So sayeth science. Well, actually, a “science writer.” I’ve scanned the article and could not find much in collaborative evidence. Don’t get me wrong. I want to believe that science says our metaphysical urges are hardwired and part of our evolutionary tract and thus suggest atheism is not tenable, or even human; however, to write as the author did with only bit quotes — no footnotes or the internet equivalent, links — is to seriously undermine his thesis:
Cognitive scientists are becoming increasingly aware that a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.
This line of thought has led to some scientists claiming that “atheism is psychologically impossible because of the way humans think,” says Graham Lawton, an avowed atheist himself, writing in the New Scientist. “They point to studies showing, for example, that even people who claim to be committed atheists tacitly hold religious beliefs, such as the existence of an immortal soul.”
I get articles quoting the original piece. However, I suspect that the quote comes from this article. If it does, and it does, the “science writer” misquotes Lawton who is paraphrasing Boyer. The context is this:
Some scientists – notably Pascal Boyer at Washington University in St Louis – have even claimed that atheism is psychologically impossible because of the way humans think. They point to studies showing, for example, that even people who claim to be committed atheists tacitly hold religious beliefs, such as the existence of an immortal soul.
Atheism (Photo credit: atheism) – because that is what you think, don’t you?
Indeed, the conclusions in Lawton’s original piece may in fact surprise the “science writer.” Basically, his assumptions go like this. Atheists can’t exist because humans are hardwired to express/desire the common elements found in religion. You should be able to see through that pretty easily.
But, I want to add another wrinkle, if I may. What if there are no believers or atheists? If free will is an illusion, then we are but what we are meant to be in some fashion. This doesn’t mean I am in favor of determinism, but if our “choices’” are shaped by external influences, then our choices are chained to that which surrounds us. Thus, if one is an atheist or a believer, then it has something to do with an outside influence and cannot be the individual’s choice. Thus, there is no conscious effort to believe in God (thus, no believers) and there is no free will analysis capable of producing an unbelief in God (thus, no atheists) because we follow the path laid out before us and can only work within those influences.
Anyway, the article is slightly better than what Jim West writes regarding evolution.
English: English comedian Russell Brand. Español: El comediante inglés Russell Brand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Josh Green: Russell, quit hating on Dawkins. You know religion has done more harm than good!
Russell Brand: How can we measure that? What you call religion, I call territorialism, and sort of an ideological imperialism. I don’t think it’s good to go around on crusades or do jihads or lie at people or have a go at people. But I do think it’s good to have a system that connects the known and the unknown and for us to have a ritualized way of understanding the limitations of our own perspective and embracing ideas that are beyond our consciousness. And that’s what religion’s meant to be for me. And ol’ Dicky Dawkins, with his way of judging the world, prevents the positive things about religion. And I think if we eschew those positive things, then we ain’t got any chance of countenancing [sic] the materialistic ideologues that currently govern us. You know like governments, big corporations and that. So I think religion might be a way of circumnavigating them. I don’t think we can do it with old leftist ideas or old revolutionary notions. I don’t think they work anymore. Obviously there’d have to be loads of administration, collectivisation, all that. But what I’m saying is part of it is a sense of spiritual connection. So, Josh Green. I don’t hate Dawkins, anyway. I’m just pointing out that that sort of scientific dogmatism and materialism actually shares quite a lot with the aspects of religion that they claim to dislike, like being sort of quite judgmental and limiting and all that kind of stuff. And anti-mystical. I don’t like it.
Reason has more than one side. That which is reasonable and fair has to have other considerations than simply an “imposition” which is what “reasonable” is when it is one sided. A very poor constructed sentence, but it depicts exactly the mistake many are making today when they claim that “modern changes in societal rules and even laws” cannot be challenged by those who have benefited for centuries by the old ways even if it has been proven for centuries that the old ways have worked well and may not require changes.
Christians, and all kinds of conservatives, or other derogatory names one wants to use for this group not only have the right, but the duty to, and in fact, are doing society a favor, when they contest, protest and manifest against the rapid changes in society today because some of these changes have no track record of benefiting humanity. It seems that scholars and scientists will always appeal to history, evidence and a track record of fact to ascertain that whatever issue they are attempting to establish is feasible and that its implementation will be of a benefit to all. Except when it comes to issues where religion and/or tradition is involved. Then, who needs evidence, who needs history, who needs facts? It is almost as if they have made up their minds: “If it is religiously or traditionally prescribed, then it is wrong; let us change it”, even when in fact, there is history, a time span as old as history itself, that the old ways have worked so far.
