Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Pew Report Responses

Is atheism a flexible position? I've been thinking about this since reading the four articles from On Faith, DC. I hope that link works.
Deepak Chopra made this comment,
"Without a definition of “God” or “atheism,” who really knows the state of
unbelief that an atheist feels? If you take the common image of God as a
patriarch sitting above the clouds, it’s entirely possible to reject a personal
God while retaining a religious spirit. Einstein spent years explaining this as
his position, and few understood what he meant."

On a community level, I can see how this question is valid. How would Christians know what atheists reject unless they first settle the definition of "god" or "supernatural"? But, at the same time, I know what Christians are talking about when they say they believe without having to have a rigid, standard definition. Isn't this a double standard? If you rejected this "personal God" that Chopra is referring to, while keeping a belief in a "religious spirit", then you're not an atheist, in my opinion. Chopra goes on, in his article, to state:
"How will belief evolve next? Maybe these believing atheists are showing us
the way, along with Einstein, beyond a personal God on to the shores of
eternity. Einstein had his sights set on a secular spirituality that, he said,
was most closely approximated by Buddhism."

Secular spirituality?
The rational mind cannot go beyond words and concepts, but
consciousness can expand within itself without limits. Whether accidentally or
by intent, I hope at least a handful of believing atheists have set out on the
journey that begins with the will to believe and ends beyond images, even beyond
thought itself.

I may be an totally misunderstanding his logic in the first sentence, but it doesn't sound very sound to me. How can he prove that there's a consciousness that can "expand within itself without limits"? Why would the rational mind need to go beyond words and concepts? Having the "will to believe" in something doesn't speak to the reality or truth of what you're "willing" to believe in. I don't dismiss the existence of God because I'm unwilling to believe in that God. I dismiss the God because I see no evidence that any deity exists. Will has nothing to do with it.

Then there's an article by Brian McLaren, a pastor and author, who says:
Of course, many people are more "orthodox" atheists of the naturalistic
sort, refusing to believe in anything beyond physics and mathematics. But
according to the Pew data, there are a significant number out there who at first
seem to be simply illogical by claiming both atheism and belief in some sort of
deity ... but with further conversation, it turns out they have an interesting
spiritual story full of unresolved tensions, and that story isn't finished yet.
Which is true of us all.

I believe in many things beyond physics and mathematics. I also don't have unresolved tensions that account for my atheism. In fact, atheism resolved many of my previous "unresolved tensions" provided by dogmatic religion and illogical belief. This "significant number" of people who "claim atheism" but also "belief in some sort of deity" are only atheists in the sense that they're rejecting certain types of gods. This is not true of all atheists and it's not true of all of humanity (as this author is suggesting).

Sally Quinn's article is interesting, if not contradictory at every turn. She begins with the familiar disclaimer that she considered herself an atheist for years ...but, "in the end, never denied the existence of God". Her reason for never denying the existence of God seems to revolve around her next statement which states we can never possibly know if God exists. Isn't this just tap-dancing? There are a great many things in life for which we, as humans, do not require absolute confirmation or evidence before ruling those things out. Does Mrs. Quinn believe in Noodly Appendages because she has no evidence that the FSM doesn't exist? Of course not.

The fourth article I've linked to is by Susan Jacoby. I can't say this any better than she has, so I will post two paragraphs from her article.

I suppose it's possible that some of the atheists who said they believed in
God were operating under the misapprehension that atheism means something like deism--belief not in a personal God but in an overarching providence, or spirit,
that gave rise to the universe but plays no direct role in the affairs of
humans. I suppose it is also possible that some of those polled, aware that
atheism is greatly stigmatized in American culture, wanted to make nice by
saying that they did believe in God in the same spirit that some women say, "I
am a feminist but...." The "but" is always followed by some silly, ingratiating
statement like, "I don't want to burn my bra" or "I like men.
But atheism is
not a flexible word.
That is, in fact, the reason why so many nonbelievers
prefer to call themselves agnostics. Indeed, the word "agnostic" was coined by
Thomas Henry Huxley, the great popularizer of Darwin's theory of evolution, as
an alternative to the much older, harsher-sounding word "atheist." Atheists are
people who don't believe in God. They do not claim (as some believers mistakenly think) to "know" that there is no God. What an honest atheist says is, "Given all the available evidence, I don't believe in a divine creator."
An atheist can no more prove that there is no God than a believer can prove that there is one--but only believers claim to "know" that their religious convictions are true.

