The 20-Percenter

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New at Reason: Nick Gillespie and Ron Bailey interview Human Accomplishment author Charles Murray on transcendence, agnoticism, and the Society of Friends.

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  1. “what i don’t understand is why “just” being chemicals (though they do thousands of marvelous things) takes away any sort of reason of being from life.”

    I’ve often wondered why creationists feel so vehemently that the Biblical interpretation of the world’s origins are true despite all biological, geological and astronomical evidence? Then I thought about the phrase “created in His own image.” If given a choice, which notion would you prefer: That we were created a reflections of a divine, all powerful creature, or–that we “come [sic] up from monkeys.”

    Besides the obvious fact that evolution blows a major hole in fundementalist’s concept of God and the morality surrounding it (watch the episode of “Penn & Teller’s Bullshit” on Creationism and listen to the paranoid rantings of the bible-beaters about what would happen if everyone accepted evolution), creationism is also the ultimate self-esteem booster. The belief that we are created by some sort of higher being makes them feel special while the theory of evolution makes humans seem no better than animals and is considered demeaning.

    As an atheist, I don’t believe I need the existence of a deity for my life to have meaning. I make my life meaningful buy my own actions and I judge, as well as society to a reasonable extent, if my actions are worthy. However, a lot of people, for whatever reason, can’t make this leap. It might not bother me that I am the product of billions of years of random change and natural selection. To someone who thinks that evolution makes him or her less special less divine, then it’s a heresy that needs to be stamped out.

  2. He should drop the alcohol and start taking drugs like ayuhuasca — he’ll find meaning in all his chemicals and nihilism…

  3. He should drop the alcohol and start taking drugs like ayuhuasca — he’ll find meaning in all his chemicals and nihilism…

  4. Atheism is a religion because it is a BELIEF? Hate to pop your bubble. I am going to fan a flame but what the heck, please don’t be a “Stupid Atheist” and talk about religion/superstition versus “Reason.” It is a belief that there is no God(s). It can neither be proven nor dis-proven, just as I BELIEVE in the bodily Assumption of Mary into Heaven, but can not “prove” it, so to Atheists believe there is no God.

    Just accept you’ve made a leap of Faith. It’s Ok. I rather like Steven Den Beste’s Atheism? the Uncaring God Fred, I believe. He argues that as the world could have no God or could have the Uncaring God Fred and he simply makes the aesthetic choice or uses Occam’s Razor to adopt the position that there is NO God. Note he assumes, he believes. Steven is a SMART Atheist, he understands the nature of his choice in belief system.

  5. “I?m an agnostic, but I should add that I think the most foolish of all religious beliefs is confident atheism.”

    I didn’t get a response the first time I made a post along the following lines, but, like a lot of other things I don’t understand, I am genuinely interested in understanding the atheist perspective.

    I understand agnosticim, but I don’t “get” atheism. To say that you’re an atheist, to me, is to say that you looked everwhere in the universe, at the same time, and found no God. But, because you can’t possibly have achieved such a perspective, you are claiming to have solved an equation, absolutely, without having all the data. Regardless of whether or not atheism is a religion, if you’re making such an absolute assertion based on incomplete data, you are, most certainly, making a “leap”; you’re making a leap of faith.

    I suspect that’s what Charles Murray means when he refers to confident atheism as foolish.

    Having a data set of negative values, alone, is problematic. Negative in that, as an atheist, you’re not using your experience as data, you’re using what you did not experience as data. Saying that you prayed and there was no response is very different from saying that you prayed, there was no response, and so you are certain that there is no God.

    A deist’s data set isn’t limited in that way. A deist prays, receives feedback and tests it for accuracy. He or she doesn’t have all the data either, a leap similar to that of the atheist is made, but unlike the atheist leap, the deist leap is based on experience rather than a lack thereof.

    This all makes the atheist position much more precarious than that of a deist or that of an agnostic. Please note that I am not claiming to have mastered this topic. Indeed, I have read, met and known many atheists who are brighter, better educated and more accomplished than I am. But I don’t understand why someone would insist on proclaiming atheism rather than agnosticism.

    Give me a hint.

  6. ken: i think you’re being remarkably naive about how people are introduced to religious systems. i know plenty of people raised within catholicism, for example, who are either soft atheists or agnostics or blandly apathetic to the notions of their childhoods but still have built in panic reactions to the iconography and the rules.

    to assume that most believers have actually gone through more than the social aspects of their particular religion and taken it to the next step (figuring out what to believe and not believe via techniques like prayer, meditation, etc) is sadly small.

    children are pretty fucking easy to mess with, especially when being left alone with authority figures that seem to unnerve even their parents. if that’s reinforced at home, even if it doesn’t stick 20 years down the line identity-wise, it’s going to be more difficult to convince that person, to say, rip up a bible or commit some other sacreligious act – which should be meaningless if they’re an atheist – because programming exists long after the “belief” is dead.

    personally, i’m a mostly apathetic agnostic, but at the same time i don’t think one needs to extra-bodily scour the universe to come to the conclusion that such and such a religion seems a bit far-fetched. (given the thousands of cultures which have come up with various creator/protector gods, etc etc etc etc etc and so on, die horse die!!!)

    otherwise no one could pick any religion at all. (which, i would argue, most people don’t. catholics mostly raise catholics, lutherans lutherans, jews jews, muslims muslims, etc etc)

  7. Ken,

    As an agnostic with increasing athiest tendencies, I can comment on my own struggles with the question.

