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Understanding Atheism

21 April 2012, 14:18

This article will be brief, and I do not intend to present much empirical evidence, only my thoughts on a small matter dealing with the ‘atheism – theism’ debate that has taken the attention of much of this community.

I want to address the issue of respecting the differences in peoples beliefs first, secondly I will address the why I think atheists ‘care so much about a god they do not believe in’, finally I will attempt to provide new light with regards to whether or not science is (in principle) opposed to theism.

We do not, when it comes to any field of inquiry which matters, respect beliefs. We rather evaluate reasons: and we engage with reasons with intellectual honesty, which entails (among other things) admitting when someone has good reasons for some proposition (and thereby altering our own beliefs accordingly) or calling someone out for bad reasoning.

When someone presents a thesis with regards to, say, a new finding in history, or a new theory in biology, we are never enjoined or expected to respect their beliefs – but we evaluate what reasons they give for their new findings. As well, I do not expect anyone to respect these opinions of mine: but I expect people to evaluate what reasons I give for having such opinions. I expect, further, people to be honest when I have good reasons as well as when my reasoning is poor.

The idea that we ought to respect people’s religious beliefs, because they are of a theological nature, is therefore ridiculous. If someone believes that god exists, or that jesus is their savior, it is proper to expect them to provide reasons or evidence for such a claim (which, I should add, should be logically valid) – failure to provide reasons, or to provide valid reasons, therefore exempts me from accepting their claims. And, further, in no way am I obligated to respects such failures of reasoning when they occur, and I may even belittle their beliefs through mockery or ridicule – just as someone may mock my belief that the holocaust is a lie, or that Elvis is still alive.

But why should I care so much to mock someone’s belief in a god which I do not believe exists? There are two reasons that come to mind. The first can be evoked from this phrase, “no one has a special fondness for being wrong”. No one wants to have their beliefs fail to map on to reality. I therefore consider it a moral obligation of anyone in the know to dispel ignorance where it exists. Just as teaching is a noble profession, so education in general is a noble act. If someone came up to me, sincerely believing that a car engine did not require petrol, but water would suffice I would be obligated (so long as I do not consider them my enemy) to instruct them on the real workings of a car engine. Similarly, if someone believes sincerely that their daughter is possessed by demons, and therefore requires to be seen by a sangoma, I may correctly tell them that there is no reason to believe such a thing, and that they are better to send their daughter to a formal doctor or psychiatrist. Similarly, if someone believes that god will send atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, gays, and other sinners to hell, I may correctly remind them that there is little reason to believe such claims – and cause them to realize that they would be able to hold more compassion for humanity at large without such destructive beliefs.

There is, in other words, a value in being honest with ones fellow human being, and in telling them when they are clearly mistaken about potentially important aspects of reality. The second reason is much more obvious, and any quick read of the news24 articles will reveal what this reason is. There is much suffering in the world caused explicitly by individual or group certainty in entities that are in all probability imaginary.

Innumerable instances of violence and suffering, caused by superstition, ignorance, and false certainties, is, perhaps, too much for atheists, agnostics and freethinkers to regard dispassionately. People burn to death because they are believed to be witches. Families are torn asunder because they think one of their members is possessed by a demon. Groups kill each other because both believe they have a divinely ordained claim to some geographical territory. People are persecuted for enjoying a different sex position to others. Animals are tortured before death for the sake of kosher food. Businesses are put out to serve the superstitious needs of Muslims, to have prayer facilities or specially molded toilets (as if human beings defecate in fantastically dissimilar ways). Africa as a continent is increasingly disunited because of mutually exclusive claims to an ultimate truth that no human could actually possibly possess. Christians are killed my Muslims, and in turn Muslims are killed by Christians for no other reason than a different theology. Jews are persecuted largely by everyone, but particularly by sects of Islam. And Jews, in a huge historical irony, hold onto an illegally invaded land because they believe they are the chosen race.

The list could go on, and indeed a keen eye on any news feed will continue to add to the above list. The problem is that the belief in god, and other fairy-tales, actually really does harm in the world. It is this harm that appears to freethinkers to be entirely unnecessary, hence our strident (and we should be proud of this stridence) and fierce opposition to the forces of totalitarian unreason – which all theodicy ultimately (if you read your holy texts correctly) must result in. It is for the above reasons, and perhaps more, why freethinkers oppose religion, and why we argue with such passion about ‘a god we do not even think exists’.

