Learning from a Catholic what Atheists think

Bertrand Russel thinks you are mistakenIf you’re out of the closet as an atheist, there is a number of canards that you will hear a lot. One of them is that Atheism requires more faith than religion. Whole (bad) books have been written on that “idea”. Ambrose has a new post on this entirely unoriginal topic, and he gets everything predictably wrong.

The problem with making blanket statements about atheists is that we are negatively defined. It’s a little like trying to understand how non-philatelists think. With a religion, it’s easy: there are holy books and dogmas. No such thing with atheism or aphilately, as the only common point between us is an absence. However, that doesn’t prevent our theist friends from telling us how we all think.

[Terry Pratchett] says something like "take apart the universe to its smallest particles and show me one grain of Justice" or something like that (sic). It's actually fairly poetic in its own way (I'm not doing the passage justice, no pun intended).
Sadly, I think it does accurately portray what an atheistic, materialistic worldview honestly is left with at the end of the day. No indeed, there is no atomic element of Ju (Justice), nor of Lv (Love), nor any other virtue. In a materialistic philosophy, these things really are lies, and an adherent is forced to have faith in those lies in order to create a reality that is bearable as a human.

No, that does accurately portray no such thing. Ambrose is conflating atheism with materialism, materialism with reductionism, and reductionism with determinism. He also betrays a very common quality of religious thought: a form of materialism that goes much farther than that of most people with any scientific literacy. Why do people think that in order to exist, something has to be reducible to some sort of conserved substance? What a lack of imagination that is. To take a random example, entropy is a very well-defined and real quantity, but there isn’t such a thing as an atom of entropy. A thought is a real thing as well, although there is no such thing as an atom of thought. Even if the substrate of all reality is space and elementary particles, there are innumerable emergent phenomena that are just as real. There is no problem or contradiction here.

It’s theists that make the false assumption here that love, morality or justice are substances that need to be breathed into the world by some magical entity, instead of just emerging from the brains of social animals. One thing that I can tell you is that you will never hear me say that morality or justice are illusions. I do think they are very real, even if they are only meaningful within human or human-like  experience. This makes the following assertion fall flat on its metaphorical face:

one difference is that some atheists may try to deny that they have such faith, if put to the test, saying rather that, for example, Justice is only a handy term to represent a reasoned view of moral behavior in society based on mutual self-interest.  But then ask them what they think about having prayer in schools or not redefining marriage to include homosexual unions, and just listen to them go off on how "unjust" those things are.

Oh, but what’s wrong with a “reasoned view of moral behavior in society based on mutual self-interest”? And how do issues of separation of Church and State, or civil rights contradict such a view of justice?

if I'm going to believe in things like Justice, Love, Freedom, Happiness, and other ideals and virtues, I prefer to have a rational basis for believing in them

Fine, and what would that be?

I think it takes a tremendous amount of faith to believe that my human experience is only the result of material interactions in my body. On the contrary, every fiber of my being tells me that there is more to my existence than the material--my own,observed and reasoned experience (I tend to be fairly self-reflective). So why would I take it on faith from scientists (an Authority) or atheistic philosophers (another Authority) that this is so, contrary to my own observations of life?
For me, that would take a lot more faith than to believe in what seems obvious to me based on my own experience and reason, namely that there is a Prime Mover

What Ambrose is basically saying here is that he trusts his personal experience, common sense and gut feelings more than science, ergo Jesus.

He makes a considerable number of mistakes here.

First, personal experience, common sense and gut feeling are extremely poor indicators of truth. Anyone who has studied quantum mechanics, or who has even seen an optical illusion should know how easy it is to fool the human brain, and how reality doesn’t give a damn about your common sense. You need tools such as science to mitigate your own biases.

Second, even if there is a leap of faith at the basis of all human thought, that does not make the tiny assumption that there is an objective reality equivalent to the huge assumption that there is an invisible flying spaghetti monster whose noodly appendages move all things. It’s a common claim of theists to assert that because nothing is ever absolutely certain (an assumption that is necessary to scientific thought), then all beliefs, no matter how outlandish, are equally legitimate to hold. It’s ironic that they hold their dogmas to be absolutely certain.

Third, the claim that scientific knowledge is a form of argument from authority is infuriatingly ignorant. Scientific knowledge is based on reproducible experiments. No claim is ever accepted before it has been replicated by independent teams. Who makes the claim is almost entirely irrelevant (although not all authorities are equivalent). Another very important difference between religious thought and scientific thought is that science works.

Finally, dualism is getting increasingly indefensible in the light of the progress of neuroscience. Once you know how changes in the brain mechanically cause changes in behavior, sometimes to the point where the identity of the person is radically altered or replaced, it becomes extremely difficult to believe that there is a soul in addition to the brain.

Atheism is a faith? What a joke.

Archived comments

  • Sipke Schoorstra said on Friday, March 2, 2012

    Excellent read. Personally I don't often make assumtpions, but I suspect the flying spaghetti monster of stealing my food every now and then!