Skip to content

Just how diverse is atheism?

October 10, 2011

Thanks for all the stuff about sex! Always fun to read the latest theories. Like you (as you know) I am not a biologist, but have tried to read a range of stuff about the natural world. And because you gave it to me I have even read a book on “consilience”, so am familiar at least with the theory of contingency. But your links (and Ben’s) will give me plenty more to read – thanks.

Your comments in caveat 1 about atheism are where I would like to start this next part of our exchanges. In it you emphasise the divergence of atheists’ knowledge of, or even interest in, evolutionary theory, which raises for me a puzzled question. If an atheist holds that there is no divine being, no supernatural order, then surely the natural order becomes the “highest” that can be known, studied, understood? If that is true, it is not surprising to find amongst atheists what appears to be, in effect, worship of the natural order, and either deification of or an attempt to humanise (is there a word “anthropomorphise”?) “mother” nature. And it is surprising to find, as you suggest, that there are atheists who have no interest in the “how?” and “why?” questions of human existence.

And from my perspective this has two important aspects, one a puzzle and one a serious question. The puzzle first. You postulate a diverse range of atheists, and as they form part of your identity then you should know how they function better than me. So I am left with the conclusion that you are defining atheist very negatively. I belong to a large sub-set of humanity, to which probably about 90% of the world population belongs, some by choice and some through lack of knowledge – I am a passionate and keen “non-Manchester United supporter”. I admit that there are lots of people who are – and have the perfect right to be – “Manchester United supporters”. And there may be lots of people who, possibly through lack of interest, or because Western “civilisation” has so far not penetrated their part of the globe, are also not Manchester United supporters. But I suspect that there are a lot of people out there who deliberately choose to support any club that is playing against Manchester United, or any club that has the chance to come above them in the League. And it is this latter group that are my closest allies, my “family”. Is this perhaps how atheism works?

Now the more serious questions. One of Ben’s comments on our conversation was about the evolutionary advantage of religious belief, which is very interesting stuff. I think there are some things worth exploring here, and I hereby invite you to do so! First, I think there is often a lack of clarity between terms which can be confused, and appear at times to overlap. Where is the dividing line between – if there is one – a philosophy and a religious belief? And between a philosophical adherence or a religious belief and a “life-style choice”?

You know that I have been niggling at the concept of “core beliefs” in atheism, and suggesting that “evolutionary change that has endured must be advantageous” is one such belief.

So – religious belief is widespread amongst humans throughout recorded time, across cultures. Are we left with only two rival explanations? First, that there is a supernatural dimension to life, and the continuing universal search for faith is an inevitable response. Or second, that this faith-impulse is embedded so deeply simply because there was, historically, and evolutionary advantage?

If the second is your view, how can you explain two things? One, the very short span of human history has surely not allowed the time for the necessary random mutations and trial-and-error basis for selection. Two, how does this view account for the persistence of religious belief within the technological and scientific community. “Scientism” has not ousted “religious faith” in the Western world.

To be continued!

Advertisements
4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 10, 2011 9:08 pm

    ” One, the very short span of human history has surely not allowed the time for the necessary random mutations and trial-and-error basis for selection.”

    There’s pretty solid evidence for considerable evolution, including the nervous system, since humans migrated out of Africa, and there’s reasonable evidence for selection within the last 500 years. Evolution can occur pretty quickly.

    http://www.plosgenetics.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pgen.0030090
    http://med.stanford.edu/tanglab/publications/PDFs/RecentGeneticSelectionInTheAncestralAdmixtureOfPuertoRicans.pdf

    Further, there’s some archaeological evidence that for religious rituals dating to a similar period to the early migrations of modern humans out of Africa, and what is arguably our first recorded story, the Epic of Gilgamesh, has clearly religious elements. This demonstrates that religious thought is thousands, and probably tens of thousands of years old.

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,233375,00.html

    Therefore the evolution of the necessary thought process for religion appears to have had plenty of time to occur.

  2. October 10, 2011 9:11 pm

    I do not understand the focus on worship. I do not see why worship is necessarily a good idea, be it of nature, god, or humans?

  3. October 10, 2011 9:20 pm

    And finally to answer the first question,”Just how diverse is atheism?”. There’s an atheist, Frank J. Tipler, who believes he has proven that God is the creation of an omniscient, omnipresent computer at the end of the Universe, and that this is theologically consistent with the Bible.

    http://129.81.170.14/~tipler/summary.html
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_atheists_in_science_and_technology

  4. Phil Crofts permalink
    October 11, 2011 9:42 pm

    “But I suspect that there are a lot of people out there who deliberately choose to support any club that is playing against Manchester United, or any club that has the chance to come above them in the League. And it is this latter group that are my closest allies, my “family”. Is this perhaps how atheism works?”

    An interesting question, but fundamentally flawed. In the analogy, who are the other clubs that are being supported simply because they are not Man U? They cannot be other faiths as that would imply that atheists regularly supported other religions just out of a sort of anti-loyalty to the “Man U” faith (presumably Christianity?) That would seem a curious claim, contrary to observation.

    So, are they other philosophies? That would imply that the most important fact about, say, Randians and Marxists is their joint rejection of religion, whereas this is clearly a very minor part of their philosophy.

    Like it or not, atheism is a negative definition, linguistically and in practice. It doesn’t mean much, it just is. I suspect that it is a much less useful term in modern day England (certainly amongst 20-30 year olds who aren’t old enough to have children that they need to get into the CofE Church school), than it would be in 18th century England.

    This is pretty much why Humanists have tried to construct a positive “atheist” philosophy. The trouble again is that humanism as a philosophy informs so much of modern thinking that it sounds a bit obvious as a set of beliefs.

    “One, the very short span of human history has surely not allowed the time for the necessary random mutations and trial-and-error basis for selection.”

    I would say that the human religious tendency is more a reflection of the sublimation of an existing trait, in combination with others, producing a specific effect.

    The traits in question are;

    1) Curiosity (Which can be seen in a slew of species)
    2) Trust in parents to the point of gullibility (Generated as a necessary feature of tribal living)
    3) The ability to generate explanative, causative chains (Generated as a feature of tool use and tribal living)

    These, in combination with the ability to record information and custom from generation to generation, relative survival of close knit groups and the survival value of being able to generate internal cohesion amongst the group even when the group is absorbing outsiders.

    You can see how these might generate something that looks like primitive religion and that societies where the religion was particularly effective would survive better than those where they weren’t.

    Add to the the rise of a priest class, providing cohesion, taboo, rite and memory to the grouping, and the inevitable push for that class to secure their tribal position and you can see more advanced, formalised religions evolving.

    Eventually whole countries can be absorbed by the more powerful religions / tribes.

    Is that what happened? I would say that it fits known human history pretty well. Notice that it doesn’t need a “God gene” to develop, just a powerful use of existing traits that we can observe in other tribal species accompanied with other human traits such as language.

    “You know that I have been niggling at the concept of “core beliefs” in atheism, and suggesting that “evolutionary change that has endured must be advantageous” is one such belief.”

    There must be something broken with me, because I can’t let even that point of agreement go 🙂

    “evolutionary change that has endured must be advantageous unless it is for sexual selection in which case it can be pointless in itself, even disadvantageous to survival outside of mating, or it is connected to an advantage (eg, Sickle Cell), or it is just plain old neutral.”

    “If an atheist holds that there is no divine being, no supernatural order, then surely the natural order becomes the “highest” that can be known, studied, understood? ”

    Sorry to be pedantic, but I cannot help but feel that the word you are looking for in quotes is not “highest”, it is “only”, which is a little less leading to concepts such as worship and deification.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: