Thursday, February 18, 2010

I am not Not-Religious

Above, beyond, and separate from any moral or ethical duty that atheists have to extend basic elements of tolerance and restraint towards the religious in a pluralistic society, there is a compelling, even essential, argument for an atheism of absence that is fundamentally an argument towards self-interest.

I once listened to a recording of a lecture by the New Age guru Ram Dass (né Richard Alpert) in which he was talking about the unfortunate tendency for people who have quit smoking or drinking to become dominated by that rejection, to become in a sense defined by their not-ness. One really can become dominated by the things one rejects, and it's a terrible way to live. As Ram Dass put it, "you die from not smoking."

One of the profound weirdnesses about militant atheism is just this kind of presence-through-denial, the absolute presence of religion within these atheists. Spending your time not believing in something is, well, odd. I have often said, and only partly in jest, that the advantage of atheism is that you don't have to get up in the morning on Sundays. The point is that atheism compels you to nothing. It does not ask you to serve. There are no sacraments and no sacred duties, no commandments, no elect to bow to and nothing forbidden to avoid. This is a virtue both in loftier philosophical ways (non serviam) and in the simpler graces of free time and free travel. Contrast this to, say, the apocalyptic and bellicose rhetoric of Christopher Hitchens, who writes as if atheists have some duty to oppose religion. The absence of belief and the absence of duty are symmetrical qualities.

Even aside from that more obvious notion of things that I don't have to do, there is the larger sense in which atheism is a nothing, a not-thing. Even the statement "I am an atheist" is perhaps more of a positive statement than I would like to make. But religion has compelled me to make it, and I do believe the path of conscience is towards a place where the default is, if not non-belief, than no statement about belief. Perhaps we're there now, but I don't think so. And, yes, of course, there are those who shamelessly insert their religion into politics, in defiance of Enlightenment values and the American character, and yes they have to be fought. That fight is irrelevant to the question of the existence or non-existence of gods or God, and the existence or non-existence of God or gods is irrelevant to that fight.

Not to belabor the point, but think about, say, an atheist convention. An atheist convention! A bunch of people sitting around not being religious! People brought together by their absence of belief in something! Spending money to hear speakers talk to them about how they can better be not-something and not-believe in the not-deity! Several fun-filled days thinking about God because you don't believe in him and think he's a jerk! What could it possibly matter to me if my neighbors go to church? What could I possibly feel towards them because of what I don't feel? How could a genuine atheism compel one towards anger or bitterness? No, what anger exists is anger at the God you say you don't believe in.

No. Atheism is not a project.It has no purpose. It proceeds towards no end. It has no meaning beyond the simplicity of absence. It has as little negative presence as positive and demands no philosophy. Sam Harris's life is dominated by religion. It's what he thinks about; it's what he writes about; it's how he pays the bills. He speaks all over the country about religion, he opines on it constantly, denying it is his constant endeavor. His intellectual and philosophical life could hardly be more centered around religion if he were a monk.

Me? I go weeks without thinking about religion or God. And why would I?

57 comments:

paul said...

"And, yes, of course, there are those who shamelessly insert their religion into politics, in defiance of Enlightenment values and the American character, and yes they have to be fought."

Really? Do you really think this? Liberalism is, obviously, just as much of a 'religion' as Christianity; the Enlightenment (or, let's say, e.g., Bacon and French philosophes) is "atheism as anti-theism." There really is nothing 'neutral' about this idea that we shouldn't let "religion" (read: those icky evangelical Christians) into politics.

Freddie said...

I think you're right, Paul, and after Lyotard I cannot assert that the precondition of liberal democracy is some sort of higher truth of man that is true beyond my/our preference for it. It is a choice, and to that extent it is a choice that is foisted upon people. But it is part of a minimal normative framework that I believe has to exist for the deliberative (and thus democratic) process to exist.

djw said...

Yep. The militant atheists abandon religion (fine and good so far) but then make the crucial and devastating error of retaining the self righteousness and beligerent identity politics.

Ian McCullough said...

I think the manifestation of atheism has everything to do with the origins of the atheism. I was raised by non-religious parents, we didn't talk about religion or God or spiritual topics when I was young. My atheism is much like yours, I generally don't think about religion.
But I have friends who were religious and have lost their faith and feel that loss in a way I never will. There is no hole in my soul waiting for something to fill it, but for them I think it scratches the itch created by years of Sunday school.
If Liberalism is a religion, what would be their Theodicy? I don't think Liberalism has a coherent answer to why evil happens in the world. Not every belief or disposition is a religion.

Freddie said...

Oh, I don't think liberalism is a religion. What I mean is that I don't claim the rule against letting religion dictate (as opposed to letting religion influence through the deliberation/votes of the religious, which is principled and necessary) public policy as some sort of law of nature, or outside of my own preference. It is indeed the imposition of a norm. I simply think that it is one of the norms necessary in a minimal normative framework that makes the deliberative process possible.

paul said...

Fair enough ... I guess I would argue, with Macintyre, that liberalism as such is flawed (for various reasons) and simply doesn't inculcate virtue or truth or justice in any meaningful sense --- essentially the West has been living off the heritage of Christianity for the last few hundred years, but as that slowly drops away, you're simply left with nihilism (which even someone like Habermas admits); without the Christian view of the dignity of man, all of these athiest/anti-theist Enlightenment ideals just fall apart.

But then to be illiberal is to commit the gravest sin possible, these days. Any sort of religious/political theocratic authority is immediately "the Taliban," or something, as opposed to e.g. Byzantium.

John said...

It seems to me the reason Hitchens et. al. are so centrally obsessed with religion, is that they believe it to be the greatest source of evil in the world. I disagree with this assessment and find it unfortunate but I also understand that if one feels that way, it is understandable why religion might bear the brunt of their outrage. It is easier to not think about religion, when you don't think it is a problem.

