Some More Words on Agnostic Atheism

I was having a conversation with an atheist friend of mine and he suggested (actually, ‘suggested’ is much too weak a description of what he did) that my agnostic atheism is hopelessly confused.  He gave two  somewhat related reasons that struck me as being worth addressing.  The first is that, although he was willing to concede that atheism ought properly to be considered a belief claim, he nevertheless felt that one who believes that ‘there is no God’ necessarily cannot also believe that ‘whether or not there is a God is beyond our capacity to know’ – to do so is to somehow do something that is contradictory.  The second reason was that the agnosticism takes away reasons for adopting the atheism.

The first is actually not that difficult a matter to address.  Obviously, in one sense he was cutting himself off at the knees by granting that atheism ought to be considered a belief claim rather than a knowledge claim.  If the one claim is that ‘I know x‘ and the other is that ‘I cannot know x‘, there is an obvious contradiction there.  But there is nothing at all inherently contradictory if the first of the two statements were to be replaced with ‘I believe x‘.  For example, suppose I believed that I will be receiving a pink slip today (perhaps the company is in some tough times and layoffs have been announced).  This is in no way incompatible with my acknowledgement that I do not know whether or not I will actually receive a pink slip (maybe I sit somewhere in the middle of the seniority ladder and the management hasn’t announced how many they will be laying off).  The same applies to agnostic atheism.

The second criticism is perhaps more damning.  To take a stance on the question (whether that be some species of theism or atheism) is to make quite a strong commitment, even if that stance is ‘merely’ a matter of belief rather than knowledge.  Given that this is so, wouldn’t it just be best to acknowledge that one cannot know and leave it at that?  While it would certainly be a ‘safer’ position, I don’t think that it is a better one.  While the epistemic requirements for knowledge (especially of this kind) are rather high (I am here assuming some JTB+), there are certainly reasons for deciding more or less tentatively in favour of one proposition over another.  For example, I believe (rather strongly) that my house keys are where I left them when I got home yesterday.  Of course, I do not ‘know’ this – perhaps my wife, for what would clearly be a good reason, had occasion to move them – but, nevertheless, I have some pretty good reasons for thinking so.  The same can hold for theism or atheism.  For example, I see Darwinian natural selection as an adequate explanation of apparent design, which makes a designer superfluous to the whole process, while a theist might point to what he sees as the unintelligibility of morality without a lawgiver as evidence in favour of God.

Of course, the coherence of my position really does depend on whether theism/atheism really are belief – but not knowledge – claims.  I think so, but that is a matter for another day.

Shaming Believers?

Dawkins' 'Proposal'

A post over at Thoughtful Faith discusses Dawkins not infrequently given bit of advice to shame and mock believers in an attempt to, let’s be frank, coerce them out of their beliefs – such behaviour is repellent to me.  Now, as an atheist, I will disagree with the author about virtually everything, but the responses offered by the atheists in the comments section were disappointing to me – so it seems that it falls to me to play the part of the dissenting atheist.  There were three basic lines of response: 1) theists do it to us and turn-about is fair play; and 2) satire (i.e. mockery) does a very good job of revealing the failings of institutions and beliefs, so is a legitimate tool in the struggle against religious belief; and 3) religious belief is so harmful that these sorts of tactics are entirely acceptable.  I think that all these arguments are wrong in their own way and do not, individually or collectively, justify the mistreatment of theists.  Moreover, Dawkins and those who support such measures are, in any case, simply wrong about the effectiveness of shaming as a strategy to change people’s minds.

As for the first vein of response, that turn-about is fair play, I have the following to say.  There are atheists out there who really and truly were badly treated by religious doctrines, individuals, or institutions.  These people may feel anger towards the source of their pain, anger that may be completely justified, but this does not justify one’s own becoming an aggressor or victimizer even if one’s new belief set is more correct or overall leading to a better life.  Remember that it is not Believer-x who harmed you, it was some particular believer(s) who did (and who are the rightful targets of one’s anger).  Furthermore, it should be remembered that attacks on believers will be attacks on people who are, per hypothesis, in the grip of delusion and at risk for precisely the same maltreatment as once was one’s own fate – it would be ridiculous to abuse a slave for refusing to rebel, would it not?

