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Posted by on Apr 29, 2013 in Blog, Essays | 12 comments

Hell Bent on a Holy Mission

 

Dictionary Series - Religion: atheism

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Everyone’s an Atheist

We are all atheists. 

That’s right.  Every single person on earth is an atheist.

Should you doubt this, allow me to prove it to you.  Let’s conduct a short trial.

Since mankind first began walking upright, thousands of different gods have been worshiped.  From cavemen to astronauts, we’ve prayed to every conceivable object we fail to fully understand — from the sun and stars to animals and ancient myths.  Most religions faded away a long time ago.  Some belief systems were never even documented.  But somehow, hundreds of religions still survive to this day — each with a different concept of what “god” means to its followers.

For the sake of argument, let’s agree on a conservative estimate.  Let’s say that 1,000 different gods have existed since the origin of man.  The actual number is likely far greater.  But we’ll keep this simple.

Here’s my question:  Of the 1,000 gods that have been around since history began, how many were truly divine?  Go ahead.  Take your best guess.

If forced to answer, most people would likely reply — just one.  Most people believe in one god.  Not two.  Not five.  Not one hundred.  You not only reject 999 alternative gods, you perceive most religions other than your own to be ludicrous.  You might even be appalled by the practices of many of these other belief systems.

Well, welcome to the club.  By definition, you are an atheist.  You thoroughly dismiss the vast majority of mankind’s fictional gods.  Accordingly, this now makes the difference between us purely numerical.  You reject 999 gods.  I reject 1,000.

Wouldn’t this make us far more in agreement than the sum of our differences?

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Atheism Flawed

Despite the obvious preponderance of facts in support, “atheism” doesn’t quite accurately reflect what many of us profess to believe.  I prefer to think of it as a near miss.  Atheists surely do reject the tenets of most of the world’s religions, that we’re all here as part of some grand design to live our lives as serfs in a slave camp purely at the pleasure of some imaginary sky daddy.  We think that would be an abhorrent world to live in.  We want no part of it.  The problem is — atheism goes a step beyond this and declares — not just as a preference but as a scientific conclusion — that no god exists.

By its deep-seeded entrenchment, atheism begets a sense of philosophical intolerance — some might argue an anti-Socratic arrogance.  After all, no evidence actually exists which disproves the existence divine intervention.  Yes, we should all agree that the burden of proof of any extraordinary concept (such as the existence of god) rests entirely upon the believers.  They should be the ones required to present some tangible evidence of this divine superintendent they profess to know and see and even talk to on a regular basis.  But in the incalculable vastness of outer space, we who were now living early in the 21st Century on this tiny planet in a vast galaxy on the edge of the galactic universe would have to be credulously arrogant to insist that we currently know everything about what’s out there beyond the horizons of our understanding.

And so, pure atheism doesn’t quite fit the paradigm of the inherent human curiosity combined with scientific knowledge which is still in its relative infancy.  Does anyone doubt that we will know a lot more about science and the universe in ten years, a hundred years, or a thousand years from now?  We may very still be living in the year 1620, scientifically speaking, when compared to the knowledge later to come.

Atheism essentially closes a very interesting book on a subject which demands being left open.  Hence, it’s not only too dogmatic in its uncompromising view, it’s ironically — anti-science.

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Anti-theism versus Atheism and Agnosticism

The far more appropriate term for the belief system which rejects all varieties of religion is “anti-theism.”

Indeed, I profess to be anti-theist, which is not the same at all as either agnosticism or atheism.  Yet these three unique terms are very often misused, widely misunderstood, and frequently employed interchangeably, even though they mean quite different things.

Agnosticism properly defined is the declaration not to know.  It’s based on reasonable doubt.  Agnostics see no evidence of the supernatural and therefore cannot justify having blind faith.

Atheism takes doubt one step further by declaring that no divine superintendent exists.  There’s an unwavering certitude with atheists making it a far more assertive position than the milder (and more ambivalent) agnosticism, which makes it utterly abhorrent to religious believers.  Moreover, given the historical damnation of non-believers/non-conformists, atheists tend to be more astringent in their beliefs.  They must be, having successfully weathered and overcome society’s pressures to believe and conform.  In short, it’s far tougher to be an atheist than a believer in society.  This was true even more so a few decades ago, and was all but mandatory just a few centuries ago.  We’re now just beginning to finally remove the shackles of religiosity in favor of free thought and open discussion.  We are lucky to live in an era of enlightenment that has never existed before in the history of mankind.  Of course, free discussion also scares a lot of people.

