Questionable Motives

January 10, 2010

Do atheists perform a public service criticizing religious belief?

Excerpts from Russell Blackford’s Hellfire and Metamagician post:

The trouble with religious explanations of the world is not so much that they are implausible, for their implausibility becomes apparent to many people only after a great deal of thought and against a background of accumulated scientific knowledge. Over the centuries, indeed, religious explanations have proved to be all-too-plausible for people who are attracted to them by their rhetoric, their association with wealth or power, or the comfort they provide … rather than by actual evidence. Conversely, it is a gross misunderstanding to imagine that anyone thinks of quantum theory or cosmological theories as plausible in themselves. On the contrary, these theories, taken in isolation, are difficult and highly counterintuitive.

The entire history of modern science, from Galileo, through Darwin, to the present day, has been one of replacing the common sense of medium-sized earthbound creatures such as us with explanatory theories that defy commonsense intuitions – but are superior in their explanatory reach and conformity to the evidence. Scientific evidence, of course, does not fall from the sky without labour, like so much manna; instead, it is gathered painstakingly and incrementally, year by year, drawing on the professional efforts of many highly-trained individuals. Eventually, some of the evidence converges so powerfully as to support highly successful bodies of theory. Some of these are never likely to be overthrown, such as the theoretical finding that human beings descended from apelike creatures, that the Earth is billions of years old, that it revolves around the Sun (while rotating on its axis), that many diseases are caused by bacteria or viruses, and so on. None of these claims, taken in isolation from the evidence and from the rest of science, is especially plausible.

Religious organisations and leaders continue to exert social and political power, even in the supposedly enlightened nations of the West. All too often, they seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including choices about how we die. We still see intense activism from the religious lobbies of all Western democracies, and even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK and Australia, governments pander blatantly to Christian (and now Muslim) moral concerns.

If religious leaders and their organisations were prepared to stay within the private sphere, worshipping their gods as they choose and performing works of charity, we would have no great problem with them – live and let live! Unfortunately, they tend to lobby for government actions that would impose their moral views on the rest of society – whether it be views about homosexuality, abortion, artistic freedom, end-of-life decisions, blasphemy and vilification laws, or a raft of other issues involving precious individual liberties.

Against that background, there is at least a loose, minimalist movement to challenge the authority of religion. Individual atheists within this unstructured feline community may have widely differing philosophies and priorities, but one thing we could almost all agree on is that religion continues to obtain far too much deference in government decision-making, including when the decisions involve coercion and police powers … and when they involve large sums of public money.

In a different world, without the many religious leaders, organisations, and lobby groups that claim moral authority and exert actual political influence, contemporary atheists would feel less need to be outspoken. However, we don’t find ourselves in that world. Instead, the religious sects, even those that give lip-service to a separation of Church and State (a concept which they self-servingly misinterpret), typically lobby for their specifically religious moralities to be imposed by the secular law. When the religious do that, it is only natural for us to reply by asking what moral authority they really have. Are their holy books and traditions really repositories of supernatural moral wisdom, dictated or inspired by a higher being, or are they all-too-human constructs, reflecting the limited moral visions of their times? Surely it is the latter, and surely we perform a public service when we point this out – supported, where necessary, with evidence and argument.

9 Comments »

  1. Yes they do – because many people have not read the bible properly, and the clergy only read the bits that have a positive message, all the dark stuff they avoid. Yet it is the dark stuff of the bible that insights people to murder others, and motivates the religious to prevent research into genetics etc.

    So Atheists do perform a service on every front, we are fighting a war of ignorance, and our goal is to show the world what the bible actually says and why it is wrong.

    If the human race is to survive, we need to leave religion behind as a relic of our society, atheists everywhere need pull together and provide service to the community not only in debate, but in the teaching of science, critical thinking and free thought.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 14, 2010 @ 9:08 am | Reply

  2. I would be satisfied if people at least dropped the false sense of certainty that festers within religious belief.

    Comment by tildeb — January 14, 2010 @ 3:44 pm | Reply

  3. The time has come for people to stop willingly being blind. We’ve reached a moment in our history where both men and women have the ability to read, question and analyse what is written in these “holy books” and show how flawed, unrealistic, immoral and useless they are to our society. It exactly that, a fight against ignorance. Against tradition for the sake of tradition. It no longer serves a purpose and we must stop tip-toeing around iron age myths and ideals and allow ourselves to progress as a society, through sound research and science.

