Atheism, and Why I Don’t Much Care

I wanted to write a post about the interactions between atheism, secularism, naturalism and humanism, but after multiple tries in which the atheist paragraph just got far too long, I’ve decided to make that a post of its own.

So, atheism. I am an atheist; I have a profound lack of belief in the supernatural in general and god in particular. But what I kept finding myself wanting to talk about was how boring that was, which I realize is an odd topic for a blog post, but that’s the way it goes.

So, first off, I think atheism, qua atheism, is largely unimportant. Not irrelevant, and not worth making a fuss about, because I’ve certainly been known to do that, but just low on my list of priorities. I realize I’m likely saying this because I happen to be an atheist, but I think that for how important the potential for god’s existence could be, it really isn’t. The vast majority of people spend the vast majority of their time as if god didn’t exist. We spend time eating, sleeping, working, talking, breathing. We have daily needs to fill, and no one, including god, is going to do it for us. Whatever your conception of god, that’s a lot of time in which he/she/it’s really just not that relevant. And I happen to care very deeply about all the things that go on in my and other people’s lives, and so to bring god into that discussion is to go off point.

Secondly, atheism isn’t a worldview; it’s a truth claim about the universe, and not a particularly interesting one at that. As I said, I think people spend most of their time as if go didn’t exist, and to be perfectly frank, the universe spends just about all of its time acting as if god didn’t exist. The god hypothesis is a truth claim that not only lacks evidence but is, in many cases, unfalsifiable. As a scientist, that gives me a reason to chuck it right out the window, even if it might be true. Following directly from those two facts, whether or not you believe in god is mostly up to what’s going on in your head.

This means that I generally find movies, books, blog posts and conversations about the existence of god boring at best and meaningless at worst. Generally, intelligent thinking people either believe in god, or they don’t. Anyone who’s spent time in the blogosphere has likely come across more arguments for and against god’s existence than they would ever like to, and even the great theologians don’t have ideas all that different from those you’re likely to find in any religious forum (see here). As a result, the question isn’t very exciting. You’ve either thought about it or you haven’t, and if you haven’t and you want to enter the atheist or religious community, you should, and if you have, you’ve probably made up your mind pretty firmly.

Even considering that, though, whether or not you’re an atheist doesn’t say a whole lot about you. Because it’s a negative, rather than a positive, at most, you might be a committed rationalist, but then again, you might not. Most qualities atheists have, theists have, too. I mean, obviously, as people, we all have a lot in common, but there’s even more than you might expect. I know fiercely rational believers (who I tend to believe aren’t applying their rationalism correctly, but whatever), and largely apathetic atheists. I know secularist activists in both camps. There are pro-life atheists and pro-choice theists. I still think that PEARLism (physical evidence and reasoned logic) ought to come about everything, but there’s really no simple dichotomy, and as a result, saying you’re an atheist just isn’t that descriptive. Nonetheless, because I am, in large part, the intersections of my attributes, and I am a committed rationalist, and I think visibility is important (see below), I do describe myself as one.

Even though it’s not that important to me, the atheist issues, even those that are specifically, narrowly, about god’s existence, still ought to be part of the public conversation. I’m not saying that those movies and blog posts and bus campaigns aren’t important and useful. At all. They are instrumental in a variety of ways. For example, though it’s not supposed to be polite dinner conversation, I’ve found that a lighthearted or even quite serious discussion with someone about their religious beliefs can have some extremely positive effects. I feel closer with them, having discussed something so meaningful (to them, anyway), I feel as though I may have broadened their horizons, and it’s also kind of fun, at least for someone like me, for whom the question doesn’t really matter. So on a personal level, those conversations are a lot like ones about whether evolution is true. Largely already decided by the general community and more importantly, the scientific community, but a potential source of conversation nonetheless. Also possibly fun to pointlessly debate on internet forums when bored.

I also think that visibility is very important. I was brought in a mostly secular household, though I did go through some measure of a deconversion process, and I’m mostly surrounded by people who are either atheist or know and accept that I am. So I realize I don’t have quite the perspective on the issue that those who have endured discrimination and the like as a result have. For those people, and for the atheist community at large, and to make waves in mainstream culture, the visibility that comes from the books and the blogs is very important.

