Atheism Gets a Facelift?

Atheism Gets a Facelift?

  • Sumo

Today (5/26/10) I encountered, while online, an article bearing this title: “Does Atheism Need to be Rebranded?”

I wasn’t sure what to expect, having come to this article from a link on another site. But the topic was indeed atheism, and specifically one devotee’s campaign to improve atheism’s public image.

The reporter focused the views of a visual arts student in New York who operates a website called Illuminated Atheist  (illuminatedatheist.com). She described his site as a “media outlet and community for the modern, friendly atheist,” featuring “essays and artwork that explore the best aspects of non-belief.”

You can find the piece here.

The article, which originally appeared on fastcompany.com, included this statement from the student/proponent of atheism: “Atheism is quite often mistakenly seen as a cold and distant world, rather than the beautiful, important, and engaging philosophy that it is. Viewing the world in a rational manner, as we understand it through science, in no way removes the significance of life or the lives humans live, rather it gives us understanding and appreciation.”

Then the reporter chimes in with her own endorsement: “Does atheism need to be rebranded? Yes, it probably does. There’s the misconception that atheism robs the world of wonder. And while it’s hard to argue about what’s subjectively ‘wonderful,’ plenty of people love discovering the naturalistic explanations science provides. I think the logic of evolution and natural selection is a beautiful thing, and more inspiring, even, than an inflexible religious account that doesn't allow much room for further inquiry.”

The message comes across clear. Atheism has too long been wrongly cast as “cold,” unengaging, uninspiring, and unattractive—and hence held in unjust disrepute. The time has come to topple these unfair portrayals and let atheism’s compelling truths win the adherents it deserves. That is to say, drawing believers away from their faith.

At the time I encountered the article, 24 people had posted comments on it, and all 24 had given the article a thumbs up.

Maybe this puts me out of step, but I won’t be giving a thumbs up of my own.

I am a believer. I was once a nonbeliever myself, having fallen away from the faith in adulthood. But I studied and reasoned my way (back) into belief.

I know the sentiments atheists embrace. I embraced them myself. But they are not everything they seem.

Let’s consider, for one thing, the counterpointing of science against theism. That’s how we see the debate cast so often today. Faith versus science. It wasn’t always so. The faith-vs.-science dichotomy is a relatively recent trend, in terms of human history. Until as recently as the 19th century, science was not deemed a rival to religion, at least not in any serious sense. Philosophy, maybe. But not science—Copernicus and Galileo notwithstanding.

Regular readers of my work know that I have been a fan of the long-running ABC-television show Lost. The plotline in that series has made much of a competition between two main characters, John Locke and Dr. Jack Shepherd, who are at one point described as, respectively, a “man of faith” and a “man of science.”

That’s how the competition for human beings’ hearts and minds is framed today. Not only does popular culture treat science as the necessary, even obvious, alternative to faith, but the average noncommittal human being, in his common discourse, has come to pose the issue in those terms—that one either rests on faith, or rests on science.

But what does it really mean, to confront faith with a (presumably alternative) option known as science? We cannot take it to mean that Christians do not believe in science. All individuals in modern civilized society are more than accepting of science—we are dependent on it for our livelihoods and we observe it and put our “faith” (in the sense of trust) in it daily. So “science” in that sense cannot be what is meant here. Rather, we surmise that the atheist who speaks of science as an alternative to faith is speaking of science as, potentially, an answer to life’s ultimate questions. He is speaking of science as something from which to obtain answers—answers that the Christian likely would not accept—at least not in the way the atheist accepts them. If we are not dealing in such terms, then the whole question disintegrates into meaninglessness.

The atheist thinks of science as his viable alternative to the faith that comprises the believer’s mindset, in that, for the atheist, science will be the determinant that will yield whatever answers are to come his way, if answers are to be unearthed at all. How did we get here? Is there meaning to life? Is there life hereafter? Were we created by a divine being or did we simply come into existence as some kind of inexorable physical process that had no divine origins? The atheist might harbor doubts as to whether these questions will be answered, but he is convinced that if they are to be answered at all, they will be answered by science, not by any form of religion.

I hope I have stated the situation fairly. I have tried to make the question as clear as possible before assaying to answer it.

I believe that the faith-vs.-science proposition, if/when it is seriously posed before any individual, translates into a logical fallacy known as a “false dichotomy.” A dichotomy is (to cite the definition from the online source dictionary.com) “any division into two mutually exclusive, opposed, or contradictory groups.”

But to be more specific, this fallacy in question belongs to the class of false dichotomies known as “false opposites.”

