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“Dumb” Atheism

08-Oct-07 03:07 pm EDT Leave a comment Go to comments

I’m so sick of listening to one contemporary atheist after the other (like Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion) accuse Christians, somewhat arrogantly, of being "dangerous" or even "unethical", citing arguments like the existence of Muslim extremists who think not believing in God ought to be punishable by death, or because the creationist movement in the U.S. believes the Earth is 6,000 years old and want the right to teach it to children, or that the U.S. President is banning potentially life-saving stem cell research because of his own religious convictions – all supposed evidence that religion is a cancer of the human soul that brings only harm.  As if any of these products of human fallibility somehow were the fault of religion while in fact most Muslims don’t believe atheism should be persecuted, while creationists are not representative of the faithful in any way, and while the current U.S. President is less an agent of God than an agent of embarrassment for the people he governs.

So why are all the world’s problems suddenly the fault of the faithful?  Well, I think it’s in vogue these days to be an atheist (right down to the rapper on tonight’s CBC news special on the growth of atheism in Canada).  It’s in vogue because people are very aware of the negative spin President Bush puts on everything he touches and, since he’s a believer, well that probably is good evidence religion is, indeed, crazy.  I especially love the argument that believing in God amounts to belief in childhood abstractions like the tooth fairy and Santa Claus.  But all these arguments, while in some cases rhetorically seductive, are not rational arguments against God, in that they are analogies rather than addressing the philosophical point of whether or not belief in God (or perhaps the tooth fairy and Santa Claus) is justifiable.

This is the conversation you won’t see on any TV show nor in any of the best-selling books out there – because it’s going a little deeper than some of the so-called leading philosophers on the subject ever go.  Indeed, these days, it’s hard to find a best-selling book defending God’s existence; because in a world seemingly filled with terrorists killing in God’s name, people are searching for a new religion that could perhaps overwhelm the world the way Christianity conquered ancient Rome.

But none of it is real philosophy.  Dawkins’ book and others like it are only the pabulum the masses are starving for – spoon-fed beliefs to replace the old-world values that actually have been challenged by far more worthy anti-theologians in the past (like Marx and Nietzsche), but who published their more in-depth works as part of a real academic debate.  And published at a time when it wasn’t in-vogue.

The Santa Claus Argument

Let’s look critically then at these popular arguments to understand why they’re not "worthy" to be included in this debate.  Again, my favourite, is the equation between religion and childhood belief systems like Santa Claus – so we’ll start here.  On the surface, there are certainly some similarities between the big red-suited man and the big man.  Both are invisible – and this is perhaps the most persuasive part of the analogy, because often contemporary atheists love to cling to the empirical evidence argument.  Both are purveyors of "good things".  Both figures exist in a framework that includes a story about their origins, and their existence.  Both exist in a cultural context.  Both are referred to as ‘he’ in their respective frameworks.  And both oppose and ultimately punish bad behaviour.  Arguably, both are artifacts of control.

Wow, turns out there are, indeed, a lot of similarities here.  Am I wrong to think there’s a difference?  Well, what about the differences?  Contemporary atheism preaches, pretty much universally, there aren’t any.  And yet, nobody prays to Santa Claus (notwithstanding the confusing version of this figure, venerated as St. Nicholas throughout Christianity, which casts him as a patron saint of children – who I consider a different entity).  In fact, this may be "the biggie" that kills the whole argument from atheism for me – and it’s something that if you are truly an atheist, I don’t think you can understand.  It’s one of those things in life where if you haven’t done it before (I mean, believe in God) you probably won’t get it: nobody who believes in Santa Claus thinks that the’s actually listening to them and taking an interest in their life’s experience or the good of their soul.  The most obvious argument to this is "so what;" that’s just not part of the Santa Claus mythology.  But that’s missing the point here – Santa Claus is not involved in any "greater picture" nor complex enough conceptually to give a damn about any particular set of values other than "being a good boy" or "good girl".  There’s no statement about what that means or what difference it makes.

