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Being Atheist Doesn’t Make You Smart, Rational, Or Logical June 14, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Science.
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1 comment so far

Atheists, my people, we must talk.  I’ve been noticing a disturbing trend making it’s way through the atheist community, a trend which quite frankly needs to stop.  See in my off time I sometimes enjoy perusing discussion boards and internet forums on the subject of religion and atheism (something I keep telling myself I’m going to stop doing.)  It’s enjoyable sometimes because occasionally I see an argument put forward by the other side that I hadn’t considered before, something which forces me to do a little self-examining and make my own arguments stronger.  All too often though all I get out of it is a laugh watching one bad and discounted argument after another being rolled out by people who at this point ought to know better.

The problem is that recently I haven’t been laughing since it’s my side throwing up the stupid arguments.

Now before I get too far into this I don’t need anyone to remind that this being the internet the level of discourse is generally somewhere between two kindergarteners fighting over a crayon and the average American Presidential debate (ooh, topical) and that I really shouldn’t be expecting great debates in that forum.  Unfortunately that argument does not apply in this case.

See that problem I’ve been noticing is that atheists in these debates love to talk about how logical and rational they and their positions are all the while behaving in a completely irrational and illogical manner.  If we’re going to pride ourselves on the soundness of our arguments then we need to ensure that we are actually making sound arguments and we don’t get to use the excuse of the Internet Fuckwad Theory to cover up our own shortcomings.  As such I would like to humbly propose the following list of things atheists really need to stop doing.

1) Being atheist does not make you smart

Or rational and logical.  Yes I know we all saw that one study that seemed to say otherwise but I would be very hesitant about bringing up something so controversial and with it’s own fair share of issues.  Even if the findings of that study turn out to be true it will only be talking about averages (i.e. the average atheist is smarter than the average believer) not that you are smarter than the average believer.

Telling a person that because they believe in a god they must be so stupid as to not understand you’re arguments not only makes you look like a pompous ass but also only manages to alienate anyone you might be debating with.  If your intention was to bring them over to your side then that is the exact opposite of what you should be doing.  It also ignores the fact that their have been many smart people throughout history who have believed in a god and in a way actually gives the theists an argument.

See any time the question of intelligence and religion is brought up it’s almost inevitable that someone will eventually say “But Einstein believed in God (or Newton/Descartes/Galilaeo/etc.)  Are you saying you’re smarter than Einstein?”  This is a pretty popular comeback since it appeals to the logical fallacy we seem to like the most; appeals to authority.  The truth is most people debating about religion (or for that matter climate change/evolution/etc.) on the internet don’t actually understand the topic well enough to be debating it in the first place.  As such any opportunity to bring in the word of someone more versed in the subject than they are is a welcome relief since it allows them to score a point without having to actually make an argument.  This is doubly annoying since as anyone with a basic background in logic knows the veracity of an argument is not based on the intelligence of the person arguing it but on the strength of the evidence in its favor.  Bringing up much smarter, more rational and more logical you are isn’t only a fallacy in itself but will almost certainly perpetuate more fallacies.

2) Stop misusing the word logical

This is one that really gets to me because I see it everywhere.  I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen a person attack a religion for not being “based on logic” at the same time implicating that atheism is a logical belief.  Often this is said in the manner of a winning argument as if the person thinks they have made some grand insight which cannot be countered.  Hate to break it to you but all you’ve done is shown that you don’t understand what the word logical means.

Quick philosophy lesson.  Logic is a branch of philosophy which studies what makes an argument valid.  While there are a few types the one most of us are familiar with is deductive reasoning, which generally takes the form of if x than y.  A example of that might go as such:

A: All apples are fruit

B: Some apples are red.

Therefore: Some fruit is red.

The conclusion follows perfectly from the assumptions.  As such, that right there is a logically valid argument.   But is it true?

Some are probably saying “Of course it’s true, you just said it was valid” and therein lies the confusion.  A valid argument is not necessarily a true one.  All it needs to be valid is for the conclusion to follow from the premises, not that the premises be correct themselves.  To illustrate that point let’s try another one.

1: All things created have a creator.

2: The Earth was created.

Therefore: The Earth has a creator.

This also is a logically valid argument and a perfect example for why attacking religion as illogical is a terrible debating tactic.  Religions can and have produced many perfectly valid arguments for the truth of their beliefs based on the assumptions of their faith.  While we can certainly attack the truthfulness of their assumption speaking of religions as illogical only exposes our own ignorance.  Speaking of ignorance…

3) Quit parroting arguments you heard from someone else

Let me be very clear what I’m talking about here.  I do not mean utilizing arguments you read about elsewhere for yourself.  Nothing wrong with learning from another, that is after all one of the best ways to learn.  What I’m talking about is when the only argument you can muster is entirely made up by other people.  Or to put it succinctly let’s construct an imaginary (though in truth very common) exchange.

