Monthly Archives: January 2013

A Question of Faith

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Is faith a virtue? Is it a thing of real calculable value, something to be aspired to? Is it an irrational vice, a crutch useful only to justify beliefs and actions not supported by evidence or based in reason? If you don’t believe faith to be a virtue; why? Is  it the thing itself which is inherently flawed  or is it simply the things we choose to apply faith to that need to be altered?

A couple of things have to be noted first off before we can proceed. The first is that I myself have never had any use for or liking of the term (or the practice of) faith. I personally find the idea of believing something not only without evidence, but in spite of evidence, at best quaint and at worst a dangerous and limiting form of intellectual complacency.   The second is that I’m not talking about trust or confidence. I’m not interested in usages of “faith “ which are based on previous experience, a reasonable expectation of success, or some other appreciable and understandable criterion. Faith as I mean it here is a belief not predicated upon or requiring evidence to sustain it, indeed a belief sustained in spite of evidence. In short I’m talking about religious or “spiritual” faith.

The simple truth is that  most of the people on the planet profess one type of faith or another. These people often get great comfort and support from their various faiths, and said faiths can often lead them to great humanitarian actions and outlooks. These are a lot of the arguments you’ll hear in favour of faith.  Does any of that make faith a rational, reasonable  outlook on reality? Is it hubris to assert that we, a small minority of the population, know better than the billions of believers around the globe? I don’t think so at all. The sheer amount of people who believe a thing is not a measure of it’s validity, and it is certainly not a measure of it’s rationality.

There is absolutely no rational logical reason to suppose that any person ever walked, unassisted, across a body of water. Nor is there any solid rational foundation for believing that Muhammad broke the moon to frighten his enemies. ( and this leaves aside the argument that even if there was a good solid reason to believe that, for instance, Jesus existed and actually walked across water, that wouldn’t be a good reason to believe there is actually a supernatural force governing existence.) To believe that these things actually occurred is as patently irrational as believing, in this day and age, that Zeus and his court are actually sitting in state atop a mountain in central Greece, or that the world truly does rest on the back of a giant turtle. ( A belief shared by several different cultures throughout history, just to further my point about numbers not equalling truth.)

So what? Even as I write this I hear someone ask “Who cares if it’s irrational? You know, empirical studies show people who have faith are on average happier than people with none.” Why, theoretical heckler in my head, you’re absolutely right! Those studies do exist, but is individual happiness the only benchmark we should be shooting for when we’re choosing how and why we believe things? There are, I am sure, lots of ecstatic suicide bomber candidates out there, who wake up with a smile and a bounce in their step. I’m also quite certain that the people of the Westboro Baptist Church aren’t bent over with self loathing and regret as they paint their colourful and hateful picket signs and set off to desecrate some poor innocent’s funeral rites.

The answer to “who cares if it’s irrational?” is that irrational beliefs lead to irrational actions, or at the least  they open a person up to manipulation, how can they not? If your view of reality isn’t grounded in what’s observable, what’s testable and verifiable you’re asking to be deluded and controlled. What you think affects how you think, it colours your attitudes toward other people, toward societal progress, even toward things such as medical intervention, life saving procedures, and the ethics of certain incredibly promising research areas.

It is not only what we choose to have faith in that’s is the problem. It is the idea of faith itself. The idea of accepting any proposition without due evidence, and consideration is, in my opinion, folly. Critical thinking is the key to understanding, to appreciation of reality, indeed it is the key to true wisdom and it can not be achieved without inquiry, study, and a solid basis of objective fact. Faith, no matter what the faith, removes the value from inquiry and evidence and places it on wish-thinking. It is dangerous and foolhardy nonsense.

For me though the most important argument is this: faith divides, it fosters elitism and exclusivism. It throws up false barriers and distinctions between people and fosters antagonisms that  have no objective meaning or value. We are all made of the same stuff,  yet the various faiths would have us believe that some of us are somehow more (or less) than our fellows. That some are more (or less) loved by some eternal judge. How can this lead to anything but disaster?  Faith is a barrier to understanding between peoples, it’s a stumbling block to true unity and a blind fold which obscures the truth which is that we’re all basically the same, that all we have is each other, and that the old adage is true, a house divided cannot stand.

