Saturday, November 22, 2008


EDIT: I've had some independent critiques of this post, and they both made many good points. As such, I should look through this in detail and note everything that's totally invalid. As is, some random set of assertions that you don't agree with, and which undermine the argument, I've since reconsidered. EDIT ENDS.

Again and again, atheism is stated to be "just another religion" by people who, in the context of the first amendment, would rather it weren't. (Agnosticism doesn't get this nearly as much, possibly because, well, to me, it seems kind of wishy-washy.)

I invite those who make this claim to consider the vast history of things that we agree are religions, and take note: what are the religions doing, that atheism does not? Among other things, religions schism. Interpreting things very generously, we've got three members of the atheist spectrum: strong atheism (there are no gods), weak atheism (I don't think that there are gods), and agnosticism (we can't know whether there are gods).

(Why this last group doesn't apply methodological naturalism to the kind of belief espoused by, say, Pascal's Wager in the context of the vast multitude of available religions to convert to eludes me, but they probably have a good reason. It is quite likely that this good reason is that I'm a complete wacko for mixing philosophies like that.)

Any true religion would have schismed several times over by now, at the very least along political lines. If a liberal atheist and a conservative atheist have a discussion/argument/flamewar so intense that the internet itself is ripped asunder from its moorings and tumbles into the abyss, they don't call each other 'atheist lite' or 'atheist in name only'. They call each other passionless drones and money-grubbing nannies. Another possibility for schism, of course, is over doctrinal differences.

The observant reader will have noted that I outlined each of the three doctrines in a sentence each. Even if a religious doctrine were to start out that compact, normative influences would make it pick up the flavor of its community in perhaps as long a span of time as a generation. And yet, the core pure doctrine of atheism is preserved for centuries, without extraneous accretion. Wow! All the people crazy enough to use the KJV as the 'original' version of the bible should look into this 'atheism' thing! It seems, so far as uncorruptible teachings go, that we've got a lock! Ride your unicorn over here and we can talk.


Lifewish said...

I'm not sure it's true that atheism doesn't change. I know that reading Freud's work makes me wince horribly due to its heavy use of what I've heard called the "medical fallacy": that knowing the biological or psychological causes of something is enough to discredit it.

It's like saying that libertarianism is wrong because most libertarians just don't like paying taxes. While it's true that some libertarians are motivated by their wallets, it's also true that there are strong arguments for limited government. Likewise, just because a religious vision is linked with epilepsy or similar, that doesn't mean it's necessarily wrong.

And before Freud most atheism was oriented towards theology: things like the problem of evil and whether God can create a rock He can't move. Again, I'm not keen on that approach. I know full well that quantum mechanics and general relativity are conceptually incompatible, but this doesn't stop me accepting both of them. When using arguments so divorced from reality, it's very easy to prove that bees can't fly.

I much prefer the skeptical, Popperian defence of atheism that's in vogue these days.

MWchase said...

I'd like to use some weasel words in this next sentence, but I really shouldn't:

You're right.

(Though I will point out that there's an edge case for the formulation 'lift' instead of 'move' in which the 'rock' is the smallest thing that could be called a rock, and there is nothing else in the universe.)

Anyway, I think my ideas about this have changed in the interim, which says something unpleasant about my posting rate.

Maybe a better way to say what I meant is that you will find different kinds of atheists, but you will never find different kinds of atheism. It's always the lack of god-belief, whereas there are many kinds of Christianity. In that sense, atheism isn't a religion because you can't directly compare it to religions, I don't think. (The 'not-collecting-stamps isn't a hobby' argument falls slightly short, to my interpretation there. This is more like 'not-being-able-to-drive-a-car is not the foundation of a career in pizza delivery'.)

(Have just quickly read up slightly on Popperian cosmology, and Popper himself. It and he sound good.)