[Turing] Atheist Answer #13

[Turing] Atheist Answer #13 July 7, 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 reason I’m an atheist is that there’s no objectively verifiable evidence that any supernatural being has interacted with humans, while there is evidence that’s incompatible with the existence of those beings as traditionally defined by all the major world religions.

One example of this is the lack of a moral order in the universe. The natural world abounds with chaos, senseless cruelty and suffering which serves no higher purpose. Catastrophe strikes human life randomly, without regard to whether those afflicted have done anything to deserve it, and often falls hardest on the poor, the powerless and especially the young. Natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis and epidemics can be best predicted not by moral considerations, but by amoral causal factors like the locations of fault lines or the availability of sanitation systems. This is exactly what we’d expect if the universe was the product of unintelligent natural laws and not the handiwork of a wise and benevolent designer.

Religious apologists have offered various theodicies to explain this state of affairs, but all of these defenses are flawed, fallacious, and patently unsatisfactory. They’re obvious after-the-fact rationalizations for a belief founded in wishful thinking and self-delusion. The simple, inescapable truth is that any god which had the power to prevent evil and chose not to do so would be morally culpable and unworthy of worship. Any reasonably intelligent and compassionate human being, if given the power, could do better. In fact, human beings have done better, as is proven by our ameliorating or eradicating evils like smallpox and rinderpest.

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?

I would believe in a god if it appeared to me in a tangible form, announced its desire for me to believe in it, and provided a demonstration of any knowledge or power which it claimed to possess. I’d also accept this message if it was delivered through human ambassadors, again, as long as they could reliably display supernatural power to prove that they were speaking in the name of a divine entity. The Bible and other religious texts contain stories where proof of just this sort was given to skeptics, so I think it’s entirely fair to expect this and hold these belief systems to their own standard.

If this happened, and if this god or its representative then announced that one particular religion best reflected its essential nature and desires, I’d accept this as true. However, if a deity expected not just belief but worship and devotion, I’d first want a clear and convincing explanation for the existence of evil and suffering, so I could be satisfied in my own onscience that worship was merited and deserved.

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?

We all have firsthand experience of the awfulness of suffering, and we all want to avoid it whenever possible. I believe that the human sense of compassion, our ability to empathize with the feelings of others, gives us a sufficient reason to not want others to suffer just as we don’t want to suffer ourselves. Starting with this basic goal as the kernel of morality, we can use reason to determine how we can prevent suffering most effectively for the greatest number of people. By studying the natural experiments presented to us by history, we can discover general principles, usually referred to as human rights, which have significant and widespread beneficial effects when we design our societies to respect them.

The key point is that human well-being, like human health or human intelligence, is a measurable quality. Therefore, all questions about morality are really empirical questions about which ways of thinking and acting produce the greatest benefit and the most well-being. This also means that moral questions aren’t just matters of subjective preference, but matters of fact and evidence: there are right and wrong opinions about morality. Some ways of living are better for human welfare than others, and the ways that are less good should be modified or discarded in favor of those that are better.

In addition to refuting relativism, my view also stands in opposition to the religious view that morality consists solely of obeying arbitrary taboos which are believed to be God’s commandments. At best, this idea causes people to waste their time and energy following pointless rules that have nothing to do with advancing human well-being. At worst, religious morality is hugely destructive to human life and happiness, and what’s even worse, makes the destroyers believe that what they’re doing is virtuous and just.

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?

The term “religion” is an extremely broad concept that encompasses an infinitely elastic variety of faiths, creeds, churches and belief systems, most of which have little or nothing in common with each other. By using that word as an umbrella term to describe them all, it suggests that there’s one single phenomenon that endures through time and change. In fact, what we have is a large, constantly mutating cluster of ideas and practices that are grouped together only by convention, and that are similar only in the vaguest sense.

The best illustration of this is how monotheism and polytheism are grouped together under the heading of “religion”. But monotheism, in spite of its success, is a sui generis phenomenon arising only in a scattered handful of times and places, whereas the vast majority of faiths that have emerged independently throughout human history are polytheistic or animistic. If there was just one god, or one pantheon of gods, that was communicating with humanity, we wouldn’t expect this. We’d expect to find that far-flung civilizations and cultures had the same beliefs. When missionaries crossed oceans and jungles to bring their gospel to indigenous peoples and foreign cultures, they’d be met by a bemused “Yes, we already know that.” Instead, what we find is that different cultures have different religions, and the farther apart they are in time and space, the more different they are. This is just what we’d expect if religion was the creative product of human imagination. And the trend among modern theologians toward completely apophatic and substanceless conceptions of “God” stretches the definition even further.

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