Is Intelligence and Rationalism Only Compatible With Atheism?

Santa Claus with a little girl

Image via Wikipedia

One thing that particularly seems to annoy theists is the argument that the only intelligent position for someone to have is to be an atheist.  The argument is simple, I think, as it merely asks that if you recognise that there is a requirement that people be able to prove with evidence the things they claim (whether it is about science, the weather or football results) then why not have the same requirement for claims about God?  Once one sees that there is no empirical proof for the existence of God then ones only position is atheism.  That is reasonable.

The Problem

Alas, some people disregard this.  Some sample arguments are:

  • A belief in God is just that – “belief” – and that the whole point is that there is no empirical proof for God;
  • Atheists are arrogant wankers for calling all theists stupid;
  • There is proof (cue Intelligent Design “evidence”).

This goes on.  Alas, a lot of theists rarely consider their position.  When they feel “under attack” from atheists, rather than examine their beliefs they often reinforce them.  Rather than philosophically analyse what it is they are arguing for, they often become brutish and irrational.

This is why I am so surprised to see Victoria Coren, a woman I admire for being fiercely intelligent and an excellent poker player, not only “come out” as a theist but also attempt to defend it in an Observer column.  Indeed, the subject of her article is the

new, false distinction between “believers” and “rationalists”. The trickle-down Dawkins effect [that] has got millions of people thinking that faith is ignorant and childish, with atheism the smart and logical position.

Source: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2010/dec/05/victoria-coren-belief-in-god

The problem I have with the article is that it is so poorly reasoned.  I try to be sympathetic to amicable theists who try to defend their position or belief in God, but often this is difficult as their arguments are so poor.  I fear that Coren has fallen into that trap and I am going to discuss it now.

An Answer For Everything

There is often an argument made by theists that you must have an answer for everything if you are an atheist.  In other words, for theists “God did it” is an acceptable explanation for anything that you cannot understand.

“Why did uncle Fred die?”
“God did it.”

“Why are these giant bones in the ground?”
“God did it.”

“How was the universe created?”
“God did it.”

Of course, for scientists this isn’t an acceptable explanation because, in fact, it does not explain anything at all.  It is the exact opposite of an explanation.  It’s the answer that adults give to children when they can’t think of answer and don’t want to appear weak.

“Why do I have to go to bed at 8pm?”
“Because.” or “Because I said so.”

One of the reasons why science has become so good at discovering facts and suggesting provable hypotheses is the simple motto that they “take no one’s word for it” – that people search for the answers themselves using a method that is open to everyone, challengeable and reproducible.  In other words, if you make a claim about something you need to back that up with evidence – evidence that other people can get for themselves by doing the same experiment as you.

Science often says “I don’t know” when it comes to some questions and theists often jump on this as good reason not to be an atheist.  If scientists can’t explain how the first self-replicating gene came into existence or how the universe came into existence then this is good reason to see that they are wrong about everything and that you should believe in God.  However, they should know that science has a high burden of proof and won’t accept anything that doesn’t pass muster.  “I don’t know” is acceptable simply because it’s the truth.  If you don’t know something it’s more truthful to say so, rather than pontificate.

“Ask Them To Explain How An iPad Works.”

It’s worrying, then, to see someone like Victoria Coren remark:

I interviewed the comedian Miranda Hart recently. She told me she believes in God but was nervous of being quoted on it.

“It’s scary to say you’re pro-God,” she said. “Those clever atheists are terrifying.”

“Oh, nonsense,” I said. “Let them tell you it’s stupid to believe in something you can’t explain. Then ask them how an iPad works.”

Atheism itself is fine; good luck if that’s what you sincerely (don’t) believe. But the proselytising, fundamentalist new atheist movement sets itself up as more “logical” than faith, which is ridiculous. Given the incomprehensible scale of the creator we’d be talking about, the only “logical” position is agnosticism.

Here she clearly insinuates that if you’re an atheist that doesn’t know how a complex thing works then you are committing some sort of intellectual contradiction, i.e.: “how can you say that God, an incredibly complex thing, doesn’t exist when you can’t even fathom how he works?”

The argument is, God is so irreducibly complex that saying that He doesn’t exist is impossible and that the only two positions available are:

  1. He does exist.
  2. You can’t know if He doesn’t.

The comparison the iPad, she feels, is apt.  How can one use a complex thing like a computer, “believing that it works”, without actually knowing how it does?  The thing is that it doesn’t matter if you know how it works or not, simply that it does, it is provable that it does.  The workings of a computer are provable through scientific investigation and that there are, in fact, people who do know how it works (they built it) and that this knowledge is built on years of scientific evidence.  The existence of God isn’t.