My point is only that there are way more interesting and pertinent things to talk about. I know all of the statistics about how trusted atheists are in America, and I’ve read the George HW quote about atheists and I’ve seen the youtube videos about small town rural America and the discrimination that goes on there and I read about the political race between Elizabeth Dole and Kay Hagan, and I still think that atheists, as a whole, have it pretty well off. If you’re going to be marginalized, this is probably a good way to do it, especially as most atheists are white males. Now, this in and of itself is a problem, and I know that black atheists have a lot to contend with in the black community and all such things but still, overall, not the worst oppression in the world. So if we’re going to talk about religion, instead of talking about how hard it is to be an atheist, let’s talk about how the religious problems in America, and how those affect everyone. Freedom of speech issues as regard the Westboro Baptist Church. Prayer in schools. The appalling state of sex education in this country. Faith based funding. Religion in general as a social phenomenon, and how the institution affects everyone in the society. How much respect ought to be afforded religion versus faith versus religious figures in public and in private. Humanitarian work and missionaries. Condoms in Africa. The role of progressive religion in the progressive movement. These are all atheist issues, but they’re broader issues, too, and leave room for alliances that might not be made if we just think about the beliefs in our head and not how they work in practice.

Intellectually, too, I find broad, sweeping debates largely unsatisfying. Liberal vs conservative. Socialism vs. libertarianism. Relativism vs. realism. Those can all be fun and important, but the shades of gray and the need for abstraction and thought experiments is really where the meat of intellectualism lies. So whether or not god exists is way less interesting than, say, the role of free will in Christian and secular philosophy ( see: C.S. Lewis and Bertrand Russell). Whether or not theology is comparable to fairyology (as Dawkins once quipped), with proper suspension of disbelief in the name of sheer intellectual inquiry, it can be an illuminating discipline for people of all philosophical tendencies.

For all these reasons, and more, I find, for myself at least, that while I appreciate the need for the debate, and while I hope it remains in the public consciousness, unless I’m just looking for something to agree with, I think that atheism, as a description, is pretty low on my list.

Worldview Part II: Here’s Mine

So, back to what a worldview actually is. I sort of lied earlier, about how one goes about creating a worldview, because as a matter of fact it’s not that simple or easy. In a perfect world, all the experiences I mentioned would indeed be data from which grand overarching theories could be proposed and held up to scrutiny. Unfortunately, people have an unconscious desire to create these worldviews all the time; we do it every time we rationalize, every time we try to come to a decision, every time we go shopping. We adapt our self image to the actions we take and we adapt the actions we take to the image we’d like to have of ourselves. Am I the sort of person who does that? Other people who do this are like this, but because of the exceptional group of which I am a part due to a unique combination of factors, I am in fact like this. This sort of thinking is fine. In fact, it’s probably what gets us through the day. Nonetheless, it’s subject to a whole host of logical fallacies, errors in reasoning and general lack of intellectual rigor, because it’s mostly done unconsciously, or at least without much thought.
So when I think about my worldview, I have to contend with the myriad notions of what a or my worldview should look like, rather than what it does. Luckily, a worldview is a very special blend of what is and what should be, which can be decided based on thoughts, books, movies and all other internal and external influencs, and so it has the capacity to lead with this. So here goes: based on a great deal of thought, here are some of my axioms.
1. All people (defined as sentient beings, aware of their own awareness, who can feel emotion and pain – obviously, since this is a. a debatable definition and b. sometimes difficult to put into practice, occasionally we will have to err on the side of caution) are equally worthy of dignity, respect and the right to self-actualization.
1a. Fairly obvious corollary: people have inherent worth, vis a vis their existence as a person.
Reason: I have a well-evolved and well-developed sense of empathy. I can realize that other people feel pain and suffering, as well as joy and fulfillment, and insofar as I would like to maximize the latter and minimize the former for myself, I am aware that others ought to have their right to do so, and as far as possible try to limit abridgement of these rights in the name of someone else’s vision of them. This is a fairly individualistic position, but I would also like to advance the notion that my ability to acheive these goals is intimately tied up with others’ capacity to do the same, both in the sense that if one person is in chains no one is free, and in the sense that humans are social animals and can acheive a great deal together that cannot be acheived alone, and that fact should be taken advantage of.
2. The pursuit of knowledge is an inherent good.
Reason: This is a bit complex. I have a framework for people as a community of knowers, wherein their knowledge is valuable and makes them valuable. Self-actualization is a form of knowing one’s self, knowing others takes the form of community and family, politics and morality, and we can also know/learn about the world, which is what science and related topics are for. This is actually probably my most fundamental principle, but the first one makes more sense within the context of traditional moralities from which I’ve derived many of my ideas.
2a. Corollary: The expression of such knowledge is a good.
Reason: This seems both more and less obvious than #2 itself. Interestingly, I think it’s here that asymmetries in my worldview begin to come about. Most people would agree with everything up to here without batting much of an eye, but it’s 2 and 2a that give me my opinionated nature on the issues that #1 and 1a bring to light as important. This expression can take a lot of forms. Art. Sex. Science. Travel. Speech. All need to be protected, all need to be fought for. What’s great about this is that it allows people to pick and choose from their knowledge of themselves, others and the world what is important and what should be expressed. A global community of environmental activists? Great. A five person high school club that made up a form of origami no one’s ever heard of? Great. And the protection of the knowledge and the expression contributes both to a more widespread, global understanding of a variety of topics so that they can be maintained indefinitely and more local, cultural, diverse traditions and ideas that keep humanity weird and sufficiently interesting. This protection also confers the title of goodness on the communities that serve to aid and protect this knowledge. I have a great deal to say about communities, so it should be gotten out of the way that they are generally good things.
I’ve never actually written these down before, so I’m somewhat shocked that there are so few. I like it, though. Stephen Wolfram has described how simple rules can manifest themselves in extraordinarily complex ways. Not only does that seem like a great description of a worldview, but I also think that simplicity is good because it’s easier to maintain logical consistency and see where errors of reasoning come into play.
I’m sorry, for this post and all future ones, if any grand conclusion I come to seems blindingly obvious. In my mental meanderings, I’ve had to question a lot of my fundamental assumptions, as all good thinkers ought to, and it leads me to wonder, not if anything I feel is deeply important in fact is irrelevant or worse, harmful, but rather if I can ever come up with a rigorous way to prove that it indeed should be important. This may seem trivial, but as a principled person, I take great issue with hypocrisy. It speaks to a moral failing, a lack of importance placed on thinking deeply about important principles to ensure that they are correct and true and don’t come into conflict. So I do my best to avoid it, and sometimes I end up in places far from where I started, and sometimes my intellectual footpath has lead me in the least efficient path possible, back to where I started. But that journey gives me more confidence and assuredness in my thoughts and opinions, and maintains my intellectual honesty.

