2016-07-04

What I want as an atheist a human

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by Neil Godfrey

This post follows on from (a) the discussion that took place in the wake of my Atheism without the extras, please post and (b) as a direct response to another Atheist+ (Freethought Blog) post that has recently been published by Luciano Gonzalez: What I Want As an Atheist. I really hope before reading the following you read Luciano’s post (I have modeled my own post on his paragraph points) or even the earlier discussion on this blog. So here’s saying Hello to Luciano — thanks for your post, and I hope you can appreciate my response even if you don’t agree with it.

–o0o–

As an atheist who takes his atheism, like his right-handedness, for granted, I rarely get involved in discussions about my beliefs. If one were to ask me “What do you want as an atheist?” I would agree with Luciano that it is a silly question and probably reply, “to be free not to believe in any gods.”

I used to be something of an anti-theist. That was in my first flush of leaving my coffin of religion behind and when I was still struggling to come to terms with what had happened to me (and the pain I had caused others) in all those fantasy years. Religion was a baleful influence in the world and its purveyors needed to challenged or excluded from activities that they were using to promote their ‘good works’ propaganda to the public.

I lost that angry antagonism after I came to terms with myself and my own experience with my past destructive cult experience. A huge help in that direction (among a number of sources of assistance) was psychologist Marlene Winell’s book, Leaving the Fold. I not only came to understand why I had got mixed up with the outfit in the first place, but most importantly, I learned to forgive and accept myself. And from that position I found myself forgiving and accepting others, too. I understood where other religious people were coming from and even felt for their situations.

I was not interested in supporting groups dedicated to attacking religious cults. Such attacks only fueled the persecution syndrome of the cultists themselves. The harm done within cults is enough to prise out defections. What is important is that such members who begin to question their beliefs have support, and that’s what I was very keen to offer. (I have described some of my activities at this time several times before: for those not familiar with the story, it involves newspaper advertising, community group meetings, etc. – and eventually even this blog.)

What do I want?

I want to make the most of my short time on this earth, to live well and usefully, to hopefully contribute a little towards making the lives of others in my path a little happier and easier. That sometimes means being a jerk, too, unfortunately, when I see people who ought to know better taking advantage of others or not caring about them when they should.

I want to understand how the world works and why we act the ways we do even when against the interests not only of others but even of ourselves. That means doing a bit of homework and learning what the serious research is uncovering about human behaviour, the nature of religion and religious beliefs, the social, cultural and political dynamics of significant trouble spots in the world. My experience tells me that some of those who are the most hostile against religion and who view it as little more than an ignorant and foolish superstition or set of false beliefs actually have the least understanding of both religion itself and even what scholarly research has taught us about human behaviour. Surely to win a fight one must understand one’s enemy.

I don’t want any of these things “as an atheist” but as a human being. They are not atheistic desires or values but human ones. There are many people who want the same sorts of things even though they are not all atheists. I also want to do whatever I can to promote social and political justice. I certainly want to do what I can to promote secularism, humanism, rationalism. I don’t want these things “as an atheist”. I want them as a fellow human being. I am very aware many others who are not necessarily atheists want the same things. In fact, some of the most enthusiastic advocates for fighting the evils of harmful religion are the religious themselves. Often they have a far better idea of how to do this than complete outsiders.

I no longer divided the world between “them” and “us” after I left religion. It was no longer a place where saints struggled in a world of wickedness. We are all humans; we are all the same species; we are all “one” and we are all in this thing together. Not all of us understand what is going on but that means that those who do understand have a weightier responsibility to help out.

To identify as atheists against religious believers means perpetuating the dividing up of the world into black and white, the sinners and the saints, which is the way to inability to truly understand one another, to antagonism, hostility, arrogance, bullying, an all-round withdrawal of compassion.

As a human being I also want to see the end of harmful beliefs and practices, and neither of those is confined to religion. (Today I learned of a horrific bombing in Baghdad once again, just as I heard last week of mass carnage in Istanbul — and it outrages me that “we” don’t pause and feel the same shock and anger as we did when we heard of Orlando and Paris.) I don’t know if a world without religion would be any better off than an environment free from every creature we consider pests. But of course I want people to be more sceptical and to ask for evidence for their beliefs, but at the same time I am not going to push that line with my octogenarian mother. With some people more than others it is easier to grasp the importance of understanding and compassion over adherence to our rationalist and righteous principles.