Dave Trowbridge said...

The kind of atheist you describe is religious; that is, he or she is strongly linked (religare) to others similarly dominated by their attitude towards religion.

BTW, your kind of atheist is often found in liberal Quaker Meetings (although they tend to call themselves "non-theists" rather than atheists), but I've never encountered the other kind there.

awils1 said...

Their are two steams of atheism, and a political discourse moulded on one kind of athiesm, I think. One is the non-religion you profess -- the utter lack of interest in religion, and the utter lack of belief, and the other is, of course, the Dawkins-style evangelism. The political stream is defined by the lack of belief in religion, but recognises the hegemonic influence religions all over the world (read: not just those icky evangelical Christians) have in created unjust, unfair, and cruel societies, and wants that to change. That's not liberalism, though, it's something else.

epoque said...

But don't you think, Freddie, that this particular non-thing -- that which we are asked to call atheism -- makes the existentialist imperative (to acknowledge that we are condemned to be free) all the more immediate?

Freddie said...

Definitely-- but all the more reason to confront the problem that confronts me (what is right for me to do?) than the one that doesn't (what does Authority compel me to do?).

ASP said...

You remind me of my favorite scene in Catch 22, which I'll have to paraphrase since I can't find the book:

Yossarian, atheist, is in bed with another professed atheist, and launches into a fanciful tirade at the cruelty of a God who "robs old people of the ability to control their bodily functions." He reaches a kind of crescendo where he talks about collaring the old sadist, when --

"Stop! Stop! she cries (pounding him, I think). "I can't bear to hear you talk about Him that way!"

He looks at her bemusedly. "I thought you said you didn't believe in God?"

"I don't," she cried tearfully. "But the God I don't believe in is a kind God, a merciful God..."

"Let's have a little more religious tolerance around here," says Yossarian. "You don't believe in the God you don't want to, and I won't believe in the God I don't want to."

Of course, in a way this is the opposite of germane, since you would prefer not to not-believe in any particular god-concept.

Robbie said...

I feel I am in much a similar boat to you, religion rarely features in my thoughts, and is never a genuine cause for concern. Yet I can sympathise with many of the 'militant atheists'. Their assessment is that religion is a great evil to the world, and this does not seem too far wrong to me. From here, dedicating their lives to fighting religion in all its negative manifestations is not so different to people like Elie Wiesel fighting the shadows of fascism and anti-Semitism in the world.

Lynx said...

Really, I don't understand people who don't own slaves spending so much time campaigning against slavery. I mean, the best thing about not being a slave owner is not having to buy the extra food for them! Seriously, look at all these people who spend their time being not-slave owners, thinking constantly about slaves!

The notion that a lack of a belief in god should naturally be followed by an indifference to religion and its obvious, tangible, observable effects on the world is absurd. Harris, Hitch et. al. care and talk about religion because you can trace 9/11, "honor" killings, the denial of equal treatment to certain classes of people, the denial of medical treatment to children based on religious notions etc. to religion. The idea that these issues and the flawed mental reasoning that they come from should be irrelevant to them because they don't share the beliefs is absolutely absurd.

Freddie said...

Really, I don't understand people who don't own slaves spending so much time campaigning against slavery. I mean, the best thing about not being a slave owner is not having to buy the extra food for them! Seriously, look at all these people who spend their time being not-slave owners, thinking constantly about slaves!

This is a very faulty analogy. "Belief" in slavery, in this case, is belief in the physical manifestation of a supremely immoral action (or set of actions). The crime, though, is in the commission of those actions. What I would oppose, were I to live in pre-Civil War America, would be the physical acts of slavery. What's more, I think you can agree that religious belief, in the mind of believers, has a transcendent quality simply through believing that belief in the righteousness of slavery does not.

And, you know, I don't find the fact that other people believe in God immoral, in the way that I might find that other people believe in the righteousness of slavery immoral. To a degree, I find belief in God mysterious, but it has no moral valence for me qua belief. What has moral valence is the actions they take as a result of that belief. And, yeah, when they advocate oppression of homosexuals or similar, I reacted against that and oppose that physical manifestation.

Mark said...

The question I'd ask, Freddie, is whether you're making a small, inarguable point while casually parenthesizing a much larger and more politically urgent one. When you explicate, in your comments, "...all the more reason to confront the problem that confronts me (what is right for me to do?) than the one that doesn't (what does Authority compel me to do?) you sweep aside the many, many people--non-white, non-male, non-straight, non-Western---who've not had the luxury of bracketing "Authority" so easily. "What would be right " for women or gays or blacks to do would be to vote, marry, drive, own property, think for themselves--but for centuries it's been Authority--backed by, or identical with, institutional Religion--which has prevented these people from doing "what's right for them to do." And this simple (and ongoing) fact of history is what motivates the Harrises and the Hitchenses of the world. Your statement's correct: but do realize you're writing from a very, very luxurious perch.

Freddie said...

I think, Mark, that you're guilty of a common trope in this argument, which is the over assignation of history's various great crimes purely to religion. There are more than enough great, unforgivable crimes inspired by religion. We don't need to invent more.

So, for example, when you list black people among those who have had their rights abridged by religion, I'm afraid you're missing the boat. No matter what Christopher Hitchens says, it is a bare fact of history that both the abolitionist movement and the civil rights movement were supported to an incalculable amount by religious organizations. Were there other religious institutions that opposed integration on religious grounds? Of course. But all of this is to say that picking one direction that religious organizations supposedly pointed on the axes of oppression in the plight of American slaves and descendants of slaves is foolish. Similar sentiments can be made about woman's suffrage; many churches opposed suffrage. Some supported it. To chalk any particular stance of righteousness to "religion" or "Christianity" would be facile. Forget how it falls in this debate; I just don't think it's worthwhile on the level of historical understanding.

