Questionable Motives

November 1, 2011

Of what value is atheism?

If you happen to respect what’s true in reality and how we can know anything about it, then the value of atheism is pronounced.

How so? Well, reader Joshua has asked me the following questions:

Where’s your positive case for atheism? Why is it a superior worldview? What explanatory power does it have for anything? What has atheism contributed to the advancement of the human species? Those are questions I want you to address. Not here, but on your blog.

Okay. Let’s take a look at these one at a time.

1) Where’s your positive case for atheism?

My answer to this is two-fold.

In the first case, atheism in regards to religious claims means non belief. The question is the wrong one in this regard to establish good reasons for not believing. This becomes apparent if we test the same question against, let’s say, non belief in the Easter Bunny. Where’s your positive case for non belief in the Easter Bunny? It’s a silly approach to understanding the role atheism plays in finding out what’s true in reality. Non belief is a negative claim, meaning that because there is no positive evidence for the positive religious claim that it is true, non belief is reasonable alternative. We do this all the time in the face of every absurd claim that has no reasonable case in its favour. Because there are no good reasons to believe in the religious claim based on evidence available to all, there is no reasonable case to be made in its favour. The default, therefore, is non belief in exactly the same way the questioner does not demand of himself a positive case to be made for not believing in faeries, not believing in wood sprites, not believing in Zeus, and so on.

In the second case, my answer is that non belief in the absence of good reasons to believe something is true provides us a tangible benefit, namely, a healthy dose of scepticism to protect one’s self from being foolish and gullible. The shell game, played by religious supporters who cannot provide coherently good reasons independent of their favoured beliefs to make a positive case for their positive religious claim, becomes in this light rather obvious: they believe the religious claim because they have had to elevate belief itself to be a good enough reason in the absence of good reasons based on independent supporting evidence. And here’s the problem: once you accept belief itself as the benchmark for establishing the validity of a truth claim about reality, you have fallen into a rabbit hole of foolish gullibility. There are no longer any belief claims that can be ruled out as false because one has already capitulated any means to establish and inform what’s actually true in order to maintain the validity of holding the religious belief.

2) Why is it a superior worldview?

Atheism itself is not a worldview. It is non belief in religious truth claims. How is one’s worldview altered, for example, by not believing in the literal truth of the Tooth Fairy? The absence of the Tooth Fairy doesn’t alter anything; again, it’s the wrong question. Believing in the Tooth Fairy, however, most assuredly does alter one’s worldview. Accepting the belief itself as valid means one has accepted the reality of the supernatural, and has accepted this double blueprint of a singular reality. That’s why religious believers have to compartmentalize religious beliefs in reality over here and reality as it is over there. We get evidence of this intellectual duplicity all the time with phrase like, “I’m a great fan of science, but…”, and “Religious belief is compatible with science because science doesn’t know everything…” This belief in belief stands in stark contrast to the lack of positive evidence for this positive claim. But the believer has already isolated the religious belief from legitimate critical review not vbecause it isn’t deserving but because what’s true in reality doesn’t matter; the only thing that matters in faith-based beliefs is the application of faith itself, which is why only in religion is faith considered a virtue. This worldview is a distorted worldview because it accepts belief without evidence as the arbiter of what’s true in reality.

Compare the products of belief in the supernatural with the products of methodological naturalism. Belief in the supernatural produces easy pseudo-answers to whatever questions about reality one has; when in doubt, pretend that the supernatural is just as likely a cause and look at what is produced: superstition and ignorance and all the negative effects these produce. Why is the sky blue? Because god made it that way. Where do we come from? We come from god because he created the heavens and the earth and everything in it. These aren’t answers; these are childish pseudo-answers that cannot withstand critical scrutiny. This is why no useful and practical applications have ever been produced by elevating belief to be ‘another way of knowing’. It doesn’t produce knowledge. That’s the brute fact believers don’t care to face. It doesn’t produce consistent explanations of cause and effect that are in any way useful, practical, or reliable because it cannot reveal an understandable mechanism by how it works to cause effects. It’s magic, you see, done by critters that leave no evidence of their time spent among us. It’s intellectual hand waving, a rationalized sleight-of-mind that produces nebulous terminology to infuse the beliefs with the appearance of meaning. But let’s be honest: behind such an appearance we find that belief produces no new knowledge. As ‘another way of knowing’ about anything other than the imagined, belief is an abject failure. Atheism, if understood to be a worldview that simply respects what’s true by allowing reality and not belief to arbitrate our claims to knowledge, is superior because it does produce the intellectual ground for knowledge to be honestly extracted from the universe we inhabit…knowledge that translates into reliable and consistent applications that work for everyone everywhere all the time. That’s not a trivial achievement.