    Comment by wrightless — January 14, 2010 @ 3:52 pm | Reply

    • Well, I think religion serves many purposes – some of them good – but it carries with it some pretty severe costs, too. Ignorance is often held in higher esteem than knowledge within the framework of various faiths and false answers are held by many faithful to be more honorable to maintain than the honest search for what’s probably true. Violence in defense of the faith is reprehensible and creating dead bodies and unnecessary suffering cannot be allowed to stand without sustained condemnation. But first it is this notion of deference to religious philosophy and assumptions of faith that must be dismantled permanently. No idea is beyond critical examination, and fewer ideas have caused more damage to the human condition and quest for knowledge than has religious certainty of faith. My point, then, is that certainty of faith is the real and common enemy of humanity.

      Comment by tildeb — January 14, 2010 @ 4:20 pm | Reply

    • I agree – but I don’t don’t understand why anyone beyond the age of 12 or 14 can believe in a religion, it is beyond my comprehension in these modern times, with the education we have. I also don’t understand why some scientists still believe in a sentient creator – it would seem that there are many decades of war, and religious fueled ignorance a prejudice ahead. Which is a shame – when we could be doing so much more if people did waste their time on imaginary gods.

      Comment by misunderstoodranter — January 21, 2010 @ 1:36 pm | Reply

      • I think the bicameral mind has a lot to do with it. Just in case you are unfamiliar with the notion, check out http://deoxy.org/alephnull/jaynes.htm

        Comment by tildeb — January 21, 2010 @ 2:37 pm

      • and yet historically, the 20th century has been the bloodiest century. What with the rise of atheistic political systems and their leaders (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot…just to name a few). These regimes violently opposed any sort of religion. So please don’t tell me that atheism is exempt from their own short comings.
        That being said, being a history major, I know people have caused massacre’s in the name of “god”, but the knife cuts both ways. Historically, people have also caused massacres in the name of “modern” atheistic thinking.
        My question is: Despite all our advancements in technology and education, and the systematic secularization of the North American culture (and I wholly believe that it is happening at a rapid pace both in the United States and Canada), why is it that no one (religious and irreligious alike) seems to be getting better both socially and personally?
        Now I myself, am a Christian. A Bible believing Christian. and for the most part I agree with you. That religion has caused massacres, that there are parts of the Bible that people have taken out of context (to make it both fluffy and dark). What I read from the Bible, what I read from history, and the observations I make from the world is that humanity is very much broken. The religious, the agnostics, atheists…all of them are broken. Our world is broken. I don’t think you need to look far to know that something is wrong with the world.
        I know far more people that read their Bibles than I know who do not. And they still believe in the God of the Bible. There is a difference in religion and believing in Jesus. Religions essentially say: “Sin no more and I’ll accept you.” Jesus, on the other hand, essentially says: “I accept you therefore sin no more.”
        If you think (as others, believers and non-believers alike) that the Bible is about us, you are mistaken. The Bible is about God, who He is, what He has done and what He will do…and who we are in comparison to Him.
        I feel like I’ve gone off on a tangent, and have forgotten my original point. In any case you did make some good points. There are many parts that I agree with. But it seems apparent that your beef isn’t with God perse, as it is with a religious system that has very much skewed who God is.

        Comment by hansenlung — April 27, 2010 @ 10:44 am

      • atheistic political systems and their leaders (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot…just to name a few)

        There’s the red flag: atheistic political systems. Yup, the reason why these ‘systems’ were brought into effect was to go after religion! To this day, atheist suicide bombers head off to the nearest cafe on a regular basis to blow themselves up and cause as many casualties as possible to promote that old atheism! Just like Stalin did (he was a seminary student), just like Mao and Pol Pot did to promote atheism!

        You write that you are a history major and yet suggest that the 20th century was bloody because of atheism. This brings into disrepute the accuracy of your historical knowledge. It sounds suspiciously to me like you are being fed this perspective when, with even the slightest effort of critical inquiry, will reveal the notion absurd. Totalitarianism is not atheism. Atheism is not represented by totalitarianism. Atheism is non belief in the truth claim that god is. That’s it. That’s the whole thing right there. Downright bloodthirsty, n’est pas?