This also demonstrates, I think, a difference of opinion between me and many other atheists, which is that I don't think religion alone is the cause of great conflicts. Dawkins has said that he thinks something akin to paradise on earth would break out if religion was swept away with a wave of his hand. That's crazy. The truth is, human beings oppress, rob and kill each other, and if they aren't doing it because of the grand socialist revolution, they'll do it because it is Allah's will, or if not that, than because they desperately need those resources and anyway, it's the American way. I don't excuse religion's terrible history of inspiring crimes against humanity, but I also am not naive about the fact that many of the great religious conflicts would have happened in an atheist world anyway.

The larger question for you is this: okay, I'm privileged. What would you have me do? Can I possibly serve the cause of non-belief by making my life more preoccupied with belief? That's the problem with this whole nasty enterprise. There is a creeping incoherence to the calls to reduce the level of religiosity in the world by overly concerning oneself with religiosity. Whatever you might think about my own particular path, I am where atheism needs to go, if it is not the angry caricature that so many have made of it in response to Hitchens, Dawkins et al.

NoYourGod said...

Please - never use the phrase "militant atheist." Last I checked, atheists have not bombed abortion clinics or killed doctors, blown up cafes yelling "NO GOD!", or started wars for less-than-holy land. The atheists you describe are very vocal, and very persistent, but hardly violent.

We all have the right to be wrong about our religious and non-religious views. I would love to sit there and NOT think about religion, or its followers' impact on our society. Sadly, that is not possible. When Kentucky state senators push for teaching the bible "as literature" in school, and multiple states insist on teaching mythology in science classes, and another bozo insists that a duly elected city councilman cannot serve because the state constitution requires a belief in god, sitting aside and doing nothing is fooling.

Hitchens, Dawkins, Myers, etc. do fight against the foolishness of irrational thought as part of trying to keep people from doing dangerous and detrimental things. Evidence for evolution and a universe that is billions of years old exist. Outside of an old book with a collection of allegories and anecdotes, evidence for a 6,000-8,000 year old earth with magically created life does not. Basing real-world decisions on what to teach our children in school and how to treat our sick should be based on science, not common mythology. In their articles Dawkins and Myers are just as harsh on anti-vaxers as they are young-earthers, and for good reason - the science is so strong against the anti-vaxers and young-earthers that it is foolish to believe those fallacies, and dangerous to base our actions on them.

With few exceptions, I will fight for your right to believe or not believe what you want concerning a higher power. I expect you to do the same for me. When individuals and groups try to force their beliefs on my or my government, respect for those individuals and groups falls, and I will fight them - just not with bullets and bombs.

Freddie said...

I oppose the entrance of religion into government, science or medicine as well. The argument that this is because of a principle of separation between religious doctrine and those things can potentially convince many more people than the argument that starts from the belief in the non-existence of God.

Lynx said...

What has moral valence is the actions they take as a result of that belief. And, yeah, when they advocate oppression of homosexuals or similar, I reacted against that and oppose that physical manifestation.

So how do you propose one fights against divinely mandated rules like putting homosexuals to death without confronting the divine nature of those mandates? What form of reason can trump "God tells me so" other than "This is the evidence of why that holy book is entirely of man-made origin and these are the logical flaws in theistic belief"?

How can you challenge the real-world consequences of religious belief without challenging the belief they stem from? Harris et. al. are not as passionate as they are because of the deists. I agree that belief in a non-interventionist entirely personal philosophical god is hardly at the top of the list of problems in this world. However it is disingenuous to pretend that this God of the Philosophy Department is the one that dominates our planet.

You call my analogy faulty because I compare the tangible, observable problem of slavery to the supposedly intangible, unprovable concept of god. But my point is that god-belief causes very tangible, very observable things in this world that certainly warrant the attention of atheists.

You can argue that fathers would still murder their teenage daughters for "dishonoring" them, and that people would still fly planes into buildings or parents would watch children die of preventable disease without calling a doctor even if their was no religion. I disagree but there is a legitimate debate to be had. Also legitimate is to argue that the cure to these societal ills, even if they are caused by religion, is not to undermine the underpinnings of the truth of those religions. Again, that is a strategic debate and its perfectly legitimate.

However it is undeniable that religion is not just a matter of personal philosophy, it has real-world, real-person consequences in this world, and hence the idea that atheists are not legitimate in spending time and effort concerning themselves with these real things that they can really see and have really experienced does not compute.

Joseph said...

"Atheism is not a project."

No, it's not. I suspect that's probably why Sam Harris names his foundation "The Reason Project", and not "The Athiest Project". As an athiest its seems to me that Sam Harris's use of time, devoting himself to exposing ancient myths for what they are, in an effort to chip away at the negative effects this nonsense has on our politics and our lives, is noble and valuable.

Anonymous said...

I have to respectfully disagree with this analysis, though I found it very thoughtful. I think the main problem is that you've distorted the idea of 'militant atheism'.

First, I'd argue that most atheists are not militant, but are probably like you - they simply don't care. They're apatheists. So attacking militant atheism doesn't really allow you to extrapolate to atheism more broadly.

Second, you mentioned the idea of an atheist convention where people just sit around and talk about how God doesn't exist. Have you ever checked out any of the videos of, for example, the AAI? In 2009 they had speakers on evolution, moral philosophy, cosmology, etc. Your description of the convention doesn't square with the reality of the proceedings.

I think, as one of the other posters mentioned, that many of the so-called 'new atheists' honestly believe that religion has a corrosive effect in society. They're fighting as much against this as they are the very idea that God exists.

(Also, as an aside, I don't know if Sam Harris has ever denied that religion is his constant endeavor. First he's also very interested in neuroscience. And second, he's agreed with you numerous times that atheism is an 'empty box' as he once put it - it's a negation, not a positive philosophy. He's taken on the term 'atheism' a lot and has gone so far as to suggest not using it, so I think it's important to mention that.)

