Not Bugs–Features


So in my travels here and there around the internet, I ran across “Five Problems with Atheism“, written by a “Spiritual Traveller”. Seems a nice enough person, just pointing out some ways to perhaps heal the rift between believers and atheists, by pointing out some things atheists get wrong:

[T]here are some fundamental problems with atheism. I’m not nailing these five thesis to the door of a church, because there isn’t one. That isn’t the problem. There are problems with atheism a wider view could possibly bridge, or at least decrease the polarity between atheists and non-atheists. These persuasions are intended to reach across the aisle of a doorless structure.

Again, I see he has the best of intentions. But the way I see it, what he sees as problems, I see as misunderstandings on his part. Understandable mistakes, but mistakes nonetheless. I’m sure he did not intend to insult atheists, and I write in the same sense of open communication, with no malice aimed at the Spiritual Traveller. continues…

1. Scientists should not be atheists (hardcore atheist Richard Dawkins claims that 93% of scientists are atheist, although that number is likely biased and highly inflated). They should be agnostic. Science can neither prove nor disapprove the existence of God. Any scientist who professionally says otherwise is operating under bias. When it comes to ultimate Mystery, the most science can say is: “There is an awful lot we just don’t know.” (That’s a statement of shared experience.)

First, an aside: the anti-Dawkins types have filled the internet recently with squeals of “Dawkins admits the possibility of God!” Yes, he is a “hardcore atheist”, but that’s evidence of the first misunderstanding on your part.

You see, in science, all knowledge is provisional; although we look for the best possible explanation for our observations, we recognize always that a new theory, or new evidence, could change everything. Mind you, the new theory would have to explain everything the old one did and more, but that’s pretty much the definition of a better theory. Newton’s physics still works for aiming projectiles, but Einstein’s physics covers that and more. Dawkins is accustomed to knowledge being provisional, and while he does not believe in a god (thus, he is an atheist), he cannot absolutely rule out the possibility (thus, he is an agnostic). Scientists may be believers or atheists; that is independent of the provisional (agnostic, in a way) nature of scientific belief.

But there’s more to this. Scientists, while doing science, actually should be atheists. That is, they should hold the axiomatic assumption that what they are observing is not being influenced by supernatural means. We must make that assumption in order to conclude that it was our manipulation, rather than a god’s intervention, that was responsible for the results we observed. Put simply, it cannot be science when God intervenes.

2. Atheism is sometimes less a belief than an opposition to a belief. In other words, atheists are often in opposition to religious authority or fundamentalist views that appear controlling, maladaptive, uneducated, anti-science, or even dangerous. I believe it is possible to put yourself in opposition to a fundamentalist belief without engaging polarity.

Not opposition to a belief, but defined by not being a religious view. Atheism is the privative category, the “none of the above” category. When a category is defined by what it is not, it will look polarized. But the thing is, if atheism is defined by the things it is not, then any polarization pretty much has to come from those other things. After all, once the amount of belief is “nothing”, you’ve hit bottom; I can’t believe in god any less than I do.

3. The history of religious tradition has tended to define atheists very strictly: our way or no way at all. God the Father or nothing. Our God or the godless (and, in fact, one historical method of governance was to reject local gods in favor of one “state” God). With only two apparent choices, Atheists have tended to go along with the “nothing” side of the equation. There are other ways to view the Divine, an incredibly rich and sometimes diverse range of views – none of which can define the undefinable with complete success.

“Our way or no way” is very close to the distillation of religious truth. And (see #2), when atheists are defined privatively, there is no surprise at all that we are on the “nothing” side of the equation. By definition–your definition, not ours!

Interestingly, in science, we often start of with a multiplicity of methods to investigate a phenomenon. Some work better than others; some are abandoned, others refined. Over time, though, we either get better at observing that phenomenon or we conclude we were mistaken in claiming it (see N-Rays for a perfect example of the latter). We converge on agreement; we say “this appears to be the way it works”. What then, of god? Have religions converged on a common understanding? Rather than discarding what doesn’t work, it seems that every disagreement ends with yet more views of what god is like, of what god likes and does not like. There may be “other ways to view the Divine”, as you say, but how can you possibly know that is what you are viewing, when you all disagree?

