News: Seminar Feb 2011 Melbourne – alternatives to dogmatic atheism

Hegel Summer School 2011:

The New Atheism: Just another Dogma?

Saturday, February 12th 2011

Oases/Borderlands, 2 Minona Street, Hawthorn

10.00 – 5.00, followed by drinks
This year’s speakers and topics are:

Tamas Pataki: „The New Atheism: Just Another Dogma?“

Cameron Shingleton: „Overkill: Richard Dawkins and The Limits of Pop-Scientific Atheism“

Petra Brown: „Messianic Atheism: Giving the Golden Calf a Good Roasting“

Stephen Stuart: „Dangerous beliefs: Zealotry, Wisdom and Public Health“

The „new Atheists“, notably Christopher Hitchins and Richard Dawkins, have been getting a lot of media time, setting up a choice between narrow-minded and dogmatic atheism versus religious faith. This is a false dichotomy. Belief in God is consistent with a perfectly rational materialism, just as not believing in God does not necessarily imply a dogmatic assertion of the non-existence of God.

Our four speakers explore non-Deist alternatives to the dogmatic brand of Atheism now being promoted and expose the questionable foundations of the New Atheists. The need for a third way, over and above religious tolerance is important if a genuinely humanist way of life is to be possible in modern conditions.

For more detail and further program and abstract updates go to:

http://ethicalpolitics.org/seminars/hss2011.htm

The Hegel Summer School invites you to a day of fruitful philosophical discussion in a collegial environment. The cost will normally be AUD 30 but we can offer a concession rate of AUD 20. Lunch and tea/coffee included.
Please pay in cash on the day and RSVP (including your dietary requirements) by COB on Tuesday, 8th of February 2011 to Lea Campbell on Lea.Campbell@gmx.net

Comment: Atheism & Secular Religions

In practice atheism is the rejection of the belief in society’s dominant form of god or gods. This could be strong (rejection) or weak (disbelief). Even early Christians were accused of atheism for rejecting the gods of Rome and Socrates for rejecting the gods of Athens. For most Western atheists today it is rejecting some form of Christian theism.

Many atheists go further. They extend the rejection to all supernatural or immaterial claims of ghosts, saints, afterlives, out-of-body-experiences, and miracles. This rejection approaches the world-view of naturalism, where all human experiences are seen as coming from strictly physical causes, causes as identified by the empirically-based sciences. So atheism itself is a relatively narrow ontological claim, a claim of no god or gods. It is not  that of a comprehensive world-view like naturalism or most religious traditions. Whether or not atheists support naturalism, I would like to think that they embrace the ideals of scientific enquiry. Moderate scepticism, open questioning, fair-minded analysis, and willingness to forgo previous beliefs in light of new experiences are worthwhile aims for any intellectual enquiry.

Most atheists would see religious beliefs and practices as supporting and promoting deluded supernatural claims. Membership in religious communities may offer social benefits, but they are founded on deluded claims, wishful beliefs ahead of rational thought. However the secular versions of religions, such as secular Buddhism and secular Judaism, create dilemmas for atheist and believers alike. How can someone be an atheist religionist?

The on-line atheist forum, Atheist Nexus, has been buzzing with discussion on the status of secular Buddhists. As Buddhists, they have typically have no Jewish-, Christian-, or Islamic-style personal God. The secular versions reject reincarnation and limit Karma to the everyday Western understanding of this life only. A supporter of secular Buddhism claimed that the Atheist Foundation of Australia had unreasonably extended its definition of atheism (beyond those commonly accepted) to exclude the secular versions of religions. He argued that atheism should be restricted to the original etymology of atheism, without (‘a’) god (‘theism’). This is interesting but is not necessarily a valid argument for today’s usage, the so-called etymological fallacy. A secular Buddhist or a secular Jew therefore would have just as much right to ascribe to atheism as any non-religious person. So does an active membership in any religious community automatically preclude someone from being an atheist?

