Atheism as Dogmatism

March 9, 2014 § 7 Comments

Frankly, I don’t care about people’s religious beliefs or lack thereof.  We should be free to choose to believe or not believe, and we should be free to practice our beliefs however see fit, so long as we do not cause harm to others.  I have never been particularly religious, when I was younger, I flirted with Catholicism (the religion I was born into) and various brands of Protestantism, been attracted to Sufi Islam, and explored Buddhism.  Then I realised Buddhism isn’t really a religion so much as a guide to what the Buddha calls the good life.  I have also tried out atheism, deism, and everything in between.  I seem to have settled into some nether world where I’m irreligious, in the sense that I’m indifferent.

But. I also teach history, and I’ve taught far more sections of Western and World History in my career than I care to count.  And, as I go over the various calamities that have befallen humans over the past 3,000-4,000 years in various corners of the world, I have come to realise the initial point of religion.  It is to help people make sense of the Terror of History.  Bad things happen all the time, and, as the Buddha noted, all existence is suffering.  Every religion and systems of belief I have come across from the Babylonians to China, Japan, Africa, Europe, and the Americas has attempted to offer comfort against this suffering and terror.

At the core, I think all religions are beautiful in their attempts to make sense of the chaos, to give people hope.  And, of course, I recognise that every religion has also been perverted to bring pain and suffering and misery to others.

But that’s to be expected.  I read once that the difference between liberals and conservatives (in today’s usage of those two terms) is a basic belief in human nature.  Conservatives generally believe in the good of humanity, liberals are not so optimistic.  Hence, conservatives tend to believe in less regulation and restrictions on individual liberty, under the assumption that we’ll sort it out.  Liberals, on the other hand, believe we need regulations to ensure basic decency, otherwise we’ll destroy ourselves.  In this sense, it turns out I am a liberal.  I believe human beings are capable of beauty, but also of atrocity.  It’s hard to conclude otherwise as a historian, I’m afraid.

A few years back, I was subbing for a colleague who was teaching a course on the History of Science & Technology.  The students were clearly divided.  On the left of the room were the atheists, on the right were the religious.  I kid you not, they were split down the middle like this, like we were standing in the National Assembly in Paris in 1791.  Their arguments were exactly what you’d expect from young minds finding their way: aggressive, scoffing, and yet, careful not to go too far in arguing with their friends to the point of insulting them.  I posited to the atheists that they were just as dogmatic as their religious classmates, that atheism, in that sense, was no different than religion.  The religious students got this argument right away, whereas the atheists were offended and argued that there is no dogma to atheism, therefore it cannot be religion. End of discussion. I tried again, the right side of the room argued the point with the left side of the room. But the atheists would not see it.  The fact that they were dogmatic in their disbelief in God was lost on them.

Yesterday, on Twitter, I somehow got into a discussion about religion, atheism, and all the fun stuff that goes along with that.  Twitter, of course, is not really the ideal forum for complex ideas, nonetheless, I and my two interlocutors were managing to be intelligent, rational adults, exchanging our views.  But then another person who I suppose follows one of the people I was conversing with joined in.  The joys of Twitter, in all their worst ways. Her basic line of argument is that all religion is evil and causes bad things to happen.  Full stop.  Then she started insulting.

I find this approach just as boring as those who wish to evangelicise their religious beliefs.  And I see this belief as just as dogmatic, and even fundamentalist, as any religious evangelical.  This woman stated point blank that religious people are wrong and that she is right.  Clearly, in her view, anyone who disagreed with her is a fool.  I find it ironic that some atheists have become as ossified in their beliefs as those they attack for “silly superstitions” (to quote from a tweet I saw last week on the issue).  And as much as some religious folk are contemptuous of those who don’t believe, this brand of atheism is as contemptuous as those who do believe, or those who express some interest in avoiding categorical statements about religion.  And I can’t help but feel that’s rather depressing.

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§ 7 Responses to Atheism as Dogmatism

  • Brian Bixby says:

    Although I must note that I’ve often heard the perspectives on human nature flipped the other way around: conservatives believe in human imperfection, and hence are skeptical of government or anything else that tries to solve everything, while liberals believe in progress and the attainability of human perfection, and hence are willing to add to the powers of government to attain that perfection. You’ll recognize the Christian idea of original sin and the Marxist idea of shaping human nature through social relations in these perspectives.

    • Indeed. I get this point of view about conservatives and liberals from the raft of sociology and psychology studies published in the past few years, as well as the differences between my liberal and conservative friends. One right winger friend, though, posits that he’s a bitter man because he got his heart broke by humanity, so he has vowed to take it out on everyone, stripping away their human rights one by one. But, he’s kidding. I think.

