Sunday, May 22, 2011

The Confusion Between Atheism & Agnosticism

A theist accepts or believes the idea that god exists.  An atheist (which literally means “one without theism”) is a person who does not believe in god and typically bases this “belief” (I use the term lightly and in its non-dualistic sense) on the evidence as they see it.  Many atheists base their “beliefs” upon the scientific method.  A true scientific hypothesis is based upon observable evidence and challenging established theories.  It is constantly evolving.  There is no “doctrine” to be found in the scientific method other than to follow the evidence and to be mindful of personal biases.  Yes, the scientific method is fallible, as is human reasoning and perception, as many studies have shown.  This is exactly why many atheists, as a consequence, reject their own emotional reasoning – because they know it’s inherently flawed.  But if an atheist were suddenly faced with some overwhelming evidence as for the existence of god (that didn’t rely on pure emotional evidence or personal testimony – we’re talking solid, empirically validated evidence here), an atheist would discard this belief.  Not many theists can make such a claim.  

Many people who have faith may simply see atheism as just another entrenched belief or dogma (or doctrine) because that’s what they know, or how they see the world.  Most atheists have decided there is no god, but again, their decision is based upon the “evolving” evidence (as they see it).  A true agnostic is simply a person who hasn’t decided yet (for what ever reason).  Now if we really want to split hairs here, then one could argue that what we’re likely talking about here is an “agnostic atheist” (or the cringe-worthy “weak atheist”), but I’m not particularly fond of either term, so I’m sticking simply with “atheist.”  I have had many discussions with people of faith but I continue to find few surprises in these arguments.   

Whenever I mention the term “inherited Bronze Age dualism*” I am usually speaking of the psychological mindset that tends to see the world in black-and-white terms.  From such a perspective, in terms of faith, there can only be two options - one either has a belief or does not have a belief; one either accepts/believes the claim that god exists, or one rejects/disbelieves the claim.  Atheists do not tend to subscribe to such polorized thinking, and thus tend to have a much more expansive, global view on the subject.  Atheists merely believe that the proof in favor of god is just simply not there but are open to changing this belief if they were suddenly presented with new (reliable) evidence.  This is not to say atheists think a person is stupid for having faith (although many militant atheist might believe just that).  I personally would never make such a divisive (dare I say “dualistic) statement.  But I would argue faith comes down to conscious choice – the choice to accept emotional reasoning and/or to believe in impossible things (the “leap of faith” that began our discussion).  Atheism requires no such a leap because it’s based on evolving evidence (or lack thereof) - and I’m not making a value judgment as to which belief is “better.”  Again, it’s about acknowledging the “limits of human understand” that I’m focusing on here, which was genetically established long before Hume ever began discussing it.  These limits hold true whether one has faith or does not have faith.

                                                   - SIDE NOTE -
* [Prior to the rise of agriculture (which provided surplus to feed armies and the inevitable rise of male solar gods who dethroned the previous holistic earth goddess’s) there was less of need for such a “tribal” outlook.  By dividing heaven from earth solar hero/god essentially divided human consciousness and thus provided a general rise of dualistic thought – a perspective which sees things as being opposed to one another other in a struggle for supremacy (ie: one being viewed as better than the other; as in life being better being than death, light being better than dark, etc).  All throughout the Paleolithic these same opposing forces were also recognized but the major difference is that they were both seen as intrinsic, essential, intimately connected (and dare I say "sacred") to one another].
                                                - END SIDE NOTE -

The key point to be mindful of here is that disbelief is not the complete opposite of belief.  Such an idea is simply suggests a limited dualistic approach to the problem.  Just because I do not believe Michael Jordon was the greatest basketball player of all time doesn't mean I think he was the worst either.  Again, disbelief is not the opposite of faith.  Is the glass half empty or is it half full?  How about we smash the glass, stop viewing the world from such a limited perspective and enter the situation with a truly open mind (again, easier said than done)?  It’s neither good nor bad - only (dualistic) thinking makes it so (I'm paraphrasing/butchering Shakespeare here).  This is atheism as I see it (keep in mind I know a lot of ignorant, militant atheists who do not share this belief either, who ignorantly can’t even bring themselves to use the word “spirituality” without wanting to vomit, which I think is a true shame and hints at it’s own dogma).  For me, it merely boils down to the fact that god created the universe – or [he] didn’t.  It really doesn’t matter because nothing changes - the result turns out to be exactly the same.

With this said, I do personally have a non-empirically validated faith which requires an emotional leap, but it is one often lost on most practicing Christians.  My faith is in the goodness of HUMANITY and the evolution of our inherent compassion for one another.  It amazes me that many Christians fail to maintain this faith, and choose to subscribe to the sin hypothesis.  Jesus never spoke of this, yet many Christians freely accept that man has inherited some sort of existential cooties from our ancestors (i.e.: original sin).  In the infamous words of Richard Dawkins, "What kind of ethical philosophy is it that condemns every child, even before it is born, to inherit the sin of a remote ancestor?"  Food for thought.

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