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Tuesday 19 December 2006

The Trouble With Atheism [DrDave]

Last night, Channel 4 aired journalist Rod Liddle's documentary criticising atheism. Presumably, this programme was made partly to cash in on the success of Richard Dawkins's God Delusion, but also as a balance to last year's Root Of All Evil documentary, also by Dawkins. You can watch it here:
Part 1Part 2
Unsurprisingly, I found the programme to be annoying, though not without merit. I'll discuss its good points in a minute, but first it's worth covering where I feel it went wrong.
For a start, it was transparently cut to cast "atheists" in a bad light. I almost punched the screen when Dawkins was cut off mid-sentence just after suggesting that Marxist communism might naturally rise to fill the void left by a departing religion. Well, I suppose this is the nature of TV journalism. The name of the documentary isn't, after all, "The Potential Problems With Atheism Investigated With Fair And Unbiased Reporting". Liddle has an agenda, and he's not alone in using his art to support that.
Second, his choice of scientific experts was a touch suspect. I was tickled by the physicist who drew the sacred "pyramid of complexity" on a black board before comprehensively dismissing multi-verse theory and implying that the notion of a designer was far more likely. I'd like to see his working for that calculation! Similarly, Darwin's evolution by natural selection was cast in a far weaker light than it deserves. Liddle ominously asks the question "how long will it be before Darwin is comprehensively rewritten?". "It could be rather rapidly", is the triumphant reply - from the scientist who thinks that punctuationism is a new and threatening idea. Worst of all, was the implication that change, or "paradigm shift", is something that scientists don't welcome.
This is where Liddle's main thesis runs into major difficulty. He relies far too much on the old stick that atheism/science (one and the same in this treatment) is a religion just as much as Christianity is. I'm tired of this viewpoint, it is old and flawed. Yes, science is eventually reducible to axioms, and yes scientists have to accept these on faith, and yes we are forced to take research on trust because the universe is simply too vast for every researcher to start from scratch. But there the similarity ends - no matter how many flawed parallels you draw between Fermilab and temples, Dawkins and gurus, the scientific method and religious doctrine, you simply cannot get away from the fact that science is essentially mutable and invites questioning. Nothing is sacred, neither theory nor personality. You have an alternative to Darwinism? Brilliant, suggest it, present your evidence and if it fits the observations better you win yourself a Nobel prize.
All of these are fairly predictable criticisms for a documentary on this subject. However, I do come away with the sense that Liddle, no matter how loathsome he might be, has a rather good point.
"New atheism" seems to be the popular fad at the moment both in terms of a position to adopt and a movement to criticise, largely thanks to Dawkins. Really though, there's nothing "new" about it, other than a new found vocal confidence. It is still an absence of belief in a supernatural creator. As I've argued before, this is not the same as a belief in no creator. God is not the default position that will rise to fill the void the moment atheists stop believing, it is merely a hypothesis that has no compelling evidence.
Ultimately, in a pure sense, the only honest position to take is that of agnosticism. You simply cannot rule out a creator and anyone who claims they can is just plain wrong. Agnosticism, however, implies more theism than most rationalists can bear, so the name "atheist" is adopted by convention. "Agnostic-atheist" is a better way of describing the true rationalist view though: a God may exist, but I see no evidence for it and will live my life as though it didn't. This is the position we, as rationalists, should be adopting - open-minded but honest.
Liddle's documentary does not attack this way of thinking though. Liddle goes for the pure atheists, and he is perfectly correct to do so. In this context, his painting of atheism as a religion is entirely justified. The fashionable atheist that spouts unjustified hatred and intolerance towards religion is just as contemptible as a lorry load of Ted Haggards. And just as wrong.
It should be noted that I'm not suggesting a return to the bad old days of meekly kowtowing to religious idiocies. One of the most important accomplishments of Dawkins, Harris and Dennet is that they've overturned the taboo of criticising theist thinking. But we need to be very careful to ensure that the rationalism we defend is actually being deployed correctly. Saying "there is no God" is an indefensible position and equally as absurd as saying "there is a God".
Similarly, evoking morality to damn religion is asking for trouble. How can we ever reverse the damage caused by Stalin and Mao to the rationalist cause? I've long thought that the morality issue is a red herring for both sides. Theists claim that religion provides a moral code to live by - but they can't explain why atheists and different-flavour-theists have just as good morality. While atheists claim that religion causes evil, but can't explain why the two great experiments in removing religion have resulted in countless millions of deaths.
Ultimately, the cause of rationalism is sound only as long as we remain, forgive the pun, rational. Demanding evidence for bold claims is not at all unreasonable, nor is defending the right of children to approach the world with a questioning mind. We shouldn't be trying to make atheists, we should be trying to make thinkers. We shouldn't condemn those who reach theism by rational means, while equally we should condemn those who preach atheism with irrational claims.
To sum up Liddle's documentary, I was tempted to write that it is easy to prove a point by picking extreme examples - the atheist nutjob crying no-Gods outside the church or the frankly frothing Peter Atkins spring to mind. But then I realised, Liddle's work is guilty of exactly the same tricks as Dawkins' Root Of All Evil. So what right have rationalists got to criticise one and not the other?


