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This week is Atheism Awareness Week over on FB. The basic idea is that atheists will change their default profile pic (similar to an LJ icon) to a stylized A to identify that they are atheists. Just as the Jerry Falwells of the Christian world get all the attention and the Rob Bells barely rate a notice outside churchy/theology circles, I'm sure the same thing happens with atheism. I'll leave it an open-ended question of just which famous atheists correspond to Falwell in that analogy!

I'm not participating in AAW in the normal way. Why? Quite simply, because I'm not an atheist. If I'm supposed to be good with or without God, it seems like the least I can do is not misrepresent myself. I do have a lot of respect for some stripes of atheism. I disagree with dogmatism of all stripes, and atheists who say that they are sure beyond all doubt that God doesn't exist irk me as much as the people who think they have God's ear (or that God talks directly into their ear.) I tend to think that no one can know whether God exists or not. I am, epistemologically, somewhat agnostic. I choose to believe in God because I think that God's existence provides the best explanation for certain intuitions and experiences I have had. Won't go into that all right now, because epistemological belief isn't what the Atheist Awareness Week is all about.

From their FB page: "it's about quietly showing that there are more people than may be realised who are 'Good without God' and who don't need religion to influence their lives." While they seem to be very respectful and civilized about this - the main point of the week is to raise awareness of how many people are quietly atheistic rather than to slap down the religious - that statement does seem to be anti-religion rather than anti-God. To my mind, that's a big difference.

My religion teaches that "all have sinned, and all fall short of the glory." This doesn't mean that we are all horribly unethical. What it means is that even if you don't murder, rape, or run the next Madoff scam, it's impossible to be perfectly good and perfection is what is required. As a Kant professor put it, the problem isn't sins but Sin: radical evil, the problem of having done anything evil at all. So there is a metaphysical problem of evil which in Christian theology requires a bridge of sorts. Of course, Christian theology doesn't excuse bad actions in the ethical sense. (A fact many Christians need to be reminded of!) Reading that line about the purpose behind AAW, I was reminded of a meme from my childhood. Yes, atheists could be "good" (in the second sense). Everyone could. But being good in that sense wasn't what mattered. You didn't go to heaven because you gave to the Red Cross.

Many religious people are obsessed with heaven. The Japan storms, the revolutions in the Middle-east, global warming, whatever is "a sign of the times" - the end-times, i.e., the apocalypse. Charity is often not an end in itself but is a way to build relationships for the ultimate end of (spiritual) salvation. Ad nauseam. I sometimes think that those should be my priorities, too. But if I am being brutally honest, that kind of evangelism has never appealed to me. Too often it's all tied up with what I call Magic Word Syndrome - this idea that in order to be saved you must say the magic words. All prayers must be signed off with In Jesus' Name. And God help you (only He won't) if you never prayed the Sinner's Prayer.

There are very real differences between the different religions, never mind the non-religious philosophies adopted by atheists. Logically, to the extent that those philosophies are contradictory, only one view or the other can be true. If Christianity says God is relational, Islam says that God is uncompromisingly unified, and atheism says that God doesn't exist (and so isn't either one), only one of those can be true. And because truth matters, it's good to talk about this question. But we need to tease out what the differences are, and talk about those things. To be perfectly honest, if the Christian and Muslim God were truly identical I wouldn't care one iota whether people worshipped Allah or Elohim. And so I don't really care about the name; I care about what makes them different.

Or pulling this back to atheism, if there is a difference between Einsteinian religion (e.g., "an unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as science can reveal it") and a more traditional religion of the kind that believes in a God who can hear prayers and intervene in the world, then I should care about what makes those two beliefs different. And I should try as best as I can to figure out which is true, or whether there's a better, third option, using my reason. That's the kind of evangelism I can get behind, though evangelism really still has the wrong connotation. It is not me offering truth; it is me offering an invitation for us to seek truth together.

The truly ironic thing is while I'm definitely not an atheist, I suspect that I would agree more with the kind of people signing up over at FB than I would with the people who disagree with it. More often than not I cringe at the stunts pulled by organized religion, at the superficial examinations and the kneejerk reactions. I do believe the Bible is a good guide for truth and morals, but it's so often misinterpreted, I can't say that what every self-professed Christian uses it to say is automatically true. I don't condone homophobia, sexism, violence, and callousness toward widows, orphans, and the strangers within our gates, just because people invoke Bible verses to support those beliefs.

So with all that said, why am I not an atheist? Because I'm not an empiricist. Science is magnificent, but to my mind it's not the end-all. I get an almost mystical experience sometimes, like when I listen to or perform music, or when I do math and (increasingly) philosophy. But the more I think about my views of God and the more I learn about a kind of Einsteinian God, the less committed I am to those being different concepts. I believe in a God who can intervene in the world, who is separate from the world - but do I really know that God is like that? All the normal tools for exploring things - induction, abstraction, and so on - simply don't work with God. I must take God's character on faith, and even then, so much of God's nature is (by the theist's definition) ineffable. I suspect that if it weren't for the labels, I'd agree with the atheist more than I'd disagree. Or at least with some particular atheists. And I think that's the point behind this rambly post. :-)

So, to anyone celebrating Atheist Awareness Week: more power to you. Even when we don't agree, I look forward to another year's journey toward understanding and discovery.

