Friday, September 18, 2009

Is Atheism Just Another Religion?

A very common claim by theists like JP is to say that atheism is just like a religious belief, in the sense that it is no more rational or logical than classic religious beliefs. In doing so he attempts to put atheism, along with "darwinism" and evolutionary biology on the same plane as other authority-based claims. This is disingenuous and hollow, and here is why:

At a meta-cognitive level people's ways of looking at the world are influenced by many factors, including psychological and environmental factors. In this sense, any of a person's beliefs, preferences, and knowledge could be said to be subjective and be based on "belief". This causes confusion between the term "belief" in its psychological meaning, and the word "belief" in its more formal meaning-- an element in a set of predetermined assumptions and rules associated with organized faith.

For example, I can believe that Jesus Christ was our messiah and savior. I can "believe" this in the sense that I see this as true--the "psychological" form of belief. This assertion is one of many in the Christian faith, so we can see it as a religious belief as well. I can also NOT believe that JC is my savior. In this case I "believe" that JC being my savior is not true, but we would not say that my non-belief is "faith" or "belief" in the dogmatic or religious sense. Just as I don't believe in Thor or Zeuss, I can also not belief in the fundamentalist Hebrew God, and yet it would be incorrect to say that I have a "faith" in my nonacceptance of these assumptions.


Some might claim that atheism is relatively recent in history and is therefore a deviation from the default assumptions, and therefore it is atheism that should be considered "faith based" and has the burden of proof. But this argument is fallacious for several reasons. Many historical beliefs about the physical world, including the fields of astronomy, physics, medicine and chemistry were the "default" until they were disproven. Additionally, "non-atheism" includes a very large collection of incompatible faiths and traditions. Therefore, lumping all "theists" beliefs together, then claiming that any skeptic who rejects any one or all of those beliefs as being a "believer" in a novel "belief" called "atheism" is dishonest and a misuse of the word. And as demonstrated by the flying spaghetti monster, the celestial teapot, or Christian claims about Jesus, the burden of proof rest squarely with the likes of Jacob Stein and his cohorts to prove their claims. It does not rest with me to reject it.

So if I don't accept Jesus as my savior, and reject Thor as a God, I would be a skeptic. All Jews are skeptics, from the point of view of Christians and Muslims. So why if I reject ALL religious claims, not just some of them, am I a "believer" in "atheism"? It is like JP is saying, "take your pick, but you have to choose at least ONE faith based claim, and that always makes more sense than the 'atheist' belief".

Another common distortion that JP uses is that atheists also have their "authorities", making them no different than religionists. He ridicules Darwin, Dawkins, and others as being atheist authorities. The truth is that they became authorities because their ideas have survived the test of time and scrutiny of peer review in the academic world. Besides, atheists don't blindly accept a scientific idea just because an expert says so, unless his ideas survive this scrutiny. As far as talmudic rabbinic authorities, their assertions have been rejected by the vast majority of Jews and non-Jews alike, so these people are "authorities" only to a tiny self-selected minority of humanity. We can acknowledge that there is also controversy and disagreement in the scientific community, but this is part of the process of inferential reasoning. We posit theories to explain what we see, and we test to see if the theory holds up. If it doesn't, it is rejected.

The fact that Orthodox Jews, along with various other minority groups in the world, continue to cling to their faith is a sociological phenomenon, which says nothing about the truth or falsehood of their claims.

The rejection of these or other religious claims, due to more plausible scientific explanations for what we see, could hardly be called a "faith" any more than the germ theory of disease or quantum physics. To rehash:

1. Atheism is not authority based like religion.
2. Atheism is not a belief like religion, since rejection is not a belief.
3. Atheism is a reasoned alternative to the hundreds of different and contradictory theist theories in explaining the world and life, and in fact explains our observations much better.
4. The burden of proof is on the theist, not the atheist.

21 comments:

Leap After You Look said...

Well said sir!

