Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Atheist Theology

The Blank Slate Atheist is a rarity, even in the secular West.

I've been following with interest the atheist testimonies that PZ Myers has been publishing on his blog. Some of these testimonies, in a strange inverted sort of way, parallel the confessions of many Christians; there is a period of inconsonance and angst running up to a crisis that is ultimately resolved by some kind of final realization, peace of mind and sense of freedom. In fact if one swapped a few terms one might be able to pass off some of these atheist conversion experiences as Christian conversions. 

Recently, one of PZ’s testimonies caught my eye because it was a good example of what I refer to as Hunter’s Maxim (See the end of this post ): 

It is perhaps one of the great enigmas in religious thought that one can profess to be an agnostic, skeptic, or even atheist regarding belief in God yet still hold strong opinions about God. 

Below I publish some extracts from a confession found on PZ’s blog, dated 28th April 12. My main point is that this testimony is loaded with theology in Hunter’s sense; that is, it evidences a great deal of presumed knowledge about God. I don’t intend to give any quality responses to the theology expressed here; I’ll leave that to the theologians; it suffices to point out an example of Hunter’s maxim. 

However, there is one other point I would like to make. It is ironic that the question of God’s existence is a through and through empirical issue and the atheist confession below is a fine example of this: For it is plain that an implicit concept of God is being juxtaposed with the observed world in order to facilitate judgment on whether or not the God concept provides a framework which makes sense of that world. Now, we must not be naive enough to think that God is empirical in the formally testable sense that the elementary and low level objects of the physical sciences are; rather, the empirical “test” for God revolves around the question of whether God is the background narrative that connects the samples of one’s experience into a coherent frame work; from an epistemic angle God has always been a far more a-priori explanatory object than an inductive a-posteriori object. 

Atheists have a choice of either:

a) Accepting they have a sufficient conception of God to use this concept abductively against the empirical world in order to decide whether or not the “God narrative” makes sense of experience. 


b) Using a purely inductive approach which declares “God” to be an unintelligible idea until such a time that “he” can be constructed a-posterior from observation. 

Some atheists may find themselves between a rock and a hard place on this one: Either they have to accept Hunter’s maxim or they are thrown back onto the philosophically flawed practice of constructing narratives about the world purely inductively. Many atheists are instinctively drawn toward b) simply because they are very wary of getting into theological arguments they don't understand; they much prefer the idea that induction from observation rules OK; an approach that, generally speaking, is an epistemic non-starter. 

The author of the atheist testimony in question seems to be in category a) above; that is, one of having a lot of knowledge about God, but finding this knowledge fails to make sense of her perception of the world. Below are some excerpts from this correspondent interleaved with my own comments: 

 Because the universe and everything in it, and everything we know about how it works, makes much more sense if there is no god than if there is one. 

My Comment: Well, there you go! Ergo this person is working to some a-priori conception of God. This comment immediately draws the person into questions about the nature of God and his relationship with the cosmos. 

Because there is not and never has been any argument or “proof” of the existence of god(s), etc. that stood up to ANY honest, thorough, logical scrutiny. EVER. Not. Even. One. (And it’s not as if believers haven’t had *thousands* of years to come up with one, either.) 

My Comment: I don’t think anyone can expect to prove God’s existence any more than one expects to provide “proof” of evolution, say. The latter, for example, is a complex object entailing a history that is a highly disordered pattern of twists and turns (albeit under the constraint of fundamental laws). We are only ever likely to have a limited set of observational samples derived from this history. Evaluating the truth of evolution has much more to do with weight of evidence than proof. Moreover, much of evolution’s appeal is down to its retrospective interpretive success; many will claim that it makes sense of the diversity of species. Moreover, witness evolutionary psychology which majors on post-facto sense making narratives and is accordingly highly controversial. The same, but only more so, goes for the idea of God. But having made this comparison I must add that Theism, which deals with an even higher level object than evolution, is a lot less formally testable than the latter and proportionately a lot more controversial. 

