William Matheson (nova_one) wrote,
William Matheson

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Response to "10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (And Must) Agree On"

The following is both a comment reply (from this entry) as well as a response to "10 Things Christians and Atheists Can (And Must) Agree On" by David Wong on cracked.com. It's a flawed but serviceable article and I recommend reading it, and I thank my lovely interlocutor for having recommended it.

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Her comments:

I guess that is what bothers me about the aforementioned fundamentalist atheist: the implication that theism and critical thinking skills are mutually exclusive, or that because I am still a theist I must be too afraid to take an honest look at my beliefs. As if people with PhDs aren't religious leaders.

That, and you know, the idea that the existence or non-existence of a God can be definitively proven.

Well, there are PhDs and there are PhDs. I think a PhD in astrophysics is somehow different from a PhD in sociology. The former amounts to a lot of doing, and the latter a lot of reading and writing. Not to pick on sociologists, but they would be far more likely to become religious leaders.

I don't think God can be proven or disproven... yet. Honestly, though, I prefer to frame this in terms of "does God matter?" It's a much more defensible position. For me, it helps me remember how much running around and twisting and backflipping is needed (like the existence of Satan, the fact that we were expelled from Paradise) to explain why God isn't taking an active role in our lives. It's a terrific setup, and it's hard to imagine that it didn't exist in this form as little as 2,000 years ago. (Neither did the English language, and we take it for granted, too.)

On to the article. I don't like being told that I "must" agree on something, so I have to say that this article started me out on the wrong foot. However, reading it has provided me with a good jumping-off point for further discussion. It also effectively points out the insensitivities in my assertions.

- I don't think Stalin and Mao were bloodthirsty, they were just interested in doing whatever had to be done to stay in power and maintain their cults of personality. (This merely necessitated a lot of blood.)

- Oh, of course many people are convinced there's a God. They go out of their way to be convinced and stay convinced. I vividly remember when I was a kid, thinking, "Who are these people talking to when they pray? God's never talked to me." So I essentially made the voice of God up in my head and it wasn't long after that that I believed it had been there the whole time. I'd like to say that deep inside I knew it was a sham, but hell even today that illusion is tempting.

I think the real reason we're capable of such illusion is actually to be able to function socially without killing each other in fits of rage. We can't handle the most stinging truths about ourselves and others. We have to lie a little just to get by, and we wilfully deceive ourselves about various things every day. I think religion is an outgrowth of this tendency. And religion deserves very little credit for its existence - it's an easier thing to adopt than to shake off, and in past generations it was all but mandatory (notably when it served the purposes of the state).

- Morals have little to do with the God question. Morals are like languages - they're a self-perpetuating virus. We're conditioned into them! They're not sent down from the Heavens - they're slapped into us on the firing lines of childhood. Children receive feedback of some kind for nearly everything they do. (Perhaps it's our instinct to provide it, and that's something genetic.)

- Everybody is aware that something can be both true and offensive, right?

You see a friend holding a newborn baby and you say, "You know, there's a chance he'll die tomorrow." Or you stand over the casket at your uncle's funeral and say, "He'll definitely be consuming fewer of the world's natural resources now." Both statements completely, 100% factually correct, and can be defended to the end of time by cold, undeniable logic. And both are incredibly offensive.

I really had to laugh at this part. Bang on the money.

I sincerely doubt that the mass murderer and the kindly grandma would be subject to the same eternal rewards. I think that would violate the laws of physics. I don't think anything we do is without some kind of consequence, but the consequences can be hard to see. But the author, in bringing a point like that up, makes me think a little bit about why some people really seriously balk at atheistic ideas. (I'm reminded of a friend-of-a-friend's deceased father, whose passing influenced the then-child to adopt Roman Catholicism wholesale so that they could be together in Heaven.)

- Rejecting science in one field? Sigh. I'm sorry, I see science as a take-it-or-leave-it discipline. It's a discipline. Or many disciplines, and the disciplines inform each other. Math, physics, chemistry, biology - you need it all! This idea that you can just pitch evolution, which is called by those who know more than I do the grammar of biology, is as bad and in some ways worse than rejecting the physics that's at play when we drive our cars. The evidence for both evolution and, say, gravity is so overwhelming that I think it's outside the scope of reasonable debate. Gracious, evolution is even taking place in readily observable time - why do we need all these new antibiotics all the time?

- Word of God or not, the faith changes, adapts with the times. That is, in fact, the entire point of Christianity. Pfft. That's a pretty charitable way to look at it. Sure, some churches do an okay job of reacting to the times, but most of the time it's done kicking and screaming. Where are most denominations on the ordination of women? Gays? Sexuality? Give me a break.

- Conversely, atheists like to pretend they're islands of pure, rational thought in a sea of wild-eyed craziness. But we all have a little crazy in our world, and we all depend on some fantasy that floats outside the boundaries of cold reason.

Atheists still tell their girlfriends they "love" them, and not that they simply feel a psychological artifact of a biochemical bond generated by the mating instinct. They still refer to their "mind" as if it's something more than chemical switches. And remember what we talked about with "justice" and "right" and "wrong." None of it is scientific.

Perhaps it hasn't been subject to scientific rigor (I'm sure some evidence-based psychologists are looking for empirical and ethical ways to do so), but to say that our feelings and thoughts and acts are outside the realm of scientific inquiry seems to me like drawing an imaginary line in the sand, setting a boundary which science isn't supposed to cross. It smacks of infantile non-thinking.

