Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Destroying 5 Myths About Atheists

Congrats must go forth for Susan Jacoby in her latest Washington Post blog,

wherein she effectively quashes five widespread myths that have circulated about atheists - including: 1)The "New Atheism" (e.g. as espoused by Richard Dawkins et al) is a wholly new phenomenon, 2) that atheists think all religious believers are "stupid", 3) that atheism is a "religion", 4) atheists believe that science explains everything, and 5) that atheists deny the possibily of "transcendent experience" and can't see beyond the material world.

One excerpt from Myth (2):

"One point, however, is indisputable: there is a strong correlation between simplistic fundamentalist beliefs, relying on a literal interpretation of sacred texts, and lack of education. As the level of education rises, the number of people who believe in materially impossible tales such as the creation of the universe in six days; the literal resurrection of the dead; and the Virgin Birth diminishes."

But most eloquent is at the beginning of her next-to-last paragraph:

"Speaking only for myself, I find that awareness of my inevitable extinction enhances rather than diminishes my life. This awareness makes me want to leave something behind, if only a piece of scholarship that will be useful to some seeker of knowledge in a library of the future"

Her biggest contribution in her WaPo blog is perhaps calling out Boston University Religious prof Stephen Prothero for attempting to foment or incite an atheist community split by heralding Jacoby (and other female atheists like Rebecca Newberger Goldstein) as espousing a "kinder, gentler atheism" - hence placing them at essential contretemps to those mean, nasty white guys Sam Harris, Dawkins. and Dan Dennet.

What I'd like to do here is add my own top five myths on atheists, and show how I debunk them.

1. Atheists Deny God

This is perhaps the most popular myth, because on the surface it appears to make sense. Careful thought, however, might disclose how absurd it 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's 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 active 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.

2. Atheists reject morality

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 in Barbados, 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, 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[1].

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. Thus, from this one beholds the Vatican still mandating its flock continue to reproduce - despite the planet being overpopulated. Now, under the name of their absolutist "natural law" they are pressuring exploding human populations to live in more and more desperate, unnatural conditions!

3. 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. However, this doesn't mean they treat "science" as their god, because any hypothesis is always given falsification tests.

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 "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.

4. Hitler was an Atheist.

This myth is intended to achieve exactly what it appears to do: slander atheism by association with the most monstrous human imaginable. If, therefore, Hitler can be painted as an “atheist” and if Hitler’s deeds were so cumulatively vile, it follows (in a bizarre sort of logic) that atheism can only produce vile deeds. However, technically Hitler was a Roman Catholic. Robert Payne notes [1]:

Adolf Hitler's birth certificate records that he was born at six o'clock in the evening on April 20, 1889, and goes on to record that two days later, at a quarter past three in the afternoon, in the presence of Father Ignaz Probst, the boy was baptized in the local Catholic Church”

As is known from standard Roman Catholic doctrine, once one is baptized a Catholic, he or she technically remains a Catholic unless excommunicated, or until death. Payne later documents Catholic Church attendance by a number of Hitler's luminaries, including Gregor Strasser, Erich von Ludendorff and others (2).

While it is true that Hitler was probably no more than a nominal Catholic by the time of the invasion of Poland in 1939, this doesn’t mean he was an “atheist” any more than the two Columbine killers (who professed being “atheists”) as they threatened any peers that refused to budge from their faith during the 1999 Colorado killing spree. Obviously these killers merely postured unbelief, invoking the red-flag word “atheist”, as a vehicle for their anti-social acts or to garner more media attention.

5. Atheists Despise all religions

This simply isn't true. Atheists have great respect for those religions which are life-affirming, and which tolerate others rather than condemning them, or trying to employ spiritual apartheid or one-upmanship. In this way, Buddhism is perhaps the closest religion to atheism, especially as its goal of "Nirvana" is just nothingness, or what end the atheist also anticipates.

Elements of Christianity are also acceptable such as embodied in Science of Mind and Religious Science, and made popular in a number of books, e.g. Ernest Holmes Science of Mind. These sects have in common the unifying theme that evil is an illusion and each human can become a “Christ” unto himself (and indeed is an embodiment of divinity like Christ) and also that every material abundance becomes available once one acknowledges that he too, is God. Their import for the atheist is that they’re benign forms of Christianity that renounce the odious Heaven-Hell doctrine in favor of either cosmic unification or sequential, progressive reincarnation. They are also realistic in foursquare rejecting such latter day Fundamentalist inventions as "the rapture" - which, of course, denotes spiritual apartheid carried to an extreme. Thus, the righteous and "saved" get magically lifted up into their Lord's arms - while five billion Hindis, Buddhists, Muslims and non-saved Christians as well as all agnostics, infidels....get to be tormented by the "Anti-christ" (another fiction, but convenient to try to drumbeat the gullible and weak into the fold)

In addition, they embody esoteric forms that have much in common with Eastern religions such as Buddhism

[1] William Provine, ‘Evolution and the Foundation of Ethics’ (MLB Science, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1988, p. 25)

[2] Robert Payne: 1973, The Life and Death of Adolf Hitler, Praeger Publishers, p. 15

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