The Paradox of Atheism

 

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Introduction:

 

Many proponents of Atheism hold it as the only perspective on religion free of dogma. The irony is that Atheism has it’s own orthodoxies that are held as strongly as a fervent belief in a higher power. Not all  Atheists fall into the “free thinker” or the “enlightened individual” trap, however, there is a number that does. Failing to see some of the parallels between devout atheism and organized religion.  The one characteristic shared by an atheist and a Baptist Minister is their immutable stance on religious faith. Being easily disposed to write off any contrary perspective as being false and ill-advised. The three main commonalities between atheism and religion are a collective association, possessing fixed views on belief in a higher power, and the proclivity to proliferate their religious perspective.

 

Rarely is atheism criticized from a neutral standpoint? Meaning generally it is critiqued concerning some form of religious precepts. This essay is not intended to be a polemic defense of religion over atheism but rather aims to observantly point out areas of inconsistencies. Atheism is presented as a dynamic belief system. The natural gradation in the development of human understanding and a departure from the ancient proclivities of magical thinking. It still suffers from many faults. Unbending commitment to a set of beliefs. Atheism even exhibits attributes of tribalism which can have dangerous consequences. One needs to look no further than the present political climate to witness the venomous repercussions of in-group conformity.

 

Collective Association:

 

Humanist groups are collectives of nonbelievers that meet periodically. Generally focusing the social gathering around discussion or other social activities. The number of activities that could encompass one of these gatherings are endless. Ranging from meeting at a coffee shop to bowling and beyond. It is reasonable to suggest that these groups are merely a surrogate for the religious communities previously forfeited by non-belief. Religion does provide a cohesive glue that voluntarily keeps communal bonds intact. This was an observation that the great political theorist Alexis De Tocqueville made back in the nineteenth century.

 

Considering that many atheists still grew up in a religious background, it isn’t surprising that many yearn to be a part of a community of like-minded people. Without the formal institution of an organized church, this endeavor has previously been difficult. In the age of the internet, many of the logistical costs of organizing have been minimized. Technological advancement coupled with a decline in religiosity in the United States has created fertile ground for the spread of humanist groups. As America continues to shed its Christian identity with declines in religious observance the societal acceptance of such associations increases.

 

The most perplexing aspect of these groups they are essentially church groups. Yet, few if any of the members of a humanist group would call it a congregation. It is a group of people drawn together by the commonly shared religious convictions. Those convictions may be a lack of faith in God, nevertheless, still are religious beliefs. It is merely the reciprocal of the traditional beliefs of a religious association. A humanist group is a community of nonbelievers. It is the embodiment of the church community that they had abandoned with losing their faith.  Somewhat analogous to converting to another religion and joining a different community of believers. Minus the immense amount of formal ceremonial procedures.

 

The Irreverent Dogma: The Freethinker Paradox 

 

Much of the rhetoric shrouding atheistic thought is fixated on purportedly on free thinking. Atheists by definition hold an inflexible view of the existence of a higher power. They have also seemed to have substituted faith in religion for an unquestionable belief in the authority of science. To be an atheist you must hold the rigid stance that there are no deity/deities that exist in the universe. If you do not conform to this crucial pillar of atheism you cannot be a part of the club. It is important to acknowledge that this argument is tautological. However, that is not grounds for disqualifying this point.  Anytime we opt to adopt a specific label whether it is a political designation, sports team affiliation, etc. there are certain characteristics we are expected to conform to.  Can an individual be a Pittsburgh Steelers fan and not even like the team?  No. Therefore, to be a part of this subset of society you must conform to this virtue of group identity. To be an atheist you must capitulate some of your capacity towards freethinking. If you question the doctrine of non-belief you are no longer categorical an atheist. This parallels the fact that a Christian cannot be a Christian without believing in god. It is merely the same premise, just inverted.

