Monday, February 17, 2014

Atheism: The new Fundamentalism?

Someone describing herself as a "Spiritual Pundit, counselor, and coach", wrote an article recently published in Huffington Post titled Atheism: The new Fundamentalism? It begins with retelling a conversation with an atheist who keeps insisting he does not believe in any God.  The Spiritual Pundit defines god as "a placeholder for the ineffable" but the atheist rejects this as nonsense, saying he believes in science.  The Spiritual Pundit sees evolution "as the embodiment of a God immanent in and not separate from creation" so she concludes that the atheist must be insisting on an "outmoded version of God" when claiming theism is incompatible with science.  

Anyone who is opened minded "must have some version of what you don't believe in", says the Spiritual Pundit, figuring that as soon as an atheist defines what he does not believe in, his or her atheism is defeated by the simple expedient of redefining god to be something else.  But the atheist will only say he believes in science, and points to historical evils as refuting god.  The Spiritual Pundit does not see historical horrors as "proof of the non-existence of God", citing "new theologies and new understandings of God" that rejects "the puppet master God".  But the atheist persists in declaring science and theism to be mutually exclusive.  To the Spiritual Pundit this demonstrates that the atheist falsely insists on a "Santa sort of a God" and believes in a "disinterested universe made of mere matter ... with a kind of scientific literalism as dogmatic as Biblical literalism."  

Thus, the Spiritual Pundit concludes, an atheist is a closed minded fundamentalist who "disregards mystical experience" just like a biblical literalist who "disregards carbon dating".

But disregarding carbon dating and disregarding spiritual experiences are as dissimilar from each other as disregarding science textbooks and disregarding holy books.  It is here, in the insistence on anchoring our beliefs in empirical evidence, and not relying on flights of fancy, that the atheists are correct and the spiritual pundits of the world are mistaken.  Spiritual pundits start with "theologies and understandings" as the conclusion to be reached and then look for ways to make their preferred conclusion consistent with the available evidences.  Thus god becomes "ineffable" and synonymous with our universe by definition.  The atheist, in contrast, starts with the available evidences and tries to reach the best fit conclusion.  The atheist sees in quantum mechanics an example of how critical it is to take an evidence first approach when adopting beliefs about how the universe functions.  

Spiritual pundits see quantum mechanics as an example of how "the universe is more complex, mysterious, and multi-dimensional than anything our symbol systems, descriptions and analyses can apprehend".   Maybe.  But dealing with the counter-intuitive nature of our universe is the point.  Our intuitions are not up to the task of answering such questions.  A non evidenced, axiomatic, incomprehensible, God defined as "the embodiment" of evolution, or vice versa, is a 100% intuition derived belief that is completely superfluous from the perspective of what the empirical evidence communicates about how our universe functions.  We have no good excuse for abandoning an evidence first approach since that is the only approach that we have any reason to think reliably gets us to factual answers.  No one claims this method is perfect, but it does not need to be perfect to be the only game in town.

As long as the available empirical evidences overall favors the conclusion that the natural universe is fundamentally physical in nature and everything that exists is part of this natural universe, than atheism is a reasonable conclusion to hold (in my judgement, it is the singularly most reasonable conclusion, which is why I am an atheist).  If something is synonymous with our universe, or with mystery, than we already have those words to represent those concepts. Relabeling these concepts as God does not get us anywhere.  If standing firm on an insistence for grounding our beliefs about how the universe functions on empirical evidences defines atheists as "fundamentalists", and "scientific literalists", and "dogmatists", as some spiritual pundits claim, then those labels lose their negative connotations.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Corruption and religious beliefs within states

The question of what effectively prevents corruption, and what contributes to corruption, cannot be answered by only looking at the influence of religion.  China appears to have relatively high corruption and one of the highest proportion of self-declared atheists.  Nevertheless, given that religions so frequently claim an ethical advantage for believers over skeptics, it is good to know a little about what social science has to say about the correlations between religious beliefs and ethical standards.  Since data is often collected on a national level, such comparisons are often most practical to make between states.  The Epiphenom blog focuses on social science studies of religion and non-belief.  Recently, they reported on the results of a study using standard assessments of national corruption by Hamid Yeganeh & Daniel Sauers of Winona State University, USA.  They found that countries with the most religious people also have the highest levels of corruption.