Why I like atheism in myself and others

I have been watching a lot of old episodes (from 2005 and 2006) of The Atheist Experience in recent weeks. As a sceptic, rationalist, philosophical realist, naturalist, materialist, determinist, free thinker, intellectual, scientist in spe, transhumanist and (on the ethics side of things) a utilitarian – and of course, there is a lot of overlap between many of those terms – I have to say that listening to the discussions on the show and some of the people who call in, I count myself very blessed (so to speak) to live in a society that is very accepting of atheists.

The Atheist Experience is a Texas-based call-in TV show promoting “positive atheism” (not a particular brand of atheism in this case, but rather the position that atheism can be a positive thing, simply put) and the separation of church and state. It discusses various topics related directly or indirectly to atheism, and the hosts and co-hosts tend not to shy away from attacking the logic or validity of religious beliefs as they come up in the news or from their callers.

Some of the people who call in will suggest that if the atheistic notion that there is no god (which, by the way, isn’t positively asserted by all atheists) is correct, there would be no source of morality and you may as well go about murdering and pillaging. After all, there are no “ultimate consequences”. I won’t argue against that (other than to say that I don’t see why ordinary consequences won’t do), because I think generally the reason why this idea is ridiculous should be obvious. And yet, apparently, to those people calling in, it isn’t. And there’s many such people, as you get at least one on most of the episodes! And then there’s the people who believe that the life of an atheist must be empty and depressing, and various other such claims whose falsehood should be apparent, if you ask me. That is why I said before that I feel so lucky that in the society in which I live, I don’t have to go about explaining how I can be moral without the belief in a god, and people typically understand this by default.

People also sometimes call in response to the hosts’s more frank arguments against religion or specific religions, suggesting that everybody should be allowed to believe what they will. According to them, there is no reason to attempt to demonstrate the falsity of people’s beliefs, since they are ultimately harmless and they make people feel good.

Whether they really are harmless is up for debate, I think. I’ve seen a very good discussion on that on YouTube at some point, which was specifically about the Catholic church, but many of the points can be extended to religion as a whole. Furthermore, it features Stephen Fry, one of my personal heroes, as one of the panelists.

However, I don’t actually want to talk about this. Instead, I want to discuss this idea that you should leave people to their beliefs and be respectful of said beliefs. I don’t agree with this at all. I think that religions have often times and long since hidden behind a wall of taking offense: You can’t say anything bad about a religion, because then you’re offending something at the very core of a person’s identity.

In my view, it’s good to be respectful toward people, but I object to the notion that you have to be respectful toward people’s beliefs as well, if they are held strongly enough. As if the contents of the beliefs don’t matter. Are we supposed to be respectful of the belief of Holocaust deniers, or that of flat-Earthers? Of course not. You respect the person, sure, to the extent that you would respect any sentient being, but whether a belief is to be respected should be based on its own merits. I would go so far as to say that beliefs which are particularly nonsensical can and should be mocked, or at least argued against, in order for their silliness to become apparent both to its believers and to others.

I would also say that this tendency of religious people to take offense to criticisms of their beliefs falls under the same category as faith of devices to prevent them from having to really think about their beliefs in a logical, critical manner. After all, if all you need is faith to believe something and you don’t need evidence – or, for that matter, to even regard evidence opposed to your beliefs – you can hold onto that belief indefinitely, without thinking about it. If, furthermore, you manage to convince people that they can’t attempt to argue with your beliefs either, you have even less of a reason to ever have to consider them. You can live comfortably, believing whatever you want, regardless of truth.

However, if the thing that you believe in is true, it would stand up to scrutiny and consideration, and you shouldn’t have to worry about such things in the first place. That’s why it always seems to me as though religious people, deep down, actually do know that their beliefs are false, they just don’t want to have to face it. They will deny this, of course, and even I don’t think it’s actually true for a good number of them… but it sure does seem that way, following this logic.

Of course, all of this rises and falls with whether or not you believe that one should believe what is actually true in the first place. It might be that you think it’s fine to believe something that is not so. However, if that were the case, then believers should be open and honest about this. This goes further than just being an agnostic theist, stating that you admit you don’t know the beliefs of your particular religion are true. After all, that only applies in cases where the veracity of beliefs cannot objectively be determined. But what if it could be? That’s where the “evidence to the contrary” that I mentioned above comes in. It’s been pretty well established that people will believe plenty of things evidence to the contrary. Flat-Earthers and Holocaust deniers are (extreme) examples of this.

