Is there an atheist philosophy?

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

I received a private email from a reader of this blog asking what exactly an atheist is and pointing out that my critiques of god and religion are written with a primarily western and Christian concept of a personal god in mind. I was asked how I felt about eastern concepts derived from religions such as Buddhism and Taoism, which the reader points out, do not require belief in a personal god.

It is true that I have focused primarily on Christianity. This is because it is the religion I was brought up in and is the one I am most familiar with. I have also studied it in some depth and am aware of much of its subtleties and apologetics, and of the differences in beliefs among its various sects. If I wrote about other religions, I would be necessarily less familiar with their details and more likely to commit gross generalizations that might be considered unfair by followers of those religions.

But one can make some general statements about atheism. As far as I am concerned, atheism rejects the idea of any supernatural entity that can influence the world. It does not have to just be a personal god in the western sense. Even if the word god is not used and the idea is called a ‘force’ or ‘principle’ or ‘consciousness’ or something else, as long as it represents some non-material intelligent entity that influences the material world, an atheist is likely to reject it for the same reasons he or she rejects god, unless some convincing positive evidence is produced in its favor.

Having said that, we should understand that atheism is not really a philosophy in itself. It is also not merely rejection of religion. Instead, atheism is a consequence of taking seriously the necessity of using evidence as a basis of beliefs. In other words, atheism is a particular result of a general policy of adopting a rigorous scientific worldview to things. I suspect that most atheists take the minimalist point of view expressed by Laplace in explaining to the emperor Napoleon why he had not mentioned god in his treatise on the working of the universe: “I have no need of that hypothesis.”

Sam Harris in his Letter to a Christian Nation (p. 51) says:

Atheism is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious. In fact, “atheism” is a term that should not even exist. No one needs to identify himself as a “non-astrologer” or a “non-alchemist.” We do not have words for people who doubt that Elvis is still alive or that aliens have traversed the galaxy only to molest ranchers and cattle. Atheism is nothing more than the noises reasonable people make in the presence of unjustified religious beliefs.

But the reasons (the lack of evidence and the high degree of implausibility that there exists a non-material entity that can interact with the material world) that lead a person to reject any specific god, also lead them to reject all gods. I would suggest that all atheists reject the idea of a supernatural entity or supernatural behavior in all its forms, which would rule out the Jewish god, Muslim god, Hindu god, and the like, in addition to the Christian god. It would also rule out ideas of an afterlife.

If one asks followers of one particular god why they do not believe in a different one, you will usually find that they argue much like atheists, citing the lack of evidence or reasons for belief. The difference is that they apply the rule only selectively, to rule out all other gods except their own preferred one, although there is no empirical difference between them.

An atheist applies that principle uniformly across the board.

The consequences of atheism

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

While atheism is not a philosophy as such, the reasons that one has for being one (mainly, the rejection of those beliefs for which there is no evidence) necessarily lead to certain consequences. Collected together, this set of results may look like a philosophy, but is not really. It is merely the playing out of the consequences of a scientific approach to every aspect of life.

For example, the same arguments that atheists use to reject the existence of god also lead them to the rejection of an afterlife. This has profound consequences for the way one lives and how one relates to others. For me, the fact that this life is all there is makes more imperative the importance of everyone being able to make the best of the one life they have. There is no heavenly compensation to satisfy the yearnings of people who are suffering here and now. All people have a right to, at minimum, adequate food, shelter, clothing, and health care, and there is no excuse for societies not being structured to provide them with those necessities.

Similarly, all people have a right to seek happiness wherever they can and with whomever they wish as long as they are not harming others. Hence gays, lesbians, and transgendered people are entitled to every right enjoyed by others, and atheists oppose objections to their behavior based on reasons like “god considers such acts sinful and they will go to hell” or because some religious text forbids it. (It is only such kinds of reasoning that is rejected. There may be atheists who disapprove of homosexuality on other grounds, such as that it is ‘not natural’ (whatever that may mean), but that is a different issue not involving religion.)

The same reasons that lead atheists to reject god also lead them to reject the idea of an independent soul that can survive the body. The problems of reconciling the idea of a non-material soul (or mind) interacting with the material brain and body are just as great as trying to figure out how a non-material god interacts with the material world. So I would argue that another corollary of being an atheist is to reject the idea of having a soul that can exist independently of the body. One can retain a concept of a ‘soul’ as long as it is merely a euphemism for the mind, a creature of the brain that ceases to exist when a person dies.

The idea that there is no god out there setting the standards of ethical and moral behavior also means that, rather than fighting to see which version of religious morality and behavior should prevail, atheists believe that we have to figure out what are the common bases on which we can live with one another in peace and justice in the world.

So in other words, the fact that atheism correlates with rejection of an afterlife and souls and religious text-based moral and ethical values means that the whole package has the trappings of a philosophy. But actually they are the almost independent consequences of having a philosophical naturalism philosophy that uses a scientific approach (empirical evidence and logical reasoning) to determine which beliefs are worthy of acceptance and which are not.

