Atheism: What Is It?

July 25, 2014

There’s a (probably apocryphal) tale about a German scientist who proved conclusively, by the laws of aerodynamics, that hummigbirds cannot fly. In a similar vein, this article has been circulating around the web recently, purporting to show that atheism may not be psychologically possible.

It would seem that the author is using the word differently from the growing number of people who claim to be, in fact, atheists. The cognitive scientists he refers to speak of unconscious metaphysical presuppositions that seem to be hard-wired in the brain. Maybe they’re right. Self-described atheists are talking about something else, which is a conscious, as-rational-as-possible evaluation of evidence leading to a conscious, as-rational-as-possible conclusion regarding a specific proposition about the real world, namely the existence of a being or beings that can be plausibly called a “god.” Many people claim to have made this evaluation and to have decided the question in the negative; writers like Mr Vittachi can hardly dismiss this fact out of hand. If the metaphysical hard-wiring he claims is really there, then there must be a way we can consciously override it, at least under certain conditions and for certain purposes. If this is not possible then it is hard to see how any sort of science is possible. The very authorities that Mr Vittachi calls upon to support his conclusions are not possible. His own article is not possible. And if it is not possible, I see no reason to say any more about it.

It is true though that the word “atheism” has collected a lot of baggage. Theism is so deeply engrained in Western culture, education, and our sense of the ethical that to deny it can easily seem to be a denial of everything good in the world. If atheists were necessarily amoral, they would never admit to being atheists, given all the trouble it gets them into. Give them credit for honesty at least.

On the other hand, the most outspoken atheists like Dawkins seem to me at times to err in the opposite direction, treating everything that goes by the label “religion”, every attempt to find comfort and joy in metaphysical possibility, as just as evil as the most rigid fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is not essential to religion. Strict doctrinaire theism is not essential to religion. Fundamentalism exists, and Dawkins exists, and on all the issues clearly dividing the two I side with Dawkins, but there’s a lot of ground in between and a lot of other dimensions on which to agree or disagree, which are to me often more interesting than simply saying Yes or No to “god.”

Enough for now. I’ve managed two posts this week, that’s pretty good, I think I’ll save some material for a few more.



I’ve never gotten this “faith” thing.

I seem to have been absent when the “gift of faith” was given out. I’ve never felt I even knew just what it is, or how it works, or why it is supposed to be good for me.

To the Dawkins school of atheism, “faith” is simply a failure of rationality, a shared delusion, a dogged persistence in erroneous and unsupported opinion. I know it can’t be that simple. There are far too many clearly intelligent, sane, rational people out there who not only profess a “faith” but claim it to be central to their lives, who say it gives meaning to everything else that they think or do.

I accept that.

I just don’t get it.

Some defenders of religion at times argue that everyone has some kind of “faith;” we all believe the sun will rise tomorrow, that the floor will hold our weight when we get out of bed and stand on it. This is clearly a non-starter. For one thing these “beliefs” are supported by specific past experiences, in a way that religious propositions are not, at least for most of us. (I’ve written elsewhere of people who claim specific “spritual experiences” as the basis of their faith; I am more concerned here with the majority – in my experience – of religious adherents, who make no such claim.) Of course there are philosophers who will argue for the logical inadequacy of any inductive conclusion, but that’s beside the point too; if you set the bar high enough no one can claim to “know” anything, but no one religious or otherwise really lives like that.

But my main objection to those who make the “sunrise” argument is that they  seem to want it both ways. They clearly don’t really feel that their religious faith is as ordinary and everyday a thing as the argument makes it sound, they feel it is very important to have the right faith, the right kind of faith, so they must think there is something special about theirs, so let’s talk about that rather than pretending it’s just like standing on the floor in the morning.

So what is it? The most liberal of religious folk seem to want to separate the idea of “faith” from any specific doctrine. This is what my UU friends do when they say we are a “faith tradition” as much as any other. I’m not persuaded that we can speak of “faith” as something without propositional content, a general positive attitude towards life for instance – hey, I’ve got that, lots of us have it at least part of the time, but to most people who claim a “faith” it means faith in something. What? It varies. So how does “faith” tell you what to have faith in?

The most promising approach to a definition equates “faith” not so much with opinion, as with trust. I am not talking so much about those who call it “trust in God” or some such; this presupposes that you already have an opinion about there being this or that God. My question is how you get that opinion, and what makes it seem like more than just an opinion.

But I once attended a talk by a Catholic theology prof who put it in terms of trust in other people, starting with childrens’ reliance on their parents, and then extending to broader circles of people until finally, if one is a good Catholic at least, one comes to have the same trust in the Church, its leadership past and present, its “deposit of Faith.”

