Atheists are good humans, too

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Atheists are good humans, too

Atheists are good humans, too


October 27, 2009 - 2:55PM

In his opinion piece titled "Celebrity atheists expose their hypocrisy", Dr Dvir Abramovich laments the attention that recent publications by the so-called "new atheists" have been receiving. He takes to task prominent atheists Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion) and Christopher Hitchens (God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) over the positions they espouse in their best-selling books.

Abramovich's main point seems to be that the new atheists are hypocritical in criticising the evils of religion while at the same time ignoring the evils of secularism. Yet in the end one is led to wonder whether he has actually read Dawkins' and Hitchens' books, because both this point and the others he raises are directly addressed in their pages. Even if Dawkins and Hitchens are guilty as charged, Abramovich might equally be accused of emphasising the most laudable parts of religion while glossing over its long and continuing record of putting barriers between people, suppressing free thought and providing a convenient excuse for all manner of violence.

Dawkins is an eminent biologist who is an expert on the theory of evolution. Perhaps in an effort to counter Dawkins' air of science-backed authority, Abramovich invokes the famous scientists Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking. In essence, he argues that if Hawking wrote about knowing the "mind of God" through science and Einstein approved of taking a "religious attitude" to the cosmos, then belief in religion is, on the face of it, not "stupid". Besides, "billions of people across the globe" accept religion.

Einstein wrote explicitly that he did not believe in a personal or interventionist God, and Hawking's views appear to be similar. Einstein certainly did not believe in the God of the Bible; at best he was a deist who equated God with the scientific "laws of nature". Similarly, in Hawking's universe, God's role (if any) is reduced to little more than setting the initial conditions for the universe to explode into being at the big bang. Scientists do not currently know what caused the big bang. But at the borders of scientific research ignorance is the normal state of affairs. That we do not yet have a scientific explanation for the big bang does not mean that God is the only possibility. In fact, physicists currently working on the problem have many different working hypotheses for how the big bang may have come about, none of which require God. The argument that God steps in at the point where current scientific knowledge ends is so common that it has a name: "god of the gaps". The problem for proponents of this argument is that science is continually filling in those gaps, leaving less and less room for God.

The billions of religious people in the world ought not give us much confidence in the claims of religion, either. After all, the billions differ as to which particular set of religious beliefs is the correct one, and the major religions are incompatible in terms of their fundamental tenets. Abramovich is one of the 0.23 per cent of people in the world who subscribe to Judaism. What of the other 99.77 per cent? Does Abramovich believe that the overwhelming number of people who do not follow Judaism is indicative of the falsity of that religion in the same way that the large number of believers in general is indicative of the existence of God?

If religion is false, why do so many people follow it? Scientists such as Dawkins have a few ideas about that. The human brain has evolved over millions of years to be well adapted for dealing with and surviving the challenges thrown up by the kinds of environments in which human beings live. It has been suggested that the same adaptations that have contributed to humanity's success as a species have also, as a side effect, predisposed us towards accepting certain kinds of mystical and religious beliefs. Our brains may well be "hard-wired' for religion. Add some cultural nurture to our evolved nature and we have the beginnings of an explanation for why so many people follow some form of religion. When it comes to choosing one particular religion over another, it seems to be largely a matter of indoctrination; the best predictor of a person's religious beliefs is the beliefs held by his or her parents.

Obviously, not everybody is religious. If we do have a predisposition towards religious belief, then it seems it is possible to overcome it by learning to think critically. It is no accident that a large percentage of the highest-achieving scientists are either atheists or claim a belief in Einstein's remote kind of God. The way that science is taught and practised emphasises a particular form of critical thinking, in an atmosphere where all claims are judged on the strength of the available evidence.

Abramovich is clearly worried that the new atheists may not share the supposedly high moral standards of religious people. He refers to the 20th century as an "experiment in secularism . . . responsible for the unprecedented murder of more than 100 million", citing Hitler and Stalin as examples of the worst that atheism and secularism have produced. In another shot across Dawkins' bows, he accuses Dawkins of being 'mute on the terrors unleashed by science and technology", such as nuclear and biological weapons.

While Stalin was indisputably an atheist (though at the behest of his mother he trained for the priesthood at a Russian Orthodox seminary), there is some room for debate about Hitler's beliefs. Both were indisputably evil men. The important question is: were they evil because of their atheism? As Dawkins points out, there is not the smallest evidence that atheism systematically influences people to do bad things. And if we want to compare degrees of evil, it is important to distinguish evil intent from the means available to bring that intent to fruition. Science and technology are, of themselves, morally neutral tools that can be double-edged swords. Modern biology has given us biological weapons, but it has also given us modern medicine. The impact of Hitler's evil was made all the worse by his control over the technological apparatus of a modern industrialised state.

