28/05/12
by

The Virtue of Doubt

When God Is Not Great  is not great.

Las year a new group appear on my Facebook news-feed. It was a “Religious Discussion Group”, which was really nothing of the sort.

Created by a group of militant atheists, it was designed to attack their (and my) hristian friends. Unfortunately, they wielded their debating skills with all the subtlety of a maimed bear, and only served to highlight their own ignorance.

But for me, this was the last straw in my gradually souring relationship with atheism. While we are all well-versed in the idea of intolerant religious people we seem to have forgotten the toxicity that can spread from an avid, misinformed, follower of atheist idols Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins.

While it is not true that all atheists are the equivalents of bible-bashers, foisting great works of anti-religious writing on any person who is even vaguely querulous about unbelief, we have to realise that some of them are, and that this is damaging to our community. Just as there are religious extremists, there are extreme unbelievers. It’s sad, but some people are just so narrowly self-righteous that they will use any opportunity to preach from on high, lacking even the most basic awareness of other opinions. Many of them will likely become politicians. But while we denounce these people when the viewpoint is religious, we seem to do nothing when they’re promoting atheism. Why is this?

Perhaps it’s the way that atheism is presented. It implies that we live in a completely secular society, that disbelief is the base setting for most people, and that anyone following religion is a deviation from the norm. And because atheism is closely tied with scientific advancement and experimentation, it promotes itself as the rational, scientific view of the universe.

Any religious person is immediately un- intellectual and ill-informed. Faith is the last refuge of the idiot, they say.

Which is my main problem with atheism; its inherent hypocrisy. Because, for all the espousing about lack of faith, atheism is a faith-based position. It’s a position which bases itself on the belief that there is no God and the faith that a secular society will somehow be kinder, better and more efficient than the one we have now. Which is funny, when you think about it, because I see nothing kind about homogenising society by systematically attempting to remove the thing that gives someone’s life meaning.

Faith is an act of looking into the infinity of the universe and devising from it some sort of pattern. Whether this is held in the workings of sub-atomic particles, an interventionist deity, or a combination of both, is irrelevant. It is an act of staying the realisation that we are small and insignificant and, quite frankly, stupid. Religious believers think that if they can search hard enough amongst God’s texts then they will find meaning. Atheist believers think that if they can search hard enough amongst the annals of science then they will find meaning.

Both these acts are ways of attempting to remove doubt from the world. But doubt is precisely what we should be preaching at this time. Doubt is what keeps us from yelling at passers-by on Lambton Quay or, as someone I once knew insisted on doing, attempting to, daily, “rationalise” believers in a Christian school. It encourages us to accept that faith is all very well and good but there are many opinions in the world, and yours might not be the correct one. Statistically speaking, it probably isn’t.

But more than that, doubt saves us from being rude. I’m talking real, invasive rudeness, of the kind that is commonly called offence, as if the onus is on the offence-taker and not offence-giver to monitor language. Rudeness like I saw my friends encountering online. Far from being a petty thing, not accepting this is a marker that we live in a civilised society, where we tolerate differences of opinion and where we’re sufficiently grown-up to not throw tantrums at the fact that diversity of belief exists. If there is a God then, I am told, He wouldn’t want this intolerance. And if there isn’t, we’re going to die soon and for ever anyway, so why in His meaningless name are you wasting your time yelling about it?

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  1. Wilbur says:

    Wot.

    Obviously your article is a bitter tirade against atheism, but surely you could have come up with something better than “atheism is a faith-based position”. Just, like, no — a faith is a belief not predicated on evidence, but there is plenty of evidence for atheism: the millenia of inexplicable evil, the completeness of scientific knowledge. Or your weird “anyone following religion is a deviation from the norm” thing. That doesn’t correspond with reality — atheist thought is predicated on individual rationalism and free-thought.

    Also, “Many of them will likely become politicians.” This quote seems to some up the article’s combination of ad-hominem attacks, irrelevance, straw-men arguments and self-gratuitous bitterness.

