Monday, 16 April 2012

Concessions I can make regarding the state of atheism...

Fresh back from the Global Atheist Convention 2012 in Melbourne. I have to say, I had a blast, the calibre of speakers was excellent, and the company and collaboration was even better.

I have a lot of ideas whizzing round my head at the moment, I’m wanting to get some of these thoughts out before I lose the thrust of the message. I may come back and revise these thoughts as they develop over the coming days and weeks, and as always, I am more than happy to hear other opinions and criticisms.

I’ve learned a lot this weekend, and after this weekend, I feel that there are a few issues that I think I should address for both sides of the raging debate. I think that some atheists may be uncomfortable reading some of the admissions that I am going to make, but I am hoping that they will recognise them as truthful.

We need to recognise our and embrace our differences. Being an atheist does not make you more intelligent, better or of higher value than anyone else, nor does being a theist grant these boons by default. The moral high ground in this debate is wholly unoccupied, no matter what either side may deign to think.

Intelligence is something that is earned. It doesn’t matter what side of the proverbial fence you are on. Taking a particular ideological standpoint is no excuse to become complacent or lazy in your thought.  I know a great many theists who are more developed critical thinkers than many atheists. I know some atheists who I find to be tedious bores, because they believe that the single cogent thought that they had about turning from theism was the last thought that they were required to have, and that they can operate safe in the knowledge that they are intellectuals from then on.  

We butt heads with each side trying to bring enlightenment to the other. On one side, most theists act out of genuine concern for atheists, believing them to have lost their way, and merely need a spiritual awakening to be led back to god and be blessed with the redemption of their mortal soul. Atheists want to bring information to the theists, hoping to liberate them from the shackles and forced servitude of their tyrannical and imaginary oppressor. At times it is easy to get tangled in our own rhetoric, without taking the time to try to fully understand the other side of the debate. I know that I have had long and interesting discussions with theists, many of whom hadn’t the foggiest idea about what being an atheist actually meant, other than the fact that it was supposedly ‘bad’ and had a whole host of misconceptions to support that hypothesis.

I believe that part of this attitude, whether by accident or design, was demonstrated very clearly by Paul Henry’s interview with Jason Ball on the Channel 10 Breakfast show. I don’t think that it is a stretch to suggest Mr. Henry’s attitude was unnecessarily combative and reasonably unfriendly while being mostly dismissive. He obviously holds a pre-conceived notion about what atheists are, and had calibrated his interview at a level he deemed appropriate. Again, I’m not familiar with any of Mr. Henry’s work, but I can’t help but feel that his comments demonstrated a critical lack of respect for both Jason, and atheists in general.  I cannot commend Jason highly enough for his cool headed management of what must have been a very difficult and confronting situation.

Every movement has its fringe elements. For every, fundamentalist, book thumping, theistic figure threatening all within earshot with eternal damnation unless they repent immediately, there is an equally tedious invective spewing atheist who thinks the height of witty repartee involves a quip about the Prophet Muhammad’s bride, a barb (or three) about pederast priests “tending to their flock” before dusting off their hands and considering the job done.  The majority of us in between these two extremes need to take greater care to avoid judging an entire subgroup by the notions of their loudest members. Don’t get me wrong, I throw in with the atheists for the most part, but there are times I have pulled people from both sides up once things start getting off topic or personal.

This also links in to the ever present morality debate. We can bicker back and forth until we are blue in the face, but it would be more effective to set aside our tools for a minute and recognise that in broad strokes, most people are moral and ethical people, no matter what their theistic or philosophical bent. When I say in broad strokes, I mean we don’t have rampant murder, havoc and mayhem, and most of the time, we humans are pretty good about getting on with each other in polite society.  It is when you get down to the smaller frame that things start getting finicky. Atheists find the treatment of women, homosexuals and non-believers by religions to be abhorrent, most religions find homosexuals, abortion, and non-believers to be abhorrent. These things could be better managed if we all stepped back a little and got out of each other’s grills. We as a society should be moving towards unifying as a human race, rather than pockets of nationalities or religions.  That is going to mean a little tolerance and a little give and take. I recognise that the Catholic Church is not accepting of homosexuality, and I don’t believe that we should legislate to force the church to perform homosexual marriages. However, I do believe that they are entitled to that marriage beyond the church if they so choose.

I’d like to explore an idea taken from a blog post relating to atheism (Atheism in the Dock – Uthman Badar)

There is a patent inanity in defining oneself in negation of an idea, as opposed to defining oneself in affirmation of an idea. Imagine being an ‘acommunist’ or ‘asocialist’, instead of being a capitalist, or being an ‘aliberal’ instead of being a conservative. Sound silly? Well it is.