 

 

23 Comments

  • Paxton Marshall
    2016-07-04 12:38:49 UTC - 12:38 | Permalink

    Well said!!

  • 2016-07-04 13:08:32 UTC - 13:08 | Permalink

    Not having read other things by Luciano Gonzalez it is perhaps a bit unfair to nit-pick his essay, however I have a few remarks on the atheist/social justice mix that I think the essay highlights.

    In my experience, most atheists do not believe in God for scientific reasons: Either there is thought to be direct counter-evidence or because there is thought to be no evidence. This view affords the atheist a great deal of certainty in this atheism (reinforced by various books, videos, blogs etc.) and thus we get the claims theists are not aligned with reality which often leads into claims like theists are deluded.

    However this conclusion “there is no God” leaves a vacuum of values and I think the “freethoughtblogs”-type movement tries to fill with values and ideas drawn from social justice. To take the quoted essay, the author for instance discusses womens reproductive rights as a topic he finds very important (as do I). The problem is that affirming the objective truth of these right and the scientific outlook that undercuts atheism in the above sense are two things that do not mix well. For instance, how can we know the truth (in the above scientific sense) of where a womans right over her body ends and the right of the fetus/baby/father becomes important?

    Take for instance this sentence: “I see no reason to believe religion continues to be necessary (though I freely admit that it could have served a purpose in the past, and probably did) and in fact I believe that religion can be and at times is actively harmful to society.”

    I first notice the vague/distancing sentence (“I see no reason to believe religion continues to be necessary”) rather than the positive claim: “Religion is bad”. Obviously the first statement is true (as a biographical fact), however it does not provide an objective reason to be anti-theistic. On the other hand the second claim (religion is bad) might provide a good reason to be anti-theistic, however it is difficult to prove when considering individuals.

    I think this is a difficulty throughout the essay. To take the conclusion:


    “As an anti-theist and atheist I am interested in that intersection of social justice and truth. The point where defeating “false religions” and making society better intersect. I also happen to believe that godless societies would do better than ones where citizens fear God. “I want” society to be better. And I believe encouraging people to be skeptical and to ask for evidence is a reasonable thing to do that would improve society overall.”

    The first part (intersection of truth and social justice) is difficult to understand: Firstly, does it not imply that some social justice is not true? Presumably yes in a tautological sense since social justice means different things to different people. But still does the word “intersect” not assume not all “accepted” social justice is true?. Secondly, the word “intersect” would imply that some social justice is indeed is true, but does that mean it is true in the same sense other scientific claims are true? This would appear to be a very difficult position to defend when considering specific topical social justice issues like late-term abortions.

    On top of that I can’t help noticing the words “believe” which appear in the quote and elsewhere in the essay. I too believe that society would be better if people did not believe false things (I can’t really prove it asides giving examples), however for this to have much warrant on social justice issues we would have to maintain that these social justice claims are “true”. I think that’s often difficult to do without using two definitions of “truth”.

    Looking outside Luciano, I think the confusion of how the claim “there is no god” is true and how the claim “later-term abortions are acceptable” is true leads to social-justice issues sometimes being argued with a conviction that is familiar but not really warranted from a skeptical view, and that is my main objection to the movement.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-07-05 10:53:22 UTC - 10:53 | Permalink

      Just one point I’d like to comment particularly on — you suggested the jettisoning of God leaves a values vacuum that the A+ movement tries to fill.

      I am reminded of my own fear when I realized my thoughts were leading me towards atheism. I really did fear that I might be entering a world without values standards. Would I be more likely to kill someone I hated, etc. These were real fears as I reached that brink.

      But after I did cross over I surprised myself by finding it was not the case at all. I found myself with “everyone else” in the world. (No longer me in the saints’ camp surrounded by a world of darkness.) I felt more united, at one, with the human race. I saw as all as so frail and temporary, and that the only reasonable thing to do was to make the most of our short time and to do whatever we might to enhance the lives of our fellow creatures. That sensation was the basis of my new set of values that followed on directly from my becoming an atheist. I don’t know what experiences others, have, though. — Though I do understand I am not alone in the path that I found myself traveling .