        There has not been a single bloody event ’caused’ by atheism to promote more critical reasoning, to enforce by massacre a greater regard for the human condition through holding human rights and dignity of personhood over and above allegiance to the supposed wishes of some imaginary sky father. You thesis is without merit.

        Recall a past that is better than the present and include by what factors you measure this. Do yourself this favour before you assume that humanity is ‘broken’. Now look at these factors and compare nation states. Which are the ‘least broken’? You will find a correlation between the less religious and ‘less broken’.

        My beef isn’t with whether or not unicorn wings are hollow, whether or not god exists. My beef is with those people who think unjustified beliefs in anything – including imaginary supernatural creators of any kind – are worth respect. They’re not.

        Comment by tildeb — April 27, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

  4. “and yet historically, the 20th century has been the bloodiest century. What with the rise of atheistic political systems and their leaders (Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot…just to name a few). These regimes violently opposed any sort of religion. So please don’t tell me that atheism is exempt from their own short comings.”

    Firstly, do you not think that the mechanisation of warfare via the use of bombs, chemicals and atomic reactions has anything to do with the fact that the 20th Century was bloody. Secondly, Stalin et al, were perusing communism. A primary principle of communism is that everyone is considered equal (we know this to be flawed – as profoundly pointed out by Orwell in his famous book Animal Farm); nevertheless the proponents of communism believed in this idealism and in order to get what they wanted they convinced themselves that the public should not believe in anything other than socialism. Atheism was therefore a tool that was used to strip away the public’s belief system – in other words it was not the objective of Stalin to push atheism, it was his objective to push communism by replacing everyone’s belief in god with very strict code of socialism – this is why in communist countries that people are forced to wear uniform.

    However, this said – so what? Stalin was an Atheist – he didn’t believe in god; what does this mean? Are you seriously saying that all Atheists want to kill people – this is clearly not true. There are probably many things that Stalin believed in and didn’t believe in that you and I do. This has no bearing on Stalin’s morals, anymore than the Christian faith had on Truman when he gave the order to drop two thermonuclear bombs on Japan; unless of course you think it is Christianly to vaporise 200,000 people on blind faith alone? Of course not – Truman knew he had to do it to change the politics of the world and to stop the war outright – bringing in a new world order. Like Truman, Stalin thought he was doing the right thing. He saw his crimes as the collateral damage that was necessary to enact the changes he was trying to make – this is how political thinker think, this is why they can be dangerous to individuals, because they are not concerned with the detail, they are concerned with big picture, millions of people. Stalin and indeed Hitler didn’t believe they were evil – they thought they were right, and so did the people who allowed them to gain power. I should add here that both nations had strong Christian origins. So if anything they were products of their time and times gone by and set their moral standing from what they had experienced during their own lives – the British invented the concentration camp, and massacred thousands of people in Africa and India during their occupation in maintenance of their empire – Hitler and Stalin would have observed these and learnt from these principles. At the time the British were a strongly religious Christian country, and only became more secular during the 1960s – during the cultural revolution, that has resulted in a more inclusive society for everyone.

    “My question is: Despite all our advancements in technology and education, and the systematic secularization of the North American culture (and I wholly believe that it is happening at a rapid pace both in the United States and Canada), why is it that no one (religious and irreligious alike) seems to be getting better both socially and personally?”

    You actually believe that? I don’t, and for this reason: We no longer send our troops in their 100,000s to die in trench warfare – troops actually have body armour and health and safety protection – in years gone by the religious generals would have said “god will protect them – leave them to god will” – we know better now, through the lessons learnt through the pain of loss and suffering of this folly. It is no longer acceptable as a business model or as a gentleman’s pass time to keep slaves. Women have more freedoms and rights than ever before. It is no longer socially acceptable to discriminate against people because they are disabled. And it is no longer acceptable to discriminate against people because they are homosexual. We no longer send our children down mines and up chimneys, and we accept a level of health and safety in every public environment that we use. I see these as massive improvements that have happened since the secularisation of society. All these things have happened while church attendances and religious belief has been in decline, therefore the basic moral standing of society has improved for all in spite of religion not because of it.

