Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fighting Church-State Infractions, A Catch-22

In considering, and discussing with others, the recent Rick Perry's 'Day of Prayer' lawsuit pursued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation I have realized that it is possible this will result in a deadly Catch-22. If they sue him, there will be one of two outcomes. Either the 'Day of Prayer' will be successfully halted, or the lawsuit will be in vain and the event will happen as planned. The problem is that, no matter the outcome, the Christian Right will be able to portray the lawsuit to suit their own agenda. If the lawsuit goes through, then it will be a further example of how the evil atheists have taken over, and thus will solidify and perhaps bolster the fanatics' resolve. If the lawsuit doesn't carry, then Perry will be portrayed as a hero for standing up against those meddling secularists. Either outcome gives him a solid foundation to bolster his entry into the presidential race. However, that's not even the Catch-22 I'm talking about. That just gives rise to the bigger issue of secular organizations being damned if they do, damned if they don't fight obvious Church-State separation violations. We seem to lose either way if we do fight, but if we don't then such infractions just keep happening.

I'm not sure what can be done about this problem per se. However, I will say that it is a basis for my thought that the real fight to undermine theocratic takeover happens at the conceptual level more than at the legal level. Ultimately I think we are going to have to really get rid of religious thinking in our culture overall to ever hope to have an effect on the political realm. I am not saying that people should not engage in political activism and to actually file lawsuits. I applaud the FFRF for pursuing this, or any other similar, lawsuit, and I support them fully. But I still think that the best thing we can do is to continue to get more exposure for atheism, humanism, and secularism in a 'winning of hearts and minds' way to really get things done. I guess I'm just saying that we should continue to, but possibly even more fervently, support more books, more blogs, more talks, more conventions, more journalism, more academic research, more pop culture that spreads the ideas of critical/rational thought which naturally leads to, well...naturalism. We must remember that this is a cultural/theoretical as well as a legal battle. The best thing you can do, as an individual, is to quit believing in God, and not be afraid to talk to other people about that. Further, if you've already made the easy step of being a non-theist of any sort, continue to examine how theistic thinking pervades our attitudes in all sorts of realms even beyond just immediate religio-philosophical ideas (a topic I hope to revisit in future blogs). With public attitude still in the theistic mindset, those from the political milieu are able to use that fact to their advantage. I will end with some anti-theistic wisdom from one of America's founding fathers (ironic huh? That's another blog too, by the way): "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose." -Thomas Jefferson

Friday, July 22, 2011

Atheist Blogroll

I am honored that Pragmatic Atheism has been added to The Atheist Blogroll. You can see the blogroll button in my sidebar. The Atheist blogroll is a community building service provided free of charge to Atheist bloggers from around the world. If you would like to join, visit Mojoey at Deep Thoughts for more information. I have personally used this Blogroll as a resource for some time, and highly recommend it to people interested in intellectual and social issues of religious belief or lack thereof.

Faith and Knowledge: The Polite Approach

My wife and I were talking last night about whether or not to talk to theists about their beliefs and how beneficial it can be to try to convince them or not. She is as much of an atheist as I am, but she tends to choose not to get into debates with theists because she finds it more or less pointless and ineffective. I, on the other hand, will jump into the 'God debate' at any chance, with anyone, at any time. I see this as not only my right as a free thinker, but also as a duty to spread such free thinking into the world. I understand that it is like trying to cut diamonds with a rusty chisel, but I am optimistic that the more we cut away at the issue, the more a culture of reason will be shaped into a beautiful stone for all the world to enjoy. However, she did make a good point that, if we approach the theists with the same kind of antagonism that they tend to show us non-believers, that nothing will ever change, and it will make them hold onto their beliefs even stronger. I certainly agree with this sentiment, and consider it a large part of what my own blog is about. It is in this spirit of non-antagonism that I want to approach the issue from calm, simple, and basic reason rather than the standard 'science is better than religion' paradigm, which can often turn into little more than the familiar 'my Dad can beat up your Dad' argument from our childhood. With this in mind I would like to present one of the most simple and basic issues of the whole religion vs. reason debate, the relation between faith and knowledge. It is an issue that is very clear and easy to understand and doesn't require any attacking to see how atheism is the appropriate stance to take.

