Why we have no use for a disembodied intellect – a book review

50 mythsA review of 50 Great Myths About Atheism (2013) by Russell Blackford and Udo Schuklenk

I was excited to find the familiar name of Russell Blackford in a book in my local Pennsylvania library. I had to check it out. It turned out to be delightfully enlightening.

The 50 myths about atheism are grouped into themes. “What is atheism?” is addressed at beginning and end. How broad or narrow is the term? Is it absence of belief or denial of all theistic effects in the world? Is it akin to Marxism, Satanism, is it political, or just another religion? That last question, “Is atheism a religion?” requires asking the underlying question “what is a religion?”. This gets complicated.

Using my own life experience, I could attempt to answer some of these but philosophers answer it better. I found this book so useful as a reference to addressing these frequently asked questions, I must purchase it.

I understand why religionists would believe these myths and reject the philosophy of nonbelief. Atheism threatens the values association with religion. Believing such myths, such as “atheism robs life of meaning and purpose,” is a way to reinforce the believer’s own belief. I get it, I just find it untenable. This philosophical treatment highlights the complexity of human social interactions and issues. There may be no one “right” answer.

Popular opinion is rooted in confusion, ignorance, pride, and tradition. Myths reveal people’s fear within themselves. Aiming these value judgements at atheists externalizes these fears to a group. There are endless examples of society doing this with other groups as well.

This book is fair to religion in general. Yet in addressing several myths, the authors take on popular religious apologists. One in particular, Dinesh D’Souza, comes out looking like the self-righteous fathead that he is. Rational discussion reveals how ignorant and wrong their anti-freethought rhetoric is.

The section on why atheism arose contained excellent information. The authors collect thoughts from various references, noting the following factors: rise in alternative philosophy, the growth in secular theories of ethics, the success of science and rise in natural understanding of world, the increase in investigation into Biblical texts, the questioning of tradition, religions conceptions and the subsequent decline in literal belief in doctrines, an emphasis on logic and analytic investigations, the effect of wars and the feeling of abandonment by God, the advent of mass communication and rise of urbanization all mixed together to draw people towards an atheistic outlook.

My particular interest was the role science played in this shift. The last chapter includes the discussion of science versus religion and the dwindling human need to invoke a disembodied intellect as a cause. Humans grasped the fruitfulness of a naturalistic approach of science and a fruitlessness in invoking supernatural hypotheses. This clearly suggests “we live in a world without miraculous agents and powers.” It was not the intent for science to undermine religion, but the process is what it is. Maybe someday that will change, note the authors, but we’ve gone so far down the methodological naturalism path, it’s not realistic to think it will. “We live a world very different from what the world religions once seemed to describe.” Thanks, Science!

Russell Blackford with his work. I was fortunate to meet Russell at TAM 2013.
Russell Blackford with his work. I was fortunate to meet Russell at TAM 2013.

Are science and religion compatible? The short answer is “no”. The long answer is “no”. I once thought Gould’s NOMA was a nice idea. I see how it is not useful now. The authors lucidly unpack the reasoning and the attempts to create a truce or to mesh the two “magisteria,” but as I go on through life, I agree this just will not work. Early work, especially Newton’s, appealed to the actions of a God. Early modern science was accommodating to Christianity, keeping within a narrow range of natural philosophy. Until it didn’t.

This was my favorite take away: If the bible was divinely inspired, why don’t scientific findings that we have made match up with what is written? When the religious doctrines have to be modified or reinterpreted to conform with man’s discoveries, what does that say about the Bible and doctrines being divinely inspired to begin with? Yep, more solid rocks in the foundation for an atheistic view that the authors conclude is the “honest” and “reasonable” worldview to have.

Useful discussions on these issues are not simple. This book makes examining the myths, misconceptions, and arguments about religion and lack of religion coherent and compelling. I strongly recommend it.

Posted: My atheism talk on skepticism

I’m off to NECSS! The Northeast Conference of Science and Skepticism this weekend to talk about “Sounds Sciencey“. Should be an interesting time.

