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Avoiding Atheistic Mythology


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Initial post: Nov 17, 2012 8:58:56 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 17, 2012 9:00:06 AM PST
Ambulocetus says:
The ancient Zorastrians believed that a good god made all the good things in the universe (daytime, ants, men) and that a bad god made all the bad things (nighttime, wasps, women). Naturally, the two are locked in eternal conflict, but the good god will one day win.

A similar logic pervades Christianity (God vs. Satan) and classical Marxism (proletariat vs. bourgeoisie). Obviously, all three are hopelessly mythological oversimplifications of life on earth. There is no one source of all good or all evil--except for human nature itself.

This same mythologizing is less frequently met with in atheism--but it is by no means absent. Many atheists are no more able to avoid our innate mythologizing impulse than the typical Zoroastrian or Marxian.

To hear Sam Harris talk, for example, one could be excused for believing that he sees human nature as fundamentally peaceful and rational, with the ruination of these virtues coming exclusively from religion. If not for religion, Harris seems to think, "the lion will lay down with the lamb" and we will have a peaceful, rationalistic utopia.

But what about non-religious examples of mass murder and superstitious idiocy--Stalinism, Maoism, and the like? Why, those are just "political religions." And how, in his numerous books, lectures, and blog posts, does Sam Harris actually DEFINE religion, so we know that he is not just cherry-picking and question-begging? Here, have a look for yourself:
http://tinyurl.com/b9lexca

Religious fundamentalism causes mass murder and resistance to science. Similarly, the co-opting of scientific knowledge by the military-industrial complex leads to the slaughter of over 200,000 civilians in the space of a year, not to mention innumerable later deaths caused by napalm, chemical weapons, and biological weapons.
http://preview.tinyurl.com/3u583

Short version: human nature is flawed, factious, and mythologizing. Eliminating religion entirely will not change that. To believe otherwise is to be in thrall to a Zoroastrian myth--and atheists should not also be Zoroastrians.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 17, 2012 1:22:22 PM PST
While I am an atheist, I agree with some of your OP. There is no guarantee of a better society without religion. It all depends on what replaces it. There is an optimism in Harris, that if we can only do away with flawed modes of thinking, a better society will result.

One can find almost unlimited anecdotes to support this thesis -- but anecdotes are not proof. Anecdotes can, however, highlight a particular flaw in reasoning. The God-command idea bypasses the reasoning and empathy abilities of the mind, for good or ill.

I am not sure that Rationalism is going to achieve a moral utopia. One cannot prove anything moral by reason alone, as there is no formal framework or set of axioms. However, by including human empathy in the equation, I believe that a moral foundation can be set up without gods, and with a minimum of objective laws.

Harris realizes the problem in making morality scientific. So far he has provided only a single objective axiom - that maximum harm is objectively bad. This is not much to go on -- it doesn't directly lead to the golden, silver, or other reciprocity rules -- but they are almost universally accepted anyway.

I think atheists will have a hard time proving that a world without religion is better. Yes, religion binds together groups of people, often in an exclusionary way. Perhaps more inclusive forms of social interaction are better for society. There is certainly a strong argument against any sort of god-command morality, or religious fundamentalism. However, many religious people are liberal, and hold humanist views -- which can be argued is a positive influence on society, with little difference from a secular humanist.

The reality is, all people, theist or atheist, have to find meaning and balance in life. I just wish imaginary beings played less of a part in it.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 17, 2012 2:00:12 PM PST
Eric Pyle says:
Sometimes I see on this forum the atheist myth that people were Pure before the Fall.

In this case, "pure" means logical and reasonable, and "the Fall" means inculcation into religion.

I'm quite sure it doesn't happen that way.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 17, 2012 3:40:11 PM PST
Eric Pyle says:
This is not quite a myth, maybe, but it's something I see a lot here, and I wonder about.

Atheists often say that if you can't define something clearly, you have no business talking about it. Most often this applies to God, sometimes to mystical experiences.

Is that really true? For example, I can't think of a satisfactory definition for "sexual experience," but I think we all know what it means. There is no way I can think of to define what the boundaries are for a sexual experience, so that we could examine someone else's experience and say, "no, you're wrong, that wasn't sexual."

Then there's Wittgenstein's thing about games, in which he shows that clear definitions of some things aren't possible. And of course there's Derrida...

I'm not saying that this in any way proves the veracity of God or mystical experiences. Only that the inability to define something isn't as big of a stumbling block as some atheists seem to assume. (probably)

Posted on Nov 17, 2012 7:03:47 PM PST
jpl says:
Avoiding Atheistic Mythology

jpl: . . . more compassion and understanding, and less judgement from anyone, regardless of theism or non-theism. That would be a nice eutopia.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 17, 2012 9:59:41 PM PST
Re OP: "Religious fundamentalism causes mass murder and resistance to science." Agreed.

