Thursday, August 24, 2023

Positions I Don't Hold: Atheism

Part of a series of posts of ideological turing tests.

Ideological Turing Test:

I don't know that no god exists, but I'm certain that the god theists pray to doesn't exist.  It's possible that there might be a "god" in some sense of the word, but not the sort of personal, relatable god who hears and responds to prayer or takes interest in the lives of humans that theists believe in.

A god like the one theists pray to, for one, would leave behind evidence for himself, if he existed.  We would be able to witness miracles, and not just miracles that happened back before we had the scientific ability to test them.

People used to claim cryptids like Big Foot existed, and for a while there would be claims of sightings.  Now that we are in an era where almost everyone has a decent quality video camera on them at all times, the sightings have stopped.  The same goes for god.  People used to commonly report miracles occurring, in an era when there was no way beyond eye-witness testimony to verify it.  But these claims seem to have stopped now that we are able to verify them.  

If god were real, people after the scientific revolution should have observed miraculous responses to prayers.  

Medical doctors should be able to observe a benefit from private prayer for the terminally ill.  At least one amputee should have regrown a limb by this point.  There should be something that indicates to a neutral observer that some sort of entity with the power to act and the concern to act is actually acting.  Instead we have exactly the situation we would expect from no god acting.  Some people do pray and get better, but not at a rate any higher than people who don't pray get better.  Prayer seems to really make no difference.

We also know now that many of the things claimed by the most revered holy books in the world are patently false.  They make many claims about the world that are true; but when they make claims about things the human authors could not have known, but that today we can know, they often get it wrong.  Things like: the age of the earth, the shape of the earth, the time frame of life, how life came to exist, what stars are, how many legs insects have, stages of embryonic development, and many more.  If the god of theism were to exist, he would know how life came to exist or how old the earth is.  On things ancient people could have known by normal means, holy books are usually very accurate; on things that only a divine intelligence could have known the predictions aren't always wrong, but they are often wrong when they should be always right.  A real god shouldn't be confused about these questions.

We know that the theistic god cannot exist because he is a self-contradiction.  Theists believe god is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all-loving.  This can't exist in a world with suffering.  If he were all-knowing, then he would know about people suffering, and if he were all-powerful then he would be able to do something about the suffering, and if he were all-loving then he would want to do something about the suffering.  And yet there is human suffering on scales that we, in our sheltered Western lives, cannot begin to fathom.  The people in these terrible circumstances are often very religious and pray to god daily, and their prayers are never answered  -- or are "answered" in a way indistinguishable from normal events.  God must be either incapable of helping everyone, or he must be unaware of the extent of suffering, or he must see the suffering and refuse to help.  Then why call him "god"?  Why worship such a being?

More to it, the god that most theists pray to and believe in is actually horrible on any moral level.  Most major theistic views believe that there is an eternal hell for the wicked, and that their god is the one who will send people to this eternal hell to be tormented forever.  This is completely repugnant to any moral sensibility.  Maybe some particular offenders do deserve to be tormented for a very, very long time.  Forever is more than a long time -- it's forever!  It literally never ends.  Even the most vile, wicked person we can imagine -- child murderers, for instance -- don't deserve to be tormented forever.    

But the so-called "wicked" in his eternal hell are not exclusively serial murderers and child abusers.  The majority sent to damnation are there merely for thought crime.  They might be perfectly good, caring, honest, decent people by any normal standards.  But if they chose the wrong religion, then all of that good behavior was for nothing because they are going to suffer for eternity for not picking right.  This is even more inexcusable because god gives no clear evidence for his existence, or for which religion is correct, as all religions are equally without evidence.  The god of theism, if he existed at all, would be a cruel trickster, at best, or sadistic monster at worst.  He wouldn't be the omnibenevolent, merciful god theists pray to.

Worse, the god of most theistic religions makes commands on his followers that are clearly immoral.  These include divinely commanded sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and in many cases racism.  Just to list particular examples: the Jewish scriptures command rape victims to marry their rapists and allow men to rape women captured in battle after slaughtering their families; the Muslim scriptures likewise allow men to rape women captured in battle after slaughtering their families.  Both the Bible and the Quran are perfectly accepting of slavery, even laying out rules for how masters should treat slaves.  Beatings should be kept light, for instance.  This is absolutely repugnant to any morally sensible person.  Any god that would condone this disgusting behavior is not a god of goodness worthy of our worship.

Again, I'm not saying that there absolutely is no god at all. There might be some kind of being somewhere in the universe that some cultures might identify as a god.  But the god of traditional theism definitely isn't real.


This is what I consider the strongest form of atheism.  It might not be the position that most atheists hold, but it is the position I would hold if I were an atheist.

