Tuesday, April 3, 2012

More on Atheism: Baiting and Switching

Strictly speaking "atheism" is merely a-theism, the state of being "without God," or, more precisely, without belief in God.  By that standard there are many "religious" atheists. There are Jews who doubt the existence of G-d but who find meaning and value in Jewish tradition. As Kimberly Winston notes in the Huffington Post:
In the 1920s, American Conservative Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan developed the theology of what would become Reconstructionist Judaism, founded on the idea that God is not personal, but a summation of all natural processes. Four decades later, Reform Rabbi Sherwin Wine came out as an atheist and founded "Humanistic Judaism," which emphasizes secular Jewish culture and history over belief in God.
Siddhartha Gautama showed little interest in worlds to come or the nature of Deity.  Many of his followers have created extensive theologies complete with Gods, Demons, Heavens and Hells: he was much more focused on mindfulness in the here and now. One Western Buddhist, Stephen Batchelor, author of Buddhism Without Beliefs and Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist, has discussed this in some detail:
What Batchelor believes the Buddha did preach were four essentials. First, the conditioned nature of existence, which is to say everything continually comes and goes. Second, the practice of mindfulness, as the way to be awake to what is and what is not. Third, the tasks of knowing suffering, letting go of craving, experiencing cessation and the "noble path". Fourth, the self-reliance of the individual, so that nothing is taken on authority, and everything is found through experience.
Meanwhile, many contemporary Pagans and Hermetic Magicians are more precisely Jungians than theists. They believe that the Gods and Mythic Heroes are symbols and archetypes hard-wired into our brains. Through the use of ritual, meditation and other techniques they hope to access those archetypes and gain wisdom and personal empowerment thereby. Others (like myself) are animists: while we believe that consciousness is not exclusive to human beings - or to carbon-based biological organisms - we do not believe that these other sentient beings are omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent or omnibenevolent. So by any standard which claims that God must be defined by the "Four Os" we too are atheists.

But none of us would qualify as "atheists" by the standards of the New Atheists.  Their atheism doesn't just involve a lack of belief in God/s.  It involves an open rejection of and contempt for anything smacking of "religious thought," combined with a steadfast conviction that anything which can't be corroborated, falsified and repeated must be ignored or mocked.  And it requires a rejection of anything which smacks of the "supernatural." Not only does it act as a religion: it elevates people like Penn & Teller and The Amazing Randi to the status of prophets.

There's no reason why one could not be an "atheist" and believe in telepathy.  The fact that people might sometimes be able to hear the thoughts of other people does not imply the existence of a God: it merely suggests our brains may, under certain circumstances, function as transceivers.  One might accept the existence of incorporeal beings like fairies and djinnis without accepting that they worked in service of or in opposition to some Higher Power.  Microbes and viruses are invisible without appropriate tools, yet their effect on the visible world is hardly questioned by even the most ardent atheist.  There are stories throughout different eras and cultures of beings like the "Good Folk" who occasionally interact with humans and have enormous impact on their lives.  The similarities in these tales is certainly thought-provoking at the very least.  Yet anyone who showed up on a New Atheist forum talking about the possible existence of fairies or telepathy would quickly be laughed off the virtual stage. 

Consider the way atheists like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins have rejected Lovelock's Gaia Hypothesis.  It has passed the hurdles of corroboration: it has made several speculations which were later proven true regarding weathering of rocks by microorganisms, the lack of life on Mars and the role of microorganisms in transferring essential elements from ocean to land.  It answers intriguing questions about the amounts of methane in the atmosphere and treats the planet as a complex and self-sustaining system - something which would seem self-evident to most based on the available evidence.

Yet it is controversial among many atheists not because it is wrong but because it can lead to some uncomfortable conclusions. It suggests that evolution and the development of life on Gaia was directed: that there may be some form of consciousness involved in the planetary system as a whole. (Lovelock has backed away from this in recent years, to little avail: of course, Galileo's refutation didn't convince many people either).  The idea that evolution might be a teleological (goal-directed) process must be rejected out of hand not because it is wrong but because it might lead to Science being poisoned by Mysticism.

The Gaia Theory does not prove the existence of a God in the Abrahamic sense: it merely provides  tantalizing evidence of a Higher Power with Intelligence which is not limited to a human body.  This Intelligence does not require worship, faith, or sacrifice of virgins: it is not Personal nor is it directly concerned with our welfare, our morals and ethics, our sex lives, or our voting habits. But it must be ignored or refuted because it runs afoul of scientific orthodoxy in much the same way evolution runs afoul of certain religious orthodoxies.