Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Atheism; or, why does everyone think I'm so amoral??

As is my tradition, I now take a break from something I (profess to) have authority over to make room for a new topic altogether. Hey, if Richard Dawkins can do it, then why can't I? My writing may not be quite on the same level, but I can surely be less of a dick. Before getting into the treacherous philosophical/political side of the whole thing, a simpler question: what's it like for me, being an atheist/agnostic in this religious society we call America?

The reason I bring it up is that in these troubled times of increasing intolerance, Americans are somehow more distrustful of atheists than any other group of people. A friend of mine (Eli) recently asked whether I thought we would first have a gay president, or an atheist one, and it immediately reminded me of these posts from the Volokh Conspiracy. Atheists are regarded with disfavor by Americans at roughly twice the rate of gays or Muslims! Whoa! That's a lot of disfavor! Furthermore, there are no openly "non-believing" members of Congress, the Supreme Court or the cabinet. So the way things are going, people seem a lot more willing to vote for gays than atheists (but don't worry Eli, you still won't get my vote for numerous other reasons).

Meanwhile, coming from just about the most liberal elitist background you could imagine, I've had a pretty smooth ride. Looking back, I don't think I had any close friends or family who attended weekly religious services, or were deeply spiritual, all the way through high school. I mean, notwithstanding the fact that I didn't have many friends, in a country where >80% of people describe themselves as very religious, that's a feat.

That doesn't mean I didn't have a few religious crises of my own growing up. I have a distinct memory of making my mother take me to church at some point before I was 10 or 11, the very idea of which is now so strange it's hard to believe it was really me. (Speaking of things that happened to me but really, couldn't have actually happened to me, I once received a certificate from the NRA, like, for shooting guns, at this place [actual quote from website: "Increased self-esteem, making new friendships and gaining social competence, learning to work as part of a team, responsibility and building positive values are just some of the life skills gained from participating in Camp Friendship programs..." What version of that sentence could they possibly have turned down in favor of that one??]).

Anyway, college and grad school have been different. I spent one summer in Ecuador, with fifteen other students, including three serious Christians (one of whom narrowly selected college over a convent). Maybe it was the the clean mountain air, or the fact that none of us knew any Spanish, but we had some good frank discussion amongst ourselves. Don't get me wrong, it was no Camp Friendship, but it clarified a lot.

Fist off, people have strikingly different definitions of atheism and agnosticism. Is an atheist someone who merely disbelieves in a benevolent creator or creators, or is it a more deeply held belief about metaphysics and and the power of science? Okay, for instance, this dude at Slate claims that the so-called "New Atheists" (Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, etc.) are so enamored of their own scientific reasoning that they believe science will eventually explain existence. That's quite an accusation to make! And I think it mischaracterizes their beliefs, and atheism in general.

What the "New Atheists" do believe is that whatever is the source or nature of existence, it has no purpose or benevolence behind it, and it doesn't effect on the functioning of the universe. And I find that almost everyone I know rejects these two beliefs, even those who don't believe in God or gods of any sort. That is, I find that most of my friends believe in karma, superstition, or something like them. As for me, I believe the universe unfolds according to physical laws, nothing more, nothing less. Physical reductionism--as one might call this belief--is greatly misunderstood and widely rejected, and deserves a lengthy explanation of its own. But why the hell is the world here in the first place? That's an entirely different, and entirely metaphysical, question.

I was recently shocked to find out that for whatever reason (they're smarter? amoral? rational? communist? anti-social?), scientists in the US are much less likely to believe in God. That poll just really makes me want to know more about the beliefs behind those beliefs. Are scientists really atheists in the strong sense, or do they have other supernatural/metaphysical beliefs that are harder to summarize?


  1. Hey, what's with all the Camp Friendship-bashing? That place was great!

    I actually loved that Slate article. Maybe it's a little uncharitable to all those famous atheists, but I think he's right that in a sense most of the core assertions they make are just as unsupported as those of the deeply religious. I like the idea of carving out agnosticism an equally rigorous and strong worldview (instead of just wishy-washiness).

  2. wait, how can someone be an atheist/agnostic? isn't it like the one drop rule, where any hint of belief that god may exist makes you an agnostic? i think the belief system you're talking about sounds more like mechanism.

    also, in terms of science/religion, newton is a v fascinating character. (e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isaac_Newton%27s_occult_studies). when i start my own podcast that's an actually interesting version of "speaking of faith," he may make the first episode.

  3. @sarah I think atheists in general would respond that the burden of proof for their so-called "unsupported assertions" shouldn't be on them at all! In other words, if there is no evidence of benevolence in the universe, why should they have to find extra metaphysical evidence of lack-of-benevolence. There's just none there, and (if they're right about said lack of evidence) that alone would justify (at least some weaker notion of) atheism.

    @alissa: I wrote atheist/agnostic so as to draw in the intelligent reader as I try to suggest either that my classification depends on your exact definition of each, or that I don't intend to fully reveal my hand. But I guess you missed that.

  4. Also, my camp friendship experience was tainted by my last year there which was horrendously awful, mostly cause there was this one guy in my cabin who was a manipulative bully toward everyone. Also, every time i tell someone I went to a camp called "Camp Friendship," they instantly lose about half the respect they had for me, which I really could have used. Also, did you SEE the website.

  5. This is good stuff. I'm not surprised about the scientists. I remember the bully. (Glad it wasn't any worse than that.) I'm with Sarah on agnosticism not being wishy-washy . . .