Saturday, April 21, 2012

Discussion with a Believer - Part 2

The Buccaneer is back with a response to our previous discussion. Shit seems to be getting real...

The Buccaneer: It appears I was both mistaken at some points and misunderstood at others. What do you say we take these one at a time in order to have something that is easier to discuss and easier for an outsider to follow.

I would first like to explain why I, and many academic theists, claim that Atheism is, in fact, a belief system or religion if you will. In Academia, this is a well accepted definition of religion: a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs. (taken from and very similar to what I seen in my own classes)

Now obviously Atheists have concluded that the supernatural does not exist and devoid of any supernatural, there are no unified devotional or ritual observances, which is not necessary in religion. (For other examples I present Confucianism, Taoism and Shintoism)

This leaves us with "A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe" as the only necessary part for a religion to exist (which is why I have argued in the past that everyone person has there own religion regardless of how it lines up with major organized religious organizations). I do like Greta Christina's definition of belief something like "confidence in the truth or existence of something not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof." Following is the 3 main beliefs of Atheists as I can see them.

Belief 1. The Universe began without supernatural intervention. Now there are a number of different theories about how this happened but none of them are repeatable nor observable and therefore non-admissible as scientific law as many would have readers think. Too my knowledge (which is not doctorate level but not completely insignificant) every single one of these theories violate modern Laws of Physics, which are based in repeatable, observable phenomena in some way. This is why many theists classify this as a statement of faith. (Even organized religions have multiple interpretations of the same "evidence" when it comes to this Monumental moment in history.)

Belief 2. Evolution, specifically Macro-Evolution. In the absence of the supernatural, it would seem evolution is the only alternative to explain the existence of the human race. (I did not mean to imply a devotion to Darwinian evolution. I was merely trying to point out that this theory is the only logical recourse) Macro-evolution is also an extrapolative theory with more than a number of points of debate, mainly things we still don't understand. It seems that most of the time scientists start from a certain point of view and interpret their findings in such a way as to support their own claim. Irreducible Complexity is one such good example. Here are two good articles from opposing views Pro-Darwinian Evolution and Pro-Intelligent Design. Whichever a reader chooses to believe is dependent on which they think is "most likely". ID proponents: These things may be theoretically possible but statistically insignificant probabilities given current theories of the age of the universe. Evolution: They are possible therefore there is no reason to believe a creator exists and science will provide at a later date the answers we don't have yet.

Belief 3. There are no meta-narratives and no overall purpose to the universe or life. This a purely subjective view and one that is a result of the first two views.

Again, I am not trying to imply that Atheism is in any way an organized movement or organized religion but it does, in the most basic ways align itself quite nicely as a religion or more simply, a system of beliefs. I am also not trying to say most Theists mean exactly this when they say Atheism is a statement of faith. On both sides, there are a number of ignorant people that hear something they think sounds cool and go with it not knowing what they are saying or how to codify or explain the meaning to someone without their viewpoint.

Incidentally,to me this in no way diminishes what an Atheist believes, which I believe Ms. Christina said she thinks Theists mean when they say "Atheism is a faith" nor should it be taken that way. Rather it should show to believers of organized religions, that Atheistic convictions are just as strong and meaningful in the lives of those individuals.

BW: I do not understand why I have this argument so often with religious people. Why is it so important to you to fit atheism into the framework of a religion? At best your atheistic 'beliefs' are inferences and implications. There is nothing about atheism as a philosophy that requires or encourages its adherents to think a certain way or believe certain things. I, the atheist, am telling you quite clearly and without equivocation that atheism does not have a defined set of beliefs. Are you, the theist who came to me wanting to learn more about atheism, seriously going to persist in telling me what atheism really means?

You know what most atheists will say when they are asked how the Universe began? 'I don't know'. Because we don't know. Does that lack of knowledge somehow imply the supernatural was involved? No. I also disagree, as I have stated before, with your assessment of the different theories about the creation of the universe. While we cannot prove them by direct observation they are based on observable properties of matter. Saying that every one of the theories violates the modern laws of physics is misleading and a misrepresentation of the theories themselves, as well as our current understanding of physics. I study microbiology, not physics, so I don't claim to be an expert...but you also have explained your lack of expertise in the field, yet you feel confident dismissing the theories developed over centuries by numerous scientists in favor of 'God did it'? You really feel that those conclusions deserve equal footing simply because we can't go back in time and see it for ourselves? Then I must disagree with you whole-heartedly.

