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Thursday, November 22, 2012

12-Step Program for Theists

12 Steps from Theism to Atheism

Supernatural faith is inherently problematic. The idea that faith is virtuous--irrespective of the particular articles of faith--is absurd. If we accept that unconditional faith is inherently virtuous, the non-believer is indifferent to its virtue. Even a personal affirmation of virtue rooted in faith implies that faith is inherently virtuous. Empathy is a fundamental human quality and the true foundation of ethics. Virtue linked to faith is often arbitrary and contrary to moral intuition. Faith is virtuous when attached to a virtuous principle. Faith attached to an extraordinary truth claim in the absence of evidence is credulity. Allegiance compelled by value judgments is indoctrination. 

The mystically dependent need your help and understanding. Here is a 12-step program to guide them away from their irrational belief in the supernatural. It is not a unitary linear path. It consists of 4 paths that converge and diverge at several points. Multiple stable identities reflect a confluence of pathsThe steps are ordered such that each step represents the minimal incremental distance from religious orthodoxy to non-belief.


Step 1. Reject sectarianism (The Argument from Interfaith)

The Interfaith community welcomes all faiths, but religious fundamentalists are unlikely to treat their sectarian differences as mere heritage independent of doctrineWhether or not religious moderates participate in the Interfaith community, they are the target constituency of the Interfaith movement. The social path requires no deep thinking about one's beliefs. In fact, belief only survives because believers have been conditioned to regard faith itself as virtuous, irrespective of the particulars. Believers eager to retain their faith avoid contemplating the contradictions and leave cognitive dissonance unresolved. The term "Interfaith" suggests a partial attempt at inclusion that stops short of revoking the pariah status of atheists. 

Step 2. Reject nepotism (The Argument from Universalism)

The Universalists referenced here are religious moderates who embrace non-sectarian affiliations. Their beliefs are nebulous out of necessity in order to encompass the broadest constituency of heritage faiths. If Universalists reject the idea that the gods favor any particular sect, it follows that the gods do not favor believers over non-believers. It also follows, then, that prayer is a nepotism fantasy. Prayer on behalf of a particular community invokes sectarian nepotism, which Universalism is compelled to reject. Prayer on behalf of a particular believer invokes both nepotism and narcissism.  Here is a point where the epistemic begins to challenge the social.

Step 3. Reject coercion (The Argument from Secularism)

Secularists may be people of faith or non-believers, as long as they understand that compulsory submission to alien religious practices is inherently coercive. Secularism is socially neutral becauseall faith is alien to the Atheist as well as to believers of other faiths. In Secularism, the social underlies the political. No epistemic shift away from Theism is required. Secularism is not democratic because it favors no particular sect--not even a socially dominant one. It is the social application of atheism--civic life ordered as if we were all non-believers. Non-belief is not absolutely required.


Step 4. Reject narcissism (The Argument from Rationalism)

As seen in Step 2, prayer for personal gain invokes nepotism and betrays a believer's narcissism. Narcissism also seems to drive the need to believe in immortality. Anthropomorphic god-concepts also betray an underlying narcissism. Most religious moderates reject an anthropomorphic god in favor of an incorporeal or impersonal force. What is not clear is how an incorporeal being is real in any meaningful way. An incorporeal sentient being--if such a being were possible--would have no means of acting on the natural word. An impersonal force--like gravity--has no neurological mechanism of consciousness or willA Rationalist concludes that God is a metaphor. The question remains whether the metaphor is powerful enough to sustain a relationship with a faith community.

Step 5. Reject certainty (The Argument from Agnosticism)

An agnostic rejects certainty. The fact that there are agnostics in faith communities demonstrates a convergence of the social and the epistemic paths. An Agnostic who observes that certainty licences atrocity is also an Antitheist, representing a convergence of the epistemic and the political. An agnostic concedes that The Unknowable is unknowable--which is trivial but true. The Agnostic may choose to identify as such, understanding full well that supernatural claims rely entirely on magic and that the burden of proof lies with the believer. A stable Agnostic identity can reflect a desire to foreground the epistemic.