Science, it may be admitted, is not in principle opposed to theism. Science, further, is not, in principle, the supporter of atheism either. Science, however, taken in its broader sense (to include, say, the ‘scientific spirit of inquiry’) is opposed to intellectual dishonesty. Science is about making conclusions based on honest observation, never traversing the boundary that logic sets on what such observations may be said to infer. Science is in principle opposed, therefore, to all faith-based thinking, which by definition cannot give way to reason or evidence. Science, to be sure, is not the ultimate truth, but it is a method of understanding the world and its nature. Science cannot be deferred to in the same way that the bible can be deferred to – for they are opposed in their deepest principles. For where science can admit of its ignorance (with passionate excitement for the coming journey of discovery) religion can never admit any inadequacy, and must always believe itself to be an ultimate truth.

Ask any freethinker, with regards to anything he may believe, “under what conditions would you admit you were wrong about such and such”, and if he be a true freethinker he will have an anthology of things and conditions which, if true (or if discovered, subsequently, to be true), would cause him to alter his beliefs. Ask any person of faith with regards to their god, “under what conditions would you admit that you were wrong about this god”, and they will struggle to give a response. The above is an analogue for the difference between the scientific spirit and the poverty of faith.

But not only is science, in principle, opposed to faith based thinking, what science has discovered is also opposed (at least, on a great many fronts) to theology. A theist may, by some contorted reasoning, believe that evolution is true, and that god exists. But if he were to understand and reflect upon the theory of natural selection (which may be distinct from evolution) then he will realize that there is a zero-sum game. If the theory of natural selection is true, then there cannot be any ‘higher purpose’ for mankind, and god will not have ‘created’ human beings for any particular reason. Indeed, if time could be rewound to a point before hominids existed, human beings may, by chance, just no arise again.

Science is opposed, further, to the story of genesis (at least with regards to the bible). For which ever contortion of language you wish to employ (for some unjustifiable reason) the story of genesis cannot be reconciled with the findings of cosmology.

The field of psychology, neurology, and the emerging neuroscience is an affront on the concept of a human soul, it looks more and more as if the human mind, in its entireity, can be accounted for by reference to the brain, and its functions. The brain is a physical object, and therefore the mind (soul) is realized by a physical process, and will most definitely cease to exist when the brain stops functioning. There will be, therefore, no afterlife for an immortal soul. Anyone schooled in basic psychology will know, for example, of discovering which parts of the brain does what by an analysis of brain damaged patients. The brain can be damaged in a plethora of unique ways, and our mental functions can be eliminated piece by piece. Some parts of the brain are responsible for speech, or responsible for the recognition of objects (or, specifically, of faces). Some parts of the brain will regulate emotion, and others will regulate which side of the body we can be consciously aware of (the list could go on).

Each of these modules can be damaged, and consequently a part of a person’s mental life can be quite dramatically altered. Yet Christian ‘scientists’ are apparently able to believe that though every part of the brain may be damaged, and every part of the brain corresponds to some mental faculty, but that were the brain to die altogether, the mind – completely intact – will rise off of the dead carcass, into the light and embrace an eternity of bliss. This is mere intellectual dishonesty.

Science is even challenging the notion of ‘free will’, and any investigation into the philosophical or scientific arguments for this will have the viewer understand how ‘free will’ as it is conceived in the bible simply does not (and cannot) exist. This hugely undermines 3 main pillars of classical religion. First, original sin cannot be true, for if Adam did not have a choice, then he cannot be held responsible. Secondly, the idea of cosmic retribution or cosmic reward does not make sense, because we are unable to hold ‘selves’ accountable for actions about which they had no choice. Thirdly, the problem of evil, which can be dealt with by a Christian either obscurely (‘it is all part of a higher plan’) or by invoking free will, because (obviously) a problem if ‘free will’ simply isn’t there.

More can be said, but to end of I think I have dealt adequately with the questions I first sought out to answer. Beliefs are not to be respected, but critically evaluated. Religion is most probably false, and it matters to point this out so as to dispel ignorance. Further, religion does a great deal of harm, and it would be better to attempt to stop such needless harm. Thirdly science is in principle opposed to faith based thinking, and the findings of science (at least in many regards) are truly opposed to much theological thinking.

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