  2. Matthew says:

    ‎”I know that some atheists are not close-minded, Christian haters, but we shouldn’t be atheists because all atheists are close-minded Christian haters. Also, I’ll conflate atheism with antitheism and throw the term ‘faith’ around as if it had no meaning.”

  3. Syd Drew Card says:

    Wilbur, you are correct in that faith is a belief not predicated on evidence. But then you say, “there is plenty of evidence for atheism”. No, there is no evidence for atheism, there is only a lack of evidence for the existence of a God. So, while it is a more rational position to hold that there is no god, it is still a faith based position.

  4. Wilbur says:

    Syd.
    There is plenty of evidence for atheism. What I mean when I say that is that there’s plenty of evidence for atheism, is that there is plenty of evidence for predicates, which in turn imply atheism. So, for example, there is plenty of evidence of unnecessary evil in the world. Unnecessary evil in the world means that the Christian God cannot exist. So there is evidence that the Christian God cannot exist. I think that, in the context of an Anglo-centric culture, that that is sufficient to say that there is evidence for atheism.

  5. Harriet says:

    Wilbur.
    That comment is unfortunately ignorant, and completely the untrue of what the Christian faith proclaims.
    “there is plenty of evidence of unnecessary evil in the world. Unnecessary evil in the world means that the Christian God cannot exist. So there is evidence that the Christian God cannot exist

    The very fact that evil does exist shows me that we have a moral compass or varying levels of “good” and “evil”. To even use the term “evil” in your comment, you are accepting that there is an objective “good” in opposition to that evil. Where does that good come from? I would argue that the only way we know good is that we are created in the image of a GOOD God. But when we sinned, we allowed evil to enter the world and we separated ourselves from the amazingly good God. So, evil is not incoherent with the Christian faith, it actually supports the fact that we know there is such a thing as objectively good (God), but we see everything in the world falling short (evil)! Evil does not disprove God, I rather think it proves Him!

    • Dr Dre says:

      Just because there are some things we can classify as good and others as bad does not prove there is a god. You can believe whatever you like but don’t try to pass of an illogical argument as logical. Accept that you believe without proof besides what you feel. That should be enough for you.

    • Matthew says:

      Dr Dre is correct Harriet. Nothing in Wilbur’s statement implied that he believed good to be objective. You can believe that morality is subjective, constructed, merely an expression of emotion, or some other mind-independence, without having to say that it is objective. Wilbur could also believe that morality is reducible to natural states in the world (pain and pleasure, personhood etc) or that morality is in fact objective in your sense, but that doesn’t imply that God exists. Under these various meta-ethical positions, we do not need God for morality, so recognition of evil can still occur and that is problematic for anyone who believes God is good.

      Furthermore, even if the idea of goodness and badness are dependent on God, surely she could have made the world with just good in it? A world without evil coheres nicely with the idea of an omnibenevolent God, a world with evil does not.

      Also, you seem to think that goodness and God go together without any problems, so I’ll pose the Euthyphro Dilemma here. Is something good because God tells us to do it, or does God tell us to do it because it is good. They appear similar but have very different answers.

  6. Alpha says:

    Seriously good article. I agree that atheism is a faith-based position — one cannot prove or disprove the notion of god. Human cognition is limited, and we should accept that. Fundamentalists and atheists are, in my mind, two sides of the same coin. Accept that no one has the answers, and tolerate eachother as human beings.

    To the extent that the author conflated atheism and anti-theism — this is brought on by atheists themselves. Most of my atheist friends discuss how negative religion is; how Christian parents raising their children as Christians are ‘harming’ them (and not, you know, doing what they think is best for them); etc. Just as the few fundamentalists I know talk about how sorry ‘godless’ people must be.

    Atheists talk about religion too much. Agnosticism is hip, take a chill pill.

  7. No. says:

    Come off it. Atheism is the absence of belief in a theist God. Not believing in something does not require any faith. Not believing in something doesn’t mean actively disbelieving or the assertion of its impossibility. It includes either not knowing or thinking something is very implausible.

    I am an atheist – but I am not anti-religion. Please don’t tell me how I act.

