On the plus side

I apologize for being away so long, to all of those who noticed – to the rest of you, yeah, love you too. I’ve been busy with two online courses, a few different projects, and a minor illness. This is partially why I’m glad I’m not on any kind of posting schedule, even a self-imposed one: I’d be obligated to produce something that, more likely than not, would be just crap ;-)

In the forums for one of the courses (on the topic of reasoning and how to argue,) someone began a thread asking why anyone was/became an atheist, and within that thread, someone else challenged the responses to say something positive about atheism, as opposed to simply negative about religion. At first glance, it would seem that this is a useful perspective: say something positive about your own standpoint rather than negative about everyone else’s. Except that atheism is actually the lack of belief, and is often compared to non-stamp-collecting or a-sadomasochism (okay, the latter is probably not used often); refusing to take part in something, regardless of how prevalent it might be, does not require any particular benefit to be seen from the refusal. Avoiding detriment is a perfectly adequate justification.

On top of that, atheism does not incorporate any guidelines for behavior, so it doesn’t really belong in among recommended conducts or approaches. As the religious are so fond of saying to support their own views, it is a personal choice. Secularism, however, does espouse a social approach, even though this approach still revolves around the lack of a religious one. Many people cannot seem to distinguish between atheism and secularism, and somehow believe that activism on the secular front, most especially eradicating religious influence from arenas that apply to everyone regardless of their personal choice, is an attempt to wipe out religion. Yet this is their problem, and to be frank, far too many religious people would be lost without their martyr complexes anyway.

The coincidental part is that I was already toying with the topic of beneficial aspects of atheism, for an eventual post, so I figured this is as good a time as any. I responded briefly (for me) in that forum, but I think the topic stands a broader examination, which means get ready for another long one…

Before I get down to business, I feel the need to clarify one thing: I have never tried to convert anyone to atheism, and am not starting now. I also concentrate more on critical thinking in all walks of life, rather than remaining narrowly focused on religion in particular. Some of the following arguments may display this ‘crossover’ to some extent, but I am particularly focusing on atheism itself; if I were to justify critical-thinking instead, the list could go on for days.

So let’s get cracking.

1. Without a belief in being ‘saved,’ chosen,’ or even ‘good’ by simply following a particular sect, people have to select some other way of obtaining their esteem or respect. Heavily intertwined throughout religion sits the privilege of the devout, who far too often think there is such a thing as being good rather than doing good. This is demonstrated in ways as diverse as wearing a cross, going to church routinely, displaying emblems on their cars, and so on. Let’s also not forget the concepts of going to confession and praying for forgiveness – for that matter, praying for anything. None of these can be said to convey any kind of benefit to anyone else, making them remarkably self-indulgent, and the idea of doing something bad but then relieving guilt by performing a ritual is remarkably asinine; there is no “Undo” button for life. Without a belief in divine judgment, people usually end up recognizing that the bad that they do is judged by others, and the best way to offset this is to do something good. I don’t want to oversimplify ethical interactions with this, and won’t consider atheism a panacea for social ills, but it is an improvement over a very large percentage of behaviors that we see from the devout.

Small note: I’m well aware of the argument that prayer might do something good, and certainly doesn’t do any harm. I can only point out that this works only in comparison with doing absolutely nothing. The choices are not that few, however, and doing anything aimed at benefit – pitching in, donating money, even sitting down and talking to someone – always produces more dependable results than the vague possibility that god is responding more-or-less along the lines of chance. And the concept of the ‘personal line to god,’ complete with the idea that the prayor somehow has more influence that the prayee, also demonstrates the idea of privilege.

2. Removing the aspect of class-consciousness and judgment upon arbitrary values induces a greater likelihood of treating one another with fairness. People are very good at building walls and drawing dividing lines, always placing themselves on the ‘approved’ side of course. In all fairness, religion has the company of both nationalism and racism in this regard, meaning that it is far from being the only culprit, but it needs to be noted that neither of the other two claim any kind of ‘divine’ inspiration or authority, nor dictate behavior that is ‘proper.’ Atheism would not eradicate such dividing lines, but it does away with perhaps the most pernicious and indulgent justification of them. It remains amusing, if seen from a detached standpoint, to watch how often two of these become combined with phrases such as, “god bless America” – which raises the interesting question of whether atheism might even reduce crass nationalism.

