Pat Gunn (dachte) wrote,
Pat Gunn

Scant Breaths

Today was a bit social, by my standards, in that I kindasorta hung out a bit with people (light singing is fun) and had a conversation at work. Whoa.

Spice^H^H^H^Hinuses must flow. For the last few days I have had a combination of terrible want-to-die migraines (which still oddly lift depression a bit - there's some interesting neurochemical effect probably) and sinus drainage that make me feel like I'm being waterboarded. ¡Hurrah!

Two religious commentators have defined "New Atheism" - wikipedia gloms their definitions onto one page. A repeat of that and some thoughts:

Andrew Brown (religious commentator for a newspaper) defines New Atheism as a movement that holds:

  1. There is something called "Faith" which can be defined as unjustified belief held in the teeth of the evidence. Faith is primarily a matter of false propositional belief.
  2. The cure for faith is science: The existence of God is a scientific question: either he exists or he doesn't.
  3. Science is the opposite of religion, and will lead people into the clear sunlit uplands of reason.
  4. In this great struggle, religion is doomed. Enlightened common sense is gradually triumphing and at the end of the process, humanity will assume a new and better character, free from the shackles of religion. Without faith, we would be better as well as wiser. Conflict is primarily a result of misunderstanding, of which Faith is the paradigm.
  5. Religion exists. It is essentially something like American fundamentalist protestantism, or Islam. More moderate forms are false and treacherous: if anything even more dangerous, because they conceal the raging, homicidal lunacy that is religion's true nature.
  6. Faith, as defined above, is the most dangerous and wicked force on earth today and the struggle against it and especially against Islam will define the future of humanity.
Al Mohler (head of a religious seminary) notes these features:
  1. New Atheism is a celebration of atheism. God's funeral is something to be celebrated, not mourned.
  2. Not a rejection of a theism but an unambiguous rejection of the God of Christianity.
  3. Explicitly based in scientific arguments. Motivation and structure is considered to be an inevitable result of scientific revolution and method.
  4. Accommodation of theism to modern forms of thought is no longer seen as progress so new atheist literature attacks are focused on moderate and liberal forms of theism, at least as strongly as orthodox and conservative forms of theism.
  5. Belief in God is not to be tolerated. This contrasts with the older atheism's focus on plurality and freedom of religion.
  6. A view that inculcating a belief in God in children is harmful to them.
  7. Religion is the greatest threat to world peace.
My thoughts:I have always thought of myself as a hardliner on atheism, although I've come to be less sure if the term should apply to me. I am relatively certain that all religions are false (as certain as I am in most matters of fact) - this is not an absolute certainty, but my worldview, being deeply empirical, does not place virtue in absolute certainty - there are a number of things I am willing to say I am relatively certain about (e.g. the identity of my parents, the reality of Shoah, the reality of mankind having landed on the moon, the process of continental drift) that may in fact be incorrect. I call them facts when I am certain enough of them, based on the explorations I have done over my life and sources I choose to trust for various reasons. Based on my understanding of the nature of religion and psychology, I believe religion remained in being because of its social utility and its effectiveness in appealing to individual needs, and that it came into being many times over history due to the continual churning of ideas that happen within human cultures. Based on my understanding of physics and the history of science, I believe that a lack of belief in deities or other supernatural causes is tenable (we don't need gods to explain the universe, and it is difficult in fact to find utility in having them in our worldview once we have sufficient understanding of the sciences). This is a short version of the full explanation for why I disbelieve in gods (there are philosophical reasons that would take much longer to explain). I am, in my definitional framework, pretty certain on my atheism, placing that belief to be as solid as many other beliefs about realities, history, and science. I don't think I fit the terms as laid out by the two people above, although I also believe them to describe very few people. Where I differ is primarily on the "now what?" question that comes after being fairly certain about atheism - this is a big question that is not particularly visible in public discourse.

