Sunday, January 22, 2017

In what sense is atheism a religion, and what are the atheistic options?

                                      Is Atheism a Religion?
          Penn Jillette is famous for saying, “If atheism is a religion, then not collecting stamps is a hobby.” Now there is an obvious difficulty involved here, in that this statement identifies religion with belief in God. Buddhists, for example, are, strictly speaking, atheists, but they are nevertheless part of a religion.
This gets down to the whole issue of what constitutes a religion.
On one account, religion indicates aspects of aspects of reality which are supernatural. But what does “supernatural” mean? The natural sciences operate and understand the world from the perspective of prediction and control. We are going to study the world from the standpoint of what will be helpful to us from the perspective of prediction and control.  Religions, we might argue, appeal to the existence of things we can’t predict and control, and if you don’t think anything like that exists, then you are without religion. So believing in a law of karma, which is impersonal but nevertheless won’t be discovered by science, is something religious, as is belief in a cycle of birth and rebirth, which looks like something science won’t find. Something might be called supernatural if it is something we won’t find if we restrict our investigation of the world to finding those aspects of it we can predict and control.
At the same time, it is probably the case that a Buddhist would not divide natural and supernatural in this way.
As one Buddhist source writes:

A Buddhist who is fully convinced of the law of Karma does not pray to another to be saved but confidently relies on him for his own emancipation. Instead of making any self-surrender, or calling on any supernatural agency, he relies on his own will power, and works incessantly for the well-being and happiness of all. This belief in Karma validates his effort and kindles his enthusiasm, because it teaches individual responsibility.
However, the sciences do not confirm the existence of a law of Karma, and the world as it appears to us suggests that there is no karma.

Another problem with the Jillette’s statement is that when we cease collecting stamps, there is no other occupant of that role that needs to replace it. In the case of religion, not so. Some answer to the fundamental questions that religions attempt to answer must be put in its place. If one becomes  vegetarian, we have ask what replaces meat in a person’s diet.
However, religion has another sense. In our society we have immunized religion from coercive operations of government. The idea behind this is that people are bound to differ about ultimate reality, and we need to allow people who differ about ultimate reality to operate freely, since society is not going to agree about these things. If this is the context in which we are asking this question, then all comprehensive perspectives on ultimate reality are religions.
Religions are there to ask three fundamental questions indicated by Immanuel Kant: What can I know? What must I do?  What can I hope?

          Let’s look at evangelical Christianity’s answer to these questions. What do I know? I know that God has a plan for my life, that I am a sinner, that Jesus rose from the dead, that Jesus died for my sins, that I must receive Christ in order to be saved.
          What must I do? I must receive Christ as my personal savior, I must obey his commandments, and engage in public worship, prayer, and Bible study.  
What can I hope? I can hope for everlasting communion with God through Christ.
Buddhism? I know that life is suffering, that suffering is caused by craving, that if craving is stopped the suffering is stopped, and that I can stop my craving by following the noble eightfold path. That tells us what I must do, but there are a number of other ethical requirements as well. I can hope enlightenment, and a cessation of the cycle of samsara, or the cycle of birth and rebirth.
What if I am a naturalistic atheist? What can I know? I might claim to know that God does not exist. But what else do I know? Atheists are bound to differ on the other stuff. Once God is denied, there are several ways to go not only with respect to what else is true, but also with respect to what we should do and what we can hope. But theists . Neither theism nor atheism are religions on this view, since both it answers only one of the ultimate questions. If we go theist, then there are some options: Judaism (several versions), Christianity (several versions) and Islam (several versions), Deism (different versions there), etc.
If we go atheist, then there are a bunch of options also.
Atheistic Buddhism
Buddhism is not about either believing or not believing in God or gods. Rather, the historical Buddha taught that believing in gods was not useful for those seeking to realize enlightenment. In other words, God is unnecessary in Buddhism. For this reason, Buddhism is more accurately called nontheistic than atheistic. But it is an alternative available to atheists.

Atheistic existentialism
Existentialism is generally an atheistic philosophy though some theists have attempted to adopt it into their individual theistic paradigms. “Although many, if not most, existentialists were atheists, [Søren] Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers and Gabriel Marcel pursued more theological versions of existentialism. The one-time Marxist Nikolai Berdyaev developed a philosophy of Christian existentialism in his native Russia and later France during the decades preceding World War II.