As a biologist, hearing someone call Macro-Evolution a belief makes me facepalm into the back of my skull. Evolution is also not a 'tenet' of atheism, though as I explained before a huge majority of atheists conclude that evolution is the correct explanation for how life developed on Earth because there is evidence for it. Literally a fuckton of evidence from every relevant field, all supporting this conclusion. Trying to set aside macro-evolution as uniquely flawed and subject to criticism is such a common ploy by creationists that there are whole websites devoted to refuting it. I am honestly kind of disappointed that I have to explain this to you when you claim to have reached your beliefs and conclusions through intellectual study. Here are a few websites you should investigate if you truly want to understand this better:
Creationists Misrepresentations of Microevolution and Macroevolution
Evolution Explained: Microevolution and Macroevolution

I am going to just leave the whole 'Intelligent Design as a valid explanation for how life developed' argument alone for now. As I have explained to you elsewhere, it is a hugely flawed theory based on misrepresentation of evidence and bias.

Which bring us to your third supposed belief of atheism, which is the worst by far. It's not that unreasonable to assume that all atheists 'believe' in evolution or in the spontaneous formation of the universe rather than acknowledging that those supposed beliefs are just conclusions many atheists reach because of the available evidence. But generalizing 'lack of belief in God' to 'no purpose to life'? Have you been listening to anything I have been saying?

The purpose of life and the Universe are incredibly personal questions. Atheism does not provide answers to them. Everyone who chooses atheism does so for their own reasons, and likewise has to find their own answers to those questions. Personally I don't think the Universe needs a purpose. It simply is. But my own life? I give my life purpose.

You are wrong in thinking that atheism is a system of beliefs. You are wrong in your understanding of physics and macroevolution. You are definitely wrong in concluding that atheists believe their lives have no purpose. I think I understand what you are trying to do, though. Yes, atheists do have strong convictions about the world...but they are strong because they are supported by evidence and logic, and they are also subject to change when new information becomes available. That, I feel, is the biggest difference. Religious beliefs remain largely unchanged in the face of new information and developing evidence. They are based on faith. That is a hugely important distinction. It is intellectually dishonest of you to keep insisting that religious ideas about how the world works are supported equally well as scientific ones, or that the two are equally flawed. They are not. If we cannot agree on this point then it is best that we do not discuss religious and scientific theories any further and limit our discussions to subjects like atheist morality and concepts of justice. Also, please refer to this diagram.

The Buccaneer: It appears I somehow offended you and for that I am sorry. Ultimately, the point I was trying to make is that everyone has some idea of how they think the world works, where it comes from, and why we are here whether it be based on evidence, teaching, philosophy, church or anything else. In a number of religious studies classes, that is precisely how we define religion. This is why I say every individual in the world has a "religion". As a result, when someone tells me they are an "Atheist" I assume that the person accepts or considers one of a limited number of theories on the beginning of the universe and accepts evolution, from abiogenesis to current day, as truth (which I must say Simone's link on your comment has been very enlightening since I was unaware of most of the information that is available).

The last part I think you misunderstood what I said and is really the crux of why Atheistic Morality confuses and scares me (more scares to be honest). When discussing purpose with a tenet of any organized religion, it is generally clear what they will say. Atheists do not believe in any meta-narratives or overall purpose of the universe, humanity or a Unified purpose for every single human. Instead, each individual finds meaning and purpose for their own life and would not assume the purpose they find is for everyone else. Likewise, it is not for anyone else to tell or explain to an atheist what their purpose is in life.

BW: I promise you I am not offended, Blake. Not even a little bit. You are only honestly expressing your thoughts, and I appreciate that. But you are wrong, misinformed and misapplying logic and I'm not going to sugarcoat that for you. When we started this dialogue you told me you wanted to keep learning and know if you are wrong. It is ok to stop talking about these subjects if you are not as ready to change your mind about them as you thought or if the discussion would be unproductive, but if we do it is not because the atheist was too offended by weak logic to continue.