This I can understand. I can even understand why I don’t have it and feel OK without it. When I was a child I learned early on that I could count on my parents’ intentions, their eagerness to do the right thing by me, their love, but not on their necessarily knowing what they were talking about; this realization has stayed with me throughout my life, and has carried over to my attitudes towards what all others say to me. I can easily separate whatever positive feelings I have towards people from my evaluation of the fact-content of what they say… Maybe there’s something about other people’s upbringing, their emotional or intellectual development, which makes the difference.

Religion, again

September 29, 2011

Now where was I?

There was a fine piece on Richard Dawkins in the NY Times last week.

I really do agree with the man on more issues than not. Where I part company is with his reduction of religion to a mere set of indefensible fact claims – in effect taking the word of the fundamentalists for what religion is, and not looking further. I oppose the dogmatic, traditionalist, authoritarian side of religion as much as anyone, but I know far too many people for whom membership in a faith community has been a source of companionship, emotional comfort, advice and assistance in the everyday business of life, encouragement to be the best person they can be, a metaphoric language with which to express parts of themselves otherwise unexpressible, any of a number of things which do not at all require an insistence on the supposed objective truth of any doctrine. One might say we can get these things perfectly well without supernatural beliefs; but where in fact do we get them? I applaud those humanists who are trying to join forces to do good works in the world and build a real sense of community among themselves; maybe they’ll succeed in becoming a real presence on the world scene, but they haven’t yet. Historically the churches are where people have gone for these things.

I myself am a hyperactive member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation; UU tries to be all the good things a church can be while at the same time not imposing any sort of creed. Many of us call UU a “religion,” a “faith community,” but others of us think we have gone beyond anything that those terms imply.  Personally I do not consider myself religious or spiritual, but I do like church a lot; not just my own UU but the various Christian churches I go from time to time and which friends of mine belong to. And I’ve enjoyed the study of other religious traditions as well, and occasional attendance at their ceremonies; Judaism, Buddhism and Hinduism in particular. I feel my world would be a poorer place without these things. Each one in its own way reveals some unique facet of the human spirit.

The other day ISKCON put on a nice festival on Boston Common; there were people chanting on a stage,  displays illustrating various topics of their faith, free prasād (food previously offered to Lord Krishna) and more secular snacks for a dollar or two. Sure the basic repeated chant of just three of the thousands of possible Divine Names can get tiresome to an outsider, but there’s more too it than that, lots of bits of India’s cultural history are conveyed along with the chanting.  I love this sort of thing and I’m glad they’re in town.

I see religion as a sort of art form. An art we make in community, with our own lives as the raw material. As with any art form there are many possible styles and genres, from the rigidly conservative and formalistic to the flamboyantly original and eclectic.

Enough for now.

A Kinder Gentler Atheism

September 15, 2011

A friend with whom I am engaged in an ongoing discussion of religion and morals has called my attention to this article by philosopher Gary Gutting, which in turn cites with approval the work of fellow philosopher Philip Kitcher. The two of them take issue with the New Atheists’ exclusive concentration on that aspect of religion which most conflicts with science, namely its tendency to make authoritative but scientifically unsubstantiated “fact claims.” Instead, they feel atheism must also address the role religion plays in people’s spiritual and emotional lives, as a way of finding purpose and meaning in life.

Up to a point, this echoes my own discomfort with the New Atheism. I do believe that religion is something more, or at least something in part other, than a set of true-or-false propositions about objective reality. It does seem to me that Dawkins and company are so worked up over the truly objectionable aspects of religion in the world today – aspects towards which I and many religious people share Dawkins’ objections – that they fail to exercise true scientific dispassion towards the totality of religion as a human phenomenon (or set of phenomena). They’re too busy denouncing it to even try to figure out  just what this thing is and how, if it’s so bad for us, it could have gotten to be that way. (I must say that Dennett and Harris, with their grounding in neuroscience, do have a broader view of the matter than Dawkins.)

At the same time, I also personally share Dawkins’ (and the scientific community at large’s) presupposition that how the world actually is, and how we feel about it, are two distinct questions, and that experience shows that we generally get better answers to the former if, while working on it, we bracket the latter as much as possible, put it on a back burner, try not to let it interfere. Not only that, but by getting the best possible answers to the “fact” questions, we often enable ourselves to shape the world around us (and maybe even ourselves) in ways that we can feel better about.  So for me atheism doesn’t have to answer the “big questions” about meaning and purpose, I’m willing to let them take care of themselves. Not everyone needs an answer to the “big questions.” This seems to be more than anything else a fundamental difference in temperment between people, which correlates to some extent but far from perfectly to the line between the religious and the non-religious.

