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.

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