Believe it or not, I used to hang out with a bunch of people who were actually proud to call themselves Fundamentalists. Some of them were even pretty nice people; they just got a bit narrow-minded on issues that were of emotional importance to them. These days fundamentalisms are my pet peeve, in my roles both as a teacher and as an amateur diplomat between folks of differing convictions. It seriously bothers me when someone starts to insist that they have a (literally or figuratively) God-given monopoly on “proper understanding” of some significant aspect of metaphysics or the human experience, and that everyone who doesn’t see it their way must be either ignorant or stupid or evil or self-deceived. And yes, I see this among both religious believers and zealous anti-believers.
More times than not this “proper understanding” comes by way of a collection of authoritative statements made by some great leader or council on the matter, and this set of “scriptures” serves the function of saying to the followers, “Look, we know that these are difficult for you, so we took the time to sort them out for you properly. So now you no longer have to worry your little heads about them. Just trust our basic perspective and everything else will be fine.” That in itself isn’t necessarily a problem. We all need to rely on trusted advice every now and again, and we all need to just functionally accept certain things we are told as true in everyday life. There are many areas in which continuous argument over basic issues can be counter-productive. The problem comes when these ideas become so emotionally charged as “final truths” that any serious questioning of them is taken as a form of blasphemy.
Let’s take a non-religious example of a socially accepted majority understanding that could still be subject to some dispute: DUI. A few generations of experience with motor vehicles have given people in industrialized countries in general an awareness that consuming significant amounts of alcohol before operating such machines is generally a very bad idea. Thus almost all cultures having automobiles also have laws against driving them while drunk. What counts as a “significant amount” varies somewhat from culture to culture, as do the means of determining when someone is guilty of violating this prohibition, but the basic principle is well established. The particular local and national laws enforcing this restriction are not subject to debate, particularly in the practical case where someone is trying to decide whether or not to drive home after having a few at a party (even though inevitably such debates do happen). Rather than arguing about it, it is by far the simplest and most socially beneficial approach to say, “If you drink, don’t drive; if you drive, don’t drink.”
It’s worth explaining the rational arguments behind this to those who are genuinely unaware of how alcohol affects the central nervous system, and how that can lead to unnecessary risks and even death for intoxicated drivers and those on the roads they drive on. But there will always be those skeptics for whom rational argument won’t work, who consider themselves physiologically exceptional. Once the general principle has been established, sometimes compliance –– if not agreement –– needs to be forcibly required. For this we have police patrols.
A separate matter, however, is whether those who don’t believe in the dangers of drunk driving can be punished for speaking about their beliefs. Should their heretical views on this matter be punished? Are they endangering the lives of others with their claims that drinking and driving should be more socially acceptable, even if they are not actively driving under the influence themselves? Or for that matter what if someone is honestly able to prove –– in driving competitions or any other scientific test that you care to put them through –– that they still have better reflexes behind the wheel after 5 or 6 shots of booze than any competitor with less than 5 years’ driving experience does cold sober? Does that justify their ignoring the laws in the matter? And what if we were in some place where there actually weren’t any laws in force regarding the matter –– if we only had our awareness of how these things work, but no higher standard to appeal to? How emotional should we allow ourselves to get about such arguments? How angry could non-believers in the dangers of drunk driving get in return? How far should we go in trying to prove to the world that the other side is entirely wrong?
Obviously there’s room for disagreement between intelligent people on what the most productive approach to such disagreements might be. My suggestions:
- Stay as close as possible to the demonstrable facts of the matter (things that both sides can actually agree on and practically check up on if necessary).
- Keep honest communication open over what is practically at stake in the disagreement (in the DUI example primarily danger to life, limb and property vs. potential loss of stimulation and liberty to seek adventure in life) and over which side it would be better to ere on in cases involving less than perfect certainty.
- As much as possible avoid demonizing the other side and making the argument deeply personal. Assume sincerity and basic human virtues on the other side whenever possible.
Now, can we try to take these principles over to debates between religious people and atheists? I would like to hope so.
I have posted at length in previous blogs about both why I personally chose to believe in God and how I would ideally like to see religions function. I won’t go back over that territory here. What I’d rather like to do is to pursue a mutual understanding with my religiously non-believing friends over definitions of terms and principles of good taste in discussing these matters in what we might call a philosophical manner. As a reference point for the views of “the other side” on this I’ll be addressing myself to “QualiaSoup’s” on-line video presentation on the matter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sNDZb0KtJDk, but presented in such a way as to make sense to readers who haven’t taken the time to watch the video in question.
The first matter to clarify here is the basic use of the word “belief.” There is a certain common tendency in everyday language to use the phrase “I believe so” to imply equivocation about the final certainty of the matter in question. If I were to say that I believe Portugal will be the next FIFA world champions in soccer, as bizarre as the statement might sound to someone who’s watched Ronaldo’s ice cold performances this week, I could in good faith get away with saying so, because of all of the uncertainty implied in saying it that way. In the world of sports, so long as it is not controlled by bookies, no one really knows what the results of coming years’ competitions will be. I’m not really sure; I just believe so. Atheists tend to assume that this same level of uncertainty is built into religious belief, and that this contrasts with their own perspectives, which are less “belief-based”.
