Thursday, August 10, 2006

Deconstruction: Part 2

As before, my deconstructive comments are in bold. First, let me say, that no one single claim creates an extremist view, but all of these taken together compose the bedrock, in my opinion, of atheist extremism.

Outrageous claim number 1: Atheism is based on evidence and reason and is philosophically provable or proven. Atheism is a matter of thought not belief. In other words, atheism is true; religion is false. Rather than using the rather vague term "atheism", which can take many forms, I should have worded this more specifically to discuss those known as "strong" or "positive" atheists, who insist that there is no G-d or gods, that the supernatural absolutely does not and cannot exist. Perhaps theism would also have been a better word than religion, which covers too much ground.
In his article "Atheism and Social Progress" found on the website of The Atheist Foundation of Australia Inc, Keith Cornish expresses it the claim this way, "A few years ago a member of the Committee of the Atheist Foundation of Australia proposed a new definition of 'atheism' that removes any hint of negativity and puts the onus of justification right back where it should be - that is, on Christians. His definition is 'Atheism' is the acceptance that there is no credible, scientific or factually reliable evidence for the existence of a God, god/s or the supernatural'. This was accepted as our official definition, though personally I would prefer the removal of the word 'credible' because of its association with 'faith' and 'belief'. It could well be replaced by 'logical'." (Emphasis mine.)

Emphasis for this was placed on the part that begins "This was accepted as..." and ends "...be replaced by 'logical'". Cornish, in my opinion, is playing a semantic game intended to artificially and dishonestly strengthen the claim for the nonexistence of a G-d. (I also take umbrage with the idea that the onus of justification rests on Christians since Christians neither invented nor do they dominate theism/monotheism.) For a more American source, I give you Sam Harris: Only the atheist has the courage to admit the obvious: these poor people spent their lives in the company of an imaginary friend. Claiming the biblical deity as an imaginary friend would imply special knowledge of the "obvious" nonexistence of that deity... something which is currently impossible. I urge you to read the entire document to see what I mean.
Both atheism (here I'm referring to mere disbelief in the supernatural rather than the specific claim of knowledge of the nonexistence) and theism (Here I'm referring to mere belief without claim of absolute knowledge) contain elements of rational thought and reason. When an adherent of either position examines what the existence or nonexistence of a supreme being means for humanity and how we structure our lives and moral/ethical systems, thought is involved. Ultimately, however, the supernatural's existence or nonexistence cannot be supported by evidence or proven by reason. Both are a matter of faith (Faith is, according to the dictionary, not a decision to refuse to suspend disbelief, but instead belief in something for which there is no logical proof or material evidence. Those who have a solid belief in the nonexistence of the supernatural fit the criteria of faith.) and therefore belief. In the absense of verifiability, neither can claim to be absolute truth. Placing a burden of proof on either "side" (those who claim there is and those who claim there isn't a deity or deities) in the matter would be futile as neither could rise to the challenge. Tolerance for differences of belief would be far preferable.

Obviously if the discussion is as follows, burden of proof is on the theist:
Theist: There IS a G-d or gods.
Atheist: I don't believe you. Until I see proof, I'm going to assume that you're wrong.
If the discussion is as follows, burden of proof is on both sides:
Theist: There IS a G-d or gods.
Atheist: There IS NO G-d. There are no gods.


In the middle, as always, are the agnostics who hold that claims about the supernatural cannot be assessed as "true" or "false" because they invoke the unknown, the unknowable, and the incoherent. This is perhaps the most logically defensible stance, however, there are those who hold strong beliefs in the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities who acknowledge this logic as well, accepting the fallibility and limitation of human knowledge and the fact that their belief or disbelief (disbelief/belief rather than a definite claim of knowledge)cannot be supported by incontrovertible logical or evidentiary proof.

Agnosticism is a bit of a sticky wicket, but I've decided to stick with the official definition. As some have pointed out and as I note above in not so many words, agnostics can fall into the atheist or theist categories to some extent. One can also be an atheist or theist (even someone who practices an organized religion) and accept the logic of agnosticism.

Outrageous claim number 2: Since the natural is all that we have or can scientifically observe and/or measure, it is all that exists.

This claim, one of the fundamental forms of ontological or metaphysical naturalism, is a blatant logical fallacy not to mention scientifically inaccurate. The logical fallacy is easy to refute: Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. The scientific part takes us into stickier territory.

