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Jan 10 2013

It’s not Gospel

There are lot of people who simply don’t get atheism as a whole. They think we are completely removed from the religions we came from and indeed think we cannot understand a faith once we leave it.

A lot of people don’t get why atheists are so vocal these days and what it means to be vocal. I completely disagree with Mark Silversides who is the author of Faith in the Age of Science who thinks we are intellectually weak.

The ‘new atheism’ is spearheaded by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and the late Christopher Hitchens. Slightly in the background are a handful of others such as A C Grayling, P Z Myers, Victor Stenger and Susan Blackmore. These unofficial leaders quote each other and recommend each others’ work, with Dawkins as the best known in the public arena.

Hardly…

A lot of atheists produce their own work. I didn’t become an atheist due to the works of any of these people, I became one of my own accord with my own philosophy cobbled together out of experiences. While many atheists may follow the lines of their “favourite” writers, most are pretty individual in their beliefs.

The intelligence of these individuals is undoubtedly much higher than mine, and their academic excellence is not in question. However, a cat may look at a king, so I put the following proposition: despite the individual talents of the ‘new atheists’, they fail as a group to present a convincing case for their beliefs. The support for my thesis falls under three main headings.

Okay let’s dissect the thesis then.

1 Cultural Commentary

The writings of Hitchens and Harris in general, and of Dawkins and Myers at times, cover many subjects in which they have no greater expertise than thousands of other commentators. Some of these commentators would agree with them on any specific subject, some would not. Atheists can be found on both sides of such divides; at the same time, some non-atheists would agree with some atheists in many areas. A good example of such diverse opinion would be the war in Iraq.

It seems an obvious deduction that ‘new atheist’ opinions on these subjects cannot be derived in any objective sense from atheist beliefs. If they were, we should expect to see the great majority of atheists in agreement on such points, with the great majority of non-atheists in the opposite camp.

My deduction is not in itself a criticism – after all, diversity of opinion and open debate is at the heart of a democratic society. The problem is that this diversity persists as one moves closer to the core beliefs of the ‘new atheists’ – and that brings me to my second category.

That is true. We do comment on things that aren’t part of our expertise.

However, we do bring our own spin to the subject material from our own experiences. The ability to create dialogue and disagreement within a movement is a positive thing. We aren’t a faith, there is no atheist Bible, many of us don’t even have the same moral or economic ideals. Penn Jillette is an atheist and a libertarian, I am an atheist and a centre left-winger. Pat Condell is an atheist and thinks Israel could do no wrong and often rails against multiculturalism, while I am an atheist who understand that the situation isn’t as simple as Pat makes it out to be and that the reality is tarnished by the stupidity and racism of our ancestors. The guys at the Slymepit and the anti-FTB groups hate what I do simply because I write for FTB and I think they create a very homogenous view of atheism which harms us because it plays to the “White, American, Male” stereotype of atheism. There are MRA who are atheist. I disagree with many Atheism+ members because of some of their attitudes to the kind of work I do because their principles don’t really function on the ground. In short, I disagree with people as much as I agree with them because most of us are different.

We are different people and our experiences determine our outlook. We don’t have a Bible or a Koran to form our views on the subject. The lack of a solid set of hard and fast rules enables us to apply experience and knowledge to a situation rather than blind faith.

Syphilis was considered as a divine punishment for the sins of man. If we were to follow dogma we would still be treating the syphilitic as sinners and watching them slowly go mad in asylums.

Rather than giving them a dose of penicillin and watching it clear right up in weeks. Progress has come about due to diversity of ideas.

2 Pronouncements on Religion

When ‘new atheists’ make broad comments on religion they are almost invariably criticised or ignored by many other atheists. Take, for example, their constant attacks on Christian fundamentalism. Myers is especially virulent in this area, with Dawkins a close second. Yet there are many ‘unbelievers’ who point out that fundamentalists do not represent the whole of Christianity, either in the present or historically. Michael Ruse often makes this point, while Ken Higgs, of Boson fame, recently made the same criticism in an attack on Dawkins (see The Guardian 26th December 2012).