No, this is not to say that we should not change and modernize society and make if fairer and comfortable to all! This is simply to say that it is fair for Christians and all kinds of conservatives to struggle with the idea of change for “change’s sake” in that which they perceive to be a threat to what they have known as the best for humanity in general. Not always stating that something is wrong is purely a religious exercise. Although I acknowledge that more frequent than not it is a religious exercise, some are sincerely concerned whether the recent changes in society, such as marriages, rules about “respecting other cultures to the point of surrendering to them” may not be solely basing their concerns on religion. People can protest for other reasons and it is fair and good that they do so when changes are in the process of proving itself as useful to society as it is for a group within that society, who, because of factors beyond our understanding, decided to impose their view of society upon all others.
I am a firm believer that one cannot legislate religious beliefs, no matter how well intended they are. Equally, I am a firm believe that one, or a group, cannot legislate their religious unbelief on others. In both counts protest is fair and acceptable. A great scholar is all over social media spreading the notion that Christians are attempting to legislate their beliefs upon society. Well, the facts belie such a scholar, who is not and cannot be a scholar in predicting the future consequences of changing society on society itself! Non-Christians are indeed imposing their beliefs, rather, their unbelief upon Christians with the aggravating circumstance that they practice such imposition against the will of the people of the community they choose to impose their unbelief. I am fully aware that we have to check if an acceptable degree of legal fairness is being afforded to all citizens and not only those who would prefer that tradition would remain as it has been for ages. However it is not by winning in courts that the imposition occurs; the imposition occurs when business, people who exercise their individual conscience, religious or not, have to comply with the peripherals of their victory and now have to act totally contrary to what they have held as truth functioning and comfortable to their own life styles all these years. So, by imposing, forcing, people to comply with their wins, those who win by the act of a single often non-elected office of the court, with his own biases and prejudices, reverse the issue of unfairness and begin themselves to act unfairly. Again, the facts have proven that Christians and other conservatives are adapting to the world that now surround them, but they should not have to live as a blind man by the road side taking whatever others dish out to them; they can rightfully establish limits. Certain services and profession when exercised to a person or group imply endorsement of that group or person. If you do not understand that you have never been in business, and your position is fully understandable. The refusal, however, of a businessman to provide services that automatically imply his endorsement and participation in that which he does not agree should be expected and understood and such understanding would be reasonable!
By now most presume to know that about which I am talking. No, for your surprise it is not only the issue of gays; it is also the celebration of America, American values, supposedly Christian symbols (that are not really Christian), and those that are indeed genuine Christian symbols, the liberation of drugs, and now some ridiculous rulings, which are too ridiculous to mention. People of faith and out of faith who want to preserve a certain heritage without waiving, who love to wear shirts that extol the quality of their military relatives, American Flags, etc. who feel threatened by lawsuits and other artifices of the “indignation industry”, and yes, those who do not agree with abortions and the gay issue, should not now, all of a sudden, be forced to comply or else. What is reasonable? If we want a fair society, then lets offer fairness rather than demanding it and in the process progress in an environment without hostility and division, and such environment is not a fertile ground for corrupt politicians, but not having corrupt politicians coming out of every sewerage is a fringe benefit of this new world of fairness! That is expected and reasonable!
Dawkins has a generous self-centredness. Everything associated with him is blessed – his parents for giving birth to him, Ali, the ”loyal’’ family servant in colonial Africa, and Balliol College, Oxford, which had the good fortune to admit several generations of Dawkins men. When he admires others, one is made to feel how lucky they are.
The review is a hoot and three-quarters, but the title leaves me a bit dissatisfied. It plays into the notion the atheist believes himself to be god and thus would have no other god before him.
If this was only true of atheists, maybe we could like titles and slams like this slide, but it is not. Not only does this employ a bad definition of god, but it ignores the myriad of Christians who treat themselves in the same regard — or higher — than we are led to believe Dawkins treats himself.
Anyway, for fans, or foes, or Richard Dawkins, the above article is… needed reading.
