30 August 2012

Some thoughts on Atheism+

Well, it didn’t take long for certain prominent members of the community of reason to weigh in on the freshly minted Atheism Plus, or A+, movement. There’s an A+ outline and response to its critics by PZ Myers, and two observations/criticisms by Ronald Lindsay and Massimo Pigliucci respectively. While I agree with Myers that disbelief in gods and religious doctrines would entail “significant consequences for how we should structure our society” and therefore atheism is not just “an abstraction floating in the academic ether”, I also agree with Lindsay’s and Pigliucci’s argument that secular humanism already addresses the same issues and champions the same causes as A+, making the new movement almost redundant.

To me, A+ is largely a branding exercise. One of the movement’s founders, Jen McCreight, has stated as much, saying that the ‘Atheism Plus’ concept is “fabulous marketing-wise and as a way to identify yourself as a progressive atheist.” Proponents of A+ are trying to imbue the word ‘atheism’ with connotations in addition to its mere dictionary definition. Some like Myers actually disdain the idea of a ‘dictionary atheist’, since they see it as a narrow, limited conception of what atheism should mean.

From a linguistic perspective, this attempt by the A+ crowd to shoehorn additional meanings into the word ‘atheism’ seems silly; it would be like trying to make the word ‘teetotaler’ also mean ‘a person who upholds values like temperance, self-discipline and sobriety’. Sure, these things can be associated with the word ‘teetotaler’, just as additional values outside of disbelief in gods can be associated with the word ‘atheist’. But these extraneous meanings are not, strictly speaking, implicit in both words. A teetotaler is someone who abstains from alcohol (for whatever reasons), and an atheist is someone who doesn’t believe in gods (for whatever reasons), period.

So that’s the linguistic perspective. However, from a sociopolitical perspective, A+ proponents have a valid reason for wanting to ‘inflate’ the meaning of the word ‘atheism’ beyond its dictionary definition. Greta Christina has touched on this reason, which is to destigmatise the words ‘atheism’ and ‘atheist’ by impressing the progressive values that A+ stands for upon the minds of the general public, and in a sense teach the public to associate the word ‘atheism/atheist’ with those ethical values. So while pedants may complain, the practical effect is the gradual reduction of the negativity currently attached to atheism, at least in highly religious societies.

Furthermore, from a strategic viewpoint, it makes sense for A+ folks to use the word ‘atheism’ rather than ‘humanism’, even though A+ and secular humanism share similar values and goals: ‘atheism’ is punchier (aka controversial), and the emotional response it elicits from both proponents and opponents makes it a ‘sticky’ word. And as any marketing professional can attest, a good brand is a sticky brand.

As if there isn’t already a glut of atheist/humanist movements, we also have Michael Nugent of Atheist Ireland writing up a manifesto for what he calls ‘Ethical Atheism’. Nugent’s preamble below makes the same argument as PZ Myers did in his blog post: that atheism necessarily entails social and political consequences.

In real life, atheism means more than mere disbelief in gods, or belief that there are no gods. If you disbelieve in gods, it necessarily follows that you also disbelieve that we get our ideas of truth and morality from gods. This is a significant approach to two central questions about life, in a world where most people believe the opposite.
This is a draft manifesto for ethical atheists who care about both truth and morality, and who want to promote reason, critical thinking and science; atheism over supernaturalism; natural compassion and ethics; inclusive, caring atheist groups; fair and just societies; secular government; and local, national and global solidarity.
Ethical atheism is more useful than dictionary atheism, because it applies the consequences of our atheism to real life. Ethical atheism is more precise than secular humanism, because religious people can be both secular and humanist, and because ethics affects all sentient beings and not just humans.

Despite the different labels being tossed around, one thing that Michael Nugent, PZ Myers, Ronald Lindsay, Massimo Pigliucci, Jen McCreight, Greta Christina and other atheists agree on is that regardless of which label we choose to affiliate with, what matters is our ethical, godless commitment to make this world a better place for everyone. Let’s keep this in mind whenever we are tempted to denigrate our allies.


24 August 2012

Atheism 3.0

This can only be an approximate classification, but ‘first wave’ atheism, or Atheism 1.0, would be the sort espoused by philosophers ranging from ancient Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Classical Greco-Roman thinkers through to 19th and 20th century intellectuals like Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell and E V Ramasami Naicker. Much of the main arguments against the existence of God(s) and criticisms of religion were first made by first wave atheists. Second wave atheism (Atheism 2.0, or New Atheism) arrived at the start of the 21st century in the form of the so-called ‘Four Horsemen’ – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, who were joined by other outspoken critics of religion like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, A C Grayling and Victor J Stenger. Second wave atheists often repeated the same arguments made by the first wave, but thanks to factors like religious fundamentalism, anti-secularism and the internet, Atheism 2.0 galvanised godless folks everywhere to take a stand against religion, and popularised its ideas as never before in history.

