Friday, December 26, 2014

Seven things atheists get wrong

Readers of this blog already know I love responding to lists. Well here's one from The Federalist that claims to offer seven things that atheists get wrong...

1. Religion Is About Morality, Not Creation Myths
Often the origin of the earth and of man plays a central role in the science versus religion debate. There are jokes about cave men riding dinosaurs, deep concerns about our children being exposed to the idea of intelligent design, and disdain thrown upon those who question the almighty power of science.
Wait... David is aware that science and atheist aren't synonyms right? He titles the article as a list about atheists, but the very first point is about science. Oh well, let's roll with it. Science and religion clash about creation because the holy books always get it wrong. Sure some don't take those stories literally, but many do. And that's where science steps in to point out the error.

As for atheism, creation usually comes up from the believer first trying to sell the Biblical account or wanting it (wrongly) taught in science classrooms. In these cases, atheists will step in to point out the Constitutional violation, as well as to point out the science.

But I don't really think I know many atheists who are non-believers because of creation stories. After all, as I've said one can easily be a believer and attest to the truth of the Big Bang. All they must do is not take the religious creation story literally. Something that many Catholics have no problem doing.

About religion being about morality though... The article was prefaced with talk about Christianity, so lets just look at that religion for the time being. The Bible is not the book to follow if your religion is supposedly all about morality. There is much of the Bible that if followed would have you put in prison for a very long time (or put to death if you live in Texas).

2. Religion Is the Foundation of All Morality, Not Merely an Expression of It
The atheist approach to the non-empirical question of “how do we determine right from wrong” tends to be a negative ad campaign listing the horrors done in the name of religion. Whether it is the Inquisition or ISIS, atheists argue that these barbarities stem directly from the intolerance of religious texts and practices. On the surface it can be a persuasive argument, but upon deeper reflection it becomes murky...Before religion, there was murder and rape and all manner of horrors just as there are today. It was religion that first sought to constrain human actions through a moral code, not science.
While the pointing out of religious horrors is effective, there's no need to even get that far. That's because David's entire claim is based on the false premise that morality can only come from religion. As I've written in the past, morality can easily arise without any need for religion.  

The reference to science is a bit odd since no one expects science to form our morality, only to explain where it came from. But here we see David making another unsubstantiated claim. He claims that before religion, everything was just a lawless wasteland. Religion in general, or just his? Because 'moral' can vary from religion to religion. Also, we can find signs of people gathering into some sort of group structures far back into history. Further back than we have any way of telling if they even had any gods. Furthermore, he supposes his Christian faith to be the best of the religions, yet morality and social structures preceded Christianity by thousands of years.

3. Religion Was the Foundation of Society, Not an Addition to It
It was this debt to supernatural, irrational powers that created the very notion of acting in accordance with what is good. Whether all, or some, or none of the admonitions in Leviticus or the Koran are really moral is beside the point. They are part of humanity’s search, stretching to the invisible past, for guidelines or maxims that produce good actions and the structures to encourage them.
As stated before civilization, or at the very least, social groups existed before our earliest records of religion. So how can this baseless claim even be taken seriously when the history doesn't even support it? Furthermore, David's supposedly supreme Christianity didn't come along until even later. Yet somehow he sees this as a strength for Christianity's truth rather than a weakness? How?

And it actually is a big deal if everything in Leviticus isn't considered moral today. If morality stems from religion, we must look to the holy book for guidance. If we see a rule in the Bible and recognize it as immoral, and in many cases society will overwhelmingly agree, then that's a contradiction to David's claim. For if we can recognize that part of Biblical morality isn't moral at all, then that means that we are using morals that are external from the Bible. And since the Bible is the only source for Christian morals, then religion can't be the sole source of morality.

4. Atheists Do Believe

The question most often posed to atheists who complain about the presence of the Ten Commandments or a creche in public spaces is, “Since you don’t believe, why does it bother you so much?” This is the wrong question. The right question is, “Since you do believe, why does it bother you so much?” Because most atheists do believe, and I stress the word believe, that they are capable of understanding right from wrong. They provide no scientific justification for such a belief because no such scientific justification exists.
Sigh... Atheists don't challenge displays of the Ten Commandments because they supposedly bother us in general. The fact is that we challenge these displays only when they are in a location that violates the law. A stone slab of ten mostly worthless guidelines doesn't bother me, but people getting away with breaking the law does.

And again this entire point is based on the absurd claim that morality only comes from religion. Only this time he words it in a way to suggest that atheists can't really know right for wrong without God. But the dance usually claims that if we can, then we've actually proved there is a God. But this is no more than a sloppy logical fallacy.

5. Science Can’t Teach Us Right from Wrong

Even if it were proven that there is a “generosity gene” or that there are evolutionary advantages to cooperative behavior, such things would not inform us how to act in a given situation. The activation of a gene or the selfless actions of our ancestors may well provide a subconscious impulse for moral action, but that impulse must still be translated to the conscious mind. Upon finding a $20 bill on the floor, we must still decide whether to keep it or look for its previous owner based on stories we tell ourselves. Science cannot tell us these stories, and the moment it tries to it becomes religion.
Here's the thing... No one is expecting science to teach us right from wrong! When it comes to morality, we only ask science to explain it and it's origins. Perhaps this is a list of seven things that David gets wrong.

6. Religion Complements Science, It Doesn’t Oppose It
This is where religion, far from being the natural enemy of science, comes to its aid. Just as believers must always fight nagging doubts about the truth of their beliefs, the atheist must fight nagging beliefs when confronted with moral choices. Just as there is no paradox in a believer knowing that science can reveal important details of how the physical world operates, there is no paradox in an atheist knowing that religion and its ancient history of moral investigation is relevant to moral understanding.
Again with the inane peddling of morality only stemming from religion? Give it a rest already! David was wrong before and he still is now.

As for whether religion and science are at odds... Well, that depends on how much you compromise your religion.They certainty can coexist. One method of doing so is compartmentalizing. The other is usually not taking scientific claims in your own personal 'good book' literally. Because there is no doubting that there is much science that the Bible gets very wrong. This leaves the believer with two options (while still remaining a believer)... 1) Deny the science and maybe even try to push religion into the science classroom. 2) Admit that passage is incorrect or that it isn't supposed to be taken literally. So believers need not be totally at odds with science, even though their book very much is.

7. Ignorance of Religion Is Ignorance of History, For Atheists and Everyone
The systematic removal of religious texts, practices, and imagery from our public lives is not a worthy goal. 
What does David mean by 'public lives'? If he means government property, since when is following and enforcing the law not a worthy goal? If he means being able to see these thing at all (displayed on private property) when we're out in public, then he need not worry since these things aren't under any threat at all.
When the Ten Commandments are placed on a wall, nobody believes they are the actual tablets Moses brought down from Sinai’s mount.
That doesn't enter into it at all. The only thing that matters is if it's a violation of the establishment clause. If that wall is a public school, then that is just such a violation.

I also find it odd that David talks of ignorance of religion when atheists have actually been shown to know more about religion than the religious. We know religion better than most. And yes, while religion may have helped shape history, the books of the Bible are not literal history.

But lets turn the tables. Ignorance of science is ignorance of reality, for Christians and everyone. Take evolution for example. Just about every time I've debated evolution with a denier, it became painfully obvious from the start that they were incredibly ignorant of even the most simple basics of evolution. This has led to countless attempts by Christians to keep evolution from being taught, attempts to shoehorn creationism into the classroom, and also a general distrust of science. So yes, scientific ignorance does hurt us all.

And there we have it. Another lackluster list that doesn't deliver on any of it's claims.

-Brain Hulk

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