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No Dog in That Fight

July 23rd, 2011 by Jim May · 30 Comments · Uncategorized

A very common meme amongst religionists is the charge that atheism is itself a sort of faith, that the statement “there is no God” is as much an act of faith as the declaration that there is a God.  I haven’t fisked it, largely because it’s pretty much self-fisking.  In addition to its easy vulnerability to the fact that rational atheism is not a belief at all, but a rejection of a particular belief as arbitrary, that meme also contains a rather ironic confession; it accuses atheists of “faith” as if the accuser thinks it’s a bad thing (whoops!).

There is another interesting angle to it, however, in which this accusation contains a grain of truth: it’s when the “atheist” in question is a Leftist.  The following is a comment I left on Ann Althouse’s recent post where she interviews the infamous “Skepchick” (of the now infamous complaint about being asked out on an elevator at 4AM).  My response is worded to her question “Why don’t atheists just move on?”, but is mainly aimed at the dozens of religionist commenters deploying the “atheism = faith” charge.

 

You are confusing rational atheists with the Leftist sort, like “Skepchick” (who, as Glenn Reynolds pointed out, seem to have used up all their skepticism on one topic).  They aren’t the same.

Rejecting all arbitrary claims as having no greater cognitive status than pig grunts, is the reasoning mind’s first and most crucial filter in distinguishing signal from noise.  This is what distinguishes rational atheism from “skeptical” atheism.

Skepchick doesn’t know that, of course; she wouldn’t be a Leftist if she did.  And that’s why she and other “skeptics” like her are the perfect foil for religionists to keep up this “atheism is a religion” canard; Leftists like “Skepchick” do in fact function very similar to religionists at the epistemological level, especially in regards to made-up, arbitrary beliefs.  That’s why they function so very well as the foil for this “atheism is just another faith” meme.  It’s like they were custom-fit for that role.  It’s no wonder that religionists act as if all atheists were skeptics like “Skepchick”;  the other sort would just ruin the whole game.

We do exist, and despite your strongest wishing, aided and abetted by the likes of Skepchick, our atheism is not a belief at all; it’s merely a negative, a reasoned rejection of the arbitrary.  No more than that.

We’ve just moved on, you see.  We have no dog in a fight of competing faiths.

30 Comments so far ↓

  • PrometheanRising

    Would you be willing to give some examples of this both in general and with regard to Rebecca Watson?

    “Leftists like “Skepchick” do in fact function very similar to religionists at the epistemological level, especially in regards to made-up, arbitrary beliefs.”

  • Inspector

    I think it’s pretty safe to say that whenever anyone has a complaint to level against “atheists,” really what they mean is Leftists. Especially given that atheism isn’t a belief system or organization at all…

    Really, the base mistake is one of category error, grouping divergent and disparate groups of people together that really have nothing to do with each other because they share the inessential attribute of saying they don’t believe in God.

    I think you raise a really good point, here, Jim – that the essential differences between atheists can go very deep indeed, down to the epistemological level, even. The atheism of Objectivism and the atheism of Leftists like “Skepchik” have about as much in common as the reasoned statement of a scientist, and the empty echo of a parrot.

    So it is hardly fair – or accurate – when so many people try to paint us both with the same brush.

  • madmax

    This IS at root an epistemological issue. The religious Conservatives that I have encountered on the net all make the same argument: they think that rejection of supernaturalism (especially their version) mandates skepticism, moral relativism, political egalitarianism, and lastly totalitarianism (which is necessary to contain the decay brought out by the degeneracy which moral relativism must release).

    But more, these Conservatives think that it is they that are truly rational and that atheists are irrational. The reason is that they totally reject the naturalist claim that a truth claim must be reduced to evidence of the senses for it to be legitimate. They argue that this is “materialist reason” and not reason at all. True reason for them takes into account the “non-material reality” of which god is the foremost example.

    They argue that since consciousness is “non-material” but nevertheless exists, so does god exist. For them, you don’t need to reduce truth claims back to the evidence of the senses. Its enough to make logical inferences which “prove” the existence of supernatural phenomenon. Thus, religionists usually hang their hats on the Design Argument or the First-Cause Argument or the Necessity Argument, etc.. These are enough for them.

    What you come away from with these religious philosophical conservatives is this: they treat god as a philosophical axiom. And to them rejecting god is the same as rejecting the three axioms for Objectivists. They see rejection of god as rejecting the base of all philosophy including morality, objective knowledge (which they see as intrinsic knowledge wired into the universe by god), and the basis of political stability.

