Category Archives: Atheism
It’s just believing in one less god than anyone else… well, sorta.
From the documentary “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control“:
When I think about it, I can almost see myself as being made up of thousands and thousands of little agents doing stuff almost independently… But at the same time I fall back into believing the things about humans that we all believe about humans and living life that way. Otherwise, I think, if you analyze it too much, life becomes almost meaningless.
– Rodney Brooks
This was a fascinating documentary. It seemed to leave me (I think intentionally) with less certainty of meaning and purpose than when I started, but in a good way. I don’t think that this means we have cause for despair. As many of us have come to reject the notion of ultimate, preordained meaning in the universe, and accept the realization that we are merely an emerging process of selfish genes, it’s easy to doubt.
Yet, we have somehow trudged along thus far in our (relatively) blissful ignorance. With the rejection of religious explanations, we realize that conscience is not suddenly absent. We can see other societies with other religions reflecting similar behaviours. We may also realize that our own have not always been as wonderful as we assumed they always were.
With the sudden absence of an old narrative which used to explained our ethics, it does not simply cease to exist. Our ability for evil and good are there as ever before. As such, our ability to have a sense of purpose need not change, but you might have to embrace the fact that you are not logical, and even some “illogical” thinking. Some practical “delusion” may be in order.
” Blasphemy!” you might say. But as you are reading this you may be thinking about yourself as a discrete person, with an identity and clear delineation of psychological boundaries between you and the next person. Is this not itself a delusion according to the body of knowledge that led you to this dilemma in the first place? (Did I just give you a migraine?) There’s a very simple reason to continue with this set of delusions including the existence of a self and a general sense of purpose. It works!
“A theory about a thing does not change the thing the theory is about”
– B.F. Skinner
It is not beyond the ability of the human mind to operate in an intentional “delusion” or mental narrative and still realize it’s not precisely true, without getting carried away in it. We do it every single day. I think of it like the realization that we are made up of atoms. We know it’s true, yet does that fact that causes us daily stress about whether or not we’re suddenly going to fall through the ground or have our matter suddenly explode at the speed of light in every direction? I think not. It’s a comfortable delusion to think of our body as a solid contiguous mass rather than one that’s full of gaps and made of the same mundane building blocks as the dirt we’re walking on, yet we seem to be fine with it… because it works!
We can still go on about our lives, but with a greater sense of wonder and renewed hunger for answers to our new questions.
I choose to be, therefore I am.
Yesterday, I saw the familiar face of one of my favorite atheist icons on Facebook and did what any bored atheist, I.T. guy at work would do. OK besides making him my avatar and flaming all the christians in my friend list with his blog articles and telling them they’re minds are warped by religion. That’s the stereotype isn’t it? Sometimes they fit, but sometimes stereotype do. But that doesn’t mean they’re all true, mostly true, or even true at all. Even if they are, it doesn’t mean they’re useful or appropriate. Really, I just clicked ‘like’…honest!
So the first feed to come from Mr. Harris was a link to a post on his blog. It features neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of “Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain” sharing his thoughts on what I would have to call hard atheism versus devout religiosity. I happened to get busy again so instead of reading the actual post, I just fired up the video and listened to it in the background.
I found that what he was saying resonated with me, especially the following:
“…these are very smart people on both sides that are spending all of their energies polarizing each other, and arguing against each other’s details. I feel like there should be another voice in there somewhere…”
I’ve been thinking about this a lot in the past year, and not heard many others in the skeptic community express this sentiment, and I feel it’s an important one. Without too much thought, I threw the link back onto my wall, recommending it to others.
Today I went back and read Sam’s thoughts which suggested to me that I should listen to it again. It would appear to me that despite making some really excellent points (and he does) he is also using a pretty broad brush in referring to all of neo-atheism as being strict atheism that claims certainty of no god existing. In my experience, most atheists are not in that category. More than that, I’ve always seen it as being like a kind of right-of-passage in a way to understand the fact that we can’t claim that as certain. To claim that is to fail at science after all, but have I missed something? I haven’t actually read the books of the “four horsemen” yet, but this just doesn’t seem very accurate to me.
Then he seems to kind of re-invent the wheel of soft atheism and claim it as his own idea:
“In every generation, scientist have always felt, that we sort of have all the pieces of the puzzle…we should be able to get it all from here. It has never ever been true in the history of human-kind, yet…that we have all the puzzle pieces.”
Aren’t most of us in this community already pretty comfortable with the idea of the vastness of things that we don’t know? Both the things that we know we’re ignorant of, and the probability of things we don’t even realize that we’re ignorant of and can’t even conceive of yet?
I think that most atheists, scientist and skeptics are not in that category. I seem to recall hearing funny stories of centuries past when “scientists” used to believe some pretty silly things. Our understanding of the subjects that science tackles, the advancement in our technologies, and our understanding of how to do science (tool-box as David puts it) have all improved, dare I say exponentially? Yet from every scientific talking head I’ve heard, I get the impression that they have only grown more humble in terms of understanding the minute scope of our collective knowledge of the universe.
I have to heartily agree that there is something being missed in the intense polarization of our atheism vs religion culture war. Yet in the way he chooses to call it out, he’s making it even more black and white than it really is. He seems to be pushing the neo-atheist straw-person to the left to make room for himself.
Where I think David is right is what is implied (by who his audience is) more than what’s stated. I think it is going to have to be the Atheists who eventually take the high road. Not because we’re the bad ones. Not because it’s our fault or definably our responsibility. And I don’t mean that we should stop fighting our legal and political battles to keep religion out of our schools or to be afraid to call out religious logical fallacies or social distortion for what they are.
Instead, like so many things in history that had to be done by someone… we’re the ones who are more capable. Or at any rate, we should be if we can just bring our rationality and humanity together. I think that beyond the rationality embedded in the subject matter of our arguments, we need to have openness to possibilities within our personal philosophy. How we think of and value each other, how we think of and value ourselves, the possibility of our own cognitive biases and emotional ego-blindness…these are some of the things where we need to remain open to other possibilities of understanding. Even beyond this, there are radical notions worth exploring. For example: Spiritual Atheism
Considering the assertions of religion in the name of keeping scientific possibilities open is a fine idea as a premise, but one that has failed over and over again to produce anything to justify itself. However, what’s important is the idea of affirming the value of the human beings who hold them and keeping it with us when we debate. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” was something they touted a lot when I used to be church-goer. This is the principle that needs to be flipped over. Love the religious, hate the religion. Or at least, hate the harmful falsehoods and misguided ideas that they promote. I think that this is maybe what Mr. Eagleman really had in the back of his mind, but was probably just too busy “geeking out” 😉
It’s OK David, just be like science:
Get up and try again.
*cross-posted to The Winnipeg Skeptics blog*