"the co-opting of scientific knowledge by the military-industrial complex leads to the slaughter of over 200,000 civilians in the space of a year," This is nonsense: to blame the "military-industrial complex" for these perceived ills is simply silly. I will presume that you are speaking of the Iraq business; the military was used by the political process (as, in the USA, it must be) to deal with a perceived threat. (That this threat was not as serious as was first supposed is irrelevant.)

"human nature is flawed, factious, and mythologizing. Eliminating religion entirely will not change that." Agreed. But religion demands resources, which could better be used for useful purposes.

The title of this thread is "Avoiding atheistic mythology." There is nothing in the OP which posits ills arising from anything which is plausibly a result of atheism. It is possible that such things exist; if you can demonstrate some, it would be of interest here.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 5:38:01 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 19, 2012 5:38:22 AM PST
Ambulocetus says:
Robert,

As the URL shows, I was actually talking about the mass slaughter in Hiroshima and Nagasaki coming from atomic bombs. My basic point: give human beings the ability to split the atom, and the first thing they do is to commit a brand-spanking-new kind of war crime with it--a war crime which cannot be blamed on religion.

The Zoroastrian "atheism mythology" which I point out in the OP is exactly as likely to cause exactly the same sorts of evils as any other kind of Zoroastrian mythology, whether Christian, Muslim, Marxian, etc., and for pretty much the same reasons. If all the people in white hats are rationalistic atheists and all the people in black hats are religious folks, bloodshed can't be far around the corner. Just listen to Sam Harris talk about Middle East policy, and you'll see what I mean.

Posted on Nov 19, 2012 6:02:27 AM PST
Bubba says:
Harry Truman made the decision to nuke Japan, and Harry Truman was a Southern Baptist.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 6:10:40 AM PST
Irish Lace says:
As an atheist, I can't disagree with your basic premise. Humans in groups tend to be a murderous lot. The big difference would be that "God" wouldn't be around to justify and/or direct the nastiness.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 6:14:13 AM PST
Irish Lace says:
"As the URL shows, I was actually talking about the mass slaughter in Hiroshima and Nagasaki coming from atomic bombs. My basic point: give human beings the ability to split the atom, and the first thing they do is to commit a brand-spanking-new kind of war crime with it--a war crime which cannot be blamed on religion."

The arguments for and against the use of the atomic bomb in Japan are much too complicated and nuanced to be reduced to such simplistic nonsense.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 6:24:56 AM PST
Wulfwig Fox says:
Well, Sam Harris speaks for himself. I'm not familiar with his writings.

Re the term 'atheistic mythology', I'm not sure I grasp its full meaning.

If you mean 'will the elimination of all forms of religion lead to a better tomorrow?', then I'd say no, given what human nature is.

On the other hand, would unbridled religion lead to a better tomorrow? I'd say no.

I guess the right balance has to be found.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 6:27:20 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 19, 2012 10:20:00 AM PST
Ataraxia says:
It really comes down to where you think morality really comes from. Religious people think that morality, culture, and values come from religion. In other words, without divine guideposts and injunctions, we would be lost, and could not really judge whether just running into the street naked screaming like a crazy person and committing mass murder and rape would be appropriate or not.

But as sociologists, anthropologists and historians have studied religion, there is a suspicion that it has actually worked the other way around. We take our most current opinions, cultural ideals and values, moods and temperaments, cultural biases, etc... and project them to a heaven of eternity and to our deities to create our religions.

So in this view, the morality, values, and culture comes first, and the religion of that particular individual or society comes later to reflect those things. Notice, for example, how both Mother Theresa and the KKK attribute their latest opinions and ideas to their particular god.

So the question becomes: can we continue to have ideals, values, morality, and ethical guideposts without necessarily attributing them to any particular deities? The atheist is betting that we can. Not only may this be a neutral move to get rid of an unnecessary middleman, but it may even have some benefits. By taking away people's ability to project their latest opinions to deities and religion, some positive things can happen: there can no longer be arguments based on authority. That is why, for example, the founding fathers of the US were so eager to get religion out of politics. Not only, as people warned at the time, did we not lose our way morally, but we developed a more dynamic and open culture. People would have to debate the merits and demerits of a particular social policy or moral position on its own merits. That would leave people's minds more open to change, their eyes more open to seeing new things, and a democratic discourse would be more possible than with such a strong conversation-stopper as "well, God says...". Because, if someone is sure they know Ultimate Truths and the will of God, their eyes and brain have a tendency to just shut down to any other new ideas and ways of seeing and doing things.

But that is not to say that if the morality is bad in the first place, atheists are not capable of atrocities and injustice just like the theists. But if they had religion, all they would be doing is attributing those ideas to their deities anyway. So it is possible that even there, religion may not be doing any useful work.