Turning to the question of satire and its effectiveness, there is not much to say.  I am in complete agreement that satire is a useful and effective tool for the pointing out of bad institutions and beliefs.  But what Dawkins is suggesting isn’t (only) that we satirize the Catholic Church (an institution that richly deserves it) or its officials (horny nuns and gay priests, etc.), but that we also just mock individual believers, wherever we find them.  I shouldn’t have to point this out, but there is a difference here – the one is an attack on an ideology, the other an attack on people.  We want to change the ideas, not hurt people.

Finally, there is the suggestion that because religious beliefs motivate such dangerous behaviour as suicide-bombings and wars, aggressive tactics are entirely legitimate.  I should only point out the inconsistency in that suggestion.  If believers are dangerous because of their belief set, and you attack them and those beliefs, you have just signalled not merely that you disagree, but that you are an enemy.  From this two things follow.  First, you will be provoking the sort of dangerous behaviour you claim to want less of in the world.  Second, you will have made yourself a target.

All this brings me, at last, to question the very notion that mockery is an effective strategy for changing people’s minds.  I think Dawkins is letting his obvious disdain for those who think differently than himself cloud his judgement (as he frequently does).  Mockery and shaming do represent extremely powerful tools for maintaining cohesion in human social groups, but this is because those at whom the treatment is directed already belong to the group.  Social ostracism is an in-group mechanism and it has precisely the wrong effect on members of out-groups.  With members of out-groups, such tactics will only drive them deeper into the fold and strengthen the division between the two groups.  Mockery and shaming, then, are the wrong ways to go about changing minds – but they feel really good to use, since they feed two human, all too human psychological needs for group-identification and feelings of superiority.

I close with verses 3 – 5 from “The Pairs”, found in the Dhammapada:

“He abused me, mistreated me, defeated me, robbed me.” Harboring such thoughts keeps hatred alive.

“He abused me, mistreated me, defeated me, robbed me.” Releasing such thoughts banished hatred for all time.

Animosity does not eradicate animosity.  Only by loving kindness is animosity dissolved.  This law is ancient and eternal.

The Curious Case of Western Atheism

The atheism of Westerners is a curious phenomenon, in that it is constitutively dependent for its coherence upon the cultural and ideological structures laid down by Christianity.  I have heard some express this notion by saying that it is ‘parasitic’ upon theism, but I think that this is an unnecessarily hostile way of saying the same thing.  Atheists may at this point answer that, of course, atheism wouldn’t exist if theism also did not, but to think in this way is to miss the point.  It is trivial to point out that without theism atheists wouldn’t exist, but the claim I am making is more substantive than this – Western atheism draws many of its intellectual, moral, and activist imperatives from Christianity.

How is this so?  Historically speaking, Christianity has been greatly concerned with truth and fact.  Atheists will scoff at this assertion, but it is true.  Owing to the fact that the Christian faith depends crucially on the historical fact of Jesus’ living, his dying on the cross, and his later resurrection (else no salvation), Christianity has always been centrally concerned that what it holds true can be supported by the evidence.  This is in contrast to other religious traditions that are more ‘loose’ about the literalness of aspects of their faith – Buddhists, for instance, can sometimes be remarkably cavalier (from a Western perspective) about the historicity of Buddha, the authorship of their sutras, or the reality/unreality of the yidams of tantric practices.  ‘Truth’ and the knowledge of it became highly valuable in the Christian world – indeed, valuable enough that to know the truth was more important that preserving the faith (all of this has been said far more wittily by Nietzsche, though I cannot recall where to point an interested reader to).

