There probably is no God; but there might be something very much like him.
In looking for alternatives to the God/no God dillema, we should distinguish between its moral and cosmological aspects, whose solutions might be independent and perhaps even opposite.
Science strives to be methodologically atheist. The cosmological half of this effort has proven a resounding success, its moral half a terrifying failure.
The scientist Dawkins was strolling down the road when he saw a youth sitting under a chestnut tree gleefully singing at the top of es lungs, “Oh God, how great you are! You have saved us from our sins!”
Leaning down with his hands on his knees, Dawkins explained to the youth that God did not exist and that the world was all there is. Despondent, the youth stopped singing and teary eyed said, “Then there is no hope!”
“Of course there still is hope, responded Dawkins, it is just that God cannot provide it.” But the youth would not be consoled, so Dawkins gave up and continued on his way.
Further along, Dawkins heard singing once more and saw another youth dancing wildly on the side of the road: “Oh God, how wonderful you are! You created us with your mighty hand!”
Leaning towards him, the scientist Dawkins once again explained that there was no God, and that humans existed only because of blind evolution. The youth scratched es head, but after a moment of silence e resumed es joyous singing, “Oh world, my God, how wonderful you are! You generated us through your blind evolution!”
Disgruntled and weary, Dawkins sighed and continued on his way.
I am going to argue that atheism is not a religion but a religious outlook.
Religion is notoriously hard to define and i shall not attempt to here. I will call upon Wittgenstein’s idea of a family resemblance and say that there are many things that make up a religion: a metaphysics, holy books, meeting places, an ethics, rituals, gods, saints, etc. and to call something a religion you need to have a fair number of them.
I have been calling atheism a religion. That was at best misleading. Atheism is no more a religion than theism is. It doesn’t have meeting places, holy books, or rituals. Theism denotes a type of religion. Atheism does too, or at least would, were there any specific instances of a-theist religions with holy books, rituals and meeting places.
(Of course, confucianism is usually pointed out as an atheist religion and there are atheist strands in hinduism and buddhism. Marxism and Maoism had holy books, meeting places, and saints, though perhaps no rituals. We are however here slowly moving towards “things” that do not have quite enough religious characteristics to still call them full-fledged religions.)
The problem with defining atheism, like theism, as simply “a type as opposed to an instance of religion” is twofold:
First, very few people go around calling themselves theists, but more and more people identify themselves as atheists (or agnostics). This might be because atheism as we now know it has seemingly become a rallying banner for all those who are dissatisfied with religion in general. Atheism is for some, and only for some!, more an anti-theism or an a(nti)-religion. One could perhaps call this positive atheism. It is certainly not the only possible type of atheism, but certainly the most vocal one – and the one i dislike. This type of atheism is much more than a simple type of metaphysical belief, let alone a single non-belief. It is a platform, a cri de guerre and a worldview. It is almost a(n anti-) religion.
Many people do not care about god(s), haven’t ever thought about them much, but do not consider themselves atheists. They are just not interested in the question. Those who do insist on calling themselves atheists and who are proud of the label do not simply “not believe in the existence of god(s)”, they have a particular existential interest in being atheist. Which brings me to the second reason why atheism is more than a simple descriptor of a possible metaphysical view.
Atheism is fundamentally the answer to a specifically religious question: “Is there a god?”. Its answer is “No.” It doesn’t ignore the question. But answers it very carefully. This is why i want to call atheism a religious outlook. An atheist is very much concerned with religious questions, though disliking all supernatural and institutionally organized answers. In that sense atheism might not be a religion, though atheists are minimally religious – otherwise they wouldn’t bother calling themselves atheists!
Now i do realize that atheism can also be viewed as an attempt to get rid of all forms of religiosity or supernaturalism. And some might object to my above description on that premise. My caveat to them is: the call to rid the world of religion sounds awfully religious. Beware of ushering in a new religion under the guise of atheism.
From the comments to a previous post i have learnt two things about (blogosphere) atheists:
First, they do not consider their atheism to be a religion, or even a worldview (which is more or less what i mean by religion). For some, atheism is no more than ONE, NEGATIVE belief: “there (probably) are no gods or such like things”. If such is your atheism, then, i agree, it certainly is no religion. However,
Second, even though most of the commenters are adamant that atheism is as minimal as described above, they strongly identify with the term – enough at least to leave heart-felt comments on a post lambasting atheists.
Thus it would seem that many self-described atheists have a sense of community (“we are atheists”) that is created in opposition to religion (“we are not religious”) but has no content. To this i have no objections – except to say that
i could describe myself as a religious atheist, but would thus be de facto excluded from this community. So i guess my main objection to the atheism i see, hear and read is that it appears to be consistently opposed to religion (admittedly to a religion that is redefined as god-believing, but that does not alter my point). Atheism is ok; but so is religion.
One of the most disturbing aspects of atheism as it is currently practiced is that it refuses to admit, or even see, that it is in fact a religion – though of a very specific kind. It is not that atheists believe in the “no God” god – they actually do a very good job in not believing in any supernatural entities at all. What they do not realize though, is that they nevertheless believe in many morally, religiously and metaphysically controversial things. The problem is that they do not acknowledge this.