The Backstory: Where I explain why worldviews are important to begin with

Worldview Part I: What It Is and Why I Think It’s Important

Right, so, here I go. I am a complex person. I have complex thoughts and lead a complex life. In many ways, I am comfortable with that complexity, and with complexity in general. In other ways, it deeply disturbs me. Here’s why: I am in the process of constructing a logically consistent worldview. I use those three words together almost as a collocation, and the extent to which I think about this notion even comes to annoy me. Nonetheless, it has become somewhat of an obsession in the past few years. Basically, it works like this. I look at my life, in a hard, calculating, incisive way. I take my fears, hopes, ideas, experiences, thoughts, interactions and emotions and treat them as empirical evidence. Then I look for a common thread. SPOILER: there isn’t one. Not because humans are too complex to reduce to a bare set of principles or any of that tosh. For me at least, to think this would be a cop-out, a way to give up on finding out what lies at the core of this carefully constructed self that lives within a world inherently imbued with chaos and also massive psychohistorical forces, if I may use Asimov’s invented field of study.
I think that that fundamental enumeration is really important; I also don’t think I’ll ever find it. I think it’s important because I want to understand myself and at the same time create myself. My ‘inner self’ (the reason for the quotes will have to come in a later post), should it exist, is not something that is, or something that happens to me. It’s an interaction between who I am now, who I was, who I will be, the actions I have taken and will take along the journey and what it even means to ‘be someone/yourself.’ I’ve thought about this a lot, and somehow I never phrased it quite this way, and it fills me with tremendous excitement, because with this framework I can come up with so many reasons why I should be thinking about it, and I want to get them all out at once. For one, that sentence sounds like a description of a particularly difficult and intricate problem, and that makes it fantastically interesting. Why wouldn’t I want to take the time to unravel it? Especially because it has a unique appeal: I am the only person, organism, group of molecules, thing that could have a shadow of a hope of figuring it out. And that has quite the allure. I also find that abstracting out my view on life would be exceptionally useful in situations as diverse as moral dilemmas and choosing what to do on a Friday night. Finally, and likely most importantly, I think that understanding and the path to discovery are quintessentially beautiful elements of the human experience, and I find that applying those elements to this problem might prove intellectually, socially and personally fruitful. I also think that the never-ending journey towards discovery is something I want to make a part of my life, hithertofore and forever. It might even be an axiom in the worldview itself.