4. A strictly materialist view limits the potentials of experience. If one denies the potential of sacred experience, they also remove the possibility of experiencing the sacred. Psychologist Abraham Maslow labeled this as the defense mechanism of desacralization (1967). Desacralization means to divest or negate sacred significance. Maslow states that one may be protecting their sense of self-worth by negating those reported experiences that seem grand or beyond their personal capability. To do so also negates the potential of ever having those experiences.

I would like to re-define “desacralization” as the process of removing one’s head from one’s ass. The Latin still fits, I think. (Sorry, I did not mean to insult, but when a pun like that is just sitting there at the base of my spine, I can’t help it!)

I also would like to disagree strongly with Maslow; to attribute something to a supernatural explanation is to shut the door on understanding it (see response #1 again). In the decades since Maslow, experimental psychology has made tremendous strides in understanding consciousness, transcendence, spirituality. They have done so by treating them as just another natural phenomenon. I should also mention that a misunderstanding of “sacred experience” leaves us open for exploitation, with potentially nasty consequences.

5. But sometimes it may be a matter of language. We shouldn’t let words confuse experience. Some “materialists” may experience mystery, wonder, and grace as well as some “spiritualists.” For example, I had a poetry instructor in college who described a peer as a self-defined atheist, but added that his peer had a deep reverence for poetry. I asked if he meant a spiritual reverence. My instructor stated: “Yes, I believe poetry is his religion, his god.” I had no direct knowledge of the situation, but it was certainly possible. Genuine experience of the arts could be labeled as Divine. The transcendence of epiphany does not require religious language to acknowledge or appreciate the experience.

Poetry is not my religion, not my god. My goodness, the theistic vocabulary emerged when we still thought the world was flat, that the sun circled the earth, that we were the only world, let alone the only galaxy, in existence. Our universe has expanded so much since god was invented; the petty tyrant of the Old Testament is puny and insignificant next to the Hubble Space Telescope’s view. Chariots with iron wheels were a formidable foe even when God was on your side; now one bomb can melt the steel in a whole city.

I do love poetry (and science, of course–the two are not incompatible in the slightest), but this love is not “spiritual”. It is much, much bigger than that.

I think an honest effort to understand these five “problems” could close the gap between atheists and various beliefs in the Divine. But I’m not trying to convert anyone. I’m not threatened by personal beliefs that do not approximate my own. I have no problem with civil disagreement. I’m threatened by polarity on both ends of the spectrum, because polarity breeds fundamentalism.

I agree, absolutely. But I disagree that these “problems” are, well, problems. They are misunderstandings, yes. But whose?

Comments

  1. 'Tis Himself, OM says

    If one denies the potential of sacred experience, they also remove the possibility of experiencing the sacred.

    There is a potential of sacred experience. There’s also the potential of my body spontaneously combusting, but I’d be happy to remove the possibility of experiencing spontaneous combustion. There’s a potential for almost everything, yet that doesn’t mean a potentiality has any real chance of happening. I would put experiencing the sacred in this category.

  2. Randomfactor says

    (Sorry, I did not mean to insult, but when a pun like that is just sitting there at the base of my spine, I can’t help it!)

    Would a male fighter pilot’s sacrum be his cock’s “six”?

    OK, now YOU know how it feels.

    ——–

    I wonder how much of this nonsense would be cleared up by accurate definitions. Scientists SHOULD be agnostic on the subject of gods. Once you define the alternative as belief in one specific capital-G God, you’re thrown away the value of the word.

  3. says

    Good post. You write, “I also would like to disagree strongly with Maslow; to attribute something to a supernatural explanation is to shut the door on understanding it”. I agree completely. You also write, “But I disagree that these “problems” are, well, problems. They are misunderstandings, yes. But whose?” I also agree completely.

    Therein lies the problem. I have found it extremely difficult to get a religious even to accept that your first quote is a valid statement. If I or we can’t even do that, how do get them to view that the misunderstandings are on their side of the equation? It is so frustrating when dealing with people who refuse to look at a problem in a different light for just a few seconds, or that is convinced he/she is right before a discussion even starts.

