Disrespect my authoritah!

In a discussion on religion a short while back, I got to hear one of the more amusing arguments that has been forwarded frequently, apparently (somehow) in favor of religion: that atheism is simply a rebellion against authority. This argument has so many levels to it that I figured it deserved its own post.

The most glaring error is almost exactly the same as the old saw that atheism involves denying the existence of god. It is almost always phrased this way, and it’s a distinct example of the way that words get used to spin an argument. But like the authority issue, the problem with it is very simple: to atheists, there is nothing there to deny, and no authority to rebel against. It’s exactly the same as saying that someone denies the existence of leprechauns, and rebels against the authority of Superman. If someone used either such argument in conversation with you, you’d be puzzled at why they actually phrased things this way, and might even be inclined to ask, “What leprechauns?”

In some cases, the authority that is supposedly being rebelled against is not that of the god directly, but of some spokesperson for the god, or even the number of people who follow the same. It still misses the point: there is nothing there to provide authority. But there seems to be this frequent belief that if they, the believer, has found it convincing, then others must somehow defer to that.

There’s a deeper issue with the authority angle, though. One of the debating fallacies that comes up frequently is the “Argument from Authority” (sometimes “Appeal from Authority”,) whereupon some particular point is made valid by its support from an authority figure, such as a scientist or world leader. It’s frequently a factor in UFO discussions, where Dr. J. Allen Hynek, an astronomer, was paraded around for his belief in visiting aliens, therefore you were stupid if you didn’t accept his PhD goodness. Ignored, however, were the thousands of astronomers, holding much more than a teaching position, who disagreed. But the real issue, the one that the fallacy warns against, is accepting anyone as an “authority” that cannot be mistaken. Everyone can be mistaken – I’ll go out on a crazy limb here and say that everyone has been mistaken at one point in their life or another, even after receiving multiple college degrees. Critical thinking urges us to look at the facts and evidence, not pronouncements from grand poobahs of any field, and many (probably most) atheists arrived at their standpoint through critical examination. So, in a way, there is a rebellion against authority, or to be more specific, the total elimination of “authority” as a useful factor. Again, it’s all in the wording.

A side note is the arbitrary definition of what an authority is, to those using such arguments. Is the president an authority? Their boss? Those politicians calling for a raise in taxes? If you pay attention, you’ll likely see that the deference to authority can disappear very quickly, or that their definition of authority doesn’t seem to have any rules other than, “Those who agree with my standpoint.”

Eliminating authorities can be a tricky position, to be sure. It’s exceptionally difficult, well over the line into impossibility actually, to completely ignore pronouncements from scientists and make the effort to see all of the evidence behind their conclusions. For instance, how many people have done their own measurements of the speed of light or sound? Has anyone confirmed for themselves the discrete nature of the energy within a single photon? Has anyone weighed every last bit of evidence for and against the idea of anthropogenic global warming? Ignoring authority entirely is not really a viable position, but there is a difference between accepting scientific principles in regular use, and putting a lot of stock in initial publications about cancer cures. There are no rules that can apply in making such decisions, so it’s up to the individual to find their own way.

Everything we do, every decision we make, is based on a certain level of acceptance without evidence – “faith,” in other words. But don’t get the impression I’m condoning it – faith is not a virtue, it’s a crutch. It serves only as a shortcut to making decisions, and should be recognized for exactly what it is – the lack of effort in establishing decent evidence. Anyone else may not accept your faith in any given principle, and may have done their own examinations into the very subject you have not. Does this mean you respect their authority? Not at all, if you don’t want to, but asking them for their evidence (and considering it objectively) is certainly far better than remaining ignorant.

Now, here’s the funny thing. What if you saw something like a rebellion against authority, coupled with the failure to examine evidence (or even receive basic knowledge about a principle in the first place,) and then paraded around with utmost assurance to the point of condescension, what would you think of it? There’s no reason to view this as a hypothetical question, because we have the ability to see it firsthand: Weird Things has a recent post about just such comments, so you can judge for yourself how this actually works. While it would be unfair to make a case based on one individual example, I’ve seen exactly this kind of response numerous times, on many subjects, but religious backgrounds and standpoints certainly ride very high in those statistics. What possesses someone to have such utter confidence in something they don’t even have a basic knowledge of? What breeds this kind of arrogant righteousness? (Hah! Did I just play the word trick that I mentioned above on you, with the word “righteousness”?) Are the various people who rail against “scientists” (the word is very frequently placed into scare-quotes in such tirades) rebelling against authority themselves? It’s probably safer to say that they are actually creating authority, the supposed authority of scripture written several thousand years ago that pronounced the earth flat, and that they are instead rebelling against evidence. Which do you choose?

And most especially, why is it that so many people feel that faith is a commendable trait? Have we not yet seen enough of how badly this fails? How many more instances will it actually take? Probably quite a few, as long as people continue to distinguish “my faith” from “their faith,” and feel this makes them two entirely different things.

