We're creeping up on you

By Sean Carroll | March 19, 2006 2:29 pm

Melissa Fletcher Stoeltje takes an unflinching look at a small, quiet community that seems to be gaining in numbers in the unsuspecting coffee shops of San Antonio — atheists!

She wears stylish glasses, and her thick black hair is swept up in a ponytail; the only hint of a slightly rebellious streak is the tattoo that peeks from under her shirtsleeve. He is a slight, soft-spoken man with a laid-back demeanor and a full beard.

Melissa and Chanse are young atheists. They don’t believe in God. As such, they’re part of a small but substantial minority that swims against the overtly religious mainstream of America, a spiritual tenor that has grown more strident in recent times as issues of faith increasingly become entangled with politics and public policy.

Of course they are stylish! And only slightly rebellious, at least on the surface. In fact it’s a very nice article, the point of which is that atheists and agnostics, despite being a tiny minority (about 3 percent), constitute the fastest-growing category of religious “belief” in the United States.

This cheerful demographic fact ties into a discussion between Chris Mooney, PZ Myers and others a little while back, on how we should speak about science and evolution and religion in the public sphere. Chris suggested that, since we live in a very religious culture, it’s to our own benefit to emphasize the compatibility of religious belief with a scientific worldview. PZ replied that there is no reason to dilute our message just to win some temporary battles. And the truth is that, while there are some staunchly religious scientists who also believe in evolution, and there’s no reason not to have such people be fighting for the cause of science, most scientists are somewhat agnostic if not downright atheist, and there’s no reason to hide that fact. Chris’s response correctly identified the underlying disagreement, which is completely about tactics. (Be sure to read Chris at Mixing Memory on the use of “framing” in this context, and John Rennie at Scientific American on the Dover trial.)

If I may put words into their mouths, Chris is a strategist, looking for the most politically effective ways of fighting the battle currently before us, which is defending evolution in schools. PZ is playing the role of the intellectual, for whom strategy and tactics will always take a back seat to telling the truth. If it makes a few people uncomfortable, that’s their problem. This is why Richard Dawkins generates such emotional responses among people who are clearly on his side when it comes to the truth of evolution; intellectuals admire his fierce determination to call it as he sees it, while strategists cringe at his blatantly anti-religious rhetoric.

I am on the uncompromising-intellectual side of this debate (big surprise there), but I think that the truth-telling attitude has its strategic benefits as well. The fight over teaching evolution in public schools is a tiny skirmish in a much broader cultural conversation. (See? We don’t have to call it a “war.”) We do live in a religious society, remarkably so when we are compared to similar countries elsewhere in the world, and there are complicated reasons for that. But increasingly, a lot of folks are wondering whether their supernatural beliefs are really warranted by the evidence, or whether they’re not just going along because that’s what everyone does. To young people wondering about the meaning of it all, it can be extremely powerful to hear someone say that it’s okay not to believe in God. Everyone always says that you will never talk someone out of their religious beliefs by lecturing about the scientific method; that’s certainly true for a wide range of people who are very confident in their positions, but there are also a huge number of people who are legitimately questioning what to believe. In the long run, the way to squelch the political effectiveness of the intelligent-design movement, the anti-abortion movement, the anti-gay-marriage movement, and so on, is to relegate them to insignificant minority positions within the populace, and one good way to do that is to undermine their supernatural foundations. It’s an extremely long-term project, to say the least, but one worth keeping in mind.

The only time I think the Stoeltje article stumbles is at the very end:

But what, exactly, do atheists believe in, if not in God?

In a nutshell, atheists believe in reason alone, in those things that can be arrived at through intellect and the scientific method. Concrete evidence for God, they argue, simply doesn’t exist. They don’t cotton to leaps of faith or anything that involves a supernatural being reaching into human lives. They believe you can live a happy, respectable life based on human ethics that were derived not from God handing down a tablet but from a code of rules that emerged naturally through an evolutionary process in which humans learned how to live together successfully.

The idea that atheists replace “religion” with “science” is an unfortunately common misunderstanding. Religion plays many roles — it tells a story about the workings of the universe, it suggest moral and ethical guidelines, and it provides social and cultural institutions and practices. Science does not play all those roles, nor should it pretend to; it talks about how the universe works, but is of no help with morality or culture. However, the moral and cultural roles of religion do not stand independently of its beliefs about the universe (existence of a caring supernatural being or what have you) — if that part of the story isn’t true, the other teachings of the religion (homosexuality is a sin, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven) aren’t necessarily any better or worse than any other set of non-religious cultural practices, and should be evaluated on that basis. Science can’t tell us how we should treat other human beings. What it can do is to free us from the mistaken idea that the correct way to treat other human beings can be found in scripture or in church teachings or in the contemplation of God’s will; we human beings have to solve this hard problem all by ourselves.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science and Society
  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2004/11/entanglement-and-new-physics.html Plato

    I am not sure. Society “might not” be as advanced to some, without these atheist principles?

    Or, is the “complexity” less likely to be understood with all the things around us, hiding some “unifying principal?” :)

    So out of our ignorance, arises this fear about spooky things Did Anton find that in this entangled way, such determinations used would lead to all the ideas about that complexity?

    In the presence of the gravitational field, the photon is ? Why not our choices in a eventual outcome from a simple choice made? Who would have known the probable outcome, yet it suited just you?

    Some might not have cared about how it all began. Even further, to ask what came before that, could have instigated the outcome now.

    Venezianno pondered this with responsibility, yet, some would just assume the universe began “this way” and out of it, the standard model way of seeing all things.

