Musings on Atheism, Religion and God – The Religious Aspects of Atheism
by Philip Jonkers
Dedicated to my dear atheist friends, whom I hold in high regard.
~Towards a better understanding of God.~
Allow me to start off by making clear that the purpose of this article does not include casting atheism in a bad light. Having been an ardent atheist myself until not too long ago, I have gained a great respect for atheists and I think that atheism fulfills a very important role in this imperfect and unjust world we live in. One of its main virtues, I think, is to constitute a unique bias-free platform to voice criticism on the inherent hypocrisy and rampant corruption that sadly is attributable to religion, lamentable both along an ideological and behavioural dimension. Indeed, it is regrettable to the highest degree that many systematic human rights violations and other atrocities occur under the auspices of religious mandate and clerical authority. I think therefore that the emergence of atheism is a sign of societal vitality that, akin to a guard dog barking at encroaching danger, helps awaken society to the plethora of crimes that are being perpetrated under the umbrella of religion. And so I applaud atheists in their willingness to play the vital role of pointing out the corruption of religious doctrine and practice. It would therefore be foolish of me to wanting to rub them in the wrong way. What I do hope to be able to clarify however, is that atheism and conventional religion show to have similarities that I think are worthy of being addressed.
Atheism does not provide a formulation of moral guidance and precise definitions of codes of conduct that its adherents are expected to live by, similar to what we can observe in traditional religions. And therefore atheism can thus never be regarded as a standalone religion comparable to the existing religious traditions. Nonetheless, perhaps paradoxically, it does accommodate a number of features that are based on faith. The first purpose of this article is to show what these features are.
This article’s second purpose is to refute two well-known anti-theistic arguments; the first was advanced by a famous Greek classic philosopher, who by the way technically was not an atheist as he never refuted the existence of “the gods” but merely believed they did not concern themselves with our affairs; the second was penned down by a famous contemporary atheistic science fiction writer. To this end–as I build my cases of refutation–I will show that it is logically more proper to attribute their criticism to religion and its adherents, rather than God. Religious texts describe God, while adherents–ever spurred on by the clergy–claim to act on behalf of God. But to what extent is this really accurate? The key questions being: how well do these religious descriptions of God truly approximate God? And where is this mysterious steering hand of God, allegedly ever propelling his adherents?
As I address these issues, I will make an effort in promoting–what I believe–is a more accurate and consistent rendition of the character of God. I am willing to uphold my particular belief in God and Jesus at the expense of the ambiguous and indeed schizoid renditions of both, but especially God, as given in the bible. As you may have guessed, I am a bible skeptic; which means that although I believe that the bible does contain truth, I sincerely question the veracity of the passages that conflict with my belief of what God’s personality is like; a belief that, in turn, is supported by specific bible passages, e.g. 1 John 4:8 and 1 John 4:18.
Non sequitur (Latin for “it does not follow”), in formal logic, is an argument in which its conclusion does not follow from its premises. In a non sequitur, the conclusion can be either true or false, but the argument is fallacious because there is a disconnection between the premise and the conclusion. Wikipedia
What is Belief?
Firstly, I’ll indicate the perhaps obvious notion that human beings simply cannot do away with belief. Indeed, belief is so ubiquitous in our lives that people tend to forget just how commonplace and mundane it really is. As a matter of fact, we believe things on face value without proper consideration or closing justification all the time.
For instance, any workable human relationship requires a good deal of trust, and trust is the assumption of good will and intent that one party places in another. If you really trust somebody then that means that you believe that this person has the best of intentions with you (or some cause) and means you (or some cause) no harm.
Another example. Due to the biological imperfection of our senses at perceiving the world around us, the information the senses present to the brain is systemically incomplete. Hence the brain has to compensate for the missing information in order to render a coherent and recognisable mental impression of the world we perceive. The brain supplies this missing information by retrieving the memory of similar perceptual impressions. The brain sort of scans through its archives searching for the best memory fit (pattern recognition) which corresponds most closely with whatever raw and novel perception is presented to the brain by the senses. In effect, it is an application of a primitive form of belief in which raw and novel perception is prejudicially augmented by beliefs about the world based on previous perceptual experiences.
