Friday, February 05, 2010

Christian Hypersensitivity - The Problem of Language in Debate

The trouble with debating atheism with the Christian right is, first and foremost, that we are speaking two separate languages. They are speaking the language of religion and we are speaking the language of materialism. In fact, as Dr. David Eller argues so well in his book Atheism Advanced, religions are separate language communities.[1]

Words such as god, devil, angels, heaven and hell have no meaning to the atheist. They are nonsense concepts and as such lie outside the realm of experience for the atheist. At best their reality is subjective and therefore dangerously delusional. Bill Moyer asked the late Joseph Campbell if he had faith. Campbell responded by saying he didn’t need faith he had his experience. Atheists rely on our experience to inform us. When in doubt we seek evidence. When we lack evidence we respond by saying, “I don’t know.” We do not invent imaginary beings or make supernatural claims to fill in the gaps of our understanding no matter how uncomfortable doubt or not knowing leaves us.

The trouble really begins for atheists over the Christian hypersensitivity to any attack on their belief system. Christians see atheism as being “against god” which is not true. An atheist is simply an A-Theist or someone who lives “without gods.” There is nothing for us to be against. What the Christian right is most often responding to is the reaction that non-believers generally have when they try to legislate and impose their sense of morality on the rest of us. We could give two shits if they believe in god or go to church otherwise.

Over the years religionists have attempted to defeat or debunk atheism through an array of specious arguments such as claiming that atheism is a religion. Other arguments include that “a belief in nothing is still a belief” or that you have to have god or religion in order to have moral and ethical conduct in society. None of these are true.

Atheism is not a religion. We do not have a collection of truth claims such as the Nicene Creed that must be accepted in order to be an atheist. Creeds or truth claims are a crucial element in religion at least as we experience it here in the United States. Belief is a function of faith. Faith requires no evidence to support its claims. It needs no such support. Its acceptance is based on a variety of factors most often an irrational acceptance of the moral authority of a messiah, prophet, pope or set of writings that it reveres as holy.

A belief is totally irrational. This brings us to the idea that “a belief in nothing or no-thing is still a belief.” The problem with this argument is that it puts forth that a theory is an opinion and therefore an opinion is a theory. Again not true. A theory – in order to be called such – requires hard evidence. An opinion does not. The earth orbiting the sun is a fact because it is observable and is supported by a whole body of scientific knowledge and mathematical equations thereby proving the theoretical assertions of physics. That god created the universe out of nothing is an opinion. It is not based on any facts. It is taken on faith by someone who chooses to accept the peculiar truth claims of the Judeo-Christian class of religions.

This type of confusion is seen clearly when creationists try to debunk evolution. Someone once told me that my belief in evolution requires faith. But, that is false. The mechanisms of natural selection and evolutionary processes are well documented and they work whether I believe in them or not. I don’t have to believe that flipping a light switch will turn a light on. But, doing so will complete the electric circuit and bring illumination to the room regardless of my opinion on the matter.

Creationists observe the gaps in our knowledge and claim that evolution is a theory in crisis. A scientist simply notes the gap in knowledge and looks for reasons of why such a thing exists. An honest scientist never mistakes or misrepresents his or her speculation as fact. They look for evidence. That evidence is subjected to the scrutiny of the scientific community. Experiments are conducted, results noted and experiments are then conducted again to see if results vary and so on. None of this is true of the absurdly named creation science or intelligent design.

Materialists understand that our knowledge at any given time is incomplete and imperfect. It is subject to change as new information becomes available. Religionists often adhere stubbornly to a creed or set of doctrines even in the face of evidence to the contrary.

Finally the tired old argument that without religion you do not have morality is patently false. I have written on this previously so I won’t belabor the point here. Honest Christian thinkers would agree, and there are a few, that non-believers are capable of being every bit as moral and ethical as a believer.

We are born into this world completely ignorant and unaware of religious concepts, morals, right and wrong, good and evil and so forth. These concepts have to be taught to us. We might say that we acquire these concepts as we acquire language. We don’t learn ten different languages at birth. We learn to speak those languages we are exposed to. We speak the language of our parents and / or our country. Our religion – if we have one – is the religion of our family. Our concepts of morality and good and evil are based on the society I live in. As a child born during the cold war my concept of evil was the USSR and godless communism. A young person today would have no idea what I was talking about.

[1] See Chapter 3 – Speaking Christian

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