Sunday, April 1, 2012

The True Unbelievers or "G is for Godless"

After reading Jason Miller's posts on Atheism, I decided to drop by PZ Myers' blog. For those of you who don't know PZ Myers, imagine Christopher Hitchens minus the wit. Among his more notorious publicity stunts are  throwing several Eucharist wafers in the trash along with pages from the Q'uran and posting cartoons of Muhammad with the comment "We defy such arbitrary restrictions on our freedom, whether it's a demand that we treat crackers with respect or a demand that we do not render images of some guy, and we violated them, because we can." These antics, presumably, were intended to show that atheism is far more rational, logical and reasonable than any silly superstition. (When a Florida pastor defaces someone else's holy symbols he's a bigot. When PZ Myers does it he's a freedom fighter. From where I stand it looks like both are attention junkies). 

First I should clarify that I have no objection to atheism per se.  I have no interest in winning people over to the True Faith and can hardly imagine that any God worthy of the name would get huffy about the issue.  (Do you really care if some random stranger believes or disbelieves in your existence?) I think atheists do everyone a public service when they insist on drawing hard clear lines between Church and State or between Science and Religion.  It's silly to conflate facts with mythical truths by claiming your holy text trumps hard evidence.  But it's equally silly to claim that Science is the only way by which we can encounter the world and that the universe can be and indeed must be understood only through the tools of logic and mathematics. As Martin Heidegger put it:
The revealing that rules throughout modern technology has the character of a setting-upon, in the sense of a challenging--forth. Such challenging happens in that the energy concealed in nature is unlocked, what is unlocked is transformed, what is transformed is stored up, what is stored up is in turn distributed, and what is distributed is switched about ever anew. Unlocking, transforming, storing, distributing, and switching about are ways of revealing. But the revealing never simply comes to an end. Neither does it run off into the indeterminate. The revealing reveals to itself its own manifoldly interlocking paths, through regulating their course. This regulating itself is, for its part, everywhere secured. Regulating and securing even become the chief characteristics of the revealing that challenges.
The "New Atheists" like to call themselves skeptics. That's a misnomer which does a great disservice to actual skepticism. Skeptics focus on the limitations of their knowledge, trying to determine that which they cannot know. The New Atheists are actually fundamentalist Materialists. They reject as impossible any claims to the "supernatural," by which they mean anything which cannot be explained using the tools and techniques of contemporary science. If it can't be falsified, verified and repeated ala Karl Popper it can't exist. And if it's rejected by the Western scientific establishment (i.e. Qi) it must be nothing but superstition and quackery with any evidence to the contrary being self-delusion or willful fraud.
This of course eliminates any possibility of considering the mystical experience as based in anything but brain anomalies, despite the remarkable continuity in mystical experiences across eras and cultures. It means ignoring data which does not fit neatly into the standard paradigm.  (For years this happened with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome: because doctors couldn't find a cause, it was obvious that all those women were just malingering... ). And it means responding with heated emotional attacks when presented with anyone who dares to doubt the rightness of their conclusions.

As I said on PZ's board, the main differences between a Dominionist and a New Atheist are that the Dominionists have more political clout and generally use more temperate and polite language. Needless to say, many of PZ's fans got their knickers in a twist over this statement.  But let's take a close look at some of those similarities.

Both wish to control not only praxis but belief.

Most of us don't really care what our neighbors or our countrymen do in their bedrooms or in their chapels.  We are less concerned with their theology than their behavior: we're happy to leave them to their delusions so long as they leave us to ours. That's the way people co-exist peacefully in polite societies.  We're with Thomas Jefferson, who said "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

The Dominionists, of course, will have none of this. They see tolerance not as a strength but as a great evil: where we see democracy in action they see the wicked kings of Israel and Judah honoring the idols of foreign gods. Alternate beliefs must be attacked and refuted lest their holders go to Hell and take society along with them.  Meanwhile, the New Atheists feel that anyone who has fallen victim to the God delusion should be treated as, well, deluded.  They see tolerance of the God delusion not as a strength but as a great evil. They feel they are morally obligated to engage with believers and to either convert or discredit them. As Gregory Greenwood said on PZ's blog:
Not only is the god belief unevidenced and irrational, it is also actively harmful. Given the ludicrously long odds against the existence of any such being, it is not only acceptable for rationalists to point out how ridiculous the idea is, it is irresponsible of us not to.
Both are convinced of the rightness of their own cause and the wrongness of everyone else's

