Sunday, June 6, 2010

Believers - Why so threatened?

After a conversation with a colleague at work I've been asking myself this question - why are believers so threatened by atheist non-belief? I think I know many of the possible answers anyway, so this is more rhetorical than anything else, but just exactly why do theists or believers of so many different stripes immediately begin the "Convert the non-believer" sub routine upon finding out that we don't hold to the same superstitions that they do?

Yesterday I was working with a colleague who is very heavily into the newage and the spiritual. He's an admirer of Deepak Chopra and spouts the usual nonsense about eastern mysticism and philosophy that you would expect - but strangely he's also a very intelligent guy and as long as we avoid topics where his newage or spiritual views come up I get on really well with him and don't find any real bones of contention. In the course of shooting the shit as you do through the work day I made the following comment:

"All Catholic school ever did for me was turn me into an atheist."

You know that feeling you get when you say something and then instantly wish you'd kept your mouth shut? Yeah, me to.

This prompted a response along the lines of this (unfortunately I don't remember the exact wording):

"So what do you think atheism is? I've met a lot of atheists but none of them can really explain what it is."

My first thought, which I didn't vocalise, was:

"Just exactly what kind of half arsed idiot atheists have you met?"

My actual response, which I'm so used to giving I didn't even have to think about it, was the standard:

"Atheism is just a lack of belief in gods."

To my surprise he seemed surprised that I was able to give an answer so quickly and coherently. This just reinforced my view that a lot of woos and believers don't really expose themselves to the opposite viewpoints to any great depth, apart from with a few mates who claim to be skeptical/atheist but don't give it any thought.

Of course, all this did was initiate the "Convert the non-believer" sub routine for the rest of the day. Throw in the "Spout the bits of eastern religions I picked up whilst travelling" sub routine and that was my day gone, unfortunately.

The first approach was the "Redefine what God is so that as far as I am concerned you can't possibly not believe in it." This extended attempt, which took a while to get across, amounted to this:

"I read about a yogi who said his aim was to give truth an identity. We give names to things to give them an identity. God is the name we give to ultimate truth to give it an identity. Ultimate truth is God. Spirituality and science are both about the search for truth."

I wasn't impressed either.

I guess the point of this was that how could I not believe in truth, particularly ultimate truth? Therefore, how could I really claim to be an atheist. The problem with this is obvious, calling God or gods Ultimate Truth doesn't change anything, the same problems still exist, just in different forms. It just happens that this particular believer was absolutely certain that Ultimate Truth exists, and since Ultimate Truth is God, God exists. However:

  • What is Ultimate Truth - how is it defined?
  • How do you know Ultimate Truth exists?
  • Why should I accept that Ultimate Truth exists?
  • Why should I accept your definition of God as Ultimate Truth?
  • What is truth, never mind what is ultimate truth?

You haven't really altered or answered anything by defining God as Ultimate Truth- all you've done is switch your terms. God is now Ultimate Truth, but the problems the atheist has with the former don't go away because you've changed its name to the latter. This believers certainty in ultimate truth is nothing more than an assumption that Ultimate Truth exists and can be defined as God. There's no real evidence for either.

The second major problem with this, and I pointed this out, is that this definition of God is at odds with most conventional views of what God is. Christians and Muslims don't think God is some kind of esoteric philosophical or spiritual concept, they think he is an actual being that has an actual impact on the physical world. He was coming from some personal interpretation of the Hindu concept of God, but it is not the only conception of God and it contradicts a great many other versions - not necessarily an indication that it is wrong, but also not a crushing blow to atheism.

The fact that god can be defined in so many different and even contradictory ways is not a problem for atheism, it's a problem for theism.

The second attempt at proving I can't possibly be an atheist was merely a reworking of the No True Scotsman fallacy. It amounted to this, and again this is as near to the exact wording as I can remember:

"People raised in very strict/oppressive religious families don't really understand/know what God is."

Clearly there's a lot wrong with this. First it assumes there is a single definition of what God is, and this single definition is the absolute one. Want to bet that this absolute definition of what God is just happens to be the definition of God that this individual uses? Therefore, in the mind of this believer, anyone who doesn't use this definition is not really not believing in God, they are not believing in something that isn't God and therefore they aren't really an atheist.

The second major problem is this: Who said my religious upbringing was strict? I said I had been to a Catholic school, I didn't say I was raised in a strict Catholic family. In fact, my religious upbringing was not very strict, my dad isn't even Catholic and never goes to church, and religious observance was more habit than anything else. On top of that, I'm fairly sure that A Catholic school is going to be pretty on top of teaching what the Catholic God is. Since my upbringing was not strict and that Catholic schools, nuns and priests almost certainly know what they are talking about when it comes to their God, I guess I do know what God is. And I still have a lack of belief in it. This objection to atheism also doesn't answer how people with liberal religious backgrounds become atheist, or how people with no religious background can be atheists. I can have a lack of belief in gods without even knowing what they are. I am sure there are lots of things I don't believe in by the simple fact that I have no bloody clue what they are - I've never heard of them.