I think faith – at least faith as it is used as a way to gain knowledge – is a vice, not a virtue. Reason and evidence are demonstrably good ways of coming to understandings about the universe – at least if you subscribe to philosophical realism – and faith is directly opposed to this. If you have faith that some race, or some sex, or some sexuality, is inferior or immoral, how is anybody supposed to challenge that, even if you are wrong? That is why it’s so ironic when people will call in to The Atheist Experience and tell the hosts to be more open-minded to the notion that religious beliefs may just be right. If they have faith, they themselves are anything but open-minded.

I suppose it’s defensible to have faith in something like the goodness of humankind – things that are related less to factual matters and more to interpretations of things (people, in this case). Even then, though, I would hope that such faith would be based on some evidence and would be discarded given sufficient evidence to the contrary. By some definitions, I suppose you would then not call it “faith”, but just “belief”. This would make it easier for me to just continue talking simply about “faith”. After all, that is the sense in which I used the term “faith” above, as distinct from “belief”.

I have not talked about direct negative effects of specific religions on society, other than in that one paragraph where I said I was not going to say anything about it. I talked instead about the mistaken preconceptions some religious people in different cultures have about atheists, and how I’m happy that’s not true as much for my own culture. Talking only about that, one might argue that you could come up with the same sentiment from the religious perspective. After all, I have various negative ideas about religion, which apparently then (if I am to be taken as being at all representative of my culture – whether I actually am is another question1, but let’s say for argument’s sake that I am) do occur in our society. So am I not contributing to the creation of a society which is as unpleasant for religious people to live in as the Texan society is for atheists? Maybe so, but this whole post is talking about my personal, subjective perspective as an atheist in this society. Also, I didn’t actually say that it’s wrong for people to call in to the show and mention their preconceptions and negative views. In fact, I don’t think it is. I’m just happy things are different around here.

I’m glad to be an atheist, and to live in a place where atheism is accepted and mostly understood, and a large fraction of the population consists of atheists. I for one feel more comfortable around those who think critically and logically, not just in some but in all areas of their lives. Especially as a scientist, as I think religion, or at least certain types of religions, are in a very real sense opposed to the concept of science. After all, science uses evidence rather than faith to come to knowledge, and those religions with an almighty deity can always say that their deity manipulated the evidence found by science, ultimately rendering science powerless against their faith.

I take atheism quite seriously: I watch a lot of programs about it, I watch debates, I read and at times participate in discussions online. Even I have a hard time challenging the beliefs of religious people one on one, in real life (due to the tendency of people to take offense to this). However, in a less direct, more general setting, I will come right out and say that I think religion, and in particular those aspects of it that prevent critical thought, has various negative effects on the world. For me, atheism is an issue, but I’m very happy that in this culture, it doesn’t have to be.

Vincent

1 I don’t think I’m very representative. From my personal experience, in the society in which I live, it is much more common for atheists to say that they don’t believe in a higher power, but they respect the beliefs of those who do. In fact, they may say that they think it is respectable to have such a belief (which is a slightly stronger claim still, I would say).

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9 responses to “Why I like atheism in myself and others

  1. I think it’s perfectly fine to respectfully questioned another person’s worldview. I think both people can learn more about each other’s beliefs and their own in the process.

    • I think in principle that’s a very good notion… however I still think faith could get in the way of that, because it resists change and learning. But I certainly can’t complain about the sentiment by itself.

      • I agree! However, in my opinion there is a healthy amount of faith and an irrational type of faith -“blind” faith. Now you may think that my faith in Jesus Christ is a type of blind faith, but I would disagree. One reply would not give my explanation justice. But, in short, the beliefs that I hold to best explain the reality of the universe we live in; that’s my opinion. Regardless if a person is a theist or non-theist, there are very few things that can be proven with absolute certainty. This means everyone has to faithfully accept much of the evidence we have about our world as true.
        I’m reading a book right now by Thomas Nagel, an atheist, called Mind & Cosmos. In this book he explains that, in his opinion, the current theory of evolution seems highly unlikely. Much of the book deals with the existence of consciousness. It’s a very short read, and I highly recommend anyone to read it.

        • I see. It seems the distinction you made between a healthy amount of faith and “blind” faith is what I called “belief” and “faith” in my post, respectively.

