Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Evidence of Things Not Seen (or, Why We Are All Teapot Atheists)

This isn't my usual feminist slant, but I felt it was a weighty enough rant that it warranted inclusion here. 

After reading Theo Hobson's supremely irritating atheist-bashing piece in the Guardian yesterday, I curled up with the cats and watched Richard Dawkins' two-part documentary The Root of All Evil last night.

It's a really badly made documentary. I mean, it's awful. It's Dawkins trying to distill every single one of his books into 98 minutes, and the programme-makers trying to be 'arty'. And it suffers from the Michael Moore problem of using the same tools of debate as the people you're criticising - Dawkins says he's right, everyone else is wrong, but he doesn't say why he's right. It's not a flaw I've seen in his books - I've only read Climbing Mount Improbable, The God Delusion and bits of The Blind Watchmaker - and he does set out his arguments clearly, concisely and persuasively. The God Delusion hemmered the final nail into the coffin regarding any latent Paganism I had left, and I feel a lot happier for it. 

He suffers from the problem that you can't prove that something doesn't exist, but he handles it wittily - he uses Russell's argument that one could believe in a teapot orbiting the sun with about as much proof as there is of existence of God, but that no-one does - we are all 'teapot atheists', and I really need to get that on a badge. 

I've heard the argument that, because there are passages in the Koran (which I haven't read, although I might look up Lola's copy) inciting people to violence, that it's a pretty shoddy text to base a religion on. I have the exact same problem with Christianity - note I'm saying Christianity, not Christians - because the Bible has some horrific parts, and not just in the Old Testament. Out of curiosity, how do those of you who identify as both Christian and liberal reconcile that? Dawkins uses the argument that if you're religious you're betraying common sense, and if you're religious and progressive you're betraying common sense and religion, but I think that's overly simplistic.

I'm not arguing that religion should disappear from society - although I wouldn't shed a tear were that to happen - but I don't want it interfering with public policy, certainly not to the degree it does today. I'm deeply uncomfortable with the Government subsidising religious activities, and I'm firmly against faith schools. I was educated at a convent school and whilst I didn't have any terrible experiences, the Catholic aspect just got in the way of everything else. I think faith schools should be banned, I don't think any rational society has a place for them, not because I hate religion but because I find them indoctrinating and divisive at a time where we positively cannot afford to become entrenched in our sociocultural differences. 

In yesterday's article, Hobson argued that "atheism is muddled because it cannot decide on what grounds it ultimately objects to religion. Does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged falsity? Or does it oppose it on the grounds of its alleged harmfulness?" He misses the fact, just as there are various factions of believers, people have different degrees of and reasons for their atheism. He also argues that the general view is atheists = good, religious people = bad. Even Dawkins doesn't go that far. 

And it's not militant atheism, it's just atheism. 'Secular fundamentalism' is a cute little buzzword that defends religion to liberals - everyone hates fundamentalists, right? But Dawkins et al are no more vocal about the lack of a god than any religious person is about the existence of one. And As Dawkins says, without the ability do disprove the existence of a supernatural entity, we are atheists in theory but agnostics in practice. It certainly isn't a religion. Hebrews 11.1 (and The West Wing) tell us that faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen, and I don't think that can be applied to atheism which at least points out the irrationality of religious belief with examples. 

Disliking religion does not mean I dislike religious people, and I think that's where Dawkins runs into problems. He's stated in interviews that he has religious friends, some of whom are Anglican priests. If you write something that takes a point of view and argue that it is implausible or wrong, people who hold that worldview will get offended. It's par for the course, it doesn't mean he or any other atheist believes that religious people are somehow stupid or inferior, they're just wrong.

After all, any ideology is based in the belief that this ideology is right and others are wrong. But in order to sustain that argument, surely one requires readily available evidence to support it? Religion lacks that, so it co-opts the better parts of humanity and claims them for its own. A world without religion would not be more materialistic, more 'immoral', crueller. For one thing, there are biological imperatives that drive us to act in an altruistic manner; for another, there have been enough terrible things done by religious people as there have been good, and enough decent things done by non-believers, to convince me that religion does not have a monopoly on ethics, morality, or caring.



At 1:16 PM, Blogger Tom Freeman said...

"any ideology is based in the belief that this ideology is right and others are wrong"

That's true - the trouble comes when you get people believing that their ideology must beright and others must be wrong. It leads to closed-minded intolerance, deafness to criticism, blindness to consequences, and dividing the world into 'us' (good) and 'them' (bad).

