Category Archives: Definition

a category to contain definition posts

Atheism as Religion, Simplified

If you can’t convince them, confuse them.
-Harry S Truman

Atheism is commonly attacked as being a religion, a worldview with faith-based presuppositions. The label is applied by theists in an attempt to deflect arguments against their own religion. This is a counterattack from a weakened position (see Upping the Anti Ante), a Tu Quoquo fallacy (latin for “you also”), in which one accuses the other of what they are being accused—in this case unsubstantiated belief.

The tactic has gotten more slippery of late so let’s give it more nuanced consideration. First the definition from the Oxford English Dictionary:

Religion

1. A particular system of faith and worship:
     the world’s great religions
2. A pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance:
     consumerism is the new religion

You may notice that this definition omits a reference to deity, an element that many dictionaries include. This is a good demonstration that the meanings of words differ depending on source and usage. Further, definitions shift over time when usage shifts.

Oxford’s first meaning sites faith and worship. Atheists decline these labels, holding that their conclusion is based on evidence and reason. Theists counter that it takes more faith to not believe in God than to believe. To parse this debate would require a breakdown of the meanings of faith and worship. See where this is going?

Next meaning, religion can be just an interest of importance. It’s peculiar that Oxford uses the adjective supreme, a word commonly associated with deity. Is great interest in vegetarianism a religion? Perhaps not if it’s not the most important interest in your life…unless it is. What if you have two great life-consuming passions, theatre and poetry. Is the practice of these arts religion? Can you have two supreme interests, more than one true religion? Is the celebration of one sacrilegious to the other?

By default, by deceit, or perhaps misdirecting intent of the accusers we are led to being unable to answer the original question. Is atheism a religion? It depends who you ask. People can give different answers and apparently all can be right. If not they can certainly claim have the right answer backed up with some form of logic. Words only have the meaning in the way they are used. Everyone wins…but then everyone loses. Why do we even bother with language?

This reminds me of the presupposition apologist tactic, trying to get their opponent to admit to possibly being wrong about anything they know (note, possibly not probably, thus the fallacy trap). They never mention to onlookers that if any person can’t be one hundred percent sure of their thoughts (not aware of living in the Matrix, etc), then nobody can—including themselves. This disarming of both sides is pointless and deceptive, as is slipperiness and shifting of definitions within an argument.

So I’ll examine the posing of the question itself. Why would a theist prefer that an atheist be engaging in a religion, be it science or the not-doing of a thing? Could it be a defensive attempt to lower their opponent to the same debased position, that of placing a leap of faith on par with a conclusion derived from evidence?

What happens if government legally deems atheism to be a religion? First off, tax-exemption for all atheist groups. Is that your goal, theists? Perhaps so as a tactic to counter atheist’s advocacy for religions to lose their historical exemption. Better to let weeds grow than pull out the monetary garden, eh? We are already living with the awarding of exemption to organized cults with all the abuse that has yielded, in particular on property accumulation. And then what—tax exemption for bowling leagues? Or is that hobby deemed not “supreme” enough in interest intensity? Who decides where that line is drawn?

So let’s dump this ridiculous gameplay. How can we know if atheism is a religion? If you can’t handle the reality, apply the walks-like-a-duck common sense test.

Christianity is a religion. Islam is a religion. Stamp collecting is a hobby. Being a Star Wars super-fan is an enjoyable obsession. Buddhism is a philosophy that many practice as a religion. Mormonism is a scam that evolved into a religion. And a mallard is a duck.

Atheism is a disbelief. Look it up.

Believence and Belief Factors

“Man is made by his belief. As he believes, so he is.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

As my research into belief progressed it became apparent that a piece of the explanation was missing—the inherent tendency to believe. Since no term currently exists I’m coining two here—believence and believent.

Believence 
(noun) An inherent propensity to believe, independent of evidence and knowledge.
“Having a high believence makes it easier for her to dismiss evidence.”

Believent 
(adjective) Endowed with an inherent propensity to believe.
“He is a believent person.”

How we come to believe derives from several factors. Picture them as overlapping layers of influence, the merger being a person’s conclusion or belief in a concept.

Factor One: Childhood education

Knowledge gained in childhood is strong, obtained from trusted sources in familiar surroundings. Our familial and cultural environment is an intellectual womb, a place held with affection and security. We instinctively trust our parents and authority figures doubtless that what they teach us is well intentioned, protective and correct. This makes it more difficult to overcome these teachings, should they one day be intimated as incorrect.

Early knowledge is the foundation for further learning. When correct it is appropriately rock solid. When incorrect that bedrock attracts further falsehood as we tend to build confirming data on top, shielding the base from challenge and revisal.

Factor Two: Knowledge gained beyond childhood

Intellectual onset is when we begin to question what we are being taught or even what we know. As our ego forms we develop the ability to evaluate information, allowing us to correct or even dismiss it. We do however more easily accept data that reinforces what we already know, an evolutionary shortcut by which we absorb voluminous or complex information in an abbreviated form. We learn quicker this way, leaving reconsideration for a more convenient future time.

