Atheism as a Proxy Variable

I have a fun surprise coming down the pipeline as part of my series on G.K. Chesterton, but, in the meantime, I wanted to spend a little more time on what it means to be an atheist.

March Hare wrote in response to my praise for P.Z. Myers:

I think that Myers (and Leah’s) broad point is entirely correct, but on the specifics PZ is way off the mark.

Atheists can be rebellious against society, against their parents, against their specific religion, they can be scientifically literate, they can have examined the evidence in great detail or they can just not have thought about it. All these are real reasons for being an atheist but only two of them would pass muster according to Myers.

That is not to say when someone is making their point about why they are an atheist and making points for their philosophy and against religion that anyone else should come along and point out the dictionary definition of atheist.

However, when someone tries to paint me with PZ’s philosophy it is entirely fair to point out that the only thing we have in common is that we don’t believe in god and that fact, in and of itself, does not entail a commonality of morality.

I’m with Myers on this one. It’s possible (and sometimes necessary) to say “So and so is believes X but does not have a valid grounding for that belief” or “So and so calls himself an atheist but his position makes no sense” even without saddling atheism with any moral systems. I can say this as long as I have an epistemology that I think is universally accessible and ought to be universally adopted.

Neither I, nor Myers, nor March Hare is likely to believe “how much a claim will tick off our parents” is a reasonable proxy variable for truth. So why shouldn’t we be comfortable saying that someone who comes to atheism out of a sense of youthful rebellion is wrong even if his conclusion happens to be true?

I don’t promote atheism because I think believing that God does not exist is a good unto itself. I think that, if we want to act morally, we have an obligation to align our beliefs about the physical and metaphysical world with truth as closely as possible. Lazy epistemology anywhere will get in the way of that goal and correcting bad reasoning wherever we find it will help us along.

In the U.S., atheism often is a decent proxy variable for not falling into some common epistemological follies.  Because atheists have been on the front lines of the evolution wars, plenty of us have gotten a crash course in scientific empirics and  the uses and abuses of statistical inferences.  As a result, I am less suspicious of the epistemology of a self-described atheist than of a self-described evangelical.  But, when I find logical gaps in either’s epistemology, I’m going to pick a (respectful and constructive) fight.

After all, they vote.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    "front lines of the evolution wars"I think the 'evolution wars' basically boil down to God of the Gaps and Scientism of the Gaps. The intelligent design guys say, "Scientists can't give an account of how a flagellum evolved. It is irreducibly complex." The evolutionists say, "We don't yet have a good account of how the bacterial flagellum could have evolved. But we have seen evolution in other cases, we have evidence of evolution from embryology and genetic similarity of different species. The most reasonable thing to say is that it evolved, because after all what else could have happened?"I think the answer to how we got the bacterial flagellum is probably "we don't know," not "it evolved" or "God designed it." But then again, I know more or less nothing about biology.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00769117142960558423 Northlander

    "Neither I, nor Myers, nor March Hare is likely to believe “how much a claim will tick off our parents” is a reasonable proxy variable for truth. So why shouldn’t we be comfortable saying that someone who comes to atheism out of a sense of youthful rebellion is wrong even if his conclusion happens to be true?"This example seems to assume doxastic voluntarism — that because I am rebelling against my parents, I can CHOOSE to believe that God does not exist. I question the assumption and therefore question the example.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    @P. Coyle: I assume those people are probably semi-agnostic to start but choose their affiliation based on desire to rebel. The point is that they affiliate with atheism and reject theism based on a criteria that has nothing to do with the facts of the matter. In the same way, someone dating a Christian and wanting to minimize conflict could be baptized and make a profession of faith and still be entirely agnostic. I can’t know the true beliefs and depth of commitment of either of these people, so I have to go with their given labels.@Lukas: I don’t think it’s fair to imply evolution is a ‘Scientism of the Gaps.” You’re overstating the extent of confusion about flagella, etc. It is true that no single fossil could act as a disproof of evolution, no matter how complex it is, but it is the case that, in many cases, the single weird organism or organelle has been followed by discovery of interval creatures/systems, just as the Theory of Evolution would predict. Evolution tracks well with reality, that’s why it’s useful. Its conjectures match well with historical DNA records, its predictions help to prepare for flu epidemics. Don’t mistake uncertainty about the mechanisms of evolutions (our models were worse before we discovered transposons) for uncertainty about its constraints.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00769117142960558423 Northlander

    I understand what "affiliation with atheists" means, "affiliation with atheism," not so much.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    @P. Coyle: Plenty of people (possibly me included) don't feel like they completely fit the intellectual tradition/moral framework they identify with. At that point its a matter of reforming the tradition or reshaping yourself. People who affiliate with Atheism may want to be 'better' atheists and try to stop feeling a yearning for God/presence of God.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/04746612189094458441 Lukas

    @Leah – Maybe so. I do not think evolution in general is Scientism of the Gaps… as far as I can tell, it is more a debate about what we say about the things we do not yet understand. It seems that both sides want to make unwarrented arguments on the bases of the as-yet-unexplained. I think the ID folks have a tough case to make when they try to argue that evolution could not, in principle, produce a given organism or system. I could be wrong – I recently listened to a very inconclusive debate about ID.Not too sure what you mean when you write, "Don’t mistake uncertainty about the mechanisms of evolutions (our models were worse before we discovered transposons) for uncertainty about its constraints"Interesting about 'weird' (I think you mean thought to be irreducibly complex) things having intermediate structures. That seems to be a good point against the ID perspective.But anyway, I don't think this argument is too helpful, since you can be a theist without believing in ID, and since the entire argument seems pretty inconclusive at least as I understand it so far.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00769117142960558423 Northlander

    "People who affiliate with Atheism may want to be 'better' atheists and try to stop feeling a yearning for God/presence of God."Are you trying to say that some atheists "affiliate" with atheism, while others don't? If so, what does that mean?How does this fit into the "youthful rebellion" example? The closest I can come to an understanding of that is the notion of the eighteen-year-old who, believing that his parents are idiots, concludes that they are very probably wrong about the whole "existence of God" thing, just as they are wrong about so much else.I would concede that "God does not exist because my parents believe he does, and my parents are idiots!" would not be a good argument. On the other hand, "My parents are idiots, and I wonder whether their religion is as idiotic as they are!" could be the first step on the road to wisdom.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13116034158087704885 March Hare

    "So why shouldn’t we be comfortable saying that someone who comes to atheism out of a sense of youthful rebellion is wrong even if his conclusion happens to be true?"Because they're not. When a Christian decides 'there is no such thing as witchcraft because only Jesus is magic' their reasoning is ridiculously flawed but their conclusion is correct.We can't say people are wrong because their methodology is flawed, all we can do is point out that they are unlikely to be correct often due to their methodology and distrust any statements they come out with accordingly."I think that, if we want to act morally, we have an obligation to align our beliefs about the physical and metaphysical world with truth as closely as possible.Which begs the question of where you get your morality from. Without veering too far off topic, it is more about goals than morality – although there will always be people who want to add force to their goals by trying to add the weight of morality to it in order to convince people that it is the right, the only, thing to do. Once you have your goals then accurately mapping reality to your brain (using science) is without a doubt the best way to achieve those goals.

  • Paul S

    @ Lukas – Trying to compare intelligent design with science is like comparing apples and oranges. You seem to be treating them like they are equal but merely different viewpoints about life. Irreducible complexity has been shown to be a flawed argument and is not science. It's a belief. And that's fine if that's what you believe. Just don't make the mistake of implying irreducible complexity has anything to do with science. A bit of research will show you that (see Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District).


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