February 05, 2009
Good atheist/bad atheist
As regular readers will have noted, I have kept hammering at the idea that the claim that god exists is an existence statement and that to assert the truth of an existence statement without credible evidence in support of it is irrational, and that the rational and scientific approach in the absence of any counter-evidence is to assume the truth of the universal statement that there is no god.
I have also said that if you ask believer why they believe in god (a question that is seldom posed to them) you are likely to get fairly incoherent answers, that basically can be grouped into three categories: Argument From Personal Incredulity, Argument From Wishful Thinking, and Argument From Vague Feelings.
In the course of these posts, I have tried to explore all facets of this argument and refined it over time as various objections have been raised to it. While there has been necessarily some repetition (mainly done in order to save readers the trouble of following links to older posts), I hope that each post has added something of value.
One commenter made the point that it is perhaps time for me to stop pushing the powerful argument, based on logic, that the universal statement that god does not exist is justified in the absence of evidence to the contrary. He said:
That fact that you continue to push this 'logical' question is very interesting. It seems that you've found a wedge to use against believers. You know they can't answer the question because of the nature of the subject matter yet you continue to ask the question.
A person who believes in god can not provide any substantive proof of god's existence because god (in their paradigm) is omnipresent.
So now that issue is resolved. There is no need to ask the question again.
There are many reasons that I will continue to push the question. For one, although the commenter may think the question is resolved, many believers still hold on to the idea that believing in god is rational and that they have good reasons for doing so even though when pressed, they cannot provide them. Secondly new readers come along for whom these arguments are unfamiliar and they may not be aware of the earlier posts. Third, my purpose is to assist other atheists respond better to the arguments of believers, and so sharpening and refining the arguments against belief helps them (at least I hope so).
I feel a sense of duty to spend time on this question because I am in a good position to do so. I have had a deeply religious background so that I understand the kind of thinking that religious people, especially Christians, have and the kinds of arguments they give in support of their beliefs. Furthermore, I have the luxury of time to read and think and write about these things and so hope that I can be of assistance to those who do not have that privilege.
Finally, religious believers have a whole industry devoted to pushing their beliefs day in and day out. They have hundreds of thousands of paid propagandists (aka priests, rabbis, imams, etc.) whose main job is to brainwash believers by endlessly repeating dogmas that make no sense but which repetition makes familiar and thus seemingly reasonable. Institutionalized religions have had thousands of years to refine their message, hiring people (aka theologians) to work full time to develop arguments in support of god and to combat disbelief.
The fact that after all the time and effort and money that have been devoted to this cause they have come up with nothing better than the three wishy-washy arguments I gave above should be a strong indication that there is nothing there. It reminds me of the Fr. Guido Sarducci comedy sketch where he says that the study of religion basically boils down to giving people the answer to two questions: "Where is god?" (Answer: God is everywhere) and "Why?" (Answer: Because he likes you). He adds that this is a perfect combination of Disney and Roman Catholic philosophy. Religious apologetics doesn't get much more sophisticated than that, though the language used does.
But that fact is hidden by the vast support structure that religion has created, with political and social leaders and the media all working to shield believers from the unpleasant truth that there is no god, by feeding them soothing stories. My local paper has a weekly column on religion, often by one of their sports columnists, featuring utterly content-free banalities, basically saying over and over, "Whatever happens, God loves you, so be good and don't worry." (I wonder if they would give space to a sports columnist who critiqued religion. I doubt it. As long as you spout conventional pieties, you do not have to establish your credentials. It is only when you challenge them that people demand evidence that you are authorized to speak on the topic.)
Part of the reason that religion has survived is that for a long time unbelievers have been hesitant to speak out openly. Although skeptics down the ages have exposed the weaknesses of the arguments for god many times, they have had to do so obliquely and circumspectly. In the early days unbelievers were actually persecuted and even put to death. As a result, there developed a social stigma attached to being an unbeliever that remained even after the more drastic penalties were removed, but this stigma was even more powerful than legal penalties in suppressing dissenting views.
As John Stuart Mill said in his On Liberty (1859, p. 38):
For a long time past, the chief mischief of the legal penalties is that they strengthen the social stigma. It is that stigma which is really effective, and so effective is it, that the profession of opinions which are under the ban of society is much less common in England, than is, in many other countries, the avowal of those which incur the risk of judicial punishment. In respect to all persons but those whose pecuniary circumstances make them independent of the good will of other people, opinion, on this subject, is as efficacious as law; men might as well be imprisoned, as excluded from the means of earning their bread.
Until now, not having the kind of well-financed organized structure that religion has, skeptics have been unable to mount a concerted and sustained opposition to the spread of religious dogma. It is only recently that they have been able to counter the stigma of unbelief.
This is the result of two developments. The first is that scientific advances are increasingly exposing the vacuity and irrelevance of religious explanations for anything. Nonbelievers now have the power of science at their backs. The second is that with the advent of the internet, skeptics can now link up with each other and share ideas. They are thus rapidly improving the quality of the arguments against religion, and can now also reach vast numbers of people because they can bypass the pro-religious filters of the political and media establishments.
This new opportunity places an obligation on those (like me) who can speak out to speak out, to provide cover for those who still may face repercussions due to the stigma. Again, quoting Mill:
Those whose bread is already secured, and who desire no favor from men in power, or from bodies of men, or from the public, have nothing to fear from the open avowal of any opinions, but to be ill-thought of and ill-spoken of, and this it ought not to require a very heroic mould to enable them to bear.
I am one of the fortunate ones described by Mill who can speak out without repercussions, so it becomes my duty to advance the cause of atheism by exposing the weaknesses of religion. I have to concede that I do come across as somewhat hardnosed in my atheism, especially in the public sphere. This a deliberately chosen strategy on my part, to play the "bad atheist", one who does not let religion hide behind the usual smokescreens, and is thus seen as uncompromising. This allows the "good atheists", those who wear their atheism more gently, to seem much more reasonable and acceptable by comparison and thus makes it easier for them to reveal their beliefs in a society dominated by believers. Most people feel uncomfortable to be considered 'extreme' in the spectrum of beliefs. Having someone else take an even stronger stand puts them closer to the 'respectable' center.
Rather than being a hardship, I have to confess that playing the role of the bad atheist has been very rewarding. Apart from the exhilarating sense of freedom of thought that atheism brings with it, it has been gratifying to me to have people, strangers, write or come up to me and confess that they too are atheists, or at least serious doubters, and that my outspoken writings have given them confidence in themselves and their own ideas, that they are not weird or crazy or alone in thinking that belief in god makes no sense, and that there are others who have taken these ideas even further.
POST SCRIPT: Blacks and gays
Proposition 8 in California passed with a lot of support from the black community. On The Daily Show Jon Stewart and Larry Wilmore discuss the causes of this homophobia.