Friday, March 21, 2008

No to an atheistic world

I’m an atheist, but I would never want to live in an completely atheistic world.

In this informal debate with Daniel Dennett, Alister McGrath opens by describing the ‘crisis of confidence’ that seems to be sweeping atheism. According to McGrath, atheist organisations are worried sick about the rise of superstition in society; there is a whiff of panic amongst atheists, a loss of faith of some sorts amongst unbelievers because – despite atheism’s aim to eradicate faith – religion is still on the rise. A similar theme threads its way through McGrath’s book, The Twilight of Atheism, in which he argues that atheism has had its day in the sun, and is currently on the decline.

As an atheist, am I experiencing a crisis of confidence? Well, the answer is no. There are two premises that form the basis of McGrath’s argument: (1) that the goal of atheism is to eradicate religion, and (2) that atheists somehow measure the legitimacy of their beliefs according to the influence that those beliefs have on society. My own beliefs are not dependant on these two points.

First, I don’t want to live in a society that is totally atheistic. It will be pretty boring if everyone believed as I did. There will be no debate, no counter arguments, no learning. I would hate to live in a world where only one idea reigns supreme, even if it is an idea that I hold dear. So what kind of change do I, as an atheist, want to see in society? Despite what McGrath might say, I don’t want to destroy religion. I believe that religion can contribute positively to society in many ways, and I’m not that naïve to believe that the removal of religion will usher in some sort of utopia for humanity. Rather, all I want – in the words of Dale McGowan in this interview – is to live in a world where being an atheist is totally fine, where non-belief is no longer a issue in the minds of others. I want to work towards a society where I can be accepted for who I am, not for what I believe.

Second, my non-belief is not dependent on the strength or influence of atheism worldwide. It can be argued that the recent surge of atheism – which some have termed “The New Atheism” – is simply a knee-jerk reaction to the unhealthy growth of religious power in the Muslim world and the United States. In a few years religion’s power in politics might decrease, and as a response vocal atheism will decrease also. Even if the number of atheists decline, I’m not worried, as my own beliefs regarding the supernatural are not dependent on the number of people who believe as I do. Rather, my beliefs are based on the fact that many religious claims do not seem to match what we observe in the world around us. Even if I was the only atheist left alive, and everyone else were theists, this wouldn’t change the fact that we can’t empirically detect demons and angels; that conception does not usually occur with one set of chromosomes; and that people don’t usually rise from the dead.

I’m not saying that McGrath is wrong here. There might be some hostile atheists who would like to see the eradication of religion, and there might be even fewer who are actively working to reach this goal. I hope that these atheists will never rise to power. If I’m ever brave enough, I will be one of the first to stand up against them if they do.

Return to Twilight of Atheism index page

5 comments:

CyberKitten said...

Kevin said: In this informal debate with Daniel Dennett, Alister McGrath opens by describing the ‘crisis of confidence’ that seems to be sweeping atheism.

Really? That's news to me.

Kevin said: According to McGrath, atheist organisations are worried sick about the rise of superstition in society; there is a whiff of panic amongst atheists, a loss of faith of some sorts amongst unbelievers because – despite atheism’s aim to eradicate faith – religion is still on the rise.

Well, I think that there is understandable confusion and surprise that after all this time religion doesn't seem to be declining as fast as some would like it to. Although the idea that 'religion is on the rise' might be arguable as you say it's not really a numbers game.

Kevin said: First, I don’t want to live in a society that is totally atheistic. It will be pretty boring if everyone believed as I did. There will be no debate, no counter arguments, no learning. I would hate to live in a world where only one idea reigns supreme, even if it is an idea that I hold dear.

Atheism (or theism) is only a very small part of life - or at least it should be. If the whole population of Earth was atheist I doubt very much if things would be very different on a day to day on the street sort of level. We'd still argue about other things and life wouldn't be more boring - though hopefully it'd be a bit more rational [grin]. Also other ideas would still exist. Not everything (or actually very much) depends on the God question.

Kevin said: Despite what McGrath might say, I don’t want to destroy religion. I believe that religion can contribute positively to society in many ways, and I’m not that naïve to believe that the removal of religion will usher in some sort of utopia for humanity.

I'm not in the business of destroying religion though I wouldn't lose a great deal of sleep if it just curled up and died in the night. Religion is neither the saviour of the world nor its doom so if religion did just disapear (much as I would like it to) I agree with you that utopia would *not* be following on its cold dead heels.

