[Turing] Atheist Answer #1

[Turing] Atheist Answer #1 July 4, 2011

This post is part of the Ideological Turing Test Challenge. Go to the tab above for an overview and remind yourself of the voting and commenting guidelines here.

What’s your best reason for being an atheist?

The best reason for being in atheist is that there is quite simply no reason not to be. I mean this in the most basic terms possible:

  1. There is no verifiable evidence for the existence of a supernatural force(s) and/or “creator” of the universe.
  2. It is unnecessary to posit such a being’s existence to satisfactorily account for the world as we know, understand, and interact with it.

Contemporary astrophysics, evolutionary biology, quantum mechanics, etc. all illuminate a world that is beautiful, ordered, and often awe-inspiring — but totally self-regulating. Furthermore, using reason and structured inquiry as tools to examine mysterious phenomena, whether lightning or the weak nuclear force, has always led to far better explanations than superstitious guesses or assumptions (there’s a reason we discarded the Zeus hypothesis, for example), so I prefer to stick with that method. The absence of any credible evidence for the existence of a god, coupled with the complete lack of a need for such evidence, leads me to conclude that my atheism is both reasonable and justified.

What evidence or experience (if any) would cause you to believe in God? If you believed in some kind of god, what kind of evidence would be necessary to convince you to join a particular religion?

This question is a little vague — what exactly is meant by “God”? The “creating” force of the universe? An unidentified supernatural force? The God of the Abrahamic religions? All of these are different concepts. If you mean the first concept, then I don’t think there is any possible demonstration, since we weren’t present at the Big Bang and thus can’t observe what happened, although we can extrapolate conclusions from available physical data (none of which supports the need for an external creating force, incidentally). As for the second, if there were a controlled, repeatable demonstration of some action that was not possible according to the known laws of physics — say, an object repeatedly moving across the room with no physical explanation, under exactly controlled conditions — then I might, depending on the context, be swayed toward belief in an extra-physical force of some kind. That would hardly be enough, however, to demonstrate the existence of a “personal” god in the Christian or more broadly Abrahamic sense. I’m not sure what would qualify as a demonstration of that particular god’s existence. Perhaps a situation similar to the one described above would suffice, except that the action observed (under controlled conditions and repeatable) would obtain in response to a controlled, observed prayer (“God, please move this chair from one end of the room to the other.”). Then again, that still wouldn’t definitively prove a god-who-answers-prayers; another explanation might be the existence of paranormal powers as possessed by the pray-er. I can conceive of hypothetical situations that might suggest, quite strongly, the existence of forces or powers above and beyond those of which we are currently aware, but none that would be specific to a “personal” god interested in answering prayers, guiding lives, etc. Even if I were to have a Paul-like experience of being “spoken to,” ostensibly by a divine power, I’d be more likely to get psychologically evaluated than see it as proof of god — even (actually, especially!) if it were repeated.

When you have ethical and moral disputes with other people, what do you appeal to? What metric do you use to examine your moral intuitions/cultural sensibilities/etc?

As a Kantian, I don’t find this question particularly difficult. The categorical imperative in both its formulations

  1. “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction”
  2. “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end and never merely as a means to an end”

works quite well as a yardstick of moral behavior, and is applicable to communities and individuals regardless of culture. It allows for societal change and adaptation, since what is socially acceptable/degrading evolves over time (e.g., Victorian standards of modesty vs. today’s) while still providing a framework for ethical decision-making in the present time and cultural location. It assumes no political or religious background (thus sidestepping the always-thorny issue of getting disparate groups or individuals to agree on premises) and – unlike utilitarian systems which require a complicated and often impossibly intangible weighing of benefits and drawbacks – make moral evaluation of actions fairly simple: all one has to do is ask whether the requirements of both formulations are met.

Why is religion so persistent? We have had political revolutions, artistic revolutions, an industrial revolution, and also religious reformations of several kinds, but religion endures. Does this not suggest its basic truth?

Rather than its basic truth, the endurance of religion suggests its basic usefulness and attractiveness. Religion (in most of its forms) performs two very powerful functions: It 1) dictates and enforces morality, along with (and by means of) 2) claiming an existence after death. Death is scary as hell — pun intended. Ceasing to exist is somewhat beyond the rational grasp of most people, myself included. Since consciousness is predicated on mental function, trying to conceive of not-conceiving is both disorienting and scary. Religion assuages that fear by removing The End from the picture. Death isn’t the end, it says — no, there’s more, so no need to dread death, dying, suffering, etc. In fact, if you behave correctly, you won’t ever die, so really there’s no need to worry at all! It’s a neat little trick, and psychologically it’s very, very attractive. It’s no wonder that people don’t want to let go of it, regardless of whether it’s actually true.

The morality-enforcing role of religion derives from its death-defying one: In order to escape death/eternal punishment, you have to follow the rules. “You shouldn’t steal because if you do, you’ll die forever” is, it turns out, a much more powerful motivator than “You shouldn’t steal because it disobeys the categorical imperative and that’s just not polite.” While it would be wonderful if the mass of society did the right thing purely because it’s the Right Thing to Do, the reality is that most people do the right thing because they don’t want to get caught. If they think they’ll get away with something, they’ll probably do it, regardless of whether they “should” according to deontological morality (the Ring of Gyges would make its manufacturer a multibillionaire). But religion conveniently provides an omniscient watchdog who is always paying attention — you can’t get away with anything. And the stakes are enormously high. So religion ends up being a highly effective enforcer of moral conformity.

Those two functions — enforcing morality and assuaging fear of death — are so useful, and so widely appealing, that it really isn’t surprising that religion has endured across centuries and culture. Even if one strain dies out, another pops up along the same basic lines. Each religion’s truth or falsity is largely irrelevant to its success. Rather, how useful it is in performing those two basic functions will determine how strong it becomes.

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