Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Trial(s) of Atheism

Ok, first of all I haven't blogged much at all recently. You know how it is.

Now, today's thoughts:

Few things irritate me more than commonly accepted and unquestioned assumptions. Hell, just assumptions in general. Basing key beliefs and arguments on entirely unverified and unexamined claims is complete anathema to me and what kills me is that no one seems immune to it. Atheists are key offenders here - not by the volume of their transgressions but because they should know better, especially my heroes like Richard Dawkins (Christopher Hitchens, though, seems better at this).

With this in mind, I've created a list of basic assumptions and oversights atheists tend to make, especially because it's important to understand ourselves properly when debating theists. Otherwise, we risk looking so ignorant of our own position that we'll just be dismissed out of hand and cmon... that's the theists' job.

1. Who are we?
This one is quite often taken for granted, not without some justification. We're atheists, after all. Everyone knows what atheists stand for. We don't believe in God or a supernatural - it's not too hard a concept to grasp, it it?

But this isn't necessarily the most satisfactory definition. Ever since I became "atheistic" I've preferred to call myself agnostic because I felt that such certainty in the non-existence of the divine was itself a kind of unsubstantiated faith. I've stopped that now, mostly because it's just easier to say atheist but also because I've learned that this is the way the vast majority of atheists think as well.

The problem is that the name implies a certainty that we just can't back up. We might be able to prove beyond doubt the falsity of Christianity or Islam or any other number of religions, but we still have no way of proving the non-existence of a divine (by its very -supposed- nature). This is something that theists pick up on when they say "atheism is a religion too" or "atheism requires just as much faith as religion", and because we're unaware of this contradiction we don't understand what they're talking about and just ignore them. They think we can't answer and claim a victory. No one wins.

I think we need to be clearer in defining what atheism means, whether it's to each other or when it comes up with theists. A good article I read the other day basically said that atheism is a silly moniker since it simply refers to a *normal* person. Here, "normal" means someone who hasn't augmented their understanding of the world with delusions - we do not, for example, call people who don't believe in leprachauns "a-leprachaunist". I can see, though, that "atheism" is a useful name for separating those who aren't theists from those who are. We just need to specify that this is what we stand for, and not let our opposition assume we're simply antagonistic hypocrites.

2. Why are we antagonistic hypocrites?
I've brought this up before but I'll go through it again. Everywhere you turn you can see examples of atheists mocking theists with patronising laughter and derogatory comments, as if their delusion marks them as inherently flawed, irrational and imperfect beings. Surely you can tell by my last adjective there that I'm gearing up to say: so is everyone. Everyone is delusional to some extent, everyone acts and thinks illogically and it is UTTERLY hypocritical to assume that atheists, lacking this one delusion, are infinitely better than theists.

So what's the problem with religion, then? I'm an aggressive, anti-religious atheist yet I claim that their delusion is simply one of many. The issue with religion is that it is inherently illogical and inherently destructive. Illogical because not only is the suspension of rationality and reality essential to maintaining faith, but the more a person is willing to embrace this delusion, the more they are held up as a paragon of faith to be emulated. Destructive because until God or any divine being comes forward and reveals their divinity properly, our only religious instruction comes from those who claim to speak for God. These people now wield unaccountable and authoritarian power over devout believers and I hardly need to list all the myriad examples of where this goes wrong. I couldn't, anyway - they are as numerous as they are microscopic, for the most part.

However, this new, unpatronising atheism does not entail accommodation or compromise. You may have noticed I still used to word "delusion" throughout that paragraph, even though nearly every theist would find that offensive. In our debates - even our arguments - with theists, we should be polite, clear and not become smugly complacent on the intellectual high ground. This does not mean, however, that we must be careful not to offend or upset. Our very position already does that - it's our starting point. We cannot be afraid, out of such a fear, to avoid calling things what they are. A delusion is a delusion, and pretending otherwise only waters down the discussion and compromises our own position.

Stand strong and be fair.

3. Where does morality come from?
Here is a theist trope that crops up again and again: atheists are immoral because without God there is not source of morality. Atheists know this is preposterous; after all-

If you are a good person just because of what may or may not happen to you in the afterlife, you are not a good person.

Atheists are genuinely interested in morality for its own sake, particularly the aggressive ones. It's their motivation for being so aggressive in the first place. Going deeper, evolutionists can point to morality being a series of evolutionary traits ensuring the continuation of the species. We can all see why "don't kill members of your own species" is a particularly good way of ensuring there will still be a species.

But a question remains from this: whose morality is correct? People kill, despite that evolutionary trait. Who is to say that they are wrong? It is actually impossible to give an airtight, concrete answer as to why we should adopt a certain system of morality - or maybe it's not impossible, but it has certainly eluded us and will continue to for some time. We can say that people can feel harm and suffer, and as a result we should not inflict harm and suffering upon them (this is certainly the basis of my personal morality). But this is based heavily on the empathy we feel at such pain, and ultimately there's no good reason why we should follow this except out of choice.

Straight away, theists have found and exposed a big hole in atheist philosophy. We can immediately see the appeal of religion here - God is the source of morality. That is all the justification that is required. Where atheists lack a root and an anchor for their morality, theists need only look as far as their god, and it is from this distinction that atheists are called out on their morality. And you know what? I really don't have a good answer. It is one of most poignant and pressing issues of atheism, and yet it is so often brushed aside as a theist's desperate stab at their own atheist strawman.

This is one reason why it is so important not to feel inherently superior - by dismissing anything said by theists out of hand, we ignore their valid criticisms and only weaken our own position. Not just in the eyes of our opponents, but within ourselves as well.

4. Why this obsession with dividing people?
Now for the most part, atheists aren't at the forefront of dividing people into groups. But they do go along with it, and in doing so risk fracturing the atheist position. I'm referring principally to the creation of the "New Atheist" subgroup, into which controversial, aggressive atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (yes, I do know more than just those two) are seconded.

Everyone knows the maxim "Divide and conquer" and it is especially relevant here. Look at how fractured theists are, yet they are still far, far stronger than us. We cannot afford to be divided amongst ourselves, yet more and more I'm seeing criticisms of "Gnu" Atheism from other, more passive or accommodating atheists. By allowing ourselves to be siphoned off into that group, we've damaged the legitimacy of the aggressive atheist position. People can just say "oh, he's not passionate or rational - he's just unreasonably angry like all Gnu Atheists".

It would take far to long to go through every reason why atheists are justifiably angry, and as Greta Christina has done a bang-up job already, I'll just link to her instead. But it's also important not to mistake an unyielding passion and a willingness to offend for simple anger. Though Christina herself calls it thus (and shows why anger is a legitimate and important response) it is too easy a word to just dismiss along with the person it's applied to. They're offensive because they're angry, not because they have valid but challenging arguments to make. They're motivated to act by anger, like immature children, not because they care passionately about humanity and the individuals who comprise it.

TL;DR - Simply declaring oneself an atheist does not absolve one of critical thinking. There are plenty of assumptions atheists make and they urgently require our attention, lest the movement devolve in smug hypocrisy.

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