Sunday, February 13, 2011

What is atheism?

This essay about atheism (via Geoff Arnold) is pretty good. Let me say it again in my own style.

Atheism is, I think, the decisive rejection of the idea that the supernatural is a good way to explain the world. Might there be some sort of supernatural being? I dunno. More importantly, what does the phrase "supernatural being" even mean? If we look at the ideas we've traditionally ascribed to the word "god", we consistently see ideas of one or more personal, teleological beings whose will and desire are explanations for observed phenomena. The pagan gods made the lightning strike and made winter occur; the Christian god performs wonders and miracles. The ideas of god historically underlie political legitimacy: The king and the priesthood rule by direct dispensation from the local deity. The ideas of god historically provide psychological comfort: In the gods, one can rely on a responsible parent, who will at least provide sustenance and justice. All of these ideas are wrong.

To reject these ideas is more than just to eliminate the statement, "I believe some God exists" from one's mind. Yes, that's the dictionary definition of atheism, and it has some use against various theistic straw men, but anything more than the most trivial, nominal atheism requires rejection of the supernatural. To the atheist, science becomes the way to explain the world (or, more precisely, the way to construct explanations). Only our own moral intuitions — as subjective, limited and labile as they might be — underlie political legitimacy. The atheist relies on himself or herself for psychological comfort. We are, in short, free beings in a natural world, free to shape that world how we will, subject only to the constraints imposed by the impersonal and uncaring laws of physics. We are as well free to fail; there is no parent who will swoop in and rescue us from our mistakes or catastrophes. To me — because I am a mature adult — such freedom is an unqualified good.

If you're religious, I'm going to ask you two questions: What fear are you unable to face? Whom do you want to oppress? If I don't get an answer to either question, I'm going to press you on how you consider yourself religious in the first place. Vague mystical bullshit doesn't count: A difference that makes no difference is no difference, and there's no difference between a stone-cold atheist like myself and a theist who relies exclusively on mystical mumbo-jumbo. (If you want to pretend you're religious to get along in society, that's your own business. But do us all a favor and don't be a hypocritical jackass; refrain from attacking your fellow atheists to get on the good side of the religious. It doesn't work anyway; they'll hate you more for lying.) But 99 times out of 100, underneath the mystical mumbo-jumbo, I'll find an answer to one of those questions.

Eight times out of a ten it'll be the last question, and the answer will be niggers, fags, sluts and/or the lazy, slovenly, dirty poor*. There will always be some elaborate rationalization, of course — few people can stomach being openly racist, homophobic, sexist, or classist — but I'm completely uninterested in how you rationalize being an asshole. Yes, 80% of religious people are just garden-variety bigots. (Most of rest are usually terrified of disappointing their (real) mommy and daddy. I don't buy the whole "fear of death" bullshit; anyone who gets in a car or crosses the street is not really afraid of death. The few remaining are just there for the show, which I will admit can be quite entertaining, if that's your cup of tea.)

The "philosophy" of theism is tiresome. The whole edifice of philosophical bullshit around theism exists only rationalize and obfuscate assholery and cowardice. I'm at the point where if you call yourself a Christian or a Muslim I'm just going to silently conclude you're a bigot and/or a coward. I might be polite to your face (unless you say something openly bigoted or ridiculous), but I'll always have a reserve of contempt for your character, intelligence and maturity.

*I can usually do it in four questions: Do you oppose affirmative action? Do you oppose gay marriage? Do you oppose abortion on demand? Are you a Republican? If you answer any of these questions in the affirmative, please remember that I'm not in the least bit interested in how you rationalize being an asshole.

It's true, of course, that one can find other reasons to a bigot or a coward; bigotry and cowardice might be the only reasons to be religious, but religion is hardly the only way to rationalize bigotry and cowardice. I'm no more approve of non-religious justifications for assholery (e.g. Libertarianism or Randianism) than I approve of theism, but I'm only one guy, and I have only so much time and energy.

Fundamentally, that's what atheism really is: science, personal moral responsibility (if you're going to be an asshole, at least be one on your own account, not a god's), and adult psychological maturity.

2 comments:

  1. I think death has a lot to do with theism. One example I can give of the kind of thinking that leaves people open to allowing themselves the lie of theism is death. Not usually their own though. My mother is a classic example. One of her brothers died a few years ago and as intelligent and generally discerning about bullshit ideas as she can be, she is so upset by the idea of never meeting her brother again that she just can't let go of some nebulous hope that there might be some kind of afterlife. She is not a member of any particular religious group and holds no concrete ideas about an afterlife but it is easy to see how incredibly tempting such a belief might be to her. I suspect that this it the carrot that first draws a lot of people toward theism. The hope that they will see the people the miss terribly again. After they are through the door the brainwashing can begin!

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  2. I think you should consider asking your two questions: "If you're religious, I'm going to ask you two questions: What fear are you unable to face? Whom do you want to oppress?" to atheists.

    You claim here that religious people are 'oppressive', yet do hardly give a good reason for it.

    Oppression (or rather suppression) of some things might be good (ie suppressing ignorance)

    If you claim that "The "philosophy" of theism is tiresome. The whole edifice of philosophical bullshit around theism exists only rationalize and obfuscate assholery and cowardice."

    and

    "Fundamentally, that's what atheism really is: science, personal moral responsibility (if you're going to be an asshole, at least be one on your own account, not a god's), and adult psychological maturity"

    I think you are either ignorant of what you are saying or fooling yourself or you are an hypocrite.

    Too bad because many things you write are quite insightful.

    Perhaps this was a bad day for you. Perhaps you just had your panties in a twist and needed to rant against theism.

    Or perhaps you read too much PZ Myers and your brain got soft?

    ReplyDelete

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