Sunday, January 26, 2014

Can We Hope to Educate Fundies on the Different Types of Atheist?

Cartoon of a dumb fundie.
In approaching the fundamentalist brain, one thing one must perpetually keep in mind is its inherent simplicity and the incessant demand for simplicity. Thus, rather than acknowledging the Big Bang as the source for inception of the cosmos the fundie will invent 'young Earth' and 'young Sun' nonsense because it's simpler. After all, you needn't learn about the physics of the Big Bang including the significance of the 2.7 K isotropic microwave radiation  -- you need only invoke the fairy tale of 'Adam & Eve'.

In a similar vein, in approaching evolution the dumb, semi-educated fundie will usually cherry pick one aspect to try to make hay out of (like the 98% chimp-human sharing of DNA) but entirely ignore the more difficult aspects such as that: 1) chimps and humans share the exact same cytochrome-c protein sequence despite 10^93 different possibilities for variation, and 2) the fact that the ape 2p and 2q chromosomes underwent telomeric fusion to become the '2' chromosome in humans. 

But this is what we've come to expect from  a lot that still believes ancient fables such as that a man could survive 3 days in a whale's belly (or 'great fish') despite it being full of hydrochloric acid, or that an 'Ark' could have been constructed to carry pairs of all the critters then on Earth including dinosaurs.

So it's not a surprise to learn that most also lack the intellectual capital or ability to appreciate the distinctions between atheists.  After all, it's simpler just to assume ALL atheists are of one type, e.g. "militant" if they even write something negatively about Xtianity.  Their pea brains fail to understand that writing something negative, say in a blog, is NOT the same thing as demanding the extirpation of religion - even fundy-ism.

Nor do these clowns grasp the distinction between agnostics and atheists. So we are obliged to help them out, and try to express some sympathy too.

Author George Smith[1] notes that the most vernacular usage confuses the meaning of agnostic, usually asserting it is “somewhere between belief and outright unbelief.” The way it is usually framed is that the agnostic “isn’t sure whether or not God exists.”  In fact this is an erroneous interpretation of the term.

What it actually, technically means is someone who asserts there is not yet adequate evidence to make a decision if one were possible. In other words, the issue must remain open-ended and unresolved until such time evidence appears. Thus, true agnosticism is not some dithering or fence-sitting between belief and unbelief, but rather acknowledgement of the impossibility of knowledge as it pertains to any ability to address the question in the first place.

But mayhap this is far too complex for the simplistic gray matter of fundies.

Smith himself (op. cit., p. 9) splits and parses the agnostic position even further, according to whether one is an agnostic atheist or an agnostic theist. The first avers that all supernaturalist propositions or claims are inherently unknowable (because they are untestable) by the human mind, and so not worth discussing any more than pink elves, unicorns or fairies. In this sense, unbelief isn’t really even necessary, since who would actually believe in a pink elf or unicorn? Well, then there’d be even less merit to arguing over an invisible Being! Thus, without any capacity for knowledge about it, it’s redundant.

The theist agnostic meanwhile, maintains a firm belief in the existence of God, but asserts the precise nature of this God is unknowable. On this basis, no attributes are assigned to try to define God’s nature.  We cannot say that any divine nature is “eternal”, or “omnipotent” or “omnipresent” because one simply doesn’t know. Thus, it makes no sense to use words to try to describe a deity. Belief is as far as one can go.

Related to definitions of atheists is the ability to distinguish between implicit and explicit atheists. In many ways, the implicit atheist is similar to the agnostic atheist except for the fact the kmowability or otherwise of supernaturalist propositions is not gone into. Thus, the implicit atheist simply avers to be withholding belief in any kind of deity already on offer by the theist. (The explicit atheist, by contrast, rejects it outright.)

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   (implicit) atheist’s  response is simply an absence of belief in it. No more and no less. It does not and never has implied  active disbelief, aggressive rancor or a vehement and militant opposition to the beliefs.

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 previous blog posts (from 2011, mainly), there are nearly as many different versions of deity as there are people. (Or at least, religions!)

Another error made by the wayward fundie is assuming that a negative belief, i.e. that there is no God, is the same as being a positive belief, 'there is a God'.  An example of this would be what Lisa Kennedy spouted on a Bill Maher Real Time show in January, 2012, i.e.  if an atheist simply doesn’t believe in the supernatural or God he is expressing a belief, albeit a negative one. If expressing a negative belief, then it's the same as a positive belief such as invoked in religions, ergo he is professing a religion. This is utter nonsense.

It would be akin to asserting that if I decline belief in ghosts I still have “negative ghost belief” and therefore am a Ghostologist ! 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 non-believer to disprove the believer’s claim, instead of acknowledging it is impossible to prove a negative. Some sophists attempt to get around this by claiming 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, unlike counting real balls. The analogy trivializes the deity existence question while not validating the sophist.

In the end, it may be that because the brains of fundies are unable to perform ACH thinking - or what James Cheyne  has called abstract, categorical and hypothetical thinking (such as integrated into standard I. Q. tests, e.g.  the Raven's and Wechsler Similarities tests) then they cannot also be expected to discriminate between subtle differences in definitions, say for 'atheist'.

Why are believers, fundies especially,  missing this crucial component of thought which also, by the way, is essential for critical thinking? There are a number of reasons. For example, one may be that the honing of such skills was never possible, for example if they came from a home schooling environment. Another, more controversial, is that the very neural pathways that predispose them to belief or faith, are also the ones that inhibit predictive ACH conceptualizing. Lastly, it's feasible they may have suffered head injuries, maybe from a DI - using a pugil stick-- in the Marine Corps at Parris Island, and they never got their senses back together.

Sadly, if any of these is true we can be sure they will always take the simpleton path in their thinking as regards atheists and atheism.

[1]  George Smith, Atheism - The Case Against God, 1989, Prometheus Books, p. 9.

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