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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ontology Matters

Having extracted 13 recurring heresies from Doubt: A History by Jennifer Hecht (2004), I found that many of these heresies overlapped with each other. The idea that immortality is an empty promise, for example, follows from the skeptical argument that the incorporeal is immaterial. Similarly, empiricism, naturalism and skepticism follow from rationalism.I found that these thirteen core heresies collapsed minimally into the four fundamental arguments against the existence of the gods

Compulsory faith was not always essential to religion. It was a reaction to skepticism and secularism. Pre-Socratic rationalism was the forerunner of Greek skepticism and secularism. Humanism and freethought were formalized much later as movements, but they too follow from rationalism--and more immediately from skepticism and secularism. On further examination, I noticed that each of the modern freethought movements foregrounds one of the ontological arguments according to its primary values.

 Reasonable Non-Belief
 Inquiry trumps faith.
 Lack of Empirical Evidence
 Discovery trumps revelation.
 Inconsistent Revelations
 Reason trumps custom.
 The Argument from Evil
 Autonomy trumps piety.

Daniel Dennett's observation that there has been no significant advance in the arguments for or against the existence of gods seems self-evident, but I wanted to examine the evidence for myself and speak from my own analysis. I found his judgment to be amply supported, but also found the examination of the evidence more than sufficient reward for my efforts. It is remarkable to discover firsthand that the ancients came to rational conclusions that so many theists still reject. More remarkable still is the ancients attained their insights without the benefit of modern scientific measurements.

Reasonable Non-Belief consists of the core premise that the burden of proof is on religion and any number of examples of absurd propositions--like Russell's famous teapot or the flying Spaghetti Monster--that we do not take on faith. Faith ultimately depends on special pleading, an alien notion of the sacred to which the freethinker refuses to be bound.

The argument from Lack of Empirical Evidence is not compelling to believers who have imagined a god that exists in a dimension beyond empirical proof.  The skeptic understands that the God Hypothesis--while beyond the reach of empirical evidence--does not stand to reason.

The faithful are diligent cherry-pickers. Their argument confirmation bias insulates their faith from the argument from Inconsistent Revelations. Religious revelations are inconsistent both internally and externally. There is neither consistency among nor within them. For the secularist competing religious claims cannot present a coherent world view or reliable guide for civic law or personal ethics.

The Epicurean trilemma is practically synonymous with the argument from evil. Humanism represents autonomy from  mythical gods that--as Epicurus noted--have been imagined as capricious despots with telltale human passions and limitations.

My purpose here is to provide a representative, economical presentation of the four ontological arguments. My analysis represents the the continuity of thought that led Dennett to conclude that innovation in the ontological arguments on either side was unlikely.

I found in my analysis an intellectual trajectory of thought as well as a connection to our common values as freethinkers, skeptics, secularists and humanists. We value inquiry, discovery, reason and autonomy over faith, revelation, custom and piety. I also found a reverence for ancient wisdom without the insistence on transcendent meaning and a consistent vision of the material world that reveals itself to those who actively pursue discovery, unencumbered by biases imposed by faith.

Perhaps most importantly, my analysis reinforced my commitment to help others break free of the intellectual, emotional and moral bondage of religion. Although it can be tedious to repeat our time-worn arguments in the atheist echo-chamber, the resolve we acquire from the affirmation and refinement of our arguments is invaluable. Anti-theism fails as an ontological argument because it is an appeal to emotion. The truth claims made by religion cannot be dismissed merely because religion is harmful.

Without the understanding that there are no gods, we can hardly be expected to commit ourselves to secularism any more enthusiastically than religious moderates who support religious pluralism. These reluctant allies cling to revelation in principle--as it pertains to their own faiths--while acting on the reality that inconsistent revelations make secularism necessary. Both anti-theism and secularism derive their authority from the ontological case against the gods.

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