Some other differences are, of course, that Santa is not all-powerful, nor necessarily all-knowing, and definitely not all-loving.  His apparent enslavement of a community of elves brings forth a number of potentially uncomfortable questions for the pro-Santa Claus movement.  And I suspect the animal rights folks might want have a word about his ongoing treatment of that herd of reindeer he annually forces to drag tonnes of toys the entire length and breadth of the world in the span of but a single night.  But God, to be a God and to exist, necessarily needs to be all-knowing, all-loving and all-powerful.  (That is, if we’re speaking of religion in the context of monotheism, which for this dialogue is all I’m going to address.)  Santa doesn’t know what will happen in the future, God does – and this raises whole arguments around concepts of free will and determinism, subject matter lacking from many of the more popular, recent works.  Santa is responsible for creating toys, God is responsible for all creation.  There’s even difference in one of the earlier cited similarities; although both punish bad behaviour, there’s an important distinction in how bad behaviour is punished.  Santa penalizes by rewarding bad behaviour less well (i.e. fewer toys), whereas God punishes bad behaviour by denying one access to heaven.

At this point, I could contrast the tooth fairy and reach a similar list of differences, but to summarize, the main differences between these two conceptually lie in the complexity of the belief systems and both in the moral truths one can discover through the study of one versus another.  To deny this point in the wake of the evidence discussed above would be roughly tantamount to trying to argue the world is 6,000 years old.  So can we please retire the "Santa Claus" argument?

Atheism as (Im)Morality

It is contemporary atheism that has struck itself a chord playing on the hopes and fears of our time.  Here we are at the start of the 21st century amidst the turmoil of apparent religiously-motivated violence.  Trouble is, it’s now okay to be an atheist saying religion is at fault for all of this – when what they really could be saying is that Muslims are at fault for all of this.  But it’s not okay for atheists to argue this, simply because they’re casting a wider net (or for any other reason).  It’s just as irresponsible as saying Muslims are to blame, and for the simple reason that it’s not only untrue – it’s slanderous to say.  The truth is that, overwhelmingly, most of the world’s monotheists are either Christian or Muslim.  And neither the prophet Muhammad nor Christ would ever – in a zillion years – endorse the typical activities of a terrorist group.  So to blame religion as a motive, when – at best – it’s the appeal used by a numerically tiny group of zealots to recruit the inexperienced or the ignorant is not grounds to attack the faithful for their beliefs.

And speaking of ignorance, let’s have another look at (and I cringe as I write this) "creationism".  For those who’ve had their head buried in more intelligent literature, like Mad Magazine, and been caught unaware of the subject – creationism is the term ascribed to the beliefs of a tiny minority of Christians, generally native to the U.S. south-eastern "bible-belt", that believe in the literal word of Biblical scripture.  Controversy about this group first hit the media a few years back when one group tried to establish the right to teach children basic falsehoods about the nature of the world using "freedom of religion" as an argument.  (They lost, incidentally – because their arguments lasted about as long in court as it took to read about it here.)  Most of us believers have dismissed this group as a largely confused morass of pretentious, socio-politically stimulated cultists whose theology, at best, misses the whole point of Biblical teaching by trying to achieve "righteousness" through sacrificing reason in hopes of realizing a greater faith.  Again, contemporary atheists try to confuse the argument about God’s alleged non-existence likening the beliefs of these folks with the rest of "the faithful’.  And, again, the issue isn’t faith itself here any more than it was in the study of Santa Claus as religion.  Unlike the Santa Claus discourse, however, it is about the role one’s faith plays in decision-making, and serves as a useful demonstration of where faith can be misapplied.

Some atheists will readily jump on this apparent concession that faith can be misapplied as sufficient evidence to warrant the dismantling of churches and mosques everywhere – citing if danger exists for even a few to be mislead by the drug "faith", it oughtta be exorcised from serious human consideration and never talked about again.  But that same argument could be applied to all kinds of subjects, including drugs, and meet with about the same degree of success as "the war on drugs".  Part of studying the subject of faith involves experiencing it, and then disclosing observations about that experience, as one would in any critical endeavour.  And when one empirically measures faith the only way one can, by experiencing it, one will typically find that it has value if not revelations of its own about the truth of God’s existence, as many have reported.

"Religion breeds belief systems that tend to be resistant to truth, and favour arbitrary statements about the nature of the universe above truths derived from empirical evidence.  Consequently, inevitably, policy decisions affecting millions result that cause harm and slow progress that could improve quality of life.  This is the case where stem-cell research is concerned."

