Sunday, 31 March 2013

Misconceptions about atheism

There is a common trend on twitter for theists to tweet something like 'Atheists believe...' and to then write something about atheists which is just simply not true. This picture gets tweeted quite often: 

Of course it's wrong after the second word. Atheism isn't the belief of anything let alone what's described above. I won't go into detail on what's wrong with the above (magically? That's very much the theist position isn't it?) but I will just point out that atheism has NO position on how the universe started, except to say we don't believe a god was responsible. And as I've described here not believing in something doesn't mean you believe the opposite is true. So I'm not going the list each thing about one by one and say atheists don't believe it. The entire thing is incorrect. 

Atheism is quite often associated with science and in particular the science of evolutionary biology. Atheism has no position on evolution. It does very much seem to be the case that atheism and evolution go hand in hand. The feeling I have from chatting with fellow atheists on twitter particularly is that the vast majority of atheists accept the fact of evolution. But it's not a 1 for 1 relationship. There are many theists that accept the fact of evolution, including over 10,000 clergy from The Clergy Letter Project. And there are also atheists that do NOT accept evolution. One notable group are the RaĆ«lians. So although there does seem to be a strong correlation between atheists and the acceptance of evolution it is certainly not a case of atheism = evolution = atheism. 

The same can be said of Big Bang cosmology. Again experience suggests that atheists accept the Big Bang theory as the best current explanation for the beginning of the universe as we know it. And again it's a position that theists can accept just as easily as atheists. That the universe was started by the Big Bang is not an 'atheist' position it's a scientific position. It's something someone like Professor Lawrence Krauss can explain a lot better than I can (given that I can pretty much not explain it at all that's probably not a big stretch). 

Big Bang cosmology and the scientific theory of evolution are not a positions of 'faith' they're not something atheists or anyone else 'believes'. They are the conclusions reached by thorough scientific analyses of available data. People study these fields after years of schooling they then spend years doing research, including, for evolution at least, field work. Their work is reviewed by peers before being published in scientific journals and then being read and, importantly, scrutinized by other experts in that particular branch of science. It's NOT a case of Big Bang or God. It's NOT a case of Evolution or God. 

I've mentioned just two areas of science above but you can feel free to insert any other scientific field and the answer is the same - it is not an atheistic position. Atheists are not required to have a position, one way or another, on any of the sciences. 

Another common claim about atheists is that we have nothing to live for. As I've said before I'm an atheist - It doesn't mean I have nothing to live for, it means I have nothing to die for. I don't mean that I wouldn't die for my children, for example, I mean there's nothing for me AFTER death, there's no 'great power/lord/being' that I'm going to meet. I don't have any reason to think I'm heading to any kind of paradise or heaven. I don't think there's any virgins waiting for me and I don't think I'll be given my own planet to be god over. So this is what I mean when I say I have nothing to die for. For a longer post on atheists having nothing to live for, you can see my earlier post here

Atheists hate god - apparently. Hopefully you are already aware of the absolute absurdity here. To highlight it in a question - how can someone hate something in which they don't believe? It's not possible right? As soon as someone thinks there is a god to hate, that someone ceases to be an atheist. We may hate the 'concept' of god. We may hate what the idea of god does to people.We may hate the character 'god' like we do the bad guy in a movie. But hating a god or goddess itself as though there was something to actually hate? No atheist does this. 

We atheists also get accused of being Satanists. Now although the Church of Satan is actually atheistic organisation (IE it doesn't have a supernatural deity that it worships) there is, as with the above, no one-to-one relationship between Satanism and atheism. Yes, all the members are atheists but not all atheists are members. The members of the Church of Satan specify that they are not Devil worshipers, a group of people that pray to and revere the Devil - the nemesis of god from biblical and other theistic stories. Estimates put the number of Satanists in the UK at around 3,000. Given that there's nearly 10 million people in the UK with no religion, if you meet an atheist there, the chances of them being a Satanist is pretty slim.