Wikipedia defines “false opposites” as dichotomies that occur “when two extremes or opposites are presented in an argument, when in reality only one of those choices presented is, in actuality, physically possible. This usually occurs when a physically possible opposite gains an opposite through the human desire to constantly have a balance (through the creation of false opposites).”

It’s not that faith doesn’t exist. It’s not that science doesn’t exist. It’s that science, when placed in opposition to faith as a viable alternative to faith, disqualifies itself, by its own definition.

This might be better observed by looking at a different example of false opposites. Let’s consider the longstanding distinction made between the “sacred” world and the “secular” world. I submit that the same fallacy occurs there.

Here’s how dictionary.com defines “secular”: “of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred; temporal.”

Temporal, of course, means not eternal. It refers to that which is governed by time.

The way those two terms—sacred and secular—are used in common discourse, they stand for opposite poles of daily life. Perhaps, in many people’s minds, they stand for a two-partite division of all human affairs. Everything we encounter in our lives can be placed in the “sacred” realm or the “secular” realm. This makes for a handy way of making distinctions.

The secular-vs.-sacred dichotomy is so ingrained in most people’s minds today that people do not  trouble themselves over questions of its aptness.

But notice this: The sacred world does not define itself in terms of its differences with the secular world. In fact, the sacred world—the world of religion, of faith, of eternity and ultimate meanings—knows itself to be inseparable from the so-called “secular world,” a world that has sought a kind of separateness that it might know itself.

All things are part of God’s world, and all affairs—not just divine but human—are God’s affairs—sacred affairs. So the sacred does not differentiate itself from the secular. It is only the secular that differentiates itself from the sacred.

We see this in the way that the words are defined. We saw the definition of “secular,” above. Its entire meaning derives from an “all but.” All but the religious. All but the sacred. All but the eternal. It defines itself in negative fashion. The sacred world, however, defines itself without any regard for the secular, or even for the idea that such a thing as the secular could exist.

From this standpoint, then, the “secular” is a false opposite to the “sacred.”

We could probably, if we tried, find some question upon which the sacred is a false opposite to the secular. But such a question would not be one of ultimate meanings, and that is the subject that occupies us here.

In some of the sermons I have given, I have tried to establish in my hearer’s minds a deficiency that attaches to the word “secular,” in its popular use. I say this: “The secular world can be defined as the whole world, with eternity backed out of it.”

The whole world, with eternity backed out of it. So if someone in the world has decided that he lives by a purely secular worldview, then, whether he realizes it or not, his worldview will never bring him an avenue to eternity, nor a hope for achieving it. He might recognize that he has shunned religion, but he still might shelter some notion that somehow, in his journey through life, he will encounter some truth that will point him toward ultimate happiness, or at least some kind of grasp of the meaning of life.

But these things will always evade him, and they will do so because his only world—the secular world—is by definition a world that excludes these things.

This is what I mean by the idea of a false opposite. When we look at the secular world as opposed to the sacred world, we are not looking at two equal-but-opposite ways of answering ultimate questions. We are not looking at that because the secular world has taken itself out of such considerations.

Now, I submit that the same kind of false opposite pertains when we turn to the issue of faith-vs.-science. It is not so immediately clear, but it is there. Science defines itself rather the same as the secular world defines itself. Science defines itself more by what it is not than by what it is. Science restricts itself to only observable or measurable or detectable phenomena.

Science insists on confining itself to the five senses and to logic, while eschewing any measures that touch upon the metaphysical, the spiritual, the moral, the ethical, the ineffable, the eternal, the ethereal—any realm not reachable by the senses.

There is something unreasonable, illogical, in putting science up against faith, because science exempts itself from such considerations. It has always exempted itself from such considerations.

I raise these matters not so much because I think I might change the mind of any confirmed atheist. I fully expect that the confirmed atheist will go on shunning Christianity and other forms of religion. I’m not hopeful of swaying him by this discussion.

He may say that Christianity is false. He may say that science disproves Christianity’s accounts of the world. He may say that such disproving convinces him that Christianity is not worth following.

All that is possible, maybe even likely, for him. But if the atheist rejects Christianity and then says he is getting from science what he did not get from Christianity, he is only fooling himself. Science itself disavows such conclusions.

What I am more concerned about than the confirmed atheist is the unconfirmed, seeking individual who is torn between two choices. I am concerned that this individual not be told that his choice is between faith and science. It was never between faith and science.

