Lumpy atheism

I observe a strong resistance from atheists towards being “lumped together” with others who share their particular worldview. Considering that many of the most prominent atheists of the past century were such charming characters as Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, I can understand the reticence. However, I do not observe the same aversion from atheists towards lumping all other religions together – and thus to Richard Dawkins, it seems that every theist is automatically equivalent to a young-Earth-Creationist / Islamic-Jihadist suicide bomber (depending of course on whether he wishes to conjure an illusion of ignorance or fear at that point).

Personally, I don’t lump atheists together because of similarity of lifestyle or personality. I’m not so concerned with whether or not the fervent and aggressive preaching style offered by Dawkins, Hitchens, et al. is distasteful to a particular atheist. I am concerned more with whether there is an overlap in the substance and justification for their beliefs.

Let’s take an example of a similarly influential and prominent Christian writer, C. S. Lewis. There are certain viewpoints which Lewis expresses in his writing that I would disagree with, but I cannot object to being “lumped in” with Lewis as a Christian, because in the core articles of our faith we are virtually identical. There may be secondary issues of faith (trans-substantiation, for instance) that I disagree with the Pope about. There may be personal viewpoints which differ greatly between us. For that matter, although I would love to chat to him on matters spiritual, I don’t know how much I’d have in common personally with the apostle Paul. But the foundational doctrines of our faith: the divine creation of the universe; that God’s involvement in His creation is continually ongoing; the divinity of Jesus Christ; the redemption for sin offered by God in the death and resurrection of Jesus; the universal availability of that redemption to all who turn to Him … these we hold in common. And we also hold in common the acceptance that secondary theological issues are exactly that – secondary.

Now, if someone wants to quibble about whether young-Earth creationists are being scientifically disingenuous, or whether there is sufficient theological support for the doctrine of intercession of the saints, that’s fine. But to expand that sort of secondary issue as being an argument for or against Christianity is to elevate a very under-represented viewpoint to the position of official Christian straw-man, and does not do any credit to the discourse.

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Related posts:

Faith: reflecting on evidence

Secular (in)Humanism

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37 thoughts on “Lumpy atheism

  1. Arguments about the saints are certainly not “straw man” arguments. It is highly beneficial to truly investigate contrary opinions and beliefs, which I think is part of your point. Obviously not all Atheists are Dawkins and not all Christians go to Jesus Camp, but that doesn’t mean not addressing the big disputes. That’s how we get the truth, after all.

  2. Investigation is key. I guess the central point that I’m making is that if you are investigating the validity of a belief system, you should be contending first and foremost with the core articles of faith. I would suggest that arguing against Christianity because of disagreements over an ultra-literal interpretation of Genesis is like disagreeing with atheism because experiments with atheist states in the 20th century were genocidal nightmares. In neither case is the discussion focussing on the core articles of faith.

    Within a paradigm of the Christian faith, it is very useful to discuss and investigate issues such as saints: delving deeper into our understanding of God is always beneficial. But it is not an issue which addresses the a priori validity of the Christian paradigm.

    • Indeed, those other issues — e.g., how best to interpret Genesis 1 & 2 and related creation passages, pros & cons of infant baptism, inerrancy vs. relative infallibility of Scripture, interpretation of Revelation and other eschatological passages, etc. — are more properly the subject “in house” discussions among Christians. They are important to study and debate, but they are secondary (even tertiary). As long as a particular position is “within the pale of orthodoxy”, I can accept it. And, I’m happy to try to explain the issue(s) to a non-Christian. But, primary discussions/debates with atheists and other non-Christians should begin with the fundamentals, as it were.

      Sirrahc
      http://AViewFromTheRight.wordpress.com

  3. True, but I would disagree with your point on atheism and the 20th century. How a ‘religion’ performs within a state can often be very telling about the natural consequents of the religion itself. I would hold that atheism was not the primary cause of the issues of the 20th century states, though.

    The core articles of the faith are certainly what you should contend with first. You oughtn’t begin with minutia and then delve progressively deeper. Begin at the beginning, at the heart. Then work out. I can agree with many protestants with regard to the smaller articles of the faith. It’s the big things that really matter.

    • I agree – building arguments against faith (including atheism and scientism as faiths) from secondary issues is unhealthy and argumentative. I just wish that those militant anti-religionists would take a pause and consider that they too operate on faith. That their faith differs from a theistic kind does not make it any less religious or spiritual.

