Saturday, 10 September 2016

Promoting Atheism... And Why I Don't.

There's a fairly common collection of memes in those areas of the internet in which various alleged entities are discussed that atheists 'hate god', that we all 'know he exists, which is why we spend so much time arguing against him' amid accusations of 'atheist dogma'. I want to address some of them here.

I've previously posted on how I use the term 'atheist' and why I think it's the most robust definition. To summarise that post, atheism is nothing more nor less than the non-acceptance of a specific class of truth-claim with regard to the existence of a specific class of entity. I went on to address some objections, such as the idea that it should be a distinct cognitive position and why I felt them to be problematic.

Here, I want to expand on some of what I said in that post, particularly with regard to what motivates me to argue, and why I think it's both fruitful and important. It's going to be somewhat biographical, because it's going to deal with where my motivations originate.

The first thing to note is that, among all the things that motivate me, atheism isn't one of them. To be absolutely clear, my atheism is a symptom; an effect, not a cause. Atheism, being a simple privative, cannot be causal. Indeed, to imbue it with causal properties is to commit several basic fallacies, the modal fallacy and the category error among them.

When I was young, I really tried to believe. It seemed incredibly important to the people I cared about, and I was assured that it was for my own well-being. Evolution has equipped us with many things crucial to our survival, among which is, in humans, a certain credulity. That sounds a little odd, so perhaps some unpacking is in order.

We're a funny old species in some ways. Due to the limits of the human birth canal, we have an incredibly protracted post-birth development programme. It takes us a long time to reach adulthood*, and that time is taken with learning how to survive in our niche in the environment. As children, it's actually advantageous to be gullible, especially with regard to certain information sources, because rejection of information impedes such learning. When we're told things as children such as 'don't put your hand in the fire', whether or not this concept is reinforced by associating it with pain, we're hard-wired to accept them, especially if it comes from a parent. From our earliest imprinting, we put our faith in our parents. When they tell us 'you can trust this person, or this class of people', we simply accept it, without question. We take it on faith. Up to a point, this is extremely useful, and is the nature of many of the life lessons we learn during our emotional, psychological and intellectual development. It does, however, have its pitfalls.

I've posted before about a famous saw popularly attributed to Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order (some say Aristotle), show me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man. The Jesuits were famous as educators, and can be found in popular fiction as far-flung missionaries bringing Western education and the word of god to the world's heathen. They were aware, as are most, that the most effective inculcation occurs when our minds are at their most malleable. Indeed, many cog-sci studies show that our learning capacity is radically depleted as we get older. This is one of the few areas in which the computer analogies don't fall too wide of the mark. It's not unuseful to think of childhood as a system configuration process, during which you make a lot of tweaks in the hardware (growth), install the operating system and the core software and (learning), configuring internal connections and setting up key commands (training). By the time we reach adulthood, many of the basic principles with regard to how we think about things are laid down in a fairly unshakeable foundation. It takes an extreme effort of will to shed or even to challenge these 'core beliefs', whether in isolation or in concert. We'll even call them 'common sense' or, worse, 'basic logic'. The latter, they're certainly not. Logic has little to do with them.

Now, I should state that I'm not having a go at parents here. I'm a parent myself, and I know as well as anybody that children don't come with an instruction manual. You do your best to keep them safe, teach them not to be dicks as best you can, and give them the tools necessary to be a successful human, however you personally define success. This is an enormous responsibility, and far from easy. We draw extensively from our own childhood, remembering what our parents did well and, perhaps, what they didn't do well, and we try to bring those examples into our own children's upbringing.

Of course, this makes the whole process relentlessly cyclical, not least because now we have this collection of ideas that we're not supposed to question, are programmed not to question. We don't even think of them as being subject to question. This idea, that there exists an idea that is not to be questioned, is the most pernicious and destructive idea of them all in my considered opinion.