Most religious practices involve worship. Buddhists, secular or otherwise, come close to worshipping Buddha. Atheists usually would not revere Darwin, Bacon, or Dawkins in the same way, admire yes but worship no. Worship, a common feature of most religions, (1. To honor and love as a deity; 2. To regard with ardent or adoring esteem or devotion, according to http://www.thefreedictionary.com/worship) seems something as an antithesis to atheism, and something that probably does preclude active secular religious people from, at least, a commonly-held broad sense of atheism.

Alex McCullie

Book recommendation: Philosophers without Gods

Excepts of description from Amazon. This is a highly recommended collection of essays.

Philosophers without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life [Hardcover]
Louise M. Antony (Editor)

Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (August 8, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0195173074
ISBN-13: 978-0195173079
Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.1 x 1.5 inches
Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds

Review

“The authors answer, forcefully and intelligently, the standard arguments against atheism.”–V.V. Raman, CHOICE
“This Atheists R Us compilation differs markedly in tone from Hitchens and Dawkins. Excellent fare for Christian small groups whose members are genuinely interested in the arguments raised by atheists.”–Christianity Today
“Rather than the foolishness of Dawkins or Hitchens, these [essays] are compelling and sophisticated arguments that religious people ought to confront….”–Tikkun
“This collection strikes me as an excellent example of how comprehensible philosophical writing can be at its best. By and large, the essays are written in a clear and direct style, free of philosophical jargon. many who read it will find themselves also engaged at a level that is not merely academic.”–George I. Mavrodes, Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews
“Taken as a group, these readable, personal, and provocative essays make it clear that there are many kinds of non-believers, and even many different elements that make up a single skeptical outlook. Contrary to the popular image, atheism isn’t all rebellious trumpets and defiant drums. That part of the orchestra is essential, but here we have all the varieties of unreligious experience, a full symphony of unbelief.” –Free Inquiry

Product Description
Atheists are frequently demonized as arrogant intellectuals, antagonistic to religion, devoid of moral sentiments, advocates of an “anything goes” lifestyle. Now, in this revealing volume, nineteen leading philosophers open a window on the inner life of atheism, shattering these common stereotypes as they reveal how they came to turn away from religious belief.
These highly engaging personal essays capture the marvelous diversity to be found among atheists, providing a portrait that will surprise most readers. Many of the authors, for example, express great affection for particular religious traditions, even as they explain why they cannot, in good conscience, embrace them. None of the contributors dismiss religious belief as stupid or primitive, and several even express regret that they cannot, or can no longer, believe. Perhaps more important, in these reflective pieces, they offer fresh insight into some of the oldest and most difficult problems facing the human mind and spirit. For instance, if God is dead, is everything permitted? Philosophers Without Gods demonstrates convincingly, with arguments that date back to Plato, that morality is independent of the existence of God. Indeed, every writer in this volume adamantly affirms the objectivity of right and wrong. Moreover, they contend that secular life can provide rewards as great and as rich as religious life. A naturalistic understanding of the human condition presents a set of challenges–to pursue our goals without illusions, to act morally without hope of reward–challenges that can impart a lasting value to finite and fragile human lives.
Collectively, these essays highlight the richness of atheistic belief–not only as a valid alternative to religion, but as a profoundly fulfilling and moral way of life.

Talk: Naturalism as a viable world-view (Part one)

pdf: text of Naturalism talk (right-click to save)

Introduction

Over the last three years, I have conducted courses on Atheism and Agnosticism at the Council of Adult Education in Melbourne within the Lifestyles department. Given the diversity of participants, we would spend the first night clarifying the usage of both terms, a controversial discussion even within Atheist communities.

We typically would reduce atheism to the usual ‘disbelief or rejection of the god’ of society. In past times, that meant accusing Socrates of atheism for not believing in the gods of Athens and, even, early Christians for rejecting the gods of Rome. For us, it usually refers to the Christian god as the dominant form of worship. So atheism is a statement about our claims about reality or Metaphysics in philosophical terms.

Most saw agnosticism as a gentle form of atheism, the sort of atheism that can be declared in polite company. This is a far-cry from Thomas Huxley’s coining of the word in the 1860s to curtail any claims of certainty about rejecting god. ‘God is inherently un-knowable’ is closer to his conception of agnosticism. Again in philosophical terms, it is an epistemological claim, one about the nature of knowledge.

