April 05, 2011
Gods and snakes
I have noticed recently that religious believers no longer try to argue that belief in god is justified in itself but have settled for trying to put religion on a par with disbelief, as purely a matter of choice.
For example, religious believers who are disturbed by the argument made by atheists that belief in god is irrational sometimes respond by saying that since we cannot prove that there is no god, then atheism involves as much a 'belief' religion, and thus both are equally rational or irrational. Ricky Gervais provides a good response to that by pointing out that "Atheism isn't a belief system. I have a belief system but it's not "based on" atheism, it's just not based on the existence of a god. I make none of my moral, social, or artistic decisions based on any god or superstitions. Saying atheism is a belief system is like saying not going skiing is a hobby. I've never been skiing. It's my biggest hobby. I literally do it all the time."
He is right but I want to expand on that idea a bit in my more pedestrian style.
Atheism does not automatically provide one with a philosophy or a system of ethics or morals. But that does not mean that atheists have none of those things or that there are no behavioral consequences for being an atheist. They just come from sources other than a belief in a god.
Here is an example. Suppose someone moves into a house and for whatever reason believes that there is a poisonous snake somewhere in it that has somehow managed to evade all attempts to detect, locate, or remove it. Such people will consciously adopt a lifestyle that takes the possible existence of a snake into account. They will turn on the lights in the room before going in, will look down as they walk, they will open cupboards, drawers, and closets gingerly and be ready to jump back if they see a snake, they will examine their shoes and clothes before wearing them, and so on. They will look for signs of the snake's presence and be alert for snake-like sounds. After awhile, these behaviors will become routine and done unthinkingly. Furthermore, the behavior of all people of who believe that there are snakes in their houses will be quite similar.
Now take someone who does not believe there are any poisonous snakes in the house. Such a person will behave quite differently from the believer, not doing any of the precautionary things that the snake-believer does. But unlike the snake-believer whose behavior is based on that belief, the behavior of the nonbeliever is not based on that nonbelief. She does not act as any part of a conscious or planned strategy based on the absence of snakes. She does not go around sticking her hands into sock drawers simply because no harm will come from doing so. The nonbeliever does not say to herself, "I will stick my hand into the sock drawer without looking first because I believe there is no snake there" or "I will put on my shoes without first checking inside because I believe there are no snakes." Snakes simply do not enter her consciousness.
So while the behavior of a believer in the snake derives from that belief, the behavior of the non-believer does not derive from that non-belief, even though the behavior of the nonbeliever will be quite different from that of a believer. Non-belief does not prescribe behavior. As a result, there will be no consistent pattern of behavior among non-believers, unlike the much more uniform behavior of believers. Some non-believers may look down when they walk, others may not. There is no way of predicting.
The analogy with religion holds pretty closely. A person who believes in a god will behave in ways that are guided by their religious belief. On a practical level, if you are a Hindu, you are likely to not eat beef. If a Muslim or Jew you will avoid pork. But if you are an atheist, there is no predicting what you will eat. Atheists can be found in the entire spectrum of diets, from vegans to fast-food addicts. Those decisions will be idiosyncratic and depend on personal choices based on a multitude of sources since non-belief does not provide a unifying principle or idea.
More significantly, the idea that there is a god who can punish you with eternal hellfire if you disobey him or reward you with heaven if you do obey results in people trying to figure out what god wants from them and acting accordingly. Since their belief significantly influences their behavior, they make the mistake in thinking that non-belief drives atheists' behavior. Religious people seem to think that atheists decide how to behave by reasoning along the lines of "Since there is no god to judge and punish me, I can lie and cheat and steal."
This is false. If you don't believe that god exists, you simply do not factor the absence of god into one's behavior or one's moral and ethical makeup, just the way the behavior of the non-believer in snakes is not driven by the absence of snakes.
It must be hard for believers in god, for whom that belief is so important, to appreciate that we atheists simply do not factor it into our daily lives. The absence of god is simply taken for granted.