How to talk to religious believers-5: Dealing with irrational beliefs

People can be persuaded to relinquish, at least intellectually, small-scale beliefs like superstitions, although the reflexive habits associated with them may be hard to give up. Deeply held religious beliefs are not like that, though, even though they have the same lack of evidence as superstitions. Believing in god has enormous ramifications and why people strongly hold on to that belief requires some explanation and understanding. Those beliefs are far more closely intertwined with people’s self-identity and are not as easily conceded to be irrational. In fact, people will go to great lengths to make them appear rational. Why this is so is the fundamental question.
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How to talk to religious believers-4: The liberal or moderate believer

In previous posts, I wrote about how to talk to the devout concerned believer, the devout offended believer, and the fundamentalist religious intellectual when you tell people you are an atheist. Today I will deal with the last case.

The liberal or moderate believer: The hardest group for the atheist to deal might be, strangely enough, the people who are religious believers of the ‘moderate’ and ‘liberal’ variety. This may seem odd because such people tend to be rational and scientific about almost all aspects of their lives, so one would think that it would be easy to have a dialogue with them. But we know that often the most severe disagreements and arguments occur within families or like-minded groups, mainly because we understand each other so well and know each other’s weaknesses.

The reason for the awkwardness between atheists and liberal or moderate religious people arises for the same reason. Most people grow up with the same beliefs as their families and their communities. Once you become an atheist, the scales fall from your eyes and you realize that many of the religious beliefs you used to cherish make no sense at all anymore. But the rest of your views and values have not changed much and the people around you still are the same. So you have the difficult challenge of trying to understand how you could have unquestioningly believed all this stuff for so long and also why the people around you still continue to do so.
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How to talk to religious believers-3: The religious fundamentalist intellectual

In previous posts, I wrote about how to talk to the devout concerned believer and the devout offended believer when you tell people you are an atheist.

Today, I will address the religious fundamentalist intellectual: These people are the most fun to deal with because there is usually no rancor or personal element involved in the disagreements. These are people who have essentially constructed an alternate reality. They believe that the Bible is literally true, that Noah’s flood and ark are historical events, that humans lived alongside dinosaurs, that the Earth and the universe is less than 10,000 years old, and so on. They have satisfied themselves that what they believe can be substantiated and will try to convince you of it. They are usually not offended by you being an atheist but are convinced that you are mistaken. If you are lucky enough to engage such people in conversation and have the time, you should probe their beliefs and why they believe them and you will witness the unfolding of a fascinating and complex set of hypotheses that are invoked to explain why their beliefs are so out of step with the results of mainstream science.
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How to talk to religious believers-2: The offended devout believer

In the previous post, I discussed how to deal with the concerned devout believer. Today I deal with a more difficult case.

The offended devout believer: Like the concerned believer, this reaction will come from someone who is devoutly and unquestioningly religious. But their reaction will be to take strong offense at the idea that you have rejected beliefs that they hold dear. Some of them will be people who are close to you. Parents often fall into this category since they are the ones who taught you their religious beliefs and your rejection of the beliefs will be interpreted also as a rejection of them.
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How to talk to religious believers-1: The concerned, devout believer

One of the consequences of the outspokenness of the new atheists is that it enables people who are quasi-atheists to become more frank about their doubts about religion. Unlike closet atheists who are people who keep quiet about their atheism, ‘quasi-atheists’ are those people who would not call themselves atheists but are already tugging at the some of the beliefs that hold together the fragile structure of belief and are thus close to bringing down the whole house of cards. Such people tend to say they are agnostics and not identify any specific religious group and instead hold on to some unspecified notion of spirituality.

Quasi-atheists’ religious beliefs are just hanging on by a thread. Most thoughtful people have serious doubts about the existence of god and the afterlife. How could they not since everyday experience provides no support at all for such beliefs? But given the climate of official piety, most people will just keep their doubts to themselves to avoid the attention that expressing views that are different from the mainstream brings.
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A wish for the New Year: A world without religion

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

The recent appearance of best-selling books by atheists strongly criticizing religion has given rise to this secondary debate (reflected in this blog and the comments) as to what attitude atheists should take towards religion. Some critics of these authors (including fellow atheists) have taken them to task for being too harsh on religion and thus possibly alienating those religious “moderates” who might be potential allies in the cause of countering religious “extremism”. They argue that such an approach is unlikely to win over people to their cause. Why not, such critics ask, distinguish between “good” and “bad” religion, supporting those who advocate good religion (i.e., those parts of religion that encourage good works and peace and justice) and joining with them to marginalize those who advocate “bad” religion (i.e., who use religion divisively, to murderous ends, to fight against social justice, or to create and impose a religion-based political agenda on everyone.)
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Emotional reactions to Darwin

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

There is no doubt that Darwin’s ideas about evolution by natural selection carry a huge emotional impact. For many people the idea that “we are descended from apes” is too awful to contemplate and is sufficient reason alone to dismiss any claim that natural selection holds the key to understanding how we came about. (Of course, we are not descended from apes. The more accurate statement is that apes and humans share common ancestors, making them our cousins, but even this refinement does not take away the stigma that supposedly comes with being biologically related to animals such people consider inferior.)
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Looking for deep ancestors

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.

