Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Wee Attack On "The Trouble With Atheism"

This post is a response to the Rod Liddle programe "The Trouble With Atheism" (aired 18th December, Channel 4), via the interesting blog

All I saw was Liddle setting up paper tigers and knocking them down, with nary a dent in atheism itself - his Stalin argument was rubbish, his Darwin argument laughable, and exactly the kind of thing I expect from those who haven't a clue what 'rational' actually means in science and philosophy (as opposed to the spiritualist nonsense that many allow to be 'philosophy').

Unfortunately the argument that Dawkins is an enemy of Marxism as he is a 'bourgeois materialist' is also rubbish. Materialism is core to capitalism in some ways, ditto Marxism and Atheism. Like Liddle vis atheism, it is a mistake to see materialism as having any specific ethics accruing to it. It is a tool in the rationalist tool-box, and thus, like all tools, has some influence as a shape on the hand that holds it, but not in the rigidly determinist way that Liddle and Phil imply in their different ways, at least not if those using the tools have their eyes open.

My problem with Dawkins is that he pussy's out on the question "are Christians 'bad scientists'?". In many arenas they need not be, certainly not when their role is as engineers or technical support types. But in cutting-edge thought, having an attitude that your faith in a God is implacable, regardless of 'facts', where the God you subscribe to has pushed certain ethical stances as inseparable from belief in 'him' (ie, always), and at the same time engaging in an intellectual activity that requires you change your views if the facts contradict the presumptions you may have had, is contradictory. If a tenet of your science is over-turned you are meant to say 'so be it' and recalibrate, but if a tenet of your faith is questioned the science is wrong, kind of by definition - and, by definition, you become a 'bad scientist'. On an interview with either Jon Snow or Paxman (I forget which) he completely undermined the strength of his (and atheisms) position on science and truth by not explaining this, presumably in an attempt not to piss off the large number of scientists who do feel that they can square their faith with their positions as scientists. But this is only ever true up to a point - and the point at which it is challenged is exactly the point where science has most real value (vis human understanding) and where the god squad cannot be 'good scientists'!

The two documentaries on Channel 4, The Root of All Evil and The Trouble With Atheism were required viewing, but the argument put forth in the former was a real argument (whether one agrees is another matter), the latter empty gesturing that can only convince those that are not paying close attention. Liddle addresses very little that is specifically a problem of atheism. Not that Dawkins is right so far as his title goes... sure, theism is a mainstay of all evil, but not the 'root': money, capitalism, hierarchy, domination... there are traits here that are part of the bad aspects of human community, as much a part of the 'why' of evil as religion, indeed organised religion is often a manifestation of aspects of these other things, not the sole source of evil in itself.

The evils that I think do accrue to religion, inherently, do include the elitism and arrogance of their 'chosen' over those not; the offensive next-life / after-life manipulations that enable and 'justify' bad acts (or inaction) in this life due to pay-offs and forgiveness in the next; the extermination of heretics, where that means of everyone off a narrow spectrum of thought (and here Dawkins too might want to look to the plank in his own eye, sure...).

I have read widely on religions and atheism, over the last four decades, and in the mud fight of argument have found little that sticks against atheism and much that sticks against religion. Liddle does nothing real to help his side (whatever it is), as snide remarks and windmill tilting at the wrong targets will only convince those who know too little - sure, though, that's a fair few folk in itself, but as an intellectual argument? it's bankrupt.

So Darwin's ideas were a vague gesture at a real point, with errors, some since spotted and advanced beyond. When did atheism depend on the literal word of Darwin? We aren't in the same mental universe as the 'seven day' brigade, and never will our minds meet - they don't get it, so why waste the breathe? So Stalin was atheist, does that mean that all ethics that atheists may subscribe to (we're a broad body of opinion after all) are tainted by that? I see nothing inherently atheist in Stalin's actions, whereas I DO see something inherent in religious wars. That ignores, of course, whether Stalin's atheism was ever more than the lip service of a superstitious anti-intellectual who in fact made a religion of his own misinterpretations of Marx (who also might be miffed at being depicted as an unevolving ape), or the question (vis Popper) of whether historicism in Marxism is a kind of religion (as dollar worship may be in ascribing value in capitalism)...