3) What explanatory power does it have for anything?

Atheism as non belief doesn’t try to explain anything because it makes no positive claim. But the mindset to respect reality’s role in arbitrating what’s true about it has the benefit of clearing the table of our preconceived notions and biases and prejudices and allows us to respect a method of inquiry  that we know produces consistently reliable and practical results for everyone everywhere all the time that works… regardless of our beliefs. When one starts with an open mind that doesn’t have to filter incoming information through a belief screen first and judged to be friendly or hostile to the belief, one can allow an epistemology to prove itself, to yield to its own judgement of real value in this universe. This has the immediate benefit of keeping one’s mind sceptical about all claims until the preponderance of evidence from reality lends its weight. Claims about stuff outside of reality with no way to test them have no business being presented as if true in this one without this preponderance of evidence. Those dishonest enough to pretend this drawback to the veracity of  supernatural claims isn’t really much of problem to being compatible with the scientific method are absolutely wrong. Truth claims of supernatural causal effect are a priori statements of belief only, equivalent to making shit up. To consider these supernatural belief claims are in any way compatible with claims derived post facto  from our scientific method are without merit… regardless of how sophisticated and nuanced the belief claim may sound to the uncritical mind, the willingly deceived, the defenders of the faith, the pretenders of respecting what’s true in reality. These religious claims remain solely a belief only… equivalent to and indistinguishable from a delusion.

4) What has atheism contributed to the advancement of the human species?

Non belief – and not respecting the beliefs of others as equivalent to knowledge – has freed our minds to pursue what’s true in reality. The advancements in our collective knowledge over the past two hundred years are directly attributed to developing applications that have greatly enhanced every aspect of human life in every appreciable way. From healthcare to technology this increase in knowledge has yielded tangible and practical benefits. In addition, the reasoned-based approach to political expression and governance derived from Enlightenment values has come unprecedented advances in recognizing human rights as the foundation for our freedoms from the indifference and mindless cruelty of a brutal world. Although we still have much to achieve in respecting equal rights and freedoms of all the world’s citizens, we are on the right path. The evidence for this is overwhelming.

But like anyone trying to reach the age of maturity, we have to face the difficult task of letting go of our childish need for parents as well as letting go of our adult children from our desire to over-nurture so that they can find their own way. Faith-based religious beliefs stand opposed to this letting go, insisting that we need to rely on some authority other than our own because we just can’t be trusted. One of the most common comments from theists who have become atheists is facing this fear of independence and finding liberty as well as responsibility. Autonomy and responsibility go hand in hand and it can yield many results both good and bad. But at least both outcomes are personally owned rather than attributed to some oogity boogity. It is a recognition that the world’s problems are our problems to be solved by us who must live with the consequences of our collective actions. Maturity in this context is recognizing the need for each of us to find that balance between human needs and wants and what the world is willing to tolerate. Atheism means the opportunity for intellectual maturity and intellectual honesty, to grow up and leave the belief-feathered bed of wishful thinking and childish dreams behind, to realize the truth in reality that irresponsible actions will not taken care of by some concerned sky daddy, to become fully human in the here and now with all its personal foibles and take ownership of how we live our lives as well as we can under whatever circumstances in we may find ourselves, all the while working towards helping others achieve their own birthright of intellectual independence from the ancient ignorances and false idols of that are the foundation for all faith-based beliefs.

It’s time to let go of faith-based beliefs and grow up. Reality beckons and we have one shot at it. Let’s grab it, respect what it offers, and live a life worth living.