Also, while I quite agree with Gutting’s claim that “most believers… do not come to religion through philosophical arguments,” I am not persuaded that “their belief arises from their personal experiences of a spiritual world of meaning and values, with God as its center.” Many, no doubt, but not most. I think most belief simply arises from being told things by people we have seen no reason not to trust. Dogmatists of both the religious and atheist camps, with their stress on True and False Belief and their incomprehension of how any sane well-intentioned person might choose the latter, overlook the simple fact that most of what we think we know about the world, we heard from someone or read somewhere. It seems to me that the most plausible approach to the understanding of religion as a real phenomena in the world is neither through rational discussion of its fact claims, nor through the kind of philosophical and emotional abstraction that Gutting and Kitcher engage in, but through examination of the workings of human community and the sense of belonging, and also of communications, the sociology of knowledge, the logistics of information. Whatever else a religion is, (note that I say “a religion,” using the word in its countable sense,) it is a social phenomenon  and that’s how I think it is most profitably studied, though the psychological-neurological approach can help as well…

No Nones in Congress?

January 8, 2011

The other day the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life published Faith on the Hill, a study comparing the religious affiliations of members of our new Congress with those of the general public. I first became aware of it via this post on Friendly Atheist; then today Charles Blow did an op-ed on it in the NY Times, so I figured I really should mention it here.

Interestingly, the Times piece picked up on the same detail which – understandably – concerned our atheist friend: the total lack of any representation for the growing minority of religiously unaffiliated, a category including atheists, agnostics, seekers, spiritual-but-not-religious, etc. As the Pew article puts it,

Perhaps the greatest disparity between the religious makeup of Congress and the people it represents, however, is in the percentage of the unaffiliated – those who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” According to information gathered by CQ Roll Call and the Pew Forum, no members of Congress say they are unaffiliated. By contrast, about one-sixth of U.S. adults (16%) are not affiliated with any particular faith. Only six members of the 112th Congress (about 1%) do not specify a religious affiliation, which is similar to the percentage of the public that says they don’t know or refuses to specify their faith.

(However, one of the two Unitarian Universalists listed in the summary table as “Other Faiths,” Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA), has declared that he doesn’t believe in a Supreme Being; and six members of Congress have simply declined to answer the question.)

“For perspective,” Blow observes

there are almost two-thirds as many unaffiliated people as there are Catholics in this country and nearly as many as there are Baptists. Their number is more than twice that of Methodists, and more than nine times the numbers of Jews or Mormons.

He adds,

I don’t for a second believe that all those members are religious. I believe some are trapped in the religious closet of American politics where nonbelief is a nonstarter. It’s not only seen as unholy, it’s also seen as un-American.

Now, the growth in the None population is relatively recent and concentrated among the young, and so it can be expected that in future decades it will become increasingly acceptable for an “out” non-affiliate to run for office. Other minorities have also faced a certain lag-time in gaining a fair reflection of their numbers in Congress; and for a long time after women obtained the vote there were never more than two of them in the Senate at once, but now no-one seems to think twice about voting for one.

The survey includes a table showing changes in congressional religion over the past 50 years, and a number of these are of interest: the largest growth in representation has been for Catholics (Latinos?), followed by “unspecified Protestants” (non-denominational evangelicals?) and Jews; Baptists and Lutherans have trended slightly up, while Methodists and Presbyterians have declined drastically (170 between them in ’61, 95 today), Episcopalians slightly less so (from 66 to 41), and Congregationalists have virtually been wiped out (from 27 to 4). The first Muslim and Buddhist members joined Congress in 2007, the same year Rep. Stark “came out.”

In a similar vein, it has been noted that with the retirement of Justice Stevens last year there are no remaining Protestants on the Supreme Court.


Food and Faith

January 5, 2011

The other day Hemant Mehta “the Friendly Atheist” posted a reflection on his vegetarianism. He is of Jain origin, but as his sobriquet implies he doesn’t follow that or any religion. (He describes himself as “ex-Jain,” though I suspect that if he were living back in India he would be regarded by most people as still a Jain, just as a non-practicing non-believing Jew is still a Jew.) Yet, having been raised in the strict vegetarianism of his family, he finds that he is still a vegetarian, with no desire for meat, even though he no longer believes in the reasons he had been given for such a diet; and the arguments he can think of for vegetarianism, if led to their logical conclusion, should lead him to veganism, which he can’t bring himself to contemplate (Indian culture is very dairy-oriented, if you haven’t noticed). I recommend the post (and the numerous comments appended) – it is a fascinating example of a bright young individual trying to think through the exact nature of his dietary and other choices.