BrooklynWolf said...

He ridicules Darwin, Dawkins, and others as being atheist authorities.

That's very interesting when you consider the fact that Darwin was not an atheist.

Of course, for many people evolution = atheism, but the reality, of course, is that this is not necessarily so. A belief in evolution and a Creator are not mutually exclusive.

A happy and healthy New Year to you!

The Wolf

Larry Tanner said...

Part of the issue with folks like JP is that they call atheism a religion when it suits them and then say it's not a religion at other times.

For example, when JP trots out a study suggesting a correlation between relgion and life happiness, then all of the sudden atheism is not a religion.

For fundies like JP, it's a matter of faith to reject facts and evidence, and to manipulate data.

I think this is why the best course is not to engage fundies and instead simply to ridicule them and move on. Commenting on JP's site is a waste of time and energy.

A site like this is a very good thing, I have decided, because JP's idiocy needs to be parsed and exposed, but (as I said,) it does no good for anyone to comment over there.

However, one commenter put it very well with an all-too-close paroday of JP's thinking:

Atheists - Bad, bad mean people who kill whenever they want, do lots of drinking and drug abuse, and have all sorts of orgies. And they never feel guilt or remorse. Grrrr. Anyone who does anything that I consider ‘bad’ is automatically an atheist.

Evolution - Totally false and destructive, no matter what the evidence says. Somehow it keeps getting taught and still employs researchers. But it's all wrong! All of it! How do I know? Because I don’t believer it. Yes, that’s right: it’s wrong because I don’t believer it, and it doesn't make sense to me. Where are the rest of the fossils, science? You all keep bringing them out and showing them to me, but I want every single solitary one back to day 1. Where's the croco-duck? Huh? Where is it? In short: since evolution is out of the way, it all had to be the work of GAWD! Yessss, score for me and my kind!

Communists: All communists are atheists - even the jews who just happened to live in communist russia. Even the jews who joined the communist party in droves in the early part of the 20th century in america. All atheists are communists and/or fascists, of course, as is anyone who votes democratic. These people are all ENEMIES OF THE LAWD. I fervently pray at night for their destruction because god wants me to and I am good.

Religion. People would eat each other and their babies if it weren't for religion – just ask Jeffrey Dahmer! Religion makes the savage man peaceful and contemplative. Religion makes the world wonderful and full of the kinds of butterflies that only a clergyman and a young boy can truly know. Religion deserves to be funded by the state, even those awful, detestable religions that ARE NOT MINE. But these other religions are OK because all those poor fools will spend eternity burning by a lake of fire. HA! Especially hateful are those people who are not as JEWISH as I am. Me and my friends are the most Jewish Jews on the face of the earth, and we are SO VERY HAPPY. That's why I blog. Really. I'm happy.

The atheist question. Why do these atheist people keep insisting that there be some proof that hashem is a real, actual deity? Why don't they just believe me? Why can't they see that it's in a REALLY OLD BOOK, so it must be true? Why can’t they just KNOW HE EXISTS? Why can't they see that every contradiction, inconsistency and anachronism is PART OF THE DIVINE PLAN? Why can't they accept that one day all the dead who ever were are going to be alive again and walking on the planet? Well, I guess they'll all just have to die gruesome deaths and to suffer eternal torture to figure out that God is real and loves them. Remember, if you can’t perceive gawd, it’s always your fault.

Off the Derech said...

Larry, that is brilliant. Where did you get that from?

Holy Hyrax said...

>Besides, atheists don't blindly accept a scientific idea just because an expert says so

Actually, I think everyone does this. This is not so much of a criticism as much as its a description of reality. For example, you will often read XGH discussing who should he believe, all the experts, or all the theologians that contradict each other. Now, you can counter that these experts can demonstrate their findings, but for the most part, non of us actually come to our own conclusions by actually looking at these findings. Do we ever stop to think what is empirically proved by experts as opposed to good theorizing by experts? (Global warming and Archeology are good examples of this). So speaking just pragmatically, do due constraints in our own lives, we generally simply trust those we deem experts.