  8. Josh says:

    Wooooweee. Yet another religious sympathizer who perfects the art of not knowing what she’s talking about.

    “While it is not true that all atheists are the equivalents of bible-bashers, foisting great works of anti-religious writing on any person who is even vaguely querulous about unbelief, we have to realise that some of them are, and that this is damaging to our community.”

    -Please explain how the only ones who are brave enough to stand up to plain-in-your-face b*******, are damaging. Do you not like having your comfortable beliefs probed? Would you complain if this were politics? I think not. You don’t take that probing personally. And the same should be done here. Belief in god(s), ghosts, UFOs, Noah’s Ark, creationism, and any other quasi-supernatural rubbish should be ACTIVELY probed, questioned, and hotly debated. Especially when there is NO scientific evidence for any of them! This is the kind of stuff that should have died off years ago. Unfortunately, believing emotionally, instead of thinking critically, is still the path most people take. This is partly due to the fact critical thinking isn’t taught in schools, yet religious activities are. Critical thinking is something we really need to work on as a society.

    “But while we denounce these people when the viewpoint is religious, we seem to do nothing when they’re promoting atheism. Why is this?”

    -REALLY? Have you heard of what people think of atheists in the US? Here is an example: http://digitaljournal.com/article/315425
    As for New Zealand, you don’t get much coverage of atheism here, so I think most people don’t know about what it is or just don’t care. If it’s not being denounced, it’s probably because of that reason. Or because people can see it actually makes sense.

    “Perhaps it’s the way that atheism is presented. It implies that we live in a completely secular society, that disbelief is the base setting for most people, and that anyone following religion is a deviation from the norm. And because atheism is closely tied with scientific advancement and experimentation, it promotes itself as the rational, scientific view of the universe.”

    -All atheism is, (If you had actually looked this up) is the lack of belief in a god or god(s). That’s all it is. That’s all it means. It has no doctrine, and it isn’t even technically a position. You don’t call yourself a Non-Santa believer now do you? Right. The term ‘atheist” or “atheism” was coined as a reaction to the large amount of believers. Now falling under the term atheism, are two categories: http://religiouscartoons.net/albums/userpics/grid.png
    (You can see them on the left)

    Those two positions are: The Weak Atheist – lacks a belief in god or gods, and acknowledges that it is presumptuous to say for sure that there is no god, although in the absence of any evidence, contends it is unlikely and not worthy of consideration. Also known as the “Agnostic” or the “Agnostic-Atheist”. 99% of most atheists are the “weak” variety, even though most theists’ idea of atheism is something different.
    And the Strong Atheist – believes that there is no God; some argue this position, which is uncommon among atheists, as it is as equally presumptuous as claiming there is a god (It is accepted that it’s virtually impossible to prove a negative, that something does not exist)

    “[Atheism] implies that we live in a completely secular society.”
    No it doesn’t. Atheism has no doctrine. Atheism does not imply that disbelief is the base setting for most people. It has NO doctrine. Though atheism is the end result of scepticism, which is tied closely to science, atheism itself has no say on the matter. Again, all an atheist is, and all atheists are, are people who doesn’t believe in a god. That’s it. Some vary on whether they can know or cannot know for sure that a god can or cannot exist, but that is ALL.

    “Any religious person is immediately un- intellectual and ill-informed. Faith is the last refuge of the idiot, they say.”

    -Statistically, if you’re an atheist, you’re more likely to be intelligent. (http://hazweb.proboards.com/index.cgi?board=religion&action=display&thread=35468) But putting aside that, I think you will find most atheists just feel that religious people are massively misinformed, and/or just plain indoctrinated (without any critical comparison against their closely held beliefs) from a young age. This is often true, as you tend to be religious if your parents are. But I think you will find there are some highly intelligent religious believers, Francis Collins, who was head of the Human Genome Project, is a good example.
    The majority of our friends and families are religious, and you’d be hard pressed to find a single atheist who thinks that all believers are automatically un-intellectual. This is a far-fetched claim and a strawman argument.

    “Which is my main problem with atheism; its inherent hypocrisy. Because, for all the espousing about lack of faith, atheism is a faith-based position.”