Thus, the Western atheist’s infatuation with knowing the ‘truth’ about the world is born from Christianity’s fixation upon proving the ‘truth’ of Jesus’ biography.  This manifests itself in fascinating ways in the atheist community.  For instance, the activism of modern atheists (like Dawkins, Dennett, the late Mr. Hitchens, and Harris) seems far more focused on evangelizing theists (even utterly inoffensive ones) about the unreality of God, rather than attempting to mobilize for substantive political changes that will make the world a safer place for atheists and other dissenters from theistic faiths.  The bus ads bought up in London a couple of years back had an important message, but reveal the concern for ‘truth’ over praxis.  I have often marvelled that influential atheists haven’t tried to mobilize campaigns to get respected individuals out of the closet with their unbelief, to address religiously motivated extremism that is permitted free reign in religious institutions, or to vocally criticise attempts to establish in Western countries parallel legal structures based in religious doctrines.  Granted, they talk about these sorts of things, but there hasn’t been any visible action on such matters.

Of course, it could be objected that they are attacking the problem at its root.  This is a bad objection, however, because it suffers from two flaws.  First, the suggestion is that if we can just change everyone’s mind, everything will be fine thereafter.  But this is both unrealistic – it is doubtful that belief in God/gods will ever vanish.  Second, this is an example of the Nirvana fallacy (better known by Voltaire’s observation that “the perfect is the enemy of the good”).  Sure, it might be great to live in an atheist society, but we do not, and working towards effecting changes such as the ones I have suggested will make the society better immediately.

Morality Without Gods or Souls

I have been inspired by a commenter to my last post, M. James, to write a bit about morality without gods or souls.  He writes: “taking away the immortal soul opens quite a can of moral worms. If death is really all she wrote, I don’t see why any rational person would choose to be moral.”  This, as other atheists and agnostics can attest, is a very common rejoinder, although this is a unique articulation of the worry (usually it’s “without god…”).  In any case, I think that the worry is an unnecessary one to have.

Why should I say this?  It certainly isn’t obvious to most that morality and religion can be teased apart.  Indeed, as a matter of sociological fact, I think that it is obvious to most people that religion provides the only framework within which and out of which morality is really possible.  Religious systems all take it upon themselves to provide their adherents with moral frameworks and to serve as exemplars of same.  And I will even concede that fear for one’s immortal soul might make one stick to the rules more assiduously than otherwise.  But I believe the worry is really founded upon a deep a misapprehension about what morality is.  So we should ask ourselves what, if we set aside gods and souls for a moment, would be left of morality?  What would be its content, its function, its use?  What would make it binding on us?

I think that, god absent, there’s still a bunch of ‘there’ there.  For example, in worrying that without God people will have no reason to behave, the religious tacitly accept that one of morality’s important functions is to facilitate social cohesion (we won’t have very nice lives if everyone is busy robbing each other blind).  This is very important, obviously, since humans need to live together to have flourishing lives, so whether or not god/gods/souls/etc. exist, we would still want and have to find some ways of bringing people’s behaviour in line in some appropriate way.  Nor do we need a god to tell us what is right or wrong (and as an atheist, I don’t think that we have ever had a god tell us what was right or wrong, we just mistakenly believed that it is so).  If morality is about living good lives together as human beings, the content of morality makes itself clear to us in pretty obvious ways.  Whatever disrupts social cohesion is bad, so behaviours that make oneself and others untrustworthy (e.g. aggression, lying, theft, miserliness, the deliberate bucking of social norms) are necessarily bad, and what promotes social cohesion is good (e.g. calmness, truthfulness, generosity, justness).  Similarly, acts which are harmful to oneself can also be seen to be bad on this conception, because they are self-destructive and make living a good life harder (so we could still condemn the lazy or gluttonous man for his dissipations).  Or the rock-star.

