Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Is Atheism Irrational? How About Religion?

Ben Bateman has a great post over at his blog. This was actually a comment he left over at the blog of Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert.


“Atheist: “Religion is irrational.””

The atheist is confusing the use of logic with the truth of the premises on which the logic is based. This is very common among atheists. Those who stridently emphasize their rationality and use of logic generally do not understand that all their thoughts necessarily rest on a foundation of unproven assumptions. The atheist assumes, for example, that he is capable of understanding the world around him. He assumes that he can distinguish reliable sources of information from unreliable sources.

Most importantly, the atheist assumes some moral foundation, some basic principles about what he should and shouldn’t do. And that moral foundation is usually very weak, because the atheist rarely gives it much thought. To excuse his lack of thought on the subject, he usually declares his moral assumptions to be self-evident, and then goes back to bragging about how rational and logical he is.

But morality is actually a very complicated subject—so complicated that a single lifetime of experience and reflection is not nearly enough to produce a system of moral thought that is both internally consistent and complete enough to cover nearly every situation in which people find themselves. It is therefore irrational for an individual to attempt to generate a moral system on his own. There isn’t enough time.

Fortunately, you don’t have to do it all yourself. Wise men throughout history have collected a wealth of experience with different morally challenging situations, and they’ve devoted countless hours to reflecting on these situations and generating systems of thought that can handle them all with internal consistency.

So if you’re serious about morality, then you can’t really escape the necessity of relying on these older systems of moral thought. But there’s one hitch: Those older systems of moral thought are called religions. So if you are emotionally conditioned to reject anything connected to religion, then you are doomed to moral idiocy.

16 comments:

Cordin said...

"Those older systems of moral thought are called religions. So if you are emotionally conditioned to reject anything connected to religion, then you are doomed to moral idiocy."


Wow! What arrogance! I was not brought up with any religion, but was simply taught not to do things to others that I did not like done to myself. No hope of Heaven. No fear of Hell. This mandate of 'love thy neighbor as thyself' (whether in the positive or negative) has been taught by most systems of ,yes, religion, but also philosophy, secular humanism, agnostism, and atheism. Even Jesus taught the simplicity of this when he summed up all of the Laws of Moses and the Prophets with only two commands, the second of which is the 'Golden Rule'. He was not however the first or last to teach it.

Gandhi believed that some atheists were more God-fearing (moral) than Christians. While the atheist he respected, one Charles Bradlaugh, did his best to care for others and follow honestly and fearlessly, what he believed, some Christians were undisturbed by their own “knowingly committed transgressions…” stating they believed all sin (both past and future) had already been forgiven by Christ's sacrifice. Gandhi reports, “And the [Christian] Brother proved as good as his word.”

Instead of asking, “What would the Apostle Paul" or “Buddha” or “Gandhi” or “Jesus do?” ask if what we are doing is adding to or taking away from the suffering in this world.

I have a hard time believing that what is recorded as taking place under Moses and Joshua in the days of ancient Israel does not make many feel abhorred. “How could God have commanded such things?” goes through the hearts of good people who know the pain of losing children or have had loved ones experience rape or hear of the selling of daughters into slavery. (see my earlier post under the thread "Validity of the Bible - Amazing Work or Word of God")

There is a story of a young girl who, on learning of God’s command in the Old Testament to completely annihilate the Amalekites, asked her mother if it was at the New Testament that God became a Christian.

Yes, it is plainly obvious, even to some young people, that what is recorded as taking place in the Old Testament goes contrary to what many consider moral.

At Psalms 14:1 we read, “The fool [with no moral sense] says in his heart, ‘There is no God [Yahweh].’”

I believe the evidence suggests just the opposite when you consider the archaic, barbaric, and male dominated laws/rituals of the OT. This is at least one religion I suggest we excise from those we might consider 'wise'.(Intellectually of course. I am not suggesting any prejudiced action against any faith unless it encroaches on the rights of others.)