5 comments to Disrespect my authoritah!

  • The Manatee

    You hit the nail squarely on that flat roundy thing on the top with your closing sentence. It reminds me of the Yassar Arafat quote on religious wars – “You’re basically killing each other to see who’s got the better imaginary friend.”

  • Al, Hey Look! Another comment!! Since I’m reading your blog to make sure you’re a respectable geek anyway, I figured I might as well stick my nose in. I challenge you to look at “faith” in terms other than the “no evidence” definition. That highly respected source, Dictionary.com, gives as the first definition: confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another’s ability. In terms of, say, having faith in yourself, I think faith is a “virtue”.

    On the other hand, there are plenty of deluded souls running around science, academia, tea parties, etc, who will tell you “X” with utter certainty, when, in reality, “X” is a belief on either a macro (“intellegent” design) or micro (strings vs particles vs big & small bangs…) level… Not to mention that “invisible friend” thing. When people mistake “faith” for knowledge, BAAAD things happen. [An argument for correlation with IQ & ability to abstract can be made, but that’s another issue…]

    Have you read articles about Julian Assange? It’s reported his mother home-schooled him “so he wouldn’t grow up with an un-healthy respect for authority”. I’m SO there with her!! My off-spring are all “show me the facts”…”make a coherent argument”…”or we’ll fling the flying spaghetti monster in your face”. They are also willing to be wrong. Unusual, I know.

    As a practitioner of Won Buddhism, an extremely practical a-theistic “religion”, I know there are no imaginary friends & everyone is my imaginary friend. However, I respect other people’s right to have imaginary friends, just so long as they don’t try to make me play with them. After all, sooner or later (in terms of millenia of recycling), they’ll understand. As Nik, my #3, said, “Who needs gods? The Universe is going to get you, one way or another”.

    • Al Denelsbeck

      Welcome! I’m not so sure about the “respectable” part myself, I guess that depends on your definition, but I try hard.

      In terms of, say, having faith in yourself, I think faith is a “virtue”.

      That could be my own problem ;-). In your use here, I would call it a positive attitude, rather than faith, but that’s perhaps more of a personal thing. For instance, a positive attitude induces one to try something that’s not guaranteed, at least taking the chance that it results in a beneficent outcome rather than a neutral one. We generally temper this with past experience and knowledge, though, and don’t use faith/positive attitude to believe we can fly off this cliff (YouTube notwithstanding.) So, is this faith, or overcoming the part of us that fears failure, or even just playing the odds?

      On the other hand, there are plenty of deluded souls running around science, academia, tea parties, etc, who will tell you “X” with utter certainty, when, in reality, “X” is a belief on either a macro (“intellegent” design) or micro (strings vs particles vs big & small bangs…) level…

      Now, this kind of point takes place all the time in religious debates, generally to show that science has nothing more going for it than religion. There is some degree of difference, though, but it often has to be considered at certain levels. Individual scientists are sometimes guilty of this, more often than they should, and the practices of approving publications and peer review helps keep science overall (as in, our body of accepted knowledge) from failing prey to it – or is that, “falling pray to it”?

      Theoretical science, such as string theory, relies on something that might be called “faith,” but might perhaps be better described as “speculation.” It is still required to fit the known facts and have some kind of evidence behind it, but for it to be accepted, it must either predict some kind of behavior, or be testable in some way. The “big bang” theory of expansion predicted some of the evidence we’re now seeing, but misses a couple of others (like acceleration.) It’s not considered wrong because it can still work with the discovery of something supporting that acceleration that wasn’t considered before, but it does mean it’s treated with some reservations now. It did, after all, fit perfectly with the cosmic microwave background radiation, and that’s no small matter. String theory, on the other hand, provides nothing to test or predict and requires more dimensions than we have ever found a way to examine. The math works very well, apparently, so it’s got something going for it, but it’s not taught as knowledge, and won’t be until some heavy-duty support comes along.

      So, is looking for that support a form of faith, or instead good reasoning? Ya got me on that one. Does this make it compare to religious assertions? Generally, I say “no,” because religion isn’t practiced that way in the vast majority of cases. We don’t consider christianity a theory competing against judaism and weigh the evidence for and against – instead, one is considered the “true” religion and weight placed only on the positive evidence by individuals who prefer that outcome. When the evidence doesn’t provide enough support, the concept of “faith” is brandished – but this might be indistinguishable from “wishful thinking.”

      As a practitioner of Won Buddhism, an extremely practical a-theistic “religion”,…

      Yeah, there’s no really good term for it, is there? I tend to consider religion as reliance on something supernatural, but even that is fraught with issues – “supernatural” is almost a psychological concept, and doesn’t stand up to being defined well. If we find an extra-dimensional being, is it then supernatural? Not, presumably, if we can prove it…

      Even the forms of buddhism that rely on transcendent states, while potentially “supernatural” and not supportable by evidence, are a world away from creationistic religions and are pretty non-intrusive. I’ve said numerous times I’m cool with religion as a personal practice, like a favorite color or song – it just isn’t used that way very often.