Agnostic Atheists

Further, agnosticism isn’t dichotomously opposed to atheism.  In fact, the position of the atheists is built upon agnosticism.  Agnosticism is the belief that it is unknowable that God exists or not, and atheism is the belief that there is no God.  Thus, as Wikipedia points out,

Agnostic atheists are atheistic because they do not have belief in the existence of any deity, and agnostic because they do not claim to know that a deity does not exist.

Atheists that are agnostic state that they do not know one way or the other that God exists, merely that the burden of proof (reliable empirical evidence) has not been satisfied.  This burden of proof is the same that is applied to any supernatural phenomena that is purported to exist: unicorns, alien visitations, Santa Claus and Russell’s famous China Teapot.

Theists often like to argue that atheists “cannot prove that God doesn’t exist.”  This is true.  It is also true of unicorns, alien visitations, Santa Claus etc.  Who can prove that unicorns have never existed?  The reason why you cannot is simply because it is impossible to set up an experiment to prove an empirical negative on such a large scale.

Some atheists like to argue that it is impossible to prove any negative.  This isn’t strictly true.  If we consider DNA testing to be reliable, which we do, you can prove that someone isn’t related to someone else.  Of course, this relies on the scientific theories of genes, how they are passed onto descendants and that the testing procedure is correct.  However, since these are supported by a lot of evidence you can say with a very high level of certainty that someone is or isn’t related to someone else.  Depending on your position on absolute certainty, i.e. mathematical certainty, this is enough.

I don’t think you’ll ever find an atheist who claims that they can prove that God doesn’t exist.  Even Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins don’t argue for this.  They both leave the door open for a deity.  However, Hawking merely says that the universe doesn’t require (i.e. it is conceivable otherwise) the existence of God for it to exist; and Dawkins says that Deism is the least objectionable form of theism.  What both of them have in common is that they both say that there is no evidence for God, whether it is a Deistic God or Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, and this is good reason not to believe in God.  This is crucial in understanding the atheistic lack of belief in God.

The Power Of Faith And Religion

Unfortunately for Coren, her reasoning descends further.  She then begins to discuss the recent debates had between atheists and theists in Canada, namely where Christopher Hitchins and Tony Blair debated over whether religion was a force for good in the world.

So why do the proselytisers fight so hard to be right? In place of the comfort which faith can provide in the face of death, grief or loneliness, they offer… nothing. They are suspiciously eager to snatch away the consolations of their fellow men.

Why? Because they think religion causes violence? Human nature contains a streak of fear, greed, selfishness and territorialism that must result in a mean level of dissent and bloodshed, with or without the excuse of religious difference. Without religion, human life is no longer sacred – nothing is – so it’s not “logical” to believe we’d be gentler if it disappeared. All we’d have to replace it is a trust in altruism, which is certainly no less naive than believing in God.

So what would that leave, as a moral framework? The law? Do google “Twitter joke trial” before you throw our future behind that.

Or is it because some religious arguments are misogynistic or homophobic? Believers can still argue back.

I don’t think atheists argue against the fact that faith can allay fears of death or anxiety.  Personally, as an atheist, I think this is a redeeming feature of faith.  However, the downside of faith is it’s organisational element – religion.

Religion is separate to faith.  Faith is personal, religion is not.  Religion is an organisation, an institution, and people who have faith are sometimes part of a religion and sometimes they are not.  It’s not uncommon for people to believe in God but to have ‘lapsed’ from their religious heritage or simply to believe, one day, that they believe in “a higher power” but not follow the teachings of any specific religion.  This to me is far less objectionable, but still bad reasoning.

Atheist “proselytisers”, as she calls them, rally so hard against religion simply because of its history and current status.  Religion is a force for evil because of the commands and requirements it has that seem to run against what so much of the secular community consider to be rights that are applicable to all.  Things like:

  • Marrying someone you are in love with, regardless of their gender, sexual orientation, race or religion;
  • Letting someone pursue their own life fulfilment and not being forced into a traditional role, such as raising or children or doing housework;
  • Forcing a set of beliefs upon someone and then threatening them with violence, death or sanctions if they do not.

The list is endless.  Some try to accuse atheists of the third point, of trying to convert people to atheism.  There is a grain of truth in this but there is no violence and atheism isn’t an irrational belief system, like religion.  Secular humanism is about being allowed to believe in whatever you want to believe but at the same time not forcing your beliefs on anybody else and not expecting the government to support your discrimination.  This is why so many people are against state-funded religious schools.

