Sunday, February 3, 2008

Atheism

Richard Dawkins, in an interview with The Humanist said:
"Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the ned to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhapse because of, the lack of evidence... Faith, being belief that isn't based on evidence, is the principal vice of any religion."

Strong words.

However, the close of the speech "To be read at his funeral" goes:
"As I said, the story asks for too much luck; it would never happen. And yet, isn't it what has happened to each one of us? We have woken after hundreds of millions of years asleep, defying astronomical odds. Admittedly we didn't arrive by spaceship, we arrived by being born, and we didn't burst conscious into the world but accumulated awareness gradually through babyhood. The fact that we gradually apprehend our world, rather than suddenly discovering it, should not subtract from its wonder."

It is unfortunate, then, that this wonder at the universe did not inspire humility, but arrogance and the desire to stamp out others' beliefs who differed from his. Those who believe science "proves" certain beliefs is mistaken about the true process of science. Scientific knowledge is constantly evolving and being added to; commonly held dogmas may well be effectively challenged in future with new discoveries. To declare that science has "disproved" God is a cardinal misrepresentation.

Militant atheist and evolutionists appear to naively and uncritically worship science and reason almost in the way the Objectivists do. As Greg Nyquist wrote in his book, it does not make sense to do that. One might as well worship or found a system based on a hammer or a mop, rather than science or reason. Reason and science are tools, not ends to themselves.

Science may have disproved certain specific beliefs held by some practitioners of religion, for example that the world is billions rather than thousands of years old. To me, the most compelling proof that God did not intelligently design each human being is the existence of gross congenital birth defects. Maybe you and I (I more than you if you are an Objectivist) are intelligently and lovingly designed by an all knowing benevolent God, but babies who die in utero, hermaphrodites, babies born anencephalously, are mostly likely not.

However, criticism of one part of a philosophy does not gainsay the whole, as Michael Shermer said. Although religion has been responsible for much harm in the world, it has also brought about much good. Religious teachings and institutions provide moral guidance to many around the world, and inspire them to be better people.

It is therefore more important to be a good person than to have any particular religious, political or philosophical belief. There are heroes and villians of every philosophical and political stripe throughout history. Belief in a particular philosophy in itself doesn't make you a good person; what you do and become does. Philosophical movements draw you in by saying you will be a better, more moral, more correct person if you follow their belief. My other pet peeve is shills of a creed who say "Look at the evidence I've shown you, and think for yourself," because they almost invariably mean "Look at this propaganda, and think like me".


Scientists as well as religious practitioners agree that there is much about our universe and ourselves we do not yet know, By "we", I mean individual persons as well as humanity on the whole. Maybe one day we will, but I think that day would be far into the future, if ever. The honest answer to these metaphysical questions is that it is inconclusive. Therefore, there is no good reason to attack religion or people who choose to have faith. Since there is much we don't know and don't have the answer to, faith in the existence of God is as valid as non-belief in God. I would even take it a step further and say that to believe for sure in the non existence of God requires a leap of faith and logic.

My father, an Anglican, has expressed disappointment at my reluctance to believe in God. In response, I quoted the Bible: "For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, And My thoughts than your thoughts." Isaiah 55:8-9. Honest believers also admit that there is no actual scientific "proof" that God exists, that there is much they don't know, but only God knows, and they believe because of personal faith. This is the faith I don't have. I reassured my dad that I have nothing against God or religion, but I just can't bring myself to have that kind of faith. It is the with same skepticism that I reject pure atheism.

I would also like to plug a book "The Language of God" by Francis S. Collins, who along with Craig Venter, presented us with the full sequence of the human genome. He is an accomplished scientist and also a strong believer in God.


13 comments:

Jay said...

Meg,

I think you are underestimating the power of reason and science. The beliefs of the world's religions have been proven more false year after year. The relationship is: as science grows, religion shrinks. It's time for people to realize that religion was a primitive attempt to explain what was once inexplicable (earthquakes, differences between animals, weather, etc.) and nothing we should be relying on in the present.

kalkin said...

Your argument that your actions define whether you are a good person or a bad person, not your affiliation with a certain philosophical or religious movement is fundamentally flawed. Without adherence to a philosophical movement or ethical framework, there is no way to judge whether actions are good or bad. Why is an action good? Because it most fulfills preferences if you believe preference utilitarianism, or because it adheres to inviolable rules according to many deontological systems. Or maybe you just think an action is good or bad because of your socialized innate moral sense. In that case, you're still using a system, just an inchoate, unreasoned one.

Kelly said...

Jay,

Far be it from me to defend religion, but the major religious traditions are not overly concerned with the things that you listed; earthquakes, disasters…. For the most part they are concerned with the soul after life, and much more than that they are traditions. On a side note, Rand criticized religion for being altruistic, but most religious people who I’ve known are very concerned with their everlasting soul, and all they do is try to ensure that they are going to get to heaven, always sounded pretty selfish to me.

Jay said...

Kelly,

Before the dawn of science, people really did believe that Gods or spirits caused things like rain, floods, change of seasons, etc. I was just stating how pointless and progress-impeding it is to use that as a guide to anything today. People back then can be forgiven; they didn't know any better. We do.

most religious people who I’ve known are very concerned with their everlasting soul, and all they do is try to ensure that they are going to get to heaven, always sounded pretty selfish to me.