      • 2016-07-06 16:42:02 UTC - 16:42 | Permalink

        I do think it is a very good point that any kind of atheist movement should have something to say for questions like: “without God why shouln’t I just lie and steal?”, especially for those leaving totalistic religions where “morals” might be narrowly understood as “what we interpret God to command”. I also think we agree on what morals are/should be based on, in particular the line “I felt more united, at one, with the human race. I saw as all as so frail and temporary, and that the only reasonable thing to do was to make the most of our short time and to do whatever we might to enhance the lives of our fellow creatures.” resonates with my own thinking.

        What I mean by “vacuum” is that I don’t think morals has much to do with the proposition “there is no God” or the scientific way of figuring out truth that many atheists adhere to. For instance, I don’t think there is any logical problem in having awful morals and being an atheist for instance.

        • Neil Godfrey
          2016-07-07 04:26:44 UTC - 04:26 | Permalink

          Agreed. And moral values are a human universal. We are hard-wired with them. They do express themselves differently in different cultures in much the same way as fundamental and common linguistic structures express themselves differently in different languages. No society believes it is okay to gratuitously murder one’s fellows, for example.

          • 2016-07-07 11:57:14 UTC - 11:57 | Permalink

            I also agree with that. That’s why I have tried to distinguish between the really “big picture” moral stuff (murder is bad) and specific, smaller claim (late-term abortions should be legal) because I think a good case can be made that there is a “scientific truth” behind the first type of claims or that they are at least as objective true as can be (I am not a moral philosopher).

            However I think social justice today is often concerned about the more specific moral claims (like when late-term abortions should be available, how we balance free speech and students desire to feel safe on campuses) and for these there possibly is no scientific truth but various preferences, desires, etc.

            That’s why I think these views are not really an “extension” of atheism (with it’s scientific way of thinking) or mix well with a skeptical outlook on the world. Like you said on another thread: “This is where I find myself lost. I don’t expect to find anything in common with someone just because he or she is an atheist. (…) What worries me when one takes up a cause for justice in the name of some other idea that is narrower than humanity itself, we are facing an ideologue, someone fighting for an idea that is more important than people. We are facing the sorts of attitudes that led to “thought police” in past and some present countries”.

          • paxton marshall
            2016-07-07 15:47:34 UTC - 15:47 | Permalink

            It’s hard for me to see how biological evolution has endowed us with hard wired moral values. A generalized empathy may have evolved from the survival benefits (to our genes) of caring for children and other relatives. But any more specific moral rules, such as prohibition of slavery, rape, abortion, stealing, or the requirement of generosity, hospitality to strangers, free speech, or notions of social justice, must be results of cultural evolution, don’t you think? Nor do I see any evidence that belief or non-belief in gods is biologically determined. If so, why so much variation in religious beliefs?

            So I agree that atheism implies nothing about morality, and that, building on possibly hard wired empathy, atheists must adopt existing moral frameworks or build their own. Most atheists in Christian countries seem to adopt the prevailing moral codes of their societies, with notable exceptions like divorce, abortion, homosexuality, etc. In fact, it seems more like changing moral standards has been a driving force in the expansion of atheism than the reverse. It would be interesting to know how moral standards have changed in China under enforced atheism. I suspect that they are still largely based on Confucian principles. Have Russian morals changed that much during their transitions from Orthodox to Marxian atheism and back?

            • Neil Godfrey
              2016-07-07 20:09:47 UTC - 20:09 | Permalink

              It’s hard for me to see how biological evolution has endowed us with hard wired moral values. A generalized empathy may have evolved from the survival benefits (to our genes) of caring for children and other relatives. But any more specific moral rules, such as prohibition of slavery . . .

              What I have in mind is the way we see common “rules” enforced in a wide range of social animals. We even see punishments for misbehaviour sometimes. I suspect it is traced back to whatever it is that lies behind our reciprocity “gene”. That seems to be a universal necessity for the survival and growth of any social group. The specific ways this basic “hard wiring” expresses itself varies from culture to culture. I think all social animals have some innate tendency to respect and submit to authority figures as a “good and right” thing, for example, but there are many and wildly different ways in which this ethic is expressed in various cultures, from slavery to democracy.

