Friday, March 2, 2012

The Church of Arrogance

As I noted at the beginning of my recent post on The Faith of Atheism, I tend to have more problems with atheists than with the -ism itself. The reason for that is it seems that nearly every interaction I have (not every, to be fair) with atheists involves them desperately clawing to the top of an imagined mole hill to somehow prove that they are more intelligent and reasonable than those silly theists who of course believe in the big cat in the sky or the spaghetti monster or whatever petty, puerile analogy they try to make for God. And in response to a rather straightforward attempt to suggest how that's not the case, I was predictably tongue lashed for even suggesting that theists are on equal footing intellectually. It seems that more than anything, atheists can unite in their arrogant belief in their own intellectual superiority. The Church of Arrogance.

Where to start. With the title, "Learning from a Catholic what atheists think." Right, that's what I set out to do--to tell people what atheists think. I didn't quote from an avowed atheist. I've never read anything atheists have said or written before forming my opinions on atheism.  Oh wait, yeah, I did. Did I ever claim to speak for atheists? No, I paraphrased an atheist and talked about how, judging from that and my reading and listening to atheists, I have a ("a" not "the" or "only"--"a") problem with the atheist perspective. Please, by all means, do not listen to me as an authority on atheism, if for no other reason than that they don't believe in taking things on authority. Oh crap, there I go again, telling you what atheists think. (By the way, the irony involved in an atheist complaining about a theist misrepresenting them I hope does not fall flat on you, dear readers. At every turn, atheists seem to make it their duty to misrepresent what theists think, and lavish scorn upon their caricatures.)

Next, he associates me with a book that he has discredited in his mind, saying that I'm not even saying anything original. Okay, so where did I say I was trying to earn a PhD in atheism studies? I guess he's suggesting that I'm disingenuously disguising my own ruminations on the subject as my own thoughts while, in reality, I am secretly just trying to rehash a clearly disproven canard. Or maybe the truth of what I was proposing was simply evident enough for others to also see on their own.  Not to mention, I have read (yes, sorry no link on this one--feel free to think I'm lying if you want) an atheist admit that atheists can't indeed not live without the sort of belief that I described. I actually think it's pretty obvious--obvious enough to be covered in a short post, not requiring a whole book.

He then goes on to educate us that all atheists do not believe the same things. Oh wait, where have I heard that?  Just about every religion on the planet. Why? Because as I was pointing out, we all form our beliefs (yes, beliefs) about reality based on the information available to us and our reasoning.  (There I go again, daring to suggest that atheists and the rest of us riff raff have similar reasoning capabilities and basically the same human nature. Bad, Ambrose!) Atheism doesn't have some special corner on the market in this regard, and I never claimed to say "what all atheists believe."  Again, I quoted from an atheist, and I was talking about my own conclusions based on that and other interactions with atheists I've had in my life. It was essentially a personal reflection based on my own experiences/exposure, offering up the reasons behind my thinking for others to consider and draw their own conclusions.

After revisiting the canard (ooh, that word is fun, no?) that I am telling people what all atheists believe (and, don't forget, after telling me that all atheists don't believe the same things), he goes on to tell me what all atheists believe.  (Not without missing an opportunity to put the smack down on my lack of "scientific literacy.")

Now, if you could wade through all that bullshitting, he actually says some interesting stuff about his thinking on things like entropy and ideas. The thing is, we could talk about those in productive and mutually constructive ways, if it weren't for all the surrounding crap. Am I responding in-kind? Yes, I've had about enough of just taking it and being the bigger person. I'm not going to take this arrogance any longer, and I will call them out on it every time I see it, until they quit trying to set themselves up as inherently intellectually superior to everyone else who hasn't come to the same conclusion about God as them.

Frankly, I was this close to not even responding (as I've let this kind of thing go so many times). But I am the inveterate optimist; I hold out hope against hope that I can have mutually respectful dialogue with atheists. I know all atheists are not this incorrigible. I've seen the occasional posting on message boards here and there, and a new fella I met by posting this, Daniel Nairn, seems to be an exemplary atheist in this regard--no pretense to superiority in his response.  And to be fair to Bertrand, he's let his humanity come out here and there in our many disputes, although he does have a habit of falling back into it when I somehow make his blood boil.

Anyways, both of these two responders suggest that they have a way of granting some sort of meaningful existence to metaphysical concepts using their brains. I can only guess this is something along the lines of Platonism. Bertrand is right to call out that atheism does not, necessarily, imply materialism; however, the vast majority of atheists, especially the militant ones, in my experience seem to adhere to materialism and the concomitant scientism. And besides, that is the prevailing secular ideology, whether atheist or agnostic or nominally theist.

I stand accused of a lack of imagination on the grounds that I suggest that a sturdy atheism does in fact imply materialism (and again, I am in good company with many atheists living and dead on this point). I do acknowledge that people can, do, and have believed in metaphysical ideas without believing in God. In fact, that is precisely what I was saying in my last post--that atheists do believe in such concepts; although some deny them, they functionally behave as if they believe in them. And again, my problem with this particular perspective is that I don't follow the reasoning that leads to either the acknowledged or implicit belief in them without a metaphysical (not "magical") source of their being. It is, as Pratchett essentially says, wishful thinking.

Another claim I've heard many times (not saying all atheists believe this, though) is that as an atheist, they merely believe in "facts" and "evidence" based on science. Science deals with, as we all know (and don't need to be reminded, okay?) observable phenomena and reproducible experiments, that is, it deals with the physical world, not the metaphysical. It is entirely unequipped to grapple with or begin to explain metaphysical realities, assuming they are admitted in the first place (and many atheists I have observed do not, as materialists).

