Saturday, September 13, 2014

"True" Atheism and the War on Religion

Everyone, it seems, wants to absolve Islam of the charge that it has fostered radical terrorist groups like ISIS.

George W. Bush declared that Islam was a religion of peace. Many politicians have dutifully repeated the exculpation. Now President Obama, accompanied by multiple politicians, has stated forthrightly that ISIS is an aberration, that Islam neither encourages nor condones beheadings of infidels and that we have no problem with good peace-loving Muslims.

University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne makes easy work of these claims.  After all, ISIS and other Islamist terrorist organizations are simply following the letter of the Quran. Who are we to dispute their faith? It may be irrational, but then again, Coyne says, all faith is irrational.

Apparently, Coyne himself is a “secular Jew” and a proponent of atheism. I confess that I have no idea what that means. But he tends, as do many other proponents of atheism, to conflate all religions into one grand category: Religion. And he is happy to select out details from religious texts and events within the history of religions, to discredit the entire enterprise.

For the record, cherry-picking data that supports your claim is not science. As Richard Feynman argued, a true scientist reports all data, the data that tends to prove his hypothesis and the data that tends to disprove it.

If you merely offer the data that supports your claims you are an ideologue, not a scientist.

Coyne explains his understanding of a true religion:

First, the truest religion could be that which sticks the closest to scripture.  In that case the “truest” Christianity and Judasm would be literalist and fundamentalist. They would adhere to the creationism set out in Genesis, as well as the immoral behaviors sanctioned by God in the Old Testament. These include killing those children who curse their parents, as well as adulterers and those who work on the Sabbath.  Although these are clear moral dictates of God, no modern Christians or Jews obey them, for they are reprehensible. Nevertheless, there is a case to be made that a fundamentalist Southern Baptist is a “truer Christian” than a liberal Unitarian, and a misogynist Orthodox Jew a truer believer than a modern reform Jew.

Surely, it is notable that no modern Christian or Jew obeys every dictate in the Bible at the letter. In one place the Bible prescribes stoning as the punishment for adultery, but in another text Jesus says: “Let he who is free from sin cast the first stone.”

Many Biblical rules were subject to reinterpretation.

And, dare I say, they are subject to verification.

Coyne declares that religious faith does not depend on empirical verification , that is, “convincing evidence.”

In his words:

ISIS, like all religious movements, is based on faith; and faith, which is belief in the absence of convincing evidence, isn’t true or false, but simply irrational.

And yet, is this really true of all religions? 

Besides, many moderate atheists say that they believe in human freedom.

How would you offer empirical verification or convincing evidence for the existence of human freedom, for free will. Can you measure freedom? Can you observe it? Surely, free will is the cornerstone of Judeo-Christianity? Is it a mere prejudice, an irrational belief?

If atheism has no room for freedom, we would expect to discover that societies based on atheist principles do not respect human freedom, If that is the case, does that provide convincing evidence that atheism cannot provide a rationale for human freedom?

To take up a point I introduced in my book The Last Psychoanalyst, consider this. If different religions compete against each other there is more to it than which one provides better access to the afterlife. About that one would be at pains to offer convincing evidence for the claims of any religion.

And yet, religions also prescribe the ways people should conduct their lives in the profane world.

We don’t know which religion provides access to Heaven but we can know which religions provide a better life for their adherents in this world.

Many Muslims in the Middle East despise Israel. Everyone knows that they feel the way they feel because the Jews created a prosperous, democratic state in their neighborhood. The Jews succeeded where Muslims in surrounding states had mostly created poverty and misery.

Religions differ because they prescribe different practices and different ways of conducting secular life. And, the consequences that follow from these practices can be measured. Isn’t this a central thesis in Max Weber’s: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism?

For its part, atheism does not promise access to the Heavenly City. It does not promise that God’s blessings will flow to its adherents. One must conclude that atheism should be judged, not merely by the clever arguments and scorched-earth rhetoric of its adherents, but by the practical results achieved by societies and communities that function according to its principles.

But then we will quickly find ourselves asking the inverse of Coyne’s question. Instead of asking what is true religion, we will be asking which is true atheism. Are there fundamentalist atheists ? Should the moderate atheists like Coyne have to answer for them?

Almost by definition, atheists do not have sacred texts. And yet, the writings of certain authors seem to serve a similar purpose. If so, atheism is simply another form of idolatry, a form that worships the writings of people considered to be geniuses.

For some atheists the writings of Darwin or Marx serve their purposes. For others the texts of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens will do.