    To me, it’s nice to see people think “outside” the box.:)

  • Dumb Biologist

    Science can’t tell us how we should treat other human beings.

    I wonder. There may be a lot of testable insights from game theory, for inastance, and/or evolutionary psychology about how and why behaviors generally regarded as “moral” or “ethical” are so commonly recognized as such, to the point that antisocial behavior is regarded in the modern context as a pathology rather than a mere choice. As some so-called normative behaviors are mirrored in our mammalian relatives (esp. other hominid primates), who otherwise display no evidence they harbor spiritual beliefs or engage in ritualistic behaviors we associate with religiosity, there’s reason to suspect human morality has a neurological basis that is, like all biological traits to some degree, the product of natural selection. One might meaningfully ask what behaviors, in terms of both individuals and populations, are adaptive or maladaptive, and assign value to those behaviors according to the degree to which they enhance survival of the individual and the species.

    Do behaviors we commonly label “good” or “bad” correspond to adaptive or maladaptive, respectively? These are, again, testable hypotheses, and the study of such matters could conceivably provide solid, empirically-rooted prescriptions for behavior that enhances the subjective quality of life (generally speaking), perhaps without the baggage of moral codes derived from peculiar Type-I errors of the religious sort. I think the preliminaries of the above are already the subject of promising scientific research and intense debate.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    But whether or not behaviors that are traditionally labeled good/bad are found to correspond to adaptive/maladaptive, that doesn’t actually make them good/bad in any objective sense. Who says we should be adaptive? Ultimately you have to have some moral first principles, and these are not grounded in any conceivable fact about the real world; they are human choices.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2004/11/entanglement-and-new-physics.html Plato

    The math of game theory is a legitmate process that extends into the everyday world. While “some” might have battled the demons, segregation from society(Andrew Wiles i his search), the essence of the “underlying principals” are valid, as John Nash demonstrated for us.

    How casual the observance then, in the social conditions of the bar, that this process would underly “all interactions” seen in a socially constucted way.

    Bargaining processes.

    I speculate of course. One had to have “a eye” for these kinds of things.

    One can still believe there is something “spiritually inhernet”, about life? Such a “progression seen in our responsiblity” that would make us better human beings? That, such outcomes are possible.

    Why would we dream? To think these are just signs of the times, and not, “possible outcomes” to such choices made?

  • George Musser

    Very eloquent, Sean. Some of us, though, reconcile the strategist with the intellectual: agnostics. Agnosticism is often depicted by atheists as a cop-out, but for me it is the position most consistent with my intellectual understanding of the limits of rationally acquired knowledge.
    George

  • Dumb Biologist

    I suppose the phenomenon of perception of “good” and “bad” might be reflected in a truly objective, measurable change in brain activity. We can simply recognize that “subjective values” may have their objective correlates. Emotions needn’t be seen as etherial, and perhaps to the degree we’re “wired for pleasure”, we’re machines that seek it in a manner that is explainable in terms of adaptation. Happiness can reduce stress hormones, and hence protect the immune system, which therefore enhances survivability, just as an example. One can legitimately ask what’s so great about survival, I suppose. To the extent that there would be no life without the ability to adapt and survive, I tend to wonder if we have a choice in the matter of whether or not to “want” it. If a behavior is triggered by a cascade of signaling in the brain corresponding to “pleasure”, perhaps there’s really nothing more to the motivation for “goodness”. It’s kind of B.F. Skinner, I know, but maybe the guy had a few good points, and a moderated behavioral paradigm isn’t so crazy, or so repressive as to be yet another subjective tyranny.

    It’s annoyingly philosphical stuff, I admit, and quite worthy of doubt for that very reason. I’m just saying maybe we can’t close all empirical doors when it comes to the subject of morality, and precriptions for behavior. There’s a lot about the brain that is within our power to learn.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Hmm… I’m not sure atheists are gaining any ground, no matter how I would like that to be the case. And unfortunately, I suspect that people like Dawkins hurt our “cause” quite substantially by being, quite frankly, abrasive. I find myself in the camp of the uncompromising truth tellers, but we should be patient, polite, and try to explain the beauty of science. It’s mighty hard sometimes, but intolerance is an ugly trait in everybody.

    On moral principles: A balance between the good for the individual and the good for the group is probably something that arises in social groups via evolution, and can be considered an objective moral rule derived from science. Otherwise, if you insist on an objective moral rule outside science, you need to identify a source for that moral rule. And then we’re back to square one.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/ Uncle Al

    Faith is rotted optimism.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/03/wholeness-and-creativity-under-guise.html Plato

    Click on name. I puzzle as to “ingenuity” moving through such tight spaces:)

    Well, subjective as “emotive content” might be within abstract thought processes, there is some “inherent truth” that no matter who we are, there are “such remmants” that follows the thinking process, into memory?

    Makes an impact?

    So “such mixing” would be of interest, from a entangled state recogniton(emphemeral quality to mind)?

    Did we think thought, as a substance of the evolutinary scale of moral conduct, belonged to some brain mattered state assigned to evolutinary progression?

    We are more “then animals” in the brain’s capacity? More then the Monkey’s social constructive behavior.

    Focused forward, what would allow the mind to move it’s capacity, into such a new direction? A “Phase change” possibly :)

  • http://tingilinde.typepad.com/starstuff/ steve

    I had a reasonably successful conversation with a few religious friends after asking them to watch this interview with E.O. Wilson

    No belief structures were changed, but two of the three admitted that you don’t need to have religion in order to be “good” … neither would have admitted that before the conversation.