G*3 said...

> So speaking just pragmatically, do due constraints in our own lives, we generally simply trust those we deem experts.

True. The question then is what makes someone an expert in a given field.

DrJ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DrJ said...

It is correct that the skeptic at some level must believe an expert without examining all of the details and evidence himself. However, he chooses to accept someone as an expert who has a track record of credibly using the scientific method to arrive at conclusions. For example, I consider Dawkins a talented speaker, writer and demogogue, but I don't really consider him an expert in biology that I would bet all my money on. So I don't necessarily accept his ideas, such as religion being a meme, etc.

DrJ said...

Shana Tova to Skeptics and Fundies alike!

DrJ said...

Larry-
I agree with your conclusions. He blocks my comments, anyway, presumably because they're too biting. Perhaps he gets advertising income or some other perk for getting a lot of visitors, which he accomplishes by getting alot of comments. There is obviously no dialogue going on, his responses are just a tired collection of ad hominem attacks, reductio ad absurdum arguments, overgeneralizations and misquotations.

I appreciate the vote of support for my blog!

Garnel Ironheart said...

1. Atheism is not authority based like religion.

No, but it is a religion based on a common belief and rejection of contradictory beliefs.

2. Atheism is not a belief like religion, since rejection is not a belief.

Incorrect. As Rush once sang, "if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice." Atheism is the belief that there is no God, chas v'shalom.

3. Atheism is a reasoned alternative to the hundreds of different and contradictory theist theories in explaining the world

No, religion is a faith-based alternative to the emptiness of of atheist theories in explaining the world.

> and life, and in fact explains our observations much better.

Absolutely incorrect. A religious and atheistic person see the same phenomenon and each explains it in his own way but who's to say who's really right?

4. The burden of proof is on the theist, not the atheist.

No, the burden in on the atheist since he is trying to disprove a belief held by the majority of the world's population.

Off the Derech said...

Will someone rip Garnel a new one?

Larry Tanner said...

Garnel,

"'1. Atheism is not authority based like religion.'

No, but it is a religion based on a common belief and rejection of contradictory beliefs."

I think this fails right off the bat because the question is whether atheism is a religion. You start off characterizing it as one.

Now, if a group of people share a common belief and reject contradictory beliefs, does that make the group a religion?

If so, then do we consider the Republican and Democratic Parties to be religious organizations?

Larry Tanner said...

Garnel,

"A religious and atheistic person see the same phenomenon and each explains it in his own way but who's to say who's really right?"

If you really think this, then why do you criticize atheists/atheism? We just see it our own way, we may be right, and you have no standing to say we're wrong. By your logic you should just STFU.

I realize that a religious person sees a certain phenomenon - say, a Star of David appears in an english muffin - and interprets it as a divine sign. My point would be that there is no divine sign or divine intent. In other words, I am not only contesting your interpretation but I am also asking you to justify the assumption of anything called the "divine" in the first place.

Why is it that you assume that something "divine" exists? This is the assumption that I think is faulty and renders your interpretation incorrect.

G*3 said...

> 1. Atheism is not authority based like religion.
> No, but it is a religion based on a common belief and rejection of contradictory beliefs.

From Merriam-Webster, the relevant definitions:
re•li•gion
1. the service and worship of God or the supernatural
2. a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices
3. a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith

Atheism is clearly not 1. Its not 2, because “religious” references definition 1. 3 kind of fits, except that this is 1. not the popular definition, and 2. Atheism only has one real belief, that there is not enough evidence to assume the existence of God. Its not a ‘system of beliefs’.


> 2. Atheism is not a belief like religion, since rejection is not a belief.
> Incorrect. As Rush once sang, "if you choose not to decide you still have made a choice." Atheism is the belief that there is no God, chas v'shalom.