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They’ll Like Us When We Win

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Earlier today I read a blog post entitled “Is it Time for an Atheist’s Rights Movement?” The author wondered if the scattered and divided “Atheist community” (if such a thing can even be said to exist) could agree enough to get behind a movement to protect the right of Atheists to be Atheists free of discrimination or persecution. He noted that even in the supposedly “enlightened” west Atheists are often discriminated against in family court decisions, in private organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America, and even in the constitutions of seven American states. This is without even going into the various theocracies around the globe.

I responded in the comments by saying that while I agree in spirit with this idea. (The idea of protecting Atheists from discrimination and persecution) I think  the “Atheists’ Rights” is a small part of a much larger battle, and that if there is to be a movement the movement should be concerned with the larger war and not a single skirmish.

I don’t say this because I don’t think it’s important to protect non-theists from discrimination, I do. I don’t say it to denigrate the work done by those who are fighting for this very thing right now in various places around the globe. They’re doing important work in often life threatening conditions and that should be respected and commended. Where my disagreement comes into play is here. If there is going to be an organized, concerted effort on the part of non-theists it shouldn’t be about trying to achieve an equality of position, our positions aren’t, to my mind, equal. If there’s going to be a movement the movement should have one aim: the abolishment, or at least marginalization of theistic thought around the globe.

Now, do I mean outlawing religious thought? Punishing believers for said belief and the like? No. What I mean is working to drastically curtail the temporal power of the various faith groups and parties of god around the world. What I mean is a concerted, unified effort to demonstrate the value of our position, to show the benefits of secularism, rationality, critical reasoning, and Humanism. We should be working harder to dispel the fog of myth and superstition, not just to educate but to enlighten. As an example, noted Atheist activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali has said that one of the things that made her question Islam as a child was reading “Nancy Drew” books. Intense and dramatic change is often the result of such simple, even mundane catalysts. A concerted and unapologetic campaign designed to undermine theistic thinking using such mundane and seemingly “inoffensive” materials, would be an example of one avenue that,  as far as I’m concerned, is likely to have great success. The key is that the effort must be concerted, unapologetic and multi-pronged. Polite disagreement only gets us so far. Individual activism only gets us so far. If there is ever going to be true secular victory it’s going to take a widespread unified movement. Civil rights didn’t come about because a couple of minority activists wrote and spoke and protested. It came about because a people united, demanded action, gathered allies and fought.

That being said I don’t think that the wider atheist “community” will ever unite in such a way. Atheism is not after all a belief system. It’s a single point of commonality, and aside from that single point Atheists are a disparate group with a varied collection of social and political views.  It’s difficult to imagine how such a movement could be forged. Especially since there is even disagreement on how theism should be treated by Atheists. Some, like myself, see theism as a dangerous and destructive influence that should be abolished. Others are indifferent to theism so long as it stays out of their face, so to speak, and still others think theistic views should be respected, a live and let live sort of philosophy.

Perhaps then the idea of unifying Atheists is hopeless. No movement can reasonably expect 100% support or participation after all, not every African American was part of the civil rights movement, and not every Frenchman was part of La Resistance.  Perhaps Anti-Theists, those of us do care and do recognize the threat that theism offers to the future, would be the best candidates for such a movement. Maybe those Atheists should be the ones organizing to undertake the campaign I mentioned above.  I myself would be more than happy to take part in such an endeavour.

When it comes right down to it those Atheists who are the most seriously persecuted in the world are not going to be delivered from persecution by anything less than all out ideological attack on the theocracies that oppress them. There is no hope of tolerance or equality because nothing can be “equal” to the will of god in the eyes of these theocrats and god has made his will quite clear concerning infidels and apostates. “Atheist Rights” in these places can only be achieved by a complete removal and replacement of the existing construct. Sadly the situation might not be much better here at home when it comes to “Atheist Rights”. However those rights will come as a by-product of victory in the wider struggle. Or put another way:  they’ll like us when we win, and we’ll win when we start to fight in earnest.