The problem here is that this equivocates from the more philosophical use of the word belief, based on the use of the ancient Greek word “pistis” or “pisteuo”. Quite the contrary to the everyday use of the term given above, belief in this sense is a very foundational trust, of the sort you put in a rope bridge when you step out onto it to cross a canyon. It is something that you are convinced of enough to stake your basic personal security on the matter. In this regard what you know is a sub-category of what you believe –– specifically those beliefs that that you have “valid evidence” for and that in the long run turns out to be true. So if we stick to this sense of the word “belief” or “believe”, it follows that if you know something you also believe it, and you need to believe things in able to know them. To claim you have no beliefs thus logically implies that you have no knowledge either.
This in turn relates to the question of whether those who claim to be uncommitted as to whether or not there is any supernatural force “out there” worthy of being called God should be called “weak atheists” or “agnostics”. The argument here is essentially that agnosticism refers to a lack of what the Greeks called “gnosis”: knowledge, not “pistis”: faith or belief. To say that these are unrelated, however, is a bit of a misrepresentation of the terminology, since pistis is a fundamental precondition for gnosis.
The point of the term “agnostic” is not to say that one reserves the right to have beliefs regardless of their lack of justifiability, but rather to say that one isn’t going to take a stand one way or the other with regard to the issue of a supernatural world. Someone who takes a stand for the existence of a supernatural world can properly be called a theist of some sort (including monotheists, polytheists, pantheists, etc.) or a deist under some circumstances. Someone who wishes to take a stand against various understandings of the supernatural –– to whom it is important that the implications of such ideas of the supernatural would be excluded from life as he or she knows it –– who is willing to stake his or her sense of safety, purpose and well-being on a premise that no such supernatural force is going to involve itself in his or her life –– is an atheist. That is a form of belief, and as long as the atheist does not take “belief” to be a term of derision –– to imply the sort of uncertainty I have towards Portugal’s soccer success –– there really shouldn’t be any problem with that.
If someone objects to “agnostic” being used as a description for a lack of faith in the supernatural, the implication is that just because a person lacks knowledge doesn’t necessarily mean that they lack beliefs, so agnostic might be too broad a category. They don’t want to be called agnostics because they don’t want to be grouped together with those who have beliefs one way or another, but who still lack confidence in their ability to justify their beliefs. Thus they might want to use “atheist” to imply a lack of supernatural belief, not just a lack of certainty about their beliefs. In other words they are trying to re-define atheism as inclusive of hyper-agnosticism: total cluelessness in religious matters –– not only can they not prove their theories; they don’t have any idea as to what might or might not be out there. If that’s what they mean though, then it would make more linguistic sense to just call themselves “hyper-agnostics” –– or to coin a term literally meaning to be “against belief,” they could call themselves “apistics.”
To refer to oneself as an atheist really does imply opposition to some particular collection of theistic ideas, however broadly that concept is to be applied in the given case. It does apply an active metaphysical stance, and when you have an active metaphysical stance –– even in the negative –– you have a form of pistis. If, on the other hand, the atheist is effectively saying, “Oh, I have knowledge. I just don’t have any beliefs,” all that means is that they really don’t know what they’re talking about.
From there it does go with the territory to note that negative beliefs inherently involve negating something more specific. Since I am posting this on what the US celebrates as Father’s Day I’ll use that as an example: if I were to categorize people in terms of those who believe that fathers are important in child rearing, those who believe that fathers are not important in child rearing and those who refuse to take a general stand for or against the institution of fatherhood, both those on both the positive side and those on the negative side would be rather likely to have some childhood experiences regarding particular father figures which strongly color their views. If nothing else on the negative side this could be a conspicuously absent biological father, without whom they may feel that they did just fine. In this sort of sense opposition really does imply the existence of a mental construct of some sort to be in opposition to. So when someone is convinced that they should stand in opposition to theism –– that in everyday language they are justified in saying, “I don’t believe in God” –– it is not at all a silly question to ask, “Which God is it that you don’t believe in?” The video linked above really ties itself up in knots in attempting to deny this fact.
The narrator there makes the statement: “I worked out as a child that if there were any gods none of them were bothered about using their supposedly awesome powers to provide direct dramatic evidence of their existence.”
Again, I won’t take this space to explain again why I do take the idea of a supernatural world seriously, since those who are interested in my personal take on the matter can find it in my previous essays here, and since I really don’t think that anything I might say to convinced opponents of the supernatural here would make any real difference to those of the opposing camp. But in reading between the lines of the above quote, it seems to very much have to do with early experiences of prayers not being answered, be they his own or someone else’s. So in other words there was some very specific god or gods which as a child he decided not to trust or believe in, and a generalized rejection of the supernatural seems to have spread in his mind from there. I admit that I don’t know this person well enough to make a conclusive psycho-analytical statement, but based on the data given this is a highly plausible analysis –– certainly at least as plausible as any of his analysis of theistic thought. For him to in turn to accuse those who point out such psychological considerations of “convoluted thinking,” as this video does in its own crude way, is thus a bit of a swing and a miss.