Yes! Yes! Yes!


Milo Johnson said...

A study of Einstein's statements shows that what he described about his sense of the universe is not that any "supernatural" (a meaningless damned word, but convenient shorthand) things or beings existed, but that he felt that natural resonance with and awe of the majesty and the privilege of existence that all humans feel at least occasionally, regardless of their belief in deities. But that is not any extant property of the universe you feel, that is your emotions about the universe that you sense at those moments.

And as far as that load of crap shoveled as "expand within itself without limits," just because you can string words together in a manner that makes definitional sense does NOT mean that the sentence's content has any bearing on reality. That is just doubletalk emanating from one person's imagination, and people who fancy themselves supernaturally superior to ordinary folks are the only ones who flatter themselves that they "understand" it. I've been around enough nonsensical stoner talk to smell it a mile away.

Corbie said...

"...refusing to believe in anything beyond physics and mathematics."

Au contraire! I also "believe" in astronomy, biology, geology... :) They never seem to get that it's not a case of "refusing to believe", it's a case of, "what's true and what's provable" vs. wishful thinking. Thanks, but I'll stick with reality.

And never, ever try to get logic anywhere close to Deepak Chopra. The two repel each other like opposing magnetic poles.

Corbie said...

Not enough coffee! That should have read, " matching magnetic poles." I guess that's why I didn't have the Theory of Magnetism in my list of things I believe in! ;)

CrypticLife said...

I can at least understand atheists who don't believe there is a god but have some belief in the supernatural. Take ghosts, for instance. Those prone to woo might believe in ghosts, and consider them to be residual forms of energy (even perhaps retaining some consciousness) of the dead. Perhaps they believe in another dimension where the energy or consciousness (whatever that means) "goes" when people die. Okay, there's not a lot of real evidence for it, but there's probably as much or more than there is for the existence of a deity. If you're talking about George Washington, at least you know he once existed. Though I'm skeptical of extra dimensions, some scientists suspect they exist.

A deity's characteristics, however, correspond to nothing known. We can't even conceptualize omniscience, we have no examples of anything approaching omniscience, and omnipresence is just laughable if one seriously considers it.

What I REALLY can't understand is people who believe in a god but don't believe in vampires (as an example, there are others). There's far better evidence for the existence of vampires than for god, and they make much better sense. They're physical beings similar to us. Blood is, in fact, full of nutrients, and some animals live through sucking blood. Garlic is pretty odious and I'm sure some people are allergic. And then, there are examples of cannibalism and blood-drinking that have actually occurred. Powers such as transforming into bats and wolves would be inconsequential next to the presumed powers of a deity. Vampires have roots in many cultures, and people have written about them with the presumption that they actually exist.

But of course, I can reject both and be left with no unresolved tensions. Theists who reject vampires (for example) but accept god(s) set themselves up for tensions.

Calladus said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Calladus said...

I have no problem with being a spiritual Atheist. I just don't think it has anything to do with a deity or anything supernatural. To me, "spiritual" is just another state of mind.

And the word "believe" is misused in my opinion. I believe in human rights, I believe in the separation of Church and State, I believe that the overwhelming majority of humans in the world want to do what is right, but are often confused about what that means.

I don't DIS-believe in God - I just haven't found a compelling reason why I should invest any sort of belief in him. In fact, I think that since the "question of God" cannot be confirmed, denied or tested in any way then the question itself becomes meaningless and should be ignored. This is the foundation of Ignosticism and it is why I also call myself an Ignostic.

Todd said...

I am always amazed at people that believe in god but refuse to believe I am an atheist. Even though I am standing right there telling them I in fact am.
It comes down to the fact that I am nicer than most of the people they meet in church and live a more moral life. At least thats what they tell me.

Thranil said...

