6/24/10

Having Reasons, Being Observant

As a fairly unobservant atheist (and fairly unobservant Jew), I have to respond to this post. It's one thing to have reasons to be an atheist (I do) and a Jew (I do), another thing altogether to adopt some level of "observance." You can have good reasons to be an atheist, and other good reasons not to be observant--i.e. not to focus on it, talk about it a lot, promote it.  Maybe you find it obvious and uninteresting that there's no deity (the attitude, I think, of many atheist philosophers).  Maybe you think there's no god, but you don't mind that others believe differently--since you think belief can have both good and bad effects.  Maybe you have other goals that would be thwarted, if you got on the "religion, baaaad" bandwagon.  For example, maybe what really matters to you is the environment, or poverty, or animals, and you think you can advance progress in those areas if you reach out non-divisively to both religious and non-religious people.

Finally, it's a very bad idea to use the term "anti-atheist" for unobservant atheists who criticize "the new atheists."  It echoes "anti-semite" and thus misleads badly.  There are people who really do despise atheists in the way that anti-semites despise Jews. Unfortunately, I come into contact with such people, and they upset me.  Critics of the new atheists (like Chris Mooney, like me once in a while) are nothing like them. The critics have reasoned complaints about a subset of atheists; they don't despise or fear or denigrate atheists just for being atheists.  They're not "anti-atheists." So much for that.

26 comments:

amos said...

Do I need new eyeglasses or is the print in your blog smaller? Please, some of your readers are senior citizens.


Mooney is not anti-atheist, of course, but there seems to be an ongoing cyber war between Mooney and some new atheists blogs, and as they say, all is fair in love and war.


All is not fair in philosophy, but perhaps interblog
warfare should not be considered as
a philosophical discipline.

Jean Kazez said...

I think the Mooney debate is interesting. If you don't, then skip the posts about it.

Text should be bigger now.

amos said...

I didn't say that the debate wasn't interesting. I merely stated that it functions on a level of personal animosity, low blows and especially tribalism that
moves it out of the realm of philosophical debate. There are blogs "out to get" Mooney, and Mooney is out to get them. That, far from not being interesting, is fascinating.

Faust said...

Amos: you can change your browser text size through the view menu in most browsers.

This was a public service announcement.

Jean Kazez said...

I did change the text size this morning, but it's confusing, because what I see involves other settings on my computer. I changed it back, but you might have to fiddle with your own computer to make things perfect for your own eyes.

Amos, To be honest, I think what really concerns you about this post is the sparring with Ophelia, but hey--she and I like to spar. I think we do it with some level of restraint (as she said in an earlier comment, when I was away, we are colleagues at TPM). All hell will NOT break loose.

amos said...

Thanks. It's still small, but I'll see if I can enlarge the whole page on my screen. Now, why does the blog refuse to give me a word to verify? That happens a lot, and I have to click, get rejected and on the second try, a word appears.

Jean Kazez said...

I changed it again--now is it back to the way it was yesterday?

I'll get rid of the word verification for a while.

amos said...

Thanks. Print back to normal. No word verification.

Aeolus said...

Insofar as being an atheist involves a belief (that there is no deity), it's not like being born with red hair. Even someone who cannot rationally defend their intense dislike of all atheists is not like someone who despises natural redheads. The despiser of atheists is making a judgement on the basis of someone's belief (and perhaps what the despiser thinks that belief implies about the person's character), whereas the despiser of redheads thinks redheads are just born bad.

I envy atheists. Having a firm belief in the non-existence of any deity -- good, bad, or indifferent, conceivable by the human mind or not -- can (I say "can") bring great comfort, as it clearly does to Richard Dawkins. Unfortunately, as a radical agnostic (even one who for good reasons rejects the existence of the Abrahamic god), I am denied the consolations of atheism.

Jean Kazez said...

Different prejudices work in different ways. Even anti-semitism works in many ways. Sometimes it's based on ethnicity, so it's a lot like hating red-heads. But sometimes it's based on ideas what Jews believe and don't believe, how they live or don't live. Despising atheists is like the latter--not based on physical traits, but on (mostly false) ideas about the atheist's viewpoint and lifestyle.

Re: the "consolations" of being an atheist. Hmm. What consolations? There are actually some drawbacks to being an atheist. Research shows that atheists are less optimistic--which makes sense, since they don't think an all good being is running the show and protecting them.