Atheism is Impolite

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Atheism is impolite. We’ve all heard some variation on this idea whether it’s “Atheists are rude” or “Atheists are overly aggressive.” Or “Atheists have something to prove.” Most often you’ll get this from theists who are threatened by the conversation or from some non-theists; those who have no particular faith but disapprove of discussion and debate on the subject. What I find most difficult and frustrating about this position is that it’s not actually wrong. That they aren’t wrong isn’t especially frustrating, the frustrating part is that it’s only so because the religious have somehow managed to change the rules of discourse. They’ve managed construct a social bulwark around their beliefs that is entirely unique and completely unavailable to beliefs or assertions made in any other category of human experience. It has actually become impossible to challenge the beliefs of the religious within the bounds of civil discussion.

First things first, a slight correction is necessary in order to proceed. When I say Atheism is impolite I should be more specific, Atheist activism is impolite. It is not inherently impolite to be an atheist, the problem only arises when one chooses to speak about the subject, or dares to question anyone else’s beliefs. There are a great many atheists out there who would be regarded as perfect pillars of good behaviour. They don’t question anyone’s beliefs, don’t challenge irrational statements, or demands for special treatment, and will in fact castigate those of their fellows who are too “militant” about their lack of belief.

I say that the theists and “polite” non-theists aren’t wrong because it actually is impossible to politely point out to someone that their core beliefs are false. You cannot, within the bounds of good manners, tell someone that they have devoted their lives to a sham. No matter how soft your language, or how gentle your manner it is impossible to broach the subject without being rude. This is because it has somehow become the height of high-mindedness to assert that “people should be able to believe whatever they choose.” But should they? Really consider that.

Should people honestly be able to believe whatever they want to believe simply because they want to? What if I want to believe 2+2=5 for instance? Should I be free to assert this as truth? In spite of the mountainous pile of evidence to the contrary should I be free to teach it to my children? What if I can convince others that 2+2=5? Should we then be free to demand that “fiveism” receive equal teaching time in math class? Does basic mathematics then become a matter of opinion, and does my right to hold this nonsensical opinion trump your right not to have to put up with said nonsense?

In every other area of human endeavor you have to have reasons to think the things you do. Your beliefs have to be grounded in some kind of verifiable demonstrable truth. If an engineer decided to forgo measuring and instead provided his builders with figures that came to him in a dream the project they were building would fail and the engineer would be censured. If a history student declared that he felt deep inside himself that Napoleon was in fact an Asian woman rather than a French Caucasian man he would be told quite plainly that regardless of his feelings the evidence did not support such an insane claim. We spend a great deal of time teaching our children to defend their opinions with evidence. Any statement that begins with “I think” is often met with the response “Why?”

How many of us heard as children or have said to our own children “‘because’ is not an answer”? Yet it seems that it is a perfectly acceptable answer when discussing theology. “How can you possibly believe in spite of piles of evidence that the earth is only six thousand years old?” is met with “Because.”  “How do you know that this book you esteem so highly has divine origins?” “Because.” And yet asking the obvious next question “Because WHY?” is the height of impropriety. “How dare you challenge my right to believe that the universe was created just for me and those like me!” the theists shriek. “Why do you have to be so unpleasantly forceful?” the politically correct hand-wringers whine. Why? Because theism claims answers they don’t and can’t have. They claim privileges and exemptions from rationality that no area of human interest should have, and they claim that reason and rationality is somehow inferior to blind belief or “faith”.

It is that last point that makes Atheist activism so necessary, regardless of how impolite it may be. More of us need to put aside the politically correct idea of respecting someone else’s opinion and question the value and virtue of “faith”. More of us should be asking loudly why it is better to believe in spite of evidence. Why is it better to ignore or bury evidence in favor of tradition? Why isn’t it ok to question this one particular area of human experience or to measure it against the rest of reality as we understand it when it is not only ok but absolutely essential that we do so in all other areas?

Don’t be afraid to be thought rude or impolite. Question, challenge, and seek. That is the most important freedom you have. It may be rude to challenge someone’s most personal beliefs but that’s only because we, the secular minority in society have allowed our opponent to weight the dice in their own favor.  As Sam Harris says:

“When considering the truth of a proposition, one is either engaged in an honest appraisal of the evidence and logical arguments, or one isn’t  Religion is one area of our lives where people imagine that some other standard of intellectual integrity applies.”