Your ideas about everyone having a personal 'religion' is an interesting personal philosophy, but it can hardly be said to represent the generally accepted concept of religion. The sticking point is that I don't 'believe' in evolution, for example, because I am an atheist, but I have concluded that evolution is the most correct current theory for similar reasons that I concluded God doesn't exist.

As far as your concerns about morality, I feel you are drawing another false equivalency between 'purpose' and 'morality'. These are completely different concepts. I can only speak for myself in talking about how I ascribe purpose to my own life, because it is something based on personal philosophy. But I can speak generally about morality, because as I already explained our concepts of morality are based on our sense of empathy and cultural context. Morality is not dependent on a 'unified purpose' for humanity. Given how widely religious ideas about the purpose of humanity vary, I'm unsure how you ever reached this conclusion. Surely conflicting purposes coming from an authoritative source would cause more problems than a bunch of different individual ideas?

Again, if you suddenly stopped believing in God and therefore concluded that he was no longer guiding your life towards some greater purpose or design, would your core morality change? Would you really start thinking 'my life has no purpose, so I'm going to cater to every whim or violent impulse I have from now on'? Of course not. You would still have a sense of guilt and justice because you can imagine how your actions would make you feel. That empathy has nothing to do with how you view your purpose in life. If anything, the acceptance that you only live once motivates atheists to make a positive difference in the world. Check out this recent Greta Christina article:
Why Atheism Demands Social Justice

Secular Humanism is another philosophy I have chosen because it makes sense to me. By acknowledging that prayer doesn't work and the supernatural isn't there to help with our problems, it is up to us humans to step up and help those in need. There's atheist morality for you.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Angry Letter

When my birth control prescription ran out recently, I found out that the student clinic I go to couldn't issue birth control anymore. Apparently the resident MD objected to it on religious grounds and refused to prescribe it. Naturally, I was furious...but how to respond? Bust out the pitchforks and torches? Organize a protest? Form a Facebook mob? Those certainly would have been entertaining and fun, but once I calmed down a bit I figured I should at least try going through official channels before I unleashed my wrath upon the world. So I got the contact information for the UF Clinical Administration, did a little research and composed a sternly-worded e-mail:
I am a grad student at UF and I have used the Student Clinic at Shands as my primary care provider for the past six years. I have never had any problems there and have always found the staff and doctors to be helpful and knowledgeable, if sometimes inexperienced. Recently my birth control prescription expired and I received a phone call from the student clinic explaining that they could not issue a refill. Inquiring about the change in policy at the Women's Clinic across campus, I was shocked to learn the reason that the Shands clinic was not providing such a basic service: the resident MD, Dr. Nahum Beard, objects to birth control on religious grounds and refuses to prescribe it to his patients.

I was appalled that the University of Florida Administration would defer to Dr. Beard's personal preferences at the expense of his patients. More than half of UF grad students are female, with health needs that do not go away because they make Dr. Beard uncomfortable. I am aware that the female residents who handled women's health issues at the Shands student clinic in the past have resigned and that Dr. Beard is not a women's health care specialist. I also understand that the State of Florida's Conscience clause means you can neither compel Dr. Beard to prescribe birth control nor fire him for not doing his job. But surely he could have been transferred to another position where female patients did not rely on him for their birth control, or a second resident been transferred to the student clinic who was willing to do the job he would not.

The situation as it is now sends the message to female students that their care is not your priority. Shuffling patients off to another clinic as a matter of policy when their care becomes inconvenient is entirely inappropriate and sets an unfortunate precedent. I fervently hope that the administration will correct this matter as soon as possible, or at the very least act to prevent it from occurring in the future once Dr. Beard's residency ends in June. Thank you.
I was quite pleased with it, but I had no idea how the administration would respond or if I would be taken seriously. The first response I received was surprisingly understanding:
I am the assistant for the Associate Directors of the Medical and Nursing Departments at Student Health.  I will forward your email to them, so you should hear from one of them in the near future.  I am so sorry about the shuffling of your care and understand your concern for yourself and the female patients that are seen at our Shands clinic.