          • j f d'auria
            2016-07-08 17:59:04 UTC - 17:59 | Permalink

            Moral values…metaphysical? [Kant]
            …natural ?[Locke, arising from idea of natural rights]
            …hard biology?
            none of these but just the ‘ golden rule’ latent in any average person…do unto others as you would be done by.

    • MrHorse
      2016-07-06 01:21:55 UTC - 01:21 | Permalink

      Tim said However this conclusion “there is no God” leaves a vacuum of values and I think the “freethoughtblogs”-type movement tries to fill with values and ideas drawn from social justice.

      I find the ‘vacuum of values‘ thing problematic. You refer to social justice, so you acknowledge some values in non-theocratic society. Besides ‘social norms and mores’ there are codes of conduct, manners, etc. and of course laws.

      • 2016-07-06 16:50:29 UTC - 16:50 | Permalink

        Why do you think the phrase “vacuum of values” is problematic?
        I agree that we live in a society of values etc. and I am not a moral relativist. However I think many specifics of “what is moral” do not have objective answers (for instance, what week abortion should be legal) and I don’t think the way I (and many other) figure out what is moral is anything like the scientific method.

        • MrHorse
          2016-07-06 22:16:24 UTC - 22:16 | Permalink

          Yes, morality has very little, if anything, to do with the scientific method (though why you mention the scientific method in relation to morality is somewhat puzzling; as is your reference to ‘what week abortion should be legal’)

          • 2016-07-07 11:40:55 UTC - 11:40 | Permalink

            Well, as I wrote in my first post, I think when someone tries to connect atheism to certain progressive social justice views, one runs into the problem that atheism (for many people at least) is a conclusion arrived at by a scientific way of thinking whereas many specific moral standpoints cannot be argued in the same way. That’s why talking about “the intersection of social justice and atheism” (my wording) is in my opinion an intersection of oranges and apples :-).

    • MrHorse
      2016-07-06 01:26:01 UTC - 01:26 | Permalink

      Tim said “how can we know the truth (in the above scientific sense) of where a woman’s right over her body ends and the right of the fetus/baby/father becomes important?

      It’s not a dichotomy. Every situation is different.

      Certainly a fetus is not a sentient being until it can survive outside the womb – 23 weeks of gestation – which is about the time its central nervous system begins to be able to transmit pain from its periphery to its brain.

      • 2016-07-06 16:59:14 UTC - 16:59 | Permalink

        Just to play the devils advocate: How do you know the fetus is sentient just because it can transmit pain to the brain?

        One can argue that the limit should be lower than 23 weeks because we should err on the side of preserving a potentially sentient beings life.
        On the other hand one can argue the limit should be more than 23 weeks because a women’s right of deciding over her own body should be weighted more highly. One can argue that the baby being sentient means that it’s bodily integrity should be respected, however removing it from the mothers body is not as such violating it’s bodily integrity.

        I have an opinion on these two views, however I don’t think the truth of that opinion is a scientific truth.

        • James D Williams
          2016-07-06 18:14:51 UTC - 18:14 | Permalink

          Careening off topic…
          Pain is a common affectation of sentience, though subjective.
          However, a spike on an EEG is not scientific proof of that subjectivity.

        • MrHorse
          2016-07-06 22:21:52 UTC - 22:21 | Permalink

          I did not say “the fetus is sentient because it can transmit pain to the brain” !!

          I made no reference to cause-and-effect with what I said.

          • 2016-07-07 11:37:00 UTC - 11:37 | Permalink

            You are right I misread your sentence. But I think my underlying point still stands, that we can make arguments for or against the 23 weeks as the limit and these arguments have very little to do with atheism.

    • Kaelik
      2016-07-06 19:42:12 UTC - 19:42 | Permalink

      “The first part (intersection of truth and social justice) is difficult to understand: Firstly, does it not imply that some social justice is not true? Presumably yes in a tautological sense since social justice means different things to different people. But still does the word “intersect” not assume not all “accepted” social justice is true?. Secondly, the word “intersect” would imply that some social justice is indeed is true, but does that mean it is true in the same sense other scientific claims are true? This would appear to be a very difficult position to defend when considering specific topical social justice issues like late-term abortions.”

