Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Why I'm an atheist. In answer to PZ (Part 1)

PZ asked Why are you an atheist?

I wrote this on Facebook before my blog, which does answer PZ:

A little on what I beleive...

There seem to be some misapprehensions about my beliefs and thoughts about religion. So, to clear things up, here's brief note on what I believe. I say brief, but it’s obviously going to be quite long. But it’s a big subject. Also, please use the comments if you disagree with me, but at least read all of this before you do. I’m writing this in my lunch hour off the top of my head, and haven’t the time to search for links etc, so if I make claims, but haven’t given the evidence, just ask, and I’ll back up my assertions.

Firstly, I don't think religious people are stupid because they're religious, I think someone is stupid, if they're stupid. Said stupid person could be an atheist. I do think religious people are deluded. Sadly, this has negative connertations, but I'm not sure what other word to use. The same has come for ignorance. Neither of these mean that someone is stupid. I think that a religious person is deluded, because I think their religious beliefs are wrong (factually, potentially morally, but that very much depends on the individual’s beliefs). This shouldn't be insulting though - even with the up most respect for others’ beliefs, a Christian for example, will quite clearly think a Hindu is deluded, or indeed that I am, for not accepting Jesus Christ as their personal saviour. Why do I think religious people are wrong? Well...

I used to be a Christian (C of E), I would go to Sunday school regularly (Blandford Camp’s Rainbow Club), though it was a very casual religious upbrining. At school I took extra religious education classes – religions interest me. I left the Rainbow Club, as, after a few years, it got a bit boring going over the same Bible stories. At school I began my drift away from belief. I’d ask questions, and not get answers – for example, I can remember being fobbed off to rubbish answers to my questions. For example, if God wants everyone to be a Christian and praise him, couldn’t he have put a little more effort in than sending Jesus to the Middle East, and then letting a bunch of murderous religious zealots spread it to the rest of the world? (I can’t remember my exact phrasing, but I mistakenly showed my poor geography by placing the Middle East in Europe in my question. The answer to my question he gave highlighted that I had got that bit wrong, and was left at that. There wasn’t an actual answer to my question). The obvious question about a “God of the gaps”, as another example, was just rephrased back at me. Alas, if I was me now back then, I’d have been a bit more forceful and asked for an answer, as it was, I got my rubbish answer, and meekly replied yes. You live, you learn.

So, the more I thought and asked, the more religion didn’t seem to make sense, and just seemed made up. By the time I left school I was an atheist. I was quite quiet about it though (unless asked, or in an actual religious debate), but, after 9/11, and then when I read Sam Harris’ and Richard Dawkins’ books on religion after uni, I became more vocal.

I don’t dogmatically stick to atheism though. I just want a reason why I should believe a certain religion. Because I say “I don’t believe that” does not mean I’m saying it’s impossible, I just want evidence.

So far, I have seen no evidence for any religions, but I have seen evidence for how religions can be explained as a psychological product of the mind. If I was given good evidence for a religion, I would change my mind.

I can also state what kind of evidence I would be looking for. (Whereas I’ve found religious people can’t say what kind of evidence would make them change their mind about their beliefs).

Stuff like this would be good: If the chances of catching a disease at Mecca were reduced, or at least the same, as people's day to day living. As it is, pilgrims at Mecca are at more risk of disease, as one would expect from so many people in so small an area.

Someone praying for an amputee, and their limbs coming back, would also be good evidence.

These things are not evidence: Religious texts - the Bible contradicts the Qu'ran and vice versa. If you accept one, why not the other?

Personal revelation is also out – you may very well be sure you experienced something, but there are countless others from other faiths, who have had their own revelations, which contradict yours. If you are religious, and think you have evidence, imagine someone of an entirely different religion who had similar evidence to yours. Would it convert you?

I hope you get the idea.

I don’t believe that rejecting propositions for lack of evidence makes me closed minded.

I am against religion. This is because from all that I have seen so far, religion appears to be nothing more than a quite elaborate superstition, that is very widely accepted. That’s not why I’m against it though. Whilst I do acknowledge that there are good parts of religions, I feel that on the whole, religions are a Bad Thing for society. Dogmatic views can lead to bigotry (for example religious homophobia), holding back scientific progress (for example stem cell research), just wrong on so many levels (the stoning of raped women to death for adultery) and, well, 9/11. Yes - that last example is from a religious extremist, but without the moderate take on religion, you wouldn't get the religious extremist. I know this wouldn't solve the problem, as nutters are nutters, but it’s a start. I forget the exact quote, and who said it, but “Good people do good things, and bad people do bad things, but for good people to do bad things, you need religion”.