Most of the rest of the programme is groovy at a glance, and vacuous on deeper analysis, and if I get the transcript I'll tear it to shreds for you if you like (but it won't affect the pro- and anti- atheism arguments as they don't appear in the show!).


My point about ethics and ignorance of where ethics might originate or entail is made urgent by the kind of result that Channel 4 are having in a poll they are running (see talking_point_atheism), which has had the result (so far):

Without religion, there would be no moral codes

People can live ethical lives without religion

This is scary nonsense. Liddle, for sure, was light on how he might explain the actions of the religious in religious wars in relation to ethics and is view of Stalin in relation to atheism! Those with more manifest faith than Liddle (who appears to be wearing the mantle of 'cynical agnostic' but acheives a pro-religious efect in the documentary, meant or not), are even more of a worry. The arrogance of the idea that fear of hell-fire / promise of heavenly reward is all that can gain us ethics (usually more 'sensibly' argued as "God is objectively there and what he says goes for ever, but we are corrupt mortals and the flesh is weak" - I'd call this the masochistic argument, and the hell/heaven one the sadistic argument, but surely both inhere in the same individuals if they are filled with the vomit at an early age).

Newsnight had someone from the British Humanist Association on to defend the atheist position. On paper this was a good enough idea - as it is, it was only the fact that tyhe pro-god loon was slow on the ptake that prevented disaster, as the humanist made the cardinal error of insisting that Darwinian evoloutionary theory weas NOT a theory, whereas the god hypothesis is 'just' a theory. This is exactly the nonsense and muddy thinking I deplore - of course evolution is a theory. But the 'just' is un-necessary, as not all theories are equal. Questions are begged, facts are rubbed up against, and theories are judged relative to one another not by whethwer they ARE or ARE NOT a theory, but by how they respond to such things. Popper is not a popular chap these days, I know, but perhaps some of those who take a caricature of his argument should actually read Conjectures and Refutations cover to cover - in my view this work does all you need and more towards explaining the philosophy behind the scientific enterprise as an idea (if not as a practise, or sociologically, which were for better or worse not his concerns).

The debate rolls on. Lots of money and energy is spent to assualt the very few of us who are atheist (and there is, as Dawkins says, a difference between atheism as a fixed belief no matter what and atheism as a belief that can be modified if presented with evidence to the contrary, and that this latter is NOT necessarily the same as 'agnosticism' which boils down to the Pascalian fudge: one that any god that may turn out to be there might give short thrift too!), as if we were a real threat... Well, few we may be, but we are a real threat. That god-ists are scared of us to the point of assassination is not surprise - ordinary people have a knack of understanding the truth if it is actually presented to them, as the anarchists can tell you. The powers that be, left, right, centre, protestant, catholic, jewish or muslom, cannot abide them either, for the same reasons - their message is essentialy simple, attractive and works - so it must be destroyed or those with power will fall.

Who says the revolution is over? It barely began. Let's get this party started!



Blogger Tim Barton said...

Commenting so soon on my own post? Ah well... Found this link:,0,3994298.story?coll=la-opinion-rightrail

10 myths -- and 10 truths -- about atheism
By Sam Harris

SAM HARRIS is the author of "The End of Faith: Religion, Terror,
and the Future of Reason" and "Letter to a Christian Nation."

December 24, 2006

SEVERAL POLLS indicate that the term "atheism" has acquired such an
extraordinary stigma in the United States that being an atheist is
now a perfect impediment to a career in politics (in a way that being
black, Muslim or homosexual is not). According to a recent Newsweek
poll, only 37% of Americans would vote for an otherwise qualified
atheist for president.

Atheists are often imagined to be intolerant, immoral, depressed,
blind to the beauty of nature and dogmatically closed to evidence of
the supernatural.