The Dominionists rely on the King James Version of the Bible for their reasoning. The New Atheists rely on things like Parsimony, Occam's Razor, Russell's Teapot and various other logical puzzles which "disprove" the existence of the supernatural to their satisfaction. There's only one little problem: they miss the distinction between deductive and inductive logic.  If the premises of a properly constructed deductive argument are true, then the conclusion must be true. While inductive logic can suggest that something is true or false with a greater or lesser degree of likelihood, it cannot prove or disprove anything.  It is entirely possible to come to wrong conclusions via Occam's Razor: if it weren't, Agatha Christie and other mystery writers would have been out of a job long ago.  What looks on the surface to be the most plausible answer is not necessarily the correct one.  (There are other problems with many of their "arguments" which I hope to address in later entries, but for now my point is that they claim that their use of logic has provided them with the same degree of certainty as the Dominionists give to their revealed texts - and they are just as mistaken).

There's also the issue which they keep ducking: science can provide us with evidence that a "Big Bang" happened, with evidence of evolution, with the laws of thermodynamics and quantum mechanics, etc.  But it cannot explain WHY that Big Bang happened or why our universe has the structure it does. As Consciousness Razor puts it on PZ's blog:
I’m not a physicist either. As I understand it, that’s a possibility, but it requires a certain model of the BB which isn’t necessarily the case. It could be that there is infinite spacetime in the past and the BB only makes it impossible to know much about it (though if we can’t know anything about it, then I’m not sure how that could be supported with evidence). To give another example, a multiverse theory explaining the BB could be about causes in the multiverse’s framework. Anyway, I guess the relevant point is that those would rely on a legitimate causal mechanism based on evidence, rather simply making shit up about imaginary intelligent beings.
Also, Carrier recently put forward an argument that basically says “nothing comes from nothing” is false. If we suppose nothing exists and try to figure out what logically follows from that state, then we’re also supposing that anything logically necessary also “exists” — that is, it’s true and exists in that sense. Since none of that entails something else (which isn’t logically necessary) cannot exist, then that something is possible. So even if physical theories wouldn’t be able to offer a causal explanation, there’s still no reason to believe something coming from nothing is logically impossible.

Which gets us right back to the question of why there are multiverses instead of a great void? And how is it that "something" comes from "nothing?"  Instead of admitting "we don't know" the typical New Atheist response is "there are no SKY FAIRIES BECAUSE I SAID SO!!!" Which is, honestly, no more convincing than thumping on a Bible and threatening me with hellfire.

Both feel the rightness of their cause trumps rules of polite social discourse

Most of us agree that defacing holy books, desecrating icons, etc. is bad form and those who do it are worthy of condemnation.  PZ thinks it's just fine and dandy to toss consecrated hosts in the garbage along with pages from the Q'uran and then post the video of same for all the world to see.  In fighting the Evil Dominionists, he's managed to sink to their level and show the same kind of violent intolerance they espouse.

And let's see some of the other polite discourse from the followers of reason and rationality:

Here's "Chris P" speaking out on Jason Miller's blog:
Sorry but being “nice” didn’t work. My mother said to live by example – that doesn’t work. If I religiously use my turn signals – other people don’t bother.
If you want to talk social skills – I suggest you talk to the evangelical Christian on the other side of the cubicle wall. He farts, he belches, he eats while he is on the phone to customers and suppliers, he swears like a trooper, he loses his temper, …..
Not standing for BS is a GOOD social skill. How much more certainty do we have to have? You’ve had 2000 plus years and still cannot agree on which religion is right – I think you’ve fouled out and don’t deserve a seat at the table anymore.
 And  here's Colonelzen on PZ Myers' blog:
Definition of an asshole: someone who won’t change what he’s saying to accomodate your sensibilities.
Yes we’re assholes. Reality is what doesn’t change no matter how you feel about it.
We’re arguing that that the reality is more important than fairy tales.
Ok, we’re assholes. We know it. We won’t change what we’re saying to make you feel better.
Reality doesn’t care. We may care but can’t change it. Recognising that requires that we be assholes.
So we’re assholes. So is reality. Get over it.
This sort of discourse has nothing to do with rationalism or reason: it's a bunch of angry socially challenged people acting out like a toddler finger-painting with his own poop.  And they justify their fecal artistry by claiming they have a moral imperative, that the rightness of their cause is such that they must get their message out no matter whom they offend.  One must wonder what would happen if they had the power to enforce their "No God, No Way, No How" message by means other than making rude posts on the Internet.