  • Dumb Biologist

    It’s little surprise that some theologians and philosophers find the whole idea of sociobiology repugnant, for the very reason that objective goodness (and its opposite) is an irrelevance in empirical study of morality.

  • Moshe

    I am a long-time fan of the “fastest growing” statistics, a sure sign of being marginal (small but proud sample) is having large statistical fluctuations…For example, I hear that the fastest growing demographic in western Canada is Israeli-born Physicists, unless of course I am out of town.

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    We should focus on science education for children. Primary school children are hardly taught anything about science. If they hear anything about the origin of life, the earth or the universe it is the Biblical creation story, and not a story based on scientific knowledge. This has to change.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/clifford/ Clifford

    Count Iblis:- “We should focus on science education for children.”

    Bingo!

    -cvj

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  • Simon

    Going back to George Musser’s comment,
    I believe that agnotism, not atheism, is the compatible ‘belief’ with science.

    Although, paraphrasing Laplace, “We have no need of that (god) hypothesis”,
    supernatural influence can also not be ruled out by any experiment.
    So, following standard scientific practice, we posit the non-existence of god, but openly admit that we could be wrong. ie. take the stance of agnostics.

    on that note, does anyone know how to put experimental limits on the existance of god? I’d love to have that in my PDG, particle physics booklet!

  • http://sciencepolitics.blogspot.com/ coturnix

    Where did the number of 3% come from? Last I heard it was around 20%.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    coturnix, that’s what it said in the article. These numbers are always extremely sensitive to how you phrase the question and who you lump together, so it’s not surprising that there are dramatic differences.

  • impatientpatient

    Science has EVERYTHING to do with morality and good deeds. You repeat what makes you feel good- in other wors what makes your brain secrete feel good chemicals- and you do not repeat what makes you feel bad- again chemically based.

    That is certainly the shortened version, but in animal studies- chimps dogs rats- that is exactly what happens when they play, eat and copulate.

    Simplified and extremely cool-

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    impatientpatient–

    I’m not sure if that notion of morality is satisfactory to most people, or even a very useful notion of morality, since morality itself seems to need a sense of universality that some notion of ‘feels good’, ‘feels bad’ would never be able to offer.

    For example, the notion of feeling good as a notion of THE GOOD makes no reference to acknowledging others–I cannot truly feel the things that another does. It would take quite a bit of work to even establish that murder is immoral under this system, without creating weird, non-observable entities.

    If you propose to me a system of ethics that is not universal (at least in the sense that it applies to an entire community of some form), I say that that is not a system of ethics.

  • David G

    I have no real comment; I’d just like to thank you two (?) years later for “Moments in Atheism.”

  • http://elvis.trippy.org/ng efp

    But what, exactly, do atheists believe in, if not in God? … In a nutshell, atheists believe in reason alone, in those things that can be arrived at through intellect and the scientific method.

    Not this atheist. Embedded in the question is a faulty assumption: one must “believe” in something. In this context, belief obviously connotes a form of faith, or adherence to a body of tenets, rather than the mere mental acceptance of an actuality. I do not believe in reason any differently than I believe in cheese. I believe in the big bang to the same degree I believe dinosaurs existed. This form of belief is not a low-cholesterol God-substitute. It’s 100% fantasy-free skeptical goodness.

    Many say science is merely a new form of religion, no better than any other. I once had a devout Christian, and close friend, tell me that one day ‘my books would fail me.’ He apparently couldn’t understand that my world view did not depend on physics texts in the same way his did on the bible. I wonder, to what extent, the religious public can correctly conceive the atheist’s position; it is not in their imaginative repertoire.

  • Eric Wallace

    Interesting discussion about morality. I tend to think there are two different questions being posed here, and it’s important not to confound them. One is the basic question of what is moral behavior, and the second is how did humans come to have a moral sense. The second question is certainly in the domain of science, and evolutionary psychology (or neurology, or whatever) may lend some significant insight into it. But, like Sean, I don’t think answers to this second question really have much bearing on the first.

    If you want to have science tell you what moral behavior is, you have to accept what it tells you. If you were to construct an appropriate game theory model of a human population I believe you would find the emergence of some behaviors we consider “moral” (like avoidance of senseless violence, or rampant theivery). But you might also find that a certain small fraction of “cheaters” (whom we would consider sociopathic) are tolerated, because it was to their individual organism’s benefit to take advantage of the basic trust in society. From an evolutionary standpoint, then, we could consider that behavior “natural”, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it moral.

    As to PK’s remark on the origins of moral reasoning, personally I take two major principles to be axiomatic: (a) that suffering is bad, and to be avoided, and (b) that other human being’s experience is similar to my own. From that comes the golden rule, and a large portion of my moral code. It may seem like cheating to take these rules as given (dare I say “on faith”?), but note that science doesn’t save you from this conundrum. Even science rests on the basic metaphysical assumption of the existance of an objective, rule-based reality. It can make for stimulating, late night discussions over beers to question those assumptions, but in the end I don’t think it really gets you anywhere.

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  • Dumb Biologist

    I cannot truly feel the things that another does

    But you kid yourself that you do when you say you have empathy. And to an empathic individual, doing harm, or even contemplating harm, can produce an aversive emotional response. Characteristic “moral” behavior follows. I could be wrong, but empathic sentiments (as illusory as they may be) seem to be pretty universal among humans, and may be among other apes. Those who lack it are generally regarded as being socio- or psychopathic.