Person 1:  Atheists have faith just like theists.

Person 2:  Whatever, atheism is like religion the way bald is a hair color.

Do you see the problem there?  Simply quoting a popular saying does not advance the conversation.  It does not add to the debate.  It doesn’t even show that you understand what you’re debating about.  All it shows is that you are capable of memorizing an internet meme.  Again there’s nothing wrong with using the ideas of others in you argument but you have to actually make an argument.

Well I think that will do for now.  Honestly there are probably a few more that could be added to this list but perhaps I’ll save those for another time.  Happy debating!


Transhumanism: A Secular Religion? June 1, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Over at FirstThings, which I am loath to dignify with a link but here it is, there is a post up counting down a short list.  Inspired by the recent failed doomsday prediction the author decided to do a comparison between the Christian Rapture and another possibly apocalyptic event: the Singularity.  I’m not going to spend too much time on the post itself for the simple reason that it’s really kind of silly and doesn’t say anything that hasn’t been noticed and commented on by transhumanists multiple times in the past twenty years.  What is does do is bring up another, far more interesting question; is transhumanism a religion?

This is not a new debate.  It started right around the time the transhumanist movement started making waves in intellectual circles and has only strengthened as it has moved more and more into the mainstream.  More often then not the ones branding transhumanism with the label are it’s religious critics, seemingly trying to bring the movement down to their level by accusing of being nothing more than dressed up techno-utopianism with a veneer of science and philosophy.  Whatever it’s origin though I do believe its a valid question and one that needs to be answered sooner or later.

Before we can get to the heart of the matter we first have to define exactly what we’re talking about.  In short we have to define religion.  This is not as easy as it sounds since despite what seems like ample time to come up with one there is still no single, universally accepted definition of religion.  One widely held definition seems to be that of a system of belief encompassing gods, goddess’, spirits and other supernatural forces.  This is probably the definition most people use and while I can certainly see the appeal it can get us into trouble.  An obvious question would be where does this definition leave religions that do not profess belief in a deity.  Where does it leave Buddhism? Daoism? Neo-Platonism?  Some might suggest that the aforementioned systems are best called philosophies rather than religion but that strikes me as splitting the hairs of semantics, not to mention raises the problem of finding a clear boundary between philosophy and religion, and doesn’t really answer the question.

A second less common but still widespread definition of religion is a system that provides instruction in morality, how persons should relate to each other and to the rest of the world and provides a sense of meaning and purpose to a person’s life.  This position, sometimes referred to as a life stance in the secular community, avoids some of the problems of the previous definition and easily encompasses non-theistic religions.  Unfortunately it also encompasses quite a bit more.  This is the definition used whenever a seemingly secular ideology is accused of being a religion: environmentalism, Marxism, secular humanism, Objectivism.  Things can get a little absurd if we take this to it’s extreme.  Ask yourself, can a sports team qualify as a religion?  While your first reaction might be no, consider this.  Do they not have holy days (game day and championships)?  Ritual clothing (sportswear)?  Churches (stadiums)?  Do they not foster a sense of community with fellow worshipers (fans)?  Do they not often serve as the central focus of a persons life (your roommate)?  Heck, they even have a sort of afterlife or Valhalla (Hall of Fame).  I realize that I’m exaggerating to make a point but given the above definition is it really that much of a stretch?

So far we have two definitions of religion and neither has proven very useful.  One appears too restrictive to provide an accurate definition while the other appears so broad as to be useless.  Transhumanism would clearly not fit under the first but would under the second (along with everything else).  So where does that leave us?  Perhaps our problem is that in getting bogged down in definitions we’ve been asking the wrong questions.  Perhaps we should ask not whether or not transhumanism is a religion but whether or not it serves the same purpose as one.

Our next question obviously becomes what purpose does a religion serve?  Thinking just off the top of our heads we can probably see the answer.  A religion provides meaning to a person and answers to the so called deeper questions of life (why are we here, etc.)  It often provides a community of like minded individuals.  It teaches morality and where humanity and the individual stand in the greater scheme of things.  It promises a relationship with the divine and the possibility of life in another form.  All of these features can be found in the great religions of the world.  You’ve probably noticed that this is more or less the second definition we listed above.  However by asking what the function of a religion is rather than what a religion is we avoid the thorny problem of having to define it.  Looking at it this way it is quite clear the transhumanism meets the criteria for serving the purpose of a religion, even concerning things like the afterlife which we’ll get to later.