Response to Andrew Brown's statements:

  1. I kinda-sorta agree, although the definition is kind of fuzzy. Faith can mean something other than "belief in a god". I do believe that "belief in a god" is both unjustified by evidence (very strongly) and incorrect (slightly less strongly). (I will continue with his statements rephrasing "faith" to be "belief in a god")
  2. Not exactly. I don't believe that science can "cure" faith (nor am I comfortable with use of language such as "cure" in public discourse, although I once was moreso when I was younger). I do believe that western science suggests (but does not mandate) a worldview that leaves little room for belief in things without evidence, requiring either a separate mode of thought for faith-based reasoning or distortion of facts. Modern western science is not the only science (and our university system owes much to the Roman Catholic church, our philosophies to many ancient Greeks, and many actual sciences to Ottoman Muslims). I don't think that science will "cure" faith, although western science does weaken it. The reason western science has come to push these values as opposed to earlier western science and other scientific cultures is that its evidence-based skeptical path has been proven most effective in producing advances in understanding. On the last bit, I think it depends on how one defines a god, but for many possible definitions, existence is binary and either gods exist or they don't. Whether this is the case or not is in principle a scientific question, but for sufficiently narrow definitions (e.g. the Deist position), one has to rely on Occam's razor very strongly to come to a conclusion, more strongly than I would like to reach true certainty. True certainty is an unattainable goal though.
  3. No. I don't think science is the opposite of religion, nor do I think science is suitable for all areas of use that religion has been in the past. Science is not a path to utopia. I hold that Science and closely related disciplines (like History) seek to model the world in questions of fact, and that both of these are part of a grand area of inquiry called Philosophy (in the greater sense). Science is part of Greater Philosophy. Some other parts of Greater Philosophy deal in questions of values - matters of "should" and "ought" - these are not science and they do not deal in matters of truth (their core content does not make significant truth claims). Greater Philosophy also includes a lot of "meta" type matters, like "what is scientific best process". Religion fits into the family of Greater Philosophy as well, and it spans some of the bounds of a number of other parts of the broad field. Religions tend to make historical claims, truth claims, and value holdings. Science is not alone an adequate replacement for Religion in a culture - with religion removed, disciplines much like science, value philosophy, and history are needed to fill the gap. Societies need a fabric for discussion on values - philosophy can fill that role (and many nonreligious value systems exist, such as Secular Humanism, Secular Judaism, Objectivism, some forms of Marxism, even the vague and thin secular modern liberalism). Secular history already coexists with religious history, and secular science is now dominant, thanks to it having shown to produce better results than other forms of scientific culture.
  4. I would not want to make predictions on whether religion is doomed or not. Religion emerges from social and individual needs, and it would either take near-universal adoption of less-emotionally/socially satisfying models of reality or a very compelling combination of philosophy and science to upseat religion definitively and permanently. There are a number of very negative philosophies that are secular in nature that could survive or thrive should religion fall entirely and no better philosophies arise - I identify in particular Objectivism as a dangerous and harmful secular philosophy, which because it celebrates selfishness might appeal to the worst of human nature and win out over the nicer alternatives. I believe that the slow atheising of the world would be a good thing provided that that transformation would steer the world into one of the philosophies that I deem positive and not hostile to virtue. I do not believe that atheist philosophies are ipso facto peaceful or positive, but I do believe that we can potentially do better than religious philosophies and I wish to see that happen.
  5. I don't believe religion necessarily has a raging homicidal lunacy in its true nature. I believe that most religions introduce a concept of virtue and I am happy to see when their notions of virtue line up well with my virtue. I want to keep a notion of virtue in the philosophy I want to see spread over the world, even if the virtues are not the same. I don't think the more moderate forms of religion are "false and treacherous" in the way presented - I do think that, depending on how "moderate" is defined, they may be hybrid in nature between liberalism and whatever religion they borrow the name of, and are often intellectually dishonest (in the eat your cake and have it too way). They are only dangerous in the described way if one is committed to never opposing them (by oppose, I typically mean argue against or disagree with).
