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atheist. noun. a person who does not believe in God or deities.

March 17, 2007

I’ve been sick this week, and I’m not feeling much better today. I’ve taken it as an opportunity to relax a bit after last week’s hustle and bustle of GDC (undoubtedly the reason I’m sick in the first place). One of my relaxations has been the joy of reading; I don’t allow myself to sit down with a book anywhere near as often as I used to. My chosen reading material this week was one of my favorite Christmas presents: Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

To use a thoroughly non-scientific term, it was a transcendent experience reading through this book. I’ve been bouncing back and forth between agnostic and atheistic since I was about 15 or so; haven’t needed a deity in a long, long time. As such, I wasn’t converted by the book. My mind wasn’t changed in the slightest … though I do think I’m going to be fairly firmly in the atheist camp from now on. What was transcendent for me was the laying out, via the crude tool of the English language, the beauty of science and the joy that reason can bring about. I’ve experienced it before reading Dennet’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and of course Dawkins‘ seminal work The Selfish Gene.

What was special about this book was the presented contrast between the beauty of science and the shuttered ignorance of blind faith. Dawkins argues powerfully against the influence that religion has in the modern world (with obvious special attention paid to the nearly-theocratic underpinnings of American politics), and his arguments are all extremely compelling.

For me, though, it was simple comparsion that made me step back and marvel in appreciation. When you consider the infinitely interesting history of the universe, the extremely unlikely happenstance of our galaxy’s formation, the extraordinarily small chance of life emerging on our planet, the astronomically unlikely event of your birth … it’s all just so damn beautiful. Compare that with the petty workings of some creator deity and the unimaginative tales of humanity’s genesis that weigh down every major religion.

Religion, Dawkins makes clear, is nothing less than the clothing of the human mind in ignorance. By accepting things ‘on faith’ instead of seeking out truth via fact and experimentation, we blind ourselves to the possibilities of the world around us.

From the book, a quotation from J.B.S. Haldane:

The fact that we live at the bottom of a deep gravity well on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball ninety million miles away, and this is considered to be normal, is obviously some indication of how skewed our perspective tends to be.

Above and beyond that, the book’s thesis that religion is nothing more than a memetic parasite, preying on the minds of impressionable children and passed on by well-meaning parents is something that resonates very strongly with me. It’s given me a lot to think about, and ultimately it’s reminded me that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in looking for (and expecting) answers better than “because I say so”.

For better or worse, I know that I’ll be less adverse to keeping my personal opinions about the existence of some sort of higher power under my hat. To whit: I don’t believe in a god, and that’s perfectly okay.

I highly recommend the book to anyone grappling with their own problems reconciling faith and reason, and even more so with someone struggling with whether to be agnostic or atheistic. Good stuff.

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23 comments

  1. I’m not religious in the slightest, but Dawkins’ own adherence to his beliefs amounts to little more than religious dogma. By his own admission, he knows little about philosophy and theology, and yet he condemns religion based on his own unproven beliefs (natch).

    Dawkins has become more and more crotchety in his old age. He’s moved beyond the philosophical challenger who fought unstructured thought in the days of The Selfish Gene. It’s inexcusable to use religion (and the God of small spaces) as tool to explain the unexplainable, but it’s also inexcusable to insist that the unprovable is proven. By definition, it’s impossible to prove that God doesn’t exist. If he / she really is omnipotent, he / she can also jimmy with your experiments. So, we’re back at square one.

    Claiming that God doesn’t exist requires equally as much blind faith as claiming one does exist. Attacking others for their beliefs, as Dawkins is so prone to doing lately, simply highlights how anti-social he has become. There’s actually positive evolutionary reasons for religion as well – it builds group support structures and it helps define social mores and lubricates social interactions. They’re highly competitive by nature (and possibly one of the big reasons why there are so many different religions), but saying it’s a memetic parasite is awfully one-eyed. One could also argue that it provides evolutionary advantages, hence the growth and dominance of Western culture through Europe (thanks to Catholicism).