For example, the class of optical illusions constitute visual trickery of which its feasibility relies on the success in fooling the mind. The power of an optical illusion in giving the appearance that it’s not an illusion, basically relies on the misapplication of deeply ingrained visual beliefs that were gained already at an early age from experience in perceiving the visual world. If the mind were truly nonprejudicial of the visual world, these optical illusions would not have been feasible as a more perfected visual sense would solely have managed to interpret optical illusions as indeed being illusions. Now the mind has to rely on the corrective actions derived from higher cognitive functions in order to offset sensory prejudice and thus succeed in recognising the illusory nature of the illusion.
Yet another example. Our whole interpretation of our individual everyday world is indispensable without belief for another reason. This interpretation is based on the belief of a quasi-static nature of the reality around us. That is, we generally assume that the world around us does not change abruptly from one moment to the other and from one place to the next. In more technical parlance, you could say that we tacitly put faith in the notion of a temporal and spatial continuity of physical reality in which we maneuver. But these assumptions need not always be justified.
For example, when I set out to go to a supermarket to buy some food or when I go to the gym to work out, I presume without question, that the supermarket or gym is actually still there. But it may also be perfectly possible that the store, for example, blew up overnight due to some undetected gas leak or that the gym had to be closed down because the owner had suddenly died or because of some mysterious infectious disease had decimated the staff.
Therefore we take for granted the assumption of a virtually static reality all the time, and for good practical reasons of course; not just because these assumptions are justifiable for the most part, but because we would simply not be able to function in a satisfactory practical manner had we to tediously and painstakingly verify, in advance, the feasibility of every little future step we take in our lives. Hence asserting the validity of beliefs, whole garden varieties of them, surely is a virtuous and justifiable thing to do, if only viewed from the position of practicality.
Atheism and Agnosticism
First we need to settle on what defines atheism. From Wikipedia we extract the following brief definition that is satisfactory for the present purpose:
Atheism, in a broad sense, is the rejection of belief in the existence of deities. Strong atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist. Atheism is contrasted with theism, which in its most general form is the belief that at least one deity exists. […] In the 20th century, globalization contributed to the expansion of the term to refer to disbelief in all deities, though it remains common in Western society to describe atheism as simply “disbelief in God”.
Atheists tend to lean towards skepticism regarding supernatural claims, citing a lack of empirical evidence. Common rationales for not believing in any deity include the problem of evil, the argument from inconsistent revelations, and the argument from nonbelief. Other arguments for atheism range from the philosophical to the social to the historical. Although some atheists tend toward secular philosophies such as humanism, rationalism, and naturalism, there is no one ideology or set of behaviors to which all atheists adhere. wikipedia.org
An atheist is someone who simply does not believe in God.
What is agnosticism?
We can be as honest as we are ignorant. If we are, when asked what is beyond the horizon of the known, we must say that we do not know. ~ Robert G. Ingersoll
It will be assumed for the present purpose that an agnostic is someone who admits to not knowing whether God exists or not. To insist–according to a stronger definition— that God’s existence is unknowable, is too presumptuous in my opinion, as I view a true agnostic to be someone who admits that also the future is unknown. Therefore, whether God forever will remain unknowable is an issue that is simply unknown of itself and must therefore be unanswerable to a true blue agnostic.
Indeed, it is not at all unthinkable that at some point in the future a being, or beings, will reveal themselves and demonstrate to have performance capabilities which defy the laws of physics and as such verify the authenticity of their divinity. And so the preconceived notion that the existence of a deity, or deities, will forever be unknowable is not at all a logically tenable position and–as a matter of fact–one that again is rooted in prejudicial faith.
In addition, to even assume the related strong agnostic position that God’s existence is unknown is also one that is necessarily speculative and/or faith-based. After all–without sufficient knowledge on the knowability of each and every member of the whole of humanity–it is not excluded that at least one person really can justifiably maintain to know God, if they in fact have succeeded in establishing a true mutually communicative personal relationship with God. As it is practically impossible to verify that all living persons do not personally know God, it logically follows that this position too cannot be maintained beyond crude guesswork; a conclusion which is really somewhat ironic to draw by people who are not afraid to maintain a mental state of not knowing and who thus essentially dismiss prejudicial bias and faith.
Because of these complications I will disregard this stronger definition of agnosticism for the present discussion, and simply assume that an agnostic is someone who admits to not knowing whether God exists or not.