So, atheism and agnosticism are dealing with only limited aspects of our perspectives of the world. Therefore, neither of the concepts is an opposite of Christianity, which makes many more claims about the nature of reality and ourselves, and even on how we should behave. Enter Naturalism. Unlike atheism, Naturalism seeks to address a broader range of significant issues about life rather than be restricted to the existence or non-existence of god.

World-views

Before speaking specifically about Naturalism, let me introduce a useful way of discussing and comparing different perspectives, the world-view, a literal translation of the German Weltanshauung. Not surprisingly different writers interpret the concept in different ways. For me, world-view is an intellectual framing of our experiences, including our intuitions, perceptions, ideas, and beliefs about ourselves in the world. While acknowledging that deeply held emotions underlie our reactions to the world, I see that verbalising a perspective as a world-view makes it an intellectual process at rationalisation, similar to retelling of a dream. So a world-view provides a person and his or her community with a verbal tool set to describe, interpret, and explain experiences, emotions, and thoughts and in many cases to prescribe appropriate behaviours to be consistent with that world-view.

I would like to mention two risks when analysing world-views. I am drawing from ‘A New Science of Morality’, a talk[1] given by Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology at University of Virginia, at a recent Edge seminar. Firstly, we need to be aware of being WEIRDs, people from Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic societies. We are a minority in the world and need to be careful not to see ourselves as the norm. Secondly, we need to be aware that human reasoning evolved to win arguments and not to pursue the truth. Using reason to justify our actions and beliefs leads to the well-known confirmation bias.

An example of misunderstandings from seeing things as a WEIRD is our concept of self. We emphasise the individual – personal rights, personal goals, and personal ownership. When doing historical research or examining other societies, we bring an individualistic sense of self with us. However many communities interpret ‘self’ in a vastly different way, as a collective self of group identity. Jesus scholars regularly face this problem with their studies of first century Middle-Eastern societies. According to Bruce Malina[2], ‘Who do people [others] say that I am?‘ was and is a commonly thought of question, though rarely asked. In collectivist communities people see themselves as defined by the opinions of significant others.[3] This is something similar to the behaviourist quip: ‘You seem okay. How am I?’

I should mention that many writers even dispute the concept of world-view, as it implies some sort of consistency of our intuitions, beliefs, and ideas. It may be more accurate to characterise our verbalisations about life as trying to normalise a changing, contradictory, patchy, and often inaccessible ‘mishmash’ of emotions and thoughts. Simple honest reflections of our attitudes seem to confirm these concerns.

Despite this caveat, the concept of world-view provides a useful way of talking about fundamental perspectives and, particularly, for contrasting religious with non-religious ones. We need to remember that in reality a person’s perspective is based on deeply held beliefs or assumptions developed from his or her familial and cultural backgrounds. So someone growing up in an Islamic tradition, especially if educated in a Madrassa, will hold a perspective dominated by an Islamic world-view. He or she may later question aspects of that view although it is hard to imagine any fundamental change. Similarly, my view developed in a very secular household where religious practices were seen as cultural artefacts. Christian concepts like God, Christ, and The Trinity hold little real meaning for me and are empty of feelings. In summary, my approach is to see a world-view as an intellectual rationalisation of our attitudes and a way of enabling discussion and some possible change

Perhaps more controversially, each world-view is underpinned by foundational beliefs or truth claims that, I suggest, we are unable to prove or disprove. Within a world-view itself the language tool-sets are built from those very assumptions, which cannot be then used to verify them. Similarly, the tool-sets of other world-views are based on different sets of assumptions and are again problematic for challenging the assumptions of others, in any independent way. None of us have a god’s eye view. Or as Albert Einstein once put it, ‘Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.‘ So is the only alternative a Post-modernist ‘free-for-all’, where all world-views are of equal value? No, I believe there are ways of comparing the efficacy of world-views, but more on that later.

