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.



Nones in the news

June 8, 2012

It’s been known for some time that religious affiliation has been declining in the United States, especially among the young. The American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS) published by Trinity College in 2008 definitively established the “Nones” – people with no stated religious preference, atheists, and agnostics – as a major and growing feature of our religious landscape. It was not immediately obvious, however, whether this change was  primarily a matter of people changing their minds over the course of time, or of the younger generation starting out less religious and gradually aging into demographic prominence as their elders died out. Differentiating between age effects and generational effects is not something we usually think to do, nor is it usually all that easy.

So a hat-tip to the Friendly Atheist for pointing me to this new study from the team at Trinity. They’ve gone through all their data and teased out the figures by generation, following longitudinally the so-called “Gen X” (those born between 1965 and ’72). The results are quite striking. In 1990, when the group in question was aged 18-25, “Nones” were 11%; in 2008, having advanced onto or just over the threshhold of middle age, that number had gone up to 16%. An estimated 2.2 million people, during precisely the years when  they were supposed to be settling down from adolescent friskiness and returning to religion, seem to have lost theirs  instead.

By denomination, the decline was especially significant among Catholics and Baptists. However, I suspect that most of the lost Baptists actually drifted into “Generic Christian” category, which gained just about as much as the “Nones” and tends to be made up of Bible-focused conservative Evangelicals. The Catholic loss is likely more serious;  the rate of disaffiliation was more than enough to compensate for the swelling of this age group by immigration, much of which is from Catholic countries, and my sense is that lapsed Catholics are more likely to leave Christianity altogether than to join conservative Protestant churches, though surely some do. (I do know quite a few ex-Catholics at my UU church…)

By the way, the same study also deals with politics; Gen X has been becoming more Democratic and less Republican.




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…

I found this article in Christianity Today: “Ayn Rand led me to Christ” by Bishop Edward S. Little II of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Indiana. It caught my attention because I also read a lot of Rand in my teens,  was attracted to her thinking for a while, and found it ultimately unsatisfying; but unlike the good Bishop, I veered off in a very different and in some respects opposite direction.

I started out with a vaguely theistic, Platonic, and moral-absolutist way of thinking; Rand challenged some of this, in healthy ways. Whereas Bishop Little went from Rand and Aristotle to Plato and Jesus, I went from Plato and some notion of God, through Rand and her notion of Aristotle,  to points beyond, David Hume maybe as much as anyone… To be precise,  it’s not so much that when I was young, before I discovered Rand, I really believed in a God or absolute or any transcendent thing in particular; it’s more that I felt there should be such a thing, that life was meaningless without one, and I was constantly disappointed that no one could give me a coherent plausible account of one. Rand was the first thorough, consistent atheistic writer I encountered in depth, and it was very useful for me to see that such a world view could be maintained and spelled out, that a clearly intelligent person could have it and be content with it. I no longer felt the same need to keep looking for a persuasive theism, I could resign myself to the possibility that there might not be one. Eventually, at 20, I was able to take the plunge and let my mind entertain the idea of a totally material, scientifically explicable universe, found that I could live with it, and was able to accept it as my default view pending convincing evidence to the contrary – which I still haven’t found, another 40 years later.

But by then I had left Rand behind too, because she never quite convinced me of one of the things the Bishop found particularly attractive about her, namely her insistence on moral absolutes.  Remember, my earlier vague wannabe-theism included a sort of wannabe-absolutism.  Just as with the God question, I thought it should be possible to come up with a coherent demonstration that there was such a thing as objective right and wrong, and was constantly frustrated by the failure of anyone to meet my standards of coherence. So I wanted to find Rand persuasive; but in the end I did not, and the desire for a moral absolute went down in a tumble together with my desire for an objective God. I found I could live without either, and therefore I didn’t have to keep straining at gnats of unpersuasive evidence.

Her egocentrism on the other hand, which grates on the Bishop, doesn’t bother me much at all. I can live with the idea of an egocentric universe. What I don’t get is how this leads to an objective morality, to say nothing of how this implies the necessity of laissez-faire capitalism. Let us accept that for each human individual his/her own life as a rational human is the one basic source of value. I do not see how this leads to a standard of behavior that allows for the sort of objective judgment Rand insists we must make. Yes, like the Bishop I agree with her insistence on objective material reality; I agree that there are such things as facts, that there are things that will objectively either kill people or promote their survival regardless of anyone’s feelings or opinions, and therefore it is vitally important to think scientifically about what these things might be; and if I believed (as I do not) the claim of laissez-faire economists like Hayek that the free unimpeded market is the only way to promote human life and flourishing, I’d say OK let’s go with that. But Rand tries to make a moral claim, above and beyond the practical economic arguments (which I don’t believe) – namely that true egoists must value their rationality and freedom (understood as including “economic freedom”)  in such a way that it is logically and morally impossible for them to even consider infringing the freedom of others, including the infringement of “economic freedom” which Rand and Hayek alike see as perpetrated by modern government. The Objectivist hero apparently reasons as follows: I value my survival; my survival requires my freedom of action and my best possible use of reason; therefore freedom and rationality are such valuable goods that I should not wish to give them up even in the interests of survival. Which is fine, I can respect that, but it still seems to me a subjective choice, not the logical necessity Rand makes it out to be. Quite apart from the fact that I simply do not think the “free market” is a transparent manifestation of everybody’s rationality and freedom, not by a longshot. But that’s another matter.

In fact in writing the above I just realized that the problem I have with Rand’s supposedly rational ethics is the same problem I have with another, very different recent attempt to establish a moral absolute,  that of Alan Gewirth, which I’ve been wanting to write about for some time. I cannot express fully my view of Rand without finally once-and-for-all dealing with Gewirth also. Which isn’t going to happen today. Dear readers, please bear with me, the present already-over-900-word post is a harbinger of more to come; but hopefully once I’ve got it all out it will begin to make more sense…

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.