Monday, June 18, 2007

Enlightenment 2.0

Anyone who follows the literary scene cannot have failed to notice the recent surge in books on Atheism, or tomes that criticise the notions of religion and god. Previously marginal Authors like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Victor J Stenger among others have all contributed to a noticeable shift in the moral zeitgeist towards rational thinking and the principals of the enlightenment. The perspectives vary, Dawkins and Stenger hit the subject from a scientific promontory (although Dawkins is somewhat more poetic than most scientists I know); then from the intellectual stand we have Hitchens, a hard drinking, straight talking Oxford man; an ex-brit (now a US citizen) who woos American audiences with his plummy accent, photographic memory for pithy quotations and withering put downs.

The objections fall under a couple of main “themes”, although all the arguments are rich and deep and need to be given the benefit of some time to sink in; Here I attempt to summarise them (in no particular order)

  • Religion is empirically wrong because god doesn’t exist (or at least is highly unlikely); there is no evidence for a deity in nature that can be tested scientifically.
  • Science gives us all we need to know regarding how nature (actually) works; supernatural forces are not needed; Darwin, Einstein, Newton et al, science doesn't know everything yet but the “gaps” are getting smaller everyday.
  • Religion is clearly and obviously man made and represents (at best) wishful thinking or (at worst) hucksterism and evil, hundreds of years of inquisitions, war, ethnic cleansing, shams, discrimination and death provide illustrations of the effects of that these kinds of philosophies can precipitate.
  • Our morals don’t come from religion (or god); they clearly come from our collective zeitgeist, they are obviously not absolute because they change over the years, for example our changing views to slavery, woman’s rights, homosexuality, human rights etc.
  • It is in the best interests of humanity that religion and government should be utterly separate or tyranny almost always follows.
  • Faith is not a virtue; it is at best harmless delusion and at worse intellectual dishonesty and often represents laziness and discrimination against free thought and criticism.
  • Religion should not have a special dispensation from debate and criticism (as it seems to have in society); beliefs are not sacred and the onus of “proof” is on the believer to evidence what he believes and not the responsibility of the unbeliever to “prove” him wrong.
  • The destructive quasi-atheist regimes of the 20th century (Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot etc.) were primarily personality cults that aped the dogmatism of religion for the same goals i.e. domination and control of the masses.
  • Religion is a function of the entirely random location of your birth, i.e. if you are born in the USA chances are you will be a Christian, if you are born in Iraq you will be a Moslem, in India Hindu, in Japan Buddhist etc.; it has nothing to do with the “truth claims” of these religions.
  • You don’t need religion to be charitable, good, moral and socially acceptable; in fact the evidence shows that fewer crimes are committed (proportionally) by atheists than believers.
  • Just because lot’s of people believe in something (with no evidence) it doesn’t mean it is true, the top 3 religions have millions of followers, but, logically they can't all be right.

On the opposing team we have had a string of rebuttals from religious writers of various denominations and flavours attempting to disprove, dissuade and generally divert attention from these outpourings, without any noticeable success in my opinion.

Generally their arguments fall into predictable intellectual buckets, something like,

  • Religious people do good things (some times); therefore religion must be good and true.
  • The religious people who do bad things in its name aren’t really religious.
  • Mainstream religion is not represented by a small minority of fundamentalists causing trouble around the world.
  • God cannot be scientifically proven because he is outside the realm of science.
  • Atheists can’t have any purpose in their lives, only religion provides this.
  • My god is not who you (the Atheists) describe; I have a personal relationship
  • Atheists don’t understand faith; and can’t unless they believe themselves.
  • Billions of people believe it (religion) therefore it must be true
  • I have personally experienced (or believe in) miracles; surviving a plane crash or being cured of a disease, stopping drinking etc. therefore god must exist.
  • If God doesn’t exist where do we get our morals from?
  • The natural world (or aspects of it) is too complicated for me to understand therefore God must have made it
  • Society without religion is a bad thing; just look at Stalin & Hitler
  • Science doesn’t know everything; therefore God must exist to explain the things we don’t know.
  • I need faith; I get comfort from my faith; I have faith that I am special; God loves me; God looks after me; God will give me eternal life etc.

This covers the main points (that I can recall), of course there are plenty of more complex philosophical points of view that professors of divinity and followers of every hue trot out to refute the logic of the Atheist position, but frankly I don’t understand them, or more accurately, they make no sense to me.

I find this debate a fascinating one; not just because I am an Atheist, but simply because I am a human being trying to make sense of the world just like everyone else and I really care about the truth. I think this is an important debate, plenty of people I know have a dismissive approach to it, i.e. “who cares, people can believe whatever they like kind" of attitude. For years I adhered to this viewpoint however recently (and particularly since I have had children of my own) I see the faith based dogmas of the world encroaching everywhere, religious faith (of all kinds) seems to be resurging around the world and I think polarising societies wherever it surfaces, suicide bombers, civil war, persecution, anti-science, pseudo-science, hucksterism the list goes on and on. Of course bad people do bad things; I’m not saying that all religion is de-facto a bad thing but I am starting to think that the negative aspects outweigh the positive ones.

If I had to recommend a book from this list (or two) then I would have to steer the reader towards Dawkins and Hitchens, I believe that these two authors provide the largest spread of mainstream ideas from the scientific and humanist camps, the titles in question are “The God Delusion” (Dawkins) and “God is not great” (Hitchens); both well written, thought provoking and utterly compelling.

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