A great UK documentary on the modern atheist movement, and what the presenter has personal difficulties with.
I've been writing about this in a couple of blogs for a while now, and have commented on seeing something admirable (the legitimate criticism of the failings of religion) turn into a full-blown cultural movement. I must commend the many organizations that have started up after the publication of The God Delusion and the increasing atheist literature coming out that takes similar tones as Dawkins in trying to drive a stake through the heart of what is seen to be irrational superstitious belief. Throughout the past couple of years the blogosphere has also grown extensively with quite a few atheist/humanist blogs taking the post popular positions in the internet (Pharyngula, Friendly Atheist, Skepchick, etc.).
My personal problem with the new atheist movement is the cult-like admiration for many of these 'intellectuals' by those equally pissed off at religion. By definition, atheism cannot be a religion, yet it does not stop it from possessing religious-like traits that are slowly being picked up by its followers.
I've seen many self-professed intellectuals and skeptics take as almost a priori truth anything that many of these public atheists say, such as 'religion is the root of most wars', 'religious violence is the main threat to civilization today', 'nothing is out of bounds for anyone who believes that god is on their side', etc.
I find many of these assertions to be very problematic, and hopefully I can address them in future blogs, but it is a pity that far too many people do not seem to apply, or even want to apply their oft-talked about skepticism towards the claims made by their fellow atheists.
Atheism today seems to adopt almost uncritically certain views that are dubious at best, and not at all unanimously accepted by contemporary scholarship:
1) A war/conflict model between religion and science.
Science in this view, is the sole begetter of truth, and religion actively has and continues to suppress the legitimate search for truth.
This to me seems to be a very selective way of looking at history, of simply accepting via word of mouth certain major historical events in which religion was seen as opposing science, and thus proving that religion has always opposed science and critical thinking. As with everything though, the reality of it is far more interesting and complex than many would like to admit. I want to address this in some later blog, but some good books have been written on this topic: Science and Religion: A historical introduction
2) A view of religion as the biggest cause of wars and conflict throughout history.
Yet again, this view is a very immature and caricaturized version of reality. It is a simple view that is easy to accept because it paints the world in black and white terms, terms which we're all very much used to and feel very comfortable with; which is interestingly enough a strong criticism that atheists press against religion. Again, this is yet another interesting topic that has been addressed by contemporary scholarship, from history and sociology, that has been found wanting: The Gods of War: Is Religion the Primary Cause of Violent Conflict?, and Sins of Omission: What 'Religion and Violence' arguments Ignore
3) Adherence to outdated Freudian psychology in which belief in God is seen to be nothing more than a psychological need to feel security, purpose, power, and comfort in this life. There have been explanations that aim to show that human beings are naturally disposed towards religious belief and ritual because of certain innate or native “mental tools.” Some argue that we have these mental tools because they, or the religion that they spawn, is and/or was adaptive for our ancestors, and were thus passed down to us.
The basic argument, as summarized by William Lane Craig is thus:
(1) The development of the human mind through natural history has provided those minds with a number of special properties.
(2) When considering the natural and social world, these properties encourage humans to believe in gods.
(3) Therefore, the development of human minds has produced belief in gods (i.e., God
(4) Therefore, belief in gods is false. is an “accident” of evolution.)
However, this argument commits the genetic fallacy. This type of reasoning aims to argue for the truth or falsity of a belief simply from considerations of the origin of belief. But, of course, perfectly true beliefs can emerge even from crazy sources. To see that this reasoning is faulty, imagine you telling someone that you believe democracy is the best system of government. The person you're talking to however, replies that the only reason you believe that is because you were born in a democratic country, and thus, democracy is not the best system of government. Of course this line of reasoning is invalid, and so too is the type of reasoning used against the existence of God based on how it is that you arrived at your beliefs.
Also as a supplement to Freud, religious belief is also seen to be a virus of the mind, a contagious meme that spreads from person to person. Of course, Atheism too can be regarded as a meme, science as well, philosophy, and just about every world view. Memetic theory is not regarded to be the best explanation for why certain beliefs spread through cultures. It is dubious at best, and pseudo-science at its worst. Regardless of the fact that the argument is completely tautological, and also a genetic fallacy, it seems to ignore the fact that atheism too has served a sociological role throughout history that can be seen to be psychological in nature as well.For more, check out: The Twilight of Atheism, Three Challenges for the Survival of Memetics
4) A failure to recognize that Theism, even if false, may be rationally justified. This is something that completely irritates me and drives me away from most atheists on myspace, the sheer hypocrisy of accusing religious believers of being arrogant because they dare to profess to either knowing, or believing they may have found the 'truth'. I believe it was C.S. Lewis who wrote that if theists are to be called intolerant for believing that other theistic faiths are wrong, then it is the atheist who is the most intolerant of all for believing all faiths are wrong.
There is a difference between believing that someone posesses a false belief (and we all possess false beliefs of one kind or another), and believing that said person is wholely irrational for believing in something false. This is where the field of epistemology sheds some light. You may hold a false belief, but it does not follow that you are therefore irrational because of holding a false belief. This is a distinction that many philosophers have made, and something I think more atheists should take notice of. Philosopher William Rowe, an atheist, wrote about this in his Friendly Atheism.