Above, I’m paraphrasing the arguments I’ve heard from contemporary atheism on a recent, relevant subject which makes the same, tired old mistake made by both detractors of religion and, ironically, the "hyperfaithful" over the centuries: pitting faith in God against science.  In this the hyperfaithful – those who believe in things like the literal word of the Bible and see faith as somehow threatened by what senses and instruments can reveal – who have the weakest side of the argument, since reason is unavailable to them and as all arguments tend to end in "the Bible says that…"  But the godless have fallen into an argumentative trap of their own making by raising this as an issue at all, because suggesting as they are that faith and science are exclusive, they become guilty of an arbitrary assertion of their own; of denying that one can believe in anything without the possibility one could reconcile those beliefs if they held that they are subject to empirical data.  In other words, what if – as most believers do – one simply held a "theory" of God’s existence, and like most inventors and scientists sought to prove that theory using the tools and experiences available to them, over the course of their lives.  A theory of God’s non-existence would be okay too, although that could qualify one also as an agnostic.  Because contemporary atheism expresses a "belief" itself: that God does not exist.  Without the empirical evidence they claim to be so fond of – without the empirical disproof of His existence.

Another word for that is, of course, hypocrisy.

By contrast, in its nominal form, atheism doesn’t necessarily hold that faith itself is wrong.   Rationally, it can’t, because faith or at least "belief" is a necessary ingredient.  And if that’s true, then is it wrong to hold back stem cell research on the possibility that God exists and doesn’t want us to pursue it?  Of course it is!  Because the rational person never lets faith trump science.  If the two appear in conflict, then our beliefs and faith should adjust accordingly.  And because for God to exist (for those of us who claim both reason and the capacity to believe in Him), there can’t be a conflict between our faith and what we see in the universe that was created by Him.

Problem solved.  (Well, not quite.  I readily concede there’s a lot more to the argument over stem-cell research, but I’m limiting my discourse to the topic at hand.)

Where I Won’t Go In Christ’s Name

It is because I respect my own beliefs and the inherent good in others having the right to select their own beliefs that I have pledged and shall continue to defend the rights of others to believe as they choose.  In fact, this is a principle I could well find myself giving my life for were there a need to – I believe it that much.  As a God-"fearing" Christian, I believe that’s my charge, true enough.  But way beyond even that, my faith in acting to promote happiness as an ultimate goal is sufficient to motivate me to this extent.  So I can fully and readily understand that atheism is a fully ethically-defensible belief system.  To some of my fellow believers, this might amount to heresy – but they’re obviously mistaken and misguided.  I would readily compound that heresy by even finding myself defending any atheist from the kind of persecution I’ve often heard reported, though have never myself been a witness to.  And without detracting in any way from the severity of any individual cases of persecution, it should be pointed out it’s really not so widespread that atheists should find themselves trying to claim ‘underdog’ status.  Worldwide, it’s almost certain that it’s persecution of Christians that is far more frequent.

But even were I not a supposed heretic, I’d have to expect Christ himself to defend atheists were he around to do it.  Even leaving the notion of ‘love thy neighbor’ aside, Christ’s own sermons were clear that his followers were only to "preach the Gospel to every creature" – not harass them if they didn’t subscribe to it.  And, of course, anyone acting either as a terrorist or conducting violence in God’s name, is most definitely not doing so.  So why is it contemporary atheism continues to see religion as the cause of the world’s evils?

Conclusions

Indeed, what’s preceded has been an indictment of contemporary atheism in that the assertions it makes about faith and religion are essentially dishonest and misleading.  This review doesn’t represent much depth in terms of philosophy or theology, and yet it certainly seems sufficient pause to exonerate  religion from virtually all of the charges against it, as put to us by the latest authors on the subject.  But perhaps the biggest complaint one could have about Dawkins and others that form this group is the continuing citations of groups, supposedly representing all faithful, that actually represent the tiniest minority.  It’s a form of academic cowardice that might make great pulp fiction for some, but isn’t actually profound the way Marx’s revelations about religion being an "opiate of the masses" or Nietzsche’s statement that "God is dead" were.  Marx was attacking the subject from the angle of the origin of religion and Nietzsche was contributing new philosophical ideas on the subject "perspectivism" and moral truth (and logic).  Indeed, Nietzsche would have found Dawkins something of a dilettante, I’d expect.

