Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Reason Rally: Misunderstanding Atheism? (Part 1 of 4)

Last week I posted on the Reason Rally and what I thought about the values and reason atheists should ascribe to, based on the implications of their worldview.  I got some pushback from some atheists commenting on that blog post, mostly contending that I have not characterized the atheist worldview (if such a thing even exists) correctly.  One thoughtful commenter, James, left a series of very long comments that I think are worth responding to.  I wouldn't normally devote a series of blog posts to a response to comments, but James was very thoughtful and polite, and I think he brought up some great points.  If you'd like to see his comments to my last post, in full, I have reproduced them at the end of this post.  

One of James's main points is that our morals do not come from religion, after all, there are so many religions and so many versions of even Christianity itself, how do we know which one has the right morality?  He mentions that some have used the bible to condone slavery, some have used it to condemn it.  Thus, how can objective morals come from a religion that can't even agree internally?  

Another point he made is that, just as there are many "versions" of Christianity, there is not just one atheistic worldview either.  So I must apologize for those I offended when I lumped all atheists into the same worldview.  I recognize there are many different takes that atheists may have on many things.

His third main point is that Christianity is based on faith, not reason, and in fact the church has gotten things wrong, scientifically, all along.

So the question is, are the commenters, and James in particular, correct that I have misunderstood atheism? Furthermore, are James's other points about morality, faith, science, and reason correct?  To be brief, no, I  do not think any of his comments come close to answering my arguments from my previous post.  If you read on, you'll find a brief summary of why that is true.  In a series of three more posts after this one, I provide a more in-depth discussion of these questions.  Also, at the end of this post, I have reproduced James's comments in full so that you can read them for yourself.

A brief summary.

I agree with some of James's statements, sharply disagree with others, but in general I find his arguments either unpersuasive (mostly because they do not directly address my main points from my previous post) or simply incorrect.  I am not saying this to be mean or to belittle him.  In fact, from his comments, he seems to be a very moral, thoughtful person.  However, his claims about morality coming from our secular society to religion do not actually address what I was saying.  He says that in general our society's morality evolves and also informs our understanding of religious morality.  I'm ok with that idea.

But do you see how that doesn't say anything about my point that objective moral values (which are by definition immaterial, transcendent, and real) must come from a transcendent mind (ie, God)?  Just because we are all aware of this moral standard, and Christians over the millenia have done a poor job adhering to that standard (a biblical principle, by the way), does not mean that the objective moral code does not exist.  In fact, it argues in favor of it (see Kenny's comment on James's comments on last week's post).  And it certainily does not mean that the logical conclusion of atheism is not a lack of moral values.  Atheistic philosophers understand this; there can be no objective morality if no God exists.  But we all get an itch in the back of our mind telling us that we should be moral, that we ought to do certain things.  So no atheist actually lives out the logical conclusion of his/her worldview.  That was exactly my point from my previous post, and nothing James has said in his thoughtful comments came close to refuting it; in fact, his arguments supported my conclusion.

James also argued that there is no evidence that a God exists, and in particular, faith is contrary to reason.  That is, unfortunately, a misunderstanding that has been propagated, sadly, by none other than the conservative Christian church in America.  Making a large section of Christianity a joke to most atheists, Christians have not promoted their children pursuing a degree in a STEM field, they have argued that there cannot be evidence for faith, because if you need evidence then you're not really believing, etc.  This is very sad to me, but this is also changing.  Biblical faith is based on evidence, not contrary to it.

So please stay tuned in the next couple of days for a more in-depth discussion of these comments.

James's comments:

Hi Greg, I'd like to offer a few thoughts on some of your points. I was a devout Baptist Christian for two decades until I realized that there is really no good evidence for the existence of god after all. I never wanted to be an atheist, but I had to be honest with myself and accept that inconvenient reality. I don’t hate god, just as I don’t hate Zeus, Ra, Santa Claus, or aliens.
Atheist world view:There isn't really any one "atheist worldview." Atheism simply states what one doesn't believe in, not what one believes – it is simply lack a belief in a god or gods. In the same way, It would be wrong for me to say the 9/11 hijackers represent the “theist worldview.” They were theists after all, but there are as many different worldviews practiced by theists as by atheists. If a theistic world view is better, then who's theism? The theism of the Taliban? The theism of Norwegian Christian terrorist Anders Breivik? Even in America, which Christian worldview should be endorsed by the government? Catholic socialists? Christian anarchists? Gay Christians? Anti-war Baptists? Jeffersonian Diets? Evangelicals who approve of torture? Baptists who picket American solders’ funerals? Mennonites who refuse the national anthem or pledge of allegiance? That is why so many Christians also support having a secular government, and support the separation of church and state. Our secular Constitution protects the government from takeover by theocrats who want to force their interpretation of morality on everyone, AND it protects churches’ rights to preach and worship as they so choose (or in my case, choose not to).
I think you may be mistaken about the "logical conclusion" of atheism. Atheism says nothing about morality or values. Atheists form their morals and values span the entire political spectrum from the socialism of atheist Karl Marx to the right wing libertarianism of atheist Ayn Rand, and everywhere in between. Many atheists are also Unitarian Univeralists, Humanists, non-theistic Buddhists, Objectivists, etc. 
If you follow Christianity to its “logical conclusion” – if by logical conclusion you mean a literalist, fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible - you end up with a theocracy exactly the same as the theocracies found in places like Pakistan - a religious government that forces their view of morality into courts, schools, and laws. Laws that discriminate against minorities and nonbelievers, laws that ban perceived sins - everything from birth control to alcohol and tobacco and caffeine and, as the Old Testament forbids, wearing clothes made of two different fabrics. Christian fundamentalists and Islamic fundamentalists are exactly the same. That's what secularism protects us from. Do you want the Fred Phelps and other extremist versions of Christianity force on you? Most moderate Christians would say no. If you agree, thank our secular Constitution. 
Yes, non-theists like Stalin and Mao were horrible rulers. (Hitler was a theist, however, and if you read some of his speeches he would frequently talk about needing god in society and how he's stamped out secularism in Germany. The Catholic Church was largely a collaborator with the Nazis before and during WW2 but there were also many Christian Germans who opposed the Nazis as well. It's interesting that WW2 was, in a big part, a fight of the non-theist Soviets versus the theist Nazis, but I digress). 
Not counting the theists like the Taliban, throughout history we see Christian regimes commit atrocities as much as if not more so than non-theists. The Crusades, the Spanish inquisition, the burning at the stake of atheists, pagans, etc. and pretty much all of the dark ages were marked by Christian theocracies in Europe. This is to say that belief in a deity doesn't make someone good or bad - some Christians are moral and some atheists are moral. Some Christians are evil and some atheists are evil. Deeds not creeds: What you believe is irrelevant. What you do is everything.
Reason and atheism:Reason and logic are reality based. Faith is belief without, or often contrary to, evidence. I can just find no evidence of a deity, any deity, much less the things the bible claims as truth such as a talking serpent, a staff turning into a snake, or a Jewish zombie who can telepathically communicates with us. Sorry, I just can't come to those conclusions rationally and without any evidence. I find the Christian creation story has no more evidence than any other creation myth that any other religion has offered throughout history. Christians has repeatedly fought a losing battle against science and reason. They claimed a geocentric universe until proven otherwise. They claimed that god created disease for a reason and that vaccines were a sin. They claimed that just 6,000 years ago Adam and Eve lived with dinosaurs and a talking serpent and have yet again been proven wrong. Religion says, “Here’s what we believe, what evidence can we find to support it?” Science says, “Here’s the evidence, what rational conclusions can we draw from it?”Just because we don't know why there are laws of physics doesn't point at all to there being some intelligent design behind it. If our universe had to have a creator, the creator had to have a creator as well. It's just another layer of complexity that doesn't have evidence and isn't necessary. It may be plausible that our universe is just one of an unlimited number of universes in the multiverse. But as of yet, like with god, there’s no solid evidence to support it. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If I claim there’s an invisible dragon in my garage you’d want me to prove it. I would say you’d have to take my claims on faith and besides, you can’t prove I don’t have an invisible dragon. That’s why the burden of proof lies with those making the extraordinary claims that go contrary to our observable universe and that’s why skeptical inquiry is so important.It is the same thing with prayer – the lack of any evidence that it has any effect. The Christian says prayer can heal, yet we've never seen an amputee healed. Why won't god heal amputees who pray for healing? Perhaps either they lack the faith needed, god discriminates against amputees, god doesn’t love amputees as much, or maybe there just isn't a god that answers prayers.I’m sure you’ll point me to some pamphlet or tracts or YouTube video that purportedly proves the Bible is true but I doubt you have any argument I haven’t heard. Before you start giving rebuttals, remember I am an ex-Christian involved with lay-ministry for decades. I studied Bible courses at a Baptist college. I’ve read Dobson, McDowell, Lewis, Ham, Stroble, and Colson and I’ve found their arguments wanting. Still, I am open to any new testable peer reviewed scientific evidence that may be discovered in the future.The last argument for Christians usually falls into the, “well god changed my life” variety. Many Christians will say that. You’ll find many Jewish or Muslims or Buddhists or adherents to other faiths who can make exactly the same claim. If you wanted I could share my personal testimony on how leaving Christianity and belief in Jesus has brought me peace and joy in my life. More people are leaving religion than joining it, and the number of non-religious or ex-Christian Americans is rapidly growing. If you go the Reason Rally, I’m sure you’ll meet many happy and content ex-Christian atheists who can quote chapter and verse back and forth with you as much as you like.
The secular origins of morality:

A common misunderstanding that many theists have is that without god there is no morality and that religion is needed to have morality. This is quite far from the truth and quit often the opposite of it. Morality predates monotheism, and morality has developed as human knowledge and capacity for learning has developed. There are universal morals found in almost all developed societies regardless of religion. 
If Christianity was more moral than Buddhism then logically you'd expect predominately Christian nations like the US to have lower crime rates that a predominately non-Christian country like Japan, which it doesn't. This indicates that human morality has developed independently from religion, though many religions often borrow from each other. It's plausible that the authors of the New Testament borrowed themes and ideas on morality from Buddhism, which predates the New Testament.
As our morality develops, our values change to include this new enlightenment. The Old Testament, for example, includes passages that permit slavery and force rape victims to either be stoned to death or be forced to marry their rapistsThe best example might be slavery. Around the founding of our country most Christians supported the institution of slavery which, after all, is permitted according to the Bible. By the time of the civil war, our human understanding of morality had changed so that slavery became a horrible attach on human dignity. There was a time in this country where roughly have of Christians were for slavery and half were against. The Southern Baptist Convention was formed primarily to uphold the rights of slave owners, for example. Eventually, as morality continued to evolve, nearly all Christians came to agree that slavery is wrong (though you will still find a few today that support it based on their literal interpretation of the Old Testament).
What changed on the issue of slavery? It wasn't the Bible that changes - the KJV said the same thing then as it does today. No, it was the continued growth of understanding of secular morality that changed people's minds. Morality doesn't come FROM religion, morality comes TO religion.
I believe in the inherent dignity and worth of all human life. Atheism only describes what I don't believe in. I'm a humanist Unitarian Universalist: that describes that I believe in. Our principals include the inherent worth and dignity of every person, the goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, and equity and compassion in human relations.
Final thoughts:

I see that, like me, you live in North Carolina. Perhaps you've heard of the Constitutional amendment that will be on the May ballot that would write marriage discrimination into the state Constitution. It was forced through the NC General Assembly by radical right wing Christians who want to legislate their theocracy onto everyone. 
Many churches, even including many Baptist churches, in addition to my UU fellowship, are speaking out against this hate-filled amendment. Lesbian Christian singer Jennifer Knapp made an "It Gets Better" video for LGBT youth here in NC last year too. 
You see, Greg, we're right back where we were with the discussion on slavery in the sense that more and more Christians are supporting marriage equality. It's because morality is coming TO religion, not FROM religion. If you say morality comes from religion, and specifically Christianity, then who's morality? The Christians who supported slavery, or the Christians who struggled against slavery? The Christians who are for marriage equality, or the Christians who are against marriage equality? 
If Christians can't even decide on which sect's morality is right and yet we're supposed to take morality from them? Every Christian sect thinks only theirs is the one true way to be a Christian, and only theirs should be enshrined into our laws. No thank you. I'll take the freedom and liberty that a rational, logical, secular Constitution protects.
Greg, part of being a Unitarian Universalist is encouraging a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. I hope you will take this response as me simply offering an alternative view to consider. I hope you will continue to explore your beliefs and ask hard questions of your faith such as why does the Bible both condone and condemn slavery. Question everything and be open to skeptical inquiry. Know that doubt is never a bad thing.
We are not so different, you and I. For most my life I held the same beliefs as you, but during responsible search for truth and meaning took me down a different path in life.
I’d encourage you to read the morality that is found in humanism. There are both atheist and Christian humanists, they both share that the value we give human life is more important the dogma. Also, consider looking to Unitarian Universalism. It is a creedless fellowship that includes Christians, Buddhists, diets, and atheists. 
Thank you for your time, Greg.