Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Been a While...

It has been quite a while, but I've been absorbed in a lot of other stuff going on, so I apologize. I have to do that a lot. Maybe I should just label this as a semi-annual blog and congratulate myself when I do better? Lowering expectations till they're already met...
Anyway, what brings me here today is the Cleveland Show. Yeah, I probably comprise 20% of its viewership. It irritated me because in it, Junior admits to not believing in God, and within seconds calls atheism a religion. Of course, as many comedians, Seth McFarlane is a professional (and extremely funny, most of the time) troll, so that doesn't get me in and of itself. It's the sentiment, that atheists are somehow dogmatic members of a unified organization, that I'd like to deal with, and while I know that 90% of the internet has either dealt with (in nauseating detail) this belief or just ignored it and continued screaming "Uh huh! It is so a religion!" at the top of their collective lungs, it is for the other 10% that I write this, in the hopes that they may be open to some form of reason. That said, I will be saying a few things that will be disagreeable to all sides of the discussion, but only for illustrative purposes. So.
The view that Atheism (I'll use a capital A to distinguish it throughout this post, though honestly I think it's both as silly and incorrect as capitalizing Astrology, Pickles, or Clitoris) is a religion is a surprisingly virulent thought. It's ridiculous on its face if you look at the definition of atheism (essentially no belief in a god) but this argument is quickly dispatched by, "But it isn't atheism, it's Atheism." Let's look instead to religion for an answer. I've been reading a book called Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer, an in depth study of the structure of religion and its origins. He lists a few things that are common to religious beliefs across the world, very basic concepts. I'll paraphrase, but it can be found on pages 48 and 49.
  1. Religion matters to people.
  2. Religion prescribes rituals of some type.
  3. Religions have "specialists".
  4. Religion provides "Truth".
  5. Religions often have institutions such as churches.
  6. Religion triggers strong emotions, sometimes even enough to inspire homicide.
  7. Religion persists despite seemingly more efficient ways of thinking.
This is, by no means an exhaustive list, but it's enough to work with. For this, we'll replace Religion with Atheism in each sentence.
1. Atheism matters to people. Of course, but any deeply held belief matters to people. The obdurateness of Conservatives, the irreverence of Liberals, the superiority of the Packers to the Dolphins and so forth. All these beliefs matter to us, or we wouldn't bother holding them.
2. Atheism prescribes rituals. Nope. Next question.
3. Atheism has specialists. Not particularly. A few individuals spring to mind, PZ Myers is particularly outspoken regarding his Atheism, but also his liberal political views. He is a biologist who teaches biology. Richard Dawkins, another evolutionary biologist, has been labeled the Atheist Pope, but specializes in his field of study, not in religion, and certainly not civil discourse. Atheism doesn't have specialists, it has hobbyists, no matter how passionate. Religions of course have everything from Shamans to Mullahs to Rabbis to Cardinals, all specializing almost entirely in their world view.
4. Atheism provides "Truth". Atheism might be right, but that doesn't mean it prescribes truth. It doesn't claim to be true so much as it claims other worldviews to be wrong. As for the commonly heated debates such as Creationism vs Evolution, Young vs Old Earth, parthenogenesis or silver tongued minx, on each science is on one side, and religion on the other. If you claim that Atheism requires Science (these capitalizations are bugging me), may I point to Bill Maher, for example, as one of many Atheists who does not maintain a strict adherence to Scientific fact as his reason for disbelief- it's just common sense, but he falls on the opposite side of Science in many of his beliefs, such as his views regarding vaccinations causing autism and the efficacy of herbal medicines, chiropractic, or other alternative medicine modalities. Furthermore, Science itself does not prescribe truth- it represents the best guess based upon all available evidence as evaluated by experts. It could be wrong, as it was about the tectonic plates only 50(ish) years ago, and if it is, it self corrects.
5. Atheism has institutions such as churches etc.. Nope. Nothing comes particularly close, even. We have meet-ups, which are sort of similar to Bible Studies, but then, so are tailgate parties. And even if you'd die for the Long Horns, you (hopefully) wouldn't call them your belief system, or claim to draw your morality from the teachings of their quarterback.
6. Atheism triggers strong emotions, sometimes even enough to incite homicide. Let's look at both sections separately. Yes. Atheism triggers strong emotions. So does being Black, if you're in a minority in that culture. Or being a woman. Lots of shared factors, which create some sort of in-group, will contribute to strongly felt emotions, but that comes from our tribal natures, and is common to numerous traits. As for homicide, I've never heard of a murder committed for Atheism. Plenty for Islam and Christianity, but never Atheism. And of course you'll cite Hitler, Mao Z'Dong, and Stalin. Hitler wasn't an Atheist (he was Catholic) but his genocide was inspired by a lust for power and a syphilitic brain. Same for Mao and Stalin, minus the syphilis. Both of the latter established a state religion, setting themselves up to be worshiped. It was an atheistic religion (like Ayn Rand's cult, only national) but it wasn't Atheism.