Strong Atheism versus Weak Atheism
It is in the consideration of atheism as a dogmatic belief-structure from which the kinship with conventional religion emerges.
Let me first distinguish between two basic kinds of atheism that are revealed through the following abstraction. The belief surrounding the existence of some phenomenon, say P, can be represented by three options:
- an affirming belief (i)
- an unresolved – or suspended belief (ii)
- a refuting belief (iii)
Note that options i and iii are mutually exclusive, whereas ii is not irreconcilable with i or, separately, with iii.
The sentence: “I do NOT believe in the existence of P“, is a direct negation of the meaning of the sentence: “I DO believe in the existence of P.” Or, equivalently, it’s a negation of “I do AFFIRM my belief in the existence of P.” Therefore a negation of the affirmation of belief, i, is equivalent to the combination of the remaining possible options ii and iii: “I suspend my belief in the existence of P” or “I refute the existence of P.”
And so atheism covers two belief choice alternatives; one in which one is not sure whether God exists and another in which one believes in God’s non-existence. The first alternative may be called weak atheism — and indeed seems to be most compatible, if not identical, with agnosticism. Technically, one may observe that the exclusive choice of ii equals to a simultaneous negation of i and iii; which simply translates into the meaning: NOT believing in the existence of God and NOT believing in God’s non-existence either.
The Strong Atheist,… Religious?
Let’s leave agnosticism/weak atheism for what it is and exclusively focus on strong atheism.
The explicitly rejecting belief in deities could not take place without an underlying motivating conviction. That conviction must be based on an alternative belief structure capable of providing an alternative sort of explanatory narrative as to how reality as we know it came into being. Strong atheism can be understood to serve as a holder for belief structures that have supplanted the role of a traditional creator being.
The Atheist Dogma
Hence the belief-structure–or dogma if you will–supporting strong atheism, is the source for the religious aspects of atheism. Indeed–in its most degenerate guise–an encounter between an atheist and theist, if both are equally dogmatic and unyielding in their convictions, might resemble the same kind of encounter one could expect from members of two rivaling conventional religions; a mud-sling fest in which both sides try to overrule and disqualify the other by transforming their respective religious credos into emotionally overcharged hyperbolic ammunition.
Concretely speaking the dogma of the atheist could, for instance, be built on the postulated belief structure that comprises the evolutionary principles governing the dynamism of life-forms (i.e.: natural selection, inheritance and mutation/variation) together with the conjecture that life emerged spontaneously out of lifeless primordial “gooey.” That is, strong atheism implies upholding the idea of self-sustaining and self-replicating metabolic systems (i.e. living organisms) coming into existence spontaneously, i.e. without any intervening action from a metaphysical creator agent.
Since there obviously were no human observers around during the time when life emerged, the narratives offered by both atheists and theists, are necessarily speculative, theoretical and/or indeed faith-based. Both doctrinal approaches need not be mutually exclusive mind you, but they nonetheless often are interpreted as such, by atheist and theist alike. For example, a reconciliation between both viewpoints could be arrived at through the idea that it may have been spiritual beings–endowed with the power to create life–that were responsible for jump-starting life billions of years ago and then simply let the governing mechanics of biological evolution take it from there. Personally I find this diplomatic “mid-way” alternative narrative most appealing and elegant. And so the presumption of mutual exclusivity between evolutionism and creationism is also an article of faith, whether it be invoked by the theist or the atheist alike.
Throwing Out the Proverbial Baby with the Bathwater
“You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” ~ Anne Lamott
The motivation of the atheist for indeed becoming one typically seems to be based on the following decision. A representation of God is assumed that is based on simplification, contempt and ridicule. This mere impression of God then serves as the basis for invalidating his existence. As such, a psychological barrier is then erected in which the fledgling atheist is discouraged to lower themselves to even so much as entertaining the existence of something they just previously have sought to scorn and ridicule. In terms of psychodynamics, an act of (resolute) condemnation tends to place conscience guilt into the heart of the condemner and the resulting anticipation of retaliation from parties that represent the condemned generally causes the condemner to steer clear from the condemned. This mechanism, described in a bit more detail here, also applies to atheists condemning God (and religionists).