I contend that there is no “other standard” there is what is demonstrably true, what is verifiably untrue and that which we do not know. Nothing else, and no area of our experience should ever be beyond discussion.

Atheists Against Atheism??

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I spend a lot of time talking about the hateful, baffling, and often false things Theists say and believe on this blog. Today I’m going to mix it up a bit and discuss another group and an incomprehensible position I just can’t get my head around. The group I’m going to be talking about are atheists, a very specific kind of atheist which some of you may recognize. Some of you may even be this kind of atheist. If you are maybe you can help me understand…

There is a group of atheists out there in the world who have taken the time to think about the issue, they’ve pondered, considered and (hopefully) studied and become comfortable enough with their position to openly call themselves atheists. This particular kind of Atheist has determined, just as the rest of us have, that religion and religious claims are false, baseless, utterly man-made, and often times harmful however this sub-set of atheists regularly and actively call down anyone who challenges a theist’s religious assertions, or points out the falsehoods and inconsistencies in their doctrine. These people ostensibly reject the idea of a god, reject all forms of religion but see no problem with the practice, and are actually affronted by the more aggressive species of atheist who choose to debate and discuss the issue.  I really don’t understand this type of atheism. I suppose one could chalk it up to some of them just being “live and let live” types not interested in pushing their own views or “agenda” on anyone but if that’s the case why are they involved in the discussion in the first place?

I write and debate on the topic for a couple of reasons: 1) I’m an AntiTheist.  I honestly believe that religion and religious thinking are divisive, detrimental and dangerous, not just to those individuals snared by it but to all of humankind. 2) I know that there are more plausible, more demonstrable, more awe-inspiring truths out there that explain our origins, and indeed all origins far more correctly and satisfyingly than any faith system ever has.  I value knowledge, study, learning, and honest inquiry.  I myself have learned the vast majority of what I know because someone took the time to put their thoughts to paper, to debate and discuss, and I am eternally grateful for that. If I can make just one person  actually consider and question what they profess to believe and that leads them to go out with new questions and seek actual answers I’m a success.  I can’t imagine a better pay off for an hour or two of typing. I consider any amount of “yelling into the wind” to be well worth that payoff.

I understand those atheists who want no part in the debate, they’ve come to their personal truth, it works for them and they have no interest in convincing others. I understand agnostics who are satisfied to say “I simply don’t know” and leave it at that. What I can’t understand are those Atheists who actively take part in the debate but only to say that they don’t think there should be a debate at all and deride those who foster it. The position against discussion doesn’t make any sense to me. I like talking to thoughtful theists, to be honest I like talking to less than thoughtful theists too. I enjoy the discussion. I like when people make me think, and I like when I can tell I’ve made someone else think. This is how we improve ourselves. I don’t get how anyone can be opposed to that, and it seems especially strange to me to adopt the label “atheist” and then attack those advocating atheism…

If you see encouraging debate, or even taking part in one as “proselytizing” and you’re honestly opposed I can respect that. I disagree, but I can respect it, but to proselytize against proselytizing?? I don’t understand that… It seems to me like an effort to be seen as a superior, more open-minded, less offensive brand of atheist and it comes off, at least to me, as hypocrisy. It seems we’ve developed the secular equivalent of the religious moderate, that species of theist who professes to believe that all outlooks are not only equally worthy of respect but equally valid as truth.

If you want no part in the debate that’s your call and I respect that. If you want to take part in the debate and have a different outlook than I do I welcome your contribution to the discussion. I really do, but if you spend your days advocating against advocacy, if you actively label yourself an atheist but oppose discussion of the “whys” of atheism then as I’ve said several times: I don’t understand you. What is it that drives such an atheist, and how did you come to be an atheist? Did your lack of belief happen in a bubble? You read nothing, discussed nothing, and debated nothing? Really? I doubt it, so why would you deny others the tools that you yourself more than likely took advantage of in forming your opinions?