Sunday, January 4, 2009

What Atheists Offer

One time I was driving across Pennsylvania with two old friends from college. One of them is a religious Jew, and stuck in a car together for three hours, we not surprisingly got to talking about religion. (It was actually this very conversation that made me start questioning why evolution plays such a central role in modern religion discussions, and whether we should let it).

It was a good conversation precisely because my friend is crystal clear about his faith and convictions therein, even if he's often wrong. Then again, if you're a religious minority in an open society where such things can be discussed, you end up really knowing your stuff, because it's constantly questioned. I think it is for this reason that your average religious Jew in the United States is far more conversant with his or her religion than the average Christian. One challenge he set was: "You're trying to take away my faith, and what are you replacing it with? You offer nothing."

This brought me up short. In retrospect, asking what an atheist to boil down his or her moral beliefs is just as unreasonable as asking someone interviewing for an accounting position to explain the rules for arithmetic to you in 200 words or less. If she actually does try, you would rightly worry about her ability to handle novel situations. (As an aside, Russell and Whitehead did try to do exactly this for all mathematics, and you can't do it, even in principle - as was shown by, ironically, creationist nutbar Kurt Goedel).

My friend's flat statement also bothered me more than I expected it to, and it's not an infrequent accusation judging by other experiences people have described on the web. While I didn't expect my friend, as a religious person, to think me a moral exemplar, and while he'd known me when I was in my shock-value atheist phase, I thought he would at least see more in me today than a nihilistic moral vacuum.

That's because what atheism does not offer is a neat bulleted list of rules for living. Ironically, though I didn't realize this until thinking about it more, the recognition that life has no quick-and-easy reference guide is exactly what it offers. Atheism also doesn't offer false promises - unlike religion, which makes promises that are mostly untestable, but sometimes testable and patently false (like Creflo Dollar's prosperity theology, which promises financial rewards in this life in exchange for loyalty to God). Atheism does offer clarity - of thought and morality that allows you to make uncluttered decisions, without asking whether electricity is a form of fire, or whether you can let your wife out of the house because she's having her period. Or, you might pick and choose which of the bulleted rules you feel like paying attention to (and on what basis do you decide that? Is the bulleted list really the word of God, or not?) If you're still using your critical faculties and innate moral sense anyway, why not drop the bronze-age Powerpoint slide entirely?

Sam Harris frequently argues that rationalism (of which atheism is one consequence) is not a better worldview, but rather an absence of one. If worldviews are colored lenses, then rationalism is taking the goofy lenses off, not swapping them for another set. Here's another analogy that better expresses the social identity aspect of religious worldviews: imagine you're at a party in Mexico. Someone asks you which Mexican soccer league team is your favorite. You say sorry, you're afraid you don't follow futbol mexicano, so you don't have one. Your questioner is puzzled by your non-response, and to resolve the issue, he says, "Must be Toluca then."

By not picking any team - or putting on any colored glasses with bullet points inscribed on them in Hebrew (or medieval Arabic, or Sanskrit, or Xenuish) - you're probably going to have a better time of making objective bets on futbol mexicano, or living your life clearly and happily. Just to pick two examples that may be relevant to you.

In the 2008 NCAA basketball playoffs, I was asked to join an office pool at the Sweet Sixteen stage. Knowing nothing about basketball, I had no favorite team. So I did a rather unsophisticated but unbiased numerical analysis of the participating teams' records. I correctly predicted the win-loss outcome of all but one game, as well as the champion (Kansas). While I was collecting my money from one of my coworkers, I asked him, in total sincerity, to explain what a rebound was. Ask Creflo Dollar how that grabs him for prosperity theology.

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