Tuesday, 23 January 2007

10 Myths about Theism and the truth behind them

Sam Harris has recently written the ten myths about atheism and the truth behind them. As an article it is to the point (at least shorter than this one!) and pretty much most of the arguments I wholeheartedly agree with, indeed I do not think there is much wrong with it except for one thing - it appears too defensive to me. Indeed, as Harris would I think agree, the idea of a collective group called atheists, who hold all these supposed views is a classic strawman argument. There simply is no-one who has these purported views, it is a myth perpetuated by stereotypical theists. Now, it is usually the case, that in strawman arguments, the features that are selected and emphasised and that are argued should be rejected, are specifically the ones that are of concern to the argument creators and over which, they are either particularly uncomfortable or otherwise fail to comprehend the real issues. Considered this way, strawman arguments can tell you more about the creators of the argument than the target under criticism!

This is what I want to do here. I want to repeat Harris' themes with my own responses and with a different emphasis, throwing back these accusations to the creators of them. That is I would like to present 10 myths about theism and the truths behind them. It is useful first to read Harris' essay and then this one. As you will see one cannot easily invert all the claims back to theism but, as and when difficulties arise, this casts further light and understanding, on the underlying issues and myths.

1. Theists hold that life is meaningful

Life is meaningful, if and only if, you follow the commands of God or Allah, as relayed by Jesus or Mohamed respectively. We are to be judged based on our acts here (which some of us have no choice but to follow wherever it leads us), but only as to whether we follow some inexplicable, immature, inconsistent and incoherent instructions. Failure to do so will lead to an eternity of never-ending suffering without release or mercy but if you follow it you will live in eternal bliss, possibly with a bunch of virgins to ravish for ever and ever (isn't this the ultimate ravers' or adolescent teenager fantasy?) This is the meaning of life, that's it! It does not matter what positive contribution you make in this world: endeavour to discover a cure for or prevent disease, stop wars, save lives; reduce discrimination, persecution or injustice; help your neighbours, friends, family or strangers; start a family, teach the young, assist the ill and aged; bring pleasure to the few or many through music, art, literature, dance, theatre, humour or film; enjoy a sunset or sunrise, be in awe over the beauty of nature, indeed any conceivable way to make this world a better place, none of it means anything and all counts for nought - if you are not following these instructions then however many good acts you do you are going to hell, all your good acts are meaningless! All you must do here is follow these instructions, as this is the only way this world counts in the greater scheme of things, which is otherwise completely insignificant in comparison to what eternity in heaven or hell is.

Theists are wont to call others', who don't hold their views, lives meaningless for a very simple reason, it diverts attention from the real truth behind their own claims. A more meaningless explanation of life in this world, than the theist's one here, is truly difficult to imagine!

2. Theism is responsible for the greatest crimes in history

The attempt to compare theistic atrocities to those of the 20th century is most significant in that theists are saying "atheism" is worse implying that they are admitting they have been bad as well ! There are two key problems with this. First one is not comparing like with like, if one is going to compare bad acts of humanity you need to normalise them for population size differences at different time periods, however distasteful it is to do this. For example the highly religious Thirty Years War between Catholics, Lutherans and Calvinists lead to the death of between 15% and 33% of the German population - in modern terms this is the equivalent of between 13 and 27 million people! However one will probably get nowhere by creating a set of normalisation tables to compare atrocities from different epochs. The second issue is how many, if any, were due to atheism? This almost makes no sense but struggling to make this a coherent idea one has to remember it is simply a myth without foundation that the Nazis were atheist, they were quite the opposite! As for the various brands of communism, they are not alone in suppressing one religion to be replaced by something else, remember the Thirty Years War! Just because communists said they were atheists is no different to theists claiming life can only have meaning through them or theirs is the only morality. One has to see what the results actually are and it is easier to understand communism as a different form of religion where the Party has replaced God. Again one will probably get nowhere pursing this line saying which "side" is actually responsible for these crimes. Really this whole comparison debate is a waste of time and is best forgotten but leads to one important insight.

This is, that it is not theism itself, which is a problem but how this is instantiated with supporting protection and persuasion practices. One can replace the primary belief in a single god with one in, say, a state, party, class or race whilst still retaining similar protection and persuasion practices. When looked at this way this is more or less what has happened in modern fascist and communist states (but lets ignore lists of atrocities please). To the extent that theism is an origin and an existing legitimisation of such protection and persuasion practices, then we need to free society from the hold of further and continued legitimisation of such practices. Even if we succeed there are still other man-made tragedies that can occur but we would be better able to deal with them . This myth and the atheist counter-myth only divert our attention from this real and important issue.