Freddie said...

How can you challenge the real-world consequences of religious belief without challenging the belief they stem from?

Uh, the same way you argue anything else? I think you need to consult history, here. Some of the most important and most successful advocates of the separation of church and state in world history were professed religious believers, even devout. You want to talk about real world context, let's talk about real world context: most American church goers aren't in the least incapable of synthesizing their religious devotion and duties with their everyday movement through a pluralistic society. Now, some people tend to take this as another opportunity to mock them (see, they don't really believe what they say they believe!). But whatever their "actual" devotion, they by and large have no issue whatsoever with compartmentalizing their religious life with and their secular life. You likely know plenty of people like this.

Look at a more extreme example, like the Muslim world. I really think that if you believe the key to bringing moderation to the Muslim world is to try to be evangelistic about atheism, you're barking up the wrong tree. What moderates religious extremists is religious moderates. Look at Indonesia. It's the world's largest Muslim country. It's also a country with significant Hindu, Christian and Buddhist minorities that go about their day-to-day lives unmolested. Women have voting rights, can wear pants, etc. Indonesia didn't get that way because of a wave of atheism. It got that way because of an appreciation of some of the tenants of classical liberalism, which protects the religious as much as it protects those who are not religious.

As a tactical issue, I just don't think that eliminating belief is a realistic approach. It's too extreme, plays into the hands of the most fervent believers in their messages of prosecution, and is contrary to elementary group psychology. And, again, yes, I believe that the actual duty is not towards making people non-believers but towards opposing the use of religious argumentation in secular debates. As for the future, who knows? We'll see.

Anonymous said...

all of this seems overly analytical.

My parents are athiests. They raised me to be one, I've raised my kids to be athiests.

I do think about it sometimes, but not that often.

I think the athiests who rail against religion are railing against organized religion more than an idea of God.

I like the idea of religion myself, and kind of envy people it (the community, culture, ritual). But I have a hard time believing in God in my gut. SO I haven't felt right adopting a religion. Just as I think somebody who was raised in a religion has a hard time not believing in God even when they want to.

Maybe that explains the vehemence.
It certainly explains all the philosophical reflection about it.

I don't reflect on religion most of the time. And even when I do, I can't summon up much oomph other than disgust at fundamentalism.

Roman said...

Atheism is self refuting. The centre does not hold.The central 'idea'of atheism is the 'non-existence' of Deity. I posit that Atheists themselves are uable to prove that God does not exist. Atheists look at religion as entertaining/magic/dramatic/cute/unfortunate/exasperating...because the question for them is this: How do you know that God exists?

Some atheists will say actually, i couldn't give a rat's ass about thatd and that's cool and i take that point. But the truth is that by already claiming the Atheist label you have indeed taken a position on this issue.You had a choice. Your choice is taken as an implicit endorsement of one strain of thought over the other. I can safely assume that what you chose in the end was, to you, the superior choice, which is why you chose it. So to the non-chalant Atheist i say, you've pretty much already started the conversation by just calling yourself that so let's keep talking.

Why is Atheism self refuting?
Because the Atheists themselves cannot prove that God does not exist. Anymore than the Christian can prove the divinity of Jesus.The reason the Atheist can not prove that God does NOT exist is because we simply don't know. Our lack of knowledge on this is purely empirical, that is, an actual information Gap. The end of Reason. What's left is the mystical and mysterious.The fact that the Atheist asserts there is no God has no relation whatsoever to the possibility that God does indeed exist. They are mutually exclusive facts. The fact that you don't think God exist means only that YOU don't think God doesn't exist. It doesn't mean that God ACTUALLY doesn't exist. You simply have no way of knowing. Athiests have no way of verifying the central tenet of their religion, and it is a religion make no mistake. It is based on faith. You see, atheists just 'know' or 'feel' or just somehow for some imperceptible reason just are more convinced that there is no God. But they can't prove it. So basically, to believe that GOd doesn't exist is also an article of faith and not a statement of fact. Atheists believe that god doesn't exist without having any evidence that explains and verifies and validate thier central belief which is 'God does not exist'

Freddie said...

On the one hand-- yes, it's true, you can't prove a negative. There is no way to prove the nonexistence of God, and I do think that this is a not irrelevant philosophical point.

However, surely, we all operate on the assumption that the burden of proof rests on those who are positing the existence of something rather than those who are not positing the existence of something. It's precisely because you can't prove a negative that we act that way. So while on a certain level, yes, I think the positive evidence for the non-existence of God is no more compelling than the positive evidence for the existence of God, non-belief makes more sense than belief, because the burden of proof is so much higher on the latter. Life would be functionally unlivable if we had to prove negatives to the same satisfaction as we prove positives.

Anonymous said...

Wow, you are a real mush head. You've managed to be not-even-wrong.

Learn to think. Until then, keep quiet.

Don't bother responding, I won't be back.

Freddie said...

Here's the real question I have for all of you: between all of us, who is the person who actually believes in the power of reason? And who has more realistic goals for the application of reason? Without getting into a debate about the origins of knowledge and the degree to which truth is objective, it seems to me that the person who actually has confidence in the power of reason is me. And yet I temper that confidence by restricting my aims to the more important and the more modest: my ability to convince others to divorce their religion from their political discourse. Meanwhile, my opponents are at once more fatalistic about the ability of religious believers to engage in secular society, and yet are to my mind incredibly naive about the difficulty of convincing the religious to abandon belief in God.

To me, that's the core issue, even aside from concerns about elementary tolerance towards difference of opinion. The evidence suggests that it is easier for people to be both religious and practicing but at the same time secular in politics and science; it also suggests that it is much harder to convince people to abandon belief in God altogether than to convince them to moderate the application of their religious belief in public life.