    They are right in arguing that the Left believes in the destruction of all knowledge, morality and political stability. But they are wrong in thinking that they have the antidote.

    Its funny, I have read many ultra hard-core religious conservatives who are better social and political commentators than most Objectivists; who understand the evil of the Left better than most Objectivists (who see blind to it more often than not); who can forecast with amazing precision the atrocities that the Left will commit better than Objectivists. But then these same people will then go on to debate if god grants eternal forgiveness to Muslims or if God approves of oral sex. The difference in their sane moments and their crazy moments is striking and alarming.

    So in the end, I’m left with the notion that there is some value to religious conservatives as they do get some things very right. But I see no value to Leftists especially skepticism drenched leftists like “skepchick” (a nihilist if there ever was one). To me, Leftists are on a lower rung of hell than even religious Conservatives. But I notice that many Objectivists see it differently which I think is wrong.

  • madmax

    our atheism is not a belief at all; it’s merely a negative, a reasoned rejection of the arbitrary. No more than that.

    There is an issue with this. It can be argued that rational atheism mandates belief that there is no god which is a positive affirmation. So in that sense, atheism is not just a negative. Strong atheism does mandate a philosophical belief about the nature of metaphysics. That doesn’t meant that it mandates a belief in an entire philosophical system but I don’t think it is entirely a negative statement. That would be more fitting to agnosticism I think.

  • Richard

    Do you think it’s truly fair though to criticize atheists who haven’t grounded their reasoning in the Oist argument of arbitrary ideas?

    By which I mean that the Oist argument is still fairly new and unheard of. If I had never learned about Rand I would very likely still be an atheist, but I almost certainly wouldn’t have her Oist grounding in dismissing the arbitrary. I guess what I’m saying is, it’s to be expected that very few have yet to grasp the epistemology behind arbitrary ideas.

    Or are you saying that leftist skeptic atheists go out of their way to avoid reasonable epistemology and dwell on the negative?

  • Inspector

    Richard, if you were asking me, the subject of my comments – and the parrot bit – were Leftist atheists, who are, unfortunately, the most visible type of atheist today.

  • madmax

    Do you think it’s truly fair though to criticize atheists who haven’t grounded their reasoning in the Oist argument of arbitrary ideas?

    In one sense, the sense of historical sweep, you are probably right that it is not realistic to blame today’s atheists for embracing skepticism and thus becoming Leftists. If you think about it, given post modern philosophy, once you reject god where in today’s intellectual environment can you end up if you have not learned of or accepted Rand’s epistemology?

    Basically, today’s Leftist atheists are the product of our post-Kantian culture. Incidentally, they are also the ugliest elements of our culture, even uglier than fundamentalist Christians I think. The biggest nihilists I have known have been Leftist (and libertarian) atheists. They tend to be an ugly bunch.

  • Neil Parille

    I don’t think that either atheism or theism are (necessarily) based on faith.

    There are arguments for and against the existence of God. Some people find the arguments persuasive, others don’t.

    There are theists who make their arguments based on faith, which is why they call themselves fideists, but most reject that term. Rand said something to the effect that if God existed it would mean there is something higher than man and man couldn’t be perfect. That’s almost a faith based approach.

    Atheists don’t understand how people can believe in God and have good reasons. I don’t understand how Objectivists can believe in free will when it contradicts everything that is known about the deterministic nature of the universe. I wouldn’t say OOists have “faith in free will” however.

  • Inspector

    Neil, your reference to Rand is hardly representative of the Objectivist stance on Atheism. There’s really a massive body of epistemological work on the one hand, and your off-hand comment on the other. So I hope you don’t mean that seriously.

  • Inspector

    By “your off hand comment,” I mean “the off hand comment you’ve found.”

  • Neil Parille

    Mr. May,

    Peikoff is confused on the doctrine of the arbitrary assertion. First he says the arbitrary is neither true nor false. He lists theism as an arbitrary belief.

    Then he goes on to say that the existence of God is false because it contradicts the axioms of Objectivism.

    So is theism false or arbitrary?

    Robert Campbell discusses Peikoff’s doctrine here —

    http://hubcap.clemson.edu/~campber/peikovianarbitrary.pdf

  • John Venlet

    @madmax – Meet a different type of religious conservative. Me.

    You could state that I am one of those religious conservatives you mention, though you would probably have a difficult time making that label stick, and not simply because most religious conservatives would probably attempt to paste a heretic label on me.

    I wrote the following in a post back in 2003 at my old blogspot home.

