Saturday, September 12, 2015

Atheism 101 - An Interview with an Atheist

If you are an atheist, you often hear the following in conversations with theists.
Atheists believe there is no God. For atheists, that there is no God is a fact. 
Atheism is also a belief. Atheism is just as much a religion as any other. 
If there is no God, then anything goes! Atheists are immoral!
Did this universe just pop into existence from nothing?
In this blog post, I take (leading) questions from an imaginary theist friend and answer them. Note that this post focuses on where atheists stand rather than comprehensively arguing for atheism.

What is atheism?
Atheism is simply a lack of belief in God(s).
Don't atheists believe that there is no God?
Atheists don't see sufficient evidence or reason to believe in deities. Hence a lack of belief.
But isn't that Agnosticism?
Agnosticism and atheism deal with two orthogonal issues - knowledge and belief. An agnostic is one who claims insufficient knowledge. So, a person could believe in God and still take the position of agnosticism - belief in spite of insufficient knowledge. Or not believe because of insufficient knowledge. Or claim sufficient knowledge for belief or non-belief.
But isn't the dictionary meaning "the ​belief that ​God does not ​exist"?
Yes, traditionally atheism has been defined as the belief that God does not exist. Some dictionaries do define it so (Cambridge Dictionaries OnlineOxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary). Some provide both the definitions (Merriam-Webster, Oxford Dictionaries). 
The way I defined it, as an absence of belief is how modern atheists define it. The word atheist originates from the Greek word 'atheos', which simply means 'without theos' (god). This reflects how we use it today.
You seem to stop short of saying outright that there is no god. Why?
Very good question. I strongly suspect there is no God. So, while I am comfortable in saying that there is no God or gods, I certainly allow for the possibility that I might be wrong. Most reasonable atheists do (Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins)!
Why do atheists not believe in God?
Let me explain briefly, why I don't believe.
Over the history of humankind, we have worshipped many gods, many of whom we accept today as imaginary - Osiris, Zeus, Ahura Mazda... There are several religions that flourish today, each with their own gods. The fact is, none of these gods have any credible evidence. None of the claims have substance. This is true of Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism. Theists often make claims of prayers being answered, of illnesses being cured, of visions of God, of trips to heaven. None of these claims have ever been substantiated.
The religions often contradict each other. A feature of modern monotheistic religions is insisting that their God is the only true one. Christians do not believe in the gods of Hinduism, Jews do not believe in the Holy Trinity. Atheists just go one step further. They don't believe in any of the gods.
When pushed for evidence, the god-hypothesis is usually tweaked until it tends to resemble an unfalsifiable hypothesis. Deism is an example where supernatural intervention by God is discarded and a creator God who largely remains aloof is posited. Alternatively, God is said to work in mysterious way. God is untestable. Anything that will accommodate God's deafening silence. A God who we can not perceive is indistinguishable from an imaginary one!
The universe seems to work in ways that does not suggest there is a benevolent deity watching over us. There is too much pain and suffering and no noticeable answers to prayers. Nature simply does not care about our feelings. This is strong evidence that there is no benevolent deity.
Depending on who you ask, the definition of God is quite fluid varying from vague ideas like 'life force', 'love', 'unknowable', 'the universe',  to  Yahweh, Jesus, Allah, Krishna... Falsifying something that is ill defined is a fools errand. Hence, atheists respond with, "your hypothesis, you substantiate it".
But then, you can't prove that there is no god!
Sure. Try the thought exercise of disproving Santa Claus, especially a Santa that works in mysterious ways and can not be tested! 
The best we can do is to look at the evidence and see what we can infer from it. Atheists conclude from the evidence we have that the god-hypothesis holds no water.
However, this conclusion is provisional. But unless new evidence or new arguments emerge, disbelief in God is our position.
Isn't your atheism a belief a religion in itself?
A lack of belief is neither a belief nor a religion. Just like not collecting stamps is not a hobby.
If everything in this world evolved naturally, who created nature? How could it all have come from nothing?
Well, to that I say, if God created everything, who created God? Is there a God-God who created God? If so who created God-God? This leads to an infinite regress. We have theologians who go through mental gymnastics to get out of this and just try to define God as "uncreated". They imagine that such an imaginary construct constitutes evidence.
The origin of this universe is something scientist are still studying. We don't know for sure if there was a beginning. We do not know if ours is the only universe. None of what science has established so far as facts requires us to posit a God.
So, if there is no God, then anything goes! Is that what you want?
Well, two points. Firstly, just because you don't like the conclusion does not make the conclusion invalid. Secondly, we are social animals. We have evolved to live together, abide by rules. We can be moral without God. Scandinavian countries that are highly non-religious score very high on the happiness index and are relatively quite peaceful societies. Surely, this wouldn't be the case if atheists were immoral beings.
It is just that our morality is not defined by or based on a religion or a holy book like the Quran or the Bible (thank goodness!).
Theists often are taught morality in tandem with religion. They are taught to be moral because God wants them to be moral. For someone who has always lived with this mind set, it is probably natural to think that if you take God out of the equation, then all morality goes away too.
What if you are wrong? Aren't you afraid of going to hell?
Atheists think that hell is an imaginary place for the same reasons that they think god is an imaginary being. People are not, in general, afraid of imaginary gods or imaginary places.
But what if you are wrong? Is it not better to just bet on God?
Sure, this is what is famously called "Pascal's wager". Firstly, if I do not believe, I can't just force myself to believe. Acting as if I believe is unlikely to fool a God! This is essentially the only intellectually honest option for me. 
Also, this wager implies that there are just two options. But in reality there are a multitude of options. If the Islamic God is the real one and you place your bets on Jesus, you are going to the Islamic hell. If you choose Allah, you are in trouble if the Christian trinity turns out to be the real deal. And so on.
If you don't believe, what do you have to live for?
Atheists believe they have one life. We should all try to live it to the fullest. We live for our family and friends. We live to have fun. Books, movies, vacations, good food, family time, friends, sex! 
We have everything to live for and nothing to die for!
Edited and updated on 18-Sept-2015 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Science vs Religion