However, agnosticism and atheism both share one sentiment which is detestable to anti-theists.  They aphorism goes that agnostics and even many atheists would very much like to “believe in god” if sufficient evidence existed to do so.  Some go much further by making the baffling assertion that the world would be better off with some form of divine intervention.

Anti-theists hold a far more controversial belief.  We absolutely and positively do not want religion to exist.  None of it.  We view the practice of religion as de facto captivity inside a “celestial dictatorship,” as the late Christopher Hitchens so amusingly articulated in his countless writings and speeches.  We have no interest whatsoever in living in some divinely manipulated world, and what’s presumed to be an eternal afterlife, where every action we take, every thought we have, every idea we explore, and every single concept in our conscious and even unconscious is known and monitored by our great leader.

Hitchens aptly compared this notion, which comprises the essential beliefs and practices of most religions — where god sees and hears and knows absolutely everything — to living a nightmare, the manifestation of what it must be like to exist in North Korea, where all the minions have but one single purpose — to worship a maniacal narcissist.

“No thanks,” we anti-theists say.  Worship the great leader and his son on your own.  Don’t expect us to join the tyranny.

Summarizing now, believers want to believe.  Agnostics may want to believe, but aren’t sure — so they can’t.  And atheists might be willing to believe if shown compelling evidence — but won’t.  By contrast, anti-theists have no desire whatsoever to believe (in god).

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The Abdication of Spirituality

Practicing anti-theism doesn’t necessarily reject all belief.   In fact, since we dismiss divine intervention, there’s an even greater reliance on the virtuality of mankind.

In fact, we are ardent believers in idealistic principles, albeit tempered with a dose of realism.  The many things we anti-thesists agree on include — humanity, science, logic, reason, ethics, nature, and our own ability to exist within the context of what’s known to be true rather than blind faith and fantasy.

Anti-theism also encompasses a far more positive outlook on mankind than do contemporary religions.  Most religions desire to control human behavior.  That’s priority number one.  Basic human instincts (presumably created by god, according to religious believers) are evil and must be contained even eradicated.  We’re also said to be born of sin.  Not exactly a positive overview of mankind.  Curtailing instincts?  Eradicating desires?  Born into sin?  How negative is that?

Anti-theism is arguably the most positive of all belief systems.  It must by its very essence.  Rejecting divine control and trusting entirely in humanity carries weighty obligations.  It begs, even inspires mankind to continue to evolve and improve (the fundamental precept of secular humanism).

Critics view this as not only unrealistic, but dangerous.  And it’s easy to see why.  Based on world events, both historical and current, one can make a convincing case that humanity is inherently evil and does very bad things.  This is undoubtedly true.  But mankind’s evolution has also brought about unprecedented understanding and harmony.  We’re clearly headed in the right direction.  And when one adds the toxicity of religions’ deleterious impact on civilization over the years (manifested in wars, terrorism, hate, intolerance, segregation), a much stronger case can be made that it’s religion which is inherently evil, rather than mankind.  At the very least, religion causes otherwise good people to do some very bad things.

And yet for all of anti-theism’s many attributes, which seek to maximize the experience of life on earth (particularly since no afterlife exists), we must also spend some of our free time exploring matter of spirituality.

That seems to be a contradictory statement.  It is not.  While anti-theists have no desire for religion, we should freely engage in discussion about matters we do not fully understand.  We must keep open minds on subjects which merit investigation.  We must explore the possibilities beyond our current knowledge and capacity to understand the universe with limited technology.

As neurophysicist and author Sam Harris points out, the mistake we anti-theists (and atheists) have made is abdicating all discussion and exploration of spiritual possibilities.  We have simply walked away from the conference table, when instead we should be sitting there to provide anchors of logic and reality.

Anti-theism should never mean absolutism.  Rather, it should stand for opposing all the horrible things religion has done to impede humanity’s advancement — for past centuries and to this very day.  It means demanding that religious people produce some tangible evidence that warrants warping all sense of reality and upending the fundamentals of scientific understanding.

We do not believe.  But we will always be here to listen, and perhaps even help to gain greater understanding.

 

Coming Next:  This week, I’ll be engaging in what I hope will be a lively discussion and debate with Dr. Arthur Reber, Professor of Psychology at Brooklyn College (now retired).  While we do share many ideas and beliefs, we also discovered some vital differences during an e-mail exchange last week.

