Is atheism non-belief or disbelief?

The post Fire-breathing gods has several dead-beaten horses and fuel for several posts. Here's one post from the fuel.

I gave a quote from Richard Dawkins, "We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." (From the essay, "The Great Convergence" p. 150, of the book "The Devil's Chaplain").

Here is a discrepancy I would like to clarify. Repeatedly, Dawkins and other atheists argue that atheism is simply non-belief. Therefore, the onus is for theists to substantiate their beliefs and atheists can just wait (assumingly forever) for this to happen. Dawkins, though, is all about "reason and science". See for what Dawkins is about. Is atheism, especially the kind that Dawkins employs, casual non-belief or disbelief?

By using non-belief, one can be guarded. It's not so confrontational, but it's also a bit more secure and for such an ardent atheist like Dawkins, it's an agnostic stance. It says, "If you show me the evidence, I'll accept your beliefs". I have to believe that in Dawkins' quote, outlined above, he is asking, or assuming, that (mono)theists should make an atheistic stance about these other gods and not an agnostic stance. If they made an atheistic stance---that they really disbelieve these other proposed gods---then these theists would surely see their own errors in their own stance. However, when Dawkins and other theists use the agnostic stance that atheism is simply non-belief, in this day and age when religion is all around us, it is off the mark.

Now, of course, Richard Dawkins needs to carefully measure everything he speaks and writes and try not to preach to his choir of atheists if he really wants to convert theists or have his words twisted. He also needs to be careful to not offend theists if he really wants to convert them. I'm playing the same game without near the celebrity.

However, I will say this. Atheism, in this day and age when religion is all around us, is not simple non-belief. Ignorance is non-belief. Atheism is a conscious decision to disregard the gods and theology proposed in different religions. It's disbelief. It's making a stand and saying, "Your theistic belief system is bunk, and here is why I think so." The irony is that such a stance is the creation of another belief system which can turn itself into a religion.

Flight of the bumble bee

In my younger days, I remember hearing a sermon about the miracle of the flight of the bumble bee. The story went that according to science, the bumble bee should not be able to fly. It's body weight, flapping frequency, and wing span did not add up to an aerodynamic critter. It was physically impossible. Googling around, it sounds like this is still being preached. Obviously the bumble bee flies. Does God propel this bulbous bug from flower to flower so that gardens grow? How cute God operates to create His aesthetic!

If you look at the video, you'll see that it's the way that the bumble bee flaps its wings that it's able to generate vortex swirls to give it lift. These details were first presented in 1972 by Torkel Weis-Fogh in the paper Energetics of Hovering Flight in Hummingbirds and in Drosophila, and the implication was that several flying insects employ this flutter. Why bumble bee flight still persists as an urban legend is hard to tell, but some people like my childhood pastor seem to relish the idea of scientists not being able to solve everything.

When science cannot provide the answers, especially when scientists are baffled by what everyone can plainly see, the implication is that man's devices are puny in the grand scheme. Therefore, there must be a God behind the observation. It empowers believers to romanticize their stories and beliefs...for a moment.

But what happens when the scientist provides a natural explanation? The hand of God is no longer hand-carrying these bees from flower to flower. They're just doing what bees do to survive, unknowingly pollinating more food for themselves. As I said in my Faith in... post, you have to be prepared for the fallout if you are someday proved wrong.

Looking at our physiology, there are still thousands of basic questions scientists cannot answer. What induces a child to start breathing the second it is born? How do neurons in the embryo navigate the spaghetti of other neurons to find the appropriate target cells to form synapses with? If we're just a bunch of molecules that make up cells, what leads to these molecules feeling pleasure or pain? Science can't explain these miracles...yet.

My faith was built on the romantic notion that the complexities of life were too complicated to have evolved and required a creator. Science proved that notion wrong.


Now, for another "Flight of the Bumble Bee" that defies science....

Fire-breathing gods

I once had the opportunity to summit the Villarica volcano in Chile and peer into its mouth. The mountain felt alive, expelling pulses of hot air like it was breathing out of its fiery gut. It evoked such mystery and splendor! Who was this massive soul who breathed fire? It was easy to understand how the Incas could build a theology around such a real, natural phenomenon operating on a much grander plane than us piddly humans. For all anybody could tell, the mountain had obviously been there forever and always would be with its searing heart.

From the post "Why does faith = redemption?", theists and atheists seem to agree that our respective belief systems are built on underlying assumptions. Given an initial framework, life becomes a cycle of world view -> behavior -> world's response -> adapting our world view -> adapting our behavior, etc. Sounds like evolution to me! It also offers a simplistic explanation for the creation of any belief system.

One of the classic Richard Dawkins quotes is, "We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." Why is it so easy for religious folk of a particular faith to see the splinter in the eye of other religions, but not the log in their own? (And here’s a bone for the theists) What trees are in the atheist’s eyes?