We no longer live in the demon-haunted world of our ancestors.  The candle of science has illuminated the dark room of our ignorance, throwing light on the shadowed corners where we once thought phantoms lurked.  Now we can see.  But we are not merely seeing that the cowering shapes are in fact benign forms.  We instead see that the room is empty.  There is not only nothing to fear; there is nothing at all.

Whereas out ancestors believed in things such as the human soul and virtues and the inherent dignity of all humankind, today we know that these are concepts we project onto the world.

Belief in the soul is a superstition developed over fear of death, but we know for a fact that the so-called soul can be destroyed and the human personality completely altered with a well-placed strike of a steel rod.

We know that the so-called virtues are a social construct built out of game-theoretical considerations for how selfish apes can have success in the complex societies agriculture forced us into; exactly what strategies to pursue are dependent on the society, and have no real objective grounding.  Some societies (such as Vikings and Huns and Mongols and Nazis) may decide that the best strategy is to destroy and conquer everyone and everything else; and I don't have to like that (and I don't); but also, when I'm honest, I know that this is my subjective feeling that I was taught to hold by my society, and that there is nothing objectively wrong or even objectively distasteful about it.

Human dignity is a name we give to one of these "moral" strategies, that has so far worked out fairly well for Western democracies; but we know that humans aren't actually any more dignified than apes or pigs, beyond our arbitrary decision that they must be.  Really though, humans are pretty inherently crappy, and have the potential to be much less dignified than any ape or pig could ever be.  Not everyone pursues this strategy of declaring humans to have inherent dignity, and those societies also seem to do pretty well -- China's economy is booming.

We are born, we have a few short decades to experience existence (if we're lucky), and then we cease to exist forever.  And that's it.  What we choose to do in that short candle flicker of our life is up to us, and whatever meaning we want to pretend our interactions have has to come from us, and how we choose to orient our experience is up to us.  You do not get a second turn.  This is it.  What you squeeze out of your 3640 weeks is all you will ever have.  Do not allow anyone else to dictate on what terms you can experience life.  Decide what you want from those weeks, and how you can have it in terms that you can live with, and do it.  And that's all there is.

Is this uplifting and positive?  No.  Is this what I want to be true?  No.  But it's reality.  So live with it.

Why I Don't Hold This Position:

I honestly believe that the knowledge of a Creator who made and controls everything is properly basic to mankind, and that everyone has this knowledge as a kind of intuition.  We are literally born with it.  Babies aren't atheists.  Not even in this new vapid definition that includes rocks and clouds as atheists.  Everyone has an intuition that a higher supernatural power exists, but when societies try to describe this Creator they are often forced to make things up.  Some people have made up things that are closer to reality (Islam, Zoroastrians, Neoplatonists, the Akunatun revolution in Egypt), others further from it (Norse paganism, or the plethora of animal-headed gods worshipped across the world).  

I grant that there are people who honestly, legitimately hold the view that there is insufficient basis for believing in God, and that it is in some way immoral to accept views without basis.  That view, and that kind of atheist, I can respect on an intellectual and personal level.  However, I find this misguided.  It is usually requiring a much stronger, and often impractical, standard of evidence for God than required for most things accepted in life.  

Nearly every day, you drive on a bridge.  You literally entrust your life to the fallible human beings who made it, without requiring the same level of certainty.  You've never once known the bridge you were crossing wouldn't fall.  You had reasons to believe it wouldn't, but you've never really known.   

In fact, you have never truly known anything, ever, in the sense you require knowledge about the divine.  You don't know your parents love you, you don't know the town where you grew up was actually called the name you always called it, you don't know your roommate/spouse/children aren't going to stab you to death in your sleep.  You might have some reasons to think these things.  But you've never known anything.  In this sense you demand, you've only had sufficient evidence to know that your own mind exists (thought it may exist in a vat).

Just as you have reasons to think the bridge won't fail, and that your parents love you, there are reasons to think that God exists.

There is evidence for God's existence.  Plenty of it.  There is a difference between each individual piece of evidence being unconvincing, and the sum of all evidence being unconvincing.  There is also a difference between not finding the sum of evidence compelling, and there being literally zero evidence.  

