Friday, April 2, 2010

The axioms of Atheism

A few months ago an international Atheist convention was held in Australia. It ran for three days and had over 2000 attendees.

This Easter just about every religious leader has come out swinging against "the evils of Atheism". I'm guessing that all of this "anti-Atheist" rhetoric is a reaction to that highly publicised and successful event. One common theme of the criticism is that atheism is just another religion (but obviously a dangerously misguided one).

So is Atheism really a religion? The answer is both yes and no - it depends on how you define "religion". If you mean adherence to the notion that the universe was made and is controlled by supernatural being(s) then the answer is no.

If you claim that a religion is "a belief system that relies on elements of faith", then the answer becomes "yes".

To be an Atheist does require some basic elements of faith, although these elements are in complete contradiction to the axioms that underpin all theistic religions.

These elements of faith are:

1 - The universe operates under immutable and invariant laws
2 - One should believe the simplest explanation that does not contradict evidence (Occam's Razor)

The first axiom underpins the Atheistic knowledge system. The second dictates how Atheistic beliefs are shaped. All theistic religions rejects these two viewpoints.

"The universe operates under immutable and invariant laws"

The atheist accepts this point on faith because science simply cannot PROVE that the laws of the universe are immutable and invariant.

Obviously science has found no evidence to the contrary, and there is no evidence that even hints at the possibility. Regardless, there is no way of definitively proving, say, that the mass of a hydrogen atom won't suddenly change tomorrow.

If atheists COULD prove this, then this would prove that there is no supreme force outside the laws of the universe, which would prove that there is no God.

All monotheistic religions believe that their deity is supreme in the universe, which logically dictates that their deity can alter the laws of the universe at will. (If not, then their deity is no longer supreme.).

The Biblical God is clearly able to alter the laws of the universe at will, as this is the only way that much of the Bible's narrative can be understood.

For example in the flood story, one of the huge scientific problems is with the volume of water that would be needed to cover the Earth. One plausible estimate puts the volume at 300% of the current global water supply. A rational question thus becomes: where did this water come from and where did it go afterwards? Also if it was fresh water, how did the salt water marine life survive? (Or vice versa)

If you accept that the laws of the Universe do not apply to God (ie. the laws are NOT immutable), then the simplest and best explanation is that God materialized all the water he needed to cover the Earth to a depth of six miles, and then simply made it all vanish when it was no longer needed.

He could then just materialise fresh and salt water where needed, and keep the two from mixing (not being subject to osmosis). Alternatively he could have just let all of the sea-life die during the flood and divinely restocked it afterwards.

Even as an atheist, I find this "100% divine" explanation to be far more plausible than the alternative - "God somehow accomplished the flood without breaking the laws of physics".

The laws of physics dictate that some form of positive evidence would be left behind, and that rational explanations can be provided for all of the evidence which directly contradicts it. Even if I accept that the flood pushed up mountains like the Himalayas (see this Young Earth Creationist argument) I still don't understand why those (heavier than water) clams that have been found at the summit didn't just sink to the lowest point.

So to be an Athiest means accepting that the universe is constant, that its laws are unchanging and no supernatural being can alter them at will. As it is impossible to prove this, it is accepted as an axiom, ie. as a matter of faith.

OK that's it for now. My next blog will examine Occam's razor. If you think I've missed an axiom, let me know.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Church of Reason

OK, so it's Easter and I'm reading all about the sermons being given by the various Church figures (at least those here in Sydney).

Archbishop Fisher says that Athiesm leads to Nazism, Stalinism, mass murder and abortion (Read article here)

Unfortunately this statement has no basis in fact. Terrible atrocities have been committed by religious and secular people throughout history. Religiosity does not guarantee moral virtue, and secularism does not guarantee moral iniquity.

Nazism was based on Christian ideology. Hitler regularly cited his Christian beliefs and that the rise of the German people was the "divinely-ordained". He cited Biblical references to the "brood of vipers" as justification for his Jewish pogrom. One slogan of the Nazi Party was "Gott Mit Uns" - "God With Us". Here's an impressive collection of Hitler's Christian references in his public speeches.

The point here is that being religious is no guarantee against committing atrocities. Pro-athiests cite examples such as Hitler, and pro-religious people cite atheist perpetrators such as Stalin.