    “For myself, being well acquainted with organized religion of the Protestant variety, I have found that men who profess no faith in God, yet stand as honest men, adherents of natural law, as described by Spooner, speak with a clarity and honesty that I do not find from men aligned with organized religions. I find that men professing no faith, but who embrace the tenets of natural law, are a more stalwart breed of men than many professed Christians. Why? Because men who accept natural law, or the science of justice or peace, typically have no hidden agenda to wield as a power over me. Whereas men aligned with organized religions typically have an agenda of power they hope to apply to me rather than just dealing with me honestly.”

    Not all religious conservative individuals fit the mold you note finding around the net.

    If you’re interested in reading the entire post I quoted myself from, it’s titled “A Short Religious Discourse Regarding Natural Law.” It can be found here, but you ‘ll have to scroll down a bit to read it.

    My favorite quote regarding atheists:

    “The complete atheist is more respectable than the man who is indifferent. He is on the last rung preceding perfect faith.” Camus in The Possessed.

  • Andrew Dalton

    Neil –

    It is you, as usual, who are confused.

    “So is theism false or arbitrary?” The answer is yes.

    The epistemological status of an idea depends upon how it stands in a person’s mind in relation to reality. This is clear if one reads the section in OPAR on the arbitrary. In particular:

    “Or consider the claim that there is an infinite, omnipotent creator of the universe. If this claim is viewed as a product of faith or fantasy, apart from any relation to evidence, it has no cognitive standing. If one wishes, however, one can relate this claim to an established context, as I did in the opening chapter: one can demonstrate that the idea of God contradicts all of the fundamentals of a rational philosophy. Thanks to such a process of integration, what was initially arbitrary attains cognitive status — in this instance, as a falsehood.”

    I am posting this for the benefit of any genuinely curious and honest readers. Neil, I suspect, will retreat to the shadows while preparing for his next hit-and-run post.

  • Grant

    I’m not an atheist. I was born with the capacity to reason; I chose to believe. When I stopped making that choice I didn’t lose anything, I merely released my potential from bondage.

    I’m not lacking anything, they are. Their willingness to believe cripples them psychoepistemologically. Religious people are “arationalists.” That is the normative basis upon which this debate much take place.

  • Neil Parille

    Mr. Dalton,

    I don’t see how this helps Peikoff. If a philosopher such as Gordon Clark says that God exists based on faith, his belief is irrational. If Alvin Plantinga says God exists based on reason, his idea is false. This strikes me as silly. We all know what the God of classical theism is supposed to be. It’s true or it isn’t.

    Let’s look at a more prosaic question. Leonard Peikoff said that Barbara Branden’s biography is one long arbitrary assertion. So when Branden says that Rand was born in Russia, had a Russian accent, had an affair with Nathaniel Branden, had a temper it’s arbitrary. But when Anne Heller or Jennifer Burns say the same thing it’s true. Branden was Rand’s bff for 18 years and interviewed over 150 people. What the hell is arbitrary about her book? Are her views the product of faith or fantasy? If they are, then aren’t they false?

  • Neil Parille

    I meant Gordon Clark’s “belief is arbitrary.”

  • John Venlet

    I’m not an atheist. I was born with the capacity to reason; I chose to believe. When I stopped making that choice I didn’t lose anything, I merely released my potential from bondage.

    Grant, I’m interested in knowing, specifically, what form of bondage you were under when you chose to believe so that I can understand

    I am an individual of faith, and I am in not in bondage, morally or ethically, as a result of this faith and consider my potential limited only by my individual decisions.

  • John Venlet

    Correction to my first sentence: Grant, I’m interested in knowing, specifically, what form of bondage you were under when you chose to believe so that I can understand how your potential was thwarted from being realized.

  • Grant

    Mr. Venlet,

    Yes, you are in bondage morally and ethically because of your faith. If you accept that 2+2=4 on faith – rather than understanding the underlying principles of mathematics and realizing that that is just an application of them – there is nothing to prevent you from accepting that 3+3=7. If you believe that, for instance, theft is immoral – but only because your religious doctrines declare that it is – there is no reason why you couldn’t “reinterpret” them to come to the opposite conclusion (or, at least, there is no reason why you should resist another’s opposing – but epistemologically equally valid – religious doctrine).

  • John Venlet

    Grant, thanks for responding. There is no need to address me formally. My name is John.

    Your response ascribes to me the features of an automaton, if it were indeed factually accurate that it is my faith alone which leads me to accept that 2+2=4, or that theft is immoral, as if it were a only a matter to swap out a “the Bible tells me so” programming chip for a more spartan “Lycurgus” programming chip and I would then be set free from the bondage you posit results from an individual taking, on faith, that a Creator exists and can provide life guidance.