The choice for him, and for anyone, is, first of all, between faith and disbelief. We all make that choice, whether we think we have or not. Only then does the nonbeliever take his solace (or not) from science. But whatever he takes from science is only what science has to give. And it is clear that science will have nothing of the most important questions in life.

The divide between atheism and theism has never changed. What the atheist gives up—and every atheist gives up something, whether he admits it or not—has never changed. It was said as well 181 years ago as it will ever be said. In his opening remarks of his 1829 debate with the atheist and social reformer Robert Owen, on the topic of “the Evidences of Christianity,” Alexander Campbell spoke these words:

"It is not," Campbell said, "the ordinary affairs of this life, the fleeting and transitory concerns of today or tomorrow: it is not whether we shall live all freemen or die all slaves; it is not the momentary affairs of empire or the evanescent charms of dominion—nay, indeed, all these are but the toys of childhood, the sportive excursions of youthful fancy, contrasted with the questions, What is man? Whence came he? Whither does he go? Is he a mortal or an immortal being? Is he doomed to spring up like grass, bloom like a flower, drop his seed into the earth and die forever? Is there no object of future hope? No God—no heaven—no exalted society to be known or enjoyed? Are all the great and illustrious men and women who have lived before we were born wasted and gone forever? After a few short days are fled, when the enjoyments and toils of life are over, when our relish for social enjoyment and our desires for returning to the fountain of life are most acute, must we hang our heads and close our eyes in the desolating and appalling prospect of never opening them again—of never tasting the sweets for which a state of discipline and trial has so well fitted us? These are the awful and sublime merits of the question at issue! It is not what we shall eat, nor what we shall drink, unless we shall be proved to be mere animals; but it is, Shall we live or die forever?”

Those “desolating and appalling prospects” are the starting points, the first principles, of the atheist. If he wants to "rebrand" atheism, so as to pull more believers into the ranks of the lost, then so be it, but I plan to have nothing of it. If he feels he is friendly and happy, then let him be friendly and happy. But I maintain that he will not sway me by such friendliness or signs of happiness, to the detriment of my faith and the loss of all that God has stored up for me.



One Response to “Atheism Gets a Facelift?”

  1. Gabriel Zachén says:

    Hi Jesse.

    It's nice that you are writing posts. I know many faithful people that do.
    However it troubles me that you are not addressing the arguments that stand against your own while you write.
    You think of yourself as a rational religious person do you not? I assume you want other people to think that too, as it's beneficial to your line of work.
    Now, to improve on your image as a rational religious person, I ,and most I would think, believe you have to address the proper arguments related to the subject in question.
    I will try to address as many points as possible in your post where I believe you have failed to do such.

    I'd like to start with the point you are making about science and religion, and the importance of science to the atheist. As well as the definition of science.

    "There is something unreasonable, illogical, in putting science up against faith, because science exempts itself from such considerations. It has always exempted itself from such considerations."

    By making this comment I assume you have read some theology on the matter? You may even have read Richard Dawkins (probably).
    Then you have read about the concept of NOMA? If not, well, it would seem that you support the concept and can argue for it.
    Stephen Jay Gould coined this acronym which stands for "Non-overlapping Magisteria". It basically says that the questions that religion pose are outside of the reach of science. Questions like the meaning of life, morality, etc.

    Richard Dawkins makes some very convincing arguments against NOMA in his book "The God Delusion". He says:
    "Why shouldn't we comment on God, as scientists? And why isn't Russell's teapot, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, equally immune from scientific scepticism? As I shall argue in a moment, a universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?
    ---
    I would prefer to say that if indeed they lie beyond science, they most certainly lie beyond the province of theologians as well... I am tempted to go further and wonder in what possible sense theologians can be said to Have a province... What expertise can theologians bring to deep cosmological questions that scientists cannot?
    ---
    It is a tedious cliché (and, unlike many clichés, it isn't even true) that science concerns itself with How questions, but only theology is equipped to answer Why questions. What on Earth Is a why question? Not every English sentence beginning with the word 'why' is a legitimate question. Why are unicorns hollow? Some questions simply don't deserve an answer... The fact that a question can be phrased in a grammatically correct English sentence doesn't make it meaningful, or entitle it to our serious attention. Nor, even if the question is a real one, does the fact that science cannot answer it imply that religion can... But if science cannot answer some ultimate question, what makes anybody think that religion can?
    ---
    Similarly, we can all agree that science's entitlement to advise us on moral values is problematic to say the least. But does Gould really want to cede to Religion the right to tell us what is good and what is bad? The fact that it has nothing Else to contribute to human wisdom is no reason to had religion a free license to tell us what to do. Which religion anyway? The one in which we happen to have been brought up? To which chapter, then, of which book of the Bible should we turn - for they are far from unanimous and some of them are odious by any reasonable standards."
    Dawkins then goes on to describe the horrific parts of the Bible and what parts we could adhere to.