I myself am an opportunistic feeder and would never be comfortable joining a religion with strict food taboos. I was raised to be omnivorous and have no desire to change. Yet I can understand the appeal of vegetarianism/veganism; I am not a great believer in moral absolutes (a topic for another post!) but I can’t help feeling that it would be somehow more civilized if we could live without slaughtering our fellow animals. I suspect that in another century or two people will look back on the way we eat today with the same shock and incomprehension with which we contemplate the prevalence of slave-ownership among the founders of our democracy. But this is not a cause I feel myself called upon to embrace, not a change I feel personally driven to make.

Ah, the complex relationship between religion, diet, habit, culture, logic… The heart has its reasons, says Pascal; and so, I would add, do our other organs.

It has been a couple of weeks since my last entry in this series, my thinking has gone off in different directions since then, and so I think I shall wrap this up with a few final remarks. First as a reminder let me repeat the intro to Part 1:

The springboard for today’s post is one of many critiques of Dawkins from what can be called a modern, open-minded theistic perspective, which I just stumbled on yesterday and found to be rather more nicely written than some of  its kind: “Selling the Soul of Science for a Pot of Message: Evangelizing Atheism in The God Delusion” by Steven C. Walker, published in Brigham Young University Studies 47:133. (This link is to an online version, which appears substantially identical to the hard copy as far as I can recall.)

Now: I think I have made it clear that I share with Dawkins and his fellows the belief that science provides an adequate and self-sufficient method of understanding the physical universe, and that public policy should be based on that rather than on traditionalist-religious truth claims. I can thus be said to support many aspects of the “atheist agenda” – and so by the way do a good many religious people!

I  have dealt also with the claims that there is a whole realm of religious experience which science unjustifiably leaves out of account. I am certainly open to finding myself mistaken on this, but have so far seen no basis for concluding that the sum total of such reported experience points to an objective reality outside the mind of the experiencer.

So now to wrap up I think I should highlight the main point that differentiates me from the “Four Horsemen” school of atheism, the point where I myself think that Dawkins is seriously mistaken.

As I’ve indicated above, religion is not a monolith. Many religious individuals and even some whole denominations publicly share many aspects of the atheists’ liberal-democratic social and political agenda. Most of the Christians I know – mind you, this is in a particularly liberal sub-culture – support strict separation of church and state, want evolution and sound sexual hygeine taught in public schools, celebrate same-sex marriages among their friends and relatives as enthusiastically as they do hetero marriages, and are as appalled as any atheist by the use of religion in the United States to support a right wing political and social agenda, to say nothing of the wholesale repression and violence which go on in the name of religion in many other parts of the world. I don’t know any Jews or Buddhists who would disagree with this either.

Dawkins et al. don’t know what to make of this. They say they can’t see a consistent difference in principle between “good religion” and “bad religion.” How about this: good religion does good stuff, bad religion does bad stuff? The fact is that the Horsemen let their (perfectly understandable) anger at the bad stuff seduce them away from a truly scientific attitude. As I wrote earlier to one of the advocates of the “great mass of religious experience,” science works best when it breaks down generalizations into specific case-by-case observations.  So, why start with the assumption that there is a single  thing univalently called “religion” in the first place? Let us agree that a lot of bad things that happen in the world appear to be motivated by “religion” in some sense. What of that? A lot of bad things are caused by bacteria. Science has succeeded in bringing about a remarkable diminution of these things in recent centuries – how? Not by denouncing bacteria, not by saying “bad bacteria!” but by looking at specific cases, teasing out specific causal connections, putting our (perfectly understandable) repugnance towards disease on a back burner while we look at how the microbes function on their own terms, and using that knowledge to prevent the specific ills resulting in each case. Indeed we have found that there are probably a lot more “good” bacteria than “bad” bacteria, and no one has a problem accepting this.

So let’s put “religion” under the microscope too. Look at how it really works in the world. Study it psychologically and sociologically; try to understand it as a natural phenomenon that exists for its own sufficient reasons; then, when we want to prevent certain consequences, we will have an idea how to go about it without doing more harm than good.

Dawkins et al. are too quick to identify religion with “false belief” and assume that the falseness of the belief is what makes the bad things happen. People just aren’t like that. Their stated opinions on metaphysical questions do not determine very much about their daily lives, not in any consistent way; religious leaders rail against their flocks all the time for this. My own sense is that religious traditions and institutions are socio-cultural phenomena, social in the way political and economic institutions are, cultural like art forms and genres. The creeds and dogmas that people are supposed to believe are, for many people, simply part of the ritual that binds the community together. That may not be entirely accurate either; but in any case further study is needed before anyone has any business claiming that metaphysical beliefs in and of themselves directly cause the atrocities we see in the world.

There, I shall continue writing on these questions from different angles in the months to come but I think I can wrap up this particular series. Thanks to all who’ve come along for the ride! It’s great to know people are reading my stuff!