Which atheist are you?

Paul points to Andrew Brown who has some curious list of “New Atheist” points. I shall take up the suggestion of treating it as a quiz, and find that I score:

* There is something called “Faith” which can be defined as unjustified belief held in the teeth of the evidence. Faith is primarily a matter of false propositional belief. No. I have faith in, let us say, the validity of science. Faith doesn’t rest on the thing-you-have-faith-in being false. Score 0.
* The cure for faith is science Very badly wrong. If there is a cure, it is more likely history or luxury: anyone who finishes Russells “history of western philosophy” would find it very hard to defend any particular Christian doctrine, as does anyone with surplus money (i.e., anyone with a TV or who goes on holiday) who fails to give it to the poor. Score 0.
* Science is the opposite of religion Yes, but I wish you hadn’t added and will lead people into the clear sunlit uplands of reason. Science is more what you get once you’ve reached the uplands, I don’t think it gets you there. Score 1.
* In this great struggle, religion is doomed. Agree that religion is doomed on the long term, but it will be killed by increasing prosperity and worldliness, not by science (except insofar as science provides that properity). Score 0.
* Religion exists. Isn’t this the bleedin’ obvious? It is essentially something like American fundamentalist protestantism, or Islam. More moderate forms are false and treacherous. While I’m perfectly happy to say “*if* I believed in a religion, I’d believe in a proper one that made you smite people rather than give them cups of tea” I can’t quite see how atheists can dictate to religious folk what their religion is supposed to look like. All fundamentalist religions are doomed, because they cannot possibly produce a self-consistent message that makes any kind of philosophical sense. It is obvious, for example, that nothing that makes sense as a god could possibly require people to gather in special buildings to worship while speaking a dead language. This is why the C of E works. Score 0.
* Faith, as defined above, is the most dangerous and wicked force on earth today. This is just stupid. Score 0.

So, I score 1/6, which practically makes me a deist. Hey ho.

I rather like “most believers already know what excuses to make for the apparent absence of dragons or gods, even as they claim belief in them, so they’re keeping a map of the real world somewhere”.

13 thoughts on “Which atheist are you?”

  1. Hmm. That was a fairly irritating article… I didn’t notice it when it came out.

    I’m quite sure that Dawkins, Hitchens, etc. wouldn’t agree with the majority of those points, either; I wonder if any of them responded.

    Like you pointed out, saying “faith is a false propositional belief” is an obvious logical fallacy. Just because you believe something without sufficient evidence doesn’t make it false; it just means you don’t know.

    And even the mini-quotes he provides don’t seem to support the summaries he makes… ah, well. At least he got a lot of comments in response.


  2. Your response to the first one is nonsensical. I suppose you *could* have “faith” in science but you don’t *need* faith to believe in science. Science can be used to reliably predicts real-world results. That is a strong basis for an informed and reality-based belief that the scientific method is a good way to discover and validate knowledge.

    The point you bring up in your response to the second one is interesting but I don’t see why you feel the need to disagree with the second statement without giving any reason why. Were you just feeling contrary? You make a strong, if inaccurately worded, statement about security (a more specific form of non-science-knowledge “prosperity”) being a strong antidotee to faith in authoritarian dogma but then you fail to recognize that History (and particularly using history to analyze current events and predict future events) is science, make an ad hominem argument (I haven’t noticed hypocrisy stopping Christians from promoting their values), and never say anything about how science isn’t an antidote to faith.

    Your response to the third one seems to be lost in some kind of semantic zen-like confusion? If belief in and practice of science is the top of the hill how is science being demonstrably accurate not the path up the hill and what is? Without verifiably accurate data all the logic, ie reason, in the world won’t help you get anywhere desirable. Reason isn’t the path to science; science is a prerequisite for reason being useful. I would say that Science -> Reason and Science + Reason = ~”sunlit uplands” whereas the analogy you responded to said “reason = sunlight uplands” so I don’t really agree with the original analogy either but but your response to it makes even less sense.

    I’m not quite sure what you mean by “wordliness” that isn’t “knowledge and belief in science”. If you simply travel around observing nature, people and cultures without a bedrock of scientific knowledge and an attempt to be skeptical and unbiased you’re likely to see a lot of religious people and amazing mysterious things and commit confirmation biased connections between religiosity and prosperity/happiness/awe over and over again. You make a very good point, again, about the link between security and low levels of religiosity but you once again fail to recognize that education, ie worldliness, is SCIENCE-based education and that any definition of worldliness that omits science does the opposite of what you claim.

    I think it’s somewhat valid to point out to someone that their religion is a silly watered down version of another religion. Arguing that atheists can’t do it because they are atheist is a circumstantial ad hominem argument (and silly). Fundamentalist religions actually *can* produce self-consistent messages and can do so more easily than so-called moderate religions. It’s that it’s much harder to be fundamentalist and friendly to science and pluralism at the same time and that’s why we have newer versions of these religions that seek to avoid making any strong statements about anything. Defining god as an individualistic, fatherly entity who wants to be worshiped and made a list of arbitrary rules makes perfect sense (if you ignore that that’s no evidence that the dude actually exists and all the evidence that the rules were made up by people to support a ruling class) as we see this sort of thing happen all the time. Saying “god is love” or some other new-agey religious claim and that this somehow forms the basis of a behavior code is what makes no freaking sense. You’ve got it completely backwards.