Even John Locke, one of the great patriarchs of the Enlightenment,
believed that atheism was "not at all to be tolerated" because, he
said, "promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human
societies, can have no hold upon an atheist."

That was more than 300 years ago. But in the United States today,
little seems to have changed. A remarkable 87% of the population
claims "never to doubt" the existence of God; fewer than 10% identify
themselves as atheists — and their reputation appears to be

Given that we know that atheists are often among the most intelligent
and scientifically literate people in any society, it seems important
to deflate the myths that prevent them from playing a larger role in
our national discourse.

1) Atheists believe that life is meaningless.

On the contrary, religious people often worry that life is
meaningless and imagine that it can only be redeemed by the promise
of eternal happiness beyond the grave. Atheists tend to be quite sure
that life is precious. Life is imbued with meaning by being really
and fully lived. Our relationships with those we love are meaningful
now; they need not last forever to be made so. Atheists tend to find
this fear of meaninglessness … well … meaningless.

2) Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history.

People of faith often claim that the crimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao
and Pol Pot were the inevitable product of unbelief. The problem with
fascism and communism, however, is not that they are too critical of
religion; the problem is that they are too much like religions. Such
regimes are dogmatic to the core and generally give rise to
personality cults that are indistinguishable from cults of religious
hero worship. Auschwitz, the gulag and the killing fields were not
examples of what happens when human beings reject religious dogma;
they are examples of political, racial and nationalistic dogma run
amok. There is no society in human history that ever suffered because
its people became too reasonable.

3) Atheism is dogmatic.

Jews, Christians and Muslims claim that their scriptures are so
prescient of humanity's needs that they could only have been written
under the direction of an omniscient deity. An atheist is simply a
person who has considered this claim, read the books and found the
claim to be ridiculous. One doesn't have to take anything on faith,
or be otherwise dogmatic, to reject unjustified religious beliefs. As
the historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) once said: "I contend
that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you
do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods,
you will understand why I dismiss yours."

4) Atheists think everything in the universe arose by chance.

No one knows why the universe came into being. In fact, it is not
entirely clear that we can coherently speak about the "beginning" or
"creation" of the universe at all, as these ideas invoke the concept
of time, and here we are talking about the origin of space-time

The notion that atheists believe that everything was created by
chance is also regularly thrown up as a criticism of Darwinian
evolution. As Richard Dawkins explains in his marvelous book, "The
God Delusion," this represents an utter misunderstanding of
evolutionary theory. Although we don't know precisely how the Earth's
early chemistry begat biology, we know that the diversity and
complexity we see in the living world is not a product of mere
chance. Evolution is a combination of chance mutation and natural
selection. Darwin arrived at the phrase "natural selection" by
analogy to the "artificial selection" performed by breeders of
livestock. In both cases, selection exerts a highly non-random effect
on the development of any species.

5) Atheism has no connection to science.

Although it is possible to be a scientist and still believe in God —
as some scientists seem to manage it — there is no question that an
engagement with scientific thinking tends to erode, rather than
support, religious faith. Taking the U.S. population as an example:
Most polls show that about 90% of the general public believes in a
personal God; yet 93% of the members of the National Academy of
Sciences do not. This suggests that there are few modes of thinking
less congenial to religious faith than science is.

6) Atheists are arrogant.

When scientists don't know something — like why the universe came
into being or how the first self-replicating molecules formed — they
admit it. Pretending to know things one doesn't know is a profound
liability in science. And yet it is the life-blood of faith-based
religion. One of the monumental ironies of religious discourse can be
found in the frequency with which people of faith praise themselves
for their humility, while claiming to know facts about cosmology,
chemistry and biology that no scientist knows. When considering
questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it,
atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn't
arrogance; it is intellectual honesty.

7) Atheists are closed to spiritual experience.

