This is a response to Zachary Ardem’s article titled “Oh, you’re an atheist?’ which is a fictional discussion between a theist and a atheist in 2065.
Auckland, Easter Sunday 2065AD – a fanciful conversation. Two men chat awkwardly on the city’s new light rail system connecting central Auckland to the North Shore.
Jack (J): Hi there, Happy Easter!
Chris (C): Hi, thank you, but I don’t actually believe in Easter.
J: Oh, sorry! Why is that? What do you believe in? My name is Jack, by the way.
C: I’m Chris, I’m an atheist, I don’t believe in anything.
This appears on face value to be setting up the atheist as a straw man. To suggest that atheists believe in nothing would indicate that atheists do not believe in objective reality. This is of course a common and sadly dishonest characterisation of atheists. Atheists are simply those who don’t believe in gods. If we are to take the term atheist to also mean rationalist they also believe that they should determine what is true, and therefore what to believe, by observation and reasoned analysis of the natural world, and that the claim of the existence of gods has not met its burden of proof.
J: Oh, okay Chris. It’s quite a while since I’ve spoken to an atheist, this is quite exciting! You’re not a Buddhist, are you?
C: No, no; a traditionalist atheist. I’m just off to the Sunday Assembly, in fact. I’m the lead non-pastor.
J: Fascinating. How’s your congregation going?
C: Well, we’re doing okay. Atheism is the inevitable result of an enlightened population, you realise?
J: Ah, sure. So, your congregation are particularly well educated then? Growing in numbers and influence in society? It’s been so long since I’ve heard anything about you guys …
C: Yeah, well, not really at the moment, but we look forward in hope to a time of future growth. Attendance tends to peak at Easter and Christmas, I’m hoping we’ll have 40 or so today, and some may even bring their grandchildren!
This discussion betrays the authors belief that being popular is more important than being right. Atheists are not terribly concerned about attendances, and certainly do not equate the number of followers with any indication that their beliefs are correct. This is however the refrain from many theists. How can so many people be wrong they ask? Theists are very concerned about the number of followers. They have ministries that promote their religion to non believers. They are active in state schools for example, trying to use traditional privilege to expand the flock.
J: Do you have grandchildren yourself?
C: Yes, I do, but their family are all believers, so we don’t really talk to them, at the moment. No doubt as they grow up, they’ll come to see the Truth though. Once they have an experience of the pointlessness of the world.
Here the author projects the intolerance exhibited by religion onto atheists. Many religious orders are quite explicit about forbidding contact with those not of their belief. Some actually constrain people from having physical contact, while others create social barriers. Protestants and Catholics, Sunni and Shia, Christianity and Islam, religion claims for itself absolute truth in the absence of any evidence, and decries anyone who disagrees as heretics, blasphemers and apostates.
Secular humanists on the other hand embrace religious freedom. They may question the beliefs of others, sometimes even be rather uncharitable with their critique, but generally we work and live side by side to theists. We do not wail on about the beliefs of the religious to those who do not wish to engage. We don’t call for theists to be imprisoned or killed. We don’t try and impose laws to ban Churches, nor are we seen demolishing historic buildings and artifacts.
But on any single day you will see the religious knocking on doors, indoctrinating children, calling for their religious beliefs or their adherents to receive special treatment under law, killing those who don’t believe as they do, and destroying historical artifacts they take religious issue with.
In this secular democratic society everyone is free to follow whatever makes them happy and fulfilled so long as it does not deny others of the same. We do not pre-judge what these things may be. We allow people to believe as they wish. This, if anything, is the doctrine of secular humanism. And so the idea that we would have nothing to do with our own family because they believe is patently absurd.
J: Oh, cool, I’m sure … That must be great to have. Can you tell me more about this atheism, then? How do you square it with the findings of science, for instance that the world is orderly, law-governed, fine-tuned, and finite? Forgive me if this is too bold, I just happen to work in nanogenetics, I love the philosophy of science.
C: I don’t have as much faith in ‘science’ as you do. There are fewer things in heaven and earth, Jack, than are dreamed of in your philosophy! You all extrapolate things far too far, back to this mythical ‘beginning’.
This is a futile attempting to position theism as the rational position based on science. Science is the study and analysis of the natural world. Rationalists and sceptics withhold belief until belief is justified through evidence. Appealing to a orderly, law-governed, fine tuned universe to prove the existence of a deity assumes pre-existing complexity of the deity. How can we assert we know anything about the origins of the universe when it isn’t possible to observe what, if anything, is outside it?