  • As a 19th century french thinker (Taine) said, “have intolerance only towards intolerance”. I have found your post insightful, a little bit disenchanted, but it summarizes very well that nobody knows the Truth, and that each person’s belief has to be respected because of this.
    Thanks.

  • Michael says:

    I do spend a fair amount of time exploring the ongoing (and probably never ending) debate between theism and atheism and I tend to get really defensive whenever someone defines atheism at being just a dogmatic as religion, or more simply, when someone makes the claim that it takes just as much faith to be an atheist as it does to be a theist. Typically, this line of reasoning is perpetuated by the faithful, but every once in a while, the notion of atheism is rejected by the irreligious precisely for the reasons that you’ve outlined in this post. Atheism, at its most basic definition, is not a religion, nor is it dogma, it is a position whereby theistic claims are rejected because their burden of proof has not been met.

    The other thing that you mention in your post runs along the lines of religious belief as a beacon of hope for humanity. I struggled with this for a long time. And the reason I struggled with this is because while at the level of the individual who gains comfort from their faith, believe that their prayers are being answered, and truly believe that faith in something greater will bring about peace and stability…no problem there. Fill your boots, I say! However, what I can’t comprehend is how that same individual reconciles their beliefs with the more problematic aspects of religion. Religion sets up an “us vs. them”; it bestows benefits to those on the inside, whist condemning those on the outside. It relies on a text (and here I’m referring to the bible) whose main character is a murderous, homicidal, infanticidal, and genocidal maniac – and a great number of the populous take this text at literal. And unfortunately, many a moderate Christian hold up their “good” book and point at the atheist and ask “what’s your source of morality”.
    Now, during our text conversation, I mentioned atheism as a movement.

    I believe that atheism needs to become a movement. I consider myself a part of this movement albeit not a very active member of said movement. I believe the partisanship we see in today’s western politics is more than just liberal vs. conservatives. I believe that it is also religious fundamentalism/evangelicalism vs. secularism. I suppose we could just take a stand as secularists promoting the separation of church and state, but I don’t think that it goes far enough. When we have the Michelle Bachmans, Ted Cruzs, Stephen Harpers, Sarah Palins of the world who wish to see their particular brand of religion shape public policy, I truly believe that they need to be struck at the core of their being: their faith. When I see some of the more asshattery arguments for young earth creationism and the influence that they are gaining amongst the general public and in the political sphere, I think that it’s an atheist movement that best counters their insanity. I also believe that it’s the so-called moderate theists who enable this BS to continue. For every atheist who speaks out against this belief, there’s a moderate theist, or even an irreligious accomodationist, who says: “Lay off! Religion is sacred”. My position is that religion is fair game so long as there is religious Sunday programming on TV, so long as politicians continue to say “God bless America”, or when I sing a national anthem with the line: “God keep our land, glorious and free”. While I truly support the notion that everyone is free to choose whatever beliefs they wish, I too have the same right to speak out against those beliefs when they are presented as a fact of life, but are completely unsubstantiated.

    • You’re right, atheism isn’t a religion, but most prominent atheists, as well as many unimportant chumps, like the woman who attacked me on Twitter as just as dogmatic as the religious right. The dogma is simply “there is no god and if you think otherwise, you’re a fool.” And that’s about the gist of the argument. No more, no less.

      As for proof, no kidding you can’t prove God exists, but you also can’t prove God doesn’t exist. Or whatever else you wish to call God (Spirit, the Universe, Big Sky, etc.). St. Thomas Aquinas attempted to prove that God existed in the Middle Ages, but his fundamental argument was that God exists because he exists, circular logic, in other words. This belief was challenged within Catholic philosophy, and William of Ockham eventually concluded that we cannot rationally know God, we cannot approach God on the rational level, faith is not rational. So, taking Ockham’s argument its end, either you have faith and accept God is there, or you do not.

      But secularism is not the same thing as atheism. Most secularists are religious, or at least believe in God historically. The founders of the US were deists, but believed in a separation of Church and State. But this was also a historic belief due to the situation in England, where the Church of England was the established religion and all other religions, Protestant, but especially Catholic (to say nothing of Jews) were economically, politically, and culturally disadvantaged.

      There are many problems with religion in the public sphere, but this isn’t really anything new. Religion has always been in the public sphere. And probably always will. And there have always been idiots like Bachmann and our own Dear Leader, Prime Minister Harper, who are evangelical fundamentalists who would like to impose their beliefs on the rest of us. Historically, this is what has been done.

      Of course religion sets up us v. them. But you’re doing the same thing with atheism. Certainly the loonbat attacking me on Twitter does that. Richard Dawkins does that. Worse, these sorts of atheists employ the exact same smug attitude to believers that believers employ against the non-believers, if it’s not downright aggression.