First, I'd like to point out that metaphysical naturalism is NOT the scientific method. Science makes no definite claim that nature is all that does or can exist regarding the supernatural and is thus agnostic in a sense. "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" has been refuted by many using the example of an elephant in the middle of the room (amongst others). However, that example does not apply. Absence of evidence works in that example and the others showing proof of the absence of other material objects, because we know what evidence there would definitely be for an elephant in the middle of the room. Since we don't know for certain what the evidence would be of the supernatural, we can't assert that the absence of some definitive evidence that we can point to as evidence is evidence of the nonexistence of the supernatural.

Warning: Technobabble ahead! The known laws of physics and the discoveries of quantum physics show that our ability to observe the universe is limited by its and our innate properties. For instance, the impossibility of overcoming the speed of light means we see distant objects as they appeared far in the past, so some event may have happened so far in the past that we can't observe it. Although we are only able to observe three dimensions, many physicists now believe that there may be many that we can't observe and question why we're limited to three. The possibilities opened up by our examination of the universe and the acknowledgement of our own limitations has allowed scientists to consider the existence of a variety of things we neither have nor can observe, including multiple dimensions and multiple universes.

I was not using this to make any claim about the existence of the supernatural. This is only to show that scientific evidence supports the idea that there may be things which exist that we cannot adequately observe due to limitations in our ability to observe the world and the peculiarities of the universe. Our having never observed something, therefore, provides no evidence for its nonexistence. We also cannot claim that all that we have experienced/observed are, in fact, the sum total of reality. We know that nature exists, but not that it is all that exists or can exist.

In this context, the supernatural's existence cannot be refuted solely by our inability to observe it. Maybe a supreme being's properties or our own are simply preventing direct observation. It's a logical possibility. It is simply not one for science to consider. In the end, however, it is almost certain that there are things that exist that are beyond any of our philosophies.

Again, I'm not saying that this proves existence of the supernatural or that someone has to believe one way or another, only that both existence and nonexistence remain logical possibilities. I would hope that knowledge of our limitations would provide us with the humility to admit that we could be wrong. A failure to acknowledge these limitations (arrogance perhaps), evident in metaphysical naturalism, leads us to overestimate our own strengths and underestimate the other sides weaknesses. This certainty that we are right and the other side wrong in an area where no definitive knowledge is possible can lead to extremism.

17 Comments:

Anonymous Kenn said...

Hello again Melinda,

Wow, it feels like ages since this whole hullabaloo started.

Judging from your new comments, I still think you misunderstand atheism. But that’s beside the point. I realize you’re not done with your deconstruction, but as of yet you still haven’t clearly explained how atheists threaten a liberal society.

In your earlier post, you named Sam Harris, Steven Weinberg, and Richard Dawkins. The only one I was at all familiar with before today is Dawkins, and I only know him by name. I’m not familiar with his ideas. Perhaps you could offer some specific citations from these men that demonstrate the danger they pose to a liberal society.

You did cite Harris: “Only the atheist has the courage to admit the obvious: these poor people spent their lives in the company of an imaginary friend.” I can see how you might disagree with that, but I don’t see how it’s dangerous. It’s an opinion that might be disagreeable and insulting to believers, but how is it a threat? I read his blog post that you linked, and I don’t see the threat there either. He’s not advocating violence, not advocating racism, not advocating unregulated capitalism, not advocating the criminalization of abortion.

Considering that Harris blogs on the HuffingtonPost, I think it’s safe to say he is a liberal. Are Weinberg and Dawkins liberal as well? Why exactly should they be “cleaned out” of the left’s attic?

7:06 PM  
Blogger Righteous Bubba said...

For a more American source, I give you Sam Harris: Only the atheist has the courage to admit the obvious: these poor people spent their lives in the company of an imaginary friend. Claiming the biblical deity as an imaginary friend would imply special knowledge of the "obvious" nonexistence of that deity... something which is currently impossible. I urge you to read the entire document to see what I mean.

But it's also impossible to refute the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

While what Harris is saying is strictly impossible to demonstrate, it's also impossible for you to demonstrate its opposite. If you want to shut Sam Harris up for good, demonstrate the existence of God. That'll learn him. You won't because you can't, nobody can, and if someone could, what are the odds it'd be your God that got proven?

Following further down the "you can't prove it doesn't exist" argument, this one of the the bases for every loony conspiracy theory known to man. Consider the blood libel: can you prove that Jews didn't sacrifice kids to make Purim snacks with their blood? It's worth noting that one of Donald Rumsfeld's most notable quotes in defense of the invasion of Iraq on the basis of WMD's said "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence": a religious argument.