Atheists And Amorality

This is something that she tries to make out as a real possibility – that without religion people would do bad things.  Religion is the only acceptable moral framework.  As an atheist I find this sort of argument

  1. Deeply troubling;
  2. A little offensive.

Firstly, I want to ask these religious people why they don’t do bad things.  They don’t do bad things, they might say, simply because it would upset their God, which would then result in punishment from God – perhaps in the form of not getting into heaven.  It is troubling because that is a really lousy way of conducting morality.  As an atheist I don’t do bad things because it would hurt other people.  As a community all of our lives are enriched when we cooperate: when do nice things for each other and work together on things we are more successful and our lives are more enjoyable.  The theists suggest that without a divine sense of punishment there is no reason not to do bad things.  I suggest that our lives improve when we don’t.  It troubles me that a theist can’t see anything wrong with killing someone other than “it might upset God.”

Secondly, I am a little offended simply because they seem to suggest that I operate amorally – that I am incapable of seeing right from wrong.  Clearly this is not the case.  I have never done anything too seriously wrong.  I haven’t raped anyone, I haven’t killed anyone, I haven’t stolen anything of significant value.  Having studied both philosophy and ethics in depth I can say that non-theistic ethics is based upon a theory of fairness and equality.

Individuals are to be treated as such within the community that they help build.  A community is not located to a locale, as there may be significant benefits from helping those you are close to, for instance, but also to all members of the human race.  Some even go as far as to suggest that fairness should be extended to all sentient beings.  I don’t agree with them but I can see and understand their argument.  Something is good for the community if it is also good for the individuals that comprise it.

Furthermore, enquiry into the origins of morality will not only yield clues to be found in our animal ancestors (which are also found in other animals alive today) but also clues that such that religion is not the alpha and omega of morality.  The so-called “Golden Rule” (do unto others as you would do unto them) predates organised religion.  The earliest form of it in organised religion, the Old Testament, dealt not with ethical reciprocation but in retribution.  “An eye for an eye” is a violent principle of when to punish someone, not how to be kind to someone.  Violence and a system of punishments is no foundation for a proper ethical system.  It is, unfortunately, a part of our modern systems of laws.  Arguably, it is necessary but it should not be the basis.

Conclusion

A belief in God, I have argued, is incompatible with “intelligent” and “rational”.  If you live of your life asking questions, looking for evidence and building your knowledge on what you can empirically verify then the existence of God should not be excluded from this.  The basis for excluding it was simply that God is too complex to know either way.  However, if that is true then God’s existence should be treated much like the existence of unicorns or celestial teapots orbiting the Sun.  When one makes an incredulous claim one must ask “how do you know that?” or, perhaps better, “how can I know that?”  Asking for proof is the basis of the scientific movement and the world we live in today.  It is not up to the atheists to prove that God doesn’t exist, but rather up to the theists to prove that He does.

Muslim Extremists do the craziest things.

Muslims clash with police after burning poppy in anti-Armistice Day protest” screams the headline on this Daily Telegraph article to be found here, stoking the fires of hatred as they do so.

It’s arguable that whenever there is a protest of significance the press ought to cover it.  It makes sure that people throughout the locality, region, nation or world here about it and that there can be no argument about suppression.  Sometimes, however, I think there should be exceptions.

Vicious Cycle

The protesters identified themselves as being from a group called “Muslims Against Crusades”, an organisation believed to be a splinter group from Islam4UK.  Islam4UK is notorious Islamic extremist group that was proscribed recently, i.e. banned from existing.  Before this, however, they were a group that believed in a very fundamentalist interpretation of Islam believing in Sharia Law, for instance.

What’s funny about their organisation is the way they conducted themselves in public.  They were massive PR whores, feeding off the hatred that they stoked in a seemingly symbiotic relationship with the media.  The now famous Wootten Bassett non-incident is worth finding out about, especially if you look at how satirist Charlie Brooker reported on it (see the Newswipe with Charlie Brooker episode for this).

In short, they announced that they were going to stage a protest at a place where people publicly mourn the deaths of servicemen and women who have died on public duty.  Naturally, this caused public outrage with the usual vitriol of “it’s disgusting” and “it’s an outrage” spurting from whatever vox pop reporters could find on the streets.