We can call that "God Hates Fags" family crazies because they are rare, in this society. As you all are aware, America didn't become by and large a society of tolerant and functionally secular people through a wave of atheism, but through the calm insistence of moderates that the religious and the secular must be kept separate.

Stephen R said...

"I oppose the entrance of religion into government, science or medicine as well. The argument that this is because of a principle of separation between religious doctrine and those things can potentially convince many more people than the argument that starts from the belief in the non-existence of God."

Unfortunately, arguing for the separation of church and state doesn't really make sense if you believe in an interventionist deity. If God causes earthquakes when gay people hook-up, then the state ought to stop gays from hooking up! (Many Orthodox rabbis believe this.)

Anyways, I think there's room for apathetic atheists and "vocal" ones. Even if you think that religion isn't THE source for many negative things, it obviously contributes. Having people out there point out that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes does take a lot of the "ummph" out of their positions.

(There are almost no secular people who oppose gay rights, for instance. And that makes sense, given that the only real source for arguments against gay rights are scriptural.)

Freddie said...

There are no coherent ones. There are, sad to say, people who oppose gay marriage who aren't particularly or at all religious. Their opposition to gay marriage tends to be of the "gross" variety, although they won't likely admit to it. I tend to think that opposition to gay marriage is a place where cultural squeamishness is present but often inarticulate on the level of ideas, and so religious argument predominates. But that's just a suspicion.

Ian McCullough said...

On various posts above.
I would support public school teaching of the Bible as literature. It brackets the work as an important text of our culture which should be read as part of a broad education. All my bible reading was assigned in college and it gave me a greater understanding of Christians. That's worthwhile.

Please don't go on about proof, lack of proof, paucity of idea, etc... Scientology is a religion of equal merit to Roman Catholicism under the law. When the Supreme Court ruled on this the decision was that as long as you honestly believe something it doesn't have to make sense. This was from someone suing Scientology because their e-meters were a bunch of hokum. The Supreme Court essentially said, yes it is a bunch of hokum but it's a religion and we don't apply empirical tests to honestly held beliefs. Religion doesn't have to make any sort of sense - the better more popular religions have a greater edifice of explanations, but when you get down to it they don't make empirical sense. They don't have to, because they are religions and they are based on faith. (redacted because it's borderline trolling - two sentences about The First Church of Abortion)

So either have faith, or don't. I have no faith. But the arguments back and forth between believers and non-believers comes down to exhortations to either accept or abandon faith. My response to conversion attempts is just to ask the Christian in question how they would receive being asked by a complete stranger to give up their faith in God? Typically this gets silence to which I add, "Well, that's how I feel right now."

klo1272 said...

"Hitchens, Dawkins, Myers, etc. do fight against the foolishness of irrational thought as part of trying to keep people from doing dangerous and detrimental things."

Does anyone else think such a statement could easily have passed the lips of some Stalinist functionary in the USSR of 1930's or a Nazi concentration camp commandant?

I'm an agnostic who leans pretty strongly towards non-belief but I find your words despicable and oppressive.

We, none of us, whether deeply religious or atheist and everything in between, need people like you to "keep" us from "harming" ourselves, thank you very much.

Elf Sternberg said...

"what anger exists is anger at the God you say you don't believe in."

So off-the-mark it's not even funny. And so remarkably like the complaints of the faithful that I wonder what kind of irreligiousness you practice.

I'm angry at my culture, because it teaches a child that there's a Guy In The Sky who hates that child, who loathes him, who holds him over a fiery pit, and it is only some bizarre schizophrenia, some strange "amazing grace."

I'm angry at my culture, that maintains that some illness and horror is the result of this arbitrary Font Of Love™, a form of casual dismissal of the suffering of others that amounts to evil writ large.

I don't think it's irresponsible, or religious, to oppose these persistent, historically regional outbreaks of irrationality and madness. It's humane.

Dick said...

I can't speak for anyone else, but for me the 'project' of my non-theism is to simply stop being deceived.

I think that's a worthy cause. Your mileage etc.

Freddie said...

I can't speak for anyone else, but for me the 'project' of my non-theism is to simply stop being deceived.

But this is exactly it. To posit non-deception as a something, as opposed to a nothing, is strange to me, and I think that the continued representation of these kinds of negatively defined notions as positive duties or tasks is ultimately self-defeating to the effort to create a society with a norm of non-belief, or private belief.

Rick and Gary said...

The problem with conflating religion and other strongly held views is that religion ultimately demands the murder of its detractors.

Freddie said...

Really? I am remarkably non-murdered, as are Hitchens, Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the vast majority of religion's detractors.

pigeonweather said...

Atheism has never been in the cultural mainstream before. This is the only thing that is "new" about the "new atheism". I'm only fifty but when I was a boy my family was the only atheist one for miles and miles around. I still could never be elected to anything much outside of my beloved San Francisco.

I'm not a big fan of the so-called "militant" atheists and tend to agree with your assessment of their obsession with religion, but at the same time I enjoy them and I'm glad they're out there ruffling feathers and making noise. It's a good thing, as far as I'm concerned, for atheists to be seen and heard.

There is still a long way to go before atheism is truly accepted at large around the world - a long long way - and we who merely claim to not believe in any god are still at risk of our very lives in many places - how crazy is that?

Still, we need to have a sense of humor about it, and this seems sorely lacking to me. I've done my little part with the publication of my two "atheist comic pulp fictions" (e.g. Missy Tonight, a free e-book at smashwords - http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/6031)

We still don't have an Atheist Broadcasting Service or an Atheist Shopping Network, so don't be too hard on us, please! We're just sounding our barbaric yalps out here

K-Tron said...

Sam Harris addressed the matter of this post best in his speech at AAI 07

"atheism is not a worldview"

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=2089733934372500371&ei=DK-KS8uKDISHlgfCpPT_Aw&q=sam+harris+aai#

Freddie said...