“Given that — and this is the key point — God’s mercy has no limits, if you go to him with a sincere and repentant heart, the issue for those who do not believe in God is to obey their conscience,” Francis writes in his letter.
“Sin, even for those who have no faith, is when one goes against their conscience,” he added. “To listen and to obey to (one’s conscience) means to decide oneself in relation to what’s perceived as good and evil. And this decision is fundamental to determining the good or evil of our actions.”
In UK We elect MPs to decide complex issues [sic]. Why a plebiscite on, of ALL things, a subect [sic] as complex & hard to understand as EU membership?
This is a very revealing comment. First off, here’s where Dawkins is wrong:
In the UK, we have a representative democracy. The fundamental principle behind representative democracy is that we, the electorate, vote for the person we think best represents our views and our interests overall. We do not vote for an ‘expert’ who will ‘decide complex issues’ for us, but rather for one of our peers who we send to London to express our views in the House of Commons. Of course, we do not have the time to collectively undertake detailed studies on every issue that will be debated in Parliament, but we nonetheless work on the basis that our MP will do his or her best to approach those issues with the views of those who elected them in mind. We do not elect MPs to act as wise overlords who take away the need for us to think or have an opinion. MPs are public servants – they serve us, they do not dictate to us.
Dawkins’ argument is fundamentally elitist and is arguably only a few steps removed from an assault on the notion of democracy itself. After all, if the electorate cannot understand ‘complex’ issues and need others to ‘decide’ what is best for us, then what is the point in allowing the electorate to vote at all? Why not simply form a council of wise men and women who will decide what is best and leave us to follow whatever decisions they may make? If EU membership is too ‘complex and hard to understand’ then what right do we have to hold opinions on topics such as the economy? Why is EU membership any more ‘complex and hard to understand’ than education policy or energy policy, for example?
What this reveals, I feel, about Dawkins’ overall outlook is that he is thoroughly elitist and deeply contemptuous of the views of ‘non-experts’ on any topic. This is perhaps unsurprising, given the utter contempt he seems to show towards religious believers. Belief in God is not simply wrong in Dawkins’ eyes but is, rather, a delusion, a form of mentally disordered thinking. Once you’ve happily accepted that the majority of the world’s population is in the grip of a kind of mental disorder, it is perhaps not such a leap to thinking that the majority of people do not have the right to an opinion on anything and should reverentially bow before their intellectual superiors instead.
Dawkins likes to talk about the need for rationality and evidence and claims that faith is ‘the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence’, yet at the same time he clearly suggests that for most people, thinking about and evaluating evidence is something that is far too ‘complex and hard to understand’. Why should it be that looking at the evidence for evolution by natural selection is something we are all capable of, yet looking at the arguments for and against EU membership is beyond most of us? In reality, I would argue that Dawkins actually thinks that most people are too stupid to do either. As a result, he thinks that scientists like him should be able to dictate the truth or otherwise of any and all statements regarding both the natural world and its origins (i.e. the things we should all believe about these topics) and that professional politicians should be able to dictate what we should accept as true when it comes to political matters. Dawkins claims to favour debate and rational thought, yet his statements on the EU and the dogmatic manner in which he promotes atheism both point to someone who actually thinks that debate is a waste of time and that what we lesser mortals should be doing is shutting our mouths and unquestioningly accepting the wisdom of higher authorities. Which sounds rather like fundamentalism to me.
In July 2011, Campus Crusade for Christ International apologist Josh McDowell warned that the Internet poses a great threat to Christianity because:
The Internet has given atheists, agnostics, skeptics, the people who like to destroy everything that you and I believe, the almost equal access to your kids as your youth pastor and you have.
Meanwhile, from the atheist side, we find claims such as this:
Want proof that religion is dying? Look no further than the dominance of atheists on the Internet. We own this place, and it’s only matter of time before we mock faith into non-existence.
So, is the Internet really leading to an explosion of atheism and will it really sound the death knell for Christianity?
Perhaps such questions can only be adequately answered in the future, given how relatively young the Internet still is, and given the extent to which the West still dominates the Internet, in terms both of users and content. However, I’m unconvinced that the bold claims about atheism taking over thanks to the Internet ring true.
