Arguments between theists and atheists make me think they’re both missing the point. People have belief systems. If yours doesn’t make you hurt anyone, it’s fine by me, and it’s even better if yours helps you do good things.
Agnosticism is concerned with the limits of knowledge. Atheism is concerned with the likelihood of belief. Epistemologically, I’m an agnostic. That is, I accept that absolute knowledge is impossible, and therefore there is a logical possibility, however minuscule, that something vaguely called God could exist. Philosophically, I’m an atheist, because knowledge doesn’t have to be absolute to be good enough for everyday life, and I feel confident enough that no matter what we discover about life in the cosmic or subatomic realms, none of it will ever point toward the likelihood of the existence of a bipolar creator god with a prurient interest in the doings of human genitals. I am quite willing to bet my life on that. Pragmatically, I’m an anti-assholist, and since assholes are in plentiful supply on both sides of the argument, I tend to agree that the issue is hardly worth fighting about.
That said, Will is probably preaching to those without ears to hear, because the argument isn’t so much about whether theists/atheists are incapable of doing good because of their beliefs. Most people can grudgingly concede that however stubborn and deluded their opponents are, they manage to live decent lives — for now. The worry is — to take the atheist perspective here for a moment — that theistic beliefs are an intellectual weak link. The chain of one’s moral character might snap at precisely that point if the link is not replaced. If a theist is allowed to retain a vague, sentimental affection for Biblical platitudes or an open-mindedness toward the possibility of life after death, the rust might spread and their personality might give way under stress, allowing some atavistic sympathy for the harshest aspects of Deuteronomy or Leviticus to break through and take over. The argument is that incorrect beliefs are a disaster waiting to happen, and both sides will patiently wait a lifetime, if need be, to claim vindication. As with God’s existence, even a fraction of a possibility can inspire faith.
But intellectuals, both secular and religious, always overvalue the importance of rational principles as opposed to simple, intuitive empathy. The power of logical necessity compels you! Except, in practice, it doesn’t. People cheerfully contradict themselves all the time. Faith or the lack thereof tends to serve as a mere rationalization for what are, deep down, issues of basic character. Kind people can be attracted to the soft parts of Christianity and assholes can be attracted to the supercilious parts of atheism. Decent, humane people do not become raging, intolerant assholes just because of a new logical twist in their thinking. They will find a way to accommodate the new perspective into their basic character as if it had been there all along.
As for the crusading sort of atheists who feel compelled to badger even the most inoffensive believers, they strike me as the spiritual descendants of Frederick Taylor. In their case, they’re obsessed with eliminating intellectual inefficiency, even if it results in diminishing returns or outright counter-productiveness. Just imagine how much more we could accomplish if only all these valuable neurons weren’t being wasted on metaphysical fantasies and irrational superstitions! Of course, the idea that the world and all its problems can be reorganized and set right by flawless human reason is a fairy tale, a myth, a fable and a superstitious delusion itself. As a rule, it’s best to recognize what “good enough” looks like and stop there.
April 1, 2015 @ 1:50 pm
There seems to be a question whether "atheism" means, "I do not believe there is a God.", or "I am certain there is no God." Since belief should require evidence, and lack of belief should not (there is an infinite number of things that are not true), the former is an entirely reasonable position, and the latter, an unnecessary, but often concurrent addition that is conflated with the former. I am an atheist, and not agnostic, for the same reason I do not believe in unicorns or Mother Goose: Belief requires evidence, lack of belief does not. Let's put the burden of proof where it belongs.
April 1, 2015 @ 1:53 pm
To your other points: yes, it is better not to be an asshole about it.
April 1, 2015 @ 3:37 pm
Good essay, Damian.
I think you also touch on one problem in the "Atheist Community," the fallacy of "Scientism". While atheists are somewhat correct to hoot at the different magisteria arguments, science really cannot answer questions of should or ought. (Nor can religion, necessarily, but). Morality, feeble and unconvincing attempts by those like Sam "Drop Nuclear Bombs and Torture the Wogs" Harris aside, is not "scientific". It is contingent and cultural and always evolving.
I am a virulent anti-theist myself, and can certainly participate too vigorously in on-line "communities" where such discussions proliferate, but I would have difficulty "being an asshole" to people of faith in the real world. Too many kind and successful believers out there. (I can be an asshole to a Catholic fanatic acquaintance, but that's because he keeps trying to convert me….and has muttered darkly about 12 year old evil altar boys tempting good men of faith!)
I think Christianity is wicked at its core. But it has inspired good people to do good things. Not convinced that it inspires good people to do bad things, as is the common atheist trope, thougH!
I'm babbling, sorry!
April 1, 2015 @ 9:17 pm
Agnosticism has a bit of a Pascal's Wager vibe to me. I mean, assuming my experience as a "cultural Christian" was in any way typical, I was familiar early on with the idea that you would be judged at the end of your life, and while honest mistakes could be forgiven, God was still like any other authority figure in that willful, insolent disobedience would have to be punished, i.e. denying his very existence. The lingering influence of that idea is the only reason I can see for people to have this extremely commitment-averse attitude of, "Well, it would be premature short of my deathbed (and maybe not even then) to draw any provisional conclusions about this." In no other context do we insist on such an impossibly high standard of proof before making a choice. Why should the question of God's existence be any different if not for the deep-rooted fear that absolutely everything is riding on your answer?
Not only that, there seems to be an intuitive assumption that whatever choice you make risks being a permanent mark on your record. Without the fear of punishment, what would be the harm in saying, "Hmm; as far as I can see, all the evidence we have points away from the existence of a personal God, so I'll just consider that matter settled unless someone presents me with compelling evidence to the contrary"?
In this light, calling oneself an atheist is also a conscious rejection of such fears, a refusal to live as if Big Brother is watching and listening.
April 2, 2015 @ 1:41 am
Well…for me the fear is still there. Went through a religious phase myself years ago.
But, riffing off the fear, even if The Story is true, the Christian mythology seems so screamingly immoral to me that the only mroal response is rebellion against such an evil Creator Deity.
I think I repeat myself of course. 🙁
April 2, 2015 @ 2:31 am
Ever see this film? The narrator's personal story was one of rebelling against that same crippling fear. There's no shame in feeling it, of course; I'm just suggesting that it's the root of the agnostic refusal to lean one way or the other.
April 2, 2015 @ 12:42 pm
The underlying assumption and fallacy of Pascal's Wager is the absurd idea that if a belief is popular, it is more likely to be true. Otherwise, it would apply to any and, incoherently, all belief systems which include a threat. If I say, "Give me all your money or I will send you to hell.", Pascal's Wager would apply, unless you have some reason to think my threat is less likely to be true than that of a major religion. But, in fact, it is equally likely, because there is exactly the same amount of evidence for the reality of both threats: none. That so many intelligent people fail to get this fact is remarkable to me; I guess it is due to the fact that people are such social animals, that they can not believe that social norms have no bearing on truth.
April 2, 2015 @ 1:00 pm
"Letting Go Of God", a monologue by Julia Sweeney, is a well done account of losing faith. I found it very entertaining, but it might be more meaningful to someone who went through the same sort of discovery.