7. Atheism persists despite more efficient ways of thinking. The religious will probably agree here, but I don't believe this is so. Really, which is more efficient (not more correct) based solely upon the number of things you must believe? That, say, humans arose by chance through evolution (see count below), or that God created us? If you think the latter is more efficient, consider this: How did He do this(1), specifically by which mechanism did He accomplish this(2), why would He care to do this(3) where did He come from(4) what is God (5) (Being generous here, what is God itself requires more concepts to be learned, incorporeal, all knowing, omnipotent, omnipresent, etc.,) and when did did He do this (6 (Even just "a long time ago, Billy" needs to be distinct from "a month ago" for proper understanding)? Note that this doesn't deal with all the other possible questions, what order we were made in, etc., because they aren't required or inferred. The concept of God itself has complicated (and tricky to define) underpinnings. All of these are dealt with by religion, and are a prerequisite to accepting the initial worldview. As for the opposite view, all that is required is A. Things that survive(1) get to make babies(2). and C. Babies change subtly over time(3). Each of these leads to other fascinating questions, but none are required to accept the initial statement. And, while I use this particular view, it is not necessarily an Atheistic one, more correctly, it is Scientific. I will admit that Atheism often has a view which coincides with but is still distinct from Science; Atheists are free to believe that Lrrr of Omicron Persei 8, a mortal (though ageless) extraterrestrial created humans through magic to guard his harem's egg hatchery. They might be crazy, but they can still be Atheists without batting an eyelash. In this case, believing in God is probably more efficient, even if some might say just as reasonable.
So at least in the number of concepts we require to learn a particular origin story, Atheism (through the Scientific view) is more efficient. On the other hand, the religious may feel that all the questions they don't need to ask outweighs this, in which case it's somewhat open to interpretation. Where the religious may, for instance (and I'm not saying all of them) that a rainbow is God's promise to never flood the world again, a Atheist (via Science, still distinct) would have to understand, at least basically, the entire study of optics to really get a good handle on it, and some minor meteorology doesn't hurt, leading to many more pesky questions. The caveat there is that while there are Atheist Scientists, there are also Scientists who are Christian (not to be confused with Christian Scientists, a particular religious denomination).
This then puts the first paragraph into perspective, rendering it rather invalid. Just because you're a Christian doesn't mean you have to believe that God "magicked" us into existence- He could have leveraged the laws of physics and evolution to bring that about. Likewise, as I pointed out with Lrrr, you could be an Atheist and not adhere to any of the Scientific view. Which means that, once again, Atheism and Science must be divorced for proper comparison. Therefore, assuming common conceptions of evolution, reproduction, and time, or, in other words, eliminating the Scientific factor, Atheism presupposes:(This space intentionally left blank). Religion presupposes: God (1). And again, God is more than just one concept, multiple concepts need to build on one another, and further questions invariably arise for the diligent questioner.
In conclusion, Atheism doesn't give us an origin story. Atheism doesn't give us rules to live by. Atheism doesn't give us ethics. Science does all of that (if you include the meta-physical branches, which I do), but it isn't a prerequisite to Atheism, nor unique to Atheism. There are tens if not hundreds of millions of Christians, Jews, Muslims and other religious folk that have a Scientific world view coexisting with a Religious one (say what you like about duplicity, they do exist). Likewise, there are plenty of Atheists that don't adhere to it.
But, most importantly, Atheism does give us an identity, and that brings us together to fight off "invaders" who would take our identity away, or persecute us for it. It is for this that the "Paladins of the Internet", those that must correct all "wrongness" online, are often met with resistance of a zeal and fervor almost always associated with religion. Atheists have been a repressed minority since the first Shaman shook a stick, and after tens of thousands of years, they won't take it. The ironic thing is, if no one cared, there wouldn't be Atheists, just more people, with all their nuance and foibles. Similarly, it wouldn't be necessary to label someone that dislikes Ramen Noodles and A-Ramen-Noodlist, because no one is affected one way of the other. No one cares. But, not caring isn't just tolerance- you tolerate things you dislike- it's total neutrality. If a Presidential Candidate openly announced his/her Atheism, it would result in a precipitous decline in voters. That is what Atheists want- equality, neutrality.
We aren't a Religion, we just don't believe in one thing you're completely assured of. If you're a Muslim, you say that Mohammad was the Prophet. If you're a Christian, you say that Jesus was the Son of God (just a prominent terrestrial prophet). You can't both be right. Atheists just say, "Who cares?"

Simplified take away : Atheism is not Religion.

The following is only tangentially related to the above.
To those Atheists that decided to protest the cross and Ground Zero, good job. You've made us all look light heartless assholes, more interested in expunging religion than letting people get over a tragedy of historical proportion. It's like taking all the Stars of David away from Holocaust memorials. Thank you. This is exactly what it takes for any movement to go forward- to make horrific caricatures of its members in the cultural norms and then move forward from there. Think I'm wrong? Look at the portrayal of gay people on 90's TV. Next time, lay on a bit more nihilism and maybe eat a baby or two.
So, good job guys. I hate everything you stand for, but you might have done me a favor.