The Internet is an incredibly fast moving and relatively ephemeral ‘place’. Social networking and video websites are amongst the most used sites on the Internet and both are based largely around superficial trends and fads that come – and more importantly go – at a speed unknown a few generations ago. Twitter, for example, is one of the leading social media websites, where topics and ideas fly around at great speed, rising for a short while as ‘trending’ topics, only to quickly disappear and be replaced by some new fascination. On the Internet, news, ideas, videos, and pictures quickly go ‘viral’, but very few hang around for long. Last year saw the explosion of the ‘KONY 2012′ viral video campaign (which was endorsed by various celebrities). Its popularity led President Obama to make comments about the campaign, yet now, in 2013, it has long since ceased to be a ‘trending topic‘. Then there were the supposed Mayan prophecies of the world ending in 2012, which caused a buzz online and have now – unsurprisingly – disappeared from view. A look at Google’s top searches of 2012 likewise reveals the extent of the superficiality of popular Internet usage.
Just as the Internet moves at a very fast pace, so does the ‘real world’. A few years ago, the world seemed to be going Da Vinci Code mad. People everywhere were talking about Jesus and his supposed relationship with Mary Magdalene. Articles appeared in the press, documentaries appeared on TV, and a feature film was released. But nowadays, who’s talking about any of that? A few years after that, it seemed atheism was everywhere, with a series of books being published (such as The God Delusion and God is not great) that propelled atheism into the media spotlight and led to the claim that this was a ‘new atheism’. The media hype around ‘new atheism’ has now died down, if not died out.
Neither books nor Internet content now seem able to truly hold the attention of the masses for very long, and while the ‘new atheism’ phenomenon has arguably led to atheism having a higher profile online, much of it is of a very superficial nature. Internet atheism seems to be predominantly a trend led by young Internet users, many of whom are not so much philosophical atheists but rather nihilistic youngsters looking for a new avenue for rebellion and a new target for their love of ‘trolling’ and the spreading of Internet ‘memes’. A certain type of Internet atheist seems to love pictures featuring supposedly ‘clever’ put-downs of religion, offering deliberately reductionist explanations of the (Abrahamic) religious worldview, the claim that the Bible contains nothing but ‘fairy tales‘, weak jokes about the Resurrection being nothing more than the story of a ‘Jewish Zombie‘, and claims that religious believers are ‘stupid‘ and that religion is a ‘mental illness‘. This kind of ‘jargonising‘ offers nothing of worth to serious discussions of religion.
Leaving this kind of trivial material aside, it is of course the case that atheists have made very good use of the Internet, in terms of the vast amount of atheist and sceptical material that is now available to the curious searcher. However, one cannot help wondering what percentage of Internet users are willing to give up what spare time they have to trawling through large websites filled with long articles seeking to debunk faith. Religion may appear a minority interest in the dazzling new electronic world, but then atheism is too. There may be plenty who will be swayed to discard their faith having come across Internet atheist material, but it is arguably the case that such people were probably only nominally religious to begin with. The main demographic in the online atheist ‘convert’ community seems to be people who were brought up in some sort of fundamentalism and have now rejected that narrow faith in favour of an equally narrow and passionate atheism (or anti-theism). Such people are already very engaged in some sense with religion or religious ideas and will largely have specifically sought out atheist materials as a result. In order for atheism to truly triumph in the Internet context, it would have to grip a large proportion of people who have not actively sought it out. I’m unconvinced this is actually happening.
Arguably, if anything is triumphing on the Internet (aside from the kind of ephemeral online trends cited earlier) it is actually a kind of irrationalism which, far from being based on serious consideration of issues traditionally at the heart of philosophical discussion (the meaning of life, the existence or otherwise of God, ethics, and so on) leans instead towards conspiracy theories and a kind of ‘scepticism’ that is far from that advocated by atheists. Jonathan Kay, author of a recent book on conspiracism, has argued that the growth in Internet conspiracy theory materials has led to ‘nothing less than a rift in the fabric of consensual American reality’. Interestingly, when recounting his experiences of interviewing conspiracy believers, Kay argues that ‘they wouldn’t be doing this if they had some satisfying worldview that gave them the kind of intellectual and emotional stability they were looking for in their life’. Perhaps it is here that the Internet may actually lead to a revival of interest in Christianity. If Internet users start to desire something real, something that makes sense beyond the shifting electronic sands of the Web, something that anchors reality and truth in an age of speed and confusion, and something that brings rest from the chaotic nature of modern life, it may well be that beliefs that offer a connection between the past, the present, and the future will take on a new appeal. Atheism, in comparison, will never offer a satisfying worldview that provides the kind of intellectual and emotional stability so many crave.
