Saturday, May 01, 2010

the banality of atheism

Adam Savage, my favorite Myth Buster, is an atheist in the grand old tradition of too-smart-for-religion atheism. He recently gave a talk aimed at showing how smart and logical his world view is. Going by the comments, it seems to have been critically acclaimed by the too-smart-for-religion community, so this gives us a brief look at what these people think constitutes smartness. I decided to take this opportunity to do a little forensic analysis of their version of smartness. Adam says
I want to start by saying that, to me, any discourse from me about how one can live a moral existence without religion or the church would sound improperly defensive. That there's an opposite to be defended is absurd and based on a provably false premise. So let's dispense with that.

(To be clear: I'm referring to the humanist axiom "Good without God," whereby "good" means morality. It's provably false that there exists no morality outside of religion, therefore the statement sounds defensive to me.)
This sounds like a promise to deliver a positive disproof of the proposition that one needs religion or the church to live a moral existence. Unfortunately, Adam never delivers on his implied promise to give us a proof, so I cannot evaluate his statement that it is provable.

By what route does anyone come to believe what they believe? We all like to imagine that it's based on a set of logical facts, but it's often a much more circuitous route.

For me it was pretty simple. I'm actually the fourth generation in my family to have no practical use for the church, or God, or religion.
It sounds here like Adam is admitting that he doesn't actually base his beliefs on logic or reasoning, but isn't this admission inconsistent with his talk of proofs and his attitude of certainty and condescension?

Notice something more significant here. Adam signals that he is about to wander off of his promised subject --how an man can be moral without religion-- and onto one of the favorite topics of the too-smart-for-religion crowd --why do people less smart than us believe in religion? In fact the rest of the speech will be largely on this side topic and he will never really get back to his proposed topic.
Here are a few things I've learned.

Prayer doesn't work because someone out there is listening, it works because someone in here is listening.
Adam goes on at some length, speculating that people only think that prayer works either because the act of praying focuses their attention or because the act of praying is correlated to paying attention (which of the two he intends is not clear) and that it is the attention that makes things work out. I don't think that this speculation deserves much in the way of comment. In the first place, it is just unsupported speculation. In the second place, answered prayers are not usually a significant reason for believing in God. In the third place, where answered prayer is a significant reason to believe in God it is because of the perception of something miraculous occurring --something which could not have been effected by "paying attention".
I think one of the defining moments of adulthood is the realization that nobody's going to take care of you. That you have to do the heavy lifting while you're here. And when you don't, well, you suffer the consequences. At least I have. (And in the empirical study I'm performing about interacting with the universe, I am unfortunately the only test subject I have complete access to, so my data is, as they say, self-selected.) While nobody's going to take care of us, it's incumbent upon us to take care of those around us. That's community.
Here Adam comes back briefly to his intended topic with a bold statement of moral imperatives, but he never says why it is incumbent on us to take care of those around us --he merely asserts it. He is begging the question. He started out to tell us how moral duty can exist without religion and he has just slipped in the existence of duty as a given. Whence this moral responsibility? What does it consist of? What physical processes come together in what ways to create duty? Is duty something that radiates from matter like heat and light radiate from a glowing ember? Is it a force like magnetism that arises from the motion of charged particles, perhaps particles charged with morality? Is it an abstract state like entropy that is emergent from complex interactions of matter? What is it and how do we know about it? If you cannot answer these questions then you are not even close to explaining how duty can exist in a Godless universe.
The fiction of continuity and stability that your parents have painted for you is totally necessary for a growing child. When you realize that it's not the way the world works, it's a chilling moment. It's supremely lonely.

So I understand the desire for someone to be in charge. (As a side note, I believe that the need for conspiracy theories is similar to the need for God.) We'd all like our good and evil to be like it is in the movies: specific and horrible, easy to defeat. But it's not. It's banal.
There are several comments to make on the above quote. First with the last: there is certainly evil that is banal and it is important to acknowledge the existence of such evil, but not to the extent that one forgets about evil that is specific and horrible. Mao, Stalin, Pol Pot, Hitler, Castro --these are not just movie characters.