What are those fundamental questions? We even have to be careful about what questions we pose, as questions themselves include and exclude issues. Framing the question controls the nature of the dialogue.[4]

So, not surprisingly, Evangelical Christian world-views always include questions about a personal-style god, which would be meaningless to those from many Eastern religions without personal gods. So here are some questions:

  1. What is our reality and what does our ‘world’ consist of? (Metaphysics)
    Possibly where has it come from and where is it going to?
    What am I and what is my position in the world?
  2. How do I know? How can I know truth? What is knowledge and truth? (Epistemology)
  3. Why do I behave as I do? How should I behave? (Ethics)
  4. And, possibly more specific questions like: what is the nature of history? (events linked for causes and effects only or linked by some grand narrative – reoccurring cycles, pre-Christian or linear progress to a greater goal, Christian)?

Unfortunately the term world-view has been usurped by Christian writers. Just check the Internet or books at the Amazon site. So these writers’ categorise world-views in Christian’s terms with the underlying questions being Christian questions, such as ‘Is there a personal God?’ Then the assessments are from an Evangelical Christian perspective. For example, The Universe Next Door[5] by James W. Sire presents a catalogue such as Naturalism, Christianity, Existentialism, Nihilism, Post-modernism, and so on with the Christian world-view being shown to be more comprehensive and fulfilling. No surprises there.

Previously I mentioned a possibility of comparing world-views, even though we are inevitably within our own view. We can consider three aspects:

  • Coherence or internal consistency (internal conflicts of explanation?) Are there some parts of the world-view that is inconsistent with other aspects? Often these differences are rejected by supporters or patched over by apologetic arguments.
    Note: internal consistency is often an adequate measure of truth for post-modernists.
  • Correspondence to experience (explanatory powerful?) How well does the world-view account for the range of our experiences? Of course, the confirmation bias haunts any analysis about explanatory power. Does a materialist view of the human being provide explanations that meet our needs? Does a loving, all-powerful God reconcile with the death of a young baby?
  • Comprehensiveness (any gaps?). Here atheism or theism falls short of a comprehensive world-view. Science may similarly do so.

Every world-view has short-comings. For example, the ‘Problem of evil’ – presence of gratuitous suffering with an all-powerful, all-loving god – presents an Achilles’ heel for an Evangelical Christian world-view. Reconciling our inner-world of consciousness with a strictly materialistic view of the world is perhaps another one.


[1]    URL: http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/morality10/morality10_index.html

[2]    Bruce Malina, “Understanding New Testament Persons”, ed. Richard L. Rohrbaugh, The Social Sciences and New Testament Interpretation (Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 44.

[3]    Malina emphasises that (1) self was interpreted by a group understanding; (2) there was little sense of self-reflection, no associated concept of internal psychological processing; (3) complete separation of sexes with vastly different roles and responsibilities; (4) personality characteristics were seen as expressed behavioural terms only e.g. knowing a women is have had sexual intercourse with her; (5) physical characteristics and deformities were signs of permanent personal qualities.

[4]    Susan Johnston audio lecture Religion, Myth & Magic http://www.audible.com/pd?asin=B0031UCWWA
…religion is a system of beliefs and behaviors that formulates and answers questions that are important, recurrent, and must be answered.      (Page 8 for accompanying guide)

[5]    Sire James M., The Universe Next Door: A Basic Worldview Catalog, 5th Edn. (Nottingham: Intervarsity Press, 2009)

Comment: Atheism and Losing God

At the conclusion of my atheism course I was challenged by one attendee to respond to the loss of the fundamentals of religious faith, those common aspirations that sit beneath all rituals and texts of religions. He and others saw comfort and hope being fundamental to religious offerings.
 
Our everyday experience can be frightening with its apparent pointlessness – contingent nature of our existence, daily routine work, familial deaths, regular disappointments, and relationship heartaches. Even Plato, some 2,500 years ago and prior to Christianity, sought to imagine something eternal and perfect, separate from the transitory existence of our world and our lives. He saw extant physical things as imperfect and transitory copies of eternal templates or forms: all trees are imperfect copies of the ideal perfect tree. Augustine of Hippo, many years later, christianised this thinking with us as imperfect and fallen copies of God. Most atheists would see these as implausible ploys for offering certainty in an uncertain, transient world; we call them religions. So, what are the common ‘losses’ for atheists?