Step 6. Reject revelation (The Argument from Freethought)

A Freethinker rejects not only theism, but all claims of supernaturally revealed knowledge. For a Freethinker, the very notion of the sacred is a transparent attempt to discredit dissenting ideas. No claims--however deeply revered--are exempt from critical scrutiny. Compulsory reverence for alien taboos is an insincere form of submission. In Freethought, the epistemic path converges with the social in Secularism and with the political in Atheism.


Step 7. Reject dualism (The Argument from Naturalism)

Naturalism rejects the supernatural on the understanding that the laws of nature are immutable. If there were exceptions, the laws of nature would need to be revised. Skepticism rejects gods not only for the lack of evidence, but also because supernatural claims typically have implications about the natural world. Living organisms that act on the natural world are corporeal and mortal. Sentient beings possess the neurological mechanisms of consciousness, which emerge as a function of evolved complexity. Gravity is an eternal, impersonal force that acts on the physical world, but it is not sentient. Disembodied consciousness--and therefore immortality--is impossible.

Step 8. Reject prophesy (The Argument from Empiricism)

Empiricism follows from Naturalism. If everything has a natural explanation, prophesy must eventually yield to discovery. Science has replaced prophecy as the authoritative source of knowledge on the origin and nature of the material world. Prophesy is rife with contradiction and resistant to innovation. Science, on the other hand, is successful only under scrutiny.

Step 9. Reject miracles (The Argument from Skepticism)

Skepticism is evidenciary atheism. It both underlies and encompasses Naturalism and Empiricism. Skepticism is the doubt that demands empirical evidence for improbable claims. It rejects the supernatural for lack of evidence commensurate with its extraordinary claims. There is no evidence of a creation miracle, but there is evidence of a self-generated, mechanical universe independent of any mysterious agents.


Step 10. Reject faith (The Argument from Atheism)

In the three paths described above, all roads lead to a form of Atheism. On the political path, Atheism is the point of departure because it bifurcates into political and apolitical atheism. The political Atheist is a vigilant Secularist whose cause is broader than equal protection under the law. Underlying Atheism's political struggle is a social struggle against theonormativity

Step 11. Reject fatalism (The Argument from Humanism)

If all roads lead to atheism, Humanism goes its own way from there. Humanism not only rejects Theism but also objects to its paralyzing effect on humanity. As we only have this life and each other, Humanism urges us to actively engage in social activism. While religious Rationalists may enjoy the sense of community they derive from their heritage, Humanists object to the obscurantism that allows religion to evade legitimate criticism. More than a mere rejection of Theism, Humanism is a call for intellectual honesty in discussions of faith and identity. 

Step 12. Reject piety (The Argument from Antitheism)

Like Humanism, Antitheism is departure from mere Atheism. Antitheism is not so different from Humanism in its philosophy as in its intensity. Both reject fatalism and piety. The difference between the two might be understood in terms of which is better characterized by a rejection of fatalism and which by a rejection of piety. Humanism's emphasis on social action argues for the rejection of fatalism as a defining feature. Humanism's objection to obscurantism is an unambiguous rejection of piety, but Antitheists might be said to reject piety with a bit more relish.


Religious and secular identities overlap along most of the path from Theism to Atheism. A religious moderate may be a Rationalist socially but a Skeptic in relation to evidence. The religious Rationalist is not a Freethinker because religious heritage has replaced faith as the object of unconditional allegiance. The religious Rationalist is not a Humanist because Humanism rejects obscurantist religious affiliations. The religious Rationalist is not an Antitheist because Antitheism rejects false piety. 

There may be more hope for Interfaith cooperation with Humanists than with other groups of non-believers because Humanist value social action and because Secular Humanism-known simply as Humanism--is mistakenly conflated with obscurantist religious humanism, such as Humanistic Judaism and Christian HumanismWhile there may be non-believers in faith communities, non-believers without religious affiliations would have to compromise their identities to cooperate on social action under the Interfaith umbrella. Cooperation between self-identified Interfaith and Secular groups may be more realistic than cooperation under the Interfaith umbrella, at least as long as Interfaith remains so named.

Cooperation doesn't require that we change our opinions of one another, but real respect will never come from polite silence. We do believers no favors by allowing their debilitating delusions to go unchallenged. Identity, however, is an unreliable indicator of belief. Sometimes the difference between a person who identifies as religious and a person who doesn't is a question of obscurantism, not supernatural belief. Charting a trajectory from belief to non-belief may help to clarify the commonalities as well as the conflicts.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

I Know You Are, But What Am I?

