Saturday, 1 October 2011

Entitled to believe

This post is inspired by an article by one of my regular commentators, Forbsy, who wrote about "The ‘new’ atheism" a few days ago.  I am unable to leave comments there but I have some things to say about what has been published.

Forbsy has been reading the blogs of a number of atheists, and I am not writing this response in self-defence as I think she is mainly aiming her comments at those who are much less polite than me.

It is my view that anyone is entitled to believe.  They are free to believe whatever they like and this right is now more-or-less enshrined in human rights legislation.  The problem comes when they feel that they are entitled to follow their beliefs and to intervene in the lives of others.  When I say 'intervene' I don't mean 'saying things'.  I mean literally interfering in people's lives in irreversible ways - ways that go counter to the Confucius version of the golden rule:

"Do not do unto others what they do not want to be done to them"

Where did the concept of human rights come from?  Last week I asked a human rights lawyer and she tried to assure me that they came from the bible.  However, even the first few questions about that claim showed that she was not able to support the idea and she agreed that must have been other sources (although not actually accepting that the bible was not one of them). 

The concept of human rights certainly did not come from the Koran either.  It seems to come from secular philosophy.

Most, but not all, atheists are also agnostic and would be prepared to change their views in the event that sufficiently strong evidence came to light.  Some of us would need stronger evidence than others, and in a few cases the most hardened atheists actually claim that they can think of nothing that could convince them.  In my opinion, just thinking deeply about the topic would not lead me towards a belief in god, and indeed, deep thinking has had precisely the opposite effect on me.  I feel that this is consistent with most people's experience.  Two weeks ago at the march for a secular Europe I saw a man wearing a tee shirt carrying the slogan

"Don't pray in my school and I won't think in your church"

Personal revelation (or 'an encounter with the risen Jesus' as Forbsy puts it) is one of the types of evidence most often claimed.  People who have come to know god personally clearly have had evidence that has convinced them.  Their faith is not blind as they have had this experience.  Sadly though, this type of 'evidence' is only evidence for the individuals concerned.  I can't deny that they have experienced it, but it does not convince me in any way at all.  I can think of other explanations for the experience which are based on science and neurology.  I don't say that they are psychologically ill but I would say that the word 'deluded' describes the situation adequately without being offensive.  This really is not intended as an offensive term.  We are all easily deluded all the time.  For example, the TV picture appears to be moving when it is in fact a series of still photos played just fast enough to delude everyone (and no faster than necessary, as that would be wasteful).

Moving on, the terms 'militantly aggressive' and 'evangelistic' only make sense to most of us because they are the familiar techniques of many religions.  Christians are positively required to evangelise, and they have many ways of doing this.  Granted, on the whole they tend not to be as militantly aggressive as their islamic counterparts these days, but over the centuries they certainly have been.

When we call an atheist 'militantly aggressive' we mean that they have said something that you didn't like.  Some of them are rude, some highly offensive, but many use their words in a carefully measured and intelligent way.  In my opinion it would be clearly wrong to equate faith and lack of intelligence.  (You can see my further thoughts on this topic in Faithful Genius - a contradiction?)  When we say that religious apologists have been militantly aggressive we mean something quite different which shows that atheists are mere amateurs when it comes to the profession of aggression.

All the old arguments might indeed have been rehearsed over the history of religious thought in theological circles, but the arguments from science have not had such a good airing.  The religious have to resort to regurgitating the same old stuff again and again in repost, claiming that nothing is new in the world and that all the arguments have been settled long ago.

But if this were really true then the atheists would not keep bringing them up again.  Within the paradigms of any specific sect of any specific faith it might be true that they are 'settled', just as it was probably settled at some time exactly how many angels can dance on the head of a pin (or was it the point?).  Today's rational paradigm is different though.  Rationality has moved on and the arguments have to be repeated in the light of a new understanding of the world.  We have also noticed at last that the many different faiths can't agree within themselves, let alone between themselves.  There is no way to rationalise these differences. 

This means that most people on earth, across the whole of time, are wrong and will suffer the eternal consequences of their deliberate or accidental lack of faith in the right deity.  This will be true even if one of the faiths does turn out to have the right answer.


Steve Zara said...

The article you are replying to is very strange:

"Every single argument from the world of the supposed ‘new atheism’ has been dredged up before, and argued and discussed in theological colleges of the world, as well as in the world of education and laid to rest."

No, they haven't been laid to rest. What has happened is that theology resorts to word games and trying to escape from the need for argument by defining God as beyond evidence.

Saying that you want to change the rules of the game is not winning.

On behalf of Forbsy said...

Forbsy was unable to post a comment for some reason, so I am trying to do it for her. She says:

Evidence is an interesting word isn't it? The very nature of faith is just that, faith. No matter what evidence is available, no matter what miracle would be witnessed, there will always be those who seek an explanation that is other than God.
Let's be specific then, what specific evidence would convince - and I mean convince to become a believer - that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, given your statement;
"Most, but not all, atheists are also agnostic and would be prepared to change their views in the event that sufficiently strong evidence came to light."

On behalf of Plasma Engineer said...

Interestingly, that very question came up at the local Harvest Festival last night, in conversation with the vicar. I have just written a post about it and it will be here at Something Surprising later this evening.

Derby Sceptic said...

Evidence is an interesting word, but clearly defined in my Oxford Dictionary of English