Of course, no one ever tried to construct a community on the atheist principles found in Darwin or Dawkins or Hitchens. But, many people have tried to do so by following the unholy writ of Karl Marx.

You might not consider Marx to be a “true” atheist and you might believe that the governments that followed his principles misread his texts, but still, Marxist governments have not been a rousing human success. Unless of course you measure success and failure by body count. Few forms of government have destroyed more lives in a shorter period of time than Communism?

True Marxists believe that Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China and Castro’s Cuba and Chavez’s Venezuela were not true to the letter of the Marxist text. But to make this argument they must show other Marxist governments that functioned differently and that produced different human outcomes.

To the best of my knowledge there are none.

I am not sure what it means to say that there are true and false forms of atheism, but atheism in practice does have a track record and that track record is abysmal.

Those who regale us with stories about the horrors committed by the religious should balance their judgments with the good produced by societies that were founded on Judeo-Christian principles. And then they should explain why there is no such a thing as an atheist society that has a comparably positive record.

While Judeo-Christian cultures have produce the good with the bad, atheist cultures have, as of now, only produced horrors.


Anonymous said...

Here is a discussion of " Is Islam a Religion

Anonymous said...

Alan Roebuck writes:

On the question of Islam being a religion: While the formal definition of “religion” is contained in the dictionary, I would say that in the contemporary West, the material definition of “religion,” at least for the vast majority of both the leadership class and the ordinary people, is “a system that comforts people in times of distress and that tries to make them—and society—morally better.”
That being the case, it is completely understandable that many in the anti-Moslem camp would view Islam as not a religion: Islam is a menace, and, according to the majority view of religion, a menace is non-religious.

This also goes a long way to explaining why so many people identify Islam as a noble religion that is troubled by a small minority of violent extremists: In their view, the real Islam is the comfort-and-moral-improvement part, and the part that demands submission and uses violence and deceit to achieve it is, in their view, non-religious and therefore non-Islamic.

Of course, all this is part-and-parcel of the view that religion does not deal with objective reality, but only with subjective reality.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

"faith, which is belief in the absence of convincing evidence, isn’t true or false, but simply irrational."

Coyne is asking the wrong question. It's one not based on evidence. The only evidence Coyne will believe is material evidence, which makes him a dogmatic materialist. If that's all there is -- physicality of material, and thus materialism as the only rational, provable path -- then the world will never provide meaning. And meaning is subjective, spiritual and transcendent, informing the bigger questions. With all Coyne's radical materialism and his rationalist/scientist critique, one could ask him "Why should I?" In the absence of physical evidence, Coyne would only be left with "Because you should." This would only leave him the option of "Because I [or someone else] said so." Is that enough? Why in the world should I care about you, Mr. Coyne? You're talking about a lawless world of supermen.

Coyne certainly has faith in things he can't prove or understand. But that's beside the point. The point here is meaning. The point is "What's the point bothering?" Great, he says something is important to him. ISIS says otherwise, and Islam could be a mask for a deeper psychosis. Or it could be a clash between Western and Islamic civilizations. These are complex questions and deep issues, not found in a beaker, Petrie dish, nor graduated cylinder.

The challenge of the new atheism is it's posture. It is fundamentally dualist, obsessed with right-wrong answers to proselytize a materialist worldview. It's not just that the argument is rigged, it's that it's meaningless. Okay, I walk out of a debate believing God doesn't exist. Is this a positive development? How do I know? Clearly Coyne would say that it is a positive outcome, without any evidence whatsoever. Atheists are hostile to religion, showing a dossier of negative historical events and their ramifications. Surely there are many, ISIS being one of the latest exhibits. In Feynman's spirit, do we also get the advocacy for the benefits of religion? If we can't talk about the spiritual or transcendental positives behind human motivation, can we discuss the real material benefits to many led by those with religious convictions?

Atheism is a new schtick among the uber-educated because it gives them an automatic gift of status among the intelligentsia. If you don't have any cutting-edge research, at least you're not stupid enough to believe in something as silly as a personal god who acts within human experience. If you are spiritual, you can believe in a non-deity chic faith like Buddhism, which eliminates the personal God of the Bible. That's tolerable. In that case, you'll just be silly, but not worthy of contempt.

The benefit that the atheist enjoys in Western culture is the separation between the state and religion, between the secular and the sacred. This is the legacy of Constantine's decision at the Council of Nicea... that the head of state would not be the head of the Church. For those following along at home, this was long before Galilleo was jailed. This framework all changed during the Renaissance-Reformation period with Henry VIII's Act of Supremacy. And so it's gone through the ages, with Western secularism and religion growing farther apart. This did not occur within Islam, so religion and state are unified in Islamic civilization.

