Friday, 22 January 2010

Different kinds of atheism, different kinds of supernatural

An argument that I hear a lot runs something like this. In some discussion of religion our atheist (boo) keeps on talking about how they can disprove religion with science, because evolution. The response is that religion nowadays has done away with creationism, that religion is about your relationship with god and faith. I'd like to suggest this is not so much a bad argument on both sides as it is a category error. The problem I have is that I as an atheist and my many liberal religious friends disagree on almost nothing religious bar the central question of the existence of god, thus whatever category of things it is that I oppose as an atheist, these people cannot be a part of it.

I saw a talk advertised today “1+1=3, Is a belief in God a denial of logic?”. The answer to which is of course not. No God that has ever been imagined is logicically impossible, if you claim that god is a 4 sided triangle, then yes a belief in god is a denial of logic, but few people do believe that. The interesting question is “The universe is 6000 years old, Is a belief in god a denial of observation?” This I suggest is worthy of some discussion. I believe that the statement “god exists” is false whatever kind of god you talk about, so I'll make it clear now I'm not speaking impartially on this, anyone of any belief or non who wants to nit pick or disagree please feel free. But I'll need some preliminary ideas:

Putting words together in order is not the same as communicating, the famous example is “colourless green ideas sleep furiously”. This is a grammatically valid collection of English words, but what is the point of saying it, you're not conveying information to me or influencing my emotions. Statements need to mean something. We can distinguish a few sorts of sentences, firstly pleasantries and exclamations that dont convey information but which make us feel happier, then questions, commands, statements about ourselves and our emotions, and statements about the world around us. These last two are the ones I'm interested in here. Subjective statements are statements about your own internal world, your likes/dislikes, your emotions, beliefs etc. Objective statements are to do with physical observation, what can be verified independently. So “this car is red” is objective, “this car is very ugly” is subjective, “I go to church on a Sunday” is objective, “I believe in god” is subjective.

So let's think about what it is that various people believe and what atheists are opposed to. Firstly let's consider why the belief “condoms cause AIDS because the pope says so” is dangerous. This is an objective statement that can be verified by experiment, give 1000 people condoms and ban 1000 people from having them and see who gets AIDS. Or even more simply, observe that HIV causes AIDS, that HIV is transmitted sexually in a way condoms prevent and observe that couples using condoms do not have substantially different levels of sexual activity compared to those who do. So, it's a false statement, but so what, people believe false stuff all the time, every time I watch QI I discover yet another false belief I hold. The problem with this belief is that it cannot be repaired, none of the observations listed above would convince the believer he was wrong. The reason this is dangerous and immoral is that he will then base actions on it. He will campaign to have condoms banned and reduce access to general sexual heath information and services. Here we have an objective belief that is false and irrefutable.

There is a rich history of theologians working to ensure that belief in god and in science are compatible. Most liberal religious people believe that the theory of evolution describes the real world more accurately than the two creation accounts in the book of Genesis. Most believe that the bible gives moral teachings but is not a textbook. These people stress faith and love of god as more important than beliefs in supernatural events. Some people take this as far as Karen Armstrong who says quite clearly that god does not exist. She means that god is beyond the material and cant be said to be the sort of thing that exists or otherwise.

There is a distinction to be made between various gods, or rather two broad categories of ideas of gods. Let's say an interventionist god is one who actively shapes the universe for the benefit of the humans he loves, he designed all the creatures and made the world to be a nice hospitable place for us to live. This god is talked about by reference to objects in the universe that can be observed, this god is objective. A spiritual god on the other hand is one who does not influence the universe (perhaps he started it going but that's beyond observation anyway), but who exists in some other sense. Whatever this other sense of existence may mean any talk of him is not talk of an observation, it is some sort of internal feeling. This god is subjective.

I'd like to think through the implications of various gods. If you believe in an objective god, then your belief can rightly be thought of as a scientific hypothesis. This is what the Discovery Institute in the states contend anyway. They claim that their evidence for Intelligent Design is scientifically valid and the conclusion "thus god exists" is one based on observation, (note they dont dare say god, they talk of a designer so that they can claim not be religious so as to infiltrate schools, but that's a digression). This claim is very interesting, because if it is true then all we need to do is do some experiments and then we can settle this whole god thing and then maybe I can do something more interesting with my time.

However, when you actually do some experiments, or rather endless experiments, you get nothing. No irreducible complexity, no designer, no ark, no miracles, nothing. Not one claim made of the work of an interventionist god has been substantiated by observation. And this is not an obscure fact hardly anyone knows about. Quite aside from Dawkins et al the scientific community are not quiet about the absence of any need for god. And yet people still believe. This sort of religion then leads to systematically false and irreparable beliefs. This is, as I have shown, dangerous and (I would argue) immoral. This kind of god is a denial of science and more importantly it is a denial of the objective checks and balances needed to keep morality in touch with reality.

The problem with a lot of arguments about god is that atheist want to attack this notion of an interventionist god. And in doing so we attack religion as a concept. In doing so we also tarnish another kind of belief which is either akin to or is exactly deism depending on quibbles. This is the belief that god is not a physical entity, nor does he physically affect the universe. This god can provide a basis for all existence, be a first cause, provide moral instruction, have a relationship with you, give you hope in times of need and lots of other suitably grand things. A lot of people ask why atheists spend so much time talking about extremists and not to these sorts of people. The sort answer is we dont disagree with these people. To have this kind of a concept of god is to believe that god can only to be in the world we can experience as part of the internal mental realm. To say “god exists” then is like saying “Marmite is nice” or “murder is wrong” or “the Mona Lisa is beautiful”, I may disagree with you, but what you are saying is not something that I can show you to be wrong. We can talk a bit and get a lot better idea on why we believe as we do. But ultimately there's no real grounds to be able to claim to be right or wrong. One can think about this alternatively by saying that “god exists” can be true in your mind but not in mine, I dont personally find this way of thinking helpful, but some might like it.

But I would like to wrap this up by asking a few questions. People get annoyed when religion is assumed to mean a religion with an interventionist god by atheists. But I'd like to suggest there may be good reason for this. How often, when talking to people outside of your religion or to children, does the average religious person mention that all his stories are metaphors? I'd like to suggest that there is a thin end of this wedge that a lot of people engage in. Do you believe that it is possible for a person to speak infallibly? Or a book? Do you believe in healing, the power of prayer? Do you believe that a man was born to a virgin 2000 years ago? Do you believe the same man rose from the dead? Do you believe, to cut things short, anything about the observable world through means other than observation? A lot of people do, and it's a problem.

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