There’s not much that I disagree with in that statement, I agree that the notion of having to identify as an atheist is as absurd as being nominating as asocialist or acommunist, because this is a part of the problem. In our society, you aren’t assumed to hold any particular political view, or indeed, any view at all until you espouse it. In fact, for the most part you are considered to be happily apolitical until you choose to ally yourself with a particular cause. How I wish the same were true about the nature of belief! The reason that I have to identify as an atheist is because if I don’t, it is assumed that I must be a good old fashioned theist, and I will be treated as such. Can you imagine living day-to-day with everyone you meet assuming that you are a good ol’ Liberal, because to even consider anything else would make you somehow sub-human?

Is it truly the act of a thinking man to assume that a belief is held with no evidence or support?

No. The way I now behave in my day-to-day is to assume no affiliation, be it religious or political, until such a time as I have evidence to suggest otherwise. I wish we could convince wider society to follow suit.

I’d strongly advise you to take the time to read the article. Though I disagreed with the bulk of it, I did find it to be quite enjoyably written. Call me a masochist, but I do love reading opinion from the other side.

I’d like to quote again from Mr. Badar’s post to lead me to my next point;

So if the universe is not eternal and could not have come from nothing, the atheist is left with naught but to acknowledge that he or she is without explanation, but not without the faith in science and its ability to possibly provide an explanation at some point in the future. Fine. But is not a reasonable explanation, even if not absolutely conclusive in your mind, better than no explanation?

We don’t have all the answers, but neither do you.

Atheists are frequently accused of being arrogant. I’d be lying if I said I can’t see where the comparison comes from, after all, as stated above, we do have our fair share of pompous, pseudo-know –it-all’s who like to wander round beating their chests and decrying religion in all its forms. After all, from the flip side of the coin, we are claiming to have answers to issues that until now were considered the dabbling of the divine.

Here’s the rub. We don’t know everything. Those of us who have really thought about it know that we don’t know everything. That same group of people also know that we probably never will know everything. There will never be a day where all of the mysteries of the universe are laid bare before humanity. It is just not going to happen. But that’s great! If we don’t have all the answers, there is more work to be done! And scientists like me love to do that work. Lawrence Krauss made a similar admission during his presentation. Knowing that we will never solve all the puzzles of the universe means that there will always be a place for gods within the minds of those who choose to accept it. I have no doubt that we could explain away all but the smallest of mysteries, and it would be in those mysteries that gods take refuge.

That leads us to an uncomfortable realisation for many atheists, and that is that we must recognise that we too base much of our outlook on a variant of faith. This is qualified faith however. One of the first things that you learn in analytical chemistry is to never say 100%, never say 0%. There is always a detection limit. That means that I must say, honestly as an (agnostic) atheist, No, I am not 100% sure that there isn’t a god. If there is one, I am 99.99% sure it is not the literal god of any other holy text that you care to name. The literal claims in all of these books have been shown to be demonstrably false time and time again. To suggest that there is a literal god behind any of them is folly, and a truly thinking person could not claim to do so with absolute certainty.

This is where I take umbrage with the comments above; I am not going to willingly accept a tenuous explanation as a stop gap solution just to duck the honest answer of saying “I don’t know.” There is no shame in not knowing something. To my mind, there is more shame in intentionally utilising a faulty premise, or one in which you are not convinced, in order to prevent yourself from having to say that you don’t know. If Mr. Badar has a reasonable explanation with which he would like to furnish me, I would be more than glad to listen.

When I say qualified faith, I mean an observable and supported faith. For example, I have faith that the sun will rise again tomorrow. Why? Because I have been kicking round on this planet to see close to 10,000 sunrises with my own eyes. I have the anecdotal evidence of friends, family, other observers to support my belief, and I have the science of cosmology and astronomy to support this. It is a belief supported by evidence, but fundamentally based on faith nonetheless. Say I am wrong, and there is a god who changes the rules and prevents the sun from rising tomorrow. I would be proven incorrect, but would still stand by my conclusions up until that point. All observable evidence pointed to one series of events, I accepted that as the conclusion as demonstrated until the evidence suggested that my premise was faulty.  I do it professionally in the lab every day, assuming that the fundamental rules of chemistry have not being turned on their head overnight, and therefore that my results are as reliable as the day before.