    Dawkins is an extremely smart man, but he’s also extremely arrogant. And, by that token, enjoys a rant at other people’s ignorance a little too much (ignoring the potential for his own, of course). His long refusal to acknowledge the contributions that Gould made to evolutionary theory are only one small part of his arrogance (something that’s actually quite tragic, in retrospect). Dennet has his head screwed on right, but he’s fundamentally a philosopher, so unfortunately he doesn’t get as much of the limelight.


  2. Incidentally, the fact that we *do* live on a deep gravity well on the surface of a gas-covered planet going around a nuclear fireball ninety million miles away suggests that it *is* normal. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t be here. Check out the Anthropic principle and the Drake equation (even if it isn’t predictive science). :)

    Either that, or you have to accept the existence of God, for how else would we have appeared here under such improbably circumstances? :)


  3. I will say (and didn’t in my post) that I don’t necessarily buy everything he put forward in the book. Just the same, it was a really great thought exercise. Plus, I’m sick and needed some distraction.


  4. I have no problem with atheism in general, but I do object to this bizarre equation of religion and belief in God to denial of science. Science and faith are NOT mutually exclusive. Many–I would argue most–people who believe in God take exactly that “beauty of science” you speak of as proof of his existance.

    Just because someone believes in God does not necessarily mean he shutters his mind to fact and reason. I think you would find that most of our brightest scientists are in fact believers to some extent. They feel that you cannot look deeply into the stunningly unlikely inner workings of universe and not feel that something amazing created it all.

    It’s okay that you don’t believe that. In fact, I’m happy you have reached a peace in your mind about the question. But it hurts me that you think so very poorly of those who do and that I might lose your respect by admitting I might be in their number.


  5. “Claiming that God doesn’t exist requires equally as much blind faith as claiming one does exist.”

    That’s because the claim that God exists is structured to be unprovable. We can sit around and design all the tests we want to see if God exists, and any failure can be explained away by God’s mysteriousness or supernaturalness. Since there are an infinite number of claims as to the nature of the universe that can be constructed to be unprovable, there is no more reason to believe that God exists than there is to believe that nothing exists and everything we see is a hallucination, or that the world was carved from the bones of a magic giant.

    Anywho. I can see why people say Dawkins is getting crotchety. Sagan and Gould were much more eloquent and tactful Atheists than Dawkins is. But Sagan and Gould didn’t have to live through the post 9/11 era, and I often have a hard time not feeling the same need to lash back at Dogma, if not Religion.


  6. I have to confess that even amongst all the attention, I am hesitant to pic up this latest tome. Mostly just because at this point I’m about to tell Mr Dawkins to cram it with walnuts. I think I’ve reached saturation for his particular brand of “rationality”. Yes, I do have his works on my shelf, the only one of note being “A Devil’s Chaplain”, which has several decent, even amusing articles, and others more to his usual mind-deadening detail. (mostly about plants and microbes, and then their direct impact on religion, even tho i really dont recall anyone asking at the start of the chapter.)
    I usually derive amusement from his rants, and even occasionally (and in no way begrudgingly) nodding agreeably in response. But at this point in his own public evolution, I am beginning to find myself strained in patience. I continue to offer him some benefit of doubt that he really is trying to make a point important to him, and not just ranting for rants’ sake (trust me, Mr Carlin has that covered, and is better at it) mostly because of the unwaivering respect Douglas Adams had for him, and the unwaivering respect I have (yes, PRESENT tense, because i’m sure he, Andy K. and Elvis are at this moment enjoying a perfect cup of tea somewhere) for Mr Adams.
    To return to the larger question at hand, I just want to point out that I still wonder and marvel to my very molecular core at this improbable universe and crazily beautiful world and nothing in my long studying of science and religion, academic and personal have made me find any doubt in myself re: previous stated amazement and awe. I also now bring to attention the book I just bought and cant wait to read, “The Universe In A Single Atom: The Convergeance of Science and Spirituality” by Mr Lama comma Dalai. There is just something I find alluring about reading the personal thoughts of one of the more scientifically educated men in the world at this stage in his life. I’ll let you know how it goes.