There's no atheists in fox holes, did you know? One of the most common anti-atheism tweet that goes around. When I see someone tweet this I usually reply with a link to  the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers.  Once I do that I get little push back. I had just one person argue that the military atheists were lying and they really did believe. Telling other people what they believe seems to be a common habit among some theists. The point is that not only are there atheists in fox holes (and in turbulent planes and on death beds) the tweet and the sentiment is completely disrespectful. It's again a theist putting their own thinking onto others. They see the world in a particular way and they expect others to agree with them. They also forget that even if their statement is true it doesn't prove a god or goddess exists. And they fail to consider that a decision made under extreme duress (let's face it, if you're taking refuge in a fox hole, it's not because a group of toddlers is watching the Care Bears nearby) is not necessarily going to be the most thought out, most analysed and reasonable decision someone could make. A person who thought their life was in grave danger was desperate enough to consider praying? So what? 

On a more philosophical level atheism gets called a world view. We get asked, as atheists, what our goal is, where we think society should head, and if we're so determined to get rid of god and faith, what are we going to replace it with. These are all fine questions to have but they are misplaced when being asked to an atheist because of atheism. Atheism is not a world view. Atheism doesn't guide how we think, it's a result of how we think. Although we do look at the world through an atheist's eyes there needs to be something on top of it to qualify as a world view as repeatedly stated, atheism is a single response to a single question. Similarly it's not an ideology, we're not here saying 'be atheists and live like this...'. Our ideologies differ. Personally I'm a big fan of what Martin Pribble wrote about Methodological Humanism. I can't help but think if the world embraced this idea everyone would be a lot better off, but that is of course one opinion among many. 

It may be a fault of a failing of atheism or atheists that we aren't organised, that we don't have common views outside of not believing in a god. It's a blog for another time but I do wonder sometimes about atheism becoming more of a societal movement and whether that would help or hinder. My first question to myself is always - Would it be exclusionary? But as above, that's a blog for another time.

We atheists get told we're hated, that we're going to burn in hell and yesterday I saw a tweet that read 'No offence, but if you're an atheist, you're disgusting'. You guessed it, from a Christian. I couldn't tell you why they think of us like this. When I was a Christian I never hated anyone - why so much hatred for us? If there was a one-to-one relationship between atheists and people that kick puppies, then maybe you could understand a certain level of dislike. But we're atheists, we're not animal kickers. I think it stems from misinformation and lack of understanding. People fear what they don't understand and fear leads to hate. 

One of the things I like to do on twitter is help educate people on what atheism really is and what atheists are really like. Hopefully the above can put some of the more common misconceptions to bed. 

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Why "Look Around You" is not proof of god.

An argument I hear often for apparent proof of god is to 'look around you' and is often followed by something like 'how could all this get here?' or 'where did we come from?'. 

The point being that because we don't have full explanations for everything a god must be responsible. It is, of course, an argument from Personal Incredulity or an argument from ignorance

Of course this type of thinking has failed time and time again. In his short film 'Storm' Tim Minchin makes the point....

We can replace 'magic' with 'god' and it's still true and I feel it's important to note. There has been countless phenomena throughout time that started as a mystery but is now explained and not once - repeat NOT ONCE has that explanation turned out to be god. 

What we do have is a bunch of former mysteries that were attributed to gods that we now know are definitely not the direct result of gods. For example live in Greece a few millennia ago and you'd be thinking that lightning was the work of Zeus throwing it from Mount Olympus or his horse Pegasus bringing it across the sky. Others have thought thunder was the work of Thor or that an eclipse was a heavenly dog taking a bite out of the sun. We now know these explanations and dozens more like them are not valid. What we have now are natural, understandable, and - perhaps most importantly - verifiable explanations. 

We have moved past the 'I don't know, therefore god' phase of our existence. Since the development of the scientific method we now investigate until we find the answer. We make conclusions on what is observed and what is demonstrable. We don't, and nor should we, find it acceptable to say 'I can't find the answer to this mystery, therefore a god must be responsible'. To do that is completely intellectually unsatisfying. 

I cannot blame someone without modern investigative tools for not knowing what caused lightning. I can understand a primitive person thinking the sun was a god or that it literally traveled across the sky or even that it was something to be appeased with a sacrifice. These are the kinds of things I would expect people of long ago to think. Remember that not only did these people not know how certain things worked, they didn't know *how* to know. They observed and assumed with no investigation. 

