My epitaph

I thought up this little bit o’ doggerel (no, not that kind of Doggerel) in the car yesterday. Maybe I’ll have it engraved in stone someday.

If there’s a Heaven
For this doubtful pagan,
Then I’m hanging out
With Adams and Sagan.

I don’t support New Atheism

“But Tom, I read your last post. You don’t support regular Atheism!”

Well, that’s not entirely true. I do support Atheism. I support Atheism more than pretty much any other belief system; Agnosticism, of course, is just a little higher, and I’m a big fan of compassionate, logical, rational theism. I can support systems of belief without subscribing to them.

So, I’ve been reading a bit about “New Atheism,” and I really don’t like what I see. The basic idea seems to be that, while Atheism is either the disbelief in religion and supernatural traditions or the lack of belief in same, “New Atheism” is the outright condemnation of any belief system not based in reason and evidence, and the rejection of the notion that such systems deserve respect.

See, on one hand, I agree with this completely. I don’t have much respect for people who come to their beliefs without reason, and I don’t think we should privilege religious people or organizations with things like tax exemption or service positions, unless we give the same concessions to similarly-purposed secular organizations. I don’t think any system of belief is inherently deserving of respect; respect must be earned. And if it’s a belief system which is based in logic and reason and evidence, that’s a good way to earn respect; if it’s a belief system which compels its followers to be kind and just and good to their fellow humans, that’s also a pretty respectable position. But no belief system deserves respect just by virtue of being a belief system, just by acknowledging the existence of some supernatural sky-spirits, or something of that sort.

The problem I see is with equivocation: belief systems don’t inherently deserve respect, but people do. Even the people who believe in magical sky spirits or alien-soul psychology deserve a modicum of respect. Sometimes, we (by which I mean I) forget that. People can do or say or believe things that cause us to lose our respect for them, but as long as they share a species with you, as long as you wish to claim some moral integrity, then they deserve some of your respect. No matter who said it, religious or secular, the Golden Rule is a damn good piece of advice.

And that’s the other problem: belief in the supernatural is not sufficient to qualify someone as irrational. Some of the most intelligent, rational people I know are theists of one sort or another (one of the benefits of going to a liberal religious college). There’s the Lutheran pastor and religion professor with polytheistic tendencies, or my fideist Lutheran English professor; and what of the legions of theistic or deistic scientists? Showing this intellectual disdain for faith doesn’t advance the cause of science and rationality, it just alienates the faithful who fight for those causes alongside the godless. Science and logic are universal things; everyone can benefit from them, everyone can practice them, everyone can accept them. That’s why they’re science and logic, and not religion. What I see here is New Atheism staking a claim on rationality, science, and evidentialism, and saying “no faith allowed.”

Maybe I’m mischaracterizing the issue here, but it doesn’t seem to be much of a leap from “we condemn these beliefs, and feel that they are utterly undeserving of any respect” and “we condemn the people who hold these beliefs.” Forgive me my lack of faith in the ability of people to make that distinction. Atheists are commonly mischaracterized as smug, arrogant, angry, petty people who just want to rain on everyone’s parade; while I will fight tooth and nail against that sort of idiotic stereotype, I can’t help but feel that this “New Atheism” is just furthering that image. I can’t help but feel that “New Atheists” are condemning intelligent, rational people, people who support the scientific process, people who support progressive social values, people who put their beliefs through the same sort of rigorous questioning and introspection as any nonbeliever, condemning them for not arriving at the same conclusions. Even if belief in the supernatural is irrational, is it any more rational to suggest that all people through logic and inquiry will arrive at the exact same conclusions? Perhaps if they’re given the same evidence, the same tools, the same experiences, we could make that claim. But in matters of metaphysics, the only evidence is experience. Should we condemn people who receive their empowering, enlightening, “spiritual” experiences from music or literature or exercise? Are those pursuits undeserving of respect?

“New Atheism” is a gunshot to the foot of the freethinking world. It’s one thing to condemn the irrational, to denounce fundamentalism in all its forms (for indeed, there’s only one sort of fanaticism, it just adheres to different dogmas), to espouse the ideals of inquiry and reason and evidence and empiricism. It’s quite another thing to claim intellectual superiority over all other systems of belief, and to effectively shut out dissent and diversity. There are many forms of reason; evidentialism is only one aspect.

The thing that really scares me about this is how dogmatic it all seems. Everyone else is wrong, this is the only way, no other beliefs deserve respect…seems more like “Fundamentalist Atheism” to me. If we alienate rational, progressive theists and theistic scientists, force a schism between “New Atheists” and all other freethinkers, and further the negative stereotypes about the areligious, then who exactly does this movement end up helping? Is all that damage worth an ego boost to those angry at religion? Because that’s what this ends up looking like, once you consider the ramifications.