  7. I forgot to also mention something.
    Real Dawkins on “Colbert”: pretty damn funny because he holds up well but still starts to get pissed when he doesn’t have a rational comeback.
    Fake Dawkins on “South Park”: absolutely hysterical. You folks do sometimes lose the funny to pointless preaching, but thank you for pointing your dogma-deflating pin at his ballooned ego and still being funny. and still allowing him the dignity of “learn[ing] something today”. and tying in both “Buck Rogers” and “Battlestar” references in on episode. Long Live the Otters!

    Seriously, I just want the dude to admit that Religion and G[g]od[s] are two totally different things. Often, his attacks on the manipulations by a sinister political structure and the voluntary toadying response by the masses are valid and somewhat entertaining (if not all that original). But equating that with every belief in anything “spiritual” is damn narrow-minded. At least an acknowledgement that the bible and biblish writings often contain much of the “Grow!Explore the wonders!Learn!Evolve! whatzajiggers that he expounds and are just conveniently ignored by the Agendites. Plus I just get an illogic alarm in my head when I hear that if we free our minds and hearts of superstition we can finally persue a true study of all the amazing and incredible and beyond comprehension gooiness the universe contains… well, except for anything resembling a higher being or a level of consciousness extending beyond our human form. because we all know that’s impossible and just downright nutty.


  8. “That’s because the claim that God exists is structured to be unprovable. We can sit around and design all the tests we want to see if God exists, and any failure can be explained away by God’s mysteriousness or supernaturalness.”

    Absolutely – and that’s why it’s hypocritical to claim he doesn’t exist. The belief structure of religion *isn’t* science, and nor will it ever be. Insisting that a God *doesn’t* exist requires faith. A lot of it. Philosophically, it’s an important distinction. Practically? Dawkins is just a grumpy bugger.

    “But Sagan and Gould didn’t have to live through the post 9/11 era, and I often have a hard time not feeling the same need to lash back at Dogma, if not Religion.”

    Yeah, I don’t know about that. He’s been this way for a long time – I think he’s just started to believe that really *is* a legend, and that others should listen to what he has to say because of it. He’s a better researcher than he is a commentator on society. By politicising evolution into a war against religion and lack of knowledge, I believe he’s done a vast disservice to not only his field, but science in general.


  9. Insisting that a God *doesn’t* exist requires faith. A lot of it. Philosophically, it’s an important distinction. Practically? Dawkins is just a grumpy bugger.

    Sure. I’m grumpy about religion too. It’s probably done more harm than good. And Dawkins’ assertion that $deity doesn’t exist is just a phrasing he’s chosen to piss people off and sell books. Which is fine. These are motivations I can understand.

    The real point isn’t so much whether $deity exists or not, but that the very question is irrelevant. Any action that a god would take would, by its very nature, be performed through the physical laws which govern the universe, and therefore be indistinguishable from the case in which these conditions appeared spontaneously.

    So while it’s amusing to say that if there’s no afterlife that’s great but if there is you ought to work on getting the good one, that’s really an invalid argument because it presupposes that there’s no cost to doing so. It’s more proper to say “I’m willing to risk doing -blah- now on the slim chance that I’ll get my (halo|harp|virgins|other) later”. Only that’s a lot less cute, so people don’t phrase it that way.


  10. Absolutely – and that’s why it’s hypocritical to claim he doesn’t exist.

    I disagree. Or at least I will quibble. It is as reasonable to claim that God doesn’t exist as it is to claim that Zeus doesn’t exist. It is just as reasonable as claiming that the Universe exists, and is not an illusion. I cannot say with absolute certainty that all of these claims are true, but I can be confident that all the claims are reasonable, and don’t see it as a risk to act as if they were false.


  11. Holy shite. There’s a conversation in my comments! I must be on a different site.

    Kat: My opinions are just that, opinions. My opinions stop where other peoples’ begin, if that makes any sense. I’ve never thought any less of anyone for saying they believed in a deity or went to church, and I don’t intend to start now. I completely agree with cafeman: Dawkins is a darn grumpy bugger. :) I agree with him on a lot of things, but jumping down people’s throats for having a view of reality different from my own is a bit beyond the pale for me. For all I care, you can believe in the noodley appendages of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (he has touched us all); as long as you’re happy, that’s the important bit.