Following a two-part series on religion I wrote which can be read here (Why Won’t Religion Leave Us Alone?) Dr. Reber contacted me with an intriguing argument that I hadn’t considered, or even heard.  He’s a cognitive psychologist with a near half-century of research in his field and a long-standing interest in the psychology of religion.  I’m academically outclassed by both volumes and decades here.  His view on how religions came about and why they’re still nearly universal despite their horrific track record was an entirely new concept to me.

If you click here (ArthurReber.com), it’ll take you to his web site where, among other things, you’ll see how he responded to my initial two essays.  I will most certainly be responding to his arguments, when appropriate.  My thoughts will be posted here during the rest of this week.

We’ll see how long this goes.  Please feel free to jump in and comment on any aspect and on either of our pages.  We’ll try to respond to sensible retorts or arguments.

12 Comments

  1. I appreciate your viewpoint on this matter but I disagree with you.

    “Anti-theism should never mean absolutism. Rather, it should stand for opposing all the horrible things religion has done to impede humanity’s advancement — for past centuries and to this very day. It means demanding that religious people produce some tangible evidence that warrants warping all sense of reality and upending the fundamentals of scientific understanding.”

    Some religions don’t get me wrong promote violence and have stunted the rights of women to a secondary class. And in many Islamic countries that is still standard today. I am not saying people carrying the flag of Christianity have not been guilty of this either. You have some valid points.

    But as for your point about the ugliness of religion, we also have to recognize the ugliness of mankind. We are as human race have engaged in bad things without the association of religion. The bottom line is humanity isn’t always a bed of roses regardless of faith. Do you really think that if we had no religion that the world would be free of war and conflict? The truth is, other things would cause unrest like social class status and wealth.

    I think the biggest thing that stands out to me is the “prove it” mentality. I can’t prove how I have been changed by my fake sky God you say is non existent. The same way we can’t describe the life change that happens when we find a true love in our hearts.

    For most people it is easy to reject God, esp. if you aren’t willing to look or take him into consideration. I hear people relay reasons why, “Bad experience, was judged, catholics are evil, closed minded etc” But let’s say we as men or women took this same stance with dating. We would be a lonely group of people if we only gave one person or a situation a chance, but then wrote it off as, “not for me”.

    And as for Science being in direct conflict with faith, I take great offense to this. I think most people assume Christians are anti science and that’s not true. The difference is, for me, is I view science as a means to discovery but not a end all, be all belief system. Science is an amazing way to enhance understanding on many topics but it doesn’t have to be used an argument against faith.

    I look at all the amazing things people who are Christians do throughout the world to help to weak, suffering and those in pain and wonder how much of an impediment we are to society and it’s growth?

    Anyways,

    Thanks a lot Nolan, now my frigging soup is cold…. Write something about Romania NOW!

    • NOLAN REPLIES:

      As always Nick, your comments are both welcome and thought provoking. Thank you.

      Allow me to address a few points, and then ask you some follow-up questions if I may.

      YOU WRITE — “we also have to recognize the ugliness of mankind. We are as human race have engaged in bad things without the association of religion. The bottom line is humanity isn’t always a bed of roses regardless of faith. Do you really think that if we had no religion that the world would be free of war and conflict? The truth is, other things would cause unrest like social class status and wealth.”

      Yes indeed, conflict would still exist without religion. But we are speaking in terms of degrees here. I postulate there is greater conflict and human misery because of religion. This is undoubtedly true centuries ago. It’s still true today. Conflicts in Ireland/North Ireland, India/Pakistan, Lebanon/Israel, Bosnia/Serbia, just to name a few and not have taken place without the incitement of religion.

      YOU WRITE — “And as for Science being in direct conflict with faith, I take great offense to this. I think most people assume Christians are anti science and that’s not true.”

      It is true. Whether it was the church opposing the revelations of Newton and Galileo, or furor over evolution or stem-cell research, religion is the bulwark perpetually standing in the way of scientific research and progress. It’s been that way in the West ever since Christianity became the dominant force of culture. It’s even more pronounced in the Muslim world. Answer this — how do you make such a statement (above) knowing that more than half American Christians don’t believe in evolution or think the earth is 8,000 years old?

      I plainly see you are not in the group, which I applaud. But most Christians are anti-science if polls and political persuasions of various leaders are to be believed.

      One final question I’ll ask. Regarding good deeds, wouldn’t those same people (if atheists) have the same empathy for the poor and suffering and be just as committed to helping others if they were not people of faith?

      Once again, your input is welcome and appreciated.

      — ND

      • Well..

        I am not going deny that conflict and wars have been going on for centuries because of different religious beliefs. That is true. The problem with your analysis is you assume that religion as a whole brings conflict and human misery. ( Of course, my viewpoint as a Christian is different than other religious beliefs. We believe in one living breathing God. Christianity is the only religion where God walked on the Earth, and gave a path to salvation. I don’t believe in other religions.

