Sunday, April 1, 2007

In Defense Of Atheism And Free Thinkers

I recently read Michael Novak’s essay “Lonely Atheists of the Global Village”. The essay is his response to the works of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett, all avowed atheists. Novak takes a respectful stance, but his essay, while trying to provide a sophisticated response, includes so many errors and so much poor reasoning that it deserves a full-fledged rebuttal. This provides not only an opportunity to debunk many of the current myths surrounding atheism, which still seem to have currency even among the well-educated on the right, but also to provide a few additional thoughts on why the term “free-thinker” is superior to the term atheist.

Myth #1: Atheism posits that life has grown out of completely random processes

False. Such a statement betrays an ignorance of basic evolutionary science. The universe contains many scientific laws that govern reality, none of which are random. The evolutionary process, while influenced by random mutations in genes, is based on scientific principles of adaptation, survival, and gradual change. What troubles religious believers is the fact that human beings were not the inevitable product of evolution on planet Earth; evolution does not perfectly predict the future since chance events can alter its course. If we were to go back in time the fact is that humans might not come into existence. In addition, we are still evolving; if we manage to survive into the distant future we can be almost 100% certain that human beings will be radically different than we are today.

Myth #2: Atheists believe that life has no purpose

False. Atheists believe that life has profound meaning. With respect to Earth, evolution is the purpose. On an individual level that means growing, learning, experiencing all that life has to offer, and expanding one’s consciousness. In addition, atheists believe that existence is purpose enough. Do the planets or the billions of galaxies need what we call a purpose? No; their existence and majesty alone are sufficient.

Myth #3: Atheism is an extreme form of anthropomorphism

False. While atheists do rely on human reasoning and capabilities to form judgments about the universe, the same is true for religious people. Just because they point to scriptures for their inspiration doesn’t mean that they have circumvented the limitations of human cognition and attribution that they ascribe to atheists. And whereas atheists reserve judgment about the ultimate origins of life, it is the religious who create myths that are clearly anthropocentric; they even attribute gender (he) to god and ascribe actions to this god that can sound like a combination of bad soap opera and cruel jokes. (Novak goes so far as to actually criticize atheists for thinking of god as a human being in the same line as he uses “He” to describe god).

Myth #4: Atheists are just as fundamentalist as the religious fundamentalists they criticize

False. To my knowledge all atheists are on the record (including Harris and Dawkins) stating that they don’t have all the answers and they might be wrong. Sam Harris has explicitly said there is a chance that he is wrong and that he might go to hell for not believing in Jesus Christ. How many religious people admit that their worldviews may be entirely wrong, that their beliefs may be based on little more than myths and fairy tales?

In addition, in most religious societies majorities express profound prejudice and bias against atheists, often resulting in more discrimination than against ethnic minorities and gays.

Myth #5: Atheism leads to complete moral relativism

False. There is a growing body of scientific work which shows that morality preceded religion and that many animals exhibit basic moral behavior. There are dozens of good reasons for a person to be moral that have nothing to do with religion. In addition, religious people disagree vociferously on key moral questions such as war, income redistribution, stem-cell research and abortion. So the belief that somehow religion creates a uniform moral system, even on the biggest moral questions, is clearly wrong.

Atheists also reject the belief that relying on extrinsic punishment or reward for one’s conduct represents true morality; a dog can be trained to respond in such a way. Morality that comes from wanting to act ethically for its own sake, without any notion of judgment or reward in the afterlife, is for atheists a deeper and more sincere form of morality.

Myth #6: Hitler and Stalin were atheists, so atheism leads to genocide and mass murder

False. To begin, Hitler is on record making many religious statements and his genocide of the Jews was consistent with a long history of Christian pogroms against the Jewish people. Stalin and Mao killed people based on their belief that power should be centralized within the state and that individual rights had no value. This philosophy was not a natural extension of rejecting religion, nor was the lack of religious conviction central to their worldviews.

On the other hand, Christian societies have a long history of slavery and a Christian society carried out the genocide of Native Americans. I would not suggest that religion was the cause of this mass murder (power and greed were more likely the causes), but it is clear that religious societies have been just as capable of genocide and barbarity as non-religious societies.

The only countries in the world where clear majorities of people don’t believe in god are in Scandinavia, where peace, prosperity, freedom, and human development are at their highest levels in all of world history.

A few last points. As Sam Harris notes, we don’t have a word for people who don’t believe in Zeus or Baal, which is why the term atheism is redundant and should no longer be used. I prefer the term “free-thinker”, which refers to a state where one acknowledges the limits to our understanding and is open to alternative explanations based on reason, science, and evidence. To the extent that there are things beyond our comprehension for which there is not sufficient evidence, free-thinkers are willing to admit ignorance in the face of profound mystery. What free-thinkers refuse to do is to take the easy way out and ascribe realities to the unknown just for the sake of it.

Free-thinkers cannot help but notice how the competing religious doctrines, none of which are based on evidence, contradict each other and rely on visions of a creator who seems to bear an uncomfortable resemblance to the conflicted and petty humans who are supposed to pay allegiance. Free-thinkers are content to let their awe of the universe, and the works of the great moral philosophers (Jesus among them) help craft worldviews that are inclusive and respectful of the great miracle that is life.

That being said, free-thinkers believe deeply in freedom. If people want to believe in the tenets of this or that religion so be it. What we would like to remedy are the false notions about those who claim no religious affiliation, because we are confident that once these myths are debunked more and more people will realize that a full and meaningful life doesn’t require putting one’s faith in ancient texts; in fact, the world that science continues to reveal dwarfs the world depicted in these books.

P.S. In today's Newsweek there is a great debate between Rick Warren and Sam Harris (as usual Sam Harris gets the better of his opponent; pay attention to Warren's final statement, in which he admits that his belief in Jesus is akin to a cosmic insurance policy). Also, check out this now famous lecture by Dawkins in which he fields questions from students at the Christian Liberty College and runs circles around them in the most respectful way.

Jason Scorse

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