Coyne should be thankful he lives in the West and won't be beheaded for his simplistic views on religious faith. Faith is more than the structure or desire to prove something... which is what one uses evidence for in the first place. ISIS doesn't care, and doesn't need to justify itself or win elections in a secular society. It just needs to win, without regard to whether Coyne judges their means or ends to be irrational.

Anonymous said...

I have a friend who's a zealous Atheist. Apart from that zeal, he's a nice guy.

To him, only Science is True.

I mentioned that the latest science on small particle physics and cosmology borders on mysticism.

Infinite universes. Vibrating strings in 11 dimensions. Other fantastic theories.

He brushed it off as some people being "silly". I left it at that. -- Rich Lara

Ares Olympus said...

At this level I'm proud to be a "true" agnostic, seeing religious faith in "objective reason" as the source of all truth for Atheist.

I often find myself trying to find kinks the armor of reason that defends Atheists, and that's why I like William Blake and E. F. Schumacher and others, who try to itch out a multiplicity of reality.

I can take Schumacher's "progression of being" from mineral, plant, animal, to human, and that helps clarify the predicament of understanding is limited to what level of being you are considering in the moment.

So when you talk of "Free will", many atheists and scientists will try to reduce free will into determinism of complex systems, even if the futher science goes the more we find newtonian clockwork universe is the statistical outcome of chaos below with plenty of room for unknowns, including the nature of consciousness and free will.

Schumacher says each level of being has a different driver, minerals are motivated by external cause (physics), plants by stimulus, attraction and repulsion, and animals by motive, instinctual programs which may only change through the evolution of survival, while humans have self-awareness, so we can see ourselves objectively, and change our behavior in a self-directed way, so we can try to use free will and decide what we want to be, and experiment and see what happens, and try again, so an infinite loop of possibility, even if the possibilities are not infinite.

But back to religion, I agree Atheists generally cherry pick aspect of religion that don't make sense, or seem actively harmful, and then imagine all religions contain that.

I can agree with you that religion is a sort of cultural evolutionary experiment, and some experiments are more or less successful, in helping raise individual humans above the limits of our lower impulses, and some religions, some cultures will do better than others, and some religious expressions may reach evolutionary deadends, and may be judged as having more vice than virtue.

For me it's really hard to separate religion from culture, since they get so mixed up together. Does a religion degenerate, or does a culture degenerate, or do they fail together?

I always wondered why there are so many branches of Christianity, and my church orientation went through 2000 years of church history, and I understood. People disagree, and go their own way, and the force that divides people seems greater than what pulls people together, no matter if they agree on a God or not.

Ecclesiastes from the Christian old testament is shared with Judism, and Islam.

I like Ecclesiastes 3 as a reminder of the complexity of being. There's no clear place where you can stand in righteousness and say another place is wrong.

If there is a season for everything, including destructiveness, then what good is religion?

But I guess what I get out of this is that "reason" won't take you through the human experience. It's all guessing and adjusting, failing, pushing out, pulling in, and trying again. It's all messy, and yet good religions would seem to allow for that messiness to be talked about.

There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

Jeff Dorsai said...

a true atheist will point to science and say it is the answer ... but a simple question shows that atheists and religious believers will end up in the same place ...
Where did the matter come from that formed the big bang ?
they have to take it on "faith" that it was just there ... which is exactly what believers say about God ...

it is a matter of historical fact that Islam was created via the sword, expanded via the sword and today every Islamic country prescribes death to converters from Islam ... without threats and violence Islam would never have come into being 1400 years ago nor would it manage to hold many followers today without violent threats ...

n.n said...

Religion and faith are separable. Religion is a philosophy of morality, which is often accompanied by faith and tradition.

Atheism is not a religion. However, it is a faith. Atheism is based on a single tenet: rejection of theism. That's it. There is nothing more to atheism. It is a simplistic philosophy derived from a single principle. Adoption of religion and tradition is done individually and in groups, typically motivated by local and national standards.

Agnostics are supposed to be the neutrality standard bearers, but they often form alliances and compromise their neutrality as a practical matter. But then they are no longer agnostic, but perhaps pseudo-agnostic.

The objective standard is the scientific standard is necessarily limited in time and space by virtue of universal chaos (i.e. uncharacterized and computationally unwieldy). The Earth's systems are chaotic. Our lives are chaotic. Despite a popular faith in spontaneous conception, the only reasonable certainty is that human (i.e. corporal) evolution will span from conception to natural, accidental, or premeditated death.

Mat said...

I think Social Darwinism was behind the last two hundred years of German history.