October 13, 2008

Atheist Meme

I discovered an interesting counterpoint blog to my own, called PinPonPun. There, I saw a meme that apparently was circulating around a number of atheists but somehow never made its way to me. I challege other atheists and nonbelievers reading this poll to at least answer these questions for themselves, and better yet to do so on the web and post links back to them here. Unlike a lot of these surveys, there are some thoughtful questions and it is useful to have given more than an instant's consideration to their answers.

1. How would you define “atheism”?

A lack of a belief in the supernatural. This includes both a creator-god who is now passive as well as a more activist deity who is involved with the affairs of human beings. It also includes a lack of belief in things like ghosts, demons, souls, and angels. It does not exclude an openness to the possibility that there are real entities or animals in the universe whose existence is not yet known or perceptible, although a healthy dose of skepticism is called for when those kinds of ideas are floated.

2. Was your upbringing religious? If so, what tradition?

I was raised in the Roman Catholic tradition, although my parents were not particularly observant. I claimed to believe in it for a long time, largely to please my family, but privately I gave it up about the time I was 15 years old or so, and I “went public” with it when I was about 21.

3. How would you describe “Intelligent Design”, using only one word?


4. What scientific endeavour really excites you?

Research into energy-efficient fusion and cost-efficient water desalinization technologies. The science of doing these things exists already, the question is how can it be done cheaply enough to be applied at an industrial scale. Cheap desalinated water will do wonders for health and food production and save literally billions of lives – and obviate the need for resource wars in the future. Economically feasible fusion energy will produce huge environmental benefits and hopefully make electricity so cheap that in the future, only the rich will burn gasoline.

5. If you could change one thing about the “atheist community”, what would it be and why?

At least within the United States of America, I would try and make it less dominated by political liberals. Not that there’s anything wrong with being liberal, Obama supporters, or otherwise being on that side of the political spectrum. But seems to me that there is too much visceral reaction on the part of atheists to the religious right. Yes, the Christian right has politically mobilized and from time to time it uses atheists as their whipping boys. But on the other hand just because someone is “conservative” does not mean that their ideas are necessarily theocratic and wrong. For instance, conservatives are more likely than liberals to advocate making it easier to develop nuclear power plants, and we need more of those in this country. But because politicians who are also big social conservatives are on board with these other ideas (some of which are good) atheists tend to reflexively assume that the ideas are bad or must be opposed. Were more atheists, agnostics, secularists, humanists, rationalists, et. al. doing their own thinking instead of reacting, we’d be seeing a greater diversity of political thought among atheists and maybe, being an open atheist would be a less political kind of statement.

6. If your child came up to you and said “I’m joining the clergy”, what would be your first response?

Once I got over the shock of actually having a child at all, I'd say, “If you’re really going to do it, then do it right and don’t do it for the money. It’s a very emotionally demanding job, and you will find that you have to give up a lot of personal time and space to do it right. Please try and offer good practical and real-world advice to your parishioners as well as the religious advice you will dispense. And please accept my best wishes that this path brings you happiness.”

7. What’s your favorite theistic argument, and how do you usually refute it?

The argument I enjoy refuting most is that we have a moral imperative to follow the commands of Jehovah in the Bible. This is easy and fun to refute by pointing out some of the rather ridiculous things that would earn you execution in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, like sodomy or masturbation. Christians often protest that this was the ‘old covenant’ and the ‘new covenant of Jesus’ means it’s now okay to eat bacon, I point out the passage in the gospel of Matthew which has Jesus affirm “every jot and tittle” of the ancient Hebrew laws. So this argument ends up by getting the commands of Christianity diametrically opposed to good ethics.
The theistic argument that I respect the most is the argument that there must be a first cause, a creator of some kind, because science and available evidence cannot provide anything even approximating an explanation for the cause of the Big Bang. The Judeo-Christian theist who argues this typically also argues for a figurative or metaphoric interpretation of the Genesis story and is perfectly willing to concede that evolution is the manner in which God created humans and all the other animals – this is a theist who does not reflexively deny the teachings of science but instead possesses the suppleness of mind to dovetail science and faith. Answering the argument by saying that we don't know what the answer to that issue is yet is not intellectually satisfying and leaves open the issue that everyone needs to rely on something non-scientific, non-evidentiary in order to wrestle with that issue.

8. What’s your most “controversial” (as far as general attitudes amongst other atheists goes) viewpoint?

Placing a high priority on not only respecting but advocating for the rights of religious people to practice their faiths in appropriate places and ways. This means that I think we as atheists should be arguing in favor of the rights of a street preacher to annoy us as we walk across a public square; we should not only tolerate but be outspoken in standing up for the rights of students in a public school to have a voluntary prayer group that is truly voluntary. I say this because the rights of a religious person to engage in free religious practice are the same rights that we as atheists have to be free from having a religion rammed down our throats by the government. The free exercise and establishment clauses are really about the same thing. By advocating for the rights of people with whom we disagree, we can demonstrate that we take very seriously what those freedoms are about.

9. Of the “Four Horsemen” (Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens and Harris) who is your favourite, and why?

I’ve not read very much Dan Dennett. Of the other three, I like Sam Harris the best. He is the most willing to recognize that theists are acting out of a desire to do good rather than evil and to concede the fact that people have mystical experiences which can produce value and happiness. Some claim that makes him a stalking-horse for Zen Buddhism, but that need not be the case.

10. If you could convince just one theistic person to abandon their beliefs, who would it be?

Barack Obama. As the soon-to-be leader of the free world, President Obama would be in a remarkable position to lead by example, demonstrate that you don’t need God to be good. He would also gain politically by casting off his connection to a church and a preacher who became a drag on his political fortunes.


bobvis said...

Sam Harris is amazing. I saw him on a Jewish Atheist post, I think. His debating style is superb. I wish I could do that.

zzi said...

Nothing about Muslims. Very interesting.

Burt Likko said...

What's interesting about that?

zzi said...

I just wanted to get it on the record on behalf of Stanley Mosk Courthouse employees, that no Muslims was offended by this post.

Burt Likko said...

Remember when I wrote about Mr. Anti-Immigration guy, the one who somehow finds a way to relate every ill and problem facing society to illegal immigration? I think you're like that with Muslims, zzi.