Another year. So what lies ahead for atheism and skepticism?
2013 wasn’t so bad, all things considered. Religious strangleholds on the legal and political system stripped back a bit more in the West, as evidenced by increasing instances of same sex marriage in the US and UK, landmark cases against religious discrimination and yet another increase in the percentage of non-believers around the world. We have a relatively (emphasis on relatively) liberal Pope and prominent communicators for science and reason continue to annihilate the unreasonable in debates and to bring attention to the issues.
This isn’t to say there haven’t also been problems. The erosion of gay rights in places like Uganda are something that needs to be faced, as has been the creeping spread of blasphemy laws and issues with gay rights and religious criticism in Russia. While Atheismplus and Freethoughtblogs have continued their slide into obscurity we’ve seen their tactics grow more vicious, shifting into the realm of actionable accusations against relatively high profile figures in the community. This may be the death blow to their relevance in the wider skeptic community but we shouldn’t underestimate the damage it can do or the delight our ‘enemies’ take in it. We need a way to tackle the kind of emotive, short-circuit ‘arguments’ that social justice warriors use (and not just in the atheist community). ‘Islamophobe’ is damaging, however nonsensical, as are many of the other accusations and pejoratives thrown around. The danger is, though, that we get so calloused and bored of these accusations that we miss a genuine problem – something we need to watch for.
It can make one despondent, day in, day out, having to address the same problems but I think this still serves a good purpose for the sake of the peanut gallery. I also think it’s working. The coming generations are far less religious and far more secular than the older ones. We are making a difference, especially to the young, just by speaking out and just by failing to show silly ideas the respect they demand. This is going to be more and more true of African Christians and Islamic believers who seem to be encountered more and more online but haven’t encountered the same ridicule or arguments that western apologists have. Arguably its even more important in these instances to be uncompromising in criticism, simply because they don’t encounter it much.
It can seem vicious and nasty to other, more moderate people or those who still ‘believe in belief’, but then they’re rarely on the same sort of receiving end that we are. There also seems to be a weird expectation that atheism should offer some alternative to the structures and beliefs that religion does. A doctor who cures you of a disease is not expected to replace your runny nose and diarrhoea with replacement symptoms so I’m not quite sure why it’s expected of atheism. Still, so long as we can maintain atheism as its own thing (simply not believing in god) it may be useful to start examining how reason can be applied to social issues, laws, politics and the structures we need for a working civilisation.
Starting as I mean to go on then, here’s a response to an apologist’s ‘refuting atheism‘ blog, which fails to do anything of the sort.
1. The writer argues that negatives can be proven and that, somehow, this means that the fallacy of shifting the burden of proof, when pushed to atheists, is somehow valid. They simply don’t understand the burden of proof and insist that it is something it is not. The burden of proof always rests on the positive claim, never the negative. You have to prove that something is, not why it is not. This is the way science works, this is the way our justice system works – with good reason. Repeating a fallacious argument doesn’t overcome the fallacy.
2. The writer dismisses the ‘rock so heavy he cannot lift it’ refutation of god (at least an omnipotent god). They also confuse the matter with the theory of evolution. The ‘rock so heavy’ argument works because it exposes the impossibility of omnipotence. A non-omnipotent god still remains. Of course omnipotence is absurd – just like a round square – and that’s the point that they seemingly miss. Atheism is not defined by an assertion and contains no such similar self-contradiction. The theory of evolution deals only with diversification and development of species. It is not contingent on abiogenesis and without abiogenesis it still eliminates creation accounts because the species are not spontaneously created whole – as in scripture – but develop from precursor organisms. Abiogenesis need not be referenced, even though it’s well evidenced.
3. The writer tries to turn atheism into a positive claim that ‘god does not exist’. Again, all their insistence won’t change the definition and the most encompassing definition is that of being absent belief in god. Believing god does not exist is a subset, ‘strong’, ‘positive’ or ‘gnostic’ atheism. True, many of us who are agnostic atheists will sometimes say ‘god does not exist’ but mostly for the sake of shorthand and expressing our certainty that this is true. Agnosticism and atheism are not incompatible by any means. Indeed, any honest agnostic is also an atheist and vice versa. Then again, it depends on the god being asserted. An omnipotent god cannot exist, see earlier.
4. The writer claims that theism is different to unicorns, fairies or Santa and they are right, to a degree. Unicorn believers are not widespread and do not have any significant effect on public life while theists do. The point though, the one apparently missed, is that all these beliefs equally lack evidence and are equally ridiculous. The difference is only in numbers. Invoking a mystical ‘first cause’ (with no evidence) makes no odds to this.
5. The writer seeks to excuse the lack of evidence for anything supernatural by… well, it’s not entirely clear. If the supernatural existed and had meaningful effect on our reality (a detectable effect) then it should be able to be evidenced. It is not. Should any evidence show up, it will be assessed and examined. Absence of evidence is, indeed,not evidence of absence but it’s absolutely not evidence of presence. ‘That which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence’.
6. The writer tries to claim that if religion is dangerous, so is science. They attempt to do with with an argumentum ad Hitlerum, the tired old idea that Hitler was an atheist and that his racial ideas were based on evolution. Science refutes Hitler’s claims about race, he was a Christian, and the hatred of Jews come through Christianity and especially Lutheranism (in Germany). Science makes no claim to anything but to uncovering what is true and what the effects of things are. Religion is dangerous not only because it opposes science and holds it back but because it makes baseless pronouncements that can cost lives – just look at race and sexuality for the evidence of that. If you claim your morality is from the Bible you should be out stoning adulterers to death. If you claim otherwise you’re selectively applying modern, secular morality to the ‘morals’ of your holy book and then rationalising why you don’t follow your own rules. Sam Harris has begun some work on secular morality but there are already many bases for morality without religion – empathy, group selection, golden rule, enlightened self interest, utilitarianism and epicureanism to name but a few. Animals show moral and ethical traits without religion too, and we can find an evolutionary basis for many ‘moral’ behaviours. Morality isn’t objective and absolute, but we can use reason to determine the best courses of action for the greatest number.
Rhetorical Questions, Rhetorical Answers
Why are you so obsessed with something you don’t believe?
Are oncologists obsessed with cancer? Does it mean they think it’s a good thing? God may not exist but believers do, the religion does and these cause a great deal of harm. Asking this question is very strange. It’s like asking someone why they spend so much time arguing against racism if they don’t believe other races to be inferior.
Why do you care what people believe?
Because it has effects on the world beyond the person, on us, and on the helpless.
Since atheists commit their share of crimes, then what good is atheism doing for society, and why does it matter since they say we are merely glorified pond scum?
Even if atheism were terrible, caused massive amounts of crime and huge rates of suicide this would be completely irrelevant to the question of whether god is real or not. As it turns out, atheists are less criminal than believers and being evolved, the product of countless generations of survival is no bad thing.