Monday, 9 April 2012

The atheist’s dilemma

I have been an atheist for almost fifty years, however I’m far from being one of Richard Dawkins’ admirers. Politics is the problem for me.

It would be foolish in the extreme to deny that atheist regimes have been a raging disaster of epic proportions. Tens of millions of deaths and rising – try to brush that aside without leaving a vast moral hole in your personal philosophy. It’s like trying to lick the Augean stables clean – leaves a bad taste and gets you nowhere.

So where does that leave an atheist who feels inclined to enter the God debate? With an extremely serious dilemma I’d say, especially now the scientific method is such a crock. We can’t worship at that alter any longer, not without a cauterized sense of smell and some very large and ungainly blinkers.

Science a crock? Well maybe such a sweeping statement deserves a modicum of elaboration, but no more. I’ll drop climate change, passive smoking and peer review into that modicum - just to spice up the flavour of the debate you understand. Because I certainly don’t see how we can separate science from the antics of scientists.

Most of where we are today was achieved by a process we could just as easily call engineering as science - we must not be misled by names. Practical trial and error if you like. The kind of thing Josiah Wedgwood was so brilliant at – and was he not a scientist by any practical criterion? After all, his meticulous trials of pottery bodies and glazes were in effect chemical experiments - or early experiments in material science if you prefer.

The idea that science has been some pristine mode of human thought guiding our progress since the days of Galileo is just far too naive and idealistic – at least for me.

I spent all of my working life as a professional scientist and it there isn’t anything noble about it. Science is merely a job - it pays the mortgage. It can be interesting, frustrating and rewarding just like any other job, but rarely moral in any important sense. Science certainly isn’t a viable personal philosophy.

So back to the question of God. My philosophy is that if that’s how people view the cosmos then who am I to argue? I don’t see the cosmos through God, but seeking to impose my personal philosophy on others isn’t part of my personal philosophy.

Why? Partly personal inclination and partly because atheism has no moral dimension. It’s a negative, something you don’t have rather than something you do. So my own atheism has never been a big deal for me. There are more tractable problems which need moral alignment between rational people.

How to define rational people though? In my view, not via their religious beliefs or their lack of belief because that’s too divisive. More likely through their grasp of moral imperatives, their unwillingness to seek control over others, their adherence the most fundamental moral law.

Do as you would be done by.

We waste an enormous amount of time pursuing unwinnable arguments. And yes - these pursuits can be compulsive in a kind of competitive, must have the last word kind of way, but argument is almost entirely futile. It doesn’t help nurture worthwhile moral alignments. Because if you believe in liberty, in do as you would be done by, then moral alignment is the goal to be pursued and in no sense whatever is it an atheist goal.

Other differences in personal philosophy, though important, are not necessarily those to be pursued in tackling more immediate threats to our wellbeing. And of course I mean our moral wellbeing which in the end is what liberty is all about – the freedom to be a moral agent.


Roger said...

Dawkins goes way beyond atheism. He says religion is an evil that must be eradicated. He is not happy letting other people have their own beliefs, as you are.

Anonymous said...

I too am an atheist and I have friends who are religious - to a greater or lesser degree. I do not pour scorn on their views
because I feel they are good people who do good in the world. In one sense I agree with Dawkins, religion is a bad thing, a branch of politics and control, the trouble is what to replace it with - a national morality perhaps - just as bad. Do as you would be done by is a good personal ethic.

As you say science is not so pure, the mortgage needs to be paid. I met a physicist on a big (but dick-headed) project who declared 'I agree, but you don't have to believe in it to take the money'. Every day bone-brained policies get pursued because that is where the money or career path lies. A personal ethic?

A comparison though, over the last 20,000 years those who study God and Gods have come up with not one testable idea. No God-o-Scope, nada, just faith. On the other hand you are looking at the practical results of cold logic.

However, people do need controlling and if religion is what it takes.....

Anonymous said...

I stand resolutely amongst the dithering classes!

Part of the problem with the God believers is their anthropological vision of God, a sort of very old man with a long beard, not so much our Father, more our ancient Great-Grandfather!

The more I learn about the nature of existence at the very large and very small scales, the harder I find it to totally dismiss the possibility that there is something quite beyond our imaginings out there somewhere, I think of it as 'the prime mover'. I think the possibility is remote but cannot be totally ignored.

Mind you, I always take each-way odds from the bookies!

James Higham said...

How to define rational people though? In my view, not via their religious beliefs or their lack of belief because that’s too divisive. More likely through their grasp of moral imperatives, their unwillingness to seek control over others, their adherence the most fundamental moral law.

I define rational people by their ability to take in ALL the evidence, of all kinds and come to an unprejudiced conclusion.

Dawkins' mob seem totally incapable of that and are every bit as bad as any bible thumper.

The truth, as any scientist can tell you, is somewhere in the middle or an amalgam of all these views.

Sam Vega said...

Blimey - lots of ideas here!

Don't discount the "religious atheists", such as Buddhists and others who follow what might be described as a spiritual path that is not theistic.

I don't personally see much mileage in judging a tradition by what it has achieved. Atheists murdered millions, theists murdered millions, and the important point is to see what makes sense to us, rather than what others have done with beliefs or lack of them.

Incidentally, the Kantian objection to the "fundamental moral law" is that it is either incoherent, or content-free. Some of us might like a good spanking, but it is not moral to do it to others. It could be a "bully's charter"...

Anonymous said...

"Atheists murdered millions, theists murdered millions"

Exactly right which is why it is better phrased as 'people murdered millions and used religion/politics as an excuse'.

A K Haart said...

Roger S - that's it for me, he goes too far.

Roger - "I do not pour scorn on their views" and neither do I. How can I? Some are more moral than I am.

David - "I think the possibility is remote but cannot be totally ignored" The fact that decent people think in this way is enough for me. I may disagree, but that's as far as it goes.

James - "every bit as bad as any bible thumper" they are and ironically more tolerant people have to keep their distance.

Sam - I haven't discounted religious atheists, but don't know much about them. I think Kant was wrong(ish). The moral law is a spanker's charter, but only consenting spankers.

James Higham said...

I'm not going to dare after OoL. ;-)

A K Haart said...

James - crikey, I've been out all day and just taken a look.

James Higham said...

My reply, AKH, is to be in a post at OoL, currently being written. It's not the argument but the shoddy scholarship of certain persons which galls. You're a scientists and have a certain point of view, I'm an academic and therefore demand certain standards of scholarship and formal logic in arguments. I'm far less interested in the topic [after all, G-d's a big enough boy to look after Himself] but the arguments, the scholarship displayed by certain people.

It does matter in that erroneous conclusions are easily reached when, for example, a priori argument is use, rather than a posteriori.

Please note that both sides feel your article was first class.

James Higham said...

Talk about Pandora's Box - have you seen the latest? LOL.

A K Haart said...

James - thanks, I never thought it would create such a stir, although I probably should have guessed. But I suppose as it's not my usual territory, I'd nothing to go on.

I've been out all day again, so I'll read your post now.