I have to head off to work, but what I want to say primarily is this: even if you don't agree with me on the level of philosophy, I think people should consider what I am saying on the level of tactics. I think most of us think that the fundamental struggle is to remove religion from politics, science, and medicine. After that, some say that the next step is eliminating religious belief altogether. I don't, but on the first level, we agree.

Here's what I'm saying: my position is more workable on the level of tactics when it comes to reaching that first goal. The history of religious moderation demonstrates to me that such moderation-- that respect for liberal values and a separation of church and state-- does not come from a rise in atheism, but rather from a rise in religious moderates. That's the case here in this country. Yes, many like to exaggerate the threat of theocracy in America. But this is not Yemen; we are a functionally secular society to a great degree. We have work to do, but it is better than worse. And why? Not because of atheism, but because of moderation, secularization, and religious tolerance. The same is true in the Muslim success stories of Malaysia and Indonesia.

I simply find convincing people of the benefits of a strict separation of church and state to be a far lower bar to reach than convincing them to abandon religious devotion altogether, and the former reaches our first goal just as well as the latter. The question is, if you are more interested in waging war than in making positive progress, what exactly are you working for, and what is the purpose of your ideology?

Randy said...

Militant atheism is a direct response to militant religiousity. Like Freddie, weeks and months go by for me without considering or discussing whether there is a God, or if it matters. Where it creeps into my consciousness and conversations is when I see particular faiths being used/abused to empower a few at the expense of the many.

An athiest convention is just a gathering of like-minded individuals, same as a Sunday church service or Christmas mass. This isn't just a Christian thing, though in the US, evangelical Christianism prompts the most militant responses from non-believers like me. Simply put, if your faith's polemics interfere with my lack of faith, I'm going to respond. Hopefully, such responses will be constructive and reasonable, but given that the reasoning for such faith-based initiatives is "because God says so", it's tough to consider such arguments as valid. This brings athiests and faithful to loggerheads, and thus, conflict.

NoYourGod said...

@Roman: Atheism is self-refuting because we cannot prove there is no god?!?

Using that "logic", your views on the Purple People Eater are likewise self-refuting.

Anyways - if you want to know the difference between the way believers approach a mythical god and many atheists (including myself), check out: http://www.calamitiesofnature.com/archive/?c=338

Craig said...

I disagree with this analysis. there are a variety of reasons why Atheists criticize belief, or why they would be justified in doing so. I personally am very critical of belief in God, and religion more broadly, because I find it to be a patently unreasonable paradigm that has dominated the public conscience for worse net effect. let me see if I can explain myself without being the guy who becomes obnoxiously verbose in the comments section of a blog:

a) the existence of God is a subject of intellectual interest. it is unfair to tell someone who cares greatly about a subject that they are misguided in pursuing it. if your argument is that atheists shouldn't care so much, i think you are mistaken; when the fabric of the very culture they live in is permeated with the diaspora of religious belief (our money, the very language we speak), and they personally find the entire enterprise to be an affront to reason, it is difficult not to actively question it.

b) your premise seems to be one of disengagement. I think this is contrary to the very idea of being an intellectually curious individual. most intellectuals aren't content to let someone "stay wrong" if they encounter what they think is an incorrect belief. they will opt to debate it and question it until the matter is resolved. the "militant" atheists are simply people who believe it's a debate worth having in public, if for no other reason than because they think the pursuit of knowledge is important, and people should live without illusions.

c) it may be true that someone's belief in God doesn't hurt me. it is also true that if someone believes in mythical creatures, or for that matter, Bertrand's invisible teapot orbiting Saturn, it doesn't hurt me either. but you wouldn't call me misguided if i labeled such a person delusional, because there is clearly very little objectively verifiable evidence to support their stated beliefs. I ask: was Bertrand Russell misguided for crafting the afore-mentioned teapot metaphor and delivering it to the public? Was J.L. Mackie misguided in discussing the contradictions inherent to God in the problem of evil? it seems to me that the standard for caring too much about one's Atheism is being willing to defend it in public. the fact that some are willing to do this more loudly than others shouldn't be grounds for chastising them. Devotion to the pursuit of knowledge should be encouraged. I think it's bad for everyone to advocate disengagement. the search for knowledge is an important one, and we shouldn't shirk away from it simply because those that believe otherwise "aren't hurting anyone" by believing wrongly. if we value the search for truth collectively, we must be willing to publicly question those that we think have false beliefs.


D) When a person asserts that the universe can't exist without a creator, or at least a first cause, that's not a morally offensive belief to me. I might argue with that person about what the exact nature of that first cause has to be in their eyes, but this is also entirely different than asserting that morality comes from God, and most theists do this without realizing it. if a theist states that they personally cannot be a moral person without belief in God means they are necessarily saying that I can't be either. Either that, or they are saying that they would see no reason to treat me with respect if not for my god-given eternal soul. both are offensive to me since I believe it makes sense to be good without belief in God, and I feel I have every right to question these apparently self-centric, unharmful beliefs.

I suppose I would conclude by drawing on Jefferson, who I think is indispensable on the matter:

"Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear."

-Thomas Jefferson, letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787

Dick said...

To posit non-deception as a something, as opposed to a nothing, is strange to me, and I think that the continued representation of these kinds of negatively defined notions as positive duties or tasks is ultimately self-defeating to the effort to create a society with a norm of non-belief, or private belief.

To value viewing reality as clearly as possible versus volunteering to be subjugated by deception is not a negative value, it is a positive one. To desire and to work to be healthy is not to be anti-disease. To wash your eyes in order to see clearly is not the same as defining oneself as being anti-blindness.

Your point demands that the perspective of a non-theist be one of being the opposite of the religious, of self-definition as "not" something; the truth is my non-theism is simply demanding that others beliefs not be forced upon me. That's a desire for freedom, not an embrace of non-slavery.