In a social group that I am part of, we had a science vs religion debate. Here are a few points that were raised.
  • Humans can use science just as much as religion to spew venom.
  • Religion causes more harm than good. However, we can't attribute all the ills done in the name of religion, to it. If not for religion, in most cases people would just use another tool.
  • Science is the perpetrator of more ills now, than religion.
The assertion seemed to be that science and religion are equally good or bad. I wanted to address that here.

Firstly, let me acknowledge that yes, we can use science for good and bad. The fruits of science, the nuclear bomb for instance, are a testament to how science can be wielded to cause evil. Yes, religion can also be wielded for good (e.g., religious charities) and bad (e.g., crusades, 9/11).

Secondly, there are political aspects to religious wars. Human greed for power and wealth is certainly a cause. However, religion does not get a free pass.

I'd think these are not controversial points.

What I take issue with is equating science with religion as if to say they are equally good or bad. The suggestion seems to be that, somehow one justifies or exonerates the other. This is a fallacious argument. Even if science were purely evil, religion does not get a free pass. If religion is bad, if it causes evil, we should try to reform it or get rid of it. One does not justify the other.

The comparison between science and religion is also an invalid one. The argument against religion is not just that it causes evil. The argument against religion is multi-pronged.

  1. The primary argument is that it makes fallacious claims about this universe. It makes assertions that cannot be demonstrated or justified. It is demonstrably false (e.g., the claim that prayer works) or unfalsifiable (e.g., god cannot be tested, god does not interfere in this universe).
  2. Even when religious beliefs and dogmatic requirements are well intentioned, and they often are, the baggage they come with taints then. We do not need bad reasons to do good. And to reiterate, bad reasons come with bad baggage. An example - catholic charities in Africa do much good. Yet they refuse to side with condoms and birth control and are culpable for exacerbating the spread of HIV and AIDS.
  3. We can do good, we can be charitable, we can love our neighbors, all without needing a religious dogma mandating that we do. The Scandinavian countries are a testament to this.

In short, religion is false and unnecessary for a healthy society. The more we reform religion to shed its baggage and its fallacious claims, the more it looks like, well, humanism and atheism.

Now let's turn to science. The knowledge of the universe that science gives us can indeed be used for good and bad. However, the similarity with religion ends there. Without the rise of modern science, we would be left behind in the middle ages or worse the stone age. Are we arguing that we are better off staying in the middle ages?

Science itself is a tool and is neutral. Science does not have a mind of its own. It does not force or coerce us to do good or evil. What it is used for is entirely in the hands of the one wielding it.

Science, unlike religion, is a tool for better understanding the universe. It is not false. While it is often wrong, it is self correcting. Again, unlike religion.

Science is why the society we live in has made progress, to a great extent conquered disease, and eradicated famine.

If we remove religion and religious dogma from our lives, we still can live healthy, peaceful, ethical and happy lives. We can live without fear and superstition.

If on the other hand, we remove science, we cannot overcome disease and poverty. Our evolving ethics is informed by science (e.g., homosexuality is a natural human expression and is not harmful) and we are all better off thanks to that.

In other words, science is nothing like religion and the comparison just does not hold. We need one; we need to move away from the other.

Notes:
  1. I have made a series of assertions in this post without rigorously defending then so that this post is not too long. But I believe each of these are quite defensible.
  2. The term religion is used quite broadly to include belief systems that refer to the supernatural.