As Kenn says, what Sam Harris writes is by no means a threat. I received my copy of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason from my father-in-law, a sweet man whose AA experience led him down the road to a higher (and fortunately vague) power. The book itself contains much material about violence inspired by beliefs and how wonderful it would be if that ended. If that's an extremist atheist, I'm down with the program.

11:23 PM  
Blogger John Wilkins said...

As a classical agnostic, I'm pleased to see somebody who doesn't insist I am really an atheist at last. An agnostic is someone who says of the assert there is (or is not) a god, that it is neither true nor false. One way something can be neither true nor false (excluding supervaluational and multiple value logics) is that the proposition is meaningless or nonsense. In short, the question "Is there a god?" only looks like a question - it admits of no answer, and is little more than a question in form only.

An added qualification to agnosticism is wheter or not we think the question-in-form-only even matters. If we don't, and why should we?, then we are apathetic agnostics (from the Greek, "don't know, don't care")...

2:36 AM  
Anonymous The Big Kahunah said...

So, if it doesn't matter if there is no god or not, why are so many aethiests reluctant to accept that the opposing point of view also has it's merits?

I for one, totally get Melinda's point that any idea, taken to the extreme of the exclusion of others, (or of meaningful dialouge on the subject) is a danger to a society that considers itself liberal.

3:38 PM  
Blogger Dreamwalker said...

While I agree with the Big Kahunah, it is not usually atheists or agnostics who can't accept another point of view in my experience. (I know there are exceptions.)

I have no need to convert anyone to my way of thinking, and do not consider them to be evil or damned, and in need of saving from some form of eternal damnation, etc. if they do not agree with my views. A lot of followers of various religions do want to 'save' people, or they regard us as automatically evil since they cannot concieve of goodness without any belief in god/gods.

I also do not accept the notion that some form of faith in a religion or higher being automatically elevates a person as someone worthy of special regard.

7:39 PM  
Blogger Dreamwalker said...

I meant to add that I do accept that the opposing point of view also has it's merits.

Your point "..that any idea, taken to the extreme of the exclusion of others, (or of meaningful dialogue on the subject) is a danger to a society that considers itself liberal."

I think religious people do this far more than any atheists. Melinda named 3 people that she considers extreme. I can name sooo many more religious people that are extreme...one eg. is Dani. If you read the comments you will see that she is incapable of genuine reason so that the so called 'debates' that rage on her blog are a pointless waste of time. It is fascinating reading though - in very small doses. Read a little on her pastor Bob Enyart and tell me that atheists are in the same league...and Dawkins, etc definately don't even come close in my opinion.

A sample of the pastors beliefs...
"On his show, Enyart combines confrontation, evangelism and humor to discuss current events, morality, government and criminal justice from a biblical perspective. He advocates for a Constitutional Monarchy under the leadership of a King, and would exclude a Queen from becoming a regnant. In an article published in the Denver weekly newspaper Westword, Enyart says that "it's natural that men lead the household" and that households that are led by women turn out to be an "unhappy household." He also calls for the establishment of a criminal code under the Old Testament (or the Mosaic Law as Enyart likes to emphasize) as national law which includes the death penalty for offenses such as homosexuality, murder, attempted murder, adultery and abortion. This kind of government would be describe as a theonomy.

Homosexuality was frequently singled out for criticism by Enyart, who sold T-shirts imprinted with the slogan "Homos Make Me Sick", and once played the song by the rock band Queen "Another One Bites the Dust" as the names of AIDS victims scrolled by on the screen."

In fairness I present MQM is also a reborn fundamentalist Christian, and is the complete opposite and a delight to read.

8:24 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Righteous Bubba,

I think you're missing my point. But let me address yours, Sam Harris writes that "religion" so loosely defined as to encompass anything he deems irrational (the height of intellectual dishonesty) is a threat to reason/humanity and insists that religious moderates who accept religion while condemning extremism and tolerance of religious belief are also an unacceptable threat. Consider that one of the founding doctrines of liberal society is the acceptance of diversity of belief and the protection of the human rights of freedom of religion and conscience. To insist on eradicating those founding doctrines as a threat to humanity is to strike at the very heart of liberal society. Why is this a threat? Imagine the mentally unstable person who takes Harris seriously and decides to take action by attacking religious institutions or (either here or elsewhere)moves to deprive human beings of these rights.

As for shutting Harris up, I would defend to my death his right to speak. But I will not surrender my own right to call his extremist views what they are.