Second, the point about conspiracy theories coming from the religious instinct sounds plausible to me. As people give up mysticism, they do not give religion. Instead they replace mystical religious beliefs with pseudo-scientific religious beliefs. I call these "mechanical mythologies" because they are mythologies designed to be compatible with a mechanical world view. Examples are alien visitors who will be the salvation of mankind, a Marxist future history which will be the salvation of mankind, a benevolent world government which will be the salvation of mankind, evolution which will be the salvation of mankind or science which will be the salvation of mankind. In addition to the salvation mechanical mythologies, there are the adversarial mechanical mythologies such as the evil Jews who want to dominate mankind, the evil Christians who want to dominate mankind, the evil government employees who like fallen angels work within the all Good and Holy Creation of Civil Service to pervert it to evil and murderous ends --perhaps to dominate mankind.

Finally, Adam assures us that he understands the desire for someone to be in charge. This condescending gesture is a common trope of the too-smart-for-religion believers. I think that many of them actually view their ability to offer psychological theories of a religious instinct as some sort of refutation of religion. To the extent that they think this, it is unworthy of their extreme smartness. First of all, it is a capricious form of argument that can be turned in any direction with equal ease. For example: "atheists want to believe that there is no God because they fear being held responsible for their behavior". Or how about "atheists are just like high-school kids playing goth who want to be different and shocking to everyone else". Or we could reverse the argument with respect to religious people, "Religious people don't want to believe in God because they are afraid of judgment, but they believe anyway so there must be some explanation besides psychology."

Furthermore, there is no logical connection between the desire to believe something and the likelihood that that the thing is false. I want to believe that I have a hundred dollars in my wallet. Does this imply that I don't have a hundred dollars in my wallet? Does it imply that I my belief that I have a hundred dollars in my wallet is just wishful thinking? Does the fact that I would like to believe this make you think that I don't actually have sound reasons for believing it? Yes, there is such a thing as wishful thinking, but there is such a thing as pessimistic thinking too.

Yet another reason that this argument is not worthy of smart people is that hundreds of years before any atheist came up with this argument, Christians already knew that there is a religious instinct (and they used the existence of that instinct as an argument for the existence of God). Since Christian theology has a coherent and functional place for the religious instinct, the existence of this instinct cannot be used as an argument against Christianity without begging the question and assuming that Christian theology is wrong.
No one is in charge. And honestly, that's even cooler.

The idea of an ordered and elegant universe is a lovely one. One worth clinging to. But you don't need religion to appreciate the ordered existence. It's not just an idea, it's reality. We're discovering the hidden orders of the universe every day. The inverse square law of gravitation is amazing. Fractals, the theory of relativity, the genome: these are magnificently beautiful constructs.
Now this is a curious passage. Having proposed that people believe in religion because they want to believe in religion (and implying that this is a psychological malady of some sort), Adam goes on to tell us why we should want to believe in atheism. Why? If the desirability of theism is an argument against theism, isn't the desirability of atheism an argument against atheism? Is Adam being clever here and slipping in the same argument against atheism that he just made against religion?
The nearly infinite set of dominoes that have fallen into each other in order for us to be here tonight is unfathomable. Truly unfathomable. But it is logical. We don't know all the steps in that logic, but we're learning more about it every day.
Here we have Adam's statement of faith. He may not recognize it for what it is but "faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" and that is what Adam appeals to here. He doesn't know how the world came to be or how we came to be or how his sense of right and wrong came to be, but he has faith that the answers are to be found in mechanical interactions of a purely natural (meaning "not spiritual") world and that science can in principle answer all questions because all things are fundamentally just things that happen in time and space and can therefore be observed and measured. And like the adherents of other many other faiths, he thinks that his faith is peculiarly right and true, and that those who cannot see it, just will not see it.
Learning, expanding our consciousness, singly and universally.