An atheist believes that “there most likely is no god”, an atheist can be a monist or a materialist, an atheist believes that “you cannot know and needn’t care about an afterlife”, our atheists believe that science is the only reliable source of true beliefs, and today they believe that all human are equal, deserving of equal rights, etc. Some of those statements are (currently) uncontroversial (in our part of the world), some are heftily debated or even denied by a majority of people (anywhere in the world), some (like materialism) are even morally suspicious.
Atheism needs to fess up to these presuppositions. It needs to draw out for everyone the metaphysical background upon which it is founded. Of course, there needn’t be one single such formulation, and each atheist probably has her own version. But until it is acknowledged that such underlying beliefs exist, atheism will have to street credibility, because everyone will see that the atheists are blind to their own failings.
Religions – and certainly all the religions that the atheists call religions – are honest and upfront about their metaphysical underpinnings. They dont try to hide their talking snakes, magically perfect books, their creators and wild trinities, their laws of karma and hoped for nirvanas and heavens. And believe it or not, many religious people are more or less aware that much of this is not quite literally true – they are at least willing to fudge the talking snakes and elephant-headed deities. But if the religious are honest about the rough edges of their systems, they certainly are entitled to ask the atheists (their moral and metaphysical siblings) to do likewise.
When atheists fail to rise to the level of transparency displayed by other religions, it suggests that they might actually believe that their system has no such metaphysical weaknesses! Now that would be less likely than any number of talking snakes! Come on atheists, be honest. Give us a clear picture of your moral assumptions, whether or not you color them with extravagant metaphysical deities.
Of course, once this “minimal religion” of atheism is brought to light, everyone might agree that it is good, true and right. But that is another matter.
P.S. These thoughts were brought forth (though not quite ex nihilo) by this post by the Atheist Ethicist.
The very best quote is from Daniel Dennett: “Sophisticated theology is like stamp collecting. It’s a very specialized thing and very few people do it.” (24:48)
I’d like to go through the first hour’s worth and point out a few problems with these gentlemens’ arguments. I don’t disagree mostly with their conclusions, but i certainly take exception to how they get there. For all the brain power around that table, none of them seem to understand what religion is. They define it epistemologically, from the point of view of knowledge – i.e. from the point of view of science. Religion is bad science, it is believing nonsense, holding true unverified facts. This is, of course, miles away from how religious people understand what they are doing. Until the atheists stop defining religion however they well please, they will simply be talking right past their intended audiences. And that is a shame.
Dennett: “the religions have contrived to make it impossible to disagree with them without being rude. They play the hurt feelings card at every opportunity.” (00:47)
Dennett: “There’s no polite way to say to somebody: Do you realize you’ve just wasted your life? Do you realize that you’ve just devoted all your efforts and all your goods to the glorification of something that is just a myth?” (5:55)
This last comment shows that Dennett does not at all understand what religion is about. Whether or not all the details of Christianity are historically true is not a matter of great concern to most christians. Religion is not about verifiable statements, but about getting through life. Religious statements are good religious statements if they work, not if scientists can prove them true. Even if it turns out that the God of Abraham does not exists, a christian will not have wasted her life. Because he belief will have given structure to her life, will have provided her with friends, a community, reassurance, hope, love. Arriving at such things is never a waste, no matter how shaky and temporary the road you’ve taken to get to them.
It is true that many but certainly nowhere close to all religious people do themselves believe that they’re scriptures must be scientifically right for their religion to be at all valid and will therefore fight for creationism and literal interpretations of fabulously impossible passages. What a sophisticated atheist must realize though is that these people are mixing up their religion with science because they cannot distinguish between the function of science (to produce mostly useable knowledge) and the function of religion (to live life well). The proof that these fundamentalists are mixed up (and that religion is not itself at fault) is that they do not understand what science is. They are willing to force their religious beliefs upon science in such a way as to turn science into religion (or at least an existential matter). Thus they prove that what is important to them as religious people is actually the impact of their beliefs upon their lives and not the truth of them.
Fundamentalists have mistakenly believed those who claim that religion is about truth as scientists define that term. And they have accordingly tried to defend religion against science, thinking both were on the same playing field. This assumption that religion is a type of science, which Dennett is here reiterating, completely misrepresents religion and is in part responsible for religion’s bellicoseness.
Hitchens suggests around 12:00 that what we need to do is separate between the numinous and the supernatural. This is actually a very interesting and worthwhile idea. Of course, he wants to say that the numinous is perfectly ok and that the supernatural is just plain false. This is, of course, a matter of definition. The only caveat is that the numinous is just as religious a phenomenon as the supernatural. Getting rid of the latter will not dispose of religion, though it might fix some of its current problems.
Dennett: “I dont think many of them ever let themselves contemplate the question – which scientists ask themselves all the time – What if i’m wrong?” Hitchens disagrees and suggests that many religious people are in a “permanent crisis of faith” (15:00)
Hitchens is, of course, right. Dennett is again comparing religion to science with dubious results: the “What if i’m wrong?” question means something very different in the mouth of a research chemist as in the mouth of a clergyman. The first simply has to tweak her experimental apparatus or her equations. The latter has to reinvent his entire existence. You have to admit that the former question is substantially easier. A question of equivalent difficulty for a chemist as the above is for the religious would be: “What if i should have become a doctor? Should i drop everything and go back to med school?”