    It would be interesting if you would argue for why NOMA is still viable, as it seems you are assuming it.

    On to the next part. The importance of science to an atheist.

    An atheist defines science, roughly, as logic and rationality, coupled with empirical evidence, but it basically hinges on logic as logic is the foundation of our reality.
    So for an atheist, science doesn't just involve research of various kinds, it also involves philosophy.
    You say that:
    "But if the atheist rejects Christianity and then says he is getting from science what he did not get from Christianity, he is only fooling himself. Science itself disavows such conclusions."

    I think it is presumptuous of you to say atheists are fooling themselves, without asking them for an opinion on the matter.
    I wonder, what is it one gets and doesn't get from religion? You might be referring to the 'ultimate' questions, like "Why are we here?" or "Where do we go after we die?".
    Scientific research might not for the moment be able to figure out these questions. But with philosophy, or rather, through logic, it's very much possible to answer these questions, and in many cases reach a more satisfying conclusion than the one derived from faith in the Bible.
    I would claim that every atheist finds his or her own way to an answer to the questions that haunt us.

    You also quote Campbell. An interesting character is he not? And he makes rather distasteful claims. You might yourself have spotted them. He arguments for religion in a positive way and contrasts it toward atheism, which he labels in a grossly negative way.
    You are yourself talking about false dichotomy in this post, even if it is uncalled for which I will come to later, so you can see the black and white thinking of Campbell here. He is posing the question (or answer/statement) in a way that says that the things that religion has, cannot be for atheism. I can see how a religious person can favour such a statement, for it is (as I believe) in the nature of religiosity to be afraid of being without ones religion. But it is fallacious and biased. It presumes that there can be no meaning without religion, that all is in vain. And most importantly, that these questions about the unknown are more important than our daily lives. Who says they are more important? I would say it is the biased view of the religious and the philosophical person, for it is hard for either to imagine a life without these questions. However, the truth is that many live their lives, content and happy, without answering these questions any further than: "I just want to be happy and enjoy my life".

    To return to the false dichotomy of which half your post is about. The false opposites. But before that I need to address another more fundamental issue of your post. It would seem that you equate "the secular world" (you even assume that there is such a thing) with atheists and scientists. I think it would be perhaps better if you just stuck to atheists/agnostics, no need to complicate matters with more parties.
    No matter. I quote:
    "This is what I mean by the idea of a false opposite. When we look at the secular world as opposed to the sacred world, we are not looking at two equal-but-opposite ways of answering ultimate questions. We are not looking at that because the secular world has taken itself out of such considerations."

    Here I just want to point out a fatal flaw in your reasoning. Atheists haven't taken themselves out of answering ultimate questions. They answer them in a different way admittedly, but still they answer these questions. The atheistic approach to the 'ultimate' questions is an approach lined with scientific rigour, in the way that they use logic and reason to find the answer that best suits them, and then compare this with other people.
    I think most atheists are philosophers also, I think they find these 'ultimate' questions more entertaining than any religious person could. For a religious person, the answer is in the scripture. For an atheist, the answer is a mystery, in many cases, a mystery that needs to be solved.

    I also read your last paragraph there. It reeks of contempt for a made-up concept.

    "If he wants to “rebrand” atheism, so as to pull more believers into the ranks of the lost"
    Firstly, you assume atheists are somehow 'lost'. Atheists, and active atheists in particular, are definitely not lost, for they are on a 'crusade' for the world, if you forgive the misusing of your word.
    Most atheist believes that the world will/would be a better place without religion. So in a sense they are 'crusading' against religion, but it's really grounded in actually helping other human beings. Not all atheists act that empathic one has to admit, but then it's part of being human, for far from all religious people are empathic or humane.

    Do atheists want to re-brand/label atheism? That's an understatement.
    Who created the label? Religion did. Religious people in the US call atheists the spawn of Satan, among other horrific things. And it's not just limited to name-calling. Atheists are discriminated worse than homosexual persons in the US.

    So, I'll end my comment with a straw man, generously lined with irony:
    I assume you want atheists to be discriminated? Of course religious people should have more rights than atheists, because they are so much better, they have a god and the atheists have none.
    The atheists shouldn't even be allowed to live in the US, or anywhere really. They should be burned at the stick along with the homosexuals and the wiccans.

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