 

Another issue that the free thinker designation that many nonbelievers adorn themselves is that their lack of belief mirrors the intensity of the belief of religiously observant individuals. It takes a lot of faith to make a definite claim about something that cannot be falsified. This goes back to the conundrum presented before us in Pascal’s Wager.  We really can’t prove or disprove the existence of God, therefore the possibility of a higher power existing is fifty-fifty. The odds are no different than that of a coin-flip. As we are presented with two potential outcomes. Because atheists are armed with the precepts of science the inability to falsify the existence of God already disqualifies the possibility of existence.  A corollary of this idea came from the infamous atheistic polemicist Christopher Hitchens in the form of Hitchens’s Razor. Succinctly put claims made without concrete evidence can be refuted without evidence. Technically, this argument could also be applied to atheism. The enigmatic nature of the God question is one that is cloaked in uncertainty. We have no means of proving or invalidating it. Either position is a leap-of-faith. Even the exalted dismissal of religion by science is still a leap-of-faith. With no means of testing the veracity, we will still run the risk of invaliding something true. As improbable as the premise may be.

 

Spreading the Word:
Atheists are just as incline as Jehovah’s witnesses to spread the good news. The attempts of atheist to proselytize their beliefs is somewhat underscored.  The author of this essay knows from anecdotal experience members of humanist groups will go to great lengths to persuade you to join their congregation.  It is not uncommon for nonbelievers to engage in heated debates over religious doctrines. In a futile attempt to persuade their religious opponent they are wrong. Making many atheists agents of transmission for their position on religion.  The vocal atheists who engage in this domestic missionary work have a clear agenda of making the world less religious. Pointing out the faults in reasoning synonymous with religion and atrocities committed in the name of God. Analogous to those spreading religious doctrines highlighting how the absence of religion leads to moral decay and sin.

 

Just about every religious tradition has it’s philosophical defenders and intellectual apologists, the same is very much true in atheism. The number of books, pamphlets, websites, blogs, and podcasts designed to persuasively defend atheism is dizzying. These substantial efforts have been particularly evident among the New Atheist intellectuals. Minds ranging from Richard Dawkins to Sam Harris and even the previously mentioned late Christopher Hitchens provide the fodder for the growth of this movement. Their polemical treatises against religion are widely read. Mirror the popularity and purpose of many books designed to promote religiosity. Both Joel Osteen and Sam Harris are best-selling authors in the United States. Proving that those in the ranks of defending atheism are starting to exhibit similar notoriety as those who defend the faith.

 

Conclusion:

 

This essay is not intended to be a personal attack against atheists or a moral judgment of atheism. It is merely expressing curious commonalities between atheism and organized religion. Intriguingly, atheism’s uncompromising nature does lend itself to having some peculiar similarities to strict forms of religious practice.  A conservative Christian is as equally invested in the promotion of their beliefs as of any atheist. Psychology and sociology most likely have some answers to why this is true. It is important to remember the Horseshoe Theory of Politics.  This theory asserts that the political extremes have more common characteristics than they do with the centrists. Leading one to speculate that this theory could be extrapolated and applied to other belief systems. Ranging from religion to positions on ethics issues.

 

 

 

 

Pascal’s Wager- Gambling For God?

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Gambling has long been perceived as an imprudent activity. Outside of being seen as unwise, it has also been labeled as sinful. Casinos ranking among opium dens, brothels, and saloons as notable dens of iniquity. Gambling parlors have long retained the reputation for attracting a “seedy” clientele. Ironically, one man believed that, despite the unrighteous nature of gambling, we should be hedging our bets for salvation. That individual was a mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal. This notion of wagering in favor of salvation is best explained in what has become known as Pascal’s Wager.

 

Pascal’s flagship postulation is really quite simple. A rational individual does not need proof of God to believe that God exists. Rather the consequences alone of disbelieve are so severe that it would be absurd to not wager on the side of religiosity. I suppose that the prospect of eternal firey damnation is a persuasive factor in motivating religious belief. The eminent risks of uncertainty and atheism are quite vividly depicted in the Abrahamic religions. However, despite the potential of devasting repercussions, there are several objections to Pascal’s Wager. One of the more notable counter-arguments being the Many Gods Objection. First posited by philosopher Denis Diderot, it contended that with all of the religious traditions in existence who is the correct god to venerate. This is certainly a fair consideration. Every religion proclaims that their deity or deities are the only true higher forces in the universe. Making the contingency for eternal salvation much more intricate. Clearly, a lot of these other theological traditions must be wrong if there is only one true faith. How is the correct god that will ensure salvation determined? That is a cosmic mystery and a firm point of refutation for atheists.

