Sunday, February 17, 2008

Religionists and Reductionists

Michael Novak recently wrote an article offering a taxonomy of quasi-atheists, pseudo-atheists, and nihilists-about-everything who sometimes get lumped under the banner of “atheism,” their differences supposedly indicating that the whole enterprise is doomed to contradictions and hypocrisy, which is a bit like saying that since some conservatives care about immigration and some don’t, all conservatism is wrong.

I concede, though, that there are people who call themselves atheists who, upon closer examination, seem to hold views inconsistent with their stated foundational principles: some might pay lip service to science but simply be mystics of an unorthodox variety (believing in psychics or “energy” of some vague but spiritual kind) or say there is no God yet seem to be angry at this nonexistent being for creating such an unpleasant world. It’s very important to recognize that trying to saddle real atheists with the job of apologizing for those people is nothing better than guilt by association. Let us stick to the strongest, most consistent and rational, versions of our opponents’ arguments if we’re really trying to get to the bottom of an issue instead of, in a merely political/tribal way, smearing the opposition as a bunch of jerks.

The record will plainly show I’ve never been “angry at God” nor, since childhood, inclined to believe in any supernatural (or for that matter earthly) “God substitutes.” I think there’s (in all likelihood) an observable, material universe and nothing else: no God, no gods, no “something out there like an energy,” no psychic powers, no mystical resonances inside homeopathic elixirs, and no ghosts (I am not simply asserting that God is distant, indifferent, cruel, or baffling — I’m saying God does not exist, that there is indeed a familiar, knowable, common-sense world and God is nowhere in it). Show me evidence to the contrary — with this as with, say, the claim that there’s a previously-hidden planet between the Earth and the Moon — and I’m perfectly happy to revise my position. Plainly, no evidence is forthcoming, and only a mental child keeps insisting on the existence of that thing for which there is no evidence. It’s pathetic, intellectually irresponsible, immoral, mistaken, and stupid. If you wish to be taken seriously as an adult among the handful of people rational enough for their judgment to count for something in philosophical debates, just stop.

Oversimplifying Reductionism

There are of course emotions, patterns, and metaphors aplenty — all built upon a purely material world — so I’m not saying the material world “contains no art” or that “there’s no such thing as love” or any of the other obviously-wrong reductionist statements that (particularly unserious) theists such as Dinesh D’Souza sometimes try to attribute to atheists. Indeed, I’ve noticed that anti-reductionists sometimes come hilariously and perilously close to denouncing belief in molecules, since they are so worried that once we identify some low, physical level at which things can be discussed, things must then only be discussed at that level of abstraction, as if identifying the family dog as a mammal makes it impossible to utter her specific name or tell cute anecdotes about her thereafter. That sort of fear is evidence of the religionist/worrier’s lack of imagination, not the accused reductionist’s, the latter (like me) presumably having the mental flexibility necessary to talk about mammals and about Fido, paint molecules and impressionism, homo sapiens and the aspirations of the Protestant Reformation.

Complex patterns that are worth noting, intuiting, and making metaphors about obviously exist, but I don’t see a scrap of good evidence for any supernatural, divine, or paranormal claims of any kind. Anyone who makes a claim without real-world evidence — and knows himself to be making the claim without evidence — is at best a dupe and at some point, if he knowingly asserts the claims without anything to back them up, even deserves to be called a liar, though it is oddly not considered polite to call religious people such.

Religion as Lie

Now, of course, religious people are (presumably) usually sincere when they claim there is a God, so they don’t fulfill the intentionality component of what is normally meant by “liar,” but, surely, when someone asserts something knowing he can’t provide evidence, he at least deserves some harsh epithet such as “bullshitter,” whether he is the Pope, the Ayatollah, a nice-seeming parish priest, or even your charitable and beloved next door neighbor. People can be nice in countless other ways while still undeniably being bullshitters.

No one is all good or all bad, so one can (and should) still deal civilly with such people (they are about 96% of the population, after all, so there isn’t much alternative, at least at this early point in history). At some point, though, given the thousands of years in which their lies/errors have reigned, they deserve to be called on their nonsense, not just for the sake of civilization (which may well perish in nuclear-armed religious conflict one of these days, regardless of the past complicity of science and atheism in other massacres), nor just to allow me to go through the day with less annoyance, but for the sake of their own morally and epistemologically stunted characters. It’s surely not psychologically healthy (or at least not psychologically and rationally optimal) to live on a steady diet of lies/errors, even to love those lies/errors — though regardless of whether it is healthy, it is even more important to note that it is not moral to repeat and transmit the lies/errors, and moralistic religious folk should be the first to worry about their complicity in untruths.

