From the Archives: Atheism, Openness, and Caring About Reality: Or, Why What We Don’t Believe Matters


Goodies from the vault!

Since I moved to the Freethought Blogs network, I have a bunch of new readers who aren’t familiar with my greatest hits from my old, pre-FTB blog. So I’m going to start linking to some of them, about one a day, to introduce them to the new folks.

Today’s archive treasure: Atheism, Openness, and Caring About Reality: Or, Why What We Don’t Believe Matters The tl;dr: Atheism doesn’t just mean caring about what isn’t true. Atheism means caring about what is true. I’m an atheist because I care passionately about reality — and caring about reality means sorting out what’s probably really true about reality from the infinitude of stories we can make up about it.

A nifty pull quote:

Our world does not get bigger when we place our subjective experience of the world over the world itself. Our world does not get bigger when we treat every possibility that we can imagine as equally likely… and then choose between them based on which ones we find most attractive. Our world does not get bigger when we hang onto beliefs about reality that are almost certainly not true, clinging to the gossamer- thin thread that “it might be true, you can’t absolutely prove that it isn’t.” Our world does not get bigger when we treat the space inside our head as more important than the space outside of it.

Our world gets bigger when we let the world in. Our world gets bigger when we let the world itself take priority over whatever ideas we might have about it. Reality is bigger than we are. Our world gets bigger when we let that reality be what it is… and when we pay careful attention to what it is, the most careful attention we possibly can.

And that’s why I care about what isn’t. That’s why I spend so much time and energy thinking and writing about what I don’t believe.

Enjoy!

P.S. Yes, I know, the formatting on the photos looks weird on a lot of the posts from the archives, including this one. Sorry. Some of the formatting got screwed up when the old posts got imported from the old Typepad blog. I’m hoping to fix it eventually… but that’s a whole lotta posts and a whole lotta really tedious mucking about with html, and right now I have higher priorities. Please have patience. Thanks.

Comments

  1. Ariel says

    I’m one of those new readers you mention, and let me say that the idea of introducing us in this way to your older ‘greatest hits’ is excellent. Your archives are quite big and some guidance to what you consider most important could be useful indeed.

    This said, just one comment. I wonder if your text really delivered what it promised at the start (at least if I get it right). You started with:

    What’s the point of a worldview and a social/ political movement that’s all about not believing in something? Can’t we be open to possibilities? Why do we have to be so negative all the time?

    And your answer (in short) is that:

    Atheism doesn’t just mean caring about what isn’t true. Atheism means caring about what is true.

    The worry would be that, unfortunately, this is not good enough as a rationale for a social/political movement. It still seems to me that the atheist movement is in fact largely negative (with some exceptions of course, but they do not change the general picture). For a social/political movement you need definitely a lot more than reflections on the magnificence of the universe and the value of truth. In practice this void is filled by the hatred (use a milder word if you prefer) towards religion – in short, by the Great Enemy. What happens when the Great Enemy is missing? An answer can be found e.g. here and I think this piece, together with the comments it received, is very symptomatic. (Well, I can’t be sure about your impressions of course, but to me it looked quite desperate.)

  2. Steve Jeffers says

    “It still seems to me that the atheist movement is in fact largely negative”

    If I tell you I don’t have a disease, I have to frame that in the negative.

    If I say I would like a factory to reduce the amount of pollution it pumps out, I have to frame that in the negative.

    If I say I’m ‘against child poverty’, I have to frame that in the negative.

    As for what happens when a country ‘abandons religion’ – just look at the UK, where barely a handful of people attend church – 800,000 a week out of a population of 60 million. It has not turned into a country wracked by civil war between atheist factions.

  3. says

    Ariel@#1

    Atheism maybe covers both sides: the positives of believing true an justified things and not believing false and unjustified things, but also the whole “Stop beating us over the head with your hatred of sex and specifically hatred of women, your tribal wars over whose imaginary friend is bigger, and your rejection of science and reason! That’s DANGEROUS!”

    Some positive, some negative.

  4. Ariel says

    Steve

    If I tell you I don’t have a disease, I have to frame that in the negative.
    If I say I would like a factory to reduce’ the amount of pollution it pumps out, I have to frame that in the negative.
    If I say I’m ‘against child poverty’, I have to frame that in the negative.

    Ok, so what? As it happens, sometimes we fight for good reasons. Nobody questions that. But Greta’s point – as I understood it – was that the atheist movement shouldn’t be represented as a mere fight against religion; it is rather a promotion of these-and-these positive values. And in Greta’s opinion the critics who are asking “why do you have to be so negative” put too much emphasis on the negative side, overlooking the positive one. My doubt was that perhaps the critics are not so wrong after all: without religion to ridicule and criticize, there is nothing really left for organized atheists. The positive values mentioned by Greta are not enough to move the people. The enemy is crucial.

    As for what happens when a country ‘abandons religion’ – just look at the UK, where barely a handful of people attend church – 800,000 a week out of a population of 60 million. It has not turned into a country wracked by civil war between atheist factions.

    Where did I say anything about war between atheist factions? The remark completely misses my point. More interesting would be an answer to the question whether the atheist movement (with factions or not) is still needed in the UK. Well, is it? I don’t know, I’m really curious about your opinion. What tasks are there for such a movement once you are done with religion? Charity, environmental issues, social problems? But if so, what atheism has to do with that? For such aims you need to organize people, raise money, etc., and it doesn’t really matter whether it’s the atheists or not who are supporting you. Well … unless you are doing this with a hidden aim: unless you want to say afterwards “oh, look you bigots, we atheists can do that as well!”, and that’s the real motive of trying to mobilize atheists. But then it’s negative again, and apart from that I wouldn’t like to have such motives behind charity work, would you?

  5. says

    Greta thanks so much for calling my attention to this old post of yours. It says so much, so succinctly. Atheists are simply in love with, and awed by, reality!

  6. Greta Christina says

    Ariel: My point is that a fight against religion is a promotion of positive values. In the same way that a fight against racism is a promotion of the positive value of social justice, or a fight against pollution is a promotion of the positive value of environmentalism.

    If your question is, “What will atheists do if everyone stops believing in religion?” Celebrate our victory, and go do something else. If everyone stopped believing in religion, there won’t be any need for an atheist community and an atheist movement. Which would be fine with me: there are plenty of other valuable things to do with our lives. But I’m not holding my breath for that to happen in my lifetime, or in the lifetime of anyone currently in the movement.

  7. Steve Jeffers says

    “If your question is, “What will atheists do if everyone stops believing in religion?” Celebrate our victory, and go do something else.”

    The winning position for me is that at some point in the future, people will walk around Chartres Cathedral or the Vatican admiring the beauty, the engineering skill and the human achievement and thinking ‘they really took that great story seriously back then’. Same as people do at the Parthenon or Stonehenge now. I don’t look at the Venus de Milo and go ‘urgh, a *god*, get it away from me’. I’d like to be able to look at a Boticelli Madonna in the same way, not think about Nazis, child rapists, the mafia, homophobes, anti-feminists and Tiller killers.

    This is basically what happens now when people go to Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s or York Minster. The smaller churches in Britain have been converted into some great art galleries, local museums and cafes. They’re usually great spaces.

  8. Ariel says

    “Ariel: My point is that a fight against religion is a promotion of positive values. In the same way that a fight against racism is a promotion of the positive value of social justice”

    Ok, then I read too much in your text, my mistake.

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