Although taken out of context, the Apostle Paul’s words ring true,

“When [those] who do instinctively what the law requires, these though not having [or knowing God’s written] law, are a law to themselves. They show that the law is written on their hearts.” (Romans 2:14, 15)

Most are born with a conscience. Let's use common sense and stop judging others based on which 'God' they believe in.
The burden of proof lies with those that would limit toleration of others, not vice versa.

(Sorry if this came across a little agressive, but I know too many "christians" who do immoral acts, and just as many atheists/agnostics who are loving, decent people yet do not believe in any ultimate reward.)

bernardo said...

I don't think anyone who has been contributing to this blog "is confusing the use of logic with the truth of the premises on which the logic is based". Most arguments on here have been very logical, on both sides. Both sides seem to be fairly clear on how their basic assumptions differ, and on how their conclusions are reached given their basic assumptions, preferences, and intuitions. I'm pretty sure that we all "understand that all [our opinions in this debate] necessarily rest on a foundation of unproven assumptions".

"The atheist assumes ... that he is capable of understanding the world around him". No, the atheist assumes that the world around him is understandable, not necessarily by any one single person, but by a large collective group of dedicated and curious people that splits up and tries to model different aspects of the world.

"He assumes that he can distinguish reliable sources of information from unreliable sources". Well, yes. Doesn't everyone?

"The atheist assumes some moral foundation, some basic principles about what he should and shouldn’t do. And that moral foundation is usually very weak, because the atheist rarely gives it much thought. To excuse his lack of thought on the subject, he usually declares his moral assumptions to be self-evident"

That is not true. I am sure most atheists put as much thought as anyone else into determining what is moral, just, and ethical. The atheists just tend to take a more utilitarian approach to these questions, as opposed to many religious people's more moralist approach. Actually, I'd bet that it is the dissatisfaction with religious morality that drives some people away from religion to begin with.

And just because I don't have the time or experience to re-derive all of morality myself, doesn't mean I am incapable of improving on someone else's previous conclusions, or of spotting the fact that someone else's previous conclusions are based on assumptions I disagree with. What's wrong with that?

"But there’s one hitch: Those older systems of moral thought are called religions."

Not all of them. Many excellent philosophies of justice/ethics are not religious-based.

Does Ben propose that I am incapable of compassion, and incapable of thinking about who deserves what, just because I think the universe doesn't necessarily has a purpose, probably has always existed, and has probably developed naturally into the world as we know it? How exactly does my skepticism of an unprovable creator hinder my ability to predict the consequences of my actions and to ponder about whether those reactions cause the least amount of undeserved suffering in the world?

bernardo said...

Oh no, Cordin beat me! I need to write faster. Or write less... ;]

bernardo said...

"Most are born with a conscience"...

Actually, that might be at the heart of this debate: How do we develop a sense of right and wrong? A sense of guilt? A conscience? Let's be realistic: Most little kids don't really have one, and develop one during the first 5-10 years of their life. It probably comes from dreading the consequences of bad actions (when those consequences are painful to you and/or to someone you empathize with), and it takes some time for a child to gain an intuition about what kinds of actions lead to what kinds of consequences.

I'll even agree that religion might help speed up this process. But once you're in your teens and have a pretty good idea of what actions cause what consequences, do you really need God and Jesus and Heaven and Hell to keep you from doing bad things?

I'll also agree that religion probably helps people be more disciplined. But you can only want to be disciplined when you already know what is good and what is bad ("discipline" just means doing the "good" stuff more often, being more able to suppress your primitive desires with what reason tells you is best).

Cordin said...

Bernardo is right in questioning my blanket statement on morality from birth. As he's stated in earlier posts (if I remember correctly), altruism can be explained by a 'misfiring' of our genetic tendency to pass on those genes closest to us. In other cases it is a direct consequence of that tendency. So, there is some moral conscience built into our nature. I recall seeing my niece (1 1/2 years) 'worrying' about a crying infant in the same room and offering him one of her toys. As Bernardo stated, most probably do not have a 'developed' conscience until it has been guided by some good/bad consequences from their actions.