This will be addressed to our staff and will be corrected soon.  Again, I apologize for the disappointing care you were given.
Please feel free to contact me for further assistance.
Wow. I hadn't expected an apology, let alone admission that this was a real problem. And it seems like they intend to do something about it! So what did the Associate Director have to say?
I received your email from this morning.  I am sorry you were inconvenienced by the situation at the Shands clinic.  It is a dilemma for us and as you correctly pointed out we must be able to allow our providers to practice within their levels of comfort for whatever reasons.  Typically the nursing staff at the clinic can obtain a prescription refill or extension on your pills-so I am not sure what happened on that end.  We are in the process of hiring a practitioner for that clinic and we will be certain that there will be women’s health in the repertoire of that provider.  We have considered sending one of our Women’s Health ARNPs  to that clinic which we have done in the past-but this is our super busy time as the semester is ending so we find keeping all our Women’s Health in the main building is best for right now.  We do have other providers who rotate to that clinic and it should be possible to schedule with them.  Again I apologize for the problem that you encountered.   We always try to meet the needs of our student customers-I do hope that you were able to get your prescription needs met.  Thank you for your thoughtful letter. 
This response was a lot less satisfying. I never complained about the inconvenience or my own experience, and the rest just seems like a bunch of excuses and 'I just don't know what went wrong'. Here is my response:
Thank you for your response, but I fear that you have misunderstood. My personal inconvenience was minor and I found the staff to be quite helpful in accommodating me. I am certain that the nursing staff at the Shands clinic would have been able to refill my prescription, had the resident MD been willing to do so. This is not a mistake or a problem on their part.

What I am complaining about is the situation itself, in which Dr. Beard's personal preferences and bias have been permitted to negatively affect patient care. I do understand that this is a difficult and unanticipated situation. If the female residents had not resigned, I am certain that Dr. Beard would not have been called upon to fill this particular professional obligation. But they did, and he was and he refused. Maybe you have never had to deal with a medical resident in charge of a student clinic who refused to administer birth control before and therefore had no contingency plan in place for ensuring patients needs were still met. In the future, please note that 'do nothing' is not an appropriate response, and 'because we're busy' is not a satisfactory explanation.

What I am hoping to accomplish from this exchange is to make the administration aware that this type of unfair treatment of female patients is noticed. We do not like the idea of someone's personal beliefs affecting our access to medical care, and we want assurances that the administration will prevent that from happening. Under the Conscience clause the actions you can take to prevent this are limited, but they do exist and I implore you to take advantage of them. If not with Dr. Beard, then as an established plan for dealing with any future 'moral objections' to women's health that limit patient access to the treatment they need. Thank you.
So, as you can tell, I was a bit annoyed by the shifting of blame and dismissal of my real concerns in favor of my superficial inconvenience. Guess we'll see where it goes from here. Thoughts and opinions on the situation so far are greatly appreciated.

Ask an Atheist Day: Questions

A compilation of the questions I was asked on Facebook for Ask An Atheist Day! I have anonymized my friends by giving them funny names for my amusement.

Guyver: What is your favorite food?
BW: Spicy Pad Thai

Facetious: What is the best way to prepare a baby?
BW: This.

Effin': What do think becomes of us after our body dies?
BW: I don't think anything happens to 'us' after our body dies. I think we're just dead.

Guyver: What do you believe in?
BW: I believe that the Universe is a spectacularly amazing place, and that science is the absolute best tool we have for learning about and understanding it.
I believe that the time I get here on Earth is all I'm going to get, so I ought to enjoy every bit of it and do my best to make sure everyone I care about is enjoying every bit of it.
I believe in equality for everyone, regardless.
I believe in doing the right thing and making the world a better place for everyone, because I am a social animal with a sense of empathy that is not dependent on some external force. 
I believe that humanity is on its own, so we'd better get to work fixing things like the environment and various social injustices ourselves.
Guyver: Do you believe in things you cannot see? Something like faith, but not religiously related.
BW: I can't see atoms or radio waves, but I know there is evidence for them to exist, the experts who study them tell me they exist, and I can observe the effects of their existence so I behave as if they exist and take their existence to be true. I have been accused in the past of not believing in 'love' on account of it not being something I could see or analyze...but I can experience it for myself, and I obviously do 'believe in love'. I believe in human consciousness, which isn't currently well-defined or understood...but I also believe that it is a product of brain chemistry and not some abstract 'spirit'. I don't believe in the supernatural, but I have faith in the people I care about, humanity as a whole and the power of science to improve the world. I am inspired by the wonders of the universe, people who do amazing things and the beauty of our world.