    Does faith inform my reasoning? It would be foolish to deny that it does, but it would be even more foolish to state that because I am an individual of faith that my reasoning regarding ethical and moral issues, or math probelms, is pre-programmed and susceptible to flip flopping like a dead fish on a beach and therefore to be dismissed.

    When I consider ethical and moral issues, and math problems, it is my reasoning which informs me, not the Bible telling me so, and I categorically reject utilizing just that argument, so there is a reason why I do not “reinterpret” theft is immoral to theft is moral, because it would not be correct, i.e. reason does not, and cannot, support such a ridiculous argument.

  • Grant

    Mr. Venlet,

    If you were to tell someone that you believed two plus two to equal four, and they asked you why, you would reply that you do so because it is reasonable. If they were to reply “yes, but why is something being reasonable or unreasonable the factor which causes you to accept it or reject it, respectively?”, you would reply – I hope – with something like “because reason is how man understands the world.” If they were to reply “Yes, but what if God changes the world in such a way that nature becomes unpredictable (ie: unreasonable)?”, you would have no answer.

  • Andrew dalton | Kgdco

    […] No Dog in That Fight — The New Clarion […]

  • Antacid

    Grant,

    That’s a pretty weak argument. What if reality changed (all by itself, assuming there is no supreme being) such that nature was no longer predictable? You have no guarantees that won’t happen just the same as Christians can’t honestly tell you that God won’t change the nature of existence (in fact the Bible says that God will change the nature of existence one day, but that’s a bit outside the scope of this discussion). All you know is how things work now and how they worked in the relatively near past (relative to the age of the universe). Everything else is speculation and extrapolation.

  • John Venlet

    If you were to tell someone that you believed two plus two to equal four, and they asked you why, you would reply that you do so because it is reasonable.

    Grant. I would not tell any individual that I believe 2+2=4, I would tell them that I know 2+2=4 because the laws of simple mathematics, arrived at by the powers of reasoning inherent in individuals, prove it to be so.

    Reason is how man understands the physical world. The metaphysical world is another matter, though reason is employed in attempts to know it.

  • Andrew Dalton

    Antacid –

    It takes a lot of chutzpah to accuse Grant of making a “weak argument,” and then to follow up with a hypothetical question that is totally arbitrary and probably incoherent. (What would it even mean for nature to be “no longer predictable”?) And what evidence do you have that such a change is possible? Yes, the burden is upon you to support your claim; even possibility is a claim of partial knowledge, which demands more than an exercise in untethered imagination.

  • Andrew Dalton

    Neil –

    I refer you to my July 26 comment.

  • Neil Parille

    Andrew,

    Do you agree with Peikoff that Barbara Branden’s biography of Rand is arbitrary?

  • Jim May

    Grant, I’m interested in knowing, specifically, what form of bondage you were under when you chose to believe so that I can understand how your potential was thwarted from being realized.

    The main issue with faith is that it permits the believer, and whoever buys what he’s selling, to impose an invented form and/or substance upon the unknown — which then blocks them from ever discovering, via reason, what it *actually* is.

    I first discovered this in regard to UFO enthusiasts, who followed the same pattern that many theists do:

    1. Find a question that rational men (or merely your target) are *currently* unable to explain

    2. Insist that it therefore *must* be aliens.

    This is related to the “God of the Gaps” argument, of course, but there’s more to it than that.

    The issue here is that by accepting a belief about the unknown, that belief acts as an obstacle, in various ways, to rationally learning about that unknown. It saps the motive to explore, and often acts as a motive to *block* such exploration, socially (i.e. taboos.) Warnings against inquiring “too far” into areas alleged as “not meant for men to know” are legion in Western history, and are manifest even to this day (an example that bothered me when I ran across it, occurs in Spielberg’s “Batteries Not Included” when a character uses a magnifying glass to get a closer look at one of the little flying saucers.)

    In addition to blocking cognition, permitting the arbitrary does something far, far worse: it destroys the mind’s ability to filter out the unreal.

    Much as willfully failing to discriminate between food and non-food would interfere with the metabolic processes of our bodies that keep us alive — not to mention put us at risk of eating something poisonous — faith interferes with the cognitive processes by *necessarily* keeping a door open to the arbitrary, compromising this most important noise filter and first line of defense against lies and other bad data.