While the other arguments against Pascal’s Wager may be compelling, the moral considerations are most important. Personally, I am an agnostic. Meaning I do not have a horse in the race. I am not incentivized to defend theology or atheism, but rather honestly engage with the question of faith. I would question the insincerity of faith fostered by the potential of abhorrent outcomes. Is it really genuinely having faith in God if you are incentivized by the fear of being tortured next to Hitler in a fiery chasm for the rest of eternity? Especially when many fervent Christians speak of having an actual relationship with God. Rather than opportunistically treating their deity as a spiritual insurance plan. It does appear as if I have some company in being incredulous of individuals who hold faith motived by outcomes.  The philosopher and staunch atheist Voltaire suggested that acceptance of the Wager merely supports self-interest and would not lend itself to proper worship of a holy deity. Personally, this is the firmest moral objection to Pascal’s Wager.

 

Granted, we could embark upon a length semantical debate about what actually constitutes faith. However, it does seem at least from the Judeo-Christian point there is a firm difference between faith and belief. The below excerpt from a Christian apologist website clearly makes this distinction:

However, the unstated assumption in the wager is that belief in God guarantees one a place in heaven. With regard to Christianity, the assumption is false. Belief in God, in and of itself, is not sufficient to ensure entry into heaven, since the demons also believe, but are condemned:

You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder. (James 2:19)

The reasons that the demons shudder at the thought of God is that they know that they are destined for hell.1 Why don’t they repent and come back to God? God has set different criteria for salvation for angels (including the demons, who are fallen angels2). Whereas those who have never seen God directly can come to sincere faith at any time in their lives,3 those who have direct evidence of God’s existence are condemned by any act of disobedience.4

 

 

 

Believe in itself is clearly not enough to guarantee salvation.  Clearly believing in the existence of God isn’t enough. Rather you must also act in accordance with the prescribed tenants of the religion. A theological satanist (there are forms that are atheistic) does believe in the Christian God, but will never see the gates of heaven. I would also apply this logic to a lot of “paper Christians”. Individuals who attend church and provide lip service to Christian values. In action, they are textbook hypocrites. Often sanctimonious and the first individuals to project their transgression upon others. Empty accusations always make for useful distractions. It should be overwhelmingly obvious that belief alone without taking faith in the heart is a recipe for self-deception. Could potentially land you in a fireside torture chamber until the end of time.

 

I suppose that the counterargument could be that a blatant disregard for Christian values isn’t true faith. Also, if one is to come to god out of fear for spiritual salvation and then end up coming to know him then it is true faith. Both are fair refutations. However, if an individual behaves in accordance with contingencies their motives are suspect. It one thing to undergo a spiritual metamorphosis even if it is spurred initially by frivolous self-interest. When there isn’t any further or spiritual or moral development within a person that is when their belief in God becomes inconsequential. Protesting moral virtue and living moral virtue should never be transposed or conflated. A righteous person does not need to advertise their good deeds. Anyone who has taken to heart the moral teachings of a specific theology already understands this on a personal level. Do you volunteer at the soup kitchen to help the homeless or for your own self-image? Even to secure your own position heaven?

 

The best answer to Pascal’s Wager pre-dated the life of Pascal. That was the wise words of Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

 

In all honesty, it is the best advice you can give to anyone. Regardless of what god/gods you pray to it is never a substitute for doing the right thing. If someone is using religiosity as a cloak for their true nature such subterfuge will be foiled. Sincerity goes a long way. Sincerity cannot be fabricated for one’s one callous gain. Hence why humans are quite adroit at picking up on someone putting on pretensions in a social situation. Eventually, those pretending to be moral will lapse back to old habits and those who are will continue to be virtuous. Which why we should focus more on being than believing.