We have moved from the outer circle, if you like, of general cultural commentary, closer to the core of ‘new atheist’ thinking. Diversity of views on general matters is to be expected, but it would be reasonable to think that this diversity should lessen as we moved towards core beliefs. It does not, and the anticipated convergence remains absent when we move to the claim of the ‘new atheists’ that religion is immensely harmful in itself, not merely when taken over by fundamentalists. Here there seem to be several areas of debate – the historical role of religion, the origins of religion, and the theology lying behind religion, particularly Christianity.

It can safely be said that ‘new atheists’ are careless with history, preferring to echo old mantras about the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, wars of religion and so on. They ignore the complex mingling of religious and political power that has pertained in most of these situations, and the not infrequent attempts of religious bodies to improve the human lot. They also ignore the effects of atheism in giving ideological validity to fascist and communist despots, often fatally coupled to theories of race. For the ‘new atheist’ religion is the ‘root of all evil’, regardless of evidence to the contrary.

Because Christian fundamentalism is the biggest threat in the western world, it is a world view that would reverse the progress of biology, physics and geology as sciences in the western world. It is a religion that reduces the rights of women to access basic healthcare and prevents gay people from having equal rights. It is an intolerant and destructive world view that has wrecked the culture of millions of people across the planet and has caused countless suffering through it’s usage of “Rice Conversion” and indeed it’s stances on a variety of subjects.

While Fundamentalists don’t represent the whole of Christianity they do represent a LOT of them. At what point do we consider Catholics to stop being Catholic when they refuse to follow the fundamentals of their faith such as a lack of family planning, tithing and conversions? If you exclude everyone you don’t like from your movement then there will be a very very small amount of “true Christians”.

It is simple. Religion is no different from superstition. Any religion that claims otherwise is talking a load of horse shit. The very notion that Christianity is a “one true faith” is pretty much the declaration that everyone else’s fairy tale is a load of bullshit. What? Are we supposed to believe that Jesus can cure the lame but Krishna cannot cure a hunchback with magical powers? Are we supposed to believe that Jesus had catering powers but not believe that Krishna’s favourite weapon is a celestial buzzsaw?

Religion is harmful because any religion where the adherents believe that science applies over their superstition quickly stop being a religion. The entire point of religion is it claims to have answers to questions but that’s science’s spiel too. Religion claims to answer “non-questions”. Why are we here? What is the meaning of life? What is beauty and love? That’s sort of thing. These are actually subjective answers depending on the people involved and what they see in life. Religion claims that science doesn’t answer these questions and they are right, science doesn’t answer these questions.

But neither does religion. Religion just gives you a goal in these situations. Meaning of life? To  Praise Shiva! Why are we Here? A Test to See How Good You Are! Meaning of life? Shiva knows!… Duh! What is Beauty and Love? A gift of Shiva (well Kama) aren’t you happy with it? It’s the same for Christianity or Islam or whatever else. However the truth is these things mean different things to people. Life is what you make of it. The goals in life are ones set by our upbringing, societal expectation and indeed ourselves.

Again, diversity is apparent. Niall Ferguson, one of the initial faculty members of the Grayling-founded New College of the Humanities, is firmly on record as stating that religion is a vital contributor to social and ethical behaviour. Lewis Wolpert is unremitting in his criticisms of religious superstition, but likewise warns of the consequences of the loss of religious belief. Alain de Botton believes that Dawkins’ views are too narrow minded and that atheists should attempt to rescue the good aspects of religion from religious people, suggesting the building of atheist temples. Julian Baggini is famously conciliatory in attitude, while maintaining a strong atheist position. The distinguished neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield, although a secularist herself, regards moderate religion as broadly a good thing (New Humanist 117:4).

Yes. It is.