As for nice people who read his work, I'll tell you I've met many nice people misled by religious extremists. Recently, millions of these nice people voted in 38 states to deprive me of the right to marry. That doesn't make them evil, only misguided. I'll save my condemnation for the religious extremists who manipulated the mass of well-meaning people who just don't get it.

As for the FSM, you're free to believe it actually exists or that it doesn't. When you are so certain of its existence that you attack those who disagree (verbally or physically), you are an extremist.

As for blood libel, easily disproven. First, if Matzo contained blood it would be of a very different color and texture than it actually is. Second, you can simply test the matzo for blood. It contains none. Third, it would take a lot of Christian children to provide enough blood for 8 days worth of Passover matzo for the entire Jewish population of the world. I think the absence of mass disappearances of millions of Christian children coinciding with Passover over many centuries(which would have to happen for the rumor to be true) disproves the claim.

There is a huge difference between our ability to falsify material claims and our ability to falsify immaterial claims, especially since we have no idea what kind of evidence to even look for.

10:34 AM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Kenn,

Remember: many Christian religious extremists in America do NOT directly advocate violence or hatred of gay people, but their constant public bashing of gay people as abominations, child molesters, threats to family values, etc. inspires the mentally disturbed people who kill hundreds of gay people in this county every year and rape/assault/harass/ discriminate against thousands more. They also have inspired recent voter iniatives that have altered 38 state constitutions to legally deny gay people equal rights.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Dreamwalker,

Yeah, there are a lot more Christian extremists than atheist extremists. Of course, Christians (in America at least) outnumber atheists by 20 to 1. We don't really know if the extremists make up the same percentage of each group.

I'm glad to know that you're not someone who would condemn people who believe differently. But many do, both atheists and theists. I invite you to try participating in a discussion on evolution (which I did recently on Huffingtonpost from the pro-evolution side) and enjoy the deluge of people condemning religious people as unevolved, knuckle-dragging, redneck idiots. Until I joined the conversation, not one person other than myself, after 5 pages of comments, acknowledged that it wasn't an atheism vs. religion debate. Few if any ( I can't recall any offhand) even raised the specter that America's extremely poor educational system may explain some of the disparity between how many people believe in evolution here vs. other developed countries. It was all religion bashing, all the time.

Personally, I'd rather be told I'm going to hell (which I don't believe in anyway) than to be called some of the unbelievably vile names thrown about in that discussion.

10:48 AM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

John Wilkins, I'm glad that my take on agnosticism doesn't offend someone. You should see how many atheists insist during this whole thing that agnostics are atheists.

Kahunah,
Thanks as always.

10:51 AM  
Blogger Dreamwalker said...

What is the article called? I have been hunting around and couldn't find it.

7:09 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Dreamwalker,

Search for their evolution page. It's a brief on the fact that America falls behind other developed countries in public support of evolution.

9:09 AM  
Blogger Righteous Bubba said...

But let me address yours, Sam Harris writes that "religion" so loosely defined as to encompass anything he deems irrational (the height of intellectual dishonesty)

I'm not sure whether I agree with this height or not because I don't understand it. What makes this more intellectually dishonest? Which definition written by Sam Harris are you referring to?

... is a threat to reason/humanity and insists that religious moderates who accept religion while condemning extremism and tolerance of religious belief are also an unacceptable threat.

"Unacceptable threat" in Republican parlance is invasion material. What Sam Harris is writing about is freedom to rationally criticize, and the importance of that criticism in a world in which religious conflict is defining military campaigns.

Consider that one of the founding doctrines of liberal society is the acceptance of diversity of belief and the protection of the human rights of freedom of religion and conscience.

In which country did this utopia arise? In any case, a more important doctrine of liberal society is free inquiry, freedom to criticize religion. I just don't see that you're demonstrating that Sam Harris is outside the tradition that unshackled itself from the church and led to cultural and scientific breakthroughs that bettered the world. It just seems like you're cranky because you don't have a belief that you can prove.

5:43 PM  
Blogger Righteous Bubba said...

To insist on eradicating those founding doctrines as a threat to humanity is to strike at the very heart of liberal society.

Criticism of religion IS the heart of liberal society.

Why is this a threat? Imagine the mentally unstable person who takes Harris seriously and decides to take action by attacking religious institutions or (either here or elsewhere)moves to deprive human beings of these rights.

I'm pleased that you're imagining what a mentally unstable person might make of atheism, because we all know what the mentally stable have made of religion.

If you're arguing that crazies will find a reason for something, sure, okay. They're crazy. Is it better to convince them of everlasting hellfire, wives as slaves, or holy martyrdom?