The obvious criticism to such a decision is that it is logically unwarranted to dismiss the existence of God together with the dismissal of any of his humanly made representations. While the renditions of God may be invalidated one-by-one, e.g. by the bringing to the surface of internal logical inconsistencies or contradictions, it is logically unjustified to jettison the existence of God along with his mocking or inferior representations.
Allow me to elaborate.
The motive of the atheist is understandable at least to some extent as the religious texts on which impressions of God are based, themselves portray a whimsical and moody God whose character alternates between vindictive hatred and conciliatory love. And so the atheist may feel compelled to reject God on the basis of such schizophrenically capricious renditions. Nonetheless, all that these ancient texts do is render a descriptive representation of God or an image if you will. And while it may be understandable for atheists to reject those images of God, it simply does not follow that this may serve as a valid justification to also reject the original, the source. Indeed, ironically, the rejection of the existence of God based on the rejection of religiously inspired inconsistent and self-contradictory models of God constitutes another act of faith.
The idea of inaccurate renditions of God becomes plausible when one realises that religious texts were drawn up by error-susceptible human scribes and generations-lasting oral traditions. Therefore the accuracy of any rendition directly depends on the accuracy of the oral transmission and the scribes. Think for instance of the quick degeneration of orally transmitted accuracy as seen in a typical game of Chinese Whispers. Or if the scribes were sloppy, then sloppy renditions were the likely outcome. If the scribe had not a sufficient understanding of that which he had to write down or even if he had so much as a bad day, this potentially would affect the quality and accuracy of the written records. Also the all-too-human bias of the scribe becomes particularly relevant when missing information needed to be filled in, e.g. in order to improve coherence of some rendered story. But whatever it is that scribes had to promulgate risks being off the mark with respect to actuality, potentially inaccurate to the point of fairy tale fiction even. Moreover–if a scribe was malevolently corrupt–then it’s only fair to expect malevolently corrupt renditions of God. Indeed–considering all these various routes for deviation from the truth to creep in–it would seem nothing short of a miraculous act, that any given basal religious text were to be completely accurate and truthful.
Therefore when an atheist rejects God, he does so on the basis of a mere interpretation of God. What he in reality does is to reject an image of God that has been furnished by long gone and error-prone oral transmissions and corruption-susceptible scribes.
Rejecting God by Rejecting the Actions of Religious Adherents
“I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” ~ Mohandas Gandhi
Unfortunately many religious adherents hardly serve as proper and exemplary poster boys for God. It is however again a non-sequitur to dismiss God on the basis of the repugnant actions perpetrated by probably a relatively small but nonetheless zealous and vocal cross-section of religious people. Even if these people claim to sincerely do God’s bidding or to only act in accordance with the will of Allah, it makes more sense to conclude that the character of their actions above all reveal the character of their underlying psychological mindset. Logically speaking, the presence or absence of a supposed divine steering hand can only be guessed rather than deduced from the nature of the behaviour of religionists, and so a preference of either alternative has to be faith-based.
For example, if some people go out and kill other people “in the name of God,” does it then logically follow that God is to ultimately be held responsible for any or all of the killings these people chose to do out of their own free will? Or is it rather more just to directly hold accountable the very people who commit those crimes? To bring it closer to home, suppose for example, that your neighbour starts killing people in your name. And suppose that –after he has killed a few people– the police manage to apprehend him, and as it turns out his defence rests on the sole claim that he merely acted in your name, under your supposed authority. Is it then justified for the police to come barge through your door and charge you with inciting homicidal behaviour?
Well then… the same ethical context applies to God and his self-appointed violent representatives. It is an appalling practice when certain people usurp justification for their actions by doing nothing more than proclaiming to act according to the will of God, when the nature of those actions clearly speak against it. Indeed, such despicable practices–which are really done on the basis of free will—constitute blasphemy and are forbidden as mentioned in the bible (“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain; for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.”~Exodus 20:7). From a psychological point of view, it is callous and spiritually immature to deny responsibility for one’s actions and reflexively shift it onto the broad back of God, as if he were some sort of celestial overgrown beast-of-burden always eager to carry all of your pesky responsibilities. On face value the lure of convenience for doing so may sometimes be hard to overcome, but it’s also very unjust and unethical to disgrace the standing of God for the infantile purpose of morally laundering hideous acts that not only have nothing with God but indeed show to be very antithetical to God.