      Part of the problem with faith, though, is how some use different terms to reference the same Reality while others use the same terms to reference different Realities while yet others point in the wrong direction, don’t find any Realities, and then argue on the basis of their incorrect conclusions that no Realities exist.

      We can isolate, analyse and reflect upon the experiences people have with Godde and other transcendent spiritual beings. Its only if we choose to discount peoples experiences in the past and the present that we can say otherwise. Individual spiritual experience is the primary building block behind faith and is subject to exploration and verification.

  4. Very, very well said. It is a thought that I have often written about, just not nearly as articulately. I want to make sure, however, that I am not lumping all atheists together when I complain about them lumping all Christians together.

  5. In regards to what timvictor just wrote–I cannot imagine a charge that is more anathema or more strongly reacted against than that of “faith.” While that description is certainly accurate, I have found that any suggestion that is not merely a logical, rational response to the evidence (or lack of the same) will be denied in the most categorical terms. Lest I be accused of lumping them all together I will say this is a “common” response that I have encountered.

    • Too true … oddly though using the word faith descriptively in the context I have is “a logical, rational response to evidence”, which is one of the reasons I find it funny why atheists respond so emotionally to the reference. The passionate response speaks volumes while the reference is denied. I’ve adopted it from James W. Fowler’s separation of and distinction between faith, religion and belief in Stages of Faith.

      Also, I agree that I don’t want to lump all atheists together but I definitely don’t want to be lumped together with all Christians.

  6. “I observe a strong resistance from atheists towards being “lumped together” with others who share their particular worldview. Considering that many of the most prominent atheists of the past century were such charming characters as Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot, I can understand the reticence.”

    That resistance comes from the fact that I don’t share a worldview with those men. I could be wrong, but rational thinking and humanist ideals don’t seem to be any of those characters’ values.

    • @morsec0de – and that’s great. I would then seek to engage in a discourse with you based on your core beliefs, rather than based on communism. My point is that the current trend amongst prominent evangelists for New Atheism to lump inappropriately does not do the conversation any service. You and I probably share more points of contact in our worldview than I do with a Buddhist monk (although I would guess that we also have some serious points where we differ). But Dawkins et al. would lump me with the Buddhist because … we can both be broadly defined as adhering to a religion? So does Dawkins.

      • “But Dawkins et al. would lump me with the Buddhist because … we can both be broadly defined as adhering to a religion? So does Dawkins.”

        I think you should be lumped together because you both justify your beliefs the same way: unsubstantiated faith claims. If you (the general you) believes in anything without adhering to the evidence, the risk goes up that you will believe other things without evidence. And that can be terribly dangerous when one of those things you believe is ‘the deity wants me to kill the infidels’, for one extreme example.

  7. @timvictor – I also find it astonishing how the overwhelming evidence of individual spiritual experience coming from millions of people over thousands of years is written off as “insufficient evidence – must be delusional”. This is particularly interesting since the mind itself has no physical evidence. Oh sure, we have evidence of the brain, and of neural activity, and we understand that there is some connection between these observable things and the mind of the individual – but the mind itself is immaterial, and yet every human will attest from personal experience to its existence.

    • Very astonishing. Its like the pot calling the kettle black, especially when they are arguing with nut-case-fundamentalists.

      The outlook many atheists have is more and more a shared belief system that is becoming a clear worldview – a way of looking at and delimiting the world. As such the worldview presents model questions and answers, which may or may not be correct, and people get programmed to see the world through it and stop thinking for themselves or seeing what is really there.

      • As a shared and increasingly-articulated worldview, atheism more and more accurately meets the definition of a religion.

        I’m not talking about a “passive” agnosticism here – where a person is simply unwilling to engage in the questions of ultimate origin, purpose of life, spiritual experience and divine revelation. But I think that the majority of people who define themselves as consciously ‘atheist’ would probably identify with a common creed analogous to my very quick-and-dirty version of the Nicene Creed in the post. Prominent atheist writers are certainly helping to define their religion much more clearly in this respect.

  8. “And that can be terribly dangerous when one of those things you believe is ‘the deity wants me to kill the infidels’, for one extreme example.”

    …ah, so now I’m back with the Islamic fundamentalists… 🙂

    But I’m afraid I have to disagree: I don’t think that I place faith in anything that I do not have excellent evidence for. I’m not wired for blind faith, I’m afraid. My adherence to following the evidence what led made me to adopt a Christian worldview.