As to atheists having a "firm belief" in the non-existence of God...I would say, not necessarily so. That's to confuse the content of an atheist's belief (which is that there is no god) with the degree of certainty of the belief. You can be an atheist without being completely certain.

Analogy--some people believe there's no global warming. They're "awarmingists." Yet often they are not 100% certain of that. Likewise, atheism and total certainty don't have to go hand in hand.

Aeolus said...

Yes, certainly (!) there are degrees of certainty involved in atheism. Dawkins says he can't be absolutely certain there is no deity, but claims he has good reasons to assign a vanishingly small probability to the existence of any deity. In other words, he is convinced beyond a reasonable doubt. This firm (beyond any reasonable doubt) belief seems to give him a solid foundation for his life and its direction. I believe he even says that Darwinian evolution (which, rightly or wrongly, he ties to his atheism) allows us to know the meaning of life. And we can think of Beauvoir and Sartre, whose atheistic existentialism allowed them to believe firmly that they were the captains of their own destinies. Atheism can free one from the terrors of capricious or tyrannical gods. But I said atheism CAN bring consolation, not that it necessarily does.

Jean Kazez said...

Where does he say "vanishingly small probability" of God? In The God Delusion he represents his certainty of there being no god as a 6 on a scale of 1-7. That doesn't strike me as "beyond a reasonable doubt."

Yes, there are folks like Sartre who get from disbelief to a certain view about life, but my sense is that far more just think disbelief is disbelief. Disbelievers can have all sorts of different views about what makes a life go well, or what makes a life meaningful, like they can have all sorts of different views about ethics more generally.

amos said...

Sartre does not say that one is captain of one's destiny, which is absurd, but that one should assume responsibility for one's choices and for what the world (facticity) and others (situation)
have made of one.

Aeolus said...

I've read The God Delusion but I don't have it with me, so I'll have to check it again. But by 6 on a scale of 7, I'm sure he does not mean that there's a 14 per cent chance that God exists.

Jean Kazez said...

Just looked it up. By 6 out of 7 he says he means the probably of God is something short of zero. 3 means agnostic (50/50 chance). The certain theist is a 1, the certain atheist is a 7. Actually, he says he's a 6, but close to 7.

Aeolus said...

Do agnostics believe there's a 50 per cent chance that God exists? I don't think so. I, for one, just haven't a clue. I'm totally clueless.

Faust said...

My reason for (generally) not identifying as an atheist is that I think it starts a bad conversation. It is clear that many theists are ALSO atheists, e.g. a Catholic will be an "atheist" insofar a very wide array of gods are concerned.

The fundamental break is naturalism vs. supernaturalism. This seems patently obvious to me. It is the source of the "science vs religion debate," the source of "you can't have morality without religion" debate, it is what the battle is really all about beneath the senseless posturing around "atheism" and "theism." Indeed, the REASONS that "we are all atheists now" are reasons that come from the rise of methodological and philosophical naturalism (there are other arguments as well but most of those are peripheral in my view).

I want to say that in the activist atheist world, "atheism" is ALMOST synonymous with "naturalist" except that there is also something else going on, a kind of "anti religion" sentiment that I think is not quite reducible to mere anti-supernaturalism, and is more bluntly about culture war. Harris is the most obvious about this in EOF.

Now I have no problem whatsoever identifying as a naturalist. And I think a great deal follows from this, and that further identification as an atheist is largely a superfluity. Let's consider e.g. Mooney's quote cited by Ophelia:

To be sure, we hear a fair amount about theological thought here–and I have my difficulties with theology as a field, simply because of my personal identity if nothing else. Being an atheist, it is pretty hard to relate to a theological perspective on something like, say, the meaning of the doctrine of creation. Why would something like that speak to me, resonate for me, or even make sense to me?

One could easily substitute "naturalist" for "atheist" in the preceding an it would make just as much sense if not MORE sense. For the reasons that Ophelia is looking for, are the reasons produced by a naturalist view, the view from which Mooney's "identity" is derived.

Jean Kazez said...

I see what you're saying, but in being a naturalist, I am rejecting many things--I am rejecting astrology and UFOs and homeopathy etc etc etc I am also rejecting Zeus and Athena, etc. But all of that has no mainstream credibility anyway. What really matters is where I stand on what other people take seriously--like God, Jesus, etc etc. By saying I'm an atheist I'm highlighting that aspect of what it means to have a naturalistic world view. I'm also saying what I think in terms that everybody understands. Most people think a naturalist is someone who collects insect specimens in the woods. They have a better grip on the word "atheist," though they certainly do associate the wrong things with it.