  • Dumb Biologist

    If you want to have science tell you what moral behavior is, you have to accept what it tells you.

    And if one rejects evidence-based prescriptions for behavior in favor of some other, it may be appropriate, but I see no way to distinguish such a decision from any other faith-based appeal to normative behavior. It may be we’re stuck with that conundrum, I don’t know. If such is the case, we secularists are bound to be forced, I think, to acknowledge we’ve no more rational justification for our sense of “right” or “wrong” than anyone else, and no firmer basis to argue for what we assert to be appropriate behavior than anyone else who may differ in their oppinion on what is “good” and “bad”.

  • http://valatan.blogspot.com bittergradstudent

    DB:

    But by labelling some individuals as ‘normal’ and some as ‘sociopathic,’ aren’t we already making appeals beyond the simple ‘feels good, feels bad’ ethos? If some people feel empathy, and others don’t, and more relevantly, some feel more empathy than others (i.e., what is the threshhold of pleasure payoff versus amount of pain dealt to another to make an action net pleasurable?), then how is it possible to use this standard as a means by which to build a code of ethics from the ground up? I can see it’s use as a justification for why certain types of laws shouldn’t exist, but without a notion of what is ‘normal’ or of ‘societal good’, I don’t see how universal, positive reasons for an ethical code can be built this way.

  • Doug

    efp wrote:

    I wonder, to what extent, the religious public can correctly conceive the atheist’s position; it is not in their imaginative repertoire.

    The atheist’s position is not one position, or at least it is not a position justified from one set of premises, but many. In the case of the intellectual justification that Sean summarizes, it is a belief “in reason alone, in those things that can be arrived at through intellect and the scientific method.” But one may ask, “Why does the atheist arrive at this conclusion?” If the religious roots of Western culture did not exist, if the school children of America were raised without any religious teaching whatsoever, would society blame its ills on science, or would there even be any ills? Would the universal acceptance of things only reason can establish substantially improve society? Is this the reason for this conclusion?

    Of course, these are questions impossible to answer definitively, but it’s immediately obvious that some standard of reasonableness would have to be established as a foundation for an atheistic society. Is it reasonable to kill the unborn in certain cases? Is it reasonable to kill the aged and infirm? Is it reasonable to tolerate, foster or encourage non-reproductive sexual relationships? Is it ever reasonable to go to war? Is it ever reasonable to permit people to be non-reasonable, if they chose to do so? Is it reasonable to permit them to raise a following of unreasonable thinking sympathizers?

    Where does the atheistic society’s standard of reasonableness come from? Is this answer in the atheist’s imaginative repertoire?

  • http:://combingthesphere.blogspot.com Daryl McCullough

    I agree with bittergraduatestudent, and disagree with Dumb Biologist. Explaining the biochemistry of moral decision-making, or explaining the biological origins of morality does not at all help us to make our moral decisions. If I’m struggling over two courses of action, I want to know which one is morally correct. The answer, “The morally correct one is whichever one evolution made you comfortable in doing” is pretty useless as a guide to behavior.

  • http:://combingthesphere.blogspot.com Daryl McCullough

    I shouldn’t have said that I disagree with Dumb Biologist; he also seems to agree that science doesn’t give us any guidance about what we should do.

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  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    Knowledge about fundamental laws of physics and cosmololgy are relevant to questions of morality. See e.g. here.

  • Uber

    I disagree that science has nothing to say about morality. Science can lend an insight into much of our biology, of which morality is a part. The scientific method/logic can be applied to many moral ideas.

    There are more atheists than 3%. 20% seems to me more correct and it’s likely even more than that not thta numbers matter much. If you make it politically and socially ok to express an atheist perspective they will come out of the woodwork.

  • http://combingthesphere.blogspot.com Daryl McCullough

    Uber,

    Science can shed light on why humans have moral feelings, and it can shed light on why we feel that some things are moral and some things are not. However, if we are faced with a dilemma in which we are not sure which way to turn, there is a limit to how much science can tell us. It can tell us what the likely consequences of each choice might be, and it can tell us what the likely emotional response to each consequence might be. But I don’t see how it can tell us which consequence we should strive for. Science is descriptive, not prescriptive.

  • Dumb Biologist

    But by labelling some individuals as ‘normal’ and some as ‘sociopathic,’ aren’t we already making appeals beyond the simple ‘feels good, feels bad’ ethos?

    I honestly don’t know. Hypothetically, a population of social creatures with a preponderance of individuals that are innately averse to inflicting unprovoked acts of violence upon each other is going to be more successful than one in which wanton behavior is is the norm. Having this putative adaptive psychological motivation to not only behave oneself in a generally peaceful manner, but also to encourage such behavior in others with rewarding or punishing stimuli, could be rooted entirely in the physiology and biochemistry of the brain (I won’t get into the false dichotomy of nature vs. nurture here). We experience such adaptive motivations as something that feels “good” or “bad”, and may even perceive this “goodness” and “badness” to have some greater reality than the contents of the meatware in our skulls.

    If there is a greater reality to “goodness” or “badness”, perhaps it’s simply survivability, which is kind of an imperative for any successful species. The idea of “feels good” or “feels bad” as a partial guide for societal norms is not to guarantee maximizing the positive emotions of any particular individual (who could be sociopathic), but the entire population, on average. If one used a sound empirical method to determine that a change in a particular societal norm would enhance survivability of the population (reducing greenhouse gas emissions, for instance), one might also hypothesize that the average satisfaction of the population would also be enhanced (altruistic sentiments for future generations included), and use this reasoning to try to encourage individuals in that population to adopt that behavior. One maximizes their individual chance for happiness by playing along, so it makes sense to. Beyond that, maybe there’s nothing more to it.