  6. No. Faith is not wicked. It is not justified, but there is nothing wicked about it per se, and the effects of religion should inspire us to create philosophies and worldviews that do a better job at inspiring humanity towards greater things. We could easily produce or advocate philosophies that are worse than most faiths today, and we could easily fail to learn from the good things about religion. We must aspire to the wisdom to build something better.
Response to Al Mohler's statements:
  1. I don't identify as a new atheist, but I do hold that the funeral of the idea of god, if and where we can hold it, should be viewed as an opportunity in dangerous times, opening the door to great opportunities and great calamities. If we are handed the steering wheel, we have a great and frightening responsibility.
  2. No. I reject all gods and everything that I recognise as a religion. I know many people who are "atheist" who in fact strongly dislike a god they believe in. This is a false atheism. I do not do this.
  3. My atheism rests partly on science and partly on philosophy. I do believe that science is the best tool we have for understanding the nature of things, and that matters of fact that cannot be reached by it are things that we cannot justifiably say we know. I understand the tools of science and the philosophy of the enterprise of science well enough not to place absolute belief in these tools.
  4. I partly agree - I see little purpose in accomodating theism with science as theism does not fit the worldview I would like to promote. I disagree with theist worldviews of all sorts, probably as strongly as they generally disagree with me and with each other. In a competition of ideas, one normally promotes the ideas one holds. I am not interested in holding off on liberal christians - I disagree with them because I believe they are wrong, and the fact that I have common cause with them on some issues relating to liberalism suggests nothing more than the fact that I might be able to work with them and respect them on some matters. It will not make them seem less wrong to me on their beliefs, but I am also not single-minded about atheism - it is one part of a number of things I believe in. Part of holding a belief is normally disagreeing with those who hold conflicting beliefs.
  5. This doesn't describe me unless "tolerate" takes a funny meaning. People differ in many ways, and demanding that other people be identical to oneself across sufficiently many broad areas of disagreement is generally not practical. I can disagree with people on many areas and still get along with them, and given that I admire some virtues valued by some religions, I often find a number of things in common with members of those religions. I'm not sure where the distinction with "old atheism" comes from, unless Mohler is describing people who are afraid to express what they think. Atheists have been around in many forms for a very long time.
  6. Harmful in some ways by our values, yes. Depending on the faith, some desirable helpful effects may be placed into the child too - it's a broader matter of culture. I have found that, for example, Orthodox (non-Charedi, non-Yeshiva-type) Jews tend to have a number of values that I like, and I can trace these to Religious Jewish culture. My notion of virtue does not line up precisely with what I see, but it lines up well enough to please me. Similarly, Buddhism (in its religious forms or not) has produced a number of values that I have liked (a distinct but partially overlapping set with Orthodox Judaism) in most of the Buddhists I have known. Religion in general is a mixed bag - my belief that we can do better should not be construed as a belief that we could not do much worse.
  7. No. I do not believe religion is the greatest threat to world peace. Its elimination might end some conflicts, but a lot of the time it would simply unmask cultural or philosophical struggles that had a partial or token religious element.
Are there people well described by these two descriptions? Maybe a few. Bill Maher comes close in a lot of ways - his film Religulous was not very thoughtful and suggested these viewpoints. I don't think even he goes this far. I do think there is a danger of naïve atheists oversimplifying the cultural and philosophical struggle - anyone who describes atheism as a unitary and necessarily positive force is someone who has not thought matters through enough. Is PZ Meyers well described by these things? Possibly moreso than most other prominent atheists I could think of (PZ is borderline troll). As in all areas of disagreement, I hope that my fellow atheists are willing to be thoughtful and careful with their analysis and discussion.

I am waiting for something to change inside me. I am hoping this will happen soon.


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