What's the difference between science and postmodernism? One is authoritarian, doctrinaire and esoteric, and the other is science. Political atheists have philosophical adversaries who are not theists. Obviously apolitical atheists are indifferent to the political implications of atheism, but I'm referring to postmodernists. Arguing with a postmodernist is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. A theist will reject reason because they consider faith morally superior. A postmodernist will reject reason because they regard it as cold, impersonal and dogmatic. Refuting postmodernist objections to reason calls for a rhetorical arsenal altogether different from the one that exposes the folly of theism.

The problem with arguing against reason is that it is a psychologically untenable position. We all proceed through life trusting our senses. From a neuro-psychological perspective, there is good reason to be humble about our perceptions. There are certain biases that render our senses unreliable. In that regard, each person constructs a subjective reality. There are even biological limitations on what particular senses evolution has bestowed on each species and what range of sensory data can be perceived.

When we say that reality is constructed, however, this does not mean that there is no objective reality. The question is whether we can know it. If a tree falls in a forest and nobody is around to experience the event, the tree has still fallen. Denying objective reality may be fun to contemplate but anyone who claims to trust such a fantasy is being disingenuous. Our biases may work against objectivity, but it does not follow that there is no objective reality independent of our experience. Our experience of reality is indeed constructed, but not in a vacuum. Scientists can be biased, but there are professional controls to keep bias in check. Biased science is arguably not science at all, but a perversion of science. It fails to live up to the standard of objectivity that defines science.

I once found myself in the bizarre position of arguing with a Postmodernist that science is not a religion. The argument was that science has set itself up as the only legitimate way of knowing the world. I argued that we are all scientists and the world is a science lab. We hypothesize and experiment on a daily basis. The scientist just documents the results with professional rigor. The nature of phenomena determines which mode of inquiry is most suitable to describe them. The hierarchy of inquiry with science at the apex is a phantom. 

In another trip down the rabbit-hole, I found myself arguing with another Postmodernist that the Enlightenment was not a form of colonialism. We hear this a lot in the discussions about tolerance toward Islam. The fact that the Enlightenment occurred in Europe and that Islam is particularly resistant to its influence does not mean that it was not a desirable and necessary response to theocracy. Islamic apostates are imploring the defenders of the Enlightenment not to coddle Islam with cultural relativism.

Going deeper still down the rabbit-hole, I was compelled to defend the social sciences against charges of general misapplication of the research paradigms of the natural sciences. Apparently, this is evidence of the phantom hierarchy of inquiry and of the aspirations of the social sciences to data-crunch their way to the top. My defense was that there is nothing wrong with using statistical models to lend authority to one's observations, as long as the researcher is open about the limitations of the study and the conclusions follow from the data.

What this postmodernist failed to recognize is that arguments in the physical and social sciences are constructed according to the same rules of logic that apply in the humanities, and that data is never an adequate substitute for a well-constructed argument. The generalization about the social sciences, for example, would have more authority if supported by a meta-analysis that made a case-by-case judgment on the appropriateness of measures in a representative sample of research studies. 

My favorite postmodernist argument is that science is a religion, an argument also invoked by theists. To avoid straw-man arguments, it is important to remember that religion doesn't mean the same thing to all people. The case that science is a religion, however, can tell us a lot about what we all understand to be the essential nature of religion. If you want know what people really think of religion but dare not say, ask them to elaborate when they say that atheism is a religion. Do they mean that it is doctrinaire? Authoritarian? Mindless?

Postmodernism, like religion, settles for explanations that reject reason. The difference is that theist's reality is largely constructed of superstition. Our experience of reality is, in fact, constructed from sensory data filtered through biases. Subjective reality is, at best, an indirect representation of an independent objective reality. Reason is a noble aspiration by which we endeavor to overcome our biases, to whatever extent that we can, in order to to steal glimpses of objective reality.

Glimpses of objective reality, when pieced together, have told us that the earth is round and orbits the sun, that germs cause infection, that mental illness is biochemical, that all life on earth is genetically related and that we are all composed of elements found in the farthest reaches of the known universe. These are objective facts that have displaced the supernatural explanations that proceeded them. It would be unreasonable to dispense with our accumulated knowledge and revert to superstition.