Existentialism, for most of its adherents, can be understood as atheistic. In order to see this, it helps to look at the philosophy of existentialism as it contrasts with that of theism. Theists generally believe in an ultimate transcendent reality. Existentialists believe each person’s experience is unique and truly known only by that person. In other words, theists point to an objective reality, while existentialists see only a subjective one. 

There is no truth about what we ought to do, and no purpose for human existence. We must find meaning wherever we can, and there are no right answers.

Albert Camus, a existentialist novelist, offers three responses to the absurdity of human life. First, one can commit suicide. As he puts it, “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide” (MS, 3). The second option, reflected by his character Rieux in The Plague, is to fight for humanity as best one can even though there is no conviction that ultimate success is even attainable. The third, adopted by the title character of his play Caligula, is to take whatever benefits are available for oneself, since the absurdity of life will triumph in the end.
Woody Allen’s movie Crimes and Misdemeanors reflects an existentialist form of atheism. In that movie, and ophthalmologist is involved in an extramarital affair and wants to end it, but his mistress threatens him with exposure if he tries to end the affair. Son he contacts his mobster brother and has her murdered. He is at first stricken with shame and talks to his rabbi about confessing, but in the end he concludes that God is a luxury he can’t afford and stops feeling guilty. From an atheistic perspective there is no advantage to doing the right thing and confessing, and leaving the crime under the rug.

Marxist atheism
Religious beliefs are false, and these beliefs are used by defenders of counter-revolutionary ideologies as a basis for keeping people away from serious efforts to improve their condition. The inevitable dialectic of history is headed toward a classless and stateless society, but religion stands in the way.
In a way, this reconstitutes religion-like doctrines of a glorious future, although the individual will cease to exist before it is ushered in.

Atheist communist regimes have been guilty of mass murder, of religious suppression, and unjustly creating an oligarch of members of the Party. What began as a combination of secularism with a strong motive to help the oppressed workers ended up creating one of the movements in history that has done the most damage. Its death toll dwarfs the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Salem Witch Trials by an enormous margin.

Secular humanism

The belief that humanity is capable of morality and self-fulfillment without belief in God.

Secular humanism is comprehensive, touching every aspect of life including issues of values, meaning, and identity. Thus it is broader than atheism, which concerns only the nonexistence of god or the supernatural. Important as that may be, there’s a lot more to life … and secular humanism addresses it.
Secular humanism is nonreligious, espousing no belief in a realm or beings imagined to transcend ordinary experience.
Secular humanism is a lifestance, or what Council for Secular Humanism founder Paul Kurtz has termed a eupraxsophy: a body of principles suitable for orienting a complete human life. As a secular lifestance, secular humanism incorporates the Enlightenment principle of individualism, which celebrates emancipating the individual from traditional controls by family, church, and state, increasingly empowering each of us to set the terms of his or her own life.
Atheistic objectivism
Objectivism holds that there is no greater moral goal than achieving happiness. But one cannot achieve happiness by wish or whim. Fundamentally, it requires rational respect for the facts of reality, including the facts about our human nature and needs. Happiness requires that one live by objective principles, including moral integrity and respect for the rights of others. Politically, Objectivists advocate laissez-faire capitalism. Under capitalism, a strictly limited government protects each person's rights to life, liberty, and property and forbids that anyone initiate force against anyone else. The heroes of Objectivism are achievers who build businesses, invent technologies, and create art and ideas, depending on their own talents and on trade with other independent people to reach their goals.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Tom Gilson analyzes the fourth L in the LLL argument

LLL, is, of course, Liar, Lunatic, or Lord. It is based on C. S. Lewis's argument in Mere Christianity:

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: I’m ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don’t accept his claim to be God. That is the one thing we must not say. A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

It is sometimes thought you can refute it just by adding a logically possible fourth option, such as Legend. However, in a Presidential election, adding a third party does not make it less likely that either the Republican or the Democratic candidate will win the election. The additional alternative has to be plausible, and Gilson here argues that the Legend option is not. This is his blog treatment of it.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Old Earth Ministries on the Intelligent Design Movement


8. What Do You Think About the Intelligent Design (ID) movement?
   Any Christian who believes God created the world, in either the young or old earth system, believes in an intelligent designer. We support the ID movement in concept, but not necessarily its tactics.

Making Science Political Again


Saturday, January 07, 2017

Exchange with David Brightly

David Brightly: Science, science, science! Why is it such a bugbear? Does science have to be diminished in order to make room for faith? 