Effin': Do you think Earth is the only "intelligent" life supporting rock in this joint?
BW: In terms of life on other planets, it is statistically extremely unlikely for 'intelligent as we know it' life to develop probably not. Honestly though, I don't know. And I'm ok with not knowing until we have learned more about the Universe. Simpler forms for life, though? Such as microbes or viruses of some sort? I imagine it's just a matter of time before we find that somewhere out there. But again, I don't know.
Mr. Chick-Fil-A: Well, with billions of stars in our galaxy and billions of galaxies in the universe, I believe that it is statistically impossible for life not to have developed in other planets or rocks (moons, don't forget the moons). And, I'm with Facetious on this. Taking in consideration all these numbers, philosophically speaking, it is inconceivable to think that intelligent life had developed only on planet Earth.
BW:  I don't know about that. I fully expect that there is other forms of life out there, but the jump to more complex forms of life is a major thing.
Facetious: Certainly the odds of simple lifeforms developing into complex ones, then intelligent ones are slim. But then its still a great big universe, which has existed for billions of years and will last for hundreds of billions more. Other civilizations may have been born and died out many millenia before the earth was even formed, or will come about after the sun has expanded and gobbled up our little blue dot. Unless we find someway around the laws of physics which prevents us from observing or even moving faster than light, I doubt we'll ever find any other intelligent on our own.
Mr. Chick-Fil-A: " the chances of intelligent life emerging is low – less than 0.01 per cent over four billion years." I take 0.01 percent over 4 billions in a planet like-Earth no problem. You know why? Because, if that was the probability of intelligent life to have developed in this planet, and it did happen, why would not happen in other billions of planets like-Earth?
BW: You could be right, Mr. Chick-Fil-A. We really don't have enough information to say just yet, and our only frame of reference is how life developed on Earth. I am wary of 'if it could happen, then it will happen somewhere' logic, though. The concept of infinity is just too abstract. Regardless, counting on aliens to help us fix our problems is just as productive as counting on prayer or divine intervention. 

The Bearded One: Why aren't you an agnostic like all the REAL skeptics? :P
BW: I'm an agnostic atheist. I recognize that it is impossible to prove there is no God and that there is a remote possibility that a God-like being exists that we can't currently observe. Based on the current evidence however, I have concluded that God most likely does not exist and choose to act accordingly. I feel that it is far less skeptical to say, 'I don't know, therefore God' than simply 'I don't know'. : P

Effin': If somehow it was proven to you that God did exist and that the Bible was more or less accurate, do you think that would truly change anything for you?
BW: Well, I'd have to admit I was wrong and that would suck. I don't think it would change my faith in science or my core morality, but I'd definitely start going to Church and I'd probably spend more time writing about arguments for Christianity as opposed to arguments for atheism. Thankfully that doesn't seem to likely, so I'll get to keep sleeping in on Sundays.
Effin': I've often wonder what, if anything, I would change if it was ever proven to me or my beliefs ever came to be different than they are for whatever reason. It's hard for me to wrap my brain around some of the seemingly petty things that can be required from Christianity (the religion I am most familiar with). Of course, I'm not all knowing or all seeing, so I suppose that could be the problem for my lack of brain wrappage. 
BW:  I've switched belief systems a few times while I was figuring things out. I feel it was mostly superficial behaviors that differed. The whole Christian thing never felt quite right, but there were things about paganism that really resonated with me. There was definitely a transition from vaguely-mystical fluff to 'reality is awesome'. I will think on it more and see if I can articulate it better.

Jazzy: Do you ever entertain the idea that so called 'spiritual' or 'paranormal' events might be explained by events or beings related to other dimensions or similar unknown aspects of the universe??
BW: Of course I do! I'm a sci-fi geek after all, and those ideas are fun to speculate about. Throughout the history of human thought, supernatural explanations for events have been regularly and consistently replaced with natural ones that we simply didn't know enough about. The problem with the supernatural arguments is that they often go something like 'I don't know, therefore supernatural'. A simple 'I don't know yet' is far more honest and reasonable. It's entirely possible that there are aspects of the natural world that we don't currently understand or can't observe. But until there is real evidence for them all they are is speculation. I prefer to make my decisions and conclusions based on the best available evidence. So until I have real reason to believe that extra-dimensional beings are stealing my socks, for instance, I will continue to behave as if they don't exist.
Jazzy: I know what you mean. My best description of my beliefs is an optimistic agnostic, but people never seem satisfied with that.... lol
BW: Sounds good to me. : ) 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Anti-Vagina Brigade

The world is depressing me today.