3.Theism is dogmatic

Here it seems that theists admit they are dogmatic but then say "so are atheists". To use the old adage "two wrongs don't make a right". Anyway this is a fallacious argument as the whole point of dogmatism is both the holding of these unquestioned and unquestionable beliefs and the defending of these dogmas against those who would so question them. It is only by questioning beliefs that one can discover that some of them, at least, are flawed and should be rejected, replaced or revised. This is exactly what atheists have done. Of course, individuals of all stripes can be dogmatic, but is not something to be recommended under any circumstance.

It remains that theism has inadvertently admitted it is dogmatic with the implication that it is not a bad thing. But it is! The history of the defence of dogmatism has been littered with outrageous acts such as the suppression, repression, discrimination, persecution and annihilation of those bold enough to question these dogmas. And theists, amongst others, were and still are guilty of all these unjust and repugnant acts.

4. Theists think that without a designer then everything in the universe arose by chance.

This shows a blatant and fundamental misunderstanding of the discoveries both of our own personal experience of life through to the discoveries of science such as the most accurate theory yet discovered - quantum mechanics - and many others such as conservation laws, symmetry relations, dissipative structures, self-criticality, coherent structures, kinetics theory, reciprocity, complexity theory, auto-catalysis, natural selection, information theory, electromagnetism, chaos theory etc. all of which could be covered under broad terms such as self-organisation and where chance is just a figment of the human imagination.

In this case, as with point 3, the myth seems to be true. That is judging by many of the things they say about nature, some theists do generally believe it and their worldview is grossly and embarrassingly impoverished due to this.

5. Theism has no connection to science.

This certainly seems more true than the opposite as Sam Harris clearly points out. However there is nothing specific in science that can refute theism and if one wants, one can both hold theism and science in high regard. The uber-skeptic Martin Gardner used science in his daily life to critically examine empirical claims, whilst unabashedly admitting he is a theist and no scientist had the slightest problem with that. Dr Ken Miller is a well known catholic and ardent theist, who is also a Professor of Biology and an outspoken critic of Intelligent Design.

Better knowledge of science will probably lead to the conclusion that theism is unlikely to be true but only where the claims possibly leading from theism specifically lead to clashes with what we know to be the case otherwise and, then, it is not theism per se, but the surrounding beliefs and how they are held onto, that is the problem.

6. Theists are arrogant

Theists repeatedly expect to have special rights and dispensations contrary to all other groups over such things as: tax benefits; having state schools provide compulsory daily religious worship when the majority of pupils have no religion nor want one; expect all tax payers to pay to educate pupils with their own views at no or negligible costs to themselves; defend their discriminatory practices, allow protection of their hate speech which is otherwise not protected, and limit the free speech of others to criticise them; expect to have disproportionate and undemocratic representation in legislative and educational authorities; have states fund their ministries in hospitals at the cost of patients who don't want them; expect to have disproportionate free airtime to broadcast their views - this list could go on and on. Of course, none of this is based on any real justification, such as that, required by anyone else, to obtain anything like the equivalent benefits.

This myth is very obviously true.

7.Theists are closed to contrary evidence

Well here is the first inversion which clearly does not make sense and the original was "Atheists are closed to spiritual experience" which Sam Harris clearly shows is mostly untrue. It seems the best equivalent here is the above statement. Clearly if you are a theist like Martin Gardner or Ken Miller then this is obviously not the case. However generally theism does not encourage open debate and the use of reason in all areas of discourse but rather encourages faith with the witting or unwitting consequence of ignorance in important aspects of life. There are numerous videos and books on topics such as, most recently, intelligent design and all seem to cherry pick any scientist and idea that supports their cases and ignores (or is closed to) the other views. This is a pattern that can be seen repeated anywhere there is a perceived clash between theistic beliefs and science, the application of double standards in terms of being sympathetic to what one wants to accept and highly critical, if examined at all, of what one wants to reject. This is the desired result biasing the arguments for it, the exercise is question-begging in the extreme. This is quite the opposite of being reasonably open minded - examining and objectively evaluating competing alternatives - but rather encourages closed minded rejection of incompatible alternatives.