    You might have a good point about faith being the most wicked force on earth but you don’t explain it at all. The person who wrote it didn’t explain it either though… I think their point was probably that the moderate religious folks fundamentally support the ignorance of the extremists and that their combined flouting of science + reason in the name of faith is the most dangerous thing on earth. While you might be able to argue that it’s several rungs down the list and that some other thing is the most dangerous thing it’s not a “fucking stupid” idea that ignorance is bad for us.

    It seems like you didn’t really think about these things very hard and concentrated on being contrary and ironic when you made your response but now I have so I thank you. Being contrary can be very valuable but you must do so with a great deal of thought and without an explanation it’s just arguing. Striving for irony is a bad strategy that often leads to pointless, if not outright incorrect, positions. Watch out for the ad hominem fallacies (especially when you accidentally apply them to yourself).


  3. Where we diverge most clearly is: Science is the opposite of religion.
    No they operate in different fields that hardly intersect – more orthogonal than opposites.

    [I agree orthogonal is better than opposite. But I’m interpreting opp to mean orth in this context, or close enough – this is english we are speaking, after all -W]

    That gives me a score of 0 compared to your one. But where does this leave me? As an old atheist rather than a new athiest? or as a religious fanatic rather than an athiest?

    On the “will lead people into the clear sunlit uplands of reason” part, I think it is more a case of religion exists because religion works in a ‘survival of the (jigsaw) fittest’ sense. So it is the people that believe neither in religion nor in above ‘religion works’ that are leading people away from the sunlit uplands.


  4. I always wonder why atheists, especially of late, seem so passionate about getting everybody to believe in them.


  5. Great. Now we can have a massive comment thread discussing the finer semantic distinctions between the various meanings of the word “faith” and several possible partial synonyms.

    The usual argument goes “you don’t have faith in science, you have trust in science” followed by the assertion that faith refers specifically to unjustified beliefs.

    Mirriam-Webster says:

    1 a: allegiance to duty or a person : loyalty b (1): fidelity to one’s promises (2): sincerity of intentions
    2 a (1): belief and trust in and loyalty to God (2): belief in the traditional doctrines of a religion b (1): firm belief in something for which there is no proof (2): complete trust
    3: something that is believed especially with strong conviction ; especially : a system of religious beliefs


  6. Most people probably do mean trust in science rather than faith but that does not mean that a subset of people cannot also have faith in science.

    It may be helpful to take this away from religion (and science). Only a true football supporter will keep the faith and continue to support ‘their’ club when they are doing badly and demotion is highly probable. Doing this does not necessarily mean their faith in the club is wrong nor does it mean the club will avoid demotion. It is not about the faith being right or wrong it is about a matter of belief (and probably a bit more than just belief).

    If I have belief but not faith then I am more likely to change my mind about it but I would suggest this is characteristic of the difference rather than being a defining feature. The difference between belief, trust, and faith is probably a state of mind that is difficult to define but I would suggest it is more orthogonal to right/wrong.


  7. The narrow definition of ‘faith’ that Brown uses, although put in the mouth of some straw atheist, is essentially a provocative redefinition of the sense used in the familiar ‘knowledge denies faith’ trope spoofed by Douglas Adams. (There’s nothing disputable about William’s own statement, it’s just not a response to Brown’s because it’s taking a different definition of the word ‘faith’.)

    Personally, I could strongly agree with or equally strongly disagree with almost all of those points, depending on the exact semantic interpretation placed on all the terms. Of course, that interpretability makes them trivially true as descriptions of common atheist positions:) However, I can’t help but think it hopelessly optimistic to think that religion is doomed… except to the extent that human life is, at any rate:)


  8. I like the phrase The Poor Man Institute uses for articles like Brown’s: “Another battle in the Global War on Straw.”


  9. William

    your orthogonal comment reminds me of the Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NoMa) concept of Stephen Jay Gould and we shouldn’t forget Kuhn’s incommensurability.

    Sorry to be scientific, but shouldn’t you define religion and science before beginning this kind of speculative turf war.

    Grokking Durkheim’s definition of religion (sans Deity) leads you into a very complex state of affairs.

    “A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e. things set apart & forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (Durkheim from Wikipedia)

    Now discuss science and religion.

    [But what does unified mean? Certainly not that all have to believe the same, or that those beliefs are self-consistent. All you can do is push the undefined further back -W]


  10. W – not necessarily – it’s not talking about an RoE – religion of everything. The definition states “A religion”

    It should be unified within its creeds/beliefs/values – so each of the 180+ sects of Puritanism/Protestantism in the 17th Century would have had a slightly different set of beliefs. Not to mention the People’s Front of Judea!

    Technically they do have to ‘profess’ to believe the same within the bounds of theological debate. And that’s where Popes, written creeds etc come in. Luther was mainly protesting about the behaviour of the priests not their beliefs.

    Self-consistency – that’s perhaps another matter. Are you talking about logical self-consistency or behavioural or what.(e.g. the IRA as Catholics and thou shalt not kill).

    The point is that the sacred and the profane are defined by each religion creating rituals and taboos and so on. Durkheim studied the aborigines and therefore dropped the need for a deity which makes it more applicable to budhism etc.

    My more subtle and incendiary view is that if one is not careful, the trimmings of science and scientific hubris mean that viewed from far enough up, there are elements of a belief system. Whilst this logically seems superior to religion (although there is a problem with that statement in NoMa terms) – if you don’t accept the possibility of fallibility in science then one is worryingly exhibiting the symptoms of scientific religiosity. That’s my PoV. I am a scientist who doesn’t per se worship science. In the long run it provides a superior outcome (not necessarily closer to truth) but in the short run it is as prone to the vices, virtues and chaos of any human institution.


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