I enjoyed reading a book called "The Little Book of Atheist Spirituality" by Andre Comte-Sponville not too long ago. I felt it did a great job at boiling down how one can be 'spiritual' without believing in the supernatural (and how the two concepts are not intrinsically married).

kc said...

"Maybe these believing atheists are showing us
the way, along with Einstein, beyond a personal God on to the shores of
eternity. Einstein had his sights set on a secular spirituality that, he said,
was most closely approximated by Buddhism.""

"Of course, many people are more "orthodox" atheists of the naturalistic
sort, refusing to believe in anything beyond physics and mathematics. "

Um, if "orthodox atheists" are people that only believe in physics, then Einstein was an orthodox atheist. As I understand it, he used the term "God" to talk about the rules/order of the universe, and I know he thought the idea of "God" in the sense that most people conceive of it is completely ridiculous. One of Einstein's "God" quotes that is often tossed around completely out of context is "God does not play dice." He said that refuting a physics theory--it had nothing to do with a supernatural power. If Einstein was spiritual, it was only in the sense that he appreciated the beauty of nature.

On a related note, I really don't get the fear of "naturalism," which leads to the common sentiment, clear in the tone of the quote above, that people who only believe in the natural world and "refuse" to believe in supernatural/spiritual things are somehow missing out on something. When religious people praise God for the beautiful lives/world he gave us, they are celebrating the same thing that Einstein did, and the same thing that I do. I don't understand why there has to be a sentient force behind it all for it to beautiful.

I believe in mathematics, and physics, and all the physical/natural sciences that build on those disciplines. I believe in what I see, and I don't believe that is as cold as Brian McLaren seems to believe it to be. We have the whole world, the whole universe, and it is beautifully complex and simple, ordered and chaotic... and that is enough for me. You have all of this, and you demand MORE for any of it to be worth anything? Why? Why is the world not enough?

Badger3k said...

I prefer the more precise way of saying it - I do not believe in physics, biology, or anything else. I believe they explain the evidence (or I believe the evidence that we have found) as best as we are able. I save "belief in" for more abstract ideas, such as the general goodwill and altruistic nature of the majority of people (within limits based on genetics and culture).

I can't help but wonder at the projection that these woo-meisters feel, or is it just a real, concrete inability to comprehend that, well, I and people like me, do not think and feel along the same lines. I don't base my science on the personal life or authority of someone, nor do I place any "faith" in things that have no need of it, like the sciences. But what can you expect...

Humanist Mama said...

I'm so glad you quoted Susan Jacoby... I love her response :)

AlisonM said...

Ugh. More definitive statements about atheism by people who've proven repeatedly that they've never even spoken to one. It's been clear to me that Chopra has worked very hard to define atheists in such a way that they'd eventually buy into it - and maybe buy his books, too.

Yeah, atheism is a flexible position. You can believe there are no gods. You can not believe in any gods. You can be certain there are no gods. Or, you can say that there is no evidence for gods. Any other beliefs or disbeliefs are a matter of personal choice, but none of them include believing in certain types of gods but not others, or believing in your own personal version of a deity or deities. Theism comes in many forms, atheism rejects all of them. Sheesh.

Erp said...

I have a few thoughts

1. The Pew report question on God belief was actually belief in God or universal spirit. I note that most of the atheists who said yes to the question also answered yes to the question of whether this god/universal spirit was impersonal. Some people might be equating universal spirit with universal physical laws (this is speculation).

2. It is possible that some misheard the question and thought it was asking whether someone was 'a theist'. (I believe the questions were oral not written.)

3. Some people reared in a very restricted environment might be familiar with a different definition of atheist. One who either hates God (as we are so often accused) or who acts as though God doesn't exist. Some such might actually come to hate their God and yet still believe in him and so consider themselves atheists (I suspect such a state doesn't last long before they swing either to a different religion, to real atheism, or back to where they came from). Note that 6% of the self-defined atheists believe in a personal god (and 3% believe in the Bible as the literal word of God). Again this is speculation.

4. A few might be pulling legs.

Also 1% of catholics and protestants apparently don't believe in God or a universal spirit. 5% of Americans don't believe in God or a universal spirit (not all of whom describe themselves as atheists).