Ethical Behaviour in this case doesn’t just mean “good ethics” it also means “bad ethics”.

The hatred of black people and the subjugation of them was entrenched in Christianity. It’s only recently that Christianity changed it’s tune and only because Black people became clergy. And even then one can argue that both the South African and American Apartheids both fell due to Hindu influences (Sathyagrah and Nehru both inspired the fall of Apartheid since both Mandel and King were big fans of the Gandhi/Nehru tag team of ascetic values and muscular secularism.)

The fact remains that human ethics are not born out of religion. They are an evolutionary necessity.

It’s simple.

Let’s play a game of football (Soccer to you Americans…).

Now football is a game and has rules, well the rules of nature are a bit more brutal than football but let’s say the equivalent of “death” is “losing”. The rules of nature such as gravity are superseded by the rules of football.

In that we have one group of complete individuals all doing their own thing, and on the other side you have a team of people who play different positions, know their roles and work together.

Who do you think will win if both sides are equally talented? If the team of individuals has one person who is good, his abilities are weighed down by the rest of his team’s indifference and selfishness.

That is the evolution of ethics and morality. The team work necessary requires rules. The goalkeeper’s “duty” is to stop goals, the defenders to protect him, the midfielders to move the ball into attacking positions and support both offence and defence, the strikers job is to score goals and break open the enemy defence… In order to play like that there must be rules within the team.

Likewise in the game of survival social and ethical behaviour is an advantage of survival.

Concerning the origins of religion, the general atheist view is that religion is a natural phenomenon which, like everything else about us, is part of our evolutionary development. Again, though, we note the differences. There are many views as to what factors in religion might have contributed to the survival of small and then large groups. Dawkins and Dennett, however, stand out from scholarly consensus in their attachment to the role of memes in this process, a view enthusiastically extended by Blackmore. Yet Wolpert is extremely sceptical about the meme, beyond the superficial meaning of the word as a unit of belief. He is not alone in that scepticism – meme theory as a scientific discipline seems to be dead in the water.

Sure, but religion also tries to explain how the world works around us and indeed the random Skinner box experiments and the usage of lucky fetishes (Lucky Knickers for example) both give credence to religion being the attempt to control the uncontrollable through replication of events. Your prayers to Jehovah or Allah or Vishnu are just empty words and aren’t going to a magic man in the sky. And your Lucky Knickers probably will give you some sort of skin infection if you don’t wash them…

That’s how faulty attempts to control things we cannot explain or are out of our control.

If we now consider the ‘new atheist’ understanding of theology, Terry Eagleton’s famous comment in London Review of Books (19th October 2006) says it all. He accuses Dawkins and others like him of putting forward ‘vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince.’ Though an atheist, Eagleton regularly shows his own theological knowledge, as does Ruse. Eagleton has carried his critique forward into his published talks, and Ruse seeks reconciliation between science and Christianity, rather than conflict.

No, the vulgar caricatures are the ones that abound in our public sphere. The people like the Pope, Cardinal Keith, The various Mullahs and Extremists, The RSS and the Saffron Facist brigade… These are all real people too and they get their support from moderates too.

Are we to simply ignore these pillars of faith just because some theology student thinks so? Fuck, I cannot get people to ignore Francis Crick despite the guy saying moronic things about IQ since he was right about DNA.

It’s simple. If science and Christianity come under conflict then science wins. The problem is we understand that. Many Christians don’t. That’s the problem with a dogmatic faith. The issue with religion is not science and atheism’s problem, it’s the problem of religion itself.

Science is not a democracy, it’s a meritocracy. To explain why science works and religion doesn’t you have to realise the effect of the scientific method.

You take your hypothesis and throw it at the wall of science. If your hypothesis survives it becomes part of the scientific wall. If it does not then it falls. If your hypothesis succeeds to knock out a piece of the wall then your hypothesis becomes part of the wall in that spot. If your hypothesis is accepted beyond all doubt it becomes one of the foundations for an entire field of science.