There are very few children, I suspect, that don't question some of the social, religious and political beliefs they're brought up with. Humans are innately curious and, as a result, they tend to pick at things until they make sense. We want to believe things, and we'll challenge things that don't make sense to us, asking the awkward questions until they do. As children, when we do this with certain ideas, we're given answers designed to stifle discussion. There's an old joke that sums it up: 'What was God doing before he created the universe?' and the response 'He was preparing hell for people who ask awkward questions'. In many cases, this has the desired effect and curtails that curiosity. Not always, though, and this brings me nicely back to where we began.

I really tried to believe, but there were things in the religion I was raised in that simply didn't make sense, and they niggled away the whole time, even as I engaged in all the behaviours a good Christian should. The evidence mounted, though, that showed that the entire idea was really quite silly, and I could never get beyond that.

Anyway, I got on with my life, somewhat saddened that so many would subjugate their intellect to such a poorly-supported idea, but not massively concerned with it.

I left school at a very early age (12) after some less-than stellar experiences. That's not to say that I hated school. Quite the contrary, in fact. I loved school, and I loved to learn. I was quite easily bored, but managed to keep it largely in check (although I could be a bit of a handful). After leaving, I continued to educate myself. I'm a voracious reader, and always have been. 

In my 20s, a friend introduced me to A Brief History of Time. I was hooked. I couldn't get enough. This was the thing I'd been looking for, and I read every bit of science I could lay my hands on, especially physics and cosmology, but I also encountered The Selfish Gene, which triggered another area of study, evolutionary theory. On reading some of Dawkins' other work, I came across the concept of creationism, and the concerted efforts of well-funded and politically well-connected organisations to undermine the teaching of valid science in schools, and the promulgation of a pseudo-controversy, as if there was any reasonable doubt that their preferred model of reality was anything more than a blind assertion, passed down by these same mechanisms of credulity, or that it shared anything like the epistemological status of evolutionary theory.

I started to investigate, and was horrified at what I discovered. Among my first encounters was Kent 'Dr Dino' Hovind, and a video recording of him - get this - teaching children, in a large auditorium, that the Universe was less than 10,000 years old. It was riddled with the most shoddy reasoning, anecdotes like I was on a plane with an atheist - or often, a scientist - and I said, 'Brother...' followed by some inane question that falls broadly into two categories, the first being the category of question that anybody with a functional neuron should be able to answer without breaking a sweat, and the second being the category of question that could only come from not understanding the subject matter at all, being so disconnected from or misrepresentative of the topic at hand that there was no sensible answer that didn't involve deconstructing the entire edifice of misunderstanding prior to building up the understanding necessary to grasp the subject properly. Aron Ra, in a debate series on Youtube with a particularly special case from Birmingham (UK, I'm sorry to say, not Alabama), voiced his frustration succinctly thus:
"Before I could explain any of that, I'd have to drain your brain of the faeces festering in it and replace all that with a clue"

Hovind wasn't alone. I discovered that there were large organisations, deep of pocket and equally deep of ignorance, actively pursuing a strategy of attempting to undermine acceptance of valid science, and infecting children with it, by building big sham museums, another one of which opened in Kentucky in the past couple of months, inveigling their way into the bodies responsible for selecting textbooks for schools, with books clearly intended to undermine what the evidence suggests, while they were largely powerless to resist it, based only on the principles in the foregoing discussion.

Worse, with a little more digging, I discovered that scientists, the real ones, as opposed to the poster-boys of the creationist movement in stolen lab-coats, were faced with actively working against it, as opposed to getting on with probing the universe for its hidden secrets. I couldn't get my head around it, and it saddened me. It wasn't all bad, of course; some of the assertions of creationists have led to really interesting research, such as the research on the bacterial flagellum discussed in Irreducible Complexity and Evolution.


Now, I have no problem with what anyone believes. To put it bluntly, you have every right to be wrong, if you wish. Where I do object is when those beliefs are manifest in the world in a way that impinges on the rights of others. A summary way of stating this is that your rights end where mine begin, and vice versa. 