 

Hope for a future ‘beyond’

Let’s start with the big one. The mundane and short nature of our lives, some eighty years if lucky, seems a cruel trick of nature to play on self-aware beings. And worse, we soon realise that once dead we shall fade into the forgotten mists of time, lucky to be remembered one generation later. Believing in a caring, eternal god with an after-life offer some comfort;  ’see you again in another life’ at a funeral epitomises this hope.

Atheists who reject an afterlife, and some don’t, see the life ‘here and now’ being the main game in town: building families, cultivating friendships, pursuing meaningful activities, engaging in personal reflections, and seeking general well-being of others to name a few concerns. Seeing this life as a mere staging post for some sort of imaginary future eternal existence – constant blissful or torturous – seems an abdication of life. Life is winning the most improbable lottery of all and one to be seen as offering promise and hope; that’s an atheist response to our existential absurdity, not religious delusion.

 

Assigned purpose in life
‘Make your own purpose’ is a common response from an atheist. The idea that a God has ordained a purpose for individuals and for humans in general – a linear (or Eastern cyclical) pathway to enlightenment or salvation – seems contrary of all our experiences, as atheists see no necessary or automatic progression to an ‘ideal’. Our lives are bound up with family and friends, as we have evolved as strongly social creatures, seeking the company of others. These interactions provide genuine meaning and purpose, not ancient scriptural interpretations of a Christian god or an Islamic god or a Jewish god or tribal gods.

 

Given moral compass
Without gods and religions we would not know good from bad; we could do bad things unknowingly; and without god’s carrot and stick we would want to do bad things. The faithful need religion to be good, to do the ‘right’ thing. Atheists must rely on their own moral sense without god’s help; they see moral sensibilities coming from some combination of biological evolution shaped by culture. And, guess what, religious faith makes little difference for doing good and bad things. Other factors seem far more important.
 
We evolved the biological structures to co-exist and cultures shaped the behaviours. Sharing, fairness, others reactions, and tit-for-tat all seem wired in as common denominators throughout all people. Cultures – different social groupings – then produce a bewildering array of acceptable and unacceptable moral behaviours, varying across cultures and over time. Today’s immoral racism replaces yesterday’s moral and often religiously-justified racism. Was that a change of God’s mind or better communication from God some 1500 to 2500 years after Jewish, Christian, and Islamic sacred texts were written? Atheists look to secular principles like ‘minimising harm’ when deciding moral disputes and, in reality, so would most religious people in a Western country like Australia. In practice even many religious people give lip-service to religious authorities when deciding most moral issues. Thank god!

 

Final Comments
Atheists argue that we should be mature enough to stand upright in our world without a prop from a god belief (or delusion). Engaging with life,  family, and friends gives genuine fulfillment “here and now” with a sense of continuity. Guilt-provoking though comforting religions are too high a price for most atheists to pay. Religious hope equates to a lotto-style dream with a high price tag. It’s a poor substitute for the reality of living.

 
Alex McCullie

Comment: Sam Harris rejects ‘atheism’, the word

Atheism, the word, is problematic for many atheists and so historical and colourful alternatives are proposed for fellow-travellers – brights, free-thinkers, non-believers, disbelievers, and the like. Harris in a 2007 address to an Atheist Alliance conference argued against all such words: the concept as a label is inherently flawed. See http://richarddawkins.net/articles/1702 for an on-line video and edited transcript.
 
Harris sees any non-belief label as hopefully anachronistic and unneeded as non-slavery or non-astrology are today. In Harris’ ideal future the religious would be the categorised ones with the normality of atheism making it “scarcely intelligible as a concept”.
 
Harris addresses more immediate problems with terms ‘atheism’ and ‘atheist’, the crass marginalisation of genuine criticisms of religious attitudes and the bluntness of simple rejection of all religions. Demands for evidence and reason to support religious claims are often sidelined by accusations of ‘militant atheism’ or ‘new atheism’. Also Harris advises that critics of religion to be more nuanced in their attitudes and attacks. They need to be aware of religious differences and the different threats they pose for a secular society. Harris sees extreme forms of Islam as being more dangerous (and popular) than their Christian equivalents.  He quotes a poll showing that 30% of British Muslims support death for apostasy, leaving the faith, and 68% support criminal prosecution for Islamic insults. Most problems with Christian fundamentalists are with child-abuse through narrow faith education. Again Harris returns to the need for critics to reject atheist labels and demand for evidence, reason and free thought to characterise our society.
 
