In the last half-year or so, several popular books have thrust atheism and atheists in to the media spotlight. The response from religious writers has been varied, with some turning away, and others becoming aggressive in their reactions.
One all-too-common response has been to start using religious terminology to describe atheists and their activities: “fundamentalist atheism”, “atheists sermons”, “crusades against religion”. (The word “crusade” is derived from the same root as “cross”.) This became very annoying, very quickly, and I soon learned to use such language to judge the integrity of an article on the topic.
The annoyance lies in the viewpoint, expressed subtly or unsubtly in such articles, that atheism is just another form of irrational belief. The implication, which I totally reject, is that atheists have dropped one form of irrational belief (a religion) and replaced it with another irrational belief. Then, by talking about it at all, they are “proselytizing”, they have become “evangelistic” about atheism.
The “F-Bomb” in such discussions is not the one you might think of, but “fundamentalism”. That is a false charge, a “straw man” theists string up to beat on. Refuting it is easy; all it takes is for the other side to pay attention, but all too often the sides in a debate end up talking past each other.
If you examine just one aspect of “fundamentalism”, the idea of beliefs that are solid and unshakable, you can see the problem straight away. Scientific theories are hardly immutable, or guaranteed, over time, and much of it can be counter-intuitive.
My beliefs are robust, with healthy roots, but they are not unshakeable. If I need to move them, I can; it would not be painful or destructive, all I would need is a good reason. However, in 25 years of acknowledged atheism (using the word), nothing has come along that would persuade me to adopt a belief in any supernatural entity. There is simply no evidence for it.
Now, some believers say “I have faith, and don’t need evidence”, and I need say no more about that. Others, however, say “but there is evidence, right here”. But what do we mean by evidence? This is, in my view, a key differentiator, and the main point of this article. Let me state clearly what I understand as evidence, and what is not evidence.
It starts with an understanding that mankind is not important. We and our big brains were not always here to look at the world the way we do, and as we evolved, we went through different levels of brain power on the way. Before there was abstract reasoning there was practical knowledge, on how to survive, then live, then enjoy ourselves and think beyond our immediate difficulties.
All of this is just a blip on the universal radar, the last minute in a 24-hour day. The stars, while not unchanging, have been steady enough for us to rely on, to make predictions on. This planet has been less static, over billions of years, but it is a rock of stability compare to people, with their self-centric view of the world. We are simply not that reliable, as witnesses, even over short periods of time, never mind over millennia.
What does this tell us about standards of evidence? In short: the most reliable evidence is which people can go to Nature for; if that connection is broken, because of time and distance. If the primary source for evidence is a person, or the work of a person, it can’t be trusted; it might correspond with nature, and then nature is the primary source.
An example of good evidence: Copernicus did not set out to overturn the established wisdom, that the Earth was the centre of the universe; he made observations, did calculations, and came to the conclusion that the Earth revolved around the Sun. Later, Galileo checked Copernicus’ work against the sky, came to the same conclusions, and got in to a lot of trouble. Note how the primary evidence was not Copernicus’ writings; it was in the skies, and the passage of decades did not diminish it. Amateur astronomers today can verify it with a minimum of skills and equipment, and do so regularly.
An example of bad evidence: scriptures, such as the Bible and Qu’Ran. They are books; that is, the works of man, and therefore devolved from nature by layers of human imagination and interpretation. Some say these scriptures are divinely inspired, and contain universal truth, but what supports such assertions? The books themselves? That is a circular argument. Authority? Authorities are still people, with their own wishes and failings. Positive results? People can do good, and bad, with or without religion – we have evidence of that from parts of world that have never seen a scripture of any kind.
So if you can’t trust scriptures, and can’t trust authority, what is left? Again, we can go back to nature. This is why Atheism is called a “naturalist” view of the world. Two different people can look at nature, one sees the hand of God, and the other does not. Who is right? Put the question more simply: one person sees something specific, or hears a specific sound, and the other does not. No, you can’t fairly claim that one person is blind, or deaf; that is evading the wider question.
The more rational explanation, based on experience of people and their capacity for self-delusion, is that the sound did not occur; the specific vision did not appear; that Nature does not need people, and their particular supernatural interpretations of it, to be what it is. It was here long before we were, and will be here after we have gone. We are fickle and unreliable by comparison.
There are scientists who adhere to scientific principles in their work, yet hold personal religious beliefs. It would be hypocritical of me to practice amateur psychology on them, considering how much I hate it when people try that on me, so I will merely allude to what others have said, on the ability of people to separate work activities from personal life, and don’t see much more significance there. I certainly do not accept that the existence of religious scientists – i.e. people – is any kind of validation of their particular religion. I don’t presume to know what they’re thinking, and statements from e.g. Francis Collins on the topic have been unsatisfying.
Lastly, going back all the way: religious believers have “creation myths” that (in their view) fully explain how the universe started. Scientists only have “theories”, such as the Big Bang theory, which was the logical result of empirical evidence (red shift of stellar spectra in all directions). Is that a complete, satisfying answer? No; there remains the question of what was “behind” the Big Bang, the question of causation. We’re trying to find out, but today we don’t know, and that’s a gap in knowledge that theists exploit. This is an issue I’ve touched on before; are you strong enough to tolerate uncertainty and say “we don’t know”, or must you fill a gap in your knowledge with … something… anything?