[Turing] Atheist Answer #8

[Turing] Atheist Answer #8 July 6, 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?

I’m an atheist for several reasons, but there are two reasons that are primary. One is that the reality I’ve experienced so far is consistent with there being no God. It seems to me that reality is furthermore not consistent with the existence of the God typically described by Christians. However, my experience is also consistent with the existence of some god who is carefully modifying my senses so I can never become aware of him (though I find this scenario exceedingly improbable), so perhaps this is not the best reason.

The second, and perhaps best reason why I’m an atheist, is that to believe in most religions, you must accept things that are almost certainly untrue. Mainstream Christians will (rightly) laugh at the absurd things Scientologists (cinema-watching thetans!) and Mormons (Eden was in Independence, Missouri!) believe. For some reason they fail to see the humor in the absurd things they themselves believe. That is, Adam and Eve weren’t the first humans. Jesus did not die, come back to life, and then rise to the heavens.

Theists might object that science makes extraordinary claims also – the big bang was improbable, wasn’t it? How about abiogensis? However, science offers evidence in favor of its claims. We have very good data on the effects of the big bang. Craig Venter’s team of scientists created synthetic bacteria last year. The evidence for religious doctrine, however, is confined to a few books of contested origins. Being an atheist gets easier with each newly discovered fact about the world. Being a theist means constantly restating your faith’s doctrines as allegories.

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?

Although I am an atheist, I would be willing to believe that God exists. In exchange for my belief, God must simply create a plant whose leaves are in the shapes of the letters that make up the word “YAHWEH.” This plant must also cure AIDS and should be possible to grow on a large scale in sub-Saharan Africa.

Failing that, God could cause an earthquake that strikes Haiti, but happens to shake debris back into formations that happen to resemble modern, safe structures, able to properly shelter all those displaced by the previous earthquake.

If God is half the deity most Christians claim he is, these requests should be no problem for him to meet. He can even make one of the leaves of the AIDS-curing plant in the shape of a question mark, if he wants his existence to still be shrouded in some sort of mystery.

I have said before that if I were religious, I would be Jewish. Practitioners of mainstream Judaism seems quite willing to ignore the unpleasant parts of the Hebrew Bible. Many Jewish denominations are even OK with same-sex marriage, despite the explicit call for reprisal against same-sex couples in Leviticus.

However, I have recently learned more about Mormonism, and may have to change my views. As I understand it, some Mormons believe that people – well, men – can come to become masters of their own planet, or possibly universe. There is still the matter of the LDS church supporting California Proposition 8 in 2008, but I might be able to change that in my celestial kingdom.

I probably won’t start believing in God, and I probably won’t join a church. You may think I’m being flippant above, but I’m not – you’d think an all-loving God could quit killing and displacing the poor for a couple years in order to win some converts. Furthermore, you’d think that religions with millions of followers would have stronger appeal than “they selectively ignore the evil parts of their tradition” and “their doctrine sounds like fairly bad science fiction.”

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?

Christians and other theists often assume that since their philosophy dictates morality (i.e. what God says is good is good, and what God says is evil is evil) that atheism must also dictate morality (though sometimes they assume that subscribing to atheist views implies being completely without morality).

This view is false, of course. Atheism isn’t a complete philosophical package – it’s compatible with other combinations of epistemological, ethical, and political views. Just as all Christians don’t have to be Republicans, all atheists don’t have to be humanists. Atheists can draw from the ideas of many philosophers – Hume, Kant, Kurts, Russell, Rand, Spinoza, and even Jesus, to name a few candidates.

Personally, I’m fairly certain that there is not some cosmic book of laws that unequivocally determines whether a certain action is moral. For example, I am OK with eating meat, because I don’t think there is some objective reason that all life is sacred and never to be ended intentionally. However, I’m also fairly certain that there are some actions that are never justified. For example, it’s not OK for Islamic law to sanction “honor killings” that result in the death of rape victims, even though this type “honor” is deeply a part of certain Muslim cultures. Nonetheless, there’s not one-sentence version of my morality that would cover any and all interesting cases.

So, when in an ethical dispute, I try to reduce a disagreement down to its essentials – that is, if a certain action should be permitted or prohibited morally, what goal would that serve? Is that goal a terminal goal? If not, does it serve some larger purpose? In general I oppose the initiation of violence, and using deceit with intent to harm, and most people are comfortable agreeing with those intuitions. If a moral question can be boiled down to that level, then it’s much easier to analyze.

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?

No one can can deny that religion is persistent. It’s been said that wherever there have been humans there have been religions, and there is good evidence to support this proposition – very early humans are thought to have had religious symbolism and religious burial rituals. However, the survival of religious practices throughout human history is not an indication of the truth of religious propositions, but an indication of its memetic fitness.

Religion’s success is in fact support for one of its primary antagonists – evolution by natural selection. The various practices and ideas that constitute a religion are units not unlike genes, and like genes, the ones that consistently succeed in being copied (i.e. adopted by other people) are the ones that we would expect to see survive for thousands of years.

What makes religious memes so… virulent? transmissable? contagious? It’s hard to say exactly, but it’s easy to come up with some plausible reasons. For one, which idea is more likely to be adopted by a pattern-seeking human: That there is nothing an early farmer can do except to wait for a rainstorm to make the crops grow? or: We can help make the crops grow by performing a certain ritual, since the last time we performed that ritual, it rained? Which is the more marketable message: That the people you like and agree with will join you forever in the afterlife, and your enemies will be punished? or: There is no afterlife, and death is the end of your existence?

There is much more to the idea of studying why religious memes succeed – Daniel Dennet’s “Breaking the Spell” is good read on the topic. However, there’s another, simpler answer to “does religion’s persistence somehow indicate its truth?” War, racism, conspiracy theories, and violence have been around just as long as religion, and no one thinks that their persistence is somehow a good sign. That’s not to say religion is akin to those bad things, but to say that the “set of things that are long lasting” does not necessarily overlap with the “set of things that are good and true.”

Voting opens Friday afternoon

Browse Our Archives