Thursday, April 5, 2007

Myths about atheism

I feel the need to respond to Ryan's comments because one of the purposes of this site is to de-mystify atheism or at least my own personal brand of atheism which is pretty far removed from Dawkin's. So let’s take them in order

Myth #1. Atheists “know" there is no God.

This is the most common mistake people make about atheists. Because they seemingly claim to know the unknowable, atheists are easily characterized as arrogant and condescending. The problem is that assumes a premise (knowledge of a negative) and a burden (proving a negative) atheist don’t have. People confuse the positive belief in a negative claim (I know that there isn't something) with the lack of belief in a positive claim (I do not believe something). This may seem like splitting hairs but the difference is very important. For example, say I buy a lottery ticket. I don’t know that I won’t win the lottery. But at the same time, it’s perfectly rational not to believe that I will win the lottery. Being an atheist doesn't mean I know that God doesn't exist. It's a big universe and I'd have to be God himself to know that he's not hiding around there somewhere. It just means to me there is a lack of evidence to prove the claim "there is a God".

Myth #2. If you can’t know God doesn’t exist, doesn’t that make you an agnostic not an atheist?

It's often claimed that agnosticism is the only rational position because the existence of God cannot be known one way or another, and therefore one has no choice but to suspend a decision. I'm going to have to call bullshit on that one. If that's true you'd have to be an agnostic about far more than God. After all, no one can "know" for certain that Big Foot, the Loch Ness Monster, and Atlantis don't exist. It is impossible to prove that there isn't a 1978 Dodge Dart orbiting Saturn. No matter how wildly implausible a proposition was, you'd have to give it equal weight as long as it couldn't be disproved. If you were truly agnostic you would lead a pretty interesting life.

Atheism really isn't that complex a philosophy: If you claim something exists, let's see your proof; if your proof isn't very convincing, than I probably won't believe your claim. Sounds nutty I know, but it's worked pretty well for me so far. The mistake that people continually make is to assume it is the burden of the skeptic to prove a negative claim, and if they fail to meet that burden then they have “lost” the augment and we are justified in believing the claim or at least in suspending judgment. This is actually a very dangerous way of thinking.

Let us take the example of the missing WMDs. Bush’s defenders claim he didn't lie when said he stated Iraq had WMDs because he didn’t know that there weren't any WMDs. But of course he did lie because he said there were WMDs when in actuality he didn't know whether there were WMDs one way or the other. In their never ending quest not to appear “biased” the U.S. media got trapped into being agnostic about the WMDs (we don't know he doesn't have them) and fell for the administration's line that it was therefore the burden of Saddam Hussein to prove he did not have WMDs. It was a beautifully ridiculous argument that helped make war inevitable. After all, Saddam could have turned his whole country inside out and that still wouldn't prove he had no WMDs. He could always be accused of hiding them in some new unknown location. In fact, it was the Bush Administration that was making a positive claim (Iraq has WMDs), one that they had the burden to prove, and the proof they had was easily exposed as utter bullshit by anyone willing to do a little digging. If the U.S. media had been "atheist" (show me your proof) rather than "agnostic" (who can know?) this world would be a lot better off

Myth # 3: Atheists reject spirituality.

Far from eliminating mystery and uncertainty from life, atheism treats mysteries with the respect they deserve. Life is full of the unknowable and unexplainable. But rather than try to force fit a solution that doesn’t make sense to me, I simply acknowledge them for what they are; things that I don’t know and can’t explain. Rather than giving you all the answers, atheism enlightens you to exactly how much you don’t know. The hardest part of atheism is embracing a level of ignorance that at times can be terrifyingly overwhelming. However, in the words of Socrates at least you know that you don’t know much of anything, and that is a very valuable form of knowledge.

Myth #4: All atheists are materialists

People often assume that if you are an atheist, then you must also be materialist (you are nothing other than the biological functions of your brain). Certainly there are plenty of atheists who do believe exactly that, but not all. I don’t believe in a literal soul, but I absolutely believe that human consciousness transcends biology and physics. I believe in the inexplicability of love, joy, passion, grief, and heartbreak. While they may be biological in origin they are also far more than simply the sum of their physical causes: they are the most existentially real experiences we have, and are what make human beings the weird little evolutionary quirk that we are. However my belief in that transcendence maybe not completely justified from a logical or scientific perspective. In fact it might even be characterized as an act of faith. This leads directly into my next point.

Myth #5: Atheists think everyone else should be an atheist.

Remember all I claimed was that to me there is a lack of evidence to prove the positive claim "there is a God." Some people may have experiences vastly different than mine. Maybe prayer, or meditation, or personal experience leads them to conclude there is a God when they examine all the evidence. I’m fine with that. My two favorite thinkers in the world, people far smarter me and whose influence on me is enormous, were both passionate believers. Atheism is my answer to that question. It’s not the answer for everyone and I personally have no desire to convince anyone else that their belief system is wrong. I’m a firm believer that actions speak louder than words and as long as you’re a good person I could care less what your personal beliefs are.


The Fire Next Time said...

Well stated. you've made your case and convinced me.

Though in all honesty, I'm sure I could classify myself as an atheist as well. I was mostly playing devil's advocate (though not doing a terribly adept, or articulate, job of it), and perhaps trying to talk myself out of claiming atheism. I'm uncomfortable enough, I guess, with any kind of spiritual label that I'm willing to just say, "fuck it," and plead the 5th. It's something I give a lot of thought to, and have come up with absolutely no appropriate responses for myself.

But trust me, HERKYFAN69, whoever you are, I probably hate religion as much as you do. Though I was raised in a very religious household, and my family is still very religious, I can't help but inherently respect it. It's in my blood and cells. I dont' think it ever really leaves you, no matter how far you run, literally or metaphorically.

And I would never want to take away anyone's hope. It's too bad so many of them want to take away mine, being a homo and all.

curtisimo said...

Bucky's thoughtful discourse on atheism is humble, diplomatic, respectful, and holds a convincing air of enlightened benevolence. Bucky is no doubt a generous and caring contributor to his community, and I for one would enthusiastically vote an atheist of Bucky’s high convictions into office any day of the week.

That said, I am left with a peculiar little taste on the back of my tongue, a subtle itch on my eye, a pulsing tremor-question rattling in my head.

While it is no doubt a very black sheep indeed, isn’t atheism a branch in the Judeo-Christian framework? A bickering blood-brother that is providing an alternative outlook on life, yet living within the confines of the same cave as the faithful?

Perhaps it is a branch that has witnessed what it perceives as wilted leaves falling off of the other branches, and is attempting to grow out in another direction to seek out another light that is not dependant on faith, but does it not grow from the same trunk?

What would a person who had never heard the concept of God call themselves? Would they define themselves based on that which they believe in, or based on what they don’t believe in?

Is atheism simply an allergic reaction to theism?

Are you an atheist because you were born into a religious family? a religious society?