faith to believe that there is no god just as much…”

This is the most common accusation. So much so that even without beginning to peruse the websites this claim appeared in the byline beneath the title of the search result. It is so popular that it has to be the number 1, thus the first entry in the series. The claim has a number of issues which it implies. It’s raising several questions that must be addressed.

The first is that all religions require belief without evidence. Is this true? It would appear so. Any belief system categorized as a religion has the aspect of faith attached to it. Even the falsely labelled “atheistic-religion” Buddhism has a belief system that is faith based. Being a Buddhist means believing in reincarnation, such as the Dalai Lama, which is an entirely unverifiable position. One might also wish to claim that the Unitarians are a religion without faith, but modern Unitarianism does posit a god (for most of the people there) it’s just a Deistic god that doesn’t get involved.

The second point they make is based on a logical position. They correctly observe that you cannot prove a negative, thus the atheist is making a claim based purely on belief. The first part is true, you cannot prove a negative–unless that negative is a logical contradiction, but it is misplaced in application. I don’t believe that there is no god, I know that the evidence to support the positive claim “god exists” is insufficient. If the evidence were presented, I would know a god exists, but it isn’t there. While that statement is a bit of a mouthful the problem lies in that most atheists just shorten it down to “there is no god.” Now, sometimes I say it also as a substitution for saying “your religion is false” and I admit that it is my error. I am part of the problem here, but there is no faith based claim on my part. Show me the evidence and I’ll know. 

With the exceptions of some militants who are just trying to piss people off, I know no atheist that makes the definitive claim that god does not exist. He/She/It could exist, there is no logical contradiction and thus the question of existence must be labelled as an improbable possibility. 

The third and final point about faith is when the theists twist the claim into making the accusation that atheists place their faith in scientific principles such as the theory of evolution, big bang, and for some reason that I don’t understand: climate change (it has nothing to do with any religion so someone let me know why this is lumped in). Their accusation is that evolution requires faith. The trouble is that it does not: evidence based science does not require belief, neither does math, or anything for which a proof is offered whether it is based on empirical evidence or some kind of rational proof. This third implication is the weakest because it does not understand the method by which knowledge is obtained and severely misunderstands the scientific method. That I understand how addition works is not based on faith it is based on reason. I know that 1+1=2 I don’t believe it, the dead coming back to life requires belief chemistry does not.

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An Atheist’s Perspective: Othodoxy and Progress

March 18, 2014 2 comments

The French Philosopher Rene Descartes observed that the method of the scientific revolution would sweep away all obstacles from its path in its pursuit. It would do well for religion to stand aside lest it get caught in its path as well. Why would a French mathematician/philosopher who included an utterly plagiarized proof of god’s existence in his seminal work, “Meditations” make such a comment? Perhaps it is because that Descartes understood that orthodoxy cannot move forward a society. Only the progress of knowledge, of inquiry can do anything to drive us forward. Adherence to orthodoxy is adherence to the past. All questions have been answered, any question that could come up have already been answered as well.

Those of the Creation Museum would have us believe that upon the adoption of the Old Testament canon, specifically the book of Genesis, the whole entirety of scientific inquiry had been settled. That when an Irish Arch-Bishop in 1654 deduced that creation occurred in 4004 bc on October 23rd, the origins of the world had been settled. As Ken Ham claims, we weren’t there but the book was. The consequence is, that when the book was written–a time when there was serious disagreement over whether the Earth was round everything was answered (and indeed, the book makes it pretty clear that it is). This was a time when the very existence of viruses and bacterium, before the first Roman aqueduct would ever flow, and before the printing press; yet somehow the entirety of the nature of the Cosmos was answered. Make no mistake, I am not claiming that the people of the Bronze Age were dumb, or somehow lesser than we are now, they accomplished many great things but their ability to answer questions was hindered by the ability to have the knowledge to even ask the questions. Yet their omniscient fountainhead is supposed to have not only have the knowledge of the question but also the answers to them.

What’s incredible about this claim is that while this being is supposed to have the answers, their adherence to literalism, to the fairy tale, is against even asking the questions. They would have us cease our inquiries into anything that hasn’t been specifically mentioned by their literalist interpretation. It is understood that when you have the truth there is no reason to continue trying to find it, and when they have control it is a punishable offence to begin such an inquiry. How can it not be seen that this would retard progress?

With them in charge we have seen the fires that tried to choke out the idea of the infinite universe, the bars erected to contain the heliocentric universe, and the suits which have sought to mute out the theory of evolution. Luckily a resistance to such fundamentalism has attempted to move us passed such barbaric theocracy, but we see those that pine for the days where no learning was permitted beyond their book and its cubits.