Knowledge is generally defined as 'justified, true, belief', at it's most basic level. Now, what does this mean? It means to know something, a claim or a statement, you have to have reasons for it, the statement must be true, and that you have to believe the statement. None of these aspects of knowledge, taken on their own or without all three, are enough to know something. To make this point pragmatically dramatic, let's say that I want to walk on an old bridge across a thousand foot drop while hiking in the mountains. To my friend I say, 'I believe this bridge will hold us to get across.' Naturally, he will say, 'why do you believe that?' What he is asking for is my justification or my reasons or my evidence for my belief. But let's say I flatly refuse him an answer and just say, 'I don't have any particular reason to believe it, I just do.' So we have a claim, 'the bridge will hold us' and that is either true or not (at this point, on this side of the drop off, we're not sure yet whether this statement is true or false, but it is certainly one or the other). I also stated that I believed the claim, so that is one condition of knowledge fulfilled, but I denied evidence for the claim, so I can't be said to know whether or not the bridge will hold us or not. At this point, since I denied reasons for my belief, you can imagine my friend will be quite hesitant to cross the bridge, unless he goes into collecting his own reasons for believing it is safe to cross, since I'm obviously going to be no help in this regard. So let's say he does go about collecting some evidence to see if the bridge will hold us, which he should or else we could both die! He shakes the bridge a bit to examine the integrity of the ropes and boards and he also finds a carving into one of the posts that states 'we crossed June, 2011' (which was last month and seems to have been marked by people crossing from the other direction). Now my friend also claims, 'I believe this bridge will hold us to get across.' So we cross, and sure enough, it turns out true that the bridge in fact did hold us, and we make it safely across. Now, it would seem that we would want to say that I didn't know that the bridge would hold us, but my friend did. I believed it, and it was true, but I never decided to collect any reasons for my belief, but he did. So belief on it's own is clearly not enough to know something, and even true belief is not enough, you have to have reasons for your belief to really be said to know it.

Now 'faith', at it's most basic level, can be defined as 'belief without the need for reasons'. Even with as much ink that has been spilled by theologians about the notion of 'faith' it is nothing if not the definition above. Now, at first we might notice that, in a way, the notion of faith is redundant with regard to belief. It is like saying 'I believe because I believe.' There are, then, at least two kinds of belief, there is just plain belief that stands on its own (faith) and then there is belief that is based on reasons for the belief (justified belief). Justified belief, as we have seen, is two thirds of what one needs to have knowledge about their belief, while faith is only one third, and even if true, would not count as knowledge. We do not ever have to deny anyone their faith. Anyone can believe any thing they want. It is their right and their freedom to do so. However, we simply need to point out to them, as calmly as possible, that a completely faith based belief could never count as knowledge. In the case of belief in God, that is fine, as long as the person holding the belief is not particularly concerned about knowing that God exists and their mere belief is enough for them. So long as they understand the definition of 'knowledge' and of 'faith', then any moderately reasonable person will agree that faith is not enough for knowledge. Sometimes at this point in the conversation someone might say, 'I have faith in God's existence because...[insert any argument for God's existence or any reason for believing in God here]'. We must stop them right there, for as soon as one says 'because' followed by some argument or reason in support of the belief, they are no longer holding the belief because of faith. Faith is, by definition, belief without a 'because'. I am not concerned here to talk about what count as 'good' reasons or evidence for a belief, only to point out that faith does not, indeed cannot, involve reasons to back it up, and thus cannot ever be a basis for knowledge. Even if God in fact were to exist, i.e. the belief that 'God exists' were true, a faith based belief in him could never lead to knowing he exists. I think that for most people this would be unsatisfactory.

Wouldn't one rather know his or her beliefs than to just hold them for the sake of having them? It's kind of a catch-22. Faith is an individual's right to have and to hold, come what may, but it's kind of an empty right to have because it can never lead to knowing. However, as soon as one goes down the path of trying to develop reasons for their belief in search of knowledge, and thus abandoning faith, then everyone else has a right to dispute their reasons. Did not our friend crossing the bridge with us not have a right to demand more than mere belief for thinking that the bridge was safe to cross? You bet he did, in fact he had to be willing to bet his life on it. In the same way, we all have the right to demand good reasons for all beliefs that we care about their outcome for ourselves. So we can point out that it is fine for an individual to have any belief they want, with or without reasons for it, but if they want more, like most of us do, they will have to deny faith and look for reasons. If they still want to stick with faith, and deny knowledge, then let them know, as politely as possible, that they are on their own. The rest of us (even many theists) want more than that.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Even a Kid Can Do It: Santa, Satan, and How I Lost My Faith