So yes on the whole many theists are closed to contrary evidence.

8. Theists believe that the truth is beyond human understanding

The classic answer to many probing questions as to why god did it is "god moves in mysterious ways" which is a way of confirming the above statement. Now, we do not know if all the mysteries of the universe are theoretically, let alone practically, capable of human understanding, but just because we do not know, does that mean we should give up before we try? We also do not know if we will like the answers that we may find, if we are capable of finding them at all, but does this mean we should give up and invent comfortable fictions instead? We may discover uncomfortable facts but we do not know this and even if we do find such uncomfortable facts, might we be better equipped, with real knowledge, to improve our world to deal with these uncomfortable realities? If we instead remain ignorant, might we not remain hostage and victim to these unknown and uncomfortable facts? History has repeatedly shown that by taking the optimistic view - that we can understand the world - has led to the most remarkable discoveries, with benefits and knowledge of our world. For sure, this has both led us to some worrying issues but we are better equipped to deal with them, even as some are the result of previous discoveries. If we had not taken this path what would the alternatives have been, to remain the victims of equivalents of the plague that decimated Europe in the Middle Ages? (Who knows, maybe if the Catholic Church had not stifled thought for 500 years we might have had suitable practices to deal with the plague back then?)

So yes on the whole many theists will hold this to be true, whilst continually benefiting from a huge range of aspects in society, that are the result of not holding this to be true!

9. Theists ignore the fact that naturalism is extremely beneficial to society

In a sense this is related to point 8 above. It has been what we can now call the research program of methodological naturalism, that has led to all these discoveries, inventions, knowledge and technologies that we can all benefit from. Remember that methodological naturalism is not a world view and is compatible with theism (although many who practice it are metaphysical naturalists, some as already mentioned, are not). It is the assumption that we can detect natural phenomenon and identify natural causes using natural methods alone. And it is to the same research program that we can both detect the dangers of our excesses and the most likely means to deal with them. Of course, to put these into action is down to the beliefs and politics of everyone and this is not helped, if many are crippled in their ability to understand these issues, due to their theistic beliefs...

So, yes again, on the whole many theists do ignore the benefits of (methodological) naturalism and do look elsewhere, rather than here, for how to deal with pressing ecological and others issues, that affect this world today.

10.Theism provides a basis for morality

Theists claim theirs is the basis not just for morality, but for the best or even the only morality. This is a big topic to cover in one paragraph but here goes with just three points. First theists need to answer Plato's Euthyphro dilemma "Is it good because god commands it or does god command it because it is good?". For example it would be defined as good if god commands them to kill other groups just because he commands it - oh yes he has done that, doesn't he? Choosing the first horn of the dilemma is one of the most immoral choices anyone could make! If one does take the second horn instead, then they are pursing a more reasonable approach but this is not true theistic morality, although the following two points still apply. The next one is that there is the idea of heaven and hell as the ultimate carrot and sticks to make one behave morally. Well most people do not need such illusory incentives to behave well. Indeed most regard better moral behaviour as doing it because it is good not because one thought it was one's duty to or to avoid punishment or disapproval if one did not. Finally theists are led to believe that one cannot be moral without theism, in fact when they think this, they are saying about themselves that they would be murders, thieves and liars if god had not told them it was bad. If any theist really believes this then please remain a theist (but still try to ignore god when he does tell you to murder)!

No-one needs to have a universally agreed moral system to recognise that this is hopelessly flawed and, frankly, a downright immoral system on its own terms. Just because one claims to be moral does not mean that one is moral and this is the case here. Contrary to theists claims, that not only is this not the basis for the only morality, it is not the basis for the best morality, in fact it is not the basis for any morality at all!


So on the whole when we invert these myths about atheism, all of which are false, back to the equivalents applied to theists, loosely defined as stereotypical Christian and Islamic theists, (remember we are not trying to create a strawman here, but just respond to one, I am not arguing that all these are necessarily held by such stereotypical theists, only that they are likely to be) most of these myths are true. However for all of those, this is nothing to be proud of, quite the contrary, they should be embarrassed to hold these views as they are possible impediments to making society work.

There are three exceptions. The first being the 'who has been responsible for more atrocities "debate" ' which is distasteful and diversionary. I will take the higher moral ground here and so make no final point on this. Most tellingly are the two myths that pretty much everyone else would agree are just myths, that is they are false, namely that theism provides a basis for (a better) morality and theism makes life meaningful. Theists need to be open-minded and so examine the possibility that these claims are not true, but one can see that is a very difficult thing to do, because if they do this, and decide these are false, then what is the point of their theism?


the Finnie's said...