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14 Comments »

  1. Hey there, tildeb (do you have a first name, or is that it? )

    Been having a browse around your blog today. My main observation, on reading this post, is how much we have in common in our attitudes towards religion – in spite of the fact that you are an avowed atheist, and I remain a person of faith. I have been going through a process of “throwing off the blinkers” over the past decade or so. I was raised fundamentalist christian, and that combined with my own inclination towards being very “black and white” about things, led to a very blinkered and fearful view of the world. What you describe, when you talk about having to filter reality through the requirements of faith, before thinking about anything – can be tragically very true. A long time ago I remember saying to a friend something along the lines of “if God is really God, then he is big enough to take big questions – I’m not going to stop asking hard questions anymore.” The result has been a radical reshaping of my faith – but not an abandonment.

    I think a lot of the rigid, unbending and controlling aspects of religion that you and I BOTH get riled about, are the products of people’s small mindedness, and of fear, rather than faith. If your faith requires you to switch off your intellect, then there IS something superstitious about your faith. Not all faith is like that, however. This is my own subjective experience – NOT science, but I still believe there is something more and am confident to put my trust there. I think if we limit ourselves to what we can rationalise and fully understand, we miss the infinite wonder of life and the universe – whether this is faith based, or not!

    Comment by Kerry Miller-Whalen — November 9, 2011 @ 11:39 pm | Reply

    • Hey KMW, glad to read you here.

      It is a very common misunderstanding that it requires a willingness to accept faith in mysterious agencies to somehow gain access to human experiences not based on reason… experiences like love and wonder and beauty and so on. People of faith are constantly doing this, trying to border atheism as if it come with such constraints… as if a refusal to grant faith-based beliefs any kind of authority translated into a reduction, a loss, of some kind in our experiences of life. This is not true; the opposite is.

      Sure, atheism allows for responsible autonomy rather than this granting to faith some measure of respect in order to access awe or wonder or the sublime. No faith is required, no false sense of deference to those willing to believe in some agency for which there is no evidence. Nature works understandably well enough without needing for us to include the complication of some imagined agency behind it all. The Grand Canyon is an astounding geographical landmark and the recognition of its magnificence due to erosion over time is not improved by assuming some supernatural agency directed it into being. I think the assumption of agency without evidence is a reduction in appreciating just how incredible are the forces of physics over time on matter. Atheism in this sense is not just liberating and freeing but allows for an honest appraisal of what is, revealing all of nature to be what it is without us having to overlay it with this imagines agency complete with mysterious yet obviously chauvinistic intentions and egotistical insightful purposes for each and every one of us, concerned as it supposedly is over what we eat, how we dress, and especially concerned over the use of our gonads. Coming to recognize our atheism for all claims to the supernatural across the board – rather than allow for few special exemptions – is a process that frees the mind from settling for pseudo-answers involving oogity boogity to asking honest questions and demanding honest answers based on what is true. No faith-based belief in some external supernatural authority ever improves one’s hones quest to know nor provides any meaningful answers that respects what’s true. In the same way that your appreciation for experiencing all that life can offer is not impeded by having no belief in, let’s just pick one, Isis, so too is non belief in any monotheistic supernatural agency no impediment to attaining these experiences but often acts to pervert them into serving a theological cause. Atheism is simply an admission to one’s self that there are no good reasons to believe in this parental oversight agency.

      Comment by tildeb — November 10, 2011 @ 10:11 am | Reply

  2. Hi again, Tildeb,
    I see two separate lines of thought in what you are writing. One is a call for rationality, to be open to the evidence and facts around us, and not to ascribe supernatural causes to things that can be explained naturally. The other is a call for atheism – the abandonment of belief in any kind of God, since that cannot be proven by rational means. I think you slightly misunderstood my earlier statement. I was not suggesting that it was necessary to accept any kind of deity, in order to experience things that seem to transcend rational explanation. Merely that there are many experiences in life that we cannot rationally define, explain, quantify or fully understand, and to accept ONLY those experiences in life which can be fully rationalised, would lead to an impoverished life indeed! Something I think you would agree with?