Numerous psychological, political and social elements are required to engage in state-sponsored mass murder. However the absolute origin of these crimes is in the "us against them" mentality.

This divisive mentality can arise for numerous reasons - ethnic/racial characteristics, cultural differences, political ideology and (definitely) religious affiliation. Being secular in no way make you immune, but being religious almost guarantees you will adopt this attitude.

Most religions (and certainly the Abrahamic ones) authorise distaste, hatred and/or the slaughter of their opponents. The Bible endorses genocide frequently:

"Thus saith the LORD of hosts ... go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass." - 1 Samuel 15:2-3

It's not just the Old Testament. Jesus instructs Christians to slay non-believers (Luke 19:27). The Koran speaks of God's hate for the Jews and how he will turn them into monkeys (Surah 5:60 and 5:78).

If your goal is subordination of others then you'll find justification for your actions somewhere. Religion is certainly one place to go looking for it.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Reason or Faith? Choose only one.

In my biography I describe myself as an "unwilling athiest". I actually didn't want to be an athiest - I quite like the idea of there being a supreme power looking out for me and a nice comfy heaven to move into after my death.

However, when I reached my twenties (and after a fairly religious upbringing) I began to question everything I had been taught, and without even realising it, I moved towards selecting Reason as my core philosophy. To be specific, I realised I was an "empiricist".

Empiricism and Idealism
Reason and Faith are my terms for the two great divisions of philosophy, correctly known as Empiricism and Idealism. To quote Wikipedia: "Empiricism... asserts that sensory impressions are the only available starting points for reasoning and attempting to attain truth. Idealism claims that there is a "higher" reality, from which certain people can directly arrive at truth without needing to rely only upon the senses, and that this higher reality is therefore the primary source of truth."

So empiricism (reason) starts with evidence. Idealism (faith) starts with "innate knowledge". And all of the numerous schools of philosophy end up taking one side or the other in this debate.

Now not ALL philosophical idealists are religious. Some of them (notably Plato) regarded themselves as the source of this "innate knowledge". However for the most part, anyone who belongs to a religion has chosen to accept the "innate knowledge" of someone else.

So as I am biased in favour of "reason", I therefore people who choose "reason" are rational, sensible humans beings and people who choose "faith" are misguided fools who believe in imaginary friends, right?

Wrong! (Well kind of).

You see, choosing "reason" requires a level of faith of its own - a faith in things which cannot be proven, and cannot be tested. These things (known as axioms) are:

1 - That a set of invariant laws govern the universe
2 - That in the absence of certain evidence, the simplest explanation is best.

(Future blogs will explore both of these points at length, so leave disputes until then.)

Now most "Rationalists" get uneasy at this point, because I am suddenly "diminishing" their belief system to be on a par with those "misguided fools who believe in a supernatural force".

Sorry, but that's just how it has to be.

All rationalists place their faith in these unprovable axioms. All religious adherents (Theists) place their faith in an unprovable super-being.

Rationalists see clear evidence supporting their belief system every day. Unfortunately for them, many Theists see evidence which is just as clear proving that their God is at work.

So we are at an impasse, and ultimately it is an impasse that neither side can win. We are arguing about the rules of the game, except one is playing chess and the other Scrabble.

I started at Faith and ended up at Reason, as I realised that you can't have both. My next blog will start to explore the (huge) topic of why Reason cannot abide Faith, and vice versa.

The ultimate truth

Did you ever have a moment when suddenly everything is made clear to you?

I had one a few weeks ago. It was when I finally made sense of everyone and everything in the world. The discovery was this:

We live either by reason, or by faith. You CANNOT live by both.

Simple. You probably already knew it. But it explained everything I didn't understand about the world.

Now if you are reading this and saying "DUH" then feel free to skip the rest of this blog.

If however you are sitting there thinking "No I can live with both reason AND faith in my life" then you are wrong. They are completely incompatible.

Here are the two fundamental truths of our existence:

1 - Reason contradicts Faith.
2 - Faith contradicts Reason.

This leads to an observation: everyone must at some point choose either faith or reason. Some do it consciously, some just go with whatever they were told as children and never really question it.

And here is the pearl: there has to be a choice. My next blog will explain this.