Friday, August 5, 2011

Myths about Atheists (3)

In this blog we conclude the myths about atheism:

6. Atheism is a Religion

This claim is absurd on its face. The misplaced strategy, however, is always to attempt to place atheism within the same logical context as religion and then attack it on the basis of occupying an analogous “belief” spectrum. In the end, this is a fool’s errand.

For one thing it turns the very meaning and basis of religion on its head. We know all religions embody centralized beliefs or dogmas that issue from some sacred scripture or a body of theology based on scriptural interpretations.. Atheism has none of these, since there are no central propositions or beliefs with which all atheists agree.

First, atheists withhold belief, they do not invest it. This alone separates atheists from religionists or people of faith. Second, atheists make no positive claims for any transcendent existent that requires their worship or obeisance. They simply acknowledge no god or entity with which to build a religion in other words. Third, atheists maintain no sacred works, scriptures, or ancient artifacts, from which their “truths” are extracted.

They have no analog to a Bible, Qu’ran, Talmud or anything remotely similar. Instead, atheists pursue objective truth via open inquiry predicated on current science, which may provide fewer certainties or answers than if they merely placed their faith in a book.

Fourth, atheists convene no regular rituals, services or ceremonies to honor, or propitiate any entity. By contrast, the centerpiece of 99 percent of religions is precisely some social ritual, for the purpose of assembling together like-minded believers toward a common goal. Moreover, their churches, synagogues, temples etc. dot the landscape, taking up room that could be used to house the homeless in each respective area or locale.

Perhaps most importantly, there is no uniform "acceptance" of atheist principles from any “congregation” since there’s no homogeneous congregation to bestow it. Atheists often disagree on as many things as they agree on, precisely because no formal coda exists to fix beliefs within a uniform dogma. This means one is just as likely to encounter a wholly Materialist-Naturalist atheist as a non-material one.

Despite this, there remain some who insist that if an atheist simply “doesn’t believe in the supernatural or God” he is expressing a belief. If expressing a belief, then he is professing a religion. This is nonsense. It would be akin to asserting that if I decline belief in UFOs as extraterrestrial spacecraft I still have “UFO belief” and therefore am a practicing Ufologist! The error inheres in asserting that an absence of belief is the same as a belief. This error repeats the canard that the onus is on the atheist to disprove the believer’s claim, instead of acknowledging it is impossible to prove a negative.

Some sophists attempt to get around this by claming it "isn’t impossible to prove a negative". They argue that they can prove there are no black balls in a box by simply emptying the box out and finding all white balls. But this misrepresents the example, since the possibility of “all white” balls was never in question! The analogy is specious because the existence of God IS in question, and isn’t objectively verifiable, in contrast to counting real balls. The analogy trivializes the deity existence question while not validating the sophist. Indeed, his conflation of measurable and non-measurable classes makes him look like an ass.

Our goal, based on reason and the most current scientific findings, is to secure a niche in society for ourselves, mostly for the ideas that society itself dismisses, and for our own mutual self-acceptance.

7. All Atheists are Materialists

As well as being an atheist, I’m a Materialist and proud of it.

Materialism as a working philosophy embraces both large-scale cosmic interactions and atomic scale or quantum phenomena. The latter are not necessarily "material," i.e., quantum interference patterns, but they are physical. Hence Materialism as it is understood today embraces all physical fields and interactions, of both matter and energy. The laws governing these interactions apply without exception to humans as well as inanimate particles/objects. The prediction of the future behavior of all physical interactions is not dependent on the existence of any supernatural agency. Thus, physical laws are complete in the sense of being able to account for all physical phenomena.

As a philosophy of life, Materialism places a premium on objective truth arrived at from the available evidence, accessible to all rather than dispensed on high from Councils, dogmas, “sacred” texts or papal encyclicals. If the ecclesiastic supernaturalist can be deprived of a raison d'etre then dignity and intellectual integrity can be authentically restored to Man. Value and worth is transferred from some hereafter to the here and now; and the power currently vested in Church hierarchies is conveyed to Man himself.

Not surprisingly, the Materialist is more likely than the supernaturalist to place a premium on revering the Earth and demanding the rational disposition of its resources. As a Materialist, after all, I can examine the existing evidence and determine that our planet is probably the only inhabited one in the Milky Way. I can also ascertain that this life is most likely the only one and that I must strive to enhance it in any way possible. I should emphatically not squander what I have now, while awaiting a mythical afterlife.

As a Materialist I therefore refrain from looking to any hypothesized deity for deliverance, or lay blame for human ills on some mythical demonic entity. On the contrary, Man alone is responsible for his actions and is the ultimate master of his fate. As a Materialist I maintain that Man need not suffer extinction as a species, if he has the courage and vision to assume control of his destiny through the use of reason.

It’s not necessary to wave a Bible or the ten commandments at a Materialist, or even quote the "golden rule." The true Materialist, by definition, respects his fellow men and reveres all life, since he recognizes (through his philosophy) that they share one planet which may well be unique in the cosmos. Thus, the true Materialist treasures and conserves the Earth's finite store of resources, since he comprehends that Earth also has one life to live - and there is no more after the existing resources are consumed.

Embodied within the above is a practical ethics, forged out of the Materialist's reason and his priorities. The Materialist is compelled to co-operate with his fellows and promote a common good, not out of fear for the wrath of a deity, but to insure a thriving, harmonious community with high survival value.

Having said all that, it’s not true that all atheists are necessarily Materialists. For example, while a member (briefly!) of Mensa’s ATHSig, I found atheists who also professed belief in non-physical or non-material phenomena. At least one espoused that supernatural phenomena might exist and science ought to be open to such investigation.

While these are surely non-standard positions, they do mean that one cannot generalize about atheists. Even Sir A.J. Ayer, among the foremost atheists of his time, once professed his allowance that life after death might exist (after his own near death experience reported in an article in The London Sunday Times in 1988) though he did add that “just as there can be a godless life, there can be a godless after life.”

However, any such afterlife is difficult to portray and describe (far less explain) in terms of a Materialist point of view. One would almost surely have to invoke esoteric quantum or sub-quantum concepts such as de Broglie waves, or the Bohmian quantum potential . Most scientists, who share a Materialist outlook, are highly averse to even speculating in this way.

Many take what is called a “logical positivist” stance, that it’s perfectly fine to ignore any and all interpretations of nature until hard evidence is forthcoming. We just pay attention to observables and measurements, nothing more.

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