Harris rightly comments that atheism is wrongly characterised as an alternative worldview to religion. That is simply not true. Atheism is a position on what exists (and not exists) in our reality - metaphysics in philosopher-speak. Atheism says nothing about origins of the universe, life, and human morality. It says nothing about moral or immoral behaviour. An atheist can live an upstanding life – many do – without any reference to his or her metaphysical position, or alternatively atheists like many Christians, Muslims, whites, blacks, Democrats, liberals, conversatives, and Jews may inflict considerable pain on others.
 
Finally Harris highlights the need for atheists (whomever they are) to recognise that people can have genuine contemplative experiences, ‘spiritual’ experiences in lieu of a better term. This does not mean accepting any notion of a soul but seeing spiritual, a horizontal version, coming from within us and our responses to the physical world – not mysterious but special.

Alex McCullie

News: Aussie Atheists

Interesting The Age newspaper article profiling Australians, moving to a more strident atheism.

The new atheism is bigger, more organised, and much more assertive than ever before. It’s based on the belief that science explains everything we need to know about the world so there’s no need for religion. Its founding texts are by scientist Richard Dawkins and writer Christopher Hitchens, and religion, in their eyes, is not just some harmless illusion, it’s a dangerous, immoral force in society.
The adherents of this new atheism are not simply out to proclaim their own existence – they are proselytising, they want to convert the faithful.

Alex McCullie

News: Catholics are hurting

My dad enjoyed boxing. He used to described in colourful ways previous boxing champions and their personal stories outside of the ring. I took an interest as it meant common ground for both of us. One surprise for me was his saying that an opponent smiling was one in a lot of pain, presumably to hide his anguish.

I read an opinion piece in The Age, Melbourne Australia, by Greg Craven and understand what Dad meant. It’s a boostful, sarcastic attack on “the new hobby atheist is as brash, noisy and confident as a cheap electric kettle” by the vice cancellor of a local Catholic university. Craven equates this group of atheists to a new plague of blowflies or something fictitious from biblical Egypt.

The Roman Catholic Church is apparently a particularly popular target. Is it the endless cover-ups of priestly child abuse around the world? No. Is the use of misleading scare campaigns against the use of condoms to fight HIV infections in Africa? Is the historical distorting of the evolution science message in Catholic schools and communities? Is the selective application of healthcare driven by theology ahead of humanity? Is it the discrimination of women and homosexuals from positions of power within the church? It is none of these: apparently its because the church is big and, unlike their protestant bretheren, they actually believe in something. Craven sees the media as full of Christian attacks as today’s modern blood-sport.

I shall give Greg Craven the closing words:

At the bottom, of course, lies hate. I am not quite clear why our modern crop of atheists hates Christians, as opposed to ignoring or even politely dismissing them, but they very clearly do. There is nothing clever, witty or funny about hate.

Alex McCullie

News: Atheist and Be Ordained

If you want to be both, you can be ordained on-line for free through to US$89.95 for the deluxe version. A site for spiritual humanism offers ordaining packages without the need for seminary training. I have no idea whether it is a simple money making activity or someone seriously wanting to allow atheists to conduct civil services and other religious roles.

It doesn’t help in Australia as we have particular requirements before one is able to conduct wedding or funeral ceremonies.

Alex McCullie

News: Atheist Convention Melbourne March 2010

The Rise Of Atheism 2010 Global Atheist Convention

Melbourne Convention and Exhibition Centre (12-14 March)

Presenters: Richard Dawkins, Catherine Deveny, Phillip Adams, Taslima Nasrin, Peter Singer, PZ Myers, Dan Barker, Stuart Bechman, Sue-Ann Post, Kylie Sturgess, John Perkins, Tamas Pataki, Max Wallace, Russell Blackford, Ian Robinson, AC Grayling, Robyn Williams, Jamie Kilstein, Simon Taylor