Because of all the good things that religion does, *not one* requires religion or belief in god in order to happen. I don’t believe, yet I treat people ethically, I give to charity, I’m kind to animals. But there’s plenty of evil things that religion does that are either a direct result of religion, or are justified or made worse by it: misogyny, homophobia, racism, war, etc. 

My Comment: Here an observation to do with people’s ability to behave morally is being compared with expectations about what religion should entail. 

 Because “throughout history, every mystery ever solved has turned out to be NOT MAGIC.” (Thank you, Tim Minchin.) 

My Comment: Well, yes by definition! If we understand something it no longer looks like magic! Magic could be defined as “what you don’t understand”! 

Because the whole notion of the universe being created by a perfect being is nonsensical and self-contradictory. Perfection means no lack of anything, ergo no reason to create anything. And supposing such a being *did* create a universe and us, how did it manage to screw up so royally on so many things? I mean, putting our airway and esophagus right next to each other with just a little valve to stop food going down the wrong way? Really? That’s the best it can do? (True fact: I once damn near choked to death on an M&M. Not even a whole M&M, a fucking half-chewed fragment of an M&M. Tell me that’s not a design flaw.) 

My Comment: A highly theological argument! In fact the first part of it is pure theology in the sense that it concerns the internal consistency of the notion of God. Notice also how those observations on the configurations of life have a very important bearing on the assumed nature of God; the implicit concept of God being worked to here appears to be that of humunclus intelligent design.

Because, also supposing a perfect being created the universe and us, why would that supposedly perfect being give a flying fuck what we thought of it, or what we wanted? Ooh, what’s that? It loves us? Then why doesn’t it regrow amputated limbs? Why do kids die of cancer, etc.? Because their parents didn’t grovel just right? Why is my best friend a prisoner of crippling pain leaving her barely able to walk while evil assholes get to run around completely healthy all their lives? 

My Comment: The problem of pain and suffering! Highly theological and yet highly empirical at the same time! (Empirical in the sense that it revolves around the significance of those observations of seemingly pointless suffering) 

Because no one can agree on what this perfect creator being is, or what it looks like, or how it behaves, or what it wants. No one has seen it or heard it, so no one knows, and therefore they’re all just guessing. Billy Graham is just guessing. The Pope is just guessing. Imams and ayatollahs are just guessing. Rabbis are just guessing. And they’re all guessing based on their own culture and prejudices, not evidence. 

My Comment: This opens up the deep subject of divine revelation and grace; is religion just a guessing game or has it been aided by the revelation from a God who cares? If so where is that revelation? Presumably this person feels that nothing measures up to what would classify as a revelation.

Because “I feel it in my heart” sucks as an argument. 

My Comment: “feelings” are part of the pattern of observations one makes which are incorporated into one's world view narrative. But as an attempt at a gnostic killer argument based on a resort to inner light I would agree; it does suck as an argument!

Because “if you believe and you’re wrong you lose nothing, but if you don’t believe and you’re wrong you’ll go to hell” sucks as an argument. 

My Comment: Rather caricatured so I’ll have to agree. (Pascal's wager was a caricature as far as I'm concerned)

Because “god moves in mysterious ways/it’s not for us to question/it’s all for the best, we just can’t see it yet” all suck as arguments

My Comment: I agree. This evasion of challenging observations can be very frustrating to deal with.

Because if I tortured someone forever for not worshipping me — or actually for ANY reason — I’d be rightly considered a monster, a bully, an evil sick fuck… anything BUT a loving parent.

My Comment: I’ll concede that the attempts I have seen to justify the concept of a universal eternal hell are rubbish (Universal hell: the view that all but a small religious remnant who assent to a finicky system of beliefs and/or inner enlightenment will go to hell) 

Because if any set of beliefs demands that you NEVER question it under ANY circumstances, that is a *huge* red flag that it is a shitty belief system that you should get away from as fast as you can. 

My Comment: Although it would be wrong to charge all theists with such an accusation there are Christian sects out there who, to vary degrees of approximation, can be justifiably caricatured with the foregoing.


I've touched on the subject of atheists with a theology (or "atheology") in several posts - See below. In particular Larry Moran has been one of may favourites targets. In fact in the last of the posts linked to below I was honoured that he made an appearance in person!

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