What I want to know, and what perhaps we should be asking them, is what they would do if given the control back. Do they dial back all progress that has been made beyond it? We know that what they want is not “Intelligent Design” taught in the schools, what they want is their 6 day creation using “Intelligent” Design as a lever to get it in. Are they going to move us back to the days before plate tectonics, dinosaurs, and modern Astronomy? Would they force us to deny the practice of modern medicine because nothing in their book mentions infections, viruses, and bacteria replacing them with demon possessions and inherited sin?

Surely they must understand that if evidence contradicts the belief, it is not the evidence which is to be trashed but the belief.

The hypocrites, these charlatans; for they would accept the benefits of inquiry, of breaking the traditions of the past, the benefits of the very science they seek to oppress. Any person that claims the Earth is merely 6 thousand years old, and was created as is ought to be eschewing the petroleum products that are rendered impossible by their belief. If they are sick and pop an anti-biotic or get a flu shot, they had better seek to justify their denial of evolution which renders these things possible. If a person believes that Ussher was correct in his chronology, then using any computer device ought to be sinful given the physics by which it operates also shows that the Cosmos is much older than it.

What bothers me about these people is that the only word to describe them is hypocrite. They will take the benefits of the progress of civilization, then decry the method that produced them as sinful and worthy of the sadistic punishment of their hell. If they had any ounce of integrity they would either cease their condemnation or revert to the time period that they belong to.

An Atheist’s Perspective: The Interaction Problem

March 11, 2014 Leave a comment

…”Likewise; thou canst ne’er
Believe the sacred seats of gods are here
In any regions of this mundane world;
Indeed, the nature of the gods, so subtle,
So far removed by intelligence of mind
And since they’ve ever eluded touch and thrust
Of human hands, they cannot grasp
Aught tangible to us. For what may not
Itself be touched in turn can never be touched.”
–Lucretius, On The Nature of Things Book. I

In philosophy the interaction problem is usually reserved for issues of mind-body. In other words if a person were to believe that the mind is immaterial and that the body is material the problem that they must overcome is that of interaction. How does the non-substance interact with substance? For materialists, this presents no problem whatsoever, the mind is made of the same stuff as the body. For everyone else the problem rears its ugly head to the point where even bringing up the question elicits groans. The groans which say, “yes, yes, there is that problem and no I have no answer for it.”

I would add that this problem works against the religious of the world as well…at least those that believe a single divine entity created all of the cosmos. My reasoning is thus: that if there is a god that god must be physical or not. If it is physical then it must be bound by the rules of the physical universe as all things are. Now I am not making the outrageous claim that it is some sort of super person, basically human but larger or more grand somehow. It could be anything, it could be a nebulae some sort of giant star, or perhaps even a network of various objects ala the god computer in Futurama. No matter what the case, physical beings have physical rules. It would fill in various gaps in their explanations for how the world functions as it does and more importantly why. Yet it presents other problems, such as decay.

“Again perceives not
How stones are also conquered by Time?
Not how the lofty towers ruin down,
And boulders crumble? Not how shrines of gods
And idols crack out worn? Nor how indeed
The holy influence hath yet no power
There to postpone the terminals of fate,
Or headway make ‘gainst Nature’s fixed decrees?”

If a thing exists in the physical world, then it must end eventually as all things, even plastic, eventually succumb to the omnipotent cold hand of time. It also eliminates the mechanism by which it hears prayers since we can gauge pretty handily how far a sound travels and that once it leaves the atmosphere sounds die. The issues of a literal physical being are such that it is denied by almost all theists.

Therefore if a thing be not material it must be immaterial. For the principle of non-contradiction binds all things (when dealing in such absolutes). If this god is an immaterial spirit then how it interacts with the material is a giant gap that is missed by those seeking to defend the existence of such a being. Their typical solution is to claim that all things are possible with god, but this is unsatisfactory because the conclusion of such a claim is that the universe has no laws. Laws of Thermodynamics, gravity, acceleration, etc. do not bind the universe because at any point those laws could change.

Further, if it is true that, in the beginning there was nothing. Then we must ask by what material did the being create everything? Ex nihilo, non nihilo–“from nothing there is nothing” as my friend’s tattoo once read. Matter and energy can never be created or destroyed yet this is clearly what the immaterial god is claimed to have done.