Today though, things are very different. It's not good enough for a person to think a planet was just 'put' here. Thanks to our scientist friends and many, many decades of investigation we know how planets form and a god putting them there is not it. Mix cosmic dust, gravity, and a WHOLE lot of time and you'll get yourself a planet. Or a star for that matter. 

We also know that the circumstellar habitable zone (CHZ) or 'Goldilocks zone' is not narrow. We know that it's not a case of '10 ft closer and we'd burn, 10 ft further away and we'd freeze' as I've seen written as a Facebook status. This passage from on an 'evidence for God's existence' article is quite misleading and I suspect deliberately non-specific... 

The CHZ is measured in Astronomical Units. An astronomical unit is the mean distance from Earth to the sun. One Astronomical unit is 149,597,871 Kilometres (92,955,807 Miles). 

The CHZ ranges from approximately .725 astronomical units (108,458,455.75 kms) to 3 astronomical units (448,793,613 kms). 

So when the above passage says 'If we were closer to the sun we'd burn up' it's saying that for the Earth cease supporting life it would need to be closer than .725 astronomical units. What they're not saying is Earth could move 41,139,415 kms closer to the sun and would *still* be capable of supporting life. Similarly, when the above says 'If we were farther away we'd freeze' it means is that Earth would need to be more than 3.0 astronomical units away from the sun. This means the Earth could move a not insignificant 299,195,742 kms further away from the sun and *still* be capable of supporting life. 

In essence the passage in the screen shot above *is* accurate. However, they fail to tell you that the 'closer' and 'farther away' they speak of is actually a zone something around 340,335,157 kilometres (211,474,461 miles) wide. I bring this up not to highlight the misleading information in the screenshot but to show that the assumption that we are here because Earth is 'perfectly placed' is simply wrong. It is another example where lack of information was covered over with 'God did it' but further investigation showed that it wasn't quite the work of a god as first thought. 

This is the bottom line problem with the 'Look around you' argument. When I look around me everything I see (with NO exception) has either a verifiable NATURAL explanation or NO verifiable explanation as yet (note - Yet). The only time the god hypothesis is invoked is when a person (who already believes there is a god - it is never a conclusion reached from an unbiased investigation) cannot otherwise explain what they see. They cannot explain life - therefore god. They, of course, ignore all the work going on in the field of Abiogenesis. They cannot explain diversity of life - therefore god. They do this usually having heard of evolution but not really understanding what it is (if we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys!). I have had a person on twitter thank me for sending them links to evolution web sites and telling me that they didn't believe it previously because they had the wrong idea about it. 

It's not just events on a grand scale either. Take a disease such as epilepsy. Imagine living 2000 years ago and having no idea what epilepsy was, having no idea about medical science, but believing in the supernatural. If you were to witness a person having a seizure would you think anything other than some kind of supernatural event was happening? Possession by demons? Some kind of spirit trying to enter the physical realm?  These kinds of assumptions at that time, with limited information, would be understandable. But as is always the case, proper investigation shows once again that this is NOT a case of god did it. 

'Look around you' is lazy. It's intellectually inept. It's not just an admission that you don't have a verifiable answer, it's an admission that you can't be bothered searching for one. It's plugging a gap in knowledge with a phrase that answers and explains nothing. 

Thunder, lightning, mountains, orbits, diversity of life, ears, eyes, thumbs, eclipses, disease, spring, summer, autumn, winter, the moon, the sun, Earth - the god hypothesis fails time and time again. Given that the god hypothesis has never been the verified explanation for anything in the past, why make the assumption that it will be the verified explanation for anything in the future? Surely the logical and intellectually honest thing to do is to reserve judgement, investigate, follow the evidence, see where it leads THEN make a conclusion. 

So in summary, two points:

  1. Everything I see has either a verified NATURAL explanation or no verified explanation as yet.
  2. God has consistently failed as an explanation in the past, why make the assumption that a god will be the verified explanation for anything in the future? 

With this in mind, how exactly is 'look around  you' proof of god? Simply, it is not.