VR: Not if you make a distinction, as you and I both do, between science and scientism. The actual doing of science goes on with no problem without scientism, and the founding fathers of modern science, and some of the best practicioners today, are religious believers.

Suppose we take methodological naturalism to be a voluntary constraint on inquiry that rules out explanation and understanding in terms of persons. Science is then that body of understanding that eschews personhood as an explanatory factor. So there can be no science of world war one, say, and hence scientism is ruled out. Metaphysical naturalism becomes the doctrine that there are no persons other than the likes of us. Science then neither requires nor implies metaphysical naturalism, and there is plenty of space within naturalism for lines of inquiry that lie outside science.

VR: The only thing is that scientific enterprises get funded in ways that others do not.  But we have to ask what the scientific community is trying to accomplish. The scientific community can draw the limits of their own inquiry any way they choose. However, if they put something outside the realm of scientific inquiry, and then make heavy weather out of the fact that science hasn’t produced evidence for it, then we have a problem.  It’s no insult to a metal detector that it can’t find a $100 bill you might have left on the beach.

With this understanding of naturalism isn't it just a bit odd to speak of religious faith and 'faith in naturalism' in the same breath, as Lennox does? I would have thought that if someone's faith in Christ were on a par with my faith in naturalism it would amount to such a meagre, milksop kind of thing as to be not worth having. 

VR: But there are people out there with far more zeal and dedication to atheistic naturalism than a lot of Christians I know have with respect to their faith.  Atheism matters to these people, they want others to embrace it, and they are willing to deny access to positions of scientific or philosophical authority to those who disagree with their naturalism.

Surely the essence of much religion and certainly Christianity is the conviction that personhood lies at the very heart of things. Faith in Christ involves a relation with a person with all the emotional and moral implications that has. Atheists just don't feel this way.

I would agree in the sense that a Christian’s faith is a different kind of thing from faith in naturalism. On the other hand, I think it is epistemologically similar. On the other hand there are epistemological similarities. One considers the reasons for and against, and one commits to naturalism, or some religious view. Because a large part of a person’s life is structured around the decision one makes, it is understandable that people will be slow to reconsider their positions once taken. I do not see any less obstinacy of belief on either side of the issue. 

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Humanist Manifesto II on sexual conduct

SIXTH: In the area of sexuality, we believe that intolerant attitudes, often cultivated by orthodox religions and puritanical cultures, unduly repress sexual conduct. The right to birth control, abortion, and divorce should be recognized. While we do not approve of exploitive, denigrating forms of sexual expression, neither do we wish to prohibit, by law or social sanction, sexual behavior between consenting adults. The many varieties of sexual exploration should not in themselves be considered “evil.” Without countenancing mindless permissiveness or unbridled promiscuity, a civilized society should be a tolerant one. Short of harming others or compelling them to do likewise, individuals should be permitted to express their sexual proclivities and pursue their lifestyles as they desire. We wish to cultivate the development of a responsible attitude toward sexuality, in which humans are not exploited as sexual objects, and in which intimacy, sensitivity, respect, and honesty in interpersonal relations are encouraged. Moral education for children and adults is an important way of developing awareness and sexual maturity.

Interestingly enough, Humanist Manifesto III didn't include anything like this. 

Are there limits on scientific inquiry

But here is the problem. People speaking for science, or as Ilion likes to say, Science!, don't accept the idea that science is subjected to a constraint. 

What you get is a shell game. "Why should we be naturalists?" Because there is no scientific evidence for anything other than the physical world. "But what about the bacterial flagellum? Isn't that evidence that there is something outside the natural world?" No, you IDiot, to infer from the bacterial flagellum, or the fine tuning of the universe, to a being beyond nature is to violate the canons of scientific inquiry." It is the science defenders who seem to think that belief in anything beyond the natural is somehow a threat to their enterprise, but in fact such heresy hunting, if effective, would deprive the scientific community of some of its best practicioners, such as Francis Collins and Donald Page. 

Further, for many atheists, commitment to atheism is something really important to them. I know many atheists who have ten times the zeal most Christians have for their belief. For them it isn't heaven or hell, it's progress or regression. 

The scientific community has the right to define the limits of its own inquiry any way it sees fit. To then say that their domain is the complete realm of rational inquiry is to make not a scientific claim, but a philosophical one. And to reject that claim is not to be what they insist one should not be, a science denier.