    My epistemology is pretty much that suggested by Hume. I am a skeptical empiricist, heavy on the skepticism. In most arenas in life, this lands me squarely in the agnostic camp, because the reality is, we don’t actually know very much at all.

    The problem is that it becomes irrational at some point to give every conceivable story equal weight with those that jibe with my experiences. Someone says that there is a supernatural being who is our creator and can give us eternal life. Someone else says there is a magic apple somewhere that can give me eternal life. I can’t disprove either story, but the invocation of the razor would make one at least doubt. Why would one story be preferable to the other? If I remain agnostic between the two stories, what happens when someone proposes a story that is equally improbable, but precludes any of the others from being true?

    In general, I think that the athiest is saying two things:

    1) The theist has proposed an entity that is not theoretically necessary to explain the world of experience, therefore there is no burden of disproof that must be met before one can say one is an athiest.

    2) There is a threshold of perceived improbability, above which one begins to feel foolish claiming to be uncertain. The magic apple may exist, but I can’t bring myself to credit the story enough that I am a ‘fence straddler’ on the issue.

    Lastly, I think it is generous of you to say that theists are informed by unambiguous experience. I very, very seriously doubt that this is the case.

  8. Whatever the answer, don’t folks just get along in life in a happier way if they follow the golden rule?

    Sure you can be a jerk and always take the bigger slice of pie, but soon no one will share pie with you.

  9. Joe L.,

    To say that atheism is a religion because it is a belief seems to me to be “undefining” religion. What would not be religion, in your system? Capitalism? Nope, that’s a belief, so it must be a religion. Communism? Nope, that’s a belief, too, so that must also be a religion.

    Religion, at least in this country, also implies a series of rituals and practices, such as praying, going to church, tithing, etc. Atheists do not have any practices or rituals that they engage in as part of their atheism. When someone defines religion as any belief, it seems to me they are really lessening the distinguishing power of the word “religion.”

  10. Ken Shultz,

    In my case, I would say that I’m an atheist because believing in god(s) doesn’t help me get through life. I believe that if you were to ask most Christians if they believe that Spirits guide the rivers and plants and rocks and sky (Animism) or Odin/Wotan is the ruler of the gods or the Angel Moroni delivered the true gospel of God to Joseph Smith, they would say they don’t believe any of that. They probably haven’t checked all those possibilities either, even though these cases would be unimaginably easier to check than knowing the whole universe. In my case, my atheism means the same kind of disbelief.

    Charles Murray comes across in the interview sounding like there is nothing to life if it is completely naturalistic and reductionist. I reject that claim because I find life especially meaningful, in the here and now, with other people like my wife and stepchildren. If I weren’t married, life’s meaning would probably come about through my friends and coworkers more.

  11. The point of saying “atheism is a religion because it’s a belief” and “atheists are making a leap of faith” is to put the assertion of the existence of a god and the rejection of that assertion on an equal epistemological basis. But it is the claim that a god exists which requires evidence. If all the evidence fails, then the atheist position is correct by default.

    Joe L. states that the theist position cannot be proven — if I understand him correctly, not just that he doesn’t have sufficient evidence at this time, but that he never expects any such proof (at least during his lifetime). Such a position has no credentials. It is no more a “leap of faith” to dismiss the notion of an admittedly unprovable deity than to dismiss someone’s arbitrary assertion that — oh, let’s take a silly example that would never occur in real life — all prison guards in Iraq are Democrats.

    There is literally no limit on the number of imaginary, unprovable entities which people could postulate. If you must take an agnostic position on all of them, where does that leave you? If your “agnosticism” consists of simply letting the claim lie and not worrying about it, I have no complaint if you prefer to call that agnosticism rather than a-whatever-ism. If you find yourself wondering about whether every fantasy that has ever crossed anyone’s mind might be true, that sort of agnosticism would drive out the ability to deal with reality.

  12. Jesus H. Christ! I’m an atheist because no one has ever presented to me sufficient reason to posit the existence of a higher being.

  13. Just passing through and I…

    Shit! THIS argument again?!
    I thought we had settled this!

    Atheists: 1
    Theists: 0

    Got it? Move along, then.
    Move along.