Kevin said: Even if I was the only atheist left alive, and everyone else were theists, this wouldn’t change the fact that we can’t empirically detect demons and angels; that conception does not usually occur with one set of chromosomes; and that people don’t usually rise from the dead.

Exactly. The veracity of a belief has nothing to do with the number of people who hold that belief. If I was the only atheist in the world it would make no difference at all to my lack of belief in God.

Cobus said...

What do you mean with "totally fine"?

It could either mean that Atheists no longer get burned on the stake simply for adopting the name "Atheist", or else it can move into the sphere of relativism, where everyone is just "totally fine" with everyone else, no matter what they say or do.

If the first, them I totally behind you. If the second, I wonder if this would be good. Most probably you have something totally different in mind, but this is my thoughts nontheless.

I think I'm quite open to those from other ideological bases than Christianity, but the more I struggle with it, the more I realize that being uncritically fine won't help us at all. The world need that I be critical, rather than totally fine. Although this believe (I think) also entails that others be critical about how I see things, in order to have a constructive conversation.

Our conclusions seem to be the same? So I guess the question just remain what is the meaning of being fine with those from different ideological bases.

Kevin Parry said...

Thank you both for your comments:

Cyberkitten wrote:
Atheism (or theism) is only a very small part of life - or at least it should be.

I agree with you on this one. I guess what I was trying to say in the post (and reading it through again I see I wasn’t too clear on this point) is that I would not like to live in a world where atheism has become the norm because it has been forced on the population, and where contrary ideas have been suppressed.

I guess if every single person became an atheist out of choice, then the concept of atheism would probably loose its importance, as there would be nothing in existence to compare it to :-)

Cobus wrote
It could either mean that Atheists no longer get burned on the stake simply for adopting the name "Atheist", or else it can move into the sphere of relativism, where everyone is just "totally fine" with everyone else, no matter what they say or do.

What I’m talking about in this post is freedom of conscience and freedom of religious belief. Both of these are protected by the South African constitution (as well as many other secular constitutions around the world). However, there needs to be some sort of balance. The individual is free to choose what they believe, as long as their beliefs don’t infringe on the rights of others. For example, I am free to be an atheist, but I cannot prevent you from attending church. Likewise, you cannot make a law that prevents me from buying alcohol on Sundays (I think this law was recently abolished in a few South African provinces).

By simply being atheistic, I’m not infringing on anyone else’s rights. There is nothing inherently wrong with atheism, as long as atheists are not forcing their beliefs on others. So my view is: a person can believe what they like, but what that person does (especially in relation to others) is what we should be wary of. I just came up with this thought this morning, so please shred it to pieces if you see any error in my thinking.

So what I’m trying to say in this post is that I don’t necessarily want to live in a world where religion has been abolished; rather, I want to live in a world where atheism doesn’t matter anymore, where it’s no longer a big deal to anyone. I want be able to announce, without fear, to a crowd of people (even Christians) that I’m atheist, and for them say in return: “That’s okay. We don’t mind. But lets chat about it.”

Hope I’m making sense here.

Cobus said...

a person can believe what they like, but what that person does (especially in relation to others) is what we should be wary of.

It rings a bell with the classical action/believe divide. At some point my beliefs influence others, and yes, I have to be wary of that. Classical examples are those of gender issues (which you also touch upon in your post today), but many others could be found.

Is it possible to hold a belief without it affecting others? Or is the problem rather when it affects others negatively, which again ask for conversation, "that's Ok, let's chat", to make sure that my beliefs isn't having a bad outcome for others?

CyberKitten said...

Kevin said: I guess what I was trying to say in the post (and reading it through again I see I wasn’t too clear on this point) is that I would not like to live in a world where atheism has become the norm because it has been forced on the population, and where contrary ideas have been suppressed.

Indeed. I don't think that many people would want to live in such a world. I would like to see atheism become the norm because people have come to that opinion through reasoned argument & debate. Such an Enlightenment is quite some time off though.

Kevin said: I guess if every single person became an atheist out of choice, then the concept of atheism would probably loose its importance, as there would be nothing in existence to compare it to :-)

Not really. There would still be the *concept* of theism & therefore the contrary concept of a-theism would still have a place. It's likely that people wouldn't call themselves atheists though.

cobus said: Is it possible to hold a belief without it affecting others?

Yes, but only if you keep it to yourself & don't let it affect your behaviour with other people in any way.