We also now become aware of a modifier to each piece of information—a degree of certainty. Imagine this as a scale of 0 to 100, with zero being absolute disbelief and 100 being absolute belief or certainty.*

Factor Three: Cultural reinforcement

Culture influences how we accept information. The most open-minded person in a pluralistic society still holds sentimental attachment to the familiar. The opinion of those around us influences our opinion of the same. Belief bubbles—isolation into one-sided data and opinion sources—are an exaggeration of this, fed by topic-specific and ideology-specific media. The internet makes information accessible to justify any position. As these idea groups take hold, social competition leads to increasingly aggressive tactics of offense and defense. Falsity and hypothesis may be presented as truth, though not typically by deception. Evidence may be misapplied, discredited or improperly interpreted.

Religious writings offer rewards and punishments such as eternities in heaven or hell. These are especially effective with the believent since they are more accepting of concepts without evidence. Social feedback provides less dramatic but effective influences—shaming, shunning within families, in-group special treatment or conversely, restriction from group benefits.

Factor Four: Intellect

This factor includes intelligence (the ability to acquire knowledge), memory strength (both to obtain and retain) and reasoning complexity. For reasoning, logic is the tool. Abilities vary from person to person, talent and skill considered. Talent is the inherent ability while skill is that which can be learned and improved upon with technique and practice.

Factor Five: Believence

Satisfaction, preference, enjoyment, tolerance to cognitive dissonance (the ability to hold conflicting ideas), and stubbornness (intolerance to being wrong or corrected) live here. A high believence person is more susceptible to belief. These people see meaning and purpose excessively, patterns more easily. We have all met such people—those who interpret the flow of a river as spiritual, find significance in chance events, accept karma as a balancing force, site deity as a default explanation for events or the unknown.

While ignorance of real explanations can be a factor believent people are no less intellectually capable than others. A combination of high intellect and high believence yields a person who can craft honest strong arguments against contrary evidence, creating (at least the appearance of) firm support for incorrect positions.

I suspect we will eventually find a neurochemical basis for this, just as we now believe that a balance in brain neurotransmitters to be largely responsible for personality characteristics. Believence is an involuntary feature, presumably hereditary. This contrasts with bias which can be made conscious if pointed out.

Factor Six: Bias

If you look at the number of cognitive biases we have it is easy to doubt your ability to ever make an uninfluenced decision again. Cognitive bias is the tendency to draw unjustified conclusions, to sway evaluation to a preference or preliminary condition. A good reference can be found at http://www.cs.unm.edu/~jmk/cognitive_bias.pdf. The most common type is confirmation bias, the penchant to notice and overvalue data that confirms a preference. If you want to believe something (such as life after death) you are prone to finding supporting evidence and arguments, discounting those in opposition.

Factor Seven: Personality type

Various models continue to come out of more recent research. My current preference is Jonathan Haidt’s theory of moral psychology.** He identifies five components of personality—harm, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. The combined settings (low to high) of each of these makes up our personality tendency, yielding results like resistance to change, tolerance for crudeness, deference to authority, etc. He also takes a stance on intuition vs reasoning, intuition being a quick pre-thought reaction to new information or a situation. Considered judgement follows but is biased by the intuition already in effect. See http://www.believeinreality.com/the-righteous-mind-a-book-review/.

 

There are soft edges to the factors above, at least concerning our current ability to ascertain where one ends and another begins. If one holds a belief in spite of contrary or nonexistent evidence—for example a belief that the Earth is 6000 years old—what factors are in play? All of them. The better question is what factors dominate; a balance determines our willingness and ability to correct errors. We do not have good ways to quantify these factors, nor perhaps will we ever. IQ tests for example are notoriously controversial. What should be noted however is that any factor may be overcome by the influence of the others. Keep this in mind the next time you are tempted to dismiss another’s opinion as unfounded. Being incorrect does not mean one is being irrational.

 

*In fact 0 and 100 is unreachable unless one is able to suppress the capacity to reason. In practice everything we know ranges from 1 to 99; there is always an element of doubt. Though some will argue otherwise, claiming purchase on the extremes is an act of rationalization, denial or delusion.

**Watch Haidt’s TED presentation at http://www.ted.com/talks/jonathan_haidt_on_the_moral_mind?language=en. I also highly recommend his book, “The Righteous Mind,” at http://righteousmind.com.

The Falsity of Presupposition

There is a right and wrong way to evaluate a piece of information. When people use different methods a populace ends up holding different sets of “facts” and beliefs. Regardless of ideological loyalties we all want to be on the side of truth. How we get there is open to debate and we must be wary of manipulative methods.

The correct way to judge new information is analogous to the American judicial system’s innocent until proven guilty—begin with no opinion and consider all end points to be possible. We then evaluate evidence and concepts to thin the herd, ultimately ending up with a most-likely conclusion. This becomes our belief coupled with a degree of certainty or doubt.