DOGMATISM IN ATHEISM

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INTRODUCTION:

The irony is not often lost, even among the incredulous bunch that purports to be skeptics and free thinkers. While in the Western world, the atheist/ humanist movement does appear to be a reaction to the lack of empirical evidence supporting theological doctrines and the fixed nature of these prescriptions. The whole concept of absolute assertions being accepted on the basis of faith versus concrete evidence certainly seems to be erroneous and even preposterous in the eyes of those who question and reject religion. However, while it is an event that to be a part of a specific theological tradition you need to subscribe to its dogmatic elements to some degree. However, is this also the case for atheism? In the atheistic paradigm of theology, there is an unwavering and resolute rejection of the premise of a deity or higher power and of an afterlife. One could assert that atheism is equally fixed as the view of a  religious zealot who undeniably professes the existence of their deity or deities.

While atheists proclaim that their claims are based on facts, this is equally as flawed as supporting the fact that there is without question a god. How can you even begin to prove or disprove the whole existence of a higher power conundrum? The scientific, empirical, and logical tools and means we have now are not equipped to rectify such an enigmatic question. The general retort atheists use to circumvent this unanswerable inquiry, through a misapplication of Occam’s Razor. Essentially the simplest explanation is typically the correct one.  While in science we tend to reject an assertion and assume that it is untrue if we do not have enough information to support it. However, religion does not operate in the realm of factual truth but operates in the manner of faith and spiritual truth. It was never designed to be examined by the scrutiny of the scientific method. I to some extent personally perceive the atheistic approach to religion to not only be as absolute and dogmatic as religious devotees but to be as intellectually dishonest. All because there is not enough evidence to support something, does not make it completely untrue, we can not make an absolute assertion about its truth. To throw around absolute claims when it is not feasible to prove or disprove something is not properly addressing the issue. Also, to accept either assertion completely is adherence to a dogmatic thought process. To outright reject or accept the unknown, both reactions require faith.

For the purposes of transparency, I should disclose, personally, I am an agnostic when it comes to the topic of theology. I do not hold any strong beliefs either way, due to the lack of evidence from both camps. Also, I have never particularly found any comfort in religion, so it seems as if being skeptic is what was best suited for me. However, one observation I can make is how humanistic groups mirror the same theologically centered congregations you see in the same Christian churches atheists love to lambaste. I had a friend who was a hard atheist who would attend a myriad of these humanist “meet-ups”, he attempted to try to get me to attend. Part of the problem was he knew I was a skeptic and it felt as if he was trying to convert me to a full-blown non-believer. Right then and there I saw a glaring parallel between hard atheists and Evangelical Christians. The Evangelical sect of Christianity has the attribute of having its followers heavily advertise their beliefs and make ample attempts to convert non-believers and members of other Christian sects to their congregations. However, due to the fact that staunch atheists believe they have the absolute truth when it comes to religion and that they perceive spreading the truth as a political and social movement, they feel the need to espouse the truth to others. That means informing and converting as mean people as they can to their belief system and join the same atheist clubs. These clubs mirror churches in the sense that they are a congregation of people who share the same views on religion, essentially the same premise as a religious church, temple, mosque, etc.

 

ARTICLE:

 

While religious folks certainly have the reputation for being closed-minded, per stereotypes, I have a suspicion that the same could be pointed at atheists as well. If you only chose to accept concepts on the basis of scientific verification, when it may not even be applicable is certainly obtuse thinking. So I found this article from The Daily Caller, where they found that atheists had the propensity to be more close-minded. I  am fully aware that this study could be riddled with erroneous methodology resulting in sampling error. The bias of the publication as well as the religious school that conducted the study, also makes the study suspect for bias. However, regardless of validity, it is certainly an interesting concept to explore and should be replicated in a neutral environment and institution.

 

The Catholic University of Louvain conducted a study where they examined the extent to which having a closed-minded is correlated with the extent of religious belief. Contrary to what you might expect, while both religious and none religious people were prejudiced towards specific ideas, however, the non-religious individuals were generally found to be more closed-minded. The study found that religious individuals were more apt to integrate diverging ideas into their own beliefs. The study included 788 Europeans,  445  non-believers; 17 Muslims, 3 Jews, 17 Buddhists, and the rest of the subjects were Christians.  The researchers surmise that the results were most likely attributable to the fact that the non-believers came from highly secular societies in Western Europe, meaning little exposure to religious ideas, therefore making them less tolerant of religion [1].