As far as I can see, the three main intolerant religions in the world aren't helping in that mission.
Adam doesn't name the three religions he has in mind. If he had actually said Judaism, Christianity and Islam, I would have had a lot to say about this statement, but since he is obscure and I do not want to risk putting words in his mouth, I will only assume that one of the three is Christianity (which I am certain is the case, given Adam's intellectual roots). First, what makes him think that this mission of learning and expanding consciousness is good? He has just affirmed that a man is nothing more than a flimsy bag of biochemistry, an accidental byproduct of the interaction of solar radiation with the various chemicals on the surface of a random planet, at best possessing for a brain a biological computer that evolved to make him more successful at evading predators and impregnating females, where any potential for abstract reasoning or joy is just happenstance and is irrelevant to the underlying processes. Given this, how can you possibly argue that (1) expanded consciousness has any value, (2) life itself has any value (3) random social processes (such as religions) can be judged as less or more "good"? Adam started out to answer questions along these lines, and at the end, he just assumes the truth of his thesis.
For all their talk of charity and knowledge, that they close their eyes to so much—to science, to birth control education, to abuses of power by some of their leaders, to evolution as provable and therefore factual (the list is staggering)—illustrates a wide scope of bigotry.
Ah. I'm a bigot. Well, we've rather quickly descended from fatherly, well-meant condescension to name-calling, haven't we? Notice that I am the bigot even though it is Adam who just assumes that I don't have any reasons for my position other than that I "close my eyes". Has he ever bothered to actually try to find out why intelligent Christians believe what they do? I am reasonably certain that I, as a man of intellectual tendencies, having grown up in a society where my teachers and professors, my news media, my favorite SciFi authors, the writers of the majority of my science, mathematics, and philosophy books, and the majority of my most highly-educated friends all think I have a silly and archaic faith, that I with that background have done considerably more introspection and thinking on these matters than most of the too-smart-to-be-religious people have. When one of these people, many of whom have never met a serious intellectual challenge to their own beliefs tells me that I "close my eyes", I take exception.

As to the "abuses of power by some of their leaders", I have no idea what Adam means by this. Christian leaders outside of the Catholic church have little power and the only arguable "abuse of power" I can think of involving the Catholic church is the cover ups when homosexual priests seduced teenage boys (and once Catholics found out about that one they certainly did not ignore it), but I should not have to defend Christians against vague accusations like this. I could just as easily make vague accusations against atheists by veiled references to the excesses of Communist mass murders, terrorism, suppression of science and other things. Adam is not offering an argument here, he is bonding with his fellow too-smart-to-be-religious-ers. They will all bring to mind their own pet peeves and all nod sagely as if they were thinking of the same offenses.
Now, just to be clear. If you want to believe, or find solace in believing, that someone or something set these particular dominoes in motion—a cosmic finger tipping the balance and then leaving everything else to chance—I can't say anything to that. I don't know.
And yet he does say something to that, almost as if he thinks he does know...
Though a primary mover is the most complex and thus (given Occam's razor) the least likely of all possible solutions to the particular problem of how we got here, I can't prove it true or false, and there's nothing to really discuss about it.
The primary mover is also the only solution that is actually a solution. Every naturalist solution ever offered, when you press it far enough, eventually comes down to, "that's just what happens". This is not a solution in the normal meaning of the word.
If Daniel Dennett is right— that there's a human genetic need for religion— then I'd like to imagine that my atheism is proof of evolutionary biology in action.
This is a common conceit of the too-smart-for-relgions people, but it doesn't make much sense. Evolution is random mutation with selection by survival and reproduction. If atheism is a "proof of evolutionary biology in action" then it is a proof that atheism is not a survival trait because it is not a growing characteristic of the population. In fact it seems to have be declining. But even if it were a survival trait, that would not make it true.
At the end of The Eagle's Gift, Don Juan reveals to his student that there's no point to existence. That we're given our brief 70-100 years of consciousness by something the mystics call "The Eagle," named for it's cold, killer demeanor. And when we die, the eagle gobbles our consciousness right back up again.

He explains that the mystics, to give thanks to the eagle for the brief bout of consciousness they're granted, attempt to widen their consciousness as much as possible. This provides a particularly delicious meal for the eagle when it gobbles one up at the end of one's life.

And that, to me, is a fine mission.
Adam fantasizes that we are created by some cold, killer supernatural being and raised like poultry to sate its malignant appetites. Adam is happy to cooperate and make himself a nice tidbit for this creature and to have no other purpose in life. This hideous specter is the best that Adam Savage can come up with as a reason to live. His religious instinct is at war with his beliefs. He yearns for a greater meaning, for a purpose validated by a greatness that is beyond himself, and so he sees beauty in the ghastly nightmare of being consumed by a malicious god. Being consumed, contributing to the cycle of life --that is a noble end for an animal, but not for a man. A man is too great a thing --in potential-- to be simply a bit of spiritual protein in some grand cosmic ecosystem. God created us to know this instinctively, but when we reject the possibility that there could be a Creator who cares personally about us as individuals, then we are reduced to such pathetic fantasies as this --to end up a tidbit in the maw of some uncaring, unloving, alien thing, with no greater goal to our brief existence than to provide a really satisfying cosmic belch after the final repast. How evil. How banal.
Acknowledgment: I found the link to the speech here.