13 August 2011

Atheists need to change their approach

[Originally posted 23 May 2011]
Religious zealots target the weak, the ignorant, and stupid with their arguments.  Atheists don’t.  This is our mistake.  To combat the scourge of religion, we need to communicate in ways that even the weak, ignorant, and stupid will understand and believe.

A great example of this is Jerry Coyne’s post rebuking Anthony DeStefano’s piece in USA Today describing atheism as a superstition. DeStefano is both conniving and  factually incorrect.  Here’s a couple of examples:
Example 1. DeStefano claims that atheism is based on the philosophy of materialism, which holds that only the physical world exists.  This is not true. There are all kinds of atheists, including those that do not believe in god but do believe in other, non-physical entities.  This is a scurrilous attempt to paint all atheists with the same brush.  He also chose a term – materialism – that is rife with connotations disconnected from its philosophical sense that are also generally frowned upon in society.  This was clearly intended to associate those pejorative notions of materialism with atheism.  He’s also undermining science by trying to insist that the immaterial is at least as important as the material. And that’s a special kind of bullshit that deserves particular ridicule.  DeStefano could have used physicalism or positivism to describe atheists and been closer to the mark.  But that wouldn’t have served his purpose of proselytizing for the fairy-tales of religion.
Even more fundamentally, DeStefano is wrong, because atheism is not about reducing everything to “materialistic” terms, it’s about working only with the things we can directly perceive.  Atheism isn’t about denying the existence of things we cannot or don’t yet perceive; it’s about seeking to explain them meaningfully.  Religion and god cannot explain things meaningfully.
Example 2. DeStefano claims that “our thoughts, our emotions, our hopes, our ambitions, our passions, our memories, our philosophies, our politics, our beliefs in God and salvation and damnation” cannot possibly be the result of a purely “materialistic” perspective.  This is just factually wrong.  It is evident to anyone who knows of the literature of brain research, psychology, cognitive science and related fields, that these things are precisely the result of the operation of our brains.
Note the circularity of this argument.  Belief in god requires non-materialism, only if we already started with a non-materialist view that admits god.  Circular arguments are for morons.
Zealots will quickly point to various shortcomings in our current understanding of how the mind works, and use those to argue that there are things science cannot understand.  Unfortunately, to make that work, one must assume that we cannot learn more about the mind than we already know, which flies in the face of everything that happens in brain science every single day.  Consider:
  • If it weren’t for science, diseases like schizophrenia would still be regarded as demonic possession.
  • If it weren’t for science, the average lifespan of a human would be 40 years, not 80.
  • If it weren’t for the science, we would not know how to preserve ancient artifacts and thus would have lost most of our own history to war and other conflicts – conflicts often based on religious disagreements.
  • If it weren’t for science, DeStefano wouldn’t have a technological forum like USA Today from which to spew his intellectual filth.
  • If it weren’t for science, we would have no reason to believe that the different human “races” are really all the same.
  • If it weren’t for science, we wouldn’t know that visions God can be easily induced by electromagnetic brain stimulation or hallucinogenic drugs.
I could go on, but you get the point.  Science is in many ways a revolution against superstition and religion.  And science has done pretty well for itself.
But, unfortunately, all this doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t matter how rigorous the atheists are in their arguments; it doesn’t matter how many times we tell the zealots “We told you so!” and it doesn’t matter how many times science overturns religious beliefs about the universe.  The zealots will always have the upper hand in the long run because their arguments are not addressed to atheists.  The targets of the zealots’ arguments are those who are too weak, too ignorant, or too stupid to think for themselves.
Religion is a drug, developed to stun people into automaton-like states.  Religion feeds the basic insecurities of people.  The meek shall inherit the Earth.  Turn the other cheek.  Obey your holy men because they have god on speed-dial and you don’t.  It doesn’t matter how ugly or unsuccessful you are, you will be beautiful and have only joy in heaven.  You don’t need aspirations now; just do God’s work and he’ll give you an eternity of bliss later.  And you’ll never have to deal with “bad” people in heaven.
While I personally find this all utterly repugnant, I can also see how some – perhaps most – people could become addicted to the drug of religion.
The atheists, on the other hand, come up with robust, reasoned arguments based on solid evidence and verifiable logic.  This does not appeal to the weak, the ignorant, and the stupid.  Most of them can’t even understand the atheists’ arguments.  They don’t understand that the feeling in the pit of their stomach that screams “There Must Be More!” is just the instinct of survival.  But they do “get” the rants of the zealots because they appeal to their own insecurities, fears, and oversimplified, parochial views of the universe.
And there’s always plenty of people who are weak, ignorant, or stupid.
Until atheists realize this and start pitching atheism as the natural way for people to be and address the concerns of the weak, the ignorant, and the stupid, atheism will never overcome the duplicitous powermongering of the zealots.
Because that is, in the end, the purpose of religion – to keep a population controlled.  The best way to do that is to weaken them, to praise stupidity, and to encourage ignorance.

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