Despite the title, this post isn’t as strongly related to the previous three as the naming convention suggests. I don’t really have much to say about religious predestination. If anything, my views on spirituality are key to a belief in free will and choice. The religion I was raised in seems (at least to my eye) quite clear that we are allowed to choose our actions.
The connection to those other posts lies in picking up the thread of physical determinism — normally a necessarily atheist point of view — and doing a riff on religion, spirituality and atheism. This is the post I started to write last Sunday when my mind took off in a completely different direction.
This time I’m going to try sticking to the subject!
And the subject is atheism versus theism. Also science versus spirituality. And ideas versus beliefs.
These are all topics I find myself debating quite often on various blogs. I’ve written about it a number of times here on this blog.
Today I wanted to try to record some thoughts and opinions that I find myself repeating. That way, in the future, I can just link back to this post.
Atheism as a Religion
I like to tease atheists that their atheism is tantamount to a religion. As with the tree falling in the forest, the key is in the definition. Atheists point to the trappings of religion and frequently use the phrase “system of beliefs” (referring to the organization and dogma of religion). Under such a definition, atheism is clearly not a religion.
But I look beyond the trappings and see more similarities than differences.
Both are a non-factual opinion on the nature of reality. This is a central point. Theists believe in one thing; atheists believe in another (a belief something is not true is still a belief). In a very real sense, the difference is a single letter, the presence of which negates the main idea. One is Yin to the Yang of the other.
Both have a creation story — an explanation of why we’re here. In one view, God created the universe. In the other view, it was the Big Bang (or one of the scientific alternate theories). In both cases there is a nagging question of what created God or what created the physics that spawned the universe.
[The answer I like: “Turtles, all the way down!”]
Both have an account of purpose and meaning. One believes it is intrinsic, that morality is objective, and that doing good matters on some higher level. The other holds that the only purpose and meaning is that which we create, and that there is no “higher level” where any of it matters.
Both tend to think they know the truth and that others should stop being blind and follow the “one true path.” (Compare this to most agnostics who are more prone to sit on the sidelines watching. Not me, of course, but I tend to be an exception to lots of things.)
[I’m reminded, by both theists and atheists, of how fans of sports and actors seek converts and often get antagonistic towards detractors. I’ve seen the same kind of “join the Right Way” mentality from both alcoholics and A.A. members. We humans seem to want others to belong to our chosen club regardless of what that club is. And we often seem threatened by those with a different view.]
Atheism as a Word
I’ve long thought that “atheism” is an unfortunate term. It positions a pretty key personal opinion as a negation or rejection of something. I’ve wondered if some of the opprobrium atheists get isn’t due to their being viewed as “naysayers” or “negative nellies.”
They’re often viewed as not being for anything so much as against something, and no one really likes people like that.
It’s the grumpy old man syndrome.
A better term that expresses a view of being for something is physicalism. (In some ways, a more correct term would be materialism, but that term has negative connotations of “greediness” or other lack of humane values.)
My previous three posts have all been about a physicalist universe and how one consequence of physicalism is that the future may be fixed even if we’re not capable of divining it. (A key difference between physicalism and materialism is that the former allows more for emergent properties.)
Science and Spirituality
There’s no question that science conflicts with the immediacy of God. When’s the last time anyone walked on water or turned it to wine? Miracles like that seem absent in our modern, scientific world.
But I’ve wondered since high school to what extent our minds affect, even create, reality. Is it possible that, as the world becomes more and more scientifically aware, events which clearly violate scientific principles become impossible?
Does our collective unconscious affect what is possible in the world?
That is, I readily admit, a fanciful idea. But if faith is important, then obvious miracles would remove the need for it. If we had clear evidence that God exists, then belief or unbelief ceases to be a matter of choice.
One of my all-time favorite movies, Grand Canyon, has as its sub-theme the idea that, if God worked miracles in our modern scientific society, what might those look like?
Atheists oppose theists, both of which are polar points of view. In reflecting the extreme ends of the belief spectrum, both positions end up being fairly easy to poke holes in. Neither position is factual, at least for now.
In fairness, atheists do have on their side that the physical world seems more aligned with their view (which is why physicalism is a better term). However there is much that is still unexplained, and there are things science says we can never understand.
There is a moderate “religious” position, deism, which suggests God created the universe and then stepped back to watch it unfold. Deists don’t believe God acts in day-to-day affairs. An analogy might be the farmer who sows, tends and loves his acres of wheat, but doesn’t concern himself with individual stalks.
There are other spiritual positions that don’t involve an actual God at all. “The Force” (be with you) from Star Wars is an example of such a view. And there is Spinoza‘s (and Einstein’s) impersonal and abstract God of nature and physics.
Such positions are harder to deny in that they tend not to be in opposition with the physical realities of science. And in the case of Spinoza, science and spirituality actually come together!
Ideas and Beliefs
My favorite Kevin Smith movie, Dogma, features Chris Rock as Rufus, the thirteenth apostle (who was excluded, he says, from The Bible because he’s black). At one point in the film, Rufus does a riff on ideas versus beliefs and how dangerous beliefs can be.
To paraphrase, the worst thing you can do to an idea is to decide it must be “The Truth!” When ideas become beliefs they calcify and become rigid.
Ideas can move mountains, but Beliefs become Causes, and Causes can destroy mountains. Not always, but Causes can be very scary. Obviously a key aspect is the goodness and value of the Belief underlying the Cause. The role of the rational mind is to self-check Causes.
Consider Believing in the Idea of Freedom versus Believing in the Cause of Freedom. The former spawns democracies; the latter spawns wars.
You can replace the word “Freedom” with almost any other idea: Animal Rights, Women’s Rights, Islam or Christianity, Gun Rights or Gun Control, Justin Bieber,…
All of these, as Causes, have created their share of havoc. Just last week Canada was ushered into the world of Causes and the havoc they can create. Religious causes, unfortunately, create the most havoc of all.
Religion is an extremely powerful tool (it makes atomic bombs look like firecrackers). Powerful tools require powerful responsibility (just ask Spiderman).
The tragedy is the mindlessness and irresponsibility often found in religious causes (of course, one finds those things in all sorts of places). One can understand why — at least for some atheists — their position is a reaction to the dark side of religion.
But that overlooks the value religion has had for us. Church organizations routinely do charitable work. The idea of moral values, community and doing good in the world all stem from religious origins.
It’s entirely possible that religion will someday be understood as a necessary foundation of our successful evolution into the societies of today.
It may even be understood as being necessary for society to continue.
Regardless of your beliefs, to again quote Keith Olbermann quoting a former beloved English teacher of his: “Go forth and spread beauty and light.”