    I’ve little confidence it’s a workable idea, at any rate, so perhaps my wondering aloud about these things is rather academic, at best.

  • http://combingthesphere.blogspot.com Daryl McCullough

    Dumb Biologist writes: Hypothetically, a population of social creatures with a preponderance of individuals that are innately averse to inflicting unprovoked acts of violence upon each other is going to be more successful than one in which wanton behavior is is the norm.

    Yes, if the preponderance of the population acts ethically, that is an advantage to the population as a whole. However, suppose that the preponderance acts ethically, but a tiny minority acts unethically in a way that benefits that minority. Then the minority will prosper at the expense of the majority. The question is how to maintain a stable majority of ethical actors in the presence of temptations to behave unethically.

  • Dumb Biologist

    Yeah, well, maybe you try to convince them with rationally-constructed arguments base upon evidence, or you cut to the chase and throw them in the clink, or you scare them with the Smiting From On High. Your guess is as good as mine which, if any, of the above, is to be the most successful.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    Eric Wallace said:

    One is the basic question of what is moral behavior, and the second is how did humans come to have a moral sense. The second question is certainly in the domain of science, and evolutionary psychology […]

    This is true if you insist on an objective moral rule. But my point is that moral rules are not objective. (Incidentally, that’s one reason why there are differences between cultures, and, as a consequence, clashes.) Without objective moral rules there is no need for an (objective) “rule-giver”.

  • efp

    Would the universal acceptance of things only reason can establish substantially improve society? Is this the reason for this conclusion?

    Actually, my conclusion is more of an observation—that people of faith often don’t grasp the nature of skepticism. The themata of faith, where believing is seeing, is projected onto all realms of thought. For instance, as far as I can tell, President Bush honestly doesn’t grasp the difference between evidence and assertion; in his mental model of the world, belief is truth. This is a direct extension of his religious faith, and has tangible consequences.

    I think an atheistic society would be more likely to have fewer ills, but not because of atheism itself. If everyone were to suddenly stop believing in God, otherwise remaining the same, things wouldn’t change much. People would just find another reason to be bigots. Religion is an especially convenient means for people to express their tribalism, but Social Darwinism is evidence that (poorly understood) science can also be twisted to such ends. However, atheism is often a symptom of a healthy skepticism, of thinking critically, and an inclusive intellectual maturity. These are traits that definitely benefit society.

  • Pacian

    (Apologies for referring to some of the earliest posts, but this is a pet peeve of mine).

    For more information about agnosticism for those who need it, go here. :-)

    Once it is understood that atheism is merely the absence of belief in any gods, it becomes evident that agnosticism is not, as many assume, a “third way” between atheism and theism. The presence of a belief in a god and the absence of a belief in a god exhaust all of the possibilities. Agnosticism is not about belief in god but about knowledge – it was coined originally to describe the position of a person who could not claim to know for sure if any gods exist or not.

    I object to the common perceptions of atheism and agnosticism, as voiced by a couple of self-proclaimed agnostic commenters here, for multiple reasons. They are at odds with what the vast majority of atheists actually believe, they encourage people who think the same things as the majority of atheists to label themselves ‘agnostic’ without knowing what it really means, and they encourage people to believe that when evaluating a claim they must look for evidence both for and against it.

    I have seen no evidence for or against god. That makes me an agnostic (although some kinds of agnostic are pretty dogmatic, and believe that no evidence for god is possible). Many rational theists are also agnostic for the same reason, even though they believe fervently in a god.

    You will not get me to say that I believe in the non-existence of god. To me that statement is a nonsensical misstatement of the way one should look at the world. But, I do not have any religious beliefs, I do not believe in god. That makes me an atheist.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    I think an atheistic society would be more likely to have fewer ills, but not because of atheism itself. If everyone were to suddenly stop believing in God, otherwise remaining the same, things wouldn’t change much.

    I don’t know about that. Not all social problems stem from religion, to be sure, but many of the big ones do, and persist primarily because of religious tribal loyalties. I find it difficult to believe that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, for example, would continue if all concerned suddenly became atheists. Similarly with the historical strife in Northern Ireland. And somehow I doubt al-Qaeda would have such an easy time finding suicide bombers if its candidates didn’t firmly believe in a garden of wine and virgins for the heroic martyrs.

  • http://www.pieterkok.com/index.html PK

    You will not get me to say that I believe in the non-existence of god.

    Calling atheism “just a different belief” is like calling a vegetarian just a different meat eater.

  • http://combingthesphere.blogspot.com Daryl McCullough

    Ebonmuse writes: Not all social problems stem from religion, to be sure, but many of the big ones do, and persist primarily because of religious tribal loyalties.

    I don’t think that you know that. The fact that ethnic conflicts have a religious component does not imply that the religious component is the cause of the conflict.

    You go on to say:

    I find it difficult to believe that the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, for example, would continue if all concerned suddenly became atheists. Similarly with the historical strife in Northern Ireland.

    I think you’re wrong. The Palestinians are not religiously monolithic; there are Christian Palestinians as well as Moslem Palestinians. There tend not to be Jewish Palestinians, but that is because all (or most) of the Jewish Palestinians became Israelis.

    In the case of Ireland, the IRA is largely a Marxist organization, and many of its members are atheists.