Chris Mooney was a college campaigner for atheism. Obviously, he does have reasons for being an atheist. However, deeply held beliefs tend to create identities. So when he said he was turned off by the theology talk by his identity, it obviously didn't mean he had no reasons for being an atheist. Duh.

chigio said...

50/50? no way! I see this error often commited by "non scientific" people. Let's say (to simplify) that there are two options: either it rains or it doesn't. Let suppose that you don't know the current weather in Cairo. Would you say it's 50/50 rain? I don't think so.

I think agnostic (at least myself) have a more pragmatic approach to the "existence of god" question, in the line of Popper falsification. If the statement is non falsifiable than it's not scientific knowledge. It's neither true or false. Maybe it's simply irrelevant.

I think that the assertions about the existance of an all powerful, all knowing, all loving god can be falsified (and they turn out to be false), but other ideas of divinity cannot be easily falsified. hence the agnosticism.

Aeolus said...

chigio: The weather-in-Cairo analogy is a good one. To say I'm agnostic about it is not to say I believe there's a 50/50 chance it will rain there today. And if I have no idea what the climate is in that part of the world, I really can't say anything at all about the likelihood of rain today.

Jean: By "UFOs", I assume you mean visiting alien spacecraft, since no one doubts that sometimes people fail to identify flying objects. Naturalism does not a priori rule out visiting aliens or the validity of astrology. In fact astrology, at least in one form, is falsifiable and therefore qualifies as a scientific hypothesis in the Popperian sense (even if it turns out to be false).

Jean Kazez said...

What I'm saying is that given the evidence and science we have now, you'd have to believe in very spooky non-natural things to take visiting aliens and astrology seriously.

I don't know if it's raining today in Cairo, but if I were forced to assign it some probability, I'd say it was low. So in reality I believe it's not raining in Cairo, but I'm pretty uncertain. By contrast, agnostics seem more "on the fence" about God. They really don't believe either way, even if with low certainty. Dawkins tries to capture that by saying they believe there's a 50/50 chance God exists. Maybe that's unsatisfactory, but I see what he's trying to accomplish.

amos said...

I doubt that it snows in Cairo in June.

Faust said...

"They have a better grip on the word "atheist," though they certainly do associate the wrong things with it."

Almost sounds like a contradiction no? Better grip on...but wrong. I know what you're getting at, but it's exactly my problem with the term. God talk in general is just sloppy sloppy sloppy. I think Johnston's talk in "Saving God" on God's names, and idolatry in general, is just more evidence of that.

Yes yes yes, the public is confused about naturalism. This is probably why they are confused about science, and confused about creationism, and confused about a great many things. Hence: we should promote methodological naturalism (and arguably by this very act philosophical naturalism) and NOT "atheism."

I would rather start a real conversation about a real philosophical position than use a term I'm virtually certain will confuse people, and which will almost inevitably wind its way back to naturalism anyway.

Faust said...

BTW, I just picked up a copy of Mark Johnston's Surviving Death.

I recommend it. In particular I think you will find that since it is composed of a series of lectures given at Princeton, that it is even more disciplined than "Saving God," as well as being focused on ethics more directly (as opposed to God's existence).

Sample quote:

"One of the upshot of these lectures will be that dwelling on the generic motif of science versus religion misses something crucial. As we shall see, various supernaturalisms, particularly the Protestant and the exoteric Catholic theologies of death, have obscured a striking consilience between certain implications of the naturalistic philosophical study of the self and a central salvific doctrine found in Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Vedanta."

Jean Kazez said...

Thanks for the suggestion...I might just get that.

Daniel said...

I think agnostic (at least myself) have a more pragmatic approach to the "existence of god" question, in the line of Popper falsification. If the statement is non falsifiable than it's not scientific knowledge. It's neither true or false. Maybe it's simply irrelevant.

This is pretty much just scientific skepticism, and it's exactly how I justify being an atheist. So in a case like this, I'd say atheist vs. agnostic is just semantics.

I like atheist because there's less ambiguity about what it means, because it's more confrontational, and because I really do have a few bones to pick with religion and superstition. But my reasons for being anti-religion are not the same as my reasons for being an atheist. I'm anti-religion for moral and ethical reasons, I'm an atheist for epistemological reasons.