    By definition, anything can get through that door once it’s opened, including useless junk and actual poisons. Permitting the arbitrary compromises and ultimately destroys our ability to make what is one of the most crucial distinctions our minds require: to differentiate between what may be real, versus what may be made-up, invented, or imagined.

    A mind thusly compromised is **always** therefore vulnerable to sabotage, to being sold an epistemological bill of goods by a capable merchant of such — up to and including idea of what is good and right that are quite horrible.

    A person may think that they can keep control by cracking that door open “just a little”, but even the Christians know better than that, as I’ve heard such say often that there’s no such thing as “just a little sin”.

    Once an arbitrary premise is inside your defenses, accepted as fact or even merely “possible”, ideological causation will drive you to the next logical step from that premise, and the next, and so on, until you arrive at the destination you never knew you chose — or you slam that door shut and bar the arbitrary from your mind, all the way back to that first little “leak”.

    Examples abound throughout history, from the really obvious ones, such as mass-murdering Jews following from the arbitrary premise that individual identity is defined by group membership, to the subtler ones such as “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” following from the arbitrary premise known as altruism.

    Current examples include the vast complex of quasi-religious “New Age” hippie beliefs, blending into the envirocult in its various stripes, forming what is, on many levels, the Left’s own religious wing.

    HAving that door open means that even superficially true ideas can be used to hook you into evil. How innocuous is the idea that we shouldn’t soil our own nest? The envirocult is stocked with many brownshirts who were first hooked with some variant of that idea; it is the inability to reject the arbitrary which made them vulnerable.

    PrometheusRising, there’s your examples. I leave it to the interested reader to examine what may apply to Rebecca Watson in particular.

    I will note one thing in regards to “skeptics” that establishes why skeptics “use up their skepticism on one topic”: skepticism shares with religion its inability to detect and reject the arbitrary. The difference is that where believers can be induced to believe anything, skeptics turn it around and refuse to be certain about anything. Of course, to live requires *some* cognitive content, so skeptics do accept information about the world in their daily lives. How do they tell what’s real? THEY CAN”T. And now you know why the “New Aheists” have their own arbitrary “faiths” after all (both are definitely altruists, and IIRC one of them is a Buddhist, but I’m not sure which one or the details thereof.)

    There is even an example right here in this thread: the discussion that would have resulted from Antacid’s introduction of an arbitrary what-if premise, had the other commenters indiscriminately bought it, would have been a complete nightmare and waste of time resulting in everybody throwing their arms up and declaring “Well who can know anything”? That didn’t happen for me, because that premise didn’t “clear customs” and was rejected it right away. I reject the arbitrary on principle — the principle of “never taking anything on faith”, which I call evidence-driven cognition, or more generally, reason.

    The same principle lead me to reject John’s notion of a “metaphysical” world versus a “physical” one. There is one single world, consisting of all that exists (no matter its form), and that world is grasped by reason. There is no evidence to suggest that there is any world other than that one (consisting of what?), which somehow is disconnected from ours in such a way that reason cannot discover it (which would preclude any evidence, of course, as evidence would be evidence of a connection) and yet is relevant to ours such that it is important and consequential for us to believe in it.

    And that’s not a “belief”. I have no beliefs whatsoever about John’s “metaphysical” world, so I’m not obligated to substantiate any such “belief” until and unless John were to give me *reason* to give it a second look.

    Having now come full circle to the point of my original article, I’ll stop here.

  • Inspector

    “What if reality changed (all by itself, assuming there is no supreme being) such that nature was no longer predictable? ”

    That wouldn’t be a change in reality itself, but rather the conditions of reality in our locality (locality being our planet, solar system, galaxy, or whichever scope you’re intending).

    What you’re saying, then, is “What if physical forces that are beyond the current scope of our scientific understanding change our situation such that our present scientific knowledge no longer ‘worked?'”

    But even then, regardless of being beyond our current understanding, it is still capable of *some* level of understanding on a scientific basis – by means of reason.

    What Grant is trying to say is the same as what I once told you – that I do think that accepting anything on faith does inherently compromise one’s ability to reason on a fundamental level. Although I would say that it’s too ambitious to try to outline why in a place like this. For something as in depth a subject as that, though… really any argument that is brief enough to be presented here could be called “weak,” in a certain sense.

    The only way I know of to do the topic justice is to research and discuss the full explanation as presented in Leonard Peikoff’s book, “Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand.” That would be the place to go if you were curious as to why we think faith does that damage.

  • Grant

    Thanks to Andrew, Jim, and Inspector for defending, and elaborating upon, my point. Gentlemen, your passion and patience exceeds mine.