    I thought your answers were well thought out, but unfortunately those well thought out answers too often fall on deaf ears.

  4. Cuttlefish says

    Hm. It’s been nearly 8 hours, and my comment at that site (simply saying I had responded at length here) is still waiting in moderation. Bummer.

  5. F says

    I would like to re-define “desacralization” as the process of removing one’s head from one’s ass.

    Yes, it is the opposite of cranio-sacral therapy.

    This still does not remove the possibility of experiencing the sacred, should the sacred actually happen to occur. Shit happens all the time for which people are entirely unprepared, because they had no idea whatsoever that such a thing could happen. And knowing that there exists a concept that such a thing could happen, yet denying it, cannot stop the thing from happening either.

  6. says

    I have to disagree with (or perhaps clarify) one point:

    Scientists, while doing science, actually should be atheists. That is, they should hold the axiomatic assumption that what they are observing is not being influenced by supernatural means. We must make that assumption in order to conclude that it was our manipulation, rather than a god’s intervention, that was responsible for the results we observed.

    While it is true that at the local level, explaining experimental results by saying it was the will of the lord is unscientific, I don’t see why that should be axiomatic. If god X exists, and has certain properties, his interaction with the world will be detectable even if he (or she, or it) is not directly. As such, it is axiomatically perfectly possible to propose the hypothesis of any given god.

    It is also axiomatically possible to propose the hypothesis of phlogiston to explain fire. But practically, given our current state of knowledge, that would be a crazy way to explain any given result.

    The distinction is important, since the charge that science dogmatically rejects (my wonderful, cuddly, loving) god is one whose ubiquity is helpfully pointed out by Spiritual Traveler. But the rejection of the god hypothesis is due not at all to dogmatism but to accumulated weight of evidence, exactly like the rejection of the phlogiston hypothesis. The basic dogma of science is simply that there is such a thing as objective reality. Which is also accepted by religion. If miracles really happened, they would leave evidence that could be examined. Sure and it would be much harder to figure out how the world works if some god were constantly dicking with the fine structure constant, but it would still be possible in principle. And what we find is that after a couple hundred years of science, there is exactly zero support for the god hypothesis.

    tl/dr: It’s the evidence, stupid.

  7. Cuttlefish says

    What you are describing there, though, Johnny, is some form of naturalist god, a god that interacts predictably (you know, the one that causes the tides to come in and go out, with never a miscommunication). The sort that is, thus far, superfluous given explanations already in place. I guess my unspoken assumption is that the god I am speaking of is a supernatural entity–and to the extent that the god you are speaking of is supernatural, and able to transcend or supersede the observed laws of nature, that god must also be ignored for purposes of explanation.

    If we can see, through systematic observation, how some phenomenon works, then god is superfluous; if we cannot, then “god did it” stifles investigation.

  8. says

    Exactly. And so, what does “supernatural” mean, then? If this “supernatural” god actually does interact with the universe, he’s not suspending the laws of nature, any more than we suspend the laws of physics by transmuting one element into another with ion collisions. If that’s how the universe works, then the natural laws include the ability of this god to mess with things. And we can address that scientifically. How often does it happen? In what cases does it happen? What limits are there to his power? So then what does anyone mean by “supernatural”?

    Consider why don’t we accept “god made it so” as the solution to, say, the ultraviolet catastrophe? And the answer is not because we dogmatically reject the god hypothesis, but because we have found every time that it is at best superfluous. (And as you note, puts an end to investigation.)

    I don’t think you have to ignore a god that can change what we currently think of as the laws of physics. There have been plenty of well-designed studies of prayer, for example. And if they consistently showed that prayer worked, scientists would jump all over that. If god is creating virgin births once in a while, we just expand our definition of “natural” to include that. So again, the question really becomes what does someone mean when they say “supernatural”. (Other than “the sound of a Joe Knaggs guitar!”) Either we can detect something or we can’t. If we can’t what bearing does it have on anything? If we can, it’s “natural” by any reasonable definition.

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