5) A view of science as the sole begetter of Truth. As Peter Atkins loves to repeat "There is nothing that Science can't explain." Scientism as its called, is an offshoot of a now dead movement within philosophy called empiricism. A short summarization of this can be found in David Hume’s principle of empirical verifiability: “If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance- let us ask, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quality or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matters of fact or experience? No. Commit it to then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.” Nothing not verifiable by direct empirical means or that is analytically true by definition must be discarded as nonsense. Yet this principle itself is self-defeating. We can use the same criteria to judge its falsehood: Does Hume’s criteria apply to his own doctrine? Is the principle of verifiability true by definition? No. Is there any way to confirm it empirically? No, so then we should toss his principle to the flames. A dogmatic insistence on empiricism is a flaw in much atheist thinking “There is no scientific evidence…thus it must be false” is faulty reasoning.
Science is a great tool, but by no means is it the sole begetter of truth. There are indeed several things that cannot be explained or discovered by science which we all hold to and are perfectly rational to believe in regardless:
A)Logic and mathematics: Science presupposes logic and mathematics, otherwise it could not function. Yet logical and mathematical proofs aren’t the kinds of ‘things’ that you discover through the scientific method, they are arrived at through other means by philosophers. The law of non-contradiction is not a law that could ever be discovered through science, as it cannot be judged as true by simple induction, which is what science relies on. In short, math and logic are presupposed by science. Trying to prove them by science would be arguing in circles.
B) Metaphysical truths such as ‘there are other minds other than my own’ , that the external world is real, or that the past was not created 5 minutes ago with the appearance of age. Science cannot prove or disprove these things as science can only examine the physical data available, which is the very thing that is being called into question.
C) Ethical beliefs about statements of value: Science cannot comment or make any judgments as to why the actions of Nazi medical doctors were any more immoral than the actions of American doctors. Ethical judgments are normative, and as such, are beyond the reach of science, which is confined to descriptive role. Atheists for the most part fail to understand the challenge that is presented to them by theists when it comes to morality. They severely misunderstand the challenge to explain where morality comes from by thinking the Theist means that without belief in God, an atheist would not be able to act morally or be able to recognize moral facts. Yet the challenge isn't this, the challenge is where the atheist grounds his moral theory if it isn't on a transcendent creator. This is a very important and valid challenge that more of them would do well to address.
D)Aesthetic judgments: Just like ethics, science cannot analyze what is beautiful or not. These are again value judgments that cannot be arrived at through science. Science can measure what it is that people typically find as beautiful, or what it is that they say they find beautiful, but science cannot in and of itself describe what is beautiful.
E) Science itself: Science cannot be justified by the scientific method. The method itself is not arrived at through science, to do so would be again, arguing in circles.
So, contrary to popular scientific notions, there are indeed other ways of knowing beyond the reach of science. One would be well advised to stay away from the outdated empiricism of scientists like Dawkins and Atkins.
One good work exploring this is The limits of science.
To end, I want to just say I'm in the same boat as the rest of you. I don't know if God exists or not, but I want to know. I believe the proposition "God Exists" is either true or false, and its truth or falsity is of great importance, as it would have consequences for Ethics, Cosmology, Aesthetics, and just about every realm of life we encounter. I want to also know if it is even possible to know that a God exists. And even if it is impossible to have knowledge that said God exists (which is my position as an agnostic), I want to know whether or not it is then probable that said God exists. And I also would like to know whether or not it is rationally justifiable to believe said God exists. These questions matter to me. Questions of value, meaning, ethics, justice, liberty, and morality matter to me above all else, which is why I've been so drawn to the field of Philosophy.
I want to know what is true, and I wish more people did as well, not just pay lip service to it, but actually love truth, because without it, human life itself collapses. Without truth, there can be no trust, without trust, there can be no relationships, without relationships, we are but empty solitary shells in a constant 'war of all against all'. Those who pride themselves as the sole bearers of 'reason', 'rationality' and 'truth' should value these things as much as they claim to.
However, I'm beginning to be extremely cautious and distrustful of the new atheist movement. They've become just as Fanatical as the religious fanatics they so despise. A movement that is supposed to be a knife that carves out the tragedies brought about by fundamentalist thinking is slowly acquiring those very characteristics they so despise. Look at the top blogs on myspace and tell me that people like 'God Is Imaginary', 'The Gadfly' and the rest of the more rational than thou gang resembles anything like the true lovers of truth and wisdom we've come to learn about like Socrates and Aristotle. I see more and more people jumping on the bandwagon every day, and I frankly want nothing to do with it. I have a feeling that if I were ever to change my mind and accept Theism, I would be lumped in together with Fred Phelps and the rest of the 'superstitious religious fanatics', and as Dawkin's documentary calls them, an "Enemy of Reason".
I'm an unbeliever. I'm unconvinced. But I want to know the truth. Let's try to follow it wherever it leads. Lets not just pay lip service to it. Anthony Flew's conversion is just one example of atheist intolerance. One of the leading atheists in the world became a Deist, and of course said conversion must be due to his being senile. Let us respect that search for truth.
It was very telling how very few unbelievers came out to take on my arguments in my 'Is religion a cause for good or evil in the world?' blog. I would think that something that tries to undercut the very same tired old argument atheists make on their blogs every single day would get more attention, but of course it barely got a peep, save for a few individuals who were willing to read it and try to ask if it had any merit.
As for me, I'm staying away from the atheist bandwagon. That's a sinking ship destined to blow up. A true freethinker doesn't need a scarlet letter A on their profile to let everyone knows where he/she stands. Anti-religious propaganda is everywhere, all I ask is that we learn to filter through it and be consistent in our skepticism.
As evidence of the type of fundamentalist atheist attitude that I'm talking about, check out my myspace post of this blog here and see the type of vilification I received from the self-proclaimed 'brights'. Yet more evidence to show that these people feel they're immune to criticism.