    That said, and as a general comment to everyb”ody, my high-minded easy-going nature goes out the window when it comes to Creationism/Intelligent Design. I’m a bigot where that’s concerned, and I fully recognize that this is a character flaw. You have been forewarned.

    Cafeman: “The belief structure of religion *isn’t* science, and nor will it ever be. Insisting that a God *doesn’t* exist requires faith.”

    I would tend to disagree. Personal beliefs are of course not science; you can believe that leprechauns live in your cupboard, for example. Beliefs, though, *CAN* be validated or proven inconclusive by science. Saying God is untouchable by science is functionally the same as saying that the reason you never see the cupboard leprechauns is because they’re invisible. I’m a skeptic. I like having evidence for things, to see trends and statistics; demographic information fascinates me. If a religious leader could trot out a graph with ‘Number of Miracles Performed’ or ‘Number of Prayers Answered’ or ‘Souls Damned to Hell’, and back it up with proof, I’d be a believer on the spot. But I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. Therefore, I’m going to lead my life treating God just like the cupboard leprechauns. As Scarybug says: “I cannot say with absolute certainty that all of these claims are true, but I can be confident that all the claims are reasonable, and don’t see it as a risk to act as if they were false.” Now if you want to say that I’m an agnostic and not a ‘real’ atheist, I guess you could make that argument. But then, I agree with you about Dawkins’ cranky bugger status. :)


  12. I appreciate that you allow me to believe whatever I want, but what I was trying to say was that I can believe in God and Darwin at the same time. Equating faith with creationism is just as narrowminded as equating evolution with satanism.


  13. Agreed, Kathleen. I also find my (admitedly somewhat agnostic) faith completely compatible with the Theory of Evolution, the Big Bang (or whatever the current front-runner for How It All Got Started is), and any and all other bits of the Universe that scientific inquiry can uncover.

    I find the reactionary, self-congratulatory Big Brain Club of Believers That Anyone Who Is a Person of Science Cannot Possibly Also Be a Person of Faith to be incredibly tiresome. It seems like a big peer-pressure thing to me, really.

    “What? You sometimes entertain thoughts of a higher power? And here I thought you were a thinking man!”

    “Er… no. No! Not at all. Anyone who entertains such thoughts is weak-minded prey to parasitic memes propagated by well-meaning but ignorant parents! And a doody-head!”

    Flippancy aside, I suppose that the friction in this issue mostly comes out of the very vocal hard-liners on each side. I don’t see a lot of chatter from the people in the middle like me, who believe that matters of faith and science can comfortably co-exist. I’d like to think that there are a lot of people who feel the same way, though. And that the blowhards (both the Religious Atheists and the Rabid Fundamentalists) choke on their vitriolic rhetoric and let me get some sleep. ;)


  14. I’d like to point out that, while most people who are analyzing religion will tell you that “answers” to questions we can’t answer are what religion gives back to people, that is not the whole story.

    People become part of religions because they practice (either as children or adult converts) and religion gives back to them in the form of both community and support. Speaking as a rather un-religious person (not nesecarily un-spiritual) I have seen instances where organized religion did great good in people’s lives rather than great evil. The benefit isn’t just some sort of vague promises that can help followers through hard times by focusing on the end of the world/the end of their lives, it’s their religious leaders and community that can help them to deal with things they couldn’t otherwise handle (both emotionaly and in some cases monitarily or physically).

    To be fair, the fact that I can see the good that religion has brought to people I know has not greatly changed my views on my own spirituality, but in the long run it seems more important to me that religion is improving their lives than the philosphy of whether or not they are “right”.

    I’m not saying that religion hasn’t ever done anything bad, but I think on average it’s not a lot worse than other existing social constructs in our world. I also think that very often people fall into the trap of blaming religion for harmful cultural elements which might or might not have sprug from religion or been perpetuated by it. It’s just so much easier to label people.