Third problem - this objection makes no sense. Surely people who have a strict religious upbringing understand what God is more than anybody else? If you have God shoved down your throat every day, I'm fairly sure you know what God is. What the strictly religious understand God to be might not be the same as this particular believers absolute certainty that God is Ultimate Truth, but that is not a problem for atheism or atheists - that's a problem for theists and theism. And, after all, this particular believer might be the one who doesn't understand what God is. His absolute conviction and certainty that he was right because of what some yogi said doesn't make him right. Just because someones understanding of God is different to yours does not mean theirs is wrong - it means there's a problem with gods and religion as a whole.

Despite the silly objections to atheism what interested me most was this believers need to immediately prove that either atheism is wrong or that I wasn't really an atheist - it was like he couldn't accept that I was OK and an atheist. Yes, I have no belief in gods and I am still a well adjusted, content, moral and normal person. I'm just like a great many believers, but I have no belief in gods. I even made the point to him that he was an atheist just like me, but I go one god further. You should have seen his face when that sank in. That's when he really had to ramp up the efforts to convince me I was not an atheist or that atheism doesn't really exist.

And then I pulled out one of my favourites:

"Some people like to claim that atheism is a belief system but I like this answer to that. 'Atheism is a belief system like not collecting stamps is a hobby.'"

I think that this genuinely had an impact on him - it was like he finally understood what atheism is, he just didn't seem able to understand that people can be fine without a belief in gods however they're defined and seemed determined to convince me that I couldn't really be an atheist or that atheism doesn't really exist except by mistake. I find this attitude very curious.

What seemed to really surprise him however was just how much I did know about religion - which merely reinforces the idea that a great many believers think atheists are only non believers because they don't understand what gods and religions are. Sorry, I understand very well. It is that understanding that drove me to conclude there are no gods, it helped inform and form my lack of belief in gods. My conclusion was that the person who didn't really understand was actually this believer - he didn't understand that there are a great many atheists who understand gods and religion very well and still don't believe - that in fact it is this understanding that enables them not to believe. He was so utterly convinced that all his conclusions about spirituality and religion were correct that all he had to do was tell them to me and I would suddenly believe.

He was wrong. Heard its like before, still not impressed, still don't believe.

Why is this so threatening to them?


  1. And of course this "eastern" stuff isn't even "eastern". It's just a jumbled collection of concepts stripped of anything which appears especially strange or offensive, after which anything that is not eminently marketable is also filtered out.

    Anything that sells is incorporated into new age ideology. And being stripped of its context and character, becomes bland enough to fit neatly into the one-size-fits-all "divine oneness" that new agers so love.

    Ironically, D-Bag Chopra has done exactly the same thing to "western" science.

  2. a point on the Ultimate Truth as God angle of many deists (as opposed to theists, although I guess it pertains to theists too):
    any kind of ultimate truth would need to be an objective truth, i.e. a fact that remains exactly the same no matter from which subjective perspective it is viewed. Science is concerned with the finding of objective truths, which is a quest that I predict will never be completed, since we are subjects that have only one viewpoint (the human one) to work from. We are getting better and better to incorporate what we can learn and infer from other viewpoints (e.g. learning about the accoustic world of bats, the ultraviolet world of bees & birds, the quantum world of quarks...), but we will still always be subjects with subjective viewpoints and tools to explore the truths we are interested in. Thus, we can get closer to objective or "ultimate" truths, but in my view, it is impossible for us to ever discover "the" ultimate objective truth about anything that lies outside us as subjects. Thus the question if there is an objective or ultimate truth is moot, since we cannot discover it, even if it is out there. Revering the ultimate truth as god is a pretty sad viewpoint then, because that "objective god" can never be found by a subjective being...
    Now, if this seems to shed a negative light on the quest and purpose of science, it is actually quite the opposite: I am scientist myself and greatly enjoy the immensely important and fruitful quest of getting closer and closer to the truths... remember when everybody thought the science of physics was done, nothing left to explore and explain, when quantum mechanics and relativity came around and showed how close and yet far from the "truth" the physical laws of Newton and his contemporaries were...the fact that I think we can probably never quite explain it all makes the human and the scientific experience that much more exiting, because there is always another level, another viewpoint, another theory to consider...

  3. Good points again - Much clearer explanation of what is wrong with Ultimate Truth than what I wrote!