Sunday, August 19, 2012

Atheism is not about people

The sum total of atheism is:  God does not exist.   You can go on about what is covered by 'God', but let's just suppose it refers to supreme beings in any major world religion that has them.   Atheists are likely to believe that no lesser supernatural entities exist, but that's only a likelihood.

An atheist is someone who believes that God does not exist.   That's all, everything necessary and sufficient to be an atheist.  Perhaps some people are misled by the 'ism' to suppose that more is involved, but it isn't.

The world would be a little less irritating if people got this.  To be clear, from the fact that someone believes God does not exist, it does not follow that he has any particular moral or sociological or psychological beliefs.   In fact it does not follow that he has any other beliefs at all except for trivial logical implications of "God does not exist" like "God does not exist or cats eat tractors."  So there is no such thing an an atheist outlook or ethos, 'humanist' or otherwise.   Atheism is not about people.

Among the beliefs an atheist should not be supposed to have are any about religion, except that it contains a crucial and false premise, that God exists.   It's not just that the claim that God does not exist has no other implications for religion.   It's also that the arguments for the claim have no such implications.   The arguments, typically, have to do with abstract matters like the concept of God, and scientific matters like the structure and causality of nature.  Someone with competence, even expertise in these abstruse matters has no claim to expertise in anything about religion, except its false premise.   It is therefore a mystery why Richard Dawkins apparently thinks that his competence in zoology, a discipline which indeed helps make the case for atheism, should entitle him to hold forth about religion, about which he knows and apparently cares to learn very little indeed.   And then there was Christopher Hitchens, whose competence in....   what, exactly?

Why would anyone even want to tackle the claim that religion is a good thing, or a bad thing?   I'd think the answer is obvious:   sometimes it is, sometimes it isn't, and until history ends, we won't know the balance between the two  - if then.   Besides, 'religion' encompasses such varied phenomena, at so many times and places, that no one is competent to talk about its overall effects.   The whole discussion should go away.

By now I fear and fear the reader will fear this is some plea for understanding between atheists and theists.   There have been many such pleas lately, for mutual respect, for civility, for a more nuanced approach to the whole debate.  What debate?  I'm not sure:  maybe about atheism or religion, or maybe the existence of God.   No, this is a plea for less nuance and understanding.   Atheists need to fuss less and be less open to polite discussion.

Here's what a real and pure atheist, not infected by 'humanism,' sounds like:
 Our problem is not that somehow we have failed to come up with a convincing proof of the existence of God or that the hypothesis of an afterlife remains in serious doubt, it is rather that in our deepest reflections we cannot take such opinions seriously.   When we encounter people who claim to believe such things, we may envy them to comfort and security they claim to derive from these beliefs, but at bottom we remain convinced that either they have not heard the news or they are in the grip of faith.   When I lectured on the mind-body problem in India and was assured by several members of my audience that my views must be mistaken, because they personally had existed in their earlier lives as frogs or elephants, etc., I did not think, "Here is evidence for an alternative world view,"or even "Who knows, perhaps they are right."  And my insensitivity was much more than mere cultural provincialism:  Given what I know about how the world works, I could not regard their views as serious candidates for truth.
-- Jonathan Searle, The Rediscovery of Mind. Cambridge, Mass. (Bradford Books, MIT Press) 1992, 90f.
Of course it's more than the existence of God one should be close-minded about; it's also the ridiculous debate over whether morality or being moral is compatible with atheism.    Keep your eye on the ball.   There are millions of ethical systems, and many very prominent ones, that do not mention God, so there is no question of compatibility.  There is no need have a God serve as the foundation of morality.  You can of course make wild generalizations about whether fear of God is essential to good behavior, but bear in mind that this is a strictly factual question, not an invitation to declaim.    And as a factual question, it is clear that some atheists do behave according to plausible moral codes on some occasions.   Beyond that lies a debate about how likely atheists are to behave well.   This involves many grand sociological and psychological assumptions - it's no more likely get resolved answer than the debate about religion's effects.   Can there really be a well-founded study which (a) considered all the atheists and theists who have ever and will ever live, and (b) determined which group is more likely to behave well?

As for civility, of course there's no need for name-calling or rudeness.   But please, no 'mutual respect' in any relevant sense, at least from the atheist side.    You can respect a religious person but what would it mean, other than polite reticence, to 'respect' one of his presumably key beliefs?   You know, the false one about how God exists?    Why should that get more respect than, say, the belief that Stalin invented the steam engine?    And yes, an atheist can have a faintly patronizing 'respect' for religion.   I greatly admire certain Christian theologians and, to an extent, the institutions within which they worked, because  these were brilliant men.   But Í also hold that their most fundamental beliefs, at least today, are not 'serious candidates for truth'.    So this respect is not, whatever else it may be, some basis for a respectful dialogue between atheists and theists.   Heaven forbid.

1 comment:

  1. Which Christian theologians? What about Christ?