    • “I don’t think that I place faith in anything that I do not have excellent evidence for.”

      Then why call it ‘faith’?

      Do me a favor. Define ‘faith’. Then define ‘evidence’. Then give examples of what you think your excellent evidence is.

      If it is better evidence than that held by people who claim to have been abducted by aliens, I will be legitimately surprised.

      • I have faith in my family. I have faith in my fiancee. These are people that I know extrememly well, and have a great deal of personal experience to justify what I believe about them. But they are still independent people from me, and thus certainty is not attainable – hence I consider “faith” to be the appropriate term.

        Does that help?

        Also, to forestall the comment that “oh, but you can see your family with your own eyes”:
        I am not referring to having faith in the existence of my family. I am referring to having faith in their characters, which I have only circumstantial evidence for. But having known them intimately for a great deal of time, I have gathered sufficient confidence in their characters.

      • I think timvictor defined this type of faith well earlier: “a logical, rational response to evidence”. Put another way, it is: “Trust in someone/thing that you have reason to believe can do something for you and then relying on them/it to do just that.”

        I have faith that this chair is going to bear my weight. I have faith that the airplane is going to fly and get me to my destination. (Insert travel horror story here.) I have faith that the laws of physics won’t suddenly reverse. These things have all been “tested” many times and proven their reliability. Of course, there is always a possibility — however remote — that the person or object I’ve place my trust in will fail at some time. But, for now, it seems quite reasonable to “believe in” them/it.

  9. “I have faith in my family. I have faith in my fiancee.”

    There are two ways the word ‘faith’ can be used. You can have faith in something, or faith ‘that’ something. The first way is simply a fancy way of saying ‘trust’. It’s the second way I have an issue with. And that’s what most religious people mean when they say ‘faith’. Unless they have evidence to back up their claims, they’re using faith.

    And I notice you didn’t supply any evidence better than my friend the alien abductee.

  10. Pardon me for intruding on the conversation, but you and I have had this conversation. You have indicated that your understanding of faith is that it has nothing do with evidence at all. If there is evidence it is not faith.

    “There are two ways the word ‘faith’ can be used. You can have faith in something, or faith ‘that’ something. The first way is simply a fancy way of saying ‘trust’. It’s the second way I have an issue with. And that’s what most religious people mean when they say ‘faith’. Unless they have evidence to back up their claims, they’re using faith.”

    I believe I indicated the faith that the Bible describes is objective faith therefore it is always faith “in.” Faith “that” is nothing more than cosmic wishful thinking, as in “I have faith I will win the lottery.”

    In terms of whether “most religious people” refer to something subjective when they use the term faith I cannot say. I will say there is a significant difference between what the Bible calls faith and what the “faith healers” and “prosperity” preachers are calling faith.

    • If the faith you claim to have is not the faith that nearly every religious person I’ve ever spoken to claims to have, fine. Then it shouldn’t even be a topic of conversation as it doesn’t matter to any arguments of the truth of your claims.

      My request for evidence still stands.

      • Pastor Jeff has correctly pointed out that no serious Christian uses “faith” to mean “a belief in the absence of evidence”. On the contrary, it is understood as “a belief based on a convincing body of evidence”. Such evidence in my case comes in the form of scientific insight, personal experience and philosophical reasoning.

        Which returns us to your request for evidence. I infer from your reference to UFOs that you are sceptical in the extreme with respect to the Divine, so to save us all from a lot of pointless back-and-forth I must begin by asking: what nature of evidence would you be willing to accept? On what basis do you wish to assess evidence?

        Incidentally, with regards to your first post: I note that you object to being lumped with Stalin because you say that you do not share his worldview. But as you have not yet clarified what your worldview actually is, I am unable to engage in any discourse with you based on a mutual understanding of each other’s positions. Care to elaborate?

  11. “Pastor Jeff has correctly pointed out that no serious Christian uses “faith” to mean “a belief in the absence of evidence”.”

    Be sure to tell that to 90% of Christians. It may be news to them.

    “On the contrary, it is understood as “a belief based on a convincing body of evidence””

    I don’t know what dictionary you got that from, but it’s not one I ever read.

    “what nature of evidence would you be willing to accept?”

    Scientific, empirical, repeatable evidence. Good evidence, that is.

    “On what basis do you wish to assess evidence?”

    The scientific method.