I am proud to say that I believed in Santa Claus, The Tooth Fairy, and The Easter Bunny for a lot longer than I believed in God. I had evidence for them at least. My parents really went hog wild with all of that kid stuff. Every Christmas they put out cookies and milk for Santa and laid out my presents under the tree and told me I had to go to bed or else Santa wouldn't come and threatened that, if I had been bad, there might be a 'bundle of switches' instead of presents. One time my Dad even saw a kind of red light in the sky (an airplane of course), and told me it was Rudolph's nose. I bought it completely, and rushed off to bed. I would lay there going over the year and my misdeeds, wondering if they were just bad enough, really scared that there might be sticks instead of presents. But sure enough, the next morning I would have gotten exactly what I wanted and the cookies and milk were gone. Somebody had to put the presents there. Somebody drank the milk and ate the cookies. And the same went for The Tooth Fairy and The Easter Bunny. My parents fed me the traditional line for each of those characters of folklore, and lo and behold what they said would happen came true. The teeth were gone, replaced by money, and there was an easter basket with awesome sweets in the morning. They gave me hypotheses, under which, if true, certain predictions should become fulfilled, and sure enough they were every time until I finally stayed awake long enough one night to hear my parents putting out the presents when I was about seven or eight. Unfortunately, I had to revise my long held theories based on new observations. It was my darn parents the whole time. What a loss to have to give up those cherished childhood characters, but the loss of God was much less painful.

I recall being a child, in rural Tennessee, and more or less accepting the God story in the small tidbits I heard the adults talk about. See, in that culture, at that time, belief in God was not so much something you were taught or given reasons for, it was more of an activity. Belief in God was less a philosophical issue than just a basis for community. In fact, it seems to me that belief in God was much less important than going to church every Sunday, going to lunch afterward, and getting to eat lots of food on certain holidays and be with family. Sure, you had to go listen to this guy tell fantastic stories about a carpenter, but that was just to give you something painful to do so that you could more fully appreciate getting out of there and going to eat with friends and family. And there was always this great sense of relief when the minister finally said the service was over and we all scrambled up to meet in front of the church. The first words out of the adults' mouths were not anything about how wonderful the sermon was, they were, 'okay, where are we going to go eat?' So God mostly meant food, which was always fine by me.

That said, I was certainly indoctrinated with plenty of the standard stories. One particular one, that I'm sure many Christian raised children lock on to, was the one about Satan rebelling against God and being banished from Heaven (which is more from Paradise Lost than the Bible) and now he runs around playing mischief and trying to get people to get in trouble. I remember thinking to myself how silly it was that Satan would do that. I mean God is this wonderful, all good, and all loving dude up in the sky. Why would you want to not hang out with him? So I decided one night, at about the age of five, to talk to ole Satan and get him to go make up with God. So I laid in bed and, after my prayers of course, started to talk. I said, 'Look Satan, God's a nice guy. I'm sure if you just go apologize and tell him you're honestly sorry, he can work something out for you to come back.' I figured the issue was pretty simple and wondered why someone hadn't just sat down and had a heart to heart with Satan before I thought of it. I guess I expected a golden light to fall from the sky that erased all the evil in the world and for God to come down and personally thank me for giving the reasonable nudge to his favorite prodigy angel that made him come back to his loving arms. But nothing happened, and I just fell asleep.