Having just read this post and then the one immediately preceding it I then returned to this post and your quote: "Now, it is usually the case, that in strawman arguments, the features that are selected and emphasised and that are argued should be rejected, are specifically the ones that are of concern to the argument creators and over which, they are either particularly uncomfortable or otherwise fail to comprehend the real issues. Considered this way, strawman arguments can tell you more about the creators of the argument than the target under criticism!" My immediate thought was 'Touché'. Atheism is as much a faith position as theism, just as science is essentially a set of beliefs or a creed. Interestingly, sociologists/anthropologists/biologists have yet to discover any society anywhere which is atheistic. Nature lends itself to theism.

martino said...

Hi thanks for visiting.

Faith requires belief, how can not having a belief be a faith position?

Based on your last line, I presume you agree that communist states had the communist faith!

Bob said...

Even for actual claims that are generally 'atheistic', like naturalism, or rationalism, which can't be described as "non beliefs" in the same way that atheism can, that still doesn't mean that they are faith claims.

If faith is a way at coming to or holding to a position, that doesn't mean that all positions are "faith-based". And not only negative positions like atheism, but positive positions like naturalism and rationalism, need not be "faith-based" either.

There's also an insidious bit of hypocrisy in the theist "tu quoque" argument that atheism is a faith claim. When it suits a theistic interlocutor, faith tends to be a wonderful, positive virtue, and we hear things like "Without faith, life is meaningless." But if we criticise the having of faith positions, then suddenly everything including atheism is a faith position!

You can't have it both ways! You can claim that faith is a virtue exclusive to the theist, or you can claim that faith underlies any position.

martino said...

Great point Bob and thanks for visiting

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

The only faith many Atheists have is a faith in science.

That is because we know that if we understood what a biologist was doing fully, we would inevitably looking at many empirical pieces of evidence.

We understand and appreciate the scrutiny that goes on in science before something today is even deemed a theory.

martino said...

Hi BEAJ I have visited your site often.

May I draw your attention to a previous post
To quote paragraph two there:
"We are familiar with equivocation of the term faith. It has historically been synonymous with trust and confidence, but it's religious use today puts it into a separate category, where it means belief without, or in spite of, evidence. So when arguing against a religious faith position and they respond along the lines of "but you have faith in science" is equivocation - using a different meaning of the word as it if were the same word - since one might have some trust and confidence but specifically not faith, as defined above, in science, such trust being based on at least some evidence and is not unconditional."

Proteus454 said...

And not only negative positions like atheism

Hey, who are you calling negative 8b

Chris said...

Regardless of religious considerations, the only difference between theism and atheism is that the atheist will say I do not know in the absence of clear evidence whilst the theist will assume the work of an intelligent designer on question such as "How did the universe begin?". To say that theists or atheists are responsible for more or less crimes than the opposite group is childish and ignorant of the intricacies of the human nature, let alone arrogant. Is it unreasonable, fearful or dangerous to assume the possibility of God or to be a dualist in the face of questions that science has yet to resolve? Certainly not! People have a right to believe in whatever they feel being truth. This indeed also applies for atheists presenting physicalism as the only valid interpretation of the universe as if the whole of known and unknown science should fit the paradigm... What is unreasonable, fearful and dangerous is to take side and blame others for societies problem or try to force ones own beliefs and prejudice upon others, behaviour that some atheists or theists seem to manifest too often. Wouldn't it be a good idea if atheists were showing an example of tolerance, openness and humility by discussing openly of science and religion without assuming that they are right in the first place? Or maybe they are just on a crusade of their own...

martino said...


"Wouldn't it be a good idea if atheists were showing an example of tolerance, openness and humility by discussing openly of science and religion..."
By answering words with words this is exactly what naturalists like myself are doing.

"without assuming that they are right in the first place?"
It is the "other side" opponents who seem to make these type of assumptions not me, my arguments lead to conclusions based reason and evidence and I most specifically do not start with such as assumptions.

"Or maybe they are just on a crusade of their own..."

It is of great concern to us that on the other side words are answered with repression, suppression, persecution, censorship, discrimination, violence and worse. If I am crusading against anything then it is that type of behaviour.