      But it’s not just religion that does this. All attempts at self-identification immediately set up an opposition. I am me, that makes you not me. I am Canadian, my wife is American. I am a Quebecer, you’re not. And so on and so forth. Any thought that we’re ever going to get to a point wherein we are not backed into identity politics is a nice dream, but it’s never going to happen. Human beings have made identifications and established themselves in hierarchies forever. Interestingly, so, too do all other mammals.

      But I think, ultimately, you’re being unfair to the moderately religious. The Bachmanns and Harpers of the world aren’t their fault. And, from my experience, it’s the moderates, like Obama or Trudeau, who do the most to reign in that kind of idiocy.

  • Michael says:

    Regarding moderates: although completely anecdotal, but I’ve seen, and been a part of debates with those who hold a more ‘extreme’ religious view. That is, those who believe the earth is only 6000 years old and that anyone who does not adhere to their literalist view of the bible are destined to burn in the lake of fire. Fundamentalists seemingly take great pleasure in the fact that the vast majority of the world will burn and suffer whilst they will be spirited away to heaven during the second coming, all the while ensuring us that they are simply trying to “save us” and deliver us to salvation. While I agree that most religious moderates find this attitude reprehensible, they will also turn to the atheist and say “a person’s religious beliefs are sacred so keep your opinions to yourself”. I’m in complete agreement with the likes of Dawkins and Sam Harris, amongst others, who do take issue with the moderates; I believe that they enable fundamentalism.

    That said, I don’t begrudge your average church goer who believes in a higher power; their definition of that higher power is typically the god that they were raised with rather then a well-reasoned look at what the various belief systems bring to their lives. But I also don’t see any issue with challenging moderates on their beliefs. It’s tricky because, personally, I do not proselytize, nor do I troll religious blogs informing the religious minded that I’m so much smarter than that are because I was able to shake the shackles of religion. Unfortunately, some atheists do this and it seems to me that this is your main issue with atheism. I think any atheist who engages in debate with theists should be prepared to defend their position without coming across like a complete idiot. These atheists should also know when to walk away from a debate; in my experience, when debating a fundie, they have no problem admitting that their beliefs are based 100% on faith. The difference is that they see faith as a virtue, whereas I see faith as gullibility.

    So, should an atheist be prepared to defend their position, I have no problems with them blogging about atheism, writing books about atheism, given public speeches about atheism, etc. I think that only thing that Dawkins is guilty of is that he’s not a very good debater, and with respect, I think that it’s become very popular to pick on Dawkins. Is their a specific argument of Dawkins’ that you take issue with? For me, I don’t agree with his assessment that raising children in a religion is tantamount to child abuse (although, when that child is told that they can’t be good without god, or is threatened with hell, fire, and brimstone, or, perhaps more topical, when they’re raised under the Westboro Baptist Church, then perhaps there’s some mental abuse going on). Anyway, where was I… oh, yeah, I see that there is a bit of a backlash against atheism in general. I think some of it is manufactured by the politically conservative, and that some of it is the result of atheists taking a more dogmatic approach to their lack of belief (so I guess I agree with you to a certain extent). I think that atheism, at it’s most basic definition, is a very easy position to defend, and unfortunately, some folk who do not believe, do not see atheism as a rational position to take, but rather, they see belief as an unintelligent position, and proceed on that basis. You run-in on twitter is probably a testament to that.

    Now, to continue my steam of consciousness, because, I’m fully aware that at this stage, my thoughts are completely unorganized: I’m of the opinion that religious belief is dangerous, both at the fundamental and moderate levels. I completely agree with Hitchens when he states that, “Religion poisons everything”. I think that atheists do need to be thought provoking, perhaps even a little aggressive in their stance. I think that we do need atheist bloggers raising awareness of the dangers of belief based on faith, because I believe that the fundamentalists are an organized bunch and they are purposely and actively engaging policy makers for religious based legislation, and they are actively engaging moderates through propaganda. The Discovery Institute is but one example with their war on science. They are successfully convincing moderates (and legislators) that intelligent design is a viable scientific theory. More moderates are convinced that we should “teach the controversy” as if there are doubts about evolution. Climate change deniers employ very similar tactics (and to a lesser extent, so do anti-vaxers). I can’t help to think that overall, religion hinders progression to a more sustainable civilization and while I would never suggest legislating against religion, I’d like to see the end of religious privilege, I’d like to see the end of religious accommodation, and I’d like more see more people leave their faith based beliefs behind. And when one shakes the belief in any supernatural power, then that person is, by its most basic definition, is an atheist.

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