"Religion is a hypothesis about the world: the hypothesis that things are the way they are, at least in part, because of supernatural entities or forces acting on the natural world. And there's no good reason to treat it any differently from any other hypothesis. Which includes pointing out its flaws and inconsistencies, asking its adherents to back it up with solid evidence, making jokes about it when it's just being silly, offering arguments and evidence for our own competing hypotheses...and trying to persuade people out of it if we think it's mistaken. It's persuasion. It's the marketplace of ideas. Why should religion get a free ride"

Greta Christina

Saturday, 29 February 2020

Which is True. Christianity or Atheism?- An odd debate...

I've been invited to take part in a debate at the University of Kent with the above premise... I have composed my opening statement for the event so thought I'd share it here.

It may have crossed your minds, because it has mine,  that the terms of this debate are a little odd. Normally when you pitch one thing against another there is some implied equivalence between them even if they are antithetical to each other. But Atheism and Christianity are not at all the same sort of thing. True, they both have something to say about belief in some kind of deity but there I think the similarity ends.
Christianity after all is more than just belief that a deity exists. For one thing it posits a particular kind of god with an interest in and expectations of the human race but also it has acquired throughout its two thousand year history a creed (well several actually) and inculcated itself into the cultural narrative of the western world to such an extraordinary extent that its influence pervades practically every aspect of society.
Atheism however is really nothing more than an ontological opinion. That gods do not exist.

I’m not intending to be provocative when I say gods (plural) because despite whatever ecumenical sentiments proponents of the worlds religions express there are many concepts of god, some of them mutually exclusive and all to some degree incompatible in the way they are supposed to interact with the world. And that’s if they do interact. Some definitions of god are deistic, creator gods yes, but the kind that retire immediately they light the blue touch paper.
So usually if somebody asks me if I believe in God my first response is usually “what do you mean by God?”
Given the usual theistic responses I will then go on to say “no, I don’t believe in that god” because after all I am an A-Theist. Give god an attitude, or claim to know what it wants or insist on your personal relationship with it then I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist.
Sophisticated theologians like Paul Tillich, Alvin Plantinga and David Bentley Hart will tell you that this is a naive concept of god. They will talk of a “ground of being”, god as the “prime mover” or particularly in Hart’s case as “being , consciousness and bliss”.
Well, maybe but for one thing that’s not the sort of god the average theist believes in and for another it’s hard to determine whether reality would be any different with or without it. Since they are unfalsifiable most Atheists I know remain agnostic about those types of god, as they do about deistic ones although there are good philosophical reasons to assume they also don’t exist.
So, the headline premise for tonight is “Which is True, Christianity or Atheism?” From an atheist point of view this is an easy proposition. There is, and has never been, objective evidence for the existence of any god from any religion and so the burden of proof is not on the atheist to prove that gods don’t exist. Since there is no empirical evidence of them the default assumption is, or should be, that there aren’t any. If it can’t be proved that there are -  then the Christian God disappears along with all the others.
But Christianity has another problem  because it’s not enough to establish the one thing atheism rejects. It also has to establish the truth of the  narrative peculiar to its understanding of god. At a bare minimum evidence God’s incarnation in the person of Jesus Christ, and his crucifixion and ascension for the salvation of human kind.
Then,  if you want to go on to argue for the literal and fundamentalist truth of Christianity you’ve also got to prove, against the overwhelming weight of empirical evidence, for the inerrancy of Judeo-Christian scripture.
But let’s hold that thought for now…
Thus far I’ve made no positive claims for atheism, and I may not make that many. In the meantime I can tell you what it’s not – It’s not a worldview, certainly not a religion and only in a vague sense is it a belief. I say that because atheists are rarely walking around consciously disbelieving in gods or especially, actively believing no gods exist. It’s a question that only arises when we’re confronted by the presumption of others that they do.
But, being an atheist does tend to lead to other conclusions about how the world might be.
Almost by definition Atheists are philosophical naturalists, understanding the world through an empirical lens and a broadly defined scientific method. This tends, although not infallibly, to mean that they reject all supernatural explanations of anything along with pseudo-scientific concepts such as homeopathy for example.
Atheism has no political allegiances although atheists on the whole tend to the socially liberal. But you can find them all across the political spectrum from Socialist to Libertarians. Ayn Rand for example was famously atheist.
Atheism has no creed or scripture (No, we don’t walk around clutching copies of “The God Delusion”) Consequently you may think that atheists have no “moral compass” nothing for the individual atheist to hang their ethics on. But in fact they have exactly the same source that religion does, at least for the fundamental principles, which is our shared human nature.
In contrast to the Abrahamic faiths which see humans as fallen from some mythical state of grace, atheists understand we are an evolved highly pro-social species with natural drives to be cooperative, maintain our personal reputations and be empathetic to others. We already possess within us the basis of morality and the more our circle of concern has expanded due to the growth of society the more refined those instincts have become. [# Steven Pinker: The better Angels of Our Nature]
Yes, In pursuit of Sustenance, Security and Sex we’re also capable of acts of cruelty and selfishness but ultimately we need each other. This isn’t a soppy appeal to Rousseau but a fact of our social nature. Moral norms become established as a result of society in general and would emerge with or without religion.
Another thing that Atheism isn’t – an ideology. Nobody campaigns for atheism, no armies march with a capital ‘A’ on their banners, nobody engages in terrorist acts or blows themselves up in the name of atheism. No atheist ever called for the death of an atheist “apostate” or as far as I know disowned a child for daring to be religious.
You will hear people say that atheist regimes have been the most repressive and violent regimes the world has seen but the reality is atheism has nothing to do with the usual examples they cite. Communist Russia under Stalin was exactly that, Communist. Stalin supressed religion because it was a threat to Communism not because he was ideologically wedded to atheism. It’s not even clear if he was personally an atheist. Mao suppressed religion for similar reasons and Pol-Pot set himself up as a god in his own right. Suggestions that Hitler was an atheist and that Nazism was godless are so laughable it is extraordinary the myth persists, perhaps the desire of the Catholic Church to disown their complicity with both has something to do with it.
This is not to suggest that individual atheists can’t be evil, they are as capable of it as anybody is but atheism won’t be their raison d’etre. In fact if you want to find a reason for evil it will be in the dogmatic pursuit of some ideology, it will be done by someone who thinks they are acting for a higher cause a higher power or some ultimate benefit that will outweigh the immediate harm.
Physicist Steven Weinberg famously said “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil - that takes religion.”