    -*facepalm*… I can see you’re getting the meanings of faith confused. There are two definitions:
    1. complete trust or confidence in someone or something. (I have faith my computer will turn on)
    or
    2. Strong belief in God or in the doctrines of a religion, based on spiritual apprehension rather than proof. (Religious Faith)

    Atheism is the lack of belief in a deity.
    Theists often assume atheism to be a “belief”. And therefore they claim that atheism is a belief system that also requires “faith” (to believe there is no god). This is an erroneous characterization. A “lack of belief” is not a “world view”; it presupposes no rules, doctrine or dogma. It’s merely a lack of belief in a god. Do you believe in the non-existence of Santa Claus? Would you call yourself an anti-tooth-fairyian? Is ones’ identity or world-view tied to what they don’t believe in? No. This can only be applied to a strong atheist, as they are proposing that there “is no god”, which can’t be proved. (so far) But the majority are not strong atheists.
    Atheists often tend to be atheists because they trust science and evidence. They trust logic and rationality. They are often sceptics. You could call this trust “Faith” if you like, but it would NOT be the religious “faith”. Religious faith is the belief in a god or god(s) WITHOUT evidence. It is the answer people often give when they are probed or questioned about their beliefs. They hold it up the saying “you just gotta have faith” like a shield of gold, not realizing how bad their perfect “logic” is. If a man told you to jump off a cliff, saying you would live, would you believe him? Definitely not if he didn’t have any evidence. Probably not if he had some. But maybe you would if he proved completely that there was a safety mat at the bottom, and he would give you $50 bucks if you did. SOOO WHY, when it comes to the workings of the universe, and perhaps the meaning of life, do you fall for this utter crap? When there is nothing at all to back it up? These are some of life’s most important questions man! But when you fall for religion, you sell yourself so short. It’s a con-job. You could make as strong a case for god as you could with Santa Claus for Pete’s sake. Faith is NOT a virtue. It is the excuse people give when they feel emotionally threatened and intellectually lacking. (http://edmundstanding.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/atheism-is-not-a-belief-and-does-not-require-faith/)

    “Faith is an act of looking into the infinity of the universe and devising from it some sort of pattern. Whether this is held in the workings of sub-atomic particles, an interventionist deity, or a combination of both, is irrelevant. It is an act of staying the realisation that we are small and insignificant and, quite frankly, stupid.”

    - This is not faith. Please check definitions above.

    “Both these acts are ways of attempting to remove doubt from the world. But doubt is precisely what we should be preaching at this time. ”

    -One is attempting to find meaning from a 2000 year old Bronze Age book, and relate it to modern day life. Which often doesn’t work. This then results in cherry picking, which, ironically, goes against the text itself. But what the hell huh? Lack of logical thinking is so normal for Christianity. Oh, and did I mention that the Bible is a fairy tale? And none of it has been proven? In fact a lot of it had been disproven, Noah’s Ark, the global flood, Creation of the earth, Adam & Eve, and the story of Babel are all great examples. All religions are basically wishful thinking, emotionally based beliefs. With NO evidence involved. If you want learn about the world and the cosmos, using religion is the worst path you can choose. Science, logic, and rationality, however, have evolved to become the best tool humanity has for understanding the world around us. It relies on evidence, and it works. The reason your microwave works is because science has worked. The reason your car turns on is because science has worked. If I really need to explain this further, there is something wrong with you. You can look this up.

    “Someone I once knew insisted on doing, attempting to, daily, “rationalise” believers in a Christian school. It encourages us to accept that faith is all very well and good but there are many opinions in the world, and yours might not be the correct one. Statistically speaking, it probably isn’t.”