    “Care to elaborate?”

    What would you like to know? In the loosest sense, my worldview would be secular humanism. Though I belong to no official group.

    • The reply on the relationship between faith and evidence is a long one, so I’ve moved it to a separate post: https://spiritualmeanderings.wordpress.com/2010/04/16/faith-reflecting-on-evidence/

      “I don’t know what dictionary you got that from, but it’s not one I ever read.”

      No, it doesn’t seem to be a definition of faith with which you are familiar, but it is one which several people on this thread seem to understand: I believe I’m right in saying that timvictor and Pastor Jeff would both endorse it. Of course, I spend a great deal of my time with Christians. From his job title, I’d guess the same is true of Pastor Jeff. I don’t know what sort of circles you move in, but the overwhelming majority of Christians that I know would certainly identify with that definition.

      But as I mentioned, this is all covered in more detail in the later post, so I would suggest that if you are interested in pursuing this issue that we move the conversation there.

  12. morsec0de :
    I think you should be lumped together because you both justify your beliefs the same way: unsubstantiated faith claims. If you (the general you) believes in anything without adhering to the evidence, the risk goes up that you will believe other things without evidence. And that can be terribly dangerous when one of those things you believe is ‘the deity wants me to kill the infidels’, for one extreme example.

    Now this is a statement of faith contrary to all verifiable evidence! There is in fact ample evidence supporting many religious/spiritual beliefs.

    Its important to note that, for example the OT and NT does not try to argue for the belief in an invisible boogeyman no one has seen or heard. Rather, it departs from the fact that Godde exists and speaks and acts historically. To say “there is no evidence” in that regard is to deny the evidence itself.

    But we don’t need to reach into an accessible past or future to find evidence, Buddhist and Hindus for example argue that you can have their versions of Enlightenment experiences today – just as their canon testifies. Similarly, Christians argue that can meet the historical man who is the risen LORD today. There is evidence and we can have access to it not only in the form of historical accounts and abstracted statements

    Whether we’re concerned with religious/spiritual techniques and methodologies, textual and historical accounts or referents to transcendent personalities and spiritual beings, e.g. ancestors, spirit guides, Godde, gods and goddesses, angels and demons, etc. there is ample evidence.

    Your statement concerning faith is akin to the following:

    I’ve looked for a gold mine under my house. There was none. Therefore gold mines don’t exist and that others believe in them is as absurd as those who believe there’s a pot of gold at the end of the rainbows.

    PS. Some spiritual beings are in fact malicious malcontents happily sowing division and unhappiness wherever and however they can … as attested by a number of spiritual/religious sources!

    • “Its important to note that, for example the OT and NT does not try to argue for the belief in an invisible boogeyman no one has seen or heard. Rather, it departs from the fact that Godde exists and speaks and acts historically.”

      Correct. Which is why it is odd that, suddenly, when things like mass communication and video recording come into existence, the deity of the OT and NT becomes decidedly less chatty.

      Well, only odd if you think it exists.

      “Your statement concerning faith is akin to the following:”

      Incorrect.

      A more accurate statement would be this: I looked for a gold mine under my house and many other peoples’ houses without finding one. I have many people telling me that they have them. However, none have been able to show them to me or produce a piece of gold. All they have are stories about how pretty the gold looks to them.

      • Well if we ignore all valid spiritual experience then, yes, we’re just left with those who have no substance to their beliefs and hence are being daft.

        Are you seriously denying all spiritual experience? That’s quite a grand claim and one that does not hold true.

  13. “Are you seriously denying all spiritual experience?”

    What do I have to deny? A bunch of people claim to have experiences. They do not have any empirical evidence to justify those experiences as anything outside their own heads. They haven’t shown there is anything there, so I need not worry about denying anything.

    • I suggest getting out a bit more or at least reading a bit more. SA Thorpe is a good starting point on Primal Religion, with Steven Katz and Robert Forman being excellent choices with regard to mysticism. There’s more than enough material in them to satisfy a mature empiricism.

    • The gold analogy is a great one, but I think it’s still misleading. I would phrase it as:

      You have never seen gold, but you have heard about it and have an idea in your mind of what it should look like. You looked for a gold mine under your house without finding one. Many people have claimed to find gold, and some have even tried to show it to you, but what they described and showed you did not match your preconception of what it should look like. Thus, you conclude that gold does not exist and all those who claim to have seen it are delusional.

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