I have read about school girls being poisoned, having acid thrown in their faces and receiving bomb threats for daring to get an education. Apparently educating women is anti-Islamic and vulgar. Because educated women are harder to control or something, I don't know. It's ignorant, anachronistic thinking that needs to be done away with.

This is so upsetting to me that I went right through 'rage' and into 'depressed at the world for being such a shitty place'. They are targeting children. For wanting an education. They are specifically targeting schools for girls because they think women should be confined to the home and exist to obey their husbands. And they feel so strongly about this that they are blowing up schools and poisoning people! Lots of schools! This is not an isolated incident. How do you justify that to yourself? What fucked up sense of morality do you have to have to think blowing up children is better than women being allowed out of the house?

They're looking at the bigger picture, you see. Like typical bullies, if they make enough of a scene and scare enough people they expect to get their way. So they blow up a bunch of schools to scare parents into keeping their kids at home and run up a huge bill for the government to rebuild ($220 million at last tally). The children living in the middle of all of this are incredibly brave. They want to be educated. They want to learn more about the world and how to make their home a better place. How dare those self-righteous bastards get in the way of that?

Ok, I may have worked myself back up into rage-mode. Because it is infuriating to see children, especially young girls who are finally getting a chance at education, being treated this way. Extremist groups always seem to make controlling the women a priority, and I am sick of feeling like I have a target on my uterus. I may not have to worry about my school being bombed, but does anyone really feel safe anymore walking into Planned Parenthood? With the protesters and demonstrators and threats? Just this month there was a bombing at a clinic in Wisconsin.

It's the same battle. Women want to be able to control their own lives? To leave the house when they want and have the jobs they want and have babies when and if they want? Can't have that! Let's force them into staying at home and destroy their access to education! Let's pass legislation restricting birth control and abortion access! Let's do everything we can to maintain that a woman's importance and value is based on their looks and desirability, but shame them into submission if they dare to express their sexuality for themselves or show signs of having a healthy sex life!

And here in the US things are getting worse, not better. More and more legislation designed to control women's bodies keeps popping up...and it is passing! Make no mistake, control is what this is about. If it were really about women's health, then they wouldn't be trying to force unnecessary, invasive procedures onto women seeking abortions. They wouldn't be forcing doctors to lie or withhold information about a woman's health if it might encourage her to get an abortion. They would be lauding Planned Parenthood, provider of free women's health care, rather then cutting its funding and closing clinics. If it was about protecting children then at least some of this effort would be put towards caring for children after they've been born. But no...improvements and funding to social services, adoption agencies, foster programs and education are distinctly absent from the onslaught.

I understand that some anti-abortion advocates truly believe that abortion is murder. And they believe that for a reason...because that is what they were taught, by people who misrepresent the facts and manipulate the difficult emotions associated with abortion. That emotional reaction obfuscates the real issues and fuels the controversy. Meanwhile, real women are having their rights debated by men who know nothing about women's issues. It is infuriating.

It's a cycle of shame. You don't need birth control. Only sluts have sex, so if you just keep your legs closed you'll be fine. You got pregnant? Guess you shouldn't have been such a slut. You're not gonna make that innocent baby pay for your mistakes, are you?

Nowhere in that dialog is there room for a woman's right to live her life how she wants it. You want a career and the ability to choose when you have children? That's not allowed, you whore. You should be staying home and making babies. Even if you just made a mistake once, that doesn't matter. Should have been more responsible, now live with it. Who cares about what you want to do with your life. Get yourself sexually assaulted? You were probably asking for it. Now spend the rest of your life taking care of this baby.

This is bullshit and I am sick of it. Sex is normal and healthy and awesome...not something to be ashamed of. It does have consequences, and the availability of birth control and safe, healthy abortions have finally given women the power to control those consequences.  It has revolutionized a woman's place in the world, and the same anachronistic thinking that believes women shouldn't be educated at all is trying to take that away. Seriously, fuck those guys.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Discussion with a Believer - Part 1

I had an interesting development on Facebook lately! A gentlemen I was having a religious disagreement with actually confessed to not knowing much about the atheist position and expressed interest in learning! Amazing, no? We have been continuing our chat in a private message window. Here is our first discussion, posted with his permission. I hope to have more to share with you soon!