 

DISCUSSION:

Just to address the 800 lbs Gorilla in the room, yes I am aware of the fact that The Daily Caller is a conservative publication that will per their agenda, defend religion and present atheism in a bad light. However, as I stated earlier it would be interesting to see the study replicated by a secular institution. It is improbable that atheists are truly closed-minded as a whole, who knows and how do you even attempt to address it when there are some many potentially confounding variables? I certainly believe that there are aspects of the atheist movement that are dogmatic and are presented as objective fact when it is merely lacking evidence to be proven or disproved. So it is really intellectually honest to purport something is true when there is now a way to definitely prove it? I would say not, however, while atheism does have its flaws as a theological perspective does not mean it is completely wrong. The fact that atheists and skeptics often times question the motives and rationale behind religion is certainly a positive aspect of their movement. Many wars and other atrocities have been justified in the name of religion even if the means of achieving the core objective violated the very principles of the tenets of that religion. Also questioning the literal interpretation of religious texts has been perverted in attempts for opportunistic individuals to capitalize on for their own unsavory agenda. While atheism is flawed, it does have some positive points. Every belief system whether political, religious, philosophical, etc. has its negative and positive aspects to it. I would not flat out say that atheism is completely mindless, however, it is more anchored in dogmatic principles than the majority of atheists would like to admit.

 

 

ALTRUISM AND RELIGION

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INTRODUCTION:

Typically we do not assess the motives of an individual’s actions if the byproduct is positive. Generally, if the ends justify the means, we tend not to look any deeper than the positive or advantageous outcome. I suppose from the standpoint of rationality it does make sense that we would not question someone’s motives they are behaving in a morally correct manner. However, when it comes to seemingly selfless actions are they truly as they appear? I do not question this to denigrate the byproduct of charitable actions or even the fact that individuals have chosen to behave in this manner. What I am really tackling here is a third variable problem that has several potentially confounding variables that are difficult to connect to the causation of altruistic behavior.

Altruism is defined as:

“…. unselfish regard or devotion to the welfare of others…” and  “…  behavior that has no benefit or puts the individual at a disadvantage..” [1]

Purely by definition altruism is an action by a philanthropist that does not benefit them in any form. The question that I am about to pose is certainly a controversial one. Is it possible to be genuinely altruistic if you subscribe to a theological belief system, where you are rewarded by the merits of your actions? I am not attempting to malign religion and I hope no one takes offense to this question. However,  most of the major world religions reward those who behave in a righteous and morally sound manner with a blissful afterlife. Some notable examples are the depictions of paradise in the Qur’an and the Judeo-Christian conceptualization of heaven. The concept of a merit-based afterlife is even prevalent in some eastern religions as well. The most salient example being in Hinduism, how your actions in this life will determine which station of the caste you will be reincarnated in your next life.

 

It also seems that the vast majority of major world religions do emphasize charitable behavior as well. One of the five pillars, the core tenants of Islam (the fastest-growing religion in the world), is  Zakat, which translates to giving. In other words, the concept of charity is considered a core tenant of  Islam [2]. Islam is considered to be one of the world’s largest religions and it is only second to Christianity. It is well noted the numerous biblical passages that punctuate the virtue charity [3].  So if it is well noted that the majority of religions have a merit-based system for the afterlife and also support the notion of charity, how do we separate the reward from the motives to behave in a charitable manner? As with most third variable problems it is nearly impossible to ascertain whether it is the reward or an individual’s own intrinsic motives for helping others. The only way to make causal inferences would be a carefully executed experiment that heavily controls for sampling error.