Now atheists like Jen McCreight are calling for a third wave, for Atheism 3.0.

For Atheism Plus.

23 August 2012

Confidence, not faith

I’ve recently had a couple of (quite civil) debates on religion with Christians, both Protestants and Catholics. One argument that my Christian interlocutors used was the old ‘belief in science is as much an act of faith as belief in God’, which is a sibling to the ‘science is a kind of religion’ argument. This false equivalence is frustratingly common, a logical fallacy made even by self-proclaimed atheists like Daniel Sarewitz, whose essay ‘Sometimes science must give way to religion’ was surprisingly published in that venerable science journal Nature.

Jerry Coyne, bane of accommodationists, takes apart Sarewitz’s lauding of religion at the expense of science on his website. As is his custom, Coyne ably demonstrates the flaws in Sarewitz’s reasoning, but this passage from Coyne’s post stands out because it articulates why having ‘faith’ in the scientific method and its discoveries is not the same as religious faith in the divine or supernatural (emphasis is Coyne’s).

Trusting the consensus of scientific experts is not an act of “faith”, at least not in the way religion construes “faith”: belief in the absence of evidence. All of us put our trust in areas of science where we have no expertise: the theory of relativity, the triplet nature of the genetic code (how many of us can recount the molecular biology that led to that conclusion?), or in even our willingness to accept medical treatments when we’re ignorant of their evidential basis. That is not faith, but confidence — confidence that the community of scientists who do their research has policed each other sufficiently well to arrive at a solid consensus. To equate that with religious faith is, to use Judge Jones’s terminology, “an act of breathtaking inanity.” The community of the faithful has arrived at no such consensus. What they’ve arrived at is a conflicting farrago of assertions that cannot be resolved.

Coyne hits it on the head: we have confidence, not blind faith, in the claims that scientists make because they arrive at those claims through a process that contains rigour, humility, replicability and a level of universality that religious authorities would envy. A chemist in the Netherlands subscribes to the same methodology, terminology and chemical data as a chemist in Nigeria or Nicaragua. There are no sects or denominations within chemistry along ideological lines as there are within, say, Christianity. Perhaps this is because chemistry, like any branch of science, bases all its claims on independently corroborated evidence, unlike Christianity or any religion that has a more ‘flexible’ approach to evidence, thus leaving plenty of room for subjective, arbitrary and even contradictory interpretations of its doctrines.

One commenter, Mattapult, makes this wry observation:

I think science and religion are similar in the fact that we “trust” those at the top of their fields.

We can trust scientists because we see them proving their work. We see them make mistakes, but we also see them correcting them. We see them show humility by admitting when they don’t know something, or have serious doubts, or even telling us what those doubts could be. We see practical applications of things they learn and pass on. When one scientist intentionally does something wrong, we see other scientists refuting the bogus claims. Any of us could, at least in principle, repeat their experiments and get similar results. Of course these things can take a long time to play out, but the trend is always towards better knowledge.

We trust religious leaders because… ummm, help me out, I seem to be stuck.

Sorry Mattapult, I’m just as clueless about that as you.


01 August 2012

Why do religious believers keep making excuses for God’s impotence?

One thing that confounds atheists about god-believers is the way that they rationalise the existence of an all-good, all-powerful deity despite the occurrence of evils like natural disasters, disease and horribly violent deaths like those of the Aurora shooting victims – a rationalisation known as theodicy. A Christian pastor, Rob Brendle, engages in theodicy when he makes excuses for his almighty God who failed to prevent the Aurora massacre. Typical for theodicy, Brendle rigs the (troubling) issue so that it becomes a win-win situation for believers like him: if nothing terrible had happened, it was God’s doing, but if something terrible happened, it wasn’t God’s fault.

And Brendle just makes stuff up as he goes along while contradicting himself. He writes:

But Scripture also teaches that God is totally in control. He is all-powerful and all-knowing and he is willing and able to intervene in human events. So there is a gap between human choice and divine foreknowledge, a gap that transcends understanding and that helps define God in my mind.
The debate over this theological tension has persisted for centuries, and I don’t aim to settle it here. Let me suggest simply that God, in his sovereignty, has chosen to make our decisions meaningful. Consequently, much of what happens on earth neither conforms to nor results from his preference. There are at least four influences on human events: God’s will, to be sure; but also the will of Satan, our adversary; peoples’ choices, for better or for worse; and natural law (gravity, collision, combustion, and the like).
It is difficult to know which force causes the circumstances that devastate us. But it is enough to know that God need not be responsible for them.