  1. I was really dissapointed with this. I just found the whole thing incredibly weak, factually incorrect & full of straw man arguments. Statements like New York being the "American heartland" - give me break! Calling atheism* a "belief in disbelief" which is presicely what it is not, theists really don't seem to get this one. Comparing the Origin Of Species to a religious text and scientific institutions to temples. Envoking the "god of gaps" argument saying that because science can't explain everything, this points towards a "mysterious and unknowable truth". Slighting scientists & comparing them to high priests because the general population don't have the mathmatical background to understand theories fully. I could go on but I'm rapidly loosing the will to coment on such a vacuous production that's more holes than substance.
    BTW: Merry Mithras!

    *I personally I prefer Dawkins's sliding scale of atheism & call myself atheist in the same way I'm a-fairyist or a-leprachaunist. It's technically agnostic but a lot less than theistic 50% than agnostic implies.

  2. Isn't it enough to demonise(!) god-based worship within this comment? Let's leave the leprachanuists alone.
    For the moment.

  3. I will write a blog or blog reply on this in due course when I get round to finishing the God Delusion. But Hawkins is annoying me a bit at the moment so it is taking me some time :)
    Dave one thing - you say;
    "Similarly, evoking morality to damn religion is asking for trouble. How can we ever reverse the damage caused by Stalin and Mao to the rationalist cause? I've long thought that the morality issue is a red herring for both sides. Theists claim that religion provides a moral code to live by - but they can't explain why atheists and different-flavour-theists have just as good morality. While atheists claim that religion causes evil, but can't explain why the two great experiments in removing religion have resulted in countless millions of deaths. "
    I would simply say in passing, by way of sort of agreeing with you but also disagreeing and without developing the argument at all :) , that of course Mao and Stalin were monsters. However I'm not sure I see the causality between their hideous actions against the populaces to their imposition of rationality. Couldn't they just have been monsters? Admittedly ones who didn't think they had to account to the Eternal Bookie at the end of the day's races but I'm not sure the causality is at all made out.
    And while we're at it, of-bleeding-course, religiously driven conflict is famously responsible for causing multi-millions of deaths as well. But one would have to say in this case that disputing the connection between the beliefs and the deaths is a whole lot more difficult, even for the believer.
    Maybe the problem with this whole debate is the digital nature of don't believe at all / utterly believe. Perhaps that's the whole big fucking problem..... We actually need to do away with both.....
    I certainly don't think that atheism is the answer. I think that possibly some sort of rational a-religionism is the answer. Are atheism and areligionism the same thing seems a reasonable question but I don't really think so. I'm really thinking about the non-knowability of god, if he exists, which he might but he might not.
    As you say, faith is illogical and total anti-faith is illogical too. Perhaps the way forward is to attack the credulousness (there's an interesting conflict in the etymology there) of religion and atheism. Perhaps it's only when you remove both as logically nonsensical and certainly unmeasurable (the return of empiricism??) that you might possibly begin to have a start point on which to found a mutually agreeable set of humanitarian standards. Fuck off theists, fuck off atheists. You're both obviously asserting digital absolutes with no logical bases at all. Maybe if you actually came to realise that all your competing and conflicting beliefs and non-beliefs do nothing more than highlight the obvious utter lack of a coherent position on the existence of god on the part of the human race - for which you all blame absolutely everyone else but take no responsibility for the similar incoherence of your own views - you might actually conclude that you need to ditch the digital unknowability and begin to create a mode of living that ignores the possibility of god.
    This obviously needs work. I shall muse. Except they were gods as well. Drat. But then they are a prog rock band too. See... it's all fucked....