    Comment by Kerry Miller-Whalen — November 11, 2011 @ 7:39 am | Reply

    • Thanks for the clarification. What you call ‘rationality’ I call intellectual honesty. So my call to look at the deleterious effects of respecting faith-based beliefs is a call to look honestly at how this respect plays out. When we do this, we see a very clear pattern: in order to maintain faith-based beliefs, one must accept some measure of intellectually dishonesty in order to maintain it. We need to look no further than respecting the findings of science by believers when it is convenient but a majority of believers rejecting exactly the same method when it stands contrary to a faith claim. That is hypocrisy in action and it is liberally practiced by believers all the time who must rely on intellectual dishonesty in order to maintain their beliefs.

      It is a convenience for faith-based believers to pretend that atheists respect only rationality so that they can then appear heroic and tolerant when they tear down this straw man by showing that many life experiences have nothing to do with rationality. Using this handy dandy straw man, believers can then rationalize that atheists don’t believe in their god because it is not suitable to rational inquiry but is suitable for experiencing it in some other way. Experience wonder? That’s god, you see. Experience love? Again, god. Experience beauty? God is everywhere in the human condition! But how absurd when we substitute another god other than today’s typical monotheistic deity and try to say the same thing. Try Baal and see just how silly this looks!

      But this doesn’t stop believers from making truth claims about their god’s effect in reality… effects that are accessible to rational examination and found (no surprise here) wanting! Of course there are many experiences in life that are not in need of rational understanding – experiences as I have already mentioned like love, beauty, and so on – but to assume that what the words we use to describe them are held by atheists to be empty and meaningless is patently false. Atheists certainly respect rationality where appropriate because it is the process of reasoning by which we can gain useful and practical knowledge that is reliable and consistent. When it comes to truth claims about reality, surely you can appreciate that denigrating the role of reason to then substitute empty belief claims is no path at all to knowledge… and history bears this out. Faith-based belief has produced not one single bit of knowledge that is useful and practical and reliable and consistent. Nothing! So when you speak of an impoverished life, let’s be very clear: granting respect for feel-good empty beliefs doesn’t enrich our life at all but detracts significantly from experiencing it honestly.

      Comment by tildeb — November 11, 2011 @ 10:11 am | Reply

      • You can rationalize love and beauty and this rationalization has more meaning than any sentimental and superficial linkage to someone else’s idea of a god.

        Comment by misunderstoodranter — November 12, 2011 @ 5:03 am

      • How so?

        Comment by tildeb — November 12, 2011 @ 7:38 am

      • Evolution. Love is an emotion, emotions evolved because they helped reproduction and better survival of offspring – this I admit is very simplistic, but the principle is there. Same is true of beauty – which is merely an expression of liking or being attracted to something – when this happens your unconscious brain makes a cost assessment, and decides that something of beauty is desirable – it is pretty straight forward really. What surprises me is how people try to make these things complicated – when really it is just a set of instincts that have been evolved – it is no different than speech which is a series of grunts.

        Comment by misunderstoodranter — November 14, 2011 @ 3:55 pm

  3. Atheism is a widely misunderstood word, especially so in North America. Good to clear things up as much as possible. The religious have had 2-3000 years of unchecked dishonesty, could take us a while to undo the damage but we I’m confident we will. Good article.

    Comment by bryanbr — November 12, 2011 @ 9:10 am | Reply

  4. Hello again, Tildeb,

    Thanks for your reply – I would have responded earlier, but have been away from the computer for most of the last couple of days (having other kinds of fun instead of blogging 🙂

    Yes – intellectual honesty is a much better term (was groping for the right one). I do agree that religious institutions habitually push people into thinking that is intellectually dishonest. I know first hand what it is like! I think that fear is the driving force behind this (NOT faith) – because people think by questioning the institution, or the accepted dogma, they won’t measure up to the “spiritual” standards they believe in. It is a horrible pressure pot to live in!! Many people *think* that they must blinker their thinking in order to maintain their faith. To me, that is not faith at all!! If something is real, then it should be robust enough to survive hard questions! I think it’s sad. And I don’t think it’s necessary.