          However, I will disagree that everyone “has to faithfully accept much of the evidence we have about our world as true”. That is only necessary if you start from the position that you need to have a sort of absolute idea of truth, in other words things of which you can say you believe them to be absolutely true. A scientific view would be that you have ideas, which you may or may not believe in, and if evidence supports the ideas they can be seen as more likely being true, but never 100%. I would say that it’s perfectly okay to not know things for certain, especially things that are just hard to know such as, say, the origin of the universe.

          I’ve heard of Thomas Nagel. As a materialist, I am unlikely to agree with some of his ideas about consciousness, but it does sound interesting to read more about those. I’ll check and see if my university’s library has a copy of this book. I wonder how it relates to evolution, especially given that it says on his Wikipedia page that he is not a proponent of intelligent design.

          • I see what you’re saying, not holding to an absolute truth.

            I believe in the historical evidence of Jesus Christ, and what I have experienced in my life that’s supported by what the Bible says. I don’t think that a materialistic view best describes the reality of our world, and that a supernatural creator makes more sense.

            I’ve just started reading Mind & Cosmos: Why the Neo-Darwinian conception of nature is almost certainly false, so I’m also interested in Nagel’s explanation as well.

            From Mind & Cosmos Ch. 1: “It is no longer legitimate simply to imagine a sequence of gradually evolving phenotypes, as if their appearance through mutations in the DNA were unproblematic-as Richard Dawkins does for the evolution of the eye (The Blind Watchtower p. 77-86). With regard to the origin of life, the problem is much harder, since the option of natural selection as an explanation is not available. (p. 7-8).” That is a very bold statement that I agree with!

            A second book that I would recommend is The Mysterious Flame: Conscious minds in a material world, by Colin McGinn- Another Great Book!

            • I have not looked into the evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ, so I can’t comment on that in much detail, although I have heard that theologians agree that sources other than the Bible tend to either be forgeries, or not necessarily talk about the right Jesus. I personally will stick to materialism until evidence for anything supernatural happening ever is available, which so far it is not (see the James Randi foundation).

              Those who are knowledgeable about evolution will know that indeed, it does not address the question of the origin of life, or the origin of the universe for that matter. The most commonly referenced theory to account for the former of those is abiogenesis, which has some experimental findings supporting it, as you already know (I saw you refer to one such experiment in a reply to a comment on your blog). As for the other part of that quote, again, I cannot comment properly without seeing the reasons/evidence Nagel gives for this statement. However, as a biology major, I have not so far seen any reason to doubt this sequence of gradually evolving phenotypes.

              By the way, I believe that quote must reference The Blind Watchmaker, not Watchtower, unless Richard Dawkins wrote another book with a confusingly similar name.

              In return to your recommendations, I would recommend any book by Daniel Dennett that deals with consciousness. Wikipedia shows that there’s at least three with the word “consciousness” in the title.

              • Yes, Nagel was commenting on the book The Blind Watchmaker.

                The problem for me, and as Nagel mentions, is the need for so many different random mutations in order to create the life we see today, not to mention the random creation of the first replicating cell. Throw the immaterial human mind in the mix, and things start to look practically impossible without a designer. However, this is exactly what McGinn and Nagel try to address from a non-theistic point of view that slightly differs from current scientific theories. However, I still find loopholes in their explanations.

                • How annoying is it that each reply gets narrower and narrower on this site? At least when you click the “reply” button, you can read them properly, and this works even if you’re not actually going to reply. Although of course, in this case, I am actually replying.

                  Well, mutations aren’t exactly rare, and there has been a large amount of time that has passed since the first cell came to be. As for the first cell, well, at least certain steps are known to occur very frequently, such as the formation of a membrane from amphipathic molecules such as phospholipids, which I believe were themselves among the molecules formed in a classic 1953 experiment by Stanley Miller, which simulated the conditions on early Earth, although I have yet to read the paper on that, as well as on the 2008 reanalysis of its results.

                  And anyway, although on the one hand you may have a very rare sequence of events, on the other hand you have a very large amount of time to work with. Given large enough numbers, very unlikely events become much more likely. Unless you do a quantitative study on the exact numbers involved, you can’t say whether it works out or not, either way. I’m sure that’s been done, although I don’t remember hearing about it.

                  As for the human mind, which may or may not be immaterial, well, until we know how it functions exactly, we can’t say whether or not evolution is a sufficient explanation. But we already know evolution does occur, so posing additional explanations without evidence to support them would violate the principle of Occam’s razor.

  2. Pingback: My moral compass: Utilitarianism and fairness | Life is rich!·

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