[Turing] Atheist Answer #6

[Turing] Atheist Answer #6 July 5, 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?

This is like asking: “What’s your best reason for not believing in a wide variety of mutually contradictory stories about magical invisible playground swings?” If I really need reasons, here are a few:

  1. Without even considering the space of all possible deities (which is huge), just look at the space of possible deities with earthly cults, which is also huge. How am I supposed to pick between these mutually contradictory gods? If theists want me to take their position seriously, they should first get their own stories straight.
  2. We should find it to be suggestive, at the very least, that that at pretty much any point in the past that you care to name, the then-leading objections to the atheist position, the phenomena that “couldn’t” be explained without divine interference, have all succumbed to materialist explanations. Meanwhile, from the other end, ironclad scientific laws are crowding god and god’s agency out of more and more parts of the universe. If this trend continues, and we have no reason to suspect that it won’t, there will soon be nowhere left for theists to point and claim that some phenomenon “requires” the existence of a god for explanation and, at the same time, people will be able to ascribe less and less agency, in terms of acting in the universe, to their gods if they want to believe in science at the same time.

Basically, the middle-ground between empiricism, science, and rationality on the one hand, and total irrationalism, magical-thinking, etc. on the other hand, is slowly getting squeezed out. A lot of religious people who want to be respectable try to stay in that middle-ground, but that will become untenable. Soon, they will have to abandon belief or becoming totally anti-science, anti-rationalist like the fundies. Once “respectable” religion is no longer an option, the choice becomes much starker, and atheism is obviously superior to anti-rational fundamentalism.

But most of all, atheism is the default position. Given that there is very little evidence for religion that can’t be otherwise explained, and very much evidence against it, we should all be atheists.

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 is a really hard one. I’m honestly not sure if there’s any direct, experienced evidence that could cause me to believe in a deity – I mean really, which is more likely: some mystic entity choosing to reveal itself to me (and why me? Why not one of the many other unbelievers? Why not Stalin? Seems like revealing itself to Stalin would be more useful), or me going crazy and having a hallucination, which happens to tons of people all the time?

Now I’m really scratching my head trying to think of something… Maybe if every famous atheist on earth spontaneously converted (to the same religion, mind you) and gave eloquent, rational explanations for why they did so that were better than any of the explanations I’ve already heard. I guess that would be a start. Or, I suppose, if somebody found that when you take a big chunk of junk DNA, change from the base-4 encoding to base-64 triplets, then do an alphanumeric substitution with the letters of the Hebrew alphabet (aleph=1, beth=2, etc., etc.) it results in a substantial chunk of the Bible. Yeah… that’s sufficiently unlikely that it would shake my unbelief a fair bit.

But really, all of that brings us back to the original question about whether these awesome, miraculous things have really happened, or whether my schizophrenic fantasies are getting more and more elaborate. Basically, this question isn’t very useful, because it’s equivalent to questions like: “What crazy thing happening would convince you that you were in a lucid dream?” It’s just a question about how outlandish things would have to get before you throw away your whole worldview, and the answer is… pretty outlandish. But even if I threw away my worldview, there’s no particular reason to replace it with a theist one. In short: any evidence that might cause me to believe in God would with equal validity cause me to believe that there was a mad scientist playing with my brain. I just don’t think weird events (miracles, etc.) are a way of getting to belief.

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?

I’m going to admit from the start that my answers here might not be very satisfying, but that’s no reason to be a theist! Sometimes life isn’t very satisfying.

Basically, the vast, vast majority of situations in which we have to make a moral decision have pretty straightforward answers that we all know. Yes, yes, there are some dilemmas involving carts hurtling down traintracks, etc., that professional philosophers like to spend time debating about, but those cover maybe 1% of real, actual situations (and that’s being generous).

The key is recognizing that when we are dealing with people within what we recognize as an in-group that we’re part of – family, friends, etc., we usually treat them well and with dignity. More importantly, we almost always know what the right thing to do in these situations is. Evil actions usually come about when we’re dealing with people who we don’t recognize is “one of us” or, in extreme cases, who we don’t recognize as human (and religion is often to blame for this, though not always).

The good news is that, over history, there’s been a trend towards letting more and more people, and people less and less like us, into our “circles of concern”, where we usually know what the right thing to do is. Hopefully this trend will continue, and I think increasing secularization will encourage that. As this process takes place, we’ll find that more and more of the 99% of decisions where everyone knows what the right thing to do is get made correctly, and that’s good all around.

Yeah, there’ll still be a few places where moral philosophers like to debate, and maybe religious people, along with utilitarians, Kantians, etc., will have better-grounded answers to those question, but in general I think that these “rigorous” but anti-human and anti-intuitive theories do more harm than good. We should focus our efforts, instead on doing the right thing when we already know what the right thing to do is (i.e., most of the time). That’s hard enough already, and I’m always going to have more respect for the atheist who treats people with dignity than I will for the theist who does it because his god tells him to.

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?

Religion is persistent because at some point in our evolutionary past religious belief conveyed an advantage. Much like my appendix, it has stuck around since then because there has been no reason to actively select against it – and so it remains, a vestigial structure of the cognitive variety.

An alternate explanation is that religion is an accidental byproduct of more useful cognitive traits. For instance, maybe the combination of hope in desperate situations (marginally improves survival odds over giving up), a storytelling faculty (vital for primitive communication), and the capacity for mystical feelings (a necessary consequence of a complex sensory apparatus) tends to result in individuals that will produce religions.

That example may seem hackneyed, but the brute fact remains that religion appears to be an intrinsic part of us. That doesn’t make it any more true though. The belief that correlation implies causation is also “curiously persistent throughout history”, but that doesn’t make it right. The mere fact that people tend to believe in religions is no evidence either way.

Voting opens Friday afternoon

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