    I was going to say something about the whole faith and science not being exclusive, but I see Kathleen’s got that pretty well covered already. I always though it was rather a funny debate myself, since in my mind the obvious answer if you wanted both would be that a higher power set up the forces that led to evolution (and whatever other scientifically discovered thing you like) knowing at least roughly where things would lead. :)


  15. I didn’t mean to equate Creationism with general faith. My apologies if I gave that impression. I recognize they’re separate issues, and meant no disrespect as regards faith-having folks who think the theory of evolution has merit.

    My specific frustration is with people who look at the rafts of evidence for evolution, and choose to ignore it in favour of a narrow view of the natural history of our world (prompted by a literal interpretation of a work of allegory).


  16. Agreed, Michael. I also have no patience for people who, in the face of the amassed knowledge of all humanity’s scientific endeavors, persist in maintaining that any religious text that runs completely contrary to the aforementioned is literally true.

    Frankly, I find the idea of Creationism to be insulting to God. I mean, come on. Crafting a complex system of physical laws, ranging from gravitation to quantum physics to goodness knows what-all we don’t even have an inkling of yet, and letting it roll to the point where a piddly ball of rock orbiting in the sweet-spot of a gaseous nuclear inferno sprouts sentient life from scratch is sooooo much more classy than, “Uhh, Earth? Check. Sky? Check. Birds ‘n’ fish ‘n’ animals? Check. Some people? Check. Oh, females, too. Sure, why not? What? It’s been seven days? Okay, I’m done.”

    That being said, I don’t mind people holding that belief. They’re entitled to it. Just don’t go trying to get it into the Science curriculum in public schools. It doesn’t belong there.


  17. I don’t think Agnosticism and Atheism are mutually exclusive. Agnosticism is just a reality for everyone, based on the real definition of knowledge, we don’t know the unknowable. From that point the Deism, vs Atheism choice can be made. In my opinion Atheism is an overwhelmingly more reasonable belief, but I’m not going to condemn a Deist for making a choice of faith. It’s only when a person’s faith makes testable claims that can be proven false that they run into trouble.

    (and no comments about “you can’t prove a negative” If the claim you make is that Evolution is false, then all you have to do is prove a double-negative)

    Also, as I’ve said before, if the bible were proven to be 85% literally true (say, excluding the self-contradictory bits) regarding the nature and existence of God, I still would be an Atheist in the sense that I wouldn’t worship him or consider him “my god”, because the biblical depiction of God makes him out to be a pretty big jerk. ;)


  18. Beliefs, though, *CAN* be validated or proven inconclusive by science.

    Not if you’re playing by the same rules of science that I am. It’s impossible to prove anything in science. It’s only ever possible to disprove a hypothesis, and even then, it has more to do with a weight of evidence. Popper is an extremely good starting point for this, even though there are issues with the metaphysics of what he discussed.

    It is impossible to disprove the existence of God, exactly because the belief systems are fundamentally different. Science and religion start with totally different axioms.

    Now if you want to say that I’m an agnostic and not a ‘real’ atheist, I guess you could make that argument. But then, I agree with you about Dawkins’ cranky bugger status.

    Beat me to it. :)

    And, really, that’s my only point. Science can never conclusively prove anything – it can only disprove things. It’s impossible to disprove the existence of God, as per the “rules” of religion (which define his existence), simply because every time evidence is shown that disproves a specific instance of God, the goalposts are moved. Ergo, to know without a doubt that God doesn’t exist requires faith, as it’s impossible to conclusively demonstrate. The only rational position to hold (if you’re not religious) is that of an agnostic, as you may not follow religion or believe in a God / Gods, but you also won’t insist that one doesn’t exist.


  19. Beliefs, though, *CAN* be validated or proven inconclusive by science.

    Not if you’re playing by the same rules of science that I am.

    I think what Michael meant to say was “Beliefs which are not inconsequential, though, …”. Which goes back to my original point about relevance. If you believe in something which cannot be tested, you’re wasting your time.