  • Dumb Biologist

    I some article by Dawkins I saw a good definition, something like “Tooth Fairy Agnostic”. The basic gist was just because it’s impossible to disprove the existence of the Tooth Fairy doesn’t mean you need to take Her existence seriously. Same goes for the sundry deities. So, sure, for the sake of intellectual honesty, perhaps its untenable to assert the non-existence of God, but that’s not an excuse to consider His existence likely or at all relevant to human affairs.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org/ Ebonmuse

    The Palestinians are not religiously monolithic; there are Christian Palestinians as well as Moslem Palestinians.

    That’s hardly the same as proving that religion isn’t the primary cause of the conflict there. You prove my point for me – the ones who were Jewish were absorbed into the state of Israel without much problem, which shows that religious differences are the primary cause of the ongoing conflict.

    In the case of Ireland, the IRA is largely a Marxist organization, and many of its members are atheists.

    The conflict in Northern Ireland is and has always been organized along Catholic/Protestant lines. That’s how it got started, when James I confiscated land from Catholics in Ulster and gave it to imported Protestants. It’s absurd to say that religion has not historically been the major reason for the troubles there.

  • http://combingthesphere.blogspot.com Daryl McCullough

    Ebonmuse writes: It’s absurd to say that religion has not historically been the major reason for the troubles there.

    No, it’s not absurd. The Catholic/Protestant distinction is a proxy for Irish/British. The Protestants in Ireland were descendents of immigrants from England and Scotland.

    In ethnic conflicts, any reliable indicator of which “side” you are on tends to come into play: Skin color, language, religious affiliation. That doesn’t mean that the conflict was caused by that difference.

  • http://combingthesphere.blogspot.com Daryl McCullough

    Oh, and Ebonmuse, the conflict between England and Ireland dates all the way back to 1169, when both countries were Catholic.

  • gbusch

    Statistically speaking, Include Canada in the non-belief uprising.

    “No religion” (16%) are in second place to the Christians (43%). Canada is slated for another census this year (2006), and hopefully the upward trend (44%) will have continued.

    http://www12.statcan.ca/english/census01/products/highlight/Religion/Page.cfm?Lang=E&Geo=PR&View=1a&Code=01&Table=1&StartRec=1&Sort=2&B1=Canada&B2=1

  • Dumb Biologist

    I shouldn’t have said that I disagree with Dumb Biologist; he also seems to agree that science doesn’t give us any guidance about what we should do.

    I guess I would say I’ve no confidence that I or anyone else really knows in some cosmic way what we “should” do. If you simply declare that A or B is the “right thing to do”, then I challenge you to define what you base your moral first principles on. “It just is,” or “it’s common sense” isn’t persuasive as a bald assertion, in my mind, though it may be that’s what we’re stuck with. I feel personally I have an innate and aquired sense of morality, but whether or not that will guide me to make the “best” decisions, I’ve absolutely no idea. I don’t take it on faith there’s some greater principle of goodness to which I should appeal, I only know how I feel when I do things that I seem to innately or, through conditioning, recognize as “bad”. I’ve no rational reason to assume I am “right” about anything based upon my “sense of right and wrong”. I’m a complete moral skeptic, I think.

    And, I think that skeptical inquiry could yield successful prescriptives for maximizing human satisfaction, which presumably has some relation to survival. I don’t say I even know that for certain, I just think it’s an idea that merits exploration, despite our inability to rely upon it for “moral first principles”. I’ve no idea where those are supposed to come from, if there is not a naturalistic explanation, and I’ve no way to judge what approach to ethics is “best” in a rational way, except to recognize the possibility that morality emerges from an evolutionary process, that it is maintained by innate and aquired drives to behave in a manner commonly perceived as “moral” or “ethical”, and acting in accordance with those drives produces positive emotions.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/03/ways-in-which-to-percieve-landscape.html Plato

    The second question is certainly in the domain of science, and evolutionary psychology (or neurology, or whatever) may lend some significant insight into it. But, like Sean, I don’t think answers to this second question really have much bearing on the first.

    Artistically straying, because I was lead by example?:) It’s Cliffords fault. Damn you clifford.

    You know that saying, “you are what you eat,” well lets change that around a bit and insert, “food for thought?”

    There are some good chefs around who deal with the landscape of “texture surfaces”. Who respect the inherent nature of mining, who posted dangers for us about dealing with making trips into the outback and who do walkabouts.

    I don’t want to go off planet here:)

    Anyway, as to the “emphemeral qualities of mind,” if held to “matter states” then we would have never ventured into journies “off planet” into non-euclidean realms of thought.

    Argue as you might, “this food” changed the substance of those who deal with planet landscapes?

    “The earth” is not so round, if you look closer. That’s part of the progression of thinking, beyond the matter states.

    I’m hungry. :)

  • http://countiblis.blogspot.com Count Iblis

    There is a simple reason why we aren’t living in an atheistic society, see here.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/03/ways-in-which-to-percieve-landscape.html Plato

    Count,

    I could extend “your thoughts” into the work of others like Brian D.Josephson, but then, I might be playing into hands about which “senility of scientists” would, as if some of our youth espouse on reason, had been overtaken?

    Those who lead working models of science, like that used in the Josephson effect, now defunct, thinking wise?

    Somewhere these ole folk according to those who have a agenda, missed the “science process” and yet, they offer some evidence to the contrary of that youtfful thinking?

    Einstein, likewise?

    “Possible” tunneling from other universes? “Atheist indoctrination” about which the irresponsibility is spoken in regards to science?

