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.



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!


Dawkins and his critics – 2

December 22, 2010

This is a continuation of my 12/21 post; I shall repeat the first paragraph for orientation:

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 was on the subject of religious/spiritual experiences, and was trying to explain my sense that whatever these are, they do not add up to a coherent picture of a (or a part of the) world outside the mind of the experiencer.

I would like to distinguish between types of experience: there are on the one hand those that appear in the form of (or are reported as if they appeared in the form of) normal sensory experiences, just not normal in their content. I mean the sort of “revelations” which abound in most religious traditions – voices from the sky, visions of old men with messages – mostly with some very specific doctrinal content. One nice thing about these is that they are, on one level, easy to understand. That is, I can certainly imagine what it would be like to hear such a voice or encounter such a person. What is hard to do is determine whether the report is accurate. It is very easy to suspect that either the experiencer was not in his/her right mind, or not being entirely honest, or that the story was created later on by others; or perhaps a different, less sensory experience – or even a mere personal moral or other conviction – is being described, using sensory language as metaphor, in which case the instance belongs in my other main category to be addressed later.

Now if it were my own experience, and it really did have a sensory but supernormal character, I would be responsible for first deciding to my own satisfaction whether I was hallucinating, or the victim of a hoax, or the recipient of a real revelation; and if the latter, for attempting to persuade whomever I felt called to persuade. If it were the experience of someone I knew or could look up personally, I would have some ability to examine the person’s character and record and come to some sort of plausible conclusion on the subject. But as it happens all the really specific revelations I have heard or read of seem to have happened far away, long ago, and without much of the documentation that would allow any sort of real “diagnosis.” The best-documented instances I know of are the reports of Joseph Smith and other early Latter-Day Saints; and frankly I don’t know quite what to make of them. I do note that opinion is divided, and that  few if any of the promoters of the cognitive value of spiritual experience – other than LDS members themselves – point to these as exemplars. Well, I suppose this is natural,  for anyone really persuaded by them would probably become a member. But the fact remains that all I have to go on is the consensus of opinion, unless I take the time to do a lot of research; and that consensus isn’t encouraging. But if I grew up in an LDS community I might well feel differently, and this would not be irrational. Remember my point from the last post, that almost  everything we think we know about the world we learned from somebody. I can accept most of Dawkins’ world view but not the edge, the intolerance, the smugness as my friend Carty calls it.

One argument of course against the ready acceptance of reported revelations of this sort – at least in their literal sense – is that there are so many of them that flatly contradict one another, so that they can’t all be right; also, very few of them really break from the immediate cultural environment in which they took place. People don’t turn up in the Arabian desert with visions of the Virgin Mary for instance. All of this however would be consistent not only with hallucinations or hoaxes, but also with real experiences which may have been essentially of a non-sensory and not-doctrinally-specific character, which had the ineffability of truly “inner” experience and were simply reported in the best language culturally available at the time.

So this brings me to my other main category of religious/spiritual experience, the non-sensory ineffable kind, which is what most people today whom I hear claiming for themselves seem to mean. (Even the LDS I’ve spoken to, who believe very strongly in everyone having a personal testimony of their faith; mind you I’ve never been to a testimony meeting though I have been invited and maybe I’ll go someday, but from what I’ve heard and read my impression is that most of what they talk about as their personal testimony is far from the sort of specific sensory encounter that the original prophets spoke of, but something far more like an inner emotional conviction; but I am open to correction on this.)

So now I come to inner, non-sensory, non-verbally-specific religious experience; but I’m already pushing 900 words so it will have to await another instalment… Sorry, I can’t help padding everything I say on the subject with caveats, but dang it all I want to get it down right. See y’all tomorrow maybe.

Dawkins and his critics

December 21, 2010

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.)

One thing I like about it is that the author writes with what seems to be real respect for Dawkins’ work as a scientist, his skill as a writer and the strength of some of his arguments. I am using it however mainly because the themes of his criticism are ones which I have encountered and tried to think through before, which I was going to blog about sooner or later anyway, and which Walker expresses clearly enough for me to use…

The first paragraph which caught my eye is this:

I am not suggesting Dawkins is small-minded—anything but. He just keeps his energetic mind on too tight a scientific leash. Dawkins distrusts imagination so much I sometimes wonder if he has any. This distrust limits his perspective, almost as if he is color-blind to theology. He focuses so intently on the black and white of material reality he cannot perceive the slightest tint of theological color. Old-school psychologist William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1905) has far less problem imagining the perspective of the believer.3 James, with a modicum of imaginative empathy, was able to comprehend what Dawkins may never see: religious evidence may be real evidence; personal evidence of God may be more directly experiential, however much less measurable, than scientific evidence.

Doesn’t this come up all the time in discussions on the subject? Years ago (long before Dawkins had entered the field) a Catholic priest friend complained to me that “these people call themselves empiricists but they rule out so much of experience.” In other words,  intuitive, private “religious experience” is counterpoised to the whole body of “scientific” knowledge based on sensory observation, precise measurement, and repeated experimentation resulting in objective verification. Walker doesn’t deny the validity of the latter, unlike some “postmodernists” (though if you corner them they may deny that they really meant that), he just thinks it isn’t enough, that a full healthy world view should be informed by the former.

My problem with this is that not having had a recognizable “religious experience” myself, I am reduced to relying on the reports of others who claim to have had them. Now this is nothing unusual in itself; in fact one of the criticisms I have of Dawkins is that in his dismissal of all religion as irrational he fails to take into account that most of what we think we know about the world, outside of our limited experience and what we can infer directly from it, we learned from someone else. Either someone told us, or we read it somewhere. Dawkins has his reasons for the certainty he expresses for the findings of those sciences he is expert in; my reasons for believing those findings cannot be the same, but must include a larger element of trust in the whole system, the institutions of scientific teaching and publication etc. The totality of my experience and learning leads me to have such trust; but on a human level I find I must be more tolerant than Dawkins seems to be towards those whose mileage varies.

But returning to “religious experience.” Writers like Walker are always referring to it, but they don’t specify whose experience, or what account of such experience. My own reading and conversation over the decades has led me to the conclusion – not an altogether happy one, as when I was younger I would have very much liked to find a real workable alternative to the material world with all its hardships – that the stories told of these experiences simply don’t converge onto something coherent enough for me to believe – that is, accept as conveying information about anything outside of the mind of the experiencer, in the way that sensory experience and reasoning based on it converge onto that scientific world view which everyone concedes works in the sense of enabling us to predict and manipulate the flow of phenomena in ways most of us like. If you claim to have had an inner experience that seems of cognitive value to you (“noetic” I think is the word James uses), tell me about it. I will listen respectfully, I will gladly take your word (absent some strong external evidence to the contrary) for the fact that you had the experience and are describing it as best you can, I will profoundly respect your right to draw the most sensible conclusions you can from that experience, and will not criticize your efforts the way Dawkins might; but for me to conclude that the experience really is noetic, that it does give information about something outside your mind, I would need to be able to fit it into a pattern of similar reports, in the same way that when a traveler tells me of Australia I can look it up on a map, read or ask for other people’s accounts, and fit them all together in a way that converges. So far I have not seen this to be the case with intuitive, emotional or religious experience, and so my own sympathies on this point are with Dawkins.

Egad, this is way too long already and I haven’t even begun to spin it out to my satisfaction. I can only endeavor to insure that further instalments follow. Good bye for now!