For around ten years, I have written articles and blog posts from an atheist perspective. I no longer consider myself to be an atheist, and the following is my attempt at explaining this change of position. After a year away from writing, I now intend to post the occasional piece again from time to time, and this first post hopefully provides some clarity on where I’m ‘coming from’.
My background is one of a family rooted in a mild and liberal Anglicanism. I wasn’t brought up in the kind of household where religion was ‘forced’ upon me. I didn’t ‘have’ to pray, and I wasn’t made to feel inherently depraved and sinful.
At age 14, I stopped attending church. Four years later, a quest for meaning of sorts began. Having watched a documentary on the racist ‘Christian Identity’ movement, I looked into some of its writings online. These texts were filled with biblical quotations used to ‘validate’ the CI theology and I picked up a Bible and started to check these texts in an attempt at looking at them in their proper context. I was instantly absolutely captivated by the Bible. I had never read the Bible properly before and, while I was of course familiar with a few of its passages and stories from church services, I was now seeing it in a completely different way. I found the book hugely exciting and in time I became an evangelical Christian. I was not ‘converted’ by anyone, but rather came to faith through my own reading of the Bible.
Through browsing in my local library, I became fascinated by religion and philosophy in general. I began a journey which involved lots and lots of reading, and sending off for numerous books and pamphlets from groups as diverse as hardline Christian fundamentalist sects, messianic Jews, Unitarians, Deists, Bahá’ís, Rosicrucians, ‘Sacred Name’ groups, John Todd Ferrier’s ‘Order of the Cross’, Theosophists, Gnostics, neo-Pagans, and so on. This collection of religious literature would later be joined by Catholic Truth Society books and a large collection of Islamic materials. I also started to read theological books, biblical studies, and historical Jesus studies. In time, my simplistic evangelicalism morphed into a less literalist and more thoughtful faith, and I decided to study Theology & Religious Studies at university.
Overall, I greatly enjoyed my degree. I loved all the reading, the class debates, and the exploring of ideas. In my final year, things started to go downhill somewhat, not academically, as I ended up with a First, but rather in terms of the direction my reading was going. I started to read a lot of so-called ‘radical theology’ and ‘postmodern theology’. Initially, I found these obscure, difficult texts, filled with a dazzling array of neologisms and technical terms, very engaging. Gradually, however, I began to see their inner emptiness. This was not religious material, it would not inspire action and it all too clearly was ‘academic’ in the worst possible sense. For an example of what I’m talking about, consider the following typical passage from the late Charles E. Winquist’s book Desiring Theology:
Theology belongs to the population of all discursive practices. It remains text production. There is no special privilege to its discursive formations that comes from outside of the text production. The theological exigencies inscribed within its texts are effects of the metonymical placing of extreme formulations throughout the texts. The efficacy of these formulations is in their pressure upon ordinary usage and reference. The pressure of figurations of ultimacy on the pragmatics of discourse is a transvaluation of the ordinary… Theological texts explicitly express their internal undecidability. In this sense, theological texts introduce an incommensurability into discursive practices that is an internal trace of the other.
Immersed as I was in this material, I felt increasingly dislocated from faith as a lived experience and more and more bogged down in a world of academic obscurantism. I no longer attended church, had little or no connection with any kind of religious belief or practice, and eventually became weary of not only academic theology but of all thinking of God. After my degree was over, I left theology behind and decided to further explore instead the critical and cultural theory the postmodern theologians were working with (or arguably misrepresenting). Sadly, in doing this, I inflicted upon myself the experience of reading piles of barely coherent, jargon-filled academic waffle, which I concluded fairly early on was devoid of any genuine meaning or purpose. I descended into a great period of depression and was overcome by a sense of emptiness, darkness, and meaninglessness. Unlike those who might be accused of using religion as a ‘crutch’ in such circumstances, I didn’t return to faith. In fact, in the period after I finished my MA, put academia behind me and got a proper job working with the elderly, I gained a new, wholly negative connection to religion and religious texts. As a result, I spent much of the past decade writing atheist articles which attempted to undermine the possibility of faith, the relevance of the Bible, the reality of God, and so on.
