25 July 2011

On atheism

"so I consider myself an a-theist in pretty much the same manner in which most people are a-unicornists: they don’t believe in unicorns, not because they know that there aren’t any, but simply because they see neither evidence nor reason to hold that particular belief. As Hume put it, “A wise man ... proportions his belief to the evidence,” and when the evidence approaches zero..."

The comments threads included some gems.

"What ever the official etymology of "atheism" may be, in my experience most people who call themselves atheists are certain that there is no God. That is, they not only hold no belief in God, they hold the belief that there is no God, usually pretty darn strongly." - This is true, but as above, it is true largely because there is pretty strong evidence opposing the view that there is/must be/can be any deity in existence, and no evidence supporting this view. If we were to magically suppose that there were such evidence, many (not all, given the broad base of population) atheists would accordingly have different positions.

"The general atheist position appears to be an assertion about the fundamentalist God. So what? Everyone thinks fundamentalists are off their rocker." - More or less true. Except there are an awful lot of fundamentalists for the second part. And for the first, more generally MOST Christians tacitly if not explicitly accept some variety of mystical and supernatural elements of their underlying religious teachings. Since this is, in America at least, the preponderance of the atheist's experience, dealing with theists who hold something like a fundamental belief about the existence of an imaginary being, it is an unfortunate necessity to deal with the common-ness of those beliefs first before proceeding to more tangible and structural insights about theism more generally, including these more amorphous and impossible to define concepts about deities that are supposedly held by most religious people. Besides which, no evidence is provided to show that this is in fact the case for most religious people, in America at least, the experience is different in Europe or Asia. Most polling data I've seen suggest that belief in a "personal god" of the sort that atheists are explicitly arguing against by suggesting that such an experience is absurd (not to mention explained by some natural psychological and physiological elements of the "human condition"), is much more common as an underlying metaphysical assumption than mere belief in "god", as some sort of impersonal force or some such similar "lesser" confidence of belief. Usually the "personal god" question gets well over 50% in the US, I've seen it as high as 80-90% (In Sweden it is about 20%, for contrast). With this in mind, one has to wrestle with the notion that a very large percentage of the population takes considerable portions of the Biblical accounts of human existence (as well as divine existence) literally, despite often overwhelming evidence that it is in large measure false, and it is this position must be argued against.

"Granted all of that, doesn’t it still seem strange to define one’s life by a negative claim, by the non-existence of something."

"Atheism defines *my* life no more than a-leprechaunism--not at all. Along the lines of ianpollock's insightful comment above, only in the context of widespread theism would someone suppose that atheism is life-defining." - This is a crucial insight. Very, very rarely does someone's atheism become a life-defining element in the way that theism is often for the religious, particularly the religious fundamentalist. There are not, for example, universally held atheistic sentiments and behaviors. Some hold right-wing politics, others left-leaning, some are nihilists, others empiricists, some are big on science, others merely reject the version of a supernatural god but will still hold all manner of silly beliefs instead (ghosts, new age meditation, conspiracy of the week club, etc). There is certainly some notion that something like Skepticism is a life-defining element, and there's plenty of cross-over between Skepticism and atheism, but to suggest that the lack of belief, non-existence, matters to atheists more generally is a little strange. Atheism is not a very significant system and is more akin to a-unicornism as described above. It has very little of substance and importance to say on its own and without a subset of theists impressing their opinions and beliefs, would be inconsequential.

Similiarly, "The problem, of course, is that the concept of "God" lacks any rigorous set of identity conditions. The nearest "good faith" case for an atheist to make, given this state of affairs, is that insofar as the identity conditions of a god have been specified, there is simply no good reason to think that anything in the world matches them. This keeps the burden of proof where it belongs--with those arguing for the positive claim--while also eschewing the ontological grab-baggery that flies under the banner of speculative theology." - This has always bugged me about the situation of atheist-theist debates and does a great deal to define why I oppose religion as an organised social force. That is: the burden of proof should be on the theist to prove the existence of a deity, a positive belief, and in particular "their" deity, as opposed to some other deity, some other natural force, etc. Instead, the social force is angled for the atheist to prove a negative (generally this a logical impossibility). A defence of god-belief is rendered unnecessary by placing non-belief as the position requiring defence instead. This is only possible because the majority of people hold such beliefs of course, and is to me little different than any other occasion where a majority chooses to oppress unpopular views or minorities within its midst. Speaking up on such issues can, as a result, still lead to social ostracisation and general exclusion (much as a politician speaking about opposing the drug war does, again a position defensible on evidentiary grounds whilst the mainstream position is indefensible).

Concurrently, the same social force (organised religion) is motivated to create groups and foster group loyalties. In other words, the "strongest" arguments most theists will make in defence of their faith and beliefs is the size and broadness of their groups, which has little to offer in favor of the viability, utility, or truth underlying those beliefs. In so far as religion operates in an evolutionary aspect to foster group coordination, and that this function is a necessity for humans as a social species to form in some way, this is hardly surprising that it does pretty well at it, just as it also does pretty well at forming "out-groups" who must be opposed or even destroyed. What is surprising that it is then used as a supposed cudgel in reasonable debate that there are such groups based around such beliefs and that this is a meaningful proof of any kind.
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