 

ARTICLE:

The February 2016, article from the Scientific American: Children with a Religious Upbringing Show Less Altruism, attempted to solve the previously mentioned inquiry. The experiment included 1,000 participants, ranging in age from 5 to 12 years old. The subjects were from the countries: United States, Canada, Turkey, Jordan, South Africa, and China. The subjects were given approximately 30 stickers and two envelopes, one for stickers to keep and another for stickers to donate to their classmates at school. Ironically, the children that had more of a notably religious upbringing were less apt to share their stickers with other children. The researchers were anticipating age to be a greater influence than the role of religion. Researchers also acknowledged that there were certain variables that could have impacted the results. For example, children from religious homes may have more siblings, therefore the stickers they chose to keep they may have chosen to share with their brothers and sisters.  Another consideration may be that children may not be the most appropriate stage of development to assess a moralistic attribute such as altruism. Potentially adulthood, an individual would have a more honed sense of morality than as a child. This variable at adulthood has also been examined. In a study, based on an aggregation of data based on IRS charitable donations, it was found that zip codes in areas that had greater rates of religious observance had a greater likelihood of having donated to a charity. However, it is difficult to discern whether these donations were given to local religious congregations [4].

 

DISCUSSION:

The above study certainly presents some interesting findings, however, because of the multitude of potentially confounding variables, we can not attribute causation.  However, there does seem to be an interesting pattern observed from the results of the study, but religion may not be the variable causing the lower rates of altruism. While this may be an intriguing correlation there it is difficult to judge what was causing the lower levels of altruism among the more religious children. I would certainly contend that in my opinion age is certainly a potential variable. As we age, our comprehension of philosophies, ethos, the rationale behind certain theological tenants and other abstract conceptualizations tends to be more acute. By the time we are adults, these ideas are much more clear to us. My previously postulated theory of altruism being paradoxical if someone is a member of a merit-based religion would certainly be more applicable to adults. Odds are most children would not have a firm comprehension of the clear dichotomy of the difference between heaven and hell, outside of the fact that one is for good people and the other is for bad people.

 

From the perspective of an adult, it nearly impossible to determine whether or the threat of languishing in hell for eternity is a primary motivator of being charitable. Many may find me taking such liberties with phrasing this claim in such a manner, preposterous.  Then again, the rationale behind the decision may not be overtly known to the individual. While psychoanalytical psychology has long been discredited by the scientific community, the subconscious mind still does play a role in human cognition. It is not so outlandish that we are not directly aware of the reason behind our actions. Especially if we have specific moral doctrines ingrained in us for the vast majority of our life. I would say that we cannot prove this to be a prime reason for the charitable behavior of religious individuals, however, it also cannot be disproved either. Rather than carelessly side with Occam’s Razor and accept the null hypothesis here, I will remain open to the possibility that it could potentially be a variable, even though were are faced with a serious third variable problem.

 

When looking at this outside of the realm of the science, if we can certainly take this question down a plethora of different avenues, without the restraints of the scientific method. Just kind of analyzing this from my own personal perspective, there is no logical way to confront this problem other than from the agnostic perspective. It really isn’t reasonable to say that religious people cannot be altruistic due to the rewards of a merit-based religion that instills the premise of charity. Simultaneously, it is also not reasonable to discount the notion either. Because this inquiry is inherently tainted by overlapping variables potentially being the cause, it is impossible to make any definite statements. While I do not intend to malign religion, we do need to remember that religion does rely on reinforcement and punishment to support specific moral values. Individuals behaving in a manner that is congruent with the moral principles of a specific theology through the threat of a horrific afterlife is a classic example of negative reinforcement. This entails that you apply unpleasant stimuli to an individual force them to engage in a specific preferred behavior. In other words, utilizing a deterrent to getting someone to do what you want them to do. With that in mind, it is easy to see how the consequential prescriptions in organized religion can influence the behavior of the worshipers and believers. This does not mean that religion is a negative influence nor does it negate the positive results of religious and religiously influence charity. It is merely me questioning whether or not charity can be truly altruistic if an individual believes in the reward and punitive aspects of religion. Altruism being about doing something for someone else with no benefit, if that action gets someone into heaven is it still truly altruism. Now personally, I am an agnostic in regards to religion, so I have more questions than I do convictions on the subject.