When his violent and blaspheming “proponents” do such a miserable job at representing him properly — but indeed excel in promoting his very antagonist, it’s small wonder then that so many people get disillusioned with religion altogether and regrettably also choose to walk away from God in disgust.
Reality, Physical Reality and Scientism
“Anybody who has been seriously engaged in scientific work of any kind realizes that over the entrance to the gates of the temple of science are written the words: ‘Ye must have faith.'” ~ Max Planck
By refuting the realm of the spirit together with God, strong atheists automatically assert that physical reality is all of reality. Nonetheless, no matter how many or what people refute its existence, it is still entirely possible that there is another kind of reality that is independent from ordinary physical reality. This kind of reality cannot be registered by objective observation since, by definition, physical detection devices have no domain over unphysical phenomena. Therefore spirits (e.g. God) are categorically excluded from the possibility of direct physical detection. Since this part of reality thus lies beyond the scope of scientific verification, the affirmation as well as refutation of its existence necessarily have to be articles of faith. Science has no jurisdiction over this kind of reality and therefore any refutation done in the name of science necessarily has to be based on opinion rather than verifiable objective fact. The invocation of science in pretending that it is justified to reject the existence of the spirit world, is an undue application of scientific authority. Indeed such practices embody what is known as scientism, or, the interpretation of science as the only and final authority for the discovery and establishment of any and all possible truths.
With physical detection devices it is, at best, to only obtain indirect evidence of the presence of beings that transcend physical reality. The possibility for objective detection arises if and only if a spirit being interacts with physical reality in such a way that the spirit leaves behind physically tractable “finger-prints,” if you will. For example, the registration of the movement of material objects while guaranteeing the exclusion of interference from all possible physical forces or agents, could constitute indirect or circumstantial evidence for the intervening action of a spirit agent.
In principle, the existence of the human spirit — or, more accurately: the objectively unobservable part of your being that is such that it (purportedly) can act independently from the physical self — could be established with the following scientific experiment (presented in a condensed and rudimentary format):
Take two separated rooms with opaque walls and a human subject to be tested for OBE capability. Escort subject to one room. Place objects, that are foreign to the subject, in the other room. Instruct the subject to initiate the OBE and to “travel,” while in the OBE state, to the other room to observe what objects are placed in it. After the OBE event, the subject is asked to report back the findings. If the subject really is capable to doing OBEs, the accuracy of the submitted report should be significantly higher than that arrived at by any of the possible control subjects.
If found one person who does this test significantly good then that counts as indirect evidence for a human being to also have an ethereal body, i.e. a spirit body having a perceptive intelligence that can act independently from the physical body it is associated with.
But even if indirect evidence were to remain illusive, it is strictly speaking fallacious to regard it as a sufficiently valid justification to dismiss the existence of the spirit world. After all, absence of evidence is no evidence of absence. One is free, of course, to prefer to believe in the non-existence of God on that basis but that would then be one more article of faith.
Indeed, strong atheists may be inclined to base their refutation of God on the unavailability of evidence speaking in favour for his existence, but it’s still a leap of faith to assert as much. Granted though, it may equally be a leap of faith to believe in the existence of God on the mere basis of the rendition of God as derived from a fundamental religious text. Nonetheless, the non-existence of God can never be established objectively for two compelling reasons. The first has already been addressed: physical devices are inherently unsuitable for registration of metaphysical phenomena.
The second reason is, although there are exceptions, based on the general impossibility of proving a negative. With respect to God’s existence or non-existence, God could only be proven to not exist if and only if one has an instant and simultaneous observational access to all of reality–including all of the possible spheres of existence that are hidden–and the ruling out of the positive (the existence of God) is the only conclusion left to draw. Indeed such a literally unimaginably formidable task would only befit a being having omniscient intelligence,… a being such as God Almighty. Therefore only God, provided he exists, could verify his own existence, which of course would be trivial non-issue. And, in the case he doesn’t exist, any being with less than omniscient intelligence would automatically lack the necessary task requirements, even though now “only” all of physical reality needs to be given an instant scan. Therefore human beings–having finite intelligence and irrespective of how much support they could enjoy from technological detection gadgetry–could never verify the existence let alone non-existence of God. Hence both the affirmation as well as rejection of the existence of God ultimately again have to be articles of faith.
Continued with Refuting Epicurus’ Argument