Adding a special case to this being merely complicates the issue in violation of Ockham’s Razor. Since no predictive element could be ascribed to any of the universal rules. It would make no sense as further questions are raised as to why this one being can violate the speed of light, but no other thing can (the answer: because he’s god is not an answer but merely question begging). Further there would need to be some kind of system of rules for how the immaterial world operates, and perhaps there is no god, but a whole host of “gods” which exist in this immaterial plane.

It is the consistency of the universe to have these rules which not only allow us to produce food, make medicine, but also to do the very writing I am doing now. Whether by keystroke or pen, knowing how things are going to happen is how we derive the fruits of our rationality. By claiming that such an interaction problem does not exist and yet that this god-being does is to claim a contradiction.

An Atheist’s Perspective: Birth

March 4, 2014 6 comments

This post is going to be a bit clunky, as of the time I write this my wife is having contractions and we are expecting to have another child either tonight or tomorrow. Yes, I’ll be bringing another atheist into the world very soon. I say this not to stick whatever curious religious readers I have out there, but because I deny the idea that we, as a species, are born with the inherent idea that there exists a greater supernatural being out there. This is an idea that we are taught.

The way I see it is that as an individual we learn the idea of cause and effect. Our initial experiences give us this concept. I want to move my arm, and thus my arm moves; after awhile, as the brain develops we understand the idea of external causes. Now, the accusation that is immediately cropping up is that my claim is going to default us to Aquinas’ first Cause argument or some quasi-Aristotelian/Augustinian prime mover argument. This is not my claim.

As we get older we develop the idea that external causes produce external effect and this happens in the world that is outside our perception. We will understand that rain comes not from the sky but from the clouds, the clouds are a product of some other phenomenon. However, at no point do I think our brains would create the idea of a supernatural cause if it were not told to us that such a cause existed. Instead, we might assume that there is some unknown cause and either shrug calling it, “one of those things” or begin to investigate the cause.

Hegel assumed a development to the ideas in history; that our ancestors probably gave thanks to the river for fish and such. Then they began to believe that it was not the river for which they owed their lives but something that governed the river, from that they assumed a whole plethora of gods to govern all things (and yes I did use “plethora” correctly there). I think the reasoning might be a bit more practical than what Hegel claimed. I would claim that rather than some forward driving “geist” the reasoning is probably much more simple. All things and live and die, said Empedocles, and it is only through custom that we call death “cruel fate.” We call it cruel because we need something to blame…or perhaps praise. We can’t praise a river when we get fish and water from it, just as we can’t blame the river for a flood. When bad things happen we look to connect the dots–to create patterns where they don’t perhaps exist. In doing this, creating the patterns, we were forced to ascribe consciousness or personhood to the thing that is the seeming cause. A river god is to blame, and when our gods became to numerous to count we merely subsumed them under the banner of one chief god whose role was more like the tribe’s chief than a supremely divine being. This god had superior strength and was more often than not opposed by a god or gods whose virtue lay in intelligence and cunning.

From there, still following Hegel, we devised the supreme god which eliminated the needs for all others. From there we have stopped until we possibly elevate rationality and reason to divine levels. We teach this to our children and then on and on it goes until the present day. Yet if that teaching is suddenly stopped, if we don’t give the smallest and most credulous of us the notion, by what means would they created it of their own? There seems to be no reason to go outside the natural realm, to multiply pluralities beyond necessity would take the creation of a fiction since we have no evidence to suggest otherwise.

A child is born knowing nothing. Everything that they experience is both new and normal, which is why it always frustrates me when I am suggested that I buy children’s music for my daughter. She doesn’t like children’s music unless she’s exposed to it, and since I don’t want to listen to it I’m not going to. My daughter listens to “adult music” not because I am a mean heartless individual who wants to deny her the opportunity to listen to the music she is innately predisposed to, but because that predisposition does not exist.

Just as she did not have any notion of “god” until she was exposed to it, same with my imminent second daughter. Now, I don’t deny her the wonder of faeries or magic or whatever other stories that we read, but to her they are as real as anything in the religious texts. In some ways they are nicer because even compared to Grimm’s tales they seem to be more tame. I’ve read my eldest daughter “The Iliad” when she was an infant and that story was just as real to the Ancient Greeks as any religion now. Same with the various Norse myths as well as Beowulf (for which I received some chiding from an English major about reinforcing stereotypes).

The world’s myths can offer a person something, I won’t deny her (soon to be: them) any of them. I won’t however teach them as true stories since we can’t be sure of any of them. We can be sure that the material world influences the material world, but that really seems to be all that we can know for sure.