      Having never read anything he has written before, I would like to say that it seems clear that his definition of “Social Justice” is specifically about upsetting power structures that oppress. And he specifically says where that intersects with “finding out what is true” so to me all that implies is that some oppressive power structure upsetting is done without needing to find out what is true (presumably because you already know it). Since this is his definition of being an anti-theist, it seems likely that he is saying that for example, black lives matter social justice has nothing to do with finding out what is true, because we already know it.

      • 2016-07-06 20:06:26 UTC - 20:06 | Permalink

        Hi and thanks for the answer. Perhaps you can help me unpack it a bit. When you write: “it seems likely that he is saying that for example, black lives matter social justice has nothing to do with finding out what is true, because we already know it [what is true].”

        (notice the bracket). What I would point out is a skeptic might say:
        “Okay, so people say (and perhaps I also believe) that we know this or that social justice issue is true (for instance, that late-term abortions should be available to women), but how do we as skeptics demonstrate that is true?”

        I think atheism, and the scientific outlook that underlies atheism, do not offer precise answers to the question. That’s why I question how much atheism and social justice really intersects because they seem to have little to do with each other both methodically and in terms of their central claims.

        I am aware I made a new and more complicated moral example (instead of “black lives matter”).. this is on purpose because I don’t think anyone who is worth taking serious would say (literally) that black lives don’t matter, so “black lives matter” is not really the issue under discussion but rather how we secure the rights and dignity of blacks in particular with regards to police brutality.

  • Paxton Marshall
    2016-07-04 14:28:21 UTC - 14:28 | Permalink

    Re: Outrage that we don’t feel same shock and anger at Baghdad and Istanbul bombings that we fell for Orlando and Paris.

    Yes, but what is worse is that we refuse to view western terrorism, eg Iraq and Gaza invasions as equivalent to and provocation for Islamic terror. One of the worst features of religion is promotion of the us vs them mentality. We don’t judge “us” by the same standards as we judge “them”. Would that emancipation from gods would help us to see ourselves as others see us. But I see no evidence of that happening.

  • Martha Osgood
    2016-07-04 18:58:33 UTC - 18:58 | Permalink

    “To identify as atheists against religious believers means perpetuating the dividing up of the world into black and white, the sinners and the saints, which is the way to inability to truly understand one another, to antagonism, hostility, arrogance, bullying, an all-round withdrawal of compassion.”

    My own experience is that stating who I am, especially after people getting to know me, more often ERASES the “us vs them” mentality, leading to reduced divisions and hostilities. While I am generally not hostile to individual’s religions and, in fact, am interested in the what and why of people’s beliefs, I don’t avoid explaining (in context and in ways that are not meant to be offensive) why I think certain so-called ethical or Christian *behaviors* fail to meet my standards of ethics.

    I might add that in the last 30 years, the words Lesbian and Gay (and now Trans) have lost their sting for most of us in the US. I would be willing to hear more about how non-hostile atheists, keeping their beliefs to themselves (in context), would reduce divisions and hostility over time, but so far I don’t agree.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-07-05 11:01:22 UTC - 11:01 | Permalink

      I hope I didn’t give the impression I hide my atheism. What I meant to convey was that I don’t push it in people’s faces at any and every opportunity. If asked and/or if the situation arises where it is appropriate and proper for me to make my atheism known, I certainly do so.

      But as I said somewhere else, atheism is not such a big deal in Australia. I think if I went around making my atheism known here at every opportunity most people would think I was weirdly obsessed in a way that made no sense to them.

      I have even “come out” with my atheism in Muslim countries in the presence of devout Muslims. (In many Muslim countries most Muslims are no more devout than many nominal Christians in the West. Even atheists in those countries still by law have “Muslim” entered on their identity cards or Passports.) The only ones likely to ask me about my beliefs are the devout, and I feel a bit sad for them when I have to tell them I don’t believe in God at all because I know it will pain them a little. But we still remain friends.

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