Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Religious Atheism

Interesting take on atheism as a cultural/religous phenomenon in the New Scientist. Here's an extract from an interview with scientist and teacher Bernard Beckett, who writes fiction books based on scientific themes

....you chaired an event for Richard Dawkins and, as a result, shifted your views from atheism to agnosticism. Why the conversion?

The event sold out very quickly. The people were huge fans of Dawkins, and being amongst a group of card-carrying atheists was something I'd never experienced before.

I'd probably have called myself an atheist at the time. But normally, that means going your own way and creating your own response.

Instead, it felt more like being in church. Suddenly, there were a whole heap of people who seemed to be responding as one. To me, that reproduced some of the things I disliked about the church I was brought up in, because leaps are made from atheism to other beliefs that you are meant to have as well.

For instance, the belief that there is something negative about the influence of religion, which I don't necessarily think is true. It's a very complex sociological question that would take a lot of research, but suddenly, if you're one of us, you also have to be against religion.

At that point I feel uncomfortable. I also felt uncomfortable with the idea of wanting to convert people; to atheism in this case. It felt evangelical, and that's not my instinct at all.
There was an issue of New Scientist recently, where
Marcelo Gleiser wrote about the search for the theory of everything. Gleiser believes that this is a bit of a hangover from religion.
For some people, like Dawkins, science is about beauty and meaning and truth. I'm really uncomfortable with that. I don't think science is about that at all.

Science is a little bit more than a wonderful way of modelling and predicting, it's a wonderful technical abstraction. I think science is a really wonderful technical abstraction.

I can't see any great evidence that humans have any ability to access anything other than the material world. Beyond that, who knows, but there's no good evidence that would take me to any particular belief. And that seems to me to me to be a more rigorous view and one I'm much more comfortable with.

This does strike a chord: just as there's a culture within church circles which contains lots of things which have nothing to do with Christianity, there also seems to be a culture around certain popularisers of atheism which goes a long way beyond science.

However, if you think that you're right and that someone who disagrees with you is wrong, then it seems a bit postmodern just to let everyone have their own point of view, and not get a bit 'evangelical'. I'm not a scientist, but if certain things are scientific facts then it's probably a good thing to teach/persuade other people of them. Ok we can be less sure about the existence or otherwise of God, but if you can only argue for a position if it's certain, how on earth do you discover whether or not it's certain in the first place...?

Being 'evangelical' about atheism logically follows from being an atheist: religion must look like a massive and self-indulgent waste of time, resources and effort, and people are much better being persuaded to do something more useful. The same impulse also follows from believing in God, though for different reasons!

But what Beckett hints at is that, as well as being a reasoned position, evangelical (or 'religious'?) atheism has also become a cultural boundary marker for a certain social/intellectual group. Heck, they've even got merchandise. The church, sadly, has reams of examples of what happens when you forget the difference between a cultural boundary marker, and a core belief. I'm even required by church law to wear some of them.

But maybe that's a feature of any ideology or intellectual movement: the beliefs have to take form within a culture, and be expressed, or else it's all purely theoretical. And once they do that, the outward form of the belief is often the first bit of it that outsiders encounter, and it becomes part of the package. Is 'evangelical' atheism bound to develop its own subculture?


  1. D, interesting article, confusing but interesting.

    In answer to your question, I would say that you discover whether something is certain or not by examining the evidence and testing it; however even that understanding may be provisional until new evidence comes in, and so on.

    As for the author, I don't understand his point really, he seems to desire to equate "new atheism" and religion but can't actually provide any evidence for this hypothesis, perhaps he is just a contrarian and would rally against any attempt at organisation?

    He paints a picture of Atheists I'm not familiar with, I've never met another Atheist that I completely agree with 100% on anything, a sentiment I'm sure you would recognise in terms of another Christian; humans simply aren't built that way. There is only one thing that Atheists generally agree on and that's a rejection of the idea that deities exist but even that is most likely the same kind of rejection they would have for fairies or unicorns etc. i.e. there is simply not enough evidence for it. If Mr Beckett thinks there maybe realms of information outside of the reality we can observe then that's certainly a point of view, but it makes it kind of hard to see how he could be a committed scientist as such a possibility would negate all scientific observations to date, he must be good at compartmentalising his mind when he does his science.

    I agree with you in that I think there is no harm at all in being passionate and committed to something (within the law!) if you believe you are right about something and have evidence to support it (or even if you don't) then let your idea swim in the ocean of all ideas and let it thrive or die based upon merit.

    Atheism was around long before modern science (Epicurus!) so I'm not sure why a "hard" connection is inferred between atheists and science; its true to say that religions often seem to fight against science and progress generally and so there is an obvious gravitation between atheists and science but it would be trivial to find two Atheists who disagree about stem cell research or abortion or GM crops for example.

  2. http://davidkeen.blogspot.com/2010/06/religious-atheism.html

    I agree with Steve 100% on his comments; but that being so, I'm sure we'd disagree somewhere.

    I'd add the following.

    There is what I'd call a 'faith' atheist, who rejects religion for many reasons and denies there is a God, but not for what we might call 'reasoned' reasons. They simply don't buy it because it sounds dumb. I supposed there's an element of rationalism in there somewhere. But it's as near as faith view as you'll get from an atheist I think. Add to that a more strident character, and there you have what appears to be a 'religious atheist'.

    I think most atheists who want to debate do look at a lot of the claims made by religions, and some of the 'proofs', and realise that they too have to be more sure of their philosophy and science than they perhaps otherwise would be. And the requirement for evidence isn't enough, because many theists will offer what they think is damned good evidence, so the scientific method and its benefits often have to be called up in support. And how many debates go by without evolution cropping up - inevitable given some religious claims.