    -Good on her; might have been good to have listened. Must have been very brave to stand up to everyone. My hat goes out to her. Oh, and whoever has the most believers doesn’t mean they are correct. This is called “the argument from popularity” which is another logical fallacy.
    Just because a majority of people believe something does not make it true. There was a time when everyone believed the Earth was flat, or that the Earth was the centre of the universe and everything revolved around it. As our understanding of science and the universe expands, it illuminates the irrationality of many early beliefs. We no longer believe that lightning is caused by the god Zeus waving his sceptre. We understand that there are reasons for earthquakes and weather events that have nothing to do with anything supernatural, even though in past times, people were convinced God was at the control panel actively making these things occur, and the weather could be controlled by making sacrificial offerings of humans or other creatures. All sorts of things were commonly accepted as reasonable and acceptable, such as slavery, which we now recognize were unreasonable and unacceptable. If history has taught us anything, it’s that just because a large group of people believe something is moral or truthful, does not make it so.

    You seem to have this idea that atheists are fundamentalist in their views, that they are of the opinion that they could not POSSIBLY be wrong. Quite the contrary. Atheists will, to quote Tim Minchin, “spin on a f****** dime”; we will alter our viewpoints immediately. All we need is one thing: evidence. Atheists never claim to hold the absolute truth (unlike the majority of theists). All we have is a disbelief in gods, and we are waiting for the evidence. The burden of proof lies on those making extraordinary claims.

    “But more than that, doubt saves us from being rude. I’m talking real, invasive rudeness, of the kind that is commonly called offence, as if the onus is on the offence-taker and not offence-giver to monitor language. Rudeness like I saw my friends encountering online. Far from being a petty thing, not accepting this is a marker that we live in a civilised society, where we tolerate differences of opinion and where we’re sufficiently grown-up to not throw tantrums at the fact that diversity of belief exists.”

    -The only reason it seems you took offense was the fact you and your friends were not used to your beliefs being questioned. Unfortunately, other peoples’ opinions are something everyone must learn to deal with as they grow up. Writing a bitchy article about these people, at an event that happened almost a year ago, really shows I think, at how badly you seemed to have taken it. Next time, please try to bring some actual evidence for god, (which we are still patiently waiting on) instead of trying (miserably I might add) to attack atheism on various false premises, which you could have avoided if you had done some research first.

    “If there is a God then, I am told, He wouldn’t want this intolerance.”

    No, I don’t think he would. I also don’t think he would have wanted the Holocaust, the First World War, the Second World War, and the mindless killing that has gone on over the last few centuries. (But then again, considering the millions of people he killed in the Old Testament, maybe he’s totally ok with it.)
    Surely, the creator of the ENTIRE universe, the ALL KNOWING, ALL LOVING, ALL POWERFUL GOD, would have done something to stop the madness. But he didn’t. As Epicurus puts it, “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?”
    Besides, “I am told” – you are told by whom? A Bronze Age book? Christian friends? If this god didn’t want this intolerance, he can let me know himself, or at least let his followers know in a provable way. Funny how he stopped performing miracles after video cameras were invented.
    Oh, and you use the word “intolerance”. Homophobes are intolerant. Racists are intolerant. Misogynists are intolerant. ‘Militant’ atheists who do not believe in something without evidence and who actively question theists cannot come under the same label. Tolerance does not equal tolerating intolerance. The Bible is full of intolerance, but by not tolerating its intolerance, atheists are the intolerant ones?

    “And if there isn’t, we’re going to die soon and for ever anyway, so why in His meaningless name are you wasting your time yelling about it?”

    This is one of the most basic questions, and it really shows your lack of expertise on the matter if it is your closing rhetorical question. A simple internet search would answer this for you, but I’ll be kind and include some links to spare you the trouble:
    http://i.imgur.com/mpQA0.jpg/////
    http://www.atheismresource.com/2010/objecting-in-silence-never-changed-anything
    http://freethoughtblogs.com/greta/2009/02/16/shut-up-thats-why/
    http://www.atheismresource.com/2010/the-harms-of-religion
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUI_ML1qkQE
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=OqchiSG7JFA#!

  9. Chris Allen says:

    I feel as if I could write a long “tirade” here, but I’m sure it’s already been said and debated, so I’ll only say one thing. It was Facebook! Apart from keeping on contact with friends and family, etc., Facebook is largely used by people to bitch about things that annoy them. I try to keep it to a minimum myself, but I still do it…

    Kind regards,
    Chris Allen