You cannot weasel in a god into science because the god hypothesis does not survive the wall of science. If a scientific achievement destroys a religious belief then how many religions do you know will accept that?

What religion seeks to do is Experimental Theology rather than Science. Science gives you answers, you may not like the answer you get but it is the answer to the question you asked. And the problem is science is giving answers that make religion look small.

Why should we mock those who believe that the stars dance for their love lives but not the people who think that belief in a specific Carpenter/Caterer will give them an eternal reward? Why should we think that the deaths of Heaven’s Gate Cult (If you want to know something tragic? Nichelle Nichols had a brother who was believed to be part of the cult) are foolish but consider the sacrifices of martyrs and saints to be noble?

3 The ‘New Atheist’ Core

I think it is clear that in their general cultural comment, and in their sweeping condemnations of religion, the ‘new atheists’ rarely, if ever, succeed in putting forward a reasoned and distinctive position. In some matters there are many non-atheists who would agree with them. Occasionally they disagree among themselves. Most strikingly though, there are other highly-qualified atheists and agnostics who flatly contradict many of their assertions.

Hardly, those atheists know for a fact that the religious person’s faith in a god is so bullshit you could grow roses with it. The difference is we are honest enough to say “We think your faith is bullshit and you can be just as good a person if not more so if you use your own brain to think about your actions rather than blindly following books that themselves often support immoral things”. You may say we aren’t basing our views on objective ideas but basically would you rather have an objective view such as Judaism whose fundamentals make them out to be “god’s chosen people” and that owning of slaves and rape was okay according to their god once upon a time? I am not talking about the various reforms, I am talking about the “fundies” because face it… They are following the fundamentals of their faith.

The liberals we get along with are not.

All atheists agree that religion is incorrect as a whole. That there are no gods and no after life primarily because there is no empirical evidence for any such being. Now if someone were to prove the existence of the Smoking Mirror, then I will be amongst the first people to sacrifice my enemies for better corn, but so far there has been no evidence for any gods let alone a specific one. And atheists know this.

I suppose that if we could draw a line at this point and show the credibility of the ‘new atheist’ core beliefs, then divergence on lesser matters might be overlooked. However, the trends I have shown continue right into their inner sanctum, which is, of course, the belief (carved in tablets of stone) that our modern scientific understandings of cosmology and of evolution have removed the need for any kind of God.

No. We never needed any kind of god in the first place. We just added one because we couldn’t think of an answer and going “FUCKIT HOBGOBLINS” was an acceptable method of solving a difficult question about the way the world worked.

So far there has been no evidence for ANY gods. God is basically a solution to a problem. How did we come to exist? Well Jehovah took clay and made a man and made a woman from one of his ribs. Turns out we evolved from apes and have a universal common ancestor similar to bacteria. God isn’t a valid hypothesis for anything because we just kept finding out how the world worked and none of it was by “magic”.

Part of Dawkins’ writing technique is to pay attention to the ‘mood music’ before setting up his main argument. This prepares the reader to agree with the main argument, and it also creates space for the presentation of softer evidence. For example, he often creates the impression that nearly all scientists and philosophers are atheists, and those that are not are a tiny minority. I have long thought that to be untrue, and this is confirmed by Higgs in the article already quoted; he states that a lot of scientists is his field are religious believers.

In the world, open atheists are a minuscule population. Yet in science we punch way way way above our weight. And most believers are so soft that their beliefs consist of “I believe because mum told me to and I don’t really believe in any of the rules but like the tradition”.