Religions are also, by their very nature, divisive.

That said, I do believe in religious freedom - people should be free to believe what they like (though acting out these beliefs should have restrictions when they impinge on others). For complete religious freedom, one needs a secular society. The laws of the land should not favour one religion over another, this would not be fair. Laws should be decided on the merits of the issue at hand, not from centuries old religious dogma from nomadic goat herders who didn’t even have concepts of a lot of modern day life. So, for example, I think that halal and kosher meat is inhumane, and shouldn’t be exempted from the animal welfare laws on slaughtering animals.

Whilst I am for religious freedom, I am intolerant of some religious beliefs. For example, the whole hoo ha by the Catholic adoption agency over letting gay couples adopt – not based on any evidence of whether children raised by straight couples do better than those raised by gay couples, for example, but solely because of their ingrained religious homophobia.

Whilst I know that religions are deeply held personal beliefs, and that discussing them may cause some one to be uncomfortable or offended, I don’t thing that that’s a good reason not to discuss them. If people can have their political views etc challenged, why not their religious ones? Obviously, there’s a time and a place, and I do admit to getting the time and place wrong, but I’m a Bear of Very Little Brain and far from perfect.

People say that Science is my religion, but I will have to disagree. Here’s why:

Published science gets into journals via peer review. When a paper is submitted, it is reviewed by other people, independent of the research, who are also knowledgable on the subject, to determine if the paper is up to standard. As with all systems, this one has its flaws, but it’s the best thing we’ve got at the moment (feel free to offer an improvement here). Once it is published, it is then open to the criticism of everyone. Poor papers get knocked down, or stand up to the onslaught, and our knowledge moves forward.

From this, we get theories. A scientific theory is not the same as a hunch. It’s our current, best understanding of the information available. They are open to debate, but some theories can be seen, essentially, as true beyond all reasonable doubt.

For example, that bacteria can cause disease, is “just a theory”, germ theory. Likewise, the theory of evolution, is “just a theory”, but it is true. How do we know? There are 150 years of evidence to back it up. Yes, it is true that something might come along and disprove both of these – as with any other theories, but nothing has yet. If I’m to not believe in evolution, or that germs cause disease, then I want some pretty outstanding evidence.

Believing in scientific theories is not religious. It is not dogmatic, it can move forward, unlike religion, which has changes because of it – witness geocentrism. Galileo was right, though the church said he was wrong. Indeed, the Pope said that whilst Galileo was correct in his assertions, the Churches actions were the right thing to do.

That said, people can stick to “scientific” beliefs dogmatically, look at the odious Andrew Wakefiled spinning bucks of his discredited, and demonstrably incorrect, assertion that vaccines cause autism.

Science is wrong all the time, and says so. However, as it moves forward, it becomes increasingly more right. Back to evolution as an example, the central concept of random adaptions being non-randomly selected is good, but there are debates about the gene centred view, kin selection etc. This drives it forward, and enhances our understanding. As evidence of science moving things forward, I offer what ever device your reading this on – be it a computer, mobile or whatever.

If science knew all the answers, it would stop. Religion claims to know all the answers (God did it).

The Bible doesn’t change, nor do other religious texts – people may reinterpret, or change existing views to accommodate new evidence.

Now, I have been called a fundamentalist atheist, but I’m not sure how any of this is fundamental. I’ve also been told that, as a fundamentalist atheist, I have radical and extremist behaviours, and adhere to a set of beliefs. Again, I’m not sure how that above lines up with this. I hardly call engaging in (albeit it at time heated) discussions, tweeting, or writing notes on facebook as radical and extremist. If you’d like to enlighten me though, I invite you to do so in the comments below.

If you really want to make a comparison between me and religion, you’re better to chose my support of Manchester United (but I’ll not hear a word against the Holy Trinity of Ferguson, Giggs and Cantona) : P

Thanks for reading!


I've since changed in stance slightly, and go so far as to say there is no god.

In my next part, I'll disagree with PZ's post a bit.

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