Around 27:00 these great minds show how limited their view of religion is. It basically is confined to believing silly things on faith. They’ve obviously not been to a church service in Tübingen, Germany! No one here believes much of anything in the bible is to be taken on face value. For that matter, theologians have been interpreting the unbelievable and irreligious portions of the Christian scripture since the first centuries of the christian era:
Dawkins: “They [bishops and vicars] do preach about what adam and eve did as though they did exist.”
Dennett: “Can you imagine any one of these preachers saying when such a topic is introduced: Um, this is a sort of theoretical fiction; it’s not true but it’s a very fine metaphor.’ No!”
Dawkins: “They kind of after the fact imply that that is what they expect you to know” Dennett: “But they would never announce it.”
Harris: “… These moderates don’t admit how they’ve come to be moderates. What does moderation consist of? It consists of having lost faith in all of these propositions or half of them because of the hammerblows of science…”
Harris’ last comment is of course what Charles Taylor’s 800 pages of A Secular Age was bent on disproving. Science doesn’t disprove religion, at best it forces religion to reinvent and review itself (which is a very good idea, and something religion desperately needs to do as soon as possible). A moderate is not a half-baked cookie. A moderate is a more flexible, self-reflexive religious person.
The fundamental problem with these four horse’s attempts is that they do not offer a substitute, an ersatz for religion. The very fact that they do not realize that they need to do so if they are to convince anyone. Simply put: these atheists do not realize that atheism is a sub-set of religion, that they do have a religion (perhaps a much more viable and simpler one), a (non-dogmatic and changing) metaphysical view of the world, sets of moral practices, general ways of getting through life. If only they’d tell us how they do it!
From the Friendly Atheist.
Good old Habermas (and yes, he’s 77 years old) is intent on us purifying our political talk of any religious vocabulary. He wants people to find non-religious arguments for every one of their political ideas. For one, I don’t think that is possible: too many people feel too deeply about religious matters. That means that for many people religious vocabulary is their primary thinking tool and they cannot easily switch to non-religious equivalents. For another, i don’t think that secular-only talk is desirable.
Let me explain. Religion is not something that can be reduced to ethics for all political intents and purposes. Rather, ethics is a type of religion. This means that arguing from religion is no different than arguing from Kant or Darwin, on moral/political matters. Let people make the arguments they want, however weak or dubious you might find them yourself. Because (a) they in turn find your arguments just as weak and (b) the point is not to be right in some absolute/scientific sense but only to convince (this is politics after all!).
The same argument from The Free Thinker commenting on a commenter named Tom:
“If there are pragmatic reasons… use those reasons; don’t give me quotes from the bible.” But it is a very common practice in political discourse to quote a respected source. I might quote an expert– an economist, or a scientist– as evidence of the soundness of a policy which we don’t have the time to elaborate the technical case for, or aren’t qualified to make the technical case for, or don’t think our audience could understand the technical case for. I might quote a widely-admired figure, say, Winston Churchill or Abraham Lincoln, to inspire the courage or patriotism of my hearers and/or to show that greater minds that mine have agreed with what I am saying. Tom implicitly insists that political discourse consist only of “pragmatic reasons,” which is an absurd restriction. And the call for “pragmatic reasons” begs key questions. Are “pragmatic reasons” the only appropriate reasons in politics? Are ethics always inappropriate? It seems to me that pragmatic reasons pertain to means, but what about ends? How are those to be determined? If Tom assumes that only utilitarian ends– more pleasure, less pain– are appropriate, he will have to find a way to disenfranchise most of his fellow-citizens, for most of them are not utilitarians. What are we to do with the thirty, or forty, or, who knows, maybe sixty or eighty percent of the population for whom the Bible, more than any other book, illuminates man’s purpose in this world?
Well i just finished reading Ch. Taylor’s A Secular Age and am convinced it would have all fit in 500 pages (ah, the days when i will be prof. emeritus and can write whatever i wish at whatever length and get grad students to read it nevertheless…!). That being said, the book is one well crafted and convincing argument. I believe it is about the same arguement as MacIntyre (in Three Rival Versions of Moral Inquiry) and Hillary Putnam (in “The Truth/Value dichotomy”), namely that science-backed Secularism is on the same moral and epistemological playing field as (thoughtful) religion. The strategies these authors adopt are also similar: show that science/secularism are also founded upon a number or moral elements. The arguements have always convinced me, though Taylor, i think, offers the definitive one.
This leads me to my last point. I think you can view ASA as more of an argument as to why christianity has disapeared as an argument as to why secularism has appeared. Of course, this is the opposite of what Ch. Taylor says he’s doing. But when at the end he comes out as a catholic christian, it becomes clear why he didn’t include any of the other western religions (esp. Judaism): they don’t interest him. I don’t think this in anyway affects the content of his argument (which is mostly confined to part I), but it does make for an interesting new
reading browsing through of it.