        (I personally think some religions are silly. I only come to that conclusion over years of reading and studying different faiths. I am glad in this country and many others that they can practice their beliefs freely even if I am in disagreement.)

        Of course, my viewpoint is this on the topic. I don’t believe modern day Christianity is bringing or causing greater conflict or misery, and the people who use a Christian stance to promote hate aren’t Christians. (i.e. Westboro Baptist)

        As for Science,

        The problem is if I say I don’t believe in the Theory of Evolution in whole than I am an idiot. I just agree with all parts of Darwin’s theories. I do think as human we evolve but I don’t think we have evolved for some prehistoric semi man. If you really believe that Christians have stood in the way of progress in the last 60 years, than how did we go to the Moon, send a rover to Mars, and why are we all for exploring the universe? If we were anti science don’t you think their would be a million of us protesting?

        And as for the age of Earth and time, I think the bible is overly emphasized by people who are looking for way to discredit the Bible to prove an agenda or a point. There are parts of the Bible that were true 2,000 years ago for society and man’s law but are outdated now. Rick Warren, gave a passionate argument about this to Piers Morgan when discussing gay marriage. The bible talks about man’s law, biblical law, and the words of Christ.

        As for stem cell research, I think it is important, but how are we getting the stem cells is the point of contention. And the backlash that comes from the Christian Right is based on that. Are we taking stem cells from aborted (i mean, murdered) babies? If so, we need to find a better way. IMO

        I could get off on a rant here about how I detest denominations and how they have ruined millions of life instead of helping. You are right in many ways. I also have the same strong feelings of disdain for the Catholic Church as you probably do. That could be a more spirited discussion down the road..

        As for charity and giving, I only used that as a example that the church uses for good. There are many atheists, non believers who are incredibly generous with their time and money. I was just saying a majority of Christian support causes that help enrich and encourage peoples lives.

        The bottom line for me is, and this may surprise you. I am not religious. Heck, I’m not a Christian. Wait… What? I’m a disciple. I believe in the teachings of Jesus. “Christianity” is the label people slapped on to believers. Jesus never used the term Christians, or talked about a pope, or said dancing or drinking wine was sinful or evil. These are things denominations do.

        Would the world be better without a lot of religions? Yes..

        Would the world be better of without Jesus? No. (my opinion)

        I’m really trying my hardest not to make this a speech for why Christianity is the only faith worth following, but I think if more people tried to be more like Christ, this world would be better. Without Christ, I’m worried what this world would become. That is our major disagreement. . .

  2. Hi Nolan,
    I have noticed in twenty years of playing card games competitively (bridge and poker) that card players are the least religious group of people I’ve ever met (I do not know anyone on Wall Street). I’m curious as to why this is so. Is it that playing cards makes non-Christians disenchanted with the notion of a deity (My God, My God, why hast thou let this fishcake hit his two-outer on the river?), while Christians are more likely to see a bad beat as a divine sign that they should reject this activity? Or is it that people who are already disinclined to believe turn to cards because the activity and the players make them feel more comfortable, while for many Christians card playing/gambling is considered sinful? Or both? I’d like to hear your thoughts,
    David Rottmayer

    • David, your post reminded me of an old poker joke which I’d like to present to you now.

      What’s the difference between Church goers and poker players?

      When poker players pray they really mean it.

    • NOLAN REPLIES:

      Excellent question. I’ll give this more thought and post something should there be some relevancy to my discovery.

      — ND

      • David, Nolan:

        Good points. I hope we get a chance to discuss this here and at: http://www.ArthurReber.com. And, FWIW, the least religious group is the National Academy of Sciences.

  3. As a side note, I hope my blog entry was ok with you. I wanted to give you a public salute but as I thought about it today I’m feeling I should have gotten permission first. If you prefer I take it down please let me know. It was meant to be a pleasant surprise not a moment of horror!

    • NOLAN REPLIES:

      Justification never needed for thoughtful comments, which you provided, Nick. Thank you for the contribution. Out of respect for you, I thought it best to give you the last word. Please do feel free to comment anytime and hold no punches.

      — ND

      • I sent you a tweet last night Nolan.. That is what I was referring too.. See my blog / website above. I won’t list it for public consumption here until you see my post I was talking about

  4. Nolan, are you aware how far off base you are with your 999 to 1000 analogy?

    • NOLAN REPLIES:

      Maybe.

      — ND

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