"Intellectually, religious emotions are not creative but conservative. They attach themselves readily to the current view of the world and consecrate it. They steep and dye intellectual fabrics in the seething vat of emotions; they do not form their warp and woof. There is not, I think, an instance of any large idea about the world being independently generated by religion."
-John Dewey

So in summary, the atheist is not seeing any useful work being done by religion, and perhaps some harm coming from the closed-mindedness that religion has a tendency to engender in people and societies. It may be no coincidence that the most backward and stagnant societies in the world today, and those most closed to the rest of the world and to new ideas, are also the most religious.

But can an atheistic society ever really be functional (if we ever get such a thing)? It's hard to say. It is an interesting social experiment. This kind of open atheism is quite unprecedented in human history. Some atheistic societies, like the former USSR, did not do so well. But is that necessarily because of their atheism, or was it because of perhaps other factors? I don't know. I guess only time will tell. As humans, we may never be in a position to know what ultimate truth of the matter is. But independent of what the ultimate truth is, beliefs have consequences.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 8:00:56 AM PST
"I guess the right balance has to be found."

I'd say the details of the particular religion were also relevant. I find Unitarian Universalism or Wicca to be pretty benign, even salutary religions.

Fundamentalist Christianity or Islam? Not so much...

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 8:27:50 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 19, 2012 8:29:19 AM PST
Re Dickson-LaPrade, 11-19 5:38 AM: "first thing they do is to commit a brand-spanking-new kind of war crime with it..." The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki cannot, in any sense, be considered a "war crime". By bringing the war to a prompt close, it probably saved a million US casualties, and several millions of Japanese ones.

My father was in the Navy during the war, and was well aware that by early 1945, Japan was prostrate: the cutting off of oil supplies had rendered Japan basically incapable of sustained military action, and he opposed the atomic bombing as unnecessary. After some study, I have concluded that he was wrong: the militarists in Japan wanted to fight on until the last Japanese was dead. When Hirohito prepared his radio broadcast announcing the Japanese surrender, the militarist clique attempted a coup to suppress it and keep the war going; it was only by luck that the coup failed [1].

1. Leonard Mosley, Hirohito Emperor of Japan.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 8:32:09 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 19, 2012 12:46:54 PM PST
Re Ataraxia, 11-19 6:27 AM: "But can an atheistic society ever really be functional...?" I see no problem with it. Europe is already well along in that direction, and although they have problems, these have nothing to do with religious beliefs -- or lack thereof.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 8:32:55 AM PST
Stan Furman says:
It's not like USA was fighting Japan all alone, USSR was on its side, fighting Japan as well. Anyway, I think the point wasn't about war crime, but rather use of WMD for reasons unrelated to religion.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 8:38:13 AM PST
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In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 8:39:19 AM PST
"Religion makes people think about their neighbour."

Alas, those thoughts are often along the lines of "Sinner!"

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 8:41:35 AM PST
Bubba says:
Russia didn't really fight against Japan until the war was nearly over, and it appears that their sole interest in invading Japan was to gain territory.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 8:47:34 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 19, 2012 8:49:06 AM PST
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Posted on Nov 19, 2012 8:48:29 AM PST
Lessfatman says:
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion
A lot of insight in this book. Strong recommendations.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 8:55:25 AM PST
Wulfwig Fox says:
Well, from the perspective of personal preference, certainly, MA.

But I'm not gonna tell people what to believe.

I'm just gonna try to make sure their beliefs don't infringe upon mine.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 9:34:58 AM PST
Stan Furman says:
Yeah, sure. And USA was the main player in WWII from beginning to end and it got into it purely to fight Nazis and not for political, economical and territorial reasons at all.
:)

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 9:55:54 AM PST
DDL - "Eliminating religion entirely will not change that."

Agreed. I think utopian millenarianism is a killer, regardless of whether the people infected by it are religious or not. I'm not 'spooked' by the bare fact that someone believes in God. Conversely, I'm very concerned by non-believers who think things will be "different" after religion has been uprooted. There will be no uprooting on my part. It isn't just a matter of freedom--though there is that--but I'm suspicious of any utopian society-remaking efforts. Bad mojo.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 19, 2012 10:25:00 AM PST
Last edited by the author on Nov 19, 2012 10:30:04 AM PST
Ataraxia says:
"Yeah, sure. And USA was the main player in WWII from beginning to end and it got into it purely to fight Nazis and not for political, economical and territorial reasons at all."

Huh? What history book is this coming from? Because I read that we entered the war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.And that was not at the very beginning of the war. And the concern was verymuch political/economic/territorial. Churchill had warned FDR in no uncertain terms that if England fell to the Nazis, America was next. And FDR had every reason to believe him.

There is evidence that the Nazis were already drawing up plans for an invasion on New York City once they had Europe firmly in their grasp. They had bombers in the books that looked much like the later, much longer range B-36s "peacekeeper" designed by the US in the 1950s for the cold war. These things could fly around the world with nuclear capability with no problems. It also wouldn't take much modification of the V-2 rocket to be able to get them to hit NYC.
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Discussion in:  Religion forum
Participants:  40
Total posts:  252
Initial post:  Nov 17, 2012
Latest post:  May 5, 2014

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