I would say that it is due to history and culture. Any belief system, even atheism, is subject to seeing what we want to see. Because assumptions are all tied together, starting with some basis, reinforcing and expanding it is rather straightforward. Opposing it takes a whole lot of work. Indeed, human nature seems to direct us to become "set in our ways". We become self-protective and defensive when we see a threat to our cultures and ideologies. The young earth creationist, for example, recognizing the threat of evolution to his assumptions is likely to turn a blind ear and give the knee-jerk response that all the information necessary to understand creation is in the Bible.

What brings us to blows or at least not to see eye to eye (with all that wood we’ve go in there!) is the subjective nature of the argument. Given the same embodiment of our opponent, the same genetic make-up, thinking ability, family, and history, would we not have the ideology and behavior of our opponent?

Hemmingway and sports

In a comment to the topic Paley's moral compass, Cliff Martin said, "Here is my challenge to you if you wish to contend that [everyone's] world-view should be driven by reason alone. I have always thought that Earnest Hemmingway showed us where that leads. Atheistic rationalism > Existentialism > Disillusionment > Despair > Suicide."

What Cliff seems to be asking is how atheists employing the rational argument can avoid being blinded by science. If everything is rationalized, how can you ever let loose? If you keep whittling it down, you find we're just a clump of molecules interacting with other molecules in the world and this thing called Life is going to end. These molecules that make up our body will not be under any transcendental control that we are able to impose on them while we're living. No more creativity. No more emotion. We'll simply rot.

I tend to error too much on rationality, trying to see all sides, that I remain frozen with inaction. Movies and jokes that I would have once found hilarious I see now as juvenile or just plain stupid.

Why do we play sports? The rationalist looks at a sport and sees people running a ball down the field and trying to keep others from doing the same. To what goal? It's nonsense and temporal. What is inside the game that transcends its futility?

What is the atheistic rationalist to do to find the world beautiful, mysterious, and enjoyable when it is temporal and seemingly futile? Is the theist too scared to confront the realization of mortality?

Why does faith = redemption?

If I am correctly interpreting my Christian commentors, their faith is a trust in God that is separate from theology. By that I mean "theology" is what someone knows about God (which is obviously subjective). On the other hand, faith is a trust that God is in control, has a plan, is living through the person, and will reveal all things (throughout eternity), when really parts of the theology appear incongruent, incompatible, or haven't yet been pieced together.

By its nature, then, faith should be uncomfortable. This cognitive dissonance pushes the theologian to question, challenge, and find out more about God. Ironically, the more the theologian pushes and seeks, the more complex the deity must become to take into account the newfound complexities of the natural world, including animal behavior. (This is not unlike the recursion of most scientific discoveries that only provoke more questions). It seems the dutiful natural scientist-theist, while making an ever-more complex image of God will perpetually require more and more faith.

For me, a young earth creationist-turned evolutionist, evolution was just too incongruent with any theology I could imagine so it broke my faith. (Perhaps baby steps could have worked, but how you do baby steps on evolution with a YEC, I don't know). Nevertheless, I have to ask, "Why faith?"

In my previous post, it was (somewhat) established that God was not necessary for morality and then my question "What good is God?" was answered as "for redemption."

Why is it that humans, the only rational animals on the planet, the ones that took of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, the ones created in the omniscient God's image, what was it about that rationality that separated us from God and why is irrationality the only way to redeem that relationship?

Paley's moral compass

As a follow-up to the Ecclesiastes book review post, it seems the construct for morality for Christians (or other religions) falls into Paley's watchmaker analogy. This is heard in Christianity as "But for the grace of God, there too go I". Christianity is rife with demeaning humanity as amoral and evil with the single exception of accepting Jesus as one's savior to both forgive transgressions and begin to live a more moral life as Jesus lives through him or her.

If this is true, then the Christian who believes in evolution has drawn a dangerous line. Obviously, behavior as well as physiology is under evolutionary pressures, but the religious moralist presumes high levels of morality can only be attained via divine providence. This is a dangerous line because behavior has a natural basis. As behavioral studies begin to show more genetic, cultural, and environmental forces at play, moral codes will also start to be teased out, and the Christian evolutionist will have to continually adjust his or her concept of the natural/supernatural boundary. (Check out this site for examples of biological altruism). The young earth creationist does not have this problem. They simply consider evolution bogus.

In short, this is another form of Intelligent Design, accepting the physiological components of evolution, but disregarding the behavioral as too complex to be completely natural.

I see two alternatives. 1) God is not necessary for morality or 2) God still uses evolution as His primary tool for mucking with the natural world.

Option 1 is easily accepted by atheists, but hard to swallow for the theist because it starts to beg the question "What good is God?"

Option 2 is something that I will be addressing in future posts as I read and become more familiar with proponents of this theory, including Richard Colling's Random Designer.