However, if we were to base our belief on the Bible without reference to science we would end up believing that humanity was born of a single couple about 6000 years ago. You would believe in a global flood. Many millions of people believe these things in contradiction to the things we do know about the universe. It is therefore difficult to understand how faith in the Jesus story could ever supersede direct scientific evidence.
Science accepts new evidence. A good example is the Steady State Theory, which was the dominant cosmological theory for some time because scientists didn’t have reason to believe we were in any particularly special position in time. The idea that there was a creation was too close to the Biblical story for some scientists, who mocked Big bang when it was proposed.
Science is about evidence, so when evidence was furnished, and the laws of gravitation properly applied it was clear that Steady State was not viable. The scientific understanding changed and advanced through evidence and analysis. It corrected itself in light of new evidence. To have ‘faith’ in science means to have faith in the process of discovery of natural phenomena through investigation and reasoned analysis. It is not to take a doctrinal position of absolute certainty.
Religion on the other hand is the precise opposite, to take a position of absolute certainty in the absence of evidence, to not question the fundamental theological doctrinal tenants even in the face of contrary evidence. In the words of Ken Ham “I’m a Christian, and as a Christian, I can’t prove it to you, but God has definitely shown me very clearly through His word, and He has shown Himself in the person of Jesus Christ, that the Bible is the word of God. I admit that that is where I start from.”
J: Hmm, I’m not quite sure what that means, but okay… How about ethics? It must be quite difficult for you living in a society so obviously influenced by Christian ethical principles. Is it a burden for you?
C: Yes, for the moment we are oppressed, but deliverance is coming. We don’t spend much time in speculation about so-called ethics anyway, we are practical people, like the original free-thinkers in our nation.
Perhaps the most common philosophy among atheists is secular humanism. This is not to say that the religious cannot be secular humanists. Secular humanists are primarily concerned with the well being of humanity. They promote human rights for everyone, including the religious. It is from this kind of humanist thinking that we saw opposition to slavery, adoption of women’s rights, and perhaps more recently support of rights for homosexuals.
Does this mean that the religious were absent from these movements? No. However, in every case the opposition was theist. The Bible was cited in support of slavery. It was cited in support of discrimination against women. And today it is still cited in support of discrimination against homosexuals.
When the Catholics had absolute theocratic control they committed gross atrocities. Today there are Islamic states which commit atrocities and crimes against humanity, torturing and executing people for their beliefs. The democratic principles of modern secular societies are the polar opposite to theocratic tyrannies like Saudi Arabia, ISIS and the Vatican.
If anything secular humanists are forced to examine their beliefs and ethics more stringently than those who rely on a set of imposed moral absolutes that are not founded in reason or human well being. Blind belief is lazy; you simply need to comply. Actual examination of your actions in the light of the consequences is harder.
J: Um, right. I have a few questions there too, but can I ask about rationality, then? I had thought that the death of computationalism was a bit of a set-back for naturalism … Or maybe tell me whether you believe in mathematical objects? Or, since it’s Easter, perhaps the recent findings of 1st century manuscripts of John’s gospel?
C: Oh, look, here’s my stop. Do take this holo-tract Jack, I’m sure it will convince you if you read it while seeking for the truth.
Computationalism asserts that the mind is a artifact of the brain, and that what the brain does is a form of computation. I will be publishing a more in depth article about artificial intelligence in a few months. In summary computers are quickly catching up to humans in virtually every aspect, and in many areas they are already more advanced. There are some very interesting questions around what individuality and self will mean to digital entities. What will it mean when there is a global, distributed intelligence that has more in common with the Borg than us? Discussions about whether such a system is ‘intelligent’ is clouded by our own bias and arrogance. We judge intelligence by comparison to ourselves.
But getting back to the point, we will find that minds are indeed computational in nature. They have evolved to process sensory information from the outside word, make sense of it in the context of previous experiences, and to act in a way to maximize the probability survival and procreation. It may not be a form of digital symbolic processing, but it is certainly processing information.
There is no evidence for a puppet master soul controlling our actions in some other plane. No ghosts, no gouls, no heaven, no hell, no angels, no devil, nothing besides what we experience here and now, in the only reality we know. We don’t like the idea that we are simply complex machines, primarily because our subjective experience is so far removed from the clunking noisy metal automatons that we are familiar with. But machines we are. Complex wonderful machines.