There is nothing that prevents an atheist from experiencing love,
ecstasy, rapture and awe; atheists can value these experiences and
seek them regularly. What atheists don't tend to do is make
unjustified (and unjustifiable) claims about the nature of reality on
the basis of such experiences. There is no question that some
Christians have transformed their lives for the better by reading the
Bible and praying to Jesus. What does this prove? It proves that
certain disciplines of attention and codes of conduct can have a
profound effect upon the human mind. Do the positive experiences of
Christians suggest that Jesus is the sole savior of humanity? Not
even remotely — because Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists
regularly have similar experiences.

There is, in fact, not a Christian on this Earth who can be certain
that Jesus even wore a beard, much less that he was born of a virgin
or rose from the dead. These are just not the sort of claims that
spiritual experience can authenticate.

8) Atheists believe that there is nothing beyond human life and human

Atheists are free to admit the limits of human understanding in a way
that religious people are not. It is obvious that we do not fully
understand the universe; but it is even more obvious that neither the
Bible nor the Koran reflects our best understanding of it. We do not
know whether there is complex life elsewhere in the cosmos, but there
might be. If there is, such beings could have developed an
understanding of nature's laws that vastly exceeds our own. Atheists
can freely entertain such possibilities. They also can admit that if
brilliant extraterrestrials exist, the contents of the Bible and the
Koran will be even less impressive to them than they are to human

>From the atheist point of view, the world's religions utterly
trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe. One doesn't
have to accept anything on insufficient evidence to make such an

9) Atheists ignore the fact that religion is extremely beneficial to

Those who emphasize the good effects of religion never seem to
realize that such effects fail to demonstrate the truth of any
religious doctrine. This is why we have terms such as "wishful
thinking" and "self-deception." There is a profound distinction
between a consoling delusion and the truth.

In any case, the good effects of religion can surely be disputed. In
most cases, it seems that religion gives people bad reasons to behave
well, when good reasons are actually available. Ask yourself, which
is more moral, helping the poor out of concern for their suffering,
or doing so because you think the creator of the universe wants you
to do it, will reward you for doing it or will punish you for not
doing it?

10) Atheism provides no basis for morality.

If a person doesn't already understand that cruelty is wrong, he
won't discover this by reading the Bible or the Koran — as these
books are bursting with celebrations of cruelty, both human and
divine. We do not get our morality from religion. We decide what is
good in our good books by recourse to moral intuitions that are (at
some level) hard-wired in us and that have been refined by thousands
of years of thinking about the causes and possibilities of human

We have made considerable moral progress over the years, and we
didn't make this progress by reading the Bible or the Koran more
closely. Both books condone the practice of slavery — and yet every
civilized human being now recognizes that slavery is an abomination.
Whatever is good in scripture — like the golden rule — can be valued
for its ethical wisdom without our believing that it was handed down
to us by the creator of the universe.

Atheist Manifesto:
The Case Against Christianity,
Judaism, and Islam (Hardcover)
by Michel Onfray

This tightly argued, hugely controversial work convincingly
demonstrates how the world's three major monotheistic
religions-Christianity, Judaism, and Islam-have attempted to suppress
knowledge, science, pleasure, and desire, often condemning
nonbelievers to death. If Nietzsche proclaimed the "Death of God,"
Onfray starts from the premise that not only is God still very much
alive, but increasingly controlled by fundamentalists who pose a
danger to the human race. Documenting the ravages from religious
intolerance over the centuries, the author makes a strong case
against the three religions for demanding faith, belief, obedience
and submission, and for extolling the "next life" at the expense of
the here and now. Not since Nietzsche has a work so groundbreaking
and explosive appeared to question the role of the world's dominant

About the Author

Michael Onfray was born in 1959. The prolific author of over 30
books, he teaches philosophy at the Free University of Caen and lives
in Paris.

Thursday, December 28, 2006  
Anonymous a very public sociologist said...

Thanks for the reply you made to my post on AVPS - I've only just noticed it! When I post a response I'll CC onto here.

Thursday, December 28, 2006  

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