A point to consider: In his book, "Our Inner Ape" Frans De Waal relates the incident of a bonobo ape named Kuni that observed a starling hit the glass of her enclosure at the zoo. She (Kuni) picked up the stunned bird, then climbed to the top of one of the tallest trees. She carefully unfolded its wings, holding one wing between the fingers of each hand. The bonobo then sent the bird on its way "like a little toy airplane." When the starling fell short, Kuni protected it from the juvenile apes until it recovered and flew away.
If true, I believe this account speaks volumes on empathy. I doubt the ape understood any religious beliefs.

Randy Kirk said...

From my understanding of Christianity, the ability love unconditionally (even my enemy), unselfishly (other directed), and even sacrificially requires in the first instance humility. Try it yourself. Can someone who is not truly humble love that way? I know that I lack the humility that I strive for and it can be seen in my not being as loving as I'd like to be. I even see myself hoping no one else notices that my favorite ice cream only has one serving left.

It would seem that the person who seeing the grandeur around him, and expecially the scientist seeing the complexity, and then adding in the insignificance of my poor little 70 years on this sphere would be hard put to decide that there is no intelligence in the universe greater than man's. It kind of gets personal. My own brain has to be equal to or greater than any other. One jokester said he pictures the unbeliever from a mile away through his telescope standing on the beach with fist raised and shouting to the vastness of space, There IS NO god!

Ben Bateman said...

Thanks for the link, Randy.

Corbin, I wrote out a long response to Bernardo's comment, which he also left on my blog. It responds pretty well to what you wrote, too. A sample:

"Bernardo is obviously a smart guy, and I’m sure that he takes morality seriously. Why, then, would it matter whether he believes in God? Why can’t he pick and choose among the parts of Christian morality that he likes, and leave the rest?

"This sort of error is common among the highly intelligent. They frequently believe that they’re infinitely smart, that they can conquer any intellectual challenge. And they generally hold that belief until faced with an actual real-world intellectual challenge. Then they discard the belief, but usually only in that specific area. With all the others, they retain their belief in their infinite intelligence."

Anonymous said...

Blah, blah...

Tripe, as usual.

Cordin said...

Well, let's get specific with an intellectual challenge. Sorry for bringing this issue up again, but no one has yet supplied an answer to my highly intelligent yet morally idiotic brain.

Deuteronomy 22:28-30

"If a man happens to meet a virgin who is not pledged to be married and rapes her and they are discovered, he shall pay the girl's father fifty shekels of silver. He must marry the girl, for he has violated her. He can never divorce her as long as he lives."

The answer usually given is that it was a deterent not to rape since you would be forced to pay monetarily and you would be forced to marry the girl. It's said that it was probably more beneficial as law at that time since a girl would be considered 'damaged goods', lowering expectations of marriage.

What if a virgin male was raped?

It worries me that those who believe in God would be willing to follow such statutes simply because some 'prophet' tells us so.

How do you defend such obviously sexist laws promoting woman as the property of men? Do any of the laws of 'educated' nations still have this statute in their law books?

How many fathers reading this could actually take the payment and force their daughter to marry the one who terrorized her sexually? How many daughters could respect a father who did so?

Surelly, the God of the universe could have come up with something better. Lowly men have.

Ben Bateman said...

Corbin, the ancient world was very, very different from ours. They had different priorities and concerns. You obviously haven't thought about that very hard yet.

Cordin said...

Ben,

Let's not forget 'magical' trials in determining people's guilt. (Numbers 5:19-31 where a concoction of dust and water were used to determine a women's guilt. Perhaps we should defend determining witchcraft by seeing if they weigh the same as a duck.)

"Why can’t he pick and choose among the parts of Christian morality that he likes, and leave the rest?"