3. When all religions are viewed on an equal footing, the hazards of social/cultural ‘groupthink’ become much clearer. Bear with me a second. It is very easy for anyone to view any religion, except their own, as being superstitious, corrupt, irrelevant, and misguided. It is not hard for christians to view muslims with anything from disdain to loathing, and to see the entirety of the faith as delusional to at least some extent – and, vice versa. However, utilizing any factors such as empirical support, benefit to mankind, or explanation of the world, it becomes almost impossible to distinguish them, and raises the awareness that people have a nasty tendency to simply accept what everyone else around them is doing. In other words, a disturbingly large percentage of behavior relies solely on fitting in with the crowd, in complete disregard of rational consideration. Granted, this is both an aspect of critical-thinking, and the path that many people take to arrive at atheism, but it is this outside perspective that can be applied to so many other aspects of life as well. Countless religious people already embrace this, at least to some extent, recognizing the attitudes that led to the holocaust or ethnic ‘cleansing,’ but refuse to apply this to their own beliefs and often give a ‘free pass’ to manifestations right next door that also need a dose of independent thought, such as the ridiculous influence of religion within politics.

4. Failing to possess some belief in the guided or intended aspect of humans, the world, and/or the universe can produce a much more beneficial view towards conservation, ecology, the treatment of animals, and the general concepts of ecosystems and resource management. As simple as this might sound, it’s actually a significant difference in worldview. Even the religious that do not believe in special creation or the inerrancy of scripture can still possess the idea that “this is the way things were intended to be” and “we are heading towards a particular goal.” This abdicates the responsibility of our own actions to the idea that there’s a plan – it’s very hard not to see this as being extremely dangerous, even with subtle manifestations of it. And considering how many people in the US believe in distinct creationism (by which we must assume a high concordance with intent,) we’re not talking about subtle manifestations. Those who await the ‘rapture’ have no reason to give a damn about ecology, resources, and such, and those who believe that man is god’s ‘chosen’ species are quite likely to display a certain dismissal of those species that are not – scriptural passages about “stewards” are never quoted anywhere, and “dominion” is widely considered to mean, “rule.” People can only take responsibility when they believe they actually possess it, which isn’t likely to happen with reliance on the ultimate father figure.

5. Viewing human motivations and ideals through the lens of evolved traits that assisted our survival provides much better understanding of behavior. This point is made repeatedly on this blog, so I won’t belabor it, but how we react to the things around us reflects the methods that are shaped by evolution to assist our survival. Seeing these as emergent properties, rather than designed traits, explains a hell of a lot about why we act the way we do, and helps us to understand that we are imperfect and prone to ‘kneejerk’ reactions. As is often said, the first step to coping with a problem is recognizing that there is a problem, and the same applies here. Perhaps the biggest insight that this allows is, just because we favor something, this does not mean it is ‘good,’ or ‘truth,’ or beneficial in any way – our sex drive is the most immediate example. One cannot even pronounce the propagation of the species as ‘good’ without some distinctive caveats, and having a sex drive that kicked in only when circumstances were ideal for child-rearing would work much better. But our ancestors that developed a sex drive obviously outcompeted those that did not, and thus we possess it today – yet we have to devote considerable attention to reining it in as well.

6. There are no restrictions on thought, learning, or knowledge. Most atheists, in fact, actively encourage these, though this cannot be considered a tenet of atheism. Countless religions demonstrate astounding insecurity by attempting to restrict, not just what their own followers learn or know, but what everyone must. Censorship is a major tool within religion, demonstrated daily the world over, but even without such actions, there are also the constant efforts to misinform, distort, and disregard numerous forms of knowledge, as well as disseminating maladjusted and just plain wrong ideas, often about sex and reproduction. And among the devout who recognize that science really is here to stay, there are the efforts to attempt to blend religion in with science in numerous ways, simply to deny the total irrelevance of religion to life today. While I have never liked the term ‘free-thinker’ as an alternative to ‘atheist,’ it becomes easy to understand why it was proposed.

7. The ability to define beneficial and detrimental behavior, not in terms of scriptural rules, but in terms of goals for our species, produces a much better understanding of morality and ethics. This is, by far, the biggest advantage of atheism that I’ve found. While we demonstrably possess instincts towards social cohesion and cooperation, which is what leads to the development of ethics as an abstract, we have the ability to confuse this in many ways. When combined with the privilege aspect in point 1 and the ‘groupthink’ aspect in point 3, we can actually believe we are accomplishing something ‘good,’ not based on any kind of value, but only on whether those around us react positively or negatively to it, and this can be assisted by being purposefully selective of those we choose as our ‘community’ (now you know what a church actually does.) It’s an amazingly simple (and manipulative) thing to say, “Our group is good,” and thus satisfy the internal desires for social cohesion – without requiring any action or even attitude that could constitute ‘good’ at all. To be sure, atheism does not per se rule this trait out, and there are examples of the same behavior among atheists. But again, the recognition of how religion commits this flaw so often comes largely from an outside perspective, and is often a contributor to the conversion to atheism. Secular humanism, an ideology that defines ethics by how they relate to others and not by arbitrary rules, recognizes that providing benefit is key, and that religion very frequently fails to meet this simple standard. Moreover, the laws of most countries revolve around secularity, and we’re quite happy with these regardless of religious following – we do not want catholic police letting off catholic criminals because they’re catholic, or muslim judges letting the rules of evidence slide for other muslims. Most especially, you will never see any religious person arguing for religious restrictions against something they engage in constantly, regardless of how specific their own scripture is about it, which gives us a good insight into what ‘religious’ law actually accomplishes.