I know Hindus who happily eat a bacon double cheeseburger after Temple. They don’t think the rules of their faith are that important. In fact it’s purely “cultural” rather than “belief”. They are atheists in action…

Further, a recent article by the atheist American philosopher Quentin Smith estimates that between a quarter and a third of American philosophers operative in universities are theists (Philo 4:2). Even among those who would not go that far, there is a range of philosophical beliefs not limited to the materialism (or, perhaps more correctly, the physicalism) of Dennett. In fact, Dennett’s view of mind and consciousness leans heavily on Gilbert Ryle, his Oxford mentor in the ’60s, and is only one of many contemporary views. Greenfield, who has unrivalled knowledge of the brain, points out that in trying to understand the workings of consciousness we do not even know what kind of phenomenon we are considering, let alone how to analyse it correctly.

Consciousness is a illusive effect brought on by your complex neurology. It’s why I can dick with your consciousness for great justice. It’s why anaesthesia works, it’s why mood stabilisers, anti-depressives, anti-anxiety and anti-psychotics work. It’s why anti-epileptic drugs function. Your complex neurology is far more amazing than any fucking god because it is ENTIRELY chemistry.

All the Feelz are Purely Chemical and religious people get insulted by that. Because they would rather be made out of magic souls than effectively being a very very powerful chemical computer. Thinking we have a soul is actually our chemistry being so complicated that we cannot recognise it’s own complexity which is astonishing. Phrenology may be bullshit but reverse phrenology has some merit (It’s a fancy name for head injuries) with people changing their perception of the world, the languages they speak and how they function based on damage or stimulation from external sources.

Finally, the ‘new atheists’ demand support for one particularly narrow version of evolutionary theory, the neo-Darwinian. This has never been accepted as exclusively as Dawkins pretends – names like Margulis, Woese, Eldredge, Gould, Goldschmidt and Kimura come to mind. Over the last two decades further complex questions have arisen from epigenetics, ‘evo-devo’ thinking, genomics, information science and, most recently, the results of the ‘Encode’ project. This is all very inconvenient for the Dawkins-Dennett view of evolution as a simple, quasi-mathematical numbers game, which is, of course, particularly amenable to the ‘blind watchmaker’ narrative. These new views do not spring from crazed religious fanatics, they are propagated by scientists with no particular religious axe to grind.

The problem here is “Evolution is a Fact” just like gravity or buoyancy. And is also a theory like gravity or buoyancy to explain the way diversity occurs within a population or masses attract each other or how boats float. It’s still a numbers and mathematical game, it’s just a more elegant one than you think.

One of the most elegant medical examples of epigenetics is our sodium channel pumps. Sodium is pretty fucking awesome but it is believed the Na Channel Pumps of various sorts are a throwback to maintaining body electrolytes as a fish.

Which is also related to how we excrete urine through changes in the electrolyte balance within urine.

It’s an elegant way of evolving by using the “same tool to do different things”. However the writer here forgets the most important thing about memes is that they are ideas rather than genes. We don’t follow neo-darwinian (Is that even a thing? It sounds pretty fake since Darwin was kinda wrong about a bunch of stuff).

However at it’s core through all of this “The Fact of Evolution” still stands. We evolved, how we did so is what we are discussing.

In conclusion

I hope you can now agree with me that, despite the individual intellects involved, the case brought by the ‘new atheists’ as a group is extremely weak. Across a broad swathe of issues, from popular commentary to the central arguments against God, they are contradicted by many in their own fields of expertise, including many atheists. I suspect that is why, despite an extensive PR campaign and much media support, they have not even succeeded in rallying their own troops.

Wait what? What troops? Atheism isn’t a religion. Now atheists may believe in a lot of things. There are atheists who want to hold gun clubs, there are atheists who think guns don’t make people free. We aren’t homogeneous because we follow different individual philosophies. Some of our philosophies are good, some of them bad and some of them stupid. The advantage though is we are in a unique position to call out bad philosophies and argue points. We aren’t set in stone, many people who agree with me on some issues don’t on others.

We don’t have lackeys or minions (despite all claims to the contrary, I cannot order my readers to throw rocks at mimes), what we have are people.