  4. The whole ateism/agnostic shit is just pc crap. The baseline, the zero point, is nonbelieving. Thats where you begin, you know nothing and then you learn. It works like that with everything else in life and i really cant see the point in changing that just because its about religion this time. Now, if you actually learned some stuff, some believable shit from persons you trust, you find some facts, you find it plausible, then you turn agnostic (or in another word, since this is about religion, braindead). But in the beginning, we are all born atheists.
    I have yet to find anything, A N Y T H I N G, that speaks for the existance of a creator. So i naturally place the religious nonsence where it belongs, among the other stories with some outdated moral conclusions. But now the new brigade comes sneaking up, they KNOW they wont be able to convert brainy types, so they dont care about those. But brainy types have started to convert the masses away from god! So lets do the agnostic thing, lets see if we cant get the brainy types to punch temselfs in the face. Lets make them show doubt. See it doesnt take much of a brain to be a manipulative bitch, im impressed, its so simple and effective, and more importantly, it works. But its also really, really fucking wrong.
    Atheism is NOT some on the edge die hard opinion. Its where it starts. Its zero. Admit to anything else and you are just being played by the evil stupid fucker brigade.
    And those protesting poor cunts outside churches and schools in the states? Well, what would you do when they eliminate evolution from the school where your kids go? Sure, protesting cunts always look like radical idiots, but what to do? Reasoning with believers? Haha, would like to see that happen :)

  5. Am: The point about Mao and Stalin is not really that they committed their atrocities in the name of atheism, they clearly didn't, more that they demonstrate that the removal of faith doesn't necessarily mean a removal of "evil". You could say that no-one is really claiming it would, but then Dawkins' puts out a documentary called "The Root Of All Evil" - a title that is both pejorative and wrong.
    When you debate a theist on the nature of morality and cite the evil committed by the religious, the immediate and indisputable comeback is that Stalin and Mao killed far more than all religious atrocities put together. You can counter that maybe Stalin and Mao were simply just monsters, but why couldn't Thomas de Torquemada or the architects of the Salem Witch Trials simply be monsters too?
    It's all about presenting a water tight case. I hear far too many instances of "militant" atheists attempting to claim that religion is responsible for all that's wrong with the world, but this is just plain wrong. Immoral acts are part of humanity and neither banning theism or converting the world to Christianity will change this.
    Alfa: I largely agree with you on the point that absence of faith is a baseline by which all else should be measured. There is, for example, no name for the hobby of not collecting stamps, why should there even be the label of atheist?
    But you have to be very careful, and this is what I was alluding to in my blog. Like it or not, the origin of the universe is a fascinating and important question, so it stands to reason we have developed terminology to define a spectrum of positions. The question is which of these is the most rational position to take?
    It is very tempting to jump straight into the atheism camp, to separate ourselves from the lunacy of theism by as much as possible, but I would argue that this is a mistake. The simple truth is that the "God hypothesis", that the universe was created intelligently, is a valid answer. To dismiss it would be bad science and irrational, since we effectively know zero about the pre-universe. You can apply fanciful arguments to weighting the probability of it being true (a complex creator would need a creator itself), but the probability remains non-zero. There's certainly no more evidence for the multiverse than there is for the existence of God.
    So the only honest position to take is that of agnosticism. Which is unfortunate, since agnosticism has become the de facto stance of the doubting theist. There's far more God implied in the position than the average rationalist can bear. Dawkins sidesteps this by redefining the subject of belief into a seven point scale. In this regime, 1 is the complete belief in the existence of a god, 7 is the complete disbelief in a god, 4 would be pure agnosticism. On this scale, I would suspect the honest position would move to 6, and this is where I would place myself. While 7 is just as dishonest as 1 - both are effectively "making stuff up".

  6. The important debate aside, Ron Liddle looks like a poor man's Tom Baker. For this alone, his entire argument is worth less than a pair of worn tights.