    Okay, I added that last little bit for thought. :) Just wondering.

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    Simon,

    I just asked a similar question here, but my idea is that atheism is indeed compatible with science.

    I believe we can make and prove a better theory than yours. We can’t make theories about supernatural phenomena in the absence of observations that helps us define them. We know however that natural phenomena obeys energy and probability conservation laws. Let’s call the remainder anatural phenomena. The anaturals will include all possible supernatural phenomena.

    By testing a massive amount of different systems (for example chemical and gravitational ones) one can confirm or falsify “beyond reasonable suspicion” whether anaturals can be observed as breaking conservation laws. If they aren’t, the best theory will be that they don’t exist.

    In conclusion, I can’t see why “methodological naturalism” can’t eventually show “ontological materialism’ as a correct theory by observations?! Perhaps you can help me understand if this is wrong.

    If this idea is good, it should indeed be possible to put experimental limits on the existance of gods. In fact, we can already amuse ourselves by making an armchair prediction, admittedly with very low sensitivity, since you asked for it.

    Television has been around for some time and people watch and presumably report oddities in shows from natural surroundings. Very few has reported and followed up on gross violations of energy conservation in gravity in television frames. When I did a rough calculation I ended up with more than 6.2 sigma certainty that no gods exists to kick around objects or mess with gravity.

    There are no gods. At least, that’s my prediction from observations. ;-)

  • Dumb Biologist

    Since the discussion here got me more interested in the subject, was rooting around and came across this article, which I thought was germane to the “science of morality”, if you will:

    http://www.carlzimmer.com/articles/2004/articles_2004_Morality.html

    Moral sense could be rooted in genes and accumulated experience quite literally shaping our brains, and feelings of moral certitude may have less of a rational basis than many would care to admit. Worse, these neurophysiological differences might make it extremely difficult for for those harboring different moral precepts to even comprehend one another, much less agree upon anything, causing certain conflicts to seem insoluble. The featured researcher, Dr. Greene, speculates that understanding the neurological basis of morality might help people achieve a measure of rational detachment, which could facilitate conflict resolution. Science to the rescue? Maybe not, but I still figure learning about the nature of our sense of right and wrong might possibly be of some assistance when we’re faced with so-called moral dilemmas.

  • CanuckRob

    Morality in humans can only have arisen one way, through evolution (selection for it). There is no other way unless you are prepared to allow something like religion which is not a useful hypothesis to add to the mix. The idea of a “universal” morality or why we have the morals we have (and recognizing that they have changed through “cultural evolution” is best addressed through evolutionary psychology or philosophy, not fairy tales.

    I am atheist, in other words not a theist, agnosticism seems to me like a cop-out. As an atheist I do not see the need to postulate a supernatural explanation for anything, it is not about “belief” that there is no god, any more than I believe in the existence of tables, they are, they do not require my belief in oder to exist. The universe does not require my belief either, it is.

  • adam

    Your belief in an external universe at all is just as dubious. You can’t know that the external universe exists (of course, assuming that it does seems to be the best option in terms of the results we experience, but you can’t know that it exists).

  • adam

    I’m not equating belief in God with belief in an external world, incidentally. I am just pointing out that all of us rest our intellectual framework on belief. Picking your belief based on ‘it worked well last x times’ is just induction, which in itself isn’t on a firm footing. Clearly, we have to make assumptions to do anything at all, but we should be clear that we’re making them. It’s the flip side of addressing the ‘it’s just a theory’ nonsense, in fact; ‘theories’ are all we have.

  • Torbjorn Larsson

    Simon,
    I just learned that “ontological materialism” is probably a bad and deliberately skewed concept, since it rests on a dualistic assumption of natural vs supernatural.

    It seems that “philosophical materialism” is a workable simpler definition that directly implies a closed natural universe, and is consistent with methodological materialism.

    It’s not a directly explicitly falsifiable theory due to it’s closedness. On the other hand, ideas of supernaturals “dies of a thousand cuts” since every explained observation strengthens the use of the theory. And the idea I presented is a rough sieve which supports the philosophical naturalism theory naturally and falsifiably, without supposing the dualism as such.

    To answer accordingly, again, the idea I presented gives much less confidence than we can have about nonexistence of supernaturals. But it’s an easily expressed one; it gives you the limits you asked for.

  • adam

    Your ‘dies of a thousand cuts’ idea sounds rather like induction, to me. I would say that it ‘continually fails verification’ and leave it at that; at best, though, that kills a particular supernatural theory. Mind you, I think that attempts to disprove supernaturalism in general are as misguided as the attempts to prove it (the latter sort of thing is still, although it’s not talked about so much, basically an official doctrine of the Catholic Church, that you can know God through ‘natural reason’).

    More generally, and not addressed to anyone in particular, I also don’t understand the missionary zeal that some people on either side (atheists or believers) have. I like debating points to improve my own understanding and cohere my own views (this is also why I am content to play Devil’s Advocate), but I don’t care if I change anyone else’s mind, so I guess that I am not much of a missionary. Discussion benefits us all because we at least get to enforce internal consistency on our body of opinions through the examination that the debate provides; where our ideas fail, we have to repair them and yes, maybe, sometimes we chuck the lot away. But that’s an internal process, merely stimulated by the debate; I don’t understand why people would enter the debate with the aim of changing other people’s minds*, but that’s just a reflection of my own approach, I think. I also don’t have believe that, on matters like this that are essentially undecideable, that dialogue between two ‘reasonable’ parties leads to some synthesised approximation to truth. The best we can hope for, it seems to me, is that each side understands the other better and improves the consistency of their own views, or at least is more aware of where the inconsistencies lie.