But all this is just an explanatory outline to make sense of morality in a godless world.  It does not describe the mechanisms by which adherence to a moral code is made compelling upon individuals in a society.  Divine retribution, however, is not required for morality to be truly functional – why?  Firstly, we simply are the type of creatures who find morality compelling.  We are a social species and, like all other social species, have to have psychological mechanisms suitable for individually accommodating ourselves to the group dynamic (this is seen in chimps, bonobos, wolves, other great apes, and more) and we do (e.g. there are obvious instincts towards fairness).  Secondly, there is the reality of worldly punishment.  When members of the group break the rules and we find out about it, we punish them for it (and feel the need to do so, perhaps another instinctual bit of psychology).  Sometimes the punishments are harsh (e.g. torture and death) and sometimes they are mild (e.g. mocking, shunning, shaming) but they always are.  So there is fear generated by the reality of punishment.  Thirdly, because we dislike (even hate) others who break the rules, when we think of ourselves breaking the rules, we preemptively feel disgust without ourselves.  Similarly, because we enjoy others’ generosity, when we are generous we enjoy seeing ourselves as generous.  Fourth, morality on this view just is acting rationally.  A rational individual will have perfectly compelling reasons to act well if he fully understands the reasons for/against committing a certain act.  Finally, but certainly not least, we can see ourselves in others – we have a natural capacity for compassion (or love/empathy/sympathy/ whatever the favoured term is).  Most people find themselves troubled by the suffering of other human beings and simply want to do what is best for them (admittedly, within limits).

So I think morality is perfectly possible without gods or souls.  Many do not, however, and I have some pet-theories as to why this may be so.  It may be as simple as morality having always been explained to them as explicitly linked with the demands of god (or the universal law, or somesuch) so that it becomes very difficult for the two to even be imagined separately.  Morality on this conception becomes a much narrower item that consists solely in doing as a powerful lawgiver has ordered.  This view also has weird implications.  It means that being good is doing what the boss tells you to, however no matter what the content of that command.  Is it even sensible to say that we are acting morally when we are only doing something for fear of punishment?  I don’t want to say so.  And it also means that morality cannot change (which it evidently does – look at how much of Leviticus no one pays any attention to).  What might once have been harmful is later seen not to be (or no longer is, thanks to technologies, etc.), while what once seemed unobjectionable becomes immoral (say, picking your nose and then shaking someone’s hand) because we recognize the harm in it.

My Positions (Thanks, Sabio)

A handy-dandy chart (courtesy of Sabio at Triangulations) of my atheist positions:

Atheist about most gods, agnostic about a rare few
Past Sect History None – god wasn’t even a consideration in my home
Past Belief History Life Long Non-believer (Natural)
Past Orthopraxy History Not much, some meditation now and again
Level of Certainty: Moderate (see “Self-Label(s))
Openness: Open, but cautious – I find it irrelevant in most contexts, but I neither want to cause offence nor become a target for conversion
Degree of Outreach: Affirm my atheism, but willing to go more in-depth with those who want to know (not exactly ‘debates’ though)
Present Religious Participation: If meditation in my home counts, fairly frequently – but hardly ever in a group context (>1/yr.)
Stance toward Categorically Rejecting Religion: Friendly.  I think religions are good or bad based on their particularities, but nothing is bad about the phenomenon, per se. It is what it is.
Degree of Enchantment Over-awed, both by the beautiful and the terrible.
Mystical Perceptions: Partially Mystical
Theory of Religion: succinctly, I think religions arise as a side effect of other features of human psychology – there is no god gene.
Non-theistic Leanings I think the universe is much more mysterious than we give it credit, usually.  I have days where I lean panendeist, but I have no strong commitment to the idea.  I’m still trying to sort this out myself.
Secular Superstitious or Irrational Habits I play scratch-and-wins.  Sometimes I win $2!  Other than that, only when I’m flying.
View of Reason Reason is really important, it’s the best we can do.  Unlike many, however, I have a pretty dim view of how reasonable we really are.  I’m a reluctant Humean on this point.
Faith Items Mmm, that consciousness might extend much further and deeper in the world than we imagine.  That there is no real indeterminacy in the universe.