We don’t have much Media Support, we just make a lot of noise when we find things that are wrong and we support pretty important causes such as women’s rights and gay rights. We just make a lot more noise than our numbers when we do find something because we generally fight using the law and in the USA usually using the constitution which means we generally win.

Our lack of agreement on topics isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. It’s why we grow and change and improve. Behind the facade of cat pictures and one liners about the church there is some serious intellectual muscle. The only rule of atheism is “no gods”. Hell there are atheists who aren’t skeptical and who believe in some frankly crazy bullshit. Remember what I said about science? Our constant arguments with ourselves mean that our arguments are strong.

You are free to believe what you want. I am also free to call you an idiot if you believe in stupid things and vice versa. Because it’s atheism, not gospel.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Pierce R. Butler

    It can safely be said that ‘new atheists’ are careless with history…

    Don’t feel too safe if you say this around me, bub.

    Especially if you follow up with any accusations of stupid stereotyping.

  2. 2
    Marcus Ranum

    It can safely be said that ‘new atheists’ are careless with history, preferring to echo old mantras about the Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, wars of religion and so on.

    Wow. Having an awareness of history means that you’re careless with it? Santayana’s doing 3,000RPM.

  3. 3
    Marcus Ranum

    Wait what? What troops?

    I think he’s referring to that army of straw men that he’s got marching up and down the street of his imagination.

  4. 4
    Pierce R. Butler

    … neo-darwinian (Is that even a thing? It sounds pretty fake since Darwin was kinda wrong about a bunch of stuff).

    Umm, a bit of self-foot-shooting here.

    Yes, “neo-Darwinian” has been a thing for ~80 years, since R.A. Fischer and others reconciled the theories of natural selection and genetics on a solid mathematical basis.

  5. 5
    Avicenna

    Damn it, I am a doctor not a evolutionary geneticist….

    I assumed it was faux, I stand corrected.

  6. 6
    Thorne

    Nice post. I am always amazed at the number of people who get upset because, for example, I don’t particularly care for Dawkins. I agree with much of his statements, and certainly respect him for his work. I just don’t care for his personality. Just shows that we can be diverse while still being similar.

    despite all claims to the contrary, I cannot order my readers to throw rocks at mimes

    Perhaps you can’t order them, but you COULD make a strong suggestion. Please? For the sake of humanity?

  7. 7
    Johnny Au Gratin

    If we followed your order to throw rocks at mimes, we’d be vigilantes! What about the rule of law.

  8. 8
    Stacy

    Yes, “neo-Darwinian” has been a thing for ~80 years, since R.A. Fischer and others reconciled the theories of natural selection and genetics on a solid mathematical basis

    I assume then that Silversides is speaking out of his ass when he claims that

    [It] has never been accepted as exclusively as Dawkins pretends – names like Margulis, Woese, Eldredge, Gould, Goldschmidt and Kimura come to mind….

  9. 9
    garnetstar

    Ahem, Sam Harris pointed out that moderate theists are just as dangerous, perhaps more so, than fundamentalists. The gnus fully realize that fundamentalists are not the only theists, and that moderates are also part of the problem.

    And, who gives a metaphorical damn if all atheists don’t agree on every aspect of everything? Some think one thing, some another. Everyone gives their arguments for their position, and the best arguments win more converts (so to speak). Silverside’s entire thesis seems to be that any position that is not agreed on by 100% of everyone is invalid.

    And his arguments? He has “long thought” that most scientists are not atheists, and Higg’s anecdote that many scientists he knows are not, so Silverside’s intutions and one scientist’s personal experience proves the position. The survey data that shows that the majority of scientists are atheist is thereby disproven.

    Gnus make make an “extremely weak” case, eh? Well, it takes one to think you know one.

  10. 10
    Anne C. Hanna

    FUCKIT HOBGOBLINS

    That should be a meme. :D

  11. 11
    742

    i have a friend who is i think recovering from a mime habbit. would that count? shes pretty self loathing about it, she would probably consent to a handful of small rocks.

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