    I do believe that our reality transcends the merely physical, and that beauty, love etc. can be seen as elements of this. I guess on that point alone, though, you can give that idea of “something more” any name you want. Speaking of “straw men”, however – There are some religions that acknowledge either a creator God, or a force underpinning the universe. There are also many that focus on “local deities” or particular spirit beings. My understanding is that the name Ba’al (at least in the Hebrew scriptures) was usually used to refer to the latter kind. It is absurd to attribute such universal experiences to a minor deity. If you are talking about the life force of the universe, however (by whatever label) it is not illogical.

    I’m hoping you didn’t see my reference to “an impoverished existence” as an inference that atheists are impoverished because they ignore anything that is not purely rational. None of the atheists I know and call friends, think that way. My point was only that there are aspects to our existence that cannot be fully explained by science and logic. What you decide about those is up to your own (hopefully intellectually honest), discretion. However faith need not be intellectually dishonest.

    Comment by Kerry Miller-Whalen — November 12, 2011 @ 9:33 pm | Reply

    • I think, KMW, you are falling into a typical quagmire of the religiously inclined: to attribute anything to which the method of science is an inappropriate avenue for inquiry to some kind of oogity boogity causation. Now, I know that the term oogity boogity seems offensive at first blush, but in effect this is what you are claiming. You are suggesting that the terms we use to describe relationships and ideas and concepts are immaterial and that they represent immaterial ‘things’ that are indicative of some other agency than ourselves, some other agency than the knowable forces of physics in nature. Put simply, I think that without people to hold the limbic experience we call ‘love’, for example, there is no such ‘thing’ at all. Love, in other words, is not a thing. The experience of emotions we call love does not derive from some other source beyond us but from our biology! It’s our biological response we call ‘love’. Without our biology, love – like justice and beauty and virtue and purpose and meaning – doesn’t exist. These kinds of terms are what we use to describe our relationship with and to something. Yet you would have me believe that I derive my ability to love from some other beneficent agency than my biology – an agency that is real, that causes effect (like ‘creation’) and yet supposedly exists beyond reality. I don’t buy that for a minute and these terms to describe stuff is not any kind of evidence at all for this agency of oogity boogity.

      Also, you assert that faith (in the religious sense) regarding aspects to our existence need not be intellectually dishonest. I challenge you to show how this can be so. Here’s my take on it: science as a method of inquiry deals with reality. Faith is quite willing to bypass this annoying aspect of claims made about reality by claiming stuff exists beyond reality. My question is this: how can we know anything at all about stuff removed from reality? How can anyone make a claim about stuff beyond reality we can know nothing about and then turn around and argue that this willingess to just make stuff up and pretend it’s true it isn’t a fatal blow to intellectual honesty? In contrast, the intellectually honest will state “I don’t know” about stuff they cannot know. If the religiously sympathetic would do the same, then you’re right: there would be no intellectual dishonesty in play. But there is, and it’s all around us, and it is effecting laws and policies and education and governance and freedoms and medical treatments and research and…. and… and…. I can’t think of any area of public concern that is immune from this intellectually dishonest made up stuff called religion that is factored into all kinds of public domain issues and treated as if true by great gobs of people who should know better!

      Comment by tildeb — November 13, 2011 @ 3:12 pm | Reply

  5. It is absurd to attribute such universal experiences to a minor deity.

    Wow.
    Don’t go for those “minor” deities, huh?
    Okaaay.
    Easy fix.

    How about Odin? Or maybe Orisis? Or Vishnu? They are not “minor”.
    Human history is filled with gods. Bulging at the seams. No need to settle for the one that your local history and geography landed you with.
    There are lots and lots and lots and lots and LOTS to choose from.

    Who Is “The One True God”?

    Comment by Cedric Katesby — November 13, 2011 @ 6:56 am | Reply

  6. Tildeb,

    I have to say (quite seriously) that I LOOOVE my limbic system 🙂 (well, at least, the pleasurable bits! 😉

    I think that whether those “larger-than-life-seeming” human experiences are, in fact, part of a connection with something deeper in this universe, or simply a matter of biology (which we DON’T fully understand yet) is something we are allowed to agree to disagree on. I don’t feel the need to push my viewpoint down your – or anybody else’s – throat. Something we both DO agree on, is that there is no place in the public domain for manipulation and control, using any kind of religious belief, “higher power”, or even philosophical system as justification. That isn’t justice. I’m a passionate believer in the need for genuine dialogue – and all of these things just squash any possibility of that. I’m not big on the adversarial approach (in any domain) for the same reason.