So it seems we’ve come to it.  Transhumanism is, for all intents and purposes, a religion or at the very least a secular replacement for religion, and I don’t think there’s a damn thing wrong with that.  Why?  Because it’s a good replacement for religion.

What does religion offer that transhumanism can’t?  Ethics?  The movement, broadly utilitarian but with many competing viewpoints, offers sound ethical views on issues as diverse as what constitutes a person, what are the rights of the individual in relation to the collective and how we should treat the natural world.  A sense of community?  Transhumanists have been organized for several decades now and in recent years high profile organizations (IEET, SIAI) have served as a meeting ground and social gathering points for like-minded individuals.  Transcendental ideals?  Go read the literature on mind-uploading, archailects and the end of aging.  Hope for a better world?  Hedonistic Imperative, nuff said.  All this with a solid foundation of rationalism and skepticism, the basis of any good secular ideology.

It’s very fashionable in atheist circles to hold religion over the coals at every possible opportunity (I should know, I walk in those circles) and while there’s certainly a lot that can be laid at religion’s feet I feel that too many in the atheist community fail to recognize both the hugely important role it still plays in people’s lives and the importance of having a secular replacement, both for the sake of those already “converted” and for competing as a ideology.  Atheists, no less than anyone else, seek purpose and answers to life’s deeper questions.  Many seek those out in science, or more specifically scientism.  Other seek it in philosophy, or art, or work.  Others find it, and will find it in the coming decades, in transhumanism.

So the next time someone tells you that transhumanism is just another religion don’t feel bad about responding, “Yes, and it’s a damn good one.”

An Extinction Event For Religion? March 22, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Transhumanism.
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Full disclosure:  In case you couldn’t tell from this blog I am an atheist and a transhumanist.

I have to admit that when I first saw this article I laughed out loud.  The idea of someone predicting the death of religion in countries across the globe, and calling it extinction no less, struck me as completely absurd.  Now I’ve actually read the article and I have to say…yeah I still think its a pretty stupid premise.

Here’s the thing.  It is true that in much of the Western world there has been a marked trend over the past few decades towards greater secularism and a decreased prevalence of religious activity.  The United States is somewhat of an anamoly in this regard but the trend certainly seems to be clear.  What exactly is causing it is somewhat still up for debate.  Arguments that greater prosperity leads to an abandoning of religion due to less need for what it offers (a feeling of security in the face of a troubling world and etc.) are underminded by the aforementioned continued prevalence of religion in the US and by its strengthening in many developing nations.  More likely is the idea that Europe and Western Europe in particular provides a fertile ground for this sort of thing.  This is after all the culture that gave us the Enlightenment and where the church has often functioned in more of a political role than a spiritual one.  However this is all irrelevant to the question at hand.

Is religion going extinct in certain countries as this article implies?  Maybe, but don’t start jumping for joy all my atheist friends.  There are two reasons why this sort of news should not be met with blind joy.  First is the question of what the study actually measured.  According to the article the researchers looked at the number of people over time who identify themselves as “not affiliated with a religion” and extrapolated a growth of that group in the coming decades.  The problem is that that “not affiliated with a religion” is not the same thing as atheist.  The trend away from organized religion is distinct from the trend away from religion itself.  Even in America, the bastion of religious faith in the developed world, traditional churches are scrambling to prevent there congregations from deserting them for newer, independent groups.  Lack of religion does not mean a lack of spirituality and indeed one of the largest growing groups over recent years has been in the “spiritual but not religious” category.

On that note lets come to the second reason to look askew at this study: a decrease in religion does not mean an increase in logic or rationality.  This is something I see many in the atheist community not really getting.  The idea that religion is the source of all our problems and that its removal will coincide with a renaissance of freethought and reason is a wonderful story that has about as much chance of being true as one guy building a boat to house two of every animal on earth.  Non-religious people can be just as boneheaded and given to leaps of logic and outright blind faith in the ridiculous as religious people.  Need proof?  Look at the prevalence of homeopathy in developed nations or the number of people who believe that astrology is a legitimate science.  Not religious does not equal rational.

Reading this article I’m reminded of a study that supposedly showed that people of higher intelligence tend to be liberal and atheists.  Like that study I have problems with both the sampling and methods of the article today and like that study I expect people to either shout this article from the rooftops or condemn it to the depths of hell depending on which side of the political spectrum they are.  Is religion on its way to extinction?  Maybe but probably not.  The search for meaning is a very powerful force in the human psyche, perhaps the most powerful, and atheism is and always has been a difficult path walked only by a small minority.  Some have said that transhumans or posthumans will likely have no need for religion and disregard with it entirely.  Without going into too much detail, that’s a whole different article, I strongly disagree.  As long as being still strive to understand things beyond their comprehension religion, though it may resemble nothing like what we have today, will find a place in the universe.