Hitchens writes on the difference between the evils of atheism and the evils of religion: "Humanism has many crimes for which to apologise. But it can apologise for them, and also correct them, in its own terms and without having to shake or challenge the basis of any unalterable system of belief. Totalitarian systems, whatever outward form they may take, are fundamentalist and, as we would now say, 'faith-based'." He also invites us to consider the responses of religious organisations to the totalitarian regimes of the last century, pointing to the Catholic Church's support of Mussolini and its apparently passive stance in regard to the Nazi regime's persecution of the Jewish people.

Abramovich turns to the benefits of religion, pointing out that there are "millions who every day selflessly dedicate their lives to helping others all in the name of religious belief". There are, of course, many secular organisations whose members also dedicate their lives to helping others, and many individual atheists who do so independently, not in the name of religious belief, but simply because they believe it is the morally right thing to do. The argument that morality requires religion or even the existence of God has been discussed extensively by philosophers from Plato onward; there is too little space to discuss the issue here. Suffice it to say that secular humanism is a well-developed and self-consistent moral system that makes no reference to God or religion, while duplicating many of the more admirable moral precepts of established religions and improving on the less admirable ones. Our Australian system of government and the laws of the land owe as much (or more) to this secular system of morality as they do to the Christian religion.

Moderate religious people, in contrast to the fundamentalists, tell us that the foundational texts of the great monotheistic faiths should not always be taken literally; they must be appropriately interpreted. But how are we are to decide which parts of the Torah or the Bible or the Koran are to be taken as the inflexible Word of God and which parts can safely be ignored or reinterpreted? In matters of morality – take intolerance of homosexuality, for example – people nominally of the same religion often bitterly disagree about the "right" way to interpret God's word. Many Westerners today hold idiosyncratic and not-always-internally-consistent sets of beliefs made up of a hodge-podge of elements borrowed from many disparate religious traditions, often with a few "new-age" ideas thrown in. Secular humanists argue that it is better to base decisions about moral principles on reasoned arguments rather than on appeals to perceived authorities or accepted dogma or particular interpretations of the word of God. Texts such as the Bible are not primarily concerned with moral teachings anyway. The most important message of the Bible, judging from the number of words devoted to it, is that it is vitally important to believe in the correct God.

Abramovich hails religion for inspiring great works of art such as Michelangelo's paintings in the Sistine Chapel. One response to this is to point to all the great works of art that do not have religious themes. Another is simply to wonder what might have been: what works of art might a Michelangelo or a Bach have produced had they been inspired by and commissioned to explore themes other than religious ones? There's no reason to suppose that their oeuvres would have been any the less impressive.

Abramovich seems to believe that without religion there can be no sense of wonder or the numinous, such as might inspire an artist like Michelangelo. He writes that mere "atoms in motion" can't explain the "dignity of the human spirit, sorrow, beauty, love" and so on. This is the "god of the gaps" argument again. A prosaic response is to point out that the sciences, such as evolutionary psychology, are in fact making some progress in explaining things like love and the dignity of the human spirit. This is another instance where science does not yet have all the answers, but that's all right. Scientists are comfortable with uncertainty – even excited by it, since it holds the promise of discovery and new understanding. A more emotional response is to point out that human feelings such as belonging, loving and being loved, being part of something bigger than oneself, can and do exist in the absence of any belief in God or religion. Atheists report those feelings and perceptions in much the same way that religious people do. The only difference is that where a devoutly religious person may feel to the core of his being that he is part of God's creation, an atheist may feel equally intensely that he is part of a complex universe entirely explainable by natural laws.

Dawkins remarks that the human brain is a "design nightmare". His point, apparently missed by Abramovich, is that the brain wasn't purposefully designed at all. No intelligent designer would have designed it the way it is. We have a beautiful and powerful explanation for why the brain is the way it is: the theory of evolution. The human brain evolved over millions of years, by the sometimes-haphazard process of random variation acted on by the emphatically non-random process of natural selection. A deep understanding of the surprising and amazingly-unlikely series of steps that led to the emergence of human brains and the humans that came along with them, inspires in the educated atheist a sense of awe similar to that which religious people must feel when they contemplate God.

James Richmond is a tutor in physics at The University of Melbourne

"Experiments are the only means of knowledge at our disposal. The rest is poetry, imagination." Max Planck