And yeah, I vaguely remember the Dawkins programme as being intellectually shoddy. Hobson's argument, though, is just dire. And then he has the nerve to complain about over-generalising!

At 2:57 PM, Blogger Kaite said...

It was frustrating, because it could have been such a good piece.

At 7:44 PM, Blogger eejut said...

I'm as dismissive of books stating god doesnt exist as i am of books stating that he does.*

As i can no more explain the absence of god in my world as someone with faith can explain the presence of god in theirs. They're both unshakeable truths that dont really need arguing.

Now organised religion...thats something i can argue about for hours.

*...aside from Douglas Adams who said both, at the same time, and used funny illustrations to prove his point.

At 9:17 PM, Blogger Kaite said...

They're both unshakeable truths that don't really need arguing.

Well, no. One point of view has to be right, the other has to be wrong. And Adams saying something wittily doesn't make it any truer or less so than Dawkins, who turned him onto atheism in the first place.

At 11:36 PM, Blogger eejut said...

no, thats the point.

The fact that god doesnt exist in my world, doesnt mean i have to convince anybody that god doesnt exist.

The fact that god exists in random-religious-persons world, doesnt mean they have to convince me that god exists.

Both are true, and they dont need to conflict.

Thats where the problem lies, that very idea that having something to beleive in means that other people are wrong, and that they need to be told.

And forming a beleif structure around 'atheism' is doing exactley the same things that organised religions do. Pots and kettles, armed with letters after their name over the superiority of thier own beleif system.

(and which Adams also lampooned brilliantley)

At 3:12 AM, Blogger Michael Krahn said...


I'm a Christian who is working on a series on Dawkins' book "The God Delusion" at my blog at:

There's already a good discussion underway. Join in!

At 9:40 AM, Blogger Kaite said...

OK, Jay first:

The fact that god doesnt exist in my world, doesnt mean i have to convince anybody that god doesnt exist.

The fact that god exists in random-religious-persons world, doesnt mean they have to convince me that god exists.

Both are true, and they dont need to conflict.

Well, define 'exists'. It's true that one person can believe in a god or gods, and another cannot, but that doesn't believe that said god somehow exists and doesn't exist at the same time. You don't exist in a seperate world from someone who is religious, you just hold opposing worldviews.

And forming a beleif structure around 'atheism' is doing exactley the same things that organised religions do.

I'm not sure that it's a 'belief structure', though. Surely it's just a case of having an argument to back up your points. And in the case of the [p]ots and kettles, armed with letters after their name, I don't see why academics shouldn't be involved in the debate, in fact I think it's imperative that people should bring whatever knowledge they have to the table and influence and inform their arguments with it, regardless of whether they have post-nominals.

And Michael, I'll be right over and I promise to play nicely with the other children ;)

At 8:26 PM, Blogger eejut said...

That is the problem.

'beleif is never sure', and all that.

The point of wether or not there is a spiritual entity is entirely irrelevent to us all, and to the price of tea.

The fact that people do or do not believe in that entity is all important.

my beleif -in fact its more than that, it is an unshakeable fact in my world- is that no usch thing exists. Exists as in exists. Its not there.

There are many people, particularly round here, who know for a fact - a very personal and strong fact- that not only does god exist, but god is also very present in our day to day lives.

People are willing to go to war, to create acts of barbarism and cruelty, of these beleifs. They are also willing to write books and make shed loads of cash over them.

The fact that there are people who not only have strong personal beleifs -be it religion or any other 'cause' that people choose to define themselves by-but decide that having those beleifs proclude anybody else having valid beleifs that differ...that is just sad.

'having oposing world views' only matters if you choose to oppose. I have no need to try and tell people with faith that their fath is a 'delusion'. Its a faith thats important to them. Likewise, i'm not going to have time for any of them who choose to tell me that my beleif is deluded.

Atheism has become just as much an organised beleif structure as the religions it (for some reason, and loudly) feels the need to decry.

And Dawkins telling people their beleifs are deluded (see todays metro), and refusing to accept that anyone can read the same document as him and see things in a different way (again, see todays metro) are exactley the same kind of empty -and debateless- words that people find so offense in sermons from a church pulpit.

Also, his insistence that science is totally right, and religion is totally wrong..thats just silly. Science used to say the world was flat. What is a cast iron fact today, might be silly tomorrow. All a genuine, honest, scientist can say about anything is 'maybe'. 'maybe, but the facts change'.