Word games.

Freddie said...

Word games that I am suggesting are best not played.

Roman said...

This is the premise of my position that Atheism is self-refuting.
People that are religious call themselves'people of faith'.Faith,by definition, is the belief in things not provable.Historical record and archives do indeed prove that there once did exist a minor Jewish Rabbi called Jesus,but even that is not empirical proof of his divinity,it's not proof that he was 'the son of God'. Yet believers still believe.Without having evidence.But then again they correctly identify this paradox by calling themselves 'people of faith'.

Faith is precluded by a knowledge gap. An actual lack of empirical evidence of the existence of The Divine. The Christian says, i cannot know, but i believe. In this way, empirical doubt is the father of faith. One cannot exist without the other.

Is it unreasonable to hold the same standards for the non-believer? Keep in mind this, is it really possible to verify that indeed there is nothing out there?One can percieve that there is nothing out there but why should that perception go unchallenged? Some have said that the burden of proof is on me since i claim to believe in the existence of God. That is only true if you define my faith in your own terms. I have just explained that, in fact, i don't know and am not sure about the divinity of Jesus. It is simply impossible to know. I posit that it is also equally impossible to know that the opposite is true.

People have said, but i'm not chosing to 'not-believe' in God.To say that i believe in the existence of nothing is a false choice and seems sophist and a shallow playing with words. But the fact is, you've made a choice either way. Atheism is a choice.

In my view, only the children of Atheist parents can be true Atheists because they simply have no conception of deity or non-deity. It's just never brought up. Growing up in a completely contigency free environment, a space of complete objectivity is the only true fertile ground for Atheism. The thing about that is that none such environment exists. Never has and never will. The only true expression of Atheism would have to be passive. The Atheists who say that they don't proselytize their lack of belief to me are more 'Atheist' than Sam Harris, who practically makes a living of of his religion.

Once you are introduced to the 'other'option,you cease to be contingency free and are now in the realm of making an objective choice.
If you chose to believe in The Divine then you become a believer. My point is that chosing to remain Atheist is in fact,a selecting. Those that say to the question of Divinity: I don't know. That is also a choice, a choice to remain Agnostic. Atheism goes further than Agnosticism. But if Atheism is a consciously thought about position then how can one argue that it's not a choice?

If i have a gold coin in my pocket and i ask someone to guess whether i have a gold coin in my pocket or not,their guess has nothing to do with the possible reality of my having a gold coin in my pocket. I could very well have a gold coin in my pocket. But it's also possible that my pockets are empty. At any one time, one of these realities is true. I either have a gold coin in my pocket or i don't. Your attempts to guess either way have nothing to do with those two potential empirical realities because there is simply no way for you to verify either one.

God is real.
There is no God.

At any time, one of those is true.
Their unverifiability is not a comment on their truth/untruth or the 'factness' of them if you will.
The fact that you cannot verify either means only this: you can't verify either of them.

Also, to the people saying that the same rubric could be applied to space monsters and giant tin pots or other mystical creatures well yeah. This kind of thinking can be applied to other scenarios. Why should that be taken as a negative? Because you've chosen to foist this principle on outlandish things?

Michelle said...

In another forum years ago, someone put my own views into words that I could not possibly improve upon:

For me the idea of the existence of a supernatural, deity, god, whatever, is so ludicrous as to merit no further consideration. . . . Of course such concepts were not present in my upbringing so never had for me any reality or plausibility, and so such a point of view is easier for me than for someone raised religiously. I am called an atheist, although I don't find the label quite accurate because it suggests that I am denying the existence of something whose existence I do not even agree should be considered. The premise is not that I know better; rather that there is nothing to know. It's not that I consider improbable the existence of a god, it's that I don't consider the hypothesis either well made or substantive.

Perhaps this stance is why I am neither apathetic nor militant about religion and religious belief. I will admit to curiousity about the specifics of practices and scripture, but not so much as to have ever become particularly knowledgeable about either.

Certainly, religious moderation will curtail fundamentalism far more effectively than a crusading atheism in the mold of Hitchens or Dawkins. That moderation requires respect and moderation from believers and non-believers alike. You're never going to convince someone who believes to not believe; it's absurd to even try. Moreover, I suspect that a rather larger proportion of people who profess to believe actually don't believe or have very strong doubts. A nice way to make common cause with them is to focus on your areas of agreement and not come across like a strident, condescending jerk. Perhaps when they see that so-called "atheism" is really a pretty laid-back thing, they might themselves choose to drop the pretenses.

Roman said...

co"For me the idea of the existence of a supernatural, deity, god, whatever, is so ludicrous as to merit no further consideration"

By what objective standard was this conclusion settled upon? Can you explain the mechanism that led you to make the above statement as as a fact?

"I am called an atheist, although I don't find the label quite accurate because it suggests that I am denying the existence of something whose existence I do not even agree should be considered."

How is it that you get to unilaterally set the terms for what should even be considered discussion?This seems arbitrary to me.

"The premise is not that I know better; rather that there is nothing to know."

How can one make such a sweeping and definitive statement of fact? Are you in posession of information not available to the rest of us? Is your claim verifiable? If not then why the certainty? You claim to 'know' as opposed to 'believe'. There is room for doubt in belief. None so for'knowledge' for it is definite and a measure of the empirical. Either you know or you don't and you seem to know without offering one iota of evidence. You are making declarative statements.

"It's not that I consider improbable the existence of a god,..."

This contradicts your above assertion that there is 'nothing' to know. If there is 'nothing' to know then that means the existence of a god is improbable because there's no god to know anything about..

"......it's that I don't consider the hypothesis either well made or substantive."

Again, what objective standards did you employ to come to this conclusion? Is this not singular of you? Should we take your standard as the given? Why? Why should the terms of this discussion be dictated by what you arbitrarily deem 'worthy'?