To be complete, we are not limited to physical explanations reachable by experimental evidence. Supernatural possibilities may be considered though the former has much stronger purchase, as we will see.

Presupposition

A thing tacitly assumed beforehand at the beginning of a line of argument or course of action.

Presupposition is similar to supernatural explanation except that it is placed at the start of an argument, a prerequisite premise that is not to be questioned. It is a speculative non-zero starting position. This muddles the analysis of data because its preemptive assertion may have no connection to likelihood of that data being true. Worse, it is typically inserted to bias the upcoming evaluation to a desired conclusion.

Consider the term margin of error. When something is evaluated there is a degree of uncertainty of it being correct or not. The scale of this is margin of error. We see this commonly on public opinion polls. For example, people support a piece of legislation at 60% with a margin of error +/- 5%. The margin represents uncertainty in the accuracy of the poll accounting for elements like people answering honestly, pollsters recording correctly, etc. The ability to calculate this margin is also a factor; when impossible we must concede that an answer is unknowable, at least until better methodology is available.

A presupposition is worse. It is presented as unquestionable, presumed to be true, shielded from testing by definition. It is a concept with a margin of correctness of unknown scale, presented as if it had zero error. Placing such a prerequisite before an evaluation of data makes the evaluation useless, the degree of confidence in a decision unknowable.

To get less abstract consider the big question–does God exist?

To a presuppositionalist this is asserted as a given, so yes, God does exist. The proper unbiased position is that we don’t know, a null position to be followed by the judgment of evidence and supporting ideas.

The immediate problem with the presupposition is that the question stops on step one, an answer decreed without evaluation. Presupposition is typically used when the evidential argument has been lost. It is an extra factor used by one side only, supposedly immune to attack. End of argument, X is true because it is. It can also be applied as a preference bias, X being more likely given the presupposition as a supporting premise. In the world of conclusion, this is the weakest position possible.

Back to our question, the existence of God. First let’s examine the possibility of a physical entity. Evidence sited over the years has decreased significantly, modern explanations having progressively replaced ancient speculations. God of the gaps has been left with few gaps to hide in. We know how tides work, what causes thunder and comets, and even have reasoned insights into how life may have begun. Arguments from complexity (proposed to discredit evolution) fail when one moves from the realm of hypothesis to evidenced explanation. Most items that people still call evidence are miracles (events that break physical laws), anecdotes or hearsay (personal experiences and revelations) or just plain tradition. On balance we are left with a negative result—insufficient physical evidence.

Next, we consider the non-physical possibility, the supernatural. This is limited to thought consideration, the tool of philosophers. Since no experimentation is possible we are limited to inductive reasoning, that is, taking relevant premises and concluding a broader potential explanation. However the conclusion is never proof, it can only be suggested as a possible explanation of truth. The explanation may in fact be false. This is as far as we can go—a conceptual maybe.

Putting these together we have a probably no answer and a slightly possible maybe. We do not have an absolute yes or no. We are left to derive the likelihood, the probability of these two options, the result of which will be our belief.

Drilling down on the physical no, there are probability considerations. We may have missed an experimental yes because of the limits of our current knowledge and experimental ability. This must be judged on a case by case basis—are we testing to determine if humans have three eyes or what came before the Big Bang? Given 21st Century knowledge it’s fair to say that we’re far along on our testing ability, at least for questions less extreme than the origin of the universe. Thus the no answer to a God being physical has a high probability of being correct.

Looking closer at the pro-supernatural maybe let’s assume that some thought concepts are logically valid. For example, some entity more powerful than a human could have the power to manipulate our universe. Others ideas are invalid, such as an anecdotal “I have felt God” or the hearsay of revelation “Someone told me it’s true, a book says that it’s true.” These can be dismissed just as we dismiss them in a court of law—not as being false but of being no better than speculation, prone to source manipulation. Allowing these would be trying to affirm ignorance as fact, like claiming to know what is behind a closed door. One “maybe” speculation is as likely as another; cherry-picking ones preference is invalid.

Defense of presuppositional positions is an art in itself. I’ll leave that exploration to you if you wish to spend long evenings allowing your brain to be twisted into knots, though it is a good exercise in testing your ability to catch logical fallacy. Be prepared for a torrent of circular logic, bent definitions, philosophical manipulations and debate tactics. YouTube has many such discussions. To give one example, a common defense is that one cannot be sure of any knowledge, even logic itself, without God. The arguer pesters the opponent with this presupposition and dominates the conversation, cleverly ignoring the fact that if the anti-presuppositionalist knows nothing by this reasoning, neither does the presuppositionalist. Cue the circus music, round and round.

Presupposition is a ruse, a parlor game to confuse the dialogue and help justify preferred beliefs. It is wanting to know masquerading as what to know, tactic rather than substance, a manufactured tool of a lost argument.