And another of my philosophical positions:

School of Philosophy: Analytic
Ontology: Naturalist (although I have problems with the term).
Science: Scientific realism (tentative)
Theory of Time: B-Theory
Theology: Atheist (mostly) and agnostic regarding a handful of other positions, but friendly towards an idiosyncratic panendeism.
Politics: Libertarianism, leavened with the faintest whiff of egalitarianism
Language: Russellianism by default, don’t know enough about Frege to intelligently commit.
Mind: Physicalist with the potential exception of consciousness itself.
Mental Content: Externalism
Abstract Objects: Nominalism
Knowledge: Empiricism / Rationalism (Both – I don’t think either can be separated from the other)
Personal Identity: Psychological-Causal History
Free Will: Agnostic on the compatibilism/incompatibilism divide.  I think much more important that whether we strictly have free will is whether moral responsibility can be salvaged.  Although I feel like compatibilist schemes rescue MR better.
Normative Ethics: Virtue Ethics with a good splash of deontology (for tough cases)
Meta-Ethics: I think it’s safe to say I’m a non-cognitivist of a sort.  Again, I haven’t worked out in too much detail my schema of meta-ethics (for lack of time and being to fixated on day-to-day ethics).

Some Questions for Atheists, Agnostics, Seculars, Theists and Deists

I am very curious about people’s suppositions about God(s), especially of those who reject the notion.  What sort of god or gods would you find acceptable/tolerable?  What sort of evidence would you consider valid evidence for the existence of this god-concept?  (Remember, this absolutely need not be an ‘off the rack’ model – I want to know whatever you think.)  Similarly, theists and deists, what sort of god concept do you think is the case and what would count as evidence against that god-concept?

In in the interest of disclosure, I’m an atheist, but there are days when I lean panendeist.  What would count as evidence against this account?  Honestly, I’m not entirely sure, but there are two probable answers.  One, incontrovertible evidence of a miracle.  Two, an account of the mind that convincingly eliminates all that functionally unspecifiable stuff (like qualia) and which gives a half-way decent account of intentionality.

Atheists: If We Want to Be Taken Seriously, We Should Try Better Arguments

Last year, The Washington Post ran an article entitled “Why do Americans still dislike atheists?” (it has only recently come to my attention).  Now, I am fortunate enough to live in Vancouver, Canada, so I have to admit that I have never been mistreated or harangued by theists, so I am a little cooler on the subject, but I understand that many American atheists do feel put upon by their religious compatriots.  So I decided to give it a read-through.  Now, being both an atheist and a philosopher (such conceit!), I am absolutely appalled by just how awful the arguments in this article are.  If one wishes to be accepted and taken seriously, it is best to use strong arguments.  This is true for any point of view and, in honesty, I want atheists and theists to make the strongest arguments possible  – whether or not there is a God, I surely want to get that right.  Unfortunately, the weakness of these arguments actually makes atheism look worse.  Because this is so, I am going to point out just which of the arguments I think are terrible and why they are terrible.

We needn’t look far – the first paragraph is ridiculous and the very first sentence is a howler:

Long after blacks and Jews have made great strides, and even as homosexuals gain respect, acceptance and new rights, there is still a group that lots of Americans just don’t like much: atheists. Those who don’t believe in God are widely considered to be immoral, wicked and angry. They can’t join the Boy Scouts. Atheist soldiers are rated potentially deficient when they do not score as sufficiently “spiritual” in military psychological evaluations. Surveys find that most Americans refuse or are reluctant to marry or vote for non-theists; in other words, non-believers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.

It is simply absurd and insulting to try to liken the difficulties that atheists face qua atheists to those faced by these other identified groups, whether historically or presently.  So far as I am aware, American atheists were never enslaved for being atheists, nor are they, as a group, frequent victims of targeted violence as are homosexuals and Jews.  It is perhaps true that it is difficult to be elected if one is an atheist, but this has never struck me as a terrible imposition for politicians – after all, aren’t such creatures renowned for their facility with, ahem, creative accounts of reality?  So far, the article is off to an exceedingly bad start.

It gets worse from there.  Although it begins by purporting to address the eponymous question (i.e. why Americans persist in disliking atheists), by the third paragraph it has devolved into something of an apologia for atheism, and a really horrible one at that.

On basic questions of morality and human decency — issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights — the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves  as very religious.

It may well be true that atheists are more likely to come down on what the authors’ clearly believe to be the ‘right side’ of these issues, and so are more moral, but this presupposes that the positions atheists tend to take are the more moral ones.  Perhaps torture is brutal, tragic, and best avoided, but its morality is situationally dependent.  Perhaps the religious are right that death is the appropriate penalty for murder.  This argument does not demonstrate that atheists are more moral, just that they differ from the religious.

