Friday, April 18, 2008

The Two Sides – Atheism vs. Religion . . . Oh, Really?

In my experience, most folks, when they talk about atheism do so from a position that I am considering increasingly, well, bizarre. It's the position of religion on one side and atheism on the other. What strikes me as bizarre is that ignores the actual way that actual religions behave. Because it isn't really that it's atheism vs. religion, or not just that, it's that it's Jews vs Muslims vs Christians vs Hindus vs all the other mutually incompatible systems that exist out there. Atheism is really just one more into the mix – we reject religions pretty much to the same extent that they reject each other. (This is even ignoring how members of the same broad religion often reject their co-religionists. It happens all the time on this blog - “Oh, but they're not real Christians”. Or Scotsmen. Or whatever.)

Oddly, however, save when they're in the presence of an atheist. Then, it's like they're somehow presenting this unified front to atheism. So, religious people talk about religion like it's this one, singular unified thing with this single, unified worldview against which atheism is its chief opponent. Which is foolish. A Muslim rejects a Christian's worldview as much as an atheist. If that Muslim is correct, the Christian is going to fry in the same grease I do. I don't even know what's going to happen if the truth is that Zeus is up in Olympus shaking his head at how stupid we all are for ignoring his divine power. I guess it'd be Tartarus for the lot of us. My point being that most of the world's religions are pretty mutually incompatible, so it's pretty hypocritical to act like it's really atheism vs. religion. It's more like atheism vs. [a bunch of people who also hate each other's guts, as evidenced by all the religious conflicts going on in the world].

Interestingly, most atheists are also caught up in this – we often forget that people who defend religion aren't really defending religion in a generic sense, but are really defending their particular religion under the umbrella of some generalized, and almost wholly non-existent generalized religion.

What this allows them to do is argue from a position of false generalization. All religious people believe in their god or gods from a very particular viewpoint that is not generally served by the very idea of a defense of religion. The fact that there might be someone, somewhere who has a brand of religion that isn't logically incompatible with rationalism doesn't mean that almost all actually religious people belong to a heavily supernaturalist religion, generally believing in one or more anthropomorphic divine beings to which superhuman magical powers are routinely attributed. But not the same ones, not the same beings, not even the same superhuman magical powers.

Indeed, someone who believes in “god” in the sense that it is the universe, whatever that universe might be, is far closer to the position of atheism than to fundamentalist Christian religion. But it also ignores the fact that public face of religion isn't a materialist pantheist who doesn't believe in supernaturalism and calls the universe and laws of nature god, but largely Christians, Hindus and Muslims who believe in all manner of supernaturalist claims. It's curious that even atheists often let this slide and argue a position that almost no one who engages an atheist in discussion actually holds. They do not defend “religion” in some generalized, holistic sense, but their own religion - after all, almost all of them condemn each other to some form of misery at least as much as they condemn atheists.

So, I think atheists should stop that. We should clearly ask what religion a person belongs to before engaging them in conversation about religion. I think that's fair. It'd be nice to know what you're really talking about, right?


Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Atheists usually lump them together because 1) they share fundamentally similar characteristics and 2) atheists don't have an infintite amount of time- there are way to many religions and sects of religions.

Still what you say has merit. If you are arguing focus on the specific, not the general big picture. The more general is more true for all religions, but less likely to have an effect.

Chris Bradley said...

I agree we lump them all together because it's easier. I guess what I'm trying to say, tho', is that it would be a little bit more effective as an argument if we didn't.

I honestly don't have a problem with some sort of abstract concept of god that even the believers of this god agree has no direct bearing on the real world. I don't believe in such a being, but if folks want to believe in something that doesn't make a difference, I don't care save in a very direct abstract.

For me, what gets me about religious people is the things they do - how they let it intrude into society in malign ways. About how, y'know, idiots are trying to drive good science out of our schools, how every politician in this country has to kowtow to some religious icon for respectability, the widespread coercion and literal child abuse of teaching kids to obey or they'll suffer forever, religious wars and murderous intolerances and the rest.

If "religion" was just people abstractly praying to some contentless being, I wouldn't care. My problem is very much with specific religions and the things they do.

Beyond that, tho', I think that religious folk hide behind their lack of specificity. By outting their particular religion and addressing their religion, I think our arguments will be more effective.

I just find myself, y'know, arguing a lot with religious people over whether or not the big bang might have been caused by some god or the other, or the actual criteria of proof or whatever. By bringing it home, by bringing up that most of these religious folks believe things a lot more stupid than the god of the gaps - that they believe in specific miraculous events that are far easier to critique than the god of the gaps - I think atheists can hit 'em a lot harder, hehe.

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Unfortunately I thnk wide spread "belief without belief" is impossible. When people claim there is a God and that he intervenes in human affairs, than you start having problems with religions. However, only faiths that follow that pattern are successful- more mushy faiths either vere towards irrationality or agnostic atheism.

Chris Bradley said...

I actually agree there's no belief without belief - which is part of the reason why it annoys me when religious people try to argue from the abstract. It's never about some abstract thing about, y'know, what is the actual motive force of the universe. Who cares what the "prime mover" is or is not?! For the real criteria of evidence! It's about, I feel, obedience to religious authority, and for my part that's what I want to challenge. What their sacred texts really say and how their actual religions really behave.

I mean, I'm all one for a philosophical argument, but these arguments that religious people use to hide the big flaws of their religion - how they're abusive and hateful and ridiculous - they aren't interesting philosophical arguments! They usually get in the way of a real philosophical argument! It is a settled deal that atheists are capable of morality, far more interesting is what constitutes real morality - but religion always gets in the way of that. Always.

If you can't tell, I might be a little bitter about arguing with religious people. ;)

Anonymous said...

Samuel Skinner
Yeah- bitterness happens easily. I haven't been posting too long and already I know all the arguments and all their flaws. I've got more basic logic memorized than anyone prior to the 17th century.

On the bright side you get to find interesting people- and nutty ones. The world is a weird place.