“But I’m sincere!” objects the true-believing religionist. Yes, but, again, you also know how groundless your religious assertions are, and you keep making them anyway. This behavior, though commonplace, is quite simply despicable. Now, I will not deny that you are partly self-deluded as opposed to simply other-deluding, and this arguably makes you less vicious than a conventional liar (you hurt yourself most). Nonetheless, you owe it to yourself and to your fellow humans to start loving truth more than your favorite narratives, worldviews, sentiments, and illusions. In short: you’re fortunate enough to have a brain, so start using it for one of its most important basic functions, accurate perception, not just the maintenance of your current formula for emotional equilibrium.

How Stupid Are We?

I suspect that many, many poor mental habits of humanity — not just ones specific to religious ideation — could be improved if people were not in effect trained from an early age to believe that doubt, critical analysis, and skepticism are bad, while maintaining even implausible beliefs is the most noble thing in the world. Is it not obvious how this could teach bad intellectual habits with ramifications for politics, deference to authority, gullibility before con men, wishful thinking, and the like?

As with the aforementioned people who charge atheists with being reductionists (because the accusers cannot imagine finding beauty in the universe if it’s made of molecules and chemicals), I think most religious people are religious for the simple reason that they lack imagination. It is no coincidence that artists often have unorthodox religious views or that smart people are often heretical or apostate in some way. Religionists may not clearly be stupider than the non-religious, but there’s no denying they are typically less able to imagine alternatives to the traditional narratives about life and the universe.

While the non-religious person might be able to see the diverse intellectual pathways by which one might end up atheist, Christian, pagan, Muslim, etc., it is the religious who typically see only a pair of alternatives: “It’s Jesus or alcoholism, and I need to decide which.” “It’s jihad or the complete destruction of Islam and prostration before the West.” “It’s belief in the Bible’s literal truth or complete nihilism and an orgy of violence and despair.” Like someone so blinkered that he can’t imagine any options except his current career path or suicide, you in fact have other options. Let’s explore them without religion’s mind-shackling constraints.


Xine said...

Another post that begins with promises, and presumed good intentions, of instructive conversation, but immediately devolves into unproductive polemic.

>Let us stick to the strongest, most consistent and >rational, versions of our opponents’ arguments if we’re >really trying to get to the bottom of an issue instead of, in >a merely political/tribal way, smearing the opposition as a >bunch of jerks.

>Plainly, no evidence is forthcoming, and only a mental child >keeps insisting on the existence of that thing for which >there is no evidence. It’s pathetic, intellectually >irresponsible, immoral, mistaken, and stupid.

Do you see no contradiction between these two?

I still find your tone, as well as your reductive belief (based on what empirical evidence I have no clue–how many religious people do you actually know well?) that religious people en masse “do” certain things (e.g. “they are typically less able to imagine alternatives to the traditional narratives about life and the universe”) puzzling in light of this month’s presumed ends. Do you actually want to persuade theists that there is no God? If so, why have I seen precious little attempt this month to do anything other than call them deluded, immature, fearful liars?

It is a mystery to me why you adopt the pose that theists know their beliefs are bullshit–why what should be an intellectual challenge immediately becomes a moral one in your posts. Maybe I’m the only theist who actually reads your blog, and you’re just preaching here to choir-members who think it’s moronic to think something might actually exist beyond our sensory perception and material apprehension, and doing so makes you a gullible fool (“if you can believe that, you’ll believe anything,” as you recently quoted a friend). Maybe you think it’s utterly pointless to try to persuade theists because of their fearful inabilities to reconceptualize the universe…in that case, what’s the point of this month?

Ok. Lesson learned. I get it. I’m an intellectually stunted and immoral idiot/liar who can’t face facts. Can you please move on now–unless you’re willing to write smart posts that take on what most theists do consider *evidence* for theism, material creation itself–evolution and all? Until then, I’ve had enough of the go-nowhere insults that to my mind are the bulk of this month’s posts. I’d guess that even some of your atheist readers might agree.

Todd Seavey said...

With religion as with so many other things, you never quite know what the opposition is going to declare “the important parts that you’ve so egregiously neglected” — but I’m willing to take requests to some extent (and will address them in a new post instead of this comment thread). So: the material universe — and evolution, of all things — is now the theist “evidence” I should contend with, just so I know for sure? Will do.

(And as for the tone business: What is one to do, really, when faced with people who think their refusal to succumb to doubt makes them more moral, other than remind them that it doesn’t? I am left with little rhetorical choice.)