The read may be harder, and challenging.  But if people want to really learn about atheism there are far more worthy reads on the subject than a dismissal of God on the mere basis of analogy and citations of religion by verbal crucifixion of its fringe elements.  A good starting point would be to read Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, wherein religion is attacked, somewhat successfully to that point in time, on a theologian-by-theologian basis, creating a multitude of rationally-evoked critiques grounded firmly in reason, which is the real province of all science and academic pursuit.

Finally, I’ve mentioned the botanist Richard Dawkins somewhat here and there, but this wasn’t intended as a direct attack on him, rather than on his popularity and the popularity of his ideas.  I’ve read two of his essays (one found here) and his latest work on religion, The God Delusion and find nothing (and I mean nothing) philosophically noteworthy in anything written.  Easily, each statement is refuted through the lens of analogy and invective on the marginal elements of religion than its core purpose and ideas.

What’s needed here is for someone to pull the debate to a higher level.  Dawkins might be writing to sell books and clearly has done that. But what would out-do Dawkins is an atheist who can be both provocative and who can poll the arguments against religion the way Nietzsche did in his critiques of earlier theologians.

And I’m still waiting for that to occur.

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Categories: Theology / Religion
  1. I
    01-Oct-09 01:00 pm EDT at 01:00 pm EDT

    Oh, I also forgot to mention, you said: "A theory of God\’s non-existence would be okay too, although that could qualify one also as an agnostic. Because contemporary atheism expresses a "belief" itself: that God does not exist. Without the empirical evidence they claim to be so fond of – without the empirical disproof of His existence."Which also makes it quite clear you haven\’t read The God Delusion. I used to call myself agnostic, and like most modern atheists, Dawkins would fit into your definition of agnostic. I, like Dawkins, am open to the idea that god might exist. I just haven\’t seen any evidence whatsoever confirming this. This is the whole point of Bertrand Russel\’s teapot analogy. There is a chance that there is a teapot somewhere in orbit in our solar system, given any evidence at all, I would take the existence of the teapot seriously. However, it seems quite unlikely that such a teapot exists, and I have no reason to take its existence seriously. I don\’t believe in the teapot, I don\’t have absolute faith that its not there, but believing absolutely that it was… well that borders on insanity.It\’s pretty rare today to find anyone who believes in Zeus or Apollo. There\’s a myriad of tribal gods that have been forgotten throughout human history as well. Do you take any of them seriously? For the most part, they all seem as likely as the Abrahamic god. As Dawkins likes to say, you\’re all atheist when it comes to those gods, I just believe in one fewer.Maybe I\’m absolutely wrong and one of these gods does exist. With evidence, I\’d be willing to explore any of them further. However, such evidence seems unlikely to ever materialize.

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  2. I
    01-Oct-09 12:44 pm EDT at 12:44 pm EDT

    No offense, but I don\’t get the impression that you\’ve actually read The God Delusion. While extremists are obviously referenced, he makes it quite clear what his problem with moderates is. The real issue isn\’t so much the fact that religion sometimes leads to violence, it\’s that faith is, by definition, willful ignorance. Once one embraces the idea that believing in something despite the lack of evidence, or even worse, when there\’s blatantly contradicting evidence is a virtue, then it opens you up to believing literally anything. If faith is more important than evidence, what is there to differentiate good faith from bad faith? Obviously most religious moderates are ethical people, but in order to be ethical, they must ignore large portions of their holy books. What tells them to follow the parts that tell them to love their neighbours, but ignore the parts that tell them to stone adulterers to death? Any argument based on faith is flawed, because it strips away any need for rationalization. The argument that we should repent to Jesus has as much rational basis as the one that we should become suicide bombers to destroy heathens. Obviously one is less ethical than the other, but with faith that you\’re doing god\’s work, ethics become meaningless.This is really only a very stripped down summary of the ideas, but I urge you to actually read The God Delusion, or Daniel Dennett\’s book, Darwin\’s Dangerous Idea.

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