After a media frenzy lasting only a week, Islam4UK called it off.  The police said that they never even received an application from them to hold a protest there.  The whole thing was a hoax.  Of course, this didn’t stop a 400,000 strong anti-Islam4UK Facebook group from being created and anti-Muslim sentiments being poured out across the nation in newspapers and the internet.

The media loved it.  It was controversial.  It riled up everybody.  It sold copy.  For them, this was a good news story as it meant that people would want to read their paper and people would be spending time talking about.  Fantastic.

The problem with this, of course, is that this is exactly what Islam4UK wanted.  It was a PR stunt.  Imagine T-Mobile shooting kittens on live TV or Simon Cowell literally flinging his turds at an X-Factor contestant.  This stuff would be all over the news.  AND EVERYBODY WOULD BE TALKING ABOUT IT.  Of course, for Cowell and T-Mobile it would damage their careers but for Islam4UK, who have no reputation, this was a gold mine.

Furthermore, Islam4UK are a group of Islamic extremists.  What they want is animosity towards Muslims.  There are many, many moderate Muslims in the world – ordinary people who are religious but are happy to live in the society that they do, enjoying their faith and letting others do the same.  What extremists want are people to join their side and the only way they can do this is by polarising people, by getting these moderate Muslims on their side.  Of course, the moderates aren’t going to be convinced that they should commit extreme acts without a good reason and the best reason of all seems to be “because non-Muslims hate you”.

By getting non-Muslims to attack Muslims it will make moderate Muslims feel threatened, make them feel that they don’t belong to the community as a whole and, instead, can only trust their Muslim brothers and sisters.  Such a move would galvanise all Muslims against anti-Muslim sentiments, thus creating the army that Islam4UK needs to seriously challenge the established laws and practices of the UK.

Thus, we find ourselves in an odd position.  The more extreme things Islam4UK do, the more the press reports it.  The more the press reports it, the more people make stupid generalised comments about Muslims.  The more Muslims feel threatened the more likely they are to join extremist organisations.  The more members extremist organisations have the more likely they are to do extremist activities.  The more they do these extremist activities the more likely they are to feature in the press.  Do you see the circle?

The Press Is Not Helping

The press want to sell copy.  People buying their paper is good for them and the way to get people to buy it is to either to make them angry or scare the shit out of them.  Extremist Muslims tick both of those boxes.  Good for them and the press, bad for us.

The weird thing about this story in particular is that they use the headline “Muslims clash with police after burning poppy in anti-Armistice Day protest” rather than using the term “Islamists” (usually used to denote the political side of Islam, i.e. those who believe in the establishment of Sharia Law) or “Muslim Extremists” (Muslims that typically hold ‘fundamental’ or otherwise unorthodox views about Islam).

Both of these terms seem far more accurate.  Andy Bloxham, the author of the article, probably didn’t write the headline (they seldom do) but he uses the phrase “Islamic protesters” in the first sentence of the article, thus clearly stating their views on Islam.  The headline writer, however, either didn’t see that bit or, and this is far more likely, believed that the generalised term “Muslims” would sell more copy than the more accurate alternatives.

And So?

Personally, I think the press coverage that these groups get in the press should be stopped.  One of my friends said to me that all protests should be covered by the press.  They have a right to protest and the world has a right to know that they did so.  But with groups like these, ones much like the ‘proscribed’ groups, the benefit of reporting their protest is surely greatly shadowed by the damage this does to Muslims and our society.

If the urge to cover these protests is too much then coverage should be short, concise and matter-of-fact.  There was a protest by some Islamist group, 35 people turned up and that’s it.  Headlines that seem to say “Muslims hate fallen soldiers” are no help to anybody and are merely inflammatory.  Those sorts of remarks exist simply to create controversy where it does not reside and create debate on topics that aren’t even worth debating.  There are people with strange and evil views but they don’t make the paper, why report this?  Because it sells copy.

On a side note, I am aware of the irony of this post.  I’m arguing that the press shouldn’t report on it because it brings it to people’s attention and yet here I am writing about it myself, thus joining it.  Perhaps, but if the Telegraph hadn’t done it in the first place I wouldn’t be writing about it now.  I’d be asleep, not worrying about what stupid thing the media was going to do next.

Are you religious? Are you really?

First Humanist Society of New York

Image via Wikipedia

The Problem

I don’t just follow commands from an institution that thinks it is better than me, the church (or should that be the British Humanist Association?)

– ‘jfe261’

And I want the British Humanist Association to stop telling me how to fill out my census form.