    I guess my answer, imperfect as it is, to your challenge to show how faith need not be intellectually dishonest, is simply to say that I’m pursuing intellectual, emotional and relational honesty to the best of my ability. To this point, I have not found it necessary to abandon faith for this – although it HAS led to conflict with religious folks, at times – the closest I’ve come to having a big philosophical or theological argument about anything is with them – & probably for the same reason you have your impassioned debates – that some of the beliefs and practices taken for granted as “right” within religious society are, in fact, unethical and unjust.

    Comment by Kerry Miller-Whalen — November 13, 2011 @ 11:21 pm | Reply

    • There is no evidence that what you call ‘larger-than-life-seeming’ human experiences are, in fact, part of a connection with anything other than our biology. By suggesting that it may be, you are trying to counterbalance what we actually know about reality with what you wish to believe about reality. Yet you previously wrote If something is real, then it should be robust enough to survive hard questions. Notice that you do not subject what you wish to believe with exactly this when the ‘connection’ you mention has failed to make its appearance in reality. Because you don;t like the honest answer that there is no connection you allow the notion to remain plausible, not because it is honest to do so but because you simply wish it were so. Although this may be emotionally satisfying to you, it is intellectually dishonest. It has failed the reality test. For me, that matters if I wish to respect what’s true and knowable about reality.

      It is tempting to hold religion itself in contempt of reality when we find out that many of its truth claims have no basis of merit in reality. But what empowers these religions to hang around is the belief people invest in them. That’s the sum total of their contribution to knowledge about what’s true. I see no qualitative difference between someone who insists that we should not mix cotton with linen because god disapproves and someone who is willing to maintain that an outside agency may be responsible for our emotional responses. Both give up respecting reality in order to continue to favour the truthfulness of a belief claim when reality fails to do so. This is dishonest if one does this yet still tries pretends to respect what’s true and knowable about reality.

      It is the willingness to respect this dishonesty that I criticize. In other words, you may believe whatever you wish but I think it is unreasonable to assume that others should intellectually respect those who make these dishonest claims that disregard reality’s role in substantiating beliefs about it simply on the merit that we owe unsubstantiated belief respect because people hold them to be true. Rubbish! This is where we often run into the ‘We’ll have to agree to disagree’ faux-armistice… as if we are being reasonable to reach such an equitable compromise. But that too is strikingly dishonest. To suggest that those who believe in wishful claims makes the claims themselves just as well informed as factual claims supported by reality is, I think, very dishonest. For example, if I claim your car engine is powered by invisible pixies on invisible running wheels, and you claim the car’s power can be shown in multiple ways to come from the internal combustion engine within that car, our truth claims about what’s going on in reality are not equal. It is disingenuous to when faced by all the evidence in favour of the combustion explanation and my failure to produce ANY evidence for my truth claim to then say, “Well, we’re just going to have to agree to disagree.” That’s not tolerance and politeness; it’s intellectual capitulation. Offering faux-respect for such a compromise disrespects reality’s role in informing the truthfulness of claims made about it. What this faux-respect is actually doing is granting my wishful thinking merit only on the basis that I wish to hold it. That may sound nice and polite but, in action, it is equivalent to granting delusion equal merit to describe reality. And if you are willing to grant me that right to define the reality we share with delusions of my own making, then what you are really doing is relegating reality to be of lesser concern than my beliefs about it. That’s dishonest, because my beliefs do not shape your reality; reality shapes reality and we can both know quite a lot about it that is demonstrably true if and only if we respect what’s true over and above people’s beliefs about it.

      Comment by tildeb — November 14, 2011 @ 9:27 am | Reply

  7. Just to clarify – there’s no place in the public – OR ANY- domain, for manipulation/control tactics…

    Comment by Kerry Miller-Whalen — November 13, 2011 @ 11:24 pm | Reply


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