Wednesday, August 3, 2011
Myths About Atheists (1)
It isn’t surprising that when you have an unpopular minority in a country, many myths will be created and propagated. For the Jews in Nazi Germany, a popular one was that they carried terrible diseases. The same is true of atheists in the U.S. today. It seems that once one admits to not believing in a God or gods, he or she becomes fair fodder on which to blame everything from the latest plague to the country’s moral backslide, to just about anything else that pops into mind.
9-11? If there were no atheists knocking about, surely God wouldn’t have visited this on us! AIDS? Another biblical plague sent because humans were encouraged to disbelieve, by atheists!
What makes it easier to exploit, is that there are no political stakes involved. Just about anyone can say anything he wants against an atheist, for example against Michael Newdow when he went before the Supreme Court (because of the :”under God” wording in The Pledge of Allegiance), and suffer no consequences..
Political fallout? Forget it! Since the atheist mindset finds no friends or sympathizers in the Beltway, and no one really knows how many atheists vote, it isn’t likely. Besides, there’s little or no chance an atheist will ever achieve elected office anyway. Not in the United States of God-land! According to recent public polls, 52% of Americans would not vote for a well-qualified atheist.
This is totally pathetic, and more than anything else discloses the successful incursion of anti-atheist myths into the national consciousness. What are some of these myths? IN several instalments (not ncessarily sequential) I examine the most egregious one by one.
1. Atheists Deny God
This is perhaps the most popular myth, because on the surface it appears to make eminent sense. Careful thought, however, might disclose how absurd this is. For example, one generally refrains from denying anything for which belief is withheld. Let’s take the example of alien colonies on the Chesapeake. Someone or group makes the claim, they exist, and are planning to siphon water to take to their planet.
Fair enough. I hear the claim, but in the next breath ignore it. It is of no concern to me because it is simply too preposterous to waste investing intellectual resources. The reason is that evidence-free claims can be regarded as false or spurious until such time a modicum of evidentiary basis is provided. If this is so, it follows there is even less reason to invest precious intellectual resources to deny the claim! Why the need?
Indeed, if one “denies” a specious claim, he’s already given it a plausible (if unconscious) underpinning. Any expenditure of mental energy in denial presumes there is at least “smoke” (if not “fire”) to deny! On the other hand, if the claim is totally nonsensical, simple withholding of belief quite fits the bill and is more than adequate. As I noted in an article published in the Mensa Bulletin, March 1994:
"Let's be clear about what constitutes Atheism and what doesn't. The Atheist - to put it succinctly, absolutely withholds investing intellectual/emotional resources in any supernatural claim. Indeed the word Atheism itself embodies this definition: a-theos, or without god.”
What is happening here is not active disbelief, i.e. in making a statement “There is no god,” but rather simply passively withholding belief in a statement already made. Hence, the deity believer has made the positive claim. The ontological atheist’s is the simple absence of belief in it. No more and no less. It does not and never has implied aggressive rancor or a vehement and militant opposition to the beliefs. (Though yes, some militant atheists – or what we call “strong atheists” – do have such attitudes!)
Let me quickly add here that this withholding of belief is the more natural position, as opposed to advocating belief, which is unnatural. Consider a different context: a neighbor runs over and informs me that aliens have landed in his yard in a spacecraft. Until I actually go over and try to verify his claim I am under no obligation to accept it as a statement of fact. Thus, the default intellectual position is always skepticism, irrespective of the claim made. This again is because the onus is always on the claimant to make good, not the skeptic to “disprove” it.
It isn’t difficult to see from the above context that the more conservative (and reasonable!) position is withholding belief until a claim is validated. One does not, after all, accept a claim then do further research. One ab initio doubts the claim and then sets out to devise tests to ascertain the validity! And in the case of extraordinary claims (which certainly include “God” and visiting aliens in spaceships), “extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence” as the late Carl Sagan used to emphasize.