– ‘Benulek’

I think the BHA needs to be more realistic about the situation: you can’t tell people what constitutes “true” faith or observance.

– Porthos

All of the above quotes are from an article on the Guardian website about the British Humanist Association’s (BHA) latest plea – that lapsed religious folk and non-believers actually tick the most appropriate box on the 2011 census form: no religion.  Some people, however, seem to take this as an affront on all religious folk and people of faith.

What’s Going On?

The BHA aren’t asking people to lie on their census, or to convert to atheism for the sake of the census.  Instead, they want people to be honest about their religious status because it is important to how the country is run and, on a more personal level, how children are educated.

Faith schools in the UK constitute a large proportion of primary and secondary schools.  Many are publicly funded and yet are able to discriminate against children based on their supposed religion or the religion of their parents.  Since there are numerous areas in the UK where school choice is prohibitive or non-existent, many parents lie about their religious status in order to get their child into the school of their choice.

Just to emphasise that point: the UK government supports and subsidises with public money the discrimination of children based on their religion.

Why Don’t They Stop It?

Plainly, the government believes it has a lot of support from the general public.  In the 2001 census 37.3m people put Christianity, or a Christian denomination, as their religion.  By extrapolation this equates to half the population.  Even without the figures for other religions it would seem that there are a lot of religious people living in the UK.  However, church attendance figures tell a different story.

In 2008, the average weekly attendance figures to church show that approximately only 1.145 million people attended church.  Assuming the number of Christians (as reported on the census) stayed steady, this means that in 2008 only 3.07% of Christians went to church.  It simply does not follow to suggest that there truly are 37.3m Christians in the UK when so few of them go to church.

Affront On Religion?

What the above criticisms seem to be suggesting is that the BHA is attacking religion through the census forms or that they are trying to tell Christians how to observe their faith.  This does not seem to be a fair characterisation.

What the BHA are trying to do is to get people to “fess up” and state whether or not they are religious.  “Religiousness” has not been defined in their press release, so we’ll have to try and work out what they mean.

Being religious means observing the rites of a particular religion and imbuing yourself with them.  To use it in a sentence, we may frequently hear people saying “I’m not a religious person but I believe in God.”  There, in that sentence, is a separation between faith (here defined as believing in a God) and religion (following a specific order, reading scripture etc).

What The BHA Is Really About

The BHA wants people to make that separation.  They want people to be honest with themselves.  People should ask themselves “am I a religious person?” and “do I observe the practices of a particular religion?”  Sure, you may have been baptised or raised in a religious household but what about now?  Do you go to church?  Do you read the bible?  Do you say prayers?  The BHA does not think it unfair to ask these questions of people when they should be asking them about themselves.

The criticisms have said things like “don’t tell me how to practice my religion” and the like.  Well, if you feel that strongly about it then you probably are a religious person.  Religion in some people is deeply entrenched and when someone questions your religion you see that as them questioning you.  If that’s the case then you should probably write “Christianity”.

But to those who don’t go to church, read the bible or pray – you need to ask yourself whether you really consider yourself religious.  Sure, you might have faith – you might even believe in the Christian God.  But are you religious?

The government judges its position on faith schools partly on the public’s opinion.  If it sees that 37.3m are in favour of state funded faith schools then it’ll press ahead.  If it sees those numbers dipping, like the church attendance ones are, then it may change its position.  People have a once-in-a-decade opportunity to make their true position heard and they should take it.

Conclusion

Whenever people question the role of religion in our society we must try and steer away from knee-jerk hyperbole.  We must be calm and listen to what they say.  If, afterwards, you think they are wrong then fine.  But if you walk away or stand there with deaf hears, choosing only to react to what you think they are saying then your actions may have unfortunate consequences.

The institutionalised discrimination may continue in our schools.  Throughout the country children and teenagers may not be able to go to the school that they want.  Parents everywhere may end up lying, simply to accommodate their children.  Children may become indoctrinated in a religion that they never truly believe but must follow simply because they have no other alternative.

Personally, I don’t agree with organised religion and I especially don’t agree with faith schools, whether they are publicly or privately funded.  We are fortunate to have such liberal rights in our country where parents are free to bring up their children in a way that they see fit, where a government-endorsed religion isn’t forced upon them.  I don’t agree with thrusting a religion on a child but I agree with the human right that allows it.  However, we simply cannot allow the indoctrination of children to be state-funded, and part of the fight against that starts with adults being honest about their religious beliefs in next year’s census.

This campaign isn’t an affront on religion, it’s an affront on dishonesty and its awful effects.