    *Unless there was a political sort of motive, which might be entirely justifiable, like ‘leave me alone, you condemnatory pricks’.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/03/coleman-de-luccia-instanton.html Plato

    #57

    You had to understand that the induction part is really half of a cyclical process, from inductive/deductive reasoning, for our “striving” to make us whole? :)

    Perfecting morally and rightously, until we are each satisfied/ nothing further initiated?

    Without further knowledge, how is it, that you could have moved, or, changed in your belief?

    An atheist/cateloic/buddhist might continue to form logic, around his status? Not want to change, or has found nothing convincing.

  • adam

    Induction is perhaps necessary but it’s not a route to truth; it can’t be, because saying ‘well, this happened x times so it’ll happen again’ presupposes the underlying rule that makes it happen and you can’t prove that a rule is true from ‘verification’ of predictions from it, you merely fail to rule it out (and there is, of course, a sort of regression starting with the certainty of the falsification, too). The upshot is that we can’t really know anything with certainty, but that’s just a pill that we have to swallow.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/01/induction-and-deduction.html Plato

    Adam:Induction is perhaps necessary but it’s not a route to truth; it can’t be, because saying ‘well, this happened x times so it’ll happen again’

    The basis of what I am saying is in the idea of cyclical natures being realized. Not that it is right/wrong but would be consistent with our assessment of the deeper moves into assessing our realities. Theoretical induction and experimental deduction.

    Plato:You had to understand that the induction part is really half of a cyclical process, from inductive/deductive reasoning, for our “striving” to make us whole?

    Maybe you choose to ignore it?:)More on name


    Our attempt to justify our beliefs logically by giving reasons results in the “regress of reasons.” Since any reason can be further challenged, the regress of reasons threatens to be an infinite regress. However, since this is impossible, there must be reasons for which there do not need to be further reasons: reasons which do not need to be proven. By definition, these are “first principles.” The “Problem of First Principles” arises when we ask Why such reasons would not need to be proven. Aristotle’s answer was that first principles do not need to be proven because they are self-evident, i.e. they are known to be true simply by understanding them.

  • adam

    I didn’t ignore it, I have no real idea of what you mean. ‘Inductive/deductive reasoning’? I’m not denying that we do it, I’m not denying that we have to do it, I’m saying that you can’t say that it will lead to truth. Furthermore, I don’t know what ‘theoretical induction and experimental deduction’ means (it seems that it should be more the other way around, given that induction is based to some extent on observed repetition). ‘Deeper moves into assessing our realities’ sounds to me like it should be accompanied by incense and repeated use of the word ‘wow’, but that’s just my prejudice. We are, I suspect, operating from different assumptions in some regards.

    I don’t see why the infinite regress is ‘impossible’, either. It’s certainly inconvenient, but we don’t get to pick.

    That anything is ‘self-evident’ is a dangerous idea. We pick assumptions that feel right and yield deductive results that we like, but we shouldn’t assume ‘self-evident truths’. Once we’re clear about the fact that we are basing our reasoning on assumptions, things become a lot more transparent. There are plenty of basic assumptions that we all seem to like, so in general we aren’t in too much trouble, but I think that it’s worth remembering at least occasionally that these are, in fact, assumptions (I didn’t say ‘just’ for the same reason that I don’t like ‘just a theory’, i.e., it’s all we’ve got).

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2005/01/induction-and-deduction.html Plato

    I don’t see why the infinite regress is ‘impossible’, either. It’s certainly inconvenient, but we don’t get to pick.

    The plate shown talks about euclidean realities?

    If such regression, and in this case reductionism is taken down to a certain level, I see where you might run into problems.

    It’s the “first principle” I am drawing your attention too. It’s a leap of sorts, after having entered the loop. What is the foundational basis that people want?

    So you do not accept such intuitive leaps? I know “Wow” is not acceptable, but model creation is:)

    So you choose? I believe that this choice is the “longing” in all of us.:)Science may have no room for such psychologies, but it might understand the deeper motivations that would fuel a scientist who is seeking a truth.

    Hopefully I may not have overstep the boundaries of this blog. So I’ll pull back now, and let others have ago at it.

  • adam

    I agree with you that we appear to share certain ‘longings’ and that’s not a bad base to pick, I don’t think. I just don’t have any particular reason to believe that our ‘longings’ map into a route to truth. I am a scientist myself, after all; I’m driven by the same interests as most other scientists, I think. My background is in Quantum Mechanics and there you’ll find quite a lot of people that don’t bother much about ‘truth’ so much as ‘it works in our predictions’ and frankly, we tend to pick the model that produces predictions with the least amount of maths, which is why you’ll find old-fashioned Copenhagen QM being practised even while we have other models (‘many worlds’, decoherence, etc) that essentially can produce the same results and are more intellectually ‘pleasing’, to some at least (the rest just pursue the ‘easiest route to verifiable predictions’ route).

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/03/coleman-de-luccia-instanton.html Plato

    Maybe the basis is the recognition that “uncertainty” might be part of a larger picture?

    How can a six-foot tall human being ‘fit’ inside such an unbelievably microscopic universe? How can a speck of a universe be physically identical to the great expanse we view in the heavens above? (Greene, The Elegant Universe, pages 248-249)

    It is troublesome that such motivation might have had one wonder about this in an inductive/deductive way.:)

    Thanks

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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