It also isn’t difficult to see that this is exactly analogous to the atheist withholding belief in a deity. After all, If God genuinely exists, why is he/she/it not uniformly perceptible, at least in basic features, to all peoples? As we saw in the previous chapter, there are nearly as many different versions of deity as there are people. (Or at least, religions!)
This isn’t surprising after all, since each person filters deity through his or her own background, knowledge, experience and perhaps even genes (cf. Psychology Today (Aug., 1997), “Nature’s Clones,” by J. Neimark, p. 36.) Thus, it is far more reasonable to make reference to “God-concepts” rather than God, just as it makes more sense to refer to an “unidentified aerial phenomenon” than a craft from another planet when one observes one or more strange lights in the sky. Caution is the byword, and withholding of belief is warranted, until proof or adequate evidence is produced.
While we’re on this topic, let’s consider a collateral, erroneous assumption related to this myth of denial. That is, if anyone withholds belief in deity (presumed to be the Creator of the cosmos) one is obliged to come up with his or her own version of how the cosmos came to be. In fact, this is a non-sequitur. It doesn’t follow from what’s being considered.
First, it hasn’t been established to the satisfaction of the skeptic that any “God” has been proven, far less that the cosmos could have been created by this unproven entity. Indeed, in epistemological (knowledge-basis) terms the believers haven’t even gotten off first base. They have not, after all, even offered a definition of “God” in fifty words or less that can be used as a basis for practical debate. Without at least a definition, we are back to square one and Jean Luc Marion’s “unthinkable xxG-O-Dxx argument.” In other words, the debate is ended before it’s begun.
Second, and in a more general sense, the withholding of any conviction for some presumed claim (or even hypothesis) doesn’t imply the skeptic must offer an entire counter-hypothesis of his own. For example, an astronomer friend may theorize that massive, invisible, dark energy particle fields are really responsible for solar flares. That doesn’t mean a casual listener is obliged to take him seriously or accept his hypothesis under the proviso that if he rejects it he must arrive at his own.
Why? The mere outlandish nature of the claim is in itself enough to warrant suspicion. The listener can therefore reject it on its face, even if he knows less than nothing about dark energy or solar flares. In any case, it isn’t incumbent upon him to develop a whole, entire theory of solar flares as a counter! (It is incumbent on him, perhaps, to do some follow up reading or maybe “googling” of the key issues!)
In a more prosaic case, let’s say I get into an argument with a lawyer at a cocktail party. He asserts that chapter and section blah of a state contract law deems that corporations are “persons” under the 14th amendment, and hence can seize personal property if they’re maligned. At most, I can give him a wink and a nod, but I’m not obliged to accept his claim even though I’m no lawyer. Moreover, I’m not obliged to arrive at my own contract case law to reject his interpretation! (I can point out that state laws of eminent domain, to my recollection, have never been invoked to the extent he claims!)
In all these cases, an unreasonable burden is placed on the skeptic merely for being skeptical. That is, that s/he is somehow not entitled to reject a claim unless a full, meticulous counterclaim can be worked up – into theory, case law or origin of the cosmos as the case may be.
2. Atheists Reject Morals
This is one of my favorites because it’s preposterous on its face. It’s also important because many otherwise sober people believe that atheists live by the rule “anything goes,” since we don't acknowledge any god. On many occasions, I've been telephoned by religious types who ask: "If you don't believe in God what's stopping you from going out and raping, robbing, murdering or doing anything else? If you don't believe in God, then you don't believe in God's laws."
Invariably, I respond that decent, civilized behavior doesn’t depend on god belief or adhering to 'laws' of a god. Rather, it depends on rational and objective analysis of a situation, and sound decisions maximally promoting the welfare of all concerned.
As William Provine notes ('Evolution and the Foundation of Ethics’ in MLB Science, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1988, p. 25), people should be encouraged to think rationally and critically concerning ethics, not out of fear of some divine force, but to protect their own long-term self-interest .