Is this the behaviour of a rational mind? I would say yes.

The problem that I have never seemed to be able to adequately communicate to theists is that if there is an omniscient, omnipresent and all powerful interventionist god that directs all nature at his whim, that would render the discipline of science mostly irrelevant and useless. Science is fundamentally built on the notion of testing, observation and analysis of data. We look for patterns, we look for conditions that can replicate those patterns, and we consider causes that can initiate those patterns. If you have gods that can pop in and tinker with the rules whenever they deem fit, then we can hardly observe well enough to make solid conclusions. Science gives us a lot of neat stuff, all spawned from the rigorous application of the scientific method. It’s stood up so far.

All that doesn’t change the mission statement though. We still strive to understand the truths about our existence. It is a fight that has shown no signs of abating for thousands of years, and one that will continue for centuries to come. It is natural to be curious about our world, beyond the stars and the human condition. While some are happy to allow gods to move in mysterious ways, some of us just have to peek behind the curtain.

With that in mind, that doesn’t mean we are completely naive to the goings on of the world. Great inroads have been made in understanding since mankind’s inception. Science as a discipline has been steadily working to improve our knowledge and quality of life, with the torch being passed from generation to generation. By all means, if you believe a particular scientific theory, practice or tenet to be mistaken, misguided or misapplied and worthy of review and criticism, bring it on! Scientists love talking science, thinking science, and are always ready to rethink the way that we do things. Just if you are going to do it, do it properly. Level scientific challenges, don’t try and sneak doctrine that can’t pass peer-review into schools by legal back-roads. Don’t cherry pick data in support of an aim while ignoring anything to the contrary. The reason that science works so well is that it has a robust fact checking process. I promise, there is no conspiracy amongst elite scientists to champion particular causes while suppressing others. If you have a theory, data or information that can challenge the current paradigm, there will be no supressing it.  It will come out eventually.

The reason that some theistic based ‘scientific’ ideas are held up for mockery is because they are demonstrably and provably false. Evolution is the easiest example to reach for. Despite what may have been said, rumours that may have been circulated; there is no divide in the scientific community about evolution. The theory of evolution is accepted. It isn’t accepted because we like it the best. It isn’t accepted because it allows us to chip away at theism. It is accepted because it serves to best explain the data that we have.
I’ll admit this is a pet subject of mine, because I love science. I am particularly besotted with the theory of evolution. The theory did not just explain the data available in Darwin’s time, it also predicted and supported discoveries that have been made in the intervening years. That doesn’t mean it isn’t capable of being proven false. If there is evidence, (and I mean evidence; supported data that can be peer reviewed and stands up to the process), then the theory of evolution will be abandoned.

Theists, if you are ID proponents, read that sentence again. It is possible for the theory of evolution to be relegated to the history books. It is not an unstoppable juggernaut that is immune to harm because it is the most ‘atheistic’ theory, or the most hostile to religion, or even the most liked, it is an unstoppable juggernaut because it has so clearly demonstrated its usefulness and value over the years. If you can damage that with evidence, you can bring the juggernaut down. But it is going to require good, solid, scientific supported studies.

Atheism is not fundamentally hostile to personal belief. It is hostile to the imposition of that belief.

It was roundly stated all weekend. Ben Elton made a point of it, Leslie Cannold touched on it as well. If we took religion out of government, ceased special treatment of religions, and safely ensconced the separation of church and state in our constitution, I would be willing to bet that most atheists would be pretty happy to let most other things slide. Many of the atheists I know, and indeed, myself included, couldn’t care less about what individuals believe to get them through the day. Frankly, it is none of my business. Faith, religion and god are deeply personal issues, unique to every separate believer so it is not my place to tell you what to do or believe.

Where a lot of the ire comes from, is secular groups having to constantly fight to maintain the status quo, and safeguarding the right to a secular government for all Australians, in order to prevent minority religions and other groups from being steamrolled come election time.  A bit more respect from both sides would go a long way. Atheists should be able to debate theists on public policy without being labelled immoral and unethical monsters. Theists should be entitled to the same without being labelled myopic and deluded sky-fairy lovers. Let’s separate the issues from the people, and talk about it like adults.  If we could achieve that, we might find that we spend less time on the name calling and petty bickering, and more time strengthening and unifying our nation.

And isn’t that a lovely thought.

I think I’ve burned myself out for tonight. This may be edited once I read it again in the cold harsh light of day. I suspect there will be much more musing in the days ahead.
Questions? Comments? Hit me up -

Until then, be good to each other. 

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