    It’s impossible to disprove the existence of God, as per the “rules” of religion (which define his existence), simply because every time evidence is shown that disproves a specific instance of God, the goalposts are moved.

    …and it seems that you’re wasting your time. If your god is in essence that which science hasn’t figured out yet, then you’re doomed to a close-minded existence because any investigation of the natural world diminishes the god your faith tells you is omnipotent. That’s really sad.


  20. Which goes back to my original point about relevance. If you believe in something which cannot be tested, you’re wasting your time.

    I think that many would argue that the question of whether or not a deity exists is a little less than “irrelevant”. The simple proof is the amount of time (and energy) people spend arguing about it …

    Religion isn’t science, and converse is equally as true. IMHO, a big part of the problem is that some people decide that the two are mutually exclusive. It then becomes a battle between them. The only problem is, because they play by different rules, the people arguing end up wasting their time, as you’ve said.

    …and it seems that you’re wasting your time. If your god is in essence that which science hasn’t figured out yet, then you’re doomed to a close-minded existence because any investigation of the natural world diminishes the god your faith tells you is omnipotent. That’s really sad.

    It’s a fair point. It’s a very defensive (and ultimately self-negating) position to take. Unfortunately, it also seems to be the one preferred by those convinced it’s an either-or proposition.

    Going back a bit to what Michael originally wrote about, I primarily dislike Dawkins because he attacks the man, not the ball. He enjoys his ad hominems too much for my taste, and I think it’s a discredit to his argument that he does so. I agree in principle that there’s no room for sloppy thinking or mindless faith, but I do personally wish he’d spend less time insulting others because he doesn’t like them. All in my humble, naive, nobody’s opinion, of course. :)


  21. I don’t know if any of the other participants in this discussion will read this.

    On the issue of intelligent design and evolution I see no conflict between my beliefs as a Christian and what I know is good science. The problem that I have is how some people (on both sides of the atheist/theist debate) use evolution and intelligent design improperly. In my opinion, the reality of evolution says very little regarding the existence or non-existence of God, or even on the factual nature of God having created the world (for the record i don’t think God created the world 6000-10000 years ago in 7 days).

    It is possible to look at creation and evolution as being completely compatible, particularly if you hold the belief that God exists outside of time. God as described in the Christian tradition is perfectly capable of “creating” a universe that results in life evolving as we know it on this planet. (before anyone calls me on the apparent paradox between free will and this view of God allow me to point out that foreknowledge of and the ability change an event does not preclude allowing the event to happen without intervention) While their may be times where God chooses to bring things into existence in ways that violate the fundamental laws of the universe, it does not hold that this is how he created the universe, and the evidence does not support this. Whether the earth was “created old” or is “actually” billions of years old is a silly question. Regardless of the answer, the earth is old and has a history that is every bit as real as anything we have today.

    This is why i get unhappy when some atheists try to say that this or that proves that God doesn’t exist , or that God wouldn’t do something a certain way ( an example of this is the mess that is our genetic code). They attempt to cast the debate as to whether God exists as between science and irrational fools that believe that the earth was created without a history 6000 years ago and that any evidence to the contrary was put their by God to test our faith, and insist on others being indoctrinated in this view.


  22. I am generally tolerant of all forms of faith or lack of faith. But I am quite bothered by hypocrisy.

    Dawkins claims he doesn’t believe in a deity. If that claim were true, I wouldn’t mind. But he does believe in deities. Memes are deities.

    Genes are portions of DNA, which can be extracted, split, amplified, and read. It is a real substance.

    Memes are not a substance, a force-field, or anything that can be isolated in a laboratory. Scientifically, memes do not exist.

    Like I said, I have nothing aganist people who worship memes. But to put the stamp of science on a worship, and then use it to persecute similar abuses of science (such as creationism), is inexcusable.


  23. In response to Ben:

    For those like me who believe in both God and science, it works the other way. The more we know about science, the more we realize how complex things are that we thought were simple. And the more amazed we are that everything fits together.



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