Just yesterday, PA Nonbelievers released a video of my talk from last September at their conference. Now, I was hesitant to speak at an atheist event because promotion of atheism is NOT what I do. I do skepticism. But Brian graciously allowed me to talk about whatever I wanted so I talked about skepticism in the crossover – the skepto-atheism conflation that was happening. It’s still happening. Just this past weekend, Matt Dillahunty gave a talk about skepticism and atheism. He is a great speaker, but the message, I felt, was flawed and weak. While it sounded fantastic, if it was written out, it would not stand up the same.

Skepticism is NOT atheism. He pooh-poohed the Media Guide to Skepticism. He even got the name of the website wrong. But I didn’t expect to see an uptick in downloads regardless because he told people what he thought about it so it was not an encouraging promotion of the document.

But THAT’S the thing. SKEPTICISM IS NOT ATHEISM. Atheists are going to possibly have an issue with it because it’s not written for them. This was a community document, an ideal, for skepticism. Read More »

Building Bridges

Last year at TAM2012, I did a workshop on Coalition Building for the Skeptical Activist. Yes, that sounds a touch boring. I lobbied for changing the title, to no avail. The focus was to bring members into a coalition that were NOT self-identified skeptics but can help your cause. It turned out not to be boring but really successful.

But, coalition building could be seen another way. It could be internal. In this case, it was a bit of that. The panel included three prominent leaders of the atheist community who differ entirely across the spectrum. From what I have perceived, Chris Stedman and Dave Silverman are on opposite ends and David Niose is in the middle. I’m happy to have cordial relationships with them all despite differences and, in one case, outright disagreement. But I don’t find the need to get nasty over disagreements. I just choose not to participate in that circle. No big deal.

As I wrote right after the event:

You may go away thinking so-and-so is a real jerk but the goal is not to have the most blog hits or twitter followers, it’s to Get r’ done. That means stop getting personal and start being respectable.

Read More »

What’s the Reason for the Season

How’s your holiday season going so far? Gee, it’s only the first week in December. Since I noticed decorations on display at the craft store when I was looking for Halloween paraphernalia, it feels like December 25 should be, like, next week. But it’s the next FOUR weeks, actually.

I’m not a big fan of Christmas. First, my family does not celebrate any religious aspect of this time of year (or any time of year). So, I don’t warm up to people preaching “Jesus is the Reason for the Season”. Nice rhyme but the tilt of the earth’s axis is the reason for the seasons. Too bad that doesn’t sound as catchy. Just because you don’t like it doesn’t make it any less true.

Holiday time is frequently a trigger for bad memories: people miss lost loved ones, they remember disappointments or tragedies, or they sadly realize that they can’t share any joy with someone because they are alone. It’s highly insensitive to push a happy, joyful message to these folks and call them Scrooges or Grinches when they fail to join the festivities.

Xmas time for me is full of anxiety. With divorced parents on my side and various relatives spread out in the state, I worry about getting in the required visitations. I have to cart along two small children and a dog. They don’t. I have to work pretty hard to figure out appropriate gifts for those who have what they need. They don’t. When in doubt, they just hand out cash. They can send out cards and greetings. I don’t have time.

This year, I’m quite the “Grinch”. I don’t have any enthusiasm for putting up the tree. I don’t feel motivated to light up the house or festoon the interior. I might make cookies this year because the kids like that and they make thoughtful gifts. But, generally, I do not embrace the consumer excess and overexertion that goes with the holiday preparation.

I heard that among the common toy requests in children’s letters to Santa are the wishes for parents to come home from Iraq or Afghanistan, for everyone to get along (at home and in the world), and for snow to fall. How simple are those wishes. I wish the same. I want all those soldiers home from a senseless war. I want us to stop fighting abroad and at home about faith and what it means to be a good person. I wouldn’t mind a dusting of snow to make everything clean, quiet and a pretty background for the twinkling lights.