  14. Shit! THIS argument again?!

    Hey, let us newcomers enjoy the argument for the first time 😛

    That said, I have little new to add–except that I am tired of seeing the word “faith” applied to atheism with one meaning and to religion with another meaning, which merely clouds the issue.

  15. Patrick: Good call. The semantics of this debate are constantly abused. Another common mistake is expecting an atheist to “prove” (in the mathematical sense) there is no god. Atheists of a scientific nature (like myself) are well aware of the impossibility of such a proof. That does not stop me from being “certain” that there is no god, just as I am “certain” that the dark side of the moon is not covered in cheese whiz. I haven’t been there, so I can’t “prove” it, but I am darn well “certain”. 🙂

  16. TJ said: “I am “certain” that the dark side of the moon is not covered in cheese whiz”

    You poor naive bastard.

  17. Murray expresses sympathy for the old saw that there’s no reason to be moral without religion. This amounts to saying that “morality” means somebody who’s bigger and tougher than you are is watching what you do.

    He calls confident atheism a “religious belief,” which it is not, and calls it “foolish” without giving any reasons.

    Murray’s view is sometimes called militant agnosticism: “I don’t know, AND YOU DON’T KNOW EITHER.”

  18. what i don’t understand is why “just” being chemicals (though they do thousands of marvelous things) takes away any sort of reason of being from life.

    if anything, being the product of such accident and coincidence makes individual choice/self direction even more important and relevant, since thousands of millions of individual choices led us to where we are now.

  19. I understand agnosticim, but I don’t “get” atheism. To say that you’re an atheist, to me, is to say that you looked everwhere in the universe, at the same time, and found no God.

    I’m atheist and not agnostic about gods for the same reason I’m atheist not agnostic about invisible gnomes living on the north pole or magical snakes living in the center of the earth.

    Re: The Murray interview:

    Nick and Ron, pray tell. Was it so short on account of you having quickly realized the utter pointlessness of continuing? Seriously. That was about as exciting as an interview with my dad. With even heftier wads of banality.

  20. TJ: I love listening to atheists of a “scientific” nature. You are no doubt aware that most of the great scientific minds eventually ALL come to the same conclusion: that there must be some “higher power/Creator/Supreme Being/etc.” And before the inevitable challenge comes, here’s a few: Einstein, Dirac, Oppenheimer, Teller . . .

  21. Joe: I didn’t “ignore” the notion the evolution threatens the belief that a deity gave man special dominion over the universe. It didn’t occur to me at the time I wrote my original post, and I do think you make an excellent point.

    However, your attempt to turn this point into a non sequitur, strawman argument against the libertarian notion of property rights is a bit silly.

  22. … not to mention Brother Harry over at Landover Baptist Church.

  23. Murray clearly does not understand atheism. Then again, he doesn’t understand statistics either, so….

  24. anon,

    Did you do a “survey?” You are argument is riven with at least two logical fallacies: (a) argument from expertise, and (b) argument from popularity.

    Also consider that Stephen Jay Gould, Betrand Russell, Carl Sagan, and of course the brilliant Douglas Adams were all atheists. 🙂

    I also have to say that Murray’s notion that the “arts and sciences” have slowed is rather silly; he obivously isn’t paying attention to developments in the latter that is for certain.

  25. Mark S, you ignore the main reason why Creationists are so horrified by evolution; the ingrained belief, from Genesis, that humanity is properly above animals. Adam named each animal, subdue the earth, etc.

    The idea that nature exists for humanity to dominate and use for its own purposes has its claws dug deeply into our society’s unconscious. You find it popping up, unquestioned, in the oddest places.

    Like Reason, for example.

  26. “The idea that nature exists for humanity to dominate and use for its own purposes has its claws dug deeply into our society’s unconscious.”

    This seems a bit odd to me. The naturalistic answer is that nature doesn’t exist for any purpose at all. Purpose lies in what we bring to the table as the sole diviners of purpose here on earth. Doesn’t that sort of lead to the same conclusion that we can do what we want?

  27. Jason Ligon,

    Yes; but the nuanced responder would say that our rule is not ordained by some supernatural force (in other words, our mastery is not guaranteed). I think the distinction has some merit.

    There is also the fact – pointed out above – that creationist can’t deal with the notion of themselves being anything other than the “special” creations of a divine entity. I have some anecdotal evidence of such, as I’ve seen Christians get “jiggy” when I’ve suggested that humans are “animals.”

  28. Actually, JL, the “naturalistic” answer is that nature exists for its own purpose, and that humanity, as a part of nature, is meant to advance that purpose.

  29. “And before the inevitable challenge comes, here’s a few: Einstein, Dirac, Oppenheimer, Teller . . . ”

    You may want to read a little more about Einstein…

    “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.” — Albert Einstein

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