My main problem with academics, and its a whole different topic that would derail this, so i'm not going into detail, is that so many talk about debate. They dont actually want debate, they want to show how clever they are.

And what does having letters after their name actually allow them to add to a debate about indefinable things such as a god who we never see? Did Plato have letters after his name?

At 10:56 PM, Blogger Kaite said...

The point of wether or not there is a spiritual entity is entirely irrelevent to us all, and to the price of tea.

I'm sorry, but if there's an omnipotent and omniscient deity out there controlling my life and the universe I live in, I'd rather like to know about it.

My main problem with your argument is that you're saying that you don't believe in any god, but that you've met people who know that God exists "for a fact". They don't know it for a fact, because facts have to be based on concrete evidence, and if you mean that they believe they know it for a fact then say so, and stop misusing the English language.

And what does having letters after their name actually allow them to add to a debate about indefinable things such as a god who we never see? Did Plato have letters after his name?

It points to the fact that they've done a significant amount of research in a field that is generally applicable to the issue they're weighing in on. Dawkins doesn't really, since he's a biologist by trade - but given that he's an evolutionary biologist, he's more than familiar with the ways in which religion can be misused. Personally, I'd rather he did a bit more writing straight science, since I already agree with his views on religion and atheism and I don't know as much as I'd like to about genetics and we could do with more accessible books on science that don't patronise, try to make it sexy, or dress it up with mumbo jumbo. That said, I think Dawkins is doing a great deal of good in getting a rational viewpoint across.

Did Plato have letters after his name?

Plato was considered one of the foremost authorities of his day - he's exactly the kind of academic I'd imagine you'd dislike were he around today. And it's an indictment of the Government's shoddy attitude towards higher education that if he were around, even Plato couldn't get funding...

At 1:41 AM, Blogger eejut said...

misusing the english language?

no, you're missing the point im making entireley.

Its about respect to other peopes minds, beleifs and 'truths'.

(though, the truth of the language, of the very words, is of the meaning people are putting into them, not what the words themselves actually mean. Much like faith and belief and truth. Truth is relative. Facts are relative. Language is the most relative of all.)

Find a devout -lets say- catholic. They know god exists. Find me. I know god doesnt exist. Niether of us has proof beyond what is entirely true to us. Thats all we need, and thats all we'll ever have.

This isnt about facts, as facts are entirely irrelevent to a discussion on the existence of god. Theres no way to prove there is one, theres no way to prove there isnt. Anything a religious person points to as proof, a non-believer will point to as something else entirely. Anything else a non-beleiver points to as proof of the non existence, is just as flawed.

Its unprovable either way.

So all thats left, as i keep saying, is belief.

People who build arguments around god on the grounds of some scientific facts or concrete proof are proving nothing and never will.

Now, all that said, back to knowing it for a fact...

Find me that devout religious person. They know god is there, they feel him/her/it. What right do you, i, or Dawkins have to tell them -based on nothing more than our own unprovable beleifs- that they're truth isnt true? Its true to them, its a fact to them.

Its not a fact to us. So what?

As for knowing if there is a force up there controlling our lives...why care? Theres too many fights we can win down here to spend time fighting over whats up there. And if you dont beleive there is a god, if you're now labelling yourself an atheist and all that, why spend time trying to prove the case either way? I think many people are protesting too much.

I dont beleive in God. Belief is the only proof we can have in this instance. Therefore God doesnt exist. So i'm not going to spend time trying to define a being that doesnt exist.

It does exist to others though, and i respect that. The world is big enough.

Dawkins isnt getting a rational point across, which is my sole problem with him.

I agree with many of his points, and any time he wants to take a torch to organised religion, i'll light it for him.

But to dress up his biased, unashamedly disrespectful ideas about the 'higher' issues, as universal fact is when he loses any claim to rationality.

When he descends to being downright condascending and offensive about peoples beliefs, he's just being a sixth form student trying to score cheap points.

I score cheap points a lot, but i dont dress any of them up as fact, and certainley not as rational.

Also, as Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, he has no claim to being objective in a discussion on religion. (Neither do i) But lets also remember, evolution is still simply the most plausible current explanation given the facts at hand. It could change. I can't see a better explanation presenting itself, but that doesnt mean it wont.

At the same time, there are millions of people around the world who know for a fact that evolution -some form of it- is a fact.

Funny that.

I dont really think you have any idea what kind of academics i do or dont hate, so i'll leave that one alone. I'll leave funding well alone aswell.


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