Indeed, it is because of the advancement of science in the last few hundred years that the atheist who believes in metaphysical being has become rarer and rarer. So much so, that I'm not sure I see how scientism and a belief in metaphysical existence makes much sense. The explanation--that of essentially a practical self-interest--does not imply any metaphysical existence. You can't subject justice and love to scientific experimentation, so if one bases his entire view of the world on such scientific evidence, it does not follow to believe in the existence of these things.

After plateauing on the verge of rational dialog, Betrand falls back into those old atheistic tactics of scornful intellectual snobbery and misrepresenting what theists say. He portrays what I said as "[trusting my] personal experience, common sense and gut feelings more than science, ergo Jesus." Leaving aside the implicit worship of science in this statement and leaving aside this is not in fact what I said, it essentially ignores the main theme of my prior post--that we all must, due to our human nature, make judgments based on 1) the evidence of our experience, 2) the authority of others, and 3) our reason.

First, personal experience, common sense and gut feeling are extremely poor indicators of truth.
Duh. This is something we all agree on. As a Catholic, I'm insulted that he would accuse me of saying anything to the contrary. We're big on Truth as an objective reality.

This is a search of my post. I not once made appeal to common sense.

This, also not in my post.

However I did and do say that, as humans, we are constrained by our nature to make our own judgments about reality and truth, and we are bound by conscience to act according to those. Whether or not our judgments about reality align with reality as it is is, of course, the subject of much debate, including this one.

This should not be a controversial position, but it is--because the atheists that I am addressing are those who make the self-deceptive claim that somehow they have a direct line to truth based solely on science. To even the most amateur philosopher, it should be obvious that such a belief is a completely untenable epistemology. Scientists do not make great philosophers.

Folks such as these tend to refer to science with a capital S. "Science tells us." This is scientism, and it is rampant in contemporary society precisely because in school we are indoctrinated to treat it this way--as an Authority. It is talking about Science as if it is a being that can be asked or, indeed, that tells us things. It is an inordinate belief in the ability of science to account for reality and, particularly, to give it faculties that it does not possess.

Oddly, Bertrand moves on to say "even if there is a leap of faith at the basis of all human thought..." Okay, so basically he is agreeing that atheists must have faith to function as humans.  But then he goes on to impute all sorts of things to me (after not failing to take a puerile swipe equating God to a spaghetti monster):
It’s a common claim of theists to assert that because nothing is ever absolutely certain (an assumption that is necessary to scientific thought), then all beliefs, no matter how outlandish, are equally legitimate to hold.
I can't speak for all theists, but I hold and have argued for exactly the opposite. As a Catholic, again, I'm into the whole Truth thing, and I by no means say that all beliefs are equally legitimate to hold. That is indifferentism and relativism, both of which I abhor.

I have merely made the case for what Bertrand apparently admits--that atheists do in fact have faith (just not in God). Daniel suggested something similar as well.  Now we're getting somewhere. If only we could consequently avoid reverting back to the Church of Arrogance, we might actually be able to have some reasonable dialog as to, for example, why Catholicism more closely reflects the truth of reality than atheism. Once we can all agree we share the same means to understanding the world and we admit that we all engage in reasoning and forming judgments about it, then we can talk about the specific arguments for and against things.

Third, the claim that scientific knowledge is a form of argument from authority is infuriatingly ignorant. Scientific knowledge is based on reproducible experiments. No claim is ever accepted before it has been replicated by independent teams. Who makes the claim is almost entirely irrelevant (although not all authorities are equivalent).
Maybe if Bertrand would spend less time getting infuriated and projecting his prejudices about what I think onto what I actually say, we could avoid all this extra silliness. I did not say that "scientific knowledge is argument from authority." What I said was that unless you personally participate in scientific experiments of EVERYTHING that you want to form an opinion about, then you are de facto forced to take things on authority, including those things purportedly discovered through scientific methods.  Ironically, Bertrand then seems to acknowledge this saying "not all authorities are equivalent." So there is authority involved in science?  Which is it, Bertrand??

My point was and is that we all form opinions about reality based on the same sources. We choose to trust different authorities. We have different experiences. We follow different lines of reasoning. Again, this should not be controversial, but for the Church of Arrogance, it is.

Finally, the "dualism" thing (that means something different in philosophy, but fine..) is just a weird line of argument against the existence of the soul. I was just writing the other day how when I feel sick, my perception of the world is altered. Maybe if you think that the soul is entirely distinct from the body (dualism?), the argument matters. But traditional Christianity doesn't see it that way. We believe in the resurrection of the body--it's in our Creed. There is a real connection between the body and soul, and so obviously if you impact the body, you impact the person. It's a no brainer for us, not a scientific revelation.

I may have "come out a little strongly" in this post, and quite possibly, I've vented some of my general frustration in dealing with those who claim the title atheist on poor Bertrand. At the same time, I want to be clear that the door swings both ways--you give it, you gotta take it, too. I'm all for reasoned dialog, but I don't have a lot of patience for being misrepresented or having my reasoned perspectives made the object of petty scorn, mockery, or caricature. I will stand up for myself and those who share my views if pushed, or maybe I'll just ignore you.

Now if you, dear atheists, care to have a mutually respectful dialogue, let's do it. If you think I'm misunderstanding or misrepresenting you, feel free to say so respectfully--it's not my intent. Let's also give each other the benefit of the doubt, eh?