Ian McCullough said...

Roman-
There is no objective standard for faith. We're all very proud of your ontological proof of God, but I have no faith. There is no more need for me to explain or defend this statement, just as you do not have to explain or defend having faith.

Religion is about taking a step on faith, not on objective standards and trying to craft a logical defense of something which does not make logical sense just seems a bit sad.

I have no faith, why is that difficult to accept?

Anonymous said...

Roman, you're missing the point. He's saying that he would not debate yes or no that there is a spaghetti monster circling the moon. It would just never come up for consideration.

Geoff said...

There seems to be some kind of basic agnostic assumption here that we just don't know much about the question of whether God exists, but really this is a kind of myth itself. Therer's alot you can find out by learning about metaphysics, theology and comparative mythology. and

So, concerning all the comments along the lines of"the Atheists themselves cannot prove that God does not exist": actually, this isn't so clear. Most ordinary accounts of what "God" means to an actual believer are self-contradictory enough that you can prove God doesn't exist in almost the the same way you prove that a triangle can't have four sides.

On the other hand we can try to get away from primitive folk-religion notions of the ordinary believer. But then when religious thinkers have tried to avoid the problems using sophisticated accounts like Aquinas's negative theology or Kant's thing-in-itself, the so-called "God" is so abstract and attenuated that it's hard to see how it can really give any comfort or guidance to the believer. So, in that sense, too, "God" doesn't exist, because the who-knows-what existing outside of time and space without anything we could recognize as a mind or a will isn't really "God" , i.e., that guy who sent the Great Flood and cares about your problems and is going to do nice things for you if you pray, etc..

So, you can see why at least some atheists might feel that they can prove God doesn't exist.

Ersatz Bling said...

You're making a more general point about the relationship between non-belief and identity. If I define myself *as* an atheist, then yes, my identity is bound up in my lack, my negation of what others believe. That's a pretty lousy way to spend your life, as Ram Dass points out.

Your point is that if I don't adopt a certain belief (however popular), and don't define myself by my non-belief, then I'm (as in I *AM* <-identity) neither an atheist or a non-atheist. Not only do I not believe, but my lack of belief is not even perceived by me as a significant lack.

It's perfectly reasonable for me to believe that others believe, and accept that fact, without feeling the necessity to believe myself, since my actual self-concept is independent of my belief or non-belief. No ego-stakes in other words.

Roman said...

"the other hand we can try to get away from primitive folk-religion notions of the ordinary believer. But then when religious thinkers have tried to avoid the problems using sophisticated accounts like Aquinas's negative theology or Kant's thing-in-itself, the so-called "God" is so abstract and attenuated that it's hard to see how it can really give any comfort or guidance to the believer. So, in that sense, too, "God" doesn't exist, because the who-knows-what existing outside of time and space without anything we could recognize as a mind or a will isn't really "God" , i.e., that guy who sent the Great Flood and cares about your problems and is going to do nice things for you if you pray, etc"

This is really very good. It made me think of that line about God that if he exists he probably wouldn't wanna be called 'God' at all coz it's everything he's not.

I'm sick of thinking about this. I'd rather watch life of brian.

Anonymous said...

Freddie, this is a waste of your time. The "you are in the trenches with us shouting at believers, or you are a coward" types are no different in some ways than the "you're with God or you'll burn in Hell" types among the believers.

I think the best way to deal with these people is to argue tactics. We are monkeys with minds that have evolved (for whatever reason) with the penchant for believing in god or gods. That's not going to change because a smart, rational, and slightly obsessive/conpulsive (probably on the Asperger spectrum....if you haven't guessed I'm describing myself, and see it in a lot of atheist evangelists) guy calmly explains to them that belief in God is not rational, and therefore they are advised to stop. I hope they aren't holding their breath.

I am reminded of the quote (can't remember whose): "You can't argue someone out of a belief they weren't argued into in teh first place".

Personally I'd rather live in a town full of average Methodists than a town or Sam Harrises.

Fred said...

There are too many nuances and philosophical subtleties in this exploration of theism, deism, anti-theism, atheism, spirituality, and their historical influences in politics, sociology, mythology and human consciousness to be discussed here. However, all would do well to read The God Part of The Brain, by Alpert, and Christianity The Deadliest Poison - Zen The Antidote to All Poisons, by Osho and bring these ideas into the mix.

From what I have seen so far on this blog it appears that the disposition and intent of Harris and Hitchens was not appreciated to the fullest and truest extent, and the clarity of their viewpoints regarding the virulent mischief that the monotheisms historically and currently instigate in the world was/is sadly ignored.
They are worth fighting against on every front available.

Asher said...

There very much is such a thing as a "militant atheist", and I say this as an atheist myself. The current drive against school vouchers is about minimizing the numbers of student educated in theistic-oriented environments. Personally, I'm not a huge fan of vouchers, but it is on entirely different grounds. Opponents object that people are still "free" to send students to religious schools, but the massive wealth appropriation of the welfare state substantially inhibits many who would otherwise do so. State action is always predicated on force, so, in effect, people's behaviors are modified by the threat of violence; if I don't pay my taxes men with guns come for me, if I resist they shoot me.

Also, this doesn't even touch on all the massive use of force to eradicate religion under socialist and communist regimes.

Asher said...

@Fred

The species homo sapien is instinctively fractious and restive. Monotheism merely coincides with violence, sometimes putting on a thin veneer of idea-based rationalization, and maybe sometimes even ameliorating such violence. You should read Mencius Moldbug's, a thoroughgoing materialistic atheist himself, brutal fisking of Dawkins. Warning, it's a loooooooong read.

http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2007/09/how-dawkins-got-pwned-part-1.html

That's part 1 of 7 (i think). Dunno if you've heard of Moldbug but he's rather notorious in many circles. He takes down Dawkins like Mike Tyson would take down Johnny Weir