BW: I was impressed with our discussion! Very few religious people that I've had these kind of debates with stay polite, and even less are actually interested or willing to learn about things like atheist morality.

Buccaneer: To start with, if I'm wrong I want to know it. I've come to faith through a long, studious path and I found it to be the most logical so embraced it. It sounds weird I know but there it is. It would be absurd to think I exhausted all the knowledge there is so I need to constantly learn. Either I will strengthen my own faith or find myself to have been mistaken and change those views. Both good outcomes.

I've studied religions at college, but atheism isn't one that gets a lot of academic attention so I can't say I've really heard an insiders perspective so to speak.

On top of that I believe the bible teaches something that people labeled "Salvation before Sanctification" It is the height of arrogance to assume people will believe what I want them too without accepting what I have accepted as authority.

BW: That's very refreshing to hear from a believer. Atheists in general feel the same way...that atheism is the most logical conclusion, and if there was sufficient evidence for the existence of a God, then they would change their minds. The 'burden of proof', so to speak, lies with the individuals making the claims. Since the existence of God is a pretty huge claim, it requires appropriately huge evidence to support it before I would change my mind about God.

In terms of morality, it is a common perspective that morality comes from faith. I've run into it several times, honestly. "You're an atheist? But you're such a nice person!" The concepts of morality described in the Bible are not unique to religion. Frankly, I strongly disagree with several Biblical attitudes on the basis of morality. There's a lot of messed up stuff that happens in that book.

I'm sure there's a lot to argue about in what I've said so far, so I should probably cut it off here and see where you would like to take the discussion from here.

Buccaneer: The existence of any God is really an absurd claim on the surface. But the break point for scientifically minded Christians is the Start of the Universe. Science (to me) has no plausible answers and is in fact, contradictory in any of its conclusions. From that point it takes a while to "pick a God" per se. In morality terms, ironically enough it was the Problem of Evil and it's nature that points to Naturalistic Atheism as having no moral grounds or basis the way I can see it.

I can agree that some of things people have used the Bible to justify is appalling. As far as in the Bile itself, I would hesitate to say there are things I oppose on moral grounds believing as I do in Justice.

BW: On the contrary, I am quite satisfied with the scientific conclusions on the origin of the universe. Granted I'm no physicist so my knowledge mostly comes from watching documentaries and reading Stephen Hawking, but the theories and ideas are reasonable and seem far more likely than requiring the existence of a God and all that implies. I can recommend 'Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking', which is available to watch instantly on Netflix, if you want to learn more about this. I'm honestly not an expert so it would be best to hear what the expert has to say and then draw your own conclusions.

Yes, Science is sometimes wrong and the experts sometimes disagree. But it is constantly changing and developing and moving closer to the truth as we gain greater understanding. That is precisely why I trust science over religion in this regard. As a hypothesis for how the Universe came to be, the God Hypothesis is inconsistent between cultures, impossible to be proven or disproven, incapable of being used to make predictions that apply to how the Universe works and it has never been revised or modified to fit new evidence. It's basically a useless, and unnecessary, hypothesis.

You raised several points in your last post. Would you prefer I address those, or do you want to continue discussing the Origin of the Universe for now?

Buccaneer: I am familiar with Hawkings work, but I think we have established a good base to work from. I think also that most discussions between Atheists and Theists ultimately end up back at the Origin of he Universe. So I am more than willing to let it go for now. I would propose though that ANY ideas concerning the origins are ultimately Based on faith of some kind since none of the Hypotheses can be tested to any satisfactory level.

BW: I will agree to leave the 'Origins' discussion alone for now, but I would like to clarify a bit more. While Hawking's theories cannot be truly tested, they do provide a reasonable explanation for how the Universe came to be that does not require the intervention of a supernatural being. Given that, I would argue that it is rational to believe the simpler explanation until more evidence is presented. That decision doesn't require faith.

Buccaneer: I say faith only in the sense of believing something without definitive proof.

BW: Is that the definition we should work with when discussing faith? I have seen many debates devolve into quibbling over definitions and connotations of words. I've always given 'faith' a broader definition, more along the lines of strong belief or trust in a supernatural force.

