Friday, July 24, 2009

At the Heart of Atheism's Concerns

In the past week at Andrew Sullivan's general culture and politics blog at the Atlantic, two guest posters have had an ongoing series of posts about atheism. The first is the always interesting and sometimes correct Robert Wright, who I've written about previously; and the other is one of the regular back-ups on the site, Patrick Appel.

It's not the first time that the Catholic (but strongly pro-separation) Sullivan or his blog have covered atheism: Sullivan's online debate with Sam Harris is not to be missed. Appel posts part of a reaction from a blogger at the Economist (this positive exposure in mainstream publications' blogs is great!); the Economist blogger didn't like the old New-Atheists-are-fundamentalists bromide, which was of course aired in the discussion. But the point that comes through in a theist's response is one that I think we can get on board with:

"At the heart of atheism’s concerns is that irrational thinking creates problems in the world."

Bingo! I'll give credit to an "outsider" for cutting through trees to see the forest. That said, I would argue that religion is a special case of irrationality, in fact one of the worst cases, because it's a cognitive bias with self-perpetuating social cohesion that often results in suffering and violence. I would even say one difference between people who self-identify with the label of skeptic vs. atheist is the degree to which they consider religion a horrendous special case of irrationality worth spending the most time on debunking.

I homed in on this discussion because one challenge that many atheists struggle with, early in their atheism, is finding explicit positive values in atheism, rather than just defining themselves by rejection of others' values. By recognizing this need and building the community we can make the transition easier for newly-minted atheists, and we can probably also avoid the stumbling, where we either ignore the benefits of community because we associate it too much with religion, or we end up recapitulating religion to a silly degree; a great community-focused atheist blog is The Meming of Life. Recognizing irrationality as a core concern of atheism (rather than just "destroy religion) also provides a more constructive basis to sincere discussions with the religious; we all have irrational biases and we all can recognize them in others. Even if you have different definitions to start out, I think it's safe to say that most religious people would say they also want a more rational world.

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