  • Dragonmum

    Al – I don’t mean to say that theoretical science isn’t that of speculation & experiment. I was speaking more of the individuals who hold on to their belief that “their” theory is absolutely right and anyone who thinks differently is wrong. We somehow expect all scientists to be able to hold themselves back & evaluate evidence as it comes on its own merit. They are human! There have been bar-brawling bare knuckles fights over who is right. There’s the “herd thinking”, too, that leads to out-and-out ostracism of people with conflicting theories, even when they have excellent, replicable data. So where does it cease to be a theory & become a belief as entrenched as any religious fundamentalist’s?

    Belief in one’s own abilities is more of an extrapolation, based on past performance, rather than a faith, as you define it, in some supernatural abilities. (We call that psychosis…) Definitely involves putting aside, as much as possible, fear of failure. For example, when facing a situation, to consciously or unconsciously ask yourself: “Have I been in a similar situation before? Did I get through it? If I come across something I’ve never seen before, can I figure it out? Have I done this in the past? Did I get through it? Have I failed in the past? Did I live? What’s the worst thing that can happen?” Usually the potential consequences of NOT doing what we fear are worse than doing it. (ex: talking with our significant other about something we think will make them upset.)

    And, from your last statement – religion as a personal practice – I think there are more people than you realize who do their own thing without trying to make everyone else just like them. You wouldn’t be able to tell, unless you had a conversation with them & it came up. People make lots of assumptions, often based on reflections of themselves, rather than what is really before them. It always seems there more people using religion as a big stick, but they’re just the ones who make all the noise – and scare me!OK, worry me, ’cause I’m not scared of much of anything – They’re the ones who drive others into thinking it’s either religion OR atheism. For someone who believes & vigorously demonizes non-practitioners, what’s the difference in one who believes in a “different” god & an atheist? Something to ponder, huh?

    I’m really enjoying your posts. I’m going to comment on your latest post, which is very intriguing – but that will have to wait for now!!

  • Al Denelsbeck

    And, from your last statement – religion as a personal practice – I think there are more people than you realize who do their own thing without trying to make everyone else just like them. You wouldn’t be able to tell, unless you had a conversation with them & it came up. People make lots of assumptions, often based on reflections of themselves, rather than what is really before them.

    I agree with you for the most part, and I know it sometimes seems that the outspoken atheists (often called the New Atheists, occasionally presented as Gnu Atheists as an inside joke) are targeting everyone that holds some form of belief. There are two camps there, and I probably fall somewhere in the middle.

    One simply deals with the idea that many religious practices engage in selective human rights from a supposed authority. The other deals more with accepting a form of uncritical thinking as a guide to their life, which means that even those quiet, unobtrusive religious folk are included. I favor the second side, because I think critical thinking is important for all walks of life – religion gets my attention more because that’s what I’m more familiar with (I’m not following alt-med stuff closely,) and because it’s the most prevalent. A few years ago, I was mixing it up on UFO forums ;-). But if religion got much more low key and like music fans, I’d probably be pretty cool about it, thus the first camp outlook.

    But there’s an insidious part of it that I mentioned here, which I won’t make you sift through to get the point I’m making. I’ve run into religious folk that don’t like being lumped in with extremists or fundamentalists, which is certainly a valid point. But when it comes to where such quiet religious folk place their emphasis, such as when voting, then it often becomes a matter of “religious or non-religious?” It’s very hard to find religious folk, much less an entire group or organization of them, who campaigned against Proposition 8, or deride Westboro Baptist Church. I may find individuals who personally don’t like the Pat Robertson school of fundraising and demonization, but it seems only the atheists make the slightest effort to address it.

    There’s another part, too, and I’ve run into this quite a few times. One argument in favor of religion is how many people in the world engage in it, which works only if you open the doors to christianity, judaism, islam, buddhism, hinduism, and so on, to count them as one. But outside of that argument, this acceptance usually vanishes, replaced by the idea of how wrong those others are – notice the hoopla against the mosque at “ground zero” (often ignoring that it was a few blocks away.) Here in NC, it can even get down to dissing other churches in the same neighborhood. It’s very hard to say what this is most due to, but you’ll notice that politicians run on platforms of “christian” rather than “episcopalian,” and it seems to work just fine. There seems to be something more at work than whether religious folk are outspoken or not.

    And finally, we’re very, very low in this country at the acceptance of evolution, and there is no other force behind this than religion. When it comes to good science, that “quiet/outspoken” “personal/dictatorial” distinction is weighing in favor of the latters. This is disturbing, especially when we’re facing global warming and it appears it’s going to be left up to majority voter support again, rather than scientific evidence. These might be considered good reasons for lumping people together. Whether that’s a working approach or not is highly debated ;-)