Returning to your second point, on atheism and morality, I'm not sure I understand your conclusion. I'm familiar with the Problem of Evil, which speculates that the existence of evil is incompatible with the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God. Why does that lead you to conclude that not believing in any supernatural beings leaves you with no moral grounds?

Buccaneer: I tend towards the most basic definitions. Makes things easier. In this case I use it mainly to point out that neither side has definitive scientific proof. It shows that we both come to the tables as intellectual equals and neither has the high ground to talk down to the other so to speak. In most peoples' vocabulary, Faith is understood to be a belief system. The broadest definition however does literally mean believing without definitive proof, which is why I say that both Theists and Atheists start by making a claim based on faith about the existence or non-existence of god(s).

As for the problem of evil, I do not see where the Atheist view can even acknowledge that evil exists. (Please correct me if I am wrong at any point here) It is my understanding that a practicing Atheist ( as strange as that sounds) fully believes in Darwinian Evolution as outlined in the Origin of Species and furthered by many scientists since. Given this understanding it would make sense that humans are just the most highly evolved life on this planet. Now, I cannot recall seeing any animal kill another of it's own species or another species described as "Evil" or "Bad", instead it is seen as the natural order of things. Acknowledging humans as just another form of life, I fail to see how the Atheist can say any action is "Evil" or "Bad". It seems to me to be an untenable position from a personal morals standpoint and as viewed when creating laws.

BW: First I have to disagree with your conclusion that theists and atheists are both making faith-based claims when it comes to the existence of the supernatural. As I mentioned before, the existence of God is a fantastic claim, with no supporting evidence. It does not require faith for me to believe that unicorns and dragons and Santa Claus don't exist, I am simply drawing a conclusion based on the available information. The idea of God or the supernatural is no different. I am not bringing this up to establish my perspective as superior or to talk down to you, as your comments seem to imply, but because I run into this problem a lot when talking to religious people. Greta Christina, one of my favorite atheist writers, has a good article on this exact subject if you are interested:
Is Atheism a Belief?

This also brings me to your next point, which seems to be based on a significant misunderstanding. Atheists do not have 'practices' or unifying beliefs. Atheism is simply a lack of belief in gods and the supernatural. Everything else, including morality and ethics, are entirely personal and individual. It's true that a huge majority of atheists accept evolution as fact, but that is because it makes sense and is supported by an incredibly huge pile of evidence...not because we follow Darwin as some kind of godless prophet.

You also seem to be drawing a false equivalency between thinking of humans as just another life form and losing the ability to distinguish between good and evil. Humans killing each other is NOT the natural order of things, and it is certainly not comparable to animals hunting other animals. Even when animals compete with each other for mates or territory they very rarely kill each other. Humans are a social species. We rely on each other to survive. It is in our best interests to treat people well and make the world a better place for everyone. And we are not special in that sense. Social animals often look out for each other and share resources.

Your argument seems to boil down to 'atheists follow Darwin and think all behavior is natural and therefore can't distinguish between right and wrong'...which is absurd, considering the existence of happy, moral atheists like myself. As intelligent, social animals we develop a system of values and ethics based on our culture, our interactions with others and our own human sense of empathy. Sure, if you are raised in a particular faith then the values of that faith will influence you...but they are neither dependent on nor inherent to that faith. Here is another good article that discusses this subject:
Where Do Atheists Get Their Morality From?

Think of it this way...if through the course of our conversation you lose your faith and become an atheist, would you start murdering anyone who pissed you off or stealing whatever you wanted? Of course not, because your morality wont change just because your belief in the supernatural does. Allow me to steal a page from your book:

It seems like religious people have no basis for morality. Without the fear of divine retribution after death, what would stop them from committing atrocities in life? They base all of their decisions around pleasing some supernatural being and obeying an anachronistic set of rules.

See what I mean? Of course I don't really think you're only a good person because God tells you to be one, or because you're afraid of going to Hell. Your morality does not depend on your faith. Religious people aren't any more or less moral than anyone else just because they believe certain things.

I hope that clears up some of your misconceptions. You did ask me to let you know if you were wrong. : )
Here's another article by Greta Christina you may be interested in:
The Ten Main Reasons I Don't Believe in God