The above comment did lead me to believe that you were a 'Biblical' Christian (liberal Christians do tend to do more 'picking and choosing' as to what they want to follow), and I assumed such. If you see no problems with declaring many of ancient societies' laws as archaic, prejudiced, and made by men according to the cultures of their times, I could not disagree with you. (I'm sure indoctrination of young girls to believe they are more special as part of a harem serving as a concubine would change the outcome of lawmaking, for e.g.) It may have even been beneficial to a nation's survival.

To claim such were spoken into being by a perfect God, eternal in time and wisdom, who believed in justice to the individual is much, much harder to accept.

Unfortunately, many do accept these laws as originating from an infallible God and his word. Such faith can be just as disastrous as no belief in God.

Randy Kirk said...

Many OT laws are archaic, but all were given by an perfect God. I think I understand your concern that a loving God COULD have provided man with laws even then that provided equality between the sexes rather than a matriarchial society. (You knew that Jewish tradition is matriarchial, right.)

OK, even though matriarchial, men had more rights regarding property, marrige, etc. I'm just guessing, but I'll give God the benefit of the doubt that these rules fit those times. And clearly, Jewish women had it far better than women in other cultures of that time.

I would like to see any system anywhere in the world, however, that can compare to the Ephesions 5 teaching on marriage. Men - love your wives as Christ loved the church. And elsewhere in Ephesians, submit ye, one to another.

No, I wouldn't want a secular law to require this, but I sure wish it was a law to teach it in our schools.

Ben Bateman said...

Cordin: "Unfortunately, many do accept these laws as originating from an infallible God and his word. Such faith can be just as disastrous as no belief in God."

I disagree with that generalization. You're confusing the ridiculous with the truly horrible. (And I'm not sure that your examples even qualify as ridiculous. Giving fake poison could be a very effective method of determining guilt---if the accused believes.)

The real horrors of the 20th century were all committed by atheists who killed over 100 million civilians in the name of their godless religion. You want to bring up funny stories from a few hundred or thousand years ago. I'm talking about events that occurred in living memory.

As practiced on a national level, atheism has been an astonishingly murderous religion. That's my starting point when you want to talk about atheism being taken seriously on a wide scale. It has been tried. It failed spectacularly, for reasons that I consider to be entirely obvious. Let's not try it again.

Randy Kirk said...

I'm surprised that the atheists are letting this ride. I have mixed emotions about whether atheism can be seen to be any more causal of Nazism or Communistic dictatorships than Christianity should be painted as causal to the Crusades.

I do believe that Darwinian principles influenced the eugenics movement, and that this, in turn, influenced Hitler.

I do believe that communism was an outgrowth of an humanistic approach to governance, and that it was "scientific."

Then one could argue that this great experiment (though far from perfect) called representative democracy, largely based on OT and NT principles, is the best organizing system for government yet devised.

Anonymous said...

"Instead of asking, “What would the Apostle Paul" or “Buddha” or “Gandhi” or “Jesus do?” ask if what we are doing is adding to or taking away from the suffering in this world."

I'm a little out of the line of discussion, but it is interesting that Buddha is included in this list, because suffering and the cessation thereof IS the primary emphasis of original forms of Buddhism. I find the ethics derived from basic Buddhist philosophy to be quite compelling.

-svenjamin

Anonymous said...

"The atheist is confusing the use of logic with the truth of the premises on which the logic is based. This is very common among atheists. Those who stridently emphasize their rationality and use of logic generally do not understand that all their thoughts necessarily rest on a foundation of unproven assumptions. The atheist assumes, for example, that he is capable of understanding the world around him. He assumes that he can distinguish reliable sources of information from unreliable sources."

Okay, before I say anything, let me first say that I am not an atheist. I would describe myself as an agnostic, and I am merely pointing out that many of these same flaws can also be applied to religious individuals. First of all, it is an unproven assumption that God even exists. Secondly, how can we determine if the Bible is a reliable source? Aren't you making the same unproven assumptions that you pin on atheists?