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.