It’s also a bit of a swing and a miss for this representative of atheism to claim that the biblical God is “multiply self-refuting” of the basis of him “needing worship”. Nowhere in the Bible is that listed as a “need” of God’s, nor is it even implied in mainstream Christian theology. To present that as evidence against the concept of God is a classic example of the “man of straw fallacy,” and I would encourage those on both sides to avoid such tactics. If the claim that the biblical God is self-refuting is to be advanced here it will need stronger evidence than that.
Overstated condemnation of the other side’s views is frequently combined with overly optimistic summaries of the virtues of one’s own group’s thinking. The summary of atheistic thought, as opposed to theistic thought, implying that it has a “scientific” base, and that as such the point of its theories is “not to convince people that they are true, but to account for available data with the model which has the greatest explanatory and predictive power” is a case in point. Thomas Kuhn’s work has adequately proven that this has never been the case in science –– converting skeptics has always been part of the “scientific community’s” enterprise. A fortiori, a “faith-neutral” perspective has never been the case among those promoting (or defending) atheism as such.
The video closes with a defense of atheists’ defensiveness based on the abuse and religious intolerance that they have been subjected to over the years. In some regards this brings up a legitimate point: There is a strong human tendency to seek ideological consensus and to eliminate ideological difference within societies. Historically speaking the vast majority of human societies have reinforced such ideological homogeneity by religious means –– brutally punishing and torturing anyone who dares to believe differently from their official state or tribal religion. This happened to Jews in particular within state church dominated countries in Europe up through the time of the enlightenment; it happened to doubters of the word of the Sangoma in pre-colonial African cultures; it happened to those who challenged the official state ideology and personality cult for the leader in Maoist China, the Stalinist Soviet Union and the last three generations of North Korean leadership; and it continues to happen to various sorts of “infidels” in would-be Islamic theocracies around the Middle East today. In each of those cases persecution has given rise to an ideological cult of respect for martyrs. In the case of atheists within Western societies there is the legend of men such as Galileo attempting to stand up for secular reason against the authoritative dogma of the Catholic Church, and suffering for it; and then there is the evil figure of Machiavelli, suggesting that the only ideological and religious persuasion which should never be trusted (and should always be punished) is atheism, since not believing that they are ultimately responsible to any force beyond themselves makes these people inherently dangerous to the state. So does this history of facing opposition explain and/or justify the zeal and confrontational character of some atheists we see in the media these days? In my opinion, yes and no.
What this tendency towards the persecution of atheists does show is two things really. First of all it is clearly more the rule than the exception for societies to be religious, and thus on the issue of “burden of proof” towards breaking with the starting position or the status quo, it falls to atheists to prove that societies can operate in a healthier fashion without their religious underpinning. This in turn involves proving that their fundamental premises in this regard are false. Beyond that though, it shows that when it comes to individual men of conscience standing up against abuses within societies, it is the courage of the individual to defy the collective that is at the moral heart of the matter; not whether that individual (or that society) has a religious or non-religious motivation for the moral principles in question. Both love and compassion on the one hand and fear and violence on the other can be motivated by religious conviction or by an atheistic self-centered orientation.
All that being said, there are a few things which this atheist presenter and I might agree upon. There are clearly abuses which take place in the name of various understandings of God. There is a fair amount of problematic black and white thinking that religious people are prone to. There are very personalized attempts at demonizing the other going both ways in these sorts of debates. Thus the challenge of establishing a respectful dialog here is never going to be easy.
Among both atheists and theists of all stripes, one of the on-going challenges will continue to be what some call the Dunning-Kruger effect: The principle that the less competent a person is to express an opinion on these matters, the more confident they will be in doing so. Or as Bertrand Russell put it, “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” This happens among both atheists and theists. If it happens that one side or the other has a higher concentration of cocksure idiots in any given society it will have to do with which position is overall more socially acceptable, thus requiring less thought to subscribe thereto, not which position is inherently more sensible.
As with drinking and driving, there are some things about a dogmatic atheism that I consider to be potentially quite dangerous –– particularly among those who sincerely believe that “without God all things are permissible” and that it is part of the natural order of things from there for the strong to pitilessly dominate the weak. But just as I reserve the right not to be painted with the same theistic brush as Spanish Inquisitors and Muslim terrorists, I am willing to allow my atheist friends to disassociate themselves from the more sociopathic elements within their movement. I still believe that among intelligent people who do not consider their own perspective to be the final word on the matter there is room for debate and improved mutual understanding and cooperation in relation to these questions, even in the twenty-first century.