So I decided to tell my Grandma about this great thing I'd done, so she would be proud of me, but also to hopefully gain some insight into why my well intentioned plan had not worked to set things right with Satan back home where he belonged and no more evil in our world. My Grandma got madder than I'd ever seen her. She told me not to ever talk to Satan, it was dangerous, and would open me up to his influence. I was a bit confused because, in my mind, I'd done the greatest deed possible. Why would she be so mad at me for doing something good? And then it all clicked. Satan was a concept they needed to keep kids like me, and perhaps themselves, in line. He wasn't real at all, that's why when I talked to him, he didn't talk back. And that's why when I threatened to get rid of him, my Grandma got so mad. Ironically, she needed Satan to make sense of the world and have a scapegoat to blame for all of it's horror and atrocity. And then I thought that if Satan wasn't real, then God must not be either. He's just a story invented to give us hope of something better than this horrible world. All of it made sense now. As you might expect my Grandma decided to take this opportunity to really give me some education about Christianity and tell me all about how I had to stick with God to get the goodies in Heaven. But this all seemed like trite drivel to me, now that I'd parted the veil. The God story never had the same effect on me ever again. I obediently listened to her, and continued to go to church of course. I went along with it all, throughout my childhood, because I had to and that's what everybody else was doing, but mostly for the food. God was gone, and I knew the food was cooked by good people, who mattered to me now more than ever because, without the fantastical stories about God and Satan and a false afterlife, I realized that other people are all we have for our salvation. At least Santa Claus was still real and he gave me cool presents in real time, like clockwork, every Christmas, as expected.

Friday, July 15, 2011

The God Debate and An Appeal to Common Reason

I should start this blog by explaining what I mean by 'Pragmatic Atheism', but first I must cover a little bit of background. The claims of science and the claims of religion are seen as incommensurable and the debate between adherents of the two camps has been over which one is right. This debate has been structured as if these are the only two choices and that one is true and one is false, and both sides, from their respective standpoint, seek to prove the falsity of the other and the truth of their own. Either God exists (theism) or he doesn't (scientific, materialist atheism). The scientific atheist claims that science is the most fundamental, and really only, approach to reason and rationality. Further, on this view, science renders belief in God obsolete, without rational ground, and therefore clearly false. The theist claims, on the other hand, either that belief in God actually is rational, based on a variety of arguments that purport to be derived from a rational approach, or that rationality is not a requirement for belief, or at least not for belief in God. And thusly the two sides have gone round and round for at least the past two hundred years since belief in God generally began to be acceptably questioned. And honestly the debate has changed very little in that time, despite misleading terms such as 'New Atheism'. This 'New Atheism' is only really new in the sense that it has gained a certain popularity and acceptability previously unknown to the stance of atheism at least in most of Western Europe and North America, and it has reached a level of fervor that atheism had not achieved before in history. This is a good thing, and I support almost everything that the 'New Atheism' has done and achieved for the purpose of spreading well reasoned and critical thinking into the western, perhaps global, culture. I want to take this project of spreading atheism a step further, and I have a very simple way to do it.

As I already pointed out, New Atheism, as well as Old Atheism, rest on a structure that essentially sets up a war of opposing sides between science, on the one hand, and religion on the other. I personally do not think this bipolar system is the most beneficial or helpful way to frame the issue of God's existence and the societal/cultural impact of belief or lack of belief in God. I believe there is a third, much more useful, approach to this debate. Namely there is also a sense that every person has of what we may call 'common reason' or even 'basic human reason'. We know all kinds of things with just simple human experience and the inferences we make from that experience. The thing to note here, at the onset, is that this way of reasoning is NOT scientific at all. Sometimes people talk about science as if it is just making observations and then doing a bit of reasoning from those observations and then drawing some conclusions to form a belief set, as if everybody could do it and does indeed do it all of the time. This is not the case at all. Science is, first and foremost, a very specific and focused occupation that, as it turns out, the majority of people in the world do not engage in as their profession. Most people go their whole lives never doing science or even thinking scientifically except maybe in their high school science class or perhaps a couple of classes in college. Does this mean that most people are walking around without the 'light of reason' at all and that most of their beliefs are completely false and misguided without the help of scientific illumination? I do not think so. Further, it seems that the average person might even feel a bit alienated from the core issue of belief or lack of belief in God, thinking that perhaps they need to be a scientist or a theologian, very rare and specialized fields, to even participate in the debate. Everyone can and should be participating in and thinking about issues of the existence of God and truth in general, and common, everyday reasoning skills are all the tools anyone really needs to successfully engage with these issues. If we are going to succeed in spreading the 'good news' of reason into the public sphere, I think that we are going to have to begin to appeal to basic human reason that is possessed by all people regardless of their profession or status in life. To this end I propose the notion of 'Pragmatic Atheism', and in this blog I will seek to flesh out what Pragmatic Atheism is, and how it can help foster a sense of reasonable thought and belief formation for everyone.