You are confusing belief with religion. Not every belief we hold is a religion. My belief that the sky is blue is not a religion. My belief that the sky isn’t green is also not a religion. So yes, that there is not enough evidence to assume God exists is a belief. It is a belief in exactly the same way that the belief that fairies don’t exist is a belief.

> 3. Atheism is a reasoned alternative to the hundreds of different and contradictory theist theories in explaining the world
> No, religion is a faith-based alternative to the emptiness of of atheist theories in explaining the world.

These are not mutually exclusive. Atheism is the lack of theistic beliefs. Science (not atheism) is a reasoned alternative explanation for natural events (e.g., lightening is elctro-static discharges, not Zeus’s weapon of choice). Religion provides meaning in people’s lives that a mechanistic universe does not. The difference is that we can demonstrate that science works, while religion is ultimately based on faith.

>Absolutely incorrect. A religious and atheistic person see the same phenomenon and each explains it in his own way but who's to say who's really right?

Don’t be ridiculous. I’ll tell you what, lets have a contest, like the Navi did with the priests of Baal. You daven for Hashem to fly you somewhere. You choose. I’ll use an airplane to go to the same place. Let’s see who gets there first.

Yes, yes, I know that’s not really what you mean. You mean that I see it as mechanistic physics making the plane fly, and you see it as Hashem willing the laws of physics to hold true. In practical terms, it makes no difference. But when we get to things like natural disasters, it gets interesting. I see a natural disaster as an unfortunate random occurrence. You see it as a manifestation of God’s will – God deliberately killed a bunch of people and caused a lot of damage. I don’t have to justify anything here. You have to explain how an omni-benevolant God could do such a terrible thing.

> No, the burden in on the atheist since he is trying to disprove a belief held by the majority of the world's population.

You’re right in a popular sense. If most people believe one thing, it is up to the minority to change their minds. You’re completely wrong in a scientific sense, where it is assumed that nothing is true unless proven.

DrJ said...

Garnel, its quite obvious that the main argument of the post went right over your head, that is, the distinction between "belief" in the psychological sense of a point of view, and "belief" in the religious sense. Is my rejection of Haddad the storm god, and the acceptance of the electrostatic explanations of thunderstorms, a religious belief? Is my opinion about the war in Afghanistan a religious belief?

G*3 said...

I forgot to add the standard line: Atheism is a religion in the same way that not collecting stamps is a hobby.

G*3 said...

I keep thinking of more things. This is why I like blogs. In real life, once a conversation is over, that’s it. All the stuff I think of afterwards doesn’t help.

> No, the burden in on the atheist since he is trying to disprove a belief held by the majority of the world's population.

Prove that Jesus isn’t the son of God
Prove that Mohammed isn’t the final prophet
Prove that Vishnu doesn’t exist.
There are two billion people that believe in Jesus, and about a billion each that believe Mohammed spoke to an angel and that Vishnu is a god.

There are what, maybe two million Orthodox Jews?

Reality isn’t a popularity contest.

DrJ said...

G3 I think the point is clear.

I think that a claim that is more problematic to deal with has to do with the psychology of personalities and world view. From my reading of Pinker at least 50% of variation in intelligence and personality is explained genetically, including tendency towards spirituality and religion. Most of the rest is non-familial environment (with the exception of extreme circumstances). So our way of looking at the world is somewhat but not entirely deterministic. So if we are skeptics, and others are "religious", we're talking about a psychological phenomenon, not "objective" reality. So who's to say who is right and who is wrong....

G*3 said...

> I think the point is clear.

Sorry. I just hate to see a good comeback go to waste.

Leisha Camden said...

If a discussion like this is ever going to get anywhere, then everyone involved would have to agree to a definition of what the word 'atheism' actually means. Clearly atheism is not a religion by any dictionary definition. And if people are going to make up their own definitions of words just because they think it's better if A means B, then it's pointless to debate with them.