Thursday, June 19, 2008

Atheism has all the answers

So, this Q&A’s been doing the rounds a fair bit this week. My turn:

Q1. How would you define 'atheism'?
Believing that there are no such things as gods. But I’m not going to excommunicate people who define it as a mere lack of belief in god(s) – I think they’re more accurate etymologically, but we still need a word that means positive disbelief. Sometimes ‘antitheism’ is suggested, but that sounds too hostile – it’d have to cover people who like the idea of a god but think it’s untrue, and who have a broadly positive attitude to religion. Pesky words.

Q2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?
Not at all. I had some hymns, visiting vicars and stuff like that at primary school, but nothing systematic – in fact my old headmaster used to give us morning assembly readings from Aesop’s Fables! – and nothing religious from my family. I believed in God for a while in much the same way I believed in the Tooth Fairy, even though my evidence base for the latter was much stronger.

Q3. How would you describe 'Intelligent Design', using only one word?

Q4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?
Neuropsychology. Infinitely richer and more fascinating than the notion of a ‘soul’.

Q5. If you could change one thing about the 'atheist community', what would it be and why?
The idea that there is, or should be, such a thing.

Q6. If your child came up to you and said 'I'm joining the clergy', what would be your first response?
“What do you mean? I don’t have any children!” More hypothetically, I’d be concerned to talk it over with them, and if they were sure it was what they’d really wanted, I’d hope they’d do really well.

Q7. What's your favourite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?
I call it the oncological argument, and it runs along the lines of: “My loved one got cancer and went into hospital; I prayed for them to get better and they did – thank the Lord!” But it comes in a lot of varieties, based on selectively interpreted personal experience. Unlike the ontological argument, which treats thinking of god as proof that he exists, this one treats refusing to think of any other explanation as proof that there isn’t any. I usually refute it by rolling my eyes ort, if really necessary, slapping my forehead.

Q8. What's your most 'controversial' (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?
Dunno really. Not sure what those “general attitudes” would be. Has someone done a reliable survey of us?

Q9. Of the 'Four Horsemen' (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?
I’ve never really read any Harris, and while I agree with Dawkins and Hitchens a lot, they often annoy me. Dawkins tries to do philosophy when it’s really not his field, and Hitchens at times often seems to have been overcome by his own – admittedly brilliant – rhetoric. Dennett is the most interesting, largely for his philosophy of mind work.

Q10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?
I’m tempted to go with Ophelia and think of the person whose theism is causing the most suffering – she says King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia – but I think an atheist convert in such a position would be either sidelined or forced to play along. So maybe my hypothetical child. But I think there are far more important things to convince people of than atheism.

Is there anyone I know left to tag with this? I guess Anticant, David and Scribbles would be good value for money. Not that I’m offering any. But no pressure – as I say, there are more important things in life.


Matt M said...

we still need a word that means positive disbelief


Surely it's enough to just describe yourself as an atheistic materialist (or whatever). The fact that I lack religious belief should be, in itself, testament to the fact that I've yet to meet a religious argument I consider valid - rendering the need to express that more explicitly obsolete.

Tom Freeman said...

Yeah, but there's a difference between "I don't have a belief that there is a god" and "I have a belief that there is no god". Both are unpersuaded by religious arguments but specifically the latter is persuaded that the opposite is true.

Maybe the difference can be seen as more significant with a naturalistsic example:

I positively disbelieve in intelligent life on Mars, but I'm merely lacking in belief as regards intelligent life elsewhere in the galaxy.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Weak atheism (also known as agnostic atheism)- lack of belief
Strong atheism- belief that God doesn't exist
Antitheism- atheism AND the belief religion is harmful AND the belief it is your duty to fight it.

Do these definitions work?

Matt M said...

Now I have Jeff Wayne's 'Eve of War' in my head.


Isn't it more about the degree of certainty than anything else? We have more evidence about the chances of anything coming from Mars than about the rest of the universe - so our opinions hold more weight.

Still - I'm not sure that we need to express positive disbelief in something.

People support Labour because they've never come across a convincing Conservative argument (in the simple two-party state of this example). Some have never bothered to find out what those arguments are while others have actively engaged in debate and rejected them. Yet there's little if any need to distinctly label the two groups.

Adjectives may be of some help: Atheists don't believe in god(s). Firm atheists really don't believe. Militant atheists like to take the "fight" to the other side, etc.

Chris said...

One of my favourite Humph quotes from ISIHAC is 'We now turn to Antithetical Duets in which teams take it in turns to sing lines from different songs. This is not to be confused with Antitheistical Duets, in which the teams take it in turns to dispute the existence of a well-known god.'

In regard to weak and strong atheism, I've always thought that there's a weak and strong agnosticism - weak agnosticism is the traditional haven't thought about it very much whereas strong agnosticism is more, having thought about it, deciding that it doesn't truly matter, making a refusal to come to a conclusion a positive act rather than a passive one. Like writing none of the above on a ballot paper, a plague on both houses. Speaking as one of the latter, I get peeved when atheism and that sort of agnosticism are conflated.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit shocked by the neuropsychology bit.

I'm not sure your oncological argument isn't influenced by doctors/staff/funding to some extent. When people feel out of the loop, don't have support from some place like a Maggie's centre, or are intimidated ...anything like that, I imagine even if someone isn't that religious they are likely to revert to praying and that 'argument' easily prevails at the time. (So maybe the odd slapping of the head reaction can be done away with? Maybe not.)

I find it unfortunate that I don't like Dawkins that much. I still seek him out --not often as I don't really have a bee in my bonnet about these debates-- but I find Hitchens more amusing. I'm still in student mode though, where charisma is weighted too heavily.

I believe most people are a bit put off by anyone feeling they should be 'convinced' --'saved' for the religious. Of course, I'm not as passionate about these topics as most people here...just one of the 'ordinary' folks who would be put off by a religious person, atheist, or Icke follower who felt the need to annoy/berate/damn me to win me over. I suppose people shouldn't be as offended by it; it can be a great or amusing compliment.

Anonymous said...

Here is a poem why Atheism are wrong.

Matt M said...

I still now present my counter-argument...

...through the medium of dance!

Seriously though, putting extremely weak examples of the cosmological and design arguments in poetic form doesn't make them any more convincing.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say sorry misssed my name on this, and thanks for the nomination.

How anyone guesses I'm an atheist though, is a mystery to me.

I'm singing this by the way. I disagree with Matt that an arguement is not necessarily more valid because it is presented in in a different medium. I think this comment is far more credible because it's musical.


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