Rights are a source of a fair bit of confusion judging by some of the discussions I've had over the years. I've engaged with people who assert things like 'this is a right afforded me by the constitution'. This is to fundamentally misunderstand what a right is. It isn't something awarded by a government, but flows directly from our empathy, and the social contract that allows us to function successfully as social animals. The role of government, and of frameworks like the US constitution, is to recognise rights that are innate and inalienable, to enshrine them in law, and to give them the protection of the state. It's to ensure that we are not subjugated by individuals, by groups and, indeed, by governments themselves.

One of the rights I think most important is the right to self-determination. It informs all other rights in the most fundamental way, and is central to a healthy, well-balanced and progressive society. Of course, self-determination doesn't happen in a vacuum. It requires, among many other things, that people be well-informed, and able to think for themselves, and this brings me at last to the central topic I want to cover here.

In my last post dealing with patterns and the inertia of ideas, we looked at how certain ideas embed themselves in the way we think and the way we see the world, and how difficult it can be to shift them once ingrained. We discussed Morton's Demon, and how ingrained ideas actively work to survive by editing out contradictory evidence, the mind's mechanism for the avoidance of cognitive dissonance.

Most of our prejudices, including those that vilify others based on perception of non-membership of a given group or clique, are rooted in this issue, and the source of very many of them is the religion we're indoctrinated into. Those who've been reading this blog from its inception will be aware of some of the knowledge we've gathered about the universe and how it operates, and the means by which we've gathered it. The two pillars of physics, which we've covered broadly but also in some detail, which run massively counter to our intuitions, but which underpin all of our technology, including our ability to communicate instantly over distances that, even only 100 or so years ago, would have taken weeks or even months, by means that would, in times not much earlier, have resulted in wholesale torture and burning.

Science can be difficult, not just because it requires modes of thought that our mammalian brains, which evolved as mechanisms to avoid predation and access resources, are not naturally equipped to cope with. It requires an open mind and the willingness to shed biases. It requires training, and that training can be massively undermined by those complexes of ideas that colour our perceptions.

I'm hoping that my case has largely been made here, because there's a clear conflict between inculcation and independent thought, the latter being fundamental to self-determination. Just as we can't reasonably engage in the social contract if we don't understand the nature of the contract, we can't engage in independent thought if we don't understand the nature of our biases, prejudices and beliefs.

As parents, we often think of ourselves as having the 'right' to raise our children as we see fit. I'm going to voice here what I know is going to be an unpopular opinion, but it is my opinion, and it's incumbent on me to deliver it, and it's this:

We have no such right. What we do have is a duty to prepare our children for the world. Central to this is giving our children the tools to function as social animals, to engage in the social and moral contract, to help them, grow, not just physically and emotionally, but intellectually as well. Imbuing them with our 'memeplexes' is anathema to that goal, and we really need to recognise this. What we actually do when we instil unchallengeable ideas in our children is to curtail their rights, especially the rights to free speech and self-determination. Teaching a child that they must bow to an entity that is merely asserted to exist, sans evidence, and that this must not be questioned, is stripping them of their most fundamental freedoms. In my not-so-humble opinion, this crosses the line into intellectual abuse. When this is reinforced with the suggestion that even questioning such assertions will lead to eternal torture, it's tantamount to emotional torture. In short, imbuing children with poorly-supported doctrines, and the attendant doctrinal imperatives that must be adhered to without question, is a fundamental breach of the rights of those children to self-determination.

Raising children is a privilege and, like all privileges, it comes with a great responsibility. We should teach our children to question, to challenge, even to challenge the paradigms and edifices of science, but also to understand the nature of evidence, and when denial is counter-productive. The one thing above all others that we should be teaching our children is that ideas are disposable entities, and that there's no such thing as an unchallengeable idea. No idea is sacred, and ideas aren't entities that are, in and of themselves, worthy of respect. People are worthy of respect not least because, in respecting others, we're respecting ourselves. Ultimately, if we show the beliefs of others the respect they think they deserve, we aren't showing the holders of those ideas the respect that they definitely do deserve.