To list one and only one, the most obvious evidence for Christianity is the ministry of Jesus, and chiefly the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.  The fact that Jesus was a real person who was executed by Romans on a cross is considered an indisputable fact of history.  No serious historian -- atheist or Christian or Jewish -- entertains the idea that Jesus wasn't real.  Yes, idiots on youtube can dispute whatever they want; I mean serious thinkers.  No serious thinker denies that Jesus was a real person who lived in history.  They don't even doubt the exact way he was executed.  The fact that his disciples later died claiming they had seen Jesus raised from the dead is also an undisputed fact of history.  That something happened to the apostles between Jesus' death and their own deaths is not in dispute.  That Paul and the other apostles had some form of experience of seeing Jesus after his death isn't even really in dispute.  The only thing in dispute, with serious historians, is if those experiences really happened, or were psychological (such as hallucinations or confabulations). 

To get to this point where we have to decide if the Apostles' experiences of the risen Jesus were physical or psychological... we needed a whole lot of evidence.

Just to help make my point for me, here is a video of Bart Ehrman, professor of New Testament and early Christianity at UNC and Duke, literally holding the "Naked Emperor Award" he had just been awarded for his criticism of Christianity, explaining to the atheists in the audience how delusional they sound when they start claiming Jesus never existed.  According to him, it is not a question any serious scholar of history, classics, New Testament, or anything touching the field even considers.

You might decide that the evidence doesn't convince you.  Have it your way.  But just because you decide in the end not to trust that evidence, doesn't mean there is literally zero evidence.

But most people who say they don't believe in the existence of God usually only mean they don't care about God, or they don't like God.  This is evidenced in the way the majority actually go about arguing against the existence of God, which is all-too familiar in the year 2023.  There's a reason atheists are more well-known for the strength of their bombast and ridicule, than their logic or reasoning.  Maybe that's a shock to internet atheists, so let me explain.  The rest of the world doesn't view you as pre-eminently logical, scientific and well-reasoned.  We don't view you as "the brights."  We see you as bombastic, over-emotional, petulant and childish.  Using derision and petty emotional arguments, then calling them "science" or "logic," doesn't make them so.

(And let me reiterate, this is a specific kind of atheist.  If you are not this kind of atheist, then this is not about you.  I can respect and discuss and have a beer with a normal, old-school atheist; it is impossible to have any kind of meaningful discussion or enjoyable time with a New Atheist.)

In conversations with atheists, it is usually obvious that their objections have nothing to do with an insufficiency of evidence, and are rooted in emotional reactions.  In particular the New Atheism, internet atheism, pop-youtube atheism that has become all too familiar (and tired) in the modern era.  Modern atheists usually pay lip service to things like science and reason, buried under a thousand tons of strawmanning, emotional reasoning, self-contradictions, and fallacious thinking in their actual arguments.

Christopher Hitchens didn't even try to pretend with his objections, and I can respect his honesty in this regard.  Hitchens opposed religion because he didn't like it.  Period.  It "poisoned everything."   It gave rules he didn't like, and required things of him he didn't want to do.  Submitting to God was like submitting to a celestial North Korea.  He was very eloquent and loquacious and erudite and other Latinate words pertinent to an orator of Hitchens' caliber... but in terms of the substance of his arguments, they were slightly elevated over a three-year-old not wanting to take a nap.

It's possible that God is a mean-spirited, sexist, bigoted, murderous, tyrannous evil monstrous ogre... who also exists.  Lots of unpleasant things exist.  Of course, God is not actually any of those things.  God is the ultimate reality, and perfect goodness.  When you and modern secular morality find yourselves disagreeing with something God has said... it just means that you're wrong.

I especially have a problem with the massive contradiction of New Atheism. I'm not talking about the constant reliance on fallacies (such as their rebranding of the genetic fallacy as the "outsider's test of faith") while incessantly criticizing everyone else for alleged logical fallacies.  I mean that New Atheism is at core a moralistic movement, as puritanical as anything Christianity ever produced, that demands obedience from everyone and everything, up to the highest institutions in our land, down to the most basic blue-collar workers who might want to organize a prayer breakfast at work.  This while denouncing Christians as overly moralistic.  

It is further absurd in that it insists to some standard of morality, going so far as to hold the Almighty accountable, while simultaneously denying that morality is anything more than a construct of human societies.

At least the morality theocrats wish to enforce is presumed to come from some higher power of infinite wisdom and beneficence; atheists would have us submit in the same way to the authority of whatever is popular right now.  I'll take the celestial North Korea over the terrestrial kind, any day.

My steelman of atheism might not sound like a steelman to New Atheists.  That's because it's a self-consistent view of the world.  It is not a make-believe atheism, but a real atheism, that goes down to the root of what it really means to deny the existence of the divine.  It isn't a pretty view, but it is consistent and honest with itself.  I admire its attitude of "I will not flinch."  It's what I would believe if I ever went that route.

New Atheism is at best a modern Christian heresy, not dissimilar from  Manichaeism or Sabelleanism.  In another two hundred years, that's how it will be remembered.

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