In line with this, any persistent observer of human social interaction will note that the vast majority of people are law-abiding and decent folk who naturally practice a common-sense, utilitarian ethics similar to what has been described. No supernatural law or commandment ordains this behavior. Instead it is the conscious and deliberate recognition that the promotion of the welfare of others is directly linked to the one's own welfare. Compromise others' security, and you in effect compromise your own. Undermine their welfare and you also undermine your own. No god is necessary.
By contrast, religious morality is predicated on some formal codification of expected human behavior in terms of absolutist propositions, not subject to debate. The typical moral code of a religionist, whether Muslim, Pentecostal, Catholic or Jewish, isn’t subject to evolution or variation based on contingencies, or externalities. This blindness probably results from a “control” meme that proclaims the morality as ‘god-ordained’ or revealed in some scripture or other. If ordained by a god, whether Allah, Jehovah, Yahweh or whoever, it cannot be compromised or altered no matter what.
As an illustration of this point, despite the fact the planet is grossly overpopulated and we are approaching ecological catastrophe, the Roman Catholic Church continues it campaign against artificial birth control. Even more importantly, it prohibits its practice, under pain of grave sin, even in impoverished nations suffering in destitution from the overload.
Kai Neilsson poses it this way (Ethics Without God, Prometheus Books, 1990.):
Is an act good because God did it, or is it good independent of such action?
For a genuine ethical basis, any human action must be totally independent of whether a god did it (in scriptures) or ordains it. It must be good on its own merits. A first test, as Neilsson observes, is ethical choice predicated on a humane standard. Consider: if a human parent knows his child is trapped in a burning house, s/he will try to save it however s/he can. There is no way the human parent will simply walk out and allow “fate” or "free will" of the child to make the decision. If the human parent has an ounce of common decency s/he must intervene.
However, god-ists seem quite happy to let their deity off the hook, when and where it suits their fancy. Start then with the standard deity template, say espoused by most Christians. This entity is posited as both omniscient and omnipotent (all knowing and all powerful).
Let us say, as occurred back in the spring of 1994, It knew from before all time a twister was headed for its house of worship in Alabama. Being omnipotent, it also had the power to deflect said twister and let it tear up some nearby forest or woodsheds- as opposed to its church with people inside.. Did it? No it did not! It permitted the tornado to demolish the church and many of those children within. All innocents. All dead.
Those who would defend such a deity but hold a human parent accountable for negligence or manslaughter by allowing their child to perish in a house fire (when the child could be saved), disclose inchoate ethics. To wit, demanding a vastly lower ethical standard of behavior for their deity than for fellow humans.
Those who beg the question with theo-babble ("we cannot fathom the ways or mind of God") are no better, and do no better. In many ways, they're worse, because they lack even the courage to face their own logic and the consequences of their definitions! They either invoke the escape clause of "faith" or the impotence of human logic beside the alleged Divine Mind. (And surely, if humans sprung from such a mind, comprehensibility of its ways and modes must follow. Else he, she or it could as well be a Demonic clown who allows humans - innocent children- to be slain for sport)
Thus it follows, even from the most generic examples (presupposing a supernatural, omnipotent force) that human ethics trumps divine ethics on its face. If this is so, then it must also trump any and all human extensions of divine ethics, whether the ten commandments, canon law or wherever. Hence, it follows that human ethics and ethical standards can exist independently of invoking any divine or religious fluff, affiliations or baggage.
In terms of said "baggage" what the religionists have done is to take the natural code of (humane) ethics most people follow and embellish it with a blizzard of superstitious precepts and injunctions. These are superstitious since, inevitably, they are linked to the supposed dictates of a supernatural "being" that will not hesitate to "punish" those who disobey "him."
Ethics (or morality) without god is human behavior elevated to its highest consistent standards without the need for baffling with bullshit or, in this case, interjecting an external, non-physical but supreme moral arbiter where none is required.
(TO be continued)