Thursday, February 16, 2017

Make Atheism Great Again!

As I spend more and more time in the atheist community I've been beginning to notice a fairly common and recurring theme. And that is, sadly, that atheists can be just as close-minded, and dogmatic, and tribalistic, and ignorant on the issues as almost any religious person can.

Atheists have a reputation for being rational, free thinkers—more knowledgeable on religion than the religious are, and more knowledgeable on science than the general public is. There is certainly some truth to that. But there is also certainly some truth to the notion that being an atheist doesn't automatically make you rational. And it should be patently obvious to all that atheism is by no means an inoculation against irrational views.

As someone who's a very thoughtful and intellectual atheist and who's deeply familiar with most of the subjects relevant to atheism, I can say for sure that I encounter irrational views all the time among my fellow atheists, ranging from politics, to science, to a whole spectrum of social issues—and it pains me when I hear atheists say incredibly stupid things. So I'm going to outline a few problems I see in the atheist community and offer some remedies on how atheists can fix them.

1) Stop saying philosophy is dead. The one thing that pisses me off the most that I keep hearing atheists say over and over is that "philosophy is dead because hey, we've got science now!" This is a very popular view among atheists that is also ceaselessly reiterated by some of the most high profile people in the community, most notably Stephen Hawkins and Lawrence Krauss. But they're completely wrong and here's why.

Science can never replace philosophy because they do too different things. Science is an epistemology, it's a series of methods for understanding the world we experience that uses hypotheses, repeatable experiments, and formulating theories that explain facts. But not every fact is best obtained through science, and indeed, science itself has to make philosophical assumptions that it cannot prove. For example, what the scientific method should be  and what science is (and there are disagreements) cannot be resolved by science, it has to be resolved by philosophy. And this means philosophy is more fundamental to science, and covers a wider range of topics.

In its most basic definition, philosophy is just thinking rationally about things. Questions like what is truth, what is knowledge, what is justice, what is right and wrong, and how we can even know these things  — are all things covered best by philosophy, not science. You can't run a science experiment to find out what justice is, or knowledge is. Sure, science can give us empirical evidence that can help inform us about relevant aspects to at least some of these questions, but essentially they are philosophical in nature. Furthermore, in our everyday lives we don't use scientific experiments to figure out what's right and wrong, true and false. When we reason to a conclusion from data, we don't run scientific experiments. We do logic. (Hopefully). Logic is a branch of philosophy, and science assumes it in its methodology. So keep that in mind when someone says, "philosophy is dead." They're basically saying logic is dead. And not only that, they're making a philosophical statement, thereby refuting themselves.

We need philosophy to critically examine our assumptions (which we all have), and to examine our methodology for finding truth to come to rational conclusions about our beliefs. Bottom line is this: if you're an atheist philosophy is your friend, it's not your enemy. So stop saying philosophy is dead. You're making yourself and other atheists look stupid.

2) Recognize your own biases and prejudices as best you can. No one is immune to irrational ways of thinking, not even us atheists. Ask yourself why you're an atheist. Do you really think you have strong reasons for being an atheist? I've heard heard many atheists tell me they're atheists for very irrational reasons. For example, I've heard an atheist say they came to be an atheist because their life didn't turn out as they wanted, and therefore there couldn't be a loving god. To see how irrational this is, think of the flip side to it. Imagine if you were confronted by someone who said their life turned out exactly as they wanted, and therefore it must be proof of god. You would laugh.

Ask yourself why you believe every strongly held view that you have. Have you fact checked the evidence thoroughly? Have you done research on all sides? Most of us have not. Most of us have the tendency to form a view and then go out and find data that confirms that view. It's called our confirmation bias, it's the mother of all cognitive biases, and it goes both ways. It prevents us from rationally evaluating the evidence for something. We must also recognize that our ability to be rational on one subject, doesn't necessarily mean that we can transfer that rationality to other subjects. When many brilliant scientists make statements about philosophy, economics, or politics, they quite often (and quite embarrassingly) sound ignorant. Recognize that just because you (may) have rational reasons for being an atheist (or think you do), it doesn't automatically mean you have rational reasons for being a liberal, or being pro-choice, or why you think economic populism is best, or your views on feminism, or why GMOs are evil, or whether 9/11 was an inside job and the world is run by the Illuminati.

3) Seek out those who disagree with you and allow them to challenge your views. I'll say it again: debate is absolutely the best way to sharpen your understanding of a particular subject. Every time I debate something I end up becoming immensely more knowledgeable on that subject. Since most atheists are on the Left, and many people on the Left have given up on rational debate, many atheists are unwilling to have their social and political views challenged. This must change.

Now I understand not everyone's a debater. But be willing to converse with others who disagree with you and listen to their reasons why they think they are correct. You might find they're pathetic. Or you might find they're good. But most of all, you will be forced to defend your views against their criticism. And you might find that your reasons for believing what you believe aren't as strong as you think they are. If that's the case, use that as an opportunity to develop better arguments, or change your views.

4) Apply the same intellectual standards you would expect religious people to have on the topic of the supernatural to all your strongly held beliefs. Most atheists balk at the reasons religious people give us for why they believe in god, but are we committing the same mistake on our political and social views? We're supposed to be the rational ones, the free thinkers, the people who most use science and reason and evidence to arrive at our truths. If we want to maintain our reputations as the rational ones, we atheists have to have higher intellectual standards. But all too often we become set in our ways of thinking and believe things on bad evidence that we stubbornly maintain. I see it all the time in the atheist community.

If you chastise a religious person for believing in a miracle on hearsay, or believing in karma because they think it just makes sense to them, ask yourself what you believe merely because you heard it from someone, or merely because it just makes sense to you. Some of your most important views that shape your identity and effect your decisions might be based on "someone told me once that...." or "I can't explain it but it just seems true." It doesn't mean they're false, but it could mean they rest on a shaky foundation. Strengthen that foundation by making sure you have strong reasons and evidence to support them and beware of your cognitive biases while doing so, just like you would expect of the religious person for their views.

That's all I can think of for now, although there's surely much more. I just want to make sure atheists maintain their reputation as the smart and rational ones. I want to purge bad ideas and bad ways of thinking from the atheist community as much as I can. And the deeper I get into the community the more I'm reminded of how desperately this is needed.

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