Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Blah blah blah: Atheism under attack!

Saturday's Guardian carries an opinion piece from Nicholas Buxton entitled "Face to faith" where he touts out the now-frequent line from organised religions about how atheism is also a religious movement with a dogmatic approach to everything from science to social justice. He starts his piece with this rather extraordinary sentence: "Post-Enlightment critiques of religion have sought to reduce it to a tool of social oppression (Marxism), bad science (Darwinism) or neurosis (Freudianism)."

Yes, there is bad science in the Bible and other religious texts, but if Buxton thinks that biology is the study of how religion is wrong it sounds like he didn't pay attention at school. Biology is the study of life. It is about uncovering the truth about our origins and the way we and other organisms are formed. Scientists report what they find, not what they want to find. If the findings contradict (or support!) the Bible, then that is just the way it is. The point of science is to uncover the truth not to "prove" preconceived notions. Similarly, Marxism is a critique of oppression of workers. Whether it comes from religion or elsewhere is irrelevant to the theory. Say that religious texts contained support the tectonic plate theory, the theory of universal common descent, or proletariat empowerment - and some perhaps do. Would this have any bearing on the general theory of Marxism or that of evolution?

It is not long until the next extraordinary sentence: "A 'religion' is a story we inhabit that makes sense of what would otherwise be nonsense." He also claims that Marxists, Darwinists and Freudians are in this game too. Why do these people who the organised religions put out to attack secularism and atheism always come up with these ridiculous definitions? What dictionary was that definition pulled out of? Enough of the straw men.

He carries on in this vein, but worth mentioning is his claim that "dogmatic - taken for granted and unprovable - assumptions underlie non-religious world views as well". World views like desiring "progress" are apparently dogmatic. On the other hand, perhaps people desire progress because they see where we were 500 years ago with rampant disease, high child mortality rates and a highly restrictive lifestyle, and see where we are now, and believe things can get better? He questions why there will be a better future if we increase our scientific knowledge. Well, it worked for getting rid of rampant disease and high child mortality rates, and it liberated people's lifestyles.

Buxton's argument is centred around a fundamental misunderstanding of faith. Not all faith is the same. We all have faith that our doctor will be able to help us. We believe this because we are aware of the training doctors go through and the regulation by the government to ensure that they are qualified. We don't have to take it on faith - we could ask to see certification of their licence to practice. But we do, because it's so likely they have those qualifications. Confusing this faith with the faith that the world was created by a all-powerful being who has existed forever and knows everything, which is a far more questionable claim, leads to an completely fallacious conclusion that everything we take on faith is equally likely.

Atheism is not a form of religion. It is opposition to accepting ideas at face value, to unquestioning support for authority. It requires extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. It is based on scepticism and rationality.

The ending is worth quoting for entertainment value:

To be a Christian in such circumstances is to be unconventional and nonconformist: it is to be something of a freethinker, espousing a radical vision of human flourishing that shows us how we can be more than what we are, rather than reducing us to less than what we should be.


Cat said...

I came across this blog entry today, claiming that atheism is a religion--no matter how much atheists dislike that claim: http://jewishphilosopher.blogspot.com/2007/04/is-atheism-opinion-or-religion.html

Honestly, I think they're getting desperate. The attacks on atheists, at least the written/verbal ones, seem to be getting worse--and often more and more ridiculous--by the day.

Chris said...

As I understand it, his argument is basically atheism is a religion therefore all atheists are either like Hitler and Stalin or responsible for them because he says so. Sound logical argument there.

el Tom said...

I would argue myself that atheism is a form of faith, based on philosophy of science.

I support hte notion of falsifiability; for something to be considered to be proven true by evidence, it must accpet the possibility of falsehood, otherwise the preconcpetion that evidence is required to prove a truth is rendered meaningless.

At the same time, the one thing which is evident is that evidential standards can never reach to point of absolute surety. in the words of Socrates, 'I am wise above all in that I alone that which I do not know'.

To frame atheism as a concept prvable by the absence of evidence for random given religious precepts is a logical fallacy. Why these particular precetpts? Why is atheism correct because we cannot find, for example, evidence of the red sea parting?

On could just sa easily say that atheism is proven by the absence of evidence for a giant, world creating spaghetti monster.

The non-existance of a god is as impossible to prove as the existence of one, and at the same time, one must question why it is a 'god' that we are trying to prove or disprove anyway, having seen absolutely no contextualised and parametric evidence that one exists to even give us the necessary background to a hypothesis.

However, in an absence of proof from both sides, where an answer is required we must side with the weighting of the evidene; which for me points to the general absence of the supernatural (that is, absence of evidence for something defined by there being no evidence for it!)

On that basis, I decry atheism, theism, deism and agnosticism as flawed. I declare myself the pruodest of nontheists.