Because of the holidays and travel overseas where internet access will be sporadic, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some of my favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. New posts will start again on Monday, January 18, 2009.)

Richard Dawkins in his book The Ancestor’s Tale (2004) tells a fascinating story. He models his book on a journey that, rather than moving through space to a particular destination, is moving in the temporal dimension, going steadily back in time. He calls it a “pilgrimage to the dawn of evolution.” He starts with present day humans and follows them back into history. One reason he gives for going back in time instead of starting at the beginning and going forwards as is more commonly done is to avoid a common trap of perception. When you tell the story forwards, it is hard to avoid giving the impression that life evolved purposefully, that human beings were somehow destined to be. This is counter to evolutionary theory that says that evolution is not directed towards any goal. It tells us how the present emerged from the past. It does not tell us how the future will emerge from the present.

Dawkins points out that the another advantage of telling the story backwards is that you can choose any of the current species and go back in time and tell pretty much the same story.

As I have mentioned earlier, we quickly (in just 2,000 years) reach the time when the most recent common ancestor lived and soon after that (about 5,000 years ago) reach a point when all our ancestors were identical.

But this convergence of ancestry is not just for humans, it is for all species. If we go far enough back in time, even my dog Baxter and I share the same ancestor, which I find a very appealing notion.

Anyway, here is a concise summary of the landmarks on this pilgrimage back in time, along with some other landmarks.

About 10,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution began and about 12,000 years ago saw the beginnings of language. About 160,000 years ago saw the beginning of what we would consider modern humans, and beyond that we start reaching the precursors to modern humans, a famous milestone being the fossil Lucy, dated to 3.2 Mya (million years ago).

As we go further back in time in this pilgrimage, other species start ‘joining us’ in our journey. What this means is that we reach times at which an earlier species existed which then split into two branches and diverged evolutionarily to what we see now. So if we go back further in time, we should cease to view the pilgrims on the journey as a combined group of humans and other species but instead see the travelers as that earlier common ancestor species. He calls these common ancestors ‘concestors’. (Concestor 0 in Dawkins’ scheme is the most recent common ancestor of all humans (or MRCA) that I have discussed earlier and who lived just a few thousand years ago.)

Going back in time, at 6 Mya we meet concestor 1 when we join up with the ancestors of chimpanzees. As we go even back further, we (and when I say ‘we’, I remind you that we should not think of ‘us’ as humans at this point but as the common ancestor species of humans and chimpanzees) join up at about 40 Mya successively with gorillas, orang utans, gibbons, and finally monkeys. Remember that the ‘pilgrims’ look different as we pass each concestor point.

Concestor 8 occurs at about 63 Mya when we join up with mammals like lemurs and lorises. (Just prior to this, around 65 Mya, was when all the dinosaurs went extinct.) As you can imagine, concestor 8 would not look much like present-day humans at all.

About 75 Mya, we join up with rats, rabbits and other rodents (concestor 10), at 85 Mya with cats and dogs (concestor 11), at 105 Mya with elephants and manatees (concestor 13), at 310 Mya with snakes and chickens (concestor 16).

At 340 Mya, we make a big transition when join up with the ancestors of amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders (concestor 17). This point marks the first time that animals moved out of the water.

Around 440 Mya we join up with various kinds of fish (concestor 20), and around 630 Mya with flatworms (concestor 27).

After various other species ancestors’ join ours, the next big rendezvous occurs at about 1,100 Mya when we join up with the ancestors of fungi, such bread molds and truffles (concestor 34).

Some time earlier than that (passing the connection with amoeba at concestor 35) but before 1,300 Mya (it is hard to pin the date) is when the next major transition occurs when we join up with green plants and algae. This common ancestor is concestor 36.

At about 2,000Mya we arrive at concestor 38 where every species is now represented by a eukaryotic (nucleated) cell.

At about 3,500 Mya we meet up with our earliest ancestors, the eubacteria (concestor 39), the original form of life.

Dawkins’ reverse story can be seen visually, told in a beer commercial in 50 seconds flat to the pounding beat of Sammy Davis Jr. singing The Rhythm of Life. (A minor quibble: There is one way in which this fun visual representation is not accurate. It shows three humans going back in evolution until we join up with ancestors of the present-day amphibians (concestor 17) in identical parallel paths. This is ruled out by the reductio ad absurdum argument written about earlier, where it was established that all present day humans must have had a single common ancestor in any earlier species.)

I must say that this book was an exhilarating journey. To see the whole of the evolution of life going backwards and merging together was a nice new way of seeing the process. Those of you who are interested in the grand sweep of evolution written for a non-specialist will find Dawkins’ book a great resource.

POST SCRIPT: The Boxer

A live performance of Simon and Garfunkel singing one of my all-time favorite songs The Boxer.