8. The lack of intent, judgment, or ‘meaning’ actually represents a remarkable mental freedom. This comes in three parts. The first is, living one’s entire life under the burden of judgment and the threat of divine punishment or consequential afterlife is not just stressful, it completely changes the idea of what’s important in life. There is a huge difference between taking some action because it pleases a supposed deity, and taking some action because it improves our interactions with others of our kind, and this is reflected in every last religious conflict across the world, throughout history. But even discounting holy war (which should not be dismissed so cavalierly,) just the idea that someone should feel guilty for having ‘impure’ thoughts or working on the sabbath or even cursing, as if a word has magical powers, demonstrates how religion introduces mental anguish that serves no purpose and provides no benefit. And, astoundingly, this is frequently excused by claiming the benefit comes after one dies, or that the benefit is not visible to us. Why the fuck not?

When we see natural disasters and strife through the eyes of ‘intent,’ it’s enormously confusing, as demonstrated by this being perhaps the prime mover in the abandonment of religion. For a designed world with a master plan, there’s an awful lot of shit that we wade through that illustrates execrable planning skills. The blatant dodge that we “aren’t intended to know what it is” immediately raises the question of why we’re the ones slogging through it then, and why such a powerful being cannot very simply impart this understanding to us. Centuries of theological mumbling haven’t served to explain this any better, but only to come up with ways to excuse it and still claim to be worthy of praise.

Yet, if we realize that events are governed only by natural laws and factors too numerous for us to quantify, we’re actually free of the idea that we either deserved some fate, or are the poor suckers who die on the front lines of a war from which we cannot gain any benefit. While some actually find impersonal events as negative somehow, it remains much better than the idea that suffering was aimed at us. The attitude under atheism becomes, “shit happens,” and we deal with the adversity without taking it personally.

Part two is the ‘meaning’ bit. While a frequent lament of the religious in the face, not just of atheism, but also of a strictly physical worldview, is how life now has no meaning, this is almost nonsensical. Numerous things in our life under a religious worldview have no meaning, including most of the events related in scripture, and the lack thereof is simply handwaved away, as noted above (theologians actually make a living inventing excuses – isn’t that special?) But meaning does not have to be ultimate nor cosmic, and atheism means we’re free to pursue our own – in fact, much more free than anyone who feels it has been dictated to them, or not even imparted but simply forced – yes, that’s the underlying message of, “We can’t fathom the mind of god.” And despite the ubiquitous insistence that society will dissolve into chaos without the guidance of scripture, we already have very good internal drives towards getting along, and it doesn’t take much thought to recognize this. Wholly secular countries like Sweden demonstrate that the chaos of inherent human nature is a blatant fallacy.

And finally, the intricacies of the natural world become absolutely fascinating under the idea that none of it was planned, guided, or intended. Very simple physical properties can result in complex and nuanced life forms with surprising modes of behavior and adaptation, all under the gentle nudge of selection. The landscapes are seen as shaped by slow, inexorable upheaval and erosion; the violence of an electrical storm as fostered solely by rapidly rising warm air. The world becomes (or can, at least) inexpressibly magical and special, and to no small extent precious, not because it was created that way, but because it just happened. And we are not in the least manipulated by the ‘presentation’ of the world and galactic bodies, but the sole species on the planet who can witness it all in wonder.

So, there are eight reasons, and who knows if I’ll come up with more with a little further thought. And as I said above (and before,) I have never had any intention of causing people to convert; only in reducing the abuses and inequities of religious influence. Anyone who still wishes to see this as shameless proselytizing should probably consider one thing: that there is no way whatsoever that I can benefit from producing converts, unlike nearly every religion on the face of the earth. I gain no esteem, no credit with a creator, no recognition from my peers, no income nor tax loopholes. The only way that I could derive benefit from converting others is if mankind itself benefits; hash that one out for yourself.