Follow up: My personal worldview

Religion and War

http://www.alternet.org/story/144702/how_the_military_hides_dissent_in_the_ranks

It seems rather awful to me that conscientious objection (CO) can only be made on the basis of religion. Like, you can stop killing people if a new understanding of the almighty has led you to believe that there will be divine retribution if you continue in your current military capacity, but if you have come to the realization that the actions you’re engaged in are immoral on a fundamental, human level, you’re going to have to keep doing it?

The psychological repercussions alone are formidable, and PTSD and other psychological disorders are already hitting extreme highs in veterans coming back from war. I understand the need for discipline and order in the military, but mental health is important and the army ought to be caring for its soldiers. This is admittedly an oversimplification, but killing people is bad enough, for various reasons, but in this context in the sense of damaging a soldier’s mental health. Ostensibly, they came to the army with a general understanding of what they’d be doing; however, if they come to feel that they are committing a terrible injustice and literally aren’t allowed to stop, that could cause major problems later on.

And as for the argument that if COs can be made on nonreligious grounds everyone will do it, consider this: if there is that much ill-will towards a war, that soldiers are using any method possible to flee it (which happens not to even be the case), then perhaps that war should be reconsidered. Obviously military decisions cannot be entirely based on popular opinion, but if a volunteer army means anything, it means keeping public and military support high enough that this isn’t a problem. It’s a ridiculous argument anyway; how do you prove that someone has ‘actually’ converted? That gets into another whole set of issues about what it means to be religious.

Finally, there’s the idea that this is a manifestation of a prevalent problem: that religion is given a measure of respect accorded to no other ideological system. The Christian behest not to kill is not more powerful or better than a secular empathy, a knowledge that killing is as harmful to others (the victim as well as those close to them) as it would be to one’s self. In fact, I would argue the other way around, but that’s a separate post. And for the record, the vast majority of American soldiers are Christian, so the very notion of religious ethics being somehow more imperative is moot. Also, let’s talk about that idea for a second. Firstly, secular ethics are only less controlling in the sense that they are not dogmatically forced on people, and they are subject to change given new evidence. That does not mean that people who follow nonreligious ethical systems are flighty or capricious in their moral dealings. In fact, they are likely to be more thoughtful about them, given that there is no book to which they can turn for every conceivable situation. Secondly, those characteristics are positive ones, and should be encouraged. I worry for people who decide that murder is wrong because someone else says that god said so. I’m well aware that religious ethics are not even close to this simple, and that not all secularists think deeply about the philosophical ramifications of their actions. Nonetheless, realizing upon consideration of the evidence around you that what you are doing is wrong is a mature response, and should be accepted and promoted.

Basic point: in a volunteer army fighting for liberty and freedom, there has to be some leeway for conscientious objections made on nonreligious grounds, for the sake of ideological consistency, care for the mental health of the soldier, and a realization that philosophical affiliation can be just as important as religious affiliation, and secular ethics are no less valid than religious ones.

Introduction

Well, hello, internet. My name is Chana, and I am exactly the kind of person who would have a blog, which is to say opinionated, politically aware and angry. I make no apologies and give no justifications. This blog is really, mostly, for my father, who doesn’t deserve to wake up every morning and face multiple, barely coherent, inordinately long blocks of text in his inbox from my midnight mental meanderings. I happen to have lots of thoughts, including thoughts about thoughts, and this seems like a convenient way to express them. To be perfectly honest, I’m not sure how I feel about making this public. I’ve never shied away from making my opinion known and accepting the consequence of leaving myself open to criticism, but this is rather permanent. I’ve dabbled in blogging before, once to make a reverse wishlist so that my family could tell me what they wanted as presents (I’m sure I made room to tell them what I wanted, too), I used to have a communal blog with some friends, and I occasionally post notes on facebook. But here I am, taking the plunge and having my own blog.

For the record, I may not express my opinions and thoughts entirely rigorously, especially if I’m just dying to let them out, but I’ll do my best. Enjoy.