    “What I read from the Bible, what I read from history, and the observations I make from the world is that humanity is very much broken. The religious, the agnostics, Atheists…all of them are broken. Our world is broken. I don’t think you need to look far to know that something is wrong with the world.”

    And the fact the world is broken gives you faith in a god? How so – how could a perfect being create such a broken world? The world is broken, but religion and faith in god has never fixed it ever. But in contrast, facts attributed to science have provided us with health care, massive food production, technology and mass communication – all of these things are improvements, all of them do not require faith or religion to deliver them.

    “I know far more people that read their Bibles than I know who do not. And they still believe in the God of the Bible. There is a difference in religion and believing in Jesus. Religions essentially say: “Sin no more and I’ll accept you.” Jesus, on the other hand, essentially says: “I accept you therefore sin no more.”

    Again this is a fallacy, just because you know people who have faith does not mean everyone does. I don’t go to Church and unsurprisingly, most of the people I know do not have faith in the god of the bible. There isn’t any difference between religion and believing in Jesus, it is the same thing. The bible was written by the Church and the Church is religion – if you believe in one you believe in the other – it is for this reason that the Catholics hold the Pope in high esteem, and it is the reason I do not. As for believing in Jesus, you must know that the bible was written several decades after Jesus was executed for claiming to be the son of god. The bible was written by St Paul mostly – circa 4 to 6 decades after his death, and Paul made most of that up from a vision – this is by his own admission – so by saying you believe in the bible, you are actually saying you believe in someone else’s dream.

    Would you believe in my dreams? Would you believe in my dreams if I said my god called ‘tosh’ had spoken to me and told you that you should believe in ‘tosh’ or you would burn and choke in acid for ever? (if not why not).

    The Church later edited the bible through a process they call the Canon – during this process they threw out texts that contradicted with each other, and changed a few of the words in other parts. Later other people translated the bible from language to language, and if you should know anything about linguistics when you translate something it looses its original meaning sometimes quite a bit.

    So now you are believing a dream, that was edited to make sense by some men who wanted everyone to believe them and no one else, which was later translated – that’s not something I would hold a lot of faith in.

    “If you think (as others, believers and non-believers alike) that the Bible is about us, you are mistaken. The Bible is about God, who He is, what He has done and what He will do…and who we are in comparison to Him.”

    The bible is about power, and if anything it is about many gods including pagan gods and evil gods, angles and ghosts – it is a story a fairy tale invented by primitive people to communicate, educate and control primitive people – nothing more nothing less – it is out of date, inaccurate and totally inappropriate to base any modern methodology or morals for human society upon it – this has been proven time and time again.
    If you want more proof look here: http://www.godisimaginary.com/

    “But it seems apparent that your beef isn’t with God perse, as it is with a religious system that has very much skewed who God is.”

    I have no ‘beef’ with god, because I have not assumed he exists, there is no evidence for god. The existence of god to me is little more than a very small probability. A probability that I have thought very carefully about. If there was such a god – like the one described in the bible I have not found him. Neither have I found the other gods talked about by other religions and throughout historic texts – even when I did believe in god (a long time ago) he never appeared, my prayers were never answered – and as yet I have never met anyone else who can prove beyond the laws of mathematical chance that god does exist.

    Now if you want to call god ‘nature’ then that is a different thing – I accept that there is a high probability that reality is real – i.e. the material world does exists. After all I can see it, touch it, smell it, hear it, taste it, breath it and I am fairly sure I am made out of it – that fact I can do these things makes it real, the fact I can not use these senses to detect god makes me kind of sceptical.

    Furthermore, there is no evidence within reality that suggests for sure that it was created intentionally by an intelligent being as described within the bible – none what so ever. And so far all the evidence we find in nature points to other explanations, like the age of the earth, fossil records, DNA, evolution – none of these massively well researched and demonstrable research areas of reality have ever concluded that god was the creator – not one.

    I will give you the benefit of identify that I Atheists have ‘beef’ with religion though – we do, first and for most we are sceptical of tall claims – this is not without substance. Religion is one of those tall claims – prove god exists in the same way you can prove that the earth goes around the sun, and I will believe.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — April 27, 2010 @ 3:22 pm | Reply


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