Comments

( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
dreamflower02
Mar. 21st, 2011 01:06 am (UTC)
I think the one huge difference between the believer and the non-believer is that the non-believer does not think that faith is adequate proof of anything, while the believer by definition has faith that his/her beliefs are true.

We can't know everything empirically. Even many of the things we thought we knew empirically have been shown to be wrong in some way.

And here's a truth about faith: we may feel that our faith proves something, but we cannot KNOW it, because if we do, it is no longer faith...

I have a great many atheist friends whom I respect. They make me think. I can only hope that they respect *me* in spite of my own faith, and that perhaps I can also make *them* think sometimes.

pandemonium_213
Mar. 21st, 2011 03:06 pm (UTC)
I think the one huge difference between the believer and the non-believer is that the non-believer does not think that faith is adequate proof of anything, while the believer by definition has faith that his/her beliefs are true.

You hit the nail right on the head here, Dreamflower! Firmly. When I see the contortions of those trying to prove the existence of God, my residual Methodism kicks in big time: "It's not about proof! It's about faith!"

We can't know everything empirically. Even many of the things we thought we knew empirically have been shown to be wrong in some way.

Logistically, we don't know everything empirically (the universe is a big place after all ;^)), but we continue to observe and discover. Yes, what we thought we knew empirically has been shown to be wrong, but that is part of the scientific method, and our questioning has led to better means of observation and measurement.

And here's a truth about faith: we may feel that our faith proves something, but we cannot KNOW it, because if we do, it is no longer faith...

Yes. This is it exactly. It's about Faith.

I have a great many atheist friends whom I respect. They make me think. I can only hope that they respect *me* in spite of my own faith, and that perhaps I can also make *them* think sometimes.

Respect you in spite of your faith? On the contrary, I respect you because of your faith and how it inspires you to treat others well. You are among those whom I like to call The Rational Faithful. :^)

Edited at 2011-03-21 03:07 pm (UTC)
pandemonium_213
Mar. 21st, 2011 02:56 pm (UTC)
I'll leave it an open-ended question of just which famous atheists correspond to Falwell in that analogy!

Heh. Oh, now who could that be? :^D

One thing to keep in mind is that many atheists (including Dawkins who states as much), are strictly speaking agnostic. One cannot absolutely know whether or not a supreme being exists. Proof is not the issue here. As others have said, proof is for mathematics. Atheists, as you have noted, tend to be empiricists. It's all about the evidence. :^)

I'm an avowed atheist, but kinder and gentler than some (I would like to think). Well. Usually. The Discovery Institute tends to set me off, and Casey Luskin really did so a few years back on the Refuge.

I get an almost mystical experience sometimes, like when I listen to or perform music, or when I do math and (increasingly) philosophy.

Likewise, I get those "mystical," transcendent experiences. Many atheists do. Dawkins described this beautifully in Unweaving the Rainbow. Many believers are under the mistaken impression that atheists do not experience a profound wonderment of our world, of our senses, of our universe, and that as reductionists, we dissect everything to a sterile state. On the contrary, reductionism leads to more wonder and to many more questions. There's always something to discover. However, as empiricists, we also attribute the sense of wonder to our marvelously complex neural networks, our brain's processing of the environment around it plus memory of past experience. And when I think of how the human brain works (as much as we know so far), well, that sends me into a state of wonderment. But I don't need the presence of a supreme being to explain it.

And science as an end-all? Well, science is not a belief structure. It is observation, measurement and experimentation. As far as belief is concerned, as social creatures ("animals with golden rules" as the band Bad Religion says), ethical behaviors developed through our evolution to enhance survival. If religion (in its better sense, not in its crazier sense) helps to contribute to such behaviors, then that works for me.
celandineb
Mar. 21st, 2011 07:30 pm (UTC)
I do believe the Bible is a good guide for truth and morals

I don't. I can't. There's way too much in it that is just terrible - condoning things like slavery, the denigration of women, treating strangers badly, etc. Sure, there are also positive things, but we judge that they are positive based on something else, something we bring in from outside, not from the Bible itself. So it's really no better than any other text as a guide for truth or morality, and less good than many. The Lord of the Rings is probably better and more consistent on such things, in fact...

I don't know that there is no god, but on the whole it seems really unlikely. And I do know a lot about the evils done in the name of religion, and dislike them.

Re: dreamflower02's comments:

I think the one huge difference between the believer and the non-believer is that the non-believer does not think that faith is adequate proof of anything, while the believer by definition has faith that his/her beliefs are true.

We can't know everything empirically.


I agree with the first statement - faith is not proof of anything except that the believer accepts certain statements without proof. That does not make those statements either true or false. There is no way to determine the truth or falsity of such statements except by non-faith-based, i.e. empirical, evidence. I see no value in simply accepting something "on faith" - that's a cop-out in my opinion, an abdication of intellectual responsibility. Claiming that there is a god and then further saying that this entity is not susceptible to the kind of intellectual exploration that we use for any other subject - again in my opinion, that's cheating, that's structuring your definitions so that you can't be disproven.

So I disagree with DF's second statement. We may not (do not!) at this time know everything there is to know empirically - but that's not the point, really. The point is to keep asking the questions and keep refining our answers, and not to accept the idea that "this is enough, here we stand and defend our territory of knowledge".
virtuella
Apr. 14th, 2011 08:10 am (UTC)
Thank you for this, I very much agree.
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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