Here’s another howler:

Consider that at the societal level, murder rates are far lower in secularized nations such as Japan or Sweden than they are in the much more religious United States, which also has a much greater portion of its population in prison. Even within this country, those states with the highest levels of church attendance, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, have significantly higher murder rates than far less religious states such as Vermont and Oregon. [1]

That this passed the WP‘s editorial board is a small wonder, given its political persuasions.  Perhaps it is true that low rates of crime are correlated with irreligiosity, but is there anything else whatsoever that might explain the difference here?  What else besides irreligiosity is shared in common between Sweden, Japan, and US states like Vermont and Oregon, but not Mississippi or Louisiana?  Is the problem here that the United States is mired in religious ignorance, or is it that the US is religiously, ethnically, and culturally diverse, and that it has a history vis-a-vis one of its minorities – a minority that is disproportionately represented among the inmates of the US prison system – the consequences of which are still playing out today?

While many studies show that secular Americans don’t fare as well as the religious when it comes to certain indicators of mental health or subjective well-being, new scholarship is showing that the relationships among atheism, theism, and mental health and well-being are complex…  [S]tudies of apostates — people who were religious but later rejected their religion — report feeling happier, better and liberated in their post-religious lives.

Of course they do, but this fact proves nothing – if they had not been unhappy in the faith, why in the world would they have abandoned it?  The answer, of course, is that they wouldn’t have.  Similarly, I have known people who were functionally irreligious and then found their way to God and reported (and exhibited, from what I could see) improved mental well-being.  All this demonstrates is the old maxim “different strokes for different folks” – not that being an atheist will make anyone in particular happier.

Non-theism isn’t all balloons and ice cream. Some studies suggest that suicide rates are higher among the non-religious.

Wonderful, that infantile imagery, isn’t it?  But here is the question: why should one be an atheist at all?  Is it because it brings you particular life benefits (as does exercise), or is it because it’s the truth?

 On numerous respected measures of societal success — rates of poverty, teenage pregnancy, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, drug use and crime, as well as economics — high levels of secularity are consistently correlated with positive outcomes in first-world nations. None of the secular advanced democracies suffers from the combined social ills seen here in Christian America. [2]

While this is all true, it is another instance of mistaking correlation for causation.  If we look at who tends to be strongly secular in America we will note that it is those who are middle-class and educated.  Such dysfunctions as exemplified in the quotation also tend to be conspicuously absent among the middle-class (since they lead to poorer life outcomes).  The middle-class is also more highly educated than the lower-classes and education is strongly correlated with atheism.  So does atheism prevent dysfunction, or does a lack of dysfunction put one in a better position to be educated (and thus much more likely to adopt atheism)?  I think the latter.

Similarly for strongly secular nations.  Their governance policies either more effectively discourage dysfunction or obviate the negative consequences of dysfunction, as well as making education more available to all members of society, leading to higher rates of atheism.

Negative stereotypes of atheists are alive and well. Yet like all stereotypes, they aren’t true.

Is the stereotype that ‘all stereotypes are false’ also false, then?  Perhaps there is a terminological difference here, where for the authors ‘stereotype’ means ‘false generalizations’ (which would be true but a tautology), but stereotypes are often true (albeit partial) and useful.

In summary: this article is pure garbage.  It does atheists no benefit for many reasons, e.g. it gets the reasons why one should be an atheist wrong, it does not provide any arguments that are good reasons to think atheism is correct.  And it does a lot of harm for one reason – it makes atheists look intellectually unrespectable.  Good arguments are always the way to go, both because opponents then have to deal with the strongest case and because then you know, to the best of your ability, that you have the right picture.  Atheists, take heed!


[1] Something worth noting here is the assumption that all religions are interchangeable in terms of their effects – which is patently absurd.  Why should Christianity as practised by northern Europeans have the same societal outcomes as Japanese Buddhism or Shintoism?

[2] Why the change in terms here from ‘atheist’ to ‘secular’?