    So it's not surprising that atheism and science often appear together in these debates.

    The charge of atheist popularisers going beyond science is unfair. Most seem try to stick very clearly to science, and are usually clear when any point is new science or hypothesis based on other science - Dawkins often does this. What I've noticed in debates is that when I counter a point with an analogy that's equally speculative, in order to show there are plenty of alternative hypotheses available if speculation is on the tables, then the theist thinks they've scored a point because you're speculating too. They don't seem to get analogies and metaphor too well - which is obvious when you consider some of their own. And fairies of Flying Spaghetti Monster? The number of times you have to spell out that it's not the position you actually hold.

    I agree with Steve about being enthusiastic, but I don't agree with the post author that evangelicalism logically follows. There are plenty of atheists that simply don't give a toss and don't engage.

  3. Steve - I don't move very often in 'new atheist' circles, but if some of the better known websites/forums are anything to go by (Dawkinsnet, Pharyngula, Comment is Free) there is, to this outsider anyway, a bit of a subculture. His evidence, surely, is that he's experienced both church and a 'new atheist' gathering and spotted some strong similarities between the two. The atheist 9 lessons and carols last Christmas is another example - yes it was an intentional parody, but when you get people together to celebrate and reinforce a worldview, then it does start to look a bit 'religious', even in trivial examples like football crowds.

    Ron - thanks for your comment. Do you think that the atheists who don't give a toss are mistaken? There are plenty of Christians who don't follow through on all the implications of their faith, but it doesn't follow from that that their faith doesn't have those implications.

    And if us religious types really are wasting all our time and energy, then shouldn't we be persuaded/encouraged not to? And if atheists don't do it, who will? (I'm conscious this is a slightly odd thing for a vicar to be encouraging!)

  4. Hi dmk,

    You're not the oddest vicar in this respect ( Lesley, you know what I mean :) )

    I think that they are fortuitously correct - not implying that stance has less merit wrt how to live life. I don't think it's mistaken as such, since that sort of implies there was intent to take an option.

    And if atheists don't do it, who will? - Something we all have to deal with personally. It would help if the cards weren't stack in favour of faith, with it's priviliged position in education and the indoctrination of the young - strong ideas are hard to shift. But, always glad to help. I think most change has to come from within - And I see the CofE making some 'progress' in this respect, though not always at the highest levels.

    But that's just my point of view based on my unreliable brain and our fallibility.

  5. Hi All

    Thanks Ron - I'll take that as a compliment :)

    I agree with David. To an outsider it really does feel like a subculture, and the other thing is I know you think us people of faith are too easily offended, and I will put my hands up to that, but the level of mockery and scathing comments makes me feel excluded, and I want to be part of the debate because I too genuinely wish to search for truth, and I too am worried about the effects of fundamentalism.

    That said, I love some of the jokes, it is the unpleasantness I dislike.

  6. Hi Lesley,

    I think many US atheists in particular are so used to all the Hell fire and Damnation being thrown at them by the religious right, it's a bit of payback. Many UK atheists will enjoy just as much self-deprecating humour as mockery of antagonists.

    But in some of the online videos the audiences are obviously partisan and the performers will often play to the crowd - human nature. When joining in on debates by religious groups I just take the admonition or down right scolding of us atheists for granted, suck it up and look for the arguments.

    Some of the worst theists to debate with are the presuppositionalists. They take an age to lead you through what they think is a teasing out of your feeble reasoning, apparently patiently going along with your points; and when they think you've exposed your weak dependence on logic they spring the presupp on you scornfully, bask in their brilliant execution of Van Tilian or someone or other, as other onloooking theists join in to applause the move. They sometimes then get a bit offended if you come back with more, surprised that their conclusive flurry hasn't done for you.

    So, don't worry, we all get to feel the lone voice some time or another, it's nothing personal; just look for arguments you can criticise.

    Anyway, since we're the Godless ones, what do you expect?

  7. Hi Ron

    Blimey, we are arguing on someone else's blog now! (oops that probably had something to do with me sending you the link).

    Payback is never good is it? I like the Gandhi quote that an eye for an eye makes the whole word blind. It frustrates me slightly that you are unwilling to criticise those who behave in this manner who are in the atheist camp, but no doubt you would criticise those of faith.

    I think it would be bad manners of Christians, if not downright unchristian to be scathing to someone of any belief system. Personally, I haven't known atheists to be mocked in a Christian setting. Have you known it in the UK? I take it that it happens in the US?

    Wondering if I am a presuppositionalist!

    Ah ok.. good advice. Thing is you relish debate, I relish cooperation, mutual respect etc.

    :) And there was me thinking you were the unknowing Christians, made in the image of the loving God :P

    I expect us all to be human, and therefore humane, and to work cooperatively towards a better future, that is what I expect. Discord, hatred, mockery.. these things I don't expect.. and yes they happen in the church too, and I am guilty too.

  8. if i think like this, i think that i am not prepared for this position yet. i have to be more strong after this position.

  9. Don't mind me! Reminds me of that scene in Bridget Jones where Hugh Grant and Colin Firth fight in the street, then the cafe, then the street again. Carry on folks, it makes a change to have commenters arguing with each other rather than with me ;-)

  10. Jolly good. So long as I'm Colin Firth of course. Well done in the cricket by the way.. did you play against Salisbury?

  11. cooperation - not easy when we disagree on core issues that are so embedded that one or both can't move. Debate is inevitable. Sometimes shock tactics are required to overcome complacency. There's a certain complacency, finality (or so they think) to the Van Til adheerents, that isn't there with others, say Clark.

  12. I mean, sometimes the gap is between us is so wide. Really, cricket? Even God belief is more rational than following cricket. There's no hope for reconciliation.