5:53 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Harris defines as religion a wide variety of non-religious ideologies, including secular cults of personality. That is intellectually dishonest. Harris himself refers to these things as an "unacceptable threat". As for rational inquiry, Harris narrows the definition of that until it includes only that which he finds acceptable, an atheistic interpretation of the world. He also pretends that religious feeling is dangerous to rational inquiry, despite the evidence of human history to the contrary. Yes, some religious institutions have interfered with progress, but others have not only embraced it, but furthered it. In fact, science itself was once part and parcel of the religious world's attempt to understand G-d by examining creation. Although it is definitely a work in progress, freedom of religion/speech/conscience are enshrined in the first amendment to the US constitution. Free inquiry/freedom to criticize religion are inextricably linked to these doctrines.
As for the mentally unstable, my point is not to claim that atheist extremism is more dangerous, but to point out the parallels between the two. The majority of religious people, no matter how extreme their beliefs, will never act violently based on them. However, the ideological framework provided by all types of extremism guide those who do take extreme action.

9:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"First, let me say, that no one single claim creates an extremist view, but all of these taken together compose the bedrock, in my opinion, of atheist extremism."

In that case, you can't claim that "atheist extremism" exists unless you can point to people who advocate all of those claims.

If we are generous and describe "atheist extremism" as a continuum, with some worse than others, then you should be able to point to atheists advocating at least 3 or 4 of the claims before you can say that you are addressing an actual issue.

You don't do that, though. You point to one person making one claim and another person making another claim. Since you admit that making a single claim doesn't cause a person to be an extremist, then you admit that you aren't quoting extremists.

Moreover, I'd say that it's awfully generous to allow you to simply point to individuals who make all five claims in order to conclude that you have a valid argument. At the very least, the individuals in question would have to be quite influential; preferably, though, there would have to be organizations with memberships, budgets, etc. making all five claims in order to conclude that there is a genuine "atheist extremism" that merits concern.

This doesn't mean that I don't think that there aren't any atheist extremists out there. Even if you can't point to anyone in particular making all 5 claims, I'm sure there must be a few. Pick any extremist position and I'm sure there are a few adherents out there. The question is, why single out this extremist position here over that extremist position over there?

If there are influential atheists and atheist organizations making the 5 claims, then you can legitimately say that you are concerned about reasonable atheists being undermined in their basic liberalism. If not, then... what? Did you flip a coin? Throw a dart at a collection of note card with a different extremist position on each?

Or did you single out irrelevant atheist extremists over all the other irrelevant extremists because you personally have a problem with atheism and atheists?

5:25 PM  
Blogger Melinda Barton said...

Anonymous,

As I've mentioned before, this was intended to be part of series and will be. How did I choose which to cover? I chose forms of extremism that I believed were diametrically opposed to known forms of right-wing extremism. I feel that by exploring how extremism forms close to home (the left), I might be able to deepen my theories on how extremism works in general. I also believe that the current dynamics of our society, with tremendous pressure/rapid social change threatening many of the things we liberals value, extremism may become a bigger problem for the left. Leftist forms of extremism are, in my opinion, in their infancy here in America. However, if my theories about how extremism spread is correct, that may not be so for much longer.
This series will I hope provide a learning experience to help me work through some of the ideas that will go into a book I'm writing. I don't know if atheist extremism per se will be included in the book, but I'm hoping that what I learn can be applied to extremism in general.
This may seem a strange analogy, but think of scientists who examine the precursors to galaxies to get some clue as to how galaxies come into being. By examining minor and relatively uninfluential types of extremism, I'm hoping to learn something about the large scale extremist movements.
Currently my theory revolves around the idea that, in addition to the ideology itself and the very nature of humanity, a variety of internal and external factors (separate from the ideology) influence the emergence of strong, organized extremist movements.
And finally, I could probably track down versions of most if not all of the major claims in the works of Dawkins, Weinberg, and Harris (as well as a few not mentioned here). Often, unfortunately, these claims are not explicitly made by implied as other arguments rest upon the assumption that they are true.

My intent was to try to find the dividing line, which is by its nature rather fuzzy, between reason and extremism. It's not an easy distinction to draw and I may be incorrect about precisely where it is located. But I think one of the bases for extremism lies in some combination of narcissism and distortion of the other.

And finally, I have no problem with atheism/atheists. I count a few atheists amongst my closest friends, (yes, I realize how that sounds)and generally, we've agreed to disagree. Our ability to get along so well rests, I think, on all of us having the humility to acknowledge that we can not be absolutely certain of the truth of our worldviews and don't need to be.

11:44 AM  

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