As I write this, discussion is once again rising in legislative bodies around the idea of blasphemy in many countries. Here in the UK, the new, unelected prime minister is throwing her weight behind legislation to un-cap prejudice in admissions into faith-schools, as if there can be any such thing as a Christian child, or a Muslim child. This is a step in precisely the wrong direction. No pluralistic society can remain truly pluralistic while such segregation is promulgated and actively promoted by government. Only by promoting pluralism can we ever be truly pluralistic, and promoting religious apartheid in this manner is massively destructive to any progress in this area.

This is especially of moment now, when the world is facing an ideologically-motivated crisis of violence and terror arising directly from these pernicious in-group/out-group distinctions, and the clash of ideologies isn't only leading to fear, because the fear itself is having the effect of making individual nations more insular. 

Over the past decade or so, we've seen instances of violence that are difficult for a moral or thinking person to countenance. Only earlier this week, I was in discussion with somebody on Twitter who alluded to the actions of 'atheist extremists', going on to say that we 'write articles'. This is exactly the sort of prejudice that arises from the silly notion that beliefs and ideas should be immune from criticism. Meanwhile, 'extremists' of other stripe are flying planes into buildings, stabbing and shooting cartoonists, beheading film-makers, beheading aid workers such as Alan Henning, a Salford taxi-driver who wanted nothing more than to help people in need (I didn't know him, but he was well-known to some of my family and friends), hacking bloggers to death in the streets for saying things, including Avijit Roy, with whom I used to chat physics on the Richard Dawkins forum (his wife barely escaped with her life).

If it weren't for the fact that there's nothing remotely amusing about any of the above, it would be almost funny that I, who write articles about science and reason, and argue with believers and science-deniers on social media, can have an epithet levelled at me comparing my behaviour to the above atrocities.

In the face of all this, we have accommodationists across the political spectrum enjoining us to curtail our critique, and to be careful where we aim it.

Let me be clear here. I'm more than aware that Muslims are not a homogeneous group, and that treating them as such is horribly bigoted, as it is with any group of people. I know many Muslims and, just like any other arbitrary distinction we might draw, the fact that they're Muslim tells you one, and only one, thing about them, in the same way that me telling you I'm an atheist tells you only one thing about me, namely that I don't believe in the existence of a deity.

I wouldn't even say that it's the responsibility of all Muslims to speak against the extremists, it's the responsibility of all of us. Shying away from this responsibility, whether out of genuinely believing that religion and religious beliefs are things to be respected, or from fear of reprisal, is actively working against progress and the future safety of the society in which I and my loved ones live. Edmund Burke famously said that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. While I have issues with the terms 'evil' and 'good', I'd say he was largely correct in this, but there's more. When good people do nothing, evil can succeed. When good people actively work against doing something, evil has a free pass, and doesn't even have to do any work.

So, do I promote atheism? Certainly not. I promote thought, education, scepticism and evidence-based reasoning. I promote intellectual, social, moral and scientific progress. I promote the disposal of bad ideas. That religion and the idea of god are, in my considered estimation, among the worst and most useless of those ideas is functionally incidental.

Let's teach our children how to think, not what to think. Let's teach them to reason, to value evidence, and to properly assess the truth-claims of others. Let's raise our children to be properly and fully engaged in the social contract, to understand its nature, and to know what morality really is. Then maybe, just maybe, we can look forward to a future for our children that's free of terror, free of prejudice, free of subjugation. Let's teach our children to be free.

Freedom of speech is the freedom from which all other freedoms flow. When you fight against freedom of speech, you forge your own manacles.

As always, thanks for reading.


*There's good reason to suppose that this never happens with humans. We know there are species in nature which are 'neotenic', meaning that they reach reproductive maturity prior to reaching adulthood, and that adulthood is lopped off the life-cycle. Axlotls are one such species. Because, among other things, humans are one of the most highly paedomorphic (resembling young) of extant species, it's thought that humans are also neotenic.