Funny you should mention this. When I was out running a few months ago, this couple handed me a card for http://www.livingwaters.com. It's run by former TV star Kirk Cameron and, among other things, they are trying to wipe out the "selfish" element of religion. They exhort their followers to spread fear of God, not joy in heaven, as a reason to believe.

How that could be seen as anything but a repugnant power-grab on the gullible in 2008 is beyond me.

Jay said...

In the book Is Belief in God Good, Bad, or Irrelevant? A Professor and a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism, and Christianity, Bad Religion singer Greg Graffin stumps the professor with this question:

"What can the Bible explain better than biology can?"

Truths like these (and, I'd say, the fundamental power lusting of religious movements since time immemorial) is where there are "militant" atheists. They envision a better world where people rely on natural, proven explanations.

Michael Prescott said...

"Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."

Dawkins, like Rand, knows very little about religion, despite his propensity to pontificate about it. Properly understood, faith is not belief in spite of evidence. The Greek word pistis, which is used in the New Testament and is commonly translated "faith," can just as easily mean "trust." The idea is that if someone has experienced one or more times in his life when God guided him on the right path, then he can "trust" in God to continue guiding him in the future. He is basing his trust on his own personal experience, in much the same way that if someone has been honest with us in the past, we are inclined to trust his honesty in the future.

Now, of course, the trusting person cannot prove objectively that God was present in his life; it is a private interpretation of a personal experience; it is subjective, not objective. But if we're going to restrict knowledge to what can be proved objectively, then we have to ignore our interior lives altogether.

Faith/trust is based on evidence, but it is evidence of a personal kind, which cannot easily be conveyed to others. It has to be felt and experienced. In a way, it's like music appreciation. People with an ear for music just know that some music is beautiful and uplifting; but they can't prove it to a person who claps his hands over his ears and shouts "La la la!" whenever music is played.

Jay said...

Michael,

Here's the thing. I'm not so militant an atheist that I'll tell people "You need to stop believing this." I will, if I think it's causing a concrete problem in their lives. However, the problem comes in when "faith" skews the way we as a society see stem cell research, or profit-seeking, or the desire to succeed. The Bible is full of turn-the-other-cheek, aw shucks, who are we to know intellectual modesty that shackles our growth and development as a species.

If people want to hold faith in their lives, hey, that's great. Just don't make it a factor governing other people's lives.

Meg's Marginalia said...

Charming, as always. There is absolutely nothing I love more than obnoxious college Objectivists attempting to correct the error of my ways

The point of utilitarianism or teleologism is that an action is judged by the outcome it produces and not by its motive. One can be achieve happiness and fulfilment in your own life as well as enhancing the happiness and fulfilment of others, in every aspect of life (emotional, physical, financial), regardless of what philosophical or religion you belong to.

I am a huge believer in the power of science, which is why I am in grad school doing a PhD in science. I definitely appreciate how amazing scientific advances are and how they have made our life better.

However, it is highly presumptuous to say that science has explained every single aspect of the human experience. Maybe someday we will, and I think we might, but it is only narrow mindedness and arrogance to believe that we know everything there is to know.

Even if we have some understanding of physical details of the evolution of the universe and of our species, we do not know why the matter and energy first originated or why the physical laws of the universe are the way they are (or if there even is a particular explanation). It does not preclude the possibility that there was a god or some other entity behind it, and that he/it has a certain personality and wants us to live our life in a certain way. As Carl Sagan said, Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

Jay said...

Meg,

I'm guessing I'm the "obnoxious college Objectivist" you are referring to. Can you please explain to me how I was obnoxious? I replied respectfully on the topic being discussed. The fact that I disagree with you does not make me obnoxious. Also,

However, it is highly presumptuous to say that science has explained every single aspect of the human experience.

That would be presumptuous. Thankfully, I made no such claim. I said that science has explained a lot while religion has explained next to nothing.

Meg's Marginalia said...

Jay, I was more referring to kalkin as obnoxious, if it makes you feel better...

Fry said...

Congratulations, you've made a horrendous argument against atheism. Attacks of "arrogant" and "intolerant" with no backing. You say skepticism requires faith despite the glaring oxymoron and occam's razor. You claim that you do not have the faith to believe in god, that makes you an atheist. You have failed utterly in an attempt to attack atheism, naturalism, and empiricism. Try again once you can muster up an argument beyond the level of a chick tract.

Casey said...

The stupid, it burns.

Atheism is a lack of belief, not absolute knowledge.

Empericism, on which science is based, and repeatability would be rendered useless concepts with the existence of the supernatural.

Science has shown that life doesn't need a special creator, that there has been no verified case of the supernatural ever. There is no proof of the soul and thus no afterlife.

Science and the philosophies of naturalism and materialism have proven most religions void.

You claim to have knowledge of science but haven't heard of the basic ideas of skepticism, occam's razor, or drawing conclusions based on previous data.

The original state is disbelief and should not change until proper evidence is presented, why give religion a pass?

If we look at the evidence against most ideas of god (proven wrong: christianity, islam, et. al.) the supremacy of materialism, the lack of the soul/supernatural, and the rejection of absolute certainty we can easily draw the conclusion that there is more likely than not no god.

Go do some basic research on the argument before you start throwing around high-school level arguments. I would expect someone supposedly getting a phd in "science" to know that anecdotal evidence is useless and that the dictionary definition of faith is belief without evidence. You have made some really bad simplistic arguments here and you need to do more research.

David said...

Meg - you're great. Have you read Mary Midgley? She's great too.