An aside: As I said before, I don’t care for faith, but that’s my own personal choice. I understand that faith is a powerful motivating force to many, and in matters of the unprovable or unfalsifiable, it acts for many as a substitute for evidence. I have the utmost respect to people who put their faith through testing and questioning and introspection and arrive at a belief system–whatever that system may be. I arrived at strong Agnosticism, others arrive at Atheism, others find some sort of theism. I don’t think that those differences make one party significantly more or less rational than the others. I have a deep respect for fideism as it was explained to me, that it is belief purely rooted in faith, that the lack of proof or provability is acknowledged and accepted. When my professor discussed it, she compared her beliefs to those of CSICOP founder, skeptic icon and anti-pseudoscience crusader Martin Gardner: credo consolens, “I believe because it is comforting.” Is it irrational to find meaning in that which brings comfort? Is that not a reason to believe something? If there is no evidence for or against (since it’s supernatural), and it is comforting to believe in it, and you do not seek to justify it through evidentiary methods or to force others to conform to that belief, then what harm is done in believing it? Where is the irrationality there?

Certainly not all theists are fideists. Certainly not all intelligent, rational theists are pure fideists. But there are rational folks of every religious stripe, whose beliefs do not infringe upon the realm of science, do not infringe upon the beliefs of other individuals, and do not compromise the integrity of logical, rational thought. Why are we condemning them? End aside.

No belief system inherently deserves respect; systems earn respect through the content of their beliefs, and through the evidence which supports them. The question is, what does “New Atheism” offer to deserve respect? Because if “disdain for other beliefs” and “justification for beliefs in the moral/intellectual superiority of one group over another” are the only innovations of the movement, then I don’t see why it’s any more respectable than the religious traditions it decries. There’s only one sort of fundamentalism, it just adheres itself to multiple belief systems. Hopefully skeptics, scientists, atheists, and freethinkers are observant and rational enough to keep it from attaching to our favored traditions.

By the way, while looking up Martin Gardner, I came upon this very relevant post on The Uncredible Hallq. It really mirrors some of what I’m saying here, and does it more succinctly and less ramblingly than I could.

Why I am not an Atheist

I don’t care for faith. I came to this realization toward the end of High School, during that weird period of time when I was really questioning my beliefs and trying to figure out what it is I believed personally. I went through a bout of self-motivated, self-centered depression as a sophomore, and then an identity overhaul or two the following year, so my religious beliefs were naturally in flux a little.
Of course, “in flux” suggests that they were ever really solid. See, the church I grew up in was a little off the beaten path. My religious education was pretty light; I never learned a lot of the stories that the more devout kids hear, and some of the stories I did hear didn’t have the ring of truth. Even as a kid, I thought “man finds special magic breastplate and seeing stones, which allows him to read a holy book written on golden plates” was farfetched. As I grew older, I found out that the official church history didn’t exactly jive with the official historical history, and that really didn’t sit well with me. So, while I’d play in the handbell choir and whatnot, I don’t know how much I ever bought into all of it.

Anyway, by the time my third year of high school comes to a close, I’m not really buying any of it. I still prayed, and I still believed in God, but I quickly realized that I didn’t believe in the god of any extant religious tradition. The one thing I felt certain of in those days was that the universe had a distinct sense of humor, and that such a thing wouldn’t occur naturally, therefore god.

Yes, my spiritual beliefs were rooted in the comedic principle.

As time wore on, as my god donned and shed traits with the shifting winds, and as I toyed with calling myself a panentheist, I realized that I really didn’t have a clear concept of my personal beliefs, except that I didn’t like organized religion. This didn’t necessarily bother me; I was able to say “I know what I personally believe, and it doesn’t fall in line with any one religion. It’s a personal thing,” but the situation seemed to warrant further attention and self-examination.

I wasn’t an atheist. Maybe for a short time, but I couldn’t bring myself to really call myself that, and I couldn’t figure out why.

Ultimately, sometime during my first year of college (or thereabouts, I can’t recall the actual date of epiphany), I realized that my problem wasn’t with what I believed, but with belief itself. I realized that I couldn’t handle faith, that I really didn’t like believing in the unseen, belief without evidence. Once I figured that out, everything else kind of fell into place.
In those early days, I’d wax philosophical and say “I don’t like faith, I don’t trust it, and it’s just as much of a faith statement to say ‘there is no god’ as it is to say ‘there is a god.’ So, that’s why I’m not an atheist.”
And so I decided that I was an agnostic. I might have some beliefs some days, other beliefs other days, but all my spiritual beliefs were based around one very important caveat: I don’t know. Any spiritual beliefs I had, one way or another, were predicated on the fact that I didn’t have any evidence, and that an influx of evidence could overturn whatever beliefs might be hanging around at any given time.

But, I started hanging out at atheist websites, and reading that argument I presented against atheism, and recognizing the subtle difference between “not believing” and “believing a negative.” There are atheists who claim that “there is no god,” and I continue to assert that that’s a faith statement. And I’m sure that a significant portion of atheists will continue to regard agnosticism as a wussy position.

But as far as “not believing”? I don’t really have an answer for that one. Not yet anyway. And maybe that’s why I don’t feel so bad for siding with the atheists about most everything.

But I’m not an atheist. Maybe it’s not because I “don’t believe” in god, but that I do believe in my own lack of knowledge. I can be pretty certain about that, anyway. My beliefs about faith haven’t changed any; I don’t trust it any more now than I did a few paragraphs ago. No, I am an agnostic, and I plan on remaining agnostic until there’s sufficient evidence to suggest a better alternative.

Next up: why I am not Bertrand Russell.

I’m not an Atheist…

But I did find this interesting. I found it through Pharyngula. Check it out.