Looking back on it now, I can see a clear and deliberate pattern emerging, and a ‘tactic’ of sorts in use that I now consider to have been part of a subconscious effort to finally bury any connection I once had, or could ever have again, with belief. It seems to me now that, over my period of atheist writing, I was engaging in a systematic process of tearing down each aspect of faith one by one (the possibility of God, the relevance of Jesus, the relevance of the Bible, the value of faith, the possibility of a thinking faith, the possibility of engaging in theological thought and writing, the positive contributions of religion) in order that I could finally and ‘logically’ satisfy myself that the only rationally justifiable course of action was a wholesale repudiation of God and religion. Essentially, then, I would now argue that the attractiveness of atheism for me lay most clearly in the fact that, for me, embracing atheism offered a quick escape route from thinking too deeply. Weary as I was after four years of academic work, there was a strange sort of comfort to be found in arguing that all the big questions I had been looking at previously were ultimately meaningless and that there is consequently no need to investigate any further. On a certain level, there was a mirror here with the simplistic faith I first embraced in my late teens. The world is a simpler place and life is less challenging if you can satisfy yourself that you have all the answers and that the quest for meaning is complete. Both religious fundamentalism and atheism can provide that same certainty and a sense of being ‘at peace’ in a world in which truth is immediately self-evident and the need for debate is over, although I would now argue that any sense of being at peace in atheism was ultimately illusory and unsatisfactory.
With time away from writing and a period spent getting on with life itself, working hard, getting married, and making a home, certain interests and thoughts have come back to haunt me, although I feel they were always haunting me even in my time advocating atheism and attacking religion as wholly outdated, irrelevant, and so on. I have come to the realisation that, try as a might, I simply cannot shake the questions of meaning and the draw that faith continues to have on me. Am I really an atheist? Was I ever truly an atheist? The claim that atheists don’t really mean what they say or are deluding themselves is a smug and intellectually lazy way to answer atheism. There are many genuine atheists out there, but I’ve come to realise that I’m not one. I fear (on a certain level) that my atheism was always at heart a process of iconoclasm and a type of negative theology. As I say, for many, atheism is exactly what it appears to be, yet in my case I continued to channel my ongoing fascination with Christianity, my ‘obsession’ with the Bible (as one of my university lecturers called it), and my desire to engage with questions of belief and so on through a process of negation. I attacked the notion of God and offered strong critiques of biblical texts, yet in doing this I was able to maintain a connection, albeit a negative one, with those very things. For an atheist, I certainly filled a large amount of my time with talking about God and Jesus and reading the Bible. Now, again, there are atheists who do just that, and for entirely atheistic reasons, but I can simply no longer fool myself that this was all that I was up to.
On a certain level, I’m deeply frustrated. Many atheists or agnostics I have come across who are not intrinsically hostile to religion often say, “I wish I could believe in God, but I can’t.” I’m not one of those. I explicitly and definitely did not want to believe in God. Instead, I wanted to be rid of God, to purge myself of every last trace of what Nietzsche called the ‘theologian instinct’. Yet, somewhat to my surprise, I found that I have ultimately failed. I thought I had succeeded, but I was fooling myself. I continue to hear a knocking at the door, a knocking I have sought to silence, to deny exists, to muffle and drown out. I can no longer ignore that knocking, much as a part of me strongly wishes to do so. I am forced, for the first time in a decade, to confront the fact that I am not an atheist, but I am rather a believer in deep denial, or perhaps more accurately a believer who has been engaging in a heavily disguised kind of apophasis, and a believer whose attacks on the Bible are actually part of a quest not to destroy it, but rather to re-examine and re-think it. Frustration and disappointment are, of course, not all that I feel, otherwise I would be little more than a failed believer stuck in a state of melancholia. In reality, those frustrations and disappointments are nothing more than the result of a process of working through and rejecting the false comforts of a narrow and simplistic world view, and those feelings of frustration are even now giving way to a new sense of excitement and purpose, and new hope for the future.