One interesting thing is that there's still a lot of room for free will. The universe and everything in it is only predictable at large scales, and even then only for short periods of time. On the macro side, we can predict the regional weather for a few days, but we have no way of knowing for sure whether or not it will rain on your particular roof. The balance of such probabilities work much better at large scales. So it is with small things: radioactive decay, where we know that x percentage of the particles will decay in y amount of time, yet we can't predict the outcome of any particular particle. And at the level of electrons, we can know their velocity or position, but not both at the same time. The very fabric of the universe seems to defy prediction and any sense of determinism - if a parallel universe were set up with identical starting conditions to our own, this new universe would be different from ours in an instant. Then imagine piling on new differences on top of that. So I'm of the opinion that there's lots of room for free will or at least unpredictability. We have choices, and they matter.

Even weirder? Free will. Remember, to a neuroscientist, free will is every bit as real as the Tooth Fairy. They can watch your neurons light up at the moment you make moral decisions, can trace the exact electrochemical pathways. If there is nothing beyond the physical, then your ability to choose your actions vanishes along with God and Heaven and the angels. It was an atheist professor who told me that, in a class on ethics.

Sure, but the physical realm is so incomprehensibly vast that it's quite okay that there's nothing else, in my view. Moreover, I believe we're in a position to take ownership of what we have. Some have said we're the universe's way of looking back on itself. We're inconceivably lucky to be even having this discussion. In any case, I don't buy the notion that free will and some kind of supernatural world are somehow linked. And why should there be a supernatural world? We can only account for 4% of the density of the universe with what we see. The remaining 96% is Terra Incognita at this time. I say let's exhaust all the "mundane" possibilities of this world before we resort to imaginary superbeings and such.

- If atheism is wrong, it's only wrong in that it takes rationalism too far, beyond the edges of the universe. Good Lord, pardon my English. Why should there be a line in the sand where rationalism shouldn't go (notwithstanding the fact mentioned earlier that such rationalism can be rankly insensitive)? It's also interesting how the author sees his imaginary superbeing as living outside the universe, perhaps in light of the fact that there is only contrary evidence for Him. And if there were a plausible "beyond the universe," or other, parallel universes, why shouldn't rationalism operate there? Maybe those other universes would be different enough that our brand of rationalism wouldn't work, I grant that, but it's difficult to conceive.

- Religion - whether it was handed down by God or just invented by a bunch of guys- serves mainly to fight that. It makes humanity sacred, and the moral law moreso. I'm not sure we need to be "sacred." We're animals just like everybody else, albeit with fancier tools and the benefits of codified language. Truly, we're special, but sacred? Why should we be? What evidence is there that we are?

You're going to come back here and say that you're not criticizing that part of religion, the concept of things being sacred, or morality, or any of that flowery stuff. It's the intolerance and manipulation and superstition and ignorance you hate, the zealots demanding evolution be stripped from the textbooks.

But from the Christian's point of view, when you attack one, you attack the other. The story of Christianity (or mythology, if you prefer) is bound to the morality. Humanity is sacred
because were were planted here in a six-day act of divine intervention. Lying is wrong because God said so. You should work to preserve a marriage because God made that bond sacred with Adam and Eve.

So when you attack that mythology, Christians hear you attacking the morality along with it. And
that is why they fight so hard for it.

Seriously, what did you think the creationism thing was about? It's about keeping humanity sacred. They think that once you dash the idea of a created humanity, then there'll be nothing to stop strong humans from treating weak ones as cannon fodder.

And logically, there
won't be anything. You can't defend morality with logic. Once you explain it away as an artifact of the genetic herd instinct, well, hey, we've got the genome mapped out, right? Couldn't we just cut that morality gene right out of there?

1. I would be tremendously surprised if we'd found a "morality gene." I think it's a transmitted behaviour, like language. 2. Strong humans already treat weak ones as cannon fodder, and often in the name of religion. 3. You can very bloody well defend morality with logic: The people who didn't adopt morality (or, say, language) are not our ancestors! The people or animals that killed and stole wantonly as a reptile might died out - it wasn't condusive to survival in the long-term.

10. You'll Never Harass the Other Side Out of Existence - Boy, I'll say. =) And to be honest, I don't really want to see the eradication of religion. When I was living in Japan, I did most of the 88-temple pilgrimage on Shikoku. (I'll do the rest the next time I'm there.) Those people who believed in something built a lot of beautiful temples and many of the pilgrims live remarkably rich lives. However, if I could have an agenda, it would be to pull religion out of the mainstream. I feel that it's holding us back.

I only speak for me. I don't speak for atheists in general - the only thing we have in common is the rejection of theism, the Word. For a while I even considered myself an atheist who believes in God (though it was mostly the result of peer pressure to believe in a superbeing: "How could you not believe in God?!" and all that). And in my case even the rejection of the Word is incomplete, because to say that, say, the Bible was wholly without worth would be a very silly and difficult to defend position. Also, despite what the first commenter had written in reply to that article, atheism isn't about anything. There may be agendas and outlooks which tend to overlap with atheism, but they're just agendas and outlooks. This new atheistic militarism makes me nervous, because atheism is an agenda only as much as white is a color. Should atheists organize, I will only attend meetings to look for babes.

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vovat also replies to this article (more concisely and charitably) in one of his posts.
Tags: atheism, christianity, commentary, religion, responses
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