I would suggest that there are also political ideologies that could be substituted for religion in that quote. Religion can’t be blamed for everything - but atheism  is not such an ideology and indeed, in my view,  not ideological at all.

There have been attempts to construct an “atheist movement” that have largely failed. Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and author of “The God Delusion” says “Organizing atheists is a bit like herding cats; They are on the whole too intelligent and independent minded to lend themselves to being herded.”
I’ve met Dawkins who does have an unfortunate arrogant streak and I think he could have left out the claim to excessive intelligence  (although there is some correlation between academic qualifications and atheism it’s really only strong in sciences where you might expect to find more atheists anyway), but what is objectively true is that atheism is not by itself a vehicle that builds communities. Ideas such as Atheism plus and Atheism 2.0 have come and gone as mainly on-line fads.

The “Atheist Church” founded in 2013 by Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans enjoys some success with some 55 regular venues around the world offering a guaranteed god-free community experience. I’ve attended a couple and they’re fun and informative taking  their cue from the Christian format (if it ain’t broke don’t fix it) but using entirely non-religious music and readings. I’m not sure it constitutes a movement but it serves a human need for society without any necessity for gods.

There is of course Humanism, which does tick all the boxes atheism doesn’t. Humanist are atheists, with a utilitarian ethical worldview that values human flourishing , diversity and happiness, Of course not all atheists are Humanists. I am, and most atheists I associate with are and it is a strong and growing movement. The cohesive factor is not so much atheism as our shared human values and Humanists are pretty reliably socially and community minded. Many people in the general population who class themselves as “nones”, that is having no particular religious affiliation have values that align with Humanism and in the UK they represent around 52% of the population.

So atheism, a mere ontological opinion about the universe we inhabit, does not preclude